1968-2017: A Dystopian Odyssey through HAL, Blade Runner, Koyaanisqatsi, Babel and #MeToo

I’m from the Confidential Committee on Moral Abuses. Have you felt yourself to be exploited in any way... to get this job? I mean, did you do, or were you asked to do anything that’s lewd or unsavory or otherwise repulsive to your person?
-Rick Deckard in Blade Runner
made in 1982, set in a fictional dystopia of 2019

The recent appearance of the Blade Runner sequel made me curious to watch the original again, something I hadn’t seen since it first appeared in 1982. It didn’t make much of an impression on me then because I came to it with a fixed idea that I wouldn’t like it. The sci-fi directors of the time all seemed to be playing with special effects, technology and guns to make action movies for Arnold Schwarzenegger to star in. I remember watching the film sometime in the 80s, but I recall being bored and not interested enough to follow the plot.


Critics who studied the novel have referred to Dick’s 1972 speech “The Human and the Android.” The novel portrays a dystopian, polluted, man-made setting and in this speech Dick speaks of the increasingly artificial and potentially sentient or “quasi-alive” environment of his present. One critic, Jill Galvan, said the essential point in Dick’s speech is that “only by recognizing how [technology] has encroached upon our understanding of ‘life’ can we come to fully understand the technologies we have produced.”[1]

The novel follows one person’s gradual acceptance of the new reality. One can note in the speech the concern with the ironic situation arising in the cybernetic age: humans becoming more mechanical and machines becoming more human.

2001: A Space Odyssey also showed the same irony: astronauts talking with flat emotions while they carried out the routines of their mission and spoke with the computer HAL, who attempted to soothe them with subtle emotion--a voice that had calming, human inflections. It was HAL who showed emotion first when he made the decision to kill the crew in order to save himself. In Blade Runner and the novel it came from, androids threaten to alter what we feel makes life valuable, yet they also promise a redefinition of life itself, just as we would expect from an alien visitor or a god.

The early 1980s are best known for the rise of retrograde regimes of Reagan and Thatcher, the end of rising middle-class prosperity, and a frightening escalation of the Cold War. In spite of how grim politics appeared, the counter-culture and awareness of the looming eco-catastrophe continued to evolve and have an influence on power. The nuclear disarmament movement reached its peak in June1982 with a march on Manhattan that was estimated to have brought one million people into the streets. Corporate media produced a television film for prime time in 1983 called The Day After which depicted, in nightmarish detail, the effect of a ballistic missile “exchange” between the superpowers. The same year that Blade Runner was released, another film portrayed technological civilization through a highly experimental documentary style.

Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, consisted primarily of slow motion and time-lapse footage of cities and natural landscapes across the United States. The visual tone poem, juxtaposing images and music, contained neither dialogue nor a spoken narration. In a review of the film Gregory Stephens describes how the director Godfrey Reggio wanted to develop a “better narrative” to “go directly into…the soul of the viewer.” It would be “something more akin to direct communion than going through the metaphor of language.” Reggio insisted, “It’s not for lack of love of the language that these films have no words.... from my point of view, our language is in a state of vast humiliation. It no longer describes the world in which we live.”[2] Stephens added:

The language used by many politicians, lawyers, journalists, and religious leaders has so distorted or masked reality that language often seems to have been evacuated of its truth-telling capacity. The crisis is not merely that the use of words to disguise meaning has become normative. Science and technology have uprooted language itself and made it unreal. The universal crisis of language is the major event of our time.

Reggio concluded that if words are so humiliated that they only serve to mask the reality of the world we live in, then he would use another form of communication. When Reggio referred to communion and distrust of language, he was quite aware of what it meant to shut off language in order to look at the world more directly. He had spent fourteen years of his life in what he called a “medieval” existence in a monastic order in northern New Mexico, the place which is, coincidentally, the birthplace of the atomic age and heart of America’s nuclear-military-security complex.

Godfrey Reggio explained his film further in another interview:

What I tried to show is that the main event today is not seen by those of us that live in it. We see the surface of the newspapers, the obviousness of conflict, of social injustice, of the market welling up, of culture, but to me the greatest event, or the most important event of perhaps our entire history–nothing comparable in the past to this event–has fundamentally gone unnoticed, and the event is the following: the transiting from all-nature, or the natural environment as our host of life for human habitation into a technological milieu, into mass technology as the environment of life, so these films have never been about the effect of technology, of industry, on people. It’s been that everyone, politics education, the financial structure, the nation-state structure, language, the culture, religion: all of that exists within the host of technology, so it’s not the effect of. It’s that everything exists within. It’s not that we use technology. We live technology. Technology has become as ubiquitous as the air we breathe, so we are no longer conscious of its presence. So what I decided to do in making this film is to rip out all the foreground of a traditional film; the foreground being the actors, the characterization, the plot, the story. I tried to take the background, all of that that’s just supporting like wallpaper, and move that up into the foreground, make that the subject, ennoble it with the virtues of portraiture, and make that the presence. So we looked at traffic as the event. We looked at the organization of a city as the equivalent of what a computer chip looks like. We looked at acceleration in density as qualities of a way of life that is not seen and goes unquestioned. Life unquestioned is life lived in a religious state.”
Interview with Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass, source of the quote above.

