Friday, August 16, 2013

Autonomy and the Problem of Control in Moon

1.      Moon is not exactly a mystery, so I hesitate to preface by "spoiler alert!" For one would be hard pressed to describe what is meant to be discovered that doesn’t follow easily and conventionally from its defining, generic premises (like the powerful corporation doing whatever it can to reduce overhead and increase profit margins). It is, after all, only 20 minutes into the movie before we hear, albeit scrambledly, GERTY scolded for “los[ing] a harvester and employee,” which only precedes the second Sam showing up by 10 minutes. However, this is precisely what makes it a wonderful movie, for by a kind of philosophical austerity, the movie is able to call for a more subtle appreciation of what are subtle problems. By quite nearly resting its entire overt success on Sam Rockwell’s ability to charm the viewer (a good bet), the film eschews the troublesome pretensions the typically follow from auteurs who think they’re going to break new ground in a well-worn genre and instead encodes slivers of wedges into a few moments that can be opened to great profit.

This is what roughly happens: Sam Bell (played by Rockwell) is the lone human employee on a space station on the moon in charge of harvesting it—it seems the corporation he works for has found a way of turning moonrock into serviceable energy, which has solved a number of energy problems back home. Sam pines to return home, but before he can do so, he crashes his mooncruiser. He wakes up in the sickbay with no memory of what happened, but GERTY—the computer employee with limited robotic abilities—helps him get back on his feet. What with one thing and another, though, Sam finds the crashed cruiser with himself inside. Thus begins a series of discoveries about how the corporation runs its operation—but mainly a series of existential conversations between Sam-1 and Sam-2.

2.      In a classic representation of the evils of autocratic power—whether its manifestation in kings, fascists, or CEOs—it is Freedom that opposes Control. “They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom,” as Braveheart puts it. Whether in the 1984 version of fear-control or the Brave New World version of pleasure-control, what is seen as being lost is our “negative liberty” to do what we want. [1] “Negative liberty” is Isaiah Berlin’s phrase for the kind of freedom realized when one is not blocked or hindered from doing what one wants. The flipside of negative liberty is positive liberty—the sheer ability to do something one wants. One registers a gain in positive liberty when an institution enables one to do something, while a gain in negative liberty is registered when an institution is hampered from getting in the way of what one wants to do.

When movies focus on negative liberty as the opposite of the evil of Absolute Control, they tend to represent the feature of the heroes that is the Evil Controller’s undoing to be their free will. “You can tell me what to do, but at any time, I can resist you because deep down, I am free.” This then represents the feature of the hero as a kind of unlawfulness, for freedom can only be flexed by breaking the despised rules. Moon can be understood on this model, but I think it treats us to a more subtle understanding of what the problem of corporate control really is. For the beginning of Sam-2’s self-consciousness is his breaking of GERTY’s corporate-dictated stricture against leaving the base (thus precipitating his discovery of Sam-1). However, the reason why Sam-2 breaks the stricture isn’t perfectly assimilable to his being hindered in doing what he wants. It is not as if Sam just wants to go outside—he wants to go outside to do his job. So instead of the hero’s free will being the downfall of the Evil Controller, it is more like a specifically Kantian-Hegelian sense of autonomy that proves the corporation’s downfall. The Kantian-Hegelian sense of autonomy is that one gains freedom by binding oneself to norms, rules, laws. [2] By binding himself to his job, Sam requires the freedom to do his job as is required by the job itself. That this is what’s going on in Sam-2’s rebellion against the stricture is evidenced by his initial reaction to being told he can’t go out to do his job: “I don’t appreciate being treated like a child” (0:24:10ish). Autonomy, on the Kantian-Hegelian model, is the freedom of adulthood, not the freedom of the child, who can play and do as they wish. [3] Autonomy, at its root, is positive liberty gained by taking on responsibilities. Autonomy requires trust, and Sam-2 did not appreciate the sudden distrust in his ability to cope with the problems he was asked to cope with as part of his job.

