Monday, April 02, 2007

The Last One to Die, Please Turn Out the Light

I finally viewed Children of Men last night, and first, I have to say, I loved the film while also being highly discomfited by it, on many different levels. I found myself gasping and wincing and feeling as if I had almost been physically assaulted at certain moments in the film, while I also felt myself being swept away, emotionally-operatically, by its trajectory of redemptive fertility mythos [which I kept thinking I should reject, but just couldn't].

I want to [hopefully] set aside, for the moment anyway, all the obvious ways in which we could critique the film's uncritical and/or unconscious anti-feminism [because the future is dependent on a kind of Christian-inflected "miracle" birth, produced by a child-woman, with the midwife being a man who plays, further, a sort of typically reluctant yet still overly masculinist sacrificial hero], as well as its politics of "humanist" reproduction. Instead, I would like to adopt a kind of enthusiastically Zizekian appreciation of the film as a powerful form of cinema art that, as Zizek argues, makes the background [the state/end of the world] more important than the foreground [hero and girl-with-baby quest/escape narrative]; indeed, the backgrounds that were staged in each scene were clearly designed to, I believe, insist that the viewer watch and see what every day we refuse to see: for example, the outstreched arms of a refugee reaching through the wire mesh of a cage to plead for help, and in another instance, immigrants being hoarded onto buses by guards wielding machine guns and attack dogs]. The ending of the movie, which essentially erases the background until the very last moment when a ship named "Tomorrow" arrives over the horizon, is all foreground: a small boat bobbing on tossing water in the fog, with child-mother, baby, and dying man held together in a pose of historical *waiting*--for Zizek, this is the film's most important contribution, and I agree, to our understanding of how history might turn out well, but only if we understand our utter rootlessness, our position as needing to be untethered to either deadly pasts or immanent futures if we are ever going to hope that things might turn out differently than the nightmare Alfonso Cuaron depicts in his film [which is mainly our *present* transposed on a larger scale to 2027]. As Zizek puts it, "The condition of renewal means you cut your roots. . . . This is the future."

As a side note, I would just say, too, that in reflecting further upon Lee Edelman's book No Future, a book that can't help but come to mind when watching Children of Men, that I find myself more persuaded by his argument, but only when I take it completely and only through its own metaphorical terms [in other words, it is not really against children so much as it is against the strangulating figure of the child as the only route to the future; it is not against the real future, per se, so much as it is against the imposition of particular futures, figured in tropes of reproduction and child-bearing and child-caring, upon the ways in which we are allowed to conceptualize how we want to live our lives now, regardless of issues of inheritance and descendancy that always belong to someone else who is likely going to enforce their rights with regard to "how things turn out"; to embrace the death-drive, then, in this scenario, is not to embrace self- or other types of social destructiveness, but rather, to embrace the idea of a limit to our obligation to the real, actual future--a limit, moreover, that might also be imagined as a limn, or margin, within which queer lives can be more fully actualized because they are, in a sense, more free, [i.e. free from the future's grasp/hold on them]. Maybe this isn't Edelman, and maybe it's just me riffing off Edelman, but I can see some benefits to be gained, in terms of political energies, from this line of thinking, but only if we conceive of the future, and ways of thinking-forward, as always already belonging to those who believe in gates and walls and borders. But I also find myself still not wanting to embrace Edelman's so-called "polemic" as much as I would rather embrace Zizek's idea that what "infertility" [and therefore, fucking/negating the future] really is is the negation of meaningful historical experience. Keep in mind that Children of Men is a movie about a future in which, since infertility is the dominant reality, there really is "no future." The "true despair" of the film, in Zizek's words, comes from its perfect representation of a "society without history," which is revealed in all the ways in which the film's background [the future, but also, our present "history" being represented as: 1) a kind of chaos that ensues when history and the world come to an end, but also as: 2) the very world that we live in now that we don't look at or "see": refugee camps, ethnic cleansing, Baghdad's "Green Zone," etc.] overtakes the foreground hero-quest narrative. Here are Zizek's further comments from the DVD on this point:

I think that the true infertility is the very lack of meaningful historical experience. It's a society of pure meaningless historical experience. Today ideology is no longer big causes such as socialism, equality, justice, democracy. The basic injunction is "have a good time" or to put it in more spiritualist terms "realize yourself" . . . . I think that this film gives the best diagnosis of the ideological despair of late capitalism. Of a society without history, or to use another political term, biopolitics. And my god, this film literally is about biopolitics. The basic problem in this society as depicted in the film is literally biopolitics: how to generate, regulate life.

