1. Proxy War, Prequel and Sequel: Displacements in Time
The “empire writes back” was a conceptual standby of postcolonial studies in the 1980s and 90s. One of its curricular staples was a unit on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness read alongside its Global South rewritings (Michaela Bronstein, Byron Caminero-Santangelo, Ankhi Mukherjee).1 What can we make now of “writing back” as an aesthetic proxy for anti-imperial politics, and of Conrad adaptations as a subcanon of global Anglophone cultural history? Is the heyday of counterdiscursive storytelling over, and, if not, when does the project of writing back—to Conrad, for example—ever stop? Or, to put the question in terms more directly responsive to this special issue of Representations: what is the relation between the proxy wars waged at the frontiers of the Western imperial system and the revision wars that did so much to shape what the literary disciplines once enshrined as anticolonial storytelling?
To answer these questions, we might begin by elaborating the definitions of proxy war outlined by Yoon Sun Lee and Kent Puckett in their introductory essay, which describes a historical arc from total war to limited war to proxy war. Direct wars (whether total or limited) are waged by controlling states rather than client states; they center on an explicit political agon that can and often does change historical shape in the treaty phase or postwar period. Their temporal frames are therefore punctual, their territorial lines discrete. Direct wars have endgames; even if there are long-lasting aftereffects, a direct war comes to a stop. Proxy war, as Lee and Puckett note, reduces “the risk of conflict escalation.” But it thereby reduces the possibility of meaningful conflict resolution. Waged at a distance by client states whose interests partially overlap with those of the controlling state that backs them, a proxy war cannot, almost by definition, adjudicate or resolve great-power conflict. In this sense, proxy wars imply their own seriality. Here the cultural and literary history of proxy war gets interesting.
Lee and Puckett offer a generative beginning for something like a narrative theory of proxy war, and their notion turns on a contrast between nineteenth-century narrative forms that shaped historical meaning and the mid-twentieth-century fascination with ideas/concepts/structures that precede and to some extent determine the storylines of history. The rationalist model of structure over story is perfect not just for the “action intellectuals” whose group biography Lee and Puckett have sketched but also for the entire phase of the Cold War, in which static concepts of détente and nuclear stalemate seem to arrest the geopolitical process. In order to make sense of the serial logic of proxy war, and secondarily of the serial logic of genres that describe the process of imperial capitalism, we then have to avail ourselves of concepts relatively devoid of straightforward or linear developmental logic. For that reason I want in this essay to consider the endlessness and iterability of interlinked political and cultural phenomena. We might frame the problem against the backdrop of classic novel theory. György Lukàcs cited the mobilization of whole European societies (during the Napoleonic Wars) for the purpose of total war as one key determinant for the development of genuine historical fiction in the nineteenth century.2 Describing a later phase (modernism), Fredric Jameson developed the notion that Western fiction struggled to describe social totalities once production itself was increasingly located outside the metropole, in extractive colonies of the Global South and East.3 At the speculative point of convergence between Lukàcs and Jameson we might begin to conceptualize the representational problem posed by proxy war along similar lines: when history (war) is displaced to the spatial peripheries and the historical category of the minor conflict, some degree of “meaning loss” might be said to follow. The social referent of art and of analytical discourses of all kinds becomes more obscure in the arena of proxy war because the intentions of state violence are framed indirectly and displaced from the site of their determination. We might further conjecture from that premise that proxy wars imply seriality not just in a political sense but in a cultural and historical one as well: the contradictions of proxy war, its displacements and obscurities, mean that the mythologizing narratives of war cannot properly be formed to reach closure; they can only keep repeating themselves, seriatim. That is one way to set out the investigative goals of the present essay.
We can, at least, safely say that the serial logic of this geopolitical form called proxy war—a key part of decolonizing and neocolonial struggle from 1945 to 1990—takes root during the same period as the iterative or serial practice of “writing back” to imperial power, a power whose central locus shifts from Europe to America. The time for investigating these intertwined Cold War phenomena—proxy wars and anticolonial narrative sequels—seems right. The triumphal 1990s moment of the “post-Cold War” is now itself an almost quaint relic. The old Cold War alliances and antagonisms are digging back in; the midcentury Great Powers (America, Europe, Russia, China) are in tense détente again; and new versions of proxy war (Ukraine, Afghanistan) are shaping geopolitics. Meanwhile academic postcolonial studies, which adjusted itself in the wake of Edward Said’s Orientalism by shifting focus to American hegemony, is now facing another shift as capitalist dynamism moves westward toward Asia. Said’s Foucault-Gramsci model of power-knowledge, which once aimed to provincialize Europe and decenter America in a series of counterdiscursive strikes, begins to look dated as we observe the long march of capitalist transformation through Asia and through an African continent whose infrastructure projects are increasingly Asian-funded. The political ground has shifted, but the underlying economic struggle has not. Countering the legacies of colonial imposition by writing back to Western power or to the old North Atlantic hegemons starts to seem less urgent than addressing the racialized and gendered division of global labor, the savage math of wealth inequity within and among nations, and the climate emergency. And yet the sequel logic of revisiting and rewriting Western classics—at least within Western media and entertainment systems—continues apace.4
On this view, the history of proxy war as a practice that unfolds seriatim, with new controlling and client states, is more relevant than ever precisely because we appear to be living in a “Cold War redux,” or perhaps a “Great Power rivalries redux,” phase of geopolitics. And the history of “empire writes back” genres, the endlessly iterative life of sequels and revisions, remains central to our disciplinary concerns because the cultural work of decentering the old hegemonies is incomplete, struggling to catch up to the restless, relentless tides of globalization circa 2023. Proxy wars lack definitive closure, as does anti-imperial counterdiscourse. In the first case, the conflict between controlling states cannot be resolved “at a distance but also at a discount” (Lee and Puckett). In the second, the project of decentering Western cultural legacies can never end, not just because revisionist literature recenters what it decenters (a stale paradox, though true) but because the core contradictions that were already animating the literature of high colonialism (Conrad, for example) or of American power in Asia (Graham Greene, for example) are contradictions that live on well past the high-water marks of British power (1880, say) and American hegemony (1950, say).
