Twisted Times (Part 1)

Abe: “You should go to China.”

Joe: “I’m going to France.”

Abe: “I’m from the future. You should go to China.”

In Rian Johnson’s Looper (2012), the city of Shanghai reaches back across 30 years to draw people in. Over these decades it feeds itself based on what it is to become: the city of the future. When compared to this, everything else that happens in the movie is mere distraction, but we won’t get there for a while.

Strangely enough, ‘everything else’ was to have been simply everything. Joe was going to Paris, and Shanghai wasn’t even in the picture. That was before Chinese authorities told Johnson that they would cover the cost of the Shanghai shoot, making the film a co-production, with convenient access to the Chinese cinema market. The Old World stood no chance.

For American audiences, Looper played into the trend of opinion, through its contrasting urban visions of a grim, deteriorated, crime-wracked Kansas City and the splendors of a ‘futuristic’ Shanghai. The movie doesn’t answer the question: How did America lose the future? It nevertheless accepts the premise, as something close to a pre-installed fact.

Yet if Looper confirmed the direction of American popular attitudes, it marked a shift on the Chinese side. Only a few years before, Western media reported with amusement that the Chinese broadcast authorities had banned time-travel fictions from the nation’s airwaves, apparently concerned that the country’s citizens were defecting into a pre-republican past, under the influence of narratives that “casually make up myths, have monstrous and weird plots, use absurd tactics, and even promote feudalism, superstition, fatalism and reincarnation.” Now a time-travel story was being actively recruited to close an urban promotion loop, linking Shanghai’s international image to a portrayal of retro-chronic anomaly. The Shanghai time-travel industry had arrived.

Before proceeding to a multi-installment investigation of Topological Meta-History tangled time-circuitry, which ‘time-travel’ illustrates only as a crude dramatization, it is worth pausing over Looper’s ‘monstrous and weird plot’. Time-travel has a uniquely intimate, and seductively morbid, relationship to both fiction and history, because it scrambles the very principle of narrative order in profundity. If Western media authorities assumed the same role of cultural custodianship that has been traditional among their Chinese peers, they too might have been compelled to denounce a genre that flagrantly subverted the foundational principle of Aristotelian poetics: that any story worthy of veneration should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. If time-travel can occur, it seems (at least initially) that order is an illusion, so that fiction and reality switch places.

From a conservative perspective, therefore, comfort is to be found in the blatant absurdity of time-travel stories (insofar as this can be confined to a reductio ad absurdam of the time-loop structure itself, rather than spreading outwards as the index of primordial cosmic disorder). In this respect, Looper is a model of tranquillization.

The Looper time-travel procedure is monopolized by a criminal syndicate, which utilizes it exclusively for one purpose: the disposal of awkward individuals, who are returned 30 years in time to be murdered, execution-style, by professional killers (yes: “This sounds pretty stupid”). The exorbitant absurdity of this scenario might exempt it from further critical attention, were it not the symptom of more interesting things, and the doorway onto others.

The symptom first: Non-linear time-structures are shaken to pieces almost immediately, once they allow for the transportation of stuff backwards in time. Looper economics exposes this with particular clarity. The killers of 2044 are paid in bars of silver for ‘ordinary’ hits, and in gold for ‘closing loops’ or executing their retro-deposited older selves. The bars are sent back from 2074, and circulated through an internal exchange operation, which swaps bullion for (Chinese) paper currency. Whilst this crude time-circuit is presented as a payments system, the process described actually functions as an under-performing money-making machine. By using it, one realizes the ultimate Austrian economic nightmare by printing precious metals, because an ingot sent backwards in time is doubled, or added to its ‘previous’ instance (which already exists in the past). Mechanical re-iteration of the process would guarantee exponential growth for free. We’re not told what the 2074 criminal organization sees as its core business, but it must be seriously lucrative — exciting enough, in any case, to distract them from the fact that their murder-fodder machine is really a bullion fast-breeder. They could have shoveled it full of diamonds, doubling their fortune each ‘time’, but they decided instead to duplicate human nuisances in 2044. The movie asks us quietly to suspend our impertinent disbelief, and trust that they know what they’re doing.

