Throwing off the shackles of colonialism?

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3.2 Breaking with the past

A key difference between Cast Away and traditional Robinson stories can be seen in the fact that Noland neither ‘civilises’ any other human being (like Crusoe with his education of Friday), nor ‘domesticates’ any native animal (like the group around Cyrus Smith in Verne’s The mysterious island by teaching an orang-utan). However, this aspect has to be assessed in the context of ‘the hegemonic global dominance of a form of Western liberal democracy coded as American’ (McCrisken, Pepper 2005: 187) that has failed to achieve global stability, order and acceptance. More precisely, this study would argue that the production of Cast Away falls into a period that is marked by US reluctance to take a leading role in the solution of international conflicts. The lack of commitment when faced with the genocide in Rwanda (1994) and the massive human right abuses in Chechnya (1999-2001) are just two prominent examples of a US-policy suffering from the traumatic experiences of Vietnam and, immediately before the Rwandan civil war, Somalia (1992-1994). It is in this context, that the rhetorics of the US as an anti-colonial world power gain momentum because the unwillingness to act as a global leader, even in cases of major international crime (albeit little economic or political interest), had to be ethically and morally justified. Cast Away contributes to this justification by supporting the non-colonial self-imagery through Noland’s lack of settlement on the island: while most other castaways build houses, erect defence mechanisms, plant crops and keep animals, in short ‘go to […] extreme lengths to turn the island into a more “civilized” space’ (Weaver-Hightower 2006: 297), Noland remains during his four years in a cage still living predominantly from fish, crabs and coconuts, as at the very beginning of his island experience. Weaver-Hightower is certainly right in claiming that he simply ‘lacks feelings of ownership’, as the island to him ‘represents only danger, death and hardship’ (id.). As an obstacle to his desperate desire to return ‘home’, meaning to Kelly and the United States, he shows no interest in converting the newly discovered ‘wild’ territory into some kind of US colony, like Verne’s group of castaways. Instead, he limits himself to hunting for what he needs for his daily survival, and is content with the natural shelter he finds. One could conclude that his claims as regards the island are completely deterritorialized, and as such have to be seen in opposition to key concepts of traditional colonialism dominating 18th, 19th and early 20th century Robinson stories. Interestingly enough, Cast Away is not alone in its critical distance as regards occupation and civilization of ‘savage’ land. Very similarly, in The Beach, Swept Away and Six Days, Seven Nights, the island is overall reduced to a – sometimes more and sometimes less hostile – background setting, in which American protagonists try to survive. In addition, these films feature romantic relationships between Westerners, thus replacing the inter-ethnic encounter of the original Crusoe story with a monocultural love affair and further reducing the island encounter, in particular in scenes in which the main threat to survival is not the undomesticated and isolated nature but representatives of modern global crime (e.g. drug smugglers in Six Days, Seven Nights and marijuana farmers in The Beach). Certainly, all this mirrors key hopes and fears of those parts of American society that lack any intercultural awareness whatsoever, and the fact that highly successful Hollywood movies continue to adapt such ethnocentric patterns seems to suggest their acceptance, if not popularity.

However, Cast Away remains quite original in its irony which deconstructs the scheduled efficiency of contemporary capitalism as portrayed by Noland before the shipwreck, an aspect that Weaver-Hightower (2007, 2006) does – unfortunately – not consider in any great detail. In an early scene, the FedEx engineer indicates his notion of time to Russian employees quite provocatively as follows: ‘We live or die by the clock … Never allow ourselves the sin of losing track of time’. This is very reminiscent of a statement with which German philosopher Weber summarizes the importance of time in the ‘capitalist spirit’ derived from Protestant ethics:

Waste of time is thus the first and in principle the deadliest of sins. The span of human life is infinitely short and precious to make sure of one's own election. Loss of time through sociability, idle talk, luxury, even more sleep than is necessary for health – six to eight hours – is worthy of absolute moral condemnation (2003 [1904]: 157f.).

