Archive for July, 2010

Quantum of Solace: a thoughtful—even left-wing—Bond?

July 27, 2010

Bond discovers Greene's monstrous plan

NB: Those who have yet to see Quantum of Solace might find aspects of the following to spoil the film’s plot.

James Bond has long been considered to represent and promote many of the worst aspects of the dominant culture of the West: patriarchy and misogyny, crass materialism (of the non-Marxian kind), and gratuitous violence, to give a few examples. What is more, his job in Ian Fleming’s novels as in the twenty-two films in which his character has played is among the most offensive that exists: as a British spy, he mindlessly defends and advances the imperial interests of the British state—it is not for nothing, indeed, that his operations are designated O.H.M.S.S., or On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

These considerations notwithstanding, the latest two films starring the blonde-haired Daniel Craig as Bond—Casino Royale (2006) and Quantum of Solace (2009)—could be said to be somewhat different—even, perhaps, more legitimate—than the bulk of historical Bond-related productions. In the 2006 film, for example, Bond’s character forms a relationship with Vesper Lynd (played by Eva Green) that is arguably unlike any other engaged in by Bond in the film-series; one could perhaps even characterize it as something approximating inter-human love, as alien as such is to the traditionally cold, sexually exploitative assassin. It is to the consideration of director Marc Forster’s Quantum of Solace, however, that we turn in the following, given the rather surprising—at times, even left-wing—perspectives advanced in the world presented by the film.

Quantum of Solace is remarkable for the honesty with which it portrays many of the power-relations extant in the contemporary world—in this sense, it breaks dramatically with the profound mystifications advanced by much ‘cultural’ production today. The plot centers around the efforts of the shadowy oligarchical organization Quantum to instigate a coup d’etat in Bolivia that would install as president a general who would enable the group to monopolize the majority of the country’s water supply. The CIA is shown in Quantum as lending its support to this plot, for its agents are led to believe that Quantum’s fake-environmentalist front-organization, Greene Planet, have found hydrocarbon resources in Bolivia’s Atacama desert and are willing to provide a “share” of such to the U.S. following the carrying out of the coup. Dominic Greene, director of Greene Planet, discloses at a certain point in the film that his organization had “facilitated a change” in Haiti after elections brought to power a populist priest who, in demanding that the national minimum wage be raised from $0.38 an hour to $1 an hour, “upset the corporations” exploiting Haitian laborers for profit—a clear reference to the case of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, although he goes unnamed. Furthermore, the taxi driver who transports Bond and his associates to their lodgings in La Paz mentions (in Spanish) that the country’s glaciers are retreating at alarming rates and that rainfall patterns have come to be erratic—the driver finds extant water shortages in the country to have resulted from global warming, says Bond’s assistant—while the British foreign minister is shown, in a scene in which he converses with M, head of British intelligence, to openly declare that if the British government “refuses to do business with villains,” it would have “almost no one to trade with,” as well as to state that, because “the world’s running out of oil,” “[r]ight or wrong” must be jettisoned as standards by which to judge state policy, so as to give way to considerations of “necessity”—or “expediency,” in the horrifying calculus of elites in the 1973 science-fiction film Soylent Green,1 or of those “principal architects of policy”2 who have in recent memory overseen the appalling torment of he Iraqi people.

Besides its critical—and rather accurate—take on several alarming contemporary power-dynamics, Quantum of Solace rather starkly presents the institution of the state as classically interpreted by many revolutionary theorists. “The first thing” that one must know about Quantum, one of its operatives confesses, is that the organization “ha[s] people everywhere”—on its payroll, for example, is M’s personal bodyguard, who betrays her at the beginning of the film. For its part, Quantum’s inner circle is portrayed as being comprised of a number of state officials—a former Russian minister, now owner of lucrative mining concessions in Siberia; the head of a telecom giant who was once a member of the Israeli Mossad; and an assistant to the British prime minister counted among the latter’s “closest advisers.” The identity of Quantum’s members, together with the foreign minister’s comments on dwindling hydrocarbon reserves, presents in the world of Quantum of Solace a dramatic illustration of the phenomenon of “state capture” by the interests of private, oligarchical power-groups—an academic term for a contemporary reality that entails irrationality and destructiveness on a scale that should not be underestimated. Government in Quantum, indeed, is not far from Marx and Engels’ take on the matter; for them, the state under capitalist conditions represents a committee for the management of the common affairs of the bourgeoisie as a whole.”

Quantum of Solace also presents important criticism of many contemporary ‘environmentalist’ processes. Addressing himself to a crowd of wealthy potential investors in La Paz, Greene correctly asserts that humanity is today is faced with a “spiral of environmental decline”; he goes on to state that some 17 percent of the Earth’s vegetated surface to have been “irreversibly degraded” since 1945. Whether this latter claim is supported by evidence or not, Greene’s expressed vision for “rejuvenat[ing] the world on the verge of collapse” is what he calls the Tierra Project: buying up large amounts of land and setting them aside as “eco-parks.” Though we soon find out that such schemes are largely fradulent—a similar initiative launched by Greene elsewhere in Bolivia resulted in the preserve being sold off to a multinational corporation that subsequently clear-cut the forest to be protected by Greene Planet, while the ‘eco-park’ in the Atacama allows Greene to assert control over nearly two-thirds of the country’s water supply and thus demand of the future president-general of the country that Greene Planet be recognized as sole utility provider for the country’s people—the Tierra Project by itself is in theory not an entirely irrational concept, however problematic its dependence upon materially wealthy investors and its pyramidal nature are. Indeed, Greene and his Greene Planet may well be taken as a simulacrum for much of prevailing ‘environmentalism’ today—that is, concern expressed for degraded ecosystems, threatened animals, etc., that is coupled with the actual shoring-up of support for social classes and economic systems that are entirely responsible for the present environmental crisis—just as the more general imagery of Quantum’s yacht-dwelling plutocrats deciding the fate of entire societies reflects similar anti-social processes in the real world today.

In addition, Quantum of Solace could indeed lend itself to reflections on the question of violence—ones not terribly different from those advanced by Georges Sorel in his Reflections on Violence.3 The conclusion of the film sees Bond working together with Camille Montes, a Bolivian agent, to break up a meeting in the Atacama at which Greene hands over control of Bolivia’s government to a power-hungry general in exchange for the latter’s recognition of Greene’s control over much of the country’s water supply. Though both Bond and Montes seem to be motivated principally by revenge—Bond for the death of Vesper and the attempted killing of M, Montes for the general’s murder of his family—the fact of the matter is that their actions amount to the assassination of fascist-capitalists whose vision for Bolivia would entail a dramatic increase in human suffering, as alluded to in passing images of indigenous Bolivians who find themselves without access to water as a result of the creation of drought conditions resulting from Greene’s damming-up of the region’s water-sources. Their violence, then, is cause for celebration; it is “justifiable coercion,” in Dussel’s formulation.4 The relevance of such violence vis-à-vis similar meetings at which are conjured-up plans that by necessity entail massive historical negations—the 1942 Wannsee Conference, for example, or similar contemporary meetings of world-import—is surely not easily dismissable.

