To the discussion on Terry Gilliam's Zero Theorem: to drown in post-materialism or the infinite regress to authority


The Zero Theorem is probably the least surrealistic, the most relevant and timely Gilliam’s picture. It delicately conveys the current state of affairs related to the influence of the modern information technology on our lives. Has our society reached Orwellian dystopia in a some twisted way, so the movie does not look like a fancy hyperbole but resembles a satirical sketch on the surrounding reality? There are no definite answers, though. All what we can see is a solid framework of ideas which is widely open to interpretations, although it can lead us to interesting consequences if we look at its origins.

It’s too connected here



Gilliam himself describes his work as follows, calling it the final part of his Orwellian trilogy:
This is more about connectivity, the connected universe, and whether you can separate yourself from it. It’s a very hard thing to describe as far as storytelling but there is a man who really wants to be on his own even though his work is about a very big question; whether the universe is in control or chaos. He just wants to get away from people and everything, just be alone, and yet he’s not allowed to be. Some of that is good and some of it is bad. He discovers his humanity in the course. Where he ends up is a surprise.
However, there is even more: intentionally or not, the picture minutely describes the sociological concept called ‘existential post-materialism’ and provides some glimpses on the problem of the higher authority. It would be more precise to call this ‘existential post-connectivism’, which may be a form of true post-materialism, since it can provide a set of values that differ from the ones considered post-materialist now. To unveil all this we need to look at protagonist’s soul, the world in which he lives and his manner of interaction with it.


Qohen Leth is an entity cruncher who works for some conglomerate named “Corporations Sans Frontières” (corporations without borders). He is involved in the creation of the neural network called MANCOM – a system that should help people to deal with the large amount of choices originating from the increasing complexity of life and environment, but the eye at its logo says that it is rather related to Big Brother. Qohen is not a sociable type and refers to himself in the plural, which may be a symptom of the severe narcissistic personality disorder. Does he just possess such personality or are there other reasons for such behavior? We know that he was married and led an ordinary life in the past, so it should be the latter. Can you imagine what these reasons may be? Surprisingly, this may be the implications of an analogue of post-materialism in a heavily connected society, let us call this ‘post-connectivism’. To understand what this may mean, it is necessary to learn what post-materialism is about.

 
It’s not a kindergarten party, self-expression values are one of the signs of a post-materialist society which may foster narcissistic personality; as we see here, people do not hesitate to express themselves publicly in various ways. There were no networkable cell phones at the time of Inglehart’s initial surveys, so the author has made a necessary correction: direct emotional connections between people replaced with remote digital links, and this assists the social alienation of people.

Who is to blame?


 Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir

The Party had begun with the corresponding protests in 1968, when people demanded more freedom from their democratic, although conservative, governments. Studies suggest that this wasn’t the result of increasing governmental oppression but was instead due to the intergenerational shift of values which existence is proposed on the base of Ronald Inglehart’s surveys. According to Inglehart, relative prosperity after WWII has made the postwar generation to prefer values of individual self-expression and freedom (which are considered post-materialist) over the personal and economical security (which are considered materialist). Just because people tend to appreciate what they needed most during the period of their personality formation, as the socialization hypothesis states.

The unrest gave rise to the new social movements, a phenomenon that isn’t so widely studied at the former Soviet Union block, although this is probably the only place where it can get substantial criticism until the establishment of the repressive political correctness there. Due to their attacks on capitalism and its basic driving forces, the new social movements often compared with the Marxist ideology by conservative/neo-classical liberals, however the movements have mostly sociocultural origin, not the political or economic one. For example, the environmental movement postulates the necessity of artificial restrictions on capitalism, because it's considered that people, especially capitalists, have no equal natural enemies, which makes the nature to be defenseless against the vital activity of the viable capitalist structures that exploit consumerism and are restricted only by the condition of environment. 

The former still sounds pretty reasonable, but it’s possible to conclude that the common and core concept of the most of the other new movements is the transcendence of otherness, the idea which originates from Derridean notion of the hierarchy of values. Otherness, in this sense, implies existence of hierarchies of values in language that define default-governing subjects in real-world dichotomies. For example, ‘white’ may be associated with purity and ‘black’ may possess negative connotations, so, according to this logic, a ‘black’ should subjugate to a ‘white’. It seems that postmaterialists think that they are able to overcome such otherness through the repression of language, which results in the repressive political correctness. Also they propose purposeful eradication of the prejudices related to the subordinate part of a dichotomy (oppressed minorities), which, in turn, results in new prejudices, such as
accusations of sexual harassment. However, they forgot about the enormous traditional behavioral framework that was naturally carved over the ages to maintain society’s stability. This, for example, implies that some prejudices may have not just linguistic but a reasonable cultural, behavioral or even biological origin, such as sexual dimorphism. Purposeful destruction of that framework without a suitable alternative may produce a huge and unpredictable impact on society, making it at least unstable. Particularly in the situations when the other do not wish to change and still confess their own (or even more outrageous) concept of otherness along with the behavior which may be not related to the common good, white doves or funny kittens. 

