This is an excerpt from “Spaces of Communal Misery: The Weird Post-Capitalism of Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which was published in the volume Spaces and Fictions of the Weird and the Fantastic: Ecologies, Geographies, Oddities, edited by Julius Greve and Florian Zappe. In the chapter, I follow Fredric Jameson’s suggestion that dialectical criticism needs to be attentive to both the ideological and the utopian dimension of cultural artifacts and provide a reading of the political and aesthetic ambiguities of Benh Zeitlin’s 2012 film.
Spaces of communal Misery:
The Weird Post-Capitalism of
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Precisely this domesticated version of the weird is what allows for its recu- peration in the service of neoliberal and libertarian ideologies. Pace Kanye West, the film suggests that the major scandal after Hurricane Katrina was that the federal government cared too much, rather than too little. It is thus transformed into an oppressive apparatus that completely disregards the beasts’ desire for autonomy.
Before being evacuated, Hushpuppy and Wink have made peace after having gone through another fight the night before. After a vision of the Aurochs—perhaps a dream Hushpuppy is having—the film cuts to a close-up of her sleeping peacefully in her father’s arm when the noise of helicopters becomes audible suggesting a threatening intrusion into this rare moment of harmony. And, indeed, Hushpuppy, Wink, and the other beasts are brought to a hospital that, in a curious reversal of the inefficient response to the real 2005 hurricane, seems to work fairly well. In fact, it works with a terrible, even quasi-genocidal efficiency that in the film’s logic saves individual lives but threatens to end the collective existence of the beasts (which has the curious result that the film feels like an allegorical depiction of the right-wing conspiracy theory that there exist FEMA concentration camps).
While the most of the film is set in the Bathtub where dwellings consisting of waste and natural materials are organically integrated into the landscape of the southern wild, the “film starts to fall apart” when it moves to this neon-lit “civilized bureaucracy” (Patricia Yaeger). Here, the beasts can no longer move like fish in water, because they exist in a place that is alienated from their essence, as Ludwig Feuerbach might put it; it is not a place that allows subjects to dwell.
In fact, the film’s commitment to place rests on what one could call a Heideggerian notion of an essentialist relationship between land and people. In “Building Dwelling Thinking,” the German philosopher waxes etymological to get from dwelling to being “preserved from harm and danger,” which is to say, being preserved from anything foreign to the dweller’s “nature”: “To dwell, to be set at peace, means to remain at peace within the free, the preserve, the free sphere that safeguards each thing in its nature.” Note how Heidegger here equates being free not with an ability to freely develop but with the imperative to remain the same. It is, thus, only logical to argue that “sav[ing]” an entity is to “set [it] free into its own presencing [in sein eigenes Wesen freilassen].”
Beasts, then, is very much concerned with saving the residents of the Bathtub from the state’s attempt to save them by putting them in a hospital; it is, after all, their “nature” that demands that they remain where they are. Thus, the film’s woke Heideggerianism—after all, the Bathtub is not the Black Forest, and the beasts are more diverse than what he conceived of as the Volksgemeinschaft—proves deeply compatible with a libertarian rejection of the federal government. If an actual survivor of Katrina complained that “[w]e was treated worse than an animal,” in Beasts being treated like an animal that is one with its world is an ambition tragically ignored by the state.
Using the terminology of Michel Foucault’s 1975–1976 Collège de France lectures, the film’s major conflict is organized around a biopolitical attempt to bring “the biological… under state control” insofar as the beasts are subsumed under the rubric of the “population” that can be subjected to a rationalized calculation of health- and illness-related issues. At the same time, it is a disciplinary intervention that treats them as subjects whose behavior must be regulated. In the hospital, Hushpuppy’s voice can be heard over the images of an unconscious Bathtub resident connected to a life-support machine—or “plug[ged] into a wall,” as she puts it. She relates her father’s desire to be put in a boat and set it on fire “if he ever got so old he couldn’t drink beer and catch catfish.” Strapped to a wheelchair and at the mercy of the doctors, Wink certainly is no longer able to do what he loves and in Zeitlin’s film this is a fate worse than death.
