Germany’s Deutschlandfunk Radio program recently broadcast an interview with Margarethe von Trotta about her new film “Hannah Arendt.” The film is now set to be released on May 29 in the U.S. by Zeitgeist Films. The Hannah Arendt Center will be hosting an opening night screening at the Film Forum in NYC. More information to follow.
The radio interview is in German. We offer here in translation von Trotta’s response to Susanne Berg’s first question:
Susanne Berg: How important is it today to come to terms with Hannah Arendt?
Margarita von Trotta: I think Hannah Arendt was one of the most important people and thinkers of the last century. And we are not yet through with the last century. Particularly as Germans the century will pursue us for a long time. I say always, that Hitler wanted a 1,000 year Reich. It lasted only 12 years. But we will have to deal with it for 1,000 years. In this regard we cannot now say, yeah, it’s the 21st century, now it is all in the past. And as I saw the documentary over the Eichmann trial—there is a wonderful film called “The Specialist” by an Israeli, I thought then for the first time, this I want this man in a film. And that was still before I knew that I would describe Hannah Arendt. It was because he showed me what Germany was. Not the greats, not Hitler, not Göring, not Goebbels, all these whom we have in our memory as one can say evil. But these mediocre and middling people, they have formed history.
The reference is to Eyal Sivan’s fascinating and controversial documentary about the Eichmann trial. You can watch short excerpt here.
A few weeks ago, Christy Wampole, a professor of French at Princeton, took to the New York Times to point to what she sees as a pandemic of irony, the symptom of a malignant hipster culture which has metastasized, spreading out from college campuses and hip neighborhoods and into the population at large. Last week, author R. Jay Magill responded to Wampole, noting that the professor was a very late entry into an analysis of irony that stretches back to the last gasps of the 20th century, and that even that discourse fits into a much longer conversation about sincerity and irony that has been going on at least since Diogenes.
Of course, this wasn’t Magill’s first visit to this particular arena; his own entry, entitled Sincerity: How a Moral Ideal Born Five Hundred Years Ago Inspired Religious Wars, Modern Art, Hipster Chic, and the Curious Notion That We All Have Something to Say (No Matter How Dull), came out in July. Magill very effectively recapitulates the main point from his book in his article for the Atlantic, but, if you were to read this new summary alone, you would both deny yourself of some of the pleasures of Magill’s research and prose, as well as spare yourself from some of his less convincing arguments, arguments which, incidentally, happen to suffice for the thrust of his recent article.
The most interesting chapters of Magill’s book deal with the early history of the rise of sincerity, which he traces back to the Reformation. In Magill’s telling, the word “sincere” enters the record of English in 1533, when an English reformer named John Frith writes, to Sir Thomas More, that John Wycliffe “had lived ‘a very sincere life.’” Before that use, in its origin in Latin and French, the word “sincere” had only been used to describe objects and, now, Frith was using it not only for the first time in English but also to describe a particular individual as unusually true and pure to his self, set in opposition to the various hypocrisies that had taken root within the Catholic Church. Magill sums this up quite elegantly: “to be sincere” he writes “was to be reformed.”
Now, this would have been revolutionary enough, since it suggested that a relationship with God required internal confirmation rather than external acclamation—in the words of St. Paul, a fidelity to the spirit of the law and not just the letter. And yet reformed sincerity was not simply a return to the Gospel. In order to be true to one’s self, there must be a self to accord with, an internal to look towards. Indeed, Magill’s history of the idea of sincerity succeeds when it describes the development of the self, and, in particular, that development as variably determined by the internal or the external.
It gets more complicated, however, or perhaps more interesting, when Magill turns towards deceptive presentations of the self, that is, when he begins to talk about insincerity. He begins this conversation with Montaigne, who “comes to sense a definite split between his public and private selves and is the first author obsessed with portraying himself as he really is.” The most interesting appearance of this conversation is an excellent chapter on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who suggested that people should aspire to self-sameness, should do their best to “reconcile” one’s self to one’s self, a demand for authenticity that would come to be fully expressed in Immanuel Kant’s moral law, the command that I must set myself as a law for myself.
Sincerity, the moral ideal first put forth by John Frith, started as the Reformation’s response to the inability of the Catholic Church to enact that particular principle, in other words, its hypocrisy. This follows for each of the movements that Magill writes about, each responding to the hypocrisy of their own moment in a specific way. On this matter he has a very good teacher, Hannah Arendt, an inheritor of Kant, who was himself a reader of Rousseau. Arendt writes, in Crisis of the Republic, what might serve as a good summation of one of Magill’s more convincing arguments: “if we inquire historically into the causes likely to transform engagés into enragés, it is not injustice that ranks first, but hypocrisy.”
Still, while what makes the sincerity of Frith (who was burned at the stake) or Wycliffe (whose body was exhumed a half century after his death so that it, too, could be burned) compelling is the turn inwards, it is Rousseau’s substitution of the turn back for that turn inward that appears to interest Magill, who decries “the Enlightenment understanding of the world” that “would entirely dominate the West, relegating Rousseau to that breed of reactionary artististic and political minds who stood against the progress of technology, commerce, and modernization and pined for utopia.”
