Reading as Revelation: A Review of M. Night Shyamalan's Signs 

Rob Wilkie


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Amrohini Sahay




A new American "fundamentalism" has emerged in the wake of 9/11 that seeks to silence all dissent and thus to clear the path for the brutal dictates of global capital through the appeal to "unquestionable" truths that exceed economic and political interests. Advanced by the combination of corporate power and religious zealotry most evident in the speeches of U.S. President George W. Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft, this American fundamentalism speaks in terms of "destiny" and "inevitability", using the cover of religion to move decisively to seize control of the world's labor and natural resources in the interests of profit while threatening to unleash the largest and most powerful military in history on anyone who refuses.

While members of the Bush administration and right-wing pundits such as Ann Coulter are among the extreme manifestations of the most fascistic elements of this American fundamentalism, the mainstream call for a "transcendental ethical perspective" (New York Times, 9/22/01), which exceeds the transformative critiques of economic injustice by contemporary social theories such as Marxism, and which understands the world in the static terms of "good" versus "evil", has become a highly profitable venture for the way in which it erases and re-writes deep social inequalities and rising class antagonisms as symptomatic of the unfolding of an unchallengeable and pre-determined "fate".

One of the most recent examples of this new cultural mode, M. Night Shyamalan's Signs attempts to re-articulate current social antagonisms, in particular the class struggle over social resources in the Middle East, in terms of a broad struggle between "civilization" and "barbarism" or, in even more basic terms, as an individual struggle between "good" and "evil". In this sense, the film is part of a series of contemporary texts—including Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations and the "Left Behind" series of Christian science-fiction novels—promoting a new fundamentalist mode of reading that seeks to secure unmediated access to the "truth" as a means of justifying the brutal imperialist practices of late capital. What has made Shyamalan's Signs particularly effective, and the reason why it has become so popular, is the way in which the film combines the "literalness" of the new fundamentalism with the "playfulness" of the postmodern troping of the social to construct a transnational fundamentalism that can fluidly adapt to the shifting terrain of current social crises while continuing to reduce class antagonisms to a "mythic" struggle of destiny.

Briefly, Signs is the story of Graham Hess, a former Episcopalian preacher who has lost his "faith" in response to the death of his wife in a car accident. One morning Graham wakes up to find that a crop circle has appeared in his cornfield, and while he blames the appearance of the "sign" on local teenagers, his son Morgan immediately declares, "I think God did it". From this point, the film advances two intertwined storylines. The first concerns the growing evidence of an impending alien invasion and the question of whether this invasion will be the benign act of a people interested in expanding universal knowledge, or whether it will be the hostile act of violent marauders seeking to harvest the Earth's resources. The second is the story of the death of Graham's wife, and his struggle to come to terms with "God's plan". It is this tension between "science"—constructed from the beginning as "ominous" and "threatening"—and "religion"—signified in the film as "trust" and simple "goodness"—that forms the central conflict of the plot and provides the basis for its "moral center".

The film's "moral center" is most clearly articulated in a scene in which, while Graham and his brother Merrill are watching news footage of an increasing number of unidentified lights in the sky over Mexico City, Merrill asks Graham whether he thinks it marks the beginning of the end of the world. Graham responds with a parable in which the world is divided into two groups. The first group believes that world events are "signs" of divine providence and the evidence which proves that "there is someone up there watching out for them", while the second group reads world events as "just pure luck, a happy turn of chance". While the second group is full of fear because without "faith" they believe they are ultimately alone in times of crisis, the first group sees in the lights a "miracle" that fills them with hope. Graham then asks Merrill, and through him the spectator, whether he is "the kind that sees signs? Miracles?" From this point, the central concern of the film has less to do with the imminent possibility of alien invasion, than what the invasion, and the coming struggle between "civilization" and "barbarism", ultimately represents: whether Graham's "faith", and along with him the viewer's, will be restored.

In the process of positioning viewers to accept the restoration of "faith", Shyamalan constructs a world in which "meaning" is fixed not by social or cultural determinations, but rather by divine intention. As one character—Shyamalan himself, playing the role of Ray Reddy, the man who falls asleep at the wheel and "unintentionally" kills Graham's wife—declares, everything in the film appears as if it was "meant to be". At the moment of the film's climax, it becomes clear to Graham, and the spectator, that his daughter's hydrophobia (she refuses to drink water from the tap because it is "contaminated"), his son's asthma, his brother's failure to become a major league baseball player, the alien invasion, and even his wife's death, are in the end all "signs" that are meant to return him to his faith.

