Dune in 2021, unchanged in its plot, but imagining an underclass of native people as made up of a smattering of different ethnicities (mostly Brown and Black), embodies what David M. Higgins calls “imperial fantasy” and “alt-victimhood” in his latest book, Reverse Colonization (2021). Higgins describes a genre of reverse colonization narratives in which audiences “who are most often the beneficiaries of empire [are invited] to imagine what it feels like to be on the receiving end of imperial conquest,” provoking audiences to “identify as colonized victims.” It’s hardly surprising, then, that white supremacists have long cathected to Frank Herbert’s Dune, and white nationalists — a group that feels threatened by the presence of people of color, and increasingly aggrieved and attacked by liberal pushes to address systemic racism — have eagerly anticipated Villeneuve’s latest adaptation. As Jordan Carroll succinctly sums up: “Fascists love Dune.” Suddenly, the privileged chosen one — the imperialist who is also the Christ figure — becomes the suffering victim deserving of sympathy. In this way, identification with victimhood becomes a seductive imperial fantasy for the most privileged in society, what Higgins terms “alt-victimhood.” As Higgins describes,
[B]y imagining oneself as a rebel and collectively identifying with fantastic forms of victimhood, subjects who already enjoy social hegemony are able to justify economic inequality, expansions of police and military power, [and] climate devastation […] all purportedly in the name of security, self-defense, and self-protection.
Within this logic, imperial masochism enables “subjects who enjoy the advantages of empire [to] adopt the fantastical role of colonized victims to fortify and expand their agency.” The smooth-faced Paul Atreides, played by Timothée Chalamet, embraced by the internet for his boyish curls and slim hips, is just the mascot for this form of fantasy.
Indeed, in a climactic scene toward the end of the film, Paul Atreides is challenged to a duel by Jamis, a belligerent Fremen, played by Nigerian American Babs Olusanmokun. Paul is reluctant but forced to fight. Defying expectations, Paul wins but shows mercy — an act which the prideful and insolent Jamis rebukes. Paul has not understood their ways: it is a duel to the death. Finally, made to act on the premise of their laws, Paul kills Jamis. In other words, his hand is forced: he is merciful, the natives foolish and savage, bringing death onto themselves — the logic is that Jamis has as good as killed himself. The scene implies that Paul is not only merciful, but that he brings civilization to an uncivilized people, that colonialism is beneficial for the colonized. That the Black and Native person are collapsed into one character here makes this message twice as effective — which is to say, twice as problematic. The high witch who dabbles in eugenics is even played by Charlotte Rampling herself, who claimed that #OscarsSoWhite was “racist to white people.” Her comments might have been an apt slogan to the racial politics of Dune. Even Zendaya, a bracing and formidable young actress, whose presence in the film was much hyped, is ultimately reduced mostly to an ineffectual voice-over — nothing more than a fantasy for our hero, Paul.
It is disappointing but hardly surprising that in 2021, Orientalists are having a field day in Hollywood. Dr. Wellington Yueh is only the latest in a recent slew of Fu Manchus, alongside the equally inexplicably Orientalized (and problematically disfigured) Bond villain, Lyutsifer Safin, played by Rami Malek in the most recent Bond franchise film, No Time to Die, with his strangely unplaceable accent, penchant for traditional Japanese Noh masks, yukata robes, Zen aesthetics, and Japanese rock gardens which are actually poison farms. Taiwanese actor Chang Chen is cast as Dr. Wellington Yueh (played by Dean Stockwell in 1984), the traitor who catalyzes the fall of Atreides, dangerously reviving the stereotype of the duplicitous and destructive Fu Manchu in today’s climate of anti-Asian sentiment.
As California and Australia burn, China and Tennessee flood, and Texas freezes over, Dune’s metaphorical climate critique feels pithy for our times, especially since its solution requires a benevolent man-god (the result of eugenics, no less!), to harness the resources at his fingertips in order to guide us to salvation (note Paul never has to relinquish his position as colonizer). As Iyko Day explains, in the early 20th century,
much of the U.S. conservationist movement was imbricated with eugenicist thought, fusing wilderness protection with white racial preservation through analogies that linked the degradation of the natural environment with the degeneration of the white race through miscegenation and rising nonwhite populations.
