Archive for January, 2011

Idiocracy’s Theory of the Future

January 12th, 2011  |  Published in Art and Literature, Political Economy

Mike Judge’s Idiocracy is a pretty smart and funny movie, which touches on some themes I’ve recently written about. But it’s also a widely underappreciated and misunderstood film. Perhaps that’s because one of the people who seems to misunderstand it the most is its own writer and director, Mike Judge.

The basic premise of the film, as per IMDB:

Private Joe Bauers, the definition of “average American”, is selected by the Pentagon to be the guinea pig for a top-secret hibernation program. Forgotten, he awakes 500 years in the future. He discovers a society so incredibly dumbed-down that he’s easily the most intelligent person alive.

The rest of the film is an extended satirical riff on this idiotic future society. Its residents are both unbelievably crude and endlessly capable of falling for consumerist marketing bullshit. With regard to the former: Starbucks now offers hand jobs, everyone regards reading and thinking as activities for “fags”, and one of the film’s set pieces involves a #1 hit film called “Ass”, consisting of nothing but the image described in the title. In a climactic scene Joe Bauers (played by Luke Wilson) addresses Congress, wistfully declaring that:

there was a time in this country, a long time ago, when reading wasn’t just for fags and neither was writing. People wrote books and movies, movies that had stories so you cared whose ass it was and why it was farting, and I believe that time can come again!

Meanwhile, everyone in the future mindlessly repeats advertising slogans as though they were a scientific consensus. The threat of famine looms because everyone insists on watering crops with a noxious energy drink called Brawndo, while insisting that “it’s got electrolytes . . . they’re what plants crave!” It’s left to Joe Bauers to convince his moronic fellow humans of the virtues of old fashioned water.

This sounds like the sort of thing your average anti-corporate liberal might enjoy, although I’d note that liberal yuppies are hardly immune to this sort of irrational marketing hype. But the movie made a lot of people uncomfortable, and it has been mostly forgotten since its 2006 release. In part, that’s because of the generally elitist “most people are idiots” vibe that Judge evokes. But more specifically, I think it’s because of the film’s overtly misanthropic, eugenics-minded opening:

This reaction from Manohla Dargis is typical:

“Idiocracy” expresses the kind of fear lampooned, consciously or not, in the old joke about revolting masses. (Messenger: “The masses are revolting!” King: “You’re telling me!”) It opens with a comparison between trailer-trash types, with low I.Q.’s, who freely propagate, and smarty-pants types who fret about conceiving, using every excuse to find the perfect time to have children. In the end the low I.Q.-ers overrun the intelligent, who die off, which is funny if you think that only certain kinds of people should reproduce. An equal-opportunity offender, Mr. Judge can wield satire like a sledgehammer, so it’s no surprise that he doesn’t bother with the complexities of class and representation in a bit about the dire consequences of a birth dearth.

This bit of the movie is every bit as offensive and reactionary as Dargis suggests at is, and its stupidity is pretty much summed up in this xkcd cartoon. But the tragedy of the whole movie is that this premise is totally unnecessary. It’s completely possible to explain the emergence of the Idiocracy future based on sociological and political-economic themes that have nothing to do with genetic determinism, while leaving the rest of the movie mostly unchanged.

To me, one of the most interesting and suggestive bits of the movie is the following exchange toward the end of the story:

 Joe and the Cabinet Members are gathered around a VIDEO PHONE 
 talking to the CEO OF RAUNCBO, who's in his office, panicking.  
 We hear people rioting outside his building and occasionally 
 bottles and debris hit his window.

                       RAUNCHO CEO
           What happened?!

                       JOE
           Ah... Well, we switched the crops to 
           water.

                       RAUNCHO CEO
           I'm not talking about that.
                (points to a computer 
                screen, freaked out)
           Our sales are all like, down. Way 
           down! The stock went to zero and the 
           computer did auto-layoff on 
           everybody!

                       ATTORNEY GENERAL
           Shit! Almost everyone in the country 
           works for Rauncho!

                       RAUNCHO CEO
           Not anymore!  And the computer said 
           everyone owes Rauncho money! 
           Everyone's bank account is zero now!

What does this exchange tell us about the film’s implicit theory of posterity?

  1. The future economy is highly automated, to the point that even the management of companies is done automatically by a computer.
  2. People nonetheless need money to pay for things, which they get by working for Brawndo (which is called “Rauncho” in this earlier version of the screenplay). It’s not clear what they do for their money, but it can’t be very important in light of their obvious stupidity and the above-noted automation.
  3. The continued stability of this society is therefore dependent on the existence of a business which does not actually improve anyone’s material standard of living–indeed, it is decreasing it by killing all the crops.

