04 April 2012

Interiority and Solipsism (in Movies!)

 A significant number of popular movies made (or recycled) in recent years have focused on apparently ordinary characters living more or less anonymous lives, who discover that the world is somehow an illusion which conceals their interior greatness.  The characters then embark on a heroic journey which involves the overturning of the governing structures of the world in favor of a previously hidden structure, within which the protagonist is a uniquely potent manifestation of god-like cosmogenic powers.  Examples (or closely related cases) that come to mind include: The Matrix, Harry Potter, Wanted, Star Wars, Inception, Pan's Labyrinth, Pleasantville, Shutter Island, and The Truman Show. 

Each case differs somewhat from the others.  Thus while The Matrix and Inception are strikingly similar, they differ in the latter's heavy use of freudian psychology and in that the artificial world is being imposed on the characters by humans.  Again, Truman may not have the powers Neo has in The Matrix, but the plots of the two movies are essentially identical (although The Matrix extends in its latter parts to Truman's life after he has left the bio-dome).  Pleasantville is an interesting case in that it is outsiders who enter into the world (as if by a Platonistic emanation) to share their experience with it.  Here again, the structure of the plot is analogous to that of The Truman Show, though Pleasantville is frankly more interesting in its use of scriptural themes and treatment of vice.

In any case, the common theme in all of these movies is that the truth of the individual is being repressed by the force of an artificial common life.  This common life (which is represented, curiously, by grayscale in Pleasantville, black and white in Star Wars, and men in black suits and white shirts in The Matrix) is supported by a pernicious force which is vulnerable to the realization of the heroic virtue implied by the truth of the lone protagonist.  In The Matrix it is the calm evil of a meaningless job that's show to be at the service of the more malicious "agents".  In Truman, it is the saccharine character of the wife that conceals the greatest manipulative force, and the serenity of the sky which hides the puppetmaster.  Or, again, the oppressive evil of the Dursleys in Harry Potter is replaced in the magical world by Voldemort and his followers. 

Once the real struggle between the authentic interiority of the protagonist and the oppressive commonality of the ordinary world is revealed, the protagonist takes up arms against the world in order to defend himself.  His task becomes the destruction of the entire world for the sake of his personal liberation and self-actualization.  The justice of this act is motivated within the plots of these movies in various ways.  In The Matrix, the antagonist is a computer that is using humans as an energy source.  In Pleasantville the world being destroyed is portrayed as naive and old-fashioned and shallow.  In  Shutter Island we find out that the entire scheme of things is a psychological charade.  And of course in Star Wars the imperial armies are all masked clones fighting under the orders of a pair of shrivelled and tyrannical old men.  Etc. 

One catches the scent in all this of a variety of philosophical impulses.  Most of all, one thinks of the opposition posited by the modern secular world between the authenticity of the individual self in its interiority, and the inauthentic commonality of people at large.  This idea has found expression particularly in the neo-hipster movement that has developed in the past decade, at the core of which is a question about how self-expression is possible in an era of mass-culture.

Excursus on Hipsters

Mass-production, along with the broad uniformity and ubiquity of the norms of behavior and consumption promulgated by the mass media, gives rise to a pessimism about the meaningfulness of communication and doubts about the possibility of authentic expression. Given these doubts, the modern dualistic person takes the alienation of his soul from his body and realizes (with Saussure and Barthes) that meaning is alienated from signifiers, so that the way to be authentic is to communicate self-consciously, and the way to communicate that one is self-conscious is to do things which are ridiculous but not be ashamed of them, so that it is clear that one is doing them only ironically. (This is the closest the unimpowered bourgeois post-adolescent can come to overthrowing the social order.)  Thus in order to bridge the gap between meaning and signifier, one has to sever the two and graft meaning onto a new signifier, often the opposite of the old one. This is “irony” in contemporary usage. The ironist does something and implicitly says “I’m not really doing this; I’m ironically doing this.”  The consequences of such an approach to taste and activity broadly speaking are fascinating.  It amounts to a kind of studied imprudence, where the proper reasons for action are broadly replaced by their opposites.

However, leaving the question of virtue aside this behavior has two consequences: first and most obviously the ironist is incapable of expressing values positively, because his communication never really gets past sarcasm. Second, the increasing gap between meaning and signifier forces the ironist to buy into an especially strong idea of interiority.  The result is a kind of kierkegaardian despair. Communication becomes utterly contentless, except in its descriptions of its own formal qualities, descriptions which are themselves blighted by the plague of hyper-interiority.  Interiority becomes a sort of postmodern defense mechanism, which assumes the existence of an insurmountable barrier protecting the self from intrusion by others. The individual cannot be understood, and thus cannot be judged, cannot be held accountable. Therefore, the thought goes, his freedom in his own sphere is absolute.  However, the ironist is nonetheless human, and as such requires fellowship. But he cannot go outside the limits of his own sphere, because to do so would involve re-attaching meanings to their original signifiers, and this, he worries, means submitting his authentic, proper self to the inauthenticity and cliche which is the medium of all intersubjectivity. So he remains alone.

Back to the Show

Of course, this isn't how it works out in the movies.  There, once the world of the ordinary is overthrown, life in the protagonist-centered hidden world begins.  This new world does justice to the nature of the protagonist in a way that the ordinary one didn't.  In almost every case, the new world allows the protagonist to join a community where the authentic interiority of individuals is respected.  (One might think of the school for mutants in X-Men.  It is populated by diverse creatures each led to cultivate his own art.)  Thus, for all the unpleasant associations of the scheme we've related so far (esp. the suggestion that the self and the world are in an inexorable conflict), another positve line of interpretation is possible for this genre of film.  The bland mass-produced fixity of the inauthentic is replaced by the voluntary communion of individuals.  The violence of anonymous mass-culture (which restricts the ability of the individual to act freely and meaningfully, to grow in virtue and be perfected), is replaced by the freedom of personal community, in which the particular aptitudes of individuals are developed, art reasserts its right against usurping technologies, and the self is embodied and located with others in a natural way. 

The supreme and tired irony of all this is that it's being propagated by the very sort of mass-cultural apparatus that the films are apparently speaking against.  Which leads us to think that, given the escapist function of most fantasy films, screenwriters have found that what most viewers are really looking for in the temples of mass culture is an escape from the monotony of mass culture itself.  Of course, the viewers don't recognize their real desires, and so they'll continue to buy 2 liter sodas and packs of snow caps while they sit in the theater watching allegorical condemnations of consumerism and mass culture.