Ursula K. Le Guin – The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas | Review

New Dimensions 3

Ursula K. Le Guin – “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” from New Dimensions 3, Robert Silverberg, ed. (1973)


Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” presents an excellent example of what Alenka Zupancic described as “liberal blackmail”.  Le Guin tells a story of a “utopian” city that has a child imprisoned in essentially a torture dungeon.  The liberal blackmail is stated quite succinctly by her:

“If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. *** The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.”

This is blackmail because it insists on a reductionist binary.  Either people stay in the city and keep torturing the child, or they walk away from Omelas.  No third option is permitted.  It is liberal because the first option (where the child is tortured) is basically standard liberalism.  Domenico Losurdo has explained this in books like Liberalism: A Counter-History (2014).  Liberalism is a politics of exclusion, a kind of false universalism that separates the society of the free from those unworthy of freedom.  Le Guin’s short story is basically an extremely blunt depiction of this basic — if disavowed — premise of political liberalism.  Sure, other social structures like feudalism oppress certain groups but they don’t profess freedom like the society of Omelas that Le Guin describes in the story.

The other option, of “walking away from Omelas,” is basically what the philosopher Hegel called the “Beautiful soul” problem.  Here, Zupancic explains the dynamic well:

“The rise of the affect(s) and the sanctimony around affective intuition are very much related to some signifiers being out of our reach, and this often involves a gross ideological mystification. Valorization of affectivity and feelings appears at the precise point when some problem — injustice, say — would demand a more radical systemic revision as to its causes and perpetuation. This would also involve naming — not only some people but also social and economic inequalities that we long stopped naming and questioning.

“Social valorization of affects basically means that we pay the plaintiff with her own money: oh, but your feelings are so precious, you are so precious! The more you feel, the more precious you are. This is a typical neoliberal maneuver, which transforms even our traumatic experiences into possible social capital. If we can capitalize on our affects, we will limit out protests to declarations of these affects — say, declarations of suffering — rather than becoming active agents of social change. I’m of course not saying that suffering shouldn’t be expressed and talked about, but that this should not ‘freeze’ the subject into the figure of the victim. The revolt should be precisely about refusing to be a victim, rejecting the position of the victim on all possible levels.

***

“this bind derives precisely from the subjective gain or gratification that this positioning offers. (Moral) outrage is a particularly unproductive affect, yet it is one that offers considerable libidinal satisfaction. By ‘unproductive’ I mean this: it gives us the satisfaction of feeling morally superior, the feeling that we are in the right and others are in the wrong. Now for this to work, things must not really change. We are much less interested in changing things than in proving, again and again, that we are in the right, or on the right side, the side of the good. Hegel invented a great name for this position: the ‘beautiful soul.’ A ‘beautiful soul’ sees evil and baseness all around it but fails to see to what extent it participates in the perpetuation of that same order of things. The point of course is not that the world isn’t really evil, the point is that we are part of this evil world.”

“Too Much of Not Enough: An Interview with Alenka Zupančič”

If her explanation still seems difficult to grasp, the concept can be more succinctly summed up this way:

“They play the Beautiful Soul, which feels superior to the corrupted world while secretly participating in it: they need this corrupted world as the only terrain where they can exert their moral superiority.”

Slavoj Žižek, Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbors: Against the Double Blackmail (2016).

Those who “walk away from Omelas” do nothing to change its underlying horror.  They only go away to exist outside it, thereby using the existence of Omelas to exert their moral superiority.  In other words, they need Omelas and its torture dungeon in order to self-identify as morally superior individuals — walking away actually supports the continued functioning of Omelas and its torture dungeon.  The “beautiful souls” who walk away merely turn the traumatic experience of confronting the torture dungeon into social capital, but rationalize its continuation.

In the 1970s, Le Guin took a turn towards neoliberal feminism, or what might be called cultural feminism or even bourgeois feminism.  Usually portrayed as her becoming more politically conscious, rather the opposite is true.  She really made a turn much like the so-called “new philosophers” to the political right.  She embraced the tactics of identity politics and the valorization of victimhood status.  She was much more of a careerist opportunist than she is often portrayed by supporters, cynically invoking certain concepts to enhance her public status (and boost her book sales) without doing a whole lot to meaningfully change anything beyond a few gendered pronouns, with at most a slightly populist twist.  Her best work was in the 1960s and early 1970s, and it dealt with typical concerns of the time. For instance, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) deals with the destructive power of envy, something that French writers were grappling with under the rubric of ressentiment.  She jettisoned those things in the 70s and instead dwelt on identity politics.  There is reason to suggest that “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” is at bottom anti-communist propaganda.  Little if any of her writing after her anarchist masterpiece The Dispossessed (1974) is very highly regarded by readers.

