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The Replicant Real, Part II

By Jeff Wood.

The following concludes Wood’s two-part essay,The Replicant Real.” The first part was published here earlier this month.

In the spring of 2019, global audiences were treated to Chernobyl, a television miniseries dramatizing the 1986 nuclear plant disaster which occurred in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Spread over five episodes and six hours, the show constitutes a masterpiece of production design, set, props, costuming, cinematography, acting, directing, and ultimately, storytelling. Much of that storytelling is occupied with its protagonist, Valery Legasov, scientist and chief investigator, attempting to communicate to Soviet authorities the true scale of what is unfolding—indeed, to convince them of its existence as a nuclear disaster at all. The result is storytelling enfolded within storytelling, to sly and stunning affect: Legasov’s working round the clock to contain and communicate the meltdown as both real and public relations disaster, within a production design so meticulous that it absolutely convinces its audience of its reality. The struggle and the ambition, alongside the historical catastrophe, is to make the unknowable known, to make the fictional real, across the medium of the fictionally real. It is a puzzle that unfolds on both sides of the screen. Legasov confronts that puzzle in a dictation that he records in the isolation of his kitchen, a recording addressed to us, the television audience, as much as to the party bureaucrats and state authorities, just before he takes his own life. Prophetically, his final words are the opening words of the series:

What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all. What can we do then? What else is left but to abandon even the hope of truth and content ourselves instead with stories?

Like Leon’s telling about his mother, in Blade Runner, the opening words of Chernobyl eat themselves., The truth enfolds the lie, and they devour each other. Legasov’s recorded testament is the most intimate of historical verdicts, the most public of suicide notes. His monologue, presented as an archival recording, is a meta-text for the ages, stated outright and in the broad daylight of narrative. It is crucial testimony and corroboration of the events that will transpire. Again and again, he tries to convey the scope and nature of what is happening; and ultimately it is the impossibility of that effort—its invisibility—which gives pause to his superiors, and to us. We are dealing with something that has never occurred on this planet before, he finally says.  And in the proof of context, we are sold. We believe him. We comprehend the unknowable quality of what transpired in the same moment as his party superior. And the proof of context here is precisely that stunning production design. In the end, as in the beginning, the medium really is the message—an iconic analog cassette tape—as if to communicate with all the noble subversion of his rogue recording that what you are about to see is so unbelievable that it will require belief in order for it to be real. In order for it to be seen at all it will require the magnetic apparatus of fiction. Like invisible radiation and the radiant bureaucracy to which his “stories” doubly refer, his admonition, stated for the record, is also a disclaimer for what we are about to witness, in addition to what the inhabitants of Ukraine have endured. Legasov’s encryption of meta-text as text is the artful inoculation of itself, as story, from that thing which is both accused of causing it, and that thing which it is: the substitution of truth with the story of truth. The whistleblower here is encrypting the key to his code in the very tune that he’s whistling. A fiction of fictions, circling an unapproachable, nearly unobservable core.

The Elephant’s Foot, beneath Reactor No. 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Self-portrait by Artur Kornayev, 1996.

 

But truth too is a story, and made of stories. Reality consumes reality, as life eats life. Joseph Campbell, the popular mythographer, may be the unwitting godfather of contemporary storytelling as ceremonial public event on the grandest scale. At least if George Lucas has something to say about it (which he most certainly does). Well-known for inspiring the “heroic” story-structure of Star Wars, Campbell proposed that fundamental to the mythic impulse of spectacular, shared story-telling is the existential zero-sum circle of “life eats life.” Life consumes life for life—without beginning, without end, without pause, without escape, and with much inherent trauma.

Here, in Chernobyl, with Legasov’s admonishment concerning the crux of truth versus a  contentment with stories, the danger of stories themselves as trauma-inducing is enfolded within the story of a trauma which does just that, fictionalizing itself to be believed, or to be experienced at all, as telling. Chernobyl radiates itself as it decays. Here, in its zone, we confront the collapsible frontier, the crumbling Fourth Wall of our own effort to account for the circle as something more than zero sum—indeed to round what is not a circle finally into a circle. The first words of Chernobyl consume themselves so that the stunning, well-executed spectacle may radiate without shame, the shame or cost of the ceremonial hysterical real, replacing itself. One circle is replaced by another. The traumatically real circle of life (about which Disney has a great deal to say) is augmented—holographically and mimetically—by the shared trauma of trauma-sharing. The circle of trauma-sharing mitigates the absolute aloneness of the hysterical real: that our reality is simply too unreal to share. We must share it as trauma, in the ceremonial real, if we wish to not be alone with it.