Reading, in the context of Shyamalan's spiritual worldview, becomes "revelation": the mystical unfolding of "truth" to those who are "chosen". The effect is to obscure that meanings are produced socially, and thus are the reflection of competing class interests over how the world can and should be organized, and instead to posit the existence of meanings that exceed interpretation. It is, for example, not accidental that the newscasters, who are featured so prominently in the film because much of the global impact of the invasion is told through news reports the family watches, constantly remind viewers that the footage they (and we) are witnessing is "unedited" and thus necessarily representative of unmediated truth. While contemporary theory has called into question the idea of a transcendental truth that exceeds social and political boundaries for the way in which it naturalizes exploitation in the guise of being divinely inspired and beyond interpretation, Shyamalan's exegetical theory of reading as revelation is attempting to advance a mode of analysis which obscures the connections between appeals to "truth" and the class interests underlying them and substitutes for critical inquiry of the social a "transcendental" perspective that cannot be reduced to any one class position. The film posits the idea that for those who are "chosen" there exists unfettered access to the "truth", for those who are not, there remains only "faith" and the acceptance that the chosen are right. The film's "moral center" is, in other words, merely a stage for the interests of the ruling class for whom the appeal to an unquestionable "truth" operates as a means of establishing their class interests in securing profit at the expense of the working class as the "universal" interests of all and "faith" is a code-word for an obedient acceptance of the status quo.

Marxist critique, on the contrary, is a mode of reading which seeks to "grasp the root of the matter" by locating the basis of "truth" not in divine intention, or in people's minds, but in the material conditions which determine people's lives in order to transform them. At this historical moment, the gap between the richest people and nations and the poorest has never been greater, a situation which is leading to increasing social antagonisms. While the exegetical reading advanced by the new American fundamentalism attempts to limit interrogation of contemporary social conflicts by appealing to the idea of a "transcendental" struggle between "good" and "evil", a conclusion which obscures all questions of exploitation and social inequality by reducing social inequality to an inevitability, a critique-al analysis begins from the fact that the labor of millions of people, which could be used to meet the needs of everyone, is used instead to produce the private profits of a few. It is the fact of the private ownership of the means of production, which strips workers of everything but their labor power and subjects them to the anarchy of the "free market", that is underneath the "truth" of fundamentalism and its "transcendental" ideas. By occulting this fact, exegetical analysis obscures that it is only in a system based upon the brutal exploitation of wage-labor, in which the ruling class uses the labor power of working people to increase their own private wealth while increasing the misery of those whose labor produces their riches, can the anti-scientific, anti-critique ideas of "fundamentalism" emerge. A society based upon economic and social justice, in which the collective force of labor is used for the benefit of everyone not just the economic elite, does not need to cover its intentions in the guise of "divine" inspiration.

The popularity of the theory of reading as revelation and the ascendancy of numerous Christian conservatives in the Bush administration have, in other words, less to do with a religious revival in the United States and more to do with the corporate interests of the ruling class who use whatever means necessary to increase their profits. The growing prominence in the mainstream media of fundamentalist discourses that preach the inevitability of social conflict on the transcendental terms of "good" versus "evil", and the way in which its violent rhetoric is increasingly "normalized" in the cultural imaginary, is a reflection of the crisis of capitalism that has heightened the contradictions between the haves and the have-nots. Fundamentalism has become one of the dominant modes of reading in monopoly capital because of the way in which it seeks to silence all dissent by erasing the critique of the existing, which seeks to transform the exploitative basis of contemporary society, with the acceptance of "what is" as unquestionable. By privileging a mode of reading which is premised upon the dogmatic unfolding of a pre-destined truth, the new American fundamentalism works in the interests of capitalism against workers by situating the legitimacy of their attacks on citizen's rights and their denying of millions access to adequate health care, education, clean water, and housing on the terms that those who refuse to accept "god's plan" in which some are "chosen" and some are left to their "faith" are, in the end, on the side of "evil" (and can and should be "eliminated").