The theory of posterity the grounds Idiocracy, it seems to me, is a close cousin of Anti-Star Trek: an economy that needs humans as consumers, but makes them mostly superfluous as producers.

So how does this explain the fact that everyone is such a moron? Well, consider what would happen to education in a society like this. If the productive economy is all run by computers, then there’s no need to teach people how to make things, or how anything actually works. On the contrary, it would be economically beneficial to encourage delusions about the magical properties of consumer products, the better to ensure that people will continue to drink Brawndo rather than water. In other words, there is no economic incentive to produce intelligence. We can imagine that at some point in the past, legitimate institutions of higher education were dismantled (perhaps by the people Diane Ravitch discusses here), and replaced by things like Costco Law School.

I really wish someone would make a movie that’s as funny as Idiocracy without falling back on such lazy right-wing premises. On the other hand, it’s intriguing that Judge could end up making a film that mostly functions as a radical critique even though it’s based on a reactionary assumption. Idiocracy does illuminate a dangerous trend in contemporary capitalism–one that has nothing to do with the wrong people having babies, and everything to do with a system that increasingly reproduces itself by producing stupidity in the population. The movie’s only mistake is to think that our genes can save us from stupidity, when it seems far more defensible to say that “intelligence” is some combination of socially nurtured ability and statistical myth.

Translating English into English

January 4th, 2011  |  Published in Art and Literature, Sociology

So it seems there’s going to be a censored version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that replaces the word “nigger” with “slave”. My initial reaction was to agree with Doug Mataconis that this is both offensive and stupid. It struck me as being of a piece with the general tendency of white Americans to deal with the existence of racism by ignoring it rather than talking about it.

And I guess I still feel that way, but after reading Kevin Drum’s take I’m more sympathetic to Alan Gribben, the Twain scholar responsible for the new censored version. Gribben says that because of the extreme visceral reactions people have to the word “nigger”, most teachers today feel they can’t get away with assigning Huck Finn to their students, even if they’d really like to. So the choice was to either consent to this bowdlerization or else let the book gradually disappear from our culture altogether. I’m still a bit torn about it–and I think that the predicament of the teachers Gribben talked to is indicative of precisely the cowardly attitudes toward race that I described above. But I’m willing to accept that censoring the book was the least-bad response to this unfortunate state of affairs.

However, what most caught my attention about Kevin Drum’s post on the controversy was this:

In fact, given the difference in the level of offensiveness of the word nigger in 2010 vs. 1884, it’s entirely possible that in 2010 the bowdlerized version more closely resembles the intended emotional impact of the book than the original version does. Twain may have meant to shock, but I don’t think he ever intended for the word to completely swamp the reader’s emotional reaction to the book. Today, though, that’s exactly what it does.

That got me thinking a more general thought I’ve often had about our relationship to old writings: it’s a shame that we neglect to re-translate older works into English merely because they were originally written in English. Languages change, and our reactions to words and formulations change. This is obvious when you read something like Chaucer, but it’s true to a more subtle degree of more recent writings. There is a pretty good chance that something written in the 19th century won’t mean the same thing to us that it meant to its contemporary readers. Thus it would make sense to re-translate Huckleberry Finn into modern language, in the same way we periodically get new translations of Homer or Dante or Thomas Mann. This is a point that applies equally well to non-fiction and social theory: in some ways, English-speaking sociologists are lucky that our canonical trio of classical theorists–Marx, Weber, and Durkheim–all wrote in another language. The most recent translation of Capital is eminently more readable than the older ones–and I know I could have used a modern English translation of Talcott Parsons when I was studying contemporary theory.

Now, one might respond to this by saying that writing loses much in translation, and that some things just aren’t the same unless you read them in the original un-translated form. And that’s probably true. But it would still be good to establish the “English-to-English translation” as a legitimate category, since it would give us a better way of understanding things like the new altered version of Huck Finn. You would have the original Huck and the “new English translation” of Huck existing side by side; students would read the translation in high school, but perhaps they would be introduced to the original in college. We could debate whether a new translation was good or bad without getting into fruitless arguments over whether one should ever alter a classic book. And maybe it would help us all develop a more historical and contextual understanding of language and be less susceptible to the arbitrary domination of prescriptive grammarians.