James Bond and Philosophy


James Bond and Philosophy: Questions Are Forever, edited by James B. South and Jacob M. Held. Chicago; La Salle: Open Court Publishing Company, 2006. Popular Culture and Philosophy; Volume 23.

The Popular Culture and Philosophy series is quite uneven, in my estimation. Popular culture has eclipsed traditional print culture as the fount of cultural authority, and this series is a reflection of the cultural order. Any cultural phenomenon, not just the old print canon, can serve as an object of analytical reflection. The problem, however, is the cognitive effects of an advanced commodity culture in a state of decline. Philosophy should be deployed to dissect the products of the culture industry, not to validate them. Instead, the focus of this series is to use popular culture to illustrate the ideas current in philosophy, a rather different site of banality, to be sure, but banality just the same. The best volumes I have found in the series are those in which the subject matter involves more abstract, logical considerations, such as the volume on Monty Python. The Woody Allen volume was also good: I gained a much greater respect for Allen’s intellect from this book than I do from his films, perhaps because Allen has also published humorous philosophical essays.

James Bond and Philosophy is neither essential nor terrible reading for the most part. It contains both approaches: use of Bond to illustrate philosophical ideas, and philosophical critiques of the Bond phenomenon.  Several chapters are devoted to aspects of Bond’s character: how he faces danger and death, his bon vivant lifestyle, his relationship to women, his license to kill, etc. The book is divided into four sections:

Section I: No Mr. Bond, I Expect You to Die: Bond, Existentialism, and Death
Section II: Mr. Bond Is Indeed a Very Rare Breed: The Man Behind the Number
Section III: For England, James?: Bond, Politics, and Law
Section IV: Oh, Don’t Be an Idiot, 007: Knowledge and Technology
Section V: Why Do Chinese Girls Taste Different from All Other Girls?: Multiculturalism, Women, and a More Sensitive Bond

The question of the morality of Bond’s extralegal behavior, particularly his license to kill, is addressed in section III:

chapter 8: The Moral Status of the Double-O Agent: Thinking about the License to Kill (Matthew Tedesco)
chapter 9: “Just a Stupid Policeman”: Bond and the Rule of Law (Greg Forster)

Tedesco addresses the ethics of assassination and torture. Forster is more interesting: he deals with Bond’s extralegal powers in relation to the liberal constitutional order he upholds. Forster also compares the substantive (public good) and procedural (separation of powers) approaches to the rule of law.

The first essay in Section IV is chapter 11: “The Epistemology of James Bond: The Logic of Abduction” by Jerold J. Abrams. Using Charles Peirce’s notion of abductive inference, Abrams contrasts the good abductions of Bond with the erroneous abductions of his supervillains. The second essay is ‘James Bond and Q: Heidegger’s Technology, or “You’re Not a Sportsman, Mr. Bond’,” by Steven Zani. in “James Bond and the Philosophy of Technology: It’s More than Just the Gadgets of Q Branch,” William J. McKinney distinguishes between “James Bond” as a person and “007” as an instrument, a weapon.

The two essays in section V are not worth reading. The first, by Robert Arp and Kevin S. Decker, is an obvious treatment of Bond and the objectification of women. The second, on Bond and Yin-Yang cosmology, is utterly worthless.

The three essays in section I and the third essay in section II are OK, but I am not inclined to take the trouble to summarize them.

I save the most interesting essays for last, i.e. section II. One can indict the ideology of the Bond universe on a number of counts, but one essays confronts the most damning accusations head-on:

chapter 7: Bond as Chivalric, Comic Hero (Charles Taliaferro & Michel Le Gall)

The authors cite a rousing condemnation of the Bond ideology by Paul Johnson in a review of Dr. No (“Sex, Snobbery, and Sadism,” New Statesman, 5 April 1958, p. 431). Johnson wrote:

There are three basic ingredients in Doctor No, all unhealthy, all thoroughly English: The sadism of a schoolboy bully, the mechanical, two-dimensional sex longings of a frustrated adolescent, and the crude snob-cravings of a suburban adult.

