Archive for the ‘Film theory’ Category

‘Awakenings’ and Disinhibitors: Thoughts on the human-animal distiction

October 1, 2009

image127In his book, ‘The Open’, Georgio Agamben unfogged another area of his intellectual terrain which has cross-pollinating implications to his work on biopower, law and humanity. Through a reading of Baron Jacodb Uexkull, a zoologist who aimed to abandon anthropocentric perspectives of life-sciences and understand the life-world of insects and animals, Agamben seeks to follow and go beyond Heidegger in an attempt at uncovering the unthought between the animal and the human. Like Heidegger, Agamben’s focus is on the notion of ‘world’. By defining ‘world’ we define the human. For Uexkull, a life-world (Umwelt) is the environment-world dictated by ‘carriers of significance’, ‘marks’ or as Heidegger puts it ‘disinhibitors’. These disinhibitors are things of interest. More importantly, they are the only things of interest for an animal or insect. Using this observation as a starting point, this article aims to use the film ‘Awakenings’ and Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy to tease out a more appropriate definition of world which is big enough for humans and animals.


In one fascinating investigation of the Ixodes ricinus, which is commonly known as a ‘tick’, Uexkull discovers that a tick responds exclusively to three disinhibitors: 1) the odour of the butyric acid contained in the sweat of all mammals; 2) the correct blood/bodily temperature of 37 degrees; 3) the skin’s typology (if it has blood vessels). If these disinhibitors are never encountered, the tick will lie dormant, in a ‘period of waiting’. Once the criteria has been met, the tick acts indiscriminately on any substance or creature defined only by the presentation of these qualities. The animal, Heidegger notes, is fully closed in the circle of its disinhibitors. Beings are not revealed to the animal, but they are not closed off. It is never revealed to itself as being, neither is its environment. How does the animal relate to the world and to being? For Heidegger, the animal never relates to being as being. They are always “suspended.. between itself and its environment” (H in A, 54). “If [animal] behaviour is not a relation to beings, does this mean that it is a relation to the nothing? No!” writes Heidegger, yet “it must be a relation to something, which must itself be?”. By conclusion, animals must be open (offen) but not disconcealled/openable (offenbar). What this means for the animal is that it has something, but does not have a world, it has only disinhibitors.

The problem I see with this is Heidegger’s necessity to keep the human mode of access to being superior via his concept of ‘the open’. It is through ‘the open’ that Heidegger wants to counter the ‘monstrous anthropomorphization of.. the animal and a corresponding animalization of man’ he sees in the work of Nietzsche which is ‘the oblivion of being’ squarely at work (H in A, 58). For Heidegger, it is fundamentally this fleeing from what is uniquely Dasein’s being that equates to nihilism. It is only through ‘the gaze of authentic thought’, Dasein’s being-towards-death whose being is of concern for it, ‘can see the open which names the unconcealdness of being’ (H in A, 58). The whole of Heidegger argument rests on his notion of the open (or the clearing, as it is better known), who has access to the open, who is in the open, which is reserved elusively for Dasein.

It is here that I hear an interjection from Graham Harman: “there is no free transcendent clearing, in human Dasein or elsewhere” (Tool-being, p. 288). The possibilities-to-be that are presented to Dasein by it’s openness to being are not purely futural, as Heidegger states in Being and Time, they are conditions of the actual relations of objects as they unfold as events. But, as Heidegger says, “the animal is excluded from the essential domain of the conflict between unconcealdness and concealedness. The sign of such an exclusion is that no animal or plant “has the word”’ (H in A, p. 58). [For a rejection of this, see my last post HERE] The word does not bring us any closer to being and does not mean Dasein has a world any more or less than an animal. To make his point, Heidegger refers to the experience of profound boredom as something unique to Dasein which proves that Dasein has a entirely different relation to the as-structure of being than animals. Profound boredom is the feeling of being ‘abandoned in emptiness’ to objects that ‘have nothing to offer us’. They have nothing: no-thing; no specific being that seeks to captivate us. There are no disinhibitors which can engage us in a task or project, nothing to be taken with, there is no captivation, yet we are held to it. If I wait in a super market queue I become bored because I am not captivated by anything, my range of disinhibitors doesn’t include the glossy magazine full of useful calorie counting tips that stares at me from the display which includes tooth rotting temptations and a range of insurance products. In this nothingness, I am handed over to a proximity to being equiprimordial to the captivation of animals towards abstract disinhibitors.

