At a certain age some people's minds close up; they live on their intellectual fat.
-William Lyon Phelps
"The third-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking with the majority. The second-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking with the minority. The first-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking."
-A. A. Milne
"It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it."
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.