Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Conversation on the Movie "ZEITGEIST"


I was in a pub the other night having a conversation with a friend about the Singularity, which is basically how Boyle’s Law was going to reach some kind of end point and erupt into some form of singularity, as it is popularly known. It signifies an ending, a beginning, a utopian vision or a nightmarish dystopia, basically the stuff of a futurist’s or computer programmer’s wet dream. That is neither here nor there with regards to the overall trajectory that the conversation would take, only to say that it served as a lead in, a starter to the main course, if you will. ( My friend is a chef - hence the metaphor.)

Anyway, it was actually the perfect lead in to a conversation about alternative theories, far-out ones which challenge - or seem to challenge - the status quo. The Singularity may not be such a theory per se, but it certainly sits on the same fringy edge, to which the proverbial “The Man” might react with a shake of the head in dismissal, saying all the while “that’s ludicrous.” (He does so sincerely, out of ignorance, or with a half-smile at the side of his mouth, betraying his secret knowledge of such matters and his utter glee at such possibilities. Or, going further, betraying his intention to cause such outcomes. Take your pick.)

My friend and I moved on in our conversation to the first Zeitgeist film. My aversion to this film has been a long time coming. It has to do with a pre-Zeitgeist encounter with the type of thought contained within the film. I had flirted with the ideas which culminated in the film, but I had already rejected most of the content before it even came out. Most of it, for I am still tentatively and skeptically drawn to the idea that the world needs a change, that the capitalist system needs a sharp jolt of some description (a revolution even) to do our world and ourselves justice. At my better moments, when caught in a strange place between Utopianism and a solid practicality - an impossible place I always try to be in - I think of responsibility and dignity as being aspects of a general drive that leads us to such a place of extreme critique and aversion to the system sometimes called (in a hugely over-simplistic fashion) the late capitalism of our contemporary age.

So my friend and I turned our attention towards the film. He told me of how the film had changed his mind, opening it to ideas which he admitted were brewing within in him, in some half-formed sense, and which were perhaps given form or an outlet through the film Zeitgeist. He was half-serious, playing devil’s advocate, throughout the conversation oscillating freely between commitment and belief in the film’s “truth” on one hand and skepticism and non-commitment on the other hand. But I just shook my head, and started to use big words, conjuring up ideas which I only half understand myself. This was an ideology that people freely fell into - always already there - I explained, and its main attribute was non-action, non-effect, and that it was absorbed completely into the way of things, and ceased being truly subversive. My argument, then, at first, was that the film was not subversive enough.

My friend called bullshit at this moment. My attempt to step outside the argument was risking becoming waffly and nihilistic, a surrender to the idea of suffocation within the system and to the notion that there is no escape. I do believe that, to a certain extent, the system of things is closed and unescapable. Rather, the notion of escape exists within the system itself, created by the notion of suffocation which I described, and can never be truly ignored or even described in totality. To define a limit to the system of things would be a truly impossible and profoundly arrogant act. It was a bit more simple than that, as my friend saw it. My problem was that I was focussing on “the cunts that were just trying to be cool and fit in,” as my friend put it. He also kept repeating one central mantra throughout our discussion in an attempt to pry open the elaborate bullshit that I had spread over my stance of aversion to the film. “I can’t see why you are so against the film,” he kept on repeating.

And he was right. At my most idealistic I dream of the same things that the Zeitgeisters do. The nihilism that I used as my defense was itself a mask. I remembered an age-old piece of wisdom, handed down through fiction, prose and philosophy throughout the ages (recently and popularly in the TV show Scrubs in the character of Dr. Cox) that there is a thin, transparent line between idealism and nihilism. (A good essay to read if you’re looking for an in-depth analysis of such things would be Derrida’s Cogito and the History of Madness, where Derrida shows that the implications of Descartes’ cogito - I think therefore I am - holds madness at bay only at the rhetorical surface, but that madness is itself an implication of the cogito.)

I had not mounted an argument. What I had in fact done was used a few well positioned pieces of rhetorical play to out-manoeuvre my opponent and lure him into a place of subservience, where he was supposed to accept everything I said because I used big words and had a pretension towards a fuzzy grander order of things, one which I used to make it seem as if I could stand apart, outside of the phenomena I was trying to describe. And he was right - it was bullshit. Or, at least, it was not an argument.


