This essay attempts to be critical of the imaging of political agency in the mainstream cinematic mediatization of history. It does so by putting a certain trust in movies – in the possibilities of movies´ temporalized images to sometimes move up to points at which something political becomes graspable in its initial moments. Of course, this is not about movies in general, but about the most recent film by a director whose name stands for much of what is fascinating about cinema – and for much of what many cinephiles love to reject and ridicule about mainstream movies and their relation to thought and politics (to the thinkability of politics through images to be read in experience); this is about Steven Spielberg´s Lincoln (US 2012). Placing trust in movies here involves a taking off from terms suggested by another movie, released simultaneously to – and with obvious thematic affinities to – Lincoln, made by a director more in favor with cinephiles: Django Unchained (US 2012) by Quentin Tarantino. Without going into the problematic non-politics of racialized historical agency in Django Unchained (which I´ve done elsewhere in German: Robnik 2013a; see also Forbes 2013), I am taking from Tarantino´s film the following terms for evaluating Spielberg´s:
- an emphasis on the necessity of getting dirty in political struggle, combined, however, with an interest in redeeming such (welcome) unethical pragmatism from the cynicism that Tarantino flirts with
- the attention to an unsilent initial, driven by the prominent, yet narratively undermotivated (however explainable in terms of production history) remark made by Jamie Foxx as Django to “original Django” Franco Nero: “The D is silent” – a remark like a cryptic memorial to a lot (beyond Django´s initial) that is silenced in Tarantino´s film
- the highly playable word chain (triggered by the practice of joyfully giving in to the lure of images and names of history, cinema´s and otherwise, to be deciphered – a practice that has become a routine in the general reception/cultification of Tarantino films); the chain not as a full-blown concept, but as a means to the end of articulating a little political meaning (rather than un-chaining any great or “one-in-a-thousand” men).
Spielberg´s cinematic image of Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, maps a precarious relationship between monument and Macchiavelli: between Lincoln´s monument-like status on the one hand and what I suggest to approach as a certain Macchiavellianism on the other. The latter term, as a concept in political theory with an almost unavoidable moral(izing) ring to it, designates an understanding of politics focused on the formation of hegemony without trying to base such a formation on secure ethical foundations. Understood in this way, politics involves pragmatic approaches to things in dispute and to acting out political conflict. The pragmatism of Spielberg´s Lincoln, the politician, has an easily likeable face; it shows up for instance in the president´s self-reflexive statement while signing letters pardoning deserters: He wouldn´t want to see a sixteen-year-old boy hung, he says smiling – “What good would it do him?”
It has been asserted in the mass media – even in places as remote from matters as Austria – that Lincoln, a film on the beginning of a then-controversial president´s second term in office, is to be seen as a kind of open letter sent to President Obama by Spielberg: as an advice to the present president, who is perceived as having been all-too reluctant during his first term, to tackle controversial issues and push through far-reaching projects by trying to win bi-partisan support. The readiness with which we might be willing to agree with this Lincoln-Obama-comparison and to map Spielberg´s film onto it would, however, collide with the fact that Lincoln was already in post-production at a time when it was far from certain that Obama would be re-elected. Would we be willing to read Lincoln as Hollywood´s gesture of encouragement towards a president Mitt Romney – to go ahead, “Yes we can!”-minded, on bold changes promised? (At least, the party affiliation would in that case be right, with a Republican in office then and now.)
I don´t want to go into temporal reversal arguments which have the image preceding factual occurence, and would in this case have the start of Obama´s second term prefigured in Lincoln (the way in which 2001 summer blockbuster Pearl Harbor can be seen as having, with its narrative/PR-campaign countdown to a traumatic airstrike on unprepared America, prefigured the 9/11 attacks). Let´s just note how much sense the Lincoln-Obama-comparison makes – probably most in the register of popular media images of politicians, which, politically, is far from negligible – regarding certain moments in the film´s dialogue. Some of the moral and pragmatic stakes of Lincoln´s political project are (negatively) pointed out to us when his wife Mary Todd Lincoln and his Secretary of State Seward try to keep him from pushing for the amendment to the constitution that abolishes slavery by warning him not to waste the immense love the people have for him, not to “tarnish [his] invaluable luster” as a recently re-elected president by winning a house majority through “shady work”. This objection is restated when, after Lincoln´s success, the plot telegraphs (to draw on one of the communication-related metaphors brought into play by the film itself) his project´s near-dilemmatic dimension to us by having Republican radical abolitionist Thaddaeus Stevens sigh, the amendment paper in hand: “The greatest measure of the 19th century – passed by corruption aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”
So it seems – and, importantly, it only seems – as if we were faced with a moral problematic into which all of the political thrust of a Macchiavellian stance would evaporate. The problematic is (would be): In order to keep the emancipation of Southern slaves, which Lincoln declared as a war measure, from becoming merely dead letter after the North´s victory, in order to transform it into constitutional law, he has to enter into questionable alliances; he has to bribe and blackmail; he has to make House representatives which he (or his hands-on representatives carrying out the shady work) bought recite their lines during the decisive vote. At the same time, he has to postpone the righteous deed, which would be to push for equality in all things, in order to be able to at least institutionalize a more formal, legalist equality (an issue to which we will return). So is this all about unholy means to a far less than holy end? (Not to mention what a critique of ideology might have to say about economic interests driving the abolition of slavery, an increasingly unprofitable mode of production in the industrializing USA.)
Let´s remain with the means for a moment. “A lawyer´s dodge” and “horsetrading”: these are some of the names given to what Lincoln does by opponents and skeptics in the film. The reference to trading intimates a shortcut we could take with regard to Lincoln´s morals: We could compare him to that other trader and bargaining genius who ends up a (half) Great Emancipator in Spielberg, the title hero of Schindler´s List(US 1993). Drawing from this comparison – and from what Paul Arthur (2001) wrote on Spielberg´s cine-ontology turning lists of death into lists of life – we could read Lincolnas being about the redemptive transformation of “bad trade” into “good trade”, the first being the trade in slaves to be abolished by the second. An instance of this are the photographic plates of miserable slave children which Lincoln´s little son (and Lincoln himself, by the light of the fireplace) watches. These horrible photos, intended as price lists, turn into a means to create nightmares (another picture that literally scares the shit out of someone will play a role in Lincoln and in my essay), but ultimately empathy in beholders. Watching one of the photos the little son asks the two African-Americans employed by the Lincolns if they were beaten as children. This conversation overlaps in the same scene with Lincoln´s older son telling his father he wants to join the army instead of studying “British mercantile law” and who, as if to support his father´s point on the usefulness of such studies, in the next moment explains knowingly to his little brother the inhumanity of putting higher mercantile prices on female slaves still capable of childbirth. The transformative process (chain) around ambiguous trading would culminate in the film´s last scene with the final sentences of Lincoln´s Second Inaugural Address: There is to be compensation for “the bondsman´s two hundred fifty years of unrequited toil”, or rather, there is to be revenge against those who disturb the employment market by paying no wages: “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword”. Such redemption of trading is a shortcut this essay will not take, because it would miss the point of politics (and of what is political about this last scene) in favor of an ethic that reduces equality to equal exchange and reconciles trade with (biblical) tradition.
