How is Rambo upholding the Western society?

By Jukka Jouhki

In the mid-1980s, Finland was geopolitically tightroping between the socialist East and the capitalist West, but its popular culture had already been won by the West. Or, more specifically, by Hollywood.

Like most of my friends, I was particularly mesmerized by Rambo in First Blood (1982), the quiet character trying to mind his own business, but forced to be reborn as a super soldier. If there was any anti-governmental critique in First Blood, it was non-existent in Rambo II (1985) in which Rambo had to face evil Russians and Vietnamese holding American POWs captive in the jungle.

Ten years ago, the Rambo film franchise got its fourth installment (Rambo 2008). The cold war had been over a long time ago, and Rambo had no geopolitical battle to fight. The plot of the film was described as following: ‘A group of Western human rights activists are imprisoned in Burma, and Rambo and his mercenaries set out to rescue them.’ It was definitely something a post cold war hero in the West would do.

A social scientist can find many ways to analyze Rambo in as a symbol of his time(s). The movies are fruitful data for anyone interested, for example, in nationalism, Orientalism, corporeality, or masculinity in crisis – with a vengeance. But how warranted would it be to interpret Rambo as a representation of ‘Western society’?

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Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo in First Blood (1982). (Source, Licence CC BY-SA 3.0)

For sure, Rambo’s fight against communists could be labeled as geopolitically Western as in being on the side of the capitalist West. Also, he is a citizen of the US, a country that can be said to be in the epicenter of the West – as Hollywood could be viewed as the center of Western popular culture.

On the other hand, Rambo as a character is quite universal. Rambo-esque lone heroes are fighting for justice in a morally dichotomic world in societies around the globe, not just in Western society. Sure, Rambo could be said to be Western, but is he exclusively Western? I would say not really.

But when we look at the above-mentioned synopsis of the last Rambo film, we see a faint but powerful hint of Rambo’s exclusive Westerness. Rambo is not just going to rescue human rights activists, but Western human rights activists. And we know Rambo likes to help ‘his people’. Perhaps more importantly, if we go into the basic collective function of language, the synopsis reconfirms that there is indeed a category of Western people.

Many would say a simple word like ‘Western’ in a film synopsis is not indicative of much. However, I would say it might even be vice versa. Perhaps, it is just this kind of banal, faint and almost undetectable utterances connoting a collective group of people that uphold any society, from villages and tribes to nations and even groups of nations like ‘the West’. As Michael Billig (1995) says, it is not the flag waved with fervent passion but ‘the flag unnoticed on the public building’ that makes banal nationalism which is more effective than explicit nationalism. And that’s perfectly fine – there’s no inherent problem in being nationalist, banally or otherwise.

However, the almost unnoticeably normal labeling of things ‘Western’ (e.g. Western people, Western food, Western clothes, Western fashion) when repeated and reminded of day in and day out, in movie synopses, news, journal articles, and casual talk, unify a heterogeneous aggregate of populations into an imagined community called ‘the West’ or ‘Western society’. Maybe this kind of banal Occidentalism is more efficient in reproducing an exclusive West than any impassioned propaganda for Western society. And exclusiveness means something or some people are left out.

The author is a Senior Lecturer of Anthropology at University of Jyväskylä, Finland, and the director of coordination group for The West Network. He has conducted research on banal occidentalism in media.

“Western Civilization, Modernity and Reason: An Unavoidable Conflict?” by Marie-Josée Lavallée

Review of Jay, Martin. 2016. Reason After its Eclipse. On Late Critical Theory, Madison, The University of Wisconsin Press.

Reading Theodor Adorno’s and Max Horkheimer’s Dialektik der Aufklärung for the first time may be a rather disconcerting experience. The authors seem to support without qualification the claim, widely popular since the time of the Great War, that Western Civilization was then experiencing a crisis which could take her straight to her intellectual, spiritual, and even physical destruction. This pessimistic prognosis was only boosted by the catastrophes of the Second World War and Nazism, which were the background of the composition of Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s book.

Let’s remind briefly a part of their argument. Enlightenment thinkers had had a strong confidence in the potential of reason to liberate and emancipate human beings. Reason, however, can turn against the latter, and sink into barbarism if its regressive tendencies surface and become dominant. The roots of this regressive process are to be sought in Ancient Greece, where the split between reason and myth occurred. What was happened in the Enlightenment’s century has been a renewal of the struggle between those henceforth old adversaries, but this fight reached new highs.

If the concept of reason was to become central to Critical Theory, reflection on the perplexing multiplicity of reason was current in German thought in these times. The conservative thinkers Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, for example, also distinguished between “instrumental reason”, which imposed itself at the same pace as modernity, and “sound reason”, which has been repressed by its instrumental counterpart. This process underlies the surprising affirmation to the effect that reason may have a corrosive effect on human autonomy and freedom.

This type of discussion, however, often lacks theoretical clarification. The distinctions between instrumental reason and sound or critical reason, and universal and subjective reason are often taken for granted and put forward without much explanation. This is precisely the task renowned intellectual historian Martin Jay has set himself in his last book. Reason After its Eclipse. On Late Critical Theory guides the reader throughout the theoretical ambiguities surrounding the concept and its kindred terms (for example, rationality, rationalization, reasonable) by painting a broad history of its philosophical appearances and uses over time. It sheds light in particular on German thought between the end of the 18th century to the last quarter of the 20th century.

