The War Economy Comes Home:
The Death of a Discarded Defense Worker

by

Dion Dennis

still clip


At the beginning of the 1992 film, Falling Down, the lead character, D-FENS, a divorced, unemployed worker for a U.S. defense contractor, sits uneasily in his 1977 Chevette, gridlocked on the Santa Monica freeway. The air-conditioning doesn't work and the window cranks are stripped. Tense, sweating and quavering, D-FENS (he is known by the name on his vanity license plate) is a classic industrial strength white-Anglo nerd, circa 1965. He has a bad crew-cut and geeky glasses. He wears a too-tight, short-sleeve white dress shirt, adorned with a black- and-white polyester tie and supplemented by a plastic pocket- protector. D-FENS and his Chevette form a contiguous symbol of the economic decline of a white-male Anglicized U.S. industrial apparatus. Together, they are simultaneously going nowhere (gridlocked on the freeway) and have nowhere to go (to work). Psychically imploding, D-FENS lurches out of his inert, steamy car into the open air. When asked, by another stalled motorist, in the opening lines of the movie, "Hey, where do you think you're going?", D-FENS replies, "I'm going home."

The spoken word home, verbal and visual referents of home and various ideas and sites of home crop up dozens of times in the film. D-FENS obsessively moves through the city's territorialized, militarized spaces in a futile bid to reassert his (stereotypically mythical) notion of home as the site of the patriarchal, nuclear family (Koontz, 1992). His quest, even as it escalates into a series of events marked by a violent desperation, cannot fail but to come face-to-face with the reality of his downwardly mobile economic status (Phillips, 1993). The family unit is now anchored by his ex-wife, living with child and dog, in an expensive, if dilapidated house just off Venice Beach. As he treks across L.A., D-FENS is a dystopian equivalent of Cervantes' Don Quixote. That is, as he pursues a forcible reinscription of his idea of "home," D-FENS carries outdated and inappropriate symbolic codes for the cultural and physical spaces of a globalized Los Angeles. His codes are those concurrent with the Cold War and the ethos of the 1950's. They are manichean, nationalist, conformist, linear, naively ethnocentric, racist and monocultural. They are as inappropriate for stealthy traversing the spiked edge of the postmodernity that is L.A. as Don Quixote's were for roaming through a post-feudal Spain. Like Don Quixote, D -FENS serves as a complex, multi- accentuated signifier that highlights the epistemological, ideological and cultural breaks between worlds (Volosinov, 1986).

Falling Down is a subtler meditation on a series of complex issues than most reviewers and audiences have realized. In part, this is due to a critical choice made in the mode of narration. For while D-FENS is a subject with a cognitive and stylistic map out of time, it is in a series of lateral movements through urban space, rather than narrative time, that the major motifs of the movie emerge. That is, while the film explores fertile tensions between the logics of sovereignty and exchange, or the relations between imperial nostalgia and the construction of expendable populations, or the disjunctures between the older heroic mythos of the Western and that of the armed-to-the-teeth, cyborgian "New War" hero, or assesses the shifting balance between nationalist notions of collective defense and contemporary notions of privatized security, it does so primarily through traversing through heterogeneous spaces in Los Angeles (Gibson, 1994; Jeffords, 1989, Soja, 1989). It is only at the end of the film, when D-FENS reaches his destination, the Santa Monica pier, where habitable space ends, that the meaning and consequences of his actions become partially recognizable to him. So it is movement through spatiality that shapes a series of thematic revelations, not temporality (after Soja, 1989). And it is the concrete spatiality, the social geography of Los Angeles that is as much the figure as it is the ground, as much the subject as it is the backdrop of this film. Because the city and its rhythms, its accelerations and delays, its points of confluence and divergence are all so vividly depicted in Falling Down that the film is something of a social mapping. It is a stylized representation, not a simulated artifice. Arguably, one of Falling Down's key insights is that the production and reproduction of urban spaces reflects and refracts strands of economic and socio-cultural relations emerging at century's end. D-FENS unwittingly traverses heterogeneous urban spaces that are continually readable and re-readable as ideological and political portraits.

What social and political characteristics can be read and re-read in the depiction of the heterogeneous spaces of Los Angeles, circa 1992? One major and much iterated notion is the militarization of Los Angeles. Critic Mike Davis terms this reconfiguration of city's streets the birth of "Fortress Los Angeles."

The city bristles with malice. The carefully manicured lawns of the Westside sprout ominous little signs threatening "ARMED RESPONSE!" Wealthier neighborhoods . . . cower behind walls guarded by gun-toting private police and st ate-of-the-art electronic surveillance systems. . . Some [poor] neighborhoods have in turn been sealed off by the police with barricades and checkpoints . . .

Welcome to post-liberal Los Angeles, where the defense of luxury has given birth to an arsenal of security systems and an obsession with the policing of social boundaries through architecture. This militarization of city life is increasingly visible everywhere in the built environment of the 1990's . . . (Davis, 1992).

