The Legacy of Colonialism: Watching the World Burn

I went with some friends last night to see an outdoor showing of The Dark Knight in DC. By now I’ve seen the movie dozens of times, and find it ultimately way too drawn out and violent for my interest. I am also familiar with the critiques – particularly of the third film of the series, which I haven’t seen – that suggest that, despite its platitudes to “heroes we need, heroes we deserve” and the like, the underlying message is essentially status quo. Regardless, it was a good excuse to sit outside and see some friends. However, I noticed something in the film last night that I had never noticed before, and that I hadn’t seen mentioned elsewhere – the subtle legacy of colonialism.

What I noticed was a fairly minor plot point – a story told by Alfred to Bruce to reflect on the character of The Joker and the limits of Batman. The story goes like this:

A long time ago (during the colonial period or maybe just after? The exact time isn’t specified) Alfred was serving as an advisor to the administration in Burma. The administration was attempting to buy the loyalty of “tribal” leaders with loads of precious stones. However, they quickly learned that the stones were being stolen by a bandit as they made their way out of the city. After six months of investigation, they couldn’t figure out who the bandit was, his motivations, or his location. One day, Alfred was out in a village inquiring about the bandit when he saw a little boy with a ruby “the size of a tangerine.” It was then that he realized that the bandit was simply throwing the gems away. He wasn’t out for any rational purpose, he simply wanted “to watch the world burn” as Alfred so famously puts it.

Later, Bruce asks Alfred if they ever caught the Bandit. Alfred says “Yes,” and Bruce asks what it took to catch him. Alfred replies, “We burned the forest down.”

Think about this for a second, and ask who it was in this story who wanted to “watch the world burn.” The bandit was stealing jewels from a colonial administration that were being used to buy off the loyalty of native leaders – potentially he killed some of these colonial cronies in the process, but Alfred doesn’t mention that. After he stole the gems, he simply threw them away, leaving them for villagers and children to find. His intention might not have been benevolent, but in comparison to the response his actions were trivial, and potentially beneficial to the Burmese natives – hold back the colonial administration, and redistribute wealth at the same time. It was Alfred and his cohort who burned the forest, not the bandit. Perhaps that’s what the Bandit wanted all along – is that what Alfred is trying to suggest? Given the history of colonialism, and the evidence offered in the story itself, I don’t think it follows that this bandit was a mad man like The Joker. Instead, this story should make us reflect on the madness of colonialism and other oppressive systems – that they would go to such extremes to protect their power and hold on to a few precious stones – and think about who it really is who not only wants to “watch the world burn” but to actually burn the world to the ground.


I’ve admittedly been putting off learning about the new movement known as Accelerationism, and I have not read enough or engaged with the idea enough to really know at all what I am talking about. So in part this is a request – tell me what I should be reading, where I should be looking, what interests you about the movement, and what you see are its limitations.

What I find compelling – so far – is simply that Accelerationism seems to push for tactics and practical strategies for building a better future rather than theorizing abstractly the hegemony of Capitalism and the recognition that it will take concerted effort (struggle, one might say) to bring about the end of Capitalist exploitation (as opposed to simply waiting for Capitalism’s “inherent contradictions” to bring about its own collapse). However the approach seems ripe for critique from feminist and post-colonial perspectives, as well as for its seemingly simplistic conception of human-technology-environment interactions. In fact, the whole thing seems overly simplistic to me – the struggle I refer to will take time, and have no certain outcomes. Struggle to me means engaging with differences, moving through them (though, perhaps, never beyond) to build a better world together. Accelerationism – in my superficial understanding – seems to prefer to ignore differences in favor of its vanguardist drive to techno-social engineering. Again, that’s my superficial, and poorly informed take on the issue.

Reading about it also brings to mind the recent film Snowpiercer.

Kim Fortun: Toxic Vitalism in Latour’s AIME

Hau Journal has recently published the texts of talks given by Bruno Latour, Phillipe Descola, Michael Fischer, Kim Fortun, and others at the recent AAA conference. The talks were part of a special panel on the recent interest in ontology within anthropology (which I’ve written about many times already). I am most interested in the talk given by Kim Fortun (who I am thrilled to have as an advisor on my PhD committee) in which she critiques Latour’s AIME project for its failure to recognize and account for its own externalities as well as those of global capitalism – the toxic chemicals and polluted sludges that break out of their secure confines to seep into our everyday lives.

We work from soiled grounds, in an atmosphere thick with the byproducts of fossil-fuel-intensive political and economic systems. Our anthropologies to come must work to dis- lodge the future these systems so forcefully anteriorize.”

Moving forward – composing a common world, to borrow Latour’s phrase – cannot be done without treading through these sludges (both material and discursive), and learning to cope with the ecological, psychological, emotional, and physical traumas that they have wrought upon us all (but especially on the subaltern).

Hacking Finance: Brett Scott’s Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance

Reblogged from Upward Anthropology Research Community

In his book, The Heretic’s Guide to Global FinanceBrett Scott offers activists a primer on the world of finance and how to turn it to potentially better ends. Not all of the ideas Brett puts forward – and the book is full of ideas – are without critique, but the book as a whole is an excellent example of Upward Anthropology, and the uses to which an anthropological analysis of power can be put.

The book is broken into three sections: Exploring, Jamming, and Building. In the section on “Exploring” we are given a general guide to understanding nearly ever aspect of the global financial system. Scott uses his training as an anthropologist and his background as an employee at a financial firm to give a very detailed and useful map of the way financial organizations channel money, and the underlying assumptions in that process. Those who are deeply embedded or have done extensive research on the financial industry might find the examination provided a little general, but I learned a great deal from the section. Often in the activist community, the world of finance is treated as a homogeneous structure with little variation in values and interests. Scott demonstrates effectively that there are significant, though sometimes subtle, differences between hedge funds, for example, and your average retirement fund. Furthermore, he points out the cracks in the system – the spaces where it might be opened up and exploited for positive ends or brought crumbling down given the right pressures.

The following sections on Jamming and Building delve further into these cracks and explore a host of possibilities for exploiting, undermining, and even dismantling the system. “Jamming” involves using the language and culture of the financial industry to your own ends. The term was popularized by Kalle Lasn, but Scott focuses the energy into a laser-tight strategy of disruption using the very terms of discourse that financial industry insiders use to exclude the public. “Building” goes a step further and proposes alternative models for using the financial system to benefit people rather than just feeding profit to the wealthy. For example, Scott suggests creating a hedge fund that leverages investments in order to oppose unjust, unethical, and illegal corporate activities.

The book is not without critique. The very idea of using the financial system to address social problems might rub some people the wrong way. Scott addresses those concerns, but ultimately glosses over them suggesting that this kind of “hacking” is the most effective way to promote change. Whatever you call it, the actions Scott proposes are not absolved from possible harmful consequences, and it is important to remain aware of the limitations of the strategies he suggests. Nevertheless, there are many good ideas and suggestions in the book, and it is worth exploring the possibilities further – especially since there are relatively few similar examples of really practical approaches to addressing social issues.

These are the kinds of direct actions that can only come from a deep understanding of the system and how it maintains itself, and Scott’s approach is an excellent example of the potential for Upward Anthropology. We look forward to more from Scott, and more “heretical” work in other areas as well.