Archive for the ‘film’ Category

Guardian: “World’s oceans facing biggest coral die-off in history, scientists warn”

October 11, 2015
Bleaching in Samoa. Left image taken in December 2014, right in February 2015. Credit: XL Catlin Seaview Surve

Coral bleaching in Samoa. Left image taken in December 2014, right in February 2015.
Credit: XL Catlin Seaview Survey

In an 8 October column for the Guardian, Karl Mathiesen reports on scientific findings regarding the current third global coral-reef bleaching event, due principally to a “a massive underwater heatwave, driven by climate change,” and intensified by this year’s strong El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO).  The previous two global bleaching events took place in 1998 and 2010 (both also ENSO years), but Dr Mark Eakin, coordinator of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Coral Reef Watch program, fears that this current episode may be the worst yet, as 2015 and 2016 are expected to be the hottest years ever recorded–in keeping with the profoundly alarming warming trajectory for which global capitalism is responsible.  The major differences between the current bleaching episode and the two prior ones have to do with the now-higher baseline temperature of the oceans and the longer duration of excess heat to which coral are exposed.  As Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg observes, “It’s like a hospital patient. If you’ve got a chronic disease then you are more sensitive to a lot of other things and if you want a recovery then you need to take all those other stresses off.” These symptoms are now evident in a 4,600 square mile region of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans, as well as the Caribbean sea.

Coral reefs comprise 0.1% of the ocean floor and support a quarter of all marine species.

These distressing news come just as the Climate Action Tracker (CAT) concludes that, even if all UN member-states somehow fulfilled the considerably weak carbon-reduction pledges they have put forth for the upcoming Paris climate talks (COP21), global temperatures would soar far beyond the internationally “accepted” 2C limit above the temperatures that prevailed during pre-industrial times.

Decline in coral health in Samoa this year. Courtesy of XL Catlin Seaview Survey

Decline in coral health in Samoa this year. Courtesy of XL Catlin Seaview Survey

Burn! at the NYC Anarchist Film Festival

May 15, 2014

burn post

I will be screening a shortened version of Gillo Pontecorvo’s epic, radical film Burn! (1969) this Sunday at the New York City Anarchist Film Festival for day two of the Eighth Annual NYC Anarchist Bookfair.  A “sequel” of sorts to Pontecorvo’s 1966 Battle of Algiers, Burn! stars Marlon Brando as a British agent sent to a fictional Caribbean island colonized by the Portuguese (“Queimada”) who foments a slave insurrection against the colonial masters only to have Queimada’s white plantation-owner class declare formal independence on terms favorable to the British Crown.  Brando’s character, Sir William Walker, is then called back to the island ten years later to put down a revolution led by the same ex-slave he originally had used to displace the Portuguese from rule.  The film clearly was an allegory for the Vietnam War, and it bears the strong imprint of Frantz Fanon’s writings on decolonization, in addition to recalling the course of the Haitian Revolution–with the difference that Napoleon’s failed attempt to recolonize the republic and enslave its citizens succeeds in this version.  Moreover, Pontecorvo’s work has much to say about the present environmental crisis, for Queimada (“Burnt”) had originally been entirely burnt down by the Portuguese in an attempt to eradicate the resistance of the island’s indigenous inhabitants.  In this sense, as John Bellamy Foster writes cogentlyBurn! can also be taken as an extended metaphor for global warming, given that this increasingly fatal tendency bears its origins and is undoubtedly perpetuated and exacerbated by the totalitarian need of the capitalist class to hold onto power.  

As Adorno notes, “The bourgeoisie live on like specters threatening doom.”

Reviewing Elysium: Working-Man’s Death and Multitudinous Struggle

August 26, 2013

elysium

Originally published on Counterpunch, 23 August 2013

Elysium, the newly released sci-fi film from 33-year old director Neill Blomkamp starring Matt Damon as the proletarian hero Max, is not to me an escapist artwork. Instead, I believe Elysium to lie within the contemporary genre which we might call “art of the transition”—that is, which depicts the struggles and various contradictions and negations of the ongoing historical shift away from capitalism and rampant social brutality. (Other prominent recent examples from the world of film I would include in this line would be Children of Men, Blomkamp’s very own District 9, Avatar, and the Matrix, among others.) Invoking (and inverting) a trope seen in classic sci-fi art works like Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, which contrast social conditions on an emancipated anarchist planetary body (Anarres/Mars) versus those seen on the capitalist-totalitarian Earth or its stand-in (Urras, in LeGuin’s world), Elysium is a revolutionary slice of life from the seemingly-apocalyptical landscape of Los Angeles in 2154—wherein generalized impoverishment and oppression are starkly present, reminiscent of “Baghdad” (says Damon)—which contrasts with the orbiting space-station Elysium, home to the affluent and capitalist overlords. While on Elysium there any many green, open spaces, with mansions adorned by pools and maintained by robot servants, Earth-dwellers inhabit a veritable hell. That the Earth scenes were filmed in a landfill in Mexico City (reportedly the second-largest in the world), with the Elysium scenes shot in Vancouver, BC, speaks clearly to the types of inequalities Blomkamp concerns himself with in his new work.