Of course, Noland at that time firmly believes in the universal value of scheduled efficiency stressed in the FedEx slogan ‘The world on time’. However, a critical viewer will already pay at this stage attention to the fact that professional work has here become an end in itself, rather than a means to an end. Clearly, and that distinguishes the critique in Cast Away quite significantly from the subversive notes in Charles Chaplin’s Modern times (1936), Noland’s private life is fully subordinate to the nearly totalitarian FedEx demands, which do not even leave him the time to dine with family at Christmas Eve, never mind to propose engagement to his girlfriend Kelly. When Noland is trapped on the island, he has finally got the time to reflect on what is really important in his life, and that is in particular Kelly, the person he neglected so much. The fact that he has lost her in the meantime to another man highlights at the end of the film that the essential elements of life, which lead to personal happiness or misery, depend very much on taking the right decision at the right time. In order to address these new and sometimes unique opportunities, there is a need to break with the behaviorist patterns of every day professional life, marked by the stimulus-reaction schemes set via clocks and beepers. Beyond Noland’s tragicomic experiences, Cast Away follows with a critique of human alienation under capitalist norms a contemporary tendency set by other films such as Run Lola Run (Tykwer 1998) and Amélie (Jeunet 2001),5 but it does so even more explicitly. Noland himself indicates the problem very early, when arguing that ‘time rules over us without mercy’, but at that time he does not manage to see the contribution of human agency to the discursive phenomenon, and there is no attempt to critically interrogate the FedEx working ethos, and even less interest in searching for alternatives. Instead, his assimilation of the ‘capitalist spirit’ of his time makes him a role model of efficiency, calculability, predictability and control, which – according to Ritzer – can be regarded as key concepts of so called contemporary ‘McDonaldisation of society’ (2008: 13f.), but it directs him also to the plane crash which marks the temporary end of an excess of causality in life that has reeled off without mercy. At the very end of the film, Noland gets another opportunity when he arrives at the same cross-roads at which the film began. Rather than running behind new schedules, it is obvious that he now takes his ‘right to time’6, be it to return a FedEx package personally to a sender, or to make up his mind about future ways to take. There is no doubt that – after all his experiences – he would be well advised in placing his personal interests over business demands. What these interests might be (e.g. starting a new relationship with the woman he just met at the cross-roads), is for him – and not for FedEx or any other company – to decide.

In most Robinson stories, island life demands major adjustments from castaways, but in Noland’s case it comes with a fundamental lack of orientation and a refreshing clumsiness that breaks with the Christian heroism of Crusoe and many of his successors. Admittedly, after the island-culture shock, Defoe’s protagonist also needs a lot of time for his self-composure, but during this process he can always rely on his Christian beliefs as strong means of guidance, whereas Noland loses his belief in scheduled efficiency immediately on arrival: both the beeper and the clock are dead and with them the world (‘on time’) into which he had previously invested all his energy. In this context, it is not surprising that he, in turn, gives up on these elements of his former business identity and starts living according to the tides and weather conditions, only very loosely keeping track of linear time. Ingram summarises the psychological dimension as follows:

Time abandoned him. He would abandon time. Now, on the island, time was almost without relevance. In these circumstances, keeping the time and date could only be little more than an amusement. And Noland was not amused. Past and future had no meaning. Only the present mattered (2001a: 630).

While most children might laugh wholeheartedly about Noland’s clumsiness when trying to open coconuts, hunt fish or make fire (the film has been released for viewers from age thirteen), many adults might perceive through the same scenes a glimpse of the helplessness and desperation of modern ‘civilized’ man vis-à-vis the power of nature, and parallels to the hardship and misery when people face floods, famine, global warming or swine flu are certainly not out of reach. In his desperation, Noland creates his own superior being out of volleyball Wilson, who becomes ‘the fire-god’ and – at the same time – ‘the repository of a benign super-ego’ (id. 627), an aspect worth adding to Weaver-Hightower’s discussion of “castaways” (2007). A key scene in the development of the ball from unpaid advertising object (the brand name is Wilson) to a higher-up partner for ‘dialogue’ with the lonely castaway is the fire making effort: after numerous unsuccessful attempts, his question – ‘You wouldn’t have a match, would you?’ – seems to receive a positive answer when finally smoke and fire come out of the sticks he was rubbing together. It is here where Wilson the fire-god is created, out of Noland’s desperation, which implies – according to this study – an inversion of standard religious beliefs: rather than offering yet another celebration of God – never mind which one – as creator of the universe, to whom the castaway has to be thankful for sparing his life, Zemeckis presents human desperation at the beginning of religious cults, although he leaves ample escape routes for Christian viewers to ignore that parody of the original Crusoe and most of the nearly 20 film adaptations. Firstly, there is the possibility of categorizing the relation to Wilson as idolatry, and – secondly – Cast Away clearly concentrates on Wilson’s function as super-ego, rather than elaborating further on the notion of fire-god.

