American films beginning with "American"

A recent discussion of Shame led to one of those conversations that is not alien to me. I said I hadn’t seen the film, but had read that it was a kind of American Psycho for the teens … or whatever we are calling this decade (consider other compelling definitions of Shame here and here). Now, sometimes these comparisons are superficially illuminating. So we might say that The Social Network is the Citizen Kane for Generation Y. Something like this is a stepping stone to getting to another point in the conversation – they are a slimy, moss covered rock on which we might precariously balance as the deluge of half-formed opinions and almost-thoughts gush past. They are a way of saying “X is the new black“. They are a conversational conceit, to be picked up and dropped as required. Sometimes, however, I don’t know when to drop it. Years of having such conversations (starting in their Ur-form when I worked in a video shop) means I find it all too easy to get swept away, and what is a blog good for if it isn’t a black box to transform a drunken idea into a tendentious argument. You need some structure for this if it is to be useful, however, so the matrix of my model is the following: Continue reading

Do androids dream of remarkable things?

One notable difficulty which science fiction – and sci-fi – has is that while it is a discourse of possibility, it makes too few concessions to social reality for it to be regarded as a part of literature as conceived as a liberal art. Literature had become, via grammar and rhetoric, a liberal art in the sense of it being that which the free [Latin: liber] person (man originally) would study. Now it is also something we tend to do in our free time, though the professor of literature spends remarkably little time actually reading literature, and more time keeping up with other responsibilities, with writing about writing (about writing) having become more professionally rewarding than reading. Either way, it is a concern to us as a form via which we can be circumspect about aspects of our existence.

Science fiction is different to speculative fiction or to the fantastic (I think of Calvino’s Cosmicomiche as an example of the latter, perhaps Margaret Atwood falls into the first loose bracketing) in that it is more concerned with being a type of thought experiment, than the fullness of life as is (apparently) found in realism. The most basic description you can give of a classic of science fiction starts with the sentence “Imagine if…”. That goes for hard science-fiction in the line of Tau Zero or Ringworld. These are opportunities to chase after the myriad implications of an event or an idea.

There is then the question of the more nuanced texts, such as those of Philip K. Dick, Sheri S. Tepper, Dan Simmons, Walter Tevis etc. In these examples it is not the idea that is made the master of the form, and there is an interplay between character, setting, and form that makes this field more interesting as literature rather than as “ideas texts”.

There is also that popular realm of Dune and Star Wars, which is (as Voegele notes above) is little more than swords and sorcery at faster than light speeds. Star Trek I would put in a sub-group, as the United Nations and the balance of power at FTL speeds.

What all of these have in common is that the overriding ideology defining the discourse is one of willful elitism. We have an unapologetically aristocratic system (as with Tepper’s Grass; and in all of the positively feudal Dune series, notably with examples such as the priestly ‘Bene Gesserit‘ and the ‘Spacing Guild‘), or a elitism of apparent intellectual entitlement. Even in those examples where we supposedly encounter the underworld (as in much of Dick), there is still yet the idea that they are subject to some powerful capitalist or some cosmic corporation. The reason for this is, according to Fredric Jameson’s excellent Archaeologies of the Future is that all literatures write about now, and that at best the future is a distancing device.

The question becomes, then, why are authors of science fiction so perversely conservative, so reactionary? The objection might be made that the elitism of the ‘scientist as hero’ is but the meritocracy of the universities. Even the Jedi, you could argue, do not exclude people on the basis of sex or species, but only on the basis of ability. Very well and good if that is so, but my question would be a bit distanced from all that. If we consider the bustling, space-faring civilization either on the page or on the screen, more often than not we see things from the heights, from a privileged perspective. An exception might be in Bladerunner, where we are in the muck and mire of a decaying Earth, but the governing principle is still ‘higher = better’. Indeed, in the text on which the film is based, the entire narrative hinges on a consumerist desire for nicer things, a cyborg keeping up with the Joneses.

For me, one of the most frightening examples of this blindness to any kind of social inclusion comes from Star Wars, and the fact that it is the most successful series of science fiction texts in history. It is a sub-genre unto itself. In my view, all six films should not be regarded as the story of princesses and knights, and the turn of Anakin to the Dark Side is irrelevant, for to my mind there is too much grey to be entirely comfortable with a fast distinction between Dark and Light (though that is Sith talk…). That is the history of the industrialists, the war-mongers, the bureaucrats. In my mind, the entire story can be seen in the arc from Jango Fett to ‘the clones’. The reason for this is that within the Galactic Empire, these are the only non-Jedi, non-diplomats we encounter. Basically, from the perspective of anybody who matters, everybody else are just clones: interchangeable, replaceable, expendable. They are us.