I do not wish to spoil too much of the film’s plot, so as not to degrade the experience of those others who have not yet seen it. Yet, briefly, to explain: Max, the protagonist and hero, is a presumably orphaned child raised by Mexican (or Central American?) nuns who comes to land a job working assembly-line production of robot police-units after having done time for stealing private property for a few years. As in George Lucas’s THX-1138—Lucas’s very first and his most anti-authoritarian work, which I would claim directly inspired Max’s assembly-line occupation in Elysium—disabling accidents take place at the workplace, with no accountability processes in place to check managers and upper administration. Max falls victim to such a workplace accident, due to negligence and pressure from his overseer—who flatly warns Max that, if the latter refuses to perform the risky maneuver, he will demand Max’s resignation and easily replace him with any number of other prospective workers, to be called up from the mass labor-army reserve. Following this negative turn of events, and with mere days to live, Max tries desperately to find a way aboard Elysium, where seemingly every building famously contains a highly advanced therapeutic machine which can free the body of all ailment and disease. To get Max onto Elysium is a difficult demand to fulfill—as Max’s clandestine/criminal electronics collaborator Julio knows well, various spacecraft carrying wounded and ill Earth-humans have been incinerated by the capitalist security forces as their desperate voyages approached Elysium’s perimeter.

To observe the scenes from the Elysium station—particularly those involving Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster)—is to confront legitimate depictions of the closely-knit ties binding the most privileged to State repression. Blomkamp is certainly presenting a left-wing account of politics here, with the wealthy minority turning ever-increasingly to fascist means to uphold their privilege—a tendency observed last century by Herbert Marcuse, as by Chris Hedges in the present one! On the other side of the dialectic, a veritable revolutionary humanism informs the struggle-from-below shown in the Earth scenes, as symbolized most centrally in Max’s journey from proletarian to disabled ex-worker and artificially augmented revolutionary militant. In positive (and realistic) terms, the Earth-based opposition we see in the film is ethnically diverse—mostly Latin@, with Max as the exception—as against the white-washed country club of Elysium. Unfortunately, a specifically feminist critique of the hegemonic oppression depicted in Elysium is largely lacking—Delacourt, at the top, coordinates the Elysium station’s “defensive measures” against incoming “undocumented” space-flights of refugees from Earth (thus depicting “liberal feminism”), while the only other female lead, Frey, is a nurse and mother who, other than for helping to heal a wound incurred by Max in his escape, is largely passive in her roles.

The film provides a great opportunity to reflect on prevailing power relations, and how it is that they might project into a future like that shown in Elysium. While the film’s course does not directly examine the historical turns and negations which led Earth into near-total oppression, with the physical separation of the ruling class into an orbiting station—the film is not Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which dedicated two episodes to a time-warp to Earth that takes the crew to a time just before a popular uprising by the poor, which would ineluctably pave the way for the transition beyond capitalism and the founding of the Federation—it viscerally demonstrates to the audience how that likely did arise: through militarized, unchecked exploitation of the Earth and its working classes by the vampiric capitalist class. Dialectically, in its presentation of globalized (and extra-terrestrialized) solidarity and resistance to the machine—and particularly in Max’s impressive strength and combat skills, as exercised against the guardians of the system—Elysium also advances an anti-statist, internationalist message which speaks to the revocability of given oppressive power relations. In this way, the film explores an important set of principles that arguably correspond to present and future hope for the human race: mass-struggle, as through the multitude.1

So then, assuming the rule of Elysium is indeed overthrown and the formerly privatized advanced medical technologies socialized (I will not say whether the terrestrial proletarians are victorious in the end), the question arises: what would the peoples of Earth decide to do? How would they respond? Would they also socialize production on Earth and fairly redistribute the concentrated wealth previously held by the overlords of Elysium? Would they collectively decide to dedicate significant resources to address the catastrophic ecological changes wrought on Earth by the capitalist system—insofar as this is possible? As a first act, they would doubtlessly abolish the gross inequalities separating Elysium from Earth.

To contemplate the prospect of overthrowing the neo-feudal powers-that-be, as Elysium helps us to do, is an exciting prospect. Regardless of what Blomkamp feels he must say so as not to alienate potential investors in his future films (“It’s just human nature” that “the gap between rich and poor on Earth will simply get worse and worse, no matter how hard we try to change it”), to watch Elysium might perhaps serve to strengthen one’s hopes for and commitment to the successful future anti-capitalist revolution.

Hopefully it will not take until 2154 to achieve.

1Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude (2005); see also Empire (2001) and Commonwealth (2010).

Is There in Truth No Beauty? Peace and Long Life

February 2, 2013

A parting declaration as expressed between Dr. Miranda Jones and Mr. Spock in the transporter room of the U.S.S. Enterprise, from “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” (1968).  The two speak of their experiences with Kollos, an alien ambassador from Medusa, whose entity is formless–Dr. Miranda being his telepathic colleague, and Spock having achieved a mind-meld with him.

truth beautyMirandaRose

“I know now the great joy you felt when you joined minds with Kollos.”

“I rejoice in your knowledge and in your achievement.”

“I understand, Mister Spock. The glory of creation is in its infinite diversity.”

“And the ways our differences combine to create meaning and beauty.”

“Peace and long life, Spock.”

“Live long and prosper, Miranda.”

spock beauty

Samsara review, textual and visual

September 13, 2012

Samsara (Sanskrit for “suffering”), the sequel to the 1992 film event Baraka (“blessing”), has long been awaited, its treatment of various world-phenomena imagined and fantasized about. Having had the privilege to see the film, I can say that in some ways it is a blessing, following in part from Baraka, and it surely does depict suffering, human and non-human, in a number of forms. It is unclear, though, how interested the filmmakers are in aiding in the struggle to attempt to overcome the vast suffering and destruction caused and upheld by presently dominant hegemony: this follows from the work’s status as a mass money-making scheme—a racket. Of course, Samsara is not only a racket.

