Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Perpetual Train: Allegory and Revolution in Bong Joo-ho's _Snowpiercer_

*The following is an attempted affirmation of the critical legitimacy of the recent movie Snowpiercer.  Please be advised that this post contains spoilers for the film, and also discusses certain aspects of the film that assume a level of familiarity from the readers.

The present, which, as a model of Messianic time, comprises the entire history of mankind in an enormous abridgement, coincides exactly with the stature which the history of mankind has in the universe.
~Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

            Last year, Bong Joo-ho’s Snowpiercer was released internationally (it did not arrive in the United States until June 27, 2014) to tremendous, if not somewhat surprising, critical and popular acclaim.  The film depicts a futuristic scenario in which a very small remainder of humanity has been driven from the surface of the earth by climate change and forced to live out its existence within the walls of a perpetual-motion train, which makes an entire revolution around the earth every 365 days.  However, class regulations have restricted the poorest of civilization to the rear of the train, while the wealthiest live in the front.  The film follows a group of insurrectionists who attempt to take control of the engine, thereby (purportedly) improving their station within the train.
            Allegorically, the film offers a smorgasbord of figurative interpretations, a number of which are even corroborated by characters’ dialogue (class warfare, environmentalism, imperialism, etc.).  However, the train-image fails in many respects to capture the full complexity of these interpretations – an accusation that can be leveled at any metaphor, since figurative language necessarily engages in abstraction regarding its subject matter. This raises an interesting question in the case of Snowpiercer: as a figurative image that fails on multiple levels, might it not be the case that this distinct failure registers a more profound concern within the film, that being the problem of abstraction itself?  The train, as one character prominently notes, is the world; but, as viewers (and some characters) learn at the film’s conclusion, the train is most certainly not the world.  This might appear as a simple case of gnostic unveiling or revelation, but I want to suggest that the conclusion of the film does not present a discovery of absolute truth, but the realization that truth is always conditioned by the imposition of frames of meaning.  Truth can only appear by abstracting human perspectives into a totality.  Snowpiercer acknowledges the failure of this process.
            If abstraction fails for the purposes of representation, then we also must carry the consequences of this failure through to other various scenarios.  Here, the Marx of Grundrisse provides some clarification through commentary on the notion of abstract labor: “This example of labour shows strikingly how even the most abstract categories, despite their validity – precisely because of their abstractness – for all epochs, are nevertheless, in the specific character of this abstraction, themselves likewise a product of historic relations, and possess their full validity only for and within these relations” (Marx 105).  Abstraction provides necessary and helpful means of comprehending certain dynamics of historical reality, but only within a limited framework.  Beyond these limitations, we must shift our perspective and our abstract models.  The development of Snowpiercer only masquerades as progress – up through the train, car by car, striving for the head – before it reveals itself as purposeless; but it is in this purposeless that its power lies.  Curtis and the others may choose to revolt, or they may choose not to.  Should they revolt, a change in power occurs, or the train meets its demise.  Should they do nothing, the power structure remains and the train goes on.  No matter which course they pursue, a polar bear still walks in the snow beyond.
            The mistake to make in reacting to Snowpiercer is to read it as suggesting the impotence of revolution.  Despite its bleak ending, Snowpiercer portrays revolution as successful for the very reason that it explodes the boundaries of abstraction within the train: the train-as-world, individuals as cogs in the machine, everything in its proper place, etc.  The film is thus about the failure of allegory.  The film has not actually constructed the allegory of the train; the characters who rule the train, Wilford and Minister Mason, the educational and political institutions, impose and perpetuate the allegory.  It is their allegory, not the filmmakers’.  The film presents allegory as cultural myth.  Revolution, then, is not a part of this allegory.  Revolution, on the other hand, destroys allegory.  Here we encounter Fredric Jameson’s dictum on the power of science fiction: “the narrative ending is the mark of that boundary or limit beyond which thought cannot go. The merit of SF is to dramatize this contradiction on the level of plot itself, since the vision of future history cannot know any punctual ending of this kind, at the same time that its novelistic expression demands some such ending” (148).  In Snowpiercer, the train marks the boundary, or limit, beyond which the thought of its inhabitants cannot go.  The allegory, or totality, of the train, performs the function not of form, but of content.  The revolutionary kernel of the film derives from the fact that it literally blows up its own content.
