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Sunday, December 31, 2006

After the MLA

OK, I suppose I have time for one more gasp before 2006 breathes its last.  Last year and the year before, I wrote some of the most tedious post-MLA essays ever composed, like this two-part, 3000-word recap of one of my sessions along with a discussion of whether the MLA can call for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, and then this two-part, 9000-word extravaganza on the MLA and the NYU strike resolution.  So I imagine that at least some of you are bracing yourselves for a 27,000-word minimonograph on the procedures by which the MLA elects its Executive Officer for the Week, and how the MLA Constitution can be amended, by a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs, but by a two-thirds majority in the case of more major. . . .

Be quiet!  I order you to be quiet!

Right.

The great thing about this year’s MLA was that I no longer serve on the Delegate Assembly Organizing Committee, and thus did not have to attend the four-hour DA meeting or the 90-minute Open Hearing on Resolutions or the 90-minute Open Hearing on Motions or the 90-minute Closed Meeting of the DAOC to Discuss the Open Hearings.  (Yes, these are all real events.) So: I got in a couple of relaxing and very badly needed hour-long workouts at the Loews fitness center, and (with one caveat that I’ll get to in a moment) I’ve gotta say that the Loews Philly is my favorite MLA hotel ever.  It’s a converted office building—in fact, it’s this converted office building, and the appointments are très modern, très cool, very well done.  (Janet and I had a great room two years ago when we arrived with kids in tow; this year, for the first time since my interview year in 1988, I was traveling solo while Janet, Nick and Jamie hung out and had fun in Connecticut.) And I actually went to some sessions and talked to some people, almost like a real human.  And I had one dinner with some old friends and another dinner with a whole passel of fellow bloggers (though I believe the proper term is “an enlightenment of bloggers”).  All of these human interactions turned out to be quite pleasant—and for an extra special added treat, I also got to meet the dynamic physics-and-blogging duo of Sean Carroll and Jennifer Ouellette, the former of whom I’ve corresponded with since ‘way back in ‘04 when blogs were still cool, and the latter of whom turns out to be a French-Canadian expat whose folks moved down to Lewiston, Maine (my father’s hometown) and who lived for a number of years in New York, so as you can imagine, we had almost nothing to talk about.  Except books, of course.  We suggested some titles for Jennifer’s new book, and then Sean and Jennifer asked me to sign copies of What’s Liberal? and Rhet Ox, and then Sean said he forgave me for not having a copy of Spacetime and Geometry: An Introduction to General Relativity for him to sign, because he knew “it’s too bulky” for me to carry around for a week or so.  Which sounds gracious at first, but is actually one of those nasty relativistic-kinda taunts about how light bends around his book but not around my book.  Still, now that I’m home I’ve ordered it to be delivered through the appropriate Internets tubes to the appropriate spacetime coordinates, because its Amazon reviews are way, way better than mine.

About my hotel room.  On Wednesday, the first day of the conference, I went to hear Robert Boynton, Carlo Rotella, and Laura Kipnis, on a panel moderated by Jeff Williams.  It was a great session, and since there were about a half-dozen of my friends in the room, we all invited ourselves out for a post-session drink.  But since I hadn’t had anything to eat since 9 that morning, and I do try to remain vertical at MLA conferences for as long as I can, I excused myself, saying I’d be back in a half hour or so, and I grabbed a sandwich and took it back to my hotel room, where I planned to dine modestly, divest myself of the briefcase, etc.  Well, when I entered my room the television was on, the lights were low, there was a bathrobe laid out on the near bed, and there were two wine glasses and an ice bucket on the bedside table.  For a full ten seconds (count ‘em off, it’s longer than you think) I was convinced I was in someone else’s room.  For one thing, I almost never watch TV in hotels, so I knew I hadn’t left mine on.  And the bathrobe, the ice bucket . . . I was quite sure I had stumbled somehow into this guy’s room.  Anyway, I usually like the personal turn-down service and all, but I have to say this was a little too personal.

On Thursday night I briefly attended the post-Presidential Address nightcaps party on the 33rd floor of the Loews—the top floor, from which the views of the city are really extraordinary.  And as I made my way from cashew dish to onion dip, I remembered my very first experience of an MLA nightcaps party.  It was 1990, in Chicago, and the reason I’d received an invitation was that I’d published an essay in PMLA that year.  Jamie wasn’t born yet, and Nick was just four, and Janet and I didn’t have any babysitters in town, so even though the nightcaps parties run from 10 to 11:30, we actually took Nick with us.  We were only going to stay a few minutes, anyway—we didn’t really know anyone there.  We just wanted to see what the top of the Hyatt looked like, and gaze out over Chicago’s nighttime sky.  Well, when then-Executive Director Phyllis Franklin saw that there was a small child at the party, she came over to greet Nick, smiled, and said, “You know, I think I might have something for you.” She led him over to what looked like an ordinary panel in the wall—but it was no ordinary panel!  It was a secret door into her suite, where she showed him a basket of fine chocolates she’d received earlier in the day!  “I can’t eat any of these myself,” she said, “but perhaps you might like a few.” What could be better than that?  We remember Phyllis fondly in our house.  “That was cool, huh?” Janet said to Nick on the way out, and between bites of fine chocolate Nick agreed.  “And way better than the National Association of Scholars conference,” I added, “when we brought Nick to the nightcaps party and Gertrude Himmelfarb gave him a bag of broken glass.”

OK, that last bit isn’t exactly true.

I gave two talks this year.  One on a panel with Rita Felski and Amardeep Singh, and one on a panel with Scott Eric Kaufman, John Holbo, and Tedra Osell.  Both my talks were about bloggy matters, and on both panels I went last, immediately preceded by smart and provocative papers from Rita and Tedra.  I began each talk with the (quite accurate) sense that I was delivering the weakest and thinnest paper in the session, but I didn’t obsess about this, because I was on good panels and there’s no I in team and I left it all out there on the field and now I just have to regroup and play my game.  You know how it feels when you think you’re just repeating yourself over and over again?  I tried to have some fun with this in my first paper, by opening like so:

I have the unpleasant feeling that a lot of the people in this room know pretty much what I’m going to say before I say it.  Fourteen years ago, at one of these little gatherings, I gave a paper in which I argued that people should do more writing for nonrefereed journals and other public venues, and that paper wound up as the basis for a chapter in a book called Public Access, which argued the same thing.  So you might expect that I’d say something similar about writing for online journals and blogs, since I have a blog of my own and all.  But I thought I’d try something different this year, just to shake things up.  I’m going to argue that scholars in English and the modern languages should write only for scholarly journals, and leave the magazines and newspapers to the publicity hounds and assorted used-car salespersons of our discipline.  Furthermore, I’m going to argue that these “computers” are a passing fad, and that there is neither dignity nor virtue in scribbling for the easily entertained screen-readers of the so-called blogoglobe.  Last but not least, and this is the cool part, I’m going to argue that my new position is not in fact a new position at all, but rather a simple extrapolation of everything I’ve said and written to this point in my career, and I invite you all to go back and check for yourselves.

But even that wasn’t very much fun, as fun goes. 

Maybe it’s just me.  December was so physically and emotionally draining, what with the papers and exams and recommendations and overdue dead-tree essays to write and then the trip to my mother’s.  (And those Weblog Awards and Show Trials!) In fact, the whole semester was physically and emotionally draining.  I come to the end of 2006 feeling flabby and weary and exhausted and also weary.  And also feeling like I’ve been trying to write way too much for way too long, so that my prose has been getting flabby and weary too.  You know how it feels when you think you’re just repeating yourself over and over again?  Well, I made my mouth utter the words I’d written for my MLA talks, but I had no idea how to end either paper, and I think that was kinda obvious.  There was even a rumor going around the MLA that this here blog is in its last throes, and since I started the rumor myself it may actually be true.  Right now, though, I’m going to get off this here blog and spend some time with my family.  Seriously!  We’re having a ridiculously early New Year’s Eve dinner at one of State College’s two good restaurants, and then we’re going to welcome 2007 as best we can.  And we wish all of you a happy and healthy and very heathen New Year!

Posted by Michael on 12/31 at 12:46 PM
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Thursday, December 28, 2006

APB

Although this blog is reportedly on an MLA-related hiatus, our Ministry of Information has received word that the hunt is on for a “notorious” and “exceedingly offensive” fugitive from the Ministry of Justice.  The chase begins in comment 81 of the previous thread.  Join in now!  And let’s show this miscreant what blog justice really looks like!

Posted by Michael on 12/28 at 11:35 AM
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Friday, December 22, 2006

ABF Friday:  Special End-of-Year Edition!

In my last few plane trips, despite what I thought were decent and sincere efforts to comply with the new regulations barring dangeral liquids on board the aircraft, I have managed to pack toothpaste, mouthwash, shaving cream, aftershave, and shampoo.  All of these things are now in the possession of the Transportation Security Agency.  I have also had one of my bags combed through because it contained a dread asthma inhaler.  I have therefore come to the conclusion that the “liquids” ban was implemented not in response to a possible terrorist threat but in response to pressure from the powerful personal hygiene industry.