The proxy war was a distinctive Cold War practice, convincingly pinned to the first Atomic Age by the framework set out by Lee and Puckett. But it has its contemporary echoes and its Victorian precursors (Afghanistan, in fact, fits both those descriptors—the place where the Great Game of interimperial struggle most conspicuously never comes to an end).5 For cultural histories of nineteenth-century proxy war, we can consult the superb work of Zarena Aslami, Nathan Hensley, and Nasser Mufti; these scholars explore the border skirmishes, civil wars, uprisings, annexations, emergencies, and counterinsurgencies that never stopped happening under the drastically misnamed Pax Britannica.6 Victorian frontier conflicts predate the advanced mechanical and nuclear stage of post-1945 proxy war. But these distinct types of imperial state- and warcraft end up sharing a history of narratives, tropes, and genres that emerged to describe them. Cold War thinkers in the US state and media elites often framed American adventurism in Asia and the Global South as a return to the action genres, war rhetorics, and strategic rationales of Victorian empire.
From that perspective, we can consider afresh the many prequels and sequels of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 epic of proxy war, Apocalypse Now. Famously a Vietnam-era retelling of Heart of Darkness, Coppola’s film was itself immediately retold by Eleanor Coppola, the director’s wife.7 Her on-set diaries and subsequent documentary on the making of Apocalypse Now are rightly celebrated as classics in themselves; they give us a sly feminist takedown of Francis Coppola’s jungle auteurism while on location in the Philippines. Coppola’s film was recently revisited in Viet Nguyen’s 2015 satirical novel The Sympathizer, a work that has achieved almost instant canonical status as what Josephine Nock-Hee Park calls the “culminating literary riposte” to Vietnam War narratives in general and to Apocalypse Now in particular.8 Like Park, however, I find Jessica Hagedorn’s 2003 novel Dream Jungle to be in some ways an even more fascinating riposte. Dream Jungle revisits Apocalypse Now, but it centers its vision on Eleanor Coppola’s documentary, and on a wide cast of Filipino characters whose lives exceed the time and space of the film shoot. Hagedorn, channeling Eleanor Coppola’s Hearts of Darkness, finds a way of emplotting the great American (anti-)Vietnam film by recognizing that it is yet another iteration of infinite masculine jousting over symbols and proxies of imperial conquest and violence, an unfinishable Great Game that ensnares and entrances both Conrad and Coppola. The power of Hagedorn’s novel is only just now becoming clear, as the liberal order once safeguarded by American hegemony starts to totter and the ruling paradigms of postcolonial studies shift.
The arc of the research process initiated by studying the narratives of Conrad, Coppola, and Nguyen—indeed of the intertextual array around Apocalypse Now—runs from the 1880s to the 2010s. It spans what the sociologist Giovanni Arrighi might refer to as the Anglo, American, and Asian cycles of accumulation, roughly corresponding to the long nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries.9 It allows us to reimagine the Conrad-Coppola pairing in terms that update 1990s-style postcolonial interpretation. And it allows us to see in tandem the history of American Empire and the chain of sequels and adaptations that proliferate over the half-buried contradictions of proxy war, producing myths that keep repeating—mythic displacements of hidden history, stories of action screened by indirection and substitution, and of antagonism displaced into alternate and satellite political registers.
2. From Marrakech to Luzon: Displacements in Space
Before reaching the next layer of analysis, it is worth noting that Francis Coppola was not alone in using classic Victorian fiction to frame his Vietnam-era exposé of corrupt power. John Huston’s 1975 remake of the Rudyard Kipling tale The Man Who Would Be King was less celebrated, but just as fascinating. It unfolded at an equally epic scale and likewise mixed the Victorian plot with Kurt Vonnegut- and Joseph Heller-style absurdist military farce with a dose of tropical madness decocted from Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972). Huston and Coppola could not make their films in their original settings—Afghanistan and Vietnam—so they made them “at a distance” and “at a discount” in Morocco and the Philippines. What a mighty neocolonial effort they mounted in doing so! They moved men and materiel into these remote sites, commanded vast logistical efforts, and waged what became in effect legendary Hollywood proxy wars in order to describe the layered violence of British and American power. Huston indirectly references the Vietnam War via his Moroccan set intended to evoke Afghanistan in 1888; Coppola does so via a Philippine river intended to evoke the Mekong and Congo at once. The combination of historical displacement back to the Raj era and the amazing behind-the-scenes stories of Huston’s filming in Morocco and Coppola’s in the Philippines suggests a triple proxy logic: (1) Hollywood commandeers labor and land to render a cinematic account of (2) an American proxy war fought over labor and land, which is further approximated by (3) its mythic-historical embedding in British templates of the corrupt adventure tale set at the Victorian imperial frontier.