Mike Dickison’s excellent Looper commentary succinctly describes this implicit procedure for unlimited wealth, among other incredibly missed opportunities. It surely has to count as a criticism of the movie that its rickety framework of plot coherence is dependent upon the imbecility of its significant agents, who stumble blindly past the prospect of total power in their ruthless pursuit of a miserable racket. This absurdity, as already noted, serves a conservative purpose: The potential of the loop has to be suppressed to sustain narrative drama and intelligibility. The basic flaw of the movie is that far too much was given, before most of it was clumsily taken away.

In the absence of controlling censors, Johnson’s story represses itself, messily, comically, and unconvincingly. “This time travel crap, just fries your brain like a egg,” the elder Joe (Bruce Willis) confesses on Johnson’s behalf. Unleashed time-travel is an anti-plot, inconsistent with dramatic presentation. (If you’re not willing to take Aristotle’s word for that, watching Primer a few dozen times should sort you out.) Narrative wreckage is what time-travel does.

Time-travel absurdity is a choice. It is a decision taken, at least semi-deliberately, for conservative or protective reasons, because the alternative would be ruin. Even the representation of (radically nonlinear) time anomaly by ‘time-travel’ is indicative of this, since it is programmed by the preservation of a narrative function (the ‘time-traveler’), regardless of conceptual expense. Far rather the incoherent jumble of matter duplication, time-line proliferation, immunized strands of personal memory, and the arbitrary inhibition of potentialities, than utter narrative disorder, fate loops, the annihilation of agency, and the emergence of an alien consistency, subverting all historical meaning.

If the mask of time-travel has slipped enough to expose some hint of the intolerable tangle beneath, we’re ready to take the next step …

(This will help.)


Signs of Progress

How the modern world lost its senses

The more sophisticated animals become, the worse they get at connecting with reality. As they cephalize, and socialize, stories substitute for reflexes, and the survival value of a story owes almost nothing to its factuality. Believing what everyone else does, or what makes you feel good, counts for vastly more. Wherever it is that discussion leads, it is only very rarely, and accidentally, in the direction of reality.

Science begins with the realization that stories aren’t to be trusted, even – or especially – if they sound credible, conform to prior intuitions, and readily attain social approval. Since narrative satisfaction is the great deceiver, science reaches beyond language into the vast frigid tracts of mathematical signs, stripped clean of all moral and emotional significance. Hardening itself against the temptation to see faces in the clouds, or hear voices from the heavens, it digs determinedly into the test-bed of numbers and quantitative signals, where seductive words are led to die.

Economics has never been a science, but economic behavior, and even theory, has been able to avail itself of a measure of leverage against story-telling. Its great resource in this regard has been the price system, expressed in ‘meaningless’ quantities (without immediate narrative significance) which enable economic calculation to sustain a posture of ideological indifference. An accountant who tells a story is a bad accountant, and most probably a criminal, whilst an entrepreneur fixated upon a story of how things ‘must be’ is subject to market-Darwinian nemesis. That, at least, is how laissez-faire hard money capitalism once roughly worked, as attested for instance by the indignation of Charles Dickens, who insisted upon the right of moral, political, and religious story-telling in the midst of a process that systematically disdained it.

Things have progressed incalculably since then, in a direction that could be confidently described as ‘Dickensian’ if that adjective had not already been settled in its highly-effective polemical purpose. That ‘the Big Story’ (BS) would triumph over calculative Scroogean realism was perhaps entirely predictable, but the near-metaphysical comprehensiveness of its victory – and its revenge — was less easy to anticipate. When attempting to gauge this progress, money is the best indicator, or rather, the destruction of money as an indicator is the most telling sign.