The whole point is moot; Rousseau was himself a hypocrite, often either unable or unwilling to enact the principles he set out in his writings. As Magill moves forward, though, it becomes clear the he values the turn back as a manifestation of sincerity, as a sort of expressing oneself honestly. The last few hundred years in the development of sincerity, it seems, are finding new iterations of the past in the self. He writes that the Romantics, a group he seems to favor as more sincere than most, “harbored a desire to escape a desire to escape forward-moving, rational civilization by worshipping nature, emotion, love, the nostalgic past, the bucolic idyll, violence, the grotesque, the mystical, the outcast and, failing these, suicide.” In turn, in his last chapter, Magill writes that hipster culture serves a vital cultural purpose: its “sincere remembrance of things past, however commodified or cheesy or kitschy or campy or embarrassing, remains real and small and beautiful because otherwise these old things are about to be discarded by a culture that bulldozes content once it has its economic utility.”
The hipster, for Magill, is not the cold affectation of an unculture, as Wampole wants to claim, but is instead the inheritor “of the the entire history of the Protestant-Romantic-rebellious ethos that has aimed for five hundred years to jam a stick into the endlessly turning spokes of time, culture and consumption and yell, “Stop! I want to get off!”
There’s the rub. What Magill offers doesn’t necessarily strike me as a move towards sincerity, but it is definitely a nod to nostalgia. Consider how he recapitulates his argument in the article:
One need really only look at what counts as inventive new music, film, or art. Much of it is stripped down, bare, devoid of over-production, or aware of its production—that is, an irony that produces sincerity. Sure, pop music and Jeff Koons alike retain huge pull (read: $$$), but lately there has been a return to artistic and musical genres that existed prior to the irony-debunking of 9/11: early punk, disco, rap, New Wave—with a winking nod to sparse Casio keyboard sounds, drum machines, naïve drawing, fake digital-look drawings, and jangly, Clash-like guitars. Bands like Arcade Fire, Metric, Scissor Sisters, CSS, Chairlift, and the Temper Trap all go in for heavy nostalgia and an acknowledgement of a less self-conscious, more D.I.Y. time in music.
Here, Magill is very selectively parsing the recent history of “indie music,” ignoring a particularly striking embrace of artificial pop music that happened alongside the rise of the “sincere” genres, like new folk, that he favors. There’s no reason to assume that Jeff Koons’s blown up balloon animals or Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes are any less sincere than the Scissor Sisters’s camp disco, just as there is no reason to assume that a desire to return to nature is any less sincere than the move into the city. Although Magill makes a good argument for the hipster’s cultural purpose, that purpose is not itself evidence that the hipster is expressing what’s truly inside himself, just as there’s no way for you to be sure that I am sincerely expressing my feelings about Sincerity. Magill, ultimately, makes the same mistake as Wampole, in that he judges with no evidence; the only person you can accurately identify as sincere is yourself.
There is probably no question more debated in the course of Middle Eastern uprisings than that of the status of human rights. Anyone familiar with the region knows that the status of human rights in the Middle East is at best obscure. The question of why there was not a “revolution” in Lebanon is a very complex one, tied with the fate of Syria and with the turbulent Lebanese politics since the end of the civil war, and hence cannot be fully answered. In a vague sense it can be said of course that Lebanon is the freest Arab country and that as such it bears a distinctively different character.
While at face value, the statement is true, being “more free than” in the Middle East is simply understating a problem. Just to outline the basic issues, Lebanon’s record on human rights has been a matter of concern for international watchdogs on the following counts:
Security forces arbitrarily detain and torture political opponents and dissidents without charge, different groups (political, criminal, terrorist and often a combination of the three) intimidate civilians throughout the country in which the presence of the state is at best weak, freedom of speech and press is severely limited by the government, Palestinian refugees are systematically discriminated and homosexual intercourse is still considered a crime.
While these issues remain at the level of the state, in society a number of other issues are prominent: Abuse of domestic workers, racism (for example excluding people from color and maids from the beaches) violence against women and homophobia that even included recently a homophobic rant on a newspaper of the prestigious American University in Beirut. The list could go on forever.
The question of gay rights in Lebanon remains somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand, article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code prohibits explicitly homosexual intercourse since it “contradicts the laws of nature”, and makes it punishable with prison. On the other hand, Beirut – and Lebanon – remains against all odds a safe haven, for centuries, for many people in the Middle East fleeing persecution or looking for a more tolerant lifestyle.
That of course includes gays and lesbians and it is not uncommon to hear of gay parties held from time to time in Beirut’s celebrated clubs. At the same time, enforcement of the law is sporadic and like everything in Lebanon, it might happen and it might not; best is to read the horoscope in the morning and pray for good luck. A few NGO pro-LGBT have been created in the country since the inception of “Hurriyyat Khassa” (Private Liberties) in 2002.
