Ghost From The Machine: Once Again, The Dead Return

Matt Osterman‘s Ghost from the Machine (2010)–originally titled and known internationally as Phasma Ex Machina--is touted by its marketing material as a ‘supernatural thriller’. A low-budget indie, it uses a cast made up of genuine amateurs who sometimes look distinctly uncomfortable and self-conscious on camera, and wears its modest production values on its sleeve. The story sounds hokey enough: a young man, an amateur inventor of sorts, tries to bring his dead parents back to life by building an electrical machine that changes the electromagnetic field surrounding it (I think.) The parents, unsurprisingly, do not return from the dead, but other folks do: a widowed, fellow-garage-tinkerer neighbor’s long-dead wife, and a pair of murderous old folk. (The return to life of this latter bunch makes the movie into a ‘horror’ or ‘ghost’ film; bringing back the garage-tinkerer’s wife would only have made it ‘supernatural.’)

For all that PEM manages to often be genuinely thought-provoking. It is so because its treatment of its subject matter invites immediate analogizing–not comparison–with two cinematic classics: Alfred Hitchcock‘s Vertigo and Andrei Tarkovsky‘s Solaris. In Vertigo, Scottie brings back from the ‘dead’–via an uncanny, painstaking reconstruction–the haunting subject of his obsession, Madeleine, and in Tarkovsky’s Solaris, the dead–in particular, the scientist Kris Kelvin’s dead wife, Hari–come back to life as physical manifestations of long-held, deeply-felt desires and fantasies. In Phasma Ex Machina, the garage inventor’s wife comes back to life; she is, as Hari is in Solaris, made manifest–imperfectly–as his previously unfulfilled desires.

The fantasy at the heart of these movies is similar: primarily, it is that of beating death at its grimly inevitable game. In each case, the agency that makes it so differs. In Vertigo, Scottie makes the immortalizing happen; he forces his new girlfriend–via a kind of physical mortification of bodily appearance and clothing–into the desired mold. This return is only figurative–since Madeleine has never died, Judy brings her back to life by assuming her form. In Solaris, the reconstructing agency is possessed by the mysterious planet–a strange, inexplicable, natural phenomenon, a force field that populates the world with the desires of its inhabitants. In Phasma Ex Machina a similar force field is present, but it is the result of the inventor’s tinkering; it is his mastery of the subversion of nature that brings about the return of the dead.  (The wishing for the parents’ return to life is of course, an especially primeval fantasy; the premature loss of a parent is a particularly terrible loss, perhaps only exceeded in its poignancy by the loss of a child to the parent. Here, the fantasy is made more affecting because the central character–the ‘inventor’–believes himself to have been responsible for his parent’s death. We might even see the death of the parents as an earlier fantasy having gone terribly wrong; the son might have fantasized about his father’s death, but his successful wishing so brought his mother’s death in its wake. Oedipus never stops screwing things up.)

In each of the three movies noted here, the effect of the reconstruction is deeply flawed: the resurrected dead are only real insofar as they are objects of someone’s subjectivity–in each case, the fantasy is shattered. (As Žižek notes in the The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema–in referring to Solaris–this is a “low form of male fantasy’. Here, woman exists only in the imagination of man, her flaws and defects exist insofar as they are present in the male conception of her, the visible shortcomings of which her ultimately make her return so deeply, terribly, frightening.) In PEM too, the dream becomes a nightmare. While the son might only have wished to bring back his parents to life he does a great deal more–as the unexpected appearances of murderers shows. The world then, becomes just a tad more terrifying. For it is revealed to not be indifferent; instead, the world and the natural order might actually respond to our prayers and entreaties but with their own idiosyncratic interpretation of the form and content of our fantasies. Perhaps we might fear the incompletely realized fantasy more than we fear the indifferent world. In one case, we confront a world deaf to our importunations; in the latter we take the chance the world might hear a prayer we had never directed toward it.

One might read some old-fashioned moral instruction into both Vertigo and Phasma Ex Machina–an indictment of the Frankensteinian arrogance and ignorance of the scientist, who blunders on, attempting to remake reality into a form more amenable to him. But I think the movie says more than that.

There is a curiously mixed sensibility–perhaps Nietzschean, perhaps religious–at the heart of Phasma Ex Machina–it preaches to us the virtues of a Stoic acceptance of our fate, of the hand dealt to us, to take on, and not reject, all of our selves, past and present, along with their imperfections and flaws. It suggests an amor fati of sorts: a taking on, an acceptance, of our older lives and actions, of absorbing the consequences of our actions into the lives we choose to live. The young inventor, who with his machine aims to violently disrupt the very fabric of space-time, is urged–by an internal conscience during a moment of internal reckoning–to accept, internalize, and resolve his guilt over his parent’s death, which was not ’caused’ by him, but which invites such an analysis from the grief-stricken. He is urged too, to return to the daily particulars of his life, which include the responsibilities he owes to his younger brother, whose guardian he now is. (PEM gratuitously makes it the case that ceasing his experimentation, destroying his beloved machine, will also have the positive side-effect of saving his younger brother from the murderous attention of the former residents of their house.) This life’s work, its relationship with the living await; attending to the dead is a non-virtuous turning away.

These comparisons with Vertigo and Solaris have only been hinted at here by me; much more, I think, could be said, about the recurring cinematic fantasy of bringing the dead back to life.