That such approaches still define the films gaining major traction in our culture is particularly dismal considering we have living thinkers and writers producing thoughtful work on present problems by excavating our past with searing honesty. Amitav Ghosh’s new book, The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis, for example, tracks the trajectory of a literal spice in order to not only lay bare our climate crisis as a product of centuries of colonial violence and genocidal rage, but also to propose our way forward as one that must be grounded in indigenous beliefs and radical empathy.
In this mode, a revisit of another 1984 film about a similar ecodystopian future can uncover a more radical and historically grounded politics apt for our contemporary moment. Hayao Miyazaki's early animated film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) drew inspiration from the fantasy world of Herbert’s Dune and shares uncanny similarities with the Dune film adaptations: where Dune has giant sandworms, Nausicaä has the Ohmu; where Dune has desert, Nausicaä the Sea of Decay; Dune the Harkonnens, Nausicaä the Tolmekians. Instead of yet another imperially appointed master, in Nausicaä, the people are led by a daring princess, one who leads by example and is beloved by her people; one who resists imperial expansionists, but not at the cost of her own people; and most importantly, one who radically chooses nonviolent action against all possible defense of rational violence, and eventually achieves harmony through cooperation and understanding.
Ursula K. Le Guin once said that “[t]o use the world well, to be able to stop wasting it and our time in it, we need to relearn our being in it.” Crucially, Nausicaä imagines a new way of being in the world by radically reframing our relation to it and our understanding of it. Instead of a desert, the inhospitable environment in Nausicaä is known as the Sea of Decay. But far from a dying and deadened milieu, the Sea of Decay is in fact brimming with life. This is hardly ironic but for a dominant binary and linear ontology around life and death. The living and the dead are not fixed in a binary but bound together in an intimate, dynamic, circling dance. Decay and regeneration are two sides of the same coin. Reflecting on when he moved to the Yanase River, Miyazaki recalls, “The river was more like a polluted ditch, filled with leeches and midge larvae. I was amazed by how noble these midges were and impressed that they would live in such a place.” The Sea of Decay, teeming with life, is arguably the site of some of the most luxuriant and resplendent imagery in all of Miyazaki’s films.
Japan’s postwar economic phenomenon is well known and well documented, but less known are the country’s pollution troubles. Even though Miyazaki was inspired by Dune, he was simultaneously deeply influenced and driven by pressing ecological and humanitarian toxic disasters that had happened at home in postwar Japan. In particular, he was distressed by the organic mercury poisoning known as Minamata disease caused by waste products discharged into groundwater by the Chisso Corporation. The mercury in the wastewater entered the bodies of fish and shellfish, which were eventually consumed by local residents. In truth, this was part of the double-edged sword that was postwar industrialization in Japan: leading to exponential economic growth on the one hand and generating a host of pollution and health issues on the other.
Embedded in Nausicaä, then, is a bracingly honest reflection on the Anthropocene and the future of our planet in a time of climate change. The Sea of Decay was created by humans a thousand years earlier to cleanse the environment, yet it eventually transformed and became detrimental to human communities. After yet more time, it continued to evolve and incubated even more complex ecosystems, which both purify the elements for safe human use and sustain unpredictable animals which aggressively attack humans. It’s all very contradictory and complicated, which is to say, it is an accurate reflection of the messy rhizomatic natural relations, the unwieldy unpredictability, and the delicate balance that comprise sustainable and evolving life on this planet.
Miyazaki knew that fungi are adept survivors of ecological disaster. It is said that the first living thing to emerge from the blasted landscape of Hiroshima after the destruction of the atomic bomb was a matsutake mushroom. In fact, as Merlin Sheldrake describes in Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures, “a [fungi] species isolated from mining waste is one of the most radiation-resistant organisms ever discovered and may help to clean up nuclear waste sites.” Miyazaki may even have been unwittingly inspired by fungi characteristics: as Sheldrake explains, fungi can create wind currents to carry spores, generated when water evaporates from their gills. Indeed, the secret garden cultivated by Nausicaä (in direct contrast to Lyutsifer Safin’s toxic garden) is a purifying one. Further, she discovers that the Sea of Decay actually acts as mycofiltration, filtering out contaminated air and water and breaking down toxins, producing clean water in the environment below.