So, back to the short story.  The only ethical response that avoids an element of bargaining is to simply reject Le Guin’s stupid Manichean premise and do precisely what she states is impossible:  change the structure of the society of Omelas.  An excellent analogy in (science-)fiction is the way Captain James T. Kirk in the Star Trek franchise defeated the “Kobayashi Maru test” as a student at “Starfleet Academy” by reprogramming the test computer to make the no-win scenario winnable.  Or Josef Stalin’s famous retort to a journalist who asked him which deviation is worse, the Rightist one (Bukharin) or the Leftist one (Trotsky), responding, “They are both worse!”  Franz Kafka‘s The Trial (1925) included the parable of the door to the law, which is also more or less a relevant counterpart, if a more individual and pessimistic one about overcoming seemingly impossible obstacles.  The point is to reject the false binary choice the short story presents as a form of blackmail, conspiracy, or propaganda.  Or, let’s tentatively grant Le Guin her conceit that the “terms are strict and absolute” in this Omelas society.  Then, the solution is Bartleby politics, after the character in Herman Melville‘s short story “Bartleby, The Scrivener” who did nothing to carry out his social role but to answer, “I would prefer not to.”  Would you stay in Omelas?  “I would prefer not to.”  Would you walk away from Omelas?  “I would prefer not to.”  Ah, but then the terms would suddenly not be so strict and absolute as the society fails to reproduce itself and disappears…at great peril and cost to those who prefer not to, like Melville’s Bartleby who dies in jail.  Well, it would be Bartlby politics or you walk away from Omelas and come back with an army to destroy it…

Black Panther

Black Panther

Black Panther (2018)

Walt Disney Pictures

Director: Ryan Coogler

Main Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. JordanDanai Gurira, Andy Serkis


This film is repugnant.  That is perhaps not too surprising for a contemporary superhero movie.  But Black Panther dons a particularly reprehensible mantle when it makes the “bad guy” (Erik “Killmonger” Stevens) someone pursuing basically Frantz Fanon‘s program — which inspired the real-life Black Panther Party for Self Defense, which in turn inspired the “Black Panther” comics — and makes the “good guys” a bunch of aristocrats (led by T’Challa) who resemble Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.  What is the significance of these parallels?  Well, Fanon was an anti-capitalist while Solzhenitsyn was a shameless opportunist who ingratiated himself with rabid anti-communists to promote a restoration of tsarist autocracy.  What is the plot of Black Panther?  [spoilers] A reactionary, isolationist autocracy in the land of Wakanda is displaced by a (rightful) challenger who seeks to use Wakanda’s accumulated wealth in a quasi-communist way to benefit the oppressed around the world, but then a palace coup occurs in order to violently restore the autocracy (led by basically a Donald Trump-like neo-Bonapartist figure), prevent a radical equitable distribution of wealth and maintain a slightly modified, reformist strain of selfish, isolationist hoarding — now with a few inconsequential, token welfare programs still totally in line with the global status quo of massive inequality.  So, the best way to view this film is as a tragedy revolving around an unreliable protagonist.  The “bad guy” is really the good guy, and he loses.

Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim (2013)

Warner Bros.

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Main Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, Idris Elba, Charlie Day


First, a brief summary of the plot of Pacific Rim.  Aliens have genetically engineered kaiju (Godzilla-like monsters) that they send to Earth through an intergalactic portal (the “Breach”) that opens at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, in order to destroy human civilization and eventually conquer the planet.  Humanoid robots called jaegers are built to fight the kaiju.  The kaiju become larger and appear more frequently over time.  Eventually, humans realize the aliens’ plans and figure out a way to detonate a nuclear bomb in the portal in order to collapse it, saving humans from the aliens.  Most of the film revolves around amazing special effects used to create action-packed fight scenes between robots and monsters.  But what is most interesting — to me at least — is the backdrop against which the robots and monsters fights take place.