In the film ‘Awakenings’ Malcolm Sayer , the doctor played by Robin Williams, brings a set of catatonic patience ‘back to life’ through the administration of a new drug called ‘L-DOPA’. There are many wonderful themes throughout this film that I won’t cover here (I might write a post about it), but for our purposes it is enough to look at how the film (and I’m sure, a lot of actual medical case history to go with it) gives credibility to Harman’s object-oriented philosophy (OOP) against Heidegger using Heidegger’s own notion of disinhibitors. Such is the simplicity and power of the film ‘Awakenings’ it was quite clear how these issues overlap. The patients in the film do not respond by themselves but require a push start or some kind of sensual provocation. Although there are many examples, the clearest example I like the most is when Lucy (played by Alice Drummond) tries to walk over to the water fountain but stops. Dr Sayer believes he understands the problem based upon his ‘borrowing of will’ theory. Lucy stops before she reaches the window because her field of vision is broken. The chequered pattern of black and white squares under her feet come to an end. There is nothing to ‘will’ her onwards. Dr Sayer and nurse Eleanor colour the floor to match the chequered pattern. When they watch Lucy this time, she doesn’t stop at the edge but continues forward but not to the water fountain as Dr Sayer thought, but to a fan. The floor acts as a visual disinhibitor, in the same way my boredom in the supermarket is only broken by my turn at the checkout.



The difference between me and Lucy is that the disinhibitors have been reduced for Lucy. Although I may suffer profound boredom at the supermarket, the number of disinhibitors are still greater than Lucy’s although my orientation towards beings is one of ‘inactive possibilization’, the refusal and indifference towards beings as being something in particular. Scientifically, boredom is said to be related to a lack of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is formed by the decarboxylation of L-DOPA (according to Wikipedia). The massive doses of L-DOPA administered to the patients in the film were enough to create enough dopamine to expand their range of disinhibitors. I would like to define disinhibitors as ‘paths of abstraction’. For instance, I look at the lamp in front of me. I intend the lamp. Before it was there it was not there. Silent and invisible yet being. I knew it was there but I haven’t thought about it since I last turned it off, about 12 hours ago. What do I think of when looking the lamp: 1) it is something 2) It’s a lamp 3) it’s a pink lamp 4) it head droops down like a wilted flower. I could go on, but I won’t. My first line of abstraction was the ‘isness’ of the lamp, my next line of abstraction was its species identification as a lamp. Next was the abstraction of an identified colour relation. And finally, a metaphorical abstraction. Notice that even the first indicator, ‘isness’, is an abstraction. One way of looking at the difference between human beings and animals is down to the control of disinhibitors. I see human disinhibitors in a spectrum. The activation and deactivation of disinhibitors is caused by any number of environmental stimulae (i.e. a change in object-object relations) which form and break ‘lines of abstraction’ within sets of object assemblages.

As Harman explains, “abstraction is not a feature of the human mind, but of any relation whatsoever, since two events are so utterly concrete that they make contact at all only at the price of abstracting from one another, dealing with a small portion of each other rather than the totality” (Prince of Networks, p. 55). I abstract the world by a different set of disinhibitors than Lucy, just as a tick abstracts the world by a limited number of disinhibitors which given the correct conditions are activated without discrimination. For a tick, these disinhibitors are easily identifiable through testing those conditions to gage a response. I disagree with Heidegger on the ontological implications of my refusal of beings during profound boredom, as he states “the refusal is a calling, it is that which makes authentically possible the Dasein in me” (H in A, p. 67). For Lucy, the refusal of being is the absence of any disinhibitor, the ultimate disinhibitor being dopamine, which brings with it a whole set of new disinhibitors.

The tick examined by Uexkull was kept alive for eighteen years without nourishment, in absolute isolation from its environment. He concludes that ‘without a living subject, time cannot exist’, the world of the tick lies in suspension. For the catatonic patients of the hospital a similar fate has befallen them. When they wake from their catatonia, time has not mentally passed. Their mental disinhibitors that allow for self-reflexivity were not activated. They awoke to a new world which mixed two new sets of disinhibitors: their psychophysical condition and the concrete world of actual relations. The difference between their condition and that of the tick in isolation can now be explained. The tick’s body is not engaged enough in a world of relations to cause tissue degeneration. For the patents, their bodies are still heavily engaged in relations with the environment, hence the effects of ageing are more than apparent. The psychophysical body cannot avoid the environmental abstractions between itself and its world. In profound boredom we find the experience that link the catatonic patients to the isolated tick and to my experience in a supermarket. Thus the difference between human Dasein and animals is not an ontological difference but a difference in the ‘lines of abstraction’ which disinhibits reactions under actual conditions of any object’s thrown facticity.

NB – ‘H in A’ means: Heidegger quotes from Agamben’s ‘The Open’

Aliens and Ideology

September 17, 2009

During a lecture by Zizek which can be found HERE, he mentions the John Carpenter film ‘They Live’ as a brilliant yet vulgar example of what he, Zizek, is trying to do: see through layers of ideology.

In this film, the main character steals a box of sunglasses, thinking it was something much better. He ditches the box, but keeps one pair for himself. When he finally tries them on, he discovers that he can literally ‘see’ ideological interpellation at work. For instance, he looks at magazines and adverts and instead of seeing pictures and articles he sees a dull grey background with big black words such as ‘consume’, ‘stay asleep’, ‘marry and procreate’, ‘don’t think’, etc emblazoned across them. The main mystery is that an alien species has infused itself into the world and is keeping everyone docile so they can live out their own capitalist/consumer desires upon us.