So, what is the film actually about? It begins with a detailed account of what could be called (following Foucault’s famous book The Archaeology of Knowledge) the archaeology of Christianity. I find this part of the film interesting in itself, for it is a subject very close to my heart. That is, the formation of ideas and attempts to identify such formations. This is an act of hindsight, of course, for how else could it be done? This point, which I will come back to, is very important to the discussion my friend and I were having, essential to my argument that had yet to form.

In the film this archaeology concerns pagan precedents for Christianity. This is all well and good, but what is the overall point to it, what are the filmmakers trying to say exactly? Let us examine the film further.

The film then jumps into an examination of 9/11. It argues that the attacks were orchestrated by elements within the American government, or within the establishment, basically by some big omnipotent Other usually present in conspiracy theories. You know, “them”, the orchestrators of it all, the hidden agent that simply must be behind these immense acts. Anyone with an internet connection has probably heard at least one variation of what can be called more broadly the 9/11 conspiracy. For example, it was an inside job, that the planes simply could not do that kind of damage, that there were explosives planted inside the towers and an adjoining building rigged to go off once the planes hit and assist the buildings in their thunderous downfall.

I am skeptical myself of whether there is any merit to such theories, but I would not venture so far as to say that it definitely wasn’t a conspiracy of some sort (but most definitely not pulled off by some omnipotent being) or dismiss them out of hand because, well, the world is a complex place, multitudinous in its relationships, power struggles and desires. I will simply reiterate my point about the big Other of the conspiracy theory. It seems to be spurred on by a need for agency, an agent, a hidden hand, all knowing and all seeing, and the all too human capacity to infer such agency upon certain “big” events, inexplicable, traumatic, at the edge of human understanding by definition, as 9/11 was. Perhaps the identification of intentions and their effects (or, tracing effects back to intention) is an essential part of what we must do in our daily lives, what we do do in our daily lives. The problem, and my warning, lies with the inferring of agency upon History itself, inferring a hidden hand to explain how we got to where we are.

But yet, that is the nature of story telling, of narrative, of the process of inclusion and exclusion in the telling of a story. And we cannot get away from this - that we find ourselves in a world of endless context. But, then, our opposition to this world (a natural originary opposition) creates the need for the agent, for a hidden hand of History. To say that this hidden hand doesn’t exist empirically would be to miss the point completely.

The section concerning 9/11 is not what bothers me about the film per se. Or, I should say, it is not what bothers me most about it. To explain, we must examine the film further. The third part focusses on another cornerstone of modern conspiracy theories, namely that bankers and corporations manipulate events to further their interests, which involves the subjugation of the masses. In essence, the fear here is of a fictional kind of power, a power taken to its logical extreme, total and ceaseless. And is this not the power that we can attribute not to the hidden hand, but to the sense that there is a hidden hand? In other words, the big Other causes this extremity, or the hidden hand causes it. Again, questions as to whether it is real or imaginary completely miss the point.

The problem is still one of agency and the inference of agency, but also of the idea of an unnatural trajectory of History. I say it is unnatural because, in the world of Zeitgeist, the agent caused it to be so, manipulating and steering History away from its true and natural path. And it is the very idea of the naturalness of History (or a the naturalness of a possible history that should have happened, that was thwarted), free from an idea of a hidden hand manipulating things, that is worse of all. For, if we hold the conscious and the human in opposition of nature, we are therefore inferring that they are unnatural, important, unique, all those notions of a kind of radical singularity (inside), apart from the chaos (outside) of nature.

The notion of the chaos of nature, a chaos to be fought at all costs (so it seems), brings us to another crucial point. Going back to the notion of hindsight, the popular saying on it is actually quite illuminating: “With the benefit of hindsight, I could have ... (insert regret)” This phrase, more than many, brings us closer to the heart of the matter. It is hindsight that allows us to weave these intricate webs of narrative, full of hidden hands and whispering evils, upon events. Following Hayden White, I would say that History is the grandest narrative of all, but that we must not lose sight of the utter unknowability and mysteriousness of future outcome (perhaps this is the true chaos of nature?). It is not simply that no one can predict the future (for perhaps on certain specific topics certain specialists can in their own way predict the future), it is more that the future, as a concept, belongs in the present, and decisions made at certain points by certain people are always, to whatever extent, blind. An original intention may come to fruition, or may see itself out as a desired outcome, and it might not. Even if the original intention is realised in its entirety - an impossibility in itself perhaps - who is to say that the all the consequences necessarily lead on from and follow the original intention completely? This was Derrida’s point; it was what Barthes meant when he proclaimed the death of the author. Still, though, the possibility of the author remains, a spectre to such a way of thinking. Similar to the question of the reality or non-reality of the Other, the “death” of the author is the wrong question also. The world must exhibit a sense of mystery - without this sense, everything turns to stone and complete chaos all at once. To put it plainly, without mystery there could be nothing, no movement, and no discourse. There could not even be nothing. So, the death of the author is never complete because of the mystery that lies between its being and its death.

