August 27, 2008

Robot historian in the ruins


    Ideology is not something foreign, something in a film with a strange power to impose itself on our minds; ideology is what we and the film share, what allows for the transfer of specific meanings between film and audience (a transfer which is not one way). As Žižek puts it, ideology is made up of “unknown knowns”; that is to say, the problem with ideology is not that it is a falsehood of which we might be persuaded, but because it is a truth that we already accept without knowing it.

Voyou's remarks on readings of The Dark Knight makes some important points about ideology. Focusing on the supposed "message" of the film – as both neoconservative interpretations of the film, and their critics, including me, do – is in danger of missing the way in which ideology works in capitalism. The role of capitalist ideology is not to make an explicit case for something in the way that propaganda does, but to conceal the fact that the operations of capital do not depend on any sort of subjectively assumed belief. It is impossible to conceive of fascism or Stalinism without propaganda - but capitalism can proceed perfectly well, indeed better, without anyone making a case for it.

In the responses to The Dark Knight I posted here, it was Wayne Wedge who captured the way that the film functions as a hyper-object in late capitalism. The very multivalence of The Dark Knight, its capacity to generate radically different interpretations, to elicit discourse, is what makes it a highly efficient meta-commodity. A text with a single monologic Message, even supposing such a thing could exist, would not be able to 'provoke the debate' which capitalist culture now feeds upon.

It not only that a cultural object can be opposed to capitalism on the level of content, but it serve it on the level of form; one could convincingly go further and argue that the ideology of capitalism is now 'anti-capitalist'. The villain in Hollywood films is routinely the 'evil multinational corporation'. So it is, once again, in Disney/ Pixar's Wall-E, which, like The Dark Knight, has provoked all kinds of bizarre conservative readings. "This is perhaps the most cynical and darkest big-budget Disney film ever," claims Kyle Smith. "Perhaps never before has any corporation spent so much money on insulting its customers. (By way of parenthesis, since it isn't relevant to my argument here, this, from Paul Edwards, is priceless: "WALL-E is the story of what results when a liberal vision of the future is achieved: government marries business in the interest of providing not only 'the pursuit of happiness' but happiness itself, thus creating gluttonous citizens dependent on the government to sustain their lives.")

Wall-E's attack on consumerism is easily absorbed. The 'insult' that provoked Kyle Smith into disgust was its image of humans as obese, infantilised chairbound consumers supping pap from cups. Initially, it might seem subversive and ironic that a film made by a massive corporation should have such an anti-consumerist and anti-corporate message (it is made clear in the film that the mega corporation Buy N Large is chiefly responsible for the environmental depredation which has destroyed earth as a human environment). Yet it is capital which is the great ironist, easily able to metabolise anti-corporate rhetoric by selling it back to an audience as entertainment. Besides, on the level of content, Wall-E ends up serving capitalist realism, presenting what we might think of as the very fantasies of capital itself - that it can continue to expand infinitely; that the despoilation of the human environment on earth is a temporary problem that will eventually be overcome; that human labour can be extirpated altogether (on the spaceship Axiom, humans are given over entirely to consumption, and all work is performed by servomechanisms). Human labour returns only at the end of the film, when capital/Axiom begins its terraforming of earth.

There is another impasse in Wall-E. The film follows in the tradition of fictions about wanderers in the ruins (cf Christopher Woodward's In Ruins). But in some respects Wall-E was an advance on the stories of post-apocalyptic solitaries, from Mary Shelley's The Last Man through to Richard Matheson's I Am Legend or John Foxx's "The Quiet Man". For in Wall-E the lone figure in the ruins is not even human: it is a robot historian quite different from the one Manuel De Landa imagined; or not a robot historian so much as a bricoleur-hauntologist, reconstructing human culture from a heap of fragments. (A precursor of this scenario is Numan's "M.E.", the track sampled by Basement Jaxx on "Where's Your Head At", written from the perspective of a sentient computer left alone on an earth.) This idea of surveying a world in which humans are extinct clearly exercises a powerful fantasmatic allure. Yet it seems that there's a certain point where the fantasy always breaks down - the fictions that start from this premise invariably end up restoring a human world at some point in the narrative. It is no doubt asking too much that Wall-E should buck this trend; but it's notable that the film deteriorates massively the moments that the humans appear. (cf all of the film versions of Matheson's I Am Legend, including the most recent.) You're left wondering whether this is a structural necessity, whether there's something in the nature of the fantasy itself which entails the return of other humans, or whether it is a requirement arising from the needs of narrative: stories can't sustain themselves with only one protagonist. In the case of Wall-E, of course, there are two (non-human) characters, which make the early part of the film, a robotic romance played out as animated ballet, recall the films of the silent era. Needless to say, there are many films which feature non-human protagonists, but such characters are rendered effectively human by their language use. Wall-E and Eve, meanwhile, seem like convincing non-human subjects because they lack language. Wall-E tantalises: what if the feel of this first section had continued until the end of the film, uninterrupted by the return of humans?

Posted by mark at August 27, 2008 12:44 PM | TrackBack