First as Tragedy, Then as Farce
By Matthew William Brake
When it came out in 1996, Independence Day was the first PG-13 movie I ever saw, and I loved it! Independence Day was an awesome summer blockbuster. It hit the right combination of action, drama, and comedy. In 2016, its successor, Resurgence, tried to do all those things again…only worse. Philosopher Slavoj Žižek has written a book entitled First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (an apt description for Resurgence). He gets this title from Karl Marx, who wrote, “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great events and characters of world history occur, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce” (1).
When history is tragedy, the unraveling of an old system is a shock to those who had believed in it. Žižek, quoting Marx again, compares pre-revolutionary France (in the late 1700s) with Germany in the 1830s and 1840s. He notes the way that pre-revolutionary France “was struggling against a world that was only just emerging,” that of revolutionary France (2). The world that is declining believes in itself, hence the tragedy of its fall and end. However, when history is farce, there is the sense that history is “bearing an ancient form to its grave” (2). There is a similar set of values being replayed on the world stage, but this time, as in the case of Germany in the 1830s and 1840s according to Marx, the political regime “only imagines that it still believes in itself and asks the world to share in its fantasy,” but “[t]he modern ancien regime is rather merely the clown of a world order whose real heroes are dead” (2). When history is farce, one must ask, “Who really still believes in what we’re doing? Do I even really believe?”
On this point, one might think of the current election season and the Republican choice for nominee, Donald Trump. I remember the campaign of George W. Bush back in 2000. I was a loud and proud Republican then, and I really, really believed in George W. Bush. It felt like every Republican did. Especially as a Christian, I believed that Bush was “our guy,” that we could win the White House back from the Democrats after the Clinton years and take over the Supreme Court with good, conservative judges. I believed in cowboy diplomacy and pre-emptive war (ever since Air Force One, I had always wanted a president who would be willing to kick butt!).
The tragedy of the Iraq War was a key part in altering many of my own political positions as I saw the fault lines appearing across the surface of my political self-righteousness, but whereas I think a lot of Republicans believed in George W. Bush post-Clinton, I don’t think the same can be said for Donald Trump post-Obama. There are similar circumstances being replayed: the end of eight years of a Democratic presidency, the endorsements of conservative Christian leaders, and the expectation of military toughness. However, the same level of trust and belief isn’t there, as a Washington Post headline recently noted, “Many Trump supporters don’t believe his wildest promises — and they don’t care.” That is a farce if I’ve ever read one!
Going back to Resurgence, as cheesy as it sounds, I BELIEVED in the first Independence Day movie. The stakes felt real. They had weight to them, but have you seen this new movie? History has repeated itself…but poorly. Bill Pullman’s President Widmore stands in for the crazy Randy Quaid character, and (spoiler) he dies in a similar but less-genuinely-“felt” way. Bill Pullman gives a speech, but it is way less inspiring. Bill Pullman’s daughter stands by helplessly as her father sacrifices himself to blow up the alien ship, kind of like Randy Quaid’s character’s son in the previous movie. I guess what I’m saying is…all things revolve around taking Randy Quaid’s parts from the last movie and figuring out how to repeat them and make them more central…mostly by channeling Randy Quaid through Bill Pullman. All the real heroes (understood as “Will Smith”) are dead though. We are left with actors who either 1) can’t act, or 2) seem like they are trying really hard not to laugh every time they yell “woo!” while flying various aircraft through really tight spaces.
There are other examples of history repeating itself as farce in Resurgence. Julius, David Levinson’s father, is back, and after surviving a shipwreck (don’t get me started on that), he befriends a group of kids who are obvious stand-ins for the Randy-Quaid’s-family dynamic, and together they head to Area 51. Brent Spiner’s doctor character is back, and if he was funny before (in spite of what we thought was his tragic death in the first film), the movie REALLY wants you to think he’s funny this time. This movie, in so many ways, is not only a farcical caricature of its predecessor, but it also takes all of the best elements of Cloverfield, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (way more obscure, but a classic) and shoe horns them into the last act of the movie…but it’s bad. Like, really bad. Comically bad.
In his discussion of tragedy and farce, Žižek appropriates Marx in his comparison of 9/11 and the 2008 financial collapse. He notes “the similarity in President Bush’s language in his addresses to the American people” after both events. Žižek notes, “they sounded very much like two versions of the same speech.” He writes, “Both times Bush evoked the threat to the American way of life and the need to take fast and decisive action to cope with the danger. Both times he called for the partial suspension of American values (guarantees of individual freedom, market capitalism) in order to save these very same values” (1).
This analysis is a part of Žižek’s larger critique of liberal democracy and global capitalism. He draws attention to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which “seemed to announce the beginning of the ‘happy ‘90s,’ Francis Fukuyama’s utopia of the ‘end of history,’ the belief that liberal democracy had, in principle, won out, that the advent of a global liberal community was…just found the corner” (3). All that was left to be done was clear out the few remaining obstacles, i.e., the “local pockets of resistance whose leaders had not yet grasped that their time was up” (3). Žižek asserts, however, that “September 11 symbolized the end of the Clintonite period, and heralded an era in which new walls were seen emerging everywhere: between Israel and the West Bank, around the European Union, and along the US-Mexico borer, but also within nation-states themselves” (3).
Žižek maintains that 9/11 was one of two deaths that Fukuyama’s liberal-democratic utopia had to die. The peace of that utopia was disrupted, but “9/11 did not affect the economic utopia of market capitalism” (5). Žižek writes, “[I]f the 2008 financial meltdown has a historical meaning then, it is as a sign of the end of the economic face of Fukuyama’s dream” (5). The farcical nature of this second death of what was believed to be “the formula for the optimal socio-economic order” is seen in the response to the financial collapse when it was observed that “the market is not a benign mechanism which best works when left to its own devices—it requires a good deal of extra-market violence to establish and maintain the conditions for its functioning” (79). Žižek sees the hypocrisy of the financial bailout as a sign of the “irrationality of global capitalism” and calls into question its ability to solve the world’s growing number of crises (81, 84). Cynicism is needed by the believers in the free market to argue that extra-market measures are needed to save that market; hence, the situation is comical or a farce.
Perhaps we can relate Žižek’s critique of global capitalism, specifically the financial bailout, to Resurgence. Having watched the film, do you think that anyone who starred in that movie really, really BELIEVED in it? Let me just come out and say it…Resurgence is the Donald Trump of movie sequels, and while it is a farcical version of the more serious tragedy that came before it, one might remember the admonition from Herbert Marcuse, paraphrased by Žižek, that sometimes “the repetition in the guise of a farce can be more terrifying than the original tragedy” (5).
Slavoj Žižek. First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. New York. Verso. 2009.
Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:” in Surveys From Exile, edited and introduced by David Pernbach, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1973, cited in Žižek.
Karl Marx. ”A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right:” in Early Writings, introduced by Lucio Colletti. Harm ondsworth: Penguin 1975, cited in Žižek.
Jenna Johnson, “Many Trump supporters don’t believe his wildest promises — and they don’t care.” The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/many-trump-supporters-dont-believe-his-wildest-promises–and-they-dont-care/2016/06/06/05005210-28c4-11e6-b989-4e5479715b54_story.html. (accessed August 03, 2016).
Matthew William Brake is a dual masters student in Interdisciplinary Studies and Philosophy at George Mason University. He also received a Master of Divinity from Regent University in 2009 and is a teaching pastor at Hill City Church in Arlington, VA. He really, really, REALLY did not like the new Independence Day movie.