Dead Man (1995), Part III

Introduction

In Part II of this article, we have examined how Jarmusch dismantles Frontier Myth, thereby deconstructing America’s narcissistic collective self-image. Following the opening act of demolishing the idealised notion of the American ‘Frontier’ with a sober representation of a colonial outpost in Part I, Jarmusch exposes the dark shadow of American Geist by creating a double exposure of two cinematic representations of ideal white American men: the quintessential ‘good guy’, Marshall Kane (Gary Cooper) of High Noon on one hand, and Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen), a legendary contract killer who is rumoured to have raped, murdered, and cannibalised his parents, on the other. Whilst Cooper’s lone Marshall is the perennial favourite of many prominent law-makers in the United States, Wilson is an incredible embodiment of its shadow, namely nihilism bred by the ethos of Industrial Materialism, which became the dominant feature of American Geist; as extreme as he appears, the killer is in fact the logical consequence of the cold-blooded world-view that is perfectly suited for empire-building with its ruthless instrumentalism. Like the mysterious portrait of a vampiric Englishman, Dorian Grey, Wilson serves as a true reflection of the narcissistic collective self-image of American Geist. The stark contrast of the two characters, and the uncanny resemblance between them, are intended to serve as a reminder of the multitude of contradictions made possible by jarring cognitive dissonance existing within American Geist.

Whilst such a critical achievement is significant in and of itself, it is merely half of what Jarmusch accomplishes with this neglected masterpiece; Dead Man is not a mere cultural/historic/political diagnosis of American Geist. Importantly, it also shows a possible way out of, and a way forward from, the great mess that is American Geist. Jarmusch’s sensitivity to the differences between various Forms of Life, and his observation of how they interact, enable him to explore possible ways for us to break through an initial confrontation, and avoid a stalemate that soon results in discriminations of, and aggressions toward, the Other. In this precise sense, what Jarmusch demonstrates with Dead Man through the friendship between two protagonists is of universal significance. Jarmusch shows: 1) What the prerequisite for creating a possibility for such a friendship is; 2) What the nature of such a friendship is; and 3) The reasons why creating and maintaining the possibility for such a genuine human relation are philosophically significant.

On this note, let us embark on the final part of this voyage.

 

Fantastic Voyage

In the previous sections, we have examined Jarmusch’s critique of America’s narcissistic self-image by analysing how he demolished it with a sober representation of ‘American Frontier’, and a double-exposure of ideal white men by presenting Cole Wilson as a shadow of the quintessential ‘good guy’, that is, Marshall Kane iconised by Gary Cooper. In this section, I wish to examine another significant aspect of Dead Man: Jarmusch’s concept of possible friendship that offers a way out of the great confusion that is American purgatory. Whilst Dead Man must be appreciated for its potential to transform American Geist by deconstructing the icon of ‘American Frontier’ that justifies colonial violence, it is also a film about an improbable friendship between two misfits on the road, a signature theme of Jarmusch’s early works. That being acknowledged, Dead Man sets itself apart from its predecessors in an important way. This is not only because of this film’s significant contribution to the re-thinking of America’s self-image; the bond between Blake and Nobody is far more significant than that of, say, Willie and Ed (John Lurie and Richard Edson from Stranger Than Paradise). Whilst most human relations in Jarmusch’s work are illuminating, they are situational, that is, entirely by chance, and thus transient. On the other hand, the encounter between Nobody and Blake strikes us as fated. The serious undertone of the cinema is enforced by the context in which our protagonists’ journey takes place. Set against a sinister backdrop of America’s colonial frontline in the midst of ruthless industrialisation during the 19th century, this feature offers a somber undertone, the graveness of which reminds us of Werner Herzog’s masterpiece, Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972). This comparison is not coincidental. One can argue that Henriksen’s cannibalistic assassin is a cinematic reincarnation of Aguirre, Klaus Kinski’s ruthless conquistador; they both embody violent nihilism that renders them extremely dangerous. To think of Aguirre via Wilson as the exact reflection of Marshall Kane in a strictly Wildean sense appears far fetched at first, yet, upon some reflection, it makes perfect sense: in the context of Americas’ colonisation, the ‘good guy’ who ruthlessly defends his will against the social consent is invented to eclipse the cruelty and the void which lies at the heart of blind aggression. The sole difference is that Europeans do not share the quintessentially American need to claim moral righteousness of their actions; there is no need for the Wildean self-image for Herzog and his audience. In order to dismantle the narcissistic façade that conceals the heart of darkness, Jarmusch needed to introduce Wilson, an American Aguirre, to expose the nature of ‘pioneers’: ruthlessly opportunistic and impossibly amoral, Wilson emerges as a true reflection of an otherwise flawless cinematic icon of an American hero. His entire existence is to prove a point: Nothing matters, and everything is permitted. The celebrated ideal of Frontier Spirit turned out to be an ultimate form of nihilistic survivalism. Such is the darkness that relentlessly hunts down our protagonists to the end, the chronicle of their journey cannot be a typical road movie.

In fact, it does not even fit in a genre which might be called ‘Rogue Movie’. If in doubt, compare Dead Man with classics such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969), or Bonnie and Clyde (Arther Penn, 1967). Whilst Dead Man follows the tradition of 'rogue movies' featuring fugitives running from the law, this is where the similarities end. Despite the ample dose of humour and irony, Dead Man cannot be described as ‘lighthearted’. It is clear that this cinema is not meant to be mere entertainment. Despite their receptions and reputations, the above-mentioned classics are exactly that: entertainment. This means that they make use of existing concepts within a given Form of Life, such as Frontier Myth, to create well-executed stories: Nothing more, nothing less. On the other hand, Dead Man follows cinematic conventions in order to expose the spirit which enables them. With its criticism of Frontier Myth and Industrial Materialism that sanction colonial crimes, Dead Man is a work of great scope and depth, hence a well-deserving comparison with Aguirre. In addition, the voyage of the two protagonists is not merely covering physical distance; it is an educational one for both. According to Nobody, his companion, Blake, is already a dead man. Yet, Nobody accepts a great danger for himself by becoming Blake’s guide through the final leg of the journey, and, as a result, they form an unbreakable bond. It is a process wherein both of the protagonists gain invaluable insights and see improbable growth: they both experience a proper Bildung of one’s own, in the company of one another. For Nobody, this is a journey that restores his sense of self through his encounter with a ‘dead man’, a hapless accountant from Ohio with the name of a great English poet. Through the highs and lows of their journey in a treacherous landscape, a lone exile Native American learns to embrace a ‘fucking stupid white man’ as his dear friend. Whilst Nobody plays the part of a knowing guide to Blake, the solace and joy given by the friendship with Blake cannot be underestimated. As for his counterpart, Blake, by the guiding hand of Nobody, for the first time in his brief life, he realises the depth and extent of injustice upon which his country was founded; he begins to comprehend the nature of struggle between the colonialists and the colonised, precisely at one of the tipping points of history wherein one world comes into being, and another begins to vanish. The journey gradually opens his eyes to other Forms of Life, that is, various Native American cultures. At first, Blake responds to Nobody’s utterances with fear, puzzlement, bewilderment, and annoyance. Whilst his inability to fully comprehend or relate to other Forms of Life remains throughout their voyage, he develops an enduring respect toward this ‘strange man’ and his ‘kins’. His voyage with Nobody is transformative in every respect: At one point, Blake is given a chance to take a stand on his own. When a merchant-priest (Alfred Molina) refuses to sell tobacco to Nobody by claiming to have no stock, Blake steps in and exposes his lie and hypocrisy. As the priest realises who this stranger is, and attempts to shoot him for the bounty, Blake shoots and kills him. Then Nobody remarks: William Blake kills white men. And he concurs: Yes. William Blake kills white men. This is a far cry from the timid and neurotic accountant on board a steam train, hanging on to a piece of paper sent from the ‘town’ of Machine. He is ready to take a stand for his friend, and himself.

Remarkably, this friendship begins by an unthinkably basic misunderstanding: Nobody thinks that Blake is the celebrated English poet, William Blake. Blake, to his credit, flatly denies this from the very beginning, and he continues to insist that he is not a poet. In fact, as he candidly states, he has no literary background, and thus has no idea who his namesake is and why this strange Native American is raving about an English man. Despite Blake’s repeated denial, Nobody appears to unwaveringly believe an unemployed accountant from Ohio to be a visionary English poet, and decides to guide, accompany, and see his journey to the end. As for Blake, he cannot make sense of what his friend is getting at; despite his friendship, he remains a stranger to the worlds from which Nobody emerged. Despite the respect he develops, Blake cannot comprehend Native American Forms of Life. Blake also remains ignorant of high-culture; it was Nobody, captured by English and educated in England, who shows him the potent possibility of poetry. Unfortunately, despite developing a limited, yet meaningful relation to a few verses of William Blake, Blake has no opportunity to further his learning: He is a fugitive with a remarkable price tag, in the process of dying from a fatal gun wound, and thus set to remain ignorant of high-art which Nobody learned to appreciate. Still, in Dead Man, the protagonists’ friendship is as genuine as a human relationship can be despite the persistent lack of understanding of one another. This is an affront to a widely accepted notion of friendship: a friend, as they say, is someone who understands you in a meaningful way. Whilst many might see the way Blake and Nobody bond as ‘superficial’, and thus being inclined to dismiss their friendship as a typical ‘Jarmuschian aesthetic pretense’ without giving it a second thought, I consider the way their friendship is made possible by Jarmsuch to be both philosophically and practically significant. And thus, in what follows, I wish to discuss the way in which Jarmusch enables the friendship between his protagonists to be of critical importance for us.

