Zero Dark Thirty and Life ‘After Magic’: A Thought After @kesterbrewin’s Thinking

In a recent post, Lesbian Witch Devil Spawn Faggots! And Other Demons…, Kester Brewin elaborates on some of the themes of his latest book (After Magic) in relation to the legislation the US Supreme Act has under consideration, regarding marriage equality.

Kester is helping us reflect upon how, whenever aspects of our lives assume a metaphysical dimension, all to quickly dualisms erupt: good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, light vs. dark etc.. Of course, in these situations it is the dominant group that sets the terms of the discourse – this, in turn, has a handy way of working for their economic, social, and political benefit. The recourse to metaphysics is, for Kester, the movement to super-nature – to all-encompassing categories that justify the abuse and demonisation of those we dub evil, wrong, and dark. The move toward life ‘after magic’ is then one that rejects super-nature and works to live without this metaphysical mystification. It sees the human, all to human contortions we’ve made in the structuring of reality for our socio-political and economic benefit; or because of our most basic and visceral fear of the other. Life ‘after magic’ exposes the ‘big Other’ (the social and structural “they”; or super-ego) that motivates our actions and defines how we see and engage the world.

At this point, I want to apply this analysis to a brief consideration of how I see this move to ‘after magic’ happening in the film Zero Dark Thirty. (I initially posted this as a comment responding to Kester’s post. I have adapted it for this blog; fleshing it out and tidying up the grammar, for clarity.)

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As with the Batman, Gotham City, crime example in Kester’s post; I see something working itself out analogously with America/the West (or, rather, its military-industiral complex) in Zero Dark Thirty (and, obviously, to a more important extent, real life). The military complex is super-nature – it’s (relatively) cheap and easy for it to take (and/or achieve) what ‘the market’ wants. Why? Because when (like Batman) you grossly outmatch the other (the criminals) in every way – with remote control drones; superior weaponry, training, and numbers etc. – there’s no competition (like Bruce Wayne). And, as we all know, this serves to create even more (Witches, Bane’s and) terrorists because super-nature’s categories obscure the questions of injustice and inequality, because the other is just so dang scary – and we want their money and resources.

Now, the twist as I see it is how ZDT tears “the temple curtain” on super-nature vis-á-vis Jessica Chastain’s character (Maya). Maya got assimilated into the military complex/super-nature right after high school (it’s all she’s ever known), then, at the end of ZDT, gets spat out by super-nature – when the ‘great Satan’ (bin Laden) has been killed off.

ZDT is a film critical about the US/West’s super-natural predilictions because it’s a film, ultimately, about Maya (she’s every American/Westerner). This is where reviews that are critical of ZDT’s “neutrality” toward and thus endorsement of torture etc. fail. They don’t see the film as, ultimately, about Maya – when this happens one can only conclude ZDT is anything but neutral toward the US/West’s foreign policy. It is deeply critical.

In any case, here, Maya is forced by super-nature, to use Kester’s language, to live ‘after magic.’ The moment of her unwanted emancipation is at the film’s conclusion, when she is presented with the question: “Where do you want to go?’

The camera, here, refuses to look away from her face, and she (and we, the audience, too) begin(s) to realise she doesn’t know. Super-nature’s control of her weakens, she sees that its story has become impotent, and realises there’s nothing she has done for it that has transcendent significance (it’s rolling on to other targets, without her). At this point, she’s forced to look beyond the fears super-nature has instilled and finds that she lost herself – lost her soul – to the ‘big Other’. She/we are forced to ask: Why was all that happening? What has it achieved? Can I go on like this? Can I renounce this magic?

It is these last questions that link to readings of ZDT as a film critical of the US/West – specifically, the epistemological void at its heart. We know all about why the US/West is torturing terrorists, droning these countries, and scouring the world for bin Laden: defense, information, money, oil etc.. But we are never told exactly why the terrorists blow up buildings, shoot people in the street etc.; all of this happens seemingly at random, without any discernable justification. This is (perhaps) at the heart of Maya’s and our ‘after magic’ situation: Why are they so monstrous to us? Why are they doing what they’re doing? What have I done to them? Has our super-natural story told the truth?

No doubt, as we press these questions (and, I think, ZDT impels us to) we will uncover gross misrepresentation and massive abuses; structural corruption; and social/global inequality and injustice. It is here, ‘after magic’ – after our metaphysical mystifications – that we may see the other, in spite of our fears; all the while faced with the question – that we, ultimately, should answer with the other: “Where do you want to go, after magic?”

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