Technically human: Kubrick's monolith and Heidegger's propriative event.
--Dr. Floyd's voice, in a pre-recorded announcement, after Astronaut Dave Bowman has disconnected HAL's memory banks
The correct always fixes upon something pertinent in whatever is under consideration. However, in order to be correct, this fixing by no means needs to uncover the thing in question in its essence. Only at the point where such an uncovering happens does the true come to pass.
I. Imaginary Plenitude: Technology as a Way of Thinking and a Myth of Origin
Although Science Fiction extensively features various products of technology, and might fairly be said to show an obsession with gadgets, it is not really the buttons, dials, and gizmos that drive this genre. What seems of more interest is the way these things reflect a way of thinking, and a method for ordering and organizing the world around us, that then serves as the ground permitting us to perceive humanity as moving in a direction we characterize as moving "forward." The perception of this direction as "forward," thereby constituting "progress," is dependent on seeing the gadget as a "new" invention predicated on a "discovery." Discovery and progress are conflated into a general notion of "progress" (which is why "new" gadgets are simultaneously announced as the "latest"). Certainly this seems like a rosy picture. And yet much science fiction is dystopic--showing a world of "the future" that has gotten into an untenable state.
And yet the basic formula of "discovery plus invention equals progress" is not abandoned in the dystopic model; instead, as illustrated in The Island or The Matrix, there is a search for some point of origin that must be returned to in order to "reverse" this dystopic outcome and set out anew in a "better" direction. Kubrick's 2001: a Space Odyssey appears to follow a similar path: first the discovery of the bone as a club leads to the "dawn of man," then to the glory of a space station, on to the triumph of HAL, and, after HAL breaks down, "back" to the apparent rebirth of Astronaut Bowman as a starchild and a new, fresh, myth of origin literally configured visually as another "new dawn." The idea of discovering, inventing, and progressing as the essence of what makes us human runs strongly through 2001, most brilliantly compressed into the famous "jump shot" where the bone thrown by the ape "becomes," four million years later, a space shuttle station orbiting the moon. But Kubrick does not merely rehearse this familiar dynamic: he critiques it, and he does so through what is its most famous, unique, and mystifying feature, the monolith.
But the constant and ineradicable presence of the monolith, which never seems to be decoded or absorbed by these technological advances, will not allow either this myth of origin or the subsequent myth of progress to cohere. The monolith is always proximate to discovery and development, but it always precedes it, exceeds it, and is never surpassed by it. Buried, unburied, afloat in orbit, or in a dying man's bedroom, it persists as an ineradicable progenitor and remainder, the inscrutable presence of which defamiliarizes the myth of origin most science fiction takes for granted. The promotional advertising for The Matrix, for example, asked "what is the matrix?" and then the movie explains, in complete detail, it is the illusion of reality planted in our heads by machines, an illusion that must be destroyed to return us to the point where we first started to go astray. The narrative arc of the story is so salvational that the hero is called "Neo" and his girlfriend "Trinity."
It is hard to imagine a similar advertising campaign for 2001 (i.e. "what is the monolith?") not least of all because it would be false advertising since no explanation is ever given. When a mission to Jupiter is contracted in an attempt to find the source of the monolith, and presumably explain it, it is just encountered again, and in the exact same form. The origin of the monolith, and by extension its meaning, cannot be discovered because its existence exposes "discovery" itself as a myth of origin, one that has so thoroughly foreclosed other possible ways of interacting with our surroundings that we are no longer aware of its status as a myth of origin, and accept it instead as marking "the dawn of man." To put it another way, the monolith cannot be recuperated into this myth of origin about how we "began" as humans because it is the ground that permits this apparent myth of origin to be formulated in the first place: a myth of origin sets in motion a progress forward that is itself marked by further and more sophisticated discoveries. (1)
To move this into the terminology of Heidegger, "discovery" is not the uncovering of something that is "there," but a particular unconcealment of our surroundings as the result of a particular attitude, thereby engendering a particular ordering of the world. In this sense, science is not a study of what is "there," but an attitude that partly constitutes what we understand as "there." Likewise, technology is not a way of inventing, but a way of thinking. The two operating in tandem-science and technology--are then mistaken as the sole way of being. The problem with this according to Heidegger is that it "pursues and entraps nature as a calculable coherence of forces." Modern physics is the current endpoint of this way of experiencing the world as nothing more or less than a "resource" to be made use of. Technology is a mode of unconcealing, but it is not the only possible one, and its domination of human consciousness blinds us to other modes of unconcealing that would, or could, reveal other kinds of truth. It is not technology as a way of knowing that Heidegger warns against, but rather its status as the dominant--indeed the sole--form of knowing.
How we reveal our surroundings is a way of being, and restricting unconcealment to calculation thereby limits the conceivable scope of being. This limitation is present in HAL's description of his own being: "I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do" (my emphasis). The limitation of this scope is made manifest when Hal systematically sets out to eliminate the crew because, within his scope of existence conceived of as maximum use determined by a calculable coherence of forces, they not only have no discernable function, their continued existence is a hazard to his function, and therefore it is now part of his function to eliminate them: "This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it." Previous to this announcement, HAL has already disconnected the life support to the sleeping astronauts as nonchalantly as one might remove the battery of a malfunctioning smoke alarm.