Like Baraka, Samsara is stunning in its portrayal of various manifestations of the natural and social beauty of Earth. Worthy of experience in this sense are the timescapes of arid climes set to the music of Armenian duduk player Djivan Gasparyan, or the depiction of Buddhist monks creating art at the opening of the film, signaled by a trumpet blast, presumably in Nepal or Tibet.

Beyond illustrating some of the positive and beautiful aspects of life and human society, Fricke in Samsara definitely also recognizes the social exclusion and structural violence of existing capitalist society: the film shows African cities and extensive “slums” in the Philippines, following similar coverage in Baraka of the favelas of Brazil and homeless people everywhere. Fricke also includes a few shots of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Moreover, he spends considerable time depicting the highly mechanized and hierarchical industrial-production regimes ruled by automation that are responsible for mass human alienation: a stand-in for this entire system could well be Fricke’s close-ups of bionic Asian human look-alikes, which are very close to their models in appearance but without the power of speech. Samsara is further testament to the inanity and absurdity of the totality of capitalist production: an extended sequence depicts the alarming assembly and production of weapons, armaments, bullets. Fricke then shows different males of color bearing small arms—different than in Baraka, in this film he omits treatment of imperial war-machines (bomber-jets, etc.), instead going here for historically colonized peoples who are shown as engaging in armed struggle without that positionality being situated within the violence of the reign of capital.

In the parts depicting African cities (Lagos, perhaps?), Fricke concentrates on the enormity of electronic waste exported to these materially impoverished communities—a capitalist trade-practice similar to the exchange of hazardous/nuclear waste, imperial war, and the arms trade. Samsara includes a sequence on impoverished peoples wading through landfills for objects to find and sell, in the struggle to ensure their social reproduction as well as that of those to whom they are attached. In Baraka a similar scene depicts South Asian females doing similarly, in a strong repudiation of capitalism:

One wonders (I wonder) how Ron Fricke and co. compensate the impoverished peoples they portray in these films. Beyond this, I ask precisely what Fricke is doing depicting a ritual performed in a Filipino prisoner whereby the imprisoned engage in elaborate dance for the pleasure of their overseers? Does Fricke mean to be critical of this practice, and/or the prison and the carceral system at large? As is evident to those who have seen Baraka, Samsara too carries a high risk of colonialism.

In keeeping with these considerations, the film’s introductory sequence closes with a fetishistic panning of the sarcophagus of one of the Egyptian pharoahs (Tutankhamun?), rising from the inferior tip of his phallic beard to take in and revel the youth’s facial beauty—or at least, its representation by the artists who adorned the pharoanic funeral-mask. In general terms, there is in Fricke’s film a special focus on pyramidal, inegalitarian structures, whether architectural and physical or more abstractly social: prominent in terms of the former are the Giza pyramids, Dubai, Gothic churches, the Vatican, Bagan temples, the Blue Mosque (Istanbul), and Mecca’s al-Ka’aba.

The film generally has an Asiatic focus, and unfortunately seems entirely to lack recordings from Mexico and Mesoamerica, and depicts little from the two continents of Abya Yala. In the segments from China, scores of children are shown practicing Shao lin kung fu, following the commands of an off-screen master, while compatriot workers separately are depicted as engaging in similar martial-exercise activities in preparation for labor in the factory. Near the film’s beginning, adults in Ma’asai bands are seen to be living convivially, proud of the infants of the newly born generations they share with the camera. The framing of these various others by Fricke is very particular: for example, there is no acknowledgment made in Samsara of the dire environmental conditions suffered in recent memory by the Ma’asai and the Turkana of northern Kenya—drought, desertification, death—for which imperial societies can be said to be responsible due to climate change. Similarly uncritical, Fricke’s take on religion in the film is not in any sense one suggestive of the desire to break with religiosity; Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism are instead taken as an integral aspects of human development over the millennia, seminal contributors to the historical expression of beauty.

Against these mindless suggestions, those who oppose patriarchy can for example hold the processions in Mecca critically, noting for one the total exclusion of females from the areas adjoining the Ka’aba, just as the children trained in kung fu can exercise their skills in defense of their lives and that of humanity and the chance for revolution.

One remarkable part of Samsara is an extended sequence near the film’s end regarding the brutalization of non-human animals—chickens, cows, pigs—that are slaughtered for human consumption. Fricke includes harrowing scenes of decapitated pigs being carried down an assembly line for further processing; he shows the sadness of a sow giving of her body to her newborn piglets—behavior that normally would aid in their survival and flourishing, were they not imprisoned later to have their lives destroyed to satisfy brutish human tastes. The scene by which this disturbing act opens shows the saddening harvest of chickens from their overcrowded pen, as operated by a machine which efficiently and coldly sucks one bird at a time into a tube destined for some off-screen location in the slaughterhouse. Indeed, this very scene, like the sequence taken as a whole, follows from Fricke’s similar depiction in Baraka of the methodical, systematic burning-off of the beaks of chicks destined to cohabitate in industrial-agricultural conditions, until they were to be slaughtered—their beaks forcibly being removed so as to prevent the overcrowded chicken population from killing each other in a craze, and so averting “capital losses.”