Mythic thinking about empire conflates and displaces the time and space of war, making proxy war logic itself a proxy for much larger arcs of imperial conquest and invasion. But historical thinking shows that the meaning of Western corruption has shifted over time. The films of Coppola and Huston once looked like a Hollywood critique of the American war machine (and its British imperial predecessor). Now they appear more and more coextensive with that war machine. The twilight phase of American power whose onset we can date to the Vietnam era is still a phase of US hegemony. Although the seventies—the decade of these Victorian-Vietnam narratives and of Said’s Orientalism—represent the coemergence of decline culture in the US media and postcolonial studies in the US academy, it has taken another twenty years for us to view American mythology as artifactual in the same sense that Victorians like Kipling seem artifactual. The ironic gap between Coppola and Conrad is closing now, as the 200-year era of Anglophone hegemony is slowly becoming historical (despite—indeed, as signaled by—the current level of US military and strategic dominance). The adaptation of Kipling and Conrad into anti-Vietnam films of the 1970s is in a sense the last chapter of a world-historical process played out at the level of storytelling: the adaptation of late-imperial British print culture into the emergent Hollywood genre system.
Mired in the Philippines, Coppola willed his film to recreate Vietnam because he wanted so desperately, so heroically to represent the real Vietnam quagmire. That his filming process became too unruly, too big, too costly—and that it had no ending—was no accident of directorial mismanagement. It was a mad method aimed at collapsing a story about the Vietnam War into its referent. Coppola played himself as a cracked-up Western visionary—an “artistic Kurtz”—and an authoritarian auteur: “the filmmaker as field marshal” is now the stuff of New Hollywood legend; it was obvious to the critics of Apocalypse Now from the start.10 The process of Coppola embodying the moral collapse of his protagonist Willard (and the actor who played him, Martin Sheen) and of his antagonist Kurtz (and the actor who played him, Marlon Brando) was dizzyingly mimetic. It was not just an endless-war story endlessly remade, a “gone primitive” Western myth recursively resignified; it was a choreographed staging of moral collapse designed to imitate the moral collapse of American authority in the 1970s, itself a refrain of the moral collapse of European authority in the era of the Scramble for Africa. Proxy on proxy on proxy. Auteur and shaman, Coppola wanted to embody that collapse personally, exercising his power by insisting on his powerlessness, exalting his art by dilating on his own suffering and corruption. “Coppola’s obsession with power is manifested in every scene,” noted Saul Steier in an early evaluation of the film.11 Curdled Western rationality in Apocalypse Now—as in the Conradian original—was folded into the storyline, yes, but also into the aesthetic spectacle of the form itself, its making, its wanton primitivizing of the non-West displaced as a journey into the heart of all men’s darkness.
In this way, Francis Coppola famously summoned the metaphysical demon of Western autocritique. He became the sacrificial artist—the proxy of imperial violence—so committed to his art of chaotic moral collapse that he had to suffer it himself or lose authenticity. By this same logic—a literalization of the Method so memorably associated with Marlon Brando’s own actorly madness—the film Coppola made was not a representation of war but a proxy war itself. Coppola made this clear as he collected the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1979: “My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. It’s what it was really like. It was crazy. And the way we made it was very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam. We were in the jungle. There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little, we went insane.”12
Like the proxy war that was its subject (and the imperial capitalism that was—is—its true subject), Coppola’s film could find no exit, no ending. Its soundtrack proclaimed from the start that “this is the end,” but its form—iterative in conception—seemed to demand a chain-link logic of resignification. What Coppola could not articulate directly was that the mimetic power of his work demanded its own endlessness. No formal or symbolic closure could be given to a “true story of a proxy war” because proxy wars imply seriality. The proxy war as a political form marks the place where state violence reveals itself as engaged not in discrete objectives but in the formalization of a practice—a war machinery—that is self-renewing. That is, the specific crisis of American strategy in Vietnam was less important than the historical necessity to keep fighting proxy wars no matter how the previous ones turned out. To bring this abstract claim down into the concrete aesthetic predicament of Coppola: once the Conrad framing is given to the Vietnam War, the historical specificity of proxy war is already subsumed into the metahistorical pattern of imperial violence. The pattern propagates itself from epoch to epoch, state to state. There is no adequate way to enclose that process using the generic, cinematic, or narrative languages available to the maker of Apocalypse Now.
No closure is the problem of capital itself, and it manifests in the parallel practices of waging and of representing proxy war. The case of Coppola’s folly-genius happens to make this transparent. Unable to find a narrative resolution to the contradictions of a war story (an antiwar story!) without a meaningful political terminus, Coppola had to resort to visually charismatic death scenes. He manufactured a closing sequence that turns on the parallel between two bodies hacked to death—the bloated, bloviating Brando-Kurtz and a lowing, defenseless water buffalo. Before the credits roll, Martin Sheen’s Capt. Willard slithers into the river, then a US air strike cleans the whole mess up: deus ex machina by carpet-bombing. Here we see the trap Coppola set for himself in crystalline form: this closure demotivates the whole plot. If Kurtz and his primitivized followers could be demolished from the air, there was no ultimate need for Willard to make his river journey into the heart of darkness. The Victorian Kurtz had to be extracted by hand; the Vietnam-era Kurtz could simply be obliterated “at a distance” and “at a discount.” Once we recognize the historical dissonance of Conrad and Coppola, we can see the crack in Coppola’s attempt to recreate America’s most infamous proxy war.
