The crisis must matter.
The most important divide in political and intellectual life today is between those who see society undergoing a transformative crisis and others who believe that the basic structures the 20th century industrial welfare state will persist.
The divide over how to understand the crisis of our times was front and center at the recent Hannah Arendt Center conference "Does the President Matter? A Conference on the American Age of Political Disrepair."
A number of speakers worried about the language of crisis. They rightly see talk about a "crisis" as code for an attack on the institutions of the welfare state. It can be an excuse to not only scale back the unsustainable aspects of our entitlement programs, but also to lower taxes on the wealthiest Americans while doing so.
It is true that many want to misuse the crisis as an attack on the poor and the middle class; that potential abuse, however, is not an excuse to deny the fact of the crisis itself. It is simply no longer possible to responsibly deny that we are living through a transformative crisis that will change the character of America and much of the world. The drivers of that crisis are many and include technology and globalization. The effects are profound and won't be fully understand for decades. At present, the first consequence is a crisis of institutional authority.
We in the US have indeed lost faith in our basic institutions. We don't trust scientists who warn us about global warming; we doubt economists who warn us about debt; we deny doctors who tell us that vaccines are safe. Very few people trust politicians or Ph.D.'s anymore. In fact, according to a 2009 General Social Survey, there are only two institutions in the United States that are said to have "A great deal" of confidence from the American people: the military and the police. This faith in the men with guns is, as Christopher Hayes writes in The Twilight of the Intellectuals, deeply disturbing. But it is not an illusion.
According to John Zogby, who spoke at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference last weekend, the crisis of faith in institutions is widespread and profound. Zogby said:
We call this the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression and it is. But this is much more than that. This is a transformational crisis. Much more than simply the Great Depression, this is equivalent on the global stage to the fall of the Roman Empire. To the demise of Feudalism. What we have at this moment in time is a myriad—if not almost all—of our familiar institutions unprepared to deal with multiple crises all at once. Whether it is the federal Government or the near bankrupt states or the Democratic Party or the Republican Party or the banking institutions or the brick and mortal halls of higher education. Whether it is the Boy Scouts of America or the Roman Catholic Church, a number of our institutions that make up the superstructure of our society are simply unprepared to deal with the force of change, where we find ourselves.
Zogby was not the only speaker at our conference who noted that "our minds as well as our institutions have not caught up with the failure that they represent." Tracy Strong pointed to the outdated capacity of political primaries and Jeffrey Tulis spoke of the ways that Congress has, over the last century, increasingly abdicated its governmental and constitutional responsibilities. Institutions today spend more resources on self-sustenance (like fund raising) than on problem solving. Today our most important institutions are not only unable to solve the problems we face; the institutions have themselves become the problem.
Walter Russell Mead compared our current period to that era of American politics between 1865 and 1905. Mead noted that few people can name the presidents in that period not because of a failure of leadership but, rather, because in that period the U.S. was going through a cultural and societal transformation from, on one level, an agrarian to an urban-industrial society. We today are experiencing something equally if not more disruptive with globalization, technology, and the Internet. It is a mistake, Mead argued, to think that government or any group can understand and plan for such profound changes. There will be dislocations and opportunities, most of which are invisible today. While Mead offered optimism, he made clear that the years before the new institutions of the future emerge will be difficult and at times dark. There is little a president or a leader can do to change that.
Todd Gitlin and Anne Norton spoke of Occupy Wall Street and also the Tea Party as U.S. movements founded upon the loss of political and institutional power. Gitlin began with the widely quoted quip that the system is not broken, its fixed, an expression that feeds upon the disaffection with mainstream institutions. Norton especially noted the difficulties of a movement that at once decries and yet needs governmental power. The one constant, she rightly noted, is that in a time of institutional decay, those with the least to lose will lose the most.
Rick Falkvinge, founder of the Swedish Pirate Party, situated his party precisely in the space of institutional distrust that Mead and Zogby described. Falkvinge noted that the primary value held by 17 year-olds today is openness and transparency, which he distinguished from free speech. While free speech respects the rights of government and the media to regulate and curate speech, the radical openness embodied by the new generation is something new. The Pirate parties, for example, follow the rule of three. If three members of the Party agree on a policy, then that policy can be a platform of the party. There is no hierarchy; instead the party members are empowered to act. Like Wikileaks, with which it has strong affinities, the Pirate Party is built upon a profound distrust of all institutional power structures that might claim the authority to edit, curate, or distill what ought to be published or how we should govern ourselves.
Hannah Arendt wrote frequently about crises. "A crisis," she saw, "becomes a disaster only when we respond to it with preformed judgments, that is, with prejudices." The recent Arendt Center Conference sought to think about one particular crisis, namely the crisis of leadership in responding to the various crises that beset our age. It was born from the sense that we are increasingly confronting problems before which we cower helpless.