Perhaps one of the most outstanding characteristics of Jarmusch’s attitude toward the multiplicity of Forms of Life is his acute intercultural humility. Whilst Jarmusch is credited for sober representations of American ‘Frontier’, as well as Native American culture, he has no illusion that his is a perspective of a stranger to Native Americans; he is never going to claim ‘authenticity’ in his representation of their Forms of Life. Depp’s Blake is never going to learn to fully appreciate the ways of life which he encounters, despite their tremendous educational effects on his world-view. In this light, it is significant that Jarmusch did not provide translations to the lines spoken in a few Native American languages. The director has been consistently employing this ‘method’; in his debut feature, Stranger Than Paradise, Hungarian dialogues are not translated at all, and it was quite refreshing to experience the multiplicity of Forms of Life existing within a supposedly one Form of Life that is American culture. By providing no translation to non-English dialogues, Jarmusch is expressing his deep appreciation of the world wherein almost infinite variations of human existence, and its experience, can be observed if, and only if, one remains unassumingly open to such possibilities. In Dead Man, Jarmusch provides Native American dialogues in two distinct languages, including ‘in-jokes’, and they are solely aimed at the speakers of their languages. Whilst most American critics were not impressed, Jarmusch’s approach is consistent with his appreciation of the multiplicity of Forms of Life. By unfailingly employing this method, Jarmusch is essentially asking us: Why do you assume that one has to exclusively aim for an English speaking audience? Why does everything have to be translated so that it is appropriated by the dominant cultures? It is a gesture that is at once rare and significant for our time, wherein countless languages, and Forms of Life, are denied its existence (To have a glimpse of the scale and depth of the cultural slaughter, please check following links: [http://www.linguistlist.org/forms/langs/get-extinct.cfm],  [https://www.linguisticsociety.org/content/what-endangered-language], [http://www.linguistlist.org/forms/langs/get-extinct.cfm]. And he does all of this with a refreshing understatement; he simply puts his belief in praxis, rather than preaching it. He let the human relations in the scenes speak for themselves, rather than enlightening the audience with smart and well-meaning lines. This is all due to his intercultural humility; he is absolutely clear that he, as a stranger, cannot transcend the distinctness of whatever Forms of life he encounters. Still, that is not to say that he cannot interact with, and even develop genuine friendship with, someone from other Forms of Life. These points are of great philosophical, and practical, significance. For Jarmusch, understanding based on linguistic communications is not an absolute prerequisite condition for a meaningful interpersonal relation to occur. Traditionally, Western philosophy places critical importance to conceptual clarity and explicitness which are only achieved by the ‘correct’ use of linguistic tools. Whilst Jarmusch never denies the importance of clear communications and the understanding it offers, by relaxing the attitude toward misunderstanding by seeing the humour and humanity in it, Jarmusch demonstrates a greater appreciation for the multiplicity of Forms of Life. For Jarmusch, misunderstanding can be a rich human experience, not to be reduced to linguistic ‘misfiring’ (J. L. Austin). From this specific viewpoint, misunderstanding is not always a deal-breaker that must be treated with contempt. In translation of an intricate piece of poetry or philosophical writing, one oft encounters words or concepts that cannot be translated into other languages fully. Instead of trying to appropriate or conquer alien thoughts by forcing an inadequate substitute, Jarmusch wants us to embrace ‘otherness’ as they are. Whilst such an attitude is not entirely novel, given our concern over conceptual clarity in philosophy, such a generosity exhibited by Jarmusch on human relations offers us a fresh perspective and possibly a beneficial turning point in rethinking how one relates to another. His approach on intercultural relation is also of great practical importance. As we, both individually and collectively, struggle to determine how to respond to ever greater contacts with the ‘Other’, Jarmusch’s respectful, humane, and relaxed attitude toward the ‘Other’, who are different from ‘us’ and cannot be fully assimilated, or absorbed, into a familiar Form of Life, can transform discussions surrounding our political struggle over domestic and foreign policies concerning ‘alien subjects’.

The benefit of Jarmuschian openness is not limited to intercultural relations; it can be equally applied to interpersonal relations. Jarmusch’s two protagonists, Nobody and Blake, despite the fundamental misunderstanding (Nobody) and the lack of comprehension (Blake) of one another, form an unbreakable friendship. By embracing the inevitable fallibility and misunderstanding in our interpersonal relations, one invites a possibility of forming a genuine friendship with someone whose thoughts and attitudes remain difficult to understand. In addition, in this particular case, one of the pair is not a native English speaker, and thus there is noticeable incompleteness in their conversations. Whilst one might wonder how this hindrance may affect their friendship, upon close viewing, one is struck by a revelation: Ultimately, the incompleteness does not matter at all. Interestingly, it is at the beginning of their friendship, that is, at the state when they are unsure of their companion, when there is a greater need for verbal communications. Confusions arise due to the lack of understanding, and they both have second thoughts about their respective partner. Yet, as their friendship deepens, the need for linguistic communication begins to lessen. Whilst this may be partially due to the increasingly weakened state of Blake, the looming death does not tell the whole story. There is a moment late in their journey to support my point. After reuniting with Nobody, upon hearing one of Nobody’s spiritual utterances, Blake looks at Nobody with great affection and spoke: You are a strange man. This statement marks a watershed moment in our understanding of possible human relations. Blake is embracing Nobody as his friend, despite everything about him that eludes his understanding. Such a relating is enabled by an implicit and inter-subjective understanding about a person. It is critical for us to note that Blake’s appreciation of Nobody’s opaqueness is not relied upon a subjective understanding; his embracement of Nobody is based on real interactions he has with Nobody, and thus it is neither pure imagination or delusion. And yet, it is not a mere objective understanding; the totality of the facts which Blake knows about Nobody amounts to so little that exclusively relying on such information, however concrete and objective they may be, means reducing a person into a set of data. And thus, whilst Blake’s understanding of Nobody is incomplete, it is formed by real interactions between two agents. The fact that we can recognise the possibility for us to obtain such inter-subjective understanding and develop a genuine friendship with a ‘strange person’ comes as a revelation. Once adopted, such an attitude invites a possibility for us to develop an open and more respectful friendship with persons from a wider range of Forms of Life, thereby contributing positively to the improvement of our understanding of our selves and the world around us. In the end, one must realise that such a generosity is necessary for all interpersonal relations to occur. As I have elaborated in the article on Ex Machina, link, respectful acceptance of a certain opaqueness that denies our full access to the thoughts and feelings of another person is a prerequisite condition for a fair and meaningful relationship. In this sense, the concept of friendship that solely relies on clarity and explicitness in communication is mistaken. Jarmusch is correct in his embracement of interpersonal relations which are open to misunderstandings and lack of comprehension not only because of our inherent fallibility, but also due to the very nature of personal agency that requires a certain degree of impenetrability. And thus, despite the outward absurdity, Jarmusch’s representation of friendship is not only more open and generous, but also more precise.

 

The Paradise of Strangers

We have discussed ways in which Jarmusch refreshes our idea of how to build a genuine relationship and what the prerequisites for such a liaison are not to occur. Jarmusch shows us a greater potential for our capacity to relate by demonstrating his embracement of our fallibility through his protagonists, who forge an unbreakable bond despite Nobody’s complete misunderstanding about who Blake really is, and Blake’s inability to comprehend his friend’s world. Whilst clear communications, and understanding based on them, are generally helpful, according to Jarmusch, they are not necessary for a great friendship to begin and endure. This is because Jarmusch recognises the roles of non-linguistic elements in our relationship; we are far more susceptible to irrational and non-linguistic aspects of our experience. As we have seen in Dead Man, even the most clear and simple statement, such as Blake’s flat denial of being a poet, cannot always dispel misunderstandings. Humankind’s fallibility is such that one oft fails to adjust one’s view despite the overwhelming body of empirical evidence and/or the force of reasoning and arguments against it. And thus, it is safe to say that the friendship between Nobody and Blake is based on a certain mutual recognition that drew them together, and a shared experience of the journey that strengthens their bond. In order to determine what each of the protagonists recognised in the other, first one must examine each of their footsteps that define who they are.

Nobody, who contributed to Dead Man’s reputation as one of the very few cinemas which offer representations of Native Americans without relying on clichés, is a Native American person with an eventful past that shapes his painful present. He was captured by the British during their violent raid against his tribe when he was fairly young, and remained captive for a very long time. He was sent to Britain and exhibited as a caged ‘animal’, and paraded through the streets to satisfy the curiosity of spectators. Eventually, he was relieved from his cage, sent to a boarding school and educated as an ‘normal’ English pupil. Amid the pain of homesickness, discrimination, and isolation, he encountered the verses written by an English poet, William Blake. By his admission, he was so taken by Blake’s poetry that they became his life-line; he endured and survived the painful existence by reading and absorbing these ‘powerful words’. Eventually he took his chance to escape from Britain, and returned to the land of his people. When he shared his account, however, nobody believed him; he was named Exaybachay, meaning ‘He who speaks loud, yet says nothing’. This is a painful form of excommunication that defines who he is for the rest of his life. For no fault of his own, he was forced to become an exile; neither the British nor his ‘fellow’ Natives accept him as their own. Being alienated from both sides of the conflict, that is, advancing Anglo-European colonialists and diminishing Native Americans, he decides to live his exile by his own terms by rejecting the name he was given, Exaybachay, and adopts an English name: Nobody. Whilst his new name, in ‘enemy’s tongue’ no less, is an expression of defiance, it is also an acknowledgement of his new status: whether he likes it or not, he is now forced to live as a shadow. He no longer stands for either side of the conflict, despite his strong, at times passionate, disapproval of European colonists. As an excommunicated, Nobody is no longer able to take part in the Natives’ struggle against white colonists; he can only watch the inevitable as a non-entity. Despite his feelings and verdicts on who is in the wrong, Nobody has become a voyant; not unlike the author of Une Saison en Enfer, he is a bewildered, yet disinterested observant, who starkly follows the cruel fate: the destruction of Forms of Life and the rise of ‘civilisation’. He senses the sinister nature of the ‘new power’, yet is restricted to observe humanity’s self-destruction as it unfolds.

As for Blake, his life before the fateful journey was utterly unremarkable. A timid and neurotic accountant from Ohio is driven out of his comfort zone after the break-up with his fiancée to seek fortune elsewhere, only to realise when it is too late that he is on a one-way trip to ‘Hell’, that is, the American ‘Frontier’. He has received a letter from Dickinson Metal Works in the colonial outpost called ‘Machine’; it says that he is offered a position as an accountant. Despite the warning from the stoker (Crispin Glover) of the train, who predicts Blake’s demise and describes his final moments on water, he arrives at Machine due to a lack of means to reverse course; he bet everything on the prospective job and he has no money left for the return train. Once arriving at Machine, Blake finds out that his post was taken by someone else. He tries to settle the matter directly with Mr. Dickinson, a despotic owner of the business (and the town), yet is quickly booted out of his office with a shot gun aiming at him. Distraught, Blake goes to the one and only bar and buys a drink. As he sits outside and downs alcohol, he sees a woman, Thel Russell (Mili Avital), being pushed out on the street and falls into the mud. Blake helps her and Thel asks him to walk her to her room. Thel is a quietly strong woman; she quit prostitution, the only job available for women in colonial outposts like Machine, and took up making paper flowers to sell, and dreams of pursuing a career as an artist. Chemistry soon turns into attraction, and the pair soon ends up in bed. When Thel’s former lover, Charlie Dickinson (Gabriel Byrne) visits her to declare his undying love for her, Thel stands firm. In despair, Charlie shoots at Blake, and Thel covers him and dies from the shot. Blake takes Thel’s gun and randomly shoots at Charlie in panic as Charlie silently awaits his death. Eventually Blake shoots him dead, and discovers that the bullet pierced through Thel and fatally wounded him in his chest. Desperate, Blake steals horses and escapes into the night. It turns out that Charlie was a son of the boss, and Mr. Dickinson orders three bounty hunters, including legendary Cole Wilson, to hunt down Blake. In short, Blake is forced to be in exile from a seemingly innocuous decision to accept a job offer, and with a cruel twist of fate, becomes an outlaw. And he becomes one in the country to where he is supposed to belong; for the first time in his life, Blake encounters the savageness of the colonial empire, and, shellshocked by his brief encounter with the dark underbelly of the nation, like Karl Roßman (Der Verschollene by Franz Kafka), he soberly realises that he has nowhere to go.