Ridley Scott must have been thinking in a similar way, for Blade Runner is also a film of 1982 that relies very little on language to make its impact on the viewer. The pacing, music and visual imagery were the most striking elements that audiences noted.

As Blade Runner was set in the year 2019, it’s interesting to take note of how this imagined future measures up against the present reality of 2017. The film misses the mark by portraying flying cars but an absence of smartphones. At one point Deckard wants to make a video call, but he has to walk across a crowded bar to use a payphone.

We don’t yet have replicants that resemble humans to a very high degree, but we’re getting there. Serious people are working to create sex-bot companions, quite sure that there will be a demand for them and we must boldly go in this direction. It may please those who wish to eliminate from society all the messy complexity and conflict that arise in interactions between the sexes.

More accurately, the film reflected the near future (our present) with its catastrophic weather–though it hasn’t, as yet, been caused by a nuclear war. The film shows a multi-cultural urban environment that is by no means a joyous cosmopolitan melting pot. The mix of languages and cultures only heightens the feeling of alienation and confusion. Citizens are bombarded with advertisements for emigrating off-planet, or hit upon constantly with sex industry solicitations.

The most interesting prediction, with the most accurate timing, is revealed in a brief scene that most people would probably not think much about, but it has suddenly become relevant in the latter half of 2017. In the story, because of some bizarre upheaval in the social fabric in the preceding years, the entertainment industry has empowered a Confidential Committee on Moral Abuses, a division of the American Federation of Variety Artists, to protect its workers from being harassed on the job. Deckard poses as an agent of the committee as a ruse for getting close to one of his targets:

Rick Deckard: Excuse me, Miss Salome, can I talk to you for a minute? I’m from the American Federation of Variety Artists.
Miss Salome: Oh yeah?
Rick Deckard: I’m not here to make you join. No, ma’am. That’s not my department. Actually, I’m from the Confidential Committee on Moral Abuses.
Miss Salome: Committee of Moral Abuses?
Rick Deckard: There’s been reports that the management has been taking liberties with the artists.
Miss Salome: I don’t know nothing about it.
Rick Deckard: Have you felt yourself to be exploited in any way?
Miss Salome: How do you mean “exploited”?
Rick Deckard: Well, like, to get this job. I mean, did you do, or were you asked to do anything that’s lewd or unsavory or otherwise repulsive to your person?
Blade Runner (1982) 00:50:07~




Here we see that Blade Runner is not only a grim contemplation of the post-apocalypse. It is also a satire, and it’s at its most biting when it shows just how unchanged people are, regardless of the catastrophes that have happened. People have adjusted to the changed world. Dystopia is the new normal. The walled-off city is no different than Babel 4,000 years ago. The world-weary cop in dystopia is just like the world-weary cop of the 1970s. (A nineteenth century audience might have seen the actual world of 1982 as a stark warning about a future to avoid.) Harrison Ford plays Deckard as an everyman, just as he played Han Solo in Star Wars. Blade Runner shows us that even after nuclear war, society will still be neglecting the big picture while fixated on maintaining a bureaucracy to regulate personal behavior and morality.

Indeed, America now seems to be doing just this. It is in the grips of its latest cycle of moralistic fever. One hundred twenty years ago, at the time when America was launching its century of empire, annexing and occupying the Hawaiian Kingdom in order to wage genocidal war in the Philippines, the banning of alcohol became a national obsession, thanks to the bi-partisan, grassroots movement led by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.

By the 1920s, the weapons industry was on the rise in America, while a domestic war was being waged on workers and dissidents. The media and academia had been purged of opponents of the new militarism and empire, and new propaganda theorists were teaching the techniques of manufacturing consent in democracies. Foreign policy blunders were creating the resentment in Germany that would lead to the next world war. Disastrous economic policies were setting up the stock market crash and depression. Alcohol prohibition served as a conveniently loud distraction during this transformation. It did lead to a decline in alcohol consumption, but that could have been achieved by other means. In the meantime, it deprived governments of tax revenue, drove a human desire underground, and created a large new layer of criminality.