If anything other than the story of truth is to be achieved, then it is glimpsed and harnessed in the depths of aloneness to which Legasov ultimately succumbs—an aloneness which is each of ours: the record of biological memory, the dark pool of what has transpired untold, shared in the ultimately unknowable event of total, collective record, too ongoing for anyone to confirm and too total to add up to anything other than itself. This story is spun by the spider, and shared as a mediated hysteria, an induced hysteria, in order to render it shareable, as trauma. Legasov’s confession then, or meta-confession, is the shared story of aloneness plus the unknowable, which mythically require each other as witnesses in order to be. We are the sum, and the only sum, that exceeds zero, in the ceremonial real: the shared story of that aloneness, and of that which is otherwise unknowable. For as long as we are. Everything in between is the meltdown.

The riveting story of Chernobyl told as Chernobyl is also the extravehicular truth that we tell ourselves. It is the television of two monsters devouring each other, and reality devouring itself as television. On the one hand the Soviet state apparatus and the specter of nuclear catastrophe (which could only have been engineered by a state apparatus, as state apparatus) gnawing each other’s faces off in a blood-splattering public orgy all over town. On the other hand, the spectacular monstrosity of Chernobyl devours the storylines of our own current state apparatuses—again, in the banal depths of aloneness with the unknowable collective event which is far vaster than a USSR—so that we may inhabit it as its sum. Chernobyl allows us to inhabit that which is otherwise uninhabitable—our own world—in the literal (and literary) sense. A church of trauma which reconciles me to this one, which defies reality and story alike.

The transparent double entendre of course—and frankly, the ambulance-chasing thrill of it—is that the meltdown is happening out here, now. In the meltdown between truth, story, fiction, spin and lies, the production of Chernobyl (like The Day After) becomes the myth-as-truth and truth-as-fiction of the meltdown that we currently occupy. In this zone, the myth eats the myth until the air is sparkling with glitter, asbestos, caesium, iodine, strontium, aerosols, and pixels. The zone between Chernobyl and Chernobyl is quite aspatial; perhaps that is its identifying feature. Like the distance between two lovers on Skype, it is, paradoxically, the distance that is longed for, because it’s not there. We experience  a sort of Stockholm Syndrome in the digital distance, for what should be separating us, or allowing us to come together, but isn’t there at all. This is the zone between Chernobyl and Chernobyl, and the zone between Chernobyl and here, now. The digital, cellular wall inside—the Fifth Wall. And this is what is meant by The Zone—the trauma zone of the hysterical, ceremonial real. Sirens in the distant, always on the horizon, difficult to tell whether they are approaching or receding. Red light glowing over the black hills, the silhouette of terra firma. The trauma zone of now—the trauma zone of America—is mitigated as the shared trauma of Trinity, of September 11, of Chernobyl… by re-rendering the disaster-event itself as ambulance, forever on the horizon, right here, the one we that we rubber-neck as voyeurs but which never comes for us. Instead, it delivers us to the trauma as a discrete observable entity across strobing lights and the Doppler effect of multiple sirens. A kind of rogue Christmas of sorts, hurtling through the atmosphere. By observing it as particle instead of wave, we get out of its way in the nick of time. By sharing its passing, the trauma of the hysterical real as a ceremonial trauma, we may live with it. Inside it.

Berlin Fernsehturm. Photo by the author.