Miriam Hansen’s acute and searching account of Apocalypse Now gets quickly to the heart of the matter. Viewing the famously lush Wagner-helicopter-napalm scenes of destruction that Coppola captured on film, Hansen asks: “are we being made to understand the aestheticization of violence”—the US war machine as media spectacle—“by means of yet another aestheticization of violence”?13 Viewers like Hansen cannot distinguish, because Coppola would not distinguish, between the practice and critique of violence. Here is a collapsed distinction between political terror and aesthetic horror, between the visual display of American power and its cinematic counterdiscourse. Proxy war logic has broken the frame of inert historical “topic” and invaded the cinematic form. Proxy wars attempt to enact their intentions at a distance, but the displacement of agency from controlling state to client state stretches the lines of force, the lines of supply, the lines of meaning, thus distorting the lines of political conflict. Substituting the client state for the controlling state, proxy war attempts to balance two structures of interest so that they neither collapse into each other nor separate completely. In representing the Vietnam War, Coppola attempts to replicate the delicate balance between vehicle and tenor, but he faced a double risk: (1) that the film’s metaphysical romance of evil would separate itself from any plausible or precise historical account of US Cold War militarism; and (2) that the film’s rabid investment in authenticity would cause it to collapse into its object, to become the war it wanted to critique.
The technical brilliance of Coppola’s film means that his aestheticization of war—the distance necessary to see war as spectacle—could be understood as mimetic of proxy war, already a form of vital distantiation. Coppola replicates something of the cool remove of the “action intellectuals” described in this issue by Lee and Puckett; his expertise in Apocalypse Now lies in the extension of—in Walter Benjamin’s phrase—the “principles of l’art pour l’art to war itself.”14 Understood in this light, the old counterdiscourse of the “empire writes back” isn’t so much a stale paradigm in the superficial sense of a dated academic trend. It is rather a conceptual relic of a time when the politics of literary anticolonialism operated under the Said-Spivak model. At that time, the imperative was to speak truth to US power as the latest embodiment of an imperialism that had also to be described and deprogrammed from the annals of European culture. Now, though, the historical ground has shifted. The overlapping in real time of American and Asian cycles of accumulation seems to demand a transfer of critical energy from anti-imperialism to anticapitalism, as Colleen Lye has recently suggested.15
3. From Featurette to Counterdiscourse: Displacements of Labor
Looking back at the visual bombast of Coppola’s account of moral crack-up in Vietnam, it starts to seem even more like a repetition of Conrad’s brooding, ponderous language about lost Enlightenment, a hazard perhaps of fitting an old modernist-primitivist motif of darkness to the scene of midcentury proxy war. The baffled aestheticism of Apocalypse Now did not put an end to the shopworn trope of the corrupt white man lost in the jungle. From the recesses of past imperial genres, however artful or autocritical, the story of lost white innocence keeps coming back to crash the future of anti-imperial art. That storyline—its deep commitment to depicting Euro-American metaphysical rot—tends to romanticize the process of capitalist transformation as if it were a story of Western adventure and moral risk.
One way to read Coppola against the grain—and this method has yielded significant results for novelists such as Viet Nguyen and Jessica Hagedorn—is to redirect attention from the collapsing psyche of the auteur/hero and toward the problem of military and cinematic labor. In that effort, Eleanor Coppola’s documentary was pathbreaking, as was Miriam Hansen’s earliest take on Apocalypse Now. Hansen observes that Coppola makes antiwar opera out of geopolitics. She cites a fundamental insight from Walter Benjamin: that (American) cinema becomes antirevolutionary when it concentrates visual energy on the two great proxies for social transformation: war-making and spectacle-making. Benjamin’s original analysis of film’s emancipatory potential suggests that “surplus labor power” in an imperial state can quickly get absorbed by the endless expansion of territory (into preindustrial hinterlands) and the endless expansion of culture industries (into everyday life). For Hansen, the wizardry of Apocalypse Now embodies rather than critiques these two parallel processes of spectacle: war and entertainment—or empire and consumerism.16
But when Eleanor Coppola peeled back the auteurist curtain and retold the story of the film’s making, she gradually introduced the problem of Asian labor into the frame. Her featurette deromanticizes the spectacle of male psychic breakdown, lifts the metaphysical veil, and lays bare the Hollywood smoke bombs that were passed off as Francis Coppola’s fog of war. Hearts of Darkness, which might have been tucked away as a DVD extra, became a cult classic and serious intertext. It exposed the modernist, masculine meandering of her husband’s quest to approximate the Vietnam War. It documented all the impositions that the film’s making made on Filipino actors and extras, villages and spaces, even on Ferdinand Marcos’s militarized national regime. Few viewers can forget the battle of wills over a brace of helicopters, a struggle between the purchased rights of a US filmmaker recreating a proxy war and Marcos’s air force fighting an actual war of state repression.
The iterative power of Apocalypse Now as a myth of American violence reverberates into Viet Nguyen’s prizewinning novel The Sympathizer in large part because the original source text was too contradictory: it captured the horror of America’s war in Vietnam, but it seemed to aestheticize away its political convictions. Coppola’s divided mind reflects almost willy-nilly, or perhaps helter-skelter, the divided mind of Conrad’s Kurtz. The Sympathizer, too, is a story of split subjectivity, tracking the torn conscience of a South Vietnamese refugee-spy who works on the inside of American power while working against it. In a vivid subplot, the sympathizer infiltrates the entertainment industry in the late 1970s, just in time to affect how Hollywood remakes American proxy war. Nguyen’s narrator becomes technical advisor to a bloated Coppola stand-in called the Auteur, who is in the jungles of the Philippines making his Vietnam War epic, The Hamlet.