Robespierre On The Iraq War(s)

Robespierre, in a speech to the Jacobin Club, which began on 2 January 1792, and concluded on 11 January, responding to the Girondins call for war:

[T]he most extravagant idea that can arise in the mind of a politician is the belief that a people need only make an armed incursion into the territory of a foreign people, to make it adopt its laws and its constitution. No one likes armed missionaries; and the first counsel given by nature and prudence is to repel them as enemies….start by turning your gaze to your internal position; restore order at home before carrying liberty abroad….reviving through beneficent laws, through a character sustained by energy, dignity, and wisdom, the public mind and the horror of tyranny, the only things that can make us invincible against our enemies…war, war, as soon as the court asks for it; that tendency dispenses with all other concerns, you are even with the people the moment you give it war;….Why distract public attention from our most formidable enemies, to fix it on other objects, to lead us into the trap where they are waiting for us?

During a foreign war, the people…distracted by military events from political deliberations affecting the essential foundations of its liberty, is less inclined to take seriously the underhand manoeuvres of plotters who are undermining it and the executive government which is knocking it about, and pay less attention to the weakness or corruption of the representatives who are failing to defend it….When the people demanded its rights against the usurpations of the Senate and patricians, the Senate would declare war, and the people forgetting its rights and resentments, would concentrate on nothing but the war, leaving the Senate its authority and preparing new triumphs for the patricians. War is good for military officers, for the ambitious, for the gamblers who speculate on these sorts of events; it is good for ministers, whose operations it covers in an impenetrable, almost sacrosanct veil….it is good for the executive power, whose authority, whose popularity and ascendancy it augments….The sort of man who would look with horror on the betrayal of the homeland can still be led by adroit officers to run its best citizens through with steel.

The remarks on war are, of course, more generally applicable.

My posting the passage above is of a piece with a time-honored tradition of showing us that when it comes to the relationship between war, patriotism, militarism, the corruption and mendacity of the ruling class, and the state in any shape or form, it is always the ‘same as it ever was.’

Source: Slavoj Žižek presents Robespierre: Virtue and Terror, Verso, 2007, pp 31-32. The introduction to the Extracts from ‘On the War’ notes that:

Brissot, the leader of the ‘Brissotins’ (Girondins), intervened in the Legislative Assembly in favour of war. On 29 December, he maintained that ‘the war is necessary to France for her honour….The war is a national benefit.’ On 30 December he spoke of a ‘crusade of universal liberty.’

The Unread Reading

In The Pervert’s Guide to CinemaSlavoj Žižek says:

All too often, when we love somebody, we don’t accept him or her as what the person effectively is. We accept him or her insofar as this person fits the co-ordinates of our fantasy. We misidentify, wrongly identify him or her, which is why, when we discover that we were wrong, love can quickly turn into violence. There is nothing more dangerous, more lethal for the loved person than to be loved, as it were, for not what he or she is, but for fitting the ideal.

For some reason, these lines occurred to me shortly after I posted the following irate status on Facebook yesterday:

Teaching honeymoon over. Walked out of class today with 25 minutes still left on the clock. 3 out of 33 students had bothered to do the reading. I struggled for as long as I could, and then told them I couldn’t teach them given their failure to do the reading, that I’d see them next week.

A stream of eminently sensible suggestions followed: assign short quizzes, do ‘cold-calling,’ ask students to do oral presentations in class, write response papers, write online in a blog or forum; and so on. I’ve tried all of these at one point or the other in my teaching career. (I can also add to this list: I have asked students to bring in marked-up passages from the text, which are supposed to serve as the basis for class discussion.) I have not been able to sustain any of them; most of these strategies, if not all of them, fall by the way-side during a semester. Perhaps I grow exhausted; perhaps the students do. Nothing works quite as well as a few students–half-dozen, say, in a class of twenty–doing the readings and coming to class prepared to hold forth on anything that caught their fancy. (In case you are wondering. the assigned reading was the first eighty pages of A Canticle For Leibowitz for my Philosophical Issues in Literature class.)

Perhaps my struggles with The Problem of the Unread Reading Assignment are mine alone. Perhaps I am in the grip of an unshakable, untenable, fantastic, conception of my students: they do the readings because they have found the expressed rationale for doing so–the percentage of the class grade that depends on class participation, the intrinsic interest of the text, the intellectual value of close reading and analyses of philosophical material, and so on–to be sufficiently compelling; they are provoked, vexed, amused, irritated, and otherwise stimulated by the assigned readings and seek outlets through which they can express their responses; the classroom, populated by their fellow students, who have read the same material as them, and a teacher, who has promised to discuss it with them, seems like an ideal venue to do so.

All too often, I impose this vision upon an uncooperative reality and find myself disappointed. You may be right in considering this a not particularly intelligent response, but here, sadly, as in too many places elsewhere, I find myself the slave of emotion, not reason.

So if there is a ‘violence’ here, it is always inwardly directed: a crumpling of my resolve to continue teaching,  a paralyzing, seething, frustration that undermines my self-esteem and sparks dissonance about my decision to have ever chosen a path I seem eminently unsuited for.

Of course, this is only the beginning of the semester, so it’s too early to step off the road; for now, it’s back into the breach, forewarned and forearmed.