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Posts Tagged ‘identity’

My rating: *****
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This wonderful and underrated science fiction film was directed by Vincenzo Natali who directed the earlier better known Cube. The original title for the film was Company Man but was renamed Cypher when the film-makers found there was another film of the same name.

Cypher means a person of no influence, zero or nothing. It is essentially a film about identity, the homogeneity of modern life and rather surprisingly a love story, although this is not apparent until the end. The satisfyingly convoluted plot by Brian King involves a colourless corporate employee Morgan Sullivan (Jeremy Northam) who agrees to become a spy with the pseudonym Jack Thursby for his company Digicorps who are locked in a battle for corporate domination with another megacompany called Suncorps systems. In a plot twist we find that the boring conventions that Sullivan is supposed to be secretly recording around the country are in fact brainwashing sessions in which he is given a new identity as an another equally colourless company man also living in bland suburbia trapped in an identical loveless marriage. Along the way Sullivan meets a beautiful woman Rita Foster (Lucy Liu) who helps him through these convolutions. We also find out about a mysterious super spy with the intriguing name of Sebastian Rooks.

The production design and art direction in this film is outstanding. Colours are carefully and subtly arranged throughout the film. The plays of light and shadow over the characters and their faces is beautiful to watch. The sets are also wonderfully futuristic but redolent of the 1950s and 1960s. The story takes place in a futuristic retro environment where it is permanently the 1950s, but technology has rendered that bland comformity into an even more repressive and homogenised environment. The film begins in a virtual monochrome with gradual subtle departures like a book about the South Sea islands owned by the main character and a glass of single malt whiskey being poured. Walter Mitty like, Sullivan creates a fantasy about himself in his new character as Jack Thursby as having been born in the South Sea islands and being a lover of fine whisky, cigarettes and golf.

What is so satisfying is that at the end it turns out that the extravagant fantasy is actually the reality. Sullivan is in fact Sebastian Rooks who has changed himself via brainwashing into the corporate man in order to steal a piece of data from a high security vault. We speculate about what piece of data could warrant such extravagant preparation and risk. Then we learn at the end that it is a file on his lover Rita Foster with the directive ‘terminate with extreme prejudice’. As they sail away on their yacht he tosses the disk – the only copy of the data – into the sea.

The film closes on a beautifully lit and framed closeup of Sebastian Rooks looking utterly different from the bland Morgan Sullivan. The shot is underscored with electronic lounge music that is quite different and just as right as the austere music that accompanies the rest of the film. It is a brief shot that I can watch again and again just to enjoy its sheer enigma and mystery. As Natali says in the director’s commentary, we can never know who anybody is, not even ourselves.

Incidentally, the sense of dream like strangeness and displacement that the film creates is helped by the fact that although set in the USA, this is a Canadian film and only one of the actors Lucy Liu is American. Jeremy Northam is British and the director, crew and all the other actors are Canadian.

Although there has been some controversy about the ending of the film and the contents of the disk, in my view it is the most satisfying ending possible and completely makes the whole film, for me at least. Rooks’ quixotic and anarchic gesture of romantic love is the perfect counterpoint to the ruthless greed of the corporations and completely negates what they stand for. Further to this, reality is not the usual cold shock of the boring mundane, but the fantasy of colour, luxury and freedom.

My one criticism of the film would be Rita’s removal towards the end, of her red and beautifully styled short wig to reveal her long black hair. This reduces her character to ordinariness just as Morgan Sullivan remembers himself as the very exotic Sebastian Rooks. I would have far preferred Rita Foster to retain her cool stylishness to match his.

Watching this film the first time around one certainly doesn’t see the final twist coming. On a second viewing of the film, one can appreciate it as a love story. Jeremy Northam’s subtle transformation from a colourless and unattractive cypher to an enigmatic, dangerous and attractive man is quite an acting tour de force.

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Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

If identity becomes the problem of sexual existence, and if people think they have to ‘uncover’ their ‘own identity’ and that their own identity has to become the law, the principle, the code of their existence; if the perennial question they ask is ‘Does this thing conform to my identity?’ then, I think, they will turn back to a kind of ethics very close to the old heterosexual virility. If we are asked to relate to the question of identity, it has to be an identity to our unique selves. But the relationships we have to have with ourselves are not ones of identity, rather they must be relationships of differentiation, of creation, of innovation. To be the same is really boring.

[Michel Foucault. (1996) [1984]. Sex, Power and the Politics of Identity. In Foucault Live. collected Interviews, 1961-1984. Sylvere Lotringer (Ed.). New York: Semiotext(e), p. 385.]

Random thoughts in response

Foucault is talking specifically about homosexual identity here but what he says can be applied to his views on all forms of identity, something which is borne out by other remarks in the rest of his work. These remarks all share the common theme that identities are a trap which limit who you are and make you subject to power relations. We need to continually escape from identity formation, not try and aspire to an identity. This position is clear in his famous remark from The Archaeology of Knowledge:

I am probably not the only one who writes in order to be faceless. Don’t ask who I am, or tell me to stay the same: that is the bureaucratic morality, which ensures that our papers are kept in order. It ought to let us be when it comes to writing
(AS:28, AK:17). Translation by Clare O’Farrell

Speaking at a personal level (I can afford such luxuries in this blog format!), I have found Foucault’s position particularly useful recently in thinking through problems of writer’s block. Why has writing been so difficult, and a problem that has haunted my existence for decades, its spectral presence never completely out of my vision? Perhaps the answer is simple. I have been aspiring to what I have perceived as the desirable identity of ‘writer’, a hugely constraining and complex set of rules which constantly provokes the question in relation to any writing activity: ‘does this thing conform to my identity?’