 

United 93, the post-911 action movie directed by Paul Greengrass (2006), occupied these same glowing, glittering airs in its dramatization of what occurred inside United Airlines Flight 93 which crashed in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001. “Based on actual events,” the feature fiction as docudrama or historical reenactment was so masterfully executed in the reality aesthetic that in the course of the movie one forgets entirely that what is being watched is a fiction. We might indeed describe the production as a faithful execution, for what we come to believe we are watching is a documentary thriller, or a thrilling documentary, rather than a Hollywood feature film. The ambition to reconstruct truth—to reconstruct anything, for that matter—and to entertain, are both red herrings in the narrative of what is actually transpiring onboard this aircraft. It is rather the artifice of entertainment itself which is being reconstructed as a hysterical realism, that is, the rendering of reality as shareable trauma. In the thin atmosphere between what happened and the super-collider of living with it, the atoms are arranged. Gravity, oxygen, and spectacular consensus conspire to consecrate the stream of observable, archival Time, observable again and again.

The consequence of such elaborate, believable fiction as spectacular, archival experience defies categorizing as either entertainment or propaganda. But in fact it makes entertainment yet possible again on the hysterical landscape, by rendering the trauma as real; and it makes propaganda, of a certain order, quite unnecessary, if not altogether obsolete. For what is engineered is not a consensus but reality itself, which has never required consensus in order to be real. The resulting experience evades consensus altogether by constructing it of our own fragmented, reflected, and voluntary witness. In the reality aesthetic of United 93 (and Chernobyl) it is not quite facts or alternate facts which are engineered, but a profound, shared subjectivity, simultaneously real and unreal. It is this subjectivity which is unverifiable; quite immune to the constraints of the real; even more immune to the constraints of fiction which requires us to believe in it; whereas reality itself defies belief by being too unreal to be believable. A mouthful of gibberish, yes. Which is precisely why United 93, on the other hand, merely requires us to see in order to believe it.  Seeing really is believing—even, as with Chernobyl, in the liberties it takes with truth. These liberties, conflations and compressions (of character, plot, action, etc.) do nothing to dilute the potency of an ecstatic veracity, or the truthfulness of it—truthiness, to borrow from philosopher Timothy Morton. The reality aesthetic of United 93 outwits verification as it transcends believability. The con here, on the order of the real, is that nothing is required of us at all; no faith whatsoever. We might say rather simply, that seeing is seeing.

It’s unclear then, in the event of United 93, whether a profound mastery of craft or a profoundly questionable sentiment connects this work of Paul Greengrass to the work of Leni Riefenstahl, National Socialism’s notorious auteur. But the sentiment, which may always somehow be evaded, is metadata—a subtext raised to the level of text as cinematic candor—a memorial nationalism once removed. The ambiguity of sentiment (or intention, or responsibility) is stunningly applied to Riefenstahl, again and again. But in her case the historical command function comes from the top down—as propaganda qua propaganda. There is no daylight between Riefenstahl and a question of nationalism, but there is a stubborn degree of uncertainty between that very nationalism represented and the crimes of that nationalism. In the case of Flight 93 the commissioning order is, quite chillingly, a lateral directive, emanating from a position of auto-naturalism, auto-eroticism, auto-semiosis, from the inside out, from inside the market culture, from inside the culture of culture—as memorial record. The sinister call, as it were, is coming from inside the house. It is precisely the secular realism of United 93 which is so deceiving as a looping, circular nationalistic event: from unobservable historical phenomenon, to painstaking recreation, to suspense-filled, action-packed entertainment, to ceremonial meme (or media as shared, collapsible, holographic consensus), heroic atonement for cultural and national trauma. The metadata and consecration of a national sacrifice and its enduring, consequent identity as a sacrificial nationalism is summoned, executed, disseminated and absorbed, without any executive order whatsoever.

 

 

