Africa: don’t look up, look around

Don’t Look Up has been celebrated as an influential piece of environmental cinema. But what if this encouraged us to think less about the urgency of mobilizing to fight against climate change?

Stanley Kubrick’s famous 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, is considered one of the greatest pieces of political satire in 20th century cinema. It parodies the Cold War and the growing anxiety over nuclear destruction in the immediate aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, poking fun at the absurdities of the US government’s “mutually assured destruction” policy. At the time, many critics commented on the film’s effectiveness as anti-nuclear propaganda, claiming that now the truth about nuclear proliferation has been laid bare on the celluloid for everyone to see, its end was surely in sight.

However, Thomas Disch’s 1998 book The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World, which examines the impact of science fiction on popular culture, suggests that Dr. Strangelove had almost all of it. ‘opposite effect. Instead of mobilizing effective action against nuclear proliferation, the film normalized the idea of ​​nuclear catastrophe, making it a less pressing political issue over the following years. As he writes: “The accumulated anxieties of nearly two decades of nuclear anxiety released into laughter saturnalia which, for many of us, actually kept the promise of the subtitle: We Learned. to stop worrying and live with (if not loving) the bomb. “

As counterintuitive as it may sound, “even the strangest love of all, the desire for death,” Disch writes, “can be taught to sing enchantingly.” This phenomenon – whereby popular representations of our anxieties do not address their underlying causes as intended, but rather free us to feel their effects so deeply – is described by philosopher Robert Pfaller as “interpassivity.”

And it is perhaps the idea of ​​interpassivity, which cultural theorists such as Slavoj Žižek and Mark Fisher have further popularized in recent years, that provides the best lens for examining what is arguably the film the most. most discussed of 2021, Don’t Look Up.

Written, produced and directed by Adam McKay, who is best known for his collaborations with comedian Will Ferrell on box office films such as Anchorman and Talladega Nights, Don’t Look Up takes on Dr. Strangelove’s satirical tone as he turns his attention to climate change, social indifference, denial, incompetence and the distorted priorities of the US government.

Longtime environmental activists and climate scientists have praised the film for telling the truth about our horrific collective response – or lack thereof – to the continuing climate collapse. There is a widely shared feeling, as was the case with Dr Strangelove, that this will have a positive impact on societal views and political action around climate change (although it has also been criticized by several critics. ). Like that previous political satire, however, Don’t Look Up may be a textbook case of interpassivity.

Delegation of consumption

Perhaps the clearest description of this phenomenon can be found in Pfaller’s book, Interpassivity: The Aesthetics Of Delegated Enjoyment, in which he describes “an actor who, while playing the role of a deceased person, suddenly becomes tickle the nose with the dust of the stage and sneeze. “The spectators burst out laughing, but Pfaller asks us to think about what exactly is so funny. He writes that as the audience knows” very well that the actor was not dead, it seems he is laughing at the imaginary astonishment of someone who did not know what he knew “.

Other examples of interpassivity include the 1980s practice of obsessively recording television programs onto video cassettes, which Pfaller says performs the strange function of allowing the VCR to “watch” the programs on our behalf. , saving us the work of looking at them ourselves. He also gives the example of museums, which “do not fulfill their main function by being visited”; instead, “their greatest utility is knowing that the art they contain is in good hands and that you don’t have to constantly visit them to see it.”

We can also consider the role of canned laughter in sitcoms, where the goal is not so much to signal us the right time to laugh as to fulfill the function of laughing for us. As Žižek says, interpassivity operates through a kind of delegation of consumption. “Even though, tired of a stupid hard day’s work, all evening we just drowsily stared at the TV screen,” he said, “you can say after the fact that objectively, through each other, we had a great time. “

In general, says Pfaller, “if one act (eg, reading a book) is not possible for some reason, then another (eg, copying the book) can perform the same function.” Photocopying provides “partial relief from the tension that was originally linked to the desire to read the book.”

“Precisely there,” writes Pfaller, “where it is suggested that they become self-aware subjects, people are seizing interpassive means to flee into self-oblivion”.

There is a sense in which Don’t Look Up fulfills this function of interpassivity. Those who favorably, and sometimes smugly, discuss the film as a positive intervention in climate activism are almost like the audience laughing at the actor who accidentally sneezes. They all know the reality of the climate crisis, but have to imagine another viewer – a hypothetical character or even a VCR or a suggested viewing from Netflix, similar to what Žižek calls the Big Other – who had the truth revealed to them. in order to to see the film as effective in this way.

The potential power of cinema

More broadly, it may be that interpassivity in contemporary culture allows us to delegate our hopes, fears, and desires for change to the popular media, disempowering us and suddenly producing a fleeting sense of empowerment. Pixar’s Wall-E, for example, as Fisher writes in his flagship book Capitalist Realism, uses a tongue-in-cheek tone similar to Don’t Look Up. But it is a tone which “nourishes rather than calls out capitalist realism … the film interprets for us our anti-capitalism, allowing us to continue to consume with complete impunity”. The same may be true of some popular forms of contemporary activism.

Sticking to cinema, however, the problem is not that popular cinema can never serve as a call for collective action, catharsis, or acceptance of fate. Darren Aronofsky’s mother! and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, for example, films that cover an area similar to Don’t Look Up, are at least partially successful in this regard. Instead, the problem is that all too often we let the implementation of our common anxieties and aspirations be outsourced to forms of entertainment that serve as a sort of collective scapegoat. We absolve ourselves of concerns about neocolonialism and the plight of indigenous peoples by encouraging the Avatar Blues when they employ direct militant action to save their planet from extractive capitalism, just as we ease our complicity in animal agriculture by watching Chicken Run.

Anthropogenic climate change could still get the film it deserves. If so, while far from certain or even necessary, it might be a film much closer to Thai author Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria, a slow dreamlike meditation on a flower merchant. whose sense of normality is disturbed by the repeated incursion of a strong sonic boom that only she can hear, of which she spends the second half of the film looking for the source. Memoria does not explicitly deal with the climate crisis, but it disturbs our senses and shocks our daily sensibilities like any effective cinema should, leaving more questions than answers and refusing to comfort us in the face of the end of a world by distracting us. with the socialite.

Don’t Look Up ends with several of the main characters gathered around a table, holding hands and resigned to their fate. Instead of that fatalistic, depoliticized acquiescence in the present, and even though it’s hard to keep watching as the defunct capitalist highway speeds past us, we should at least start looking around to find ourselves – because Netflix and the cold will never be the basis of an effective environmental policy.

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