In part, Davis' article and Falling Down depict an architectural world of security that developed from the following: Heteroglot flows of non-white immigrant bodies and global capital erode an allegiance to an easily recognizable and self-identical territorial sovereign subject and nation-state known as "American" (Rouse, 1991). One effect of this decoding is that concerns about the nation-state's defense recede in an age of translocal capital, in favor of reterritorializing, intensive corporatist regimes of private property and security. The locus of war moves away from nation-states toward the everyday production of a localized, highly saturated and intensively capitalized fear. Life after the fall of the Berlin Wall increasingly res embles Giles Deleuze's description:

The war machine finds its new object in the absolute peace of terror or deterrence; this war machine is terrifying . . . as a function of the real, very special kind of peace it promotes and has already installed; [it] no longer needs a qualified enemy but . . . operates against the "unspecified enemy," domestic or foreign (an individual, group, class, people, event, world); there arose from this a new conception of security as materialized war , as organized insecurity or molecularized, distributed, programmed catastrophe (Deleuze, 1987).

About his motives for making Falling Down, director Joel Schumacher has said that

what I wanted to do was put a face and soul on the 6 o'clock news, that story that keeps recurring about the guy who snaps and he's so filled with anger that he blows away his family, co-workers (and strangers) (San Francisco Chronicle , 3/2/93).

Like many others, D-FENS functioned as a drone on the lower and/or lower-middle rungs of an administrative power structure. He was docile and efficient. He had a rigid personality that showed flashes of a violent temper. He was equipped with a narrow understanding of himself and his world coupled with an equally limited technical expertise appropriate to his socialization. So narrow and rigid was his understanding of bureaucracy, in fact, that he did not understand how the rules by which power is exercised in bureaucratic settings inevitably change as technologies, commodities, migratory demographics, geography, communication ensembles and political priorities reshuffle the distributive deck of goods, information and services. Like the others who believed claims about the efficacy of the Patriot missile during the Gulf War, D-FENS accepts the carefully crafted public relations narratives of authority while he is (seemingly) cradled in its bosom (Bush, 1991). Once made disposable, once judged "not economically viable" or "obsolete," some subjects may reinvent themselves. Some may begin a slow decline. Others, like D-FENS, simmer and then implode. But by so publically imploding, he becomes grist for propaganda mill. His story is formatted into one of a repetitive string of video moral tales, told between commercials, on the potential and actual dangers of urban life. As Brian Massumi says about those effects of generic formats and formulas applied to domesticate the plurality of meanings inherent in individual situations:

Its particulars are annulled by its plurality of possible agents and times: here and to come . . . The enemy is a whatnot-- an unspecifiable may-come-to-pass (Massumi, 1993).

The havoc that D-FENS wreaks becomes just another in a series of "madman" tales formatted by the vendors of deterrence strategies, security ensembles, entertainment studios and video-cameras. It's one more sales pitch for architectural, panoptic and panspectral devices of risk-management. In the context of the film, this is no small irony. That is, much of the violence occurs when D-FENS' initial attempts to peaceably move across privatized, commodified and patrolled spaces are thwarted. (Occupied, secured and defended space, ostensibly intended as a general deterrent, is the proximate cause for violence). The second irony is that D- FENS, as a sign of militarization, as a cooperative drone for "containment strategies" and other governmentalities of the security state, now finds those techniques applied to his marginalized, surplus body within the domestic space of L.A. By disregarding the signs that mark portions of the once public city as de facto or de jure zones of "private property," by ignoring the claims of inherent boundaries, the logic and turf of organized violence, having been laid out long ago, unfolds. Los Angeles becomes another Vietnam and its burgeoning assortment of gangs, private security forces and urban police are its occupying armies (Massumi, 1993). The irony is that D-FENS embraced this logic of organized insecurity, of "molecular" war, his entire adult life. He lives and dies within its frame, the product, victimizer and victim of a world he helped make uninhabitable. What tags D- FENS as Fascist, in addition to an act of recognition, that "we're the same, you and me. We're the same," uttered by a leather-and-skinhead neo-Nazi, is D-FENS' de facto full-battle dress suicide. The suicide becomes comprehensible only when "going home" and death are equivalent destinations, when they are "one and the same.&quo t; This is the teleology of the Fascist state, recapitulated in D-FENS' individuated destiny (Deleuze, 1987). At one point in the film, already in battle dress, D-FENS briefly takes refuge in a spacious private compound (that consists of a multi-storied house with well-tended stone staircases, pool, tropical foliage, large yard, etc.). When told by a caretaker that a plastic surgeon was the resident owner, D- FENS says

Plastic surgery bought all of this? Guess I'm in the wrong racket. Are there correspondence courses in plastic surgery? (pause) I lost my job. Actually, I didn't lose it, it lost me. I'm overeducated, underskilled (pause) or maybe it's the other way around, I forget. And I'm obsolete. I'm not economically viable.