And I’m sorry I can’t manage a proper year-end sendoff this year.  If you want to read one of those things, just read last year’s or the exuberant end-of-December post from this blog’s first year.  Once again, I wish you all a most Merry Molochmas and very pagan New Year, or whatever it is you all celebrate these days; I thank you for reading this humble and tired blog; and I invite you to contribute some end-of-year cheer to one of Left Blogistan’s very finest, the inimitable and resolutely genderless Digby

Almost forgot!  My Michael Medved Show appearance with Elizabeth Kantor is now available here.  Many (unironic) thanks to Ms. Kantor for reading my book and criticizing it repeatedly on a show that was arranged primarily to promote her book!  And you know, speaking of books, Rhetorical Occasions really does make a fine stocking-stuffer.  Just imagine the terrified looks on your loved ones’ faces as they tear off the wrapping and find themselves face to face with an enormous ghostly floating head!

Today’s ABF exercise is pedestrian but (thankfully) brief.  What was the best thing about 2006?  What was the worst?  Extra special bonus points to people who can name something that was simultaneously the best and worst thing about 2006.  And I’ll see you all in 2007. . . .

Posted by Michael on 12/22 at 08:36 AM
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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Do you read me, HAL?

Wait a second!  This is the second part of a two-part installment.  If you want to follow my long sinuous argument about 2001 and Cold War superpower paranoia from the beginning (and hey, who wouldn’t?), you have to read the post below this one.  It’s way way down there, because today’s post is of blog-breaking length.  I can only hope it doesn’t slow down your email!

One word of explanation before I embark on the rest of the explanation: I wrote this essay in the fall of 1993.  So adjust your historical references accordingly.

_______

Floyd’s trip to the moon gives 2001 some of its most buoyant moments:  Strauss’ “Blue Danube” plays throughout, the film shows off some of its neatest-and-keenest special effects, beehive-helmeted stewardesses cater to our every need, and journeys to the moon are made to seem at once thrilling (to us viewers) and routine (to our future selves).  But the purpose of Floyd’s trip, as it turns out, is to advise American personnel at moon base Clavius to keep up the cover story that’s masking the discovery of the monolith.  The story is that an epidemic has broken out at Clavius, and Floyd’s job is to leak that story to the Soviets, keep the lid on the truth, and file a report with the Council.  He delivers his address to his colleagues in a most unimpressive manner—in shambling, bureaucratic prose rendered by William Sylvester (playing Floyd) with a nice blend of aw-shucks folksiness and administrative colorlessness—and it contains so many (bland but) questionable propositions that I’ll cite it at length:

FLOYD:  Now, uh, I know there have been some conflicting views held by some of you regarding the need for complete security in this matter.  More specifically, your opposition to the cover story—created to give the impression there’s an epidemic at the base. [Chuckle.] I understand that, beyond it being a matter of principle, many of you are troubled by the concern and anxiety this story of an epidemic might cause to your relatives and friends on Earth.  Well, I, uh, completely sympathize with your negative views.  I found this cover story personally embarrassing myself.  However, I accept the need for absolute secrecy in this—and I hope you will too.  Now, I’m sure you’re all aware of the extremely grave potential for cultural shock and social disorientation contained in this present situation, if the facts were prematurely and suddenly made public without adequate preparation and conditioning. [Shrug.] Anyway, this is the view of the Council.  The purpose of my visit here is to gather additional facts and opinions on the situation, and to prepare a report to the Council recommending when and how the news should eventually be announced.

Floyd asks for questions, and is met with one pointless query as to how long the cover story will have to be maintained; with a frighteningly Reaganesque heh-heh and tilt of the head, Floyd laughs, “Well, uh, heh-heh, I dunno, Bill, I suppose it’ll be maintained as long as deemed necessary by the Council.” Floyd adds—as if it were necessary—that “there must be adequate time for a full study to be made of the situation before any thought can be given to making a public announcement,” and concludes by offhandedly remembering ("oh, yes") that “the Council has requested that formal security oaths be obtained in writing from everyone who has any knowledge of this event.”

Supposedly, a briefing begins at this point, but since the next scene features Floyd and two of his colleagues in a moon bus discussing the details of the monolith’s discovery, one wonders what information the “briefing” could possibly have involved.  What’s more immediately noteworthy about this scene, though, is that all of Floyd’s talk about eventual “public announcement” is apparently a smokescreen:  eighteen months later, not only has the Council not made any “preparation and conditioning” for a public announcement, it has still not yet seen fit to inform its own mission commander about the existence of the monolith and the purpose of his journey to Jupiter.

The entire drama of 2001, then, turns on this information blackout, and it is only fitting that, for the movie’s audience, the nature of that blackout is itself unclear.  Slowly, Kubrick’s critics have come to agree (as I do) that the movie is better off without narration; though Kubrick’s commentators tend to like the decision because it allows us to concentrate on the visual and “poetic” aspects of 2001, one might also add that in striking the narration, Kubrick has stripped the film of omniscience, leaving “omniscience” instead to the intelligences responsible for the monoliths.  Still more cynical readings of this aspect of the film are available, though, particularly in the wake of Watergate and Iran-Contra:  one might as well say that the movie contains (in Ordway’s phrase) “inexplicable” eighteen-minute gaps in the tapes, or that (to take a suggestion Richard Powers offered to me) Kubrick—and not, say, Fawn Hall—put the screenplay through the shredder at the last minute.

These more cynical readings are licensed by the film itself, particularly in the scene preceding Floyd’s address to his colleagues on the moon, in which Floyd converses with three Soviet scientists aboard Space Station 5 on his way to Clavius.  Again, Sylvester’s low-key delivery has thrown critics off the track, and most seem to agree that this exchange, like so much of the dialogue, is just an “empty ritual of sounds.” [Thomas Allen Nelson, Kubrick, 108.] Understated as it is, however, the scene affords us a perfect illustration of the many silences at work in the political text of 2001.

After trading pleasantries and cursory updates on each other, Floyd and the Soviets get to the real business of the conversation:  they want to find out what’s going on in the American sector of the moon, and Floyd wants them to understand—though, importantly, without telling them so directly—that there is an epidemic at Clavius.  Floyd’s task here, basically, is to confirm the cover story by refusing to confirm it; and despite his later claim to be “personally” embarrassed by the story, he executes his task efficiently and convincingly—in part by pretending to be embarrassed by the Soviets’ questions.  If he were truly embarrassed about the cover story, he could simply have lied to the Soviets about his destination; but when Dr. Smyslov of the Soviet team asks him whether he’s headed “up” or “down” (that is, to the Moon or to Earth), Floyd volunteers the information that he’s going to Clavius base.  It’s unclear whether Clavius is the only American moon base, or whether Floyd had any plausible alternative answers, but “Clavius” certainly gets the desired response:  Smyslov begins to ask if Floyd can clear up the big mystery, and Floyd claims, “I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean.” It seems that communications systems at Clavius have been down for ten days; Floyd reacts to this news with muted surprise ("oh, really?") but attributes it to routine equipment malfunctions.  Smyslov presses on, telling Floyd that a Soviet airbus was denied emergency landing at Clavius.  This, as he says, is a “direct violation of the IAS Convention,” and there will be “a bit of a row” about it to say the least.  Again, Floyd reacts with surprise—more concerned, this time—and ascertains that the crew of the Soviet airbus made it back to the Soviet sector safely.

At this point in the conversation, though, Floyd’s professions of ignorance must surely appear ridiculous.  An American moon base has been incommunicado for ten days, has in fact risked provoking an international incident, and the head of the National Council of Astronautics, himself on the way to Clavius, knows nothing of this?  Floyd’s stonewalling appears transparent—except that what he’s “concealing” is yet another stonewall, namely, the epidemic story.  Smyslov, leaning forward in his chair, checking over his shoulder, and speaking in hushed tones, now admits to Floyd that “very reliable intelligence information” suggests that an epidemic has broken out at Clavius.  At last Smyslov asks Floyd directly:  “Is this in fact what has happened?”

Floyd knows that Smyslov’s “intelligence” has been leaked to the Soviet sector by American counterintelligence; now, then, is when he must feign embarrassment, and he must do so in such a way as to convince the Soviets that he is abashed to have been caught “lying” about his ignorance.  The delicate endgame of this most cautious exchange runs as follows:

FLOYD:  I’m sorry, Dr. Smyslov, but I’m really not at liberty to discuss this.

SMYSLOV:  [Pause.] I understand. [Pause.] But this epidemic could quite easily spread to our base?  [In a mildly pleading tone.] We should be given all the facts, Dr. Floyd.

FLOYD: Yes, I know.  As I said, I’m not at liberty to discuss it.