There can be no doubt that Quantum of Solace, for all its importance, remains a product of the culture industry,5 or what Debord refers to as the spectacle.6 Among other things, it presents such absurdities as Aston Martins, Range Rovers, luxury hotels, and casual air-travel in rather uncritical fashion; as a money-making mechanism, the film demands that the unconscious solidarity-rebellion exhibited by Bond in the plot not be similarly directed against his own employer: the intelligence apparatus of the British state. (When, at the film’s end, M tells Bond that she “needs him back,” Bond replies by telling her that he “never left.”) It should be very clear that cultural products other than Quantum of Solace can more effectively and directly “displace and estrange the world”7 as it exists so as to demonstrate its severely compromised nature. For those to whom such characterizations are not entirely self-evident, however, perhaps experiencing Bond’s most recent adventures can in some way provoke perspectives approximating such in the viewer.

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1As examined on these pages recently

2Noam Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010)

3(Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999 [1908])

420 Tesis de Política (Siglo XXI: Distrito Federal [México], 2006), p. 123

5Cf. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment:  Philosophical Fragments, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, California:  Stanford Univ. Press, 2002 [1947])

6Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1995)

7Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, trans. Edmund Jephcott (London: Verso, 2005 [1951]), §153

A brief note on ‘social democracy’ and atrocity today

July 22, 2010

If we are to take the contemporary mass-persistence of hunger and starvation among humans as a serious problem, it should likely follow that policies which perpetuate and exacerbate this problem be opposed and resisted. The cultivation—production—of ‘biofuels’ is one such policy, as many commentators have pointed out, since ‘biofuels’—better, agrofuels—are grown on lands that could otherwise allow for the cultivation of food-crops. The need for the prioritization of the latter today should not be doubted, given the number of humans who presently experience the acute deprivation constituted by starvation: over 1.2 billion, the U.N. claimed last summer.1

With this in mind, let us imagine that we have a state whose official government—one that can be described as promotive of the political project of ‘social democracy’—has overseen the setting-aside of significant amounts of the state’s arable land for the cultivation of palm-oil and jatropha crops: 75,000 hectares in the case of the former, 15,000. Let us also imagine that the leading figure of the wing of an extreme-rightist national party of such a state has announced that he would like an addition 30,000 hectares to be dedicated to the cultivation of jatropha crops in the state within two years, and that the state’s governor recently held a conference that called for agrofuel production to provide for 1.5 percent of the country’s demand within five years and 22.5 percent within ten.

Let us also imagine that, two years ago, 39.5 percent of the residing populace of such a state were found to suffer from what has been referred to bureaucratically as ‘severe food insecurity.’

The government promoting and overseeing all of this would in fact be complicit with atrocity, would it not?

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1 Joe Kishore, “More than 1 billion hungry worldwide in 2009,” World Socialist Web Site, 20 June 2009

Reflections of Horkheimer’s on reason

July 18, 2010

The Mahlerian close of German critical theorist Max Horkheimer’s “The End of Reason,”1 published in 1941:

“What remains of reason in its contemporary decline, however, is not just the perseverance of self-preservation and the persistence of that horror in which it culminates. The age-old definition of reason in terms of self-preservation already implied the curtailment of reason itself. The propositions of idealistic philosophy that reason distinguishes man from the animal (propositions in which the animal is humiliated just as man is in the converse propositions of the materialist doctors) contain the truth that through reason man frees himself of the fetters of nature. This liberation, however, does not entitle man to dominate nature (as the philosophers held) but to comprehend it. Society, governed by the self-preserving rationality of élites, has always also preserved the life of the masses [sic!], although in a wrong and accidental form. Reason has borne a true relation not only to one’s own existence but to living as such; this function of transcending self-preservation is concomitant with self-preservation, with obeying and adapting to objective ends. Reason could recognize and denounce the forms of injustice and thus emancipate itself from them. As the faculty of calling things by their name, reason is more than the alienated life that preserves itself in the destruction of others and of itself. To be sure, reason cannot hope to keep aloof from history and to intuit the true order of things, as ontological ideologies contend. In the inferno to which triumphant reason has reduced the world it loses its illusions, but in doing so it becomes capable of facing this inferno and recognizing it for what it is […]. Mutilated as men [sic] are, in the duration of a brief moment they can become aware that in the world which has been thoroughly rationalized they can dispense with the interests of self-preservation which still set them one against the other. The terror which pushes reason is at the same time the last means of stopping it, so close has truth come. If the atomized and disintegrating men [sic] of today have become capable of living without property, without location, without time, they also have abandoned the ego in which all prudence and all stupidity of historical reason as well as its compliance with domination was sustained. The progress of reason that leads to its self-determination has come to an end; there is nothing left but barbarism or freedom.”

1In The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, ed. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt (Continuum: New York, 1997), p. 47-8

Life vs. ‘Expediency': Thoughts on Soylent Green

July 13, 2010

For my dear friend JR, more or less twenty-five months after having watched this together

NB: Those who have not yet seen Soylent Green may find many of the assertions in the following to affect viewing experience of the film, probably in negative ways.

Soylent Green, a science-fiction film released in 1973 that stars Charlton Heston as a police detective working in a catastrophically degraded New York City in 2022, is not a great film. For one thing, screen-writer Stanley Greenberg’s strongly patriarchal treatment of the story’s female characters seems highly problematic, as does the film’s opening montage—one that presents a slide-show of photographs which depict the ‘development’ historically experienced in the U.S., from small-agrarian communities peopled by European settlers to an urbanized, mass-industrial nightmare. That this brief glimpse into the history of the future-society depicted in Soylent Green excludes all reference to the lived-experience of those peoples who lived in North America before European colonization is unsurprising for a U.S. production, however offensive such a portrait may be.1 Detective Thorn, Heston’s character, is for his part hardly a particularly admirable human (much like the actor who plays him), at least until the close of the story. For all this, nonetheless, the film portrays a future society wracked by environmental collapse in which social barbarism holds sway. In this sense, it is to be hoped that it can be placed side-by-side with existing society in critical and fruitful ways. It is towards this end that the present work is directed.

