A Precarious State: Violence and Retribution in Stallone’s Cobra

In the opening sequence of Sylvester Stallone’s 1986 film Cobra, images flash back and forth between a lone biker riding out before a rising sun and the eerie clanking of grisly, subterranean axes. Soon, the watcher bears witness to that lone biker, with a shotgun in hand, taking over a supermarket, an everyday aspect of American life. Supermarkets provide the United States with sustenance, and in this nightmarish landscape, they’re in danger.

Stallone’s character, Marion Cobretti (aka Cobra), a cop working through the LAPD’s fictitious “Zombie Squad” and thus functioning on the outskirts of the law himself, confronts this self-proclaimed “hero” of the New Order. Informing the “hero” that he is merely a disease to which Cobra himself is the cure, Cobra coldly guns down the lone biker to media disapproval only to discover this criminal is one among many of an army of cancerous tumors plaguing the city of Los Angeles. This infernal body of disease is eventually revealed to have a head of sorts, a maniac serial killer known throughout the movie only by the vicious derivative of Richard Ramirez’s real life media moniker of “Night Stalker”, the name “Night Slasher”.

Panned by critics upon its initial release for derivative storytelling, Cobra, possibly by fusing Hollywood genres as disparate as action and horror, has turned into a cult classic. But even more than its formal structure, this film has a certain je ne se quoi lurking beneath its surface that allows it to resonate with the primal feelings of its audience. To give voice to and better understand this je ne sais quoi itself, we must delve into the deeper meaning of Cobra’s plot where we will discover how it is the very precariousness of today’s social order itself that allows this film to resonate so clearly with its many fans. Moreover, it is this tuning into the horrifying sounds always bubbling beneath the surface of any great society that makes this action extravaganza a story worth telling.

The heart of Cobra’s action revolves around a burgeoning war between Cobra, as a representative of social order and justice, and a nascent New Order. Cobra’s New Order (first mentioned by the supermarket terrorist), as described by Wikipedia, is “a supremacist group of social Darwinist radicals that despise modern society and believe in killing the weak, leaving only the strongest and smartest to rule the world.”

This statement gives voice to Cobra’s overall moral compass. In the eyes of the New Order, our decrepit “modern society” allows the weak to flourish. Now, from a Christian moral standpoint, this is actually a “good” thing. For, Jesus Himself says “the meek shall inherit the earth”. Thus, continuing our journey through this world of morality, we must recognize Cobra’s New Order as a satanic force. This gives Cobra’s story a religious core. For, although Cobra himself functions on the outskirts of law and order, his goal is to protect the “weak” from the self-perceived “strong”. Whether those “strong” are so in objective fact or merely subjective opinion isn’t at issue. What remains is that Cobra is a “shepherd” protecting his “flock”. That flock being the entire city of Los Angeles, perhaps the entire United States, and by extension, perhaps, even the entire world.

The New Order being birthed in Los Angeles’s subterranean underbelly has the power to potentially reach anybody anywhere with its random acts of violence. Any one of us could be Ingrid Knudson, Cobra’s female protagonist hunted by the New Order for no apparent reason other than that she saw their leader, the Night Slasher himself, standing beside a broken down car earlier in the day she was first attacked. This chance encounter turned the devil’s gaze upon her. However, reason itself is a chimera in the New Order’s world. The New Order doesn’t need a reason to hunt anybody. Unlike in Cobra’s system of moral merit where the weak get special privilege to receive protection from the strong, the New Order alone determine who should survive. They have determined Ingrid Knudson to be weak and, therefore, not fit to live. Just as they determined the same for the citizens who happened to be shopping at that supermarket when the lone gunman entered. Just as they determine the same for all the Night Slasher’s hapless victims.

The social Darwinism espoused by the New Order wouldn’t be so terrifying if it weren’t the case that on some level many of us believe the New Order’s system to be “true”. We’re all the weak. There’s no such thing, in the world we inhabit, as the strong. We’re all potential victims of the circumstances of natural disease, and as Marion Cobretti himself says, that’s precisely what crime is: a disease. Like with any virus, it has no brain, no mind, no intention. None of us are immune to its vicissitudes. It might attack any one of us at any point in time. Perhaps, the most terrifying aspect of crime itself is its inherent randomness. There are certainly motivated crimes, but for many of us (whether it’s a result of breaking and entering, aggravated assault, and even rape or murder) it will happen randomly, destroying our senses of agency and making us feel as if we are weak regardless of how strong, either internally or externally, we may actually be.