Also, one should not too quickly go for redemptive morals usually associated with Spielberg. In the case of Lincoln Spielberg was applauded for doing something he doesn´t usually do in his films. Although I do not agree with this view, one should note that some favorable critics saw Spielberg replacing his familiar harmonizing and pathos-laden image of America with an attention to behind-the-curtains power deals (the kind of which are often mentioned when politics as such are dismissed). So, Spielberg almost got it right this time, facing up to the dirty power games that politics are: Taking my cue from such a reductionist, cheaply but proudly “disillusioned” evaluation I want to map the conceptual terrain on which, as I hope to show, Lincolnmakes some meaning in matters of memory, history and agency, thus also of politics. The film unfolds the problematic – if not dilemmatic – terms between which it navigates as such: On one hand there is the nihilism of realpolitik, which denounces all politics as power game and trickery, noisy babble and dirty dealing. This nihilism is, however, in its turn a reaction; it reacts to a view of politics – and of its historically Great (White) Men – which takes the moral high ground as a pedestal for erecting statues, for celebrating a grandeur in the face of which all empirical, mundane political strivings are rendered moot; and yet, this is the type of traditional public park statue or commemorative inscription most often sensed to be no more than formalities, empty poses, dead letters nowadays. At any rate, this edifying position reveals itself as ultimately yet another nihilism. So, what is the politico-aesthetic way out – between the nihilism of all-dwarfing, ossified monuments of politics on the one hand, and the all-devaluing nihilism that cynically takes us down to earth, where there is nothing but relations of opposing forces on the other, in short: to politics as swamp, leaving “big muddy footprints all over town”, as Spielberg´s Lincoln once puts it? (My distinction of two nihilisms – a negative one bent on pre-given higher values and a reactive one which sees all values/forms as void – follows Deleuze´s reading of Nietzsche; Deleuze 1983: chapter 5.1)
Monument and swamp – both “grounds” would be ruinous to any attempt at founding a cinematic image of politics, or a cinematic image-politics, on them. It is with a swamp that Lincoln begins. A Civil War skirmish in shallow muddy water turns into a brutal hand-to-hand massacre: at first, the scene looks like black soldiers wearing blue and white soldiers wearing grey (or “rebel” style clothing) just killing each other. However, the voice(-over) of a man, who – after the film has moved away from the scene of the fighting – turns out to be an African-American Union soldier, explains that in this battle, victorious black Union soldiers took no rebelprisoners and that they did so in an act of vengeance for the massacre of black prisoners of war by Southern troops. This act of vengeance initiates subsequent images in Lincoln, notably the motif chain swamp. (On the Latourian use of the movie motif as a surprisingly active and obstinate image-thing, see Engell/Wendler 2009.) This chain is continued later most obviously in a shot of a pile of amputated limbs in a watery ditch and in tracking shots along piles of dead bodies on a muddy battlefield near Petersburg over which Lincoln rides, only to end up as a dead body himself a few days/scenes later. Halfway through the film, in a secret food-cellar conversation Lincolns asks his radical opponent/rival Stevens – telegraphing to us the virtue of pragmatism in achieving political hegemony – what good it would be to know true north (in matters of racial equality) while remaining ignorant of the deserts, chasms, and – mentioned twice – swamps along the way.
Everything in Lincoln follows an act of vengeance. However, an act of vengeance normally points backward rather than forward; and when placed at the beginning of a film, it directs us outside of that film. So the act of vengeance that Lincoln opens with also points – beyond the wrong inflicted on black prisoners – backward to other events in the past, most notably to other past images which this act now continues, echoes, answers to. Lincoln begins with violence done by slaves – who free themselves not least through this violence – to their slaveholders (to the slaveholder state´s military). This intense opening scene, set in low-visibility grey and muddy water, echoes the opening of Spielberg´s 1997 Amistad with its violent uprising of African slaves on a Spanish ship in the black of a thunderstormy night.
There are, in fact, in Lincoln traces of an undeveloped motif chain around ships: starting from the blurry, dark, spooky images of Lincoln´s boat-ride nightmare, accompanied – like the swamp massacre just before it – by a voice-over, this time Lincoln´s own. This voice modulates into the dialogue of the first complete scene in the early 1865 plot continuum (the battle opening and ensuing dialogue take place before the first title card places us in January of 1865, their disconnected status mirrored by that of the film´s very last scene, to which we will both return): Lincoln tells his wife about the dream, and she starts to guess what the ship might stand for: perhaps an attack on Wilmington port, or rather a political project doomed to fail – “That´s the ship you´re sailing on: the 13th amendment!” Later in the film, Lincoln compares his and his allies´ endeavor to that of whalers who have to use their harpoons properly so the whale won´t smash their boat; he says this as if to hint at the Ahab-connotation haunting the Lincoln figure – at least since Gregory Peck starred in John Huston´s 1956 adaptation of Moby Dick –, or to connect his nightmare with the interior of a big river steamboat on which the peace negotiations with Southern emissaries take place.
Back to Amistad: There the initial collective act of violent self-empowerment in darkness, blood and water (slaves taking command of a ship, which, however, takes them to America, ten years before the Civil War, rather than back to Africa) is followed by courtroom drama. Amistad’s stationary plot unfolds as if it were the testing of conceptual candidates offering themselves to us as frameworks for the evaluation of the initial act. Legalist, abolitionist, geopolitical, religious frameworks, they all grasp parts of the truth and value of this act, but ultimately, it is only the act´s translation into the “living word” that “fits”, that produces meaning and also moments of unexpected agency: It is the interruption of the trial by the words “Give us free!” uttered by the leader of the Africans in front of a white court room audience. This short statement is in its turn contrasted/echoed by long final monologues of ex-president John Quincy Adams who appeals to the political legacy of freedom bestowed by the nation´s founding fathers. In this, Adams speaks of imminent Civil War over the issue of slavery and, more importantly, articulates his appeal to the memory of founding fathers in explicit analogy with the cult of invoking ancestors in African tribal communities, a lesson learned, the ex-president claims, from the leader of the slaves on trial.
So it is the cultural discourse and cinematic imagery of the turn-of-the-millennium memory boom which Lincoln, in its initial act of vengeance, inherits. (Such vengeful inheritance is an ambiguous way of remembering: it implies dismembering and reevaluation.) This goes for the heritage of Amistad and of the following Spielberg film, Saving Private Ryan (US 1998), also a historical film opening with fighting-turned-massacre in swamp-like surroundings – in the shallow, muddy waters of the Omaha Beach landing sequence. (And since the memory politics of Schindler´s List are always resonant here, one should bear in mind a scene of the Jewish population trying to escape from Nazi mass killings: a boy hides in the swamp-like container of the camp´s pit latrine, only to find it crowded with other children who refuse to share their shitty refuge with him.)
What else links Lincoln to Saving Private Ryan? There is the vague notion of a war (allegedly) waged to rescue a population kept in labor camps under racist rule; and there are moments of trading, chains of exchange. To mention them briefly: The dialogue in the 1998 film which traces, in a “If he have this, we get that” logic, Allied city conquests from Normandy all the way to Berlin is echoed in a similar would-be strategic dialogue during a briefing for the attack on Wilmington (get the fort protecting the harbor, then the harbor town, then Richmond, and the war is done). And there is, of course, Lincoln himself, who enters the rescue mission plot of Saving Private Ryan in two scenes with US Chief of Staff General Marshall – the one with the Cold War European recovery plan named after him – first quoting from and then, in his own writing, paraphrasing that president´s Bixby letter to a mother who lost all of her sons in the Civil War. In the letter scenes, tradition is affirmed, son traded against son, mission against man, great president of long ago against great (cold) warrior of not so long ago. (On a critique of memory, Cold War and intervention politics in Amistad and Saving Private Ryan see Kodat 2000; on memory and “redemptive ethics” in Spielberg see Robnik 2002)
What is most paradigmatic, however, for the politics of memory, history and, ultimately, agency unfolded in Lincoln is the programmatic line spoken by Saving Private Ryan´s Sgt. Horvath character, a line which contains the film´s title and paraphrases Schindler´s List´s Talmud tagline (on saving the whole world, i.e., doing the categorically good thing, by saving one life): With the Omaha Beach sequence threatening to smother, through its synaesthetic violence, all sense and all of its audiences´ senses, threatening to ruin even the fact that this landing initiates (part of) the liberation of a continent from racism (as in Lincoln) – and fascism, and anti-semitism –, the task of finding meaning in this cinematic look back upon war-torn history falls upon the Sergeant who tells his captain: “One day we might look back on this and decide that saving Private Ryan was the one decent thing we were able to pull out of this whole god-awful shitty mess.” In this line, a later moment – our present – in which the events of the film are remembered as past is anticipated. So what this line frames and announces is the formation of good memory in facing a history of genocide and oppression. This is, as I will try to show, also what Lincoln is about, however, with important deviations in the question of who actively initiates a process that makes a difference in history.
What else do Saving Private Ryan and Lincoln have in common? Mothers. Like mother Ryan in her brief appearance, Mary Todd Lincoln is close to collapsing in grief in some of her scenes, and like mother Ryan, the president´s wife is threatened with losing yet another son to the war. (She blames Lincoln´s being occupied by war politics for the death of one of their sons.) Therefore, at first she opposes her husband´s efforts for the amendment, because it threatens to extend the war which her older remaining son wants to join. But after some time and discussion, she learns to see things the other way around, to see the amendment as a means to rescue her son from war, because her husband will make peace as soon as the amendment is passed by the House of Representatives. So she threatens him (in the first of the film´s two theater auditorium scenes): “Woe unto you if you fail to pass the amendment!”
