Bond thirteen – Bond Plays the Kremlin (Academics Miss the Point)

An interview with Oleg Gordievsky (who was head of the KGB station in London but eventually defected in 1985) was the most commented-upon part of a 2001 BBC radio program on “The Politics of James Bond.” Gordievsky claimed that the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party watched Bond films, that he was instructed to secure copies as soon as one came out, and that he was requested to obtain the devices used by Bond.

If only for this reason–the way popular culture and events shape each other–the politics of Bond rests in large part on the perceptions of those who read or watched the stories. Many papers presented at the 2003 Conference “The Cultural Politics of Ian Fleming and 007” at the University of Indiana, aside from misunderstanding Fleming’s attitudes– for example, he did not present SPECTRE as a bureaucratic world akin to SIS, but as a clear depiction of evil–bore very little relationship to the text. The conference turned into a branch of culture wars. Alternative readings that were more true to the historicist dimension were harshly criticized. More perplexing was the theoretical obfuscation offered by readings that were strong on reference to modish theorists and weak in any grounding in the real world.

If the Indiana conference indicated the range of possible responses to Bond, most often the response is located in a popular culture that is readier to work with apparent meanings, rather than to pursue implausible and self- referential academic approaches. Because these meanings are very much up-to-date in their political concerns, the stylish Bond works as a defender of the West in the here-and-now. Indeed, the question of the future of Bond frequently rests for popular audiences on the issue of where the villainy will come from. Thus, from 2001, there was the issue of whether, and if so how, the Bond corpus would relate to the threat from Osama bin Laden. Any depiction of Muslims or Arabs today has to avoid the suggestion that more than a minority are villains.

Furthermore, the villain without is in fact less important in the Bond corpus than the villain within, such as Drax–an establishment figure harboring deadly intentions. Adapting Bond to the threat of terrorism is less difficult than depicting the terrorists themselves. This indeed explains both the modern preference for Britons as villains–every other group claims prejudice- -and to the notion of the adventure hero as an agent discovering secrets. This is different from the challenge posed by an open and self-proclaimed villain. In the end, a successful new film will extend the remarkable endurance of James Bond as a key guide to popular views of espionage in the modern world.

( Many thanks Mr. Black is professor of history at the University of Exeter, Great Britain, and a Senior Fellow of the FPRI.)

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