For example, at a conference organized by the Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life entitled "A Call for Reckoning: Religion and the Death Penalty" (1/25/02), Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia argued that the U.S. constitution is a "dead" document that should be interpreted retrospectively, in terms of the "transcendental" (and "divinely inspired") meaning that was realized when it was written. Scalia declares that the problem of the contemporary age, which has "upset the consensus" of Christian values, is the emergence of "democracy"! It is on these grounds, he argues, that in response to the growth of democracy in the West, what is necessary for the restoration of social balance is the return to a "divine" theory of rule and the building of a theocratic movement to return religious authority to the dictates of governmental action: "the reaction of people of faith to this tendency of democracy to obscure the divine authority behind government should be not resignation to it but resolution to combat it as effectively as possible, and a principal way of combating it, in my view, is constant public reminder that…'we are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a supreme being'". That a standing Supreme Court Justice can make such an explicit call for an attack on democracy without significant outcry (or even coverage) in the mainstream press is an indication of the way in which the new fundamentalism has been "naturalized" in the culture of transnational capital. Obscured by the lack of coverage are the practical consequences of a fundamentalist-led Supreme Court for working people in the cases that are routinely placed before the court. Scalia's anti-democratic "transcendentalism" translates, in other words, into the end of the right of women to abortion, the removal of legal protections of workers including the right to strike, the elimination of the teaching of science in public schools, and the legitimating of discrimination based upon race, sexuality, gender, and (dis)ability.

The leaders of transnational capital have tolerated this violent call for theocracy, which ultimately rests on the elimination of all "non-believers" and threatens the "liberal tolerance" necessary for an expanding global market, not because big business has undergone a religious conversion. On the contrary, the fundamentalism of "fate" and "divine providence" espoused by Scalia and increasingly echoed throughout contemporary culture has become so "popular" in Western media because it legitimates capitalism's brutal attack on workers around the world. It is, in other words, not accidental that the new fundamentalism has risen in prominence within contemporary culture at a moment of crisis of legitimacy of the "free market". For decades, as the forces of capital preached neo-liberal policies in which the privatization of social resources such as education and health and increased investment in the stock market were declared as the cure-all panacea to the stagnation and inflation of the 1970's, "faith" in the free market was assumed as given. Now, at a time when thousands of workers have lost their pensions in the collapse of the stock market and are beginning to question the promises of capitalism and the ability of the profit system to meet their basic needs, the representatives of Big Business turn to the most brutal and backwards manifestations of capitalist ideology to silence opposition and to enforce "faith" in the system. The rise of a fundamentalist mode of reading social conflicts marks the attempt by capital to use exegetical analysis to solve the crisis of capitalism's legitimacy by creating a workforce for whom the exploitation of wage-labor is the "natural" and "inevitable" outcome of a pre-destined plan, and a political climate in which dissent is coded as "immoral". The fundamentalist construction of a battle between "good" and "evil" serves the interests of capitalism by providing a framework in which the imperialism of the United States in threatening war against any who oppose the dictates of capital is re-written as the manifestation of divine intention that exceeds class interests. It is, in other words, in the cynical guise of defending the "universal" interests of the "good" and the "just", and not the interests of profit, that the Bush administration hides its imperialist drive for monopoly control of social resources in the Middle East in threatening war in Iraq. While recent studies continue to mark the growing rate of poverty in the U.S. ("Recession Cut Incomes and Swelled Poverty Rolls, US Says." New York Times, 9/24/02), and while impending imperialist wars over the control of labor and the natural resources threaten the lives of thousands in the Middle East, the ruling class relies on fundamentalism—both "religious" and "cultural"—to secure adherence to its corporate interests.

Of course, what makes Signs such an effective tool for transnational capital is that while the more overtly fundamentalist proclamations of right-wing commentators such as Ann Coulter—who declared in response to the events of 9/11 that "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity"—and Jerry Falwell—who similarly argued that 9/11 was the fault of all non-believers in the U.S. including "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, [and] People for the American Way" —are "disturbing" to the more restrained middle-class and nuanced cultural theorists alike, the film reproduces these same arguments "parodically" and thus can speak to a sophisticated cultural elite who refuse to see themselves in terms of a base spiritualism. Shyamalan has become a "popular" director because his films always involve a "twist". They are formally "difficult" and thus require a viewer who has been trained to "pay attention to details" and can follow the traces of meaning in the most mundane aspects of the story. While Shyamalan ultimately deploys the same conclusion as the far right, he does so "playfully". He self-reflexively reproduces other films and cites other filmmakers as if to wink at his own seriousness. For example, he casts himself in the film both as the character that kills Graham's wife, but also as the character that gives away the ending as midway through the film he declares, "I don’t think [the aliens] like water". It is this playfulness that seems to render his films "meaningless", despite their overt spirituality, and why they are so useful in erasing class struggle through postmodern play. Although set in rural Pennsylvania, the ability of the characters to reproduce, as if on cue, scenes taken from obscure B-movies indicates they are meant to speak to the culturally well-educated, "skeptical" non-believers in the urban middle-class. The conflict and resolution of Graham's crisis of faith trains the middle-class in modes of analysis required by transnational capital in which all meanings are located outside of social relations and there is little anyone can do to change the inequality of global society that "inevitably" leads to imperialist war.

