Imagining the End of Capitalism in ‘Post-Occupy’ Dystopian Films: Part 1

By Madeline Lane-McKinley

“There are no meadows in the mind of the oppressed. There are only slums, factories, forced-labor fields, border detention facilities, Guantanamos, Abu Ghraibs, cops, devastated streets and jails. Meadows?…

I HATE MEADOWS.” — anonymous [1]

More than twenty years ago, Fredric Jameson would write of the “impossibility of imagining a secession from the new world system and a political and social, as well as economic, delinking from it” as spatial dilemmas that “immobilize our imaginative picture of global space today, and conjure up as their sequel the vision that Fukuyama calls the ‘end of history’, and the final triumph of the market as such.”[2]  Jameson has famously and circuitously remarked that a characteristic of this triumph of the market is that the end of the world becomes more imaginable than the end of capitalism. Did the uprisings of recent years manage to contest this diagnostic? Or is this the same “situation that blocks our imagination of the future,” as Jameson elaborates, in which “the entire world is suddenly sewn up into a total system from which no one can secede”?

The following works out these questions in terms of the cultural imagination both mobilized and recuperated in recent popular cinema. This will be an attempt to think through the periodicity of contemporary dystopian films, as part of a larger cultural tendency that has dominated the historical imaginary of recent uprisings.

Since 2011, a series of films have been taken up as artifacts of the cultural moment of Occupy Wall Street. Just over a month into the encampment of Zuccotti Park, James Pinkerton would describe the science fiction thriller In Time as the first film of the ‘Occupy Wall Street era’ of Hollywood.[3] Since then, critics have incessantly drawn from the populist discourse of OWS. This ‘cinema of the 99%’ includes Blockbusters hits like Elysium (2013), The Hunger Games (2012), Snowpiercer (2013), and Divergent (2014), each of which inspired popular readings saturated with the sloganry and common sensical rhetorics of class inequality and corporate corruption. The reception of such films has been integrated into a populist imaginary of the Occupy movements – part of an attempt to bring political legibility to what was predominantly a politically confused cultural phenomenon. A ‘cinema of the 99%,’ in this sense, attempts to forge continuities where there is mostly discontinuity. What seems more noteworthy about this assortment of films is the dominance of the dystopian genre. Marking 2012 as the beginning of a “golden age of dystopian films,” film critic Joe Queenan argues that “the message in all these films is identical: we have seen the future. And it looks bad.”[4]

Dawn-of-Apes

Reflecting some of the dominant thematics of post-Occupy dystopias, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) seems to allegorize the end of Occupy Wall Street — the rupture from which militant practices emerged as radical alternatives to the nostalgic projects of re-claiming public space and de-privatization. The film imagines a near-future in which humans are approaching extinction, and an ape-dominated earth seems increasingly possible. Whereas the previous film in the series, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), takes a global scale in its imagination of a fast-spreading virus that kills much of the human population, this more recent installment has a far different spatial imaginary of enclosures versus totalizing chaos. Taking place in a post-apocalyptic Bay Area, Dawn is mostly fixed on two barricaded encampments of warring humans and apes, while the space between these enclaves becomes represented as a Hobbsian state of nature.

53bf6cf84ef43

Reviewer Tim Robery remarks that while the 2011 film “imagined the growing consciousness of apes in revolt,” the second 2014 installment “plunges us into a war of gorillas versus guerrillas – a form of strife without clear winners, and one in which we’re never forced to choose one side over the other.”[5] The aporia of post-apocalypse is dominated by the logics of tyranny and perpetual violence, against which the logics of state power and liberal pacifism emerge as the ostensibly utopian impulses of the film. As Robery writes, the viewer eventually “takes sides within,” rather than siding with the apes, as in the first installment. The film individualizes the humans and apes, ultimately and didactically promoting non-violence as the solution to the militarism of formerly colonized subjects. These neocolonial elements are ignored, for instance, in Economist reviewer NB’s pronouncement of the film as a “pacifist blockbuster,” that provides “a substantial and subtly acted examination of negotiation, leadership and the difficulty of diffusing tension and building trust.”[6] 