We have thus reached a point at which the law (subjecting citizens to state requirements, also duties in war) and a mother´s love (taking care of private, even bare life) are no longer in opposition to each other. Let us once more take our cue from the hegemonic discourse of “Spielberg-bashing”: The fact that mother Ryan, even in her half-minute role, appeared as a John Fordian mother (collapsing at a Searchersstyle doorstep) was seen by cinephile critics as a redeeming quality of Saving Private Ryan. So what if Mary Todd Lincoln were a Fordian mother too? Then we would enter the field of re-articulations of the relationship between law and motherly love that is John Ford´s 1939 Young Mr. Lincoln. According to the seminal proto-deconstructive analysis of the Cahiers du cinéma collective (1986) there is, along the crime and courtroom drama plot, the unfolding of a process by which “law” is dissolved into “mother” and “mother” into “nature” as the source (flowing river) of all right. Such a retranslation, recourse, is no option to Spielberg: His cinema is not one of original natural spaces, but one of temporality. Therefore, what remains, what survives in Spielberg – “Something has survived!”, the highly resonant tagline of the film made between Schindler´s List and Amistad / Saving Private Ryan, namely The Lost World: Jurassic Park (US 1997) – is Naturfundament, “foundation of nature”, however, in the sense not of plenitude, but of detritus, waste, leftovers (in the sense of the “Photography” essay in Kracauer 1995: 62). What remains is the “shitty mess” from and with which to start – looking for sparks of decent things and deeds, i.e., unexpected counter-hegemonic agency.
What about a Fordian Lincoln then? Another thing which Ford´s biopic played upon and which Spielberg´s does without is Abraham´s Ahab-like, gloomy monumental appearance (which, so it is said, scared little Steven Spielberg; the idea of being frightened by the view of the Washington DC Lincoln memorial is, of course, not far-fetched). There is an intimidating stiffness, a “monstrous character” in Ford´s Lincoln which has the Cahiers du cinéma writers compare him to Nosferatu. In more recent cinematic images, Lincoln seems to be close rather to those who chase vampires, monsters, phantoms and those rejected by the ruling norm: In Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Timur Bekmambetov, US 2012), half a year before Lincoln, wood-splitting young Abraham and also his older presidential self do axe-wielding battle with a transhistorical species of bloodsuckers equated with slaveholders. It was this incarnation of Lincoln, a muscular, sexy axe-boy, that made it into the lame Paranormal Activity-spoof released at the same time as Spielberg´s film. In the field of more straightforwardly political rather than supernatural threats, Lincoln – although hardly present other than by mention in the dialogue – had been put back into the (now rather counter-intuitive) role of the usurper of democratic sovereignty: The Conspirator (US 2010) pictured him as a president, comparable to Obama´s predecessor rather than Obama himself, in whose name people were quickly labeled unpatriotic conspirators and ruthlessly persecuted, their civil rights suspended; the director of this heavily didactic courtroom drama, a vulgarly left-wing counterpart to John Ford´s hagiographic vision, is aptly named Robert Redford.
In Spielberg´s film, Lincoln is, again, the Emancipator rather than an icon of unbound state power placing people in chains or on the gallows. He is overtly ironic and quote-happy in his comparison of himself to a whaler with harpoon, and he sounds inadvertently self-reflexive – in a manner slightly reminiscent of Spider-Man´s self-proclamation about the great responsibility that comes with great power – when he raises his voice in front of hesitant followers, reminding them (and himself) that “I am the president of the United States of America, clothed in immense power!” In Spielberg´s film, Lincoln´s business is linking, not splitting; he is neither castrator who hacks vampires to pieces nor curtailer of democratic rights. But he also has little in common with the Fordian male subject at peace with himself and the world, an ethos exemplified by the high-rested legs (Lincoln´s and others´) in John Ford movie scenes. This gesture/posture of being in harmony with the gentle flow of things – the past continued in the present through tradition – almost a signature image of Ford´s, comes up only once in Lincoln (as far as the president´s legs are concerned), remarkably framed by Spielberg´s signature image which is the rear-view mirror (or a device serving a similar purpose), a type of image, vision, relationship with the world that is all about not being at peace with the world, rather about having to face what chases you from behind yourself (from the past). So, having Lincoln rest with his legs stretched high but showing him within the frames of a big mirror in front of which his wife speculates about his nightmare, this is – in the first non-nightmare shot of the continuous 1865 plot – a goodbye to the Fordian hero which marks an ethos of being exposed, too close to, too little detached from things. (Think of Spielberg´s most famous rear-view mirror, in 1993 Jurassic Park, which shows a T-Rex plus the inscription “Objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear”.) And then, of course, rather than resting on furniture, a number of times we see a thin, pale, tired Lincoln limping and freezing in unheated office rooms, straining to kneel down in order to light the fireplace. (The shot in which he shares a rocking chair with his little son on his knees is intercut into the drama of the House vote, a moment of delay in a suspenseful development rather than a moment of peace.)
A president this fragile requires a structure to keep him upright. He requires, in all senses, a house. Within Lincoln´s texture, Mary Todd Lincoln is not only a mother, but also a housekeeper, and she is tied to the house – that of domesticity, not that of parliamentary representation – because she is marked as unfit for public life. This is due to her psychic instability, which in the one scene in which she does speak in public, at a White House reception, is placed in connection with her excessive spending for the presidential residence, object of scrutiny on the part of Lincoln´s rival/ally Stevens. To him, Mary Todd Lincoln gives an embarrassing speech of admonition, which restates the terms of the politics-as-monument-or-swamp problematic: She reminds Stevens that before she took over housekeeping in the White House-hold, the place (now a national monument) was “pure pigsty” with “mushrooms, green as the moon”. In the very next scene, Lincoln and Stevens have their only, decisive conversation in the hidden privacy of what looks like a basement kitchen or a food cellar – a part of the house defined by housekeeping and by the likely presence of mushrooms and other swamp-like phenomena. The conversation there is the one that ends with Lincoln criticizing the ignorance of swamps along the way to true north.
The second housekeeper to provide structure to the president in the film is the Lincolns´ actual housekeeper, a former slave named Mrs. Keckley, who, it turns out, is/was also a mother. With her, Lincoln has a private conversation immediately after the scene in which his wife has melodramatically told him “Woe unto you if you fail to pass the amendment!” The black housekeeper gives Lincoln a different piece of motivation for his political struggle in a dialogue which inverts some qualities stereotypically ascribed along lines of gender, race and activity/passivity in history. While Lincoln, in wondering about the future relationship between American whites and freed black slaves, quickly turns towards an existentialism of naked life – “You´re familiar to me as all people are, unaccommodated, poor, bare, forked creatures such as we all are… I assume I´ll get used to you” – this housekeeper keeps to (minority) tradition, universal values and national duty by briefly but decisively citing a history of black emancipation struggle, the primacy of freedom, concluding – speaking of her son who died as a Union soldier – “I´m his mother. That´s what I am to the nation, Mr. Lincoln. What else must I be?” In short, while the president articulates a historiography/memory of the victim, Keckley speaks along the lines of a historiography of emancipation and national sacrifice (invoking, of course, also the deaths of American sons, among them disproportionately high numbers of people of color, in more recent US military engagements).
Towards the end of the film both these housekeepers are fused textually into one character with whose appearance the film could, in fact, be over because it echoes and recapitulates its beginning. (Therefore, what comes after it in Lincoln is a kind of supplement which we will turn to at the end of this essay.) To the surprise of probably most in the audience, we see at the home of abolitionist Stevens the woman just introduced in the shot before as his housekeeper now lying next to him in bed, the two of them prepared for going to sleep, interacting tenderly as an old married couple would. The historical facts and rumors about the – non-legal because “interracial” – marriage-like relationship between Stevens and his African-American housekeeper are easily available Wikipedia knowledge. In the context of Lincoln, this woman shares traits with Mrs. Lincoln as well as with Mrs. Keckley: She, too has to make a sacrifice, has to trade her being-public, as a woman unfit for “representation”, for her quasi-husband´s political success. “You can´t bring your housekeeper to the House – I won´t give them gossip,” she comments on her situation (thus pronouncing the generic name for the occupation of the film´s three main female characters). For this, Stevens rewards her with the amendment paper as a gift of love (for the one night he borrowed it from a house clerk). She reads the document to him in bed, which has an air of bedtime story reading to it; but more importantly, her voice is the medium in which for the first and only time in the film we learn of the exact contents of the constitutional law all the fuss is made about, and it frames, over a tracking shot to a close-up of the white abolitionist at her side (his last image in the film), Stevens´ face as it appears for the first time smiling – and bald, without the wig he has worn all the time before.
At the point of this smiling close-up, which could easily be a movie´s ending, let’s mention the proto-feminist aspect of power, agency and memory issues as it is embodied by Lincoln´s three female housekeepers: There are affinities between Stevens´ housekeeper who has to keep her illegal love a secret; Lincoln´s housekeeper who in bitter self-restraint, her words half-drowned by the talk around her, mentions that as a slave child she was beaten (whereas Lincoln´s male housekeeper has just stated that he was born a free black man, so nobody ever beat him without him retaliating); and Mary Todd Lincoln whom we see being relieved of her stifling corset by her husband in the shot immediately following Lincoln´s food cellar conversation question about the value of knowing true north, i.e., of a near-utopian goal beyond that which is achievable politically at the moment. A plausible reply to that question comes ten plot-minutes later: In a House speech, a Republican skeptical about abolition asks what the next foolish steps on the way would be: universal enfranchisement? votes for “negroes”? for women even? (The latter rhetorical question is met with much angry excitement by all representatives.)