            In 2004, between the release of Snowpiercer and its source text, the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige (1982), China Miéville published the final installment of his Bas-Lag Trilogy, Iron Council; a fantasy novel that also dramatizes revolutionary potential around the central image of a perpetual train.  Eerily similar to Joo-ho’s adaptation of Le Transperceneige, Miéville’s fictional train is constructed by Weather Wrightby (the engineer in Snowpiercer is named Wilford), a monomaniacal capitalist and imperialist who is also driven by notions that his project is sanctioned by divine will.  On Joo-ho’s apocalyptic train, a cult of personality has even developed around Wilford, who is practically revered by many of those on board.  In both texts – Iron Council and Snowpiercer – the train appears as a mythological and religious bastion, a world-in-itself, providing solidarity and totality for fantasies of imperialist dominion.  While Miéville’s text presents a more nuanced and thoughtful consideration of revolution, novel and film both insist upon the ultimate purposelessness of revolution.  Revolution cannot be circumscribed by allegory because revolution’s very instinct is to resist allegory, and to destroy it if possible.  Thus, beyond the train there can be no absolute justification of human existence, ethics, or meaning.
            The purposelessness of revolution in Snowpiercer manifests in the locked but mute gazes of Yona and the polar bear.  In Iron Council, the purposelessness of revolution is summed up by insurrectionist leader Ann-Hari: “‘We were something real, and we came in our time, and we made our decision, and it was not yours.  Whether we were right or wrong, it was our history’” (552).  Any absolute purpose, in both Iron Council and Snowpiercer, exists only within the context of the train, in the abstraction of allegory.  As Ann-Hari tells Judah Low, right and wrong make no difference, and there can be no ethical imperative beyond the immanent demand of the present.  The revolutionary leader Curtis registers a similar notion in Snowpiercer in his revelatory concluding speech: “‘You know what I hate about myself?  I know what people taste like.  I know that babies taste best.’”  This is why, in the heat of pitched battle, Curtis does not return to save a threatened friend, but leaves him to be slaughtered by the enemy.  To return is to forsake the moment of revolution for the ethics of comradery; but revolution can abide no absolute ethics.
            This anti-ethical approach may seem difficult to accept when viewers, along with Curtis, learn the fate of the missing children, who have been taken from the rear of the train to play an integral role in keeping the train moving.  Of course, Curtis must feel an ethical obligation to save the child; and indeed, within the context of the train, it makes sense to remove the child – a fundamental component of the train’s perpetual motion – from his debased station amidst the gears.  But it makes no sense whatsoever to do so outside the confines of the train, amidst the cold wastes of the wider world.  Any apparently absolute justification for revolution, whether it be ethics, personal morality, equality, etc. dissolves once the characters step foot beyond the train.  The revolutionary impetus finds no rationale in reality, no justification or purpose.
            The imperative of revolution can only be to demand something else, to demand the impossible; in the words of Arthur C. Clarke, the “only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.”  For Curtis, as for the insurrectionists in Iron Council, the train presents the limits of the possible, but simultaneously provides the impetus for pushing beyond into the impossible.  There is no absolute purpose to this impetus except within the train; there is no absolute purpose to revolution except within the abstraction that is also its making.  The very movement of revolution is to destroy the possibility of its own absolute purpose.
            Snowpiercer concludes prior to the resurrection of human societal forms because to represent these forms would be to reinstate the abstract order of allegory – the new Eden on Ice, a utopian fantasy in the snow.  The film concludes with the ambiguous gaze between (as far as we know) the only adult survivor and a polar bear because here we encounter a profound depth of inaccessibility: the animal other.  The bear, although it proves that life has survived beyond the train, offers no consolation or guarantee.  It only stares, in apparent indifference, at what has been for humans a historical event, but the bear does not see history in the making.  The bear sees only another animal.