The re-writing of class antagonisms in terms of a battle between "civilization"/"good" and "barbarism"/"evil" can best be seen in Shyamalan's representation of the alien invasion. While the invasion is meant to represent, according to a newscaster in the film, a "desperate act by a desperate civilization", required we are told by Morgan because  "they've used up all the resources on their planet and they're looking to harvest our planet next", the effect of this narration is that the struggle over social resources that is driving transnational capital into a new era of imperialist wars that will ultimately pit the richest countries in the world against the poorest is overlaid by a discourse of the "cultural difference" between "civilization" and "barbarism" that erases the fact that the current world "crisis" of natural resources is in actuality a class conflict driven by a system based on profit. As Shyamalan has indicated in interviews, the aliens speak in "primitive" clicks intentionally similar to African dialects and when they finally appear at the conclusion of the film they are fully coded in the outdated signifiers of the western imperialist imaginary. Although the aliens must have developed the scientific knowledge to travel the universe, they are nothing more than giant, naked monsters whose sole purpose is to kill the children of the more "civilized" society. In this characterization of the aliens, the cultures of some of the poorest and most exploited nations in the world are picked up and playfully troped by Shyamalan as the manifestations of (barbarian) "evil" against which Graham's (Christian) "goodness" must prevail. The purpose of the climatic final scene in which the last alien is defeated by being "baptized"—the simple way to defeat the "heathen" invaders is to pour water on their skin and the final alien dies when a glass of water is dumped on its head—we are meant to cheer the triumph of "faith" over the brutality and emptiness of "non-belief" and to witness in the killing of the alien the rightful victory of capitalism over all those who are left behind. The effectivity of Shyamalan's recasting of class antagonisms in terms of cultural differences is the way in which the imperialist drive to control the world's resources in the interests of profit is coded as the representative of "divine" intent and the resistance of those who oppose the dictates of capital as the "evil" others who refuse to accept their "destiny".

Signs' re-writing of class antagonisms as a "culture war" between "the West" and "the Rest" is an echo of Samuel Huntington's now famous re-articulation of imperialism as the "clash of civilizations". In The Clash of Civilizations: Remaking of World Order, Huntington writes in the globalized world, "the most pervasive, important, and dangerous conflicts will not be between classes, rich and poor, or other economically defined groups, but between peoples belonging to different cultural entities" (28). In place of a class analysis which would connect the current crisis in the Middle East to the on-going expropriation of social resources such as oil and water by Big Business and their political allies, Huntington instead relies on fundamentalist clichés, putting forward a thinly veiled racist diatribe in which "Those [cultures] with Western Christian heritages are making progress towards development and democratic politics; the prospects for economic and political development in the Orthodox countries are uncertain; the prospects in the Muslim republics are weak" (29). Like Signs, Huntington casts social antagonisms as "inevitable" by erasing the fact that the "clash" of civilizations is a product not of inherently different cultural impulses, but of the continuing attempts by global capital to dominate the world's resources in the interests of privately accumulating vast amounts of wealth that could be used to provide food, shelter and education to all the people of the world. His appeal to "cultural" conflicts and his argument that "Christian" countries are inherently democratic while "Muslim" countries are not, not only erases the fact that the history of the Middle East is the continuing suppression of all progressive social movements by the transnational forces of capitalist exploitation, but that "democracy" in the West has itself become a cynical alibi covering for the dictates of capitalism and the protection of the "free market". While working "abroad" to support right-wing movements to overthrow popularly elected governments and threatening to enforce "regime changes" on those who refuse to accept the rule of transnational capitalist, at "home" the tactics of electoral fraud, threats of military use against striking workers, the call for establishing a domestic spy agency to secretly collect information about people's political beliefs, the rounding up of thousands of people of Middle Eastern-descent after 9/11, and a culture of violence and de-education are used by the ruling class in the United States to "terrorize" working men and women into silence against the regime of profit and to legitimate their class rule. "Democracy" is of little concern to the U.S. ruling class "abroad" or at "home" so long as it is able to control the labor and natural resources of the world. Contrary to Huntington's culturalist account of rising global antagonisms, if democracy does not currently exist in the Middle East, it is not because of the lack of "will" of the working men and women who live there and whose labor produces the tremendous wealth of both their comprador governments as well as the representatives of transnational capital. It is the effect of imperialism. The emergence of reading as revelation in films like Signs, which advance the new American fundamentalism in the cultural sphere, is an attempt to erase the fact that actual democracy is the freedom from necessity not access to the "free market", and to legitimate the forces of imperialism as they threaten the world with a global war.

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