In 2009 Lebanese LGBT-organization Helem launched a ground-breaking report about the legal status of homosexuals in the entire region, in which a Lebanese judge ruled against the use of article 534 to prosecute homosexuals.
It is against the background of this turbulent scenario that Samer Daboul’s film “Out Loud” (2011) came to life, putting together an unusual tale about friendship and love set in postwar Lebanon in which five friends and a girl set on a perilous journey in order to find their place in the world.
Though the plot of the film seems simple, underneath the surface lurks a challenge to the traditional morals and taboos of Lebanese society – homosexuality, the role of women, the troubled past of the war, delinquency, crime, honor – which for Lebanese cinema, on the other hand, marks a turning point.
This wouldn’t be so important in addressing the question of rights and freedoms in Lebanon were it not for a documentary, “Out Loud – The Documentary”, released together with the film that documents in detail the ordeal through which the director, actors and crew had to go through in order to complete this film.
Shot in Zahlé, in mountainous heartland of Lebanon and what the director called “a city and a nation of conservatism and intolerance”, it is widely reported in the documentary that from the very beginning the cast and crew were met with the same angry mobs, insults, and physical injuries that their film in itself so vehemently tried to overcome; a commercial film about family violence, gay lovers, and the boundaries of relationships between men and women. A film not about Lebanon fifteen or twenty years ago, but about Lebanon of here and today.
Daboul writes: “Although I grew up in the city in which “Out Loud” was filmed, even I had no idea how difficult it would be to make a movie in a nation plagued by violence, racism, sexism, corruption and a lack of respect for art and human rights.” The purpose of “Out Loud” of course wasn’t only to make a movie but a school of life, in which the maker, the actors and the audience could all have a peaceful chance to re-examine their own history and future.
Until very recently in lieu of a public space, in Lebanon, any conflict was solved by means of shooting, kidnapping and blackmailing by armed militias spread throughout the country and acting in the name of the nation.
The wounds have been very slow to heal as is no doubt visible from the contemporary political panorama. Recently, a conversation with an addiction counselor in Beirut revealed the alarming statistics of youth mental illness, alcoholism and drug addiction across all social classes in Lebanon, to which I will devote a different article.
Making films in Lebanon is an arduous process that not only does not receive support from the state but is also subject to an enormous censorship bureaucracy that wants to make sure that the content of the films do not run counter to the religious and political sensibilities of the state. In the absence of strong state powers, the regulations are often malleable and rather look after the sensibilities of political blocs and religious leaders rather than state security, if any such exists.
The whole idea of censorship of ideas is intimately intertwined with the reality of freedom and rights and with the severe limitations – both physical and intellectual – placed upon the public space.
In the Middle East, censorship of a gay relationship is an established practice in order to protect public morality; however what we hear on the news daily that goes from theft to murder to kidnap to abuse to rape to racism, does not require much censorship and is usually consumed by the very same public.
If there is one thing here that one can learn from Hannah Arendt about freedom of speech is that as Roger Berkowitz writes in “Hannah Arendt and Human Rights”:
The only truly human rights, for Arendt, are the rights to act and speak in public. The roots for this Arendtian claim are only fully developed five years later with the publication of The Human Condition. Acting and speaking, she argues, are essential attributes of being human. The human right to speak has, since Aristotle defined man as a being with the capacity to speak and think, been seen to be a “general characteristic of the human condition which no tyrant could take away.”
Similarly, the human right to act in public has been at the essence of human being since Aristotle defined man as a political animal who lives, by definition, in a community with others. It is these rights to speak and act –to be effectual and meaningful in a public world – that, when taken away, threaten the humanity of persons.
While these ideas might seem oversimplified and rather vague in a region “thirsty” for politics, they establish a number of crucial distinctions that must be taken into account in any discussion about human rights. Namely:
1) The failure of human rights is a fundamental fact of the modern age
2) There is a distinction between civil rights and human rights, the latter being what people resort to when the former have failed them
3) It is the fact that we appear in public and speak our minds to our fellowmen that ensures that we live our lives in a plurality of opinions and perspectives and the ultimate indicator of a life being lived with dignity.
Even if we have a “right” to a house, to an education and to a citizenship (that is, belonging to a community) if we do not have the right to speak and act in public and express ourselves (as homosexual, woman, dissident and what not) we are not being permitted to become fully human. Regardless of the stability of political institutions, provision of basic needs and security, there is no such a thing as a human world – a human community – in the absence of the possibility of appearing in the world as what we truly are.
“Out Loud” – both the film and the documentary – are a testimony of the degree to which the many elements composing the multi-layered landscape of Lebanese society are at a tremendous risk of worldlessness by being subject to an authority that relies on violence in lieu of power. Power and violence couldn’t be any more opposite.