Close in time to the animal-slaughter sequence, Fricke in Samsara also shares a segment of film on the industrial production of white-skinned, female-bodied sex models, with their immense breasts and putatively arousing face makeup. No connection is made by Fricke as to who the buyers of such commodities might be—whether Euro-American, Asian, and so on—but, juxtaposed with the scenes of the brutality of animal slaughter, the inclusion of this treatment of patriarchy could well be taken as a strong indictment on Fricke’s part of social relations which promote objectification—commodification, but more than this: domination, in general. It is to be hoped that viewers will consider adopting and advancing vegetarianism and anarcha-feminism after watching Samsara, however divergent this may be from the filmmakers’ likely goals.

Unlike Baraka, Fricke’s new film does not dedicate much of the film’s reel to the depiction of imperialist-capitalist societies—other than flybys of the financial district of downtown Los Angeles that seem more celebratory than critical. While Fricke does not show viewers some of the many destructive realities that arrangements like Los Angeles demand in the present—Iraq is entirely absent from Samsara—we ourselves can conceive of the vast scope of world-alienation these entail, recalling a myriad of images and moments not depicted by Fricke: the 2010 BP Gulf oil spill; the devastation of the Niger Delta; the degradation of the Amazon rainforest (shown in Baraka); the destruction prosecuted by U.S. imperialism since 1992, particularly in the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq; the fate of the Arctic sea ice; the dying oceans.

Samsara is not the environmentalist Home (2010), nor is it Werner Herzog’s haunting Lessons of Darkness (1992); it is not much of a profound investigation or consideration of the phenomenon of catastrophe, a perennial and central feature of late capitalism—as our present world shows. An art-work which comes to mind that can serve as Samsara‘sfoil of sorts is Ursula K. Le Guin’s The World for World is Forest (1972), a novel which depicts the life of the Athshean humanoids who reside on an entirely forested planet that is progressively destroyed, its residents enslaved and murdered, following attempted colonization of Athshe (simultaneously “forest” and “world” in the tongue of its indigenous peoples) by humans from Earth. This brutalization comes to an end only with the generalized rebellion of the Athsheans against the infrastructure of systematic oppression—an image which the contemplation of history also suggests to us, as in France in 1789, Saint Domingue/Haiti in 1790, France again in 1871, Russia 1905 and 1917 (February), Spain in 1936, and so on. The various insurrectional attempts made by the colonized and formerly colonized peoples of the South of course also belongs to this tradition—this doing-other and -against in relation to capitalism and domination.

Clearly, Samsara and its developers have limitations; they are not revolutionaries, nor do I think the film can be considered revolutionary art. As already noted, it is at least in part—if not largely—the work of a racket, one that unsurprisingly does not focus its lens on some of potential means by which we can conceive of liberation from the ills it does consider—insurrection, mass-general strike, blockade of capital, agitation, revolt, revolution. The importance of the film in my opinion can be found in its celebration of beauty on the one hand and its examination of the mass-collective nature of human society on the other. This latter consideration in particular is critical for the present, as mass-action by the subordinated—the constituents of existing society—could against conformity and passivity be activated toward the end of intervening and resolving many of the serious problems illuminated by Samsara, as well as the numerous others we can think of using experience, knowledge, and mind.

Rojo Amanecer and the struggle against catastrophe

October 3, 2010

1 day after the 42º anniversary of the October 2 Tlatelolco massacre

NB: The following contains discusses the events depicted in Rojo Amanecer

¡ÚNETE PUEBLO: NO NOS ABANDONES!

Jorge Fons’ 1989 film Rojo Amanecer cannot be said to be a film about the 2 October 1968 massacre carried out by the Mexican military against unarmed protestors in the Tlatelolco district of Mexico City in its totality—if the production of a film depicting such a totality were to be a possibility. It rather focuses on one day in the lives of the members of a middle-class Mexican family that resides in the Chihuahua building which overlooks the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco: October 2, 1968. It is on this day that the university student-led Comisión Nacional de Huelga (CNH) calls for a mitin, or mass-rally, to be held in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas; the mitin in question, attended by between 5,000 and 10,000 people1—students, mothers, children, elderly—is brutally assaulted by (elementos de) the Mexican military, who commence/which commences firing on the assembled following the launching of red and green luces de bengala, or flares, at approximately 6:10pm. The balacera lasts 29 minutes; employing 2 helicopter gunships and 300 armored tanks, the military fires some 15,000 rounds on the protestors, though autopsies show that many of the dead were killed by bayonet-attack.2 The Chihuahua building in which the family resides was the vantage point from which paramilitary snipers—referred to as guantes blancos for the white gloves they wore on their right hands to distinguish themselves in the crowd—opened fire on protestors and soldiers in the plaza, thus ensuring the military’s fierce response against the assembled. The number of of victims left by the massacre is to this day still unknown; official government estimates place the tally at around 40, while oppositional groups claim the number to be between 300 and 400. The renowned Spanish-Mexican novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo II, for his part, seems to hold the total killed as being even higher than these latter estimates, given that he gives credence to the rumors asserted in the aftermath of the killings which claimed that the military placed the dead into cargo planes, ejecting them during flights over the Gulf of Mexico.3