The case of a secular realism as ceremonial metadata is more flagrantly demonstrated in the event of Katherine Bigelow’s Oscar-winning movie The Hurt Locker (2008). In it, Sergeant First Class William James is deployed to Iraq with an EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) unit. James is a specialist in the harrowing task of containing and neutralizing IED’s (Improvised Explosive Devices). IED, we will remember, became a well-known shorthand during the Iraq War, even entering into the public lexicon as a semiotic technicality, a meme signifying the character and trauma of contemporary, asymmetric warfare. But Sergeant James, played by Jeremy Renner, is very good at his job; a very good actor playing a very good soldier. This is precisely the point: the job well done, in all its hysterical and cinematic extremity. James navigates tensions on the battlefield—with company members, combatants, locals, private contractors and adjacent mercenaries—with the necessary agency of a journeyman, more self-determined specialist than grunt. He is that rare thing, company man as afflicted free agent, embodying the very psychosis of asymmetrical combat, urban conflict, political and strategic catastrophe that was the Iraq War. Through the eyes, actions, and endurance of Sergeant James we experience the psychosis of the Iraq deployment as dramatic realism: psychosis appears to arise naturally from the conditions of that realism. Consequently, a sentimental view of war—its intimacy, its empathy, indeed its psychosis—is revealed lurking precisely inside an unsentimental dramatic realism. War, we are to see here, is unfolding as it is: as a realism that is both sentimental and total. Total in that the surgical technicality of war, the practicality of war, the metadata of war, is raised to the level and genre of a dramatic realism; and sentimental in the simultaneous raising of the working-class sacrifice of its technicians to the status of mythic sacrifice—by the sheer dramatic technicality of it. As soldier-workers they are inverted into Titans, the elemental alchemists of a hysterical world. War now, finally, is a job; an American job done by American workers, not unlike the miners who tunneled by hand (and naked!) beneath the gorgon of Chernobyl’s core; or the everyman-elite special forces unit of volunteer frogmen who navigated its toxic waters; or the brigade of day-laborers (in this case minute-laborers) who braved the most dangerous place on Earth as “bio-robots.” Their sacrifice as men, as workers, was precisely to be turned into heroes.

War is a trade in The Hurt Locker, as noble as it is debased, perhaps the more so for it— a trade no more or less extraordinary than Judge Holden’s proclamation in Blood Meridian that war is “the ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.” For the more noble the working-class practitioner here, the more noble his sacrifice to the duty of that insurmountable apparatus. So it is with The Hurt Locker: the sacrificial execution of the technicality is exactly that which defines contemporary war and warrior alike as noble working-class trade and tradesman. The ends are amputated from the means. There are only means. And this is the true sacrifice of the blue-collar soldier, as the hysterical realism of a cinematic nationalism: there are no ends, only means. Sacrifice as labor. Or if we prefer, simply sacrifice.

But the warrior as blue-collar technician has an additional feature; and this is the true function of the film. If there is asymmetry in contemporary war it is mirrored in contemporary American domestic life, in the banal demands and ludicrous hardship of it, even in the psychosis of it. When James returns from his tour of duty to the relative safety of home he finds that mirror to be empty, and all the more intolerable for it. He reenlists, and volunteers for another tour of duty. What is the point of enduring continuous trauma if the stakes are not high enough to justify it? When that chronic, domestic trauma is acknowledged—that a warrior can “never truly come home”—it must be acknowledged as a chronic trauma for both sides, for the ones who don’t return or re-integrate, as well as for the ones waiting and carrying on here at home, for the spectators. The solution, and the only solution, is to annihilate the partitions between them, by annihilating the partition between war and the cinema of it, and simultaneously annihilating the culture of deployment from the domestic culture. It is not Sergeant James who fails to reintegrate in The Hurt Locker, it is we who are successfully integrated.

The asymmetries of contemporary war and contemporary domestic life are mirrored in the symmetry of the neoliberal-neoconservative continuum: the super-cultural mirror which when held up to itself reflects the traumatic emptiness of the other. The solution to war without end, or ends, is to consecrate the nobility of the perpetual means, the labor as sacrifice, as an end in itself. It is sacrifice rather than production, of course, which is made sacred, and sacrifice itself as the sacred fruit of labor. By simultaneously  laborizing war, and sufficiently weaponizing the culture of a domestic nationalism, an alchemical (magical, mythical, cinematic) exchange occurs so that we may all conspire in the ongoing crucible of labor—a melting down of worker, “bio-robot” (or casualty of automation), civilian, soldier, drone, and spectator. It is not only workers who are liquefied, and liquidated, but the very geography of labor. The solution to the problem of the warrior-laborer who can never return is to render the geography of labor itself as being liquid, or collapsible: to enfold the domestic and the deployed and to make us all soldiers on that collapsible, weaponized landscape. Little difference then between being “deployed” to a remote oil field, being deployed to a remote battlefield (perhaps in the name of that same oil), or being deployed here at home in the service of either oilfield or battlefield, which would include just about every domestic undertaking.