There are, of course, dangers and pitfalls in leadership. I too worry about calls for a leader to redeem us. That said, the coming seismic shifts in our world will bring great pain amidst what may be even greater opportunity. Without a workable political system that can recognize and respond to the coming changes with honesty and inspiration, chances are that our crises will morph into a disaster. Our President must matter, since men rarely accomplish anything meaningful without it. How a president might matter, was the theme of the two day conference.
If you missed the conference, or if you just want to review a few of your favorite talks, now is your chance. The Conference proceedings are online and can be found here. They are your weekend "read".
At the heart of the task of political foundations and the complex task of reconstruction in postwar scenarios is the question whether such new foundations are possible. Look only at Libya, where this week bandits briefly took control of the Tripoli airport, and we see the difficulty of founding new polities on the ruins of failed dictatorships. The repeated failure to build civil society in many countries only heightens the question: is postwar political foundation in the Middle East possible?
For want of a better example one can always turn to Lebanon: A surprising textbook case of both success and failure in reconstruction, while at the same time the political foundations remain unchanged and the political terms of negotiations have remained more or less unchanged throughout almost an entire century of regional and civil wars. The reconstruction of Beirut has been plagued by fierce criticism as much as by a relatively positive reception in light of the relative order wrought among the hostile parties involved.
While the reconstruction of Beirut is almost a fait accompli and there’s little room for anything but an academic debate, this refers only to the re-making of the historical downtown area around the iconic Martyrs’ Square area in compliance with 1991 National Master Plan by Dar al-Handasah and IAURIF for Solidere.
Here it is crucial to place Solidere’s plans for Beirut in the context of the colonial visions of French planners spanning from 1932 through 1991 and from then to present day.
The Danger Plan (1932) was prepared under the French mandate by a French consulting firm and was the first systematic attempt to lay out an urban plan for the Lebanese capital; followed then by the Ecochard Master Plan (1943, right after independence) that was never mindful of Lebanon’s multi-confessional landscape and failed to account for the possible growth of the city which remained largely unregulated. The General Master Plan (1952) followed and is still considered the only planning strategy established on a legal basis.
Also based upon a French model, the master plan dealt mostly with broadening transportation networks and could hardly envision the expansion of the prosperous years 1958-1967 of the Shihab era during which Beirut experienced agitated expansion. The Plan Directoire Beyrouth et Ses Banlieux (1964) was also orchestrated by Ecochard and tried to limit the city’s expansion – predicting the risk of non-regulation and environmental hazard – but it was never applied. Two later master plans were introduced in 1977 and 1992 but the 1991 directive prevailed.
In this context two particular sites of memory are important in any attempt to re-shape the public spaces of the city in a postwar context; the first being the historical downtown (Martyrs’ Square) that divides the city between East and West and the second no less iconic Beirut Pine Forest (known in Arabic as Horch al-Sanawbar) that divides the city between North and South. The importance of these sites resides in that spite of the failed policy attempts to regulate and integrate them into systematic plans; they were both contested by the population of Beirut as public spaces in the broadest sense: Arenas of inter-confessional interaction.
Previously, I discussed the background of Martyrs’ Square in “Beirut: Reinventing or Destroying the Public Space?” in the context of Hannah Arendt’s ideas on the meaning of the public realm and the world as articulated in The Human Condition, and grounded the problem in the ambiguous legacy of the civil war in Lebanese political historiography and memory. Hereby I shall offer a brief discussion on Beirut Pine Forest and turn the discussion from the persistence of a public world to the question of enacting public spaces.
The Pine Forest originally comprised about 1.25 million square meters (now reduced to 330.000) in the 17th century and its viability as a public space precedes that of Martyrs’ Square (public garden was launched in 1879) as it is known that since the 1840’s the Ottoman rulers kept watch over the forest as a public entity and the Lebanese claimed administrative authority over it, turning it into municipal property around 1878.
The most relevant information on the forest – both historical and in terms of social practices – can be found in Fadi S. Shayya’s paper “Enacting Public Space: History and Social Practices of Beirut Horch al-Sanawbar” (2006). He tells us about the relevance of the forest throughout modern history, mainly derived from the celebration of “Horch el-Eid” during “Eid al-Adha” when large numbers of people gathered in Horch to celebrate the occasion of Muslim pilgrims coming home from Mecca after fasting during Ramadan and after 1840, festivities and activities of recreation, sports and folklore of Beiruti Muslims moved to the park.