In addition, Zizek notes that one of the true points of genius in the film [and here I think queer theorists, especially, need to "listen up"] is that the one instance of fertility in the film is completely divorced from "coupling"--we never have a sense of who the father might be and it clearly doesn't matter--but also, the fertility is divorced from sex. As Zizek puts it, fertility is "re-installed, but not in the form of a couple being created. The fertility is spiritual fertility--it's to find the meaning of life and so on." Fertility, in other words, as figured in this film, is about a type of creativity--of thought, of art, of life--that is both tied to history but which can also break free from history in a way that is [re]productive of a better future. But I think where Edelman and Zizek and I might all gather together in agreement is in the idea that "cutting one's roots" is absolutely essential to "renewal" [although perhaps Edelman also rejects renewal], but this does not mean forgetting what Edelman calls "the deadly past," although it does mean, I think, letting go of the idea that the past is "fixed" somehow--it is no more rooted, no more "fixed," than we ourselves are in time. It does not mean refusing the future, just actively "producing" it in a different way. But creativity is the key and creativity will always be--deep down--[re]productive, tied as it is to very old biological and other forces that gather and coil in our bodies and minds. [On this point, too, please see Anhaga's beautiful post on the French film La Jetee and Gilliam's 12 Monkeys and time here.] It has something to do with what "being human" means.


Eileen Joy said...

Something I did not mention about "Children of Men" is that, throughout the film, there are animals everywhere, including "baby" animals, such as kittens, indicating that, whereas the humans have become infertile and are dying out, the animals are proliferating [granted, there are also shots of cattle being burned in piles in open fields--but this points to the issue of diseased inhumanly "produced" animals]. Further, many of the animals seem to be very attracted to Clive Owens' character, sniffing him or grazing against him or climbing up his leg. I haven't figured out yet exactly why Cuaron includes this sub-textual element, although it's interesting.

Eileen Joy said...

Another thing I should have mentioned: in almost all of the background scenes, the primary image is one of assault or beseeching or both combined, so for example, as Clive Owen is riding a train through London, it is being pelted with rocks by angry youths, or we see behind him through the window of a bus he is riding illegal immigrants enclosed in cages who are clearly, though in different languages, asking, begging hysterically even, for help, for attention and regard, and we also see these same immigrants being beaten, hooded, shot, and shrouded, and even burning in their shrouds, on makeshift funeral biers. So, while you are trying to "follow," as it were, the main hero, and later the hero and heroine together, there is always something in the background that is demanding attention. The only response is one of helplessness.

Michael O'Rourke said...

I haven't yet seen Children of Men (even though it is one of my girlfriend's favorite books and it is the only part of No Future she has read "with" me) but thanks for this rich and provocative set of responses Eileen. Where can I access Zizek's reading of the movie?

Eileen Joy said...

Michael, to access Zizek's "reading" of the film, you have to rent the DVD because he is one of the "extras" added there--his commentary is filmed. The DVD also has a really cool documentary fim [about 30 minutes long] titled "The Possibilty of Hope," featuring commentators, including Zizek, but also a cultural geographer, a sociologist, a philosopher, etc., talking, basically, about how "fucked" the world is right now, but also pointing toward certain avenues of "escape" or "hope." It is important to note that one of the things Zizek really likes abou the film is how it is *different* from the book, especially in the way it divorces the birth from coupling/sex. P.D. James's book, in Zizek's view, has more of a Christian emphasis, which he believes is downplayed in the film [I'm not so sure, myself].

If you can't access the DVD, perhaps I can make a transcript.

Eileen Joy said...

I just discovered this bit from an analysis of the film at k-punk's blog, which accords well with what I was trying to say [and says it better]:

"The third reason that Children of Men works is because of its take on cultural crisis. It's evident that the theme of sterility must be read metaphorically, as the displacement of another kind of anxiety. (If the sterility were to be taken literally, the film would be no more than a requiem for what Lee Edelman calls 'reproductive futurism', entirely in line with mainstream culture's pathos of fertility.) For me, this anxiety cries out to be read in cultural terms, and the question the film poses is: how long can a culture persist without the new? What happens if the young are no longer capable of producing surprises?

Children of Men connects with the suspicion that the end has already come, the thought that it could well be the case that the future harbours only reiteration and repermutation. Could it be, that is to say, that there are no breaks, no 'shocks of the new' to come? Such anxieties tend to result in a bi-polar oscillation: the 'weak messianic' hope that there must be something new on the way lapses into the morose conviction that nothing new can ever happen. The focus shifts from the Next Big Thing to the last big thing - how long ago did it happen and just how big was it?"