For every bomb defused in the desert, for every heroic, technological feat survived (or not) on the battlefield, another technological bomb goes off “here” at home. We are all collaborating in the heroism of blue-collar sacrifice vis-a-vis the literal sacrificing of the blue-collar worker on the battlefield at home, on the battlefield abroad, and in the battlefield of the holographic culture of total-war-as-total-culture. The alchemical, technocratic fix, or transfusion, is aimed at participants and spectators alike, which is to say, all of us. The Hurt Locker is war-in-total, or a comprehensive cultural organizing tool (like its cousin the financial tool) which requires as its reactor fuel a simple paradox: the sacrificial heroism of the populist-specialist, or the assembly-line worker in the engine room of sacrifice. Not only does the total factory manufacture consent, but it ultimately manufactures itself, as a labor without end: the super-culture as super-war, as co-dependent counter-opposites interwoven into a single tapestry, the screen projecting upon itself.

The pervasive technicality of war-as-labor bleeds across the membrane in both directions, as a reverse projection. The culture continues to metastasize into a perpetual weaponization at home (as it is right now, quite clearly on all sides) while the state of perpetual war abroad is leveraged and internalized. But not as we might expect. Not with regard to any ethical compass, or any compass whatsoever. Instead we undergo an internalization so that the compass may be thrown out the window altogether (compasses are what we have technicians for, after all), reorienting to war as a permanent cultural state, and an on-board, self-reinforcing justification for it: the weaponized domestic culture itself as perpetual war. In this, at the very least, The Hurt Locker is remarkably accurate as dramatic, hysterical realism: in the consecration of the memorial culture, the culture which wages itself as war, domestically. If a warrior can never come home, then let us instead weaponize the culture of homeland as a war zone.

A grand migration has taken place, a super-meme, as the boundaries partitioning this space of meaning have evaporated in the meltdown. It’s a small world after all isn’t just for rainbow warriors, after all. One way or another it’s for all of us. It’s the meltdown of a cultural geography, and geography itself, that The Hurt Locker ultimately dramatizes as technicality, as labor, and as the metadata of the hysterically real. As cinema, and as one appendage of that technical apparatus itself, the meltdown is simultaneously both symptom and cause. Meltdown as heat producing, exotropic cascade. There is no compass because we’re inside it, at the center of it. We are the spinning dial. It is therefore the memorial event of the cinema—or what used to be the cinema—which gives us orientation, and provides gravity to the memorial culture.

 

 

Francois Truffaut famously said, “There’s no such thing as an anti-war movie.” We might expand his observation now (or soon enough) this way: there’s no such thing as a movie. The resulting exchange isn’t for propaganda, but for reality itself, or culture rendered as dramatic technicality. As with asymmetrical warfare and politics-as-entertainment (and vice versa), we’re all susceptible to the grand migration of meaning, in the sense that the result isn’t a point of view, the result is reality. Or, again—the engineering of a point of view is the engineering of a replacement reality; in the same way that Google Maps doesn’t engineer a perspective on Google Maps, it engineers a shared-subjective perspective. Google in-total doesn’t engineer a way of seeing Google, it engineers a way of seeing. If only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes, as Roy says in Blade Runner. As with information and experience in the land of Google, in the simultaneous liberation of geography and nativity from the constraints of each other, and from the constraints of orientation altogether, categories of wartime, peacetime, home, deployed, citizen, soldier, consumer, and spectator are likewise categorically dissolved and conflated as indistinguishable. Our technocratic interdependence is networked into an utter fluidity. It is the memorial (cinematic) event which consecrates that uninhabitable interzone—fluid with all manner of monstrosity, agitation, and psychosis—as habitable. A place where meaning can be meaningful. The very gravity that allows meaning to be meaning.

In a culture on the brink of absolute psychosis, the voodoo-magic of a weaponized peace is cantilevered over the abyss of nowhere is safe. It’s a devastating exchange of intolerable sadness and despair, for the mask of hysteria is normalized at the very limits of what it is to be human, or human as we’ve known it. The spider feeds in broad daylight. Its crimes are made just, and the horrors of other-worldly barbarisms are defused by our own reoriented seeing—a drone seeing, from the intimate distance of the drone; the reorienting of geography itself to that perspective; and the chanting of tongues replicated as an impostor code. So that when we say, “Thank you for your service,” the words are exerted upon with just enough gravitational force to hold together as a sentence, to remain words. The sentence is uttered as a memorial sentence—a cinematic sentence—with no clear object, or service-of, or service-to. It becomes rather, a circular meaning, a voodoo invocation…. Thank you for your service that we might share this hymn. As if to say, I thank you for the opportunity to say these very words. I thank you for authenticating the metadata of me—of this culture of us, this cinematic church of here.