Although The Hamlet in Nguyen’s novel is not quite Apocalypse Now, the parallels are clear and clearly intended: “Crushing victims in its path, the Movie rolled with the momentum of a Panzer division.”17 The Sympathizer’s protagonist-narrator laments his inability to break Hollywood’s victor-history machine. He struggles to humanize the Vietnamese extras playing victims in the film: “I naively believed that I could divert the Hollywood organism from its goal, the simultaneous lobotomization and pickpocketing of the world’s audiences” (129). It proves impossible, however, to prevent the representational offense of a second (visual and symbolic) war against the Vietnamese:
For I had an encroaching sense of the meanness of my accomplishment, that I had been deluded in thinking I could effect change in how we were represented. I had altered the script here and there, and incited the creation of a few speaking parts, but to what end? I had not derailed this behemoth, or changed its direction, I had only made its path smoother as the technical consultant in charge of authenticity, the spirit haunting bad movies that aspired to be good ones. My task was to ensure that the people scuttling in the background of the film would be real Vietnamese people saying real Vietnamese things and dressed in real Vietnamese clothing, right before they died. The swing of a dialect and the trim of a costume had to be real, but the truly important things in such a movie, like emotions or ideas, could be fake. I was no more than the garment worker who made sure the stitching was correct in an outfit designed, produced, and consumed by the wealthy white people of the world. They owned the means of production, and therefore the means of representation, and the best that we could ever hope for was to get a word in edgewise before our anonymous deaths. (172–73)
After this epiphany, the novel quickly pivots to new episodes and new trajectories, leaving the Apocalypse Now set as a site of wanton destruction and racist Hollywood clichés.
Nguyen does, however, succeed in shifting some of the narrative attention away from the mano-a-mano contest over content (Auteur versus Sympathizer, in a grand symbolic showdown) and toward the labor of Vietnamese actors, the extras. Readers begin to think about who works on set—who embodies the effects of violence, not just who represents or intends violence. Sylvia Chong rightly observes that the narrator of The Sympathizer attunes readers not just to the violence of war but also to the discursive and economic replacement/displacement of actors, extras, and creative labor in the war-film industrial frame.18
Moreover, as Josephine Park points out, Nguyen takes Francis Coppola’s aesthetic mastery much less seriously than does Eleanor Coppola.19 Nguyen’s novel makes a joke of the heavy modernist weather that Coppola summons in making his lurid seventies opera of American moral collapse. Karl Britto, too, notes that Nguyen’s novel is relentlessly intertextual, skillfully so. For Britto, the key achievement of the novel is its signature awareness of the displacements of war narratives into their representations.20 As I have suggested above, the collapse of tenor-vehicle relations approximates the potential collapse of client state-controlling state relations. That is, the absorption of war film into proxy war mirrors the absorption of American state power into its would-be minor and far-off Asian skirmish. Sylvia Chong argues that Nguyen himself, as both novelist and scholar, sees the limits of the counterdiscursive mode of revenge. He’s aware, she notes, that staging and restaging dehumanization for the sake of rewriting the old imperialist script is not always a winning move. Yet, as Chong also concedes, there is nevertheless a logic of perpetuation in Nguyen’s novel.21 The Sympathizer replicates the same fraught scenes, the primal representational logics, of the genres it wishes to attack. Is there a way out of such a trap?
4. From Auteur to Extra: Displacements of Gender
The Sympathizer returns to Apocalypse Now in order to explore the latter’s symbolic violence. Nguyen’s novel brings invisible and dehumanized Asian labor—the film’s extras—to the fore, a move it makes within a notably homosocial framework. Here we have a virtuosic male novelist taking revenge on a virtuoso Hollywood auteur in a way that tends to replicate the conspicuously male-male dramas of intimate antagonism that structure the narrative line from Conrad to Coppola.
Breaking into that lineage, Eleanor Coppola and Jessica Hagedorn seem to be looking for techniques that explore the fragility of male fantasy and, in the case of Hagedorn, push the drama of male rivalry—and of white-male-subjectivity-in-moral-crisis—to the narrative margins. Dream Jungle, published twelve years earlier and to less acclaim than The Sympathizer, is perhaps a more interesting novel for readers of proxy war and its literary contrails. The novel has two 1970s plots set in the Philippines under Ferdinand Marcos. The two plots concern two dictatorial archetypes: (1) the playboy amateur anthropologist Zamora Lopez de Legazpi, descended from Spanish conquistadors, who discovers a Neolithic group on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao; and (2) Tony Pierce, the Coppola figure, who is directing a Vietnam War film entitled Napalm Sunset.
Nguyen satirizes the Coppola brand of antiwar film; Hagedorn goes a step further. She puts the initial focus on two male conqueror-creators, then little by little decenters them. She splinters plot and perspective in Dream Jungle in order to shift attention away from the men who are fighting unwinnable and unfinishable symbolic wars with other men. Her two male protagonists, the Primitivist and the Filmmaker, are gradually displaced by two women, a storyteller named Paz and a sex worker and service worker named Lina.22 At first it’s a traffic-in-women plot: Lina goes from working for Zamora to working for Pierce; Paz (a journalist) goes from reporting on Zamora to reporting on Pierce. But the novel’s whole narrative process is geared toward leaving alpha men and their proxy wars behind.