It is not difficult to see what made our protagonists from very different Forms of Life kindred spirits: they are both exiles in this brutal no-man’s land wherein money and bullets reign supreme. Despite obvious misunderstanding and incomprehension from both sides, the two of them realise that they are exactly alike: alienated, purged from Forms of Life, each of them has obtained a unique, and unobstructed, view on the state of affairs: a rising Form of Life of white colonialists is in the process of systematically degrading and annihilating other Forms of Life. As exiles, Blake and Nobody, coming from opposite directions, have found a space wherein they can look each other in the eyes and recognise one another as their counterpart, a companion, without the restrictive influences of whatever prejudices they might have had. And, interestingly, it is Nobody’s mistaken idea of Blake’s identity that plays the decisive role in overcoming the peril of killing off the possibility of mutual recognition; without this misunderstanding, Nobody might have left this ‘f*ing stupid white man’ to die. This probably comes as counterintuitive to most; without second thoughts, one might simply dismiss this turn of event as a typical Jarmuschian twist. As we have discussed, this is far from the truth; if one is receptive, it signifies the fundamental shift in our understanding of interpersonal, and intercultural, relationships.  A Jarmuschian concept of friendship is considerably more expansive, and potentially more rewarding than a strictly linguistic concept of human relations. Yet, in order to begin the process of relating, one needs to be unassuming to whatever one might encounter, and Jarmusch, like David Bowie before him, thinks that one must enter into a certain space wherein one can maintain a great distance from all the Forms of Life one has become familiar with (To recount Bowie’s philosophical embracement of alienation, please read my articles in the section, The Promised Land in the page Shadow Play, and the articles in the section, Black Star in the page Silent Age). Whilst the forced exile from one’s own Form of Life as seen in Dead Man is an undoubtedly an extreme proposition, it certainly highlights how a critical distance from one’s own Form of Life is necessary to allow a proper agency, and thereby enabling one to encounter another without a set of restriction to one’s understanding imposed by whatever Form of Life to which one thinks one is belonging. In this respect, Nobody has taken a significant step toward the path of voyant; instead of meekly accepting the forced condition of an exile, he rejects a given name, Exaybachay, and adopts an English name to define his mode of being in this world. Following his example, Blake eventually catches up with his friend; realising the powerful effect of verses written by his namesake, Blake opens himself up for the poetic and aesthetic aspects of the life on earth. And thus, in the end, the no-man’s land called the American ‘Frontier’ becomes the space where one can reinvent oneself, not merely lands to conquer and to impose one’s savage materialism. In this paradise of strangers, one can finally meet and develop mutual recognitions as a pretext to develop a possible friendship. Whilst one might find such an individuality, the degree of autonomy and separateness, unwelcome, or even terrifying, it is a necessary path to consider if one ever dreams of developing a genuine relationship with another human being.

 

Conclusion

Whilst what Jarmusch achieved with the double-exposure of an American portrait with Cole Wilson is momentous in itself, if this is all there is, Dead Man falls far short of what it is. It is a masterpiece of a rare kind, sardonically comic yet sincerely reflective, awkwardly self-conscious yet fearlessly objective and poetic, a unique feat which only Jarmusch can achieve. Dead Man is more than a deconstruction of America’s self-image; it offers a glimpse of what lies beyond the cultural blindfold represented by ‘Frontier Thesis’ through the fantastic voyage of two characters: Nobody and William Blake. And, as we have noted earlier, their journey together is of a rare kind; it is a philosophical journey which traces Blake and Nobody’s encounter with one another, their experiences of a Form of Life, that is, the savage Industrial Materialism of the 19th century, and the formation of a new perspective through their growing appreciation of one another. At first glance, it is all too easy to get lost with Jarmusch’s masterful storytelling and find his protagonists’ relations as an expression of typical Jarmuschian off-beat humour without realising its true significance. Yet, upon close inspection, it becomes clear that Jarmusch’s idea of a possible relationship and its implications are philosophically significant. In fact, it offers an important improvement to the Western conception of appropriate human relations, which considers correct understanding based on clear linguistic exchange as a necessary condition of meaningful relationship. By busting open this restriction, Jarmusch achieves a re-thinking of possible human relations.

As we have noted, Dead Man is a complex cinema with many nuances and layers to appreciate. Its significance is at once political, historical, and philosophical. It singlehandedly changes the view on America’s self-image, its historical origin, and its development. By having a clear and sober understanding of the historic context of the concepts that define how we see ourselves and how we think we should act, this must have a transformative effect on our daily lives. In this respect, the way Jarmusch shattered the self-image of America, which is entirely based on a narcissistic picture of American ‘Frontier’, and replaced it with the representation of the savage reality of colonial outposts, is significant. In addition, Dead Man refreshes our concept of genuine human relations by pointing to the significant role of non-linguistic elements of our relating. Rather than imposing our preconceived concepts upon everything around us, Jarmusch prefers to allow the story to unfold on its own, thereby embracing misunderstandings, incomprehensions, amongst other human fallibilities. Jarmusch’s non-dogmatic approach to life and art is a gift for anyone who is willing to see the familiar with the eyes of strangers. In this age of uncompromising confrontations with rigid dogmatism and identity politics, Jarmusch’s non-pessimistic quietism allows the story to unfold on its own, rather than imposing one’s ideas and forcing a judgment that satisfies one’s need for a definite closure. It is a rare and precious example for us to consider; if we are successful in this endeavour, we might allow ourselves to entertain a hope to safeguard ourselves from the crippling paranoid and all-consuming hysteria of our time.

Dead Man (1995), Part II

Introduction

In Part I, we traced the way in which Jim Jarmusch challenged the idealised notion of the ‘American Frontier’. By offering a sober representation of life in colonial outposts, Jarmusch effectively destroys the idealised image of ‘The Frontier’ wherein America’s alleged ’Manifest Destiny’ was to be fulfilled. The notion of ‘The Frontier’ is central to America’s self-image, and thus we followed our inquiry by examining the beginning of the Frontier Myth, namely Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis. ‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History’ (Turner, 1893) has been celebrated as the single most influential work regarding the formation of American identity. Whilst Turner’s theory has been widely accepted by academics and prominent politicians alike, many of his contentions remain suspect. Notwithstanding its many flaws, his contentions struck a chord with American intelligentsia, and soon his theory became an orthodox view amongst historians. Yet, such a theoretical work, however influential, is not enough to create a defining moment for a collective consciousness, especially in a society which holds ‘high-culture’ with toxic suspicion and bitter contempt; an academic work such as his has a very limited influence in a society characterised by anti-intellectualism, and thus, there had to be something else in the works to transform a theoretical exercise into a cultural orthodoxy accepted by the masses as the self-evident truth.

What made his theory the defining feature of American Form of Life is not found in the strength of Turner’s argument; the decisive moment of its popular acceptance was delivered by a particular genre of popular culture: Western films. This is where American masses found the Turnerian concept of ‘Frontier’ and ‘freedom’ represented in an accessible form. As we have seen often, cinema played a prominent role in the construction and the maintenance of collective self-image. Its potential for propaganda was first realised by an American director, D .W. Griffith. Although the first feature length film in history directed by Griffith, The Birth of a Nation (1915), met strong opposition, it predicted many cinematically accomplished works produced during the 20th century and beyond. Whilst the likes of Leni Riefenstahl readily comes to mind as examples, cine-propaganda were produced by authors of great diversity. Under the reign of Stalin, many Soviet cineasts, such as Sergei Eisenstein, created cine-propaganda of epic proportions, and so did the Japanese, British, Italians, Americans, etc. Whilst it is hard to see Westerns as propaganda films, especially in comparison to other obvious examples such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956), they perfectly fit this description when one places them in the context of Turner’s thesis and the construction of America’s self-image. Hence, I shall examine the central role of cinema in the construction and the maintenance of America’s self-image, the particular role played by Westerns, and Jarmusch’s response to the image which iconised American Exceptionalism. In addition, I shall dedicate the second half of the Part II for an overview of unresolved contradictions existing within American Form of Life.

 

Amerika ‘the Beautiful’

Cinema has been playing the central role in constructing and maintaining America’s self-image. When one considers cinema as a propaganda tool, one cannot avoid mentioning one of the most prominent, and notorious, American directors, D. W. Griffith (1875-1948). He directed the first feature length film in the history of cinema, The Birth of a Nation. For this historic standing alone, it is generally regarded as one of the most important films of all time. It is also one of the most notorious, for The Birth of a Nation is a propaganda film with a white suprematist agenda. With this movie, Griffith grotesquely distorts the perception of American Reconstruction Period, glorifies the Ku Klux Klan, and demonises African Americans as ‘rapists’ and a threat to ‘civilisation’. The main theme of the movie was a call for reconciliation between the ‘North’ and the ‘South’ to safeguard alleged ‘Aryan-supremacy’ against the perceived ‘threats’ of non-whites.  This piece of white suprematist propaganda is nonetheless praised for its technical accomplishments, and universally considered to be the first ‘great American cinema’ by film historians and critics. Despite the long history of protests and condemnations for its content, in 1992, the United States Library of Congress deemed it ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’, and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry, thereby declaring it an American canon. Whilst Griffith’s film failed to find support for its message, it had set a text book example both technically and practically; the American revealed cinema’s potential as a tool for propaganda with his technical excellence. His footsteps were soon followed by directors with diverse political views, from Leni Riefenstahl to Chaplin, Sergei Eisenstein to Fritz Lang. Given its dynamism and mass appeal, cinema’s influence upon the public has been pervasive.

Whilst cinema has been used as a propaganda tool by both modern and contemporary politics as well as business to meet their ends, in America, it has been playing a central role in defining its national self-image. The reasons for the prominence of the motion picture in American Form of Life are historic, and thus contingent; it happened that cinema was the newest form of aesthetic expression. Whilst all other art forms preceded the birth of America and owe their developments to the ‘Old World’, and thus were met with hostile contempt as high-culture, cinema, as a recent phenomenon, was embraced not only as a novelty, but as a form of art and entertainment which uniquely suited the young republic. Despite the social fragmentation arising from the complex segregations amongst races, classes, and genders, and the resulting lack of social cohesiveness, there was one notion which took hold of popular imagination and swept away the masses: America as the ‘New World’, which is supposedly independent of the past. Quite obviously this is a false notion: its founding political principle, representative democracy, originated in Europe; its most dominant religion, Protestant Christianity, is also of European origin, although Christianity itself is one of the most ancient surviving religions which originated from the Middle East; and its dominant ideology, Industrial Materialism, is a crude appropriation of Cartesian metaphysics (For more on this concept, please go: link). In short, the alleged newness of the so-called ‘New World’ does not present anything new or original; the only unprecedented aspect regarding America was the attitude of colonists who saw themselves as the vanguards of a new era, the notion which is later refined and articulated as American Exceptionalism. By the proclamation of the beginning of the ‘New World’, they were merely expressing a belief that everything from the past was wrong, and only they could correct it by ‘starting anew’. In any case, for Americans, cinema, as a ‘new art’ with unprecedented mass appeal, became the most important medium, and, despite stiff competitions from TV and on-line entertainment, it still plays a commanding role in determining America’s self-image. And it must be noted that there is one genre of American cinema which contributed more than anything in popularising Turner’s Frontier Thesis, and thus developing America’s self-image: Western films.