For many of us, the causes of crime are as unknown as the New Order’s motivations. There may be social mechanisms at work when crimes occur, but we can’t see them in action. All we see are the results. This is the truth Cobra hits upon, and this is what Cobra is fighting against. We’re terrified we may actually be the weak simply because we aren’t strong enough to control our external worlds. However, no human being can control her external world. That’s what makes Cobra such a compelling character. Regardless of how terrifying the scenarios portrayed in this film may be, by means of his will and his weaponry, Cobra continuously controls his external world. He does this by turning the very violence we’re so afraid of back upon itself.

That’s what eventually creates such a mesmerizing final scene. Much like how the opening sequence’s rising sun symbolizes the terrifying future the New Order hopes to bring to fruition, as Cobra turns the tables on a fist fight with the Night Slasher and lifts the murderer onto a hook to send him screaming into a foundry’s flames, we see the primal solution to our fears branded onto celluloid. It’s violence that terrifies us, and it’s violence we believe will save us. Whether that’s true or not doesn’t matter. What matters is, on the level of primal justice, as Cobra’s cult status certainly proves, it rings true for the audience.

This leads to the ethical dilemma Cobra poses: Is violence required to combat violence? To return to our Biblical morality, the Hebrew Testament exhorts ancient Israeli citizens to take “an eye for an eye”. In this way, peaceful ends justify violent means. Social order justifies those who act outside that order in order to maintain it. However, there’s also always the more contemporary approximation of this Biblical ideology, often attributed to Mohandas Gandhi: “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”. In this formulation, peaceful ends do not justify violent means. For, there is no end to the cycle of violence. In fact, using peaceful ends to justify violent means could potentially allow for the justification of any violence. The New Order themselves could make the claim that when their purge is complete a peaceful, well-ordered world will result. Therefore, they are the righteous. Those combatting them, Marion Cobretti included, are the wicked allowing this world’s current chaos to continue.

However, there’s another way to interpret the call of an eye for an eye, and that is the formulation that leads to salvation in William Friedkin’s 1973 film The Exorcist: “Evil shall see itself, and it shall die”. Perhaps, it’s not the act of violence itself that brings an end to violence, but rather, it’s the reflection of violence back upon itself that brings an end to violence. For, if evil shall see itself and it shall die, then violence shall see itself and it shall cease. Like multiplying two negatives together, violence reflected upon violence becomes a positive.

This formulation of “the law” is embodied in Marion Cobretti. For, it’s his overabundance of violence that brings an end to the New Order’s violence. Their psychopathy is reflected back upon them in the form of Marion Cobretti’s own compulsive sociopathy, and it destroys them. There’s no way for them to combat it. From the supermarket terrorist to the Night Slasher himself, they can only succumb. Now, whether this formulation of “the law” is true in abstract reality doesn’t matter. What matters is this appears to be the formulation of the law Cobra believes.

And this formulation of the law continues to gain adherents because we all see Cobra’s chaos bubbling beneath the surface of our stable societies. We see violence in the news. We know there are crimes occurring in the world beyond our doors because we fear they may strike our children on their way to school. On some level, we’re all afraid any one of us could be in that supermarket when the terrorist strikes. We believe in the necessity of Cobra. We believe violence must combat violence. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t have a police force. We wouldn’t continue to enforce the death penalty. And we certainly wouldn’t condone the reality of war. Society’s stability is a piece of water-logged detritus we cling to while floating in a sea of chaos. We all know this. But does this make Cobra’s violence “right”? Will we continue to urge an eye for an eye, or will we finally insist we all must turn the other cheek?

Skynet and Zen: The Past, The Future, and The Terminator

“God, a person could go crazy thinking about this…” Sarah Connor says at the end of James Cameron’s film The Terminator in a recording she will eventually pass on to her unborn son, John. Sarah knows her son will grow into a man named John Connor simply because the film’s other main protagonist, Kyle Reese, has already informed her that this boy, who he himself never knew he was destined to be the father of, is the same man who sent Kyle back from the future to protect Sarah herself. For, as Sarah said to Kyle earlier in the film, “Well, at least now I know what to name him.”