Hannah Arendt writes in her journals:
Violence is measurable and calculable and, on the other hand, power is imponderable and incalculable. This is what makes power such a terrible force, but it is there precisely that its eminently human character lies. Power always grows in between men, whereas violence can be possessed by one man alone. If power is seized, power itself is destroyed and only violence is left.
It is always the case in dark times that peoples – and also the intellectuals among them – put their entire faith in politics to solve the conflicts that emerge in the absence of plurality and of the right to have rights, but nothing could be more mistaken. Politics cannot save, cannot redeem, cannot change the world. Just like the human community, it is something entirely contingent, fragile and temporary.
That is why no decisions made on the level of government and policies are a replacement for the spontaneity of human action and appearance. It is here that the immense worth of “Out Loud” lies; in enabling a generation that is no longer afraid of hell – for whatever reason – to have a conversation, and it is there where the rehabilitation of the public space is at stake and not in building empty parks to museumficate a troubled past, as has been often the case in Beirut. In an open conversation, people will continue contesting the legacy and appropriating the memory not as a distant past, but as their own.
The case of Lebanon remains precarious: Lebanon’s clergy has recently united in a call for more censorship; and today it was revealed that the security services summon people for interrogation over what they have posted on their Facebook accounts; HRW condemned the performance of homosexuality tests on detainees in Lebanon, even though this sparked a debate and a discussion on the topic ensued at the seminar “Test of Shame” held at Université Saint-Joseph in Beirut and the Lebanese Medical Society held a discussion in which they concluded those tests are of no scientific value.
In a country like Lebanon, plagued by decades of war and violence, as Samer Daboul has said in his film, people are more than often engaged at survival and just at that – surviving from one war to another, from one ruler to another, from one abuse to another, and as such, the responses of society to the challenges of the times are of an entirely secondary order. But what he has done in his films is what we, those who still have a little faith in Lebanon, should have as a principle: “It’s time to live. Not to survive”.
Director, Margarethe von Trotta speaks about the progress being made on her feature film, "Hannah Arendt".
Hannah Arendt and Barbara Sukowa have now merged into one for me, and that is not projection...Of course, it is just an approximation, and yet it is her – her spirit, her intellect, the way she moves and how she speaks.
Click here to read more.
The Robert Bresson Retrospective continues tonight and tomorrow at the Jim Ottaway Jr., Film Center at Bard College. All screenings are free to the public, but seating is limited, so you should arrive early. You can click here for details about this weekend's films as well as the schedule for the whole retrospective. This program will highlight the breadth and depth of his global influence by looking at representative works from more than a dozen countries.
Initially a painter, Bresson (1901-1999) completed thirteen features between 1943 and 1983, in the midst of some of the most tumultuous events of the twentieth century. Refusing to make concessions to the commercial cinema, Bresson pursued a largely independent course and quickly emerged as an exemplary figure during mid-century debates about cinematic modernism and film's status as an art, universally recognized as an important filmmaker even by those who were bewildered by his unusual style. The frequently discussed austerity of Bresson's approach is counterbalanced in each of his films by a unique, sometimes overwhelming, sensuality and a profound engagement with the concreteness of bodies, objects, and environments. Over the past several decades, his rich body of work has become a paradigm for international art cinema.
Tomorrow begins a comprehensive retrospective of the great filmmaker, Robert Bresson. All films will be screened on new or archival 35 mm prints with English subtitles (unless otherwise noted). Screenings are free and will be held at the Jim Ottaway Jr. Film Center at Bard College.
Click here for a complete schedule, directions and other information.
There is a further report on Margarethe von Trotta's highly anticipated feature film on Hannah Arendt. As reported,
Work on a major motion picture – the first to be filmed in Jerusalem – begins on Sunday, as a joint Israeli-German-French crew begin production on the film “Hannah Arendt.” The film is a portrait of the experiences of the German-Jewish philosopher who fled Nazi Germany and escaped to America when she covered the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961 for the New Yorker. Arendt wrote her 1963 landmark work, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, based on those experiences.
The film, with an international cast, is being directed by Margarethe von Trotta, one of Germany's most prolific filmmakers and know for her portrayal of strong female characters. Starting (sic) as Arendt is German actress Barbara Sukowa, Axel Milberg as her husband Heinrich Blücher, Janet McTeer as her best friend and novelist Mary McCarthy, and Julia Jentsch as her secretary and confidante, Lotte Köhler. Also starring are Ulrich Noethen, Michael Degen, and Victoria Trauttmansdorff...
The article in the Israel National News proves, once again, the journalism community's unwillingness or inability to read Eichmann in Jerusalem. Nowhere does Arendt say of Eichmann that he is an example of "the average German", as is noted in the piece. Click here to read the whole article.
In anticipation of Bard’s upcoming fall conference (“Human Being in an Inhuman Age”) and reflecting upon several related threads in recent blogs (regarding “the wonders of man in the age of simulation”), I’ve found myself thinking about Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik’s observations concerning the profound split in human nature.
