Jason Bourne, Jack Bauer and Utopia

by Daniel Hartley

It seems to me that the source of many people’s pleasure when watching 24 or any one of the Bourne Trilogy films lies not where they think it lies. Ask them what it is they like so much about these films/ shows, and they tend to say that it’s a mixture of the extreme suspense (especially in 24, a show in which all time is compressed into an unbearably concentrated present, such that the constantly repeated time-frame of “15 minutes” starts to assume an almost mythical temporality) and of the constant action: fighting, car chases, guns, explosions. On one level, of course, this is undeniable. But I suspect that there’s a deeper source of pleasure at work.

In The Bourne Identity, there is a scene in a café-diner in which Jason, who at this point has no idea who he is or why he can do all these extraordinary things, explains his ‘powers’ to Marie:

I come in here — instinctively — first thing I do — I’m looking for the exit — I’m catching the sightlines – I know I can’t sit with my back to the door –[…] I can tell you the license plate numbers of all three cars out front. I can tell you that the waitress is left-handed and the guy at the counter weighs two-hundred and fifteen pounds and knows how to handle himself.  I know that the best, first place to look for a gun is the cab of that grey truck outside.  I know that at this altitude I can run flat out for half a mile before I lose my edge .

I think this speech contains the secret to our delight. The dreary, mundane everyday world over which I have no control and to which I submit myself on a daily basis simply to get by – all those streets I walk down, not even looking up from my feet, all those cars, roads, bags, shoes, the top halves of buildings that may as well not even exist since I never look at them, the empty spaces that sink into the grey horizon of habit – suddenly, all of this is electrified by a lightning-bolt of subjectivity. The world which only a moment before was a mere object, ‘out there’, whilst I, ‘in here’, went about my day, has become a field of potentiality. Man and environment speak to one another and work with each other: the world becomes active and controllable. It tells me all the myriad ways in which it resists me, the better that I can team up with it to overcome them.

It is in this sense that, no matter how ‘ideological’ the Bourne Trilogy and 24 might be in other respects, they contain the seeds of Utopia. It is that place of reconciliation between subject and object, where structures are recognized as human structures, the life-world produced by and for man. To borrow the terminology of a young Lukács, the soul finds its home in the world.

In a more extreme setting, this is what the Arab Spring has been demonstrating to us. All those rigid and repressive institutions which confronted the people as menacing objects have now been transformed into potentialities. The world itself has become once more a field of human possibilities to be fought over rather than a crushing wall to be submitted to.