Against the Kwisatz Haderach, Nausicaä models an alternative form of leadership, one that is rooted in service and sacrifice, and displays strength and finds allyship by approaching with a posture of radical submission. It’s possible in this vein to read Nausicaä’s model of leadership through the lens of David L. Eng’s concept of "absolute apology,” a corollary of Derrida’s “absolute forgiveness” where Eng meditates on the Sahtu Dene people of Canada apologizing to the atomic bomb survivors in Hiroshima for their inadvertent involvement in the Manhattan Project. Commenting on Emmanuel Levinas, Judith Butler writes in Parting Ways, “We do not take responsibility for the Other’s suffering only when it is clear that we have caused that suffering. […] According to Levinas, we affirm the unfreedom at the heart of our relations with others, and only by ceding in this way do we come to understand responsibility.” What is important about the Sahtu Dene’s act of radical apology is that “it [connects] a longer history of Native dispossession in the New World with more recent colonial violence and militarism in Cold War Asia.” David Eng describes the Sahtu Dene’s apology as “an acknowledgment not of sovereign inviolability but of a common vulnerability, an unwilled susceptibility that connects all creatures and things.” The Sahtu Dene thus illuminate the extent to which, as Cathy Caruth describes, we are all “implicated in each other’s traumas.”
But embedded in Nausicaä too, is a metaphor for Japanese victimhood — a reading that is accurate to the extent that bombs were concertedly dropped on Japanese civilians, but which also problematically elides Japan’s violent expansionist, imperialist aggression across Asia Pacific. Nausicaä’s people can be read as the victimized Japanese, but the Japanese can equally be (and should also be) read as the colonizing and imperialistic Tolmekians. It is very likely that across related and unrelated situations, we are all imbricated in the sticky ethical morass of being both victim and perpetrator.
Nausicaä is violent only once: during an outburst where she kills several Tolmekian warriors after they murder her father. She is stopped by Yupa, who intercepts with his own body, stopping her killing blade with his own arm: a sacrifice of blood. In all other interactions, she chooses nonviolence, even at risk to her own life, and sacrifices her health and safety to save those around her. Pleading with the enemy to release the infant Ohmu they have held hostage, Nausicaä approaches their gunfire with open arms to demonstrate that she comes in peace and gets shot in the process. In a self-sacrificial act, she saves a Pejite warrior who previously attacked her, tumbling with him into the abyss beyond. Attempting to stop the injured infant Ohmu from further hurting itself, an injured Nausicaä braces her own body against it, incinerating her injured foot in the process.
But these acts, done selflessly with no expectation, unexpectedly yield their own rewards: beyond the abyss, Nausicaä comes to learn the truth about the Sea of Decay; the rescued baby Ohmu is successfully brought back to the raging stampede, appeasing them, and averting an extinction event.
Nausicaä, in fact, is the one who teaches Yupa the lesson of humility and endurance early in the film: she saves him from a charging Ohmu by nonviolently diverting it. When Yupa reveals a juvenile fox-squirrel he found, he warns Nausicaä not to go near as these animals can be vicious. Unfazed, Nausicaä approaches the animal, which snarls and hops onto her shoulder. “You’re not scared,” she whispers, like an enchantment, and puts out her finger. The creature sinks its teeth into her finger, drawing blood. Instead of flinging the animal away, Nausicaä barely flinches, only biting her lip and repeating simply: “You’re not scared.” The creature is surprised to find there is no retaliation and immediately relents. In this moment, an unbreakable bond is formed between them. It was this lesson that Yupa draws on when he jumps in front of a rage-blind Nausicaä, as pained and destructive as the Ohmus, making a sacrifice of blood, as Nausicaä did, in order to say to her: “You are only frightened … put down your sword.” Even the Ohmus symbolize and reinforce this lesson: ohm literally denotes (electrical) resistance and also draws from Buddhist teachings about compassion and connection.