This last statement of Sarah’s begs the question that if Sarah had named her son something other than “John Connor”, would the future have turned out differently? Would there have even been a Skynet if there’d never been a “John” Connor? Is there a different “possible” world? And how many changes to the existent world does it take to create a different “possible” one? Perhaps, Sarah even considered this, and perhaps, she concluded that since she didn’t have any control over the building and programming of Skynet, she should at least give her son the name he would need to eventually defeat Skynet.

We, of course, are aware that Kyle Reese’s statement about Sarah Connor being in hiding before the war is in fact coming to fruition by the end of the movie. We get a chance, in the film’s final frames, to see the picture taken of Sarah that Kyle eventually falls in love with in the future. So we know that, in this instance at least, the future is the past is the future.

Unlike John Connor (who must have his own unique understanding of time due to his mother’s tapes concerning his origin), however, Skynet, as fully aware of an operating system as it may have become, never appears to become aware that the future it lived in was merely a precursor to the past it grew out of. Leaving aside, for the moment, the question as to whether a self-aware artificial intelligence, with its massive computing power, might not have reached this same conclusion on its own, the question we must ask is: What sort of “vision” of time is necessary to allow the events of James Cameron’s film to take place?

If the past becomes the future and the future turns into the past, the first thing we should accept is that a being who steps “outside” the system we know of as time would not witness a linear progression through what we’ve come to think of as our linguistic tenses. Rather, that being would view a “static” image where past, present, and future are happening simultaneously. As if everything we experience were merely a Renaissance fresco on The Vatican’s wall. This “being” sounds an awful lot like some sort of Newtonian physics God existing in “absolute” time and space. We will, however, leave aside theological considerations at this moment.

Instead, we will admit that this same concept of a “static” time was envisioned by Kurt Vonnegut in his 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five, where the author introduces us to the multi-dimensional beings he himself invented, the Tralfamadorians. In this instance, the Tralfamadorians offer us a much clearer picture to begin reasoning from than theological abstraction. For, with both The Terminator and Slaughterhouse-Five, we are safely in the realms of (relatively) recent pop culture, rather than a distant, “proto-scientific” cosmology. There is a slight difference, however, between Slaughterhouse-Five’s visions of the Tralfamadorians and The Terminator’s conception of time travel.

Like the philosopher’s God Himself, the Tralfamadorians exist in a Newtonian “absolute” space where time is seen from an external vantage – although, they eventually interfere in a very real way with “time” in the way that we do actually perceive it (that, however, is the subject of another meditation). On the other hand, Kyle Reese, from his own perspective, has come to be in the past via the future. In fact, one could even say he’s “transmigrated” from the future to the past, but unlike in any sort of Tibetan conception of Bardo realms, Kyle Reese comes from one very real point on the space-time continuum to another very real point on the space-time continuum. Relatively, however, he’s remained at rest. For, he’s still Kyle Reese at both points.

We can juxtapose The Terminator’s concept of time with the concept of time in another film from the same era of the mid-1980s, Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future. As opposed to the Tralfamadorian vision of time as a static fresco, Back to the Future indulges in a conceptual fantasy more akin to “possible worlds” theory. For, in Back to the Future (as opposed to The Terminator), we see an actual representation of Kyle Reese’s quote that, “The future is not set.”

With the simple change of a single event in the McFly family’s past (namely George McFly finally standing up to his lifelong bully, Biff), the entire scenario of future events has spun off into an entirely different direction. In the future at the film’s end, George McFly is a wealthy man and Biff works for him, rather than the other way around. This appears an illustration of the meditation that “nearly possible worlds” exist given a different set of counterfactual variants.

If we look at the premise upon which we’ve come to our realization of “possible” futures, we could say that the “possible worlds” variant offers us an increasingly positive worldview. Of course, at one point in Back to the Future, Marty McFly was on the verge of un-creating himself in a different possible world. However, the knowledge that multiple possible worlds could come into effect given a different set of variants should supply us with some solace regarding our own eventual destruction. Perhaps, there’s even a world where we don’t die, where we live forever, and where everything is at peace. This should offer us some comfort amid our current “possible” world’s suffering.

