08/14/13

Elysium: Everybody Loves a Good Death

Don’t worry. I won’t spoil it (all), although you already know the story. I actually enjoyed the movie, even if the preview made the plot look more nuanced than it actually was. You could make a number of criticisms that are not unique to Elysium. They are the hallmark of any action movie. Any action movie that takes on something larger than mano-a-mano combat still has to has that combat to bring about the ultimate resolution. Zizek said as much of The Fugitive years ago, the same was true of The InternationalElysium_Poster (which I watched mostly because of the Istanbul shots over the grand bazaar, but now everyone does that), and it is true of Elysium. Apparently, structural and societal changes are made when people get together and punch each other in the face.

Hey, I watch them frequently, so there’s obviously something appealing to me—and many others—about these scenarios, but I’m probably fooling myself if I think the movie is a deft critique of the growing discrepancy between rich and poor. Certainly it aims to be, but the scenario in which the critique is portrayed allows us to think that social and economic polarization is only due to a handful of clearly insane power-hungry monsters rather than embedded in the Joe Shmoes of society like you and I.

Okay, so this part is a bit of a spoiler. The president of Elysium represents the kind of “let die” response to those living on Earth. We won’t do anything to help them, but we won’t do anything to harm them either, and then we don’t have to feel bad about others’ lack in the midst of our safety and security. That would be a realistic—and certainly more common—representation of how most of us deal with the world. But then comes along the Defense Secretary of Elysium, the tyrant who is delusional with dreams of controlling everything, and we think that it’s evil people that corrupt an otherwise decent system. Yet every person on Elysium knows of the millions who don’t have access to the same level of care and live in relative squalor, eking out an existence.

Oppression isn’t just tyranny. As Iris Young notes in “Five Faces of Oppression,” it “refers to the vast and deep injustices some groups suffer as a consequence of often unconscious assumptions and reactions of well-meaning people in ordinary interactions…the normal processes of everyday life.” It’s not as if we’re talking about a warning for “our” future. For many or most, this is right now.

And like all dramatic tales, how does Elysium make us care in a way that life does not? Through the portrayal of death. But not just any death, and not anonymous death, and not mass death. Singular, important death. As is common in action movies, many who the protagonist considers friends will die. We see his pain, but we think, at least he is still alive. And of course many countless others must die in the terrible conditions we see portrayed, but their deaths are left unnamed and implied. We are made to care about the deaths of the very good, and the very bad, those for whom we are given a narrative, a story.

But it’s not just that we’re made to care about certain deaths. It’s that the death allows us to render a final judgement, to see the final tally and make a decision, since there will be no further evidence. In the case of the protagonist, we can usually decide that it was worth it for him or her to die. We make a martyr for a larger cause. With the adversaries, we grant that they got what they deserved. These deaths have meaning. What of the others, the countless extras and nobodies who perish along the way? They were at best plot vehicles, with no significant meaning of their own. Considering the question of their deaths opens up a question of meaning, and when we cannot encode labels such as hero, villain, or martyr, we must ignore the death, for it cannot but mean.

My takeaways (in no particular order):

  • Death is way more important to us than we like to let on. Plots and narratives are advanced in relation to death, and death is the given against which we make meaning.
  • Certain deaths “count,” and others do not, and our valorization of those who we give the ability to die “well” allows us to ignore the rest who are not afforded the opportunity.
  • Jodie Foster’s accent is…not good.

I am probably thinking of this in ethical terms since I am preparing to teach a course on ethics for undergraduates. My background in ethics was relatively poor until fairly recently, as is the ethical background of many who are given the answers early on. After all, why continue to look for other ways to frame the question when you already have the answers? I guess the question I am mulling over is what criteria we do, and should, use when determining the value of a life. The perhaps well-intentioned human rights approach, based on life’s inherent dignity or human self-consciousness, seems no more tractable than religious approaches. Although we think we do, I’m not sure we really want to solve the problem that Elysium fictionalizes in the first place.

02/17/13

Atheism for Lent

should-we-give-up-god-for-lentAlthough I’d like to take credit for this, the idea belongs to Peter Rollins, a theologian and philosopher who has been associated with the Emerging Church. Rollins recently posted a link on his Facebook page to an extended critique of his work on Red Letter Christians. Since Micah Bales, the writer of the post, critiques Rollins in a way that appeals directly to the habitus of liberal evangelical Christians, I wanted to respond to his points from my perspective. Given the choice, I would quickly and easily choose the theology of Rollins over Bales’ critiques.

