Het systeem met zoetstof, review van Captain Fantastic


***SPOILER ALERT*** Captain Fantastic (Matt Ross, 2016) gaat over Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) die zijn roedel kinderen op licht militaristische wijze tot über-hippie-menschen opvoedt. Ze wonen teruggetrokken in de bossen, tot Bens vrouw zelfmoord pleegt. Haar vader geeft Ben de schuld, en geeft hem te kennen dat hij en de kinderen niet welkom zijn op de begrafenis. Vanzelfsprekend gaan ze toch – met hun hippie bus, Steve genaamd. Captain fantastic is een ‘interessante’ – een woord dat Bens kinderen niet mogen gebruiken, omdat het nietszeggend is – film over helden, wereldverbeteraars en een beetje dialectiek. En over The Man. Met een sausje zoetstof.

Held en wereldverbeteraar

De titel, Captain Fantastic, roept onvermijdelijk het beeld op van een superheldenfilm. Maar, zoals Viggo Mortensen zelf zei in een interview:

There really isn’t a hero. As you go along, you sort of cringe and see some of the things in this character you dislike most — rigidity, authoritarianism.

Mij deed het denken aan een onderscheid dat Larissa MacFarquhar in haar net vertaalde boek Wereldverbeteraars maakt tussen helden en… wereldverbeteraars. Helden zijn volgens haar mensen die inspringen op een crisis in hun directe omgeving. In zekere zin slaat dat op Ben Cash. Het idee om in het bos te gaan wonen kwam voort uit een poging zijn vrouw te helpen omgaan met haar bipolaire stoornis.

Een wereldverbeteraar is heel anders dan een held. Volgens MacFarquhar zijn dat mensen die proberen een ethisch zo voortreffelijk mogelijk leven te leiden. Het zijn vaak bemoeials, die anderen lastig vallen vanaf hun moral high ground. Ethisch voortreffelijk zijn overschaduwt de aandacht voor de directe omgeving. Enerzijds lijkt dat beslist niet van toepassing op Ben. Hij geeft immers meer om zijn gezin dan om wat dan ook. Goed doen is voor hem niet iets abstracts. Anderzijds bekent hij aan het einde van de film dat hij ergens wel wist dat hij zijn vrouw niet op zijn manier kon redden. En toch zette hij door.

Een synthese met zoetstof

Die spanning maakt Ben een interessant karakter. Net zoals hij misschien tegelijk held en wereldverbeteraar is, zo is hij ook tegelijk zachtaardig en totalitair. Is hij nu een soort superdad, of kunnen we hem even goed zien als een geestverwant van de vader in de fantastische documentaire The Wolfpack (Crystal Moselle, 2015), die eerder een soort sekteleider was? Als Bens dochter op een gegeven moment een analyse moet geven van de hoofdpersoon van Nabokovs Lolita, dan realiseer je je dat zij het even goed over Ben zelf had kunnen hebben. Een karakter dat zowel haat als medelijden opwekt.

Die spanning in Bens karakter nodigt uit tot een klein stukje dialectiek. In de meest basale uitleg slaat dat op een spanning tussen twee polen (these en antithese), die door de tijd heen wordt opgelost (synthese). Die twee polen zijn verenigd in het karakter van Ben. Ze zijn immanent aan zijn persoon, ze behoren hem allebei toe. Het is niet zo dat hij de ene pool (these) is, en dat er per se een ander karakter als tegenpool (antithese) nodig is om spanning op te wekken. Natuurlijk maakt een externe tegenpool het allemaal wel wat makkelijk. Daarom is Bens schoonvader er, Jack (Frank Langella). Hij lijkt alles te zijn wat Ben niet is: vertegenwoordiger van het grootkapitaal en van de maatschappelijke orde. Gaandeweg vraag je je af of ze wel zo verschillend zijn.

Als er een dialectisch proces plaatsvindt tussen these en antithese, wat is dan de synthese waarop de film uiteindelijk landt? Aan het eind van de film realiseert Ben dat hij zijn kinderen vreselijk benadeelt met zijn levenswijze. Even lijkt hij ze te verlaten. Jack, daarentegen, ontpopt zich als een amicale Godfather, die de zorg voor de kinderen wel op zich wil nemen. Uiteindelijk komt het niet zo ver. Ben komt tot inkeer. Samen met zijn hele roedel betrekt hij een charmant houten huisje. Ze passen zich aan aan de maatschappelijke orde van Jacks wereld. De kinderen gaan voor het eerst naar een normale school. Braaf doen ze hun huiswerk. Zoals de vriendin met wie ik de film zag scherp opmerkte: ze leren ineens over wilde dieren uit een boekje, en niet meer in het bos. Er is een zachte ochtendzon. Er is warme koffie. Er is zoetstof.