Such readings seek to position the film as an extension of the discourses of non-violence that brought forth some of the major contradictions of Occupy. While seeking a positivist solution to these contradictions, the problem of white supremacy is entirely evaded in the film. In their adaptation of the original series — widely read and thoroughly disputed as a racial allegory of the post-civil rights era — what both of the recent Planet of the Apes films demonstrate is a historically-situated desire to reconcile with the politics of race through a speculative genre. In this sense most of all, the film’s conceptualization of dystopia is incredibly reactionary — an escapist fantasy far more than an ideological critique.

dawn_a

Released during the demise of Occupy Wall Street, David Cronenberg’s long awaited adaptation of the Don DeLillo novel Cosmopolis resonated with audiences in 2012. As reviewer Philip French notes, this sense of historical resonance continues a pattern in the reception of both the novel and film: Cosmopolis was published in 2003, and although on its first page DeLillo specifically states that the setting is April 2000, it was read at the time as a post-9/11 novel,” as French explains, adding that in 2012, it is also possible to “see its account of Wall Street on the point of collapse” and New York in “a state of siege by angry anarchists as a prophetic anticipation of the banking crisis of 2008 and the Occupy Wall Street movement.”[7] Like the novel, the film’s prescience is a part of its narrative of speculation. While the ‘post-9/11’ periodization seems altogether lost from the film’s spatial conception of Manhattan, the financial crisis underpins the narrative’s representation of a space – contained, for the most part, by a limousine inching through traffic jams. More than perhaps any other dystopia of the past several years, Cosmopolis understands the dystopian mode as distinct to financial capitalism, rather than contingent upon global apocalypticism.

Inside the limousine, currency speculator Eric Packer attempts to barricade himself in an enclave that slowly collapses in on itself. Through the windows, Packer sees ongoing riots, while his fortune disappears. The film’s representational limit is this outside world — it cannot imagine beyond this isolation of collapse. The utopic drive of the film is rather the imaginary of crisis and imminent destruction -– a slow, crawling death in the limousine as a heterotopia in decay, narrativizing the problem of unrepresentability. All the while, the revolt remains occluded, illegible, and unknowable. The future is opaque and unactionable.

cosmo-limo

To what extent does the populist fantasy of a ‘cinema of the 99%’ distract us from the historicity of this dystopian revival? The problem with bringing together such films as ‘post-Occupy’ is that, in the attempt to bring coherence to the cultural moment of OWS, the historical conditions of the Occupy movements are nevertheless eradicated. Of the 2012 blockbuster The Avengers, J. Hoberman would argue that the film “recasts 9/11 in the Bush years’ dominant movie mode, namely the comic book superhero spectacular,” adding that “more fundamentally, [it] demonstrates how completely 9/11 has been superseded by another catastrophe, namely the financial meltdown [of 2008].”[8] Here, I want to suggest that the dystopian genre is the “movie mode” of persistent crisis – rather than the cultural outlet of the end of Occupy Wall Street. While it is useful to develop different micro-periodizations of the dystopian genre’s most recent ascendance, it seems far more important to think through the cultural dominance of dystopia as a modality of narrativizing crisis.

As the cultural logic of the contemporary moment, dystopia signals a set of representational problematics for which, as Jameson writes, “the conclusion to draw [is] not that, since it is unrepresentable, capitalism is ineffable and a kind of mystery beyond language or thought,” but rather that “one must redouble one’s efforts to express the inexpressible in this respect.”[9] The generic dominance of dystopia in this period can be understood in terms of the genre’s mimetic function – its critical capacity as analogy to the present. Analogically, however, the dystopia is always fragmentary – in the sense that representation cannot grasp at totality, and capitalism is only visible through its symptoms. Dystopia, like “any attempt to construct a model of capitalism,” Jameson argues, “will be a mixture of success and failure… Every representation is partial [and] every possible representation is a combination of diverse and heterogeneous modes of construction or expression.”[10] While representation is never complete – while there is always a gap from totality – it seems crucial to disengage from the question of mimetic failure, and to reorient toward the task of political interpretation. At stake in a post-Occupy cinema is precisely the politics of interpretation. It would be absurd to imprison ourselves within the political imagination and resources of popular cinema. As readers of mass culture, however, we can speculatively and interpretively approach the end of capital as an epistemological problem. This problem provides the basis for a practice of reading for utopia – not as wishful thinking, but as negative prefiguration and critique.