Although the theoretical basis of the new social movements was developed somewhat before 1960s, for example, in the works of Mrs. de Beauvoir, the unrest of 1968 gave a considerable reason for the reflections on the role of ideology in society. Louis Althusser wrote that the modern state has penetrated into everyday life so deeply, that it operates not only on the conscious level but also in the unconscious; this means that psychoanalysis may be required to untie the knots of ideology that invades the mind, including through education. It worth to note that modern (post-materialist) ideology wasn’t dominating at the state-level at the times of Althusser, but it works as any other. Political correctness is the concept which probably stands most closely to Orwellian doublethink, and this indicates that open-hearted postmaterialists have ended up in some ill-fated way, since their attempt of the rationalization of traditionalism to make society more humane has resulted not in actual rationalization but in the another set of repressions and prejudices.


And now, the end is near



Now we have an explanation why Qohen has developed his mental illness (the conflicting combination of narcissism and alienation), the thirst for privacy and that black hole (emptiness) in his soul, which resembles MANCOM’s ontology shown at the beginning. That’s because privacy and serenity are in deficit in a heavily connected post-materialist world. Probably he tries to protect himself from the overwhelming affluence and complexity of the world and denies even the real emotional connections, which are a rare treasure there. Therefore, the real emotional connections may be one of the post-connecitvist values, and the denial of the plethora of pleasures in favor of something more post-materialist, such as self-actualization, may be the other. Qohen waits for the Call that should tell him how to become special in this human hive, which is Qohen's concept of self-actualization, so he might have preferred Bainsley-the-nurse to it. 
Bob (management’s offspring) displays symptoms of the like illness during their conversation at the park. Being an exhibitionist, and Bainsley may has developed her illness to avoid Qohen’s neurosis.


An authority in regress



Higher connectivity results in higher complexity. One of the ways to deal with complexity is its comprehension, and MANCOM tries to do exactly this. The other is the restriction of everything that may raise its level; the governmental authorities generally try to go this way, since this way is the simplest and does not require MANCOM’s superhuman abilities.

The policeman teaches the child to behave; even pedestrians may have their ‘license points’.
There is a yet another aspect of authority, in a civilized society we tend to solve conflicts not directly but, strictly speaking, through an authority, and it seems that in Qohen’s world there are no problems with this; the authority even takes preemptive steps towards this direction. However, at the same time, proponents of various political movements suggest that an authority should be subjugated and serve the society. It sounds reasonable, especially when government becomes too oppressive, but how they are going to solve conflicts then.

Surveillance is an obligatory ingredient of any variation on Orwell, although these are not just a couple of funny jokes, it's a damn serious business. Here we have a surrogate of the higher civilian authority (the supper-hero from comic books) hijacked by a religious cult, and the ultimate authority of all-seeing God highjacked by a civilian organization. The idea that authorities use surveillance as a form of panopticon to make people to behave and work well is developed by Michel Foucault. In the era of Internet the panopticon expands to the area of social networks and IT itself, so, despite of their true intention, Snowden's revelations actually assist to the establishment of the panopticon.
It seems that Qohen is a man, who entirely puts the whole meaning of his life on the higher powers and authority; he waits for the call from MANCOM and thus leads meaningless life, as the management believes. The Management, on the other hand, thinks that the life of a human is in his own hands, so he hopes to find a way to control chaos by proving the theorem and implementing it in MANCOM. In this sense, MANCOM becomes an automated electronic government which may harmonize society by helping people to make the right choices and also may force out the conventional human government from its nest. But nevertheless, everyone should completely rely on MANCOM to make this happen, a yet another unsolvable dilemma, not taking the problem of ontological bubble into the account.


Finally Qohen finds his way to be special by becoming a part of MANCOM’s neural network. He is not a tool, an object but the subject of the control, action or even of the creation now, a kind of higher power and authority by himself. This does not look enough hopeless for a dystopian ending but suggests again that a person may not perceive herself as a tool being aware of the true purpose of her work.

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