We might imagine that we "discover" a thing or a dynamic, and from this discovery "invent" something, but it is precisely this apparently causal sequence that illustrates what Heidegger calls--in deliberate contrast to "discovery"--"unconcealment." The distinction is instructive since "unconcealment" indicates a particular manifestation of how to make use of something that appears to lie before us. What is "discovered" is not what is there, but a way to arrange, so as to use, something we find before us. This technological mode of thinking envisions the world as a place of universal functionality. The total availability that this way of thinking presumes banishes notions of mystery and myth in favor of relative use. Henceforth, there is no fiction in science, and yet, arising in tandem with this, is the genre of science fiction, a genre interested in the banished myths and the discounted magic or enchantment that might yet reside somewhere in the world. A case in point is Kubrick's avowed interest in "mythological and religious yearnings and impulses" in relation to his unprecedentedly "technical" world in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick 1968). The extraordinary attention to detail (Kubrick even gives us a close-up of a sign explaining how to operate the zero-gravity toilet) is offset by the persistent occurrence and re-occurrence of the semiotically inscrutable and physically impenetrable monolith.
II. The Bone, the Hammer, the Weapon and the "Dawn of Man": A Shot by Shot Analysis
A shot by shot analysis of the bone to hammer sequence makes it clear Kubrick visualizes it as an uncovering, leading to the emergence of an attitude--primarily exultant and triumphant--that is simultaneous with the emergence of a technological mode of consciousness relative to one's surroundings. Because the unexplained appearance of the monolith precedes this moment, Kubrick's depiction cannot be simply a representation of "the dawn of man." Instead it is the emergence of one mode of knowing among any number of possible modes. At the same time, in order for the audience to "understand" this sequence, they (we) have to already be inside this mode of knowing ourselves, and therefore "outside" of the monolith. It is for this reason the monolith will remain as mysterious to the audience as to anyone in the film, and even to Kubrick himself: it represents all the modes of knowing foreclosed by the "unconcealment" of this particular mode. Again, the problem is not with the mode itself, but with its instant, electrifying dominance over other possible modes. The monolith is, and remains, unknown because it is a sort of portal to the other modes of knowing henceforth rendered unknown by the particular unconcealment of a bone that can be used as a hammer.
In the first shot of the sequence where the ape "discovers" the bone is a hammer, Kubrick shoots from a low angle to show the "edge" of the monolith bisecting the sun. It is not yet designed as a sundial, but it is already acting as one, dividing the sun into "moments," causing a shadow to move, and thereby establishing a cause and effect relationship between the motions of the planetary body and the "passing" of time. Conflating time with the movement of the shadow, time "passes" in the sense that it is understood as moving forward and cannot be seen as "moving backwards." There is nothing in the revolution of the earth itself to suggest "moving forward" or its ideological corollary, progress. This is clear in the opening shots of the sun rising and setting at the beginning of the film where there is no causal connection between one shot and the next, no point of view, and no way to tell if the shots are separated by mere moments, or millions of revolutions around the sun; each day is indistinguishable from the next, and so they are not "days" but repetitions.
Both time and the notion of it as "moving forward" occur in tandem with the moment--what Heidegger would call the propriative event--when the ape grips the bone, becomes aware of gripping it, swings it down as a second motion, and views the scattering of hammered bones as the effect of his cause (raising and lowering the bone). It is a "propriative event" in the sense that, having done this, he cannot "go back" to a mode of being before he has done it. Like the monolith, nor can he make this moment "present" within the emergence of the mode of knowing since it is what initiates it. The "propriative event," in other words, precedes the emergence of the new mode of being, but is not "present" within this new mode since it is the ground that permits it. (2) The ape's accelerating involvement and rapidly increasing excitement make it clear this "invention" is a conflation of the conversion of the "standing by" of nature--viewing nature as a resource--with the "dawning" of consciousness as an awareness of having been the one to do so. In the immediate shot after the monolith bisects the sun, and before the ape wanders over to pick up one of the bones, there is a medium shot of several apes standing around in no particular arrangement.
Gradually and aimlessly, the other apes exit the shot, leaving the one ape in the center, although not yet centered. It is here we see how much Kubrick uses the screen itself to demarcate the boundaries within which the propriative event occurs. These boundaries will constitute an "enframement" in Heidegger's terms. The monolith itself, were it to be laid on its side, would have the dimensions of a movie screen, so the "enframing" it permits us to witness is both existential and literally cinematic. Enframing is the condition of possibility that sets up an unconcealment, in this case, the ape positioning himself before the bones. What I am drawing attention to is the way the movie screen itself, shaped like a monlith, permits the enframement to be, literally, framed. By having the other apes "exit" and keeping the camera static, the cinematic mise en scene, similar to Heidegger's notion of enframement, telegraphs what will occur: formerly unframed space is about to become framed place, and the formerly timeless will begin to be measured. The ape will become "central"--even self-centered!--as he simultaneously positions himself, and is positioned, within the "enframement" that will be generated by the upcoming propriative event. And yet, in this opening shot of the sequence, Kubrick still allows the situation to be random--the other apes just happen to move, as they have countless other times. They are just moving this way and that, as opposed to moving "farther" or "closer": it doesn't "mean" anything yet because there is no frame yet--either to remain within, or to leave--as the discovering ape in the center of the shot glances, with no particular intent yet, and no movement toward calculation, at the scattered bones that happen to be on the ground before him.
He tilts his head this way and that in a manner that suggests he is trying to position himself, to experience himself as being in position, relative to the arrangement of bones. He moves, in other words, to adopt a pose before the bones, rather than just finding himself next to them. Such a pose allows him to experienced his relationship to the bones as one of manipulation rather than mere shuffling. His first gesture--he picks up a bone and sniffs it to determine if it is edible--is not propitious; these are older activities, organized around the need to forage for food. It would normally be followed by perhaps picking up another bone, repeating the action, then moving away to find something more promising. But when he lets it drop, it falls on another bone, causing that one to move.
