Shadow World




NATO members meeting

A dialogue between Catherine Bernard and Johan Grimonprez about the film Shadow World
January 2017

"History is the lie commonly agreed upon”

Catherine Bernard: We live in an era when the land, its resources, the products of human labor, and creativity—all of which philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri define as “the common”—are being eroded through a privatization process that infringes not only on all aspects of the public domain but also on our political imagination. The cult of privatization has eroded civil society and its political story and agency. Trans-national corporations profit from it, yet it has significantly downsized all social services, including public transport, healthcare, education, and so on. As we start this conversation, the protests led by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline continue to call the attention of many1. Activists have faced attacks by police in riot gear, as a testimony of the continuous militarization of public space, here that of the Sioux people. Last September, dozens of tribal leaders from different Native American nations gathered at Sacred Stone Camp to unite symbolically against the threats to their land and to the water posed by the construction of the pipeline and in a ceremonial act of solidarity with the Standing Rock Lakota Sioux they convened to assert their belonging to the common.

Johan Grimonprez: Another appropriation of the common is happening as big pharma and big biotech are merging at an accelerating pace. Literally as we speak, Bayer is proposing a buyout of Monsanto. Syngenta is being bought by ChemChina, and Dow Chemical is about to merge with DuPont. These three corporate behemoths will privately own most of the world’s seed bank, ultimately deciding who will grow what and who will eat what. Their business model is to patent, and therefore privatize, the building blocks of life through transgenic technology.2 Corporate boardrooms lay claim to the world’s genome, while the common turns into mere collateral damage at the cost of environmental devastation and the worldwide eradication of sustainable indigenous farming.3 It’s all positioned behind the deceptive slogan of “feeding the world.”4 Actually, only a few days ago the International Court of Justice in The Hague kicked off its tribunal to assess the accountability of Monsanto’s crimes against humanity, widening its scope towards the prosecution of ecocide.

CB: One aspect of this process remains conspicuously absent from the political debate: the privatization of war, which is the central theme of your recent film Shadow World. During the 1990s, a number of private military companies, such as Blackwater,5 developed rapidly in the US, and have now infiltrated all aspects of war. They provide not only mercenary forces on the ground, but also logistics and intelligence. In the film, investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill points out how a handful of corporations can now essentially overthrow governments and decide the fate of foreign policy. The monopoly of nation states over the use of mass organized violence is gone. Now it’s on the open market and any multinational can buy military services.6 The growing use of robotics makes this process even more pervasive; the same mutlinationals provide both the hardware and the software. But at the fringe of its empire, this war machine is now folding in on itself, evidenced by the growing surveillance and militarization of the urban landscape back at home. Military forces patrol the streets of the black neighborhoods in Chicago using the very equipment that these private companies had provided to invade Iraq. Public space is being transformed into a battlefield, and the same is happening in European capitals like Paris and Brussels.

JG: The White Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, who is notorious for not being able to recall the past but she remembers the future, would probably shriek at the sight of our own future, which is largely sold out by a corporatocracy. “What we’re witnessing,” Chris Hedges paraphrases in the film, “is a corporate coup d’état.” This is not happening at a national level, but rather on the world stage. It’s blatantly selling out democracy. The recent moves by the Trans-Pacific (TPP) and Trans-Atlantic (TTIP) “partnerships” will make global corporations immune to the laws of sovereign countries. While law has long been the privileged area to take control of the common, these trade agreements would give corporations jurisdiction to overturn democratic legislation—whether social or environmental—that might obstruct corporate profits. Literally corporations could now sue national governments And to circle back to how multinationals can hire private military, Jeremy Scahill also discloses how Blackwater, through its subsidiary company Total Intelligence Solutions, sought to become the “intel arm” of Monsanto, offering to provide the biotech multinational with operatives to infiltrate activist groups organizing against it.7

CB: A similar trend of consolidating power occurred in the mainstream media in the 1980s, when a handful of media conglomerates started to determine what we should think and feel, reducing our worldview to a consensus reality. The integrity of reporting began to be measured by profit margins. Case in point: the lies about weapons of mass destruction that led to the invasion of Iraq. It meant an enormous devastation in the Middle East, while it generated incredible profits for the defense companies, and the complicity of mainstream media to conveniently sell the “war on terror” propogated a politics of fear. Just last week a joint investigation by the Sunday Times and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed how the Pentagon gave the UK PR firm Bell Pottinger over half a billion dollars to run a top secret propaganda campaign in Iraq to create fake Al-Qaeda videos.8 These videos, which stage conflicts in Iraq and Syria, were diffused on prime time as well as on YouTube, which produce realities allowing the continuation of the aptly named “theater of operations,” and of course the concurrent growth of the arms trade.