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Martin Jay (left), in conversation with Richard Wolin. Photo by Joseph van der Naald (licence C BY-SA 4.0).

The author begins his study by exploring the first “Age of Reason” which runs from Ancient Greece to Enlightenment, before considering Kant in a separate chapter. The next one, devoted to Hegel and Marx, introduces a couple of notions which prepare the analysis of discussions of reason by thinkers of the Frankfurt School in the second part of the book. The fourth chapter skims over late modernity’s crisis of reason which, having started in the late 18th century reached a high point between 1848 and the unleashing of the Great War, before transforming itself into the “embrace of unreason” from 1914 to the 1940s. These two phases characterized themselves by a decisive “erosion of confidence in reason”.

At each step of his study, Jay distinguishes various layers of meaning tied the concept and underlines the impacts of reason’s coexistence with religion or science. He does not try to build a homogenous history of reason but rather fully confronts the reader to the full range of complexities and contradictions surrounding this notion. While Jay’s perspective is wide, he does not lose himself into subtleties. His synthesis is highly efficient, and will benefit anyone who has an interest in the concept of reason. This is why the book’s appeal does not restrict itself to Frankfurt School’s thinkers’ readers. The latter’s criticisms have attracted a great deal of attention, but one should not read them as their “last word” on reason.

In the chapters of the second part of the book, “Reason’s Eclipse and Return”, Jay analyzes the attempts of Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, and Habermas to “rescue” reason and “defend a viable concept” of the latter. This part, however, lacks balance. The reader could be disappointed by the too synthetic treatment of the first three thinkers, which are grouped together in a single chapter, in spite of the fact that Marcuse would have deserved a full chapter, as well as Adorno and Horkheimer. Habermas’ thought is treated more in depth, since two chapters are devoted to him.

Besides its contribution to the understanding of the various meanings of the concept of reason among Frankfurt School’s thinkers, and throughout intellectual history, Jay’s book also contribute to reopening wider paths of historical-philosophical investigation, for example on the topic of the modern project’s failure. It also helps to open new research avenues pertaining to our own time, since we must suspect that the conflict between reason and material progress has not come to a close yet.

CFP: CRISES OF THE LIBERAL ‘WEST’

Call for abstracts for an edited volume.

Ever after the idea of “the Western civilization” was conceived, some intellectuals, politicians, and religious leaders have spelled doom for it. The “Western world” has been frequently embroiled in societal, ethical and economic crises, some of the most recent being war on terrorism, recession, and the influx of refugees. The rise of populist parties and inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the President of the United States have further fueled narratives of a crisis-ridden West. The themes and narratives of the Western crisis have been recycled habitually and have often been accompanied by, or at least addressed, the idea of the West as a globally triumphant entity with universally applicable values.  Currently, it seems, what is at stake is the “Western” liberal world-order. Recent political changes have created new challenges for liberal internationalism, and subsequently, crisis rhetoric has become a commonplace, but also controversial, part of narratives about the “liberal West” and its survival.

We are calling for articles for an edited volume focusing specifically on contemporary economic, ethnic, military, political, socio-cultural, and other crises that have emerged during the last decade, either in narrated or empirically lived reality. We especially encourage perspectives from political and social sciences, contemporary history, cultural studies, international relations, and geopolitics.

The articles should pay attention to the shifting meanings of the West. When people talk about crisis of “the liberal West”, how do they define the West? How is the West perceived to exist? What does a crisis of liberal world-order “tell” about the West? How does an anti-liberal (or neo/post-liberal) challenge change established conceptualizations of the West? How is the concept and idea of “liberal West” used as a (rhetoric/narrative) tool in politics and identity construction inside/outside of the so called Western countries, and what kind of narratives spawn from a crisis?

The main primary sources of the articles should entail explicit references to the concept of “the West”. In other words, the existence of the West or “Western society”, “Western culture, “Western countries” etc. should not be the premise of the article nor the construction of the writer, but literally observed/mentioned in the sources.

The “liberal West” may be examined in relation to, e.g., the following crises (imaginary or actual):

  • Brexit, Trump presidency
  • Deepening transatlantic rift; divisions and estrangement within Europe
  • Rise of populism, xenophobia, racism
  • Refugees, immigration
  • Liberty versus security
  • Political use of narratives about vanishing traditions; loss of values; religious fundamentalism/irreligiousness/atheism/secularism
  • Neoliberalism, liberal democracy
  • Global financial & economic crisis, overconsumption, environmental degradation, difficulty of forming a united front for finding solutions and compromises to global challenges
  • Shifts in the economic and political world order: rising China, Putin’s Russia, extreme Islamism, narratives of a new Cold War, clash of civilizations
  • West’s crises observed in the “non-West”

… and other perceived recent threats, perils, and menaces to “the liberal West”, from within and without.

Send your abstract, max 350 words to: jukka.jouhki[at]jyu.fi.

Deadline for abstracts: May 23, 2017.

The edited volume is planned to be published with a high-quality international academic publisher.

For more information, contact jukka.jouhki[at]jyu.fi.

Editors:

  • Jukka Jouhki, Department of History and Ethnology, University of Jyväskylä.
  • Marko Lehti, The Tampere Peace Research Institute, University of Tampere.
  • Henna-Riikka Pennanen, The John Morton Center for North American Studies, University of Turku

The editors are members of the coordinating team of The West Network, an international interdisciplinary network of scholars.