I am inclined to agree, even while not taking offense at Fleming from the standpoint of (im)pure entertainment. The authors however, roundly refute each of these charges. Finally, they portray Bond as a comic hero. After all these decades I remember only the Bond films starring the one Bond who counts, Sean Connery, which I saw before and after puberty. Indeed, given the doses of comedy, fantasy, and their general unreality, I can see Bond in the authors’ light, albeit comically rather than seriously.

Suzie Gibson in chapter 4, “Bond and Phenomenology: Shaken, Not Stirred,” views bond through the lens of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, deploying The Visible and the Invisible to delineate the relation between Bond’s mind and body, the character of Bond’s sensualism, and particularly Merleau-Ponty’s notion of style as an expression of substance.

In my next post I will discuss the two essays (in section II) I saved for last, on Nietzcheanism in the Bond oeuvre.

Originally posted on R. Dumain’s blog Studies in a Dying Culture on March 18th, 2014.
Heidegger, ideology, James Bond, law, Nietzsche, phenomenology, philosophy, popular culture, reviews, technology.


From Nietzsche with Love

James Bond and Philosophy: Questions Are Forever, edited by James B. South and Jacob M. Held. Chicago; La Salle: Open Court Publishing Company, 2006. Popular Culture and Philosophy; Volume 23.

I saved the two articles on Nietzscheanism (in section II) for last. First, in “He Who Eats Meat Wins: Appetite, Power, and Nietzsche in the Novels of Ian Fleming” Sue Matheson analyzes the character of Bond and the supervillains in the novels, which are quite different from the films. Bond and the villains are described as “master animals,” the latter disgusting, Bond appealing though a superior animal power. Bond’s world is a Social Darwinistic one, in which one eats or is eaten. Food plays a prominent role in the Bond scenarios. However, the power of eating is not the trump card; rather, the power to control one’s appetite wins. Sometimes Bond slips, but his willpower gives him the edge. Matheson divides Overmen into Apollonian and Dionysian diners. Gluttony is a weakness. It seems that Fleming presents a critique of Nietzscheanism. His supervillains are “blond beasts” of a variety of nationalities. Bond sees all their flaws. Nor does patriotism guarantee goodness. Bond sees predators on all sides of the global conflict. While all men harbor the beast within, Bond has mastered his beast, though he too is a master predator. He is partly a monster as well, which he must be in order to vanquish the other monsters.

Finally, we come to the only article for which I acquired the book in the first place: “James Bond: A Nietzschean for the Cold War” by Ishay Landa. Landa is author of The Overman in the Marketplace: Nietzschean Heroism in Popular Culture (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007). Landa is no friend of Nietzsche. See his article on my web site:

“Aroma and Shadow: Marx vs. Nietzsche on Religion,” Nature, Society, and Thought, vol. 18, no. 4, 2005, pp. 461-499.

Note Landa’s other articles:

Nietzsche and African American Thought: A Review Essay,” Nature, Society, and Thought, vol. 19, no. 3, 2006, pp. 366-378.

Landa, Ishay. “Nietzsche, the Chinese Worker’s Friend,” New Left Review I/236, July-August 1999, pp. 3-23.

See also my Anti-Nietzsche Bibliography.

Landa allows no escape clause for Fleming.

What ultimately unites the Bondian perspective with the Nietzschean one is their joint opposition to mass-society and the attempt to bolster a neo-aristocratic, elitist alternative. [p. 79]

Because Fleming’s villains are also Nietzschean, Fleming might appear to be anti-Nietzschean. Not so.

Fleming is Nietzsche’s enemy in the national sense, inasmuch as Nietzsche was associated with German fascism; however, as far as class politics is concerned, in defending global capitalism, they are brothers in arms. [79]

Bond is an aristocratic bourgeois. The impetus:

A major task of Nietzschean heroism was to impart something of that flair and glamour formerly associated with the aristocracy upon the rather uninspiring bourgeoisie. [80]

Bond distinguishes himself from the vulgar herd with his refined and exacting taste in food and drink. But Bond is not self-indulgent, he is a puritanical hedonist. Bond’s competitiveness also distinguishes him from the slavish, passive herd. Bond’s mastery of sports and games echoes Nietzsche’s appropriation of the Greek athletic ideal. Loss is not just loss; it results in the social devaluation of the character.