During the world wars and long Lebanese civil war the forest was off-limits to the public and it was bombed and burnt out by Israeli jet fighters during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. After the end of the civil war around 1995 and in the context of postwar reconstruction the forest was “re-designed” (again in a joint French-Lebanese urban planning venture) and opened to the public, but since then the Municipality of Beirut – rightful owner of the park – has kept the forest off limits to the public and accessible only with special permission.
Different political and bureaucratic issues have arisen around the issue of opening or not opening the forest to the public: At the time of Shayya’s paper (2006) most of the park remained closed and only accessible on certain dates and under certain rules. In 2005 Lebanese daily The Daily Star reported that the forest was withering away after the re-design in absence of a proper team to look after it together with lack of enough security to operate it and five years later, in an extensive report published by NOW Lebanon, it was said that through the forest represents 72% of Beirut’s green space, two thirds of it remain still closed to the public.
It should be noted here that according to official statistics, Beirut has fifty times less greenery than it is recommended by international environmental bodies and recently the American University in Beirut released a scientific study detailing the high levels of pollution in the city. As a part of the reconstruction plans orchestrated in the historical downtown, Solidere is scheduled to open a “Garden of Forgiveness” in the area, but this project comprises a mere 25.000 square meters and is meant to function more as a museum than as a public space that can be contested through interaction by the different communities of the city.
The approach to the reconstruction of Beirut – exemplified both by the historical downtown and the forest – is a critical example of the perverse relationship of Lebanon’s political establishment to both violence and power. In her book Architects Without Frontiers: War, Reconstruction and Responsibility, Esther Charlesworth mentions three major themes that can be learnt from the reconstruction of Beirut as policy failures: Lack of public consultation, apolitical architecture and the preference of process over product.
Aseel Sawalha on the other hand (author of “Reconstructing Beirut: Memory and Space in a Postwar Arab City”) argues forcefully that violence has been a major issue and guiding policy of postwar reconstruction. In his “Healing the Wounds of the War: Placing the War-displaced in Postwar Beirut” (published in the volume “Wounded Cities: Destruction and Reconstruction in a Globalized World”) he discusses at length the “postwar state of emergency” in which the rush of reconstruction created internal displacement out of those who had been already displaced by the war into urban Beirut.
War-displaced residents were offered very modest compensations to move out of their homes in order to make space for the sprawling skyscrapers and luxury apartments on demand, what included also the legendary Valley of the Jews, in which there is a newly renovated synagogue but no Jews. Sawalha says: “Reconstruction means cleaning and organizing disordered spaces, repressing illegality, imposing aesthetic standards on what has become unsightly. As we will see, a lively public discourse on the war-displaced reinforces this enthusiasm for the modern, and the power relations underlying it, in many ways.”
From that time on begins a discourse split between “muhajarin” (displaced victims) and “muhtalin” (opportunistic occupiers) claiming both compensation and usually ruling in favor of the latter. He speaks about the case of an interviewed displaced victim: “Now that there is a legitimate state, we do not have to seek sectarian connections and alliances, he told me. Soon, though, Ali encountered obstacles, leading him to suspect that he had not asked the right people for help. The war time militias and associated mafias, rather than being eclipsed by the state, now operated within it, he concluded.”
Sawalha concludes his paper saying: “According to this article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Lebanese state and its institutions (the Ministry of the Displaced, the Central Fund for the Displaced), as well as the private developers and the public-private company Solidere, all violated the rights of Beirut’s war-displaced to a decent home, privacy and reputation. In effect they created more displacement, as their projects for reconstruction generated a series of postwar emergencies”.
While this is true for the private citizen, the displacement from the public space – exemplified by both Centre Ville and the Pine Forest – does not exactly help the Lebanese communities of Beirut to engage in a power-sharing argument or discussion that might alleviate the burden of violence. What role does architecture play or can play above the level of policy-making and the question is also begot of whether there is something that architects – in both cases – could have done better to prevent exclusion of the Lebanese from participating in the public space?
The question is purely theoretical. Charlesworth however brings up Foucault to say: “In his seminal essay, ‘Space, knowledge and power’, Michel Foucault engages in this broader debate on the social role of architects: Architecture in itself cannot solve social problems: I think that it can and does provide positive effects when the liberating intentions of the architect coincide with the real practice of people in the exercise of their freedom.”
Charlesworth lays out an interesting hierarchy of categories of roles that architects play in postwar reconstruction as such: Pathologists, Heroes, Historicists, Colonialists, Social Reformers and Educators. Her argument is that different architects, policies and companies exercised all of these roles at different times and in different ways. The facts of reconstruction remain albeit unchallenged; including the fact that the reconstruction of Beirut did bring hope to many people, even if it was a false and transitory hope.