 

The world-condition of the social environment presented in Soylent Green is, to quote Adorno, “deeply ailing.”2 Forty million residents are said to exist in the New York City depicted in the film, and there seems to exist a massive degree of homelessness of the part of the city’s denizens, for many in the film seem to sleep on floors or stairs. Some buildings in Soylent Green’s world feature gatekeepers armed with automatic rifles—socio-economic inequalities seen in the film’s society are stark, with a small privileged elite seemingly lording over a vast, materially impoverished majority. Food riots, a logical consequence of the generalized lack of access to food that at times prevail in the film, seem to be common events in Soylent Green’s New York; they are brutally put down by the police, including Thorn, in attacks that include the use of ‘scoopers,’ trucks that are designed to ‘scoop up’ the assembled masses and throw them into receptacles—quite like garbage. Almost no trees exist in the depicted New York City; the only ones that remain are located in the sanctuary fortuitously named Gramsci Park. The diets seemingly experienced by most in the film are vastly more impoverished than those experienced by those who do not starve in the present world; animal-based products such as eggs, butter, and meat are largely unknown, just as strawberry jam is essentially unavailable. Similarly, things like pencils, paper, and books seem to be goods available only to the materially wealthy. Significantly, the climate of the world of Soylent Green seems to have been subject to dangerous anthropogenic interference—as Solomon Roth, Thorn’s aging investigative assistant, remarks: “How can anything survive in a climate like this? A heat-wave all year long—a greenhouse effect! Everything is burning up!” Severe global warming, it seems, grips the future-society of Soylent Green. This is the background for the film’s most shocking revelation, made also by Roth: the food-product that constitutes the general diet of most people in the film—Soylent Green—is in fact derived from human bodies. The corpses of those who die, it seems, are shipped to heavily-protected industrial sites, where they are then processed into Soylent Green.

The world depicted in Soylent Green, then, is clearly a “world of horror,”3 one whose very “essence is abomination.”4 This world is at its base characterized by total “world alienation”5: instead of humanity’s having instituted sets of social relations promotive of dignity, justice, freedom, and rationality, it has come to cannibalize itself. In place of the giving “of the bread from one’s mouth, of one’s own mouthful of bread” to the Other, an act that Emmanuel Lévinas finds to constitute the very basis of human existence,6 history has established quite the opposite. The lived-experience of the world of Soylent Green, indeed, constitutes the very negation of Kant’s categorical imperative: “act in such a way as to treat humanity, whether in one’s own person or generally, always as an end and never as a mere means.” Clearly, human history itself has nearly always featured negations similar to those seen in Soylent Green, whether through colonialism, total war, or genocide. However important it nonetheless is to describe the various horrors of Soylent Green—or, indeed, of the existent—examining the ‘why’ for a given existing reality is surely also crucially important.

The basis for the total catastrophe seen in Soylent Green is the marriage of capitalism with massive environmental degradation and destruction. Although it is unclear exactly what kind of socio-economic system governed the past of the world depicted in Soylent Green, it seems to have been one incredibly insensitive to ecological considerations, given the condition to which it has driven the world in 2022. Historically speaking, only Western capitalism and Soviet ‘communism’ have proven capable of provoking the extreme environmental destruction seen in Soylent Green, as in the world today. It seems safe, though, to surmise that the world-condition shown in the film is the result of the historical trajectory of capitalism, given that the film’s opening montage seems to portray the ‘achieved past’ of U.S. capitalism as the background for Soylent Green’s plot. It is in any case clear that existing society in Soylent Green itself is ruled by an oligarchical business class at least in part populated by capitalists who profit off human death, especially of the abandoned and infirm elderly, who are encouraged to ‘go home’ at special suicide-assistance centers once they’ve had enough of life. The oligarchical interests that oversee this apparatus cannot “risk [the] catastrophe”—to their profits and power, it is to be imagined—that would likely result if the truth about Soylent Green were to be made known, hence their attempt to kill off those who investigate their business practices.

Such fascist-capitalists are of course not alone in actively working to defend the profound horrors of the status quo; the State in Soylent Green also protects it. In Gramsci Park, capital and the State are metaphorically seen coming together in an effort to consolidate their hegemony over unfree humanity: a representative of the Soylent Corporation meets with Governor Santini in the tree-sanctuary, where he informs the governor that Thorn’s investigation into Soylent’s operations is advancing. The governor, representing the interests of capital, responds by giving the hitman a carte blanche to deal with Thorn—essentially, to endorse his elimination, as Soylent’s directors had previously done with William R. Simonson, whose murder Thorn is at the opening of the film assigned to look into. In general terms, much of the profundity of the human predicament shown in the film surely has to do with the “greenhouse effect,” or global warming, that Sol identifies as having ravaged the planet early in the story; as Thorn explains to Lieutenant Hatcher as he lies dying after he himself learns of the truth about Soylent Green, “the ocean’s dying,” and “the plankton’s dying,” leading to the “solution” promoted by Soylent. Of course, the question of what gave rise to such catastrophic environmental changes returns us to consideration of the dominant social system of Soylent Green; its nature is rather clear. The possible future-outcomes for capitalist society as portrayed in Soylent Green, it should be said, are ones that have long been warned about by various legitimate observers.7

Within the fascist-capitalist constellation depicted in Soylent Green, we find patriarchy to be entirely ascendant, at least among the more materially privileged classes.8 Cheryl, a young female portrayed in the film, is considered “building furniture” to the occupant of the apartment rented by Simonson at the film’s beginning. It seems that the social behavior expected of Cheryl is for her to act as little more than diversion for her various masters, functioning perhaps in this sense as something like the arcade-game we see her playing in the first scene in which she appears. In general terms, the violence of patriarchy seems to be highly prevalent in the world of Soylent Green; Thorn remarks to furniture-Cheryl at one point that she’s a “lucky girl” not to have been beaten by her former lover, given, it seems, that so many others are. As Thorn conducts a search of the apartment of Simonson’s bodyguard, moreover, he encounters the latter’s lover, who remarks that she “should have offered [him] something,” to which he responds rather flatly: “If I’d had the time, I would’ve asked for it.” Placing this exchange within the context of the film’s patriarchy is not of course to suggest that sexual promiscuity necessarily entails exploitation or degradation, but rather to suggest the degree to which Thorn sees women as instruments for his pleasure. He clearly practices such behavior with Cheryl; even after having gotten to know Cheryl somewhat, and seemingly to have moved away from viewing her solely as a sex-object, Thorn tells her he considers her to be “a hell of a piece of furniture.” Such offensive treatment of Cheryl continues to the very end of the film, when Thorn tells Cheryl over the phone as Soylent-affiliated agents close in on him that she should “stay” with the new occupant of the apartment formerly held by Simonson, even if, as we learn a few scenes before, she will likely find herself subjected to entirely degrading treatment at his hands.

Beyond the patriarchy he affirms and advances in the film’s plot, Thorn, who, next to Sol, ultimately serves as the hero of Soylent Green, is clearly plagued by other significant limitations. Clearly, his participation in the police-force, and especially in riot-control operations against masses of impoverished and hungry New York residents, seems deeply problematic, though it is true that he ends up dialectically using the knowledge gained through his police investigations to attempt to make known the truth regarding Soylent Green—and hence to inform humanity of its dire need to overturn the prevailing state of affairs by overthrowing constituted power. Before he comes to learn what Soylent Green in fact is, though, he expresses hegemonic maxims that would be expected of a patriarchal man who works for the police: reflecting in an intimate scene with Cheryl, he claims to agree with prevailing practices that see military-style control practiced over key production sites: plankton ships, Soylent plants, farms, and waste-disposal plants. “Good land’s got to be guarded,” he asserts, in violent contradiction of non- and post-capitalist commentators, who see in the private control of property a means that could be socialized to promote distributional patterns based on considerations of justice and need—a general policy proposal that would seem to promote humane change in the world of Soylent Green, as in the present one.

