Tag Archive for Dystopia

“Mad Max” as Criticism of Car Culture…

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“Mad Max” as Criticism of Car Culture

By Ryver H.

Warning: spoilers ahead for pretty much the entire Mad Max series, including Fury Road.

Cinema, as with most forms of media, has a long and storied history of social commentary. This isn’t really all that surprising, if a creator feels strongly about something, it will often come across in their work, whether intentional or not. Those views tend to be reflected throughout the narrative, though they aren’t always apparent at first viewing. This brings me to Mad Max. While, on it’s face, this franchise (now consisting of 4 movies, 2 video games, and a couple of comic tie-ins) seems to be very much steeped in car culture. Both pre and post apocalypse settings in the series seem to revolve around automobiles and car culture, with plenty of chrome, leather and burnt rubber to go around. Despite this, George Miller (the director and writer for all four movies) seems to put a healthy vein of criticism for the same automobile culture that becomes increasingly apparent as the series goes on.

Starting from the beginning, the original Mad Max follows Max Rockatansky, a member of the Main Force Police, an organization specially charged with policing the extremely dangerous highways of a near-future society on the brink of collapse due to oil shortages. The world that Max inhabits is a harsh one, where violent crime is so prevalent as to be almost unenforceable, and road rage can and does escalate to the point of vehicular murder. While definitely comparable with many of the other “car” movies of the 1960’s and ‘70’s in terms of lengthy chase scenes, spectacular stunt work, and a focus on the vehicles almost as much as the characters, the criticism already starts to show. The movies villains (the Acolytes) are shown to steal gas and attack others, putting their own rides and thrill seeking before the lives of others. They are shown as over the top examples of many stereotypes revolving around “petrol heads” of the time, a picture of unchecked violence and fanaticism in a civilization on the decline. It is also hinted at that the Acolytes aren’t the only violent gang in the area and that the increasing scarcity of oil is driving these “mad” gangs into more and more dangerous behavior to get their thrills/ stay on the road.

In the second installment, The Road Warrior, some of the concepts present in the original are cranked up to 11. Taking place five years after the first movie, the world Max lives in has all but come to an end. Wars sparked over resources have ended in nuclear apocalypse, crumbling civilization and leaving the few humans remaining to squabble among themselves over increasingly scarce supplies. After Max is attacked by raiders attempting to steal his car and the “guzzoline” contained within it, he ends up teaming with a group of survivors and defending one of (if not the) last oil pumps left in the wasteland from the warlord Humunngus and his gang of marauders, hoping of fill his own gas tanks and keep his rig rolling. With the stylized design of the bandits and the main conflict of the story revolving around the oil derrick, the criticism feels a lot more apparent in Road Warrior than the original. Much of the design for the bandits seems to be a twisted take on many themes in car culture, with a lot of leather and chrome in their costuming as well as heavily customized cars and motorcycles to better terrorize the wasteland. The central conflict of the story seems to indicate that despite much of the world going to hell over oil, there are many in the wasteland, Max included, that are more comfortable killing and dying to fuel their engines than there are willing help rebuild others survive and rebuild what little they have left. They would rather die trying to get or keep the gas than be left with an empty tank.

Beyond Thunderdome was the next follow up, taking place 15 or so years after Road Warrior. It follows Max once more as he continues to try and survive in a world gone mad. This time he finds himself embroiled in the politics of Bartertown, a city in the middle of the desert that is caught between Auntie Entity (the leader and head of all the above ground commerce in Bartertown) and Master Blaster (who runs the methane processing plant below the city that helps power the place). It’s probably the weakest of the series, honestly, but the commentary is still there. Methane (a gaseous fuel that can be harvested from animal waste, as opposed to crude oil) is the main export of Bartertown and is traded for all manner of supplies and other goods, showing us once more that humans, Max included (who strikes a deal with Auntie to help fuel his car and have it returned to him), haven’t entirely shook the gas habit that ended their world, though many are shown using old cars as wagons drawn now by beasts of burden for lack of fuel.