The public space however – and here is where Hannah Arendt continues to be ultimately relevant – cannot be eliminated or weakened without inflicting a deadly blow on human plurality and as such it continues to be constantly contested in Lebanon. In February 2012 it was reported by Green Prophet that Lebanese activists democratically demand access to all of the Pine Forest because it is their inalienable right to public property – not to mention that people from many socially disadvantaged neighborhoods would have access to a public space of interaction with others – and in their demands, they realize the obvious: “Without a politically guaranteed public realm, freedom lacks the worldly space to make its appearance”.
-Arie Amaya- Akkermans
It is a fallacy to think that political thinking can exist separately from economic thinking. Hannah Arendt, no economist, saw clearly that the origins of totalitarianism were, in large part, traceable to the importing of economic thinking (unlimited growth) into the political realm, where politics is concerned with geographical, social, and moral limits. The economic victory over politics at that time went under the name of imperialism. Today, under the rubric of globalization, economic thinking continues to subsume political thinking to economic calculations.
The economic crisis of the last four years has brought with it a particular challenge to politics. The crisis is so large and so devastating and it so completely threatens to undermine our ways of life that there is a feeling of political futility. What possibly can be done to address this crisis? From out of this futility arises a kind of head-in-the-sand approach that denies the crisis instead of addressing it. One end point of such an approach is the kind of technocratic governance by bureaucrats now holding sway in Greece and Italy, as well as in a selection of American cities and counties. If we are to avoid giving up our political self-determination and if we want to engage the crisis rather than submit to it, we must first understand it, something that few politicians have been willing to do.
To confront the depth of our ongoing crisis, it is helpful to look at a new report out from the New America Foundation, authored by Daniel Alpert, Robert Hockett, and Nouriel Roubini. This report was sent to me by a long-time supporter of the Arendt Center. It is well worth reading in full. A few basic facts to set the stage:
•Four years into the Great Recession, more than 25 million working-age Americans remain unemployed or underemployed;
•The employment-to-population ratio lingers at a near-historic low of 58.3 percent;
•Consumption expenditure remains weighed down by massive private sector debt overhang left by the bursting of the housing and credit bubble a bit over three years ago (even if debt levels are coming down, as Floyd Norris argued today in the NY Times.)
The basic argument that Alpert, Hockett, and Roubini make is that economists and politicians have misunderstood the nature of the financial crisis. As a result, our responses have been ineffective. As they write: "The principal problem in the United States has not been government inaction. It has been inadequate action, proceeding on inadequate understanding of what ails us. "
So what is really the problem? Alpert, Hockett, and Roubini argue that the crisis is a conjunction of an extreme a credit crisis along with two other long-term trends that exacerbate that crisis. While most commentary and political response has focused on the credit crisis, the importance and impact of the two long-term trends have been largely overlooked. The two trends are:
First, the steady entry into the world economy of successive waves of new export- oriented economies, beginning with Japan and the Asian tigers in the 1980s and peaking with China in the early 2000s, with more than two billion newly employable workers.
Second, the "long term development that renders the current debt-deflation, already worse than a mere cyclical downturn, worse even than other debt-deflations is this: The same integration of new rising economies with ever more competitive workforces into the world economy also further shifted the balance of power between labor and capital in the developed world. That has resulted not only in stagnant wages in the United States, but also in levels of income and wealth inequality not seen since the immediate pre-Great-Depression 1920s."
The upshot of these two trends is that wage labor in developed countries is under continuing downward pressure. Whether the limpid economic recovery continues or not, the wage levels of the pre-crisis period will not return and those workers who earn wages for their performance will continue to experience lower real wages and thus a deteriorating standard of living.
What many still have not wanted to see is that the crisis itself was a response to these trends. For the last 20 years, the decreasing wages of workers in developed countries was hidden and compensated for by increasing debt, both private and public. As the report sees,
Easy access to consumer credit and credit-fueled rises in home values – themselves facilitated by recycled savings from emerging economies’ savings – worked to mask this widening inequality and support heightening personal consumption.
There is a chart in the report that itself shows the problem with crystal clarity. In Figure 2, we see that until 1982, the wages of workers and the income of non-wage earners (thus the higher-paid supervisory workers) was largely equal. Beginning in 1982, however, the earnings of non-wage earners began to rise significantly faster than the income of wage workers. This is at least one original source of the increasing inequality of the American populous and it is exacerbated by an increasingly less-progressive tax code and also by the increasingly profitability of capital investments in the global economy. As the report concludes,
Because many workers were no longer sharing the fruits of the economy’s impressive productivity gains, capital was able to claim a much larger share of the returns, further widening wealth and income inequality which by 2008 had reached levels not seen since the fateful year of 1928.
For anyone concerned with politics in the 21st century, understanding our current economic predicament is essential. That is why reading such a lucid report as this one from the New America Foundation is so important. It is, this weekend, your weekend read.
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.