Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Two Halves of Skyfall: Technocracy and One's Own


One could divide the action of latest James Bond movie Skyfall in half. There is the first part where Bond, MI6, and the cause of England conscientiously follow their strict regulations—and as a consequence they lose several battles. Then there is second part where Bond and the best that is England return to their ancestral roots—roots combining judgment, fortitude, and daring in order to overcome a ruthless enemy in the here and now. By presenting a return to roots, the movie asks us to ponder the question concerning how much change there must be in order to return to what is always considered to be right, and furthermore the question concerning whether such a return now is possible—let alone necessary or desirable. Does Skyfall present an innovation that truly returns to what is best, or does it tread on thin ice in a way that suggests that one must be open to whatever fortune always already confronts one in an unforeseeable manner regardless of alleged timeless principles? In order to say something intelligible in this post, I’ll leave that question unanswered.

The first half of Skyfall is all about rational control. There are the policies, procedures, and protocols of MI6 which govern the activities of the spies and the spies who spy on them, and all this control is on behalf of a secure and peaceable U.K.* All must follow the rules, and they will all be held accountable. With satellite audio and video communications, let alone the internet and CCTV—the assistance of the latter, to which, a nameless bureaucrat desperately implores during an emergency he witnesses live onscreen—it seems to be the case that the abstract, general, settled, and standing rules are best preserved when they are recorded, assessed, and analyzed in their minutiae. The new data driven culture of evidence at MI6 will run all of this material through various sophisticated statistical models in a way that is accountable to the rationale governing the whole thing. That is to say, nothing—not even the shadows—will be outside the rule of rational control.

There seems to be a hope that the rule of law can be realized in its completion when everything is brought to light under the complete rational control of modern technologies of communication and surveillance (even if that completion is somewhat inconducive to the aims of ordered liberty). The bureaucratic technologists will record billions of pages of text and thousands of hours of audio and video, and this database will apparently allow for rational on the spot scientific decision-making in the future. Probably no one will actually ever read, listen to, or see this information. That is, it will not be noticed until someone with a large amount of time and a partisan axe to grind decides to look into the details in the first place. In other words, when it comes to issues like the rational control of the intelligence, politics will continue to exist despite the predominant authority of statistical science.

When “mistakes are made,” as inevitably they must, public hearings will use this scientifically gathered information to bring those “responsible” to answer to the public world of daylight. In this way, it is hoped that giving strict scrutiny to what remains of the ever-dwindling shadow world will ferret out the truth of things in and through an open process of constructive criticism. Such critical procedures will hopefully make the world in the future that much more immune to the asymptotic goal of preventing error. Security and peaceableness for all will be made that much more guaranteed.

If this techno-bureaucratic order is evidence of a lack of trust in those, who like Bond, are deputized to carry out their various missions in situations of extreme danger and risk of life, it still has the justification of being an orderly and controllable way to carry out policy with an eye toward ever-increasing rational and technological precision. If light can be projected into each and every crevice and interstice where shadows may remain, then one can ponder the hope of making real the superfluity of MI6 (or at least the James Bonds of this world) in the name of a fully transparent society of perpetual peace.

Nevertheless, the world of Skyfall is not there yet. James Bond remains a secret agent, even a 007 agent with a license to kill, all the while working in the midst of this technological and administrative regime with its anomalous politics.

So these rational rules must control James Bond and his cohorts, even if it means the probable death of Bond. Under such surveillance, noble deeds done in the name of serving one’s own country get translated into Benthamite calculations of the greatest good dictated according to the latest regulations by the panoptic observers at a distance. In this way James Bond as an agent becomes easily replaceable by any other agent, and his service and sacrifice is understood as a mere calculation in the service to the good of the greatest number. Even M succumbs to this logic when she orders Eve to shoot despite the fact that there is obviously no clear shot. Could Bond have retrieved the secret list of agents had Eve not taken that shot? The audience is left to wonder, but one must do what is required under orders.

Besides, there would have been no movie—or at least not this one.