Seen this way, Kantian-Hegelian autonomy lies at the heart of the difference between mechanism and humanity. What the corporation wishes for is a mechanism that perfectly carries out its desires, but what it has at its disposal is basically a form of sub-contracting—a “job” is created in lieu of the creator’s ability to do a thing him- or herself. However, by subcontracting, one creates a role with responsibilities that must then be given control-free space for the subcontractor to carry them out. Hence, the more an institutional body itemizes the sequence of success in a responsibility, the more automated the role, and hence more mechanical. [4]

3.      This is pretty much all basic, Marxist stuff. On the story Foucault tells about bio-power, it is our increasing ability to extend successfully our control into domains we previously did not know how to that gives the specific cast to modern power. [5] Increased technological control has made us able to itemize responsibilities more effectively. And it would be a lie to say that something like this mechanization isn’t at the heart of the Greek dream of reason—what was always wanted was increased control. However, one wouldn’t have guessed from Foucault’s story that we’ve had certain progressive gains at this same time that we’ve made ourselves more dangerous. The Greek dream of control was born of getting killed all the time by nature (which, as it has often been signified, might be just a stand-in for “something we can’t control yet”). The Greeks dreamed of reducing luck’s grasp on our lives. [6] That doesn’t, on the surface, seem like a bad idea. And part of our ability to reduce luck has been in exerting cultural control—getting people to believe in some ideas (e.g., gravity) rather than others (e.g., witches). So was it a good idea for us to believe in witches? If one thinks not and also concedes Foucault’s point that knowledge is power, then one will receive the full brunt of the crowning irony of Moon. Sam-2, responding to GERTY’s casual remark about rebooting himself and the next Sam to replace Sam-2 after he’s gone: “GERTY—we’re not programmed; we’re people” (1:28:35). Unlike almost every other sci-fi movie with the robot/human distinction in play, this line doesn’t go over like a lead balloon exactly because of its philosophical austerity. But what is the difference then? Programming gives us rights, and power is programming—does that invalidate the rights? So what does Foucault tell us about our humanity? Is the question confused, or outmoded?

There might be a sense in which the question is outmoded, so long as what Foucault did for knowledge is assimilated to Darwin—he shows us that we are just one more species doing its best to survive, knowledge being just one more power-grab against that which puts us at risk. [7] But what does Foucault tell us about Sam-2’s remark to GERTY before the final irony? When GERTY tells Sam-2 that for Sam-2 to succeed, he’ll have to reboot himself, Sam-2 says endearingly, “you okay with that?” We might call that decency, or humaneness, but one of the remarkable things about Foucault’s story is how little he regards the efficacy of powers in the classic liberal story of progress. For example: “As soon as power gave itself the function of administering life, its reason for being and the logic of its exercise—and not the awakening of humanitarian feelings—made it more and more difficult to apply the death penalty.” [8] People being decent to each other plays no role in Foucault’s account, and here we get a sense of the disdain he feels toward typical liberal accounts. And indeed, there is something a little too pat about most upbeat stories about the triumph of liberal democracies (at least, maybe 40 years ago, though still for any story you hear outside of a university setting).

What’s missing from this articulation, however, is the cautiousness we found in The Order of Things. [9] Power is not only anonymous, it is also an agent. “How could power exercise its highest prerogatives by putting people to death, when its main role was to ensure, sustain, and multiply life, to put this life to order” (138)? One could substitute GERTY in that sentence and get a similar conundrum to the one GERTY found and Sam-1 and Sam-2 were able to take advantage of. But GERTY, as Sam-2 suggests, is more like a person—an agent, entrusted with powers and responsibilities, that makes decisions about how best to carry out those responsibilities. Is power like that? If, to adapt William James’ famous phrase, the trail of the power serpent is over all, then Power as an agent is as bad as Humanity in all those awful liberal stories of progress, where Providence is seen acting through all kinds of strange puppets. Power, in the sense Foucault seems to deploy it here, is more like the dream of Perfect Mechanical Control that the autocratic villain always wishes for to carry out perfectly its desires. In Foucault’s picture here, we’re just puppets in Power’s show.

But this is a bad historical account unless one is willing to dismiss the reasons why people do the things they do in favor of Hegel-like Hand-of-God treatments of the Real Actors in life’s drama. And all of this just leads us back to the question: what kind of actors are we? Part of the charm of Moon is the simple humanity displayed by the Sams—the little ways in which they behave, none of which have the hyperbolic magnitude needed for a hero, the kind usually hoped for in dystopias. It might be chilling to think that all Sam-2 wants to do is go to Hawaii when he returns to Earth—his lack of rage at the inhumanity with which he has been treated—but such a reduction of scope makes the problem equally manageable for us real, non-hero people. The brief torrent of media chatter we get at the close, most of which articulates outrage at the corporation, emblematizes how not all institutions are facing one way—Power’s way.


