Sunday, March 27, 2005

Sky Captain Adorno and the Banality of Evil

(This is a little something I wrote 9/04. It's not particularly current nor Easter-y. I just liked it.)

So, Sally and I saw Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow over the weekend. Before going to the flick, we had a bite to eat and a drink, and started talking about a book Sally had just purchased: Jonathon Strange & Mr. Norrel, ostensibly a kind of Harry Potter for adults. She mentioned that she figured people like these kinds of books for the escapist value, and I agreed. We figured that the escapism functions by creating an alternate world into which the reader can venture, thereby leaving the real world behind. To put it into kind-of Deleuzian terms, they create an imminent plane (Deleuze-speak for alternate reality) that parallels the world of the real. What followed was a conversation about 'serious' art. The kinds of works that get tagged as serious seem to incorporate elements of the cacaphony of the 'real' world. Mahler's symphonies, for example, are accorded a great deal of critical respect because of they way they include jagged edges that disrupt the subject's immersion in the imminent field. The conventional wisdom is that Mahler inserts traces of the chaos of the real world into his pieces, and prefigured the chaos of the 20th century in his symphonies (so the theory goes).

Interestingly, this kind of artistic strategy is then susceptible to objections from both the right and the left; righties (read: classicists, or aesthetes) get annoyed that the piece is getting into politics of a sort. The lefty objection is more interesting: they argue that, by absorbing the chaos of the real into the artistic plane of imminence, they make it beautiful, they aesthetize it, and thereby reduce or trivialize the shock or the affect that horrible things ought to induce. This is the sense of Adorno's maxim: there can be no poetry after the Holocaust.

Fortuitous, then, that we chose to see the movie we did. After about 20 minutes, I started noticing that all of the conventions, scenery, plot elements, etc., were those of a typical WWII movie. Every signifier was telling the viewer that this is occurring during WWII. But, it is supposed to be 1934 or so: pre-war.

Why would this be? When the theme begins to be developed, the reasoning behind the odd timing becomes evident. The movie deals with the horror of instrumental reasoning. In other words, in the film the world is beset by machines, which in turn are all part of one giant machine. We see technocratic and amoral scientists, the mundanity of bureaucracy that underlies the running of the machine, and, at its core, machines that operate without the benefit of human ethics.

In short, the movie develops a parallel holocaust. One of the key features of post-holocaust theory (see: Hannah Arendt) is the idea that what made the holocaust so uniquely evil was precisely the banality of that evil. It wasn't run and created by evil supervillains; instead, the people running it were middle managers. If it weren't for the insanity and barbarity of their enterprise, they'd be mistaken for company men at postwar IBM: they punched in, operated computers, took lunch breaks, had strategy conferences, all without a thought for the monstrosity in which they were complicit.

The movie operates, then, within the exact same problematic as the holocaust itself, and runs roughly parallel to it in history. Per the leftist critique of 'serious' art, you can see why this is troubling. The movie itself is filled with lush, beautiful visuals. Even when confronted with the heart of the machine, you can't help but think that the complexity of it all is beautiful. Plus, its location within the genre of the fantastic makes us less sensitive to the evil of the machine inside the film - we can only marvel at it. Basically, the viewer disregards the evil and gazes only at the process. The money shot: the movie forces the viewer to reproduce the very amoral instrumental logic that lies at the core of the banality of evil. If what makes the holocaust so evil is that those running it forget about the evil of their ends, it's a little creepy that the viewer does the same thing vis-a-vis the machine in the movie. The spectator is so overwhelmed by the visuals that s/he doesn't really stop to think about the horror on screen.

Weird, right? Kinda cool, but weird.