But there is also an affinity between Mary Todd Lincoln and Stevens – first in the direction of true north (enfranchisement for women and for African-Americans), then in the sense that they both don´t have the love of “the people” whereas Lincoln does (when the president´s wife bitterly reminds Stevens of that painful fact, she speaks about herself also), and finally as characters sharing the trait that something isn´t quite right about their head. “How´s the coconut?” Lincoln asks his wife in their first scene together – using a funny word in his introduction of a short motif chain around heads which is woven into a more prominent one concerning scalp hair – and she replies, sighing and moving her fingertips over her forehead, that “nothing mends” before stating that she thinks nothing of the amendment. (Interestingly, Lincoln downplays her close relationship with Mrs. Keckley who, by the way, was a seamstress – thus occupied with mending clothing – rather than a housekeeper in the narrow sense. This is another piece of genuine Wikipedia knowledge). A few scenes later, Stevens is introduced as Lincoln´s more radical opponent willing to try and cooperate with him for the sake of the amendment, and he continues the head motif by (in a rather unmotivated way) tipping his forehead with his walking stick, telling his skeptical abolitionist allies: “Retain even in opposition your capacity for astonishment!” This gesture-sentence combination makes the most sense when we get to see Stevens´ hairless forehead, his baldness signifying in the context of the film a life of privacy/intimacy shared with this illegal wife, i.e., the astonishing degree to which his “lifestyle politics” go beyond laws and habits of racist segregation.
Stevens without his wig: The moment which this image replies to as if answering a question is Lincoln´s and Stevens´ cellar conversation – with overtones of a Danton-Robespierre confrontation – during which the latter has us, if only for a moment, wonder how bad he might look without his wig: Asked by Lincoln to go slow in matters of equality until the (white) people are ready for it, Stevens bluntly replies: “I shit on the people and what they want and what they´re ready for, I don´t give a goddam about the people and what they want!” And pointing over his face, he continues: “This is the face of someone who has fought long and hard for the good of the people without caring much for any of them! And now I look a lot worse without my wig!” One might at this point pause at Stevens´ claim of knowing what´s good for the people – including “true north”, maybe “revolutionary tribunals” mentioned by Lincoln, certainly racial equality to be enforced upon the whites, ready or not – and wonder: Is this an expression of paternalistic expertocracy by those who “know best”, the kind of which political theorist Jacques Rancière (1999) criticizes as exemplary of post-democracy, or is it, more along the lines of Slavoj Zizek, an act of testifying to politics in disagreement with, even detached from, any grounding in “the people” or “the social” as a fundamental given (a people which Stevens labels as corrupted, “ossified”, by racism in the same dialogue)?
How bad does Stevens look without his wig? According to Lincoln´s logic of careful steps across swamps on the way to true north, this fact – i.e., how little he cares for white people´s racist convictions/conventions (living with a black wife) – has to remain as much a secret to white America as his intent to shit on their non-readiness for racial equality. Here the initial motif chain swamp is taken up under the name of “shitting” – meaning, “speaking your radical truth about equality uninhibitedly”. The terms of a dramatic conflict are set: Later in the film, anti-amendment House Democrats attempt to “bring Stevens to full froth”, to force from him a public declaration if he believes in equality only before the law – or in all things, which in fact he does, and which would make less radical amendment supporters change their vote. Asked to speak his mind in the House, Stevens takes the hard way of keeping to himself his convictions and his shit – although in this case, the shitty mess and the decent thing (to do or to say) – to quote Saving Private Ryan´s Sgt. Horvath – are one and the same. For a moment, Stevens tries to play dumb, keep stiff, repeat like a broken record or a speaking monument the same sentence so hard for him to pronounce: “I don´t hold with equality in all things, only with equality before the law and nothing more!” However, Stevens manages to steer clear of the danger of merely monumental – “ossified”, nullified – politics by dissolving the opposition of shitting and retention, of wholehearted logorrhea and tactical compromise, into identity. He does this by attacking one of his Democrat challengers: “How can I hold that all men are created equal when here before me stands, stinking, the moral carcass of a gentleman from Ohio, proof that some men areinferior?”
This is analogous to the way in which Lincoln manages to identify state law and mother´s love, but it comes at the price of a merely sophistic reasoning that gets lost in the nihilism of a merely verbal radicalism and a rhetoric of forces without hegemonic effects. In short: Stevens´ insulting tirade gets lost in what in Lincoln´s context amounts to the swamp as the other nullification of politics – invoked by the words Stevens uses in his insults (“cold pallid slime in their veins”, “more reptile than man”). In an almost counterintuitive way, the tirade is accompanied by solemn music. The slightly melancholic note placed by John Williams´ emotion-harvesting score on Stevens´ outburst seals the notion that something, rather someone, is missing here. A moment before this had been made clear by the whispered reactions of two housekeeper figures watching Stevens from the House´s ranks: Mary Todd Lincoln expresses a satisfaction bordering on cynicism/nihilism: “Who´d ever have guessed that old nightmare capable of such control? He might make a politician someday.” Mrs. Keckley sitting next to her, however, tells her, “I need to go,” and, restrained anger in her face, leaves the place where she feels insulted by the play-acting of Stevens´ restraint, being not least the textual representative of a wife “in all things but law” whose very existence Stevens´ statement well-nigh denies.
Following Thomas Elsaesser´s (2013: 83-85) reading of how the memory politics of Saving Private Ryan fold into each other an edifying story of American triumph and at the same time, within the same scenes and images, a story of American guilt and mourning (given the all-too-small measure to which the US military engagement was meant to be, and resulted in, a rescue of jews and other populations persecuted by the Nazis) – following this reading on the co-presence, or recto-verso-relationship of triumphalism and bystander´s guilt (which also applies to Schindler´s List), one can see scenes like Mrs. Keckley´s leaving the House in anger, supported by the melancholy in the score, as Spielbergian moments of mourning, maybe even of admission of a sense of guilt. The point is, of course, not only the small measure of justice brought by the mere abolition of slavery, leaving so much of inequality intact, but also the marginalization of black American experience and agency in history – and in this very film. Such a pushing to the side is a practice of power-informed, selective historical remembering which Lincoln continues (with its focus on actions and speeches of Great – and not so great – White Men), while at the same time exposing this as a problem (Mrs. Keckley leaving the House; her account of violence suffered as a slave drowned by white talk around her; the bedtime reading of the amendment by Stevens´ housekeeper/wife having to happen in the closet, as a deviation from the people´s “mainstream”, while celebrating masses march in the street, the kind of euphoria a less self-thwarting Hollywood historical epic would stick to in its plot; and more tiny moments, like when a conservative Republican rants against the amendment without looking at the black servant handing him a teacup, her upper body ignored by the image´s frame as markedly as her presence is by the white politician). So in Lincoln the showing of history is saturated with a sense of this showing being incomplete (rather than a full-filled, realized presence), being an act of power that goes at the expense of what/who is not shown. One can call such self-questioning an ethicalconception of the image. However, I submit that – going beyond such double inscription or recto-verso ethics – this film not only provides terms and instances of problematizing what it does, but also offers flashes of a remedy for the problem. This could take us, departing the field of ethics, a few steps onto the non-ground of politicalarticulation. Let´s try three approaches to politics in Lincoln.
A first approach: a process of translation, carried out by Lincoln himself. As I have shown, Stevens´ House speech shifts from monument (automatism that repeats the same merely “formal” sentence over and over) to swamp (logorrhea as verbal violence) via sophistic reasoning. The aftertaste of nihilism left behind by this is mitigated beforehand in two war room/telegraph room scenes in which Lincoln starts telling stories out of the blue. In both scenes, the anecdotal quotations he comes up with (to the irritation/confusion of some in the room) would be rather insignificant outside of the motif chain that gives them meaning. Lincoln re-contextualizes Stevens´ all-too open words from the cellar conversation in the first scene, and anticipates a new, less problematic understanding for Stevens´ self-restrained words in the second.