The author in drone dialogue. Photo by Thomas Appel

 

Don’t misunderstand me. The words “Thank you for your service” are not empty. And they are certainly not meaningless. Far from it. They are magical. But at least they hold together as words. Words capable of putting the very ground beneath our feet, and magically lending it gravity.

A chant, with gravitational mass. Like a rock. The sentence as collapsible, memorial monument. A cinematic sentence, as cinematic and gravitational as the stone of Mount Rushmore, Devils Tower, Levitated Mass, or Trinity glass. It must be said. To not utter it, to not offer it, is the ultimate sacrilege—not to the men and women who are rightly owed it by the culture that has sent them to serve—but to the technicality of the culture itself, to which we all consent, not by choice, but by conscription. The sacrifices made and the services rendered are no longer visible by any measure other than the fulfillment of the contracted labor itself. Or the termination of it. In the replicant culture of total-war as total-culture, it is the ceremonial round which allows us to inhabit that culture as yet human. It is the church that must be attended. The church of reality—the cinematic projection of the memorial monument as sacrificial technicality. The radioactive chunk of graphite that is gathered round. The glowing stone that is buried in the ground and blooms into holographic flowers. Flowers of granite and napalm. Flowers of rebar sprung from magnetic fields. Flowers of sound so that we may find our way in the night, across the night, across Kansas.

According to Walter Murch, the legendary editor of Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola had specific ideas for the projection of his infamous war film. He wanted it to screen in a single theatre, built for it and dedicated to it, at the geographic center of the United States, somewhere in Kansas, demanding that would-be viewers make a pilgrimage, as to a war memorial. The film then is transfigured—as if it were ever merely a film—from cinema into monument, perhaps within a theatre of stone, permanently fixed as a monumental requiem of carnage, nihilism, and beauty at the very blood meridian of the country. The American fever vision, the horrific entertainment of itself, looping upon the back of the cave, as reliably as Mt. Rushmore, a memorial cinema not of war, but of the domestic culture itself, looking inward, seeing its seeing. A cinematic war that is as fictional as memorial reality. Again we are in the Zone of the ceremonial real.

In Simulacra and Simulation Baudrillard describes the monumental inversion that Apocalypse Now signaled, despite its geographic homelessness, as if without the film to verify it as reenactment, the war perhaps did not even exist:

The real war is waged by Coppola… and the remarkable paranoia that from the beginning conceived of this film as a historical, global event, in which, in the mind of the creator, the war in Vietnam would have been nothing other than what it is, would not fundamentally have existed—and it is necessary for us to believe in this: the war in Vietnam “in itself” perhaps in fact never happened, it is a dream, a baroque dream of napalm and of the tropics, a psychotropic dream that had the goal neither of a victory nor of a policy at stake, but, rather, the sacrificial, excessive deployment of a power already filming itself as it unfolded, perhaps waiting for nothing but consecration by a superfilm, which completes the mass-spectacle effect of this war.

In the total migration of meaning, a migration even of being, Apocalypse Now is not a war movie at all, but a movie about Americans, American seeing, and the cinema of American seeing as itself a hallucinatory geography—a collapsible geography which may be seen whenever we need it, which is more or less all the time, in the hallucination of ourselves. Perhaps to Baudrillard’s disgust, I would have loved a permanent Chapel of Apocalypse Now, as memorial cinema or cinema as monument. Instead, we’ve gotten an entire society as streaming war porn. A replacement of action by its double—action.