[1] I should add that what is at stake in both dystopias is our ability to want to do certain kinds of things, and that what makes Brave New World, in the end, scarier than 1984 is its more plausible account of how to eliminate fully one’s desire for certain kinds of goods (like reading Shakespeare). If the reason 1984 is scary is that it pictures “a boot stamping on a human face—forever,” then the horror of Brave New World is its ability to more plausibly actualize the “forever” (specifically by not being a “stamping”).

[2] I’ve learned how to understand Kantian-Hegelian autonomy most from Robert Brandom’s first three chapters of Reason in Philosophy.

[3] The interesting comparison to make in this regard is the veneration of youth in Emerson and American Romanticism generally. This has tended to make Emerson’s legacy on our moral atmosphere a kind of willful self-assertion, something more analogous to “knowing with your gut,” as Stephen Colbert put it in his parody of George W. Bush’s political rhetoric.

[4] This is why Annette Baier takes trust to be the most important virtue in modern liberalism, for trust is the social relation at the forefront of a relationship in which responsibilities and discretionary powers of action are conferred. And as she says, “one thing that can destroy a trust relationship fairly quickly is the combination of a rigoristic unforgiving attitude on the part of the truster and a touchy sensitivity to any criticism on the part of the trusted” (Moral Prejudices 103). Trust requires room for the entrusted to play the role that’s been asked of them. My emphasis here is on the Kantian tradition’s understanding of autonomy, and I take one very interesting line of investigation to be the rapprochement of the Hegelian and the Humean in their respective critical attitudes to the Kantian model of moral philosophy. For Baier conceives of herself as distinctively anti-Kantian, but as I’ve just intimated, there’s a certain space carved out conceptually that a Humean interest in social-psychological atmosphere can fill. I suspect Brandom, who was a colleague of Baier’s for many years at Pittsburgh, will move us some ways to not only a rapprochement of Hegel with Hume, but with Richard Rorty as well in his (long awaited) forthcoming book on Hegel’s Phenomenology, A Spirit of Trust. (The projected final chapter is entitled “From Irony to Trust: Modernity and Beyond.”)

[5] “Bio-power” is currently one of the hottest pieces of jargon on the market, and it does have significant conceptual resonance (bio is Greek for “life”), even if as a concept it just turns into a mush of noise in many of the attempts to handle it and put it to use. Bearing in mind the Baconian notion that knowledge is power, and how fond pragmatists are of that formulation, Foucault’s introduction of the term makes immediate sense: “one would have to speak of bio-power to designate what brought life and its mechanisms into the realm of explicit calculations and made knowledge-power an agent of transformation of human life” (The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, 143). Foucault’s theorization of the complex interactions between knowledge and practice, and how something new happened in the birth of the social sciences in the 19th century, dovetails interestingly with Judith Shklar’s suggestion that the genre of utopia, until the end of the 18th century, was largely an “intellectualist fantasy” that, while sometimes harshly criticizing, in no way reflected any sense that things could be changed. And likewise, “the end of utopian literature did not mark the end of hope; on the contrary, it coincided with the birth of historical optimism” (Political Thought and Political Thinkers 167).

[6] My understanding of the Greeks here is deeply indebted to Martha Nussbaum’s fascinating early book, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy.

[7] “Just one more species doing its best” is the slogan-title of Rorty’s July 25, 1991 London Review of Books essay-review of a handful of books on Dewey.

[8] The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, 138

[9] Compare the dismissal of sentiment as having a historical role to: “Can a valid history of science be attempted that would retrace from beginning to end the whole spontaneous movement of an anonymous body of knowledge? Is it legitimate, is it even useful, to replace the traditional ‘X thought that . . .’ by a ‘it was known that . . .’? But this is not exactly what I set out to do. I do not wish to deny the validity of intellectual biographies, or the possibility of a history of theories, concepts, or themes. It is simply that I wonder whether such descriptions are themselves enough, whether they do justice to the immense density of scientific discourse, whether there do not exist, outside their customary boundaries, systems of regularities that have a decisive role in the history of the sciences” (The Order of Things xiii-xiv). For a brief discussion of the downside of the rhetoric found here, see “Foucault’s Rhetoric and Posthumanism.”

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