A media studies guide to self-sabotaging to save your society.
In the Star Trek franchise, every starship is equipped with the ability for the Captain, with the concurrence of another command-level officer, to initiate a self-destruct countdown, and they do it a lot— in the series Voyager, for example, Captain Katherine Janeway uses this as a tactic often (and I’d argue, most effectively— other captains do this throughout the franchise) as a demonstration that she is willing to kill her crew to prevent an imbalance of power, and whatever unpredictible series of injustices may occur as a result, beyond those implied by their presence in the quadrant of the galaxy they find themselves stranded in. This often forces resolution to a situation where there is contradiction, often terminal. In one episode, this takes another form: the crew is being experimented on covertly by phase-shifted (not visible, or sharing the same space) aliens mining the Voyager crew for medical research, causing sickness and death on board, with Janeway’s experimentation taking the form of her tolerance to pain (which she believes to be a headache initially). Upon discovering this, she attempts to fly the ship between two pulsars, which threatens the structural integrity of the ship, but has the affect of terminating the experiment and sparing the crew.
What pattern this follows is that some conflict occurs, they reach an impasse where a partian-idealized resolution is no longer possible, but some decisive resolution is required, and one must gamble that the other actually is bluffing to nullify the partisan incentive; the knee-jerk reaction of Janeway to escalate to potentially taking her own and the lives of those around her because the synthesized solution preferable to her is for her to lose, provided her opponent also does not win— but as this franchise often teaches us, in the interests of justice, playing to lose can be more rewarding than simply being right.
In media, we see this framework present itself as a way of staving off mutually-assured destruction (sometimes physical, moral, or both), an alternative to a story of self-sacrifice; a story about willingness to risk, but ultimately winning the day by taking that risk, and almost always in the context of broader struggle. Ultimately, it’s more like life than a story of being self-sacrificed: you have days where you win, days where you lose, and the cost for those days varies in extremes. Sometimes it has a sublimating effect on your life, and sometimes it’s just surviving another day.
In the Cheer’s episode “Sam’s Women”, the cold open of the episode is newly-hired ex-academic waitress, Diane, serving two tables. She mixes up their orders, and rather than scrambling to fix the mistake, simply asks if the people she’s serving would mind “saving [her] a few steps…” and before she can finish, they simply swap tables, to her gratification at not having made a mistake that costs her rapport and the orderly flow of her job, and the patrons’ amusement that she would admit a mistake like this. You can play to stalemate, and still win as a result of a failure. That’s the version of this paradigm I’m most interested in— you admit a small (but recoverable, if you’re brave enough to admit it) failure and turn it into a successful (if not redemptive) execution:
In the 2014 film Whiplash, Andrew Neyman is a talented drummer and a freshman music student. He is invited after a short, but productive session with Terence Fletcher, the conductor of the Studio Band, to audition, which is usually reserved for older students. Their relationship immediately becomes antagonistic, abusive; Fletcher, notorious for his results as much as his temper to create the fear that produces them, ultimately, after Neyman arrives for a concert after a violent car wreck, and Fletcher, is exposed as a result of a flood of complaints about his conduct (including a student suicide) results in his firing. He, then, after they encounter each other at a jazz bar, invites Neyman to join his new band, only for Neyman to find that he’s been set up to humiliate himself as retaliation (Neyman had been of the impression that Fletcher did not know it was his report that ultimately caused the termination).
Here’s where things get interesting:
Neyman hijacks the performance away from Fletcher, directing the band into a different tune. Fletcher is outraged, but Neyman won’t stop, he enters a prolonged drum solo. He has no way out, but to simply stop and give-in to Fletcher’s beseechment. But, something else happens. Fletcher gives in, and directs Neyman through the outpouring onto the set— the synthesis of where their relationship began, and the passion for perfectionism that became perverted into abuse of Fletcher’s musicians, to elevate the piece to a new emotional level. In ceding control to Fletcher, who acquieses himself, Neyman deactivates the self-destruct sequence, and the performance completes on an extremely cathartic (for the audience as well) note.