The biopolitical “management, protection, and cultivation of life”—the conservation of the individual body, that is—becomes “coextensive with the sovereign right to kill” the beasts as a life-form. Biopolitics and what Achille Mbembe has called “necropolitics” are one in the film. In short, Beasts mobilizes a Foucauldian critique of modern institutions in an anarchist spirit that is, however, almost indiscernible from libertarian ideology and neoliberal demands to end the state’s responsibility for the wellbeing of its citizens.
"Rien Faire, Comme une Bête"
And yet. Should the defense of the imperfect against that which is worse really suffice? After all, the modern welfare state has been criticized for its devaluation of unpaid reproductive labor traditionally performed by women and its implicit productivism. Its goal was always also to guarantee “an economically productive life” for its subjects who subsequently had to treat their bodily capacities as labor-power to be sold at the market (Isabell Lorey).
If the Bathtub despite all its misery figures “as a kind of Eden” (Miriam Strube), it is not just for its pastoral imagery of a happy communion of humans and nature. It is just as much the absence of the compulsion to engage in wage labor that is alluring. In capitalism, human beings are “cut off from nature and from other people,” since they “relate to both almost exclusively through the mediation of markets” (Endnotes). But in the Bathtub markets and money are absent, and so is wage labor.
Wink’s love for catching catfish does not ossify into “a particular, exclusive sphere of activity”; that is to say, life in the Bathtub echoes the old Marxian adage that under communism it becomes “possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic.” While the content of the Bathtub’s utopia is not the same (less criticizing, more drinking), the form is identical: work “as an activity separate from the rest of life” does not exist. It might be a “communism of penury” (Alberto Toscano), but Beasts gives expression to a utopian longing for a collectivity beyond the “community of capital” (Endnotes).
And perhaps this is at the same time more powerfully utopian and weirder than anything else in Beasts. […]. Early in the film, Hushpuppy and Wink are floating on the water in the body of an old car. A long shot shows their float that is now being dwarfed by an oil refinery in the distance while the levee separating the two worlds cuts across the image. The film cuts to a shaky point of view shot of the industrial structures while we hear Wink say, “Ain’t that ugly over there. We got the prettiest place on earth.” Thus the film positions us in opposition to the industrial civilization of the “dry side” at its very beginning.
The next sequence opens with an establishing shot of the Bathtub overlaid by Hushpuppy’s voiceover commentary. “The Bathtub’s got more holidays than the whole rest of the world,” she explains, while we are seeing her and others run onto the island in a fast-paced succession of handheld shots that place us right in the middle of the action. “Daddy always saying that up in the dry world they got none of what we got,” Hushpuppy continues to images of adults dancing, playing music, and drinking, “They only got holidays once a year.” In other words, the beasts measure wealth not in terms of material possessions (whose production might require “ugly” factories) or abstract sums of money. The “dry world” might have all of that, but still remains poor. Wealth for them consists in time of leisure (“holidays”) that can be appropriated for the building of communal social relations intensely experienced during collective celebrations—and beautifully visualized by Zeitlin in this sequence diametrically opposed to the sterile hospital later in the film. In short, the capitalist form of social wealth has no meaning in the Bathtub, but “communal luxury” (Kristin Ross) does.
The latter—the intensity of the ties binding the beasts to one another—in many ways only increases when some decide to stay in the Bathtub even though the storm is approaching. In recent years, a number of writers have looked at disaster (both natural and unnatural) as instances during which the familiar social order is suspended and new bonds based on “unbroken solidarities” are created producing a sense of “joyous” communal solidarity that leaves its subjects feeling “enriched rather than impoverished,” as Rebecca Solnit puts it. Pointing out that under these conditions the measure of wealth can be transformed, she claims that a “wealth of connections and care” rather than “material wealth” is significant for how communities deal with disaster. The authors of the Out of the Woods collective argue in a similar vein when they write that in addition to the “scarcity” that certainly exists during disastrous events an “abundance of social links” can emerge when everyday life is disrupted; in short, a “collective abundance” that might be appropriated by “disaster communism.” The anonymous insurrectionist that form the Invisible Committee explicitly refer to the aftermath of Katrina, praising those who, like the beasts in Zeitlin’s film, “refused to leave the terrain.” They, too, believe that the “decomposition of all social forms” might open a space “for a wild, massive experimenta- tion with new arrangements.” Shared by these examples and Beasts is a sense that exceptional situations might reveal a potentiality for solidary social relations that normally remains hidden by the capitalist mediation of human relations by relations between things.