As Bond painfully realizes upon losing, his essence is not some internal, authentic core, which he can protect from social scrutiny. On the contrary, what he is, a winner or a loser, is what he can gain through competition. [83]

The element of chance in games suggests the ideology of Calvinist predestination: luck is not just luck. One is condemned or vindicated by divine mandate. In this world peace is excruciating for Bond; he craves war.

However, there seems to be a powerful counterargument against this picture. Fleming’s supervillains are all Nietzschean Overmen portrayed in the most negative terms and condemned by Bond. In the case of the villain Drax (Moonraker), though, Landa argues that Bond is defending the British upper class against the plebian self-made man. The other villains, though, seem to be unambiguous exemplifications of Fleming’s anti-Nietzscheanism. Landa nevertheless finds each of these villains to be “a negative duplicate of Bond himself.” [88]

But why then is Bond’s Nietzscheanism disguised as anti-Nietzscheanism? The answer lies in the historical context, the Bond novels having emerged followed the allied defeat of the fascist powers, expressing the societal need of structural Nietzscheanism to go undercover, disavowing Nietzscheanism’s worst manifestations. Social Darwinism did not look good though as a social reality was never repudiated, and so the villainy of fascism defeated in the world war rose again as Communism in the Cold War. One still sees a contempt for democracy, expressed and tacitly condoned, for example, in the person of a Turkish ally of Britain in From Russia with Love. [89] This is consistent with the Western powers’ position on democracy in the Third World.

Blofeld in You Only Live Twice is the only supervillain who explicitly acknowledges and endorses the philosophy of Nietzsche. However, Bond’s confederates in Japan admire the authoritarian, elitist Japanese way of doing things, including the operation of Japanese corporations. Democracy is farcical in Japan. The argument is essentially, “they’re not like us.” The USA is bashed as being weak and decadent. Bond objects to the denigration of his American ally. But look at what he says: Landa quotes from the novel:

I’ve got a lot of American friends who don’t equate what with you’re saying. Presumably you’re talking of the lower-level GIs—second-generation Americans who are basically Irish or Germans or Czechs or Poles who probably ought to be working in the fields or coalmines of their countries of origins instead of swaggering around a conquered country under the blessed coverlet of the Stars and Stripes with too much money to spend.

Bond’s Japanese agent Tanaka suggests that by defeating Blofeld, Bond can restore the tarnished honor of the British aristocracy.

Landa does not comment further on the racialized nature of the Bondian perspective, but it should be evident, and thus also revealing of the deeper ideological structure of Bond’s defense of the democratic (capitalist) first-world nations.

Given that Fleming’s novels were best-sellers, one might enquire as to the popular reception of their ideological content. I cannot speak for myself, as I read all the Fleming Bond novels as a child and remember nothing of them. Bond’s heroism, adventurism, and womanizing of course have an appeal independent of the sinister aspects of the ideology outlined here. However, I must point out that the appeal of an implicit Nietzscheanism is hardly restricted to actual elites and their agents: I found it far from rare among the working class as well. One person standing in the unemployment line fancies himself cleverer and more worthy than the people ahead of him. For life in a social Darwinist society, its values tend to leach into all its participants, and that temptation sits on one shoulder of people who also subscribe to the most humane of values. It may also be that many readers remained oblivious or indifferent to the pernicious ideological content that Landa highlights.

I do not recall the films of the Connery era as embodying a reactionary aristocratic ideology. To me, they are basically Playboy magazine plus a License to Kill (in the line of duty). The Playboy image of the 1960s was the sophisticated male consumer, who drinks the finest whisky, knows the finest wines, drives the finest cars, listens to the finest contemporary music, reads the best fiction and interviews of the most important people, gets the finest women. It is not an image that needs to front the dark side or instigate brooding over anything. Bond is deadly in a good cause (simultaneously flexing his sense of humor) but is otherwise innocuous.

I think that this volume proves my point that the critical analysis of popular culture matters much more than the exploitation of popular culture in the service of the most pedestrian pedagogical goals of undergraduate philosophy.

Originally posted on R. Dumain’s blog Studies in a Dying Culture on March 19th, 2014.
cinema, Darwinism, democracy, genre, ideology, individualism, James Bond, Nietzsche, orientalism, philosophy, popular culture, reviews.

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