Friday, 5 June 2015

The Zero Theorem: Life in the Void

The Zero Theorem is a film directed by Terry Gilliam (of Brazil and 12 Monkeys fame) that, depending where you live, was released late in 2013 or in 2014. It is set in a surreal version of now and in it we follow the journey of Qohen Leth (played by Christoph Waltz), a reclusive computer genius who "crunches entities" for a generic super corporation, Mancom. The story is a fable, an allegory, and in watching it we are meant to take the issues it raises as existential ones.

Qohen Leth has a problem. Some years ago he took a phone call and that call was going to tell him what the meaning of existence was. But he got so excited at the prospect that he dropped the phone. When he picked it up his caller was gone. Ever since he has been waiting for a call back. But the call back never comes. So day by day he faces an existential struggle because he desperately does want to know what the meaning of life is. His life, you see, is dominated by a vision of a giant black hole into which all things inevitably go. His work life is shown to be much like everyone else's in this parody of our world. People are "tools" and work is a meaningless task serving only to enrich those far above their pay grade. Workers are replaceable cogs who must be pushed as hard as possible to achieve maximum productivity. Their value is in their productivity.

This world is run by corporations and the one that stands in for them all in the film is Mancom. Mancom have a special task for Qohen. They want him to work on an equation proving that "Everything adds up to nothing." That is, they want him to prove that existence is meaningless. Why do they want him to do this? Because, as the head of Mancom says in the film, in a meaningless universe of chaos there would be money to be made selling order. The point seems to be that commercial enterprises can make money from meaninglessness by providing any number of distractions or things to fill the whole at the centre of Being.

The film paints a picture of a world full of personalized advertizing that is thrust at you from all angles. Everywhere there are screens that are either thrusting something into your face or serving as conduits to an online escape world where you can create a new you and escape the existential questions of existence that the real world thrusts upon you. There is a scene in which people are at a party but, instead of interacting with each other, they all dance around looking into tablets whilst wearing headphones. Further to this, there are cameras all around. If it's not the ones we are using to broadcast ourselves into a cyber world, it's the ones our bosses are using to watch us at work or the ones in the street that can recognise us and beam personalized advertizements straight at us as we walk. This is the surveillance state for company profit that records and archives our existence.

And what of the people in this place? Most of them seem to be infantilized, lacking of any genuine ambition and placated by the "bread and circuses". Their lives are a mixture of apathy and misdirection. They seek meaning in screens with virtual friends or in virtual worlds and, presumably, a lot of them take advantage of the constant advertizements they are bombarded with. When Qohen has something of a crisis early on in the film "Management" send along Bainsley to his house (Qohen doesn't like going out or being touched and so he negotiates to work from home). Bainsley, unbeknownst to Qohen, is a sex worker in the employ of Mancom. She is sent along as stress relief (so that this malfunctioning "tool" can be got back to productive work) and inveigles him into a virtual reality sex site which, in this case, has been tailored to Qohen's specific needs. (This is to say it is enticing but not overtly sexual to give the game away. In essence, Bainsley becomes his sexy friend.) Other characters drop hints that Bainsley is just another tool but Qohen doesn't want to accept it. She is becoming something that might actually have meaning for him. But then, one day, Qohen goes back to the site and, in error, the truth of who Bainsley is is revealed and all his trust in this potential meaning evaporates. (One wonders how many people are online at pornography sites filling the meaning-shaped hole by trying to find or foster such fake attachments?)

So what are we to make of this in our Google-ified, Facebooked, Game of Thrones watching, Angry Birds playing, online pornography soaked, world of Tweeters and Instagrammers? I find it notable that Terry Gilliam says his film is about OUR world and not a future dystopia. And I agree with him. The trouble is I can sense a lot of people are probably shrugging and/or sighing now. This kind of point is often made and often apathetically agreed with with a casual nod of the head. But not many people ever really seem to care. Why should we really care if hundreds of millions of us have willingly handed over the keys to our lives to a few super corporations who provide certain services to us - but only on the basis we give them our identities and start to fill up their servers with not just the details of our lives but the content of them as well? The technologization of our lives and the provision of a connectedness that interferes with face to face connectedness seems to be something no one really cares about. Life through a screen, or a succession of screens, is now a reality for an increasing number of people. In the UK there is a TV show called "Gogglebox" (which I've never watched) but no one ever seems to realise that they might be the ones who are spending their lives goggling.

So let's try and take off the rose-tinted specs and see things as they are once all the screens go black and all that's reflected at us are our real world faces and our real world lives. I wonder, what does life offer you? Thinking realistically, what ambitions do you have? (I don't mean some dumb bucket list here.) When you look at life without any products or games or TV shows or movies or online role playing games or social media to fill it with, when you throw away your iPhone and your iWatch, your Google Glass, and all your online identities, where is the meaning in your life to be found? When you look at life as it extends from your school days, through your working life to inevitable old age (if you are "lucky", of course), what meaning does that hold for you? Would you agree that this timeline is essentially banal, an existence which, by itself, is quite mechanical? Have you ever asked yourself what the point of this all is? Have you ever tried to fit the point of your life into a larger narrative? Do you look at life and see a lot of people who don't know what they are doing, or what for, allowing themselves to be taken through life on a conveyor belt, entertained as they pass through by Simon Cowell and Ant and Dec? Do you sometimes think that life is just a succession of disparate experiences with little or no lasting significance?

The Zero Theorem is essentially a film about the meaning of life. Gilliam, of course, made another film that was actually called The Meaning of Life with the rest of his Monty Python colleagues. Now you might be wondering why the question is even raised. Perhaps, for you, life has no meaning and that's not very controversial. You shrug off all my questions as not really very important. But I would reply to that person by asking them if meaning has no meaning. For, put simply, there isn't a person alive that doesn't want something to mean something. Human beings just do need meaning in their lives. So Qohen Leth, for me, functions as an "Everyman" in this story. For we all want to know what things mean. And, without giving away the ending of the film, I think that, in the end, we all have to face up to the twin questions of meaning itself and of things meaning nothing. We all have to address the question that values devalue themselves, that meanings are just things that we give and that nothing, as Qohen hoped for, was given from above, set in stone, a god before which we could bow and feel safe that order was secured.

For order is not secured. Some people might try to sell it to you. (In truth, many companies are trying to right now.) Others might try to convince you that they've got the meaning and order you need in your life and you can have it too. But they haven't and you can't. That black hole that Qohen Leth keeps seeing is out there and everything goes into it. Our lives are lived in the void. The question then becomes can you find meaning and purpose in the here and now, in the experience of living your life, or will you just pass through empty and confused, or perhaps hoping that someone else can come along and provide you with meaning without you having to do any work? Who takes responsibility for finding that meaning? Is it someone else, as Qohen Leth with his phone call hoped, or is it you?

The question of meaning is, in the end, one that never goes away for any of us. Not whilst you're alive anyway.

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