The various limitations seen in Thorn’s character are shared generally by many aspects of the perspectives advanced in the film. For one thing, Soylent Green seems to affirm much of contemporary ‘environmentalist’ discourse that suggested environmental problems to have been largely the result of population growth and ‘over-population': Sol Roth asserts at one point in the film that there are simply “too many—far too many” people alive in the world. The main problem with such interpretations of environmental problems, it seems, is that they over-emphasize population questions to the exclusion of consideration and critique of social systems like capitalism, though as we have seen, such an either-or treatment is not found in Soylent Green. David Walsh’s lamentation in his review of Children of Men—that the film, as is the case also with Minority Report and V for Vendetta, makes little attempt to explain how it is that British society “has become so oppressive”9—could perhaps be directed as well to Soylent Green, although we have here attempted a rough reconstruction of this question from the evidence available to us. Films, of course, should not be required to name capitalism—or, perhaps more convincingly, domination10—as the world-problematic to be abolished, as Walsh seems to suggest; in the case of the three films considered by him, indeed, viewers can certainly be expected to come to conclusions along such lines by themselves through experiencing such films. The potential for radical reflection resulting from the watching of Soylent Green and films like it—Children of Men, Planet of the Apes (1968), Blade Runner, and Syriana come to mind—surely means that the watching of such films should be advanced and promoted.

For all these limitations, then, Soylent Green is nonetheless surely an important film worthy of contemporary reflection. As stated at the outset, the plot’s action takes place within a world subject to acute environmental crisis in which barbarism holds sway—a situation not terribly different from the contemporary world or its likely futures. The absolute depravity of the behavior of the Soylent Corporation, it must be said, is clearly reflected in the limitless barbarities advanced by business interests in the present world, the ‘development’ of hydrocarbon resources and the not unrelated triggering of potentially catastrophic climate change being two prime examples of such. That the “oceans” and “plankton” are dying in the future-society of Soylent Green is sadly a reality seen in the actual world, considering that the world’s oceans are today for all intents and purposes dying: due to the mass-emissions of carbon dioxide that industrial-capitalist societies have engaged in since the eighteenth century CE, the oceans are acidifying at rates not seen for 65 million years; more acidic oceans, as is to be expected, pose dire threats to marine life.11 The British environmental journalist Mark Lynas, summarizing the findings of a number of predictive climatological reports, expects vast ‘marine deserts’ to result from acidification processes that would exist in a world with an increased average-global temperature of 2°C—the ‘safe-warming limit’ endorsed by most hegemonic global institutions.12 Given an average-global temperature increase of 6°C—the worst-case scenario considered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as possible within the twenty-first century, and an outcome to which humanity at present is committed to ‘realizing’13—the world’s oceans are to be essentially bereft of all life, as are to be the world’s continents.14 Food production in much of the world under conditions of higher average-global temperatures is to be severely compromised15; the possibility that power-interests are to resort to the “Fortress World” envisioned by the Global Scenario Group, and highly authoritarian modes of social control generally conceived, is not to be discounted16—nor, even, is the resort to the limitless horror of mass-industrial cannibalism depicted in Soylent Green, for such would be entirely commensurate with the “expediency” that a representative of the dissident intellectual group The Exchange identifies in the behavior of the Soylent Corporation, a characteristic of the “antireason of totalitarian capitalism”17 hegemonic on Earth today. From these considerations, then, it should be clear that Soylent Green has much to teach us much about the world in which we reside.

As serious an indictment of hegemonic social relations as Soylent Green is, the film’s importance to the present is certainly not limited to its highly negative portrayals of the “iron cage” created by capitalist modernity. The Central-/Eastern-European dissidents who constitute the Exchange, in their commitment to squaring with the enormity of horror advanced by Soylent and to making knowledge of such publicly available, represent the “spirit of humanity,” as weakened and corrupted as such seems to be in the film’s world. In this sense, the members of the Exchange parallel the historical and contemporary efforts of Anton Schmidt, the Bielski brothers, Mads Gilbert, the White Rose, the Zapatistas, and anti-fascists generally, all of whom resist and rebel to defend humanity.18 Soylent Green also stresses the importance of the use of reason, symbolized in the efforts of Sol Roth and the Exchange as well as the investigations carried out by Thorn, in allowing humanity the chance to come to grasp the profound horrors of the existent and hence make possible its extrication from such. Moreover, in perhaps the most moving scene of the film—when Thorn arrives to the processing center where Sol, appalled by the knowledge regarding Soylent that he has come to learn, has requested his own death—viewers are presented with stunningly beautiful montages of nature-scenes from the Earth as it had existed in times previous to those experienced in the film’s world. Besides reflecting the remarkable destruction of experience seen in the world of Soylent Green—Sol comes to be able to experience nature’s beauty only in his death-throes after sacrificing himself to Soylent after learning of the limitless horrors it promotes—the scene arguably acts as a sharp criticism of the profoundly tragic nature-destruction engaged in by existing society; to the question of “Isn’t it beautiful?” posed by the dying Sol, Thorn, who coerces one of the facility’s attendants into allowing him to witness the nature-montages, responds emotionally by remarking, “How could I know? How could I have ever imagined?” The world’s beauty, then—being presently so brutally destroyed by capitalism and modernity, and having been largely eradicated in Soylent Green—serves as a means by which to “displace and estrange the world” as it is exists19 and as such advance the conclusion that its destruction must be halted, and the world be made anew.

Finally, the nature of Thorn’s character has important implications for the activist finale with which the film-makers end Soylent Green. Like the character of Honus Gent from Soldier Blue, Thorn represents tradition and hegemony during much of the film: he works as a police-officer to defend extant power relations, sees women as little more than sex-objects, and believes in private property. Like Honus, though, he over the course of the film comes to recognize the world which surrounds him as being governed by horror; by the end of the film, when he lies dying from the gunshot-wounds inflicted upon him by hitmen associated with the Soylent Corporation, he very clearly emphasizes the importance of the project recommended by The Exchange: that is, informing the public about the truth of Soylent Green. As he is carried away on a stretcher, Thorn is uncharacteristically beside himself with concern for life: he melancholically mentions that the oceans and plankton are dying just as he reveals to Lieutenant Hatcher and the assembled crowd the horrifying truth about Soylent Green—that it’s “made out of people.” He goes on to make Hatcher promise to assist The Exchange, just before he desperately cries, “We’ve got to stop ‘em somehow!” How it is that we could come to put a stop to the power-interests that today are in no uncertain terms precipitating humanity’s self-destruction is a question that deserves urgent consideration, as Thorn correctly stresses with his final utterance.

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1I say ‘may be’ in the sense that, in omitting reference to Native Americans altogether, the fimmakers of Soylent Green may be saying excluding such peoplesfrom complicity with the historical ‘progress’ seen in Soylent Green’s future U.S.

2Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (London: Verso, 2005 [1951], §128

3Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2002 [1944]), p. 93

4Adorno, op. cit., p. 113

5Cf. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, as well as John Bellamy Foster’s treatment of the concept in light of the present threat of climate catastrophe in The Ecological Revolution (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009)

6Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer, 1994 [1974]), p. 74

7Cf., e.g., Allan Schainberg, The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980) , James O’Connor, “Is Sustainable Capitalism Possible?” in Is Capitalism Sustainable? Political Economy and the Politics of Ecology (New York: Guilford, 1994), or John Bellamy Foster, Ecology Against Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review, 2002)

8This question is left largely unexplored in the case of the proletarian masses shown in the film.

10 As many self-identified anarchists have done, and as Horkheimer and Adorno do inop. cit.

12Cf. Mark Lynas, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2008)

13Steve Connor and Michael McCarthy, “World on course for catastrophic 6° rise, reveal scientists,” The Independent, 18 November 2009

14Lynas, op. cit.

15Ibid

17Horkheimer and Adorno, op. cit., p. 43

18Cf. Albert Camus, The Rebel (New York: Vintage, 1992)

19 Adorno, op. cit., §153

David Walsh’s lamentation in his review of Children of Men—that the film, as is the case also with Minority Report and V for Vendetta, makes little attempt to explain how it is that British society “has become so oppressive”1—could perhaps be directed as well to Soylent Green, although we have here attempted a rough reconstruction of this question from the evidence available to us.

Against world-negation: a review of Climate Code Red

July 9, 2010

An Indian family displaced by flooding (@The Guardian)

It could justifiably be said that David Spratt and Philip Sutton’s Climate Code Red: The Case for Emergency Action is a challenging read. The work’s authors, principally concerned with systematically exploring the present predicament of anthropogenic global warming, or climate change, come to conclude that the greenhouse gases emitted since the onset of the Industrial Revolution have already caused the Earth’s climate to warm to dangerous levels, and that hence the future warming expected to accompany the carbon-reduction trajectories to which governments of the world are in principle committed to realizing would induce catastrophic destruction. Extant climate-change policy is fundamentally irrational and deeply inhumane, in this calculus, for “the fate of most people, and most plants and animal species” that exist on Earth is essentially being jeopardized by the status quo and its defenders. Going far beyond the warming targets being considered in hegemonic discourse and policy, and even those endorsed at the April 2010 World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth held in Cochabamba, Bolivia,1 Spratt and Sutton find that the highest average-global temperature increase that can reasonably be allowed is one of 0.5°C beyond the temperatures that prevailed in 1750 CE, before industrialization—that is, 0.3° below the warming that has taken place to date. Any warming beyond this level would be unacceptably destructive to life on Earth, claim Spratt and Sutton.

In this sense, Climate Code Red is a reminder—assuming we need it—of the horror of the present state of affairs, of the radically wrong nature of what Hegel and Adorno refer to as the “world-course” (Weltlauf). The only potentially rational response to the threat of the climate catastrophe currently being enacted, as Spratt and Sutton assert in Benjaminian terms, is to treat the present as an emergency, and to act accordingly. As is the case, then, with other recent works on climate change, such as Mark Lynas’s 2008 Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet or Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2006 Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change, one can see how it is that the experience of Climate Code Red could be considered anxiety-provoking. As Avital Ronell claims, nonetheless, in Astra Taylor’s 2008 film Examined Life,2 “anxiety is the mood par excellence of ethicity”; for the sake of currently-existing humanity and its expected future generations, as well as the myriad of other species that reside on Earth, it is to be hoped that Ronell’s observation here is an accurate one.

The perspectives advanced by Spratt and Sutton in Climate Code Red are “desperate,” for they reflect “the desperate straits our [sic] planet is now in,” given the profundity of the threat presented by “business- and politics-as-usual” regarding climate change (132). The specter of climate catastrophe amounts in Spratt and Sutton’s conclusion to “the greatest threat in human history”; the likely futures being provoked by present approaches to the problem call into question the very future “viability” of Earth as “a life support system” (178, 251). The authors’ reviews of climate-related incidents experienced in recent years, taken together with the climatological reports they consider, make the basis for their argument clear. For one, Spratt and Sutton see the alarmingly violent recent recessions of Arctic sea-ice cover, and especially that experienced during 2007—to say nothing of this year’s reports, which show even more extreme reductions of the Arctic sea-ice minimum3—as demanding a radical reconsideration of approaches to the problem of climate change, since, among other things, the sustained loss of Arctic ice would prompt a reduction in albedo that would in turn bring about further warming. That the unprecedented 2007 and 2010 Arctic sea-ice minimums occurred within the context of the ‘achievement’ of a 0.7-0.8°C increase in average global temperatures beyond those of pre-industrial history shows the present level of warming to be unacceptably high, say the book’s authors, while consideration of the dire threats that current atmospheric carbon concentrations and their attendant warming-capacity pose to the Greenland ice sheet as well as the life that today resides in the Earth’s coastal areas should further support this claim (20-27, 33-44). Spratt and Sutton also claim already-extant climate change to be responsible for famine in Darfur (89); one could also indict this culprit for presently emerging famine conditions in Niger, Chad, and Mali,4 as well as murderous heatwaves experienced this summer in South Asia.5

Spratt and Sutton’s findings, decidedly radical in implication, revolt against the 2°C “safe-warming limit” advocated by many dominant global institutions—a target that nine-tenths of climatologists polled by The Guardian more than seven months before the disastrous Copenhagen climate talks claimed would in any case be missed, in light of present treatment of the question.6 Were global warming to be controlled to a 2°C increase in average global temperatures, though, such an achievement would amount to “a death sentence for billions of people and millions of species” (99), claim Spratt and Sutton, for a world experiencing such warming would see dramatic disruptions of agricultural production in northern India’s grain-belt, the complete disappearance of glacial ice in the Andes—which provides water for millions in Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Chile—and mass starvation in Mali, among other effects.7 It should not be controversial to state that such outcomes, in addition to those that are to be expected to take place under conditions of warming beyond 2°C, should be avoided.