Going back to the film itself, we can say that there is a link between all three parts, and that there must be, for virtue of it being a story, a narrative, of three acts no less. The implication could be viewed as subtle, in that the links (especially between the first part about Christianity and the contemporary conspiracy building of the other parts) between all three rest upon a general notion of the questioning of the status quo, shown clearly and straightforwardly in the film. We see a questioning of our origins in the first part, a questioning of our collective upbringing; questioning of a seminal event of our own contemporary age, our day, in the second; and a questioning of the modes of deception, the hidden hand moving the global capitalist system in the third. Essentially, it is a questioning of the context in which we find ourselves in our daily lives - what brought us to this point, and the idea of intentional deception all the way through.

This intentional deception, the hidden hand, lies at the heart of Zeitgeist itself and the version of History that it gives us. It is more subtle and less overt in the first part than in the other parts. Towards the end of the segment, however, it is advanced that the archaeology of Christianity and its purer pagan origins were hijacked by the early church leaders and the Romans, that this lost history was purposefully hidden. The hidden hand - always threatening and menacing beneath its veil - in actuality provides a certain amount of comfort here as, with the idea of some foreign intentionality, comes the will to blame, comes focus, comes definition.

Perhaps there is a sense of disillusionment with society, culture, our past and our future, which drives us towards such explanations. (As well as this having a sense of disillusionment with society, it cannot be said to lie outside, as this version of society does, as society is presented as an object apart from ourselves. But it is also a disillusionment within society, within culture, within the past and within the future.) For I have felt this too, as I have mentioned. (As my friend said to me during our conversation on the film, “How can you be against this?”) But yet, let me go back to one of my earlier points, and then put forward a tentative hypothesis linked with our disillusionment and the idea that our culture is on the wane.

One of my first arguments was that the film risks being absorbed the system of late/global capitalism, and risks not being radical enough to effect real change. It is a point explored in such a hyperbolic way by Baudrillard, who puts forward the idea that the global - as a notion and an ideology - can absorb just about anything, but will ultimately self-destruct due to its lack of substance with regards to the values singular to a certain society or culture which separates it from the rest. (Perhaps it is an overabundance of substance which threatens such values, which could be described as a lack of something or a barrier, a natural separating point.) Zizek continues such criticism, espousing that contemporary liberalism is a new kind of ideology which hides itself in that it passes as anti-ideology and as self-evident (a way of 'truly' being) and, Zizek warns, it is all the more deadly for that. But perhaps these two fatalistic approaches miss a key point. Perhaps this is not primarily a characteristic of our own age.

Now’s time for that tentative hypothesis. Let us go back to the beginning of Christianity as Zeitgeist does. Allow me to take a theoretical leap, the kind of which is easily chastised and torn apart through criticism. I am going to take it anyway, and I will even go so far as to say that it is my opinion, my belief, my creation. It is my attempt to link events into a grander narrative. That is to say, I believe that the tapestry that I am about to weave may hold some truth in it. Here itself lies an essential point about stories, narratives, and their relation with events. My tone may be one which stands apart, because that is the nature of criticism, but, on another level, it does not and cannot. Narrative is what we do, to such an extent that the use of a single word, or any amount of words, cannot describe the limits of the system that is the condition for language itself, the story and the world and Man and the Other, ad infinitum. It is then the place of mystery to upset narrative in a fundamental and necessary way, in a kind of oscillation between the two - or even a kind of dance - between the firmness of concept (intentional, fixed, the word itself) and the movement which narrative tries to make room for (narrative being defined as a process as well as a singular form). It can never do this completely - a fundamental and profound mystery. It seems to me that this might be the problem of language - the problem that ceases to evolve towards a solution. The mystery, then, is the shadow of doubt that drives wonder. There is a mystery in the movement of language and life respectively, but also in their utter entanglement with each other.


