Just One Word: Recuperation
Updated: Sep 24, 2019
Imagine the scene. Row upon row of soldiers standing perfectly in vast columns. The sound of a drum beating, growing steadily louder as anticipation builds. The great leader has arrived. Everyone is awed by their power. The very air is electrified by their presence. The door opens and then out hobbles Darth Sidious, and suddenly you given witness to a massive demonstration of power by one of the greatest of the Sith Lords. What is amazing, is that it is not immediately off-putting. To see the Imperial Stormtroopers stand in their great columns, to see the power commanded by the Emperor; these things are not off-putting or repulsive in a way that one might feel watching the Wehrmacht in the 40s go on parade or watch Hitler address a crowd. And yet, in a Star Wars movie, which is explicitly about a rebellion against a fascist government, there is a certain elan to the presentation of the Empire that has captivated fans long after the Empire was actually defeated. This article looks at how and why that is.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word recuperation has two meanings. The first, ''recovery from an illness'' is what most people think of when they hear the word. To get better, from being unwell. The dictionary has a second meaning however, "the recovery or gaining of something" which is something most people are less familiar with.
In leftist discourse, the word recuperation has a meaning more aligned with the second definition than the first. The word recuperation is a process whereby a radical idea is co-opted by the system and in that process, rendered harmless or ineffectual . It is the opposite of the idea of détournement where mainstream ideas are taken to become radical.
The process of recuperation is thoroughly soaked into our cultural, media and social landscape and the reasons for this are obvious. Recuperation engenders passivity and it is part of the process by which something harmful might be normalised into a society as a whole. To make a harmful idea seem less bad, is to make that idea more easily accepted in a society at large. To that goal, there are a number of ways in which recuperation can manifest, and once you know about it, it becomes difficult to really truly disentangle from the way in which most commercial media exist and propagate; it is simply, too intertwined in the current order.
So to make this point, I want to discuss a number of different ways in which recuperation occurs in society, for different ideas, and to different effects. It is not the case that all recuperation is equally the same. It is also not even necessarily the case that all recuperation is intentional. Sometimes, a cultural or social norm becomes so entrenched in a society, that people in that society project this norm unconsciously onto their work. It is important to understand the phenomenon of recuperation to understand its complexity of manifestation.
Star Wars is a movie about fighting fascism. It is about an armed insurrection against a fascist, human-supremacist organisation in space. And yet, some of the most recognisable and prominent imagery of Star Wars, is of the Empire, the fascists. Almost everyone can recognise the classic Imperial armour, Darth Vader and the symbols of Imperial power like Star Destroyers or the Death Star. Of course, there are symbols of the Rebel cause that are memorable such as the X-Wing but in proportion, the Empire is one of the most symbolic parts of Star Wars.
This is important because in our cultural space, the prevalence and commonality of the symbols of the Empire, help contribute towards a different attitude towards them. As the extended lore was added, the Empire became to be characterised by strong militarism and central control of the galaxy. The Empire are space nazis, with all the symbology of space nazis, but without they lack the same kind of direct connections. The kinds of atrocities committed by the Empire are either very localised and small scale, the killing of Luke's adoptive parents, or very distant and emotionally disconnected, like the destruction of Alderaan. For the unaware, a pivotal moment in A New Hope, the first Star Wars movie, is the destruction of Alderaan by the Death Star. In a cinematic moment, the entire planet is destroyed by a laser in a spectacular fashion but without any response save for two characters: Ben Kenobi, a jedi who can sense the destruction and Princess Leia.
For the viewers, we have no knowledge of Alderaan except that Princess Leia is from there. We do not get to see the planet or its people or see a greater response to the destruction of Alderaan beyond Princess Leia's most direct personal feeling. There is a certain clinical perspective on the destruction of an entire planet and all of its people, and this makes it difficult to connect with the scale of the crime and if that happens, then it becomes more difficult to feel revulsion at the Empire's acts. Alderaan's destruction is not mentioned directly again which helps to push the meaningless of its destruction out of the public's eye.
The result of this, is that the Empire are in some ways, comical villains. They are a representation of fascism that lacks many of the same revulsion real-world fascism ought to incite. This is, absolutely not to say that watching Star Wars makes someone a fascist; the point of recuperation is not to directly propagandize as a whole but rather to change the culture.