As with other climate commentators who have had books that deal with the climate predicament published in recent months—NASA’s James Hansen and 350.org’s Bill McKibben come to mind—Spratt and Sutton do not hold climate catastrophe to be at this point an inevitable eventuality. Instead, they insist that the present state of the world’s climate necessitates the realization of an emergency response within the little time which remains for the possibility of such. This state of emergency would be directed toward achieving a “safe climate”: a drop to the aforementioned 0.5°C average-global temperature increase, or a reduction from the present carbon-dioxide concentration of 390 parts per million (ppm) to 315 ppm. Warming at such a level would restore the summer Arctic sea-ice and avoid the various other life-negating consequences expected to accompany further warming. Policy directed at achieving such would, in Spratt and Sutton’s estimation, entail three important movements: cutting greenhouse-gas emissions to zero, removing excess atmospheric carbon, and engaging in the direct cooling of the Earth. World society must come to become ‘post-carbon’ in the first place to avoid significant future temperature-increases and also embark on massive re-afforestation campaigns to draw down current carbon-concentrations—but these two moves, crucial to preventing climate change of a catastrophic scale, would paradoxically itself provoke warming, as the artificial cooling effect of industrially produced aerosols would disappear with the abolition of carbon emissions. Since Spratt and Sutton assume that the transformations needed to realize a post-carbon global society would, if seriously pursued, require at least two decades to be achieved, they naturally expect greenhouse-gas emissions to continue for some time, thus also inducing warming. In the authors’ view, the warming that is to be expected to result from the emissions expected to occur during the envisioned transition system—an increase in average global temperatures of 1 or 2°C beyond that experienced to date, for a total increase of 1.8-2.8°C—would be too dangerous, and so they advocate geo-engineering schemes to cancel out the potential for such warming. Their treatment of this last proposal is brief, referred to quickly as constituting a “least-worst option” for preventing climate catastrophe (132). They do not consider reports that warn that geo-engineering may result in disruptions to the Asian monsoon season and exacerbate drought in Africa, thus imperiling the lives of a great number of humans—two milllion, claim estimates reported by Silvia Ribeiro in La Jornada.8 They do however insist that any large-scale geo-engineering project, once implemented, would necessarily have to exist continuously during the entirety of the hypothetical transition period; for it to be suspended at any point during this time would result in unacceptably dangerously levels of warming.

As should be clear, the thoroughgoing changes called for by Spratt and Sutton would be possible only through a “great transformation” of existing society. The market, which the authors of Climate Code Red find to be incapable of “respond[ing] by itself at the depth and speed required” (192), would need to be heavily regulated as a first step, though Spratt and Sutton seem to endorse planned economics and a concurrent reduction of the market’s role in society altogether (224). Consumption patterns deemed “non-essential” are to be “curtailed or rationed” in this vision (224); “mass air travel” by planes would preferably not exist (196). Strangely enough, the authors at no point directly consider the importance that the general adoption of vegetarian diets, let alone vegan ones, could have for the avoidance of climate catastrophe, considering the dramatic greenhouse-gas emissions implicated in the mass-raising of livestock for exploitation and slaughter.9

Spratt and Sutton do make clear that their favored approach to the specter of catastrophic climate change is not to be an initiative imposed by technocratic elites but rather one to be advanced by the active democratic participation of “the broad community” by means of deliberative decision-making processes (234-6). The authors’ call here for building participatory democracy comprised of a “fully engaged” citizenry aligns with Noam Chomsky’s assertion that present trends of popular disenfranchisement constitute a “critical challenge for the future” that must be overcome, if reason is to be given a chance to prevail and humanity afforded a chance to avoid the numerous threats to its survival.10 With regard to preventing future wars in the Middle East, Chomsky’s call in this sense for the realization of “functioning democratic societies” may be a convincing policy-proposal,11 but it is less so on the question of responses to climate change, given that nearly half of U.S. citizens believe the various threats posed by climate change to be exaggerated, while 46 percent hold either that scientists are unsure about global warming or that it is not occurring at all.12 Similarly worrying developments have been seen in Britain, where the percentage of polled adults who take climate change to “definitely” be real has dropped from 44 to 31 percent since last year.13 Both positions are radically at odds with general attitudes found in most other countries of the world, as well of course with climatological realities. It is to be hoped, then, that the democracy-promotion practices endorsed by Spratt and Sutton would allow for the overhauling of such disastrous perspectives through educational processes.

Questions could surely be raised regarding the can-do optimism evident in Climate Code Red. Spratt and Sutton’s work is not a melancholic lamentation of the “systematized horror”14 of the present and its likely futures but rather a reasoned proposal aimed at “the prevention and avoidance of total catastrophe.”15 At points, the work’s authors do note that the implementation of their proposals is “clearly a very challenging task,” and perhaps even an “impossible” one (111), but they proceed by assuming that such can be achieved; indeed, they base their work on the “need to start from the assumption that we will not fail in our efforts” to avoid catastrophic climate change (229). They hold, for example, that the ruling classes of China and India will find in the threat posed to the Himalayan glaciers by climate change reason to conform with the policy recommendations advanced in Climate Code Red, just as “conservative governments and corporations” the world over will come to acknowledge that profit cannot be had on a climate-devastated Earth (232). Unfortunately, such comments seem utopian in the extreme; the faith Spratt and Sutton place in the reconstructive possibilities to be had by means of deliberative democracy seems more justified. As made clear in both Climate Code Red and alarming climatological findings released since its publication,16 then, the present urgency of instituting radical counter-power is absolute.

The treatment of spaces referred to as belonging to ‘developing societies’ or ‘the Third World’ in Climate Code Red seems also to merit examination. Spratt and Sutton of course recognize that climate change constitutes a dire threat to humanity as a whole, but they do not seem to emphasize that it will “produce dramatically unequal impacts across regions and social classes, reinforcing, rather than diminishing, geopolitical inequality and conflict,” as Mike Davis has it.17 Climate Code Red, in this sense, is not Davis’s 2002 book Late Victorian Holocausts, a work that examines the catastrophic famines suffered by millions of residents of South Asia, East Africa, and China facing the climatic disruptions associated with the El Niño Southern Oscillation that coincided with the imposition of capitalist imperialism at the close of the nineteenth century; Spratt and Sutton do not systematically explore the various negations that climate change could present to the peoples of the global South, as Lynas obliquely does.18 Neither do they claim hegemonic climate policy to find its basis in principles similar to those that “funneled six million people in Europe into furnaces,” as Sudanese climate negotiator Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping claimed at the close of the Copenhagen climate conference,19 nor do they characterize existing approaches to the problem as equivalent to climate genocide, as Gideon Polya asserts.20 Criticism of Spratt and Sutton on such grounds may however easily be countered by recognition that their work as a whole is dedicated precisely to avoiding the various horrors posed by climate change, however they may be termed.

Less clear than Spratt and Sutton’s commitment to achieving a safe climate is their take on capitalism, a present reality that has clear implications—principally highly negative ones—for the project set forth in Climate Code Red. Given the exegesis of Spratt and Sutton’s arguments as presented above, their profound opposition to the existent should not be in doubt; on the second page of text in the work, indeed, we find guest writer Ian Dunlop claiming that the “ideological preoccupation with a market economy that is based on maximising short-run profit is rapidly leading us towards an uninhabitable planet” (xii). Spratt and Sutton themselves argue for the general establishment of “local and global ‘Commons,’” or spaces held “’in common’ for the benefit of all” (216), a position remarkably similar to that of the “intergenerational commons” that would make available its “fruits and benefits” to “every member of every generation.”21 In the closing pages of Climate Code Red, Spratt and Sutton assert that concern for “shareholder value” is be subordinated to concern for “a viable future for our planet” and the lives of those who currently exist together with those who are expected to be born in the future (253-4). Here, as in analyses reviewed above, the authors express radically anti-capitalist perspectives, though they fail to identify their opposition to capitalism explicitly in the book’s text. This lack of clarity is reflected in their treatment of technological development and questions related to the financing of the transitional period aimed at realizing a safe climate. For one, the authors fail to consider the seemingly sensible possibility of employing space-based solar power as a means of moving toward a post-carbon global society, as explored briefly by Kolbert (p. 144-6), and they constrain themselves to discussing strategies for the financing of the general adoption of renewable-energy sources using the terms and understandings handed down to them by dominant power-interests—as though the self-instituted planned economy they seem to favor could not come up with more rational modes of valuing things. Furthermore, Spratt and Sutton do not come to advocate the expropriation of capital to finance the thoroughgoing changes that will be needed for the transition period, as Marxists and anarchists might, nor do they call for the resources currently dedicated to military spending to be re-directed toward addressing the climate emergency, as Clarke does.22

These shortcomings aside, Spratt and Sutton’s contributions to addressing looming climate catastrophe are in general terms well-reasoned and much-needed. The prospect of the “great transformation” of existing society held out by the authors of Climate Code Red, however, together with the more general commitment to prevent the loss of “most of the life on this planet” (145), would likely be better served if their analyses advanced perspectives explicitly critical of the world-destructiveness of the capitalist mode of production.