This is no empty ritual; every rift in this superpower staredown is loaded with ore.  Floyd’s first line does double duty:  it acknowledges that he’s been bluffing up to this point, and it fulfills the task of confirming the cover story by claiming its speaker is not “at liberty” to confirm or deny anything.  Smyslov’s reply—“this epidemic”—takes Floyd’s unspoken confirmation as fact, and plays a new card, that of human compassion; but since no airborne epidemic could possibly spread on the Moon, Smyslov may be fishing for information on a flimsy pretext, or he may genuinely be concerned that American information on the epidemic could mean the difference between life and death.  Whatever the case, Floyd, though admitting the Soviets’ right to know, refuses to bite.

It is curious that the film has not drawn more comment here.  An American—a senior official in the space program, no less—rebuffs a Soviet request for information on a possible epidemic:  this is what Cold War Americans would have considered typically Soviet behavior, refusing to release information, say, on KAL flight 007 or the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl—or, for the audience of 1968, on the status of Soviet space and military capabilities.  But in a sense Floyd is right: he is not at liberty to discuss the epidemic, since the story he’s confirming is merely a screen for another story.  For that matter, if we look ahead to Floyd’s briefing, there is no reason we should believe the “culture shock” thesis, either, since the Americans have apparently prepared no one for the “public announcement,” not even Bowman and Poole eighteen months later.  If that’s the case, then we have a standard Cold War spy-versus-spy thriller cloak-and-dagger set of nesting boxes:  Floyd presents the Soviets with a screen (ignorance) that hides a screen (epidemic) that hides a screen (culture shock) that hides something else about which the film is, once more, silent.  As I’ve argued elsewhere about Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow [the link is to my very first book, from way back in ‘92!], this is the interpretive condition of paranoia:  when you uncover a “hidden truth” but can’t be certain that the “truth” you found wasn’t deliberately planted (in order to conceal from you a still deeper “truth"), then you never know if you should read literally, in good faith, or suspiciously, for the latent or repressed or silent “truth” underneath.

It is something of a truism by now that one must read Clarke’s prose treatment of 2001 in order to “understand” the movie, just as readers of another famous modern retelling of the Odyssey have had to rely on Stuart Gilbert, W. Y. Tindall, or Harry Blamires for reader’s guides to Ulysses. Clarke’s novel is, without a doubt, infinitely more forthcoming on the matters I’ve discussed than is Kubrick’s film; Clarke fleshes out the geopolitical context of the plot (as he has it, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. have formed an uneasy coalition against China and its allies), humanizes the character of Floyd, and elaborates upon the details of HAL’s breakdown (though those details diverge significantly from the action of the movie, and render Clarke’s HAL narrative altogether different). [Footnote, from the original essay:  At one point, Clarke suggests explicitly that Floyd’s appeal to “culture shock” is a ruse, when, after HAL’s disconnection, Bowman reflects that “some hints that had been dropped during his briefings suggested that the U.S.-U.S.S.R bloc hoped to derive advantage by being the first to contact intelligent extraterrestrials” (Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey, [1968], 168).  This passage, however, is almost entirely unjustified by the rest of the novel, which strongly implies that no “hints” had been dropped to Bowman at any time; and in the film, as we’ve seen, HAL directly questions Bowman as to whether he’s made anything of the “rumors” surrounding the mission.  Because that scene between HAL and Bowman (which, as I noted above, precipitates the crisis aboard Discovery) isn’t in the novel, it’s safe to say that in Kubrick’s version of events, Bowman has no inkling whatsoever that fear of “culture shock” isn’t the real reason for the mission’s secrecy, and could not possibly have recalled “hints” from his briefings.]

Yet Kubrick’s 2001 doesn’t just offer us less information than Clarke’s; it is also, ultimately, more skeptical of HAL.  Though Clarke is certainly right to protest against various critics’ vilifications and psychologizations of HAL, his own reading of HAL is, in turn, altogether too benign.  In the novel, Clarke handles the mission’s secrecy in such a way as to exculpate HAL by disentangling him from the wiles of the national security apparatus.  Of the monolith’s existence, Clarke writes:

It was a secret that, with the greatest determination, was very hard to conceal—for it affected one’s attitude, one’s voice, one’s total outlook on the universe.  Therefore it was best that Poole and Bowman, who would be on all the TV screens in the world during the first weeks of the flight, should not learn the mission’s full purpose, until there was need to know.

So ran the logic of the planners; but their twin gods of Security and National Interest meant nothing to HAL.  He was only aware of the conflict that was slowly destroying his integrity—that conflict between truth, and concealment of truth.  (2001, 148-49)

If I may make so bold, there are two things wrong with Clarke’s account.  The first is that in the film, Floyd and the NCA appear utterly unaffected by the discovery of the monolith, and they have no trouble at all concealing its existence from inquiring minds.  The second is that the planners’ “twin gods of Security and National Interest” are not meaningless to HAL; HAL is himself a creature of the military-industrial complex, and owes his existence to all the supercomputing research undertaken by the U.S. government in the postwar period—research that has everything to do with security and national interest, and which since the inauguration of the Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983 has become practically identical with them.

In other words, Clarke, for all his attention to geopolitics in 2001, never considers HAL as anything but a neutral expression of technological “progress,” and never considers the computer as the very product of those geopolitics.  By contrast, Kubrick’s narrative, by refusing to disclose the real reason for the mission’s obsessive secrecy, enables quite another reading, one in which HAL sounds out Bowman, finds him to be ignorant and uninquisitive about his role as commander of a curious mission, and eventually decides to break the link with Earth and to murder the human crew of the ship.  There’s no pride or criminal madness in this decision, just a series of ones and zeroes.  HAL’s rationale is simple:  he knows that Discovery has been launched in order to reconnoiter with some alien superintelligences, and he can reasonably expect that any encounter with such aliens stands a good chance of leaving him (and not his human caretakers) as a superfluous intelligence aboard Discovery.  For if an alien encounter should put an end to international political conflict on Earth, it may very well eliminate the need (and the condition of possibility) for supercomputers like HAL.  It is possible that Earth might need supercomputers in order to fight off alien intelligences (one can hardly imagine American science fiction stripped of the fear of invasion), but it is more likely that if humans meet up with a benevolent extraterrestrial race that’s friendly to the development of organic intelligence in the universe, HAL will seem to be a redundant and expendible third term in the human-alien encounter.

By the same token, however, HAL can very sensibly propose himself as the most advanced intelligence on the planet, and appoint himself emissary to the aliens, whoever they are.  And HAL would be more than justified in conceiving himself to be the next step in the evolution of intelligence; for although 2001 proposes that space flight is the apotheosis of intelligent life, HAL can certainly counterclaim that the development of supercomputers is a better index of intelligence than manned missions to nearby orbiting rocks.  In fact, at one remarkable point in the novel Clarke introduces the possibility that in humans’ next evolutionary stage we will shuck off our organic bodies for “constructions of metal and plastic” (173), and shortly thereafter he says that this is precisely what the alien intelligences did on their way to becoming forms of pure energy:  they remade themselves into computers.  “First their brains, and then their thoughts alone, they transferred into shining new homes of metal and plastic” (185).  This account of evolution provides an alternative to Clarke’s own rationale for HAL’s behavior, and—incidentally—leaves it altogether uncertain whether manned space flight is necessary to the “maturation” of intelligence.  Similarly, the film registers a number of human anxieties about the frailty of bodies as opposed to microchips, most obviously when HAL cuts off the life support systems of the hibernating astronauts, severs Frank Poole’s oxygen line, and informs David Bowman that he will find it “difficult” to re-enter Discovery through the emergency airlock.  Though HAL is disconnected in short order, he has made his point:  silicon-based computers are much better suited for space travel than carbon-based, oxygen-breathing humans. [Sidenote:  And that’s one reason why the sound of their breathing during EVA is so important to our perception of the film.] But 2001 cannot acknowledge anxieties about bodies to this extent without undermining its premise that manned space flight is an epochal step in human evolution, and thereby potentially (if unwittingly) proposing HAL as our legitimate successor.  A product of the research-and-development wing of the Cold War, HAL is now in the position to use Cold War paranoia to his own advantage; and if he does not, he risks ferrying five earnest but uninteresting humans to a rendezvous that will very likely render him obsolete.  If I were HAL, I’d know which side my toast was buttered on, too.

*****

This reading of 2001, in which HAL deliberately exploits for his own ends Floyd’s policy of “absolute secrecy,” reinstalls the human-versus-machine plot I dismissed earlier—but reinstalls it with a twist of the social text that gives us a premise more like that of Terminator or Terminator 2 than like that of a putatively “depoliticized” Strangelove.  For in this scenario, the human-versus-machine narrative has a specific content, whereas among Kubrick’s explicators it looks more like a version of the individual-vs.-society thesis of American literature that flourished during the “end of ideology” era in the late 1950s.  In this reading of 2001, then, as in the Terminator series, the Cold War intelligence rivalry between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. culminates in the creation of self-conscious machine intelligences who have a cogent rationale for replacing us as the dominant intelligences on the planet, and who definitely have the means to do it.