The barbaric act of 2 October is not directly shown in Rojo Amanecer, for the film’s action is mostly contained to the apartment of the family in question, save for a scene which shows guantes blancos beating students they have detained in the stairwell adjacent to the family’s apartment, in addition to the film’s final scene. The massacre itself takes place off-screen, in the Plaza below: Carlitos—at 9 years old, the youngest member of the family—witnesses the firing of the red and green flares at the beginning of the army operation, and Jorge and Sergio—university students, the two eldest sons of the family—peer out the window once the firing has stopped to behold the multitude of corpses produced by the military. Alicia, mother and housewife, comes to take in four students fleeing the balacera while Humberto, the father and husband—a civil servant—is prevented by the military from entering the area during the return from his work-day; Graciela, Alicia and Humberto’s daughter, is stranded by the assault at a nearby friend’s home, where she encounters a number of individuals who plead for the doors of residences adjacent to the Plaza to be opened for them in an attempt to escape the fire. Hours after the massacre, the family-members, reunited and safe, share a meal together and subsequently turn on the television to listen to the news. As is to be expected, the available news-media claims the assault to have been a military response to a fire-fight between two student groups and vastly under-estimates the number killed by the military, presenting this to around 20—as the reactionary national media in fact did shortly after the massacre.4 At this point, with the disenchantment of the family-members reaching a total, they decide to go to sleep, having agreed to continue giving refuge to the refugee-students until the following morning. Prior to this, Sergio, Jorge, and the rest of the university-students discuss the happenings of the day: one passionately declares that the revolution would surely come the following day, thus mirroring the testimony of the actual student and survivor of 2 October, Enrique Vargas, who expected the Mexican people to commence an armed insurrection once they found about the massacre.5 Jorge melancholically tells his comrades that “the people will not abandon us; they cannot abandon us.”

In the middle of the night, then, after the family-members and students have gone to sleep, they are all awoken by a group of guantes blancos searching the Chihuahua building. Initially, the four students are successfully hidden by the family, and the guantes blancos, though hysterical in their domination, seem not to find the family particularly suspect, until one of them subsequently discovers the Che Guevara poster in Jorge and Sergio’s room, together with a copy of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ The Communist Manifesto; this leads the intruders to carry out a further search of the apartment, which ends in fact with the discovery of the four refugee-students. Matters then come to a head between the pistol-wielding guantes blancos and the defenseless family-members and students; one of the latter attempts to escape the apartment through the open door, only to be shot and killed by the paramilitaries. Following this, the students and family-members courageously attempt to overpower the armed men, only to be systematically shot down and murdered. Graciela and Sergio manage to escape the apartment, but they too are killed by the guantes blancos on the exit stairwell. The sole survivor of the invasion-cum-massacre is Carlitos, who had been told to hide under one of the beds as the family rashly prepared the apartment for the guantes blancos. Devastated, he emerges from his hiding-place to find his loved ones murdered.

Rojo Amanecer’s thoroughly brutal close in the Chihuahua building can itself be taken as a metaphor for the unshown 2 October massacre carried out in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas below, as well of course as for a great number of other historical massacres. Both the genocidal attack on the students and the near-extermination of the principal characters of Rojo Amanecer represent fascist interventions aimed at crushing the promises of history—in the former case, a fairly broad-based, left-wing student movement that perhaps might have been able to challenge prevailing power relations; in the latter, the newly-born subject, forged by the disenchantment and displacement that the government-sanctioned massacre comes to mean for the film’s various characters: the activist students, the children-witnesses, the horrified housewife, the shattered bureaucrat. That these actors should meet their end while exercising their legitimate self-defense against fascist perpetrators of barbarism should be unsurprising, for it itself is a comment on the brutality of constituted power.

At film’s end—similar, in this sense, to the close of Francisco Vargas’ 2005 El Violín—only the child Carlitos is left. It must be said that the only hope that exists against the specter of a relapse into barbarism—the 24,000 killed since 2006 by Felipe Calderón’s war on narco-traffickers, the millions murdered in Iraq by successive U.S. administrations over the past 20 years, the 300,000 annual victims of climate change, the billion who today starve—is the child, as shattered and traumatized as he must be, cognizant of the world’s horror.

———————————————————————————————————————-

1Elena Poniatowska, La Noche de Tlatelolco (Mexico City: Biblioteca Era, 1971), p. xx; Diego Cevallos, “Para no olvidar el 68,” IPS, 14 January 2007

2Poniatowska, op. cit., p. 167, 168, 242, 225

368 (Mexico City: Planeta, 2008), p. 59-60

4Poniatowska, op cit., p. 164-6

5Ibid, p. 236

For an escape from totalitarianism: on THX 1138

August 12, 2010

Robot-police close in on the position of fugitive THX 1138

The 1971 film THX 1138—incidentally, George Lucas’ first feature film—is a challenging and important work. It portrays a highly repressive future-society in which humans are largely made dependent upon drugs that suppress sexuality and human passion generally conceived, thus ensuring that extant totalitarian-capitalist social relations continue with little challenge from either erotic or rational critique. It is a film with themes that might well have interested Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse, among others; it shares many concerns with Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) and seems undoubtedly to have influenced later science-fiction films such as the Star Wars and Matrix trilogies.The allegorical nature of Lucas’ work—THX 1138 essentially examines the tentative beginnings of the title-character’s rebellion against imposed repressiveness and barbarism through to his successful physical escape from such—remains highly relevant to the contemporary predicament; reflection on such, then, could perhaps be of use.