            Revolution, as we learn in the film’s conclusion, is the ultimate sacrificial narrative because it sacrifices its own existence as narrative.  It evacuates itself of its own meaning, its drive is to destroy the purpose of its existence.  Like the train, revolution is propelled internally, but it seeks to disassemble the means of propulsion.  Its mind is beyond the walls, occupying the impossible aether, aware that it thrives on only a momentary purpose.  True revolution, if it is successful, enjoys no holidays of remembrance.  True revolution, if it is successful, forgets that it ever happened.  The possibility of this radical success remains, to this day, purely speculative; the achievement of great science fiction has been attempting to capture the envisioned reality of this speculation.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

“‘The interstices of intervening substances’”: the Limits of Time and Narrative in Wells’s The Time Machine

“In the last resort, what has left its mark on the development of thought must be the history of the earth we live on and its relation to the sun.”

            At the conclusion of the Time Traveller’s story in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, the internal narrator attempts to describe his journey to incredibly late moments in the future of the planet.  Tentacled creatures inhabit this world, although haplessly, “hopping fitfully about” (71).  The planet sinks in near-darkness beneath a dying sun, and everything appears drenched in a dull redness: the sun is only a “red-hot bow in the sky,” the surrounding water “blood-red” (70-71).  Everything appears near death or extinction as the world smolders under a mostly ineffective star.  Wells takes his readers to the limits of observable time on earth; but he also takes us somewhere potentially even more terrifying: the limits of narrative.
            Early in the text, the Time Traveller expresses the difficulty of describing the sensations of time travel.  After agreeing to tell his story, he admits that he “‘cannot convey the peculiar sensations of time travelling’” (16).  He continues the only way he can conceive to: by using figurative language: “‘They are excessively unpleasant.  There is a feeling exactly like that one has upon a switchback – of a helpless headlong motion!  I felt the same horrible anticipation, too, of an imminent smash’” (16).  Spatial terminology and sensations serve to illuminate what the Time Traveller experiences as he hurtles into the future; in many ways, his description registers the effect of passengers on the railway, as recorded by Wolfgang Schivelbusch: “repeatedly, the train was described as a projectile […] The traveler who sat inside that projectile ceased to be a traveler and became, as noted in a popular metaphor of the century, a mere parcel” (53-54).  Although never using the term “parcel,” the Time Traveller insists upon the contingent materiality of his body during transportation – a materiality that is rendered passive by the conditions of time travel:
“I was, so to speak, attenuated – was slipping like a vapour through the interstices of intervening substances!  But to come to a stop involved the jamming of myself, molecule by molecule, into whatever lay in my way: meant bringing my atoms into such intimate contact with those of the obstacle that a profound chemical reaction […] would result, and blow myself and my apparatus out of all possible dimensions – into the Unknown.” (17)
Like the terrified passengers of Schivelbusch’s railroad, the Time Traveller appeals to the danger and terror of moving at a high velocity through space in order to express the traversal of time.
            The spatiality of time travel, as described in Wells’s short novel, gives time a material quality.  The time machine functions as an apparatus that realizes time as a material substrate, something that can be traveled along; and this materialization forces the reader to consider time as something strange.  Time becomes estranging, echoing the formula put forth by SF critic Darko Suvin in his 1979 book Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, in which he describes science fiction as “the literature of cognitive estrangement.”  The Time Traveller’s appeal to spatial imagery conveys the limitations of describing unfamiliar temporal motion.  Our conscious perceptions do not permit the capacity to describe temporal motion as anything but linear.  Time and consciousness are bound to each other: “‘There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it’” (4).  The intervention of the time machine – an apparatus that mediates the relationship between concrete conscious bodies and (for lack of a better word) change – reifies material change into Time, into something separate from consciousness.  However, time is not only a narrative category in Wells’s text; it is also a constitutive component of narrative.  The text introduces the apparatus of the time machine only in part to investigate the hypothetical prospect of time travel; more comprehensively, The Time Machine functions as a meditation on narrative itself.