Under the conditions of hard money industrial capitalism, progress follows two, rigorously accounted tracks. Most notoriously, it is measured as a process of accumulation, or the amassing of fortunes through profitable business activity. Economic intelligence is socially dispersed along with the multitude of fortunes, with each unit of capital accompanied by its own (Scroogish) accounting function, weighing revenues against outlays, and estimating the viability of continued operation. This intelligence does not lend itself to convenient or reliable public aggregation.

Accompanying the multiplicity of private progressions (and regressions), there is a second track measuring social advance in strictly quantitative, meaningless, and unambiguous terms. On this track, technical and organizational improvements in business activity overspill private accounts, and take the form of public ‘externalities’. Under any monetary system competent to register reality, such general social advances are expressed as falling prices, cost reduction, or deflation. (A typically insightful Zero Hedge post on the topic can be found here.)

The importance of this point is difficult to over-emphasize, especially since it directly contradicts our carefully fabricated neo-Dickensian common sense: Deflation! Isn’t that kind of like fascism or something?

Deflation can certainly represent a type of socio-economic misfortune, under specific conditions. During business cycle downturns, for instance, it can reflect fire-sale asset or inventory reductions, driven by, and exacerbating, credit crises. The seriousness and typicality of such cases is strongly asserted in the dominant (neo-Dickensian) story of the Great Depression. It is worth noting, however, that even under these circumstances – at the worst – the first-order effect of deflation is to generate a spontaneous increase in affluence, or spending power. When life is at its toughest, it gets cheaper to live.

In the hard money world, chronic mild deflation simply is social progress. The two concepts are effectively indistinguishable. Gentle deflation is the invisible hand out, giving everybody a little more of almost everything, year by year, as it spontaneously distributes a fraction of the ‘social surplus’, or public dividend on rising productivity. Even in today’s radically progressed world of ruined money, the output of the consumer electronics industry still manages to exhibit the deflationary trends that have been obliterated elsewhere (so next time you buy a gizmo, don’t forget to feel appropriately oppressed.)

What the hell in heavens happened? How did modernity’s metallo-monetary senses get turned off, rapturing Scrooge into a Christmas Carol, and eclipsing industrial reality? One obvious neo-Dickensian go-to guy for that is William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), a politician whose multi-dimensional war against reality – truly astounding in its consistency – represents enthusiasm for the Big Story (or ‘social gospel’) at its most uncompromised. Either Bryan’s anti-Darwinism (the Scopes trial) or his ardent prohibitionism (campaigning for the 18th amendment) would have sufficed to earn him a place in the historical record as a hero of the BS (‘evangelical’ or ‘progressive’) State, but his most enduring legacy rests upon the speech he delivered on July 9, 1896, to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, in which he declared – as if to Scrooge himself – that “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

This is a declaration that is sublimed to progressive universality through the elimination of context. Embedded within the late 19th century debates on bimetallism (price-fixing of gold-silver exchange rates), its present implications are significantly diluted, or at least complicated, by questions about the financial responsibility of central authorities, creditor-debtor class warfare, global economic integration, agrarian-urban tensions, and (East-West) regional politics in the USA. Yet, fundamentally, it can be recognized as ‘Dickensian’: the passionate denunciation of a neutral criterion for economic reality, precisely for its neutrality, or indifference to Big Story moral-historical narrative. Gold is cold. It measures without judgment. Between damnation and salvation it demonstrates no preference or inclination.

Concretely, gold was registering, in economic terms, the social upheaval of American industrial urbanization. Mechanization of agriculture implied falling food prices, ruination of small farmers, and rural depopulation, during a sustained process of massive disruption whose miseries were only exceeded by the socio-economic revitalization in its wake. In its distribution and in its accounting function, gold facilitated the depreciation of rural labor, the bankruptcy of misallocated businesses, and the empowerment of concentrated industrial capital in the nation’s rising urban centers. Bryan articulated the views of those at the sharpest edge of this shift, who found the messenger culpable for the message, the senses guilty for the scene: “If thine eye offends thee pluck it out” (Matthew 18:9). (Even though Bryan lost all three of his presidential elections bids, we’re all totally plucked.)