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1Cf. the People’s Agreement proposed at the conference: English translation and Spanish original

2Trailer available here

5Jason Burke, Hundreds die in Indian heatwave,” The Guardian, 30 May 2010

7Mark Lynas, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2008)

8“No hay planeta B,” 13 March 2010

9George Monbiot, “Why vegans were right all along,” The Guardian, 24 December 2002ñ Felicity Carus, “UN urges global move to meat and dairy-free diet,” The Guardian, 2 June 2010

10Hopes and Prospects (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010), p. 170

11Ibid, p. 135-7

14Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (London: Verso, 2005 [1951]), p. 113

15Ibid, History and Freedom: Lectures 1964-1965 (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2006), p. 143

16Juliette Jowit and Christine Ottery, Global emissions targets will lead to 4C temperature rise, say studies,” The Guardian, x July 2010; Steve Connor and Michael McCarthy, “World on course for catastrophic 6° rise, reveal scientists,” The Independent, 18 November 2009

17“Living on the Ice Shelf: Humanity’s Melt-Down,” in The Green Zone: The Environmental Costs of Militarism (Oakland: AK Press, 2009), p. 14

18Op. cit.

21Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009)

The necessity of a Human Project today

July 6, 2010

NB: Those who have yet to read The Children of Men or watch Children of Men—as well as those who have in fact done either or both—may find some of the following revealing.

Reflections on humanity’s present and the possible futures it may soon face would do well to examine Alfonso Cuarón’s visionary 2006 film Children of Men together with the 1992 novel of PD James’s on which it is based, The Children of Men. In both worlds, human reproduction has ceased altogether, as men and women across the globe inexplicably succumb to infertility. The bleak context within which both works take place is that of “the end of homo sapiens,” as James puts it—an Omega with no possibility of an Alpha.

A newspaper headline in Cuarón’s version reads “Africa Devastated by Nuclear Fallout”; viewers are informed at points that social relations have descended into violent chaos in various cities across the globe. A “universal anomie” holds sway in James’s imagined future Britain, plagued by pollution resulting in Theo’s estimation from the excess of “our numbers” and controlled by the authoritarian regime led by Xan, the self-proclaimed Warden of England, and his Council. Cuarón, for his part, depicts Britain as being the site of a police-state whose authorities engage in practices similar to those seen contemporarily in Palestine, Iraq, and Guantánamo Bay, in addition to other spaces subject to fascisms of more or less recent memory. “’Fugees,” or immigrants found to be illegal, are violently deported in Children of Men to their mother-countries, many after having successfully fled “the worst atrocities.” The elderly are encouraged in both book and film version to take their lives by means of the Quietus—a ‘death-celebration’ in James’ novel encouraged by Xan, a suicide-pill that has “never failed” in Cuarón’s piece. Humanity, in sum, “lives without hope on a dying planet,” writes James, one that will revert at some foreseeable point after humanity’s collective death to a “green wilderness”; the only posterity humanity can reasonably expect within this context is “those creatures from another planet” who may sometime in the future visit Earth. Given such conditions, it is unsurprising that James’s Theo comes to lament that there exists “no security or home for [my] endangered species anywhere under the uncaring sky.”

Despite the widespread social breakdown, hegemonic barbarism, and generalized despair evident in the lived experience of both works, thoughtful projects committed to social recomposition do exist in both imaginary worlds. Though it may seem that the Warden rules over Britain in James’ piece without “real opposition,” resistance and rebellion are nonetheless not entirely absent within this milieu: in The Children of Men, an unlikely group of rebels calling itself the Five Fishes makes public its disapproval of several of the policies overseen by the Warden and his Council, including compulsory fertility testing, the oppression of foreign-born workers, and the Quietus. The Five Fishes’ first public communiqué, indeed, opens with the following declaration: “If our race is to die, let us at least die as as free men and women, as human beings, not devils.” During a clandestine strategic meeting arranged with Theo, one of the Fishes expresses his wish that society operate on the principles of “[c]ompassion, justice, love” in place of extant hegemonic maxims; faced with Theo’s expressed doubts on the possibility of transformational change in existing society—his claim that people in general care for nothing more than the “security, comfort, [and] pleasure” that the Warden gives to them in exchange for their subordination to him—Julian, the to-be mother of the first human born on Earth in twenty-five years, replies by saying that the Fishes “want to help [people] to care.” In Levinasian terms, James’s Julian goes on to question the commitment to defending one’s own dignity amidst the massive violations exercised against the “dignity of others”—those physically and existentially imprisoned in Xan’s Britain. A resistance movement similar to the Five Fishes exists in Cuarón’s film, though this one is decidedly more substantive in number than the “pitiably unarmoured fellowship” that struggles against Xan’s rule in The Children of Men. It is known simply as the Fishes; the group, dedicated to working toward equal rights for all immigrants in Britain by using both violent and non-violent means, is comprised of a number of activists of distinct backgrounds: Caribbean, South Asian, British, Polish, and North American, to give a few examples.

In general terms, Cuarón’s Children of Men provides for the prospect of a far more profound negation of ‘the existent’ than does James’s work, which ends with Theo’s donning of a regent-like position after he kills Xan—in the closing pages of the book, indeed, he goes so far as to put on the ring of England that he removes from Xan’s corpse—followed by his performing of a baptism for Julian’s new-born child. In marked contrast, the prevailing state of affairs in Cuarón’s production finds itself menaced by the specter of the potentially revolutionary event referred to by artist-revolutionaries as the Uprising (or its Arabic equivalent, intifada, as incorrectly spelled in graffiti exhibited in various scenes in the film). Treatment of the Uprising in the film is intermittent and vague, but it seems to amount in the imagination of the Fishes to the prospect of a messianic moment in which Britain’s citizenry in general comes to revolt against the prevailing state of affairs and work to realize transformational social change by taking on the principal defenders of the present—the government and its military forces. It is unknown if al-intifada can be had without recourse to popular violence against constituted power; there seem to have been some disagreement among factions in the higher echelons of the Fishes on this question, as on the question of the nature of the Uprising itself. Though it seems that the Uprising is expected to be more of a popular affair than a Jacobinist coup, it is also unknown whether the Uprising is to lead to the creation of a participatory democracy or to the concentration of power in the hands of a Party, Directory, or some other similarly ossifying institution.

