“It’s a little bit fascist but I fall for it … we will soon be attacked for being proto-fascists …” warns Slavoj Žižek, admitting his admiration for the latest film adaptation, directed by Denis Villeneuve, of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction novel Dune. But it seems he does not fully intend to refute those potential attacks. “Many people take it for a portrait of a fake fascist revolution,” he writes, reminding us of Walter Benjamin’s “fascism as the index of a failed revolution.” A fake revolution is, in other words, fascist.
“My lesson is this, a very sad one … it’s like the Marx Brothers joke, warning ‘this guy looks like an idiot, acts as an idiot, but this should not deceive you, he is an idiot.’” Which is to say, sometimes things appear to be a certain way, and then they really do turn out to be that way. Žižek suggests this is the case, for example, of progressive causes when they apologetically admit themselves to be a part of capitalism, as if this apology somehow salvaged their essence from a merely contingent participation in the system they deplore. But what of Dune?
I do not intend anything like a real grappling with the novel’s themes or the cinematography of its latest transposition; I mean only to use some reactions to this and similar works as the context (or excuse) for discussing certain aesthetic intuitions. Dune presents us with a world of dead surfaces, oceans of sand punctuated by islands of stone. The only fauna able to thrive is the insect—life at its simplest, almost mechanical. Few things remain in place as wind and worm constantly shift along the surface dunes of the dry immensity. The mineral foundations of creation are stark and dissolute, and the plant and animal kingdoms have been all but banished. They match the naked sky, barely endowed with enough moisture to filter the heat from a furious sun. The plenitude of form, the permanence of life, the great chain of being, these are only faintly intuited. But underneath, sheltered in the coral-like caverns of the world’s bedrock, below the sand and scorching sun: humanity. Man and longing, and a culture animated by messianic anticipation.
Today, we might find its imagery allegorical. The world, or the public sphere, has in many respects been rendered inhospitable. The once baroque diversity of cultural forms has been drastically reduced. A desertscape has replaced the lush filigree characteristic of more traditional societies—traditionally meaning anything from medieval to the recent sort whose loss Robert Putnam decried. We burrow down, where stability might be found, and desire to live in those stones, biding our time, expecting a reckoning to fall from the sky. The reactionary instinct can readily identify with Herbert’s fictional desert dwellers, the ‘Fremen.’
Furthermore, any depiction of a future that recapitulates the social arrangements and ethics of the past in ways that are compatible with tremendous technical sophistication, would seem to exclude the idea of social progress: well over ten thousand years in which to resolve class contradiction and learn tolerance, but humanity ends up reproducing feudal structures and a neoclassical aesthetic. The symmetry, verticality, the uniforms—the sense that individual soldiers in phalanx formation are the limbs of a corporate person whose head is their lord—it is difficult to depict these without an aura of seductive grandeur. Of course, that is the point. We have to be made to see the appeal of power and the myth of the hero, before the work shows us its limits.
Yet, despite its author’s critique of power, messianic expectation, and imperial expansion, what is evocative in his vision attests to this ancient fever, the will to imagine futures that recover the past, projecting what has been lost—sometimes empire, sometimes the pasture—both greatness and the hearth—forward. In recent centuries, for the western imagination, this frequently manifested in so-called “orientalism.” From Nietzsche to Valentine de Saint Point, it was supposed that a non-alienated relation of man to his instincts could be found in the east, specifically the near east. Herbert draws on this tradition. His Fremen seem to represent a pre-Islamic Arabian “Jahiliya,” that is, tribal warfare, endemic disunity, and idolatry. But this is not all. The tribal bickering and incapacity to stand against foreign colonial forces has more to do with the state of affairs encountered by Lawrence of Arabia than Muhammad. The Fremen are not awaiting revelation in their own tongue, a religious dispensation that might prevent their falling under the orbits of Abyssinian, Byzantine, and Persian polities, as during the birth of Islam. Rather, they await a foreigner savior (thus the charge of “white-saviorism” sometimes leveled at Herbert). Their fantasy of liberation also invites conquest.