Fury Road is the newest film in the series coming out after a nearly 30 year hiatus of the film. I takes place after the fall of society but it is unknown when in relation to the other films. Once more we join Max as he teams up with Furiosa, another driver who is trying to save a cadre of women from their captor and take them to the semi-mythical “green place”, a region untouched by the nuclear fallout that turned their world into the arid wasteland they have come to know. While oil consumption is less of a theme here, as an in narrative explanation shows that “guzzoline” is prevalent in the area, the topic of car culture and the society around that is back in force, certainly making up for what Beyond Thunderdome lacked. If Road Warrior cranked things to 11, Fury Road goes to 12. The central villain of the movie hasn’t just embraced car culture, he has made it into a religious experience for his followers, supped up rigs becoming holy relics, chariots for his followers (the War Boys) to ride into battle, promising a chromed out, muscle-carred valhalla to all those who die in his name. The main baddie himself, Immortan Joe, drives an ultra stylized monster of a rig (named The Gigahorse) powered by two “holy” V-8 engines. Joe’s cult is the ultimate conclusion of over-done car culture. His followers scream “Witness me!” before going (usually) to their death trying to perform some insane stunt along the lines of an extreme “He y’all, watch this!” They drive like mad and dance with death because ultimately they want their leader, whom they worship as a god, to find them worthy of his praise. Miller goes so over the top as to almost parody many of the aspects of car culture (fast cars, big engines, cool looking rides, insane stunts) and yet, in a way, some of it almost seems believable. There tends to be a lot of one-upmanship with people and cars, who is the fastest, who can do the craziest stunts, etc. that the war boys almost seem like the ultimate end to that.

While I think that while, on the whole, the Mad Max movies are a bunch of fun and crazy car action films, there is definitely a criticism to be had of car culture and the warning of going too far with something that runs throughout the franchise. In the real world there have been many cases of motorist violence and accidents caused by thrill seekers that, even as outlandish as the characters seems in the Mad Max universe, maybe they aren’t too far off. Things tend to get weird in places where society breaks down even a little. Who’s to say that as we start running lower on oil, and people get more desperate to keep their own ride, or for that matter their way of life going, thing don’t go a little crazy on the roads? Hopefully our attempts as a society to move away from combustion and toward cleaner and more sustainable forms of energy will also steer us away from “The fastest, the biggest, the meanest” cars in favor of more efficient, cleaner, and economic vehicles. Eventually moving us away from a world where Mad Max would be even possible. Because, really, can you see a smart car putting along in a wasteland at the end of the world?

Fear and Inevitability in Social Complexification…

Fear and Inevitability in Social Complexification

or

How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Post-Industrial Nightmare

By Bruce Carter

…modern man is strapped down by a network of rules and regulations, and his fate depends on the actions of persons remote from him whose decisions he cannot influence. This is not accidental or a result of the arbitrariness of arrogant bureaucrats. It is necessary and inevitable in any technologically advanced society. The system HAS TO regulate human behavior closely in order to function… The result is a sense of powerlessness on the part of the average person. — [Kaczynski, Industrial Society and its Future]

The world that we’re creating for ourselves is getting more complicated every day. It’s a process that we typically take for granted, enjoying the increased wealth it provides, and when we do take notice of it, the most common response is a looming sense of dread. We seem to be sliding into a dystopia – not in the classical sense of Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World, where the problem is too much social order – but rather a more conventional dystopia, such as those described by William Gibson in Idoru and elsewhere, where the problem is too much chaos, a society that seems endlessly alien and strange even to the very people who comprise it.

But the fact is, we now already live in and rely upon a society and an economy which in a very real sense we do not understand. No one person can fathom the intricate and constantly shifting networks of exchange and contract that tie us to one another. This is true not only of society as a whole, but even for any one person.

Take the typical economics 101 example of a farmer owning a cow and selling the milk to his neighbor. In the world we’ve created, the farmer is employee and part owner of an incorporated entity which owns the cow and the milk, which in turn is partly owned by an agribusiness corporation, which in turn is traded on an open exchange market, with thousands of people holding a tiny piece of it, and those pieces changing hands every second. The milk is also conceptually bundled, sliced, and traded in tiny pieces on a commodities exchange (not the milk that exists now, but some future milk; today’s milk was sold months before it ever existed). Furthermore, all of these entities are tied together by secured loans, insurance policies, vendor/client contracts, regulations, subsidies, derivatives, bonds, and a myriad of other abstract agreements, many of which are themselves sliced up and sold as assets on their own trading markets as well. To merely answer the question “who owns this cow,” or “who owns that milk” would require a massive effort of financial analysis at any given moment, and even that will likely change in the next moment.