It’s a division Soleveitchik traces back to the two creation stories in the Old Testament. In the first creation story (“Genesis I”), we read: “God created man, in the likeness of God made he him.” Created in God’s likeness, the first Adam stands as both the model and champion of humanity’s instrumental mastery over the earth and all that it contains. (“Fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the fowl of the heaven, and over the beasts, and all over the earth.”) Humankind’s mimetic faculty, in other words, correlates to material mastery. In the second creation story, by contrast, we find no reference either to images or to mastery. Instead, we read: “God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”
The chief variation in this version consists in the gift of life in the form of God’s breath. With the introduction of this immaterial element, the second creation story shifts focus, along with its normative register. Dominion over the material world gives way to a very different purpose. Placing Adam in the Garden of Eden, God instructs him “to dress it and to keep it.” In other words, mastery now yields to solicitude and conservation. If the first Adam is the master of creation, the second Adam is its self-denying caretaker. In short, if our first nature is instrumental, in the service of command and control, our second is responsive, mindful of that which requires care or service.
Today, it is the spirit of mastery that seems to be on the upswing. Whether it’s the culture of digital gaming, or the likes of Kurzweil’s immortal “spiritual machines,” or in popular films like The Matrix and Dark City, the message we hear is: “you can have it all!”
Dreams and the will to power, desire and reality, converge. Yet, it is this very convergence that may threaten the human – if we think of the “human” in terms of finitude, suffering, fragility, and the inevitability of uncertainty. This human reality is precisely what the will to material mastery (and dreams of digital immortality) deny. In this respect, Genesis I trumps Genesis II. The impulse to control is displacing our capacity for self-demotion in the service of what is other (beyond control). Otherness precludes mastery. Instead, it invites wonder. Wonder is the way we respond to that which goes beyond rational or instrumental control or mastery. This is the sublime. We experience it in the infinite call of nature (“beauty”) and in the infinite demands of the other who stands before us (“the ethical”). Judgment (of the beautiful and the just) begins in wonder, in the face of the real.
Sherry Turkle writes that digital simulation tends to undermine our fealty to the real. If this is so, authentic judgment may have no place in the domain of digital simulation. That claim looms large when law itself migrates to the screen (e.g., in the form of visual evidence and visual argument in court). Over the last decade or so, initially in my book When Law Goes Pop (Chicago: 2000) and more recently in my book, Visualizing Law in the Age of the Digital Baroque: Arabesques & Entanglements (Routledge: forthcoming 2011), this phenomenon has preoccupied my attention. What happens when visual images become the basis for judgment inside the courtroom? How does the image – the amateur documentary, the police surveillance video, the fMRI of brain or heart, or the digital re-enactment of accidents and crimes – affect law’s ongoing quest for fact-based justice? Upon reflection, it becomes plain that judgments based on visual images arise in a different way, with different aesthetic and ethical consequences, than when they rest upon words alone. Nor is visual literacy a given. We need to carefully decode the truth claims of images on the screen, but in order to do that we must first crack the code that constitutes the meaning they provide. And the code changes with the kind of image we see. Regardless, we all tend to be naïve realists when it comes to images. “Seeing is believing.” We tend to look through the screen as if it were a window rather than a construct.
When law lives as an image on the screen, it lives there the way other images do, for good and for ill. Law emulates the cultural constructs of popular entertainment as well as the aesthetics of science. When law lives as an image it, too, takes delight in images of a brain glowing with the beautiful, digitally programmed colors of visual neuroscience. Thus, the images on which legal judgments are based may serve as factual anchors or merely as a source of aesthetic delight, as reliable information or as unmitigated fantasy or illicit desire. So it’s no idle matter to ask, in what reality (if any) does the digital image partake? When fact-based justice rests upon digital simulation its claim to truth may come from a fantasy.
Like an image, law invites us to forget or deny what lies beyond its mimetic (figurative) aspect. Law’s oscillation between aesthetic form (image, figure, copy, text) and moral authority reenacts humanity’s historic vacillation between the two poles of our nature: mastery (Genesis I) and service (Genesis II). In the endless dance of power and meaning, Adam I and Adam II recapitulate the King’s two bodies, the letter and spirit of the law. Law oscillates between these two poles. Law commands, but it wants its commands to be accepted not simply out of fear of punishment, but also, even more importantly, in the belief that it is just. Without good (non-punitive, moral) reasons to accept its coercive power, law remains merely a gunman writ large.
And so, in a visual age like ours, it becomes incumbent upon all of us – jurists and lay people alike – to discern with great care whether or not the screen images we see are capable of bringing justice to mind.
Benjamin Stevens . firstname.lastname@example.org
Ethical and political thinking means thinking realistically: thinking about how things are actually done, about process or practices, and so about ideas only as they take shape in, and are shaped by, those practices. In other words, it means attending to how intellectual and, as it were, spiritual life are constrained by material conditions.
For thinking realistically today must begin with the fact that thought about something is always a something, a thing, in its own right: that thought is located in thinkers who live in spaces and times, in societies and cultures, and is mediated by their physical beings. In a word, thought is 'embodied'.
