Friday, November 30, 2012
Friday, November 23, 2012
The headline from the NYTimes summarizes the problem, that "an encrypted handwritten message from World War II, found on the leg of a long-dead carrier pigeon in a household chimney in southern England, has thwarted all their efforts to decode it since it was sent to them last month."
The bird died in the chimney of a 17th century house in Bletchingley (just south of London). Specialists believe the bird was flying back to England around the time of the Normandy invasion. Britain’s GCHQ code-breaking announced that it can not break the code. Why not? Dear reader, because the code is not for humans. Why do we assume the signs are for us. It is for those to come...
Saturday, November 17, 2012
The 2011 film Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a mindless Hollywood science-fiction action-adventure film with killer CGI, terrible dialogue, flat characters, and no sex. But I can’t stop thinking about one scene or, rather, one brief moment in a scene, when the protagonist chimpanzee Caesar speaks for the first time. It happens during a violent struggle with the meanie animal shelter guard, Dodge (played by Tom Felton, a.k.a. none other than Draco Malfoy!). Mimicking one of Charleton Heston’s more memorable lines in the original 1968 film, Dodge yells, “Take your stinking paw off me, you damn dirty ape!” In response Caesar roars, “No!” It’s a gripping moment, one that has been excerpted—and parodied—many times on YouTube. How do we explain its power?
I think the answer lies not in the event itself but in the reaction to it. The close ups that follow emphasize the dumb, what-the-&#@? facial expressions of Dodge and two onlookers (the stuttering animal shelter guard and a huge gorilla). In this look is written power’s confused reaction to an event that it cannot subsume under a concept, something it cannot know, something that does not accord with its ordering of the world, something that is, for it, impossible. Dodge might be struck dumb, but his face expresses what the so-called father of modern conservatism Edmund Burke once said of the French Revolution: “Everything seems out of nature in this strange chaos of levity and ferocity.”
After all, when Dodge issues his Hestonian order, he’s not talking to Caesar but at him. So far as he knows, Caesar is just an animal, and animals can neither understand nor speak language. And remember that ever since Aristotle, language has been taken as the condition of possibility of politics, understood as the working out of just forms of living together in the world, and not merely of economic ways of living on the earth. Up until the point that Caesar speaks, he is, for Dodge, a natural being of the earth that, by definition, cannot have rights. If this animal is putting up a fight, it is only as a piece of the material world mutely thwarting the efficiencies of rational instrumentalization.
Caesar's speech act changes everything because it throws him towards—but not securely into—a condition where he is a creature of our political world with a capacity to claim rights. It is not that Caesar definitively transforms from an animal into a subject of rights, let alone into a human being. Rather, in the lingering shot sequence following his speech, Caesar hangs over the gulf between earth and world, nature and politics. As such his identity as either a creature of nature of a creature of politics becomes a site of dispute.
Undoubtedly, outside of these eight seconds, the film almost wholly forgets the question of politics. The apes’ escape towards the state of nature (conveniently located on the northern shore of the Golden Gate Bridge) is reduced to a military gesture, rendered in all of its CGI glory. And the film trades heavily in exciting our compassion for the goodie apes and anger at the baddie humans. Neither military combat nor compassion is properly political, and so the film largely ignores the question of justice. However, for one brief moment, it dramatizes contemporary political theorist Jacques Rancière’s suggestion that “the simple opposition between logical animals [i.e. humans] and phonic animals [i.e. animals] is in no way the given on which politics is then based. It is, on the contrary, one of the stakes of the very dispute that institutes politics.”
Rancière himself resists his own account of democracy when, in what is ultimately a mechanical repetition of Aristotle, he assumes that animals, literal animals, cannot be members of the demos, because they cannot speak and hence cannot have an interest in pursuing justice. And to be sure, Caesar’s speech act may have no literal referent in the real world, where animals do not speak human language. However, his “No!” can be read as a displaced figure of attempts by human beings who do speak to contest the artificial, unequal, and murderous division of the world into two, the human and everything else, and the characterization of this division as inevitable. Any form of this division that appears to be an ontological necessity is always vulnerable to being revealed to be merely an ideological obviousness. This is what the film portrays, however fleetingly. During this moment we cannot tell the difference between human beings whom power treats as animals and animals that power treats as rightless.
The only other philosophically poignant moment in the film comes earlier, and interestingly, it involves a human being not talking. Caesar, who has been taught American Sign Language, asks Will the scientist (James Franco), “Who is Caesar?” In response to a previous question, Will has just given the bullshit answer, “I’m your father,” so when he does not answer this question, and does not explain this lack, he suggests a structural predicament. Indeed, “Who is Caesar?” is a figure for the question of politics, and Will’s silence, far from being evidence of stupidity, signals that the question is without a definitive answer. Perhaps it is in the echoes of this silence that we can hear the future of radical democratic politics.