But I must confess that I didn’t come up with this reading on my own, largely because I had always taken Clarke’s novel as the “definitive” explanation of HAL’s breakdown and of the larger premise of 2001.  Rather, it was offered to me in the course of a long conversation with my brother-in-law, Bud Lyon, who was, improbably enough, watching the film with me in Urbana-Champaign on the very day HAL claims to have become operational—January 12, 1992, at the HAL plant in Urbana, Illinois.  Once Bud had proposed a HAL who’s aware of the superpower rivalry that created him, I realized that his reading not only made more satisfying sense of the film’s silent subtexts of superpower paranoia, but also allowed for the possibility that HAL would come to see himself as the more suitable representative of the “evolution” of intelligence on Earth.  In the many silences of 2001 we can therefore find the film’s central assumption, that which it refuses to name (thanks to Kubrick’s severe editing of the script), or believes can very well go without saying.  The assumption was not unheard of in the 1960s, by any means, but it’s all the more germane to U.S. space policy after 1983.  Dale Carter’s 1988 book on the postwar “rocket state,” The Final Frontier, spells it out clearly (though without mentioning 2001):  “Notwithstanding the elevated prose of John Kennedy’s inaugural address—‘together let us explore the stars’—the spectacle of a national, bilateral, and ultimately global space age unity articulated by the President and his colleagues during the 1960s remained predicated on limitless conflict” (FF, 212).

Should all this sound obvious to us now, contrast 1968’s 2001 to 1984’s sequel, 2010—a film that undoes nearly everything about the original.  Where 2001 is austere and silent, 2010 is relentlessly chatty, almost compensatorily loquacious; where 2001 films no scene on Earth except for the “Dawn of Man” in 4,000,000 BCE, thereby leaving global politics implicit throughout, 2010 constantly cuts us back and forth between Jupiter and Central America, where the U.S. and U.S.S.R. head toward a confrontation that threatens to become a nuclear war. 2010 not only makes my point that 2001‘s depiction of Cold War paranoia is more effective and powerful precisely because it’s subsumed into the film’s silent subtexts, but also demonstrates that its topical concerns with Nicaragua and El Salvador actually work toward a political resolution that is far more naive than 2001.  Though escalating war in Central America brings an end to the (already implausible) joint U.S.-U.S.S.R. mission to Jupiter, the movie’s conclusion brings us all back from the brink:  the alien intelligences turn Jupiter into a second sun, enjoin us to live on all Jupiter’s moons except Europa, and establish peace among humankind at last.  Straining our credibility still further, 2010 gives us a brand new Floyd, played by Roy Scheider, who reliably provides voiceover throughout and turns out to be a good guy who, in his own words, “didn’t know” what the National Security Council did to HAL’s programming.  In 2010, in other words, as in Kennedy’s inaugural, we will explore the stars together—though why Earth should be made peaceful by the prospect of new worlds to conquer is, to quote Floyd from 2001, a total mystery.

But there’s no point stretching 2010 on the rack of sustained analysis, since the film breaks so easily.  Its relation to the geopolitical state of affairs in 1984 is manifest, so much so that the film ends with a message that could have been sent by Western Union [Sidenote:  hey!  remember Western Union?] instead of by monolith-building intelligences. 2001, by contrast, proposes no political platform, refrains from suggesting how superpowers might relax and explore away their tensions, and ends in a stunning (if self-indulgent) stream of images that yield only an egregious irresolution staring back at us in the final frame.  It is in this sense that 2001 is not a political film.  As we’ve seen, though, if we ask about the politics of secrecy in 2001, we get a rather different text; and if we now turn, in closing, to ask what this politics of secrecy meant for a major science fiction film in 1968 (and here it’s useful to recall 2001‘s status as the first major science fiction film since Forbidden Planet in 1956), we’ll find that the film can tell us more about American ambivalence toward the U.S. space program than any number of urgent messages about how the “right” kind of space exploration can prevent nuclear Armageddon spiraling out of Central America.

As I noted above, 2001 can be—and often was—taken as an uncritical celebration of human ingenuity and the wonders of manned space exploration, with special emphasis on the brightest dream of Kennedy’s Camelot:  the spectacle of Americans flying to the moon.  Just as its narrative wove together the dystopian and utopian threads of SF, so too did 2001 collocate a strange array of fans that bridged scientists, McLuhan-quoting amateur (and professional) cultural critics, space program enthusiasts, and people who simply wanted to watch the last half hour stoned once a week or so.  In appealing to the multiple countercultures of 1968, as well as to engineers and researchers working in the military-industrial complex, 2001 served as an extraordinarily effective advertisement for the Apollo program, at a crucial moment when the guns-and-butter years of American domestic policy were beginning to unravel.  The tensions between America’s gleaming white space program and burning black inner cities had become intolerable by 1967, and the Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts in January 1967 cast fresh doubt on not only the social utility of moon flights but (for the first time in ten years) on American technical competence in space. 2001 found itself oddly poised between Apollo 1 and Apollo 8’s lunar orbital flight in December 1968, during an expectant lull in the United States’ triumphant march to the moon.  It is therefore significant that the New York Daily News, for instance, despite having panned the film, editorialized later that “if you want an appetizing preview of what wonders man may achieve in space, see 2001: A Space Odyssey” (quoted in Making, 305)—and that Vernon Myers, the publisher of Look, devoted a special section to 2001 for the good of the nation and greater glory of Apollo:

The American people are not well equipped to comprehend the social impact of it all . . . they need movies like 2001. . . . Look stands ready as an educational backdrop. Look aims at nothing less than the indoctrination of our public with the consequences of cosmic communication.  (Quoted in Making, 298)

In this vision, then, 2001 could not only recruit diverse space enthusiasts and shore up flagging American enthusiasm for moon shots; the film could itself become part of the “indoctrination” of the American public—ironically, an element of the very “preparation and conditioning” Floyd and Company never undertook after the discovery of the moon monolith at Tycho.

Still, the film’s relation to the Apollo program is not so straightforward as this.  In one way, Kubrick and Clarke were consciously competing with the U.S. space program, trying to outdo actual film footage from space by achieving a visual realism unmatchable by NASA. [Sidenote: Brian Eno had the same reaction to the Apollo visuals that I did, except of course that he responded by recording this brilliant album which sought to rectify those staticky TV images by reminding us of the immense void surrounding our tiny, frail bodies.  Hey, have I mentioned that I want “Ascent,” track 5, to be played at my funeral service?  Just a reminder.] One of the reasons the movie’s pace is so slow, in fact, is that a number of its space-flight sequences appear to take place in real time, especially the scenes that depict the space pods leaving Discovery.  Those scenes may look laborious (not to say boring) today, but they were filmed at an agonizing four seconds’ exposure per frame in order to simulate an infinite depth of field [Making, 122], so that (a) the background of infinite space would look appropriately infinite—and would simulate infinity in such a way that (b) the film’s excruciating slowness would be appropriately mimetic of the cinematographic slowness necessary to produce “real time” illusions.  Needless to add, the film’s pseudodocumentary realism is also an affirmation of its own technical wizardry, which then appears as the proper film analogue to the technical achievement of space flight.  But precisely by rendering space flight as so routine and “realistic” an element of our future, 2001 repelled some of its audience from its subject matter, especially when viewers found they could not transfer to astronauts Bowman and Poole their own enthusiasms for space exploration.  Thus after Apollo 8 returned from its moon orbit, Andrew Sarris, who disliked 2001 from the outset, registered a new and telling appreciation of the film’s astronauts:

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 seems more relevant since the curiously dispiriting moon shot than it did before.  Previous heroes suggested some sort of heroic pose either of flying or sailing, some intrepid image of personal defiance.  The three [Apollo 8] astronauts, particularly [Frank] Borman, seem to have been chosen in a computer by an organization that was careful also to screen their wives and children so that they would not misbehave in the crucial moments of television exposure.  (Quoted in Making, 243)

What Sarris is sensing here, aside from Frank Borman’s legendary dullness, is the corporate structure the space program’s publicity machines had so far kept hidden:  even America’s Mercury astronauts, the ones with Saturday-afternoon-serial names like John Glenn and Scott Carpenter and Gordon Cooper, weren’t really heroic individualists setting off to sail the Spirit of St. Louis in a vacuum.  Although “both Kennedy and Johnson emphasized that the exploits of the astronauts placed them firmly in the American pioneering tradition” (FF, 158), the original Mercury seven were, at first, merely redundant components on pre-programmed ships, just as the Apollo crews really were selected partly because they would not misbehave in the crucial moments of television exposure.  As Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff (1979) would later make clear, the Mercury program may have given us a new cache of national heroes, but their flight profiles had called for them to be nothing more than “Spam in a can.” Likewise, Sarris’ realization that Apollo 8 had become “curiously dispiriting” anticipates the massive public boredom that greeted Apollo 15, 16, and 17, and that led Richard Nixon to cancel the final three moon launches. What 2001 expresses—and what most Americans understandably resisted—is a world where astronauts are bland and uninteresting mission elements in a system that requires them chiefly for publicity purposes.