I am now going to put forward my theory, and take full responsibility for it. As I mentioned before, it concerns the beginnings of Christianity as we know it, a crucial point or juncture at which it was adopted by the Roman Empire. Before this, Christians were persecuted throughout the Empire. Their willingness for martyrdom points to a radical opposition to the status quo - to Rome itself. And so, the ever-expanding Empire, conqueror and ruler of what they then defined as the ‘known world’ met its match with something - something within - that they couldn’t conquer. That is, the willingness for death, death itself. It was on this primordial level that they could never hope to reach the Christians - a group which grew up within the Roman Empire, and whose plight cannot be separated from it. The Romans could conquer by causing death. But the Christians actively welcomed it in the belief in a kingdom of the hereafter. That is to say, Caesar was not their king, and through the evocation of this greater reality of the hereafter, untouchable by Rome, they could claim (within the internal logic of their movement) that they were not ruled by Caesar, and that they had a higher master or that they belonged to a higher order beyond the reach of the conquering Romans.

People forget - especially with the polarising atheist theist debate so prominent these days - how subversive Christianity was in its origins. Or, rather, how subversive it was deemed when the Empire fought it and attempted to place it in perceptual terms as an external threat. One only has to look at the Book of Revelations to see that at the heart of Christianity, at its origins as a movement, it was radical and subversive, with the end of the political and ideological rule of Rome as one of its primary concerns and, even, goals. (Most scholars agree that that many of the references in the Book of Revelations, such as the many-headed serpent, refer to the Roman Empire - in that case the emperor Nero. However, people of all ages have tried to tie it to their own age. I even heard of American Christians buying land in Israel in the belief that the second coming is immanent. Such is the power of this subversive element of Christianity and, more broadly, the power of the Book.)

What, then, are we to make of Constantine’s adoption of Christianity as the religion of the Empire? The gaps and mysteries of History will never be completely known, but we do know this - the Empire was in decline by the time Constantine became emperor. Perhaps we can assume that a certain amount of melancholy had set in within the Empire itself, in the hearts and minds of the peoples of the Empire, from the downtrodden to those at the reigns of power, a disillusionment analogous to the disillusionment of our own time and, indeed, many such times. The religious and spiritual movement that Constantine chose to adopt had as its history - its archaeology - a radical critique and opposition to the very Empire that he ruled. And perhaps, speaking generally and boldly here, this is something that systems such as empires do when they are on the wane, in what at first seems like an act of self-destruction or suicide. That is, they absorb the critique, take it on, perhaps in an effort to prolong the empire. Is this what Baudrillard was describing in his critique of contemporary western culture, in his idea of simulation and the capacity of the global to absorb anything and all at the expense of cultural and societal survival (as we know it)? And is this in actuality a desperate attempt to preserve the idea of the west, the idea of the global, or of one narrative that encompasses all? Was not the ever-expanding Roman Empire similar, in that it held within its drive to conquer a notion of one way, just one way, Rome’s way? To use a phrase from the time, "all roads lead to Rome". It seems that, in times of stress, when this core ideology is challenged, those in power of such empires feel the need to embrace the unthinkable - like Constantine did with Christianity. And, by embracing a movement which claimed the hereafter as its true kingdom, Rome could do the same.

With Zeitgeist we get an omnipotent hidden hand, the master of deception, thwarting humanity’s true nature at every turn, alienating it from its true mode of Being (similarities with Marx’s notion of alienation should not be dismissed or discounted easily here, and perhaps even be counted in the archaeology of Zeitgeist the movie). And, I put forward, the early Christians felt the same way about the emperor, about Rome, about the Roman Empire itself. It was their big Other, opposed to their truth of God’s kingdom. (Zeitgeist’s truth comes from a more humanist tradition and thus it is Man’s kingdom that is being thwarted.)

So, why my aversion to the film? Perhaps it goes back to my earlier point that the film is not subversive enough, but, on the contrary, in the fact it is too subversive, radical and oppositional. With a culture in decline, it stands to become absorbed, accepted, and ultimately a possible means with which to set up an immutable power structure, such as happened with the Catholic church, resting on the perceived totality of opposites. (In Rome it was between heaven and earth, and if Zeitgeist and what it stands for were to be absorbed, it may take a similar tone to Nationalist Socialism. Those two words point to a totalising system, a movement for everyone, as if two contradictory ideologies have been resolved, synthesised, culminating in claims of an immutable power gained through such a resolution. I am not here comparing the Nazis to people who watch the Zeitgeist films, I am just spelling out what seems to be a danger in such totalising systems of power, where two opposites seem to have reached a synthesis.)