He notices the movement, and this begins the difference between this moment and all moments preceding it; it is not just that he notices the movement, but that he interprets it as having been caused by the bone he dropped. He then lets the bone fall again, first left, then right, causing more bones to move, controlling the bone more with each tall, thus testing and elaborating upon his original observation that his action is causing this effect. This attempt to control becomes calculation as it brings in the issue of accuracy--the degree to which the bone does or does not fall where he is now "'aiming." He then calculates something about the relationship of force to leverage: the harder he does it, the more they move. It is this that prompts him to lift the bone high above his head and bring it down yet greater force.
The next shot is, at first, simply the sky filling the whole screen. But the arm of the ape swings up into this frame, holding the bone, then swinging down, out of the frame. The arm bisects the sky not unlike the monolith bisecting the sun. It is no longer the same unmarked, indifferent sky that we have seen up until this point. Henceforth the sky is not this indifferent horizon, but something marked by the ape's action. Following this is a closer, medium shot of the ape, now shot from a lower angle to allow him to visually dominate the screen. He switches to both hands and directs a blow at the skull bone. His deliberate choice of target indicates a further thought has emerged in connection with the effect he is causing: if he can damage bones, which bone, if damaged, would be the most devastating. Clearly he is now thinking of these bones as having come from an animal still alive, one who might be killed for nourishment. The next shot confirms this and gives us a visual equivalent of a thought: almost simultaneous with the impact of the bone on the skull is a shot of a tapir rolling over, as though from a tremendous below. This shot, of course, does not correspond with anything that is actually there, or anything the ape can actually see: we see it because he thinks it.
This capacity to think about something that is not there in relation to what is, and have that thought frame one's actions and thereby initiate experience of one's own intent, seems a precursor to symbolism and even language. Kubrick uses the screen to flame the thought that is conducive to the enframement inaugurated by the propriative event. The image of the absent tapir, to paraphrase HAL, prompts an attitude in the ape to "put himself to the fullest possible use." that is, to experience "himself" as a being who views his surroundings as a resource and to view this mode of being as "'all he can think," and, even beyond this, all that any conscious entity can ever hope to do." It is thus the first "motivated" shot in the movie, and from it we see the emergence of point of view. It is, in effect, man's first thought, relating something not there, that has not happened, with something that has happened, and doing so in such a way that this event that has not happened--the killing of the tapir with the bone--can now be conceived of something that will happen in "the future." The future! In other words, time has begun with this thought and the ape's capacity to image something not there in relation to what is.
But it is important to note how this future formulates itself: it emerges as something that can be planned for, as an outcome that can be predicted and profited from, in other words a thought that is also a calculation. The future, henceforth, exists as that which might be colonized for profit. It becomes a domain understood as a matrix of calculation and risk. The ape exists before he lifts the bone and has this thought, but he is only aware of his existence as existence, after he raises it up, brings it down, and observes what happens in relation to a thought about what now could happen. He has moved from an observation about cause and effect to a sense of how it might help him accumulate something--food--and accumulate it at a rate unimaginable before, when eating consisted only of foraging for nuts and berries. The ratio of the amount of labor to produce sufficient nutrition is radically altered. To maintain body weight by foraging berries, the apes must do it the greater part of the day, and do it out in the open. Killing a tapir will take only minutes and will provide food for the day and perhaps longer--food that can be stored in areas where they are less exposed to predators. This shift clearly brings in notions of progress, efficiency and satisfaction, notions that will sustain and further the mode of thinking inaugurated by the propriative event. Such teleological constructs will also recast the propriative event as a myth of origin, one where everything "begins," and even a moment one might retreat to if "progress" gets off track.
In other words, time not only starts, it moves, and not in all directions, but only in one direction (forward) and for only one purpose (progress). Significantly, such a process mimics the effect of film editing, which takes unrelated "shots" and then edits them into a sequence that creates the effect of time passing and events happening, of something beginning, continuing, and either persisting or denying, but only within the prior "enframement" of the screen. Action, conceived as having an effect, cannot be undone by the "self' who comes into an awareness of him or herself by claiming to be the cause of the effect brought into being by the original action; therefore, the next time it is done it will be seen as something that has been done again--a notion that requires the recollection of having done it previously, which presumes access to "the past" via memory. The notion of the past as something we "re-member" shows the twinning of the awareness of existence and the oppositional relationship to our surroundings as something that must be stabilized by a narrative about the self. This self is also experienced as something developing and progressing, or not, as hundred of "self-help" books published every year can attest.
The next shot is closer yet, at an even lower angle, centering on the expression of the ape--which suddenly can be seen as expressive of something other than mere exertion, or fear, or instinctual behavior. We see joy, aggression, increasing confidence. The sky shot appears to be repeated, but this time the raised arm is already in the shot, and the sky has gone from being the dominant reality which can only be entered or exited to serving as the background for the ape's raised arm in the foreground.
This is followed by a close-up of the impact of the bone on the skull. The ape is improving upon his original thought of striking the tapir to bring it down by thinking about where a blow might ideally be placed to make such an outcome more likely. This segue is not inevitable, and it is here we might remember that although Kubrick is staging the original event constituting the "dawn of man," in fact we must be already inside the propriative event being staged, or else we could not understand this staging. It seems unlikely, for example, that an ape knows enough about brain function to move, in seconds, from knowing how only to pick berries, to knowing how to launch a lethal blow at the only point where it will bring down an animal larger than itself. After all, approaching a tapir and merely hitting at it with the club would either cause it to dash off or to counter-attack. The shift from pounding a pile of bones to targeting the skull is also a necessary step, though the ape has not thought of this yet, for his subsequent "weaponizing" of the bone such that it not only kills tapirs to provide a source of food, but kills an ape from a rival tribe to secure sole possession of a watering hole for his own tribe--an action infinitely more complex but equally based on the dynamic of calculation and the experience of one's surroundings as something to be put to one's own use.