Although Cosmopolis orbits the possibility of an end of capitalism, the film also conveys the impossibility of post-capitalist imagination — as in the following interlude of ‘worlding’ between Packer and his systems analyst Michael:

Eric: There’s a poem I read in which the rat became a unit of currency.

Michael: Yes, that would be interesting.

Eric: Yeah, that would impact the world economy.

Michael: The name alone would be better than the dong or the kwacha.

Eric: The name says everything.

Michael: Yes, the rat…

Eric: Yes, the rat closed lower today against the Euro.

Michael: Yes, there was growing concern that the Russian rat would be devalued.

Eric: White rats! Think about that!

Michael: Yes, pregnant rats

Eric: Major sell-off of pregnant Russian rats.

Michael: Britain converts to rat.

Eric: Joins trans-universal currency

Michael: Yes, US establishes rat standard

Eric: Is every US dollar redeemable for rat?

Michael: Damn rats

Eric: Yes, stockpiling of dead rats cause global health menace

Riffing from Zbigniew Herbert’s poem, “Report From the Beseiged City,” the characters elaborate the non-ending of capital — the utter farce of capitalist crisis. Rather than as an artifact of OWS, the film’s periodicity is more productively conceived in terms of the financial crisis. In its penetrating examination of financial collapse, Cosmopolis at once describes the crisis point of the global market and the point at which futurity vanishes entirely as an operation of the imagination. And yet, this non-futurity is a utopian force in the narrative. It is the foreclosure of free market utopianism, or, the false utopia of global capitalism.

cosmopolis-robert-pattinson-limo-grafitti

In what regard does the dystopian impulse itself come into crisis in these films? To what extent does the ‘post-Occupy’ framework articulate this crisis? While dystopia has often been critiqued as a reactionary genre — or as synonymous with anti-utopianism — it would be a mistake to reinforce this notion of conceptual opposition between dystopia and utopia. The dialectic of these concepts can be historicized in terms of narrative strategies for ideological critique. In their genealogy of the dystopian imagination, Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan suggest that “by the end of the 1980s — moving beyond the engaged utopianism of the 1970s and the fashionable temptation to despair in the early 1980s,” the ‘dystopian turn’ of this period “confronted the decade’s simultaneous silencing and cooptation of Utopia by turning to dystopian strategies as a way to come to terms with the changing social reality.” They argue that this turn to dystopia would refunction the genre as a “critical narrative form that worked against the grain of the grim economic, political, and cultural climate.” [11] It would be useful to think about the contemporary dystopian turn in terms of a similar set of processes.

Here, I am interested in the currency of dystopia — as a mode of representation that bares critical insights into the epistemological limits of anti-capitalist struggles — and in dismantling the notion of a ‘cinema of the 99%’. The ‘post-Occupy’ framework is the failure to articulate a long 2011. This long 2011 has a temporal elasticity, bringing to the fore the explosion of antagonisms and anti-capitalist longings which proliferated against austerity and privatization for years before AdBusters’ tweet-campaigns, and which remain active forces years later. It is one of many ways through which to imagine the present.

Since 2012, the ‘post-Occupy’ paradigm in the U.S. has been glimpsed in various mutations and revolutionary energies have peaked again, as in the Black Lives Matter movements and corollary struggles against racist police violence and state oppression in late 2014 and 2015. While some mistook the pluralization of organized protests and spontaneous riots following Mike Brown’s murder in Ferguson, Missouri as the signal of a resurrection of Occupy, these attempts to create conceptual continuity are important aspects of more recent social struggles. The political moment of the long 2011 is not over, but it will have to be re-imagined, over and over again – it will have to make imaginable different social conditions, precisely in terms of their unimaginability under capital. This will involve a utopian orientation, for which the present can be understood as a terrain of indirect encounters with the end of capitalism. This includes, but is by no means particular to, the speculative tendencies of the recent dystopian turn in mass culture.