What are we to make of this fact, that thinking is something made? That thinking is, literally, a 'fiction'?
In this series, I try to answer that question by thinking realistically about fiction. I focus on those 'popular fictions' thought -- or made -- to have figured precisely the relationships between thinking and material being: fictions that figure what it means to be human (a seemingly 'rational animal' who 'thinks, therefore he (?) is') in a non-human, not to say unthinking, world.
Take Christopher Nolan's science fiction (sf) film Inception (2010). [At the time of this writing, the film is in wide mainstream release, and has been #1 at the box office two weekends running. Earlier versions of portions of this post appeared on facebook; special thanks are due to interlocutors there, especially Matt Emery, Jim Keller, and Deke Sharon, and in real life, especially Clark Frankel, Lucy Schmid, Roland Obedin-Schwartz, and Cameron Ogg.]
Sf films, whether or not they speculate about other technologies, draw special attention to the cinematic technology that makes them possible. In this way superficially resembling older 'cinema of attraction', they are also newly distracting: at least since Star Wars (Lucas 1977), which indissolubly associated them with 'blockbuster moviemaking' of a nostalgic or escapist sort, they can draw attention away from the deeper and grosser sociocultural structures and material conditions that allow for such fine-grained special effects.
(This is all the more true since The Matrix (Wachowski and Wachowski 1999), to whose literal vision, its mise-en-scène, many subsequent films, including Inception, owe a great deal; but whose figurative vision, of the particular dehumanizing effects of particular technology, most such imitators have failed to critique or even recreate. Like them, Inception seems to classify The Matrix more with the superficially brighter tradition begun by Star Wars than with the darker and more investigative tradition represented by Blade Runner (Scott 1982), whose vision of postnational society isn't neutral. What if The Matrix had been surpassed in popularity by Dark City (Proyas 1998)?)
Inception is a case in point, and disappointing. Especially -- intentionally -- astonishing is its quadruplicated 'inception' sequence, in which we're asked to follow four plots, worlds, and overlapping sets of physical laws simultaneously. The sequence is tightly constructed and, from the film's point of view, climactic. But it isn't show-stopping, as it could have been and, as I want to argue, as it should have been. A film from precisely so capable and intelligent a director as Nolan had the opportunity not only to tell its story but also to consider the conditions that make its very storytelling possible: to consider how it is that changing technologies have changed our stories and, alongside them, changed us.
In other words, Inception, like all sf, had the opportunity to self-ironize and therefore to criticize, developing an especially conscious perspective on the human effects of (storytelling) technology. Instead, it is technically accomplished but, conceptually, only clever: 'self-conscious' in only the most pervasively contemporary sense of wearing its love of genre knowledge on its sleeve. Inception is an example of how 'high-concept', high-budget sf risks merely crystallizing faded popular fictions about science and technology instead of critiquing how a technoscientific ideology vividly and consequentially fictionalizes 'human being'.
In that long 'inception' scene, for example, something as modern as nested relativistic physics is squandered in the service of a groaningly old-fashioned visual pun on 'climactic' and 'climatic'. At the high point of drama, the characters are subjected to low temperatures and wintry weather, bundled up indistinguishably to be trundled around an excessively video-gamey "level". The film seems confused by its own pun between "level" as "vertical or hierarchical stage" and "level" as "horizontal or sequential stage", the former allowing for exploration of interpenetrating causes and effects, the latter allowing only forward motion, as in a linear video game. As a result, while the scene isn't senseless -- there is a narrative logic to its literalizations of unconscious defense mechanisms -- it's pointless.
One measure of its being pointless is its being, surprisingly, sexless. Surprisingly indeed in a film drinking so deeply at the Dick-ian spring, one level's literal buttoning-down (natty French cuffs in a posh hotel whose high-class escort is a supporting character in Pythonesque psychic drag) giving way to puffy white snowpeople rolling about in mere alliance of convenience, only clockwork frantic, in place of what a better, more dangerous film would almost automatically have given: good old-fashioned Oedipal psychodrama. Part of the point, to be fair, is that the particular psyche's drama is centered around his repression of his own desires to adopt the image of his father, replacing instead of overtly killing: a textbook complex indeed. But the father in question was a captain of industry, on the verge of transforming his energy company into "a new superpower": there's a man who desired with all of his being to be master of all he surveyed, and the film responds by consigning him to deathbed mumblings.
Treated similarly sexlessly are the main character's dead wife "Mal" ('bad', whose refrain to the main character is, however, nothing more objectionable than that he'd promised they'd grow old together) and a potential but unrealized new interest, "Ariadne", whose mythic-psychic depths just don't exist: she's clean, good at mazes, and dutiful, made to comment that her "subconscious seems polite enough". No cannibalistic half-brother in the closet, no complicit survivor's guilt?
No, since in Inception's view all that matters is one man's emotional response to his own memory. Everyone else -- indeed, everything else, from soup to nuts -- is suppressed, made to act as if they were repressed, for his benefit alone.
