The Promise of an Island

March 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

Photo by Sean O'Flaherty aka Seano1 atwal singh, published on Wikimedia Commons.

It is easy to dismiss Michael Bay’s dystopian action thriller come road movie sci-fi romance “The Island” (2005) as a failed “Matrix” runner-up. In fact, most critics seem to agree on the point that the film wants to include too many classic action movie elements into a challenging story line on human cloning – and fails to satisfy expectations within the short time frame of 130 minutes (See www.rottentomatoes.com/m/island/). And yet, for all its polished aesthetics, including the protagonists’ unisex surfaces called Lincoln Six-Echo (Ewan McGregor) and Jordan Two-Delta (Scarlett Johansson), the film also asks a fundamental question about individuality and its value in a consumerist society.

At first sight, all the elements of a classic action/sci-fi thriller appear in place: a dubious multi-billion dollar corporation cloning human organs and babies, run by an evil scientist with a god complex, who has created a minimal-stimulus, isolated, subterranean lifeworld to house his “products”. All of the inhabitants of this clinical environment lead identical lives, go to the same workplaces, wear the same clothes, live in identical cubicles, and are closely monitored by managing and security staff. Technologically overwhelmed and constantly under surveillance, all inhabitants accept their fate without doubt, dreaming of winning the daily lottery for a place on “the Island”, the last inhabitable spot on earth – as they are told.

But of course, the quarantine of this place is not perfect. Borders are permeable. And Lincoln begins to question “where all these tubes go” that he and his colleagues are filling with nutrients, day in, day out. His acquaintance with a maintenance guy from behind the scenes, James McCord (Steve Buscemi), makes him question the myth of the contaminated outside world. Now, surprisingly, the flight from the netherworld is not the climax of the film but appears with almost mathematical precision in the middle. What follows is another plot line, that focuses on Lincoln and Jordan seeking to “raise awareness” among the real humans, that they are getting their organs and babies from other human bodies, who are killed for the purpose. Although McCord cautions that “Just because people eat the burger doesn’t mean they wanna meet the cow” Lincoln and Jordan seek out their genetic doubles to confront them. The endeavor spins another sequence of car chases and explosives going off, which seems to start a new film altogether. Most reviewers focused on the human cloning aspect of the movie and its overbearing emphasis on the action sequences in that second part. And admittedly, here the films fails.

“It’s the New American Dream”

But going back to the beginning, the opening sequence gives the film an altogether different mood. In a dream sequence, Jordan sits atop a futuristic boat, surfing across the ocean. Lincoln approaches her from behind, and as they make contact, he is brutally gripped by two men and pulled into the water. Awaking from this sequence in his concrete, white-grey room, a computer diagnoses an “erratic REM sleep cycle”. The theme that continues through the sequences of the first part is individual aberration from the prescribed and accepted norms of the environment. The controlled environment for all clones homogenizes all elements, from clothes to drinks to work and social conduct, in order to allow only minimal sociality.

In the words of its chief engineer, the cloning of organs alone did not create the desired results. Bodies needed the feeling of being alive, even in such a reduced, sensual environment. As Dr. Merrick explains,

“After several years of trial and error we discovered that without a consciousness, without human experience, emotion, without life the organs failed.”

In order to achieve sociality (devoid of risk) and stability (devoid of alternatives), the engineers project a variety of life stories to their clone bodies at infant stage. While each body contains variants of a memory from a fake past, all of them together are bound together with a common threat, a threat that rationalizes acceptance of their condition.

“We control them with the memory of a shared event. A Global contamination. It keeps them fearful of going outside. The Island is the one thing that gives them hope. Gives them purpose. Everything we expose them to, their programs, their cartoons, books, the games they play, are designed to manage aggression and reinforce simple social skills. To avoid obvious complications they aren’t imprinted with an awareness of sex. We find it simpler to eliminate the drive altogether. In a very real sense, they’re like children, educated to the level of a 15-year old.”