If Bond is to survive as an MI6 agent, he must undergo thorough physical and psychological analysis upon his return to duty, no matter how personally humiliating it may be to his sense of pride. Every agent, regardless of experience, must pass these tests. In these tests, there is no question of unquantifiable innate virtues and dedication to country. In Skyfall, M realizes her earlier error of judgment when she fudges the data to allow Bond to pass the tests, or at least that is what Silva would have him believe.

Silva offers Bond a kind of freedom, but it is a freedom that accepts the general regime of rational control which is apparently indicative of MI6’s current modus operandi—even if Silva uses such freedom of action for evil ends. Perhaps Silva lied to Bond about M’s disregard for the scientific evidence of his rehabililatory tests. It does not matter. Perhaps MI6 is not as bureaucratically restrained as it appears to be, but that insight requires Bond and the audience to believe that Silva represents a total lie. Silva, the techno-bureaucratic ruler par excellence, has to be denied. Eventually Bond is able to come to such a denial. M, in her data fudging may have rejected it too, but at that point, data fudging or not doesn’t matter because other unquantifiable virtues must come to the forefront in order to do what is right.

The second half of Skyfall portrays both Bond and M rejecting the technocratic view of the current MI6, as well as Silva’s own shadow version of it.

When Bond—with an earpiece directing him from headquarters—fails to prevent Silva’s raid on the public hearings investigating the death of several MI6 agents, he realizes that he must use other modes. Against all procedure, he commandeers M away from her MI6 handlers, and together they drive his pristine 1960s Aston Martin to the dilapidated ancestral Bond estate called Skyfall in Scotland. As he drives away, M asks, with a semi-serious deadpan voice, if Bond is going to disregard policy. The answer is an unspoken but definite yes. With their mutual locking of eyes in a rearview mirror, they both agree that such radical, but not unprecedented, action is required to defeat Silva.

So the audience is meant to wonder what Skyfall may mean. Well, when the technological advances fall through the sky and disappear in efficacy—the advantages to which some appeal as if they were gods—what else can one do but return to one’s own? This own is particular, but to properly fight an enemy one needs to know one’s terrain, and where else does one know one’s own than with one’s own as it were. So Bond returns to Skyfall. This is not psychobabble, nor is it Glenn Beck, dig your own well, get lots of guns and gold, and have five years worth of Campbell’s soup and MREs. It is simply a place that one needs to know in the most extreme of circumstances to fight against an enemy like Silva—even if that place implies something more general like one’s own nation or country. While a Silva-like character may always be there, one need not arrange one’s whole life around such a contingency, but one must be able to go to one's own when necessary.

To quote a poem other than Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” at the end of the day, Bond returns to the bare ruined choirs of the local church. True, M sadly cannot survive despite Bond’s best efforts, but his efforts perceive a love more strong that even he must eventually give up. Fighting for M and himself--and his country--is worth fighting for despite the world of rational control. Bond’s efforts and M’s death are shown as events of noble sacrifice beyond the Benthamite greatest good for the greatest number. Something important remains despite such calculation.

James Bond’s estate Skyfall suffers from neglect, but this character was one who historically, from Connery to Craig, never was shown to have a past anyway. Of course his estate is in disarray.

The latest Bond movies, i.e., the Daniel Craig movies, have revealed aspects of Bond’s past, and suggested that that past is somehow important. Does this personal history diminish his importance as a hero who appears out of nowhere as the Bonds were in the past? Perhaps. But it doesn’t diminish his heroism in general. James Bond (as Daniel Craig) may be an orphan, but out of the past he still knows how to defeat the enemy in the changing circumstances of today, and he does it as Bond always did, with better style and taste—panache—than anyone else ever could.

I’ll try to connect Skyfall to the several movies it references in a later post, but I’m getting tired of talking about this movie. So maybe not.

*One of Skyfall’s many ambivalences regards the status of the real entities and names for the country or nation that Bond serves. Is it England, Scotland (currently resonant of the idea of independence), Wales, the U.K., Great Britain? As Paul Seaton (in the comments) notes, M’s battered Union Jack bulldog tchotchke suggests the remaining importance of the U.K.

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