In some ways, the best response to Edelman's book, I think, is simply this film [which again, we have to remember is not altogether the same thing as the book by P.D. James].

Karl Steel said...

From what I know of the P. D. James, the Cuaron is radically different. The Clive Owen character is an Oxbridge Don in the novel (rather different from the film's mid-level bureaucrat), and he's responsible for the death of his own child (whom he ran over with his car, I believe), as if the death of a child, in itself, is not enough to tear apart a marriage. There's some business with a priest, too. One of the things I liked about C of M is the way it turned on Xian symbolism, the bit when Kee mocks us for imagining that she's been impregnated miraculously. Whether it overtly turns on James's (as I understand) heavy handed and bathetic and conservative/reactionary Xianity (transgressing the bounds of fairness here? certainly the bounds of my knowledge) only to slip the Xian shiv into us all the more subtly, I don't know: worth discussing.

Also worth discussion: politics of immigration, that the renewal of the world and certainly of the UK is via a non-White immigrant. Pretty obvious, but perhaps worth discussing because of that, simply to make a straightforward political statement a bit more interesting.

Nice work on the foreground/background material. Instructive to compare Cuaron's technique to Gilliam's in 12 Monkeys (as G's film is famously busy in its backgrounds, but, it strikes me, to far less interesting ends).

Most damning critique of Children of Men? It's here:

Jeebus, I liked that movie better the first time I read the story... when it was called Atlas Shrugged.

And, no, that's not an entirely fair comparison, but the basic framework of the whole society is a mess and people of all political stripes are screwed up and the only hope of progress comes from a bunch of possibly mythical smart people who have dropped out of society and are holed up in an isolated location was still eerily reminiscent.

I will want to revisit my words on reproduction and C o M at some point.

Karl Steel said...

Also, I should say the poster you used for this post, EJ, is not the worst of the CoM posters, but it's pretty dang close. In fact, they're all bad (my local cinema used this one. What should we make of the kitsch of the weeping eye with a fetus in it (that's some sty)? I realize that the image is meant to look like a stencil, and so the work of activists, presumably concerned more with a message (what message? there's no referent that I can discover other than "it's sad that there's no babies. in my eye") than with design, but still. How to make it worse? Hard to say: put the eye in a chubby blond doll holding a puppy or, better yet, holding another doll...

BTW, I know that phrase from the Pac NW in the 1970s during one of Boeing's near collapses: "Will the last one to leave Seattle please turn off the lights." Origin of the phrase anyone? I'm pretty sure the Waylon Jennings song predates the Seattle billboard...

Michael O'Rourke said...

Thanks Eileen.

Some of Zizek's commentary is transcribed by Jodi Dean here:

""Zizek and Children of Men

I shouldn't be surprised--Zizek will be on the DVD version of Children of Men. The director knows his work. News - The Human Project.

Slavoj Zizek Reacts to Children of Men
Philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek provides his commentary and observations about Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men. The filmmakers recently spent time with Mr. Zizek after identifying him as an important element in their research because of the unique philosophical view he offers on both the implementation of governmental power, and the damaged emotional state of a refugee.
In this transcript, he discusses issues including the foreground/background dynamics of the film, infertility and politics. Zizek brings a complex and informative view on Children of Men's portrayal of London, the emotional state of the characters and overall vision of the film.


For me, Children of Men is a model of a kind of materialist subversion of a reactionary classic, because the novel is obviously a spiritualist Christian parable of resuscitation, bringing new life and so on. The novel ends with baptizing. It’s clear Christian parable. The film is a model of how you can take a reactionary text, change some details here and there and you get a totally, a totally different story. I would say that it’s a realist film, but in what sense? Hegel in his esthetics says that a good portrayal looks more like the person who is portrayed than the person itself. A good portrayal is more you than you are yourself. And I think this is what the film does with our reality. The changes that the film introduces do not point toward alternate reality, they simply make reality more what it already is. I think this is the true vocation of science fiction. Science fiction realism introduces a change that makes us see better. The nightmare that we are expecting is here.