Now, this entire plot immediately triggers a cultural-pessimistic perspective, a criticism of homogenization vs. individuality, control vs. freedom, Levittown suburb structures vs. historical bricolage chaos. The centralized facilities of the netherworld are the most efficient control mechanisms in which the human drives are contained in a post-histoire vacuum. Against the neon-lit caves, halls and laboratories, Jordan and Lincoln are bathed in sunlight once they have escaped. The whole film thrives on these opposition pairs in almost all of its sequences, and, admittedly, this is a fairly simplistic dramaturgy.

But on the other side, this film is not so banal as it seems. Human cloning as a way to extend life is firmly anchored in a consumerist setting which privileges those able to pay horrendous sums for “owning” a genetic duplicate of themselves while keeping those copies in a monotonous environment of self-sameness. All the clothes are white, all the Nike- shoes that Lincoln finds in his drawer are equally white, all the drinks are optimized for their levels of vitamin and nutrients. In this aesthetic monotony the missing differentiation of products only covers up the apparent self-sameness of product categories in real life. So, if the de-individualized array of products in the film plays out a powerful (yet predictable) metaphor of homogenization, it leaves the seeming differentiation of Nike shoes alive. It even affirms the schema of identical mass produced fare as a rational basis for individual choice. The film (along with its corporate sponsors) thus offers a vision of a near future, in which homogenization serves as the (visual) mechanism to leave the belief in product differentiation, freedom of choice and individuality based on consumer experience intact. The “new American Dream” of owning genetic copies of oneself is then the old American dream of “making it,” of extending life through wealth, fame and possession.

In his book Archaeologies of the Future, Fredric Jameson argued that the task of science fiction was not to deliver a plausible, detailed vision of the future but to “demonstrate and to dramatize our incapacity to imagine the future” (288-89). Because a detailed account of future live forms would soon appear banal in face of the present, science fiction can “serve the quite different function of transforming our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come.” Representations of the future were a function to create an awareness of the present, which is “untotalizable and hence unimaginable” (See further my article on “Images of the Cybernetic Body, or, The Banality of the Future“). In “The Island” the regulation of drives reflects the sedating power of consumption, which privileges the immediately available over the unrealistically utopian. The island in the film is an animated vision of a common hope, a constantly actualized common reference point for all entrapped in the netherworld of daily doses of moderate consumption. In keeping with the dream structure of a joint vision the film delves into a fantasy of escape that can only function within the narrow limits of the action genre. Jamesons’s perceptive analysis of the temporality of science fiction, raises the point as to how such a vision of an escape can relieve the stress of accepting that in real life such an escape is less than probable.

From the beginning sequence, “The Island” plays out the dream-like dimensions of a common fate sustained by individual ambitions. The shocking grip of the assailants who submerge Lincoln under water is at the same time a shock to prepare the viewer for the de-individualized netherworld, an environment that is aesthetically and functionally homogenized. But only through this demarcation can the film question the homogeneity of consumption that thrives on menial differentiation. The promise of an island becomes then less of an empowering vision but stands in for the unchanging (and inescapable) structure of regulation.

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Introducing _ Abrasion Studies No 2

December 4, 2010 § 1 Comment

Objects of Desire – beyond knowledge @ Johns Hopkins, Homewood Campus. Home to 4,744 undergraduates in FY 2008/09

Some two and a half years ago, I posted an introductory musing on abrasion as a category and concept in cultural analysis. My basic assumption was that abrasion is a physical process which is simultaneously a means of achieving perfection (e.g. polishing surfaces) and a destructive force (e.g. erosion). The fascination grew into a random hobby of finding traces of abrasion in the material world and relating these traces back to a thick (or thin) description of their cultural significance. As a side-note to studies of material culture, abrasion can offer unique inroads to understanding processes of interaction.