Kaufman-Scarborough notes surprising similarities in Noland’s and Wilson’s development, e.g. ‘as Noland’s hair and beard grow to “mountain man” proportions, spiked “hair” made of leaves has been added to Wilson” (2003: 93). It is worth adding that, at the very beginning, Nelson paints Wilson’s face – and thus creates him – with his own blood. However, these external parallels are matched by internal complementarity which Ingram summarizes as follows:

His [Wilson’s] is the discourse of the reasonable, prudent, civilized man Noland once was. Although empathic and caring, Wilson is something of an authority. He is conservative and mildly ironic. His is the voice of concern about there not being enough time to build the raft leading to escape from the island. […] He insists that Noland retrieve rope from the trial hanging of the year before. And it was he, at that earlier time, who suggested that Noland test the rope and noose with a log (2001a: 627).

Considering Noland’s failure in private life, this study would suggest a slight rephrasing of the first statement, and lead us to argue that Wilson provides us with the discourse of the reasonable, prudent, civilized man Noland always wanted to be perceived as, because there is actually a high degree of irrationality in his behavior. The dehumanizing and partially self-destructive life he not only leads himself but at the same time preaches to the Russian FedEx employees reminds quite significantly of Ritzers comments on the ‘irrationality of rationality’ (2008: 26). Having said that, Ingram is certainly right when it comes to Noland’s self-perception and search for acceptance as a rational model to follow, and – even more – in stressing Wilson’s importance as his super-ego. The latter explains why Noland immediately retrieves the volleyball and apologizes to it after throwing it out of the cave, and why he is so desperate when the ball drifts away from the raft during his escape: ‘There is nothing for Noland after Wilson’s loss but loss of self, of life’ (Ingram 2001a: 627), unless he manages to return ‘home’, and – in this sense – there are parallels to the integrative function of psychoanalysts for their patients: both, Wilson and the successful psychoanalyst are up to a certain degree ‘a construction and substitution […] for some imaginary and largely unconscious sector’ of an individual’s psyche, and they tend to have a similar function in stabilizing that psyche by acting as ‘a device for effective dialogue, for dialogized consciousness, through which autobiographical narrative can be evolved, enriched and integrated’ (Ingram 2001b: 311). Similar to the fantastic friends children frequently return to, e.g. Jess’s football star role model Beckham in Chadha’s Bend it like Beckham, Wilson seems ‘a well-organized, affectively competent persona’ for Noland to retreat to (Ingram 2001a: 627). The problem here is, however, that Noland is not supposed to be a child but a highly successful adult in contemporary capitalist society, who is in the middle of nature as helpless and clumsy as a child, or as a mentally disordered person in need of psychoanalyst treatment. Also, as a brand name for volleyballs, Wilson represents US consumer culture, and the fact that its preservation is key for Noland’s psyche indicates the alienation and dehumanization of contemporary society, an aspect that Ingram does not take into account. Defoe’s castaway might have significant problems in self-composure, but he does not need to talk to a ball to achieve it, and it would not be very convincing to characterize him as a child or a mentally ill person either. If anybody seems childlike or mentally disturbed in Robinson Crusoe, it is the naïve and cannibalistic Friday, who is brought to rational and morally acceptable adulthood thanks to his education by the British colonizing protagonist. In this sense, there is a partial inversion of colonialism in Zemeckis’s film, when the well-heeled FedEx engineer Noland, who used to teach Russians and other naïve people the proper way to live, becomes more and more a savage – in his way of living (as a cave man), outside appearance (see comments on the ‘mountain man’ above) and instinctive outbursts of joy and fury (e.g. after making fire, and when he smacks the ball out of his cave). Rather than him acting as colonizer of the island, the wild nature and isolation of the place has successively taken possession and control of him. In addition, if ‘the religious valuation of restless, continuous, systematic work in a worldly calling, […] must have been the most powerful conceivable lever for the expansion of […] the spirit of capitalism’, as Weber stresses (1991 [1904-05]: 172) and Crusoe’s life confirms, then Noland’s loss of Kelly, his relation with the volleyball and his suicide attempt on the island could be regarded as symbols of the failure of modern capitalist man. In other words, Cast Away bears the potential to severely destabilize the basic patterns of colonialism as the ‘dark side of capitalism’ in the way Mignolo has termed it (2005: xiii), an aspect worth adding to Weaver-Hightower’s analysis (2007, 2006). However, Noland’s reluctance to take possession of the island has to be read in a neo-colonial context, and his self-composition almost immediately after the return to the United States and the promising indications of a new beginning lead to a far less critical message at the end of the film.