After another shot of the sky, the camera shifts back to the skull, and then a series of six shots all show the impact of the bone -now a club--on the bones. The exploding skull is in the center of the frame and the blows shattering it enter and leave the frame thus emphasizing the ferocity of the force that is being unleashed and generating, to my eye, an unsettling echo of the footage of atomic bombs appearing from out of the sky followed by the annihilating crumbling of entire cities. So while the ape is experiencing progress and self-improvement on a grand, perhaps grandiose--scale, the visual construction of this echoes some of the most disturbing footage ever filmed of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an echo with a strong historical specificity as this film is released in 1968, the height of the cold war, when two rival tribes menace each other with Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (weaponized bones) as they fight over the "watering hole" of the ocean. Such a disturbing echo is in line with Heidegger's point that technology is a valid mode of thinking, but one that has become dangerous because it is our sole mode of thinking.
It is here, also, that Kubrick's editing begins to "leave out" time in order to show, in rapid sequence, the landing blow of the bone six times on the skull. The rapidity of the strikes as they are shown is not possible in "real time." The sequence draws attention to the fact that it is edited, and this "leaving out" of film is no longer strictly a depiction of what the ape "does," but seems reflective of how powerful he feels as he does it. Acceleration and rapidity are not notions that make sense isolated from myths of progress and efficiency; they must be experienced in relation to something else in order to be experienced at all. The intervening time it must have taken for the ape to raise the bone again is simply omitted, thus denoting greater speed, greater focus, greater efficiency, greater productivity.
The discovery of how to use the club as a bone is really an "unconcealment" that fosters a mode of thinking that it is fair to call "technological." "Discovery" is the translation of unconcealment into an ideology that imposes a progressive timeline on what is, in essence, the same mode of thinking whether the "discovery" is a bone as a club, nuclear fission, or an iPod. As examples of a mode of thinking, these discoveries are all the same.
The next shot after the conclusion of the ape striking the skull is a return to another "blank" landscape shot, except this time an ape enters from off screen carrying a chunk of fresh meat and still holding
the bone. A subsequent shot shows a group of apes eating; then another angle showing tapirs in the background--no longer fellow foragers but a "standing reserve." There is a close up of an ape chewing, followed by baby apes playing with a bone, sniffing it, not yet proficient in its use, but clearly educable. Culture and education are implied as the parents will be handing down a technological skill and not simply modeling basic hunting and foraging skills which get imitated, with no change, from generation to generation. There is a movement, in other words, away from instinctual behavior to knowledge, and away from herd instinct to cultural memory.
The experience of memory also initializes the imagined domain of the past, envisioning it as "what has already happened"(emphasis on the past tense); and therefore cannot be "undone," because time has "already moved on." Thus memory not only serves the transmission of knowledge but also the sense of time as something moving ever forward. That notion situates the present as the domain where things happen, or they don't. The future--that which hasn't happened yet--is seen as determined by what does or doesn't happen in the present. In other words, calculation and risk relative to the future now structure the present moment rather than mere survival. The present moment becomes an awareness of calculation and risk relative to a future that can be colonized, thus converting the past into a source of useful information--another kind of "standing reserve"--to help better predict the future. The "future," in other words, is not a neutral construct; it becomes something to be colonized by pre-emptively mastering and controlling actions in the present relative to one's surroundings. Damning up a river, for example, obviously an advance on using a bone as a hammer, nonetheless does the same thing: it utilizes action in the present to colonize the future. A tapir, once seen as nothing more than a fellow-food forager, becomes a standing reserve of food; in a similar manner, a stream that no longer flows according to natural forces generates electricity--the pre-ordained effect of diverting it through a man-made grid.
The apes's futures are colonized in the sense that "now" there will be plenty of meat (the apes appear to have been vegetarian). In the next scene, the same bone that was a tool also becomes a weapon as it is used against a rival tribe of apes in order to exercise control over a resource crucial to both: access to water. With this transition--from using the bone as a tool to using it as a weapon--time not only moves forward, we see the beginning of "history" since this "battle" is one both tribes are likely to remember as an event that took place, at a certain place and time, from which other events emerged leading to a fundamental shift in power relations between the two tribes. Additionally, we see that landscape has become territory, now that it is something that can be contested and won, and that victory can be sustained, at least for a time. "History" will not be a mere recounting of the particulars of the conflict but also a way to narrate a claim and establish a boundary, one that can be passed on to succeeding generations.