This question becomes particularly restrictive in the academic context which strongly polices what is regarded as suitable subject matter for academic discussion and the form in which this is delivered. The academy, for all the admirable and worthwhile rigour of its approach can also operate terrorist effects on those who have been trained to accept its norms and principles. It is an environment which is both enabling and limiting.

To further complicate this scenario, the modernist view of the academic writer and intellectual, one which I grew up with and breathed in every day, was that such a writer had a sacred mission to the world, to save mankind from its excesses, to reveal the truth, to make an important contribution to the well-being and advancement of society. Your success on this front was measured by your ‘reputation’, by the numbers of acolytes hanging on your every utterance and the volume of citations in a variety of citation indexes. There is no doubt that writers such as Foucault have definitely more than stepped up to the mark here, even if Foucault himself was by no means reticent in drawing attention to the flaws of such missionary pretensions. For example, one can refer to his remarks on the ‘specific’ versus the ‘universal’ intellectual and to his personal doubts about the social efficacy of writing as an activity.

Is this model of writing, this writerly identity, one that is productive for everyone? There is no doubt that it has been highly successful for many, but in my own case this poorly articulated lifelong quest to ‘uncover’ my identity as a writer, to somehow make it the governing principle of my existence has been constraining to the point of paralysis. Seeking to solidify an identity which would forevermore mark a place and a concrete presence in the world, like some kind of public monument, has been a shaky premise on which to operate. Aspiring to monumental status, no matter how grand, is a recipe for grinding boredom and paralysed inactivity.

So where does this leave me and my own writing activity? I can only come to one conclusion. Writing works for me when I regard it as fun, easy and disposable. I am able to write because of the cultural capital provided by my education and family background. Nothing else. There is no ‘mission’. It is a hobby not an identity. My own enjoyment and engagement, and the enjoyment of a few others observing my attempts as ‘a unique self’ (to use Foucault’s phrase) at ‘differentiation, creation and innovation’ is what makes it all worthwhile.

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My rating: *
Spoiler Alert

The Amber Spyglass (His Dark Materials, Book 3) The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman


My review

This book is well written and the story really hooks you in, but I really disliked the philosophy Pullman is pushing. This philosophy seems to be a kind of Nietzschean materialist version of gnosticism (phew!). His is a universe which allows only of one interpretation, a place where the event is nothing but the intervention of chaos and the void and must be negated so the status quo can be restored in the full glory of its disciplinary order. It is a universe where the human curiosity for knowledge leads to ruin and annihilation (although the author overtly claims the opposite) and where the fluidity of identity must be replaced by the supremacy of the rational and by fixed identity.

Just to break down those abstractions a bit. The ‘event’ is the opening up of windows to other worlds by scientists – Lord Asriel and the scientists in the Cittagazze. This leads to the beginning of the breakdown of the universe and the potential annihilation of consciousness. It is scientific curiosity about what is out there and other worlds that leads to this situation.

Views on identity centre around daemons (souls). Children have daemons which can change shape until they reach puberty. After that, they become fixed which Pullman indicates several times is a good thing and a sign of maturity and wisdom. This identity also appears to maintain the social order. Once a servant always a servant. As Lyra explains in The Amber Spyglass the daemons of servants are usually dogs, indicating that these are people who need to be led and ordered around. One is not a servant due to unjust social circumstances or questionable social hierarchies but because that is what one’s nature is and one must remain as ordained. Entire armies of Tartars have wolf daemons. If one is not happy with one’s daemon – too bad – you are stuck with it. So much for social justice or working on the self as a project.

Lyra, when she hits puberty, loses her intuitive ability to read the alethiometer and must then be formed by the disciplinary institution of the (boarding) school in order to develop rational techniques to read it. It is the Modernist idea that fantasy and intuition are the province of childhood and are properly replaced by adult ‘rationality’. C. Wright Mills provides a classic example of this kind of thinking in his 1959 work The Sociological Imagination.

Dust appears to be conscious matter which works in sync with humans – it is both attracted to humans and generated by humans. It relies on humans to aggregate into a conscious form. Angels are beings who can’t quite pull it off in terms of really existing because they have no real material body. They are half existences (even if they are powerful) and envy the body of humans.

A propos this angelic nature, Will is content to ask entities such as angels whether they are stronger or weaker than humans. When the first angel he meets, Balthamos, replies he is weaker than humans, Will bluntly tells him that he has to do what he orders him to do in that case. This theme of exploiting his position as the strongest emerges again and again. If Will thinks he can exercise power over somebody or something he doesn’t hesitate to do so. The Nietzschean hero indeed.

‘God’ or ‘the Authority’ is an evil being who only wants to dominate and control Man and is frightened of the power of the latter. What we have here is an old-fashioned modernist anthropomorphic view of the universe. Humans (and the equivalents thereof) are the centre and the raison d’être of all conscious being.

On another topic, the idea of a romantic interlude between two twelve year old children resulting in the salvation of the universe both present and future is both tacky and unconvincing. Why should ‘Dust’ (aka conscious matter particles) find such an event to be the stabilising point?

There is no room for multiple interpretations of elements within Pullman’s cosmology, which makes it a very closed and small universe. At the same time it is hard to pin down what is actually going on satisfactorily and it all seems very confused and self-contradictory at the edges. It would appear that both scientific and spiritual forms of experimental knowledge are dangerous to the well-being of the entire universe and that the best we can do is conform to a rigid disciplinary status quo which will preserve our nature and protect us from the danger of annihilation. There is nothing but a gaping void beyond or outside of this status quo. Even when you are dead you are recycled to guarantee the ongoing existence of this ghastly stasis.

In conclusion, one is left with nowhere to go at the end of Pullman’s trilogy but that would appear to be the author’s aim in any case.

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