History is repeating itself this year amid the mass shift in priorities away from critical problems toward a heightened concern with the regulation of interpersonal interactions. Many writers are trying to resist the pressure to go along with the crowd. This quote of Joseph Kishore sums it up:

The campaign over alleged sexual misconduct is unfolding against the backdrop of mounting war threats that could unleash a nuclear catastrophe. A growing proportion of workers and young people confront staggering levels of poverty without any prospect for a decent job, even as Congress moves to ram through a massive tax cut for the rich. Every day, 150 workers die as a result of work-related accidents and illnesses. The ruling class is moving to abolish democratic rights and free speech online, as underscored by the decision of the Trump administration to end net neutrality. All of this is being ignored in the campaign over sexual harassment. Class divisions are covered up beneath the claim that all women, regardless of their income, share the same “experience” of being oppressed by men, who, particularly if they are white, enjoy the benefits of the “privileged.” The sexual harassment campaign is right-wing, antidemocratic and politically reactionary. It has nothing to do with the interests of the workers, men or women.[4]

James Kunstler had a similar critique of the present moment, finding it seems to be a misdirected reaction to the 2016 election result:

The wholesale un-personing of “powerful men” in the arts, media, and politics for sex “crimes” ranging from rape to stealing a kiss communicates a hunt up the food-chain that leads to the Golden Golem of Greatness tweeting his wicked id out in his White House lair. The barely suppressed thought behind all this is that Donald Trump raped America… and now he must be found guilty of it… and pay!... It will be interesting to see if the Blue ladies can work their sexual inquisition hoodoo successfully on Trump. So far, he seems like the proverbial immovable object, while the Blue ladies may only be an irresistible force in show business and the media, where mere accusation without due process avails to skewer their devils. Trump’s personal history as a rake on the New York nightlife scene is a trail as wide and open as Fifth Avenue. When the parade of “me too” witnesses commences, my guess is he’ll say, “Sure, twenty-three years ago I squeezed her ass and grabbed her tit. So what…?” Men in many quarters will raise their fists and cry, “Right on.” And then what will Nancy Pelosi actually do? I suspect the hysteria won’t out-live the financial hurricane that the nation is blundering into.[5]

It should go without saying because it used to be the common sense assumption, but yes, no one should be submitted to behavior that is “lewd or unsavory or otherwise repulsive to your person.” It’s a completely different matter to say the current inquisition will have a positive effect or will not produce unintended bad consequences. Furthermore, enraged public opinion shouldn’t have the power to judge and destroy people without due process, nor should all social problems be treated within bureaucracies and legal codes. We have just recently started to unwind a century of “the war on drugs,” so we have to be careful not to repeat the same mistake. There are already laws against sexual violence and harassment, but they are often difficult to prosecute because of our legal systems’ concern for corroborating evidence and presumption of innocence. Victims of other sorts of crimes also have to accept this trade-off as the price worth paying to not live in a society which engages in arbitrary justice and endless cycles of revenge.

An alternative solution is to look back toward lost cultural traditions within which people could help sinners down a path of self-reform and restoration. We used to be taught to be humble, that we are all imperfect. Indeed, the progressives leading the present inquisition also sometimes advocate for prison reform and restorative justice, but the list of crimes that would qualify seems to be rather selective.

The war against what is called “toxic masculinity” has been around for a while, under other labels. Again, we might look to the traditions of our civilization for a hint of how to handle the problem. I cite a passage by Mark Sayers who wrote a concise explanation of toxic masculinity in ancient Sumer, and an innovative reaction to it which some modern readers may not be familiar with. (He’s a protestant Christian minister, so sorry, some may say I’m just citing another “mansplainer.”) The connections to the discussion of Blade Runner and Koyaanisqatsi are rather obvious:

To build and use stone is to work with already fashioned materials, to construct under God’s mandate of being stewards of the creation, working within God’s parameters for being human. Instead the builders [of Babel] chose to mimic God, who used soil to create Adam. But instead of taking living soil and breathing life into it, the builders place soil into fire, burning it thoroughly. The living soil, filled with potential, is made lifeless.... In this subtle way... man’s creative project is in fact a reversal of God’s creation of man, and its results may well be deadly. Humans... have the power to act within God’s will. Or we have the choice to go it alone, trying to gain meaning, through attempting to create the good life in our own strength. To burn our own bricks. R. R. Reno, reflecting on the story of Babel, notes that humanity faces a clear choice, a choice between the covenant of life and the covenant of the lie. The story of the burnt bricks is a warning to us. We carry with us a dreadful power that is the touch of death–just as the burning of the bricks robbed the soil of life, reducing it to a white, deathly remnant of itself, a tool to be exploited. When we live under our own autonomy, cut off from God’s will, we bring that deathly touch to all that we encounter. We see this everywhere in our culture today, almost every aspect of human life is burnt, reduced, and objectified. Relationships are to be exploited, the poor are dehumanized, sexuality is reduced to mechanics, creation is misused and turned into a garbage dump.
The city aids this manipulation of life. For the city is self-contained; it provides for all of its citizens’ needs. Babel is a closed world, Leon Kass writes, “In Babel … the dream of the city holds full sway in the hearts and minds of its inhabitants. Protected by its walls, warmed and comforted in its habitats, and ruled by its teachings, the children of Adam, now men of the city, neither know nor seek to know anything beyond.”[6]

And in that city...