Simultaneous with this "unconcealment" of history is economics (they now "own" the water and can set terms for how, when, and if it is accessed). The sense of history preserves and sustains the notion of time as forward moving but further refines that movement as one of causes and effects that have real consequences and organizes claims upon natural resources. As well, to the extent that "history is written by the conquerors," it is a narrative that appears to legitimize the group that is currently dominant. The apes driven away from the waterhole, for example, simply have a different sense of the event and would narrate it differently were they given the chance, but it is unlikely they will be ascendant enough ever to put that version forward. History also imposes narrative on the forward progression of time, inflecting it with moral and ethical deliberations and rendering it an example of both what to do, and not do, going forward. This permits a conflation of "discovery" with moral growth. And yet the bone actually introduces a disequilibrium. The ape who is killed by the bone does not possess one himself and is, in that sense, "unarmed." Because of this inequity, the one ape killing the other ape is the first murder because it exploits a resource to take possession of a watering hole, converting it, in the process, from a feature of the landscape to a standing reserve, or resource, now "owned" by one tribe of apes to the detriment of another. (3)
To manage this new allocation of space and time opened up by his invention/discovery, the ape may well begin to set up the rudimentary mechanics of a modern "self' that will be designed to help stabilize a consistent identity by finding a way to make the experience of "moving forward" both palpable and coherent at a personal level. But this identity, with its underlying mechanics of self, will be enframed by the propriative event that inaugurated it. Henceforth, the awareness of one's existence is inextricable from an oppositional relationship to nature; mastery of the present in order to colonize the future will be a constant and consistent goal. To the extent this appears to be realized, the myth of one's own coherence will be embodied in a narrative about one's self. Conversely, disruptions to this propriative moment--a moment by which both existence and the material world are "unconcealed," each in relation to the other, with neither "causing" or "being caused" by the other--will cause a crisis in both identity and so-called "self-confidence"--that same confidence the ape seems to have in abundance as he hurls the bone skyward in an ecstasy realized through the experience of having mastered his surroundings and thus assured his future. (4)
The propriative event has created a "before" and "after" moment which will inaugurate and continue to underwrite a sense of "moving forward in time"--in other words, the beginning of history. This sense of time as forward moving, cumulative, and able to look "back" in hopes of doing better "going forward," all provide the basis of both ethics and economics. One way forward can be judged as qualitatively and quantitatively different from another way forward. "Mistakes" can be made, recognized, and even "corrected" or regretted going "forward." The idea of trying "again" becomes possible, which permits a way to evaluate performance and to reward what is then understood as improvement or punish what is judged to have been a failure. The idea of rewarding and punishing is understood in relation to the degree of accumulation or diminishment brought about by a given decision understood as having taken place at an earlier point in time. Do you have "more" than you did before or "less"?
III. Apes at the Movies: the Monolith and the Movie Screen
Heidegger's notion of "enframement" and Kubrick's use of the frame of the movie screen, particularly his configuration of the monolith as a black movie screen (albeit one set on edge) seem to share a common concern: under the illusion of plenitude set up by technology's way of thinking and the illusion of plenitude set up by cinema's art of framing, we cease to ask the question of Being in favor of a constant urge for a further disclosure of what can be "discovered," what can be done in the aftermath of this discovery, and a subsequent conflation of "Doing" as the equivalent of Being. In a recent issue of Screen, Catherine Constable cites the work of Michelle Le Doeuff to support her contention that the images in movies can offer a dialogue with philosophical texts, instead of being seen as a simplistic 'illustration' or an inaccurate representation: "Le Doeuff offers a new methodology for reading philosophical texts, one that focuses on the imagery, drawing out its conceptual implications and the ways in which it works to sustain or destabilize the concomitant philosophical system." Constable adapts this insight to her analysis of Baudrillard's concept of the "hyperreal" in The Matrix trilogy. The visualization of the monolith, inserted as it is into the depiction of the "Dawn of Man," allows Kubrick both to illustrate the "propriative event" and at the same time show that even this idea of such an event as a point of our origin as human is already inside the concept of "unconcealment" serving to "begin" man's "development."
This particular myth of origin, configured as a developmental explanation, already operates within the very enframement that has cleared entities such as the bone to show up as explicable in just this way. Far from rehearsing this accepted origin for the "dawn of man," Kubrick's film exposes the fundamental way that the understanding of the world is peculiar to a technological mode of thinking that appears to "clear" the ground for being but also, as an inevitable consequence of this, forecloses other possibilities of awareness: "discovery" and its various corollaries, progress, innovation, and time as a march into the future, constitute an ideological discourse imposed on a particular technological mode of unconcealment.
As an audience, we feel ourselves privileged to be "outside" this depiction of the origin of human consciousness, this momentous "before and after" propriative event, where an ape uses a bone as a hammer and thus inaugurates a movement from "ape" to "man." But with every subsequent appearance of the monolith--on the moon, orbiting Jupiter, at the foot of the death bed of Astronaut Poole, we see that something remains outside the scope of this defining event, effectively defamiliarizing it for us. The persistence of the inscrutability of the monolith insists that "discovery" is a concept parasitic on what is in fact a specific ordering of the world and of consciousness,--an unconcealment--and it is one way, but not the only way, to organize the world and the interaction of our consciousness with it: the technological mode of being is a particular mode of "being" rather than the essence of what it "is" to be. The "discovery" of the bone as a club, although depicted as ungrounded, is a depiction that, at the same time, already occupies that very ground of development from older activities of foraging and hiding from prey to the technological clearing of entities which permits dominance, ownership, and the beginnings of the social, the cultural, and the personal.
If we look at the very opening of the film, after having seen all of the film, we can also begin to appreciate the degree to which Kubrick has positioned the film-viewing audience as so many apes gathered before a monolith (the movie screen) about to have a propriative event where what has always been before us is given a "clearing" that permits something "new" to unconceal itself. In the first six or seven opening shots of 2001, Kubrick gives repeated shots of an empty landscape. Within several of these shots are scattered bones. Upon a first viewing of the film, however, it is unlikely we will "see" these bones as anything other than a part of the landscape. The shots are resolutely neutral, not even featuring camera movement, the editing in no way prioritizing the bones, or anything else, as we begin the experience of trying to make sense of the film. An outcropping of rock, a bush, scattered bones, it is all "the same." In this way, Kubrick is using the experience of film as film, to stage a "before" and "after" in the viewers comparable to that of the apes. And, indeed, the average viewer of the film has no particular knowledge of the full extent of the apparatus that brought these images before them on the monolithic screen any more than the apes can guess what must have preceded the monolith to make its appearance possible.