As we reflect on America’s disastrous retreat from Afghanistan, America’s vengeful and devastating drone strike in the wake of the Kabul airport bombing (between Biden saying, “The buck stops with me,” and then pledging, “We will not forgive”) which resulted in the death of 10 civilians, these moments invite us to rethink the necessity and the consequence of retaliation as such, and what possibilities lie beyond in a world that does not base moral calculations on the logic of tit-for-tat.
The enduring lesson of Dune is embedded in the refrain of the Bene Gesserit: “I must not fear. Fear is the mind killer.” It turns on the fallacy, as Higgins describes, that “absolute autonomy can be reconstituted through decolonizing the self from external dependencies.” This ironically self-limited and therefore limiting approach to liberation in turn limits Chalamet’s performance in Dune. Though his pained expression before the simulacra of fire in the pain-inducer is a fine demonstration of endurance, it does not hold a candle to his exquisite emotional woundedness captured in the closing moments of Call Me by Your Name (2017) where he contemplates a real fire while consumed by real emotional anguish.
In the invariably Western logic of the text, anti-imperialist work becomes inward-looking, predominantly focusing on the self and on the psychological. Narratives around freedom and self-mastery revolve around “freeing the mind,” but what really are the stakes of this in places where freedom is guaranteed? And after all, thinking is different from doing, and thinking bad things is different from doing them in the world, just as thinking good thoughts is not the same as acting in the world. Political action ultimately entails action. In the logic of individualism, as Higgins explains, Dune “valorizes self-mastery to a fetishistic level, and it demonizes impulses (such as fear) that reduce or diminish a person’s self-control.”
As I sit in my apartment in Hong Kong, newly transplanted here from the US, these words and these lines come to take on a different tenor. As a Singaporean, I am familiar with the pervasive fear of the punitive nanny-state. One grows up told not to do this and that: chew gum, spit, talk politics. Interviewing Hong Kong playwrights about censorship for The New Yorker, Jiayang Fan quotes,
[T]he real fear is not knowing where the line might lie, and the danger, as a result, is policing one’s own imagination. […] It is in the nature of art to be boundary-less. […] But, if parameters are set on what I can think on the page and the stage, then the project of creation itself becomes futile, because you are a captive inside your head. Fear is the end point. It annihilates everything that came before and after.
The scary thing about censorship laws is not what they state, but what they don’t: how lines are left blurred, so the axe is free to fall whenever an unseen and unknown line is crossed. Fear causes one to police the imagination and sanitize one’s thoughts. In this way, it is true: fear is the mind killer. But fear, under state censorship, is rational and more importantly, life-preserving. Many in the world today live in fear — indeed, remain alive because they fearfully toe the line. And yet, ideas persist and find new life — in subterranean spaces, through rhizomatic undetected connections.
In whose name are certain displays of liberal beliefs championed? And at what cost? And by that same measure, what is achieved when the fear of those shackled by oppression is undermined? To know something of freedom of speech, it may be more worthwhile to look in unfree places; to learn something of the value of freedom, it might be more instructive to go to places where it is not guaranteed. If fear is the mind killer but one has no option but to live in fear, perhaps the question to ask today is not how not to fear, but rather, what enlivens the mind? It is possible to be fearful and also creative and courageous. One is only brave when acting in the face of fear — anything else is blind privilege. How does one keep alive one’s imaginary possibilities, the reparative fantasy of reconciliation, the mycelic, proliferative enlivening of new worlds and new ways? Nausicaä ends with a cryptic image: that of a tiny new plant growing in the barren space deep beneath the Sea of Decay. All too often things appear dead on the surface which have in fact gone underground, and in that dank space of richness and disassemblage, make new connections, regenerate, and find new life.
Jerrine Tan was born and raised in Singapore. She received her PhD from Brown University and is currently assistant professor at City University Hong Kong.