To make of money a vehicle of moral purpose, rather than a neutral registry of fact, is to make the crossing from liberalism and progress as they were once understood (dynamic industrialism), to the progressive liberalism of today (political evangelism). If money can save us (through ‘demand management’), as the Keynesians insist, then its politicization is a moral imperative, whose neglect is a sin of omission. The senses are transformed into story-tellers. Shut the windows, and listen to the Christmas Carol. It’s progress (honestly).


The God Confusion

A world on its knees, and at your throat

“Do The Three Abrahamic Faiths Worship The Same God?” Peter Berger asks, on his blog at the American Interest. His answer, which seems to be programmed at least as much by the sensitivities of interfaith politics as by the exigencies of rigorous theology, is a politely nuanced “yes (but).” If anyone is unconvinced about the urgent pertinence of multicultural diplomacy to the question, Berger settles such doubts quickly by depicting the integrated conception of ‘Abrahamic faith’ as a response to the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ climate that arose in the wake of 9/11, “with the altogether admirable intention of countering anti-Islamic hatred.”

At its core, his argument is both realistic and relatively uncontroversial. It is comparable to an informal set theory, or cladistics, briefly surveying family resemblances and dissimilarities between branches of the Abrahamic religious ‘tree’ and concluding, reasonably enough, that none of the potential groupings are absolutely strict (each faith, even narrowly defined, is differentiated within itself by sub-branches, and twigs), and that the coherence of ‘Judeo-Christian’ monotheism is considerably stronger than that of ‘Abrahamic Faith’ in general. Whatever the complexity of these branchings, however, they derive from a readily identifiable trunk. Berger cites a lecture by the Protestant theologian Miroslav Volf:

Yes, one can say that Christians and Muslims believe in the “same God”. There are enough common affirmations to justify this—most importantly, of course, the belief that there is only one God (what the late Richard Niebuhr, coincidentally another Yale Divinity professor, called “radical monotheism”)—but also the belief in a personal creator distinct from the creation, and the giver of a moral code.

When evaluated from a wide enough angle, it is clear that the God of Jews, Christians, and Muslims is distinctively specified, relative to alternative religious traditions:

Sometimes it is a good idea to step back and look at the imputed collectivity from afar. It may help to look at the three ‘Abrahamic’ faiths from, say, Benares, one of the most holy cities of Hinduism and near which the Buddha preached his first sermon. Looked at from that far location, the family resemblance between the three versions suddenly appears quite clearly. Hindus and Buddhists sometimes speak of ‘West Asian religion’ in contrast with their own ‘South Asian ‘or ‘East Asian religion’. It then seems just about inevitable to say that Jews, Christians and Muslims, whatever their differences, do indeed worship the same God.

To be sure, there are similarities between Benares and Jerusalem as well. There are Hindu versions of theism, with intense devotions to personal deities (bhakti), but there is no real analogue to the monotheism that originated in the deserts of the Near East. In Vedanta, arguably the most sophisticated form of Hinduism, the ultimate reality is the brahman, the impersonal ocean of divinity in which all individual identities eventually dissolve. There are theistic elements in Mahayana Buddhism, with devotion directed toward godlike boddhisatvas— individuals who have attained Enlightenment, but who, out of compassion, delay their entry into the final bliss in order to help others to get there. But that bliss too ends in that impersonal ocean of divinity that seems for many centuries to have dominated the religious imagination of India, from where it migrated eastward. 