More recently, and at a finer scale, The Act of Killing  by Joshua Oppenheimer peered into this zone of inversions directly, without turning away, and nearly proved the point. From 1965-1966, only slightly preceding the “events” of Apocalypse Now, the Indonesian Army engaged in a genocidal campaign to root out and eradicate alleged Communists. The result of this effort was the murder of between 500,000 and 3 million people. In Oppenheimer’s extraordinary 2012 film, these executions are dramatically reenacted. But unlike in Apocalypse Now, or in any other film on earth as far as I know, the acts of genocide are reenacted voluntarily and with great enthusiasm by the killers themselves. It’s difficult to overstate, or state at all, how extraordinary this is. But we catch a glimpse of the hysterical, cinematic real, bearing down upon us as the headlight of a freight train. For perpetrators and surviving victims alike, many of them still living side by side in otherwise unchanged communities, the mass killings were not finally acknowledged—or made really real—until Oppenheimer filmed them as theatrical reenactments, with the killers themselves in the starring roles, as themselves.

It is an astonishing film, and without exaggeration probably the most important of the 21st century so far. By enfolding all of a terribly real reality inside the cinematic expression of it, The Act of Killing seems to contain as much as is possible for a movie to contain, indeed more reality than is possible for a movie to contain. To try and describe it: the most criminal of realities is made real by the theatrical reenactment of it by its own actors as actors, within a cinematic documentation of that very process. It strains the skull as it strains the very frontiers of the frame. And we encounter that those frontiers, of the skull and of the frame, are the same. In our cinematic encounter with it, The Act of Killing replaces our perception of cinema with a perception of reality as cinema, and not until it is cinema, at the very marrow of it. Words do fail here to be anything other than words. It is a film that must be seen in order to prove the way in which it proves itself as proof of reality—that in their proof of each other, they really are the same thing, a reenacted unity across time.

Detroit writer Nicholas Rombes obliquely dramatizes this grand and violent reenactment as a systemic replacement in The Removals (2012). In his sui generis screenplay and subsequent super low-budget direct-to-archival-video-cassette movie, reality is methodically being replaced by undercover reality police. These political activists as Situationist Agents engage in a sort of cultural terror campaign, in which reality is replaced with a copy. A walk in the park, a passing conversation, a shared cup of coffee, a flower picked, a sentimental glance at a child… each of these banal occurrences is vulnerable to reenactment, or removal and replacement, until there are only re-dramatizations of everything. Through each painstaking iteration and reiteration, reality itself suffers from generation loss—loss of fidelity, loss of quality, loss of the perceptible stuff of reality itself—until there is no original, and no copy, but only copies of copies… of even one’s own experience. Reality itself is rendered as degraded memory, normalizing the forced acceptance of things as they are, so replaceable as to be utterly fixed in a state without agency. Change is replaced by replacement, in a grand sleight of hand. It is not quite things which are degraded in the generation loss, but the continuum between things, as states are linked only to a replication of themselves as fixed rather than being in perpetual flux. The landscape of perception itself becomes a bottomless deception. We must believe in what is before us, though it be a cheap knock-off, for there is no other apparent means to authenticate it.

Kathryn, the protagonist of The Removals, narrates:

It’s a place where information is useless. A false commodity. It’s no longer of value if everybody has it, is what they told us, over and over. House zero is where we trained. The greenhouse.

And that greenhouse is out here, where we really are. House zero. In his book Feral, naturalist and journalist George Monbiot describes the phenomenon of replacement in ecological terms—a Shifting Baseline Syndrome, a kind of forgetting:

The people of every generation perceive the state of the ecosystems they encountered in their childhood as normal. When fish or other animals or plants are depleted, campaigners and scientists might call for them to be restored to the numbers that existed in their youth: their own ecological baseline. But they often appear to be unaware that what they considered normal when they were children was in fact a state of extreme depletion.

We may behold beauty in an expansive, sheep-grazed meadow, a beauty we perceive as natural, when what we are actually encountering is a monocultural biomass being decimated by an invasive monocultural eating machine that has in fact replaced a more feral landscape. “But to explain that what we have come to accept as natural is in fact the aftermath of ecological disaster—the wasteland which has replaced a rainforest—is to demand an imaginative journey that we are not yet prepared to make. Our memories have been wiped as clean as the land.” It is the liberation of the tourist, even at home, to be compatible with contextual non-specificity, to reorient ourselves in alliance with the cinematic upgrading of the perpetual present. We replace ourselves as resident native-as-tourist, without going anywhere at all. The true character of that presence is rendered as entirely invisible, melting down right before our eyes.