In all those shots of busy worlds, where the people look like ants, those tiny dots are us, and they have as much an impact on their lives as does the average North Korean. The giant farms where the clones are grown on Kamino for the empire are not so different from the nightmarish world of The Matrix. The clones are but biological robot soldiers, and there is no notion of them having any autonomy. They are in Kantian terms an abomination, humans designed to be a means, and not an end.

What then, is the alternative to all this? Ursula Le Guin as always presents us with both sides, both the mirror of the world as we know it (as Deleuze’s identity, under which I perhaps perversely also include the other three pillars of reason, namely: opposition, analogy, and resemblance) and that difference that ‘makes a difference’. Examples of this are in the anarcho-utopia in The Dispossessed, as well as the properly alien (though Jameson finds echoes of medieval Muscovy) of The Left Hand of Darkness.

My favourite example of an alternative is in a short story collected in Cordwainer Smith’s The Rediscovery of Man. The story is “The Ballad of Lost C’Mell” and concerns the attempts by the underpeople of Smith’s cycle of stories (huge in scope, spanning thousands of years) to get the franchise for themselves. It concerns them as people (though not necessarily human), and relegates the controlling apparatus of the galaxy (aptly named ‘The Instrumentality of Mankind”) to the status of a blocking mechanism. It is but another example of attempts to shut down the opening up of citizenship, of rights as well as obligations, of personhood. These are the ideas informing this short story, but it is the execution of it that elevates this text above most others in this genre, bringing it to a level of literary greatness. The conclusion is as emotionally affecting as Flowers for Algernon, and indeed anything else in science fiction.

For the next stage of science fiction, we need to pass beyond the echoes of big science (as in the 40s and 50s), the counterculture (of the 60s and 70s), of neoconservatism (of the 80s and 90s, v. Cyberpunk), and of globalization (the 90s and 00s). For science fiction to remain an important discourse for examining ideas that confront us here, now, then it must step out from behind its blanket of distance, of cool examination, or of intellectual revenge. We must allow the clones, androids, the cyborgs, the robots, the underpeople to have hearts. This is how we can bring our ideas about technology and the future into contact with the human reality of our lives now.


Some films manage to provoke me to think about old ideas in a new way, and reading some jottings from a while back when I saw Saw (zing) for the first time I thought I would inflict them on the internets. Effectively, what these films are for me is an examination of technology and its relationship with the subject.

