In the Heart of the Sea – book review

Heart of SeaNathaniel Philbrick’s account of the whaleship Essex (the true story that inspired Herman Melville’s epic novel Moby Dick) could be the textbook example of how truth is stranger than fiction. Philbrick draws heavily on the accepted contemporary narrative – the account of the doomed voyage from first mate Owen Chase. He adds to this his own extensive research into the island of Nantucket, and its place in the global economy of the time. Interestingly, he also draws on the more recently uncovered first person account written by cabin boy Thomas Nickerson – which paints a far less heroic version of Owen Chase.

The 240 tonne whaleship Essex left the port of Nantucket on August 12th 1819 to hunt whales and extract their natural oil (a process as pleasant as it sounds). At the time, Nantucket was the whaling capital of the world. Whale oil was used to light lanterns, and was in such high demand that even in a time of worldwide recession, business was booming on Nantucket. In 1821, two survivors of the Essex were found floating near Chile. The men were sunburnt and babbling, “sucking the marrow from the bones of their dead shipmates”. In the Heart of the Sea tells the story of everything that happens in between.

 I wasn’t sure if I should read this book at all. Moby Dick is a book I appreciate academically Chris chestrather than actually enjoy reading. I’m also very much #teamwhale, which is the main reason I haven’t seen the recent movie adaptation directed by Ron Howard. I imagine it would be far too visceral for me, both in terms of whale death and the destruction of Chris Hemsworth glorious chest! Let me be clear here, the whale deaths are not glossed over in this book:

 ”When the lance finally found its marks, the whale would begin to choke on its own blood, its spout transformed into a fifteen-to twenty-foot geyser of gore that prompted the mate to shout. ‘Chimney’s afire!’ As the blood rained down on them, the men took up the oars and backed furiously away, then paused to watch as the whale went into what was known as its flurry. Beating the water with its tail, snapping at the air with its jaws – even as it regurgitated large chunks of fish and squid – the creature began to swim in an ever tightening circle. Then, just as abruptly as the attack had begun with the first thrust of the harpoon it ended. The whale fell motionless and silent, black corpse floating fin-up in a slick of its own blood and vomit.”

 Bear in mind, this was not a harpoon shot by a machine, but hand thrown by a man in a row boat in extreme proximity to the whale. Despite the gruesomeness of the subject matter in places, this book was a far more entertaining read than I could have imagined, and I am delighted I decided to take a chance on it. That Nantucket was predominantly Quaker makes the ruthlessness of the primary industry chosen by these pacifists fascinating – little wonder why Melville called the inhabitants of the island “Quakers with a vengeance”. The “clannish commitment to the hunt” on Nantucket; the environmental destruction the sailors caused on islands they encountered; the politics of life aboard the ships were all just as interesting as the main story. Philbrick’s enthusiasm for his subject is so contagious it gives this book the pace and narrative drive of fiction. The main story – the will to survive; man vs nature; the descent into cannibalism – could have been overblown in fiction, however, in Philbrick’s hands, it is credible and fascinating. Highly recommended.

 In the Heart of the Sea is published by HarperCollins Fourth Estate and is available in bookstores now. I received a copy of this book in exchange for an impartial review.

Concluding ‘Welcome to the Desert of the Real’: Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day…

“Today cinema can place all its talent, all its technology, in the service of reanimating what it itself contributed to liquidating. It only resurrects ghosts, and it itself is lost therein…” – Jean Baudrillard

The quandary facing any potential navigator through the desert of the real as it is presented in postmodern cinema deals with the hyper-realistic nature of any mediated communication. The questioning of reality, and the potential apocalypse, in the films dealt with here is duly problematic. Is it possible that Fight Club, The Matrix, and Twelve Monkeys may all fall victim to the Cassandra Complex by presenting the annihilation of the human race as entertainment? Are these films foreseeing the future yet not being believed when they foretell it, or can we take a more positive outlook towards their significance?

