Colonialism as an Abstract Machine

abstract machine

Marxists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have a useful illustration of a similar abstraction in their 2000 book Empire. According to Hardt and Negri, colonialism works as an abstract machine, a term synonymous with abstraction or virtual object. The abstract machine of colonialism, they say, creates a dialectic of identity and alterity that imposes binaries divisions on the colonial world (Empire, 128-129). And while differences and identities are created by colonialism “as if they were absolute, essential, and natural,” they in fact function “only in relation to each other and (despite appearances) have no real necessary basis in nature, biology, or rationality” (129). Hardt and Negri do not go as far as to call Empire an abstract machine, but perhaps we should. Customary definitions of Empire usually focus on a polycentric sovereignty of global governance as it intersects with the postmodern production of informatized, immaterial, and biopolitical products. In contrast, I contend that Empire arrives as an entirely incorporeal entity that lacks its own body and is deprived of a material existence to call its own. However devoid of existence, Empire persists as the force behind a concept for organizing and directing the capitalist world market. As a result, Empire operates through management and circulation, but it is not extensive with its products. Perhaps the most powerful example of the incorporeal transformation is the transformation that occurs when a judge declares the accused to be guilty of their crimes – transforming an alleged criminal into a real one (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 80-81).

We can now return to the interrupted scene of Oshima’s film, knowing more about the abstraction that wants to kill R. In the conclusion to “Death by Hanging,” R asks the officials to show him a nation so he can name his executioner. Perhaps it is the Public Prosecutor or the Security Officer, as they represent the nation? (52:56). No, they respond, they are only “a small part, not the whole thing” (53:06). R continues his line of questioning, telling the prosecutor, “If you were the whole thing, you would be evil for killing me. The next Prosecutor will kill you, and he’ll be killed in turn…and finally no one will be left” (53:32). The prosecutor becomes frustrated enough by R’s Derridean deconstruction of the mythic force of law to offer R his freedom (54:26). As R opens the door to leave, however, an intense light representing the inability of Koreans to fully enter Japanese society compels him back into the courtroom. Back in the room, R submits to being hanged, to which the prosecutor declares that even if the nation is invisible, R now knows the nation, because “the nation is in your mind, and as long as it exists there, you feel guilty” (56:02). In spite of this, R still maintains his innocence by proclaiming “A nation cannot make me guilty” (57:20). And “with such ideas [he] shall not be allowed to live,” so they hang him not his initial crimes, but his dangerous and treasonous ideas (57:24). In a final shot of a hanging noose, the prosecutor thanks the Education Officer “for taking part in this execution,” and then thanks the Security officer “for taking part in this execution,” and then he thanks “you,” “and you,” “and “you,” “and you,” and then finally “you, dear spectators, thank you for taking part in this execution” (58:12-finish).

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