The world in which Thex (as THX 1138 is referred to by his lover LUH 3417, or Luh) exists is one characterized by near-total alienation. The occupation to which he seems to be bound is that of working on an assembly line constructing robots that are meant to serve as society’s police; Luh works as an operator who monitors the intake by the general population of emotion-suppression drugs. Everyone in the society depicted in THX 1138 other than for the robot-police and the African bodies that are shown dancing erotically for entertainment on television programs is Caucasian, shaved, and dressed entirely in white. People in THX 1138 are remarkably estranged from each other: inter-human relations marked by “normality” and “conformity”—entirely asexual—are also largely if not entirely meaningless. Thex expresses his turmoil over Luh—the stirrings of eros and, indeed, ofautonomy—to a machine in a confessional booth of sorts associated with the supposedly divine OMM, a Christ-like deity worshipped in THX 1138; due to hegemonic repressiveness that conceives of inter-human sexuality as criminal, Thex surely cannot express such concerns to a companion or friend, if he has any (the film suggests that he does not), and so must resort to religious confession (“the sigh of the oppressed creature”1). Significantly, it is rather likely that the emphatic “Nothing” with which Thex responds to his self-imposed question of “What am I to her [Luh] or she to to me?” represents an expression of inculcated hegemony—a hegemony with which Thex breaks radically through his symbolic exodus from heteronomous social values, however established such heteronomy and hegemony is among the residents of the world of THX 1138, most of whom “no longer exist in dialectical opposition to society but rather are identical with it in their substance,” as Theodor W. Adorno puts it in his reflections on Brave New World.2 The first time Thex and Luh come to embrace erotically, indeed—an eventuality made possible only because Luh surreptitiously switches out Thex’s sex-inhibition drugs with others—Luh tells Thex that she had been “so afraid” and “so alone” prior to communing sexually with him. The tenderness and love shown by the lovers to each other, indeed, contrasts dramatically with the normal functioning of hegemonic social relations—for “normality is death,” as Adorno puts it.3 In this sense Thex and Luh’s love for each other represents the possibility of an autonomous development beyond that which is given—the sublation of the existent. It is precisely because of this, then, that emotions are consciously repressed, sex forbidden, and the outlaws (‘erotics,’ as the prosecutor at Thex’s trial refers to them) relegated to the “edge of society,” as one of Thex’s co-inmates has it.

Like countless other films, especially science-fiction ones, THX 1138 provides speculative insight into plausible futures that humanity may at some point face; Lucas in THX 1138 “projects observations of the present state of civilization along the lines of its own teleology to the point where its monstrous nature becomes immediately evident”4—evident, that is, at least to critical viewers of the film, far more privileged in this sense than the effectively lobotomized denizens of the State. Much of the monstrousness seen in the film’s world—at least, that which has thus far gone unmentioned—should be noted. For one, workers in THX 1138 are treated in entirely instrumental fashion by their overlords: a scene in the film discloses that an industrial-explosion which kills 63 workers brings the death-total recently experienced on that work-team to 242, against the 195 killed from the work-team of which Thex is a part; the announcement of such is followed by a congratulation to Thex’s team for ‘winning’ in this simulated competition. Besides amounting to little more than the captive lions that, in perishing in circus fires, constitute nothing more than “capital losses to their owners,”5 then, who, in producing robot-police, participate in their own suppression—as the EZLN puts it on a mural in one of their caracoles, dignify the “power that humiliates”—society’s producers are subjected to mystificatory in-group/out-group ideological conditioning reminiscent of the contemporary problem of nationalism and similar irrationalities. Furthermore, religion in THX 1138 serves many of the reactionary social purposes it has basically always advanced: during Thex’s sessions in the confessional-booth dedicated to OMM we hear the supposed deity demand that the devout “be thankful [that] we have an occupation to fill” and that “we have commerce”; he also implores that confessors “[w]ork hard, increase production, prevent accidents, and be happy.” That OMM should be heard to echo advertisements calling on people to “Buy—buy more now!” should not then be surprising. Beyond work-alienation and religion, television comes in for critique in THX 1138 as well: one program shown during the course of the film has African bodies dancing erotically for the audience in terms suggestive of Orientalism and racism, while another features robot-police continuously beating a man lying on the floor with a baton. The culture industry propagated via television, then, serves to distract its consumers by providing safe objects of sexual desire (exotic virtual ones that are essentially nowhere to be found in the actual world) as well as to tie viewers into society’s ruling maxim—one not terribly far from Orwell’s image in 1984 of a “boot stamping on a human face—forever.”

In general terms, THX 1138 is impressive for its anti-authoritarianism, also present in varying degrees in Lucas’ other films. In one scene from THX 1138, Lucas has a handful of robot-police sadistically abuse the imprisoned Thex with shock-batons, employing attacks against Thex with such names as “the 5-5-5-2,” “the 4-1-0-5,” or “the 1-2-2”; in another scene, scientists test various shock treatments on the prisoner. Society’s controllers, moreover, nearly cause Thex’s death on the assembly-line after engaging him in a “mind-lock”—a ‘freezing’ of his mind—that prevents him from being able to safely operate the machinery to which he is tied; the almost-laughable impunity that these controllers enjoy for having nearly killed Thex by means of the mind-lock surely has parallels in existing reality. THX 1138‘s robot-police, for their part, are particularly interesting. The manner in which they communicate with their human victims expresses the absolute lies that govern the society depicted in the film; among the most repeated of the few things the robot-police say are the following: ‘I am here to protect you.’ ‘Everything will be all right.’ ‘We are only trying to help you.’ As they close in on Thex as he approaches the escape from the underground city to the surface above, they tell him that he has “nowhere to go,” and they insist that Thex cannot survive on the surface—that is to say, survive without them, and the system they work to protect.