3.3 Neo-colonial continuities

Just as capitalism has developed from Crusoe to Noland, so has colonialism. The numerous wars of independence fought against European colonizers, in particular Spain, Britain and France in their different epochs, led to the creation of many new nations and shattered the former empires between the early 19th century and the end of the 1960s. Although there are still territories that could be regarded as traditional colonies, most of them – like the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar – actually British (see UNO 2009), the globally more problematic and effective form of colonialism today works via ‘economic subordination, cultural imperialism and psychological anxiety’ (Shankar 2001: 137), in which multinational corporations, cartels and international monetary bodies play a leading role, and military intervention remains predominantly as ultimate threat. Pan-Africanist and former president of independent Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, coined the term ‘neo-colonialism’ (1965: 1) for this continuing force of authority implemented by former colonial powers and their successors, in particular the United States, and US FedEx engineer Noland is a good example of the new kind of colonizer: not only is he very actively involved in shaping ‘self concepts, values […] and personalities’ (Robinson 1997: 22) of new FedEx employees in Russia, but he never shows – just like his company – any interest in settling down in the sense of converting places into a permanent ‘home’ and maximising the control within the boundaries of that new place. This study regards such strategy as a key feature which links Noland’s involvement in Russia with his time on the island, and argues that this ultimately reflects the corporate identity, because FedEx stands for a high degree of mobility, not just in the global delivery of goods even far away from the headquarters, but in the readiness to move subsidiaries into any country or city at any time, and – at the same speed – out of it, if the profit margins do not appear to be good enough anymore. Consequently, US education of Russians in the film appears to be limited to some basic FedEx training on the job and, as such, to the area that is of immediate importance for a smooth running of the business. Similarly, unlike traditional colonizing castaways, Noland’s interest in the island is confined by the desire to secure the basic conditions for his survival, which are met by his life as a cave man and primitive hunter. This reluctance to invest more time into either Russia or the island could be seen as a gross rejection of both, after all they are unlikely to offer Noland the same cultural or economic advantages he finds in the US. Weaver-Hightower consequently regards contemporary castaway tales as reflections of ‘a popular mythology of the United States as the metaphoric center of the world […] where the water is cleaner, the roads wider, the technology more available, and the streets safer’ (2006: 304). However, while the idea that everybody wants to ‘flee’ to the US ‘in search for a better life’ (id.) is certainly an interesting reflection of the cultural imperialism mentioned above, this study would like to stress the pragmatism behind such neo-colonial power structures: constant military presence in other countries is expensive, in an age of nuclear war threats neither very feasible nor extremely popular, and traditional colonial empires have all been broken into pieces by national independence movements over the last two centuries. So, why bother with it, if you can make your profits without it, and if you can this way possibly reduce the risk of following the destiny of the Spanish, British and French empires?7

While traditional notions of colonialism, understood as ‘civilisation and Christianisation’, official key tasks from the Spanish Conquest to Crusoe and beyond that require a permanent presence of the colonizer (Rings 2010: 35f.), do not reflect the FedEx mentality portrayed, neo-colonial features do apply, and a key element is here yet again the question of time, or – to be more precise – ‘colonization with and of time’, as Adam would phrase it in her theoretical discussion of key features of contemporary capitalism (2002: 21). Drawing on Adam, it could be argued that Noland is one of the missionaries of the new world order in so far as this is not only about exporting ‘Western clock time and commodified time’ across the globe and imposing it ‘as the unquestioned and unquestionable standard’ (e.g. in Russia), but it implies the deterritorialized control of global present, past and future, with time and money as potentially universal and ‘exclusive measure of corporate value’ and an ever-increasing borrowing from the future to finance the present (id.). All this is not directly new as Adam’s example of the speculative stock market – already rejected by Defoe – indicates quite clearly, but the global dimension, interdependence and impact are in the 21st century much more distinctive than in the early 18th century, as the numerous crises from 1929 to the contemporary credit crunch prove. Also, the need for permanent military presence in the economically subordinate ‘periphery’ is probably now much less important than in traditional colonial periods, as key principles of Western clock time and scheduled efficiency have been very well internalized by neo-liberal national elites in the so-called Third World. Unfortunately, Welsch seems to have ignored all these aspects in his discussion of the transcultural nature of contemporary globalization as an expression of cultural exchange and ‘permeations’ on more or less equal footing (1999: 211f.).