On a second viewing of the film, having seen the ape utilize the bone first as a club, then as a weapon, we are likely to now "see" the bones as important, even as they lay scattered about as they did prior to the ape's "discovery.'" Now, however, they will seem to be in the foreground and will "organize" a previously undifferentiated landscape. The dimensions of a movie screen, the framing of a shot, and the motion or raise en scene it contains within that shot, all combine to make the screen a sort of monolith that can rehearse not just our myth of origin but the way all perception requires a prior enframement that permits a particular unconcealment, which registers a propriative event, which demarcates a point "before" that can be traced backwards and an "after" that can be traced forwards. From there, the myth of origin arises, permitting the narration of this enframement as the "beginning" of a development from which we have progressed, and therefore in relation to which we can mark our continued progress.
This process cannot be depicted as process because it immediately turns into a myth of origin, and it is our familiarity with the myth that "makes sense" of this apparent depiction of the "moment" we became human. But if Kubrick cannot depict the moment before and after our own cleared world, he can defamiliarize it and open it up as a site of establishing a mode of thinking establishing an experience of being, thereby imparting a political and cultural message that the cold war's arms race, is not the inevitable doomsday scenario it appears to be. Instead its apparent inevitability becomes an effect of the way enframemnt forecloses other ways of seeing, therefore of thinking, therefore of being.
In essence, Kubrick has "used" the movie screen to create an equivalent experience for the viewer of being an "ape" who also does not see the bones scattered across the land, then becoming a "human being" who now sees them, having witnessed the staging of the propriative event leading to "the dawn of Man." The monolith, when it first appears, aggressively foregrounds itself to the gaze of the startled and eventually curious apes. In watching them cavort before it, we are watching a scene 4 million years ago, unaware that our own behavior--sitting before a giant screen, staring with wonder and curiosity at Kubrick's unfolding images--is a modern day equivalent of the activity of the apes before the monolith in the same way that the bone tossed skyward by the triumphant ape really is, in essence, the same thing as the space station orbiting the moon. The concept of four million years having "passed," or of thousands of "new" discoveries having intervened in a steady development, is an effect of the myth of origin predicated on the technological mode of being. We look at images so real we might reach out to touch them, images arranged in such a way they move us and appear to us as our reality: we reach out to a movie screen that is depicting our beginning as apes reaching out to a monolith.
To reverse this point, the situation of the audience sitting before the movie screen is represented, on the movie screen, as apes approaching a large black "screen." The depiction of the "dawn of man" is not a depiction of that at all, but a defamiliarization of our need to generate a Myth of Origin and, having once done so, our inability ever again to see the world except in terms of the "before" and "after" demarcated by this myth. To put it another way, having not seen the bones in the landscape on our first viewing of the film, and now having seen the ape discover their use, we will not be able to watch and not see them again the way we did not see them the first time. The process by which this phenomenon occurs, however, has been defamiliarized by Kubrick's artistic use of the cinematic apparatus. The "propriative event" of "man" is specifically an attitude, as is science, and a mood, as is technology, that converts our surroundings from a "presence-at-hand" (a bone) to a ready-to-hand (the club/hammer/weapon). Apes using bones to defend a water hole, and the USA and the USSR using missiles to control the earth, are the same thing with no "advance" other than a more and more sophisticated exploitation of nature as resource. Humans, as part of nature, become resource too, both in how they are used and how they are viewed as expendable. (5)
The establishment of a technological way of thinking, and the knowledge domain that results from it, forecloses alternative ways of thinking as a condition of its own emergence. The emergence of a certain order of consciousness is co-terminous with viewing our surroundings as a totally available "standing reserve," or ready-to-hand, awaiting our discovery of its function preparatory to submitting it to our use. Both Kubrick and Heidegger, in their different ways, locate the primary problem of technology not in this or that invention but in the mode of thought that arises from the enframement that allows and sustains this particular form of unconcealment. By viewing everything as a resource at hand, this kind of thinking appears to "master" natural cycles, a mastery that only succeeds in exhausting resources faster than they can be replenished. How we think in relation to our surroundings--all around us is "standing reserve"--and how we think of ourselves--to what use can we, and it, be put?--becomes, as HAL evidences with homicidal precision, the only way we think. We cannot "unsee" the usefulness of what had been hitherto undifferentiated bones scattered on an indifferent landscape.
Although the problems caused by technology are often acknowledged in various social discourses, this acknowledgement at the same time becomes a proud declaration that these problems are exactly the same problems that only technology can fix. As the headline of a recent Monsanto advertisement in The New Yorker puts it, "How can we squeeze more food from a raindrop?" The ad goes on to say water will have to "do more" so that the amount of food it is possible to grow can be increased. How much food can be squeezed from a raindrop, indeed? The answer can't be "infinite amounts," and yet, courtesy of the myths of progress and efficiency, this is Monsanto's implication. The propriative moment is essentially ungrounded; that is, it appears to be "inevitable," but this is an effect of its constitutional capacity to foreclose on other imaginable alternatives by the very way it unconceals itself. In this sense, the monolith marks the original moment of unconcealment which then literally unconceals itself at regular intervals as technology "advances"; it does so not to depict something prior to our propriative event--an impossibility--but to defamiliarize the process by which we commit to a single mode of thinking related to a method of unconcealment that forecloses other methods. It is the foreclosing engendered by enframing that eliminates the mystery and mythology of existence:" ... the unconcealment in accordance with which nature presents itself as a calculable complex of the effects of forces can indeed permit correct determinations; but precisely through these successes the danger may remain that in the midst of all that is correct the true will withdraw" (Heidegger 331, my emphasis). The monolith is inscrutable partly because it is neither simply "at hand" (i.e. an undifferentiated part of the landscape) or "ready-at-hand" (something understandable in terms of the functionality implicit within it). In other words, it is neither a bone nor a hammer but a marker of the propriative event where the one "became" the other.
