Home | Away

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
(62) Comments • (12) TrackbacksPermalink
Page 1 of 1 pages