Dream Jungle is a diptych. Its two parts are called “Discovery and Conquest” (Zamora’s story of finding the Taobo people) and “Napalm Sunset” (the film being made by the great, gonzo American director). Sexual and colonial exploitation interlock and overlap in both halves of the novel. The figures of father, conqueror, director, dictator, and anthropologist also overlap. Hagedorn stretches her plots of white male conquest across a long history of contact, from 1521 to 1971, in a series of crosscut, buzzcut, brisk-paced, postmodern episodes featuring a dozen focalizing subnarrators. The two halves of the novel, though, have strong thematic coherence: the colonial project of the playboy Ethnographer and the sprawling antiwar film of the Auteurist director are both authenticity quests.
Zamora’s romance turns on anthropological contact with what appear to be Stone Age primitives. He helicopters into Himal territory and finds intermediaries who take him to “first contact” with the Taobo people—a tiny tribe of fewer than fifty. Hagedorn bases this plotline on a famous anthropological hoax that took place in the Philippines in the seventies, described and exposed in Robin Hemley’s Invented Eden.23 But Zamora’s imaginary romance of contact is—if fake—charged with authentic and intense feeling (“Zamora would gladly die here, alone”).24 His only real happiness comes via the Taobo; nothing else—art, sex, money—satisfies him.
The Coppola figure, Tony Pierce, embodies a parallel Romance of Authenticity: he is ferociously determined to make a “real” war film despite the stale genre template and the Hollywood trappings that burden him. Like Zamora, he drops in by helicopter with his cameras to capture an encounter that epitomizes centuries of violent invasion in the Asian Pacific. From conquistadors to Hollywood, Western power keeps imposing itself on Filipino life. Zamora is trying to represent a precolonial world, but he’s faking it; Pierce is trying to represent colonial damage, but he can only repeat it.
Hagedorn thus nimbly braids together critiques of old Spanish conquistadors and American colonialism; of comprador masculinity in Manila and media masculinity in Hollywood; of ethnography and war film, both primitivist fantasies pretending to value indigenous or “alternative” history. The desire driving the conquistador and the filmmaker is for (ab)originality, but exploitation corrupts the quest. Rage for origins becomes infinite regress, an ironic play of proxies and substitutes, of recursive drives that cannot be satisfied—a bonfire of male vanity and imperialist nostalgia.
Hagedorn scrambles the old recursive logic of counterdiscourse and adaptation (Conrad to Coppola to Nguyen). For one thing, she retells Eleanor Coppola’s story more than Francis’s. Amid her novel’s dark catalog of bad fathers, megalomaniac artists, and sexual aggressors, Hagedorn zooms in on a thinly disguised version of Eleanor Coppola, a modest, grounded, maternal figure named Janet Pierce, who is filming her husband as he directs Napalm Sunset. She is a subnarrator who knows that her work is the real story: “The film of the film was going to be good. No one knew it yet. No one paid attention to the slender, smiling, unobtrusive woman and her discreet crew of two. Wife of director. Mother of director’s sons” (187).
Hagedorn provides us with “Excerpts from Janet Cattaneo Pierce’s Diary”:
Because of the civil war in Mindanao, we’ve been having troubles. Every day the government sends Tony different helicopter pilots, pilots Tony hasn’t rehearsed with, so he has to start all over again, and the next day the same thing happens. It’s frustrating for the actors and costing us thousands and thousands of dollars. Today one of the air force generals got skittish and called six of the helicopters away while Tony and Franco were setting up a complicated shot.…Tony lost his temper.…One of the general’s flunkies threated to shoot him—it was a pretty nasty situation.…Probably money was exchanged—that’s Tony’s usual style of “managing” things, which I don’t approve of at all. Tony claims in a place like this bribes are necessary evils.…I remember when we did that other movie in Mexico. It was pretty much the same situation. Tony paid off the middlemen and fixers, the cops, guerrillas, and whores—whoever needed to shut up and go away. (276)
The men in this novel—who want to get to the real, to strike the coup de grâce in a long history of imperial discourse and anti-imperial counterdiscourse—cannot achieve their ends. There’s no getting back to the primal people, the unspoiled land, the true image of war that will end war. After all, Hagedorn’s male quests depend on a capitalization process that the men can neither escape nor unravel. Their projects depend on the economization of everything, and Hagedorn insists on this point in a dozen different ways; in Dream Jungle, the system of exchange is all-encompassing—as powerful as the impossible dreams of the men who rail against it.
For Hagedorn, the economics of labor and filmmaking gradually take center stage. Although Pierce and Zamora both have an idea of romantic purity and authenticity, and although they replicate the ideologies of American and Spanish imperialism, what matters finally is their means, not their ends. They are Western-style freebooters miscasting themselves as romantic crusaders. To appreciate the effectiveness of Hagedorn’s satire of Francis Coppola here, it helps to remember that Coppola himself solved the problem of his film-without-an-ending by becoming a video ethnographer. He turned the cameras on the recreational and cultural life of the local paid extras on the set as they prepared a holiday feast, and that footage was spliced into the murder of Kurtz to become the famous closing sequence of Apocalypse Now. The incorporation of labor’s leisure (the extras’ holiday feast) into the brooding primitivism of his story allowed Coppola to find his visual resolution to an impossible film ending. But it is more than that: he understood his relation to the sacrificed animals in precisely economic terms. When asked in an interview years later about the water buffalo that was killed onscreen, he reported that the buffalo was itself the pay he owed to his extras: “That was a big part of their compensation.”25 His spectacular ending, their daily bread.