Most of the people who watch Star Wars might think the aesthetics of the Empire are somewhat interesting, but very few will admit that the Empire is a good thing to be, to aspire to the kind of system the Empire espouses. In this way, the recuperation is accidental. In trying to make a movie series about a rebellion against a fascist government, they have created memorable fascist characters and symbols that can occupy a cultural space on equal terms with the anti-fascists who oppose them.
So that was an example of an accidental recuperation, so what then would be a good example of an intended recuperation? Well, the Call of Duty game series is largely an exercise in American jingoism. Jingoism, referring to a kind of militaristic patriotism that often leads to belligerent foreign policy, is a cornerstone of the presentation and aesthetics of Call of Duty. Throughout the series, the US forces are depicted engaging in widespread warfare against foreign threats to American interests, ranging from Russian forces who want to justify a war, to actual invasions of US soil. It is clear from the presentation, and player perspective, of these games that the US forces are the good ones. Regardless of the implications, even including historical conflicts with the US, the player is never fundamentally opposed to the goodness of the US state. At best, the player is forced to fight an element of American excess (such a private corporation in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare) while completely ignoring the American society and system that produced said evil corporation. In the other games, the Americans are the "good" guys who must, by necessity, fight the "bad" guys who are Arabs, Russians, Asians who never receive characterisation beyond being the bad guys. Even in historical conflicts in which the US is hardly good, such as the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, the games portray the Americas, and their way of life, as the natural and good order to fight against any of the bad orders of the world. The best example of this, is the in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2.
During this game, the player partakes in US attempts to back Mujahideen fighters involved in the Soviet-Afghan war. Despite the fact that the US willingly backed the native Afghan fighters against the Soviets, the Mujahideen turn on their allies, with a loud declaration of "You are and always be our true enemy". This, said from an Afghan fighter who in real life, cooperated heavily with the US against the Soviets. This single moment, demonstrates the kind of historical recuperation on display in the Call of Duty series. The message being recuperated is of American imperialism. The games, especially the later ones, portray America's roles in wars around the world as the good guys, who are either standing alone against the evil "communism" or working to help the downtrodden against their oppressors. This ignores the nuance of these situations, including the agency and voice of the non-American people involved in them. Even in the games involving the Vietnam war, only the communists commit war crimes when in reality both sides did horrific things.
The problem with this, is that the idea that American foreign policy has been self serving and destructive, is recuperated into the idea that the Americans only ever intervened in the name of justice and peace. This converts American imperialism, into American interventionism against unequivocally bad things. For someone that does not know the history, but has played all of the games, the impression they get (or will be lead to believe) is that America has not been involved in evil or destructive acts and that US foreign policy has been only to the benefit of the people they have warred against.
The last example I want to discuss is that recuperation of climate activism. Whereas the last two talk about how capitalism will recuperate bad ideas through aesthetics and misinformation, this one is about how the system directly recuperates ideas that are harmful to it as a whole.
The one premise that has to be accepted for this, is that capitalism is at the root cause of climate change. Between overproduction of commodities, wasting of resources, the profit motive stifling transitions to green energy and the dominance of companies like Exxon Mobil in disseminating climate denialism propaganda, the link between climate change and capitalism should be obvious. Corporations like Exxon continue to push for lobbying in politics to prevent their destruction of the environment and consequently, our societies as a whole are continuously strangled by the fossil fuel industry amongst others.
However, in the face of mounting opposition to climate denialism, only the most hardline conservatives will continue to maintain climate change is either a myth or due to human industry. Instead, we see the system attempting to recuperate climate change into a form that is not a challenge to capitalism as a whole.
The most common form of this, is the constant messaging in media that individual choices are the best thing to do combat climate change. Examples include use fewer straws, go for meat free Mondays etc. These are typically never included alongside the number of companies that are directly polluting the environment, and who do so regardless of consumer demands. The messaging is clear. "Make individual choices, do not question the system" and this converts genuine desire for a livable climate, into a product of an individual's choices, which is meant to render any critique of the systemic causes for environmental destruction moot.