All of that repression is, then, to speak figuratively, only one of the film's neuroses, lesser in comparison to another that is more pervasive and pernicious. For as Inception asks us to track the interaction of multiple fictional worlds simultaneously, and so in theory to consider whether different conceptual systems might influence each other so as to effect cognition, in practice it emphatically does not stop the show even to show, much less to critique, the factual machinery that makes that fictional sequence possible: the global technology and industry of film that allows for this local example. With the sequence representing the movie in miniature, the problem is not that the dream relates uncertainly to reality; for such is the film's own glossy enthusiasm, alongside its lack of consideration for other options, that we accept that old sf conceit without question.
The problem, rather, is that the dream is related uncertainly to any dreamer. The mood is repressive and suppressive both. Attention paid to drugs, including sedatives, that smooth the science fictional technology's operation; to the 'projections' -- really: decorative schemes -- supplied by individual dreamers; and to the operating assumption that the dreaming mind, as a way into the preconscious, can have permanent effect on the person as a whole: none of this takes proper account of dream as something that happens through and to a body. Not that the film doesn't deal with physical interaction; it does, for example in the 'inception' sequence, when physical effects like inertia and contact with water are transmitted analogously from level to nested lower level.
But in thus depicting only the most individual, personal conditions; in insisting however that the dreams are "shared"; and in the admonition that dreams ought not to be built out of memories: in all of this, Inception figures bodies as belonging to individuals, as matter (literally, figuratively) of individual minds, and therefore emphatically not as belonging to systems that make individuals possible, as material shaped by what the film itself depends on but depicts only in first-class passing: an international -- not postnational, not postindustrial -- system of technologies interlocking in ways almost incomprehensibly complex to the individual whose being is shaped by it.
Beyond being surprisingly sexless, then, the film's image of dreams is disembodied to the point of depicting bodies as apolitical. As a result, any questions it might seem to ask us in turn must end up floating free of any serious mooring: without any awareness of how human bodies and therefore minds are made by an international system of interlocking technologies, Inception is appallingly apolitical.
This is the problem of the film, and its moment of greatest missed opportunity for irony and critique: for thinking realistically, for thinking ethically and politically, about how the fact that there can be this sort of fiction must affect us.
The film wants us to wonder whether its plastic dream-logic might apply to our own (only apparently?) waking life.
But how could an answer matter when the question itself is imagined not as a political or ethical imperative but as a personal issue, a question posed not for us all as committed -- like it or not -- altogether to political interaction but for each of us as consumers, imagined as making decisions in response to what we like?
What in the world is at stake in a question that mistakes the world for a personal preference or lifestyle choice?
Looking back, we may notice that blithely disembodied machinery operating from the opening sequence onward. In a word, it is an apolitical postcolonialism, disappointingly toothless and neutered, allowing -- as it shouldn't -- the film to develop a starstruck vision of the world, of the world as it is figured almost exclusively in earlier films, at the expense and to the exclusion of the world as it is beyond such self-congratulatorily clever fare: as it is, precisely, to have made such a film possible.
Treating us, for example, to cameos from Batman's butler (Michael Caine, the British empire never wiser or more charming), a simulacrum of Batman's immortal enemy Ra's al Ghul (Ken Watanabe, Japan reconfigured to defuse incipient superpowers), another Batman enemy -- the one most closely associated with the film's own thing, hallucinatory mental manipulation -- (Cillian Murphy, his cheekboned creep utterly wasted); and to a scene in which the kid from 3rd Rock sneaks just the most glumly chaste kiss one can imagine from "Juno" (winkingly but, as I've noted, inconsequentially renamed Ariadne), Inception would distract us from -- as it has deluded itself about -- the world in which it is set.
It imagines a postnational, information-economic world in which former colonies and imperial competitors are alleged to have accepted American cultural superimposition so peaceably it is just as if it had been their idea all along. The film flubs its chance to draw to this, its most destabilizing suggestion of pre- or co-conditioning 'inception', in fact even the flimsy sort of psychoanalytical attention it draws to its main character in fiction. Much less does it muster the truly probing attention such an unethically apolitical vision of global affairs demands.
For what, in the end, is the product of all this global machinery in glossily spectacular motion? No prizes for guessing: a wealthy, even patrician white American man who helps another, even wealthier, even more patrician man find himself and, so, finds himself. Once he does, he gets to live in the exceedingly well-photographed and tastefully furnished world of his fondest dreams, where he'll raise his soft-focused, towheaded children free from any influence of their darkly witchy mother, who paid for her only 'mistake' (viz., wanting to live in the world of her fondest dreams) by being consigned in her husband's mind to the classic category of "batshit crazy". What can she do or, rather, what can she be figured in memory as having done, in her husband's memory, other than to take her own life?
At least that way it's not his fault, you see.