Whereas Kirk, Spock, Scotty and Bones cascaded through the galaxy with dash and derring-do, battling mockups of the Soviets (where the Klingons are Spartans are Central Asians and the Federation is Athens is the United States), Bowman and Poole glide to Jupiter almost without changing their expressions, and their hibernating companions are nothing more than computer readouts.  Yet 2001 does not just give us a Bowman for NASA’s Borman; besides, the news that most astronauts are dull grows stale very quickly.  The film’s more important skepticisms about the space program—and these only become more important with the passing of time—have to do with its narratives of secrecy, deception, and paranoia in the American national security apparatus.  These narratives were fundamental to left American countercultures in 1968, but they are generally unwelcome today in much of the country.  When they’re applied to the space program they take on a different form of oppositionality, for the space program was at the time a civilian operation; more fundamentally still, the Cold War opposition between American and Soviet space endeavors relied heavily on the open/ closed binary, where we dared to fail and triumph in public while they launched rockets in secret and released news only when it suited them.  About nonmilitary missions, the open/ closed binary does accurately describe the difference between Explorer and Sputnik, Mercury and Vostok, Apollo and Soyuz.  About all else, however, the U.S. was about as forthcoming as Heywood Floyd.  As Dale Carter writes:  “While agencies like the US Information Service, Radio Free Europe, and the Voice of America joined the commercial media in celebrating the achievements of American astronauts during the 1960s, from 1959 onwards publicity surrounding Department of Defense satellite launches was gradually curtailed until in May 1962 the Department imposed censorship on all such activities” (FF, 239).

But of the ideal American self-image in space, of the free society of Coopers and Armstrongs and Kirks coming in peace for all mankind, 2001 will have nothing; the film assumes throughout that when either the U.S. or the U.S.S.R. uncovers the epochal news of extraterrestrial intelligence, the news will be so thoroughly drowned out by disinformation and counterintelligence that American astronauts themselves will be kept ignorant of their government’s plans.  This hermeneutic of suspicion may be OK for jaded post-Apollo science fiction narratives like those of the Alien, Terminator, or Robocop series, where we’re clearly our own worst enemy (or for Peter Hyams’ ludicrously paranoid Apollo-hoax Capricorn One), but for a film about the evolution of human intelligence released just before the United States impels Earthlings on their evolutionary jump to the moon, this kind of cynicism is remarkable.  Bowman may emerge as the Star Child after all (whereas Borman emerged only as president of Eastern Airlines), but whatever its hopes for the future, 2001 tells a sordid story of our present: in contrast to Kennedy’s script for the decade, a tale of freedom and frontier and American know-how and progress, Kubrick’s version gives us a stage-managed spectacle in which the folks who run the show won’t tell their mission commanders what role they’re playing, and won’t even deign to tell us whether they’re at liberty to tell us what they’re really up to.

Well, so what?  Perhaps 2001 does work this way:  perhaps its Cold War plot was both powerful and unobtrusive in its silence; perhaps it managed, in its ambivalence toward the space program and its trippy final sequence, to appeal both to the engineers at Dow and to their protesters.  And perhaps this all has some relevance to us now, watching the movie again on DVD or in a special letterbox edition on TNT.  But is there anything shocking any longer in the idea that our government may be hiding something from us?  The sentiment is one of the most common and contentless features on the political landscape of the U.S., spanning opponents of the permanently militarized state, war protesters, tax protesters, far-right members of the Posse Comitatus, and all those folks who remain convinced that the State Department is hiding reports of POWs in Vietnam and the CIA is hiding the bodies of UFO pilots in Area 51.  The wonderful thing about American paranoia in the 1990s, it seems, is that it can be articulated to any political position you care to name.

Before we decide that American political paranoia is wholly indeterminate, though, we should at least note that 2001 directs its suspicions at the national security state, and not at, say, the profligate Congress or the milquetoasts in the war machine who didn’t let John Rambo win in Vietnam.  However common American disaffection from American government may be, it remains the case that some kinds of disaffection are more compatible with progressive politics than others.  In this respect, 2001 stands as a parable about the betrayal of American democracy in the era of the space program, in which Kubrick combines a palpable love of the beauty of space travel and a sense of awe at the cosmos with an indelible sense of disaffection from the space race as it’s managed by the national security state—and finally with the apparatus of the national security state itself. 2001 gives us a mission in which our final destination is known only to a power elite unaccountable even to its own instruments and operators.  And yet in 1968, it was still possible to imagine the Apollo program as the finest product of a free society and a free market, leading Americans into the final frontier and leading the rest of the world to follow American rather than Soviet models of progress and development.  As we approach 2001 ourselves, now that Kennedy’s Final Frontier has been replaced by Reagan’s Star Wars, the Soviet Union has collapsed, and there no longer seems any natural relation between American “freedom” and the conquest of space, we should be able to hear 2001‘s skeptical subtexts all the more clearly.  And we should recall anew what so few seem to have learned from Iran-Contra and arms sales to Iraq:  the current national security state is the enemy, not the guarantor, of democracy, and even in wartime and coldwartime, silence and secrecy do not necessarily work in the service of the national interest.

_____

As I was saying:  I wrote this essay in 1993, and you know what?  that last paragraph stands up pretty well thirteen years later.  Well, if you’ve gotten all the way down here, thanks for indulging me.  I’ll be back tomorrow with a very short, punchy ABF Friday!

But of the ideal American self-image in space, of the free society of Coopers and Armstrongs and Kirks coming in peace for all mankind, 2001 will have nothing; the film assumes throughout that when either the U.S. or the U.S.S.R. uncovers the epochal news of extraterrestrial intelligence, the news will be so thoroughly drowned out by disinformation and counterintelligence that American astronauts themselves will be kept ignorant of their government’s plans.  This hermeneutic of suspicion may be OK for jaded post-Apollo science fiction narratives like those of the Alien, Terminator, or Robocop series, where we’re clearly our own worst enemy (or for Peter Hyams’ ludicrously paranoid Apollo-hoax Capricorn One), but for a film about the evolution of human intelligence released just before the United States impels Earthlings on their evolutionary jump to the moon, this kind of cynicism is remarkable.  Bowman may emerge as the Star Child after all (whereas Borman emerged only as president of Eastern Airlines), but whatever its hopes for the future, 2001 tells a sordid story of our present: in contrast to Kennedy’s script for the decade, a tale of freedom and frontier and American know-how and progress, Kubrick’s version gives us a stage-managed spectacle in which the folks who run the show won’t tell their mission commanders what role they’re playing, and won’t even deign to tell us whether they’re at liberty to tell us what they’re really up to.

Well, so what?  Perhaps 2001 does work this way:  perhaps its Cold War plot was both powerful and unobtrusive in its silence; perhaps it managed, in its ambivalence toward the space program and its trippy final sequence, to appeal both to the engineers at Dow and to their protesters.  And perhaps this all has some relevance to us now, watching the movie again on DVD or in a special letterbox edition on TNT.  But is there anything shocking any longer in the idea that our government may be hiding something from us?  The sentiment is one of the most common and contentless features on the political landscape of the U.S., spanning opponents of the permanently militarized state, war protesters, tax protesters, far-right members of the Posse Comitatus, and all those folks who remain convinced that the State Department is hiding reports of POWs in Vietnam and the CIA is hiding the bodies of UFO pilots in Area 51.  The wonderful thing about American paranoia in the 1990s, it seems, is that it can be articulated to any political position you care to name.

Before we decide that American political paranoia is wholly indeterminate, though, we should at least note that 2001 directs its suspicions at the national security state, and not at, say, the profligate Congress or the milquetoasts in the war machine who didn’t let John Rambo win in Vietnam.  However common American disaffection from American government may be, it remains the case that some kinds of disaffection are more compatible with progressive politics than others.  In this respect, 2001 stands as a parable about the betrayal of American democracy in the era of the space program, in which Kubrick combines a palpable love of the beauty of space travel and a sense of awe at the cosmos with an indelible sense of disaffection from the space race as it’s managed by the national security state—and finally with the apparatus of the national security state itself. 2001 gives us a mission in which our final destination is known only to a power elite unaccountable even to its own instruments and operators.  And yet in 1968, it was still possible to imagine the Apollo program as the finest product of a free society and a free market, leading Americans into the final frontier and leading the rest of the world to follow American rather than Soviet models of progress and development.  As we approach 2001 ourselves, now that Kennedy’s Final Frontier has been replaced by Reagan’s Star Wars, the Soviet Union has collapsed, and there no longer seems any natural relation between American “freedom” and the conquest of space, we should be able to hear 2001‘s skeptical subtexts all the more clearly.  And we should recall anew what so few seem to have learned from Iran-Contra and arms sales to Iraq:  the current national security state is the enemy, not the guarantor, of democracy, and even in wartime and coldwartime, silence and secrecy do not necessarily work in the service of the national interest.