Glue it to the Man

Er zit een fikse dosis jaren ’60 tegencultuur in Bens anarchistische wereldbeeld. Daar zitten twee kanten aan. Enerzijds is er het verzet. Het systeem moet omver. Als Jack de wens van zijn dochter om gecremeerd te worden niet respecteert, komen Ben en de kinderen in opstand. Ze gaan op de missie ‘save mom’. Koste wat kost moet ze niet begraven worden. Power to the People! Stick it to Man!, zoals het jongste dochtertje herhaaldelijk roept.

Anderzijds proberen ze helemaal niet ‘het systeem’ omver te werpen. Ze trekken zich er juist uit terug. Ze gaan off the grid. Ze bedrijven ‘prefiguratieve’ politiek, een onderwerp waar mijn broer zich in zijn onderzoek mee bezig houdt.  Ze zijn de verandering die ze willen zien. Het is een manier om je tot ‘het systeem te verhouden’, zonder het actief omver te werpen.

Na de jaren ’60 verloren systeemcritici terrein aan mensen die benadrukten dat je maar beter kon bedenken hoe je je tot dat systeem moest verhouden. Zoiets zou je bijvoorbeeld ook kunnen zeggen over de verandering die de Franse filosoof Michel Foucault aan het eind van zijn leven doormaakte. In het midden van de jaren ’70 beschreef hij nog op cynische wijze hoe systemen ons achter onze ruggen om probeerden te disciplineren. In de vroege jaren ’80 wende hij zich van de systemen af. Hij legde zich toe op manieren waarop we voor onszelf en anderen kunnen zorgen. Systemen zijn er toch wel, we kunnen maar beter zorgen dat we er niet aan ten onder gaan. Mogelijk spreekt daar dan nog de hoop uit dat het systeem ooit eens zal veranderen, als we allemaal wat beter voor onszelf en anderen zorgen. Maar dat is toch iets anders dan Stick it to the Man!

Tot slot terug naar de synthese. De oplossing die Ben en zijn kinderen lijken te hebben omarmd is om het systeem maar gewoon te accepteren. He used to be a man with a stick in his hand, om met Queen te spreken. Of met Kurt Vile: Well I think by now you probably think I am a puppet to the Man / Well, I’ll tell you right now you best believe that I am / Sometimes I’m stuck in and I think I can unglue it. Zo lang je huis er nog maar een beetje hippie-achtig uitziet, is er niets aan de hand. Het klinkt naar wat wat Herbert Marcuse in 1964 de ‘eendimensionalisering’ van kritiek noemde. Kritiek die gewoon een plaatsje krijgt in het systeem. Dat einde is onbevredigend. Had dat niet anders gekund? Had de regisseur niet een manier kunnen verzinnen waarop ze in het systeem konden leven, zonder het over te nemen? Door op zijn minst hard te lachen om die malle plaatjes van die tijgers in de schoolboeken?

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Cooking the self


Giving shape to the self is much like a tug-of-war, or a game of arm-wrestling. On one side, there is a team that is composed of representatives of psychiatry, marketing, politics, art and others like them. This team is applauded from the sideline by the tradition to which it belongs. On the other end, there is just you. Does that mean you are outnumbered?

In the 1970s, French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) suggested it does. His point of view was that we are continuously subjected in power plays with members of the “other team”. In the last years of his life, he started thinking differently. Instead of looking at ways in which people are governed by others, he started examining techniques that people employ to work on governing themselves. Some of this ended up in the third part of his History of Sexuality (1984), which was subtitled The Care of the Self. In an earlier interview, however, Foucault had already said that he started thinking that ‘sex is boring’. Instead, he wanted to study how people give shape to themselves. Because of this, he doubled the length of his weekly lectures to discuss this topic. He never came around to publish this work, which is one of his most interesting contributions. The volume of lectures under the title The Hermeneutics of the Subject is the best place to look for what he was up to.

The 2009 film Julie & Julia (Nora Ephron) is a nice illustration of trying to do things differently. But is it different in the ways of Foucault? In 2002, Julie Powell blogs her way through Julia’s Child’s 1961 cookbook, reporting on how one makes 524 recipes in 365 days. Both women cook up new directions. With 50 years and an ocean in between them, both Julie & Julia are stuck. Julie (Amy Adams) is frustrated by her post-9/11 call centre job (in 2002) and is forced to leave Brooklyn for a crummy apartment in Queens. Julia (Meryl Streep) is living the unsatisfactory life of a public officer’s wife in 1950s Paris.