Interestingly, Heidegger's famous example of how angst about our actual being can be activated revolves around a hammer that breaks: "in fabricating equipment--e.g, an axe--stone is used, and used up. It disappears into usefulness. The material is all the better and all the more suitable the less it resists perishing in the equipmental being of the equipment." The monolith cannot "disappear into usefulness" and cannot perish within the "equipmental." It is unequivocally "there" and clearly differentiated, but impossible to reduce to its function. When a hammer breaks, according to Heidegger, its presence as material reasserts itself, but not purely: it simultaneously appears as something that needs to be "fixed" so that it can resume its usefulness as an object of function and cease to be a somewhat disturbing object resisting equipmentality and thereby putting pressure on the enframement that permits our mode of thinking, and, by extension, of being. The monolith functions like Heidegger's broken hammer, except, never having been a hammer, it does not have to "break" to reassert its materiality, and not being possible to break since it is not possible to assign it a function, it cannot be recuperated as materiality, and so persists in its disturbance as something that exists that cannot possibly exist--thereby drawing attention to the foreclosure implicit in the term "possible."
Significantly, this will also be the case when HAL "breaks." Although, famously, we see HAL's memory banks loosened in order to break "him," we might still ask where is HAL? He seems inextricable from the ship itself, and so his process of "breaking" is coded not as falling into disuse but as death, the extinction of consciousness, the blinking out of the propriative event that began him. His final coherent articulation is about his origin, his date of inception, and the first song he was able to sing.
IV. Breaking Down the Monolith: Putting the Fiction Back in Science
The mystery of the monolith is related to the foreclosed alternatives against which it stands in opposition to a certain mode of thinking, a mode that produces the discovery that a bone can move other bones, even crush a living skull, and thus serve as a tool for obtaining food or as a weapon for enforcing power and territory. The monolith stands as pure metaphor for the tyranny of function at the expense of being: it marks the site where a particular form of human consciousness emerges in relation to a particular orientation of man, relative to the interrelationship of his consciousness and externality. The discovery of an object that effects a new relationship to other objects (a bone can be swung aloft to shatter other bones) simultaneously becomes a myth of origin foreclosing other ways of encountering nature, setting up a stabilization of a particular positioning that is then misrecognized as the discovery and expression of something "essential" in human "nature."
So what is the defining consequence of the simultaneous and mutually constitutive emergence of technology as a domain of knowledge where nature is only legible as "standing reserve" in a mutually constitutive relationship to a consciousness that pursues an illusory and ever-receding mastery as a way to underwrite and stabilize the fiction of its own coherence? The short answer is: a crisis in meaning linked to a denial of mortality; or, more accurately, a denial of mortality made necessary by a crisis in meaning. One way to tolerate meaninglessness is to imagine you still have time for meaning to develop, and this strategy will work indefinitely--if you are immortal. It is not a coincidence that scientific discourse promises to solve all problems "in time." This mythical teleology corresponds to the tendency in modernity to see satisfaction as something that has not happened "yet" but some day will. Someday we will be yet more efficient, yet more perfect, yet more civilized and innovative. This is a strategy of deferral that is incommensurate with the non-deferrable phenomenon of aging and mortality, a process that, eventually, puts a limit on the amount of time we have. The rhetoric that surrounds technology, however, operates according to the same deferral system as a rhetoric of salvation: a "not-yet" is coming that will make our "now" meaningful in relation to all that has gone before and all that has yet to come to pass.
This state of affairs is powerfully exemplified by the famously obscure ending of 2001 where Bowman, having traced down one deferred monolith after another, finally encounters what seems to be the final monolith--and it no doubt is, at least for him, because it is positioned at the foot of his death bed. Significantly, the event that proceeds this final scene shows him as an elderly man having dinner. Reaching forward at one point, he brushes a crystal wine glass, upsetting it, and it falls to the hard floor with a crash. In other words, another object identifiable according to its function--glass shaped to hold wine--is broken. It differs from Heidegger's broken hammer in the sense that its function is more one of culture and refinement than it is of mere "use." And yet a broken wine glass is clearly on the same continuum as a broken hammer: it will generate--through the breakage that strips it of its function--an unease about all there is about "being" uncontained in the enframement of the propriative event--primarily the fact of our own mortality. This last appearance of the monolith in particular shows that the attitude of science and the mood of the technological places mortality "outside" its particular sense of being.