During the so-called ‘Golden Era’ of Hollywood, Western movies exerted a decisive influence both on film making and American identity. For example, John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) is lauded as one of the most influential films ever made, and the likes of Orson Wells studied it as a textbook model (Wells stated that he watched the film more than forty times in preparation for the filming of Citizen Kane). Whilst there were other, and arguably better candidates than John Wayne as a prototypical American ‘tough guy’, such as Philip Marlowe made famous by Humphrey Bogart, it is simply undeniable that a lone rogue gunslinger typically featured in Western films became the indisputable archetype of American heroes. From the perspective of directors and script writers, the reasons why these men of the ‘Wild West’ prevail against stiff odds comes down to their hardiness and resourcefulness; they are unorthodox men of action, and they can take down their far more well-organised opponents with their courage, will, and creativity. Yet, for most Americans, their heroes ‘win’ because they are ‘good guys’; it is as if to say that claiming moral high-ground guarantees God’s favour. The significance of such a characterisation of their ‘heroes’ cannot be overestimated; it in fact reveals the most essential aspect of American psychology. Americans suffer from this peculiar and overriding need to claim moral righteousness, a symptom uncommon amongst their colonial counterparts; Europeans generally need to feel superior, but not necessarily ‘good’. English philosopher John Stewart Mill, for example, simply deemed non-whites unworthy of humanitarian concerns for which he is still admired, and thus implicitly acknowledged and sanctioned the heinous crimes practiced by the British empire. Modern totalitarian regimes proved that this is not a unique trait for Europeans. Imperial Japan, for example, committed war crimes of comparable scale and seriousness to its German counterpart in the occupied territories during WWII, and the extreme violence was sanctioned by the belief in their innate ‘superiority’. In such instances of extraordinary violence, the perpetrators regard certain conditions, such as the state of war or the perceived difference such as race and gender, as the signal for the desired gratification of the ‘license to kill’, that is, the permission to ‘unburden’ themselves from moral and humane considerations. Such an attitude presupposes the criminals’ awareness of the evilness of their actions; they know that they cannot behave the same way toward their own. They commit great atrocities to the Other based on the belief that their moral standing remains intact once they remove themselves from the specific conditions that permits, or demands, them to act violently. And thus, the belief in their innate superiority and the compartmentalisation of their modes of existence proved to be sufficient for most groups of humankind to savage one another.

However, for Americans, the notion of superiority proved to be insufficient. As the first democratic republic, Americans see themselves as the bright beacon of hope for ‘humanity’. They refuse to see themselves as colonists, the mere equal of their imperial counterparts. As we have seen in the previous section, ‘The Frontier Myth’, Americans entitle themselves the rights to lead, not merely to rule. Yet, this Enlightenment aspect of American Exceptionalism was betrayed by the very way this nation began, expanded, and thrived without proper atonement: like its European counterpart, Americans have never properly addressed the colonial legacy, and the history of slavery in particular continues to plague the society. Whilst the narrative that emerged after WWII briefly justified the main tenet of American Exceptionalism, its ideological equilibrium was shattered soon afterwards. What remains from the traditional Exceptionalism is self-aggrandisement without reason; America claims its ‘rightful’ place of moral high-ground without properly appreciating its colonial past. To make matters worse, there is another confusion to add to this already convoluted American Geist; in America, the concept of a secular democratic republic is also fused with the religious element of the society. One cannot overlook the fact that the ‘first Americans’, or the Pilgrims, arrived to the ‘New World’ as the result of a religious exodus from England. Like political ideologies, religions sanction atrocities against the Other, yet, unlike the former, religions also demand the observation of moral righteousness. Conveniently, moral high-ground in religions is readily obtainable, for righteousness, like the notion of superiority, is in truth a question of membership and identity when it is applied to a group. And, as Dead Man shows in one scene wherein a missionary (Alfred Molina) demonstrates vicious racism against the character Nobody, Christianity, despite its teaching, sanctioned racism (White Christians retained their power over their ‘black brethren’ and other non-white Christians), colonialism (violence against ‘heathens’), and capitalism, as God rewards the hard-working and pious with financial gains in Protestantism, a dominant strand of Christianity amongst Americans. Seeing themselves as Christian, and thus morally ‘good’, Americans adopted a patriotism of a peculiar kind, according to which America is implicitly ‘good’, for, as Bob Dylan noted, they ‘know’ that ‘God is on their side’. Religious terms and allegories were purposefully employed not only by the religious, but also by self-proclaimed ‘Enlightened’ Americans, in order to pursue their colonial agendas. Take the notion of the ‘Manifest Destiny’, which declares that America is ‘destined’ to occupy the territory between the Atlantic and the Pacific. The very notion of destiny presupposes some sort of ‘divine sanctions’, the concept which is at odds with the Enlightenment project itself. Yet, Thomas Jefferson, a self-proclaimed ‘man of science’, was one of the most prominent proponents of this notion, and he employed it to great effect. Whether he actually believed this notion, that is, America’s divinely sanctioned right to invade foreign territories to suit their desires, is irrelevant. What matters here is that there was this peculiar need for Americans to be righteous, and Jefferson was fully aware of it when he appealed to this religious metaphor. And this peculiar need of American Geist to claim absolute moral high-ground, which can be only bestowed to them by the absolute being, creates a serious problem: since the ‘love of country’ becomes a matter of ‘Faith’, rather than a belief, which can be challenged and/or disproved, American patriotism disallows the process of rational self-examination performed individually, or the dialectical process of collective self-examination, to take place. This curious trait is the root of one of the most pronounced American Contradictions: Despite being founded on the modern philosophical principle, and being the champion of Industrial Materialism, American Geist remains stubbornly archaic. (It must be noted that the philosophical principle of Enlightenment is at odds with Industrial Materialism, which overrode the former. Yet, this contradiction is inherent in modernity itself, and thus not unique to America.) This contradiction was there from the very beginning, and, to the bafflement of observers abroad, it remains unresolved.

Given their need for moral righteousness, it is no wonder that slick and cunning operators of American noir, such as Philip Marlowe, stood no chance against cowboys; despite the popularity of ‘Bogie’, and the fact that The Big Sleep (Howard Hawkes, 1946) was selected for the National Film Registry, the moral ambiguity explored by American noir writers of 1930s only confirms American belief in rural values and their suspicion of a modern, urban Form of Life. Hence Western movies proved to be the perfect platform to construct and maintain America’s idealised self-image; it at once enforces the Frontier Myth by giving the audience a simple icon to entertain them, and offers a moral affirmation by representing an American patriarch as the ‘good guy’. Eventually, the American quest of the iconic representation of their ideal self-image met its end: it was Gary Cooper’s lone Marshall who stood his ground for justice against social consent. Whilst the Ringo ‘Kid’ (performed by John Wayne in Stagecoach) remains a symbol of fierce individualism, and Wayne still represents the entire genre of Westerns, the moral righteousness which American Geist desperately craves is exemplified by Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) of High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952). It cannot be overestimated just how deep and pervasive this film’s impact has been to America’s self-image; it was the very first film canonised by the US Library of Congress when it launched the National Film Registry in 1988. The lone individual who chose to face adversaries despite lack of public support is the perfect representation of the American ideal. He is a ‘real man’, a ‘good guy’ who stands alone on his ground in the face of overwhelming adversary, overcomes the ‘bad guys’ by strength (read: his beloved firearms), and converts his pacifist wife to violent retributional justice in the process; seeing the danger, Amy, Kane’s Quaker wife, takes a gun and kills one of the gangs. There are many who regard High Noon as the quintessential American film that perfectly expresses the ‘American way’. Yet, more importantly, High Noon’s Gary Cooper became the icon of American Geist. He is a ‘good guy’, and he ‘talks straight’, ‘goes his own way’, and ‘stands his ground’ with a gun in his hand. Despite the initial disapproval, most notably by John Wayne and Howard Hawkes who preferred to represent the ideal of American ‘man’ as an invincible‘superhero’ and thus immune to doubt and fear, Cooper’s Kane became the prototype of the American hero, and ‘he’ has been praised by both liberals and conservatives. Unsurprisingly, several US Presidents became enamoured with this character; Ronald Raegan and Dwight Eisenhower cited High Noon as their favourite movie, and Bill Clinton screened it seventeen times at the White House. It is only natural that every Geist preserves a work of art that manifests their idealised self-image. In terms of cinema, what could be La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960) for Italians, or Alexander Nevsky (Segei Eisenstein, 1938) for Russians, it is High Noon which gives ‘true expression’ of the American soul. And it is precisely this celebrated image of ‘American freedom’ which Jim Jarmusch cooly exposed.

In Dead Man, the ‘ideal’ of a white man is represented by none other than Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen), a cold-blooded killer with a distinct aura of invincibility. He is an outwardly stoic man of few words, and his killer instinct and peerless shooting skill earned him the status of a legend. He is at once feared and revered, and many see him as a supernatural existence, like Death itself. In the context of American history, Wilson must be considered as a sardonic expression of Industrial Materialism; his cold-bloodedness in his exploitation of everything elevates him in the eyes of white colonists. He is no ordinary killer; whilst he does not express any positive beliefs of his own, he strikes us as a man of principle. Elusive at first, we eventually discover that his is an absolutely negative one. His world consists of the fact that everyone dies, and, for Wilson, this entails: there is no significance to our existence. We live in the world without ends, only means, and his are guns and bullets, for they give him everything he needs: contracts, money, and even food (he calmly cannibalises one of his ‘fellow contract killers’ at one point). Whilst money and contract can buy his service, one should expect no loyalty from Wilson; against the contract, he kills two of his ‘colleagues’ without blinking an eye, and, if it is proved to be more profitable, he would show no hesitation in shooting Mr. Dickinson himself. The only reason d’être of Wilson is to prove a point: Nothing is sacred and everything is pointless, and thus he will do whatever he wants. He is even rumoured to have raped both his parents, murdered them, and cannibalised them. He is an ultimate survivalist; he has no reason to live except that he cannot be killed. The complaint that there are very few of us who are prepared to go this extreme misses the point; Wilson gives a sardonic expression to a logical implication of celebrated ‘Frontier Spirit’; the ruthless materialism which fosters instrumentalism manifested as extreme individualism and opportunism, which in turn deny the formation of basic trust amongst the members of a society. Such a society is a paranoid one, and thus, rife with mutual mistrust and becomes socially incoherent. Neither Jarmusch nor Henriksen miss a beat in portraying this iconically sinister character; Wilson offers a logically perfect expression of Industrial Materialism to the point of being both fearsome and comical. Thus, Jarmusch achieves something important: a double exposure of America’s self-image. Through his lens, suddenly, a vicious cannibal emerges and eclipses Cooper, the quintessentially ‘good guy’ who safeguards the principle of law, order, and morality. And this feat was made possible by Jarmusch’s cooly objective deconstruction of Frontier Thesis. Jarmusch presented an utterly unflattering image of America’s colonial outposts as they used to be, as well as what the world has lost in the process of colonisation by the non-stereotypical representation of Native American Form of Life. And thus, the implications of Jarmusch’s achievement with Dead Man, if properly appreciated, must mark a watershed moment of American Geist. Unfortunately, it was not to be. And there remain many contradictions in American Geist, tightly knit and impossibly convoluted to the point of being beyond recognition as a coherent Form of Life.