Hagedorn finds a way to restage Apocalypse Now by addressing “the cost of the production in material and psychic terms.”26 The closing sections of the novel accomplish three significant symbolic actions that reorient critical attention toward the global division of labor underlying both proxy war proper and the mediated proxy war that is postcolonial rewriting. First, Hagedorn recenters the text on Lina, who becomes the main protagonist. The male-centered plots, driven by impossible desires for originality, end in death, destruction, and sacrificial violence. But Lina’s plot resolves into a relatively simple line of escape—toward America, toward diasporic life and labor, toward everyday wage-work, toward dignity, freedom, and autonomy from men and their wanton fantasies.27
Second, the journalist Paz bears witness to the development of a local Filipino film company whose creative direction is set outside the capital and canons of New Hollywood. More directly to the point, the extras who played cannon/camera fodder in the making of Napalm Sunset are becoming participants and sharers in the creative capital of the local film industry. Here, too, Hagedorn’s fiction has gained power over the last fifteen years: more and more the world’s visual media are shaped by dispersed local producers and consumers and national cinema in the Global South rather than by the fading power of Hollywood.
Finally, Dream Jungle emphasizes its interest in breaking the seemingly endless historical pattern of conquest/anticonquest when it concludes with the hollow, ghostly voice of Zamora. The conquistador descendant is now dead, but forced to bear witness to his absence. He watches his wife and daughter: “The girls are having fun. And not once does my name come up. Not once” (325). My students and I once puzzled over this quiet closing line—a strange place to end after such a fizzing novel. But it struck us that Hagedorn decided to highlight her text’s fulfillment of a valedictory Bechdel Test: women talking, no men present, no men discussed. The dream jungles of the men, conquerors and saviors, visionaries and virtuosos, fade to black.
5. Darkness to Dawn: Displacing Proxy Logic
No novel can bear the weight that my reading seems to put on Dream Jungle, even with its bravura approach to the afterlife of Apocalypse Now. In keeping with the logic that attempts to deemphasize originality, we must come to reckon finally with the fact that Dream Jungle is itself an intertext in a completely different way, so far unmentioned. Hagedorn’s novelistic diptych appears to replicate, in theme as well as in form, the 1974 debut novel of perhaps the most canonical postcolonial writer of the last forty years: Dusklands, by J. M. Coetzee.
The first half of Dusklands, the “Vietnam Project,” takes down American defense intellectuals and their proxy war fantasies. The second half points immediately to a much longer history of frontier violence and racial capitalism. Coetzee implies the links backward from Vietnam to the old Dutch Empire and its Boer expansion in eighteenth-century southern Africa. All four of Arrighi’s major cycles of accumulation are now featured in the intertextual web of this essay: Conrad’s British power rewrites Rome’s conquest of Britain itself; Conrad is endlessly rewritten by legions of Global South writers working within different postcolonial contexts and is further adapted and transmediated into Coppola’s film epic of US imperial war in Asia. Hagedorn’s conquistador and Coetzee’s voortrekker bring the pre-Anglophone hegemons of Spain and Holland into this long global-colonial sequence of overlapping invasion narratives.
Coetzee is another seventies critical intellectual taking the measure of the horror of Western imperial wars and colonial settlement the world over. His novel stitches the brutal record of Boer settlement in southern Africa (centered on his own forbear, Jacobus Coetzee) to a fascinating Pynchonesque psychobiography of an American propagandist, Eugene Dawn. Dawn is a Vietnam-era state mythographer (literally), and he is cracking up under the pressure of military hypocrisy. He cannot tell the story of American power in Asia without going insane.28
Dawn’s breakdown ends in a stabbing attack on his own son. This filicidic turn against the defenseless boy encodes the savage waste of young life in Vietnam, conducted in the name of what Dawn himself calls “authentic American destiny,” a felt imperative to make frontier violence a way of Cold War life across the globe.29 Dawn—like Willard and Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, like Francis Coppola himself—comes to be the violence that he seeks to represent. For him “the answer to a myth of force is not necessarily counterforce, for if the myth predicts counterforce, counterforce reinforces the myth.”30 The diptychs of Coetzee and Hagedorn superimpose imperialisms one on the other, implying that the American Cold War and its cycle of proxy violence has historical roots in a process of colonization whose violence it enfolds, then forgets, then preserves dialectically in the form of myth.
This intertextual line of adaptations gives us masculine frontier narratives and spectacles of conquest as the marquee genres of transimperial history. In this mythic chain, all empires are bad in the same way. That’s the elemental gesture of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now once it casts the horrors of Vietnam in the mold of Conrad’s fable of white innocence lost. That is also the fundamental predicate of his film’s unfinishable state. If proxy war in Vietnam—like the atrocity that was the Belgian Congo (Conrad’s point of reference in Heart of Darkness)—is yet another iteration of frontier violence issuing from the dynamos of the West, then the process described in Apocalypse Now is not the story of American power’s exceptional moral collapse. It is, rather, just one more episode in a long (and still unfolding) global narrative, the never-ending story of imperial capitalism. Whatever we think proxy war is about, whether ideology or nationality or territory, these are in fact substitute rationales for the underlying problem of capitalist expansion. The rivalries and turf wars of the great powers—in Asia, in Africa, in Europe, and in the Americas—are themselves but proxies. They mark the historical site where the expansionist mission of one or another controlling state stands in for the endless demand of capitalist growth.