Impotence of government – The film’s plot is heavily dependent on a view of the impotence of government.  The first kaiju attack is described (but barely shown on screen) as having taken conventional military forces six days to win, leaving extensive devastation.  The idea that the government (and its military) is unable to act to stop the kaiju is a theme carried throughout the film.  The jaegers are created as an official (multi-)government program, but after one jaeger is severely damaged in a battle with a kaiju, world governments disband the program and instead build protective walls (the jaeger program is then carried on by some sort of independent [private] organization whose funding and organizational structure is never explained).  The walls turn out to be easily breached.  In response, world governments take no action whatsoever.  In other words, governments throw up their hands and apparently decide that the kaiju should win!

Individualism – Most of the film dwells on individual action, and valorizes the motif of “great individuals”.  The jaeger pilots are all hot-shot “cowboys”, just like, say, Tom Cruise‘s “Maverick” pilot character in the film Top Gun (1986).  As governmental impotence provides no response to the kaiju threat, the fate of humanity is left in the hands of these “cowboys”.  Although there are many individuals that take part in the jaeger program, the film presents them less as a team than as an ad hoc assemblage of individuals.  This stands in marked contrast to Shin Godzilla (2016), which responds to a similar program of governmental impotence with an explicitly team-based response.  And, of course, the film pays almost no attention to collateral damage to civilians.  In a way, all this reflects filmmaker David Lynch‘s comments about how President Donald Trump — even if Trump fails to do a good job himself — creates an aura of disruptive greatness that reveals the ineffectual nature of opposition politicians who can’t get anything done.

Destructive industrial growth – The film never entertains any notion of peaceful negotiations with the aliens sending the kaiju through the Breach, some kind of barricade right at the outlet of the Breach, or even permanent depopulation/dispersion of large urban coastal cities.  Humanity focuses instead on building giant robots — their humanoid configuration serving no clear purpose — and a coastal wall — which is so obviously inadequate to the task and so burdensome to normal human activities.  There is a casual acceptance of industrial growth, and not any palpable concern about its consequences or any alternatives.

The film as a whole is strangely entertaining.  That is partly due to the special effects and extensive use of action scenes, but also due to the preposterously comical interactions between the characters, not a single one of which is realistic.

Slavoj Žižek – Quasi Duo Fantasias: A Straussian Reading of “Black Panther”

Link to a review of the film Black Panther (2018) by Slavoj Žižek:

“Quasi Duo Fantasias: A Straussian Reading of ‘Black Panther’”

 

Bonus Links: “Woke Hollywood? The Marketing of Black Panther” and “The Politics of Batman” and War and Revolution: Rethinking the Twentieth Century and “Making Greater Possibilities Inconceivable: Another Thought or Two on the Logic of Lesser Evilism” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War”

La Jetée

La Jetée

La Jetée (1962)

Argos Films

Director: Chris Marker

Main Cast: Davos Hanich, Hélène Chatelain, Jean NégroniJacques Ledoux


Chris Marker’s short sci-fi film La Jetée is one of the most remarkable in the genre.  The plot is beguiling and the form of the film itself is utterly unique.  The basic story involves a hazy childhood memory of the main character in which he was on an observation deck of an airport and remembers seeing a woman and incident involving a man, which he later realizes was the man dying.  A third world war occurs, involving nuclear weapons that produce fallout rendering the surface of the planet uninhabitable.  The survivors — presiding over a “kingdom of rats” — live in underground galleries below the destroyed remains of Paris.  Scientists conduct time travel experiments on prisoners of war.  The main character, who was a soldier during the war, travels back in time and meets the woman from his childhood memory.  Then he is sent into the future, to try to enlist help to save humanity of the present.  People from the future eventually send him to the past to be with the woman again.  But as he runs to her, he is shot by an agent of the present day “experimentators” who followed him into the past.  He realizes that his childhood memory was of him witnessing his own death.  This time travel story became the inspiration of the later feature-length film 12 Monkeys.