If such a simple question requires such a complex answer, imagine how more complex the answer would be to the question “what real, tangible value is created from this insurance adjuster working on that spreadsheet?” Then imagine the range of jobs that we each perform today, and you’ve got a vague sense of the staggering scope of trying to concretely answer the simple question “why do we do what we do every day?” This is Marxist alienation taken to Camus’ nausea levels. Not only are we separated from the wealth that we create through work, we’re more often than not separated from even having any clue how a great deal of the work that we ourselves do creates any real wealth for anyone anywhere at all. It’s like Alice in Wonderland, and this is our own day to day activities!

And what’s worse, we need that complexity. Intricate and complex methods of organizing the work that we do, of directing human activity, are required to leverage the immense productivity gains that technology affords us. It grants efficiency, flexibility and hyper-specialization in the creation of value. As such, each technological advance leads to a corresponding increase in the complexity of our aggregate behavior. Information technology takes this process to a much higher level, inserting decision-like causal changes into the system without any persons making decisions. We can track and manage decisionary processes without even knowing what they are, at least not in any detail. And more importantly, we can do so far more efficiently than if we actually understood any of them.

As with scientific and technological advances, advances in organizational complexity are simply inevitable. If we don’t do them someone else will, and then they’ll buy us. Economic competition is like running a race in which the people at the back of the pack are constantly forced to drop out, every financial quarter. There is no option for any corporation or country other than to do whatever it takes to win that race, because only those who win continue to exist.

But it’s not entirely unreasonable to fear what we don’t understand. It’s no wonder so many of us find it intolerable. Since we rely so thoroughly on this Baroque web of social contract, our lack of understanding of its permutations causes the justifiable fear that it may fail us and we won’t even see its failure coming, or be able to prevent it. This is often the case with economic recessions, but at least those aren’t complete failures; enough of the system exists so that it can recover. We have yet to see a market crash that can reasonably described as “fully post-apocalyptic.” But because we don’t understand it, no one can assert with certainty that such a thing might not happen at any moment. Our own social order is like a Sword of Damocles hanging over our head all the time. Or at least we suspect it might be, and without being able to understand it we have no way of ruling that out as a possibility.

When considering economic crashes, there seems to be something of a paradox (I use this not in the strict logical sense, but more in the strongly-counterintuitive sense). Per Adam Smith, all of the wealth in a society derives from its natural resources combined with the capabilities of its people – their skills and ability to work. But before and after an economic downturn, those don’t change. We still have all of the resources we did before; our people still have the same willingness and ability to work as they did before. If that is all that wealth is made of, then where did all the wealth go when an economy crashes? Some numbers in some computers somewhere change and now suddenly millions of people are poorer than they were yesterday? If nothing tangible was lost, then how can we say that anything was? The answer to all this is that what is lost are those myriad contractual agreements by which we organize our work. What is lost is that organization that governs our ability to cooperate. And without it, we’re less able to direct our activity in ways to effectively provide value to one another.

As such, a society without complex organization looks very much like a completely collapsed economy. Materially it looks like a pre-industrial society or a third world nation. However, unlike those we aren’t already prepared to live without it. In the Victorian era (as well as in third world countries), most households, even those in cities, rely in great part on subsistence farming, with most of their household goods being home-made. We hypothetically could choose to live like that. But I don’t want to, and I think that most people aren’t prepared to live that way either.

As abstract as all this sounds, this analysis is important because that sense of dread is very common. The rise in libertarian and anarchist sentiment today is a direct psychological response to it. We wish we weren’t so reliant on millions of strangers, and so we assert that we are not, that we are each self-reliant individuals needing no one and helping no one unless by specific intentional choice in each instance. But that’s conflating hope with belief. The fact is, we are not self-reliant at all – or at least very, very few of us could be described as such. We might blind ourselves to the benefits we get from society, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t getting them. So long as we are part of society, we are part of society. It is patently false to stand up in the middle of a crowd and shout that you’re not a part of it. It rises to ridiculous levels when more and more of the crowd starts agreeing with you, chanting along together that they are all lone individuals and that there is no crowd at all.