The killer (although this word seems too small for the character), Jigsaw, gives his victims explicit choices and instructions which are so basic as to be an affront to our autonomy. Indeed, the question of choice in its entirety is slowed down to a crawl, so that even its most elementary aspect (of a to be or not to be, to be dead or alive) ceases to mean anything. We would take the approach which would regard this film as inhabiting the universe of meaninglessness – but this would be too easy. It reduces the genuine trauma of the encounter with nihilism to the level of cliché.
The creators of this franchise describe their serial killer as anything but this, instead preferring to call him a scientist (though these are not mutually exclusive terms). Is it all one big experiment then? Is it an investigation into the …. no. Short answer. No. First options like this are to be avoided, and so we must make the effort to cease considering “meaning” because it probably won’t get us anywhere: this is a world without significance (namely the world from inside Jigsaw’s “game”), but it has real enough meaning. Indeed this is just the point that he repeatedly attempts to make. In his attempts to redeem his players through violence, he wants to drive home – via blood and suffering – that meaning is reality, and that this has always been enough. Don’t look for it in status, work, drugs. Accordingly, his world is satanic, in the original sense of the word, without the religious overtones (excusing the occasional set-piece evocative of images of Christian suffering). He is the opponent to the views of all his victims. He is the adversary of all who inhabit his creation, which the outside world never truly penetrates unless on his terms (consider Saw II and the policeman’s son).
The choices he presents are those of one testing creatures to see whether they are truly worthy of life, but unlike the prologue to the Book of Job there is no implicit defendant against the vicissitudes heaped upon the characters we observe. The subject posited here by the film and by Jigsaw is one that is fundamentally alone and isolated. Co-operation, when it surfaces, is exploitation. This is the political philosophy of the film. It presents a universe, as we said, that has meaning, but this meaning is anchored by evil. This gives us a theodicy. The subject never does good, but rather realizes that they have done bad. Though Jigsaw claims to be freeing his victims, he frees them into death. The choices he offers are made within the realm of psychosis. This gives us both a thanatocracy and a schizocracy. Nobody could forgive, as he asks at the end of Saw III (nor would it be forgiveness as understood within any moral-ethical tradition I can think of, but simply another game.
He punished his protege at the end of Saw III for allegedly having made impossible tests. This demonstrated to his own satisfaction that she was “unworthy” to carry on his work. More consistent would be the interpretation that she was punished for her crudity, for making explicitly that the dice is loaded in his game. It shows his clockwork universe to be a vicious construction that serves only itself, and that the interaction with humans for which he uses it, some kind of perverse educational apparatus, has only one end. That end is for the machine to rend the flesh. It is beyond Kafka’s In der Strafkolonie, for even in this story the punishment of the prisoner brings about an epiphany through blood. Saw is the world where the lacunae by which we are constituted as social and ethical beings are played upon with a viciousness that is troubling in its honesty. Our negative constitution, if I can call it this, is made all too obvious in Jigsaw’s refrain: ‘I want to play a game’. It shows the limits of all these game logics made social. It is the world where we are only ever subject to, subjected.
What we are subjected to is clear. Metal, glass, clock-work. It is low-tech. Aside from video surveillance, much of the tortures would have been possible in the early days of industry- if Thomas Newcomen or James Watt had been completely, bat-shit insane. It is a return to a kind of simplicity, as in the Discovery Channel(s)’ documentaries about steam engines, but inverted away from this techo-pastoralism. So many films attempt to convince us of our prowess, of our ability to be collectively in control. Conspiracy films especially manifest this, because somebody, somewhere holds the puppet strings. All Tom Clancy hi-tech propaganda movies say “behold, we are totally awesome”, it is pure techno-ideology. Reality proves otherwise. The mission to kill Osama (never mind the ten years it took to actually find the guy – what about all those super spy satellites) was less Top Gun and more Hot Shots given that they crashed a multi-squillion dollar helicopter in the process.
Jigsaw, trained as an engineer, points to the fragility of our bodies in the face of technology. And not digital, high-tech mechanisms of social control and surveillance (which Jason Bourne shows us can be outwitted anyway), but the metal and grease industrial type, of Blake’s dark satanic mills, the capital of Marx and Engels. He talks of his rules as the rules. Disembodied and superficially logical (though diabolical), he says “follow them” and little else. It is utterly cruel because it we cannot follow such rules. These are the linear algorithms of the machine age, but we are inhabitants of the flexible information age. Does he perhaps have a point, noting in our political and ethical freedoms a lack of fixedness of purpose? No. It is utterly cruel, as we cannot revert to such a pre-scientific, dogmatic attitude, and using scientific tools of coercion is simply ironic. We are subjects, and Jigsaw seeks the erasure of this. Jigsaw is the inhumanity he claims to help us escape.
If nothing else, from this mess of philosophical confusion (my fault) we can note a contradiction between what still passes for a popular definition of the subject. You know the one; it rails against inauthenticity and atomization. two different, but related issues. Atomization is a derivative of scientific thinking, the person reduced to the smallest potential actor in the petri dish of human society (in some ways identity politics [wherein I am “gay”, or “a woman”, or “Christian”] is a further fragmentation, the sub-atomic splitting of the person…but there may be something akin to a principle of diminishing returns in this attempt at further precision). Inauthenticity posits some perfect ideal of coherence, one which is inimical to flow and change and development. The technology of today renders both of these irrelevant.
That we can be crushed and sliced by Jigsaw’s blades and hammers, vices and spikes does points to the fragility of our bodies, it is true. We are not immortal. Our medical technologies cannot solve everything. We feel pain. This, however, is banal. We do not live in fear of slipping in the shower. We assume our proper-functioning. We live under the maxim that we will operate fairly efficiently, accidents notwithstanding. Jigsaw turns accident into necessity, however, and we are to take this as some sort of great lesson to be learned. But it is not. It is psychotic bullshit. Jigsaw is fucking mental. The best we can make of all this is that we are slowly leaving his machine-logic behind, and accordingly that we need to work to redefine the subject in the terms of our new technologies and scientific developments. The point about Jigsaw is that he should not be possible.
And I am only a little sorry about that pun.