Monday, August 17, 2009

Truth is Structure Like a (Science) Fiction: Notes on Moon and District 9

Last summer, and perhaps even the summer before, I did a series of blog entries on the summer blockbusters, viewing them for their subtle and not so subtle ideological dimensions. I have not done this at all this summer, in part because I have not seen many blockbusters this year. Aside from Star Trek, I just could not stomach this summer’s offerings. I have, however, seen a few films, two of which I want to write about now. These two films are Moon and District 9. At first glance it would make sense to write about them at the same time because they have generally been spoken of in the same breath of almost hyperbolic praise. They are said to represent a renaissance in science fiction cinema, a return of character, story, and concept in a genre long dominated by special effects, remakes, and marketing.

Beyond such a superficial resemblance, a resemblance defined primarily by what they are not, namely, yet another effects driven remake, there does not seem to anything to link these two films. The first, Moon, is practically a one-man show, a meditation on isolation and identity, with a strong retro aesthetic. Its image of a moon base made of white plastic, as well as its use of models, would seem to place it in any earlier era. District 9 on the other hand is filmed using the faux documentary techniques and handheld camera made popular in recent films. It is also an action film that utilizes the recent CGI techniques, but one that in terms of its location, South Africa, and lack of a single recognizable star, does not resemble any other such film.

It occurs to me that if one begins to look at the narrative of each film, especially for the ideological dimensions referenced above, one arrives at other similarities. In each film we have a protagonist who begins as a functioning member of the existing society, who then, by discovering the true basis of that society, necessarily revolts against it. This is a common trope in science fiction, that of the outsider, a character who is outside of the world in question, a time traveler or visitor to an alien world. This perhaps due to the limitations of the genre itself. One of the difficulties of science fiction film (and literature) is that it must present a world that is alien to the viewer (or reader), some distant future, alternate history, or alien culture, but familiar to the characters in the story. In film in particular there are not a lot of good ways to solve this problem, there is the ponderous opening narration (“In a world…”), the scrolling screen made famous by Star Wars, or the break in the action where some sage like character explains everything, think Morpheus in The Matrix. The outsider character, such as Neo, solves some of the more awkward aspects of this in that it makes disclosing the world part of the narrative. However, these two films offer something like a variation on this, a character who becomes an outsider. In a manner of speaking, they are narratives of “consciousness raising,” perhaps even class-consciousness.


In Moon, the main character, Sam Bell, is completing the end of a three-year contract as the only human inhabitant of lunar mining colony. He has an accident that nearly kills him and because of this eventually discovers that he is a clone, one of many stored in a secret basement of the lunar base. Video footage of the base’s security cameras suggests that the three-year “contract” is actually the lifespan of each clone (shades of Bladerunner). This suggests an interesting legal loophole; if the contract in question has a clause that renders the contract null and void at the time of death, then the corporation running the moon base is in some sense honoring its contract, only employing the person in question for three years. That it then activates another clone with the same memories and personality cannot really be said to be a violation of the terms of the contract. Moon suggests that the old metaphysical problem of identity (am I the same person as my clone?) is destined to become the fine print in the labor contract.

Moon calls to mind one of the most rhetorically dense and conceptually rich passages from Capital. In this passage Marx distinguishes between the sphere of circulation, the labor market, where goods, including labor power are sold and the site of production. Marx’s point is that it is from this realm, that of the market, that we get our ideology of the free market, of exchange as a relation between equals in which individual self interest always prevails. As Marx writes:

“The sphere of circulation or commodity exchange, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labor-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. It is the exclusive realm of Freedom, equality, and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, let us say of labor power, are determined by their own free will. They contract as free persons, who are equal before the law…The only force bringing them together, and putting them into relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interest of each….”

“Accompanied by Mr. Moneybags and by the possessor of labour-power, we therefore take leave for a time of this noisy sphere, where everything takes place on the surface and in view of all men, and follow them both into the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there stares us in the face “No admittance except on business.” Here we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital is produced. We shall at last force the secret of profit making.”