The Fremen will eventually unleash a terrible Jihad upon the worlds in the name of their adopted savior. The risk Herbert points to is clear—in order to escape tyranny we might embrace, or create, a tyrant, and become dutifully tyrannical ourselves. This would reify our sense of justice, identifying it with some external will rather than understanding it as a transcendent principle which can be personified by a trusted judge, but is not identical to his whims. We would lose our vitalism in the act of its recovery, for tyranny draws the voltaic enthusiasm of a people without circulating it back to them. It is empowered by them, but never empowers them in turn. There is no mutual determination of demos and dominus when the latter desires that the former become pliable, and the former secretly does as well.
In his final and best work—for such was his judgment, one his critics have mostly contradicted—The Labors of Persiles and Sigismunda, Miguel de Cervantes imagines an island whose savage inhabitants, while living outside what any of their contemporaries would regard as civilization, nonetheless nurse a messianic desire for civilization’s ultimate fulfillment, its final paroxysm. For although they perform human sacrifices, acts reviled the world over, they do so unto an equally universal end, hoping to conjure up a world-emperor who will unite the whole seed of Adam under his yoke. We have here an equivalent to the primitive Fremen and their alien messiah, the disunity of tribes and the unity of tyrants.
When we cut it off from transcendence, power can only ebb and flow between these two poles. In Dune, spirituality is a mere instrument, and prophecy is but the result of careful planning. Self-control is not a salvific asceticism but a means to exercise power. The ability to see into the future (or possible futures) is simply a genetically and chemically enabled physical possibility, and the messiahship of which it is a feature is simply the result of a cabal of witches whose eugenic sciences and seeding of mythologies throughout space have brought it about.
The same dynamic is manifest in another fantasy universe that was recently subject to some controversy for inspiring fascist sympathies, the “Warhammer 40k” table-top game. According to its official lore, an atheistic emperor desiring to rid humanity of superstition would succeed in uniting humanity under his rule, only to eventually become an object of worship for his subjects, projecting psychic influence throughout his realms and thereby becoming a kind of material god. In such cases, it seems that if there is no god, humanity must invent one, or rather, by abolishing religion, the state is divinized. If there is no Being of beings, to use a classical formula, the biggest being among smaller beings will become their idol of worship.
By contrast, the project of restraining the scandals of savagery through civilization, and of correcting the sedentariness of civilization with savagery–to avoid an excess of centrifugal and centripetal movement; to subdue the barbarism of sense and the barbarism of reflection, as Giambattista Vico would put it–requires a transcendent vista. The synthesis can only be brought about if the vertical does not finally collapse into the horizontal and so parasitically deplete its own ground.
Our recovery of the past unto the future, then, of the energies of savagery and intellections of civilization, or the balancing of the many and the one, the people and the person entrusted as its representative; they must be mutually determining. Why does this require transcendence? Because two things are only equivalent to one another if there is some third principle of which they are both expressive. In contrast, if reality lacks an essential basis for harmony—a Logos—the only order we can hope for is an arbitrary balance between competing forces, or else the growth of one force such that it becomes able to pacify the rest. Anarchic absence of power and absolute power, tribalism and tyranny, or the modern conceptions of market and state, will be our only vectors, a pendulum of forces from between which the human spirit cannot liberate itself.
Indeed, the traditional king was always somehow a representative. Monarchy embodied the kingdom, relating to subjects and estates as a man to his organs. In Christianity, this arrangement is a political analogue to the Church as the body of Christ, with whom the faithful are encouraged to enter into dialogue. There are equivalents to this in other religious traditions.
The above invites us away from the oppositions of modern thought. It challenges the imagination to remain skeptical of grandeur as a kind of therapeutic catharsis, to resist the fantasy of totalizing power. The exercise of legitimate authority, the recovery of the past, will accompany our deliberate activity. Our aesthetic longings find their fulfillment in a participatory metaphysics, not in a final, apocalyptic arrival in which we have no part, to which we bear no relation.