Friday, October 25, 2013

The Epistemology of the Chamber Pot

I had high hopes for Ari Folman's new movie "The Congress" (2013).  I liked Folman's previous movie "Waltz with Bashir" (2008) and I love the novel his latest movie is ostensibly based upon: Stanislaw Lem's The Futurological Congress (1973).
When I realized that in California you could not see "The Congress" for love or money, my hopes were raised even higher. Surely, I thought, it is going to be an underground masterpiece, a brave challenge to the mindless Hollywood pablum, an Israeli ticket to the international SF Hall of Fame. I suspect the director thought the same.

Of course, the higher up you are, the further down you fall. "The Congress" is a great idea gone awry; or rather, a couple of ideas pulling in different directions and ending up in a mess. It is almost as if Folman fell victim to the syndrome described in his source novel: ontological confusion. Lem's hero does not know what "movie" he is in, and neither, it seems, does Folman.

Lem's delightful satire describes the adventures of hapless Ion Tichy who is invited to a futurological congress where chemical means of manipulating reality perceptions are being tested. Having clashed with a would-be papal assassin, played cards with rats, and repeatedly fallen into the sewer, Tichy is frozen and wakes up in the utopian future where all desires are satisfied by taking little pills that enable you to experience whatever you want to experience, and be whoever you want to be. Whether you scale Everest, play violin, or sleep with the most beautiful woman in the world - any experience is ultimately translated into the chemicals sloshing in the brain. And it is easier to tweak neurotransmitters than to do all the tiresome things involved in changing the physical world.

But the problem with virtual reality is that it is never virtual enough. Somebody has to make those little pills that give us paradise; somebody has to wash, and clean, and empty the chamber pots of the happy sleepers. At the end of the novel Tichy confronts the rulers of the chemical utopia who push their drugs on the increasingly sick and deprived population, while enjoying real food and real sex.

Folman's movie has a very different story which adds "human interest" on top of political satire.The first part deals with the travails of the aging actress Robin Wright who is "scanned" into the computer and put out to pasture.The opposition is clear: human complexity versus artificial simplicity; nature versus imitation; reality versus illusion. The first part employs flesh-and-blood actors, and Robin's aging but still beautiful face dominates the screen.

In the second, animated, part Robin is invited to a futurological congress where she acts the part of Tichy, enmeshed in layers of hallucinations and unable to discern what, if anything, is real. She wakes up twenty years later into a chemical paradise where she searches for her sick son.

But what is wrong with the simulacrum? Why are we to identify with Robin's desire not to become an image or with her impassioned speech that  decries the manipulation of reality by corporations? Why is nature better than civilization?

There are two answers to it: one given by Rousseau and one by Marx. Rousseau's answer is that nature is better by definition. Marx's answer is that civilization is better but you have to grapple with nature to produce civilization - and people who do the grappling are unable to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

This is Lem's point in the original Futurological Congress. Virtual reality is a mere sop given to the poor whose labor is exploited and whose bodies are ruined. Simulacrum is not evil in itself but only insofar as it blinds people to the reality of their situation.

Folman's movie seems to come close to this position, especially in the striking images of the filthy, sick, deranged masses that Robin encounters when she takes an antidote to the hallucinogens. But then the movie quickly changes course and has Robin go back into the chemical utopia where she can find her son - or a simulacrum of thereof. Perhaps the ending is supposed to be a paean to maternal love. But to me it just felt disappointing and incoherent. Folman started with a critique of Hollywood as the drug-pusher of international capitalism. But he ended up with a Hollywood sob story.

As for me, I am with Lem - and yes, with Marx. I would love to be scanned into a computer and to enjoy the freedom of virtual reality. I'd love to live in an animated utopia where smiling babies grow on rose-bushes. But in our world, somebody has to change the diapers.


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