Monday, January 16, 2006

Return of the MacGuffin: Iran and Nuclear Weapons

"Well, then that's not a MacGuffin, is it?"
President George W Bush, September 2003

In an interview with Francis Truffaut in 1966, Alfred Hitchcock explained the term MacGuffin :

It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says, 'What's that package up there in the baggage rack?' And the other answers, 'Oh that's a McGuffin.' The first one asks 'What's a McGuffin?' 'Well' the other man says, 'It's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.' The first man says, 'But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,' and the other one answers 'Well, then that's no McGuffin!' So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all.

(In some versions this story ends differently: "The first man says, 'But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,' and the other one answers 'That shows how effective it is!'")

A MacGuffin (sometimes spelt McGuffin or Magoffin), an empty master-signifier, is a now-ubiquitous plot device or catalyst that holds no meaning or purpose of its own except to motivate the players or characters and advance a narrative or story. The device is usually used in films, particularly thrillers. The term "MacGuffin" was invented by Hitchcock who made extensive use of the device in his films, and it is still frequently used in specific reference to Hitchcock's plots, rather than as a general term for similar narrative conveniences in unrelated stories, including a significant slice of the contemporary narrative of geo-politics: as we know, Zizek has also used the term in relation to the non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq - The Iraqi MacGuffin. [ Hitchcock aficionado Zizek, of course, has used the MacGuffin as an illustration of the structural principles of Lacanian psychoanalysis in his book Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock) ].

A well-known use of a MacGuffin in Hitchcock's work is the uranium hidden in wine bottles in Notorious: it is the reason the story takes place, but it otherwise means nothing. The story could just as easily have used diamonds (which were in fact proposed as an alternative MacGuffin during production), gold or extraordinary rare wine as the plot device. Another memorable use is in North by Northwest: here, the MacGuffin is the character of "George Kaplan", who is being chased by the enemy spies. Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is mistaken for Kaplan by the spies, and so they chase him instead. Thornhill spends the course of the movie trying to find George Kaplan himself without realizing that George Kaplan does not even exist. Both the hero and the villains of the movie are chasing nothing more than a puff of hot air, making this a true MacGuffin.

Although Hitchcock coined the term MacGuffin, many similar plot devices predate his use. One particularly famous early example of a MacGuffin is the titular statuette in John Huston's The Maltese Falcon, which could just as easily have been any other mythical treasure. Even this film, however, is a relatively recent example of this particular form of plot device. Plot devices like the MacGuffin are used in stories dating back at least to Desdemona's handkerchief in William Shakespeare's Othello, and possibly further back still. Other MacGuffins prior to the invention of the term include Pip's "great expectations" of future wealth in the Charles Dickens book of that title.

Just as Hitchcock's films influenced later filmmaking, the MacGuffin also diffused in name, and in concept, into popular culture. For instance, the briefcase in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction is a MacGuffin (and a homage to Kiss Me Deadly). The contents are never shown; that section of the plot is not about the briefcase so much as what happens because of it. A similar homage is the surreal, glowing car trunk in Alex Cox's Repo Man. Some argue that the monolith in Kubrick's 2001 is a MacGuffin.

More recently, the television series 24 (just reviewed by Zizek) regularly uses the MacGuffin. While every season has focused on a terrorist plot, each season begins with the government agents closing in on one group of suspects, only to learn they have been hired by others. Each season has had several levels of villain involved.

Even George Bush, it appears, understands the term: the above Bush quote came following his own realisation that Iraq had no WMDs. But it is characteristic of modern geo-politics to abhor a vacuum, and so, no sooner than one MacGuffin is despatched, revealed as void, another is quickly invoked: Iran's nuclear weapons and the West's necessarily paranoid response.

There has been much blog coverage of this recent crisis, and the prospect of an all-out US nuclear strike against Iran, of late - at
Dissensus, at Lenin's Tomb (see also the comments section, with excellent contributions from, among others, Le Colonel Chabert ).

The latest MacGuffin, the non-existence of any Iranian nuclear weapons programme, has already been comprehensively determined: see, for instance, any of the following:

The facts about Iran's "alleged" nuclear weapons program have never been in dispute. There is no such program and no one has ever produced a shred of credible evidence to the contrary. That hasn't stopped the Bush administration from making spurious accusations and threats; nor has it deterred America's "imbedded" media from implying that Iran is hiding a nuclear weapons program from the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency). In fact, the media routinely features the unconfirmed claims of members of terrorist organizations, like the Mujahedin Klaq, (which is on the State Depts. list of terrorist organizations) to make it appear that Iran is secretively developing nuclear arms. These claims have proved to be entirely baseless and should be dismissed as just another part of Washington's propaganda war. Sound familiar? Iran has no nuclear weapons program. This is the conclusion of Mohammed el-Baradei the respected chief of the IAEA. The agency has conducted a thorough and nearly-continuous investigation on all suspected sites for the last two years and has come up with the very same result every time; nothing. If we can't trust the findings of these comprehensive investigations by nuclear experts than the agency should be shut down and the NPT (Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty) should be abandoned. It is just that simple. That, of course, is exactly what the US and Israel would prefer since they have no intention of complying with international standards or treaties and are entirely committed to a military confrontation with Iran. It now looks as though they may have the pretext for carrying out such an attack. ===>Why Iran will lead to World War 3 - Mike Whitney
===> Also More Lies about Iran

Iran’s nuclear option is not imminent. On purely technical grounds, Iran appears to be at least several years away from producing enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon ... if Iran threw caution to the wind, and sought a nuclear weapon capability as quickly as possible without regard for international reaction, it might be able to produce enough HEU for a single nuclear weapon by the end of this decade.
===>Iran’s strategIc Weapons Programmes: a net assessment, remarks by Dr John Chipman, Director, ISS

And, as Lenin points out, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued a fatwa against the stockpiling, production and use of any nuclear weapons.

Nonetheless, such evidence is of no consequence to the West, particularly the US and Israel, who have been planning to attack Iran for years. For example, as far back as October 2003, Gordon Thomas, a veteran Irish journalist known for his long-time connections with senior Israeli and British intelligence officials, reported that
Israel And US Prepare To Attack Iran .

But the MacGuffin has now reached fever pitch, as US forpol analyst Michel Chossudovsky (Director of the Center for Research on Globalization) reported earlier this month:

The launching of an outright war using nuclear warheads against Iran is now in the final planning stages.

Coalition partners, which include the US, Israel and Turkey are in "an advanced stage of readiness".

Various military exercises have been conducted, starting in early 2005. In turn, the Iranian Armed Forces have also conducted large scale military maneuvers in the Persian Gulf in December in anticipation of a US sponsored attack.

Since early 2005, there has been intense shuttle diplomacy between Washington, Tel Aviv, Ankara and NATO headquarters in Brussels.
===>Nuclear War Against Iran, Michel Chossudovsky

The former Shah of Iran in geezer-cool mode

Even if the CIA is unduly optimistic in assuming that Tehran is still 10 years away from a bomb, there is still plenty of time and room for patient negotiation. And no need for the current histrionics.===>No need to panic over Iranian nukes, By Gwynne Dyer .

Strictly speaking, anything is now possible. Though numerous commentators (eg. Chomsky: "Will the US go on to attack? Personally, I doubt it, unless Iran can be internationally isolated and shows signs of collapsing from within.") believe an attack unlikely, similar sentiments were also expressed about a likely invasion of Iraq three years ago.

Iranian film-maker Abbas Kiarostami's stage debut Ta'ziyeh: the screens show faces of Iranian spectators watching a previous performance.

Watch any film by world-renowned Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, and you see a filmmaker railing against an oppressive, fundamentalist theocracy, its inherent subjugation of women, the dehumanizing effect of the hatreds it foments and the futilities of a patriarchal system mired in its own rhetoric and hypocrisy. No wonder the Bush administration wants to keep him out of the country [
Kiarostami was refused a US visa in 2002 to attend the New York Film Festival].

"... instead of celebrating the greatness of true Islam against its misuse by fundamentalist terrorists, or of bemoaning the fact that, of all great religions, Islam is the one most resistent to modernization, one should rather conceive this resistance as an open chance, as undecidable: this resistance does not necessarily lead to Islamo-Fascism, it can also be articulated into a Socialist project. Precisely because Islam harbors the worst potentials of the Fascist answer to our present predicament, it can also turn out to be the site for the best. In other words, yes, Islam effectively is not a religion like others, it does involve a stronger social link, it does resist being integrated into the capitalist global order - and the task is how to politically use this ambiguous fact.

In the case of Judaism as well as in the case of Islam, one should thus gather the courage to accomplish the Hegelian step towards concrete universality and to transpose the site of antagonism and inconsistency into the very core of the religious edifice, not to dismiss it as pertaining only to the secondary fundamentalist misuse."

Interesting that, of all the countries in the world, Iran is today the cyberspace capital of blogging; whereas Iraq has a mere few dozen bloggers reporting on the US invasion, Iran has a few hundred thousand bloggers, the otherwise repressive Iranian regime covertly permitting virtual freedom to the country's vast population of educated youth (60 per cent of Iran's university places are occupied by women, while less than 2 per cent of Iran's population regularly attends a Mosque ...).

Anyone speak Farsi?