The Terminator (as well as Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians), on the other hand, appears a working example of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s “theory of eternal recurrence”, which wonders if a demon were to ask you if you wanted to live your life innumerable times over would you say, “Yes”? Without answering the specific question of whether or not Nietzsche was at all serious that his theory of eternal recurrence was how the world actually operates, at the very least, we can take it as a given that The Terminator’s cosmology has accepted this tenet. Therefore, we can easily admit, given the suffering inherent to the world we inhabit (and the world John Connor is eventually born into), that this view of eternal recurrence is not the intellectual soporific that possible worlds theory can be.

For its part, Skynet, although it developed the means to manipulate one’s linear passage through time, never seemed to see the world in line with the Tralfamadorians through the lens of a tangible enactment of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence. If it did, it never would have assumed it could quash humanity’s rebellion simply by killing Sarah Connor. Instead, it would have realized its time machine was rather a suicide machine.

This leads us to the question, then, that we alluded to earlier and that we must ask ourselves now, which is: If by some means of self-aware circuitry, Skynet were aware that eternal recurrence was the case, as Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians seem to perceive it to be, then was Skynet already aware that by building a time machine it was merely committing suicide? Should we, perhaps, be wondering if Skynet has come to an acceptance of the vagaries of what human beings perceive as the maddening flux of past, present, and future? This sense of peace amid flux could even resemble something akin to Buddhist enlightenment. Therefore, should we be asking ourselves – Is Skynet in Zen? However, if Skynet is in “Zen”, was it this same acceptance of the world’s necessity that allowed Skynet to be as calculatingly cold as it needed to be to bring such a horrid future into existence in the first place?

That the future Kyle Reese comes from is horrible cannot be denied. We see images throughout the film of machines rolling over piles of human bones. We see the degradation humanity has been reduced to during Sarah’s dream when she sleeps in Kyle’s arms in the drainpipe where they’re hiding from The Terminator. We understand the bleak world vision Kyle comes back to the past with through his own gestures, expressions, and imaginings of Sarah’s own death. This is the future – this world of constant suffering – waiting for humanity in Skynet’s own, personal Zen. But this could be the world waiting for all of us in any “being’s” enlightened mindset.

This flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom claims “enlightenment” is a place of peace. Going one step further, the concept of enlightenment itself is often defined by the “peace” its practitioner has found. In other words, if the being claiming to be enlightened does not exhibit a certain evident serenity, then most people would say that being has not found the enlightenment she is seeking. In fact, many might even say that being is, as the Buddha himself would put it, deluded. This statement, however, has no backing evidence in the texts humanity’s original understanding of the nebulous concept of enlightenment comes from.

Enlightenment is defined in many ways in many different texts. However, the most common early definitions of enlightenment appear to define the concept as a cessation of mental energies: nirvana. This means the enlightened being has stopped thinking about the world. Instead, she merely experiences the world in a detached state. This detached state of experience sounds like it could even be the dissociative properties of certain trauma-induced mental disorders such as borderline personality disorder. One might even go so far as to say the enlightened being could be in a constant state of PTSD.

For, if life itself is a sort of trauma, enlightenment is the coping mechanism. Whether Skynet has reached this point of passivity amid flux is not obvious at all from the first film in The Terminator franchise. Skynet is merely a peripheral character in this film. At the very least, we must admit that if Skynet is aware of the paradoxes associated with time travel, this artificial intelligence has solved Nietzsche’s riddle and answered, “Yes,” to the question of life’s eternal recurrence.

My Untimely Meditations

X.

Hebrew is like a veil being rent asunder. I see the world backwards, from the other side of the page. Suddenly, I see English from the other side of the page as well.

Greek forces me to meditate on the sound and symbol as well as the process of thought: the order of words.

Chinese is a reflection on meaning.

French? How could something so similar be so different? Even to the point of sounds of familiar letters… even to the point of putting articles where my “native” tongue has none.

I don’t need to publish anything. It was always a journey of self-discovery.

For so long I thought every moment was worth saving… was worth sharing. That was the flaw of my artistic theory.

IX.

It seems to me that the purpose of zazen is, maybe, to make what we have come to refer to as unconscious thought processes into what we know as “conscious” thought processes. With the unconscious conscious, the unconscious becomes controllable. Controllable, we gain power over our inner lives. Gaining power over our inner lives, we attain self-mastery. Mastering the self, the external world no longer has control over us by appealing to previously “unconscious” drives. Maybe, it’s time for me to start zazen again.