            The radical dynamics of The Time Machine emerge not from its science-fictional subject matter, but from its internalization of formal paradox at the level of content.  In The Theory of the Novel, Lukács argues for the fundamental function of time in the novel-form:
“Only in the novel, whose very matter is seeking and failing to find the essence, is time posited together with the form: time is the resistance of the organic – which possesses a mere semblance of life – to the present meaning, the will of life to remain within its own completely enclosed immanence […] we might almost say that the entire inner action of the novel is nothing but a struggle against the power of time” (217).
Building upon Lukács’s argument, Fredric Jameson brings his own narrative theory to bear on the genre of science fiction: “the narrative ending is the mark of that boundary or limit beyond which thought cannot go. The merit of SF is to dramatize this contradiction on the level of plot itself, since the vision of future history cannot know any punctual ending of this kind, at the same time that its novelistic expression demands some such ending” (148).[1]  The Time Machine serves as an archetypal image of Jameson’s argument for science fiction; beyond reveling in the paradoxes of time travel, Wells’s fiction realizes these paradoxes in the form of novelistic discourse and recreates them in its subject matter.
            The ramifications of time travel thus indicate the very formal limitations of narrative itself, and Wells’s text registers these limits.  The Time Traveller is not the text’s primary narrator; he is an internal one.  The primary narrator remains vague and unnamed, a member of the party to whom the Traveller reveals his invention.  This technique is known as embedded narrative, and it enjoys company in the nineteenth century: famous examples include Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (to name a few).  Embedded narrative allows the author to construct a frame within the novel itself, to impose limits within the diegesis.  Often such constructions evoke a sense of skepticism in readers, and lead us to question the authenticity of our narrator(s); however, in Wells’s story the embedded narrative also allows the author to explore the ramifications and difficulties of a narrative that, in its very subject matter, defies one of the constitutive components of narrative.
            Many 19th-century models of history pursue a teleological aim, deriving primarily from Hegel’s philosophy of history.  Despite Marx’s “inversion” of Hegel, his project yet remains teleological, and Marxist politics function importantly in The Time Machine, infiltrating many aspects of the narrative.  Upon witnessing the idyllic lifestyle of the Eloi, the Traveller gasps “Communism” (24), and understands his vision in 19th-century political terms: “There were no signs of struggle, neither social nor economical struggle.  The shop, the advertisement, traffic, all that commerce which constitutes the body of our world, was gone.  It was natural on that golden evening that I should jump at the idea of a social paradise” (27).  The Traveller alters his interpretation of the future in later pages, but the influence of Marxism remains, and the concept of historical progress entailing future improvement is clear in many of his statements: “The whole world will be intelligent, educated, and co-operating; things will move fast and fast towards the subjugation of Nature.  In the end, wisely and carefully we shall readjust the balance of animal and vegetable life to suit our human needs” (26).  The Traveller espouses progress and development that will eventually arrive at benevolent mastery.
            However, Wells deflates this teleological tendency by undermining the narrative process.  As the Traveller moves further into the future, he watches the planet and sun slowly die before disappearing from the novel entirely.  Furthermore, not only does he encounter denotative problems in his recounting of the adventure; but his telling fails.  His listeners do not believe him, except for our primary anonymous narrator, who tells us that the Traveller “vanished three years ago.  And, as everybody knows now, he has never returned” (75).  Wells embeds the secondary narrative of the Time Traveller in the primary narrative of the text; and this primary narrative recounts the Time Traveller’s ultimate failure: his own disappearance.  Time travel undermines its own ability to pronounce arbitrary demarcations such as beginnings and ends; such boundaries rely on normative, linear conceptions of time, which break down in the process of time travel.  The Traveller himself can never effectively communicate his story because it must fixate itself in the bonds of linear narrative.[2]
            The only way for Wells to reconcile the paradox of his hero’s journey – the unknowability or definition of his temporal odyssey – is for the hero to vanish from narrative time entirely.  The primary narrator, despite his belief in the Time Traveller’s story, cannot know the extent of this story in any linear sense.  The materiality of the time machine thrusts the Traveller out of linear time entirely, suggesting that our normative approaches to time (i.e. understanding it linearly, or in a narrative way) fall short of apprehending what “Time” really is.  The Traveller drops out of narrative time.  He exists (to invoke Bakhtin’s chronotope) in “time-time”; that is, in the fissure between the content of the primary narrative and its constitutive form (if not out of form entirely).  The reified realm of Time itself, as materialized by the time machine; the hero must literally slip, as he has already told us, into the “interstices of intervening substances.”