A deep vein of fear ran through Sumerian-Mesopotamian culture. It was unthinkable that the farmer would not get out of bed to tend his fields or that the temple prostitute would fail to perform her duties. To dare to question, to doubt, to not believe, let alone to walk away, was almost unthinkable. The entire force of culture, the weight of his world, pushed Abraham toward conformity, toward belief in the bloodthirsty, empty religion that fostered a brutal view of the world, justified slavery, crushed individuality, and valued vicious competition. Historian Thomas Cahill notes that the ancient Sumerians esteemed the powerful: “... This was a society full of contentiousness and aggression, in which the ‘good’ man–the ideal–was imagined as ambitious in the extreme, animated by a drive for worldly prestige, victory, success, with scant regard to what we would think of as ethical norms. This was also a society that despised poverty.” This was a society in which people were disposable and sex was a tool of power, mechanical and loveless. A two-dimensional world, devoid of imagination... Its differences with our culture are immense. No doubt, however, you will be noticing the similarities. The parallels between our secular culture and Sumer-Mesopotamia’s culture, both cynical, flattened, and devoid of life, make Abraham’s choice to listen to an invisible God, to walk away from his society, all the more incredible, and all the more relevant to us in our quest to follow God in the secular West.[7]

One need not be a follower of Abrahamic religions to draw insights from this story and find inspiration for an honorable way to live. One could substitute “covenant with God” with “covenant with nature” and grasp the importance of living humbly in a way that doesn’t destroy the world for future generations. Sayers also stresses that the only cure for this ancient “toxic masculinity” (my application of the term, not his) was to completely reject the Sumerian belief system. It would be necessary to create a way of living in which people were not “dispensable and sex was not a tool of power, mechanical and loveless.” Adults would have to live within the covenants of marriage, family and community, putting these above self, and would have to stop perceiving their social bonds as vehicles for self-actualization and the pursuit of happiness. Individuals would have to accept limitations, decline the inevitable opportunities to flee or trade up to more interesting lovers and adventures as they present themselves. Sayers wrote that after Abraham, Israel would “be defined as a nation called to show a covenantal approach to marriage, sexuality, family, the poor, the outsider, creation, and most importantly to God.

One could say the presently-needed rejection of Sumerian life would be the rejection of savage capitalism and of the entire American cultural, military and political establishment. Ironically, there was Harvey Weinstein at the center of it all, the power of the Hollywood dream machine, the big Democratic Party donor and devoted supporter of Israel. Hollywood was built by Jewish emigres who had escaped from pogroms in Europe. What a shame that it turned out that Weinstein and Trump are the new odious kings of the heathen empire, one now built with bricks that include not just dead, burnt soil but also radioactive waste and fissionable materials.

The question is how far the outrage of the MeToo movement wants to go in its determination to overthrow the problem of toxic masculinity, which is really a modern iteration of the ancient “bloodthirsty, empty religion that fostered a brutal view of the world, justified slavery, crushed individuality, and valued vicious competition,” the one in which “the ideal man was ambitious in the extreme, animated by a drive for worldly prestige, victory, success.” This society “despised poverty” and “people were disposable and sex was a tool of power, mechanical and loveless.” The revolution can’t happen if we intend to preserve certain contemporary aspects of liberalism. This problem won’t get fixed by the normalization of “sex–bots,” “sex workers,” the “sex industry,” the “porn industry” or the defense of “defense industry jobs.” And by the way, these terms will suffice if you need examples to help you understand what Godfrey Reggio was talking about when he said “our language is in a state of vast humiliation.”

Merry Christmas.
December 24, 2017

Notes

[1] Jill Galvan, “Entering the Posthuman Collective in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Science–Fiction Studies 24 (3): 413–429, 1977.

[2] Gregory Stephens, “Koyaanisqatsi and the Visual Narrative of Environmental Film,” Screening in the Past, 28, 2010,
https://www.academia.edu/11382858/Koyaanisqatsi_and_the_Visual_Narrative_of_Environmental_Film.

[3] Interview available as an extra feature on some editions of the DVD Koyaanisqatsi. See it here on YouTube: https://youtu.be/w9jgLtTrYeA.

[4] Joseph Kishore, “Opposition mounts to sexual harassment witch–hunt,” World Socialist Website, December 16, 2017. https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/12/16/pers–d16.html.

[5] James Howard Kunstler, “Taking Liberty,” Clusterfuck Nation, December 15, 2017,http://kunstler.com/clusterfuck–nation/taking–liberty/.

[6] Mark Sayers, The Road Trip that Changed the World, (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2012), 190–195.




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