Allegedly staged ISIS beheading video released by Russian hackers8

JG: Wasn’t it Karl Rove—an advisor to President George W. Bush—who said, “We’re an empire now, we create our own reality”? This power grab by the privatization machine has indeed eroded democracy and its public sphere, but even more essential is just how much we have internalized this movement. Our very psyche, our bodies, our imagination, and with it reality as well as our future, have become part of a battlefield.

CB: In his interview for Shadow World, Michael Hardt points out that the military-industrial complex has become a form of historical oversimplification that does not take into account the real core. Sure, the military-industrial complex and the arms trade are extremely important, as are the profits they generate and their influence in foreign policy. But don’t they argue that one has to recognize a much deeper continuation of violence, of which warfare is only the tip of the iceberg?

Shadow World, Johan Grimonprez, 2016. Courtesy Ronald Reagan presidential library

JG: Indeed, Hardt and Negri acknowledge a world system that is becoming ever more what they call a system of “global apartheid.” But they define global apartheid not simply as being about exclusions or walls, such as the US-Mexican border, or the border between Israel and Palestine. What's more characteristic and even more insidious are the hierarchical inclusions that mandate a kind of subordination, like the way apartheid functioned in South Africa, forbidding any possibility of movement, socially and physically. It’s really about making these subordinations extremely intimate and part of everyday life, such that it actually structures our lives around violent storytelling. International law served in the twentieth century merely to legitimate and support the violence of the strong over the weak. The inequality of power seems to make it impossible to establish equality before the law. The violence of the strong is automatically legitimated, even invisible, while the violence of the weak is immediately labeled terrorism.

CB: The term terrorism, apart from being nonspecific and therefore often racist, is in essence a meaningless construct. Refugees and immigrants are being ostracized as potential terrorists by the very societies that have caused their displacement by means of terror. The state of war requires an enemy and the structure of the state itself to frame it. Enter the ideological construct of the other, and eventually that of the clash of civilizations, deftly marketed through major media. Maymanah Farhat in her essay “New Media and the Spectacle of the War on Terror” asserts that the narrative of tyranny versus freedom is a continuation of the representation of us versus them, which is a new iteration of the imperialist narrative that has pervaded US history.10 As we further consider the violent reactions of several European nations to the current mass displacement and arrival of economic and war refugees, including those from Syria, we witness the migrant construed as the abject object, one that threatens the supposed and fallacious integrity of the social body. It’s the psychoanalytic notion of the abject, defined by Julia Kristeva, as something or someone that threatens the distinction between subject and object, between self and other.11 This notion feeds the image of the migrant as dangerous and a potential terrorist, constructed by politicians arguing for border protection and closure, establishing a model of society as a fortress, glorified by nationalist discourses. A most distressing example of state violence is what happened in Calais with the dismantlement of “the jungle.” Refugees are forcibly relocated elsewhere, as to make them invisible, and are being displaced again by militarized forces. Meanwhile, what they claim are their rights as world citizens.

JG: Wasn’t it Howard Zinn who pointed out that war is terror, only with a bigger budget? 

Afghan Mujahideen visit with president Ronald Reagan at the White House, 1983 Shadow World, Johan Grimonprez, 2016. Courtesy Ronald Reagan presidential library

CB: Exactly. Your film actually hints at the fact that the US is media managing an idea of good terrorists and bad terrorists. The West is trying to destroy Al-Qaeda in Mali, but is giving them arms training in northern Syria. Vijay Prashad mentions how we have bad terrorists in Yemen, but good terrorists in Syria because they could potentially topple Assad. The public narrative is that we have to end terrorism, while in private the US provokes proxy wars, which create characters who then become terrorists.

JG: And this in turn reinforces the public narrative to then justify armed intervention. It creates the circle of permanent war, and without it the so-called security state would fall flat. Some critics would even call it the insecurity state, because the security state has made our world ever more insecure.