VIII.

What is thought does not have to be actualized. That is desire. What, then, is thought?

It’s not the shoddiness of Freud’s system that matters; rather, it is the structure that it engendered: evidence of the self-perpetuation of a human idea (false).

VII.

Logic is limited. The question remains: Does logic express the actual way in which thoughts are connected by the mind? Also, does logical symbolization exhaust the possibility of how thoughts are expressed within the mind itself? The further questions of cause and effect, existence and non-existence are still perplexing.

VI.

Might it not be the case that in his merging of Nietzsche and Spinoza, Gilles Deleuze is bringing together the great post-Pythagorean argument between Heraclitus and Parmenides (strife and monism)?

V.

Physics is the determining factor in the European intellectual tradition. And physics as metaphor becomes the basis for European logic.

Why did physics take hold in Greece?

IV.

How can one build in the nothing? How do we make our first step? Where do we land? How does one find an authentic point from which to begin? Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, even Freud… Plato, Aristotle, Confucius… Descartes…

Something happened to me once upon a time. I don’t know what it was.

III.

Philosophy must be overcome.

II.

What is the subject is the question.

I.

It is evident that what underlies this world is nothing.

א.

Logic is absurd.

The State of Nature and Non-Conformity

Commenting upon the state of contemporary affairs, one often recognizes two aspects among our current society. One of these is the speed at which society desires pleasure rather than repose among the beauty of nature. Another quickly discernible modern trait is the desire to conform that society presents to its youth and adults.

At the point where we’re at today, the beauties of the earth are quickly overlooked so instant pleasures can be achieved. We rip apart our forests to make room for “progress”, a word I use lightly since it could hardly be considered “progress” to destroy the Great God of the Wood to create money for the community. The beautiful green of nature has been replaced by the sickly green of the dollar bill, and we are content with this.

I often wonder where our place to relax is. We sit at home and waste our minds on television. We have grown to be in such a hurry that even restaurants cater to our fast-paced lives, and the streams where we used to swim as well as the forests we used to wander have been moved aside for our society to make headway in what seems an eternal struggle to destroy itself. We often seem to forget that humanity is nature and nature is humanity. Without nature, humanity cannot survive, and humanity gives nature a purpose. We work together in peace, but for some reason we feel the need to destroy that which provides our collective life. What a wonderful way to say thank you for the fruits nature bears us and the love nature shows us in its streams, brooks, and forests. I live myself, but I shall return to my mother, the earth, when I die.

However, as sad as our struggle with our environment is, our struggle with ourselves is even worse. Today, we struggle to turn ourselves into what we simply are not. And we wish to be what we are not so we can fit into the categories others provide for us. These categories apply to adults, the elderly, teens, and children. Is it possible to be happy when you live another’s life? I can’t see any happiness in such a life. I can only see happiness in ourselves. For, we provide our own. In truth, no one can provide it for us. But some people grow their hair. Other people cut their hair. Some people spend thousands of dollars on clothes. Other people shop at thrift stores simply so they can put forward the image they wish to portray. I say grow your hair and wear a suit, or cut your hair and wear second hand clothes. Anything to show your individuality, but do what you want to do. Don’t fall into the trap of conforming to non-conformity. For, many “non-conformists” conform more than those who aren’t. They say, “If you don’t have a Mohawk, then you conform,” or, “If you don’t have long hair, then you conform.” But they refuse to show their individuality because they’re too concerned with showing how different they are, and that is conformity as much as the man in the suit who trudges off to work every day.

There are no true non-conformists. Everybody conforms in some way. However, there is individuality and the ability to be original. How can you tell the difference? It’s simple. If you do what you want to do, you’re being an original. If you’re doing something solely because it’s different, you’ve fallen into the rut of conforming to non-conformity. For the individual, it’s quite difficult to always be original. However, they’re still doing better than most in this society. At least, they’re trying.

Before I leave you, I want to say a prayer with you that, once again, we will love to live with nature and, for once, all will be individuals. Such a prayer may never come true, but that’s not the fault of the Great Spirit. It simply stems from a flaw in human nature, a flaw that someday we may be able to transcend, but at this moment, I’ll simply continue to be myself and seek my solace among my friends who bear seeds. Perhaps, you will, too, my friend.