The form of the film is even more remarkable than the story.  It is almost entirely made up of still photographs artistically edited together.  There is just one shot of moving film, showing the woman waking up and blinking.  A narrator provides a voice-over throughout the film.  There is also music (Euro-classical) and sound effects.  But the shots break suddenly, or other times dissolve into each other.  The narration and music and sound effects begin and end meaningfully.  All of these things are part of the montage, which is astonishingly sublime.  The gritty interpretation of the future was greatly inspiring to the so-called cyberpunk subgenre.

Marker was a a multi-media essayist.  His friend Alan Resnais had wanted him to work on something with him related to nuclear war in the late 1950s.  Marker had to back out, but Resnais’ project ended up being Hiroshima mon amour (1959), with a screenplay by Marguerite Duras.  But the theme of nuclear war reappears in La Jetée.

Marker’s film is a swirling vortex of regret, loss, hope, rebirth, deception, love, technological horror, and utopian harmony. A curious part of the story is the way the main character (never given a name) reaches a cautious future society that seems to be flourishing, but he does so from a dystopian present with human society at its nadir.  The question is how to break the Gordian knot in which the present seems to make the utopian future possible (The Man Who Fell to Earth would later explore similar themes).  What separates this film from so many others is that it suggests that the time travel technology is not what enables the great society of the future.  Rather, it implies that human connection is the more important aspect, even as the plot ends with the connection between the two main characters being broken with the man’s assassination.

Although often described as being about a “time loop”, the film is open to many interpretations.  Perhaps Roland Barthes’ comment a few years later in Criticism and Truth (1966) is apt: “a work is ‘eternal’ not because it imposes a single meaning on different men, but because it suggests different meanings to one man…”  One such interpretation is to look at the film from the perspective of philosopher Alain Badiou‘s concept of an “event”.  To simplify this concept, an “event” seems to exceed its causes, and becomes apparent only in hindsight as something new emerges from the multiplicity of possible meanings.  It is not unlike a point made in Jorge Luis Borges‘ essay “Kafka and His Precursors” that a great writer’s work establishes his or her precursors in a way that “modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future” — an appropriate analogy here given the similarity in tone of Marker’s film and much of Franz Kafka‘s best writing.  There is also something similar in the story line of La Jetée and the later comic book series The Incal by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Mœbius, which deals with the difficulty of breaking out of repetition and fatalism, and with heroic self-sacrifice for a greater good.

This is one of the greatest sci-fi works of the 20th Century, in the same category as Lem‘s Solaris (1961), Le Guin‘s The Dispossessed (1974), Lang‘s Metropolis (1927), and such.

Get Out

Get Out

Get Out (2017)

Universal Pictures

Director: Jordan Peele

Main Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener


Basically a suspense/thriller/horror film with a small amount of soft sci-fi that draws plot elements from three prior films: Seconds (1966), Being John Malkovich (1999), and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967).  It’s good — one of the alternate endings is a bit better than the theatrical ending — but it’s not in the same league as the older films it resembles.

Tomorrowland

Tomorrowland

Tomorrowland (2015)

Walt Disney Pictures

Director: Brad Bird

Main Cast: Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, George Clooney


What is worthy about Tomorrowland is that it starts out as a typical young-adult exceptionalism fantasy, draws in a few action scenes, an unusual blend of futurist and quasi-steampunk elements, and a standard vision of a technocratic utopia, then gets around to critiquing all that.  Basically, the premise is that around the turn of the nineteenth century a group of scientists created a utopian society called “Tomorrowland” in another dimension, freed from all the bureaucracy of the “real world.”  Frank Walker (George Clooney) lived there as a child, but was exiled and now lives as a recluse on Earth.  A robot friend of his Athena (Raffey Cassidy) then recruits a teenage girl (Britt Robertson) to help him get back to Tomorrowland and fix the thing he built that led to his exile.  But, what is most intriguing are two things.  First, when the trio does arrive in Tomorrowland, they discover that the problem is not really about science and engineering (“fixing” the device that Walker had built), but about politics, and dislodging the essentially corrupt leader in Tomorrowland David Nix (Hugh Laurie) who knew all along — unlike Walker (?) — how the device was destroying Earth.  Basically, the trio realize that people are stupid, but, unlike Laurie’s character, don’t feel that widespread human stupidity justifies allowing the destruction of humanity on Earth.  And in that process, they basically stage a violent coup — though the film does not explicitly emphasize this aspect of political revolution, it does happen on screen.  Then, with the old regime toppled, Walker sets up a program to recruit new people to Tomorrowland, and in a speech he acknowledges that toppling the old regime was the easy part and what comes next, actually building a better utopia, is the hard part.  While the film shows this next phase in a very cursory way, and avoids the sort of difficult theoretical aspects of describing how that hard work should proceed, it at least realistically suggests where the hard work must take place.  This is a film for young people, and is rather light entertainment, but at the same time the film’s message is a good one (basically Leninist).