In the first scene, Lincoln demonstrates (once more) that, like Stevens, he is also no stranger to awkward fits of logorrhea. But he does his best to defuse the tension opened up by Stevens´ admission that he shits on the people by reconnecting the shit motif, substrate of the swamp motif, to none other than George Washington. In Lincoln´s anecdote, the placement of a portrait of Washington in a British toilet is jokingly reinterpreted as no offense at all, but as appropriate, even pragmatic, because, as Lincoln explains laughing (having pointed at the Washington portrait hanging in the war room), “nothing will make an Englishman shit quicker than the sight of George Washington”. So shitting is okay in the outhouse, whereas it must not happen in the House; there Stevens is to keep his self-control and stick to mere equality before the law. Am I placing too much emphasis on word-play here? At any rate, a Village Voice reviewer of Lincoln was, it seems, affected by a similar fascination: He applauds Spielberg for departing from the “hagiographic tightness of ass” common in Hollywood biopics, before he alerts us, in his concluding line, to the “orchestral bullshit by John Williams” (Packham 2012). Or perhaps, roughly twenty years after Forrest Gump(Robert Zemeckis, US 1994), Lincoln exemplifies the kind of base materialism and synaesthetic sensualism which cine-phenomenologist Vivian Sobchack saw at work in that 1994 historical epic and, more generally, in media renegotiations of the memory of (racial-)political struggles, in the face of a shortage of reliable narrative and national resources of meaning, placing her remarks under the sign of a history that “happens” like “shit happens” (according to a key scene in Forrest Gump). While certainly mobilizing such synaesthetics of inert matters, Lincoln moves beyond this as much as beyond the ethics of triumph haunted by mourning.
Having astonished his audience with the out-of-place joke about shitting – as being exactly what a founding father´s memory (Washington´s picture) makes you do – Lincoln tackles more substantial yet more abstract matters in his second monologue in the telegraph room, where words are translated into signals. The reconnection of shitting to national history performed, Lincoln now delays a message relevant to peace talks (and thus peace itself, which would thwart the amendment project) and performs a translation: He translates the difference between equality in all things and equality before the law (i.e. equality in relation to a third which is the same for all) into identity, thus rendering void the problem which will delay Stevens´ “full froth” reply in the House in the very next scene. With two slightly confused telegraph operators as his only audience, Lincoln quotes what he remembers from reading about geometry: “Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other. That´s a rule of mathematical reasoning. It´s true because it works. […] In his book, Euclid says that this is ‘self-evident’. You see? There it is, even in that two-thousand year-old book of mechanical law, it is a self-evident truth that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other. We begin with equality. That´s the origin. […] That´s justice.”
With this uncalled-for quotation, Lincoln achieves a number of things: He ultimately neutralizes the tension between his own and Stevens´ position, smuggling in an acceptable version of full equality (identical to equality before the law) through the backdoor of anecdote. He also anticipates what Mrs. Keckley will tell him later, namely what comes first in history and politics: While Keckley says that “freedom is first”, Lincoln asserts the initial, original status of equality. This equality, however, is a matter of law, not of emancipatory struggle (as later invoked by Mrs. Keckley: “Negroes have been fighting and dying for freedom since the first of us was a slave”); Lincoln posits it as a “rule of mathematical reasoning” pertaining to geometry rather than politics. Ultimately, however, history is granted its rights insofar as Lincoln also manages to sneak in a quotation from the Declaration of Independence – the “self-evident truths” from that document´s second but initial sentence. “A lawyer´s dodge”, one could say. Lincoln places history under the rule of law and (once more) under the aegis of the founding fathers, thus doing what his predecessor, ex-president Adams, in Amistadproclaimed as the only workable solution: When you find yourself in moral and pragmatic crisis, turn to your ancestors, to the founders – this also proves the solution in Saving Private Ryan, where the problem of uneven exchange (risking the lives of a whole platoon for that of one Ryan) is solved by appealing to Lincoln´s legacy in the Bixby letter. In the two Lincoln scenes the telegraph room is the site of the closest connection to the founders. Is it? This is only so if we stick to law-givers George Washington, the authors of the Declaration of Independence and Euclid as founding figures. This, however, is not the approach that takes us to initializing politics in Lincoln.
A second approach, intimated by the problem Lincoln indicates at the beginning of his Euclid speech: the issue of memory. Speaking of his schooling only through reading and pointing to his forehead (the way Stevens did twice before him), Lincoln says: “Little enough ever found its way in here, but once learned it stayed learned.” The president brings up a problematic economy of memory, offering as a solution an equation, a given equality as identity of the “learned” over time. But the staying-learned of the once-learned proves to be a critical case of memory in Lincoln, before this sentence, before this scene. We could even go as far back as Lincoln´s early days in Young Mr. Lincoln: In a court of law Ford´s aspiring lawyer tells a misplaced anecdote (about a dog) to discredit his opponent; when the judge rules that remark to be “stricken from the record”, Lincoln turns to the jury ironically: “You jurors, watch out, don´t remember about that dog!” Which is to say that the staying-learned of the once-learned is as much problem as it is solution, and that there is something involuntary, automatic about memory. But perhaps it suffices to just turn to the beginning of Lincoln’s second telegraph room speech, when the president out of the blue asks the two operators: “Do you think we choose to be born? Are we fitted to the times we´re born into?” With this question Lincoln has already proposed to conceive of memory as a mode of being-in-time rather than as storage (the traditional concept: how much finds its way into one´s head and stays there). And since this proposal takes place in a media environment (between Washington paintings and telegraphs), the conversation turns to technology when one of the operators replies to his president: “I think there´s machinery – but no-one´s done the fitting.”
The fit or unfit relationship to time – i.e.: memory – as a matter of machinery: This connection may, as so many words and gestures in Lincoln do, feel forced, scripted, unmotivated realistically; but it makes sense textually (as we used to say in film studies) or rather, with respect to Lincoln´s pragmatism and memory, because it works, because it acts as a quotation from the first public speech Lincoln makes at the beginning of the film. In its first daylight scene, at a flag-raising in January 1865, Lincoln acts contrary to his image as a great orator. From a piece of paper he takes out from under his hat (“Little enough ever found its way in here”) he reads a short, formal text in a detached tone, ironizing the disappointing indifference and machinery-like, slightly faulty and tautological quality of this act with the words he uses: “The part assigned to me is to raise the flag – which, if there be no fault in the machinery, I will do. And when up, it´ll be for the people to keep it up.” He pauses laughing. “That´s my speech!” (The importance of flag-raising in the cinematic memory of American history, especially in Spielberg – the Normandy beach Stars and Stripes framing Saving Private Ryan, the first appearance of the flag also being one of a ruin without much meaning – and also the role played by a flagpole in a Hollywood thriller released shortly after Lincoln which is also easily legible as encouragement to keep your promises this time at the beginning of Obama´s second term [Brad Anderson´s The Call, US 2013] – these topics I tackled elsewhere: Robnik 2005; 2013b.)
Let´s remain on the memory track, moving on to the next scene after the flag-raising. It is a test-run for the “shady work” of buying votes and it shows the kind of people Lincoln has to face and Stevens prefers to shit on. A white married couple from Missouri takes a legal dispute to the president whom we could expect to show his wisdom by giving everyone their fair share (as in Young Mr. Lincoln). Instead, Lincoln opens the conversation by embarking on his first anecdote – about a parrot that endlessly repeats the warning, “Today is the day the world shall end as scripture has foretold!” With the motif of the parrot, stuck in its one sentence like a broken record, we have a framework for reading the ensuing talk: It is all about bad memory. When Secretary Seward asks the couple if they would tell their representative to vote for the amendment, the wife replies that she will, since that measure would help to beat the South and end the war: “Mr. Lincoln, you always says so.” Would they support the amendment if the war ended before its passing? The woman answers in the negative, and, asked why, her husband gives a reflex-like, blunt answer: “Niggers!” (The wife goes on about “coons” stealing farmers´ chickens and jobs). This is the only time the n-word is uttered in Lincoln, and it is there to mark, in a condensed way, white racism as embodied habitus, an automatism of memory. “The people,” Seward arrogantly sighs after the reply. While such a critique of racism misses a number of points – racialized power relations, exploitation, ideology – it matches the parrot-like reproduction of a stereotypical answer, incapable of reflection or change, to the comprehensive motif chain of monument, faulty machinery, ruin. Bad memory is therefore not so much forgetfulness as it is remaining tied to dead words, endlessly parroting them – be they formal words read from notes, racist scapegoating once learned, or even Stevens´ stubbornly repeated, “only before the law and nothing more”.