The critique comes out of the context of Atheism for Lent, an idea Rollins has promoted for several years, which suggests that rather than giving up something like chocolate or TV for Lent, we give up God instead. Why? To experience the sense of abandonment by God that Jesus felt on the cross. To fully embody the doubt that Rollins contends is the hallmark of Christianity. It is only by giving up our preconceived ideas about God that we can experience the love that fills the hole left by their absence. I’ll talk more about this in the future, because there is much to like about Rollins’ approach, which draws on Nietzsche, Slavoj Žižek, John Caputo, and others. Bales’ critique here is not directly about Rollins’ theology, though, but his approach.

His first critique is that Rollins is toying with Gnosticism. Bales doesn’t use the term, but suggests that Rollins’ appeal lies in the draw of some special knowledge that others don’t know about or don’t grasp. He asks, “But how does this special knowledge affect how you look at your fellow Christians who do not share your radical doubt? Do you see their lack of doubt as ignorant? Weak?” The questions are irrelevant to the legitimacy of Rollins’ approach. I agree with Bales that Rollins’ approach is crafted toward a more intellectual crowd, but that has no bearing on the authenticity of its content. Gnosticism was a blanket term used against Christians in the early Church who saw the key to Jesus, not necessarily in his bloody death, but in the knowledge he imparted before death. While the term is often used in a pejorative sense now, before the triumph of orthodox Christianity, it was just one among many legitimate strands of Christian thought and practice. In short, the accusation of Gnosticism is a polemical approach that can only be made from the standpoint of the majority. Because a particular version of Christianity holds sway today, if someone like Rollins promotes an understanding that requires rethinking the traditional means and symbols we use to think about Christianity, it is easy to claim that its appeal lies in its elitism. It was the same charge leveled against early Christians by Rome.

Bales’ second point is that Rollins doesn’t talk about social justice enough. He only talks about the personal aspects of Christianity, the ways in which the individual responds (or not) to God. Bales is right that Rollins does not give an extensive summary of ways for Christians to enact social justice, but I couldn’t disagree more with the heart of this point. A great part of Rollins’ appeal for me as I was jettisoning mainstream Christianity was the way in which Rollins tears down the hypocrisy inherent in typical Christian responses to social justice, responses that have little more to recommend them than participating in social justice by buying your latte at Starbucks and knowing that 1% goes back to the coffee farmers. (This is a classic example of Žižek.) Rollins suggests that Christian attempts at social justice are largely playing a role, gesturing at the actions that we think Christians ought to perform through singing songs, putting bumper stickers on our vehicles, and putting an extra $5 in the collection plate for overseas missions. It is true that Rollins’ work is focused on deconstructing Christian norms than outlining a social justice platform. I don’t know that Rollins would argue this, but I think the bigger problem is that Christians believe that theological propositions (God died for me, etc.) are the foundation of social change when they have no necessary connection. In other words, Christianity as it is practiced institutionally does not require social change. It requires maintenance of the status quo.

Bales’ third point is a variant of the first; namely, that Rollins’ message only appeals to those in a relatively comfortable social class, those that have the freedom to play with their beliefs. There is a sociological point here, in that those with other structural supports are less likely to rely as heavily on theological truths to secure their wellbeing. Bales writes that his friend who works with individuals with severe disabilities said, “I would just like to see Peter Rollins come to L’Arche and talk about this stuff. Let him explain to people suffering from schizophrenia and learning disabilities why they need to stop believing in God.” This critique is misleading. If Rollins is correct, then Bales is blaming him for trying to give people a better understanding of Christianity when they have been given misinformation. This paradigm says, “Well, they’re happy now, so don’t bother them.” Which approach values these people as individuals more? It’s also a fallacy to believe that these people need to have the theological crutch they have to survive. Much of the world survives without such a message, a a good portion dies with it. I would argue that this approach is precisely what prevents the social change Bales deplores is missing. Atheism may not the answer for those in need right now, but Christianity may not be either. The answer could be, without touting a theological message, to show the divine to the person in need with love, empowering them to thrive in the world by extending, as much as possible, the structural supports that we casually suggest are our rights.

We could put this another way. The reason Christianity is more appealing to those who are young and to those who are in dire straits is that allows them a simple way to distance themselves from their circumstances. These populations have the lowest intellectual resistance to the institution because they are weak and vulnerable. Is that a point to objectively recommend Christianity? Or would it be more valuable to give people the tools to understand their own circumstances in a different way and explore different ways to relate to them?

In short, Bales’ critique serves as a reaffirmation of the status quo. While it looks to me as if he does comparatively more than the average Christian (whatever that means) to practice his beliefs, his message here allows Christians to remain happily static, instead of challenging the dependency of their theology upon social and cultural norms. My critique of Rollins, essentially, is that he is a closet atheist who continues to use the Christian message for political purposes. He thinks he can make greater change within Christianity than abandoning the narrative all together. Or perhaps he does think that the Christian story is an appropriate narrative to understand our existential relationship with the world. Part of me thinks that he may be right. But the greater part thinks that the tradition has done too much damage in the past to be trusted with our existential future.