Arrival

Arrival

Arrival (2016)

Paramount Pictures

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Main Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker


This sci-fi film has roughly the feel of Contact (1997), with a bit of The Tree of Life (2011) thrown in for good measure. Credit goes to the many members of the crew who make this a marvel of technical skill. But the script falls apart in confusion as the film goes on. The central story line involves the arrival of extra-terrestrials to Earth, and the attempts of humans to communicate with the aliens. The protagonist is Dr. Louise Banks (Adams), a linguist brought in by the U.S. military. A central plot point involves invocation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a real-life theory that is stretched to absurd lengths in the film. This is precisely where the film fails.  Rather than the grand tradition of using sci-fi scenarios to open space to discuss wholly realistic human social concerns otherwise barred from “respectable” discourse, Arrival reverts to empty deployment of “magical” actions. Actually, from the beginning to roughly the middle of the film, it seems almost that it will be about something that was in Stanisław Lem’s classic sci-fi novel Solaris that was excised from every film version — that humans are unable to comprehend “otherness” (explicitly that of aliens, but implicitly of other humans). But that would seem to be beyond what Hollywood permits, so by the end the plot gets dumbed down to pointless time-travel drivel.

Shin Godzilla

Shin Godzilla

シン・ゴジラ [Shin Godzilla] (2016)

Toho Pictures

Directors: Hideaki Anno, Shinji Higuchi

Main Cast: Hiroki Hasegawa, Satomi Ishihara, Yutaka Takenouchi


A reboot of the Gojira/Godzilla franchise, this is really an excellent monster film.  The best parts are about political symbolism. Having watched a number of dumb big-budget Hollywood superhero films recently, I was troubled by how many relied on a frame of a “post-political” society, where all important political decisions are just handed out (down) by unseen technocrats. I thought it would be more interesting to show the deliberations of politicians. Well, Shin Godzilla does exactly that!

The Gojira/Godzilla franchise has shown many different sides of the monster, from an uncontrollable force of destruction, to a helper of humanity, to an object of scientific study. Aspects of this film draw upon some of the ways scientific inquiry was vaunted in the 1990s films. But there is a much more political and serious tone to this film.  Here, the monster is finally defeated by a mostly self-organized team of nerds that works together in parallel with the military to defeat the monster, following much destruction.

The political commentary in the film ranges from traditional franchise concerns about nuclear energy and weapons (Gojira/Godzilla in this film is a sea creature that self-mutates after eating nuclear waste, and is powered by nuclear fission), including the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi reactor meltdown, to post WWII pacifism (including Shinzō Abe‘s plan to re-write the Japanese constitution to step away from pacifism), the (real or perceived) subordinate relationship of Japan to U.S. political interests, corporatization and putting profits over people, and more. While the film is sometimes a bit ridiculous — often in a good, campy way, like the wonderfully unrealistic depiction of the monster with bulging eyes and a bulk that still resembles an actor in a rubber monster suit — mostly, this film is expertly delivered. Central to the story is the way it presents existing political institutions as being unable or unwilling to confront current circumstances.  The monster is a symbol of the internal contradictions of Japanese society (and capitalism). It would not be too much to say that this is one of the most Leninist films of its day!

Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange (2016)

Walt Disney Pictures

Director: Scott Derrickson

Main Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen


Another superhero film. Much of the plot is an ersatz version of anarchist writer Ursula K. Le Guin‘s fantasy classic A Wizard of Earthsea (1968). But there is plenty of good humor here. Tilda Swinton proves yet again that she is one of the best actors in mainstream cinema. While her character, and others, at first seem to be yet another example of the dubious practice of casting white people in “Asian” roles, the film actually addresses that concern in a satisfactory way. In the end, this film is quite average, maybe *slightly* above-average in a relative sense.  There are certainly worse big-budget superhero movies out there.