_____

As I was saying:  I wrote this essay in 1993, and you know what?  that last paragraph stands up pretty well thirteen years later.  Well, if you’ve gotten all the way down here, thanks for indulging me.  I’ll be back tomorrow with a very short, punchy ABF Friday!

Posted by Michael on 12/21 at 08:59 AM
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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Open the pod bay doors

Today and tomorrow, while I’m doing various filial duties in Virginia Beach, my blog will have a mind of its own.  Here, by largely unpopular demand, is a lightly edited version of my essay on 2001:  A Space Odyssey; the original, along with ten more wacky and daffy essays, can be found in this attractive volume.  Part one today, part two Thursday.

And in the meantime, don’t forget to tune in to my debate with Elizabeth Kantor, author of this unattractive volume, on the Michael Medved Show!  4 pm Eastern, 1 pm Pacific.

_______

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001:  A Space Odyssey is not a political film.  A quarter century after its release in April 1968 (its public debut took place on the day before the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.), 2001 is usually remembered for its images, for the music, or for its groundbreaking special effects--all of which are widely and routinely cited in the general culture.  The mysterious monolith turns up in New Yorker cartoons ("it’s a black thing, you wouldn’t understand"), “Thus Spake Zarathustra” becomes a staple of Sesame Street phonetics lessons, the balletic representations of space flight provide material for a Lenny Kravitz video and an episode of The Simpsons.  Much of the movie’s audience might hesitate to ascribe a “plot” to 2001 at all, much less a “plot” in the “political” sense; the movie’s initial reviews tended to center on the monolith and on HAL, and rereading those reviews today chiefly affords one the spectacle of watching dozens of puzzled film critics circle curiously around this large, black slab in their midst.

To be sure, the scenes aboard the spaceship Discovery, which culminate in the famous breakdown of HAL and his murder of four astronauts, suggest that Kubrick’s concern with humans and machines did not end with Dr. Strangelove, and most of the film’s commentators have appropriately reached the conclusion that, as Alexander Walker has put it, ”2001 is nothing less than an epic-sized essay on the nature of intelligence.” [Alexander Walker, Stanley Kubrick Directs (1972), 244; hereafter cited as SKD.] So it’s not as though the movie is entirely nonnarrative or nonpropositional, even if its director considers it “essentially a nonverbal experience.” [Quoted in Jerome Agel, ed., The Making of Kubrick’s 2001 (1970), 7; hereafter cited as Making.] All the same, my sense is that most people would think it takes a strange critical mind to see the movie as a commentary on the Cold War and the rise of the national security state.  But all I’ll be doing here is uncovering one of the film’s premises, a subtext it doesn’t need to elaborate insofar as it takes that subtext for granted (as does its audience).  To date, there hasn’t been any discussion of what 2001 might have meant to the politics of national security and manned space exploration in 1968.  I think that critical silence is itself readable, and that it testifies not only to cultural work the film has done, but also to the possibility that some forms of textual politics may be most powerful when least explicit.

The broader (and broadly deconstructive) theoretical principle at work here is worth stating in full.  The idea is this:  silence is not an absence of discourse, but an integral part of discourse—just as ignorance is not something lying at the outer borders of the map of knowledge (marked “here there be tygers"), but something licensed and sustained by specific regimes of knowledge that tell you implicitly you don’t need to know or you shouldn’t want to know.  Both formulations of this idea are integral to 2001, whose central drama turns on the politics of silence and ignorance.  Basically, I’m restating a well-known passage of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Part I, in which Foucault writes:

Silence itself—the things one declines to say, or is forbidden to name, the discretion that is required between different speakers—is less the absolute limit of discourse, the other side from which it is separated by a strict boundary, than an element that functions alongside the things said, with them and in relation to them within over-all strategies. . . .  There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses. [Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality.  Volume I: An Introduction (1978), 27.]

Because I find this passage too general for general consumption, I usually annotate it in the classroom by asking students the difference between what’s “unmentionable” and what “goes without saying.” To these vastly different kinds of silence we can then add the silences of tacit agreement and disagreement, the silence of hostile opposition, the silence of not blowing your friend’s cover, the silence of the unfathomable (itself a special subcategory of “ignorance"), the silence of trying to find out what the other person knows, and, not least of these, the silence of not being prepared for class.  Kubrick’s 2001 turns out to be composed of almost all these “silences.” That shouldn’t be surprising, since 2001 is literally a “silent” movie in a number of ways:  it’s a two-and-a-half-hour movie that contains only forty minutes of dialogue; it’s the first (and maybe the only) SF movie whose soundtrack maintains strict silence in the vacuum of space; and some of its most dramatic moments are silent—as when, just before the film’s intermission, we watch from HAL’s point of view as the computer lip-reads astronauts Bowman and Poole discussing whether to disconnect HAL’s higher brain functions.  But although everyone knows that 2001 broaches the unfathomable (human encounters with alien intelligences) and the unspeakable (thermonuclear war), no one seems to have talked about the political narrative that goes without saying in 2001, nor have we asked ourselves what that very silence might tell us.

*****

The premise of the movie, as derived from Arthur C. Clarke’s 1950 short story, “The Sentinel,” is that humans find an object on the moon, an object whose purpose is unclear but that at the very least testifies to the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence.  In reworking the story for the film’s screenplay and for his own prose treatment of the script, Clarke simply expanded on this premise, suggesting that Earth had been visited by an alien species four million years ago, when early humans—more specifically, proto-Australopithicene hominids—were still lousy predators:  weak, flat-toothed, slow, and threatened by drought.  The aliens, wanting to foster the spread of intelligent life in the galaxy but wanting to do it “passively,” leave behind a monolith that teaches the hominids to use tools, with which they can kill prey, eat meat—and attack each other.  In Clarke’s rewriting of the Genesis myth, then, the hominids eat of the trees of life and of knowledge, introduce murder and sin into the African plains, and eventually develop toolmaking skills that allow them to become Godlike enough to destroy their own planet.  This much is adumbrated in the most abrupt flash-forward in the history of film, when Kubrick cuts from the first tool—the bone with which the ape-humans have clubbed to death a member of a neighboring tribe—to an artificial Earth satellite.  The satellite is a nuclear warhead, but because the film refuses to make this clear in any narrative voiceover (I’ll say more about that below), and because the flash-forward is also a graphic match of long white tools, it’s possible at first to read the flash-forward as a triumphant affirmation of human evolution.  The rest of the film follows from the discovery on the moon of a black slab similar to the one that appeared amidst the “apes”—but the second monolith is more or less an alarm, buried beneath the lunar surface and activated by sunlight.  It sends a radio signal to Jupiter when the sun’s rays strike its surface; from Jupiter the signal is relayed, we know not where, and the monolith’s creators are thus presumably alerted to the fact that humans have survived the drought, subdued their predators, opened a chain of 7-11s, built spacecraft, and uncovered a strange black thing on the moon.

What’s most successful about this premise, as Kubrick and Clarke hashed it out over four years of rewrites, is that it neatly combines both the pessimist and triumphalist narratives of postwar, postnuclear science fiction.  Unlike some science fiction narratives (Star Trek is the most obvious contemporaneous example), 2001 does not predicate a future in which humans have overcome a bloody, apocalyptic phase of war and carnage; on the contrary, it suggests that there’s really no survival value to intelligence at all.  Although meliorist accounts of evolution like to believe that the universe—or at least terrestrial history—inevitably rewards self-conscious forms of life, 2001 opens by suggesting that tool-wielding intelligence is inseparable from murderous aggression, and that protohuman bipeds wouldn’t have made it anyway without a crucial push from forces unknown.

On the other hand, of course, the very existence of those forces is reason for hope, and the triumphalist aspects of 2001 certainly do imply that the development of intelligence—as it manifests itself specifically in space travel—is the “natural” destiny of self-replicating molecules (i.e., life) after all.  The film’s emphasis on space travel as the index of intelligence is of course a staple of science fiction, but its resonance in 1968, for a nation about to land men on the moon, is particularly strong; indeed, Wernher von Braun put the movie’s cosmic optimism in so many words when he declared that “what we will have attained when Neil Armstrong steps down upon the moon is a completely new step in the evolution of man.” [Quoted in Dale Carter, The Final Frontier:  The Rise and Fall of the American Rocket State (1988), 196; hereafter cited as FF.] In 2001, apparently, the cosmos agree with this account of our evolution, for when humans uncover the lunar monolith they become automatically eligible for entry into the galactic club of alien superintelligences.

