You can’t come in
No space for science
It will have taken considerable resolve to watch the recent daily press conferences from the White House, in which the president of the United States speaks in the place of science, which is left to the margins, doing its best to hide a smirk, or gaze emptily in disbelief. Before the camera, which is to say before the world. ‘It will go away’, a mantra for a fishing cap.
This resonated in a film made fifteen years ago by Steven Spielberg, The War of the Worlds, another adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel, starring Tom Cruise as a blue collar separated father, who stands in for bachelor-scientist Gene Barry in Byron Haskin’s 1953 version, in which he is the voice of science for armed forces who won’t deny his usefulness. Cruise’s character is on a distinctly different mission. Spielberg’s film is a more earthy and organic construction than Haskin’s giving science a chance until the time comes to rely on prayer and sanctuary. There is neither in the fabric of the father according to Cruise, whose purpose is to get his kids back to their mother, from NYC to Boston, a rivalry represented, for those who would identify the bad blood that exists between cities, and between father and son, through their…baseball caps.
His seventies Mustang muscle car just won’t start after the Martians manifest themselves. From there it’s in a minivan and finally on foot, with moments of terrors such as listening to Dakota Fanning scream in that van, or being stuck in a basement with Tim Robbins, in a sequence that merges brilliantly Haskin’s Martian camera slithering through the space, and a tension expressed through a child (again Dakota Fanning, this time remarkable) that recalls Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter.
Once more this terror is homegrown, it sprouts from the ground. But Spielberg doesn’t really explore this and relies on the usual media tropes, a montage of news broadcasts explaining how this is happening around the globe, like in Roland Emmerich films… What is more interesting is how bodies are disposed of by the aliens: either turned into ash (an effect that anticipates the Russo Brothers’s fallen heroes in Infinity War) or having their blood used as a soil enricher. An ‘eco-locaust’, notably in a forest scene in which fleeing victims are targeted, and as they ‘pop’ into dust, their clothes float and fall to the ground as in a Christian Boltanski piece. And as this scene closes, the father has lost his son to the army, after which he chases. He wants to fight, Tom wants to save, which is always his agenda. He rescues his daughter, at the top of the hill and they look down at the valley burning like Atlanta in Victor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind.
What does make the film timely once more (it was one of the early post 9-11 science fictions films, haunted by destruction coming from the skies), is its treatment of the virus, how it ultimately does what Tom usually does, save the world. The closing lines, solemnly country spoken by Morgan Freeman, mention how man had earned his immunity. But who gets to be protected is a question that keeps resurfacing, making Michel Foucault ever more indispensable. In 1977, the year punk broke, Jean Baudrillard published Oublier Foucault, arguing that the latter’s discourse was so pure and beautiful as to mirror the power it was describing. Gilles Deleuze would in turn do his best to make us forget Baudrillard while Foucault claimed that he could barely remember who he was.
Roberto Esposito and more recently Paul B. Preciado have demonstrated the strength in the foundation of Foucault’s concepts, on which to forge new ones, all steeped in biopolitics. Esposito wrote that biopolitics is immunological, and looked to Foucault as it revealed a hierarchy, with those at the top immunized and those excluded from protection, those he termed the de-munized, at the bottom. A protective act ‘includes an immunitary definition of community in which the collective grants itself the power to decide to sacrifice a part of the population in order to maintain its own sovereignty. The “state of exception” is the normalization of this intolerable paradox (1).’
Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is all about hierarchy, there are no shots, no scenes, in which the wealthy and powerful are dispatched. Common sense saves the day: it’s the Cruise character who points to the military that birds are now landing on top of Martian war crafts, signaling their force field is down. The Martians got sick, and we can tell because they got all pale. And as he brings the daughter safely back to Boston, to where his ex-wife and new partner had sheltered, at his former mother-in-law’s, the son reappears, a reward, to express awe and love. He is thanked, but the film ends without having him being invited in.