CB: Democracy is obscured by this seemingly permanent state of war. In times of war, the constitution is temporarily suspended. But this state of exception is becoming the rule, and the line between war and politics has been increasingly blurred. Moreover, the national model of democracy is outdated, while institutions with transnational oversight are failing us. Global institutions like the United Nations or the World Bank succumb to unilateralism, where debt serves as a legal mechanism of enslavement to keep the poor poor and the rich rich.

Courtesy: Ronald Reagan presidential library

JG: What we actually need is not a so-called new world order, but rather a new world community. This state of war has become a permanent social relation. An ontology of fear creeps inside so many aspects of our social life, reducing democracy to a shadow state populated by docile zombies. It not only blurs the distinctions between the military, the police, and the justice institutions, but it also corrupts everyday life on the deepest intimate level: how we board a plane, how we say goodbye, how we ride the subway, the daily images that bombarded us, what we talk about. Simply put, we have become consumers of fear, and even our imagination is subjected to militarization. Legally, we are all defined as “terrorists until proven innocent.” It’s the domestication of fear by a corporatocracy serving a global war industry, and it is sold to us disguised as a public good, part of the common, but basically it just robs public tax money.

CB: Andrew Feinstein picks this apart in his book The Shadow World, which is the basis of your film and its dismantling of this condition of permanent war. A long-standing intellectual tradition—which includes anthropology, sociology, fiction, documentaries, as well as echoes in popular culture, on YouTube and social media—portrays war as a necessary and inevitable evil of realpolitik. War is assumed to be inherent to the human imperative, and it presupposes the existence of an enemy. It is also linked to the myth of technological progress, in which weaponry and warfare are the essential engines of evolutionary progress. In a previous interview, you referred to archaeologist-turned-playwright Robert Ardrey, who alleged that evolution started when the hand of the liberated picked up a weapon, claiming that it is war “that has led to the great accomplishments of Western Man. Dreams may have inspired our love of freedom, but only war and weapons have made it ours.”12 He inspired the primal murder scene in the opening scene of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. In it an apelike ancestral “moon walker” throws the bone-turned-weapon into the sky, and it then immediately cuts to a war station floating in space. It remains an emblem of the biological determinism condemning human nature to a future of endless war.

JG: The bone-turned-weapon gives birth to civilization. The scene spans centuries, and Kubrick actually got the idea for it when he incidentally threw a broomstick in the air during a rehearsal on set. But the broomstick- club brandished by the killer ape can actually be traced back to archeologist Raymond Dart’s discovery of the Australopithecus, a human predecessor dug out from a mass grave in South Africa. All the specimens’ skulls consistently have an identical pair of punctured holes. Dart interpreted this as indisputable evidence of war, concluding that human’s earliest ancestors were murderers. They used animal leg bones as weapons, he argued, the violence causing the paired fracture on each of the skulls. Robert Ardrey then popularized these ideas in the 60s, which in turn inspired Arthur Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’s epic opening scene of 2001, now a common marker that has become so engrained in human psyche.

Fake letter produced by Steve Cox for Films That Almost Got Made That Time Forgot – 2002: Another Space Odyssey allegedly from the hand of film director Stanley Kubrick to Metro Goldwyn Mayer’s CEO threatening him not to embark on the sequal of 2001: A Space Odyssey.12 

But this is not the end of the story. Later on, a different picture about the australopithecines came to light. When anthropologist CK Brain examined the same mass grave, he arrived at a more plausible story: an extinct giant leopard, found in the same geological layers, had two canine teeth corresponding exactly to the paired holes on each of these skulls. The murderous killer apes, so colorfully described by Dart and Ardrey, turn out to be merely lunch for leopards.14 So the popular depiction of our warring ancestors in 2001: A Space Odyssey is actually completely bogus.15 Maybe it was only an incidental broomstick floating in the air after all.