The prevalence of mediated communication such as the cinema has surely, as Baudrillard asserts, assisted the cunning of the simulacrum. It is a contributing factor in the replacement of reality in our society with a mediascape that is governed by the dynamic logic of hyper-reality (Kroker Possessed 65). The postmodern apocalypse will occur because the airless atmosphere inside the simulacrum has asphyxiated meaning, as “…[w]e breathe an ether of floating images that bear no relation to any reality whatsoever” (Massumi 1). As we have discussed, apocalypse is mere banality to a society that feels so close to it, and as a result we have ceased to fear dystopic future visions. What purpose, then, the probing of the simulacrums’ boundaries which we have been undertaking here? Quite simply, these films are crucial to shaking us out of our tendency to live ‘history in suspense’. They recognise that “[o]ur Apocalypse is not real, it is virtual. Neither does it belong to the future, its incident is in the here and now” (Baudrillard Hystericizing 10).

Postmodern society may indeed have reached the End of History; a claim which Fukuyama believes has sealed us into a permanent position of capitalist contentment. By locating the apocalypse within the sphere of our daily actions, the films dealt with here present a different story. We are a society disenfranchised by the realisation that “[w]e’re the middle children of history…we have no purpose, no place. We have no Great War, no Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war, our great depression is our lives” (Fight Club). That even minor choices made by us could affect the outcome of the human race is as empowering as it is terrifying to a generation that feels it is changing nothing. By laying before us the nature of the simulacrum and the consequences of escape from it (The Matrix, The Truman Show); or the potential outcome of acting in certain ways (Fight Club, Twelve Monkeys), postmodern cinema is unveiling our choices. Where “…the dystopic projection of a hyperalienated future coincides with a utopic hope for spiritual survival, salvation and redemption” there is a crucial decision to be made (Best Robocop 28). We have not merely wandered through the desert of the real. We have been asked to provide (and make possible) an answer to postmodern cinema’s crucial question: what version of reality do you prefer? Continue reading “Concluding ‘Welcome to the Desert of the Real’: Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day…”

Welcome to the Desert of Real: No Future for You

Since records began, 215,673 people have sworn that the world is going to end. It only takes one of them to be right…” promotion for the 1995 film Twelve Monkeys cautioned. In this installment I shall explore Gilliam’s post-apocalyptic time-travel story in relation to the issues raised in previous sections (space constraints decreeing that the film in its complex entirety cannot be dealt with here). As a result, I shall focus on the inherent dangers of postmodern attitudes to consumerism and technology, and their impact on perceptions of reality as Gilliam lays them before us. It will become apparent that both the societal breakdown of Fight Club and the technological dependence of The Matrix are prevalent in contemporary American society- and lead directly to its future underground.

[3:1]Any discussion of Twelve Monkeys must be aware of the possibility that rather than a time-loop paradox the entire narrative may simply be a prolonged psychotic episode. This is a possibility that the director deliberately kept to the fore by keeping the details of the future vague enough to have them simply be the product of James Cole’s (Bruce Willis) deranged mind (McCabe 167). That Cole’s psychiatrist in 1990, Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), who is our anchor in the world of the film as she shares the ‘present’ with us (McMahon 148) comes to believe in Cole may prove only that madness is contagious. However, it may suggest he is telling the truth, since the first reminder of this contagion comes from mental patient Jeffery Goines (Brad Pitt), who imagines insanity “…oozing into the ears of all these poor sane people, infecting them- wackos everywhere, plague of madness! We are once again in the realm of uncertainty fostered by the breakdown of the cinematic reality already dealt with in Videodrome (and which has been Gilliam’s stock in trade since his Monty Python days).