But there is more. First, a certain irony in the parrot/n-word scene: The countryside couple offer to justify their legal claim by showing Lincoln a letter by John Quincy Adams that grants them their right (to a toll-booth); Lincoln, however, as if ignoring this claim´s combined memorial powers from Amistad (Adams´ legacy) and Saving Private Ryan (the legacy of presidential letters), suggests a different trade: He will rule in their favor if they remind their local representative, who goes by the odd name “Beanpole” Burton, to vote for the amendment. This is what Beanpole Burton does, solemnly pronouncing his (nick-)name in the voting showdown montage, thus producing a satisfactory memory effect for us – once learned, this minor character´s name stays learned, the seeds of victory having grown over two hours running time – and re-emphasizing, at the same time, with his easily recognizable, all-too resonant name the flag-pole motif which is part of the film´s monument motif chain. How does the film´s swamp chain relate to (bad) memory? Taking my very literal cue from this essay´s motto – a line from Night and Fog, a prominent cinematic image of memory conceived as a (never quite fitting) being-in-time – what is cold, opaque, sluggish about the fluidity of memory is due as much to the ruin (the Holocaust camp becoming abstract as monument) as to the swamp. With reference to the opening massacres in Amistad, Saving Private Ryan and Lincoln, this means: One can get stuck in the “shitty mess” as much as a needle on a broken record, reproducing or misunderstanding as meaninglessness what actually already contains the decent thing, as a spark, as an inscription/initial to be deciphered.
Put in the terms of a memory approach, one should ask: What is good memory? What form of memory is capable of lending life to dead words (without, however, trying to dissolve the obstinacy of words into “flesh” in some vitalistic way)? Rephrasing this in a third approach to Lincoln´s politics (which draws on the first two: on translation and memory), one should ask: What safeguards the political meaning of this film´s Machiavellianism? And (to use his own telegraph room and flag-raising words): Who did the fitting with Lincoln? Who assigned a part to him if not “the people” as such (since they are racist parrots)? The third approach – taking its cue from thwarting the silence of the initial in Django Unchained – looks at initiators, law-givers who are before the law in Lincoln. This is not to claim that the expropriation of masses of people of color by white individualism, by Hollywood and, to some extent, by this film is entirely done away with by this initialization. And yet… it all begins with the words of two black Union soldiers. Out of the swamp massacre in the opening scene – the shitty mess which actually is already the decent thing, but only if the spark of exceptional justice is redeemed from the force relations of vengeful violence that carry it (as in Amistad, but also Tarantino´s 2009 Inglourious Basterds) – they turn to us, before we find that the mise-en-scène has sutured us into the position of Lincoln as beholder/listener who initially remains off-screen. One soldier, Private Green, tells about having taken no rebel prisoners, the other, Corporal Clark, takes the chance of having the president´s attention and protests a racist wrong done to black soldiers (for a long time they have been getting three dollars less each month than whites). Then he projects a future of egalitarian political achievements that puts our own (better) knowledge to the test: “Now that white men have accustomed themselves to seeing negroes with guns fighting on their behalf and they tolerate negro soldiers getting equal pay, in a few years they can abide the idea of negro lieutenants and captains. In fifty years, maybe a negro colonel. In a hundred years… the vote.” (Speaking in January 1865, the man is not so wrong with his hundred years outlook on the Civil Rights Movement.) To anticipate the outcome of the conversation between these soldiers and their supreme commander: The scene ends with Corporal Clark quoting the ending of a speech which is famous now, but as the film insinuates was canonical already at the time, about a year after it was given; he quotes to Lincoln the final sentence of his own November 19, 1863 Gettysburg Address: “that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
About this scene, too, the Village Voice is only half right: The reviewer – convinced that “[t]he first few minutes of Lincoln play out like a parody of the expectations of Steven Spielberg’s detractors” – writes that Lincoln “ponders the words they’ve parroted back at him” (Scherstuhl 2012). However, the film itself is clever enough to address the very problem of parroting back an address, so the act of parroting is quite clearly attributed not to the two black soldiers, but (even before the racist Ohio couple) to two ostensibly boyish white Union soldiers who join/interrupt the talk between Lincoln and their two black comrades (or comrades to be, because the desegregation of US military is here predated by 80 years). The whites behave markedly like a modern-day fan audience would in front of an American idol, giggling like schoolboys, asking Lincoln “Hey, how tall are you anyway?” (One is reminded of US students who asked Bill Clinton during a college visit at the time of his second electoral campaign if he wore boxers or briefs.) Asked by the president if they remember what he said at that speech they saw him give at Gettysburg, they start rushing parrot-style through the words that once learned stay learned.
If we return briefly to the focus on good/bad memory, the question comes up of which words, which speech-acts in which constellations are capable of initiating change and transformation, and, inversely, which remain or produce only unconsidered, reflex-like utterances (given that in the Ohio couple scene the latter are equated with racism as hard-wired automatism). We can frame this question within a reading of Kierkegaard by Deleuze (1986: 123-133) that takes his writing on cinema´s “impulse-image” towards an ethics of repetition. This concept lends itself to rephrasing parts of my essay: With the impulse-image Deleuze moves from the “original world” as mere force-field, “waste dump” or “swamp”, toward which bad repetition has human history returning as if stuck in a cycle, to a redeeming repetition which finds chances of escape from social automatism in the willed dedication to what returns (as, for instance, in Buñuel).
Seen this way, Lincoln´s two black soldiers initialize good memory, in the sense of Deleuze and of Sgt. Horvath: They anticipate the formation of memory in a future which is our present. But this cannot, of course, be about showing us the origin of the mythical status Lincoln has today; for this would then turn the movie into a retelling of a success story. Rather, the film avoids getting stuck in the morass of Lincoln´s schoolbook and monument status by confronting it head-on, making it the subject of its first dialogue. As in so many Hollywood movies, the hero is called upon, chosen, given an assignment. The question is: Will he (usually a male) be up to the task? In Lincoln, instead of showing us some moments of epiphany that play directly to our knowledge of the hero´s future achievements, the problem is played out by a paradox: Taking the chance of the Gettysburg address returning as quotation, Corporal Clark (successor of that other initiating NCO, Sgt. Horvath) gives Lincoln his own famous words as inspiration, initiation, assignment. A paradox, not a parrot; neither is this a circle, for nothing remains the same, nothing comes full close. Rather, a new subject appears in the claiming of speech. This is a political moment of subjectivization in the sense meant by Rancière´s (2010: 71) as a “back-and-forth movement between the initial inscription of the right [paradigmatically: the Rights of Man, D.R.] and the dissensional stage on which it is put to the test. […] When such [disenfranchised, D.R.] groups can […] make something of these rights to construct a dissensus against the denial of rights they suffer, they really have these rights.”
Emergence of a subject hitherto not foreseen in any role of agency or speech, an inscription put to the test of a political situation, of a struggle for hegemony, by a group excluded by the count of justified parts of a social body: This is the decent thing which memory´s retrospection (in the form of Spielberg´s film) is to find in history´s shitty mess. Thus, remembering also redeems this mess, having us see in its very violence (of slaves against slaveholders) a righteous deed – at least its seed. It is important to note that my good/bad memory distinction is not to be understood ethically. First, what the two African-Americans do to Lincoln is not a nice, pleasant thing. Instead of Lincoln rescuing them (as the mythologizing view of American history has it), they redeem him from being the mere monument that he has become; they choose him, lend him new life. But this empowerment is (as in most superhero movies) also a burden: The initiators will make Lincoln become what he is. In Saving Private Ryan, such demand is articulated in the words of the dying Tom Hanks character to the young Ryan he has saved: “Earn this!” This is a cruel demand (a point developed in Elsaesser 2013); in Lincoln´s case, the initiators will hold him in their debt, keep him in suspense vis-a-vis his monumental self, have him (re-)enter swamp politics. Lincoln´s almost unfulfillable obligation towards them is, in a later scene, displaced onto the vice-president of the Southern slaveholder state, who on his way to peace talks in the North stands in front of an escort of black Union soldiers, grudgingly nodding and muttering to them a telling, “Much obliged“.
While the black soldiers are neither kind nor decent in their acting out of good memory, the bad memory and base materialism of the white soldiers (“How tall are you?”) is not simply indecent or beside the point either. Rather, it becomes part of motif chains around physiological aspects of housekeeping and scalp hair. It goes like this: In this scene, from Private Green´s voice-over talk to Lincoln to the intrusion of the whites and on to Corporal Clark´s (Gettysburg) address to Lincoln, there is a subtle play of looks and interrupted talks around the question of what is embarrassing to whom. Lincoln´s words when he tries to stop his white fans from reciting all of his address (“That´s good, thank you”) echo those of Green when he interrupts Lincoln (“It´s good that you´re aware of that, sir!”), annoyed that the president tries to settle the issue of inequality addressed by the soldier all too quickly. On the other hand, self-conscious Clark receives a displeased look by Green for his insistence before the head of state, only to be in turn met by a scolding look by Clark when he all-too gratefully laughs at Lincoln´s somewhat lame jokes. The lameness of these jokes is the key here (because it makes one suspicious about their significance). When Lincoln, in a throwaway statement, submits that maybe he´ll hire Clark (as a housekeeper) after the war, the latter takes him by the word, telling him: Okay, but – “I get sick at the smell of bootblack and I cannot cut hair.” Lincoln wants to go on joking without obligation and brings up how his hair has made every barber despair: “My last barber hanged himself. And the one before that. Left me hiss scissors in his will.” To which Green replies laughing: “You got springy hair for a white man.” Then the two white boys join in, and it seems that all has turned to babble.