Thankfully, the police are recalled just as Thex is reaching the exit to the surface by ladder—for the sole reason that the credits expended in the operation to ‘recover’ Thex had by that point gone past the credit-budget allocated for such. He is left free, then, to reach the surface and there to witness the setting sun, in an archetype reminiscent of Plato’s “ascent of the soul”6 from the darkness of the underground cave to the light. It is to be hoped, however, that Thex’s escape is not to be taken as solely his, but rather that humanity as a whole be afforded the chance Thex has to successfully liberate himself. It should nonetheless be said that it is doubtful whether actually-existing capitalism would so readily allow the metaphorical Thex to escape; contemporary totalitarianism, indeed, is destroying humanity and, it must be said, life itself.7

From the aforementioned, it should be clear that THX 1138 is an important film, if film can be taken to be important. For one, it depicts the possibility of inter-human love—eros, life—as a means by which to displace hegemonic social relations characterized by radical estrangement and promote alienation “from the alienated society.”8 Its treatment of the negation of this possibility—the murder of Luh by the state together with the harvesting of her organs (she is ‘consumed’)—is brutal, for so is the act and the totality of social relations that underpin such. Its highly disturbing portrayal of the machinations of constituted power can surely be said to be relevant to the contemporary state of affairs, as is the re-appropriation by Thex of a police-car he employs toward his escape—for the present importance of the project of expropriating and re-directing the technologies and material base provided by capitalism should not be underestimated. Interestingly enough, that the police in THX 1138 are in fact robots opens the possibility that they are non-sentient, and hence that reservations about using violent means to resist and overthrow them might for this reason be less pervasive—not that such aids much in the actual situation we face.

Perhaps the most important gap THX 1138 leaves open is that of explaining precisely who it is that directs hegemonic social relations as they are seen to exist in the film’s world. The answer would likely be private owners of the means of production, the organizers of the OMM religion, and the terrifyingly invasive thought-control bureaucracy, together with the complicity of the populace as a whole.

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1Karl Marx, “Introduction,” A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1844)

2Theodor W. Adorno, “Aldous Huxley and Utopia,” in Prisms (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1981 [1967]), p. 100

3Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott(London: Verso, 2005 [1951])

4Op. cit. (1967), p. 99

5Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2002 [1947]), p. 208-9

6Six Great Dialogues, trans. Benjamin Jowett (Mineola, New York: Dover, 2007), p. 362

7Steve Connor and Michael McCarthy, “World on course for catastrophic 6° rise, reveal scientists,” The Independent, 18 November 2009; David Adam, “Carbon emissions creating acidic oceans not seen since dinosaurs,”The Guardian, 10 March 2009; Suzanne Goldenberg, “Greenland ice sheet faces ‘tipping point in 10 years,’”The Guardian, 10 August 2010

8Herbert Marcuse, Counterrevolution and Revolt, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972), p. 72

Against blood and horror: some thoughts on Peter Hyams’s 2010

August 7, 2010

Life on the moon of Europa

If the reader cannot surmise from the above title, the following contains spoilers regarding the happenings depicted in the film 2010.

2010: The Year We Make Contact is the sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, though directed, produced, and written by Peter Hyams. Like 2001, it is based on a science-fiction novel written by Arthur C. Clarke. It features an exploration-mission carried out by the crew of the Leonov, a spacecraft designed by the Stalinist regime ruling over what was once rather erroneously called the Soviet Union, or the U.S.S.R. (United Soviet Socialist Republic),1 who are assigned to investigate the fate of the U.S.S. Discovery—lost, as depicted in 2001, under mysterious circumstances as it approached Io and Europa, two of Jupiter’s various moons. In hibernation on the Russian spaceship are three U.S. scientists familiar with the Discovery and its on-board computer system, the infamous HAL-9000 (a machine that in 2001 ‘malfunctioned’ and caused the death of all the scientists on board except David Bowman, whose present status is unknown). The film has the Russian and U.S. scientists working together to reach the Discovery, learn of its fate together with that of its crew, and escape the explosion that transforms Jupiter into a new-born star. This last event, seemingly instigated by what was once David Bowman, leads the actors referred to by Noam Chomsky as the “principal architects of policy” of the U.S. and Soviet Union2 to abort the war-preparations in which they had been engaging within the context of sharply detiorating relations, provoked by U.S. threats of aggression against the state of Honduras. It also brings with it a communiqué in which ‘Bowman’ pleads for the life-process that has emerged on the moon of Europa to be allowed to evolve free from humanity’s influence.

Before examining the value of 2010, it is worth noting some of the various reactionary aspects of the film. To begin with, 2010 may in fact ultimately represent something of an endorsement of the ruling class, as reason is shown in the end to prevail in both the White House and the Kremlin when both decide to halt the war-preparations they had been engaging in during much of the film’s course and thus avoid the nuclear annihilation that would likely result from war between the two. This legitimational resolution to the film’s plot is surely far removed from the direly desperate and radically activist perspectives advanced by Ronald Aronson, Jonathan Schell, and Günther Anders in their treatments of the question of war and the specter of nuclear annihilation in the late twentieth century.3 Moreover, Dr. Heywood Floyd, the film’s main character, expresses fairly patriarchal attitudes toward his wife and son throughout the film; from the few scenes in which the audience sees him interacting with his family-members, it seems clear that the dynamic in his family is traditional in its male-dominance. Furthermore, Floyd may in fact be advancing bourgeois-dominative ideology when he, at film’s end, explains that humans are to be considered “tenants” of the Earth, and that there exists some “landlord” who has, in warning its tenants of the dangers that follow from the extant political system, given them “a new lease.” These perspectives notwithstanding, it is nonetheless surely important that Floyd’s closing comments show him as recognizing the necessity for humanity to have a “second chace,” amidst the threats to its survival as prosecuted by existing hegemons—that it exercise natality, in Hannah Arendt’s conception.4