In the hidden abode of production the equality that characterizes individuals in market relations collapses. As Marx writes, “He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but — a hiding.” In other words, the labor market is not at all like the market of goods, it is defined by a fundamental conflict, and asymmetry, between the worker with only his labor power to sell and the capitalist. The film displays this radical division between two realms. Underneath the lunar base there is a massive storehouse of clones (and the food to feed them). Within the base itself employer and employee may meet as equals, but beneath it lies a massive “reserve army of the unemployed”: the neutrality of the contract is contradicted by the technological and social conditions that remain out of sight. Only an anomalous accident brings Sam Bell face to face with his own clone, with his own expendability and exploitation, making it possible, in an act of solidarity with himself, for him to resist the system.

District 9 is also a film about an individual coming to recognize exploitation, only in this case it is not the central character that is being exploited. The film takes place in an alternate South Africa, where an alien spaceship has become stranded over Johannesburg for the last twenty-eight years. The aliens, referred to throughout the movie by the derogatory term “prawns” because of their crustacean/insect appearance, have been living in a giant ghetto since then. While the ship is technologically sophisticated the prawns do not appear to have the knowledge to master it, suggesting that they were part of the cargo, as food or slaves, and not crew. At the beginning of the film the aliens are in the process of being relocated to a camp far outside of the city. This is presented as a humanitarian gesture, as something that will lessen the conflicts between humans and aliens and the tendency for the aliens to be exploited by gangs. The film centers on Wikus Van De Merwe, an agent for the apparently private corporation, MNU (Multi-National United) that is charged with the task of managing the aliens. Early in the film we learn two things about Wikus: first, he has been promoted to a central role in the relocation project primary because his father-in-law is one of the people in charge of the organization, and, second, he truly believes in the idea of the alien’s containment and relocation. This second fact instantly sets him apart from some of the military and private police in charge of the district, who relish their ability to persecute the aliens at will. Wikus would rather cajole the aliens with cat food, something that is “like catnip to them,” than beat them into submission. In other words Wikus is the distillation of all of the recent headlines about private contract firms and NGOs: he has been promoted due to nepotism and connections (shades of Michael "Heckuva job, Brownie" Brown) and yet sincerely believes in his mission.

District 9 is in some sense a story about a race traitor. Wikus becomes exposed to alien technology that gradually begins to alter his DNA transforming him into an alien. This makes it possible for him to utilize the alien’s weapons, which are bioengineered to interact with the alien’s physiology. He becomes a valuable commodity to the organization he works for, eventually destined to be harvested for his organs. Wikus eventually comes to learn that the truth of exploitation underlies the ideal of humanitarian aid. MNU’s real interest is not the private management of humanitarian aid to non humans, but weapons development. As Wikus is transformed, his allegiances shift as well, forcing him into an uneasy alliance with the aliens that he formerly managed with an air of superiority. The allegiance is never an easy one;  this is not a buddy movie. Wikus is reluctant to join the aliens, desiring nothing more than returning to normal, in part because he was formerly so complicit in the aliens exploitation, albeit unknowingly. The scenes in which he confronts his own complicity in what has happened to the aliens are some of the most powerful in the film. Wikus is thus an interesting sort of anti-hero, who sacrifices himself almost despite himself. Ultimately, it is the contradiction in his life that makes him a hero at all. He got to where he is through his connections, through his father in-law, but would much rather be behind a desk, making gifts for his wife. His failure to fully identify with the repressive aspect of his job makes it possible for him to turn against it. He believes too much in the public face he is supposed to present, that of benevolent aid to a wayward species, to see that its unofficial version, violent hatred and exploitation, is just as central, if not more so, to his function.