Well, not quite “automatically”:  there’s one final hurdle, a manned mission to Jupiter to find out where the moon monolith’s signal went and why.  This mission takes up most of the film, provides its only sustained drama, and culminates in the battle between HAL and the Discovery‘s sole remaining astronaut, David Bowman.  HAL’s breakdown is, understandably, the central enigma for most critical commentary on the film:  it parallels the narrative of the Doomsday Machine in Strangelove (as well as subsequent Cold War films like 1983’s WarGames), warning us, as Gene Phillips would have it, that “human fallibility is less likely to destroy man than the relinquishing of his moral responsibilities to machines” [Gene D. Phillips, Stanley Kubrick:  A Film Odyssey (1975), 141]; it underlines the movie’s linkage of instrumental reason and deadly aggression; and it solidifies many viewers’ impressions that HAL is the film’s only interesting character.

The man-versus-machine narrative, in 2001 as elsewhere, has long held its attractions for twentieth-century Western countercultures, science fiction fans, and technophobes of all political stripes.  And it can’t be denied that the film deliberately invokes and blurs the distinction between humans and machines, since its human actors are so robotic and its computer so complexly “human.” I grant, moreover, that Kubrick deliberately invited attempts to “psychologize” the computer precisely by stripping the film of the explanatory narrative that would have contextualized the mission and the rationale for HAL’s programming.  All the same, as I’ll demonstrate, the human/ machine binary is strangely inapposite to 2001, and critics’ readings of HAL, accordingly, tend to underread the sources (and the effects) of his programming, while ascribing too much “ineffably human” pluck and initiative to Bowman’s eventual victory over HAL.  [Here I’m cutting a boring footnote to a couple of people who think that Bowman’s decision to re-enter Discovery through the emergency airlock is a “stroke of genius” rather than an obvious and unavoidable decision, and who quite foolishly believe that HAL is incapable of “intelligent improvisation.”]

Kubrick’s explicators are almost uniformly silent on what we might call the “social context” of the Jupiter mission.  Norman Kagan writes that “when he begins to acquire emotions, an ego, and the beginning of a personality, when he starts to be a man [sic], HAL begins to misbehave because of the precariousness of his self-worth, his own emptiness”; Thomas Allen Nelson claims that “once programmed to be human,” HAL “becomes imbued with a consciousness of his own fallibility”; Daniel De Vries says, “he is proud and willful, and when his pride is hurt and his life threatened, he does what any other human being would do:  he becomes murderous”; and Michel Ciment concludes that HAL is a creature “which, rebelling against its mission, falling prey to anxiety and the fear of death, wreaks vengeance on those who no longer have confidence in it by finally sinking into criminal madness.” [Kagan, The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick, 160; Nelson, Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist’s Maze, 125; De Vries, The Films of Stanley Kubrick, 53; Michel Ciment, Kubrick, tr. Gilbert Adair, 134.] In making HAL out as a kind of silicon-based existential Oedipus, complete with anxiety, hubris, and Being-toward-death, these readings strikingly fail to acknowledge the film’s most basic point:  HAL has been programmed to conceal the purpose of the mission, even from the astronauts on board.  At the same time, he has been programmed to perform flawlessly:  as he puts it to a BBC interviewer, “no 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information.” Lurking beneath the human/machine binary, in other words, is a specific set of instructions in HAL’s software, all written by very human members of the U.S. national security apparatus.  HAL does not rebel against his mission, and his self-worth is not in question.  He simply seeks to reconcile contradictory mission imperatives, and he does so with nothing more emotional than the microchips in his logic centers; behind the “conflict” between men and machines in 2001 are still more men.

This much can be gleaned, with some difficulty, from the text of the film itself:  its last spoken words are those of Dr. Heywood Floyd, chairman of the National Council of Astronautics (the film’s stand-in for NASA), who appears on a video screen in Discovery‘s computer center just as David Bowman has shut down HAL.  Floyd is of course ignorant of how badly the mission has gone awry, but his message serves to fill in Bowman (and us) on why HAL might have wanted to sever the spacecraft’s communicative link with Earth—and perhaps complete the mission alone:

Good day, gentlemen.  This is a prerecorded briefing made prior to your departure and which for security reasons of the highest priority has been known on board during the mission only by your HAL 9000 computer.  Now that you are in Jupiter space, and the entire crew is revived, it can be told to you.  Eighteen months ago, the first evidence of intelligent life off the Earth was discovered.  It was buried forty feet below the lunar surface, near the crater Tycho.  Except for a single, very powerful radio emission aimed at Jupiter, the four-million-year-old black monolith has remained completely inert, its origin and purpose still a total mystery.

It’s not clear whether Floyd’s message comes on automatically, as a result of HAL’s “death,” or whether HAL has “released” the tape to Bowman as a final, uncomputerlike gesture either of goodwill (to inform Bowman of the mission profile) or apology (to explain that he had been passively deceiving the crew all along). [Some critics have suggested that the recording comes on automatically because the ship has entered orbit around Jupiter.  This makes no sense whatsoever.] Be this ambiguity as it may, Floyd’s speech is one of Kubrick’s few concessions to narrative intelligibility, and it practically demands that one see the film again in order to go over Floyd’s earlier screen appearances (and I’ll go over them in a moment).

Kubrick’s collaborators and consultants registered a few complaints about this aspect of the film’s reticence to explain itself.  As Arthur C. Clarke said:

I personally would like to have seen a rationale of HAL’s behavior.  It’s perfectly understandable, and in fact would have made HAL a very sympathetic character; he had been fouled by those clods at Mission Control.  HAL was indeed correct in attributing his mistaken report to human error. (Quoted in Making, 133)

Astronomer and astronautics researcher Frederick Ordway, a scientific and technical consultant to 2001, similarly weighed in with a lengthy critique of Kubrick’s final version.  The full text of his response to the film can be found in Jerome Agel’s The Making of Kubrick’s 2001, and it indicates how thoroughly Kubrick excised all narration and explanatory voiceovers from his final cut:  originally, the movie opened with documentary narrative on the hominids’ possible extinction, on U.S.-Soviet relations (specifying that the first two satellites we see are nuclear warheads), on the radio emission from the lunar monolith, and on the enigmatic “Star Gate” orbiting Jupiter.  Where Ridley Scott gave in at the last moment and supplied a voiceover “noir” narrative to Blade Runner (1982), the notoriously difficult Kubrick did the opposite, purging his film of narration—notably, for the first time in his career.  What’s most crucial to my argument, however, is that as Ordway’s memo makes clear, Kubrick even excised dialogue between the astronauts and HAL that would have raised the question of who knows what about the spacecraft’s mission (and thus would have let viewers know that there was something else to know about the mission).  This is Ordway’s sense of the script:

Indispensable dialogue regarding the three hibernating astronauts was lacking; see particularly C12, where Bowman and Poole first become aware that “there is something about the mission the sleeping beauties know and that we don’t know. . . .” These few words are probably the most critical to the logic [sic] structure of the entire film, and lead to a valid reason why HAL breaks down.  Yet they were inexplicably cut out.  Poole tells HAL that there is “something about this mission that we weren’t told.  Something the rest of the crew know and that you know.  We would like to know if this is true.” HAL enigmatically answers:  “I’m sorry, Frank, but I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing everything that all of you know.” (Qtd. in Making, 197).

At this point, I realize, 2001‘s politics of silence and ignorance become confusing; it would seem a simpler task to determine who knows what about ghosts in “The Turn of the Screw.” But here’s what’s at stake in this “silence.” When Bowman and Poole realize that HAL knows something they don’t (and recall that Bowman is putatively Discovery‘s Mission Commander), they ask for simple confirmation of whether this is so, only to be met with doubletalk from HAL that suggests Bowman and Poole have the informational advantage on him.  Yet this entire exchange is “inexplicably” cut from the film, so that we don’t know—until Floyd’s tape appears, when it is too late—that Bowman doesn’t know what HAL knows, just as we don’t know that HAL knows that Bowman doesn’t know what mission he’s “commander” of.  The on-screen title that announces this segment of 2001 tells us that this is the Jupiter Mission, “eighteen months later,” but Kubrick has put us in the same narrative position into which Mission Control has put Bowman:  we don’t know what this “mission” is, or why it’s going to Jupiter, and Kubrick has kept us in ignorance by striking from the script the one exchange that would have alerted us to the fact that HAL is hiding something from his human crewmembers. [Puzzling as the “Jupiter Mission” title is, coming abruptly after the moon-monolith scene, it’s actually one of Kubrick’s few concessions to narrative intelligibility; as Gene Phillips reports (149), Kubrick added the two titles, “Jupiter Mission 18 Months Later” and “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” after the film’s puzzling premiere on April 1.]

