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.
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
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
8Cf. Albert Camus, The Rebel (New York: Vintage, 1992) and Les Justes (1949)
10Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 247