 

American Contradictions

At this point of our inquiry, it is important to have an overview of various contradictions existing within American Geist. As we have seen, American Form of Life consists of a multitude of unresolved contradictions which must be traced back at least to the 19th century when the nation building accelerated due to the rapid industrialisation. As noted in the section on Turner’s Frontier Thesis, by the late 19th century, Americans were ready to establish a national identity independent of European roots of colonists. As a young republic with rapid territorial expansion in remote areas, America lost a social and cultural coherence, and thus Turner answered the need for a new national identity with his celebrated thesis. Yet, despite the academic success of Turner Thesis, the fragmentation of American Geist persisted, and thus, in order to gain any insight into current problems existing within American society, we must critically analyse them in a historic context rather than blindly accepting the persistent narrative perpetuated by political oppositions for their respective political gains. And thus, in this section, I tried my best to be as objective as possible by limiting myself to the analysis of logical inconsistencies existing within popularly accepted statements on various topics. Whilst some of the contradictions listed here are not uniquely American, the way it affects American Form of Life is distinctly so.

Selective Humanism: Selective Humanism is a contradiction suffered by every Form of Life which imposes a double standard: its proponents advocate to implement a higher humanistic standard for ‘their own’, whilst denying the same treatment for the Other. In this sense, Selective Humanism is a modern contradiction rooted in the Enlightenment project; whilst the impassioned pursuit of realising the highest potential of human reason by the Enlightenment thinkers are undoubtedly praiseworthy, naturally these thinkers themselves suffered various prejudices, and thus, the project itself was deeply flawed at its inception. Proponents of Selective Humanism achieve the awkward selectiveness by denying the humanity of non-members. In order to achieve and maintain desired effects, Selective Humanism imposes arbitrary discriminations in order to differentiate one group from the Other. Membership criteria can be based on sex, gender, race, class, religion, nationality, spoken language, taste in music, preference of colours, and/or hairstyles. Whether they are positive (e.g., being a member of a glorified community) or negative (e.g., not a member of the Other), such discriminatory criteria are considered essential to the collective identity of a group. The problem is: such criteria are based on matters of facts, and thus, they are descriptive. The description of what is cannot be, and should not be, conflated with what ought to be. Thus, at least logically speaking, description of sex or gender cannot, and should not, be loaded with a value judgment. Being ‘white’ or ‘homosexual’ is a description of a matter of fact. And thus, being ‘white’ cannot be judged as the sign of ‘innate superiority’ just as being homosexual should not be the subject of moral judgments. Committing this fallacy is equivalent of saying: Drought is God’s punishment. Such a statement is false in many ways. Firstly, by appealing to the transcendent entity (God), that is, the subject of which human reason cannot legitimately claim any knowledge or understanding, the above statement is meaningless. Secondly, this statement violates the distinction between is and ought. The description of the state of affairs about the weather condition cannot be, and should not be, the basis of moral judgment. It is also useful to note just how irrational the statement of Selective Humanism is. By applying arbitrary membership criteria to deny the humanity of a certain ‘category’ of humankind, the belief of Selective Humanism is described as: Not all P is P. The above statement is simply as wrong as wrong can be. Still, this is one of the most frequently committed fallacies.

Since Humanism is a modern concept, Selective Humanism is a distinctly modern phenomenon. Whilst there can be numerous membership criteria to discriminate non-members, Europeans and others are satisfied with the notion of their alleged innate superiority. Not Americans: they feel the curious need to assert their moral superiority. As noted in the previous section, America’s supposedly exceptional moral standing above all others is allegedly justified with a few matters of facts: 1) America happens to be the first democratic republican nation; and 2) Americans decided to set the beginning of their story with the arrival of English Calvinists. As the first fruit of the Enlightenment project, America as a nation is thought to represent the hope for all humanity as the blueprint of fair governance which promotes and protect ‘freedom’, ‘equality’, and ‘justice’. The problem is, the alleged moral righteousness is at odds with the nature of American colonial enterprise which was advanced at the expense of Native Americans and slaves. In addition, the religious aspect of American Geist relies on the innate moral righteousness of the nation. So long as America observes ‘religious freedom’, its moral righteousness is guaranteed by God. The problem is: 1) Religion for most Americans is various strands of Christianity, and thus, the notion of religious freedom is not practiced universally; and 2) Despite Christian belief, that is, all humankind is equal in front of God, America is founded on Selective Humanism which justified the brutality exercised by white colonists against Native Americans and Slaves. Again, such a contradiction states: Not all P is P. By adding an additional layer of falsity, the contradiction between their alleged moral righteousness and the actual praxis of colonial expansion, Americans greatly complicated matters for themselves. (If you are interested in just how vague the membership criteria is of ‘humankind’, please read my analysis of Ex Machina, link). In Dead Man, we shall witness Selective Humanism in motion; the expansion of the colony was justified both by Christianity and the Enlightenment; Native Americans are sacrificed to establish the ‘greatest nation on earth’, and since they were supposedly inferior as well as being heathens, colonial brutality practiced by ‘pioneers’ is ’justified’.

Secularism and Religion: This is perhaps the most pronounced contradiction existing within American Form of Life. Founded upon modern Enlightenment principles, America has nonetheless retained its religious aspect to their Form of Life. This is evident by the way in which its genesis is recounted: according to the popular story, America has two distinct instances of inception. Firstly, the religious exodus from England arrived at the place later known as Plymouth Rock. Secondly, the colonists’ independence from the British Empire results in the establishment of the first democratic republic. The fact that Americans revere the colonial outpost started by English Calvinists, who did not play a role in the founding of the nation, reveals just how established Christianity is within American Geist; the majority of Americans do not question why someone who did not participate in the nation building, such as the war for independence and the drafting of the constitution, must be granted a special status as the ‘first Americans’ (After all, one of the major reasons that made the ‘Pilgrims’ leave the Netherlands is their desire to preserve English Form of Life). The extent to which American society remains religious is quite unusual compared to other developed industrial nations, and it has been one of the causes of serious bafflement amongst them. Whilst Jeffersonian secularism guarantees the religious liberty within the republic, those who regard their respective religions as the central components of their lives, this modern solution, which secures freedom of religious worship by excluding religions from the political process, has been met with suspicion and contempt. For one who refuses to ‘compromise one’s faith’, there is only one true law: the religious doctrines prescribed to all humankind by God.

It is plain that such a position cannot be reconciled with democratic principle: citizens of a democratic society must be prepared to accept the bounds of law and appreciate differences of views by maintaining mutual respect to one another. The problem with so-called religious fundamentalism is two-fold. Firstly, by placing so-called ‘divine law’ above the secular law, it denies the fundamental principle of humanism, that is, humankind has an ability to better themselves and limit unnecessary injuries both to themselves and to others by harnessing the power of human reason. By rejecting the self-governance of humankind, ironically, religious fundamentalism bestows the despotic power to a select group of humankind: the heads of religious orders. Since the religious authority is by nature unquestionable so long as one remains as a member of such a group, regardless of the scale of the given organisation, it is essential for religions to secure the absolute status for certain individuals within such an organisation: someone must be revered as the ‘mouthpiece of God’. Secondly, by appealing to the unconditional authority of ‘divine judgment’, religious fundamentalism denies the authority of government; even within a theocracy, there are always possible denials of the authority of governing bodies by breakaway factions. Ironically, such factions ultimately preserve the identical distribution of power within their respective organisations. Thirdly, by claiming the ‘Truth’ of their beliefs, the proponents of religious faiths are always going to dispute against one another. Since religious doctrines are ‘divine’, and thus absolute, the disputes amongst them are ultimately irreconcilable. Without the mediation of a secular authority, this dispute can soon become beyond the bounds of theological squabble; it becomes existential. All these phenomena point to social instability. Whilst such a turmoil is precisely what the Enlightenment project sought to remedy by means of secular democracy, despite being the first example of such an experiment, America has failed to reconcile the need for religious freedom and the secularity that guarantees its survival. This is simply due to the basic misconstrual of the very notion of ‘freedom’; Americans tend to conflate metaphysical notion of ‘freedom’, which is purely abstract and thus merely hypothetical, and civic freedom which grants freedom in exchange of civic duties and social obligations. Without grasping the most basic conceptual distinction such as this, one must suffer false statements such as: I am free to do wrong. Given the prevalence of such a confusion, this contradiction will survive within American Form of Life for the foreseeable future. Notwithstanding the lack of social coherence resulting from this contradiction, Americans found one common ground upon which a society might function: money. The rule of money over all the differences imaginable amongst the populace is clearly represented by Jarmusch with his depiction of American ‘Frontier’. Still, as we have seen, the contradiction within American Geist remains unresolved, and its ills have been in a full display.

Extreme Individualism and Absolute Subjectivity: Arguably, one of the significances of the introduction of Protestantism in Christianity is the shift of emphasis from theology and metaphysics, which are verified and contested within ecclesiastical order, to the notions of conscience and faith, both of which are highly individualistic and thus subjective. Whilst various strands of Protestantism do have their own theology and metaphysics, this shift of emphasis toward subjectivity and individuality in religion has had a significant impact. Whilst individual autonomy in interpreting the religious canon decentralised the religious authority, we observe two distinct implications of this phenomenon: whilst in Protestant Europe, the combined effect of individualism and the Enlightenment led to the decline of religion in general, in America, by encouraging a ‘personal’ connection to Jesus Christ, it bred what one might call hyper-subjectivity in the name of faith, and thus helping the establishment of extreme individualism of American Geist. Prior to examining the implications of hyper-subjectivity in American Form of Life, it is necessary to understand properly how and why this kind of subjectivity is deeply problematic.