So this I think is a true despair of the film. It's not so much ab out infertility. I think it's problematic to focus on infertility and then do the obvious spiritualist trick and say 'oh byt you know this biological infertility is really a metaphor for spiritual infertility' or whatever. I think that we should avoid this cheap direct spiritualist reading of the film. I think that the true infertility is the very lack of meaningful historical experience. It's a society of pure meaningless historical experience. Today ideology is no longer big causes such as socialism, equality, justice, democracy. The basic injunction is 'have a good time' or to put it in more spiritualist terms 'realize yourself. This is why I think Dalai Lama is such a big hit. He preaches enlightened egoism; be happy, realize your potentials and so on. And this our despair today. I think that this film gives the best diagnosis of the ideological despair of late capitalism. Of a society without history, or to use another political term, biopolitics. And my god, this film literally is about biopolitics. The basic problem in this society as depicted in the film is literally biopolitics: how to generate, regulate life. But again, I think the crucial point is that this obvious fact shouldn't deceive us. The true despair is precisely that; all historical acts disappear. Like all those classical statues are there, but they are deprived of a world. They are totally meaningless, because what does it mean to have a statue of Michaelangelo? It only works if it signals a certain world. And when this world is lacking, it's nothing. It all depends on whether we have a world. Doe we have some horizon that makes it meaningful? It's against this background that I think that the film approaches the topic of immigration and so on"

Dean also discusses the film here:

"I finally saw the film over the weekend. What struck me the most was how present it is--the images from Abu Graihb, the presence of Homeland Security, the zones and gates and quadrants controlling people, forcing them into spaces, the filth and breakdown. I came away overwhelmed by a cliche (which says nothing about the movie per se, in other words, don't blame the movie)--if Guantanamo is in the world, then all the world is Guantanamo"

K-Punk's reading of Edelman's book is also well worth reading and is especially sharp on the sinthome (as well as drawing attention to the missing sneeriness of the Sex Pistols in Edelman's ploemic):

On how fucked the world is, I read this from Abraham Maslow's preface to New Knowledge in Human Values this morning:

"This volume springs from the belief, first, that the ultimate disease of our time is valuelessness; second, that this state is more crucially dangerous than ever before in history; and finally, that something can be done about it by man's own rational efforts [the use of man throughout the preface is a little disconcerting]". He goes on "we too are in an interregnum between old value systems that have not worked and new ones not yet born, an empty period which could be borne more patiently were it not for the great and unique dangers that beset mankind. We are faced with the real possibility of annihilation, and with the certainty of 'small' wars, of racial hostilities, and of widespread exploitation. Specieshood is far in the future".

And this was written in 1959!!

Eileen Joy said...

Karl--your point that the film "turns" on James's heavy-handed Christian bathos, but may still stick the Xian shiv in at the end is worth pursuing. There is no doubt in my mind that, in the film, that *at least* the spectrality of what we might call "a certain Christian feeling" hovers over and haunts the film--think, too, of that scene when the Clive O. character and Kee are leaving the building in the middle of the shoot-out and everyone stops firing and some start kneeling and praying and crying and trying to touch the baby as they walk by.

Michael O.: forget about Maslow's use of "man"--it's just an old-fashioned tic. He really means "we humans" [and yeah, I know we're supposed to reject "human," too--jesus f. christ already--haha]. In any case, he's mind-blowing reading in "these our times."

Karl Steel said...

MoR: funny, I was on the verge of dismissing the Maslow as just more crisis speak. I don't imagine that any period has ever been thought, either by its participants or its students, as other than in the middle of things, a moment of crisis on its way towards something unknown. That said, Maslow does have a point: the nuclear eschaton is unique and not at all unlikely, especially now, given the kleptocratic and systemically incompetent managers of the large arsenals in the US and Russia. Let's imagine, though, that new managers come in and decide to disarm. Still no good. I'm expecting a 100M rise in sea levels by, say, 2070. I'll be dead by then, probably, but if I'm silly enough to bring children into this world, that rise, and its aftereffects, will likely be their doom. Perhaps it's just the crisis mode of thought (variant of World Grown Old?) thoroughly planted in my mind, but I do think we're--and by 'we' I mean humans and most species--close to the end of things. We won't need Cuaron's metaphorical sterility to bring us and our work to death. I expect only our greed and appetites will live on.

Karl Steel said...

... although I should say that simply doing things for the present pleasure of them, knowing that the world does not need, cannot use, for instance, another exegesis of The Avowyng of Arthur, is itself a critique of the reproductive regime, of the burden of hope. How this factors into my abandonment of myself to hopelessness or how this factors into the pleasures of child-rearing itself, some antiteleological presentist conceptualization of actual children, isn't quite clear to me, just yet.

(appropos of nothing: M o'R: do you listen to Xiu Xiu? Right up your alley)

Eileen Joy said...