To call for such a utopian orientation requires, however, a certain refinement of the historicity of these concepts, specifically in relation to the hegemony of anti-utopianism in this period. As Kathi Weeks suggests, this anti-utopianism is structured by liberalism – which “continues to mutate into new forms” in the neoliberal paradigm, while “its case against utopia continues to revolve around a fairly stable set of indictments,” between the “claim that there should be no alternative and the assurance that there is no alternative.”[12] From the perspective of this anti-utopian ontology and epistemology, Weeks explains, “speculation about alternative futures is […] at best naïve and at worst dangerous.”[13] Weeks’ critique of liberal anti-utopianism provides a crucial intervention into what some have described as the nihilist turn of contemporary anti-capitalist struggles. The utopian impulses of the contemporary dystopian turn reflect a mounting desire to prefigure alternate futures, yet this must be understood in terms of negative prefiguration. Rather than a hypothetical future, utopia poses a critical engagement with the present. More than a programmatist spatial blueprint, utopia may be grasped in terms of possibilism — what Henri Lefebvre describes, in his 1968 text L’Explosion, as a tendency that “stripped of any derogatory connotation” refers to “all those who viewed or view the ‘realm of possibilities’ as still open. They are proponents of the potential rather than the real.” As Lefebvre elaborates, “They go so far as to proclaim the primacy of imagination over reason. They explore the realm of possibility and want to achieve some of these possibilities. Some of them want to achieve everything.”[14]

Such mounting desire to prefigure alternate futures can be traced throughout recent mass cultural production, but the dystopian genre offers more specific insight into negative prefiguration as a process of the contemporary imagination – as a mode of critique that requires a utopian hermeneutics. Whether it is the intention of such films to express this desire is irrelevant to the larger question of how these films articulate post-capitalist longing. The periodicity of this convergence between anti-capitalist critique and the concept of utopia is precisely at stake in the notion of a ‘post-Occupy’ cinema, which I will continue to modify with the notion of a long 2011, which precedes the insurrections and looks on to revolution. Rather than frame this utopian impulse as an outcome of populist uprising, I want to suggest that this shift in the status of utopia in the cultural imagination marks a broader historical process of capitalist crisis.

Forthcoming sections in this series will develop readings of several films, in the attempt to refine these problematics of anti-capitalist critique and post-capitalist imagination in recent dystopian mass culture. At the same time, these objects of mass culture will be treated as sites of recuperation and contradiction, requiring a particular approach to readership. This is a practice of reading for utopia, which distinguishes between the reimagining of capital (i,e., the Crusoe problem) and the unimagining of totality, between reactionary positivism and critical negation, and between ‘intention’ and the political unconscious. 

[1]  Anonymous, “Confessions on Crosstalk, Color, Composition: A Berkeley Conference” 

[2] Fredric Jameson, “’End of Art’ or ‘End of History’”, The Cultural Turn: Selected Essays on the Postmodern, 1983-1998, 91

[3] James Pinkerton, “In Time: The First Hollywood Movie of the Occupy Wall Street Era”, Fox News 10/27/2011

[4] Joe Queenan, “From Insurgent to Blade Runner: Why is the Future on Film Always So Grim?”, The Guardian March 19, 2015

[5] Tim Robery, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, review: ‘impressively un-stupid’, The Telegraph, June 21, 2014

[6]  NB, “’Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’: Great apes,” The Economist, July 16, 2014

[7] Philip French, “Cosmopolis: Review”, The Guardian, 16 June 2012.

[8] J Hoberman, “The Avengers: why Hollywood is no longer afraid to tackle 9/11,” The Guardian, May 11, 2012

[9] Fredric Jameson, Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One, 7

[10] Fredric Jameson, Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One, 8

[11] Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan, “Dystopia and Histories”, Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination, 4

[12] Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries, 180

[13] Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries, 181

[14] Henri Lefebvre, The Explosion: Marxism and the French Upheaval, 57

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