Another oppositional movement of note in Children of Men—sadly, nowhere to be found in James’s novel—is the Human Project, a shadowy collection of rebel-scientists who are said to be based in the Azores archipelago in the Atlantic. It is the task of safely escorting the pregnant ‘fugee Kee to the hospital-ship of the Human Project, the Tomorrow—in essence, the prospect of allowing the Project’s dissident scientists to find the basis for humanity’s infertility through examination of the anomalous Kee and her infant daughter—that drives the actions of Julian and Theo in Children of Men, together with much of the film’s plot. Within this context, the Human Project seems to be the only institution dedicated to working toward human survival, to realizing the wish of “all those who want humanity to live”1; it is in this sense that Kee’s baby is “the miracle that the whole world’s been waiting for,” in the words of Cuarón’s Jasper Palmer, a woods-dwelling, pot-smoking radical journalist.

It is principally the autonomy of the Human Project from the sphere of domination that makes possible the “new world” represented by the birth of Kee’s child—the “new beginning” that potentially “come[s] into being” with “every new human birth.”2 Only through the institution’s distance from hegemonic science, which finds “the question of how to destroy humanity” as “valid” as “the question of how to save it,”3 does its potential contribution to human progress come to be a possibility, both in Children of Men and the actual world today. Indeed, the very posited existence of the Human Project, of its conscious efforts directed at avoiding the death of humanity, is a call for the “rational establishment of overall society as humankind,” in the words of Theodor W. Adorno.4 Among other things, its place in Children of Men can likely be taken as a reminder of the radical need to place existing society under question, to take account of the various tendencies with which the existent threatens human well-being and survival—and, more importantly, to overturn such tendencies. The Human Project metaphorically embodies the necessity of the implementation of Herbert Marcuse’s “new science,” one that rebels against its being mindlessly employed for reactionary and fascist ends that “ten[d] to be fatal” to efforts dedicated to the realization of emancipated existence.5 Practically speaking, a central task of any Human Project in today’s world—a present service analogous to the one it performs in Children of Men—would be, in Noam Chomsky’s estimation, to “move with dispatch toward conservation and renewable energy” and to dedicate “substantial resources” to “technological innovation,” principally for the “harnessing [of] solar energy.”6 Such efforts would constitute a more general move toward the development of “a livable and sustainable socioeconomic order,” one that promotes the creation of “non-violent, non-destructive” relations among humans as well as between humanity and nature.7

It is to be hoped that the prospective development of such a project today would be one favored and advanced by a more substantive force than the six who are at various moments committed to remaking the world in James’s novel. It is also to be hoped that members of a contemporary Human Project would take note of the Camus-like compassion exhibited by James’s Theo toward the elderly couple whose car he must steal to provide Julian the chance to privately give birth in the woods: he attempts to acknowledge limits to the power that his status as rebel-bandit proffers him over the elderly couple and hence treats them with dignity.8 Dialectically, his socialization of their property—their contribution to the beginning of the potentially new world—requires that he instrumentalize them, as he ties them up to delay their alerting Xan. As careful as it is, his approach here is rather different than that engaged by at least some of Cuarón’s Fishes, who seem ruthlessly to murder Julian for her plan to in fact present Kee to the Human Project as well as for her purported ultimate belief that contemporary social ills could be resolved without resorting to violence. The overtones of such an action—the congratulations expressed by Luke, the new Fishes-leader, to Julian’s assassin, informing the latter that, thanks to the successful killing, “the Uprising is assured”—are potentially Leninist, in that the re-direction in policy demanded following the advent of Luke’s ascendancy could well reflect a move toward the centralization of power or, more crudely, a desire for control on the part of Luke and some of his colleagues–developments analogous to the erection of a ‘dictatorship of the party’ over the efforts of the revolutionary working class to break with capitalism. Considerations of the threat that such developments might hold for the future are hardly academic; humanity has suffered enough historical betrayals of its revolutionary hopes to once again end up being subordinated to a Leninist overclass, or any other sort of ruling class. The record of the Bolsheviks in power after 1917 is clear enough—or must we really discuss the fate of the soviets, Kronstadt, and Makhno? ¡Ya basta!

It is also important to note the profound affirmations experienced in the book as in the film by those committed to struggling to protect humanity and promote the Human Project. James’s Theo reports that he comes to feel an “extraordinary happiness” during his flight into the wilderness with the Five Fishes, the likes of which he had doubtless not experienced for some time before; reflecting on his character-transformation, he even declares that he has “no wish to encounter” the “self-regarding, sardonic and solitary man” he amounted to before having joining the Five Fishes’s rebellion. This progression is romantically reflected in Theo’s ruminations on the wilderness into which the fellowship enters near the close of the story: whereas he holds the forest during a time to be a “place of darkness and menace,” he later comes to regard it as a “sanctuary, mysterious and beautiful”—a space “in which nothing that lived could be wholly alien to him.” Similar expressions of life, or eros, can be found in many other places—for example, in the works of romantic artists or in the confessions of Karl Marx.9 Such eros is clearly reflected in the manner with which Jasper faces death at the hands of the Fishes in Children of Men, as in the joy with which Kee relates experiencing the kicking of her developing daughter: “and me too, I am alive!”

To close, it seems evident that the biblical line that gives James’s book and Cuaron’s film their titles bears mentioning, in light of the present context: “Come again, ye children of men [and women].” Humanity must somehow ‘come again'; perhaps it could come to do so with the example of the efforts of a contemporary Human Project in mind, for “[t]he miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, ‘natural’ ruin is ultimately the fact of natality.”10

If humanity does however fail to avoid the various contemporary threats to its survival—that is to say, if the Human Project should fail—the Five Fishes’s admonition that we die not as “devils” but rather as “human beings” should surely be taken as a relevant contribution to considerations of the present human predicament.

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1“First Declaration of La Realidad against Neoliberalism and for Humanity,” as quoted in Maria Gloria Ramirez’s The Fire and the Word (San Francisco: City Lights, 2008), p. 136

2“Ideology and Terror: A New Form of Government,” from The Origins of Totalitarianism (San Diego, California:  Harcourt, 1968 [1948])

3Cornelius Castoriadis, Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1991), p. 253

4Theodor W. Adorno, “Progress,” in Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History, ed. Gary Smith, trans. Eric Krakauer (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 85-86

5Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon, 1964), p. 155, 151, 166

6Noam Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010), p. 166

7Ibid, “Crisis and Hope: Theirs and Ours,” 12 June 2009; Herbert Marcuse, Counterrevolution and Revolt (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972), p. 67

8Cf. Albert Camus, The Rebel (New York: Vintage, 1992) and Les Justes (1949)

9Responding to a series of interview-questions in 1865, Marx reported that his maxim was Nihil humani a me alienum puto (“Nothing that is human is alien to me”).

10Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 247


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