Everyday Abrasion

In his small introduction to tribology – the science of studying abrasive phenomena, Mathew Mate starts out with enumerating lots of examples from everyday life. Starting from childhood, friction, abrasion and wear are part of our life as much as eating, playing, and sleeping. “Crawling as infants, we mastered the frictional forces needed to get us where we wanted to go.” Mate goes on to wonder:

Considering how much we encounter the tribological phenomena of friction, lubrication, adhesion, and wear in our daily lives and the wide extent of these phenomena in technology, one might be puzzled why these topics are only marginally covered in our current education system. (Tribology on the Small Scale, A Bottom Up Approach to Friction, Lubrication, and Wear. Oxford UP, 2007. p.1.)

Tribology is an applied science especially relevant for engineering, where extensive tests are run on different combinations of steels with varying degrees of toughness and density. The aim is to reduce wear on surfaces and hence to extend the life range of tools, materials and machines. Lubrication has become important in this respect to either cool down machinery or reduce the amount of abrasive waste. Improving the abrasive qualities of car tires makes it safer to drive at higher speeds, but increases the load of run-off rubber on streets as well. In Germany alone, 42,000 tons of rubber go down the drain simply from cars driving on the streets. Without worn-off rubber the street would lack grip, but too much waste on the surface in combination with water will inevitably create a slippery course.

Art, Abrasion and Interaction

Those temping toes … (@ Orangerie, Potsdam) Photo: Miala via Flickr

Besides this framework, abrasion is especially interesting where it relates to audience behavior and interaction with artworks. I have always wondered about this angel on the top level of Potsdam’s Orangerie, where no visitor seems to pass by without touching the shiny, protruding toe. Is it a good omen to touch the toe? Are they involved in a conservationist effort to retain the bronze underneath the tainted, aged surface? The toe is on a child’s eye level and practically the only thing within reach. Located next to a long flight of stairs, the toe is probably the first thing a child sees upon reaching the landing – or the last hand(y)rail, before the descent.

Photo: Author’s own

Abrasion and Desire

In October, the New York Times reported on a similar curiosity in the Time Warner Center. Two sculptures by Fernando Botero called “Adam and Eve” were exhibited in the lobby, but Adam outgrew Eve in getting more than affectionate attention from art lovers. This time, the point of attraction is on the level of an adult’s eye and the protrusion has attracted many shy glances and frequent photo op’s for the family album.

“Adam” by Fernando Botero (Photo: Bridget Crawford)

Artists have little control over the ways in which an artwork should touch the spectator, but vice versa certain physical traits make haptic contact more likely. When art collectors  and exhibition designers prohibit physical contact with the artwork, the effort of often enough thwarted by an audience too curious to get more than an intellectual grip. Abrasion changes the look of the piece but isn’t it also a sign that art becomes embedded in a social web of interactions, that it matters beyond the learned discourse tightly wrapped around the statue? In this example from one of the many Jain-Temple in Jaisalmer (India), generations of salvation seekers have left their inevitable mark on two of the statues.

Photo: A Mag(i)er

We should add, though, that the female statue apparently drew more attention …

Photo: A Mag(i)er

Is not the fascination here similar in its religiosity, need for contact, or even an urge to leave a mark – a collective urge of presence? Abrasion does not explain this but can serve as an indicator of collective forms of interaction. Carl Andre made sculptures of lead, steel and copper plates spread out on exhibition floors. Usually visitors should walk on these plates to hear and feel the different material qualities. But once the space is barred by red plastic tape, how is the graphic impression of lead plates supposed to substitute for the material experience? Certainly, curators like to minimize abrasion to preserve their fortunes but if an artwork can be embedded in social practice beyond letters, abrasion seems a worthy price to pay.

Carl Andre “Copper Magnesium Plain” (1969) (via: The Opposite of Tomato)

Addendum May 2012: The curators of the permanent exhibition at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof Art Museum seem to have been more courageous with respect to Carl Andre’s work. Visitors can actually walk on the steel plates of “Eight Reversed Steel Corner” (1978) and hear the sudden clonking sound of the few plates which are slightly irregular. Be surprised.

Carl Andre: Eight Reversed Steel Corner (1978). Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie, Sammlung Marzona

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