The ceaseless linking of the post-apocalyptic world with contemporary society is problematic as a result of this breakdown of cinematic reality. The visual themes used to link the various temporal plains of the film- most notably the chicken wire that seems to cover every surface- serve to complicate matters further. For instance, is Cole imagining imprisonment in a wire cage in 2035 because he is already in an asylum with wire-coated windows? We are asked to question the likelihood of a time-traveller experiencing virtually the same sequence of events across the divide of forty-five years (Cole is roughly scrubbed down prior to facing a panel of scientists in both 2035 and 1990). As we are never at ease in any of Twelve Monkeys‘s realities, perhaps we are the monkeys that are being experimented upon. This is heightened by the allusions to Vertigo, which foreground the possibility the whole story is merely an elaborate deception (Strick Monkeys 46)i. Continue reading “Welcome to the Desert of Real: No Future for You”

Welcome to the Desert of the Real: The End of the World as We Know It (and I feel fine)

“Cyberspace abandons ‘the real’ for the hyperreal by presenting an increasingly real simulation of a comprehensive and comprehensible world” (Nunes 163). As we have already seen, postmodernity is characterised by the turn from the real towards the hyperreal caused by the proliferation of signs- an indication, perhaps, that cyberspace is a quintessentially postmodern medium. Certainly it is a site of crucial juxtapositions, an arena to showcase the clashing of the real and the hyperreal, humanity and machinery, freedom and enslavement. In the case of American society at least, cyberspace stands on the brink of dominating the shape of the society to follow the simulacrum we are currently contained in- although whether it will improve or disimprove the conditions within is arguable.

The following section will examine the nature of cyberspace both as it exists today, and as it is imagined in the future, through the lens of the 1999 blockbuster The Matrix, with a view to establishing the importance of its role in the consumerist-apocalypse that so far seems inevitable. If the men who partook in Fight Club were literally busting themselves out of the simulacrum, are hackers the cerebral, paler versions of the same breed of rebel? The Matrix allows us to raise many pertinent questions- not least of which is the conundrum of whether cyberspace creates an utopian elsewhere for the disgruntled refugees of late capitalism, or merely provides a panicky escape-route as we abandon the body in a run for environmental cover. A cursory glance will also be given to several cyborg films for the dual purposes of establishing the evolution of technology based dystopias, and of exploring the hypothesis that we are all cyborgs in cyberspacei.

[2:1]Before we attempt to navigate through cyberspace, we must first take a general look at our attitude to technology, and explore if we have indeed enclosed ourselves in the external sensorium of technology alleged by technophobe Heidegger. Max Weber’s believed that modernity is characterised by enclosure in an iron cage of bureaucracy, that acts as a controlling force in our lives. This was developed the equally pessimistic Heidegger, so that it was an exteriorised technoscience that was enframing us. In Heidegger’s iron cage, it is technology that is stripping our reality of its intrinsic potentialities and turning our own world into something radically alien and hostile (Feenberg 11-13). We have cheerfully imprisoned ourselves in this iron cage, for the same reasons we fall prey to commodity fetishism. The alienation and reification at the heart of that basic consumer instinct are at work here also- we quickly fall into the thrall of any extension of ourselves in any material other than ourselves, be it the state, the church, the media, or technology. As a result we have become like Narcissus, gazing adoringly at our own reflection in technology, loving this extension of ourselves so much that we have become a closed system, “…the servo-mechanism of [our] own extended and repeated image” (McLuhan 51). It is for this reason that dystopic projections of a machine-dominated future do not alarm us as they once did- we feel closer both to the future and to the machine than we ever did before (Jameson Nostalgia 26). Continue reading “Welcome to the Desert of the Real: The End of the World as We Know It (and I feel fine)”

Welcome to the Desert of the Real: The Future has Been Sold

Postmodern society, characterised by the proliferation of signs and the collapse of time, has turned us into consumerist lemmings with cerebral malaise, shuffling towards our inevitable demise. Utopias all ring hollow, and apocalypse has become banal. Somewhat unsurprisingly, there has been a steady increase in the number of films dealing with the evolution of subjectivity in the media panopticon we have willingly enclosed ourselves in. From within the ubiquitous and omnipresent media-saturated consciousness of the postmodern subject, an increasingly technologically mediated form of subjectivity is being brought forth- the creation of mechanised responses to mechanised stimuli symbolised succinctly in the transformation of policeman Alex Murphy into the cyborg Robocop whose “…blank stares from the video screen parallel our dull gaze into it” (Best 20). Postmodern cinema has recognised this to such an extent that we have seen humanity literally merging with machine in a myriad of cyborg-related scenarios, and more complexly in the wholesale submersion of individuality to television (Videodrome), cyberspace (The Matrix), and computer games (eXistenZ). What does this concern over the mechanisation of humanity reveal about the postmodern subject?