Yet, whilst the theological dimension of this question is very far from uninteresting, or inconsequential, it limits the question at least as much as it clarifies it. More than a faith, the ‘children of Abraham’ share a story, and – still more importantly — a sense of history as a story, and this is the factor that most tightly bundles them together, irrespective of all quibbling over narrative details. Abraham is the beginning of a tale, even if it can be projected back (at least a little way) beyond him. He defines the meaning of history, as an interaction with God, through which the passage of collective time acquires structure, direction, unity, radical finitude, moral and religious significance. Abrahamic history has purpose, and a destination. Above all it tells the story of a moral community, whose righteousness and unrighteousness will ultimately be judged. Eschatology is its real key.

Because the Abrahamic tradition is rooted in a distinctive experience of history, it extends beyond theistic faith. Indeed, any comprehension of this tradition that excludes Marxism, fascist millenarianism, and ‘liberal’ secular progressivism (even that of the ‘New Atheists’) is woefully incomplete, to the point of diversionary propaganda. Uniquely, the Abrahamic faiths do not merely rise, fall, and persist. They are superceded by new revelations, or afflicted by heresy and schism. Their encounters and (inevitable) conflicts become internalized episodes that immediately demand doctrinal and narrative intelligibility. Hence the affinity between the Abrahamic faiths and historical (as ‘opposed’ to pedagogical, cosmic, or naturalistic) dialectics: the ‘other’, merely by appearing on the stage, must play its role in the world-historical drama of belief.

Strict monotheism is the personification of narrative unity, and in the end it is the narrative unity that matters. Whether history is finally to be appraised from the perspective of the people of Israel, the Church, the Ummah, achieved communism, an Aryan master-race, or secular multicultural globalism, it will have been integrated through the production of a moral community, and judged as a coherent whole by the standard of that community’s purity and righteousness. It will have been comprehended by a collective subject whose story — it insists — is the entire meaning of the world.

For the minor paganisms of antiquity, and the major paganisms of the east, this structure of understanding has the objective potential to be offensive to an almost inestimable degree, so the fact that pagans have rarely contested it with an animosity that even remotely approaches its ‘internal’ conflicts and disputations is intriguing. Whilst cases of anti-semitism, anti-clericalism, islamophobia, anti-communism, anti-fascism, and systematic political incorrectness have, on occasions, been plausibly derived from pagan inspirations, in the overwhelming majority of cases it is the various ‘fraternal’ branches of the great Abrahamic family that have wrought devastation upon each other. Indeed, persecution, as a particular mode of ‘zealous’ or ‘enthusiastic’ violence, seems to be an Abrahamic specialty, one that depends upon conceptions of ‘intolerable’ idolatry, heresy, apostasy, false-consciousness, or political incorrectness that are found nowhere else.

God told Abraham to kill his own son, and he was ready to do so (Gen 22:1-19). That is how he earned his status as the ur-patriarch of the tradition, whose children are defined by the ghost of a knife at their throats. Demonstrated willingness to kill in the name of the Lord, or its abstracted equivalent (the meaning of history), is the initiatory ideal, and the beginning of the world story that now encompasses everyone. After this original ritual, Isaac’s life was no longer natural, but ideological. It was suspended, vulnerably, from a word owing nothing to the protective bond tying an animal to its progeny (symbolically terminated by Abraham’s surrender to divine command), but settled on high, in the narrative structure of the world. If God had willed it — or the story demanded it — he would have been slain. In this way an unnatural line, existing only as an expression of divine purpose, breaks from the archaic pagan order of ‘meaningless’ procreation and nurture. (The place assigned to the sacrifice, Mount Moriah, would later be the site of Jerusalem, the city of the end of time, and beyond nature.) Isaac was spared, but the pagan world was not similarly reprieved.

The existence of an Abrahamic tradition has an importance that far exceeds its internal politics and internecine rivalries, since it is indistinguishable from the historical unification of the world, and no ‘other’ is able to remain outside its narrative order. In much of the world, even in its Abrahamic heartlands, to refuse God is no great thing, and perhaps little more than a mildly comical affectation, but to depart from World History is quite another matter. It is then that the knife of Abraham glints again.