In their study Are Humans Inherently Killers?, anthropologists Robert Sussman and Joshua Marshack satirize this distorted picture of primate studies where bipedal creatures faced each other to kill one another.16 Instead of focusing on our propensity to kill, they suggest:

It could as easily have been our propensity for dancing that explains much of human behavior. After all, men and women love to dance; it is a behavior found in all cultures. Our love of movement and dance might explain, for example, our propensity for face-to-face sex, and even the evolution of bipedalism and the movement of humans out of trees and onto the ground. Could the first tool have been a stick to beat a dance drum, and the ancient Laetoli footprints evidence of two individuals going out to dance the “Afarensis shuffle”? Although it takes two to tango, a variety of social interactions and systems might have been encouraged by the complex social dances known in human societies around the globe. The evidence for man the dancer is just as good (or lacking) as it is for man the killer.
CB: You chose to open Shadow World with the story of the Christmas truce during World War I, one of the bloodiest periods of human history, when 100,000 soldiers embraced each other across enemy lines. They simply refused to fight, instead acknowledging each other’s humanity. It’s only when the generals started shooting above the heads of their own soldiers that the war started again.17

JG: Politics is in dire need for a new story about what community means. Naturalizing war pulls attention away from the real culprits. Biological justifications are a smoke screen to hide the wickedness of politicians. Studies of combat veterans suggest something few would expect: although well-armed, the majority of soldiers never kill. At the end of World War II, Samuel LA Marshall, a US Army brigadier general, polled 400 companies of infantry men. He found that only 15 to 20 percent of the veterans fired their weapons in combat, even when ordered to do so. Contrary to mainstream views, humans are actually not wired for war. In his book On Killing, Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman confirms this “powerful, innate human resistance toward killing one’s own species. The record of the US military shows that men seek to avoid killing enemies and are traumatized when they do so.”18

CB: The primatologist Frans de Waal writes that politics and biology are awkward bedfellows. The whole idea of social Darwinism, for example, has celebrated the “survival of the fittest,” a term coined by the nineteenth-century British political philosopher Herbert Spencer, but wrongly attributed to Darwin. He dressed Darwin’s theory of natural selection in a business jacket. Economics adopted competition as a law of biology, applying evolutionary theory to endorse a reductionist prescription for society rooted in self-interest. While taking greed as a business model, it also implies that war keeps the economy healthy. It translated as a colonial justification for imperializing the rest of the world. During the 1980s the “greed is good” ideology was popularized by the Chicago boys, free-market economists such as Milton Friedman, who admired the idea of unbridled markets. On a political level, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan adopted this social Darwinism to rationalize the deregulation of economic policy, sustained by a delusion of endless growth, gradually turning the world into a private corporation.

JG: Economist Joseph Stiglitz once remarked: “The fall of Wall Street is for market fundamentalism what the fall of the Berlin Wall was for Communism; it tells the world that this way of economic organization turns out not to be sustainable.”19 Reliance on greed and endless economic growth as the driving force of society has undermined its very fabric.20 Community is not just a mere afterthought, but the ontological foundation of society. The vast majority of human activity happens beyond the scope of private property. Society functions by the grace of what we share, because of a common fabric, and this includes economy.21 The Russian anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin initially came to different findings about the survival of the fittest. In his 1902 book, Mutual Aid, he argues that the struggle for existence is not so much one of each against all, but of masses of organisms against a hostile environment. Cooperation is common, such as when wild horses or musk oxen form a ring around their young to protect them against attacking wolves. In subzero cold, you either huddle together or die. Like Darwin, Kropotkin believed that cooperative groups of animals—or humans—would outperform less cooperative ones. In other words, the ability to function in a group and build a support network is a crucial survival skill.

CB: But the real debate here is rather greed versus community. The whole crisis of politics, and of economy, that we find ourselves in today, and of which the arms industry is clearly a symptom, has to do with the fact that there is a deep need for belonging, for redefining community, and for telling a new political story. We need to acknowledge a paradigm founded on what we share: the common. Frans de Waal’s explorations into notions of “cooperation” and “conflict-resolution” offer a counterpart to the celebrated paradigm of greed. He calls it a turn towards empathy, a topic popping up in all different branches of the scientific community, from cognitive sciences to psychology, pointing out that our most essential drive is actually to belong.

JG: In her book Falling Together, Rebecca Solnit celebrates the unpredictable and incalculable events that so often redeem our lives, both solitary and public.22 In times of disaster, when people are falling apart, there is also this notion of people falling together, which we don’t chronicle. Disasters embrace contradictions. They are what Solnit calls “paradises built in hell.” She searches for the hidden, transformative histories inside events we chronicle merely as disasters, in places like post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. She writes that, so often, “when all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up to become their brothers' keepers. And that purposefulness and connectedness bring joy even amidst death, chaos, fear, and loss.” A new way of storytelling creates a new way of being, a new ontology, of being together that has the power to overcome the stories of “havingness” and greed, and to create new stories that slip between the languages we have been given and transform them.