The kind of individualism represented by Frontier Thesis and Western movies, and enshrined by many Americans as a ‘core value’ of American Geist, is contradictory to the most basic principle of civic society. As mentioned in the previous note, the notion of ‘freedom’ is completely misconstrued in the United States. Since every individual of a civic society must observe the law and engage in social and political process as a citizen who is respectful of the rights of others, ‘freedom’ as a right is never about ‘doing whatever I want’. When one fails to grasp such a basic conceptual distinction, there are severe implications. Firstly, a society plagued with such a confusion is paranoid in nature. Since everyone is only interested in fulfilling one’s desire and/or whim, no one can expect others to speak and act in good faith. We have seen the result of this collective paranoia everyday in the news: it appears that Americans have lost the ability and/or will to distinguish the truth from the falsity. The constituents are willing to swallow ‘fake news’, conspiracy theories, and/or propagandas in so far as they fit their respective world-views. From ‘Pizza Gate’ to the denial of human effects on the ecosystem, the evidence of cognitive dissonance in American society paints a staggeringly bleak picture. Secondly, this lack of basic trust in one another leads to the impossibility to establish a social coherence. For a society to maintain healthy function, its members must be entitled to enjoy a certain level of expectation in one another; one must be able to expect that one’s fellow citizens are going to respect one’s rights and appreciate social norms and the bounds of law. The loss or lack of such trust thus results in a given society’s inability to create a consistent narrative that defines its identity and its fundamental values. Whilst it is natural to have a certain degree of diversity of views about the identity and the values of a said society, the kind of Extreme Individualism adopted by Americans fragments a society into an aggregation of cults due to the impossibility to initiate a proper dialectic by its constituents. When each sect defends their beliefs as faith, not by proper arguments, the disagreements become existential confrontations. When every member of a given society is entitled to this kind of subjectivity, that is, the alleged ‘right’ for everyone to take justice into one’s own hand without, or possibly against, social consent à la Marshall Kane, the result is absolute nihilism: one becomes a cold-blooded survivalist like Cole Wilson. The logical implication of such a nihilistic survivalism is an absurd armed race against all.

Patriotism as a Faith: Whilst hyper-subjectivism suffered by Americans has many implications internally, one must also consider the external implications of this tendency. Yet, before examining them, one must understand how Americans overcome, however artificially, the resulting social fragmentation in order to maintain its ‘unity’ enough to function as a sovereign entity within the world. The key to binding the aggregation of these cults together as an individual entity is patriotism. Whilst money is a common language in America, the world of finance and trade does not know nationality, and thus cannot bring about the ‘unity’ which Americans seek. In order to gloss over a multitude of contradictions existing within American Form of Life, Americans tend to appeal to passion: patriotism, or ‘the love of country’ as commonly referred, is regarded as an unquestionable value for each and every American. Yet, what exactly means to love one’s country is always a vague one. Given the severe social fragmentation observed in America, this question is outstandingly difficult one to answer for its citizens: no one can clearly and satisfactorily define ‘America’ for everyone. Americans bypass shaky standing of their beliefs by appealing to the notion of faith; since faith is a subjective belief, it is ‘private’, and thus, supposedly ‘immune’ to the interrogation of logic and reason. And it is only under the duress of patriotic passion that Americans come together as constituents of a Geist, however incoherent it might be. Since their patriotism is a faith, rather than a mere belief, America remains susceptible to a kind of Totalitarianism described by Carl Schmitt in his notorious work, Political Theology (1922), in which he defines sovereignty as the power to declare exception, that is, the state of emergency which nullifies civic rights and transfers great, if not absolute, power to the ‘ruler’. The irony is that Hyper-Individualism in America enables the absolute patriotism which in turn enables the power-that-be to cancel all civic liberties.

Anti-Intellectualism: To Turner’s delight, America offers a perfect environment for hyper-subjectivity to thrive. Since Americans have long embraced Turnerian notion of American character, one of its components, namely anti-intellectualism, puts an end to all attempts to interrogate the legitimacy of any personal beliefs, such as patriotism and American Exceptionalism. The problem is that modern democracy relies on the rationality and the intellect of its constituents for its healthy functions, and thus, anti-intellectualism cannot coexist with democracy without severely undermining the latter. And thus, the notion that the ‘democratisation’ of America has been achieved by anti-intellectualism is confused at best. And yet, by embracing the Frontier Myth advanced by Turner, America prepared itself for the path to populism from the early stage of its democracy. Yet, as seen in Dead Man, Frontier Myth is just that: a myth. The condition wherein bullets decide who lives and dies daily is a far cry from the most basic form of democracy.

Imperialism and Isolationism: Being a global empire, there is always a need for America to form a coalition; to be a global player means having stakes in every part of the world, and thus, in order to protect their national interest and further their agendas, it is impossible not to work with others. Yet, America, like its ‘heroic’ archetype of Western movies, oft leans towards Isolationism and likes to entertain the thought of ‘going solo’, even though it is never an option. Still, it is important to note the contradiction between America’s desire for Isolationism and its objective of global domination. This particular contradiction between its isolationist fantasy and its imperial agendas causes a strange inconsistency in its foreign and domestic policies: Americans simply cannot decide how they want to engage with the rest of the world. America is at once an Interventionist (e.g., World’s Policeman) and an Isolationist, the sometimes anti-immigrant nation built by immigrants, the leader of ‘free world’ while practicing Selective Humanism, and preaching the value of democracy to the world while domestically undermining its own by letting populism thrive. Given the hyper-subjectivity of Americans and the paranoid nature of their society, America is socially fractured, and it is no surprise that America has difficulties in establishing a coherent engagement policy with the rest of the world. In short, America remains confusing by being hopelessly confused.

Morality, Capitalism, and Industrial Materialism: Americans suffer a peculiar need to claim moral superiority. Whilst Europeans and others only feel the need to be superior, Americans need to appear ‘good’; like their ‘superheroes’, Americans must be the ‘good guys’ as their opponents are, naturally, ‘bad guys’. As Bob Dylan observed in his song, ‘With God on Our Side’ (The Times They Are A-Changin’, 1964), Americans believe the innate moral high-ground of their nation. The problem with this attitude is obvious: it fosters a fanatic patriotism which encourages unnecessary military adventure, Isolationism, Protectionism, xenophobia, and potentially leads to the establishment of an absolute sovereign through the declaration of the state of emergency which lasts indefinitely. Whilst patriotism of this sort is available for all Forms of Life, and human society in general must safeguard itself from its dangers, for Americans, their faith in their nation’s moral nature creates a unique contradiction. We have already noted that this faith originates from two sources: American belief in the ‘Christian character’ of their nation; and being the first democratic republic in human history. Whilst religious and the Enlightenment aspects of American Geist presents a contradiction of its own, their faith in their nation’s moral character creates another; the claim of morality contradicts with two ideologies which are essential to Americans: Capitalism and Industrial Materialism.

As I noted in my article on The Big Short, link, Capitalism eventually starts to create needs to increase profits for free enterprises. As Deleuze and Gattari observed, Capitalism is ‘schizophrenic’ in this precise sense; with Capitalism, not only all desires need to be materially satisfied, it is necessary for it to create wants. As a result, in a matured capitalist society, one can easily observe how the world becomes the distorted mirror of ‘Desires’; nobody exactly knows why one desires what. At this point, one can only see ‘Desires’ spilled over to the world around us which has entirely distorted its picture. Now, it must be clear that such desires know no morality. If one insists on America’s innate moral superiority over others, one must somehow successfully argue that capitalism, and the ‘Desires’ fostered by it, are moral by their nature. The same contradiction applies to Industrial Materialism. Based on a crude interpretation of Cartesian metaphysics, Industrial Materialism encourages us to exploit the world as a source of material gain. Since its ethos is fundamentally Instrumentalist, and thus encourages us to treat everything as means, not ends, it has nothing to do with ethics. In fact, it is just the opposite: by encouraging us to exploit everything around us, Industrial Materialism is unethical by its nature. In Dead Man, the logical consequence of capitalism and Industrial Materialism is represented by the ‘town’ of Machine and the ultimate survivalist, Cole Wilson.

 

The Real Frontier

As we have seen, American Form of Life consists of a multitude of contradictions and thus it is impossible to capture and preserve a concise statement which represents American identity for every American; whilst this fact itself is neither ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in and of itself, without properly appreciating the state of affairs objectively, dire confusions arise from forcing a false unity by glossing over the diversity and the difference existing within American citizens. By insisting to establish a sweeping notion of ‘America’ and ‘Americans’, the focus of American politics is on the squabbles on collective identity, rather than resolving urgent and specific issues at hand. This is not to say that Americans, and all of us, should sweep aside unjust discriminations past and present. Understanding and resolving unresolved contradictions within a Form of Life by staying as disinterested as one possibly can must be the utmost priority to all agents, regardless of one’s perceived membership. And, remarkably, Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man offers us a glimpse of such a possibility through an unlikely friendship between Blake and Nobody. In Part III of this article, thus, I shall examine how these two lost souls come together as companions and transcend the historic boundary erected between the two people. The path to realise one’s agency is indeed narrow and challenging, yet, if one truly values one’s liberty and autonomy, one must not shy away from embarking on it. For, in the end, the only Frontier worthy of pursuing for any of us is not within the realm of the material world; it is the arbitrary limit of our understanding wherein we tend to dwell all too comfortably. Yet, in order to pursue this direction, one must confront and resolve unresolved contradictions existing within one’s Form of Life. (To be continued)

Dead Man (1995), Part I

Preamble

On the 8th of November 2016, the Nobel laureate for economics, Paul Krugman, wondered whether the USA had become a ‘failed state and society’ (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/cp/opinion/election-night-2016/the-unknown-country). The statement found in a brief article written for the New York Times is a crystallised expression of his utter bewilderment, disbelief, and despair not only about the result of the election, or what could only be described as a ‘dumpster-fire’ of the campaign itself, but also about the elements of US society which had unfailingly made their presence known despite the alleged unintelligibility of their beliefs. Krugman, of course, had known of their existence and views. Yet, when their candidate was about to prevail, he admitted that he no longer knew anything about the country which he still probably considers his home.

Whilst Krugman is justified to express his shock, exasperation, and despair, the above statement makes one wonder whether the perceived ‘Great Divide’ of American society is only a recent phenomenon. It also makes one question whether the traditional understanding of American politics as the contest between opposing ideologies, that is, ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’, or ‘progressives’, is a correct one. Whilst it is certainly interesting to pursue these inquiries, they are beyond the scope of my project. Instead, I wish to reevaluate the story of the United States through the critical examination of select films which I find particularly illuminating. I am specifically interested in examining the nature and the origin of what we might call ‘American Contradictions’. Each of them is unique to America, either in theory or in praxis, and the Gestalt of such contradictions defines what America was, what it is now, and what it is going to be. Whilst each film in this series, ultimately, must be judged by its own merit, it is my hope that, together, as a whole, they may present a coherent portrait of the United States, not necessarily flattering, yet fascinating nonetheless.