(Nolan didn't let Batman keep his brunette, either -- too idealistic -- although he allowed him to seduce her from a healthier relationship with an actual public official, a person with a political consciousness. Also delimited in this way is Ariadne, whose scattering through this post is one indication of how little the film is interested in her: without a half-brother to betray, she can compromise only her own artistic instincts as she must learn to be, first, less creative -- as she puts it: "reproductive" -- and, then, not to build dreams based on her memories … like Cobb, who, again, is rewarded precisely for having shown no such scruple.)
What the film imagines, then, is a world whose complexly interlocking systems of industrial technological production, obviously but unexaminedly dependent on the labor of thousands, if not millions, and inevitably resulting in the transformation of natural and cultural locales, may -- of course! -- be configured to help one American man feel better about himself.
Worse -- per the film's tedious ending (Was it all a dream? No, it's a film.) -- it doesn't even matter if that any of it is real as long as he gets to feel better.
Far from thinking realistically about, let's say, facts of individual or social responsibility, the film thus focuses on a lesser personal feeling of guilt. It has no awareness of the multi-dimensional problems inherent in the local effects of a global economy: imagining its characters and settings as postnational, it ignores ongoing problems caused by technologies mediating the destabilizing transition from imperialism and colonialism to late capitalism and beyond.
What is to be done?
In my favorite scene, a café owner in Mombasa knows better than the film itself, and tries but tellingly fails to make his concerns understood to the only character, Cobb, whose opinion is allowed to matter. Cobb, on the run from shadowy multinational corporate forces -- later, the international audience is insulted by being asked to question whether such forces, too, are only paranoid delusions --, seeks refuge in a bustling café, seating himself at a table whose other occupants are rightly non-plussed by his graceless arrival. When the owner confronts him -- 'no', 'get out' -- he tries to defuse his gross disruption of the setting by ordering a coffee. The owner refuses and, again, tries to make his concerns understood. Cobb, of course, can't understand him but, more importantly, doesn't want to hear him: he has own problems, you see. And besides, everything will be fine, we're only able to assume, once the gunfire that follows him has died down and we're off to the next exotic setting.
There is no mention of the local name for 'Mombasa', Kisiwa Cha Mvita, "Island of War".
Inception thus figures, despite its lack of consciousness, how what is still treated as an empire can but isn't allowed to "write back". Outside of a glossy cadré whose facility with imaginary technology is figured as daringly 'underground', even 'revolutionary', but in reality is merely self-congratulatory first-world consumerism; and whose characters are acted by actors famous already for their roles in other glibly nerdgasmic media, nobody has anything meaningful to say, certainly no African, lacking even reliable electricity and, so, who may conceivably have wanted to consider whether or not he might benefit from the energy "superpower" the heroes of the film are trying to scuttle.
Worse, the film's concluding suggestion that this might all be a dream actually confirms that this is how Cobb sees Africa: an erasure of postcolonial identity, just as if these Mombasan characters are, in the film's own terms, 'projections' of the white man's subconscious mind.
What about a version in which supporting characters are actual people, seeking to protect the integrity of their polity's being from violent intrusion: only metaphorically is a white virus vigorously rejected by the scene's immune system, figured tellingly as 'black blood cells'.
I started by mentioning a similarity between much contemporary sf film and an older 'cinema of attraction'. The similarity is, as I called it, "superficial" because, while cinema of attraction is famously, even excessively conscious of its novelty, to the point of subordinating or eliminating story, the problem with a more recent sf film like Inception is that, since the time of cinema of attraction, film including sf has been proven a capably narrative form. As a result, to tell no story must be judged a failure not of technique or of the medium's possibility but of imagination. In a sf film in particular, not to tell a story that is truly about the consequences of technology and technoscientific ideology on human being is to misunderstand the genre.
With its accomplished pastiche of earlier films, Inception parades just that kind of misunderstanding glossily, which is bad enough, and, what is worse, globally: it hits all the marks of the genre but misses its critical point. There is no ghost to creak its meaningful chains in this well-oiled machine. (A special, contemporary problem may be that the most widely-available technologies, e.g., smart phones, are orders of magnitude more difficult to tinker with than the consumer technology of a generation ago.)
For these reasons, a more charitable reading might conclude that Inception is simply not a sf film. But then what is it?
An in-flight magazine, gushing instead of reporting. (The reference to "Lost", the international flight to L.A., is clever, but what does it mean? That show, too, was filmed primarily in a place taken and retained unfairly from its rightful inhabitants.)
A callow glance and wink to oneself in the mirror, scope the frosted tips, eyebrows carefully slicked, ready with the roofie: when only your own memory matters, you can get away with murder.
In future posts in this series, I'll consider counterexamples and other examples of sf as the popular fiction most repaying consideration in terms of thinking realistically about how fictions envision being human in an inhuman age. I'll start with the image used to advertise the Center's upcoming conference.
In the meantime, a suggestion: District 9, in which the embodied individual and local is properly contextualized -- meaning, at this moment, complicated and problematized -- by the impersonal and global, a more realistic image than Inception's fantastic daydream of purely individual will to redemptive power.