This, which flies in the face of the reality that just 100 companies are responsible for over 70% of the world's emissions . To convey the responsibility for climate change directly through individuals and not the wider systems they are beholden to, is dishonest and precisely the kind the effect required to maintain the oil industry.
Largely, this has been the face of climate change activism in most of the widespread media outlets. Climate change is some inscrutable force that is bearing down upon us, but whose causes are fundamentally nebulous and whose solutions either rely on magic or a nihilistic belief that change is impossible. Instead of focusing on the large corporations, consumer spending and production systems, climate change is somehow the fault of the poorest people in the world whose carbon emissions are fractional to that of the richest nations. Just like that, the system has converted a potentially radical statement about its harm, into another tool to keep down people.
Climate activism is not a new phenomenon. In 1992, Severn Suzuki, a 9 year old child, gave a speech to the United Nations about the climate destruction of the planet . In her words, she draws light to the extinction of species, the uncaring systems that are destroying them and the inequality in the world that comes with such suffering. This child, had the platform of the world, to deliver a poignant message about the destruction of the world, and yet, almost 28 years, the same story is being repeated. Once again, a child is desperately trying to tell the world about the destructive practices we are all trapped in. And once again, we are faced with the same problem of why all of the pleas for help go unanswered.
We should ignore the obvious misogyny that always accompanies a woman speaking out to a primarily patriarchal system, women will always be talked down to when not conforming to the standards imposed on them. The only real criticism that can be levied at this, is that we have no given the same level of attention to the climate activists who are First Nations peoples, or indigenous tribes who have been at the forefront of the climate war. These people, who have been crying out for decades and suffering violence and death in kind, are silenced when the media has chosen to focus on a more presentable message.
This is not Thunberg's fault. It could not be. She has no control over the media; her calls for climate action are elevated by a system that is at its core, built on colonialism. She has no power over that, and being a teenager, could not possibly live to the expectations of everyone's activism. Instead, now we have a media narrative that largely ignores the efforts of people in places which are suffering environmental destruction, have their voices silenced by that system, and instead replaced by an individual with all of the problems of an individual.
In this way, two things have been achieved. The failures of the government to stop climate change, is passed off onto individual politicians and the face of climate activism is repackaged to a way that is more presentable to the system. Instead of the many poor and colonised people, their water poisoned and lands stolen, getting to have their say, the face of activism is converted to a teenager from a first world nation that can largely, for now, ignore the worst of the climate change. Instead of dismantling the systems these politicians are supporting, benefiting from, the problem is now to replace these people to get "good ones" to actually start fixing the problem.
None of this is to disparage any climate activism now. In an age where people still deny climate activism, protests to wake people up to the problem is vital. However, the warning should always be wary of the symbol of climate activism.
This is, a small discussion of the ways in which recuperation can happen. Recuperation, as a phenomenon, is fairly simple. It is the system of power taking any threat to it, and turning it into an aspect of its control. Once you are aware of recuperation, under a capitalist system, there is a tendency to start to see it everywhere and in everything. To some extent, this is true and to others, it is is not. As demonstrated, recuperation is not always intended. It can simply be a product of existing in a capitalist system. Of course, recuperation does not by necessary need to be of capitalism recuperating its threats. It can take a number of philosophies and a number of facets and you need to be critical of the media you consume. If capitalism gets to present and dominate the media around climate change, then it is already winning.
We, who oppose this, must by necessary create the symbols which represent us. We need to perform the act of détournement to take the symbols we are kept under, and to make them part of the struggle for liberation.
: Downing, John D. H., and Tamara Villarreal. Ford. Radical Media: Rebellious Communication and Social Movements. Sage, 2010.
: New Report Shows Just 100 Companies Are Source of over 70% of Emissions.” CDP, https://www.cdp.net/en/articles/media/new-report-shows-just-100-companies-are-source-of-over-70-of-emissions.
: Wilson, Tony. “Severn Cullis-Suzuki: 'If You Don't Know How to Fix It, Please, Stop Breaking It', UN Earth Summit - 1992.” Speakola, Speakola, 10 Mar. 2016, https://speakola.com/ideas/severn-suzuki-world-earth-summit-1992.