Michaela Bronstein, “Ngũgĩ’s Use of Conrad: A Case for Literary Transhistory,” Modern Language Quarterly 75, no. 3 (2014): 411–37; Byron Caminero-Santangelo, African Fiction and Joseph Conrad: Reading Postcolonial Intertextuality (Albany, 2005); and Ankhi Mukherjee, What is a Classic? Postcolonial Rewriting and Invention of the Canon (Stanford, 2013).
György Lukács, The Historical Novel, trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell (Boston, 1963), 23–27.
Fredric Jameson, The Modernist Papers (London, 2007), 152–69.
Two related questions: how can a proxy war end? How can a Cold War end? Proxy war miniaturizes and displaces the Cold War historical freeze-frame of détente; if a war screens its own political determinants and obscures the intentions of the warring states, how can the peace process shape a postwar political future? If the 1990s notion of an American win in the Cold War turned on the Francis Fukuyama idea of an end of history—that is, the success of a liberal-democratic model (or, more pointedly, the Washington Consensus), then does the current global-level crisis of that model not invalidate the supposed victory?
“The cold war, however, with its complicated grid of alliances, client states, influence, and proxy wars, threatened new and more insidious forms of external control for the colonized peoples of the world. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, for instance, Hannah Arendt says that the second half of the century witnessed ‘the unexpected revival of imperialist policies and methods’ more commonly associated with the late nineteenth century scramble for Africa”; Peter Kalliney, The Aesthetic Cold War (Princeton, 2022), 6.
See Zarena Aslami, “Buffer Zones: Notes on Afghanistan, Race, and Empire,” Victorian Studies 62, no. 3 (Spring 2020): 433–45; Nathan K. Hensley, Forms of Empire: The Poetics of Victorian Sovereignty (Oxford, 2016); and Nasser Mufti, Civilizing War: Imperial Politics and the Poetics of National Rupture (Evanston, 2018).
Apocalypse Now, directed by Francis Ford Coppola (1979, Omni Zoetrope), 153 minutes, DVD; Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, directed by Eleanor Coppola, Fax Bahr, and George Hickenlooper (1991, American Zoetrope), 96 minutes, DVD.
Josephine Nock-Hee Park, “The Vietnam War and Asian American Literature,” in Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature (Oxford, 2019), 1.
Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of Our Times (London, 1994), 47–84.
Saul Steier, “Make Friends with Horror and Terror: Apocalypse Now,” Social Text 3 (Autumn 1980): 122; Miriam Hansen, “Traces of Transgression in Apocalypse Now,” Social Text 3 (Autumn 1980): 123.
Steier, “Make Friends with Horror and Terror,” 121.
Transcribed from footage of the Cannes Film Festival included at the beginning of Eleanor Coppola’s Hearts of Darkness. Francis Coppola’s brilliant bloated film remained mimetic of the unended Vietnam War by refusing to stay in the can even after it was cut, printed, released, screened, reviewed, and celebrated. He had to keep making it over and again, finally releasing the extended director’s cut in 2001.
Hansen, “Traces of Transgression in Apocalypse Now,” 129.
The quoted phrase is from Walter Benjamin’s 1930 essay on German fascism, cited in ibid., 129.
“Rejecting…neoliberalism east and west of the Pacific entails…an explicitly anticapitalist intellectual project, not just an anti-imperialist one”; Colleen Lye, “Asian American Cultural Critique at the End of US Empire,” American Literary History 34, no. 1 (Spring 2022): 239.
Hansen, “Traces of Transgression in Apocalypse Now,” 129.
Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer (New York, 2015), 168. Further citations will be parenthetical in text.
Sylvia Shin Huey Chong, “Vietnam, The Movie: Part Deux,” PMLA 133, no. 2 (March 2018): 375.
Park, “The Vietnam War and Asian American Literature,” 9.
Karl Ashoka Britto, “The Stranger’s Voice,” Public Books, 1 August 2015.
Chong, “Vietnam, The Movie: Part Deux,” 376.
Lina is short for Rizalina, and her counterpart is Paz Marlowe. One evokes the name of Jose Rizal, the literary hero of the modern Philippines; the other evokes Conrad’s Marlow.
Robin Hemley, Invented Eden: The Elusive, Disputed History of the Tasaday (Lincoln, 2006).
Jessica Hagedorn, Dream Jungle (New York, 2003), 9. Further citations will be parenthetical in text.
Andrea Mandell, “Coppola Defends Killing Water Buffalo in ‘Apocalypse Now’: ‘That was the way they do it,’” USA Today, 13 August 2019.
Park, “The Vietnam War and Asian American Literature,” 7.
We might understand Hagedorn’s novel as one version of aesthetic response to the challenge described by Colleen Lye: “in Tithi Bhattacharya’s words, the challenge is to ‘find the chaotic, multiethnic, multigendered, differently abled subject that is the global working class’ so as to go beyond ‘the two-dimensional image’ of the individual male direct producer”; “Asian American Cultural Critique at the End of US Empire,” 246.
Cold war rationality, as Lee and Puckett observe, seems in the arena of warcraft and statecraft to mark the point where rationalism exceeds reason. In effect, the logic of proxy war as developed by the defense experts and structuralist maestros of the midcentury represents one living and consequential instance of the dialectic of enlightenment described by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in the late 1940s. State power that draws on an arid and theoreticist understanding of Enlightenment rationality devolves into its barbaric, destructive other. The Promethean crack-up of J. M. Coetzee’s Eugene Dawn allegorizes and psychologizes this process, as does, in effect, Conrad’s proleptic narrative of Belgian imperialism as an absolutist form of civil madness.
J. M. Coetzee, Dusklands (Johannesburg, 1974), 14.