Nor can we fight against or otherwise prevent the ongoing march of complexification. To do so would be as futile as a Luddite sabotaging a factory to put a stop to technological advancement and scientific discovery. Or in even more extreme cases, to exercise radical freedom and lash out violently solely because you can do nothing else, with no hope of achieving a tangible goal, like Camus’ Meursault. Or the Unabomber (who did so for the very reasons described here). As things stand, a complex economy cannot be radically reformed or revolted against without millions of real human beings suffering massive deprivation. That would be bad. Destroying the system because we’re afraid it might fail us is like setting fire to the ship we’re sailing on to prevent it from potentially hitting a rock and sinking. There is no land in sight.

So what’s the solution? As with many problems in philosophy, the solution is to realize that the problem isn’t really a problem. This is how it is. Certainly we should try to understand our society as much as we can, and manage it as well as we can, to whatever degree that we can. But to rail against its very being is not only futile but self-defeating: we are it, and it is us. We need it because we are it, and thus we need each other. The fact that we’re all in this together shouldn’t be terrifying, even if the details are confusing. To the degree that we’re alienated from the value of our labor we’re also bound to one another, and ethically speaking that’s not a bad thing at all. Quite the contrary.

Our knee-jerk reaction of fear and anger at being part of a system that is too big and intricate for any of us to understand is an inevitable consequence of having organized ourselves into a society consisting of millions of people, as opposed to the small autonomous tribes that our brains are evolved to be comfortable with in a state of nature. But there’s no logical reason to give in to that fear and anger just because we’re experiencing it, because the fear and anger are not logical. We are human animals, and therefore have ingrained emotional responses arising from instinct; but we are also sentient beings, and therefore can rise above those responses by examining that which we fear with a rational perspective.

In short: get over it.

Ep 10: Cyberpunk and Dystopia; Whats to love about what we fear?

The guys discuss the state of mega-corp’s and merging of very large companies

Bruce brings up the reduction in wages and the rise of available technologies

Sean talks about the tragic elements of Cyberpunk

Sean wonders what there is to like about tragedy

Bruce brings up the idea of noir romanticism

Sean talks about flawed characters and Ryver talks about the hopefulness embedded in tragedy

The guys discuss theories of tragedy in philology

Ryver asks us to consider historical forces as a central focus of the need for tragedy

Sean suggests schadenfreude as a possible explanation

Ryver talks about the focus of old tragedy being the world ending in some sense

Sean juxtaposes worlds ending with cyberpunk’s sense that the world just drones on without us

Bruce and Sean discuss the ideas of utopia and dystopia as less grand notions and more slight changes in trajectory

Ryver gives some examples of each and identifies some commonalities between them

Sean analogizes the concepts to Startrek vs Star Wars

Ryver talks a little about how scarcity and desire weave into the landscape of cyberpunk

Bruce brings up the prevalence of technologies that are amazing and yet treated as unimpressive

Sean paraphrases a quote “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.” by G.K. Chesterton to discuss the technologies of the cyberpunk aesthetic

The whole group discusses the incredible ability of cyberpunk to predict future conditions and the humanistic elements that weave us into the story

Bruce brings up “1984” and “Brave New World” as archetypes of dystopian fiction that shape cyberpunk

Sean talks about Schopenhauer’s metaphysics and the duality of the Terrible Reality and the Beautiful Illusion as they are presented and how they influenced Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy

Bruce brings up H.P. Lovecraft and Ryver refines the concepts involved in dread

The guys discuss the notion of existential dread and how it relates to “Soylent Green”

Sean refocuses the discussion onto what what gets out of dread

Ryver talks about the satisfaction of being manipulated instead of being at the whim of uncaring unthinking forces

Sean suggests that the reason we connect so strongly is that we are all the people who would make the choices that lead to a cyberpunk future

Bruce suggests that the cyberpunk hero is the existentialist hero: condemned to freedom and burdened by the knowledge of whats really going on

Ryver disagrees and cites 1984 as a character who escapes the burden of absolute freedom

Sean brings up the famous Satre quote “Hell is other people” and suggest that if we are the background characters then we are the means by which the hero is made to suffer

The guys mull over the idea of what a hero or protagonist is in the cyberpunk genre

Ryver brings up the idea that our complacency is the force which makes cyberpunk possible

Sean talks about the rabble-rouser and journalism specifically the quote that the job of the press is “To afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted.” and how it relates to the cyberpunk state of affairs

Ryver talks about this as it relates to the notion of stagnation and growth

Bruce talks about this as an appeal of cyberpunk

Ryver takes the last word to recommend some great cyberpunk literature.

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