It isn't very likely that the Zeitgeist ideology will be absorbed in such a way, only that it is possible and that there is an analogy to be made; this acceptance of the fringe within the system speaks of its own material degradation and stagnation. What we see these days are protests which are staged, planned and executed with little to no effect or very little violence. Gone are the days when the workers rioted like it meant something - something more than just themselves. (Except for maybe in Greece - my thesis here, as it simply must do, speaks of possibilities only and is always incomplete. Having said that, I take full responsibility for it.) In our age of triumphant degradation, we can absorb the fringe completely without an upset to the status quo. This does not speak to the system’s strength, but rather to its fragmentation. We are a long way off the embracing of an enemy by those in power such as in the time of Constantine (are we? who is to say?), but the warning stands.


So, I guess my aversion to the film, is a bit of a, “meh”, or a “who cares?” For me it represents what is in effect a misdirection. This is not an intentional misdirection, like the intentionality of some hidden hand, but rather a misdirection caused by the assumption of intention. It is a misdirection away from the system itself, away from an admittance of our own placing within it, away from a rotten core and towards a hidden hand. A good analogy here would be the film Wag the Dog, in which two producers create a phony war to divert attention away from a presidential sex scandal. The system is perpetuated through such misdirections because the nature of the system - and our place within it - is warped and skewed by such misdirection. What Constantine adopted was the ultimate misdirection. If we look at Marxism, discounting the Marxist notion of alienation (although not completely), we should acknowledge one of the main points that Marx alluded to - no one’s to blame, it’s the bloody system!

I have mentioned this need for an intentionality, an author, throughout this essay. The problem between this view and a more Marxist view was put succinctly to me by a lecturer of mine, David Slattery, who told me how a German Marxist asked him the question; “Do you believe that the history of Western thought began with Socrates or the invention of the plough?” Most books on philosophy begin roughly with Socrates and some fragments from his predecessors, but without the plough, there could be no Socrates, no Greek civilisation (or the sense of belonging to one), and no chance of that particular historical moment which brought Socrates into being, in a sense, or set up the conditions that allowed his thought to enter the History of Western Philosophy as a seminal moment, or even allowed for it in the first place.

And, from both opposing points of view, comes a deep and profound mystery - a mystery at their separation and their unity, all at once. I feel that practicality forces me to embrace the mystery itself, to allow it a place between something and nothing, to allow for a universe where the notion of a beyond is neither a system nor an author, but a deep and profound mystery - the gap between the question and the answer, between the system and the author. Again, I feel that a certain profound practicality brings me to this point, and dare I say it but it verges on idealism. But for that I will take responsibility also.

My friend dragged this out of me, not exactly or entirely as I have written it in this essay. Obviously, I have embellished it with thought and through the very process of writing, but the trajectory of the discussion, and my argument, is there, on the page or computer screen, as much as is possible, including my tentative hypothesis, which was sort of like a counter-Zeitgeist, and was the part of the argument my friend was most impressed by. This is a story of half-formed thoughts coming together, coalescing to form a story. In its own peculiar way, it is a celebration of story, of narrative, but also a celebration of the mystery of narrative - that it is never complete, that there are always gaps and, even, perhaps, a way forward through the mystery. Narrative is neither totalitarian or incorporeal. And that’s the mystery, by way of metaphor. This is the way of things. As I have mentioned, practicality brought me to this point, but also, within it, some sort of idealism, and also a sense of responsibility. It is this same search, unease, desire to change the world, that I share with the basic ideological framework of Zeitgeist. And so, while it is an act of violence against such a framework (how can it not be? I cannot turn and say that I do not wish to endanger such a framework, if that is the outcome, or a possible outcome, of someone reading it) I would say this: we share something, an urge to act perhaps, a responsibility and a desire for dignity (itself tied to the notion of alienation), and that should not be completely overlooked.

I have two concise pieces of advice or warnings for those advocates of the film in its entirety and worldview, or even something similar.

1. Reflect more upon more upon who you blame and why you blame. Who does it serve?

2. I also feel that things are going to shit, so to speak, but I have one question - considering my emphasis on an inherent mystery of History itself, and following a critical reflection on the idea of a hidden hand of History, what the fuck are we supposed to do about it all? That, I feel, is the real question we should be asking ourselves.

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