In the end that is what ties these two films together, they both present characters that believe very much in the ideas of rules and contracts, of the benevolence of the established powers and the rewards that come with following the rules. It takes a massive psychic and physical transformation, meeting one’s clone or being transformed into an alien, in order for them to arrive at a different understanding of society, to see that rules are more often than not masks for exploitation. They are us, the docile subjects of the modern neoliberal order, now only if we could meet our clone or get hit by massive amounts of alien DNA.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Don't get Mad, get Coopted: A Few Thoughts on Mad Men

Mad Men is perhaps unique among American Television and even popular culture in that its subject matter is history. By history I do not simply mean to say that it deals with a different time period, while such programs are rare, they do exist (for example Deadwood, Rome, etc.). Rather, it is historical in Foucault’s sense of a historical ontology of ourselves; in presenting life in a nineteen sixties add agency it continually examines the gulf that separates then and now.

History appears in the show in three ways.

In the first, it is a matter of creating a kind of alienation effect, of exposing the differences of habits, expectations, and ideals that separate the present from the past. In the first season especially, many of these differences are played for laughs, the kid running around the house in a plastic dry cleaning bag playing spaceman and the countless cigarettes consumed, provoke shock and a chuckle. The laughter punctuates the difference between then and now. In these moments it is the pure difference between then and now that stands out. There is no connection, no link, between the time when there was a bar in every office and now: difference precludes causality.

The second historical aspect has to do with the recognizable events and timelines that define the past: the election of John F. Kennedy, the death of Marilyn Monroe, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. These events frame the show, taking place off screen, or rather on screens, on the televisions in the homes and offices of the show, but are not part of the narrative. They are nonetheless immediate in their mediation. At times they are used to provoke action on the show, as was the case with the Missile Crisis, which precipitated several crises (most notably Peggy’s revelation to Peter) and resolved others (bringing Don Draper home) within the shows narrative. What is interesting about this second dimension of history is that it demands some kind of historical literacy on the part of the audience. This distinguishes the show from programs like Rome, which used historical material for the basis of narrative: it was possible to follow the entire series on its own, without knowing anything about the Roman Empire. With Mad Men one must know, or at least be willing to wikipedia, what happened in the nineteen-sixties in order to follow what is happening on the program. The more one knows about the past, the more the suspense increases and the more the show creates a highly ambivalent nostalgia about the past it depicts.

Finally, there is the third, and most interesting historical aspect of the program: the way that it functions as a kind of genealogy of the current historical moment. This has to do with its setting in a specific period in the age of advertising. As books like Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool have argued, the show takes place on the eve of a revolution in advertising, which is also a revolution in consumer culture. This was the shift from advertisements that purported to convey some information about the product, men in white lab coats testing cigarettes, to adds that bathe the product in some kind of glow of sentiment or desire. The major events of this transition are depicted in the show in terms of the shift in smoking advertisements brought about by the discovery of the link between smoking and cancer, the shift from commercials citing "tar content" to Malboro men and the Volkswagen “Think Small” campaign. The show depicts the prehistory of the spectacle, of images that promise pleasure and happiness rather than just promote products.

In the show the catalyst of this shift in advertising culture is Don Draper, whose rousing pitches extol the sentiments of such products as the Kodak Carousel. Draper is able to do this in part because he always has one foot outside of the office, in the emergent counter culture. He spends his afternoons watching Italian and French post-war films, and, through his affairs, he has contact with the bohemian counterculture of New York. Draper’s contact with the critics of bourgeois culture make it possible for him to see the longing at the heart of it. Of course the details of life contribute to this as well, the fact that he is quite literally a self made man, who fabricated his identity out of the remains of another man’s. This makes him someone who had to self-consciously adopt the habits of his new status, rather than simply receive them. Some have suggested that he is talented at advertising because he is invented, absent, and one-dimensional. I have to admit that I do not find the Don Draper/Dick Whitman subplot to be as compelling as other aspects of the show. I think that the show could function without it, or, rather, without it the focus would be on something that is far more interesting: the way in which advertising has perhaps always channeled discontent resistance and rebellion to capitalism in order to serve consumer culture. This is perhaps a cultural version of the “autonomist hypothesis,” the idea that it is resistance to capital that shapes and prefigures capital itself. Mad Men is then a kind of history of the present. The dapper men and women of Sterling-Cooper, frustrated artists and writers, prefigure later age’s web designers and “ immaterial laborers.”