Preciado suggests that ‘our health will not come from a border or separation, but only from a new understanding of community with all living creatures, a new sharing with other beings on the planet. The Covid-19 event and its consequences summon us to once and for all go beyond the violence with which we have defined our social immunity. Healing and care can only stem from a process of political transformation. Healing as a society would mean inventing a new community beyond the identity and border politics with which we have produced sovereignty until now, but also beyond the reduction of life to cybernetic biosurveillance (2)’.
Does Cruise take a step forward towards the house, or does he retreat back to his Mustang? What do you call what he might return to?
1- Learning from the Virus, Paul B. Preciado, Art Forum May/June 2020.
In March when the Coronavirus started to swarm into Italy, a number of eminent philosophers published their immediate reflections on the situation in a debate curated by Antinomie and archived by European Journal of Psychoanalysis. Leading that debate as a prelude was an excerpt from Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison about the measures taken in the age of plague.
One major issue emerged in the debate was around biopolitics, brought about by the strict spatial partitioning not too different from the 17th Century, which for Agamben was disproportionate based on his interpretation of the official report at the time which described the situation mildly. The underestimation of the virus in the report became apparent in the following month with the tone being modified again and again as many other countries around the world were also affected following China and Italy. Despite the limited knowledge about the virus the society had back then, Agamben was in a rush to criticize the government’s usage of “a state of exception as a normal paradigm” by “do[ing] their utmost to spread a state of panic”.
When looking at the “exceptional” regulation of the bodies today, it’s important to note that, as Jean-Luc Nancy said, “the exception is indeed becoming the rule”. Today’s political/economic/cultural world is built upon the normality of people’s nomadism or dislocation, from domestic and border-crossing migration to long-term and short-term travels. More people than ever now move around and live in different temporalities, which puts them in a fundamental state of separation from their friends and families, while abstract and symbolic social connections increase. If the premise of being able to see their loved ones whenever they can doesn’t stand anymore, how is staying home more exceptional than being constantly on the move? It is possible, although not ideal, for such a situation to bring people together in return, as while we are freed from the daily routine, we once again start to notice each other’s existence because we start to notice our own. We want to know whether the strangers across the street or state border are safe and healthy, precisely because our own well-being is relying on that of the others. (Sadly, there are still plenty of people find their well-being up to the sacrifice of others.)
Roberto Esposito points out that we are living in a time when biology and politics knot ever tightly. But what’s missing in the debate is that such biopolitics have become way less static but mobile, less physical but temporal, due to the economic/Capitalist factor playing an equally, if not more, significant role in this. That is to say, the discipline we experience today is one that makes sure everyone produces and consumes as much as they should no matter where they are, rather than one that ties everyone to an isolated location. To carry out the discipline more progressively, the media and authorities should have intentionally omitted all mention of the virus situation so that most of the society could continue to do what they are expected to do, that is to live the normal life.
Politics is a fundamentally human issue, but the virus reminds us that we are also a vulnerable species, and the mysteries of nature should be respected and feared by all means. Agamben quoted the National Research Council report as if it were the truth, but it’s actually nothing more than the human being’s momentary understanding of the nature which we might never fully understand. The debate is pretty much constructed in a human context, except for Divya Dwivedi and Shaj Mohan who putthe human back in the context of nature. The virus we encounter this time, like all the other beings and non-beings we encountered and will encounter, reiterates the urge for a post-human (or pre-human in this sense) thinking. Instead of thinking about the punishment we receive or the human conspiracies, we need to jump out of the human circle and realize that the existence virus can’t be more natural, just like ourselves. In the movie War of Worlds, the invincible aliens are defeated by a kind of microorganism that human have become immune to. A large part of the audience complained about the abrupt ending, but that scenario is very likely as a matter of fact. Forget about the heroic human, all that we can do is to run and scream for long enough for nature to do its magic.
What War of Worlds didn’t teach us is how to live during and after the crisis, neither did any other disaster title. There will be only one end tothe human world and this is apparently not it, then how do we maintain a sense of daily life, coping with the risks, and how do we return to society after the crisis? If temporarily suspending the human world can save the more vulnerable ones among us, we should. What about afterwards when the world return to normal and we are once again on our own?