Bruno Latour is “Up in the air”


It sometimes happens that a philosopher and a film explain each other rather well, seemingly by chance. Such is the case with Bruno Latour and the 2009 motion picture Up in the Air, directed by Jason Reitman.

In the film, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a corporate downsizer, flying all across the US to fire people. He maintains a romantic relation with Alex, a co-traveller, wherever their flight schedules meet. He even takes her as a date to his sister’s wedding. When he turns up at her doorstep unexpectedly afterwards, it turns out that she already has a family. The message is that he shouldn’t have intruded in her “real life”.

Reality in the making

Alex’ affair with Ryan is part of her unreal life, or so she seems to suggest. Also when Ryan discusses the relation between him and Alex with a colleague, he is asked whether he wouldn’t want the “chance at something real”.  This might seem like something that people just say, but it’s not like that in this film. The director refers to the Velveteen rabbit (Margey Williams, 1922), a children’s book in which toys turn real if their owners love them enough. Looking at Ryan from this point of view, it seems that his “unreal” life in airplanes and hotel rooms could turn “real” by being loved.

To me, this brings to mind the situation where Bruno Latour was asked: ‘Do you believe in reality?’ He is famous for his view that reality is constantly under construction, but that it is still reality in spite of that. It is “reality in the making”. What is it that makes reality what it is, though?

The film deals with connections, about how they are made and broken. Both Alex and Ryan’s colleagues seem to suggest that a “real life” is made up of human relations. Ryan fires people for a living. He breaks up relations between colleagues, employers and employees. Ironically, he is a relation-maker when talking to his sister’s fiancée, who gets cold feet. The film poster even says that the film tells ‘The story of a man ready to make a connection’. Taking Latour’s angle, we could wonder if this is all. Aren’t there any other “significant others”?

“Where are the missing masses?”

Apart from firing people, Ryan gives motivational lectures. He makes his audience imagine how heavy a back pack would be if you could stuff it with all the people and things in your life. In order not be weighed down in his own life, he tries to minimise the number of relations that he has going on. As a result, his home looks less comforting than a one-star hotel room. He has no possessions that do not fit in a carry-on suitcase. He has no stable relations.

Latour has written a nice article with the title Where are the Missing Masses? (1992). Just like Ryan, he makes people aware of the role that “things” can play in our lives. Ryan makes this even more concrete, by making us feel the weight that things can have. Is the film therefore anti-materialist? Many have suggested a similarity with the tag-line of Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999): ‘The things you own end up owning you’. I would disagree with this comparison. First of all, Ryan suggests that also human relations weigh you down. In addition, even though he doesn’t own a lot of stuff, his lifestyle with expensive rental cars and five star hotels does not qualify as anti-materialist at all. For such a story, watch the film Into the Wild (Sean Penn, 2007). Even there, the protagonist relates to things, though.

People and technology influence each other. Firing someone is not the same if you do it in a video conference. The cameras, the computer screens and the empty room in which the person-to-be-fired is seated are all mediators. That does not mean that (this) technology determines whatever we do. In the film, corporate headquarters decides to return to old-fashioned face-to-face firing.

“Technology is society made durable”

If “things” can weigh you down, but don’t necessarily determine what you do, then what do they do? In another famous essay, Latour argues that Technology is society made durable (1991). I have already said that things mediate what people do, referring to video conferences. Even though Ryan may not have a lot of possessions, he still has a lot of relations with things. What he calls “home” is still described by a lot of “stuff”. He even says: ‘All the things you probably hate about travelling – the recycled air, the artificial lighting, the digital juice dispensers, the cheap sushi – are warm reminders that I’m home’.

This comes out best in the role that cards play. His frequent flyer card is the materialisation of his loyalty to the airline he uses. He is even so loyal that he reaches 10 million air miles. This earns him another card that makes him part of a club with only seven members world wide. Another card identifies him as Mr. Bingham to a pretty hostess at the airport. Alex and him even go through the cards in their wallets as a getting-to-know-each-other ritual. The best is when Alex takes Ryan’s “concierge card” in her hand, and says: ‘I love the weight!’ Remember the weight of things… Cards are used to make relations. When trying to open a hotel room to spend the night with Alex, Ryan has to try all the cards in his wallet before finding the right key card. And when crashing a party, they even take over other people’s identities by stealing their badges.

Cards are keys, but clearly, they are still so much more than the pieces of metal that we used to use to open doors. What are we to think about the “real” key that Ryan’s neighbour (at his “home”) carries around her neck? The weight of keys plays a particular role in Latour’s work as well. He wrote a lot about ways in which hotel managers can remind their guests to return their keys before leaving. Instead of hanging up a sign in the lobby, they can attach a bulky key ring that feels uncomfortable in your pocket.

Pictures play a similar role. Early in the film, Ryan says that photos are for people who can’t remember. Quite involuntarily, he carries a cardboard photo of his sister and her fiancée with him, to take pictures of them at the places that he visits to fire people. Just like the garden gnome in Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001). Ryan’s sister says: ‘just because we can’t travel doesn’t mean we can’t have pictures’. Ironically, the cardboard doesn’t fit in Ryan’s suitcase. A last example of the role of photos: a middle-aged man who is fired by Ryan shows him pictures of his children. These “things” represent how bad the lives of people who are not in the scene are going to be. After Ryan pep-talks the guy into a career move, we see the pictures again. Even though they are the same as before, the children no longer seem to be in agony about their future, but seem proud of their father’s new life. Things make people, people make things. Things are our attachments or plug-ins, as Latour put it. After people are fired, they need to collect their personal things. Once they have left the office, it’s the stuff that stays behind. Empty desks and chairs.

Back to reality

Is Ryan’s life unreal? The planes on which he travels? His suitcase? The drinks with Alex in hotel lobbies? Another question is if you would like to live like Ryan. Latour cannot answer that question for you.

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2 thoughts on “Bruno Latour is “Up in the air”

  1. Hi Wouter,

    Sorry it took me so long to engage with this piece in writing, even though I remember reading it a few days after you wrote it! First, I really like the link you made between this movie and Latour’s thought, as well as the questions you ask! Some people around me seem to think that I’m a bit obsessed with ANT but I’m not sure they are right because I read this piece after seeing the movie and I didn’t make the kind of associations that you did, and I remember seeing it without thinking much about ANT.

    To answer your questions. Is Ryan’s life unreal? Definitely not, including his relationship with Alex! One interesting question in my view is: what makes Alex’s relationship with Ryan unreal? I think that starts to show some issues with overly materialist views. You could mobilise ‘missing masses’ and argue that she’s tied to her ‘real’ life by her house and lots of networks with contracts, bills, etc. But what is probably most strong is her ties to her children, family (even if her relationship with her husband is strained) and her friends.

    This also reminds me one quote by Latour that I use quite often: “As to emancipation, it does not mean ‘freed from bonds’ but well-attached” (2005). What is so tragic about this movie is that Ryan has spent all his life, to use his own metaphor, ’emptying his backpack’, while building nothing more than commercial relationships with businesses. He’s so aware of that, for example when he shows up at the wedding, thinking that he did some awesome pictures for a lame couple and then the whole wall is full of beautiful pictures that show how rich their life is!

    Yes, I’m probably turning into more of a social constructivist even though I don’t forget materials 😉

    Take care!

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