[1:1]There can be little doubt that the mode of consumption in postmodern society is a perfect illustration of Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism, whereby commodities come to appear as if they have a value and existence independent of the people and the social relationships which produce them. The commodity is a “mysterious thing”, a “social hieroglyphic” which conceals the exploitative relationship which characterises capitalism and causes commodities to be fetishised (Marx 71-4). This fetishism is symptomatic of a broader social process of reification, where the structures and relations of society seem independent, immutable, and even natural. The belief in the ‘naturalness’ of the existing social order is manifested in the fatalism and passivity of the proletarian consciousness- the revolution will not happen because we are all at home hoping it will be televised.

More and more aspects of society are becoming commodities- nearly every dimension of popular culture has undergone a process of commodification. Increased commodification leads to increased visualisation- images and symbols become the universal language of commodity production across national boundaries, satellites replicate images endlessly and beam them virtually everywhere. Life has become aestheticised, the boundary between life and art has been effaced.By meshing this concept with our earlier discussion of signification, we arrive in a place where the postmodern mass production of commodities is combined with the obliteration of the original use-values of goods by the dominance of exchange-value inherent to capitalism. This leads to the commodity becoming a sign in the Saussurian sense, with its “…meaning arbitrarily determined by its position in a self-referential system of signifiers” (Featherstone 85). As a result of this, what people buy has very little to do with their intrinsic need for the use value it will yield, and a lot to do with what ‘meanings’ they will collect or portray when consuming. It is the proliferation of signs that has placed us in the society of the spectacle, and even a cursory glance at spectacular consumption lends credence to Baudrillard’s hypothesis that it is a systematic act of the manipulation of signs. Continue reading “Welcome to the Desert of the Real: The Future has Been Sold”

Drifting into the Arena of the Unwell – Introducing ‘Welcome to the Desert of the Real’

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple”- Oscar Wilde

“The simulacrum is never what hides the truth- it is truth that hides the fact that there is none. The simulacrum is true.” – Ecclesiastes

[I:1]Postmodern cinema is also rarely pure and never simple, frequently concerning itself with the relationship between humanity and technology in both the present and the future, and its impact on ‘reality’. These films attempt to address the “…profound unease and the crumbling vision of a good society” that is inherent to contemporary life (Gerbner et al 1). Several exceptional films have recently attempted to navigate through Baudrillard’s infamous “desert of the real” and to expose the truth, if there is such a thing, beneath the postmodern simulacrum. Before entering into a discussion of postmodern cinema, I will first expound on some of the major features of postmodern theory and their influence on the films in questioni.

In the analysis of how we have come to live in postmodernity’s spectacular society, we must first turn to the work of linguist Ferdinand De Saussure, who effectively invented the school of linguist thought known as ‘seminology’. In his model, a word is made up of two distinct parts- the signifier, or the sound/letter pattern (used to refer to something), and the signified (that which is being referred to). The signifier is utterly arbitrary, and so any number of sliding signifiers can apply to one concrete signified. Postmodernity applies this linguistic model to everything from food to films, in an attempt to show that the signifier (often called the ‘sign’) has gained precedence over the signified: in essence, it is the proliferation of signs that has placed us in the society of the spectacle.

[I:2] There is concern over the fact that words, signs and images no longer refer to anything other than other words, signs, and images in endless chains of signification- for Baudrillard we are “…conjuring away the real with the signs of the real…”; while for Jameson, we will soon be lying in an insensible heap under “…a rubble of distinct and unrelated signifiers” (Baudrillard Consumer 33; Jameson 23). The world has been emptied of everything that would allow it to be grounded in reality- even the grindingly oppressive industrial regime of the nineteenth century had the advantage of having the industrial emblem to give it a concrete existence. While we are still focused on technology, the mode of its oppressive nature has changed from that which workers toil under to that which they ogle over. The postmodern twentieth century has the gadget as its emblem, a flawed emblem indeed, as “…what could be more useful? What could be more useless?” (Baudrillard Consumer 112). The gadget may be useful to an extent, yet only a tiny reality check will show that fulfilment does not grow in proportion to a mobile phone’s shrinkage. It is meaningless activity that characterises this age of technology, and “…what is so uncanny [is] that everything is functioning and that the functioning drives us more and more to even further functioning” (Heidegger 53). In the new depthlessness of postmodernity, we must question what is an autonomous action, and what is merely functioning.

