Lessons from the age of riots and revolution

An interview with Brad Nguyen

Brad Nguyen is the co-editor of Screen Machine, an online magazine on film, media and cultural criticism. He studied Cinema Studies at the University of Melbourne and has done film reviewing for Triple R Breakfasters. He chats with us about his essay ‘Morality Begone!’, which is featured in the latest edition of Overland.

In your essay you write that by framing outbreaks of social violence – one example being the London riots – in moral terms, ‘the true political dimension is obliterated’. Could you please describe what you mean by this?

You see a lot of it these days – a violent event occurs and the only way we know how to deal with this is by this very moralistic judgement. My problem with how this usually plays out is that the judgement is often based on a very reductive understanding of a given event. This is especially true when the event is possibly symptomatic of broader issues, be they cultural, political, economic or whatever – the desire becomes to reduce the situation to a problem of individual agency and make a moral judgement on those terms. So when the London riots happened, we were compelled to ask ourselves the stupid question, ‘Is it right or wrong for these rioters to vandalise a local shop?’

Of course, the answer is that it is wrong. But when you make a moral judgement in this way, you are choosing to see a situation in a particular way that ignores a whole lot of contextual particularities. I don’t have anything against moral judgement per se. I just think we should suspend judgement until we have thought more seriously about how individual actions function in relation to larger social processes. So rather than call the London rioters a mob of opportunistic shoplifters, let’s first try to understand a bit more about how capitalism and poverty reinforce each other and produce such violent outbursts. Žižek talks about this using the terms ‘subjective violence’ and ‘objective violence’. Subjective violence is a situation where you see someone committing an act of physical violence and it’s obvious that someone is doing wrong and that something should be done. Objective violence is violence that is inscribed into the social structure, for example the violence of how our economy is organised. And because this objective violence is part of the proper functioning of the system, it’s hard to even perceive it as violence as such.

The same thing goes even for terrorism – rather than say, ‘Al-Qaeda is just plain evil and there’s nothing more to it,’ let’s first try to understand a bit more about the history of the Middle East pre-2001 and how Western intervention – which we seem to take for granted these days as a normal and necessary thing – may have helped to produce Islamic extremism. Once we have committed ourselves to a serious understanding of the totality of a situation, then we can start handing out moral judgements.

What do you hope the reader will take away with them after reading your piece?

When I write an essay, I don’t expect readers to agree with every claim that I make. What I really hope is that someone will read this piece and, at the very least, agree with me about the importance of historical contextualisation. This is a pretty obvious thing to say, I know. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to keep reminding ourselves of this because the media goes to extraordinary lengths to decontextualise events and elicit that response of reductive moral judgement from the people who read their news content. This is clearly happening with the Occupy Movement. Hopefully I’m helping to foster a certain critical sensibility and doing that in a way that is engaging and provocative.

What’s next for you? Are you working on any new writing?

I’m working on an essay about what I see as ‘romantic realism’ in recent American independent cinema. This is in response to a handful of movies I saw at the last Melbourne International Film Festival, all films about women forging tentative new relationships with men and they all ended up with the woman being alone. The basic idea behind these films is that they are an antidote to all those bullshit movies about finding your one true love but my feeling is that these romantic realism films are just as conservative as the old cheesy romance films but in a different way. So I’m going to explore that and basically make an argument in favour of embracing love once again. Love is out of fashion at the moment. I want to bring it back!

I’m also working with a couple of people on a big redesign of Screen Machine. Basically, we’re relaunching the website as a film criticism website published bimonthly. So you can expect the site to look drastically different from early next year.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. I actually think we do need to go further in blocking our morality. This is of course a tricky word. One thing people do is try to distinguish morality and ethics, and say ‘morality is telling people not to masturbate’ and ethics is ‘saying it is okay to have sex with animals’. In reality it is wrong distinction and doesn’t get us anywhere – it does illuminate any real problem but tries to box things up differently. I’m definitely annoyed by the constant moral level of politics. For example when the government pushes income management onto poor people there is this stupid cry from the Left ‘SHAME’. In the way that Nietzsche said that life is real beyond good and evil the ALP is well beyond ‘SHAME’. But I think there is a larger problem. The basic framework for thinking about what we don’t agree with in the world is entirely within Kant’s conception of the Good Will: there is some other place that we have recourse to – some other set of values (working class values?) – that we try to uses precisely a la Kant as a power of judgement. If you go back to the Middle Ages and what was still present of them in the early modern period – say in Hobbes or Spinoza – this idea of an abstract Good Will doesn’t work. Instead, with Hobbes Right is taken directly from a conception of how bodies move; that is, he argues that people simply aim to continue on their path and this is right enough – you don’t need to ground this in anyway, and judgement is besides the point: the body still continues, as the ALP goes on. Anyway there is a big problem in the failure to realise that this Kantian form of ethics is simply part of the state showing its face in our judgemental reactions to … everything.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.