It isn't our greed and appetites that worry me. It's more our stupidity, our refusal of wonder, and our lack of caring. This is what troubles my sleep at night. After reading in one of my students' papers this morning that, since animals cannot express in language that they are feeling pain when we slaughter them, there is no need to consider their feelings "when killing them for our own benefit," my heart sank a little. This students further expressed that even if, in the example of a dog who is hit by a car or beaten, an animal "whines" to show pain, we really don't know if that is an expression of pain, so we don't have to pay attention to it, as it is "untranslatable." This student does not need my help as a teacher. This student just needs to own a dog. *Jesus* [I'm cranky this morning].

Eileen Joy said...

Did I say "own" a dog? I meant befriend and care for and *be owned* by one.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

The basic injunction is 'have a good time' or to put it in more spiritualist terms 'realize yourself. This is why I think Dalai Lama is such a big hit. He preaches enlightened egoism; be happy, realize your potentials and so on. And this our despair today. I think that this film gives the best diagnosis of the ideological despair of late capitalism.

To this, I would say "not quite." The appeal of the Dalai Lama and Bubbhism in general resides in its cultivation of an attitude of mindfulness--that is, being aware of the present with acceptance. This is not equivalent to political inertness, however, as Thich Naht Hahn's "engaged Buddhism" exemplifies. The problem of contemporary culture--and of course Maslow and May and Perls and Reich et alia diagnosed it long ago--is contactlessness, the disconnection with others and the environment. The antidote to this, following the humanists and following the Buddhists, is not "enlightened egoism"; it is full awareness of the present to the extent that one's self is seen as fluid, interwoven with the background. "No self, no problem." Maslow's peak experience.

I've plugged Mark Leary's The Curse of the Self before....

Anonymous said...

Michael: Maslow will repay you. Glad you got a hold of that collecion. Take a look at the Suzuki essay on the specific question of Buddhism's early role in this project of thinking ethics.

I'm thinking Paul Goodman could be of significance too. Take a look at the essays on queerness in Nature Heals. His preface to the journal Complex is quite wonderful too. (It's in NH.)

Michael O'Rourke said...

Thanks Michael yet again. I will check out Goodman.

Karl Steel said...

*be owned* by one.

... until a dog can make a decision to have its master put down, I want to ban this locution.

It does strike me that your student has hit upon the problem that I've been hammering away at monomaniacally (although to little effect, since I haven't done the reading to move the problem along), to wit, how to treat something alien ethically without erasing its strangeness. It's not that the student needs to own a dog; it's that the student needs to wonder about whether or not translation is necessary for ethics and also wonder what is lost when we take the stopgap step of translating, i.e., of extending 'human' rights to the dog.

BTW, anyone else see the bit in the Times today about animals and time and consciousness? I found its link between the autobiographical mind and conception of time a bit underdeveloped, but of course I'm sympathetic to its muddying of the boundary between human and animal consciousness. What I found funny was this graph, in which an ethologist who studies birds objects to the claim that only humans have a temporal consciousness:

Many animal behavior experts agreed with Dr. Tulving, even though they had not actually run experiments testing the idea. But when Nicola Clayton, a comparative psychologist, first heard about the claim, she had a different reaction. “I could feel my feathers ruffling,” said Dr. Clayton, who is now at the University of Cambridge. “I thought, hang on, that doesn’t make sense.”

Talk about an avian circuit...

Karl Steel said...

until a dog can make a decision to have its master put down, I want to ban this locution.

That said, I still can't account for love in all this. Not having a pet, it's hard for me to understand, but I do know about my mother-in-law's feelings about the cat she just had put down (it was 19 years old and healthy until its last 3 days) and blogreaders followed Chris Clarke's despair over his lovely dog. Where love fits into the power of death, I don't know.

Eileen Joy said...

Karl, as the present and past "owner" of many dogs and cats [and even bantam chickens], and also as someone who regularly feeds and cares for stray cats who regularly congregate in my yard and on my front porch and who I do not "own," I understand your discomfirt of my invocation of the idea that one can *be owned" by a pet animal. Okay. But I mainly, and in haste, invoked that idea in relation to my student primarily for the same reasons you state in your post: because I want that student to spend some time in close proximity to a creature that could then be *wondered* about. I've agreed with you numerous times before that "self-sameness" or easily-translatable-to-"human" differences cannot and should not be the basis upon which we regard the rights or needs of other animals. On the other hand, I'm of Peter Singer's camp when it comes to considering the ability to experience pain as a factor. I have only ever adopted animals that were strays or in shelters and usually older animals who have been around the block a few times [and I am against forced designer breeding]. I am pro-animal rights but I also "own" some animals, or at least, I try to care for them. And you can, on more than an occasional basis, be dictated to and *owned* by your pet animals.