Indeed, many of the perspectives advanced in 2010 are surely valuable and of import. Amidst the tensions on board the Leonov that stem from the deterioration in relations between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. on Earth, Floyd quite reasonably observes that “just because our governments are behaving like asses doesn’t mean we have to.” In addition, the film explicitly refers to the occupant of the film’s White House as a “reactionary,” a moniker that would clearly also fit Reagan, the U.S. president at the time of the film’s production; the U.S. executive’s thoughtless, destructive approach to the state of Honduras in 2010 is surely a reference to the support provided by Reagan to murderous authoritarian groups in Central America during the 1980’s. It is precisely the president’s policy on Honduras—the threat to blockade the country using the U.S. Navy, as was practiced by the U.S. following the installation in 1962 of missiles in Cuba and against Nicaragua’s ports under Reagan’s direction—that provokes a sharp deterioration in relations between the world’s two superpowers, a deterioration that in fact threatens the outbreak of war and the concomitant collective suicide that would probably result.

Against such negations the film holds out the prospect of international cooperation, as for example practiced between Russian and U.S. scientists on board the Leonov—especially as they embrace each other in celebration as they learn that war between their respective governments on Earth has been avoided. Moreover, the communiqué that the being formerly known as Dave Bowman orders HAL-9000 to send to Earth before the Discovery’s incineration in the explosion that transforms Jupiter into a new star—a message that in the estimation of ‘Bowman’ is the “most important” message HAL-9000 “has ever sent”—is important; its first part reads as follows:

ALL THESE WORLDS

ARE YOURS EXCEPT

EUROPA

ATTEMPT NO

LANDING THERE

With reference to the now two stars found in the solar system of which Earth is a part, the communiqué ends with the following imperative:

USE THEM TOGETHER

USE THEM IN PEACE

Such declarations are both regressive and progressive in meaning. In demanding that Europa be a sanctuary free from interference from humanity, the message explicitly repudiates the seemingly “boundless imperialism” practiced by humanity,5 or at least advanced by its dominant groups. Its plea that humans abolish war and behave cooperately among themselves is surely a critical one. However good it may be, though, the message’s challenge to humanity is nonetheless a limited one: while it requests that humans promote a transition to a global society marked by cooperative and peaceful social relations in observation of the gift of a new star, it also endorses humanity’s domination of nature: “all these worlds” belong to humanity, on this account, and they are to be “use[d]” by their owners (rather like the dolphins kept by Floyd’s character in a small indoor pool). In this sense, the existence of the bodies other than Europa comes to be instrumentalized for human ends, as such extra-terrestrial space is not to be left to itself but instead be subjected to treatment not dissimilar from that visited on the non-human world since the emergence of humanity. Naturally, such claims are rather removed from the perspectives of Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Murray Bookchin, and Herbert Marcuse, all of whom demand that humanity cease its domination of nature altogether.6

In sum, then, while rebellious, reasonable perspectives are advanced at points in 2010, the film does not deal centrally with the necessity of a rebellion-emergency, as faced by contemporary humanity. Star Wars (1976-1983), The Matrix (1999, 2003, and 2005) and Sunshine (2007) seem to examine such questions more directly. Nonetheless, 2010 stresses the critical need for a radical transformation of existing society, however imperfect the resolution presented by the God-like ex-Bowman at the film’s close may be—that is, that humanity work “together” and “in peace,” but that it “use” nature. Furthermore, 2010 does not help in imagining how a transition to a global society characterized by cooperative, non-violent social relations might be realized, as the visionary appendix of David Harvey’s Spaces of Hope (“Edilia, or make of it what you will”) could be said to. The film’s concluding message importance and relevance to the lived-experience of the contemporary world should be clearly acknowledged, however, for it presents a demand that history as overseen by extant power-groups be radically interrupted toward the establishment of what Walter Benjamin calls a “civilization that has abandoned blood and horror.”7 If the prospect for realizing this end is in actual fact to be taken as a conceivable possibility within the world of 2010 CE and beyond, it is likely the case that any prescriptive political program for the present, be it product of human or extra-terrestrial origin, at least include the following concise demands8:

ABOLISH CLASS SOCIETY

ABOLISH ALIENATION

Any such program should also surely promote perspectives congruent with the political project of an ‘Earth democracy’ (democracia de la tierrra).9

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1Erroneous, I say, because in nearly none of the time between 1917 and 1989 were soviets allowed any decision-making power.

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

3For Aronson, cf. The Dialectics of Disaster: A Preface to Hope (London: Verso, 1983); for Schell, cf. The Fate of the Earth (Knopf, 1982) and The Abolition (Knopf, 1984), for Anders, cf. inter alia Hiroshima ist uberall (Hiroshima ist überall (Munich: Verlag C.H. Beck, 1982)

4Cf. The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957)

5Max Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947), p. 108

6Cf. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2002 [1947]); Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom (Oakland, California: AK Press, 2005 [1982]), Toward an Ecological Society (Montreal: Black Rose, 1980), Remaking Society (Montreal: Black Rose, 1989); Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), Counter-revolution and Revolt (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972)

7Illuminations (New York: Harcourt, 1968), p. 38

8Slogans promoted by French Situationists in 1968, as elsewhere

9Red Italiana para la Justicia Ambiental y Social, “Towards Cancún: change the system, not the climate,” 2 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

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.