CB: As Solnit examines the incredible responses that arose from the 2005 Katrina disaster, she points out how a community united together in extraordinary gestures of solidarity. As neighborhoods were destroyed by the flood and the local and federal authorities failed to respond, the strongest and best abled civilians came to help the most vulnerable. Community building started just a few days following Katrina with the formation of the Common Ground Collective, a decentralized network of grassroots organizations, which created support systems that still exist today. At the same time, narratives of fear and violence were created and then reported by mainstream media, telling of dangerous situations, looting, aggression, and the likes. This in turn justified sending military forces to New Orleans instead of providing help to those suffering. Political failure was orchestrated through a vicious form of storytelling, which can be a tool to oppress as much as to redeem. It is in no way trivial, as people live and die by stories. The Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano opens your film by narrating that we are not made of atoms, but of stories.

J.G.: Storytelling is our common denominator. In his book City of Words, Alberto Manguel paraphrases novelist Alfred Döblin: “Language is a form of loving others, language lets us know why we are together.” Manguel elaborates on “us” as storytellers, meaning stories shape why we are together as a “we.” But language can do the opposite as well: we concoct stories to justify war, to masquerade war as a peace process, and to manipulate community. In fact, we are in dire need to reclaim the story of how we define ourselves and how we define society. We need to rethink the human narrative, and allow for the becoming of new ontologies, based on love and not on fear.

CB: The fact that we can dream, imagine new stories, create new futures is part of the storytelling process. We need participatory stories, stories that include how beings can change the world, that redefine a new “we,” but for that we need the storyteller, the presence of the other and the listener to share the story with the world. Stories shape us, they resist and reinvent society against the dominant story. They are capable of creating a new “we” against the privatization of our imagination and our reduction to consumers of fear.

JG: Physicist John Wheeler would argue for a holographic universe, where the thing and myself are entangled. The observer is entangled with the observed. There’s not a me subsuming an object, nor an “us” versus “them,” but an ever changing “we.” One holographic part reflects another, and you ’re a little holographic part reflecting the rest of it all. It’s a very different idea of how to think about matter. Maybe this “reality” gap has something to do with community, with entanglement. We live in a society deprived of something essential, not even aware of what we actually miss, since we lack the stories and concepts. It’s not dissimilar to the final scene of Godard’s film Alphaville, which depicts a society in which every word relating to the idea of love is banned with the threat of death. And actress Anna Karina, in love with the protagonist, is searching to express her feelings but doesn’t find the words. The concept of love is foreign to her.

CB: You also interviewed neuroscientist Raymond Tallis for Shadow World, and you asked him the question, Why can’t we tickle ourselves? He explained that tickling is about surprise and about feeling the unpredictability of other people, and the sense of their otherness. So when tickling oneself there cannot be this element of surprise, this profound sense of the otherness of other people. It is an ontological realization of the other: You tickle, therefore I am!

JG: Tallis alluded to the fact that Descartes’ cogito argument is not actually the whole story. What is this “I” contained in the “I think, therefore I am”? This standalone “I” is deprived of its social context, Tallis reasons. The mind is not isolated but shared and communal. We tend to think of human consciousness as something trapped inside our heads. But consciousness, as with language, and as demonstrated through empathy, is profoundly relational. Awareness of ourselves emerges in a social context. The mind is not a thing, but rather is being, it is relationship. If one were really to do Descartes’ insight justice, Tallis reasons, we could translate it as, “We dialogue, therefore we are.”

CB: In Godard’s Alphaville it is ultimately poetry itself that is able to sabotage the main ALFA computer that rules the society in the film. It’s storytelling, and specifically in this instance of a poem by Borges, that is able to change that society!

JG: We initially thought of including poems by Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish in the Shadow World. He once said, “Poetry chooses the side of love, not war. If I write love poems, I resist the conditions that don’t allow me to write love poems […] The road to meaning however long and branching, is the poet’s journey. When the shadows lead him astray, he finds his way back.” It’s the predicament that actress Jodie Foster faces in the final scene of the film Contact. Upon her return from an incredible journey through a time portal, she is called in to give testimony in front of a truth tribunal, but she is totally unable to convey the encounter she had with what the “unknown” other from the future. She’s met with disbelief because she can’t prove her experience, and she realizes, “We shouldn’t have sent a scientist. We should have sent a poet.”