This got me thinking about other alien films and the idea of aliens from outer-space as being a symptom of some kind of lack or projection from the human psyche. I want to demonstrate how alien movies contain philosophical and ideological themes. Here are some (very) rough ideas concerning a few well known alien movies and I’m sorry for the lack of polish:

Independence day = aliens are a projection of neoliberal use and abuse system of exploitation. They are capitalism on a galactic scale (they are how we would be if we were able to go into space). First, destroy forms of resistance (asymmetric warfare: the aliens have full spectrum dominance), then move in to extract valuable resources. More interesting themes are: the Jewish protagonist; USA the saviours of the world that tells everyone else how to save themselves; the alien’s exoskeleton which reminds me of a quote from Junger which goes something like ‘technology provides the armour that allows one to step outside the realm of sensation and become impervious to pain’. It also reminds me of the homunculus theory of mind, where a little man sits in the driving seat of our mind, controlling us. Ultimately its a pro-government and pro-military film. The military machine proves, at the end, to have been able to save us, and their behind closed doors research wasn’t in the end a waste of money. The Masonic/illuminate symbolism also act as a cheeky prods to get conspiracy theory types all excited.

The Aliens movies = a look at unrestrained phallus (power). I think Zizek once said that ‘aliens’, in these movies at least, are the bit cut off in castration. Interstellar rape is the basic premise: i.e. this alien species has no concept of out of bounds and is therefore a projection of the desire and danger of transgressing the Oedipal prohibitive phantasy. This mirrors the political phantasy of universal values through the perfect communication between the aliens: aliens work together seamlessly and are not themselves concerned with sex, only jouissance through exercising their power through killing (the only time they show self-reflexivity is when they postpone the moment of death by a few seconds, like they are savouring the paralysis and fear of their victim) and by presenting the mother (queen) with gifts of bodies to act as incubators. They take their collective logic through the Absolute authority of the queen alien. This could reflect our own fears over authoritarian centralized control. This could also be seen as the logic of a universalized politics inscribed into the living organism of the collective alien body itself: the aliens act as one mind against their enemies, and do not fight amongst themselves. The film also acts as an obvious critique against capitalism prioritizing money over life, greed over honour, etc (as the spaceship ‘Nostromo’ hints at, together was the ominous ubiquitous presence of the Corporation). One possible script flaw which undermines the credibility of Ripley is how she allows for the robot in Alien 2 to stay on the mission. Even though he saves the day and is by the end a hero, there was no way of telling this from the start. It would have made more sense for her to kill him anyway, as this can be done with impunity: robots are not life no matter how life like they are. Instead she lets him continue which could possibly have endangered the lives of the crew and herself. This lends itself to a pro-robot sub-plot, which clearly gives the message that robots, if programmed towards the correct human values, could be our saviours. ‘Newt’ is a little more difficult to account for. The more than obvious interpretation being, she is the replacement for her own, now dead, daughter (the lost love object returns). Here is a horrible interpretation of why ‘Newt’ is an important name. A newt’s cells can de-differentiate, which means, they can regenerate limbs and organs. Now ‘Newt’ could be seen as a regeneration of the lost daughter and also as a metaphor for Ripley herself, who seems to be able to come back to life (as in the fourth film).

Predator – predator as the logic of honourable warfare. Kind of Nietzschian superman, who like to face resistance and overcome it through honourable exchanges in combat. To overcome resistance one must become seamlessly integrated into the environment one is in (in P1 Arnie becomes imperceptible to the predator through camouflage etc). I’ll think more about this later.

Men in Black = Film relies upon Leibniz universe in an atom speculation, which becomes clear during the move after solving the galaxy on Orion’s belt mystery and the game of marbles at the end of the film between the two alien creatures. Link between black and shadows. MIB run in the imperceptible background which actually maintains its control over alien refugees, so everyone can get on with their important lives and not be blighten with the alien presence – obviously a few aliens slip through the net! Normal society could be seen as white, therefore, will smith as a black man is the negative of the MIB image which becomes appropriated into the MIB by an aesthetic turn. The illegitimacy of the MIB is untouched in favour of an aesthetic reappraisal of the MIB’s own reflexive image. This could be some kind of commentary on hip-hop culture becoming mainstream, but I won’t held at gun point to this thesis. The cockroach could be a metaphor for minorities (namely Mexicans). The story goes like this: the cockroach or ‘bug’ is hiding in the skin of a farmer (i.e. they pretend to be people) and is hunting for the supreme energy source. If the ‘bug’ finds it we will all be killed by the higher power who readies their guns at us waiting for us to make a mistake. This could be seen viewed like this: the cockroach is a metaphor for the escaped Mexican refugees, they are unwanted pests, they are here to degrade the American way of life and culture, to sap their energy source, etc. If this happens then the international competition are ready to pounce on what was once a cytoplasticly strong country and destroy their market superiority! This xenophobic interpretation is a bit wild, but it does seem to carry some weight, given the political context, as in 1994, Proposition 187 was passed in California, barring illegal immigrants from receiving basic social services. The film came out in 1997. Immigration issues must have been big news around the time the script would have been penned.

I could do this all day, but I want to finish the second chapter of Graham Harman’s ‘Tool-being’ asap. There are loads of other strands to draw out, maybe someone else can analyse those?