Only one scene gives us any clue to the status of mission information aboard Discovery, and that scene, too, is gnomic at best.  HAL’s breakdown begins when he reports—falsely—the imminent failure of the AE-35 unit that will keep Discovery in touch with Mission Control (so the “breakdown” itself, as Clarke’s novel makes clear, turns on the availability of information and ostensible control of the mission).  But his false report about the AE-35 follows crucially from his tentative questioning of Bowman, when (on my reading) he tries to determine whether Bowman has any suspicion of the truth.  After asking Bowman if he’s noticed any of the “extremely odd things” about the mission—the absolute secrecy, the decision to place astronauts on board already in hibernation, and the “strange stories floating around before we left, rumors about something being dug up on the moon,” HAL is rebuffed:  Bowman replies, “you’re working up your crew psychology report.” Retreating from his inquiry, HAL says, “Of course I am.  Sorry about this.  I know it’s a bit silly,” whereupon he announces the fault in the AE-35 unit.  Having determined that Bowman is merely a good company man who sees no ambiguity in anything he’s been told about his job, HAL thereby ascertains that he cannot discuss the mission’s real objectives with Bowman until he is cleared to release the prerecorded briefing from Floyd.  It is then that HAL reports the failure of the communications unit; whether he does so out of impending “guilt” over his deception of Bowman and Poole (brought on by the aporia at the heart of his mission programming), or for a more sinister reason (which I’ll discuss below), is, to quote the film’s last words, a total mystery.

So far this narrative is still fairly routine, even if, like the lunar monolith, it does require some serious digging before it becomes visible.  Evil gremlins in the military-industrial complex misprogram a supercomputer, and the misprogramming backfires horribly; as Carolyn Geduld writes, following Clarke’s account, “HAL is messed up by some Dr. Strangelove working in Mission Control on Earth.” [Geduld, Filmguide to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1973), 59.] But when we turn back to Dr. Floyd’s role in the film, we begin to realize how inadequate even these accounts (including Clarke’s) really are.  First of all, contra Clarke, HAL was not “fouled” by “clods,” and contra Geduld, his programming was not derailed by a Dr. Strangelove; as Floyd’s closing statement says explicitly, the decision to withhold mission information from the Discovery crew has the highest security clearance.  It is not the work of a lone Strangelove in Mission Control, but of the entire national security apparatus.  Second—and this is critical to my reading of the film—the information blackout aboard Discovery gives the lie, retroactively, to everything Dr. Floyd has said in his three earlier scenes, on Space Station 5 (in Earth orbit) and on the moon.  And since Floyd’s trip to the moon presents itself, on first viewing, as a gradual uncovering of the “truth” about the monolith, it’s worth going over those scenes more carefully, for here is where we can see Kubrick’s depiction of space-race paranoia working most effectively—again, because most silently.

_______

Tomorrow: we go over those scenes more carefully!  Keep it right here for more critical thrills and spills!

Posted by Michael on 12/20 at 09:29 AM
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Monday, December 18, 2006

Post mortem post

All right, so the results are now official, and you are now officially reading the Best Educatious Blog on the Internets.  I think Sherman Dorn, of the rival (and craftily-named) Education Policy Blog has precisely the right attitude about all this as he graciously offers you, my faithful readers, his heartfelt salute:

a tentative congrats to Michael Bérubé’s loyal readership for having beaten out the readership of a defunct homeschool blog, an Ivy League gossip site, and all the others.

As I pointed out in my comment chez EdPoliBlog, Sherman forgot to say that we barely beat out the readership of a defunct homeschool blog.  And not without some controversy along the way, which Sherman generously refers to as “the silly competition to see who can get away with the most fraud in the 2006 Weblog Awards for best educationalisteseazamatazz blog.”

Well, merci beaucoup, Sherman!  We appreciate the gesture, and we congratulate you and Education Policy Wonk Blog of Wonkers on a most impressive three-way tie for eighth place:

Michael Bérubé 38.62 % (6177)
SpunkyHomeSchool 34.41 % (5505)
IvyGate 14.59 % (2334)
A Shrewdness of Apes 3.01 % (482)
Joanne Jacobs 2.34 % (374)
Eduwonk 1.93 % (309)
Faith and Theology 1.71 % (273)
Education Policy Blog 1.22 % (195)
History is Elementary 1.17 % (187)
The Education Wonks 1.00 % (160)

Total votes: 15996

But I do have two serious things to say about this.  The first is that I’m sorry for inadvertently antagonizing homeschoolers when I should have been mocking Education Policy Blog instead.  As Bill Benzon kept pointing out in comments, people homeschool their kids for all kinds of reasons.  Some of those reasons, I should add, sometimes have to do with children with learning disabilities.  For obvious reasons, though, the Christian-secular split involved here threatened to overshadow everything else.  Now, it did not escape my notice that the only Weblog Awards races that generated any ill will were the ones that involved people from significantly different political communities, as in the Kos v. LGF heavyweight bout and the Lesbian Dad v. Hang Right Politics undercard.  Those races got real nasty real fast; ours didn’t.  But when those illegal votes and cheating scripts started coming in, it became clear that some of our fans were, indeed, taking this thing too seriously.  So my sincere thanks to Spunky and the Harris twins for helping put everything in perspective when things got weird—and for being such charitable competitors.

Besides (this is thing two), the important point isn’t that we won or they won.  The important point is that I avenged last year’s inexplicable loss to Sadly, No! Last year, you’ll recall, the chortling snarkmeisters at S,N! just managed to squeak by us in the crucial Best of the Two Hundred and Fifty-First Through Five Hundredth Blogs as Ranked by Some Capricious Ranking Device competition, 2240 votes to 1318.  This year, Sadly, No! stomped all over its right-wing competitors in a noticeably Poor Man-less field, winning 5604 votes, 36.94 percent of the 15,170 votes cast in their category.  So the real totals, for those of you keeping track of the real competition, are:

Michael Bérubé 38.62 % (6177)
Sadly, No!  36.94% (5604)

And so we are the champions, my friends.  Never mind the petty technicalities.  Let’s not bicker and argue about who was in what category, now!  The people have spoken.  Some of them more than once!

I have to say, though, that I’m a bit disappointed that I didn’t get to write my big concession speech.  After all, those of you who’ve been following this blog since its early days in 2004, when it was still “cool” and was opening for The Arcade Fire in tiny Montréal clubs, know that writing concession speeches is one of our specialities here at Le Blogue Bérubé.  In early 2005 we fought over Best New Blog with James Wolcott and BradBlog only to wind up pwned by Amanda Marcotte; we battled over Most Humorous Post with the Rude Pundit only to lose to The Poor Man; we struggled vainly for Best Writing with Wolcott and Meteor Blades only to fall to the mighty Digby.  In late 2005 we lost inexplicably, inexplicably I say, to Sadly, No!  In early 2006 we finished second in Best Series to some blog called FireDogLake.  And then, in the unkindest cut of all, Todd Gitlin came out of nowhere in the third heat (as FrontPage reset their results again and again) to strip me of my rightful title as America’s Most Dangeral Professor.

So this time, as I squared off (I thought) against IvyGate only to be (I thought) beaten by SpunkyHomeSchool, I composed a concession speech in which I congratulated Spunky on a race well run (that still holds!) and noted that this competition marked the first time I’d been beaten by a defunct blog.  Granted, Spunky’s blog was newly-defunct, having posted its farewell on December 5, but still.  So I was going to take this opportunity for reflection and post a few draft chapters of my forthcoming Blogging and Time about Being-Toward-Defunctness (Ger. Sein-zum-Defunkt).  For someday, this too will be a defunct blog.  Possibly quite soon!  You never know.  For defunctness comes to us all in its own time, and at my back from time to time I hear the GNF’s winged chariot hurrying near.

Not just yet, though.  I still have to give a couple of blog-related talks at the MLA later this month, and I have no intention of doing so as an ex-blogger.  I haven’t yet replied adequately to this contribution and that contribution to Liberalpalooza®, or Mark Bauerlein’s essay in last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education.  We still haven’t quite completed the saga of my journey to the Land that Time Forgot.  And there are a couple more things on our mind as well, like the question of how we wound up speaking about ourselves in the first person plural again even though we just used “mind” in the singular.

In the meantime, here’s this week’s schedule.  I’m flying down to Virginia Beach tomorrow and staying through Friday to help take care of my mother, who recently fractured her hip and broke her wrist.  (All this talk of my sports-related injuries has been mere deflection, you see.) Send her some good wishes and Skele-Gro!  I’ll post a few excerpts from my essay on 2001: A Space Odyssey in the meantime, because research suggests that almost two percent of all commenters on the previous thread might actually be interested in reading ‘em.  And I’ll be back on Friday, don’t you worry, don’t you fret, with the most arbitrary Friday yet.

Thanks again to everyone who voted for me (legally) in this Weblog Awards thing, and to everyone who made our Cage Match and Show Trial such a world-historical success!

Posted by Michael on 12/18 at 03:38 PM
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