Tutoring

Julia becomes Julie’s virtual tutor. Julie tells her husband about imaginary discussions that the two of them have while cooking.

Working on yourself does not come naturally, as Foucault shows in his discussions of ancient Greek and Roman texts (The Hermeneutics of the Subject). Even though everyone is challenged to do so, only few will take it up. Foucault refers to our general principle of “universality of appeal and rarity of salvation”, saying that ‘the principle is given to all but few can hear’. Learning to work on yourself requires some planning and organising. You need a tutor, or some sort of schooling to show you how to take care of yourself properly. You need certain “self-techniques”. The ones that Julie learns from her virtual tutor differ from the ones that Foucault discusses. Still, she reflects on what she is and what she wants to be, by mirroring herself in Julia.

Writing

Writing is an example of a self-technique. Both women write to accomplish something. To put it simply: Julia writes and re-writes a 720 page cookbook and Julie writes a year of daily posts. Shaping the self is hard work. Foucault discusses writing as an ascetic practice, just like listening, reading and speaking. In Greek and Roman times, writing was a way of reflecting on the achievements of the day, a way of taking “care of the self”. In the first place, Julie and Julia obviously write about food. At the same time, however, they weave themselves into their work. Julie’s blogs are particularly personal. She reflects on her achievements, on her fears of boning a duck and on the pressure that her project is putting on the relationship with her husband. Her writing becomes confessional, in a sense.

As in my review of Up in the air, technology works as a mediator. The fact that Julia used paper and a noisy typewriter and Julie an interface on a computer with internet connection is not trivial. The differences are too obvious to dwell on for long, so I just give a few examples. Julia could only call herself the author of a book once someone else decided to invest in publishing it in its entirety. Julie was a self-declared author, even though that was only possible because of the pre-configured blogging service that she used. Bloggers and their audience are linked in real-time by the option of leaving immediate comments. The full text of a blog is probably indexed by numerous search engines, and interconnected with other sites through hyperlinks, trackbacks, etc.

Community

Through her blog, Julie builds up quite a network around her project. Apart from receiving daily comments on her posts, journalists start picking up on her increasing popularity. On top of that, her circle of friends is drawn in, by rejoicing in the pleasures of her dinner parties. This shows that working on yourself is not something you do alone. Particularly in Stoic philosophy, friendship is considered indispensible. Again, technology is a mediator here. Julie does not only share her joys and fears over dinner, but in direct contact with anyone who chooses to reply. While the Greeks had communities like the Therapeutae, Julie has her community online.

Politics

For Foucault, the idea of giving shape to yourself has a broader goal. His project has a distinct political orientation, by placing emphasis on the way in which people can resist domination. This brings us back to the tug-of-war that I started off with. On your side, you apply techniques on yourself to get stronger. Tutors and the communities to which you belong shout all sorts of strategies from the bench. On the other side, there are still the representatives of the dominant tradition that try to pull you across the line.

Let me take a quick detour. A few years ago, philosopher Cressida Heyes decided to examine the tension of this rope-pulling game from up close by joining the Weight Watchers. On her side she had a community of fellow dieters, and numerous tutors that taught her the techniques of loosing weight by writing meticulous reports about her developments. She pulled for the sake of deliberate self-transformation. On the other end of the rope, she felt multiple parties pulling. First, there was the blind weight of society that tried to make her body “docile”, lean and fit, like the model of the ideal woman. Added to that, however, was the pressure of feminists that tried to pull her in a third direction, away from obeying to societal expectations. Her article is a brave attempt to report on her experiences.

Can we say the same about Julie & Julia? First of all, this is a feel-good film. Still, there is a lot of politics below the surface. Julia Child is often praised by feminists for the way in which she created a different image of the woman in the kitchen. The style of her tv-personality transformed many a housewife into a self-assured woman that makes joy around a meal. In the film, we get to see how she is the first woman to be accepted to the prestigious Cordon Bleu cooking school.

A nice accent of the film is that the part about Julia does not show the actual, historical figure. What we get to watch is the idealised image of how Julie imagines Julia’s life to be. When it comes to Julie’s own experiences, we also get to see how she is sometimes taken over by the “other team”. While the cooking plan was meant to be for herself, we get to see how she is occasionally absorbed by other motivations: her hopes to get a book deal, the expectations of her readers, to name a few. Sometimes, it seems that the project is taking her over.

Cooking the self is a complex thing to do. A good cookbook seems to be hard to find. Of course, we can always read Foucault.

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.