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Spies, clouds, queers and cyborgs

With all of the attention surrounding the events on campus following President Obama’s re-election, I’m going to offer an odd suggestion: go see “Cloud Atlas” and “Skyfall.”
What do these films have to do with those events? What in the name of MI6 could they possibly have to do with each other? And how can they help us understand rapidly accelerating technological and social change? I’m going to try to link all these up without spoilering, so bear with me.
While “Cloud Atlas” (from the makers of “The Matrix” and “Run Lola Run”) could have used better makeup and a less heavy-handed message, I agree with Ebert’s evaluation, in his Sun Times review that “this is one of the most ambitious films ever made.” “Cloud Atlas” is a fascinating adventure in six different time-spaces ranging from the 19th to the 24th century, through which a handful of actors continually show up in various identities, ethnicities, classes, genders, etc. À la “Bladerunner.” All of these permutations radically question the limit of what it means to be a human, an issue highlighted by co-director Lana Wachowski’s recent decision to speak out about her transgender process.
Enter first crazy philosopher: according to Gilles Deleuze, whom I’ve mentioned before, we need to scrap our reliance on philosophies that claim to tell us exactly what the human being is, because the human being has in fact always been changing.
If you reject evolutionary thought, fine. But if you think about the folks that survived when survival meant smacking every other fool down with a club, then compare those folks to the guys that survived when it meant living through plague and famine and the emergence of cities, then compare them to current studies that suggest the way our brain grows itself is being altered by our reliance on computers, I think most of us can give Deleuze an “Amen” for at least helping us think about how to deal with whatever it means to be human in our protean world.
As he says in “What is Philosophy?” “the race summoned forth by art or philosophy is not the one that claims to be pure (Nazis, segregationists, eugenics anyone?) but rather an oppressed, bastard, lower, anarchical, nomadic, and irremediably minor race.” The point here is that attempting to rigidly define the human constantly results in horrible situations and ignores the oppressed, nomadic bastard in us all.
Enter second (slightly less) crazy philosopher: Fred Jameson recently wrote a book on utopian fiction called “Archaeologies of the Future.” Discussing how sci-fi can blow your mind, Jameson says that when an author wants to show something totally outside our reality (encounter with an alien color for instance), the question is “not whether we as readers are able to imagine the new color, but whether we can imagine the new sense organ and the new body that corresponds to it.”
This goes back to “Cloud Atlas,” but also forward to “Skyfall.” As it becomes clear pretty early on, imagining a new “body” is exactly the problem facing the spy thriller genre. James Bond used to be able to save the world with intelligence, physical ability, kahunas and a handful of gadgets. Not so anymore. Just like the European and American governments of its audiences, this film has to radically re-evaluate its structure and rules in light of the increasing centrality of digital rather than physical threats to security. In cyberterrorism, we aren’t dealing with changes to the rules, or even a new game, but a transformation in the very conditions that create the playing field.
Such change can become alarming (just Google “singularity”), but so was the terrifying idea that the galaxy is heliocentric, that serfs weren’t created by God to be ruled by feudal lords, that Jack Johnson might beat James L. Jeffries, that homosexuals and transexuals might not be degenerate trash, but (gasp) humans.
Following Deleuze and Jameson, art can help us imaginatively inhabit the future world that rapid change predicts; and rather than try impotently to make the human stand still, we can accept becoming as a fact of existence and chew on how to live with/in the lower, nomadic, tired, poor, huddling masses yearning to be free ...

Bill Phillips is in his second year of doctoral studies in English at Ole Miss. He is from Augusta, Ga.