In this context, it is worth noting that Cast Away does not explicitly generalize Noland’s exclusive interest in scheduled efficiency as key patterns of US everyday life or US corporate identity, which in turn helps to understand his desire to return to the US, and probably even to FedEx. Quite to the contrary, Noland receives a very generous money and time-consuming welcome by FedEx on his return from island life, which – while potentially helpful for the image of the company as the friendly side of capitalism – is still a bit surprising in so far as future job commitments are hardly mentioned at all. For virtually everybody, it seems clear that Noland needs now some time off to get himself into shape again and to decide what he wants to do next. In other words, he suddenly gets his ‘right to time’, and that without any fight, which re-constitutes and advocates the idea of personal freedom and individualism as corner stones of life in the US and a superior model to follow, yet another aspect of the ongoing enhancement of cultural hierarchies that helps to interrogate Welsch’s extremely optimistic summary of balanced reciprocity in global interaction (1999: 212). This is amended by traditional concepts of family life, when – after mutual confirmations of their love for each other – Noland drops Kelly off in front of her new home so that she can go back to her family. Notions of friendship are even reconstructed between Noland and a colleague from work whose wife has died during his absence of cancer. At the same time, Noland shows signs of a development from a naïve ‘servant’ of scheduled efficiency to an adult who starts to take his future into his own hands. If this means partner and possibly family first (e.g. by starting a relation with the woman at the cross-roads), and business second (back at FedEx or somewhere else), he is not out of touch with standard Hollywood love stories, which tend to combine modern romance with supposedly more ‘ethical’ versions of the old ‘capitalist spirit’ (see Pretty Woman by Marshall 1990). In short, this study would argue that the total lack of conflict between Noland’s new personal identity in the making, his company’s old corporate identity and traditional concepts of family and friendship indicate that the critique in Cast Away is aimed more at personal obsessions with scheduled efficiency than at US capitalism as such. Retrospectively, it now looks as if Noland’s originally excessive adherence to FedEx schedules and plans to further reduce delivery times were the key problem at the beginning of the film, and with it aberrations from the norm, rather than the norm itself.

This impression can be backed up by Noland’s island life in so far as American consumer goods sent via FedEx become essential tools for his survival, as soon as the packages wash ashore and Noland learns how to make use of them: the at first seemingly useless pair of ice skates can be converted into an axe and a tool for extracting a tormenting tooth, the video tapes help to build the raft, parts of the dress reappear as a fishing net, and – as discussed – the volleyball turns into his best friend and super-ego. Much later he also finds broken plastic sheets on the beach, which will be essential for his escape from the island as he can use them to make a sail for the raft. In this context, Noland’s inventive talent comes in as yet another useful tool: not only does it help him survive, but - in particular - it facilitates the escape, for which he also needs his original scheduled efficiency from FedEx times, since departure depends on favorable winds and tides in autumn and the raft needs to be ready by then. A meticulous calculation of basic material (e.g. the length of the robe) and production time is absolutely essential for this, and – as one would expect – Noland succeeds here in this respect as he did in his job before. In other words, the very same pattern that gets him into trouble finally gets him out of it – yet another ironic comment in the film, but one which weakens the colonial and capitalist critique from the first part quite considerably.

If Levy is right in stating that Cast Away is about ‘realizing the true meaning of belonging, of finding “home” (2000: 22), then this is for contemporary Crusoes like Noland clearly US civilization, its values, self-concepts and little commodities – such as ice cubes for the drinks he has on his return flight. With it, the film’s critique is reduced to a destabilization of traditional colonialism and capitalist excess, not US neo-colonialism or capitalism itself, which means the average viewer of Hollywood movies – who is unlikely to be a major critic of Western hegemony in general and US world leadership in particular – can sit back, relax and enjoy the movie, since his/her world order is at the very end not only still intact but has just been confirmed as the best model to follow.

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