But this is not so. Even if this hair, scissors and bootblack thing is not part of Lincoln folklore (but who knows?), the banality of these things is redeemed in the unfolding of the film´s motifs. As we´ve seen, the hairy matters come to some closure towards Lincoln´s end when a radical abolitionist is seen hairless in bed and his black wife does to him what Clark does to Lincoln, i.e., quote from a famous (white, yet egalitarian) American text. However, some of the housekeeper’s talk in the opening dialogue comes close to opening Pandora´s semantic box, with a white man´s springy, i.e. African hair, the use of boot-black (for painting a face) and the hanging of a barber (given that in this film all servant characters are black) pointing towards racist (American) practices of minstrelsy/blackface and even lynching. However, the president – who has “lynching” and “linking” equally in his name – goes the latter way, that of “lifestyle politics” not all that far from those of radical abolitionist Stevens: Later, in a dense scene, when Mrs. Keckley tells about a child being beaten, we see Lincoln next to his black male housekeeper Mr. Slade who cleans the president´s jacket while Lincoln polishes his boots himself. So – to condense statements and figures from the film´s opening dialogue – the will of a servant who left Lincoln his instruments and could not stand the smell of bootblack is fulfilled. But there is more if we highlight Mr. Slade as the last person in the film who sees Lincoln alive: In one of the last scenes Lincoln turns his back on us and walks off, with Slade´s benign smiling look framing what is our goodbye to the president, his exit that will take him to his killing and (so it seems) from the film. What is brought to a close (almost) here is a motif chain about legacies, about the wills of hanged black people and their heir/hair, i.e., the one white guy who is not like all the other whites (with their impressive scalp and facial hair).
Or is he? At the end of the film, his mission fulfilled, Lincoln is free to finally die, to turn his back and walk out on us. But before this moment other black characters in the film have done just this to him: Mrs. Keckley turned her back on him after a dialogue that ended in a disappointment for her (her walking out on him underlining her annoyed question what else he required from her and her people before he would end their slavery), a black waiter who peeps in at the beginning of Lincoln´s and Stevens´ cellar conversation as if to make sure Lincoln will get the abolitionist´s point, and, as the initiator of all the turned backs and walkouts, Corporal Clark. In the opening dialogue, after the other soldiers have left, Lincoln stands up in a gesture denoting a kind of embarrassment (as if to do something, not knowing what). Over his shoulder we see Clark from above, small but looking up somewhat reproachfully, voicing his Gettysburg address quotation: He picks it up where the giggling white soldiers left off and ends the speech while walking away into the dark background, his back turned, as if to say, “Earn the meaning of what they say you said”, but also “Don´t mess this up again – as you just did when catering to those apolitical white fools!” Clark´s fading words and walkout leave Lincoln´s face as the object of a camera-movement that emphasizes its monumental appearance, before a fade-out marks the transition to Lincoln´s nightmare about being alone on a ship in the dark speeding towards a light in the distance. A dream about dying if ever there was one.
“He leaves the frame and the film (like Nosferatu); as if it had become impossible for him to be filmed any longer.” This is what the Cahiers collective (1986) wrote about the ending of Ford´s Young Mr. Lincoln in which the president-to-be walks out into rain and darkness, followed by a superimposition of his Washington DC memorial statue. Let´s put it bluntly: We also have a kind of Nosferatu at the rainy/muddy, dark beginning of Spielberg´s film, an undead Lincoln, a pale, tired, springy-haired, wobbling and limping Lincoln zombie (in the early, colonial sense of the zombie, however, with the racialized relationship of will and agent reversed), more miserable than intimidating, as most zombies are. At the beginning of the film he is rescued from a death he has already died, the death of ossified quotations and monumental greatness; he is raised from his memorial seat, rebooted by African American initiators who walk out on him only to return occasionally as his guardian angels and keepers – not Kafka´s gatekeepers but still acting “before the law”, giving meaning to its letter. This happens as in so many movies about characters being allowed a second ghostly life on earth (a second term in office) to make good on a promise. (For a similar spectral-political reading of Bryan Singer´s 2008 anti-nazi-resistance thriller Valkyrie as a gay/queer ghost movie, see Robnik 2009: chapter 6.) It is worth noting that Lincoln´s Gettysburg address is a speech-act consecrating a memorial cemetery, in which Lincoln says that it is not the living who can consecrate this place; rather, the dead have already done much of the work which the living must now finish.
This opening dialogue is separated from the course of events introduced by the ensuing “January, 1865” title (the Jenkins´ Ferry battle scene at Lincoln´s very beginning takes place in April of 1864, the soldier conversation at a – much? – later point in time); in this, the film´s opening is echoed by its very last scene, which is discontinuous, predating a number of scenes that came before, taking up from the opening the motif of Lincoln acting after his death – now after his 1865 assassination – and of a great speech by a great orator (just like Obama): The final scene jumps back from April 15 to March 4 of 1865; Lincoln delivers his second inaugural address, a speech so different in wording and densely crowded images from his faulty machinery flag-raising speech. In his final words before fade-out and end-titles, Lincoln reaches out in a gesture of “peace among ourselves and with all nations”. In this constellation of reversed temporality ends the unfolding of a reversed causality, with Lincoln as agent and medium of fulfilling the project of African-American initiators. It would be interesting to compare this structure in more detail to the paradoxical retro-causation loop of the invention of rock´n´roll in Robert Zemeckis´ 1985 Back to the Future, with (according to Elsaesser 2002: 235-236) the white boy from the future acting as the necessary medium for transmitting Chuck Berry´s own sound back to him, the parroting back (of “Johnny B. Goode”) done in this case by an over-achieving young time-traveler. At any rate, both films intimate to see a remembering that places US history under the sign of an elective affinity of the white hegemons with an initializing black power/culture, even a dreamed up black ancestry.
In the soft transition from Lincoln lying dead on a bed to the second inaugural, a candle is superimposed in close-up. This would be a tasteless equation if we were to see him as undying light, candle in the wind. But in the context of the film´s motifs, the candle has a clear function (associated with Lincoln´s little boy, who had his most expressive scene half a minute earlier, crying over his father´s death): Along with the fireside, the candle is the emitter of a light that allows to see images in the dark – a battlefield map, but most notably photographic plates of slaves. Lincoln joins these images now, being stored, revived, replayed as image projection. The placing of the candle close-up just before the ending mirrors that of another imaging device, the rear-view mirror, just after the beginning. This is no simulation argument; it´s not about Lincoln or history returning as film. Rather, this is about cinema – the house and the public required by light projections to make sense. The house motif circulates through Lincoln: the domain of housekeepers, the space of political representation to the ranks of which abolitionist politicians welcome African-Americans watching the vote (“…your house!”), a house with audience and framed light incidence, also as anecdotal outhouse with a rather moving image in it, place of an intimacy exposed in public (to paraphrase cinema theorist Heide Schlüpmann 2002).
It is not least at the site of cinephilia (whose house is in ruins, so that it is in exodus into memory) that Spielberg´s film touches on that of Tarantino mentioned in my intro, a film in which the black housekeeper has a degrading name and no assignments to give. In both Lincoln and Django Unchained pre-cinema image technology appears: the photographic plates; a stereoscope on a manual showing a building from antiquity, a model for the Big Houses – the Taras – of Tarantino´s slaveholders. And the face of Jewish vengeance in the cinema showdown of Inglourious Basterds, an image born from projection of light onto the nothingness of smoke remaining from murdered lives, is a deeply Spielbergian, emphatically post-Holocaust, cine-ontological image. To just stick with Lincoln: So much light falls on smoke here, smoke emitted by cigars like that of Secretary Seward whom we might respell Sewer, for the smoke is linked to the swamp chain. The latter is invoked by Stevens when he disqualifies words emitted by his house opponents by shouting “Some of us breathe oxygen!” But of course, Stevens´ own trademark gravel voice is exemplary of how in Lincoln not only light but also voices tend to become materialized. That goes for Stevens´ mouth-as-swamp as well as for Lincoln´s fragile, sore-throated sighing. In Lincoln voices are threatened to end up as either dead words or logorrhea; this is the monument/swamp dilemma of politics. Hegemony wants the voices to translate into material forces, but must at the same time keep them from fully arriving in the sphere of (ossified or muddy) materials, must have voices remain on the thin line of sense that separates words from things (cf Deleuze 1990), remain in translation. This can also be rephrased in terms of good and bad memory. Lincoln himself states it as a tension between temporality and materiality when he says to skeptical Seward: “If you can look into the seeds of time and say which corn will grow and which will not,” adding: “Time is a great thickener of things.” How thick you want things to get, that´s the trick. Memory can thicken things by producing new subjects and decent actions in translation, through quotation (which Lincoln, the film and the man in it, practices so often), but it can also end up as the piling up of expert knowledge monuments and merely shitty messes into which relentless quoting sometimes turns in Tarantino.