Compare the struggle and pain of the "fundamentalist" with the serene peace of the liberal democrat who, from a safe subjective position, ironically dismisses every fully pledged engagement, every "dogmatic" taking sides. Consequently, yes, I plead guilty: in this choice, I without hesitation opt for the "fundamentalist."

My only hope is that American interventions will give rise to some kind of resistance. My big hope - as an atheist, praying night and day for it - is that the resistance in the Middle East will not be simply kidnapped by the so-called fundamentalists. That this resistance will have at least secular socialist wing. And I think there is a fair chance at it. Look at Iran. There is hope. ===>LBO Interview with Zizek


Blogger Le Colonel Chabert said...

Great post.

Small point, but

"A well-known use of a MacGuffin in Hitchcock's work is the uranium hidden in wine bottles in Notorious: it is the reason the story takes place, but it otherwise means nothing. The story could just as easily have used diamonds"

Not thematically though, as being on/in the bottle is the metaphor for Alicia's promiscuity and femme fatale-itude, and then ironically she is in the end almost poisoned to death by a newfound coffee drinking sobriety (the metaphor for her true love/broken heart.)

6:23 PM  
Blogger mark k-punk said...

Another trivial point but I didn't really follow why Pip's great expectations were a macguffin... isn't Pip's wealth and the source of it integral to the plot?

11:14 PM  
Blogger Padraig said...

Yes, criticisms accepted - those two examples, Notorious/uranium and Great Expectations/great expectations, are not instants of the MacGuffin at its purest, too much methaphor clouding the horizons ... perhaps the example par excellence, rarely mentioned, is the Rosebud of Welles' Citizen Kane [very fond of MacGuffins, Welles, he also directed a film version of Othello) , with Rosebud transpiring in the denouement as nothing more than the brand-name of Kane's childhood sledge [lost pre-lapsarian unity -nothing ...].

11:42 PM  
Blogger Le Colonel Chabert said...

and the microfilm in North by Northwest...or the Sandanista's MIG purchase...or the 'genocide' of the Kosovo ethnic Albanians....or the persecution of the Sudentenland Germans...or the harboring of Osama Bin MacGuffin by the Taliban...

2:15 PM  
Blogger Padraig said...

Excellent geo-Fibonacci-style replicant-expansion there [or should that be reproductive?], Alphonse.

... And, pen-ultimately, The War On Terror ... it's self-same Self.

5:12 AM  
Blogger Murr said...

Good post. Isn't there a striking similarity, by the way, between George Kaplan and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi? In fact, they may even be the same person. Every few months we hear a dozen or so people have been killed when a "Zarqawi safe house" was bombed, but somehow the evil genius always managed to check into a different hotel just before and everything starts all over again.

8:48 AM  
Blogger the thistle said...

Great post. I'd forgotten Hitchcock's joke illustration of the MacGuffin. It so happens that Aleister Crowley, Magic in Theory and Practice, told a version of the same joke to illustrate how magic works. I was once working on an essay about the MacGuffin in the context of Brian Rotman's Signifying Nothing: The Semiotics of Zero. Some Signifying Nothing can be read here:

I disagree that the MacGuffin is necessarily--even ideally--without metaphor, whatever Hitchcock says. Only in a system like mathematics or geometry can the meta-subject be defined as having no features, and even then, any representation of it does. The first thing which must be done is for everyone to agree to ignore its features. The features remain, but the concerted willful ignorance of them allows the metasubject to become "the center."

Analogue MacGuffin myths: Pandora's box, the Emperor's New Clothes (which reverses the moral), and the story of Geb getting burned on opening the box containing Ra's uraeus serpent. Probably anything involving the breaking of taboos or the destruction of totems.

If 2001's monolith is a MacGuffin then so is the blue box in Mulholland Dr. The interesting thing about these two cases is that in each, the characters pass through the MacGuffin. Its emptiness communicates to another real. (I'm thinking about this in the context of Ra's uraeus being a "third eye.")

What would happen if America were to "pass through" this MacGuffin of Iranian nuclear technology? Would it communicate with its own fictive origin?

3:42 PM  
Blogger Padraig said...

Superb additions, Murr and the thistle, the ever-not-there terrorist and the Wellesian F-for-Fake Magician ... [and Mulholland Dr's blue box is just like The Mystery Man in Lost Highway] ..

Itching to add that, of all the MacGuffins in all the world, those "letters of transit" walk into Rick's Cafe - the Casablanca MacGuffin ...

[America will pass through the Iranian MacGuffin when it perchance turns its next-obstacle blinkered eyes on China (or perhaps Venezuala].

8:49 PM  
Blogger sexy said...







8:23 AM  

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