            These interstices reveal to the Traveller (as far as we are allowed to see) a startling glimpse not of teleological or directed history, but of contingent moments.  Beyond the ideology of linear time, the world appears startling and strange, resulting in the terrifying creatures discussed above.  Here, Wells challenges the linearity of Darwinian evolutionary motion, which claims that “as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection” (Origin II:305).  Instead, in the conclusion of the Traveller’s narrative (or, rather, what appears to us as a conclusion), we find gigantic insects and monstrous tentacled things; not the hopeful prospects of “Excelsior” biology (Wells “Zoological Retrogression”).  As Stephen Jay Gould has put it more recently, the “vaunted progress of life is really random motion away from simple beginnings, not directed impetus toward inherently advantageous complexity” (Life's Grandeur 173).  As we can see in the final scene of the Traveller’s journey, life appears to be slinking back toward its simple beginnings.
            The narrative barrier that the Traveller thus encounters is the ultimate destruction of cognition itself, since narrative requires a conscious construction of points constellated together to form a cohesive (or not-so-cohesive) whole.  The paradoxical breakdown of the narrative effect arrives with the appearance of a dying sun; the heat death of the universe.  We can have some fun with this by looking briefly (and in conclusion) at Ray Brassier’s Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction:
Everything is dead already.  Solar death is catastrophic because it vitiates ontological temporality as configured in terms of philosophical questioning’s constitutive horizontal relationship to the future.  But far from lying in wait for us in the far distant future, on the other side of the terrestrial horizon, the solar catastrophe needs to be grasped a something that has already happened; as the aboriginal trauma driving the history of terrestrial life as an elaborately circuitous detour from stellar death. (233)
What Brassier is concerned with is the possibility of thinking the death of thought.  Any attempt is circumscribed by life and thought, and thus immediately negates itself; we can think of death conceptually, but we cannot occupy it, cannot identify with it.  The death of thought, however – signified by heat death, solar death – cannot be grasped conceptually, because not only is it yet circumscribed by life, but is yet circumscribed by thought.  The concept of the death-of-thought is non-conceptual.
            As a non-concept, the thought drives toward its own demise.  Narratively speaking, it must fall out of itself; it encounters its own death.  The Traveller, narrating his tale in The Time Machine (if he is indeed to continue travelling), must also narrate beyond the borders of life and thought.  As a narrative concept, he becomes non-conceptual.  Wells’s intention for the Traveller’s disappearance likely finds its source in the genre of the adventure tale, of which The Time Machine must be included as an example.  Our best guess may be that the Traveller met his demise in some battle in a distant time, or that he fell in love and chose to remain with his bride.  However, the circumscription of the Traveller’s narrative within that of the primary narrator forces us to consider the formal problems that Wells is dealing with.
            As a formal institution dealing with conceptual content, the novel relies on time and cognition in order to present itself to readers.  Even if the content is estranging or unfamiliar, readers must have some basis of communication with the text.  The Time Machine presents its readers with a paradox: not that of time travel per se, but that of a concept that removes the apparatus through which we can conceptualize it.  Approaching the borders of thought in the decimation of the earth through solar death, Wells constructs a narrative that un-narrates itself, or narrates itself out of narration entirely.  All that remains are the two shriveled flowers, succumbed at last to the slow passage of the only time available for narrative and cognitive representation.

[1] This quote is taken from Jameson’s essay “Progress versus Utopia: or, Can We Imagine the Future?” in Science Fiction Studies, 9.2 (1982): 147-158, print.
[2] Or, we might say that this is the somewhat nascent comment that Wells is making.  It is certainly debatable (and I would be one of the first to say so) that more (post)modern and contemporary works of literature have successfully countered the linear narrative in innovative and compelling ways.  Wells, however, is combating linear narrative in a novel manner; through applications of scientific thought and consequences, contributing significantly to the genre of science fiction.