One last point on quoting, memory, history. Since Lincoln is dead already, we are not to see his death by assassination in Spielberg´s film (think again of Lincoln as an unfilmable undead). The president walks out of his house (“Time to go. Although I´d rather stay”). Cut to a theater which we expect to be the site of the deadly shots. What we see, however, is the expenditure of theater machinery into a fairy tale stage-play with sword-fight and a phoenix-like resurrection; then a man interrupts the play and exclaims from the stage not “Sic semper tyrannis!” but: “The president has been shot … at Ford´s theater!” Structurally this is like the well-known “Auschwitz shower scene” in Schindler´s List: Spielberg transgresses the ban on images (of that which holds power over life and death) at the same time that he sticks to it, showing us what we expect to be a gas-chamber up to the point at which we see that this happens be a shower, the nazi mass murder going on inevitably just next door. Without such knowledge about the deadly fact of history, the shower scene would make as little sense as the theater scene, placing us just next to the murder in Ford´s theater.
This is not Ford´s theater, not – to state it one final time – the site of John Ford´s playing through of history and of Lincoln. A point at which Lincoln does come close, however, to Young Mr. Lincoln is in a quotation referring to Lincoln´s father, with its ideological cover-up of racism by short-sighted economism: “He knew no smallholding dirt farmer could compete with slave plantations, so he took us out from Kentucky,” Spielberg´s Lincoln says to an undecided Republican, referring to his father. This echoes Ford´s Lincoln: “With all the slaves coming in, white folks had a hard time making a living”, so father Lincoln took the family out from Kentucky. Ford´s young lawyer Lincoln tells this to the mother and sister of his two clients charged with murder. Following this line, there is a whole chain of translating/exchanging papers and letters (traced in the Cahiers 1986 reading of the film): Lincoln reads to the mother a letter sent by her son awaiting trial; in this way he takes the position of her son (connected to that mother by paper, but also by a shared experience of whiteness threatened by blacks). Then he asks for a piece of paper to make notes and is given (in analogy to the second-hand law books he receives at the film´s beginning) a farmer´s almanac, from which he will later gain the knowledge deciding the trial in his clients´ favor, about the fact that there was no full moon the night of the murder. All the transfers and exchanges are re-embedded in the unchanging, cyclical behavior/tradition/memory of Mother Nature – to which, in Ford, “the people” have access. Strangely enough, however, this continuum of memory-as-flow-and-tradition encompasses the jews (those excluded from the structurally anti-semitic naturalism/organicism of “the people”): Riding along the mighty river, Lincoln is asked by his dim-witted companion why this instrument he´s playing is called a “jew´s harp”. And instead of the knowledge of the law of language (etymology) and of the swamp (mouth), calling it the “jaw´s harp” that it also is, Lincoln opts for monumental knowledge and tradition, answering: “Comes down from King David´s harp.” And what about the tune he´s playing, the companion asks. “Don´t know. Catchy though.” It is – since it is recognizable as an embryonic form of the minstrelsy song allegedly dear to Lincoln which is known as “I wish I was in Dixie”.
Clearly no composer of Southern nostalgia tunes in Spielberg´s film, his Lincoln is even more intimate with a number of topics from Jewish (movie) tradition – without, however, going the minstrelsy/blackface way towards an African-American/African- Jewish alliance (think of Al Jolson´s 1927 Jazz Singer with his “dirty hands, dirty face”). Lincoln´s little son´s mention of a stage-play on Israelites is echoed later in Lincoln by the plan of the Lincolns to travel to the “Holy Land of David and Solomon”, a journey which new founding father Abraham is unable to make because he is killed (while his little son watches another stage-play), sacrificing himself and not, as biblical Abraham did, his son. (On the self-sacrifice mythology as part of Lincoln folklore see Rogin 1988.) And there is the so often-mentioned parrot shouting out what “scripture has foretold”, a kind of non-reflexive tradition-based memory that Lincoln refutes in favor of a memory that is to be an interpretation of scripture (“The list is life”, Spielberg calls this), not a slave-like submission to its fixity. (Nevertheless, these opposed behaviors sometimes amount to the same thing; this goes for certain strands of deconstructionism as for my humble approach to Spielberg´s scripture, taking it all literal.) Not sticking to scripture/tradition is what the House Speaker does at the end of the vote sequence: He, too, wants to vote (in favor of the amendment), and when told that this is unusual, he replies: “This isn´t usual. This is history!” This is as if in direct objection to the claim “Today is history!”, which announces the annihilation of a “race” deemed inferior, voiced by the head of the nazi labor camp in Schindler´s List. And there are most obvious affinities between Lincoln and Schindler´s List concerning images of large numbers of people: The vote itself is conspicuously staged as a media event, with a telegraphed live transfer of the votes of each representative to an army camp, which is reminiscent perhaps of votes in talent shows, but most notably of the UN vote enabling the 1948 foundation of the state of Israel as it is staged as a radio broadcast of each UN representative´s yes, no, or abstention in Otto Preminger´s 1960 Exodus. (Schindler´s List conspicuously ends with images of a re-foundation of the people of Israel.) Then there are the angel-like keepers turning their backs on Lincoln three times: This is similar to how Schindler´s book-keeper Itzhak Stern several times turns down his employer´s offer to have a drink with him, until Stern has finally made Schindler fulfill his task to write up the list that is life. Finally, in the context of the aliveness of scripture, the rapid montages of close-ups of House representatives calling their names and votes resemble the two list of death/list of life montages with faces and names called out/written down in Schindler´s List.
It should be mentioned here that Lincoln was scripted by playwright Tony Kushner (who is to some extent known also for his criticism of Israeli occupation politics). With Kushner, we also have a linkage from the (Israel-related) mass assemblies in Lincolnand Schindler´s List to an odd, highly expressive image of a procreational “Jewish biopolitics” under the threat of murderous extinction in the other Kushner-written Spielberg film: the montage of the emigrated Israeli avenging agent and his wife having sex alternating with the massacre of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Where does this take us? Back to Lincoln, of course; Munich was one of two post-911 Hollywood dramas that ended with a long shot of the Manhattan Twin Towers, the other being Martin Scorsese´s 2002 Gangs of New York, which featured an anti-draft riot and anti-black pogrom of New York people during the Civil War, and also an all-powerful leader/butcher with an American Eagle on his glass eye, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, the actor who would later receive an Oscar for the title role in Spielberg´s Lincoln. (But wasn´t Liam Neeson, the actor once famous for having played Oskar Schindler, the one who was rumored to play Lincoln for Spielberg?)
To conclude: All this quoting and cross-referencing would remain monuments in swamps and mere delay, were this not exactly the matter and memory of which Spielberg´s cinema is made. For Spielberg (in contrast to Ford) there can be no recourse to the initial force of Nature, of God or the people as organon – in whose face we would all be equal. That is, there is recourse to a third in relation to which we are equal to each other, but this is not the law, but rather that which is before the law: an initial which, however, is not a primary given, not a first, but in itself a second best, e.g. initiators who quote from the agent whom they burden with their assignment. Put differently: Before the law, there is, paradoxically, the speech-act of those who invoke the law. With Lincoln´s black law-givers, the law can ground anything only insofar as it is itself a supplement to an unsilent initial, an act of claiming speech, of hegemonic articulation and struggle. In the beginning there is dislocation and delay, driving all the displacements and delays (“You´re delaying! It´s your favorite tactics!” Lincoln´s older son accuses his father) in Spielberg´s film. Even Lincoln´s actual/second death (the first being his monumentalization) is delayed. Faced with the necessary unattainability of the plenitude of firsts and bests – or of last things, to quote from Kracauer´s (1969) vote for the surprising powers hidden in penultimate things – Spielberg opts for the categorically second best which is what makes the difference: a disenfranchised part instead of people, god or country; film and cinema instead of Mother Nature. In this sense, Lincoln may be closer to us than he appears.
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