The overarching system of signification, the simulacrum, has reduced the real into something ultimately unapproachable- yet for precisely this reason the real resonates in every symbol (MacCannell 132). The media helps to confuse the real and the unreal in this world of signification by its very essence- television, film, the politically charged arena that is cyberspace, all ‘take us’ out of our grounded reality and the realm of our real, tangible experiences. They do not, however, transport us into social unreality when we engage in them- suggesting that “…there is no pure social reality outside the world of representation” (McRobbie 217). Our mediated experiences can even serve to make our conception of reality more shaky than it already is- many of the films under discussion here draw us into a ‘real’ world and then reveal it to be artifice, exposing a tendency in postmodern cinema to portray the integral flimsiness and instability of reality itself. Continue reading “Drifting into the Arena of the Unwell – Introducing ‘Welcome to the Desert of the Real’”

‘Little Big Man’ & ‘McCabe and Mrs Miller’- the impact of history and mythology on the individual subject

The American West is as problematic a concept as the American Dream; while there was, and is, an American West, it is presented to us in cinema as an intangible and elusive ideal. All Westerns, even revisionist Westerns seeking to portray the ‘true’ West such as Little Big Man and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, are to some degree effected by the fact that “[t]he history of the West has been consistently revised in accord with the dream” (Hine 1). As a result, I intend to approach these films by firstly analysing the concepts of ‘history’ and ‘mythology’, and to proceed from these concepts to their impact on the individual in the films in question.

It may seem ludicrous to suggest that history is a concept in need of explanation- the linear progress that is the western conception of history means that history is the clearly defined, rational understanding we have of past events, and the present we have today is built upon history’s foundations. However, even if we are able – as we never are in the instance of the American West- to strip history bare of the mythology that embellishes it, history is never ideologically pure, as best described by an ancient Tibetan saying “until the lions have their historians, tales of hunting will always glorify the hunter”. The most obvious example of this is the Manifest Destiny outlook to exterminating the Native American population until well into the twentieth century. Until very recently, history told us little of the diverse cultural groups that peopled America before the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant dominance of the nations history began to annihilate their culture. Perhaps it is true that, as Kevin Brownlow would have it “[n]o-one goes to the Western for a history lesson”, yet as the Western is often the dominant means for the public to appropriate the history of the West, surely it has a responsibility towards accuracy (Brownlow quoted in Maltby 34).

As Wright points out, the Western obsession with the settlement of the American West locates Westerns in a historically specific, chronologically limited time frame of the thirty years between 1860 and 1890. In 1861 the Indian wars began as the Cheyenne found the Colorado goldminers invading their lands; 1862 saw the passing of the Homestead Act. By 1890 all Native Americans had either been exterminated or placed on reservations, as the previous year saw the last ‘unoccupied’ area in America (the Oklahoma territory) opened to homesteaders in a massive land rush (5). A thirty year period would not be difficult to portray in a historically correct manner if the filmmaker so wished, yet the mythmakers of the West appear to be relatively unconcerned about accuracy of any kind- John Ford, for instance, notoriously demanding his crews research the people/place they were to film and then telling them to “Ignore all that and make a movie!”. The myths and legends created about the West are more popular, and hence more powerful, than the history of the West – “The legend is inescapable. The history exists because the legend exists. The history of the West is in a sense a subgenre of the Western, and revisionist history a subgenre of that” (Maltby 39). Continue reading “‘Little Big Man’ & ‘McCabe and Mrs Miller’- the impact of history and mythology on the individual subject”