 

The Waste Land

To begin our inquiry, there is no better place than Jim Jarmusch’s masterpiece, Dead Man (1995). This film enjoys many distinctions regarding the ways in which it comprehensively shatters the narcissistic notion of the ‘Frontier’, which is universally accepted, both by Americans and non-Americans, as the defining feature of American Geist. Jarmusch’s sixth feature is an ambitious project which aims to transform America’s self-image, and suggests a different attitude toward its past and present, as well as its future. Dead Man is a truly important film not only because of its theoretical scope; it is a cinema of astounding beauty with considerable depth and complexity. It is a singular achievement both for Jarmusch as well as American cinema; never has an American film been able to produce a work that contains the potential to initiate a seismic shift in a given society’s self-consciousness with a profound philosophical, poetic, and comedic effect of this magnitude. And thus, Dead Man is at once a triumph and tragedy for American independent film. Despite, or because of, its magnificent quality, it failed to reach the majority of American audiences, and it was dismissed by critics as a typical ‘art-house’, ‘post-modern’, movie. America has a long tradition of punishing its bests, and once again, it cast one of its brightest offsprings into exile. The film has been a critical success internationally, yet its promise has never been materliased at home.

Set in the 19th century, Dead Man follows the fate of a quite ordinary chap, William Blake (Johnny Depp). Hailed from a town near Cleveland, Ohio, our protagonist is on his way to a colonial outpost, or the ‘town’ called Machine, to take up a position of accountant at Dickinson Metal Works. The journey starts uneventful enough; Blake sits in a crowded car with urbane passengers who are determined to avoid any form of contact with one another. Yet, as the steam train hurries along, the landscape begins to show the true nature of his journey; the forest becomes dark and dense, and Blake spots an abandoned carriage, as well as a destroyed tepee, the sights of which give stark forewarnings to our helpless protagonist. Across the desert, and over the mountains, the train flees into the unknown. The changes are not limited to the landscape; his fellow travelers apper different. Gone are the urban middle class to which Blake belongs. First, Blake acknowledges the presence of the rural population with whom he has had little or no acquaintance to this point. Then, awoken from a restless slumber, he found himself in the midst of a ‘wild bunch’; gun-slinging fur traders of the West, who confront the stranger with a mixture of naked contempt and savage indifference.

At this point, someone finally takes interest in Blake and speaks to him. The stoker of the train (Crispin Glover) appears and takes an opposite seat from Blake. Despite being the only person with whom Blake can converse, there is something unnerving about the stoker. Emerging from the infernal fire and black smoke bellowing from the furnace, he asks Blake to look outside the window. The stoker continues dreamily by uttering a strange observation: the way the landscape rushes by the train window reminds him of an experience on water; when one lies against the vast open sky in a boat on still water, despite the lack of motion, the landscape slides away, and one struggles to explain why. This strange utterance impresses the stoker to us as a mythical figure, despite that we won’t know his significance until later in the film. Then, suddenly, he initiates a seemingly normal conversation with Blake and inquires into his personal life. Blake reluctantly reveals his recent losses; the departures of his parents, as well as the split with his fiancée. The stoker insists that, though grave as they are, such losses cannot be enough reasons for Blake to come all the way down to this ‘Hell’. As Blake shows a letter from the ‘town’ of Machine promising a job, the stoker, though he cannot read the document himself, warns him not to trust no words written in no piece of paper out here. He emphasises with great fear that the ‘town’ of Machine is the end of line, wherein the only thing Blake is going to find is his own grave. At this point, it starts to dawn on us that this train is not taking Blake to an earthly destination; it is taking him on a mythical journey, and the stoker (an obvious nod to Kafka’s Amerika) is a modern day steward who brings our protagonist across the River Styx. Despite being unable to alter his passenger’s destiny, the stoker shows humaneness with his desire to know why Blake is on this one-way trip. In fact, he is the first of (only) three who demonstrates empathy and decency toward our protagonist, as he wanders the vortex of lust, greed, and violence.

As if the starkness of warning from the stoker is not enough to make a point, fur-clad, bearded men soon start firing their rifles through the windows; according to the stoker, they are shooting at a herd of American bisons, whose casualties reached a mark of over one million in the past year alone. This scene refers to the main reason why this formidable animal quickly approached a state of near extinction: violent senselessness. As this scene amply demonstrates, white settlers did not always kill them for profit; whilst the meat, bones, fur, and skin of American bisons were prized commodities, colonists shot them whenever possible, even when they could not gain anything from the killing (For more detailed history of American bison’s decline, see: http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/nattrans/ntecoindian/essays/buffalo.htm). In just one scene, Jarmusch makes it absoutely clear: the so-called ‘Frontier’ is a territory of vicious absurdity. These ‘wild men’ demonstrate no sign of humaneness or civility; they are crude, violent thugs with guns, and these are the ‘people’ amongst whom our hero must exist from now on. Unfortunately, Blake is no longer able to turn back; he bet everything on this prospective job, and thus he has no money for the return journey. He soon discovers just how true the words of the stoker were. The destination, the ‘town’ of Machine, is one of countless white colonies, built around a specific enterprise, whose ‘boss’ (in this case, it is Mr. Dickinson, delightfully performed by the late Robert Mitchum) commands absolute power, and literally decides who lives and who dies. Typical of such a colony in the West, Machine exists to supply the needs of the enterprise by catering its workforce to alcohol and prostitution. As Blake walks into town, hard, hostile, and shameless stares stab him. The ‘street’ is ornamented with skulls of animals and humans, and Blake witnesses a woman being forced to perform oral sex on a thug in the open at gun point; noting a spectator, the beast points a revolver at him, as if weapons do all the talking in this wasteland.

Remarkably, all of this happens in the first twelve minutes or so (including title credit) of the movie. Utilising a seemingly ingenuous method of telling a nuanced story by frequently inserting blank moments provides Jarmusch a significant creative benefit in Dead Man; it enabled him to condense what must be normally a tedious process of reevaluating the notion of the ‘American Frontier’ into a dozen minutes at the very beginning of the movie, thereby freeing himself and the audience to explore hidden and willfully forgotten stories of America at its infancy with a rare clear-sightedness. Jarmusch’s swiftness in demolishing the idealised notion of the ‘American Frontier’ also owes to the painstaking accuracy with which the director represents the period. Dead Man is widely acclaimed for its objective description of the life in the ‘Frontier’ of the given period. This accuracy was not only applied to the way in which white settlers’ lives are represented; Dead Man is widely acclaimed for its non-stereotypical representation of Native Americans, and it is one of the very few films which feature a Native American as one of the main protagonists. (In Dead Man, Nobody, iconised by Gary Farmer, is one of the three main characters alongside William Blake and Cole Wilson, performed by Lance Henriksen.) Jarmusch's effort to represent Native Americans as agents is genuine and sincere; Dead Man features at least two distinct Native American languages, the Cree and the Blackfoot respectively, and some of the speeches in these languages include in-jokes exclusively aimed at Native American audiences and presented without English translation. Hence, despite its fantastical storyline and its characters, through the visual and sonic experience of the film, Dead Man not only escapes stereotypes, but also destroys them; these images are so powerfully different from anything we have previously known. Through the rest of the movie, Jarmusch continues to demolish the narcissistic notion of the ‘American Frontier’, the concept which fundamentally defines America’s self-image. From a political/cultural standpoint, every Geist must be represented by a grossly simplified notion, or better, an iconic image, in order to appeal to the imagination of the masses. History, art, and political theory are employed to create an appearance of coherence within a Geist, so that the members of a society may have a ‘rallying point’, if you will. The masses take such a collective identity for granted, and generally feel fiercely protective of the idea of what makes them who they are. There are two aspects of the construction and the maintenance of a collective identity: a theory and its aesthetic expressions. As we can observe in mythologies, theorising and its aestheticisation are oft manifested through one instance of expression. For Americans, however, there are two historically significant instances which are worth investigating. And, for the construction of American identity, one theoretician’s work proved to be decisive.

 

The Myth of the ‘Frontier’

Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1931), a prominent historian known for his ‘Frontier Thesis’ (‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History’, 1893), proclaimed that white colonists’ experiences during the invasion of the western territories of ‘North America’ forged the ‘American character’, which consists of traits such as ‘self-reliance’, ‘individual freedom’, ‘egalitarianism’, disregard for high-culture, and strong predisposition toward violence (Turner relied on the definition of the ‘Frontier’ used by the government census at the time of his writing, and thus his ‘Frontier’ includes parts of the Midwest as well as some parts of the South, as opposed to the contemporary definition of the ‘Frontier’ as the western territory beyond the Mississippi River). Unsurprisingly, Turner enshrines the above characteristics; with his celebrated thesis, he sought to make a distinction between traditional European, more specifically English, character, and the ‘national character’ of the new republic in the latter’s favour. Such traits were ‘hard-earned’ by the ‘pioneers’, or white colonists who were motivated to move westward by the promise of gains through ruthless land grabbing. Turner went so far as to proclaim that each of such traits contributes to the establishment and the progression of American democracy. This is a controversial statement to say the least. Since his concept of America and its democracy consists of so many layers of contradictions, I shall consider some of them in a section reserved for the analysis of various contradictions affecting American Form of Life. Thus, at this point of inquiry, I shall only make one observation: As Turner was keen to make a distinction between Imperial Europe and democratic America, Turner’s theory leaves us with many questions. For example, Turner cannot explain the reasons why some ‘Europeans’ in America adopted the alleged ‘American character’ whilst others did not. Turner’s sweeping assertion of the singular importance of ‘Frontier’ is also suspect; ’Americans’ fostered diverse sets of regional cultures, and thus it is difficult to justify Turner’s selective bias for the ‘Frontier Form of Life’ over all others. Furthermore, Turner has no explanation whatsoever why Americans alone developed these particular traits; other colonial settlers world-wide did not develop what Turner considers as specifically an American character. Australians, for example, are known for their ‘mateship’, the opposite trait to the extreme individualism with which Americans identify themselves. Turner offers neither the explanation as to why some ‘Europeans’ developed the traits he declared American, nor the reasons why other European colonies did not develop similar characteristics. And thus, one must seriously question whether Frontier Thesis is what it aspires to be: an explanatory theory of the origin of alleged ‘American character’ and the nature of ‘American democracy’.

As Turner’s thesis quickly became dominant amongst American intellectuals, there have been some competing views on America’s national character. Whilst Turner embraced the violent and lawless aspects of ‘Frontier Life’ as American ‘liberty’, Americans generally prefer not to face this aspect of their history objectively. This fact seems to suggest that the desire, or necessity, to construct a ‘positive’ self-image for Americans stems not only from the routine legitimation of its national sovereignty, but also from the determination to legitimise their ruthless colonial expansion at the expense of Native Americans as the means to achieve an (allegedly great) end. Whilst there are quite a few ways to construct a believable narrative to legitimise the birth of a nation, a particular concept has been enlisted by the establishment of the republic, such as the ‘Founding Fathers’ and their successors, for the defence of America’s colonial agendas: the ‘newness’ of the country which supposedly marked the new beginning for ‘humanity’. Despite the fact that the concept of a republican government originates from Europe, and that it is not the only form of democracy, Americans decided that the birth of their nation deserves a special credit: America must be a beacon of hope for ‘humanity’ as the first, and the original, democratic republic. Seeing their nation as the blueprint of future ‘human’ progress, Americans also regard their ‘newness’ as a unique virtue, that is, it is the declaration of a complete break from the Past. Energised by the new philosophy which signaled the break from ecclesiastical authority, the ‘new’ scientific advancement, and the brute force of Industrial Revolution, American intellectuals, like their European counterparts, were confident that the new dawn of 'humanity' was within their grasp, and, as the ‘people’ of new beginning, they wished to position themselves as the vanguard of progress. (The cultural significance of America’s self-identification with this concept is quite visible. For example, America’s obsession with ‘youth’ can be partially explained by their identification with the notion of ‘newness’, which they tend to regard as a virtue in itself.)

