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.