In the postmodern, D-FENS, Cold-War warrior, is as obsolete as any medieval knight. And he begins to hazily recognize that his status as surplus labor is due to a fundamental change in modes of capital production. He was a creature of the state-sponsored Keyensian social contract (between industry, labor and government, who slumbered through a twenty-five year global capital realignment. Commodity production was exported to the maquiladoras of newly industrializing countries (NIC's), where labor was young, plentiful and cheap. Concurrently, expanding segments of the Western democracies upwardly valued the production and circulation of information, communication ensembles and services over the manufacturing of durable goods. Brian Massumi explains:

The commodification of information and services meant that . . . the means of producing new products themselves became products (computer programs, design systems). Product "turnover" was now concerned as much with moving from one product to another . . . Qualitatively new products would be created almost instantaneously. A new glut: of the qualitatively new. Response: market the qualitativeness of the qualitatively new --sell "image." What was marketed was . . . an image signifying fulfillment and the power to fulfill. Use-value was overshadowed by fulfillment effect, or image-value. Images, the most intangible of intangibles, circulate faster than uses . . . New products could be marketed as fast as styles could be created or recycled (Massumi, 1993).

D-FENS, a signifier of Kenyesian-era industrial labor, a producer of "use-value," is discarded in favor of the plastic surgeon, who is the purveyor of "image value." Ultimately, even D-FENS fathoms that "he's in the wrong racket" and bitterly admits that he's no longer "economically viable." (Fleetingly, he inanely considers "retooling" via a correspondence course). Yet, D-FENS' epiphany and ultimate fate serves ultimately as prologue for this generation's "New World Order." For the strategies and discourses of war have not disappeared. They have only multiplied against "unspecified enemies" (Deleuze, 1987). The fields and terms of engagement have merely mutated, creating new boundaries, contingencies, modes of deterrence, tactics, objects and identities which D-FENS but dimly comprehends. Yes, it is true that the shape of our security-driven world originates from, and owes much to, the technical and political inheritance of the Cold War. But our contemporary socius is largely defined by the refinement of a myriad of panoptic and panspectral practices and discourses now deployed in the name of total and continuous economic war. The author of one recent tome on the implementation of TQM (Total Quality Management), TQM Field Manual, offers up an earnest rationalization (below):

The war theme is used to convey the seriousness of the economic situation . . . Our very survival as an economic force is at stake. Already there have been many casualties. Such losses affect both private and public organizations and impact all aspects of our economy . . .

[In an economic war] victory cannot be clearly defined. . . Secondly, victory is forever changing . . . Third, the enemy is not always obvious . . . Fourth, the war is never-ending . . . the aim of TQM . . . [is to] strive to achieve victory (Saylor, 1992).

In an ambiguous world where victories and defeats, friends and enemies seem forever mutable and omnipresent; in a world where the extension of the material benefits of "victories" through time is tenuous, images of the Self and Home (home cultural, political, spatial, etc.) are mobile icons and weapons always available for flexible and tactical recodings. Ultimately, it is D-FENS's rigid concretism (toward a nexus of predefined symbols of personal, economic and national sovereignty) that produces his inability to fully grasp that Self and Home have become sliding signifiers in a time that is increasing constituted as a grid of total economic war. It is his literalist allegiance to the dominant ideology of the zenith of American Empire (1950-1973) that marks him as a "casualty" in a "New World Order." As such, the moral tale of D-FENS's "falling down" is a necessary and useful prologue toward grasping recombinant notions of Self and Home at century's end.


Dion Dennis is in the Department of Criminal Justice, History, Political Science and Geography at Texas A & M International University and can be reached by e-mail at:
ddennis@icsi.net or ddennis@tamiu.edu


References

Bush, George (1991). Remarks by the President at the Raytheon Corporation Factory, Massachusetts, 2/15/91.

Davis, Mike (1992). City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles . New York. Vintage Books.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis. University of Minnesota.

Gibson, James William (1994). Warrior Dreams: Violence and Manhood in Post-Vietnam America. New York. Hill and Wang.

Koontz, Stephanie (1992). The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. New York. Basic Books.

Jeffords, Susan (1989). The Remasculinization of America: Gender and the Vietnam War. Bloomington. Indiana University Press.

Massumi, Brian (1993). "Everywhere You Want to Be: Introduction Fear, 3-38. In the Politics of Everyday Fear, B. Massumi, editor. Minneapolis. University of Minnesota.

Phillips, Kevin (1993). Boiling Point: Democrats, Republicans and the Decline of Middle-Class Prosperity . New York. Harper Collins.

Rouse, Roger (1991). "Mexican Migration and the Social Space of Postmodernism" in Diaspora , v.1, n.1.

Saylor, James H. (1992). TQM Field Manua l. McGraw-Hill. New York.

Soja, Edward W. (1989). Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory. New York. Verso.

Stack, Peter (1993). "`Falling' Director's All the Rage. Schumacher wanted to dramatized 6 o'clock news in his new movie," in The San Francisco Chronicle , pg. E1, 3/2/93. E- text downloaded from Nexis/Lexis.

Volosinov, V.N. (1986). Marxism and the Philosophy of Language . Trans. by Matejka, L, Titunk, I.R. Cambridge. Harvard University Press.

Film:

Falling Down (1992). Paul Schumacher, director; Ebbe Roe Smith, screenwriter. Warner Bros.


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