As I shall elaborate later, this Enlightenment aspect of America’s genesis creates a tension with its religious element. This stark opposition was evident from the very beginning, as the religious held some of the founding members of the government, most notably Thomas Jefferson, in suspicion and contempt, and the continuation of this narrative is very much at front and centre of American politics even today. The religious aspects of the nation fight to ensure that the ‘Age of Reason’ and materialism would not triumph, yet, the ideological opposition that supposedly divides ‘us’ and ‘them’ is blurred with confusions. Except the Amish, Americans, including the religious, embrace the ‘newness’, the concept which is confusedly tied to America's national identity. ‘Confusedly’, because the alleged ‘newness’ is sometimes about various modern concepts such as democratic republicanism, non-traditional thinking and behaviours, or novel innovations in science and technology, yet other times, it is really about ‘new’ things, such as new weapons, new territory, new gadgets, new… anything. (There is also a religious element to the notions of ‘newness’ and the ‘New World’, and thus further complicating the matter. I shall postpone the discussion of this point to the Part II.) This is due to a certain historic contingency; America’s westward expansion was accelerated by one of the most significant technological advances of the day: the railroad. The ‘progress’ of the ‘New World’ was enabled by the industrialisation and capitalist economy, and thus capitalism and Industrial Materialism are indispensable parts of America’s self-consciousness: Despite the religious aspects of their Geist, these ideologies represent their ‘core values’. That being acknowledged, it must be noted that neither of these ideologies began in America; Europeans, especially British, must be credited for setting both capitalism and Industrial Materialism in motion by igniting Industrial Revolution. And thus, despite being the first democratic republic, from theoretical standpoint, there is nothing ‘new’ about America; it is a product of European experiment. And, like its future counterpart, the USSR, it was on course to overshadow its inventor, become the champion of Industrial Materialism, and carries the legacy of global imperialism inherited from their European counterpart.

It is interesting to note that, despite his belief in the uniqueness of American Geist, Turner appears to appreciate the notion of ‘newness’, the notion embraced also by pre-Frontier colonists. Given his rejection of all things ‘civilised’ and 'European' as non-American, this strikes us as a curious phenomenon. Hence, it is important to note what the concept of ‘newness’ specifically meant for Turner. Whist Turner accepts the notion of America as the ‘New World’, he applies a different understanding to this concept. For Turner, ‘newness’ has nothing to do with an advancement of ‘humankind’, whether speaking philosophically, scientifically, technologically, or even morally; it is only about the rebirth of European settlers into a new people: according to Turner, they were born again as American people through their colonial struggles. In fact, he vehemently opposes the modern, Enlightenment narrative of humanism; he famously argues that European settlers became Americans for the first time in the wilderness of the ‘American Frontier’, wherein lawlessness reigned and thus conflicts were primarily settled with force and violence. Turner proclaims that American democracy is not the end result of the work of European philosophers and political theorists; it was forged by the bloody colonial struggles in the ‘Frontier’, and thus it bears the weight of its particularly American heritage. He even offers a warning that, with the completion of territorial expansion in the North America, the ‘American Frontier’ will cease to exist, and the stifling influence of ‘civilisation’ and the government institutions might annihilate the newly discovered American ‘freedom’, which thrived without the ‘interference’ of the government or other established social institutions. White colonists of the ‘Wild West’ relied on ad-hoc organisations which ‘performed’ many governmental functions such as law enforcement and judiciary, in the form of ‘rough justice’. For Turner, such a primitive form of society observed in the ‘American Frontier’ was a prerequisite condition of American ‘liberty’. His concerns about the survival of American ‘liberty’ and democracy have been addressed by many, and some sought to apply the concept of ‘Frontier’ by setting America’s territorial ambitions to overseas, space, and cyberspace. Unsurprisingly, Turner does not reject Industrial Materialism so long as it furthers the interests of white colonists. Turner simply regards the power of industry as an integral part of American Form of Life, and does neither question Industrial Materialism's origin nor its role in the formulation of American Geist. He was only interested in constructing an effective narrative for the case of American 'Frontier' as the singularly most important influence on the birth of 'new people' and 'new civilisation'.

For Turner, thus, some Americans are mere ‘Europeans’. The ‘Founding Fathers’ are mere 'European' theorists. He also discredited the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’, a group of Puritans who fled England in seeking their religious freedom; for Turner, they are English, not Americans yet. Generally these two groups of colonists are regarded as the first ‘Americans’, yet Turner exhibits uninhibited hostility toward them. His open contempt towards the organised civic society of Europe and New England, and his peculiar definition of American character, are eerily familiar. One can readily recognise the manifestation of Turnerian disdain of civic values in contemporary ‘democratic’ grassroots movements in the United States (I shall elaborate on why many populist movements in the US, and elsewhere, are ‘democratic’ only on paper in the later section about American Contradictions). Whilst it is hard to understand many Americans’ irrational rejection of basic social programs such as healthcare and retirement pension as ‘government overreach’ and ‘overregulation’ by the Washington élites, once one traces their rejection of the civic society back to Turner, despite its irrationality, these American reactions begin to make sense. Whilst there is no way to precisely measure the influence of Turner’s polemics, given what we see today in the United States, it is permissible to think that Frontier Thesis may have been the most decisive factor for the determination of American Geist. Hence, we must ask ourselves: Why has Turner’s thesis been so influential? Whilst there are a few reasons for its enduring popularity, two factors must be noted in order to diagnose one of the most dangerous elements of populist narratives: There is a certain vagueness and crude simplicity in Turner’s thesis. Because it is vague, it is easy to interpret as we please. And due to its oversimplification, it is also very easy to follow.

By seeking to vindicate the white settlers’ experience through the colonisation of vast territories which was to become known as North America, Turner’s thesis created a simple image according to which Americans still wish to be defined today: rugged, resilient, and fiercely independent ‘people’. Turner’s description of so-called American character proved to be highly effective and soon became the cornerstone of American history courses. The sweeping success of Frontier Thesis owes to its simplicity and vagueness. Being a historian, Turner relied on his observation of contingent matters of fact, that is, the reported facts on the ‘American Frontier’. Yet, Turner was very discriminating; remarkably, he ignores some elements of white colonial life, such as religious orientations (or its lack thereof in some quarters), social classes, and economic developments, and implicitly allows one prerequisite condition for the entitlement of this character: whiteness. Since Turner’s theory is intended to be an explanatory theory, Frontier Thesis supposedly explains the origin of an already existing phenomenon: America’s national character. And thus, there is no need for one to have an actual experience of participating in the colonial expansion in the 'Frontier' to adopt 'American' character; yet, still, a Turnerian American is expected to be white. This means one thing: so long as someone fulfills a sufficient condition of being a white American, one could adopt and identify oneself with Turner’s characterisation. Yet, Frontier Thesis and Turner’s American character have been embraced by all spectrums of American society as a national identity, and, logically speaking, quite justifiably so. Whilst white suprematists regard whiteness as a necessary condition to fit the category of ‘American’, and Turner himself might have agreed with them, this assessment is based on a category mistake; given the nature of the theory, which is based on matters of fact, the observed whiteness of colonists is contingent, not necessary; these colonists happened to be whites, yet there is nothing to tell us that they absolutely had to be so. Whilst the colonists to whom Turner referred were whites, and thus his thesis strictly colonial in nature, the whiteness is, again, a sufficient condition based on the observation of a contingent matter of fact. The lack of necessary condition for the entitlement of 'American character' adds a certain vagueness to the membership criteria of being an 'American', and thus allows loose interpretations of his theory; at least in principle, regardless of race, gender, social class, and religious affiliation or its lack thereof, all Americans can identify themselves with the alleged national character, hence the popularity. Additionally, Turner’s theory is crudely simplistic; it is in fact a sweeping conjecture in a strictest sense of the word. Whilst his observation of the ‘American Frontier’ and its influence is useful in explaining certain American attitudes of the past and the present, Turner attributes too much credit to the influence of the white colonist experience in the ‘Frontier’. Whilst Frontier Thesis captured the imagination of an American populace, and it has been generally accepted as a self-evident truth, American society is too complex to be summerised neatly by a single theory. It is oft described as an ideologically ‘divided’ society, yet if one carefully considers, it becomes clear that American society has been made up of wildly complex segregations that is better described as a fractured, not divided, nation. And thus, despite its popularity, the alleged ‘American character’ must be considered as a popular myth. It is a story fabricated by a white settler to glorify his country's colonial origin, and thus, it is inherently and unprohibitedly narcissistic.

In truth, there is nothing to understand in Turner’s thesis. As an explanatory theory, Frontier Thesis is a complete failure. In fact, notwithstanding Turner’s intention, Frontier Thesis does not explain the origin of American character: It created it. Turner merely answered the need for Americans to establish a unique national identity, as all social groups strive to do. His work was timely, and his thesis proved to be very pleasing to Americans. As William S. Burroughs oft quipped: Tell them what they want to hear, and they will believe anything you say. Turner’s Frontier Thesis was a propaganda piece which created the national character of the United States by weaving a seemingly coherent narrative based on some matters of facts, rather than what it pretended to be, that is, an explanatory theory of an already existing ‘American character’ as such. And what Turner achieved with his thesis is critical to the formation of American identity, for Turner managed to create a narrative which at once justified American society, with its lack of cohesiveness and its many contradictions, as a new form of civilisation. And this formula proved to be powerfully and enduringly appealing to Americans. Even today, despite academic scrutinies, Turner’s thesis remains dominant, and the popularity of Turnerian American identity has always been relentlessly exploited by politics, commerce, and media to a nauseating effect. Whilst historians and politicians have been keen to benefit from Turner’s story, and have been spinning it for all its worth, it still needed an external support to capture the imagination of the masses, and it was a particular genre of American cinema, that is, Western movies, fulfilled such a role. Whilst Turner's thesis has been dominant in history courses, in a society with anti-intellectual attitude, a single theory, however respected, cannot have a powerful influence on the society at large. Fortunately for Turner and his thesis, Western films made Turner's view accessible to the masses, and successfully popularised it. This is precisely why Jarmusch chose to deconstruct this genre in his sixth feature film as a way to confront America’s self-image. In order to comprehensively debunk the celebrated image of ‘American people’ represented by this genre, however, Jarmush needed to do more than the objective representation of the ‘American Frontier’. He must identify its living icon, and expose what it really represents. (To be continued)