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Balancing The Noir Shadow In US Culture

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Following a decade of military invasion and occupation in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, the United States is becoming the Rodney Dangerfield of empires: "We get no respect!"


The undisputed post-World War Two top dog in the world, on virtually every front the United States is more and more playing catch-up with two-faced, Clintonian shuttle diplomacy around the world and a well-entrenched regime of secrecy and sophisticated public relations aimed at keeping the dismal story of decline out of the domestic mind-space.

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Economic realities dictate that the US government ratchet down its exorbitant military from the strutting days of Colin Powell's two-front shock-and-awe doctrine to a leaner doctrine centered on highly mobile, focused assassinations. Instead of bombing cities and structures like a boxer who batters the body, we now go for quick, well-placed head shots, especially to the key, sensitive areas of the brain that provide inspiration and leadership to the movements we deem threatening to our declining future.

US citizens are absorbing this accelerating imperial decline without being informed that's what's going on. The myth of exceptionalism must be kept alive and the donut hole of our global empire -- the American homeland where we all work and raise our families -- must carry the burden of sacrifice.

The imperial system isn't working like it used to; and much of it is being held together by political fantasy. What else can explain the incredible degree of unreality and nonsense more and more at the core of American politics? As the secrecy rises, formal bullshit, as defined by Harry Frankfurt, has become an American language.

Democrats are accomplished with it, but for the masters of bullshit you have to witness the current preposterous level of argument and thinking among the presidential candidates in the Republican Party. There's no presumption of even a grip on reality; it's a struggle for power and nothing else -- with the mainstream media keeping score.

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We Live in a Noir World

As part of a personal study, I recently watched two classic RKO noir films from 1947 -- Out Of The Past and Born To Kill , the former very famous and the latter more obscure. The sensibility of these black and white films seems perfectly in synch with the incredibly corrupt times we live in.

(Noir means black in French. The symbolism of blackness as evil goes way back in white, European culture, so unfortunately noir imagery as used here does collide today with the desire to be racially neutral. Human symbolism is complex; for example, in places like Haiti, funeral hearses are often white.)

The Nagasaki bomb and Robert Mitchum in Out Of The Past
(Image by Unknown)
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In his book Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City, Nicholas Christopher suggests the late 40s and 50s noir films were mining and expressing the deep-seated anxiety -- the "collective shudder" -- of a culture on the threshold of the post-Hiroshima atomic age that had not yet fully sorted out the demons of the Great Depression.

"The war ends but there is no closure," Christopher writes. "Forces are unleashed. Organized crime, street violence, political corruption, poverty. ... GIs returning to the United States from Europe and the Pacific carry, not microbes, but lethal infirmities of the mind and spirit after four years of living day in day out with brutality and violent death, and surviving a war in which 1,700 cities and townships were destroyed and 35 million people were killed."

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No society can just turn off this kind of "black energy," which is the fertile ground and dramatic fodder of all fictional and film noir -- popular art that taps into Jung's notion of the Shadow. Jungian Robert A. Johnson defines the Shadow as the flip side of the Ego/Persona that we present to the outside world. The Shadow is the "refused and unacceptable characteristics ... that collect in the dark corners of our personality." This Shadow, Johnson says, "often has an energy potential nearly as great as that of our ego."

Freud talks about the "seducing influence" of war on people and culture. This is connected to his ideas on the death instinct and Thanatos. When a society finds itself overwhelmed with this kind of black energy, he suggests, it slides toward moral bankruptcy. At this juncture, "[T]here is an end of all suppression of the baser passions, and men perpetuate deeds of cruelty, fraud and treachery, and barbarity."

Christopher again:

"Between the economic poles of opulence and squalor, and the overlapping social codes of rapacious laissez-faire capitalism and organized crime, the indelible motto of the postwar American city in the so-called boom years becomes "Anything Goes.' " And key to the noir sensibility, "Power's inescapable twin is violence."

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I'm a 68-year-old American who served in Vietnam as a naive 19-year-old kid. From that moment on, I've been studying and re-thinking what US counter-insurgency war means. I live outside of Philadelphia, where I'm a writer, photographer and (more...)

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