There’s a preponderance of movies about artists who make Faustian bargains for their craft (something I’ve written about in this newsletter before), and many more than speak to the role of madness in the proliferation of genius, and the sublimative effects of triumphing over trauma to survive another day, but very few films tap into this notion that one can ascend spiritually though solidarity, even in the face of a tremendous power imbalance; it’s not enough for you, the disenfranchised to be right, the power structure has to be broken, and in so doing, admit that it requires an underclass to exist at all. These are, as I said, small victories in battles of a much larger war— we see it interpersonally, and we see it societally, but these are not stories of individuals, they’re stories of class.
In the example of Whiplash, Andrew Neyman was defeated. Fletcher set him up, and Neyman simply didn’t see it coming, but the thread of his exploitation was identified and picked up, and recognizing the rest of the band could follow him if he challened Fletcher on stage, this could be his band, not Fletcher’s, unless Fletcher admitted defeat first, or else this simply could go on forever.
The quote by D. Boon, “I’m not religious about god; I’m religious about man.” has a lot of applications, but think about applying it here: what are we doing if not constantly keeping our mouths shut when we see an injustice if only because of concern for material or liberative safety. For Neyman, he’d already lost everything; he loses nothing by challenging Fletcher, believing he has Neyman backed into a corner— showing the other musicians where the real power lays in the production of music, with them, is a powerful moment if you choose to read into this scene philosophically.
Of Jazz music (which the Studio band in Whiplash specialized), Herbie Hancock said “It's not exclusive, but inclusive”— it’s a musical style predicated on solutions, on trusting your human instincts in creation, but also orchestration, but most importantly, how people fit into it. That’s something this film gets entirely too right about the struggle between the authoritarian impulses of Fletcher, who has thoroughly forgotten the point of why he’s a perfectionist to the point lethal violence, and Neyman, who wants to be remembered as one of the greats with a single-minded focus, and it is this quote that embodies what Neyman taps into in retaking the power and giving it to whom it belongs, the musicians on stage, and for his part, the improvisational, intuitive force that he represents. “Jazz stands for freedom. It's supposed to be the voice of freedom: Get out there and improvise, and take chances, and don't be a perfectionist” said Dave Brubeck, and it’s good advice for jazz, as it is in life and work; if your impulse is to reject a contradictoary, terminal injustice framed as, simply, the order of things, maybe you’re dealing with a lousy order.
Whiplash is a good example of an incredibly ideal—if not circumstantially pat- outcome, but sometimes, the relief is momentary, but altogether worth the sacrifice— these systemic wins can be personally anodyne in nature. Consider the Mexico storyline of Traffic (2000)— I believe this films exemplifies how these conflicts often play out in real life, they’re complicated, messy, nuanced, and often represent a very small, but hard-earned win, in a much longer battle where good and evil are not binarized, and again, the only “good guys” are the interests of the people.
In the film, Javier Rodriguez and his partner are police officers in Mexico, who apprehend a worker of a large Cartel, who ends up hiring Rodriguez. This could be a huge win for his family, materially, so he accepts. Over time, he discovers that the corruption of the cartels is influencing corruption in the government, and while he mistrusts and believes the American DEA corrupt as well, comes to think there’s good to be had in directing the cartel into direct conflict with them in exchange for restoring electricity to his neighborhood, something which would benefit the citizens in a spiritual way, as in at the end of the film when he joins his neighbors to watch some boys play baseball under the lights of the field.
The cost for this was pitting two political bodies far above his pay-grade against each other, was probably his personal safety in some retributive attack down the road, and, on some level his wounded sense of national identity in having, at least nominally, betraying his state, but in the end, he did it for the people who occupy the state, not the figureheads of nationalist power.
Rodriguez was, in the end, religious about man.
Some things I’m reading, watching, or listening to that I am now recommending:
Bob Odenkirk - What’s in my bag?
Firing Line with William F. Buckley (with Muhammad Ali)