Because the technological way of knowing sees nature as "other" and to be "used," it does not so much incorporate mortality as endlessly defer it, endlessly misrecognize it as yet another physical science: "Because the essence of modem technology lies in enframing, modem technology must employ exact physical science." What we see in the famous closing moments of 2001, as the dying Bowman lifts his finger towards the monolith at the foot of his death bed, is the indomitable reassertion of our inevitable mortality in the face of a
lifetime of translating it into calculation--a calculation that defers our awareness of mortality so effectively it appears to have forestalled it altogether. All the accompanying deferral mechanisms of modern technology are swept aside to reveal the mysterious, mythological "star-child"; he represents not so much a re-birth as a return to the foreclosed alternatives banished in the propriative event. (6)
To summarize, the propriative event that establishes what we might call the technological interface between being and otherness, is filmed as "the dawn of man" by Kubrick. An awareness of the present and the future is brought on when the awareness enframed by this technological interface reduces nature to that which "stands by." The past, in its dominant twin modalities of regret or nostalgia, is only real in relation to the vantage point from which we have these feelings--the present--which, in turn, unconceals itself relative to the future we hope for, or despair of, relative to a previous present which is the result of the same enframement. This previous present, which we now view with a sense of regret, disappointment, loss, or perhaps celebration if the future from which we view it is pleasing to us, is, of course, the past. Both past and future are the result of calculative thinking in the present, effectively cancelling out the present as present. Calculative thinking is a kind of thinking where nothing is what it is, when it is, but only what it will or won't be at some point other than now.
But the essence of technology, which obscures its own enframing, is not the essence of man, which is, in any event, not so much an essence as an openness to things, a receptiveness to an open space of possibilities that takes place amidst both presence and absence, both life and death. As Heidegger puts it, "enframing challenges forth into the frenziedness of ordering that blocks every view into the propriative event of revealing and so radically endangers the relation to the essence of truth" (Heidegger 338). Kubrick's framing of "the dawn of man" in relation to a particular form of unconcealment mythologized as "discovery," and then misconstrued into a myth of origin concerning our own essence, then opens up a causal sequence of events, a "destiny," that has a dazzling claim to a kind of success. The danger is that we mistake the advancements that constitute this success as an answer to the question of Being, and then deem unnecessary the need to keep asking the question. Man does not first have awareness of himself, then actualize that awareness by utilizing the "standing by" of Nature. Rather, his awareness is an openness to things, an awareness of space between self and otherness that would not be a space in the absence of awareness.
Through calculative thinking, things are converted into commodities; nature is treated only as a resource; thinking is only rewarded, and therefore only quantifiable as "thinking," to the extent that it is instrumental on the "standing by" modality of nature. And any problems these relentless conversions appear to bring up will be categorized as something that needs to be solved by more calculation. Science fiction is "set in the future," but the mere act of doing this makes it clear the future is a fiction intended to lend a credibility to the present that appears to impose a sense of irrefutable meaning on the past. Ironically, posting scientific advancements as proof of a prior awareness is a foreclosure of awareness in support of a myth of origin that can no longer wonder about the source of its own awareness--which is, after all, the real experience of a human being whenever we unexpectedly stumble out of the frame that allow us to depict ourselves as technically human.
Constable, Catherine. "Baudrillard Reloaded: Interrelating Philosophy and Film via The Matrix Trilogy," Screen, 47.2 (Summer 2006): 233-249.
Heidegger, Martin. "The Question Concerning Technology." Basic Writings, Ed., David Farrell Krell London, England: Routledge, 1978. 311-41.
David Kolb. The Critique of Pure Modernity: Hegel, Heidegger, and After. University of Chicago Press. 1986.
Leonard, Garry. "'The Famished roar of Automobiles': Modernity, the Internal Combustion Engine, and Modernism." Disciplining Modernism. Ed. Pamela Caughie. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 221-241.
Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1979.
Telotte, J. P. Science Fiction Film. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
(1) Darko Suvin, in his comprehensive and influential book Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, identifies "cognitive estrangement" as a predictable and conscious intent of science fiction. I would agree, but this still begs the question of what we understand as "cognition." It is not thinking understood merely as a neutral form of cognition, nor even thinking "about" something, but thinking of nature as a "standing reserve" awaiting a bringing-forth of concealment into unconcealment.
(2) David Kolb ably annotates this concept: "The propriative event is not a presupposition, not something we 'hold,', not a property of our language or our action, to ask for information about the propriative event, to ask 'what is it?' is to presume it is an 'it' that has an essential character we could report on. But the propriative event is not an 'it,' not an entity we can make present within some field.... but we can be aware of living within the propriative event, and we can talk about this" (Kolb 171).
(3) A curious point here is that other apes in the dominant tribe have begun to carry bones, presumably in imitation of the ape who "discovered" the capacity of the bone to be a club. And yet the rival tribe seems completely unable to consider imitation. When they see their comrade felled, they retreat in terror of the inexplicable event.
(4) For a thorough discussion of how the narration of "self" can be seen as analogous to the invention of the internal combustion engine, see my essay "'The Famished Roar of Automobiles': Modernity, the Internal Combustion Engine, and Modernism." Disciplining Modernism. Ed. Pamela Caughie. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 221-241.
(5) Even as I write this, courageous men are risking imminent or early death trying to take the Fukiyama nuclear reactor offline as it generates higher and higher levels of radiation. The reactors do not demonstrate the artificial intelligence of HAL, of course, but their turn from useful to lethal, from being useful to us to using us up, is eerily similar.
(6) J.P. Telotte concurs with Suvin that science fiction is "a form intent on defamiliarizing reality through various generic strategies in order to reflect on it more effectively" (Science Fiction Film. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2001). He then moves to unpack this further, and does so in the direction I am outlining here: "[A]n abiding concern of many of our science fiction films [is] their tendency to lodge a sense of our humanity in feelings, passion, desire--and not in the atmosphere of reason and science that would seem to dominate the world of science fiction.It reminds us that, for all their trafficking in a world of reason and science, despite their usual dependence on the imagery of technology, our science fiction films seldom allow that regime to go unchallenged."
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|Title Annotation:||Stanley Kubrick and Martin Heidegger|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2011|
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