In Chernobyl, the nuclear physicist Legasov attempts to communicate the scale of what is unfolding over and over again. You are dealing with something that has never occurred on this planet before, he says. Yet the phenomenon evades comprehension, and action, as it evades scale. It is exactly as invisible as it is large—a climate crisis. The crisis has rendered geography itself as alien, and geography itself as crisis. To accommodate it, the crisis is absorbed into the culture of hierarchical normalization. The meltdown is normalized, or perceived according to the very tools that made it possible,  precisely for its utter, nearly incomprehensible extraordinariness. In a sense, the meltdown is the hierarchical normalization—or the icon of it. Chernobyl the action figure, symbolic of what we actually are, and that is: that thing which has never occurred on this planet before.

It is not out there. It is here, already interwoven into the geography as alien. It is the glowing black hole that has opened up right in front of us. It is the glowing black hole that we carry around with us, that exploded reactor core, glowing so brightly black, burning holes in our pockets like collapsed suns, exploding and imploding, exploding and imploding in an alternating current of binary combustion, powering the array. Like a root system with no family tree at its central axis, the archetype of blackened and mangled rebar twisting into a glowing toxic void, the cauldron—a center with no center, inherited from the image bank of September 11… It is that root system of twisted rebar, uprooted and cauterized that we are, that thing which has never occurred on this planet before. The network, as though exploded, as though we’d hit the panic button, as though we might. As though it might be destroyed, as though it might be somewhere, or something other than a network of improbable roots probing the void. That hollow core of light, cored from the axis of the tree. Every instant which has never occurred on this planet before, in the geologic radiance of Legos, plastic deli grocery bags, and IKEA industrial kitchen-style silverware driers, exploding into orbit as the sudden slow-motion apocalypse of ourselves. We are that thing that has never occurred on this planet before, and everything about us in the meticulous detail of our daily production design is that thing which has made possible this something that has never occurred on this planet before.

 

 

KGB first deputy chairman Charkov, a fictional substitute for KGB Chairman Viktor Chebrikov, turns back to face Legasov and says, across period eyeglasses, thick and square as televisions and reminiscent of Blade Runner’s Tyrell’s glasses: “Why worry about something that isn’t going to happen?” How wondrously his optics have blossomed. In the parlance of the fictional Chernobyl he now inhabits he might have said, why worry about something that indeed isn’t happening at all.

There’s no such thing as a movie anymore. We encounter neither truth, nor fiction, but the real, in a ceremonial exchange of one inside the other, each rendering the other as hysterically real. We encounter the encounter.

In our encounter with the super-narrative of America Now, the culture and the crime are synonymous: a cinematic nationalism and its simultaneous, complementary video game theme park which is simply itself—America in the hysterical real. The culture and the crime of it are each other, as that phantom shadow produced in broad daylight so bright that no shadow is produced at all. We move on as those atomic shadows, blasted up off the ground, wandering the spectral plain. For forty years the neoliberal order told us that we are nothing if we are not fiction. And we listened, and became fiction. We became the replicant real. The impostor has made impostors of us, naturalized us as natives to it, and then invited us inside. From outside The Zone we had only seen the blast-flash, which could not be gazed upon directly. Once inside, we are permitted to see everything. But in attempting to describe it I become a liar, the impostor speaking truth-in-tongues. Or I must admit that it is lying to me, that everything is a lie. What I am permitted to see, and to describe, is a science fiction, my own fever dream which is indistinguishable from it.

Meanwhile, the most riveting theatre of November 2019 was the nationally televised Presidential Impeachment Hearing, again originating as an invisible meltdown in Ukraine, again a direct assault on the efficacy of storytelling. And then Iran. Endless campaign now. The gut-wrenching drone of it. And then more of itself. The gut-wrenching virus. And the virus. The virus of the world. Algorithm of the world. This broken aliveness, all we have. And then more drone. The prescribed numbing agent. The non-apocalypse of the sustained narrative trauma. Leaning into the wall of white noise with all the weight you’ve got. Hoping for pushback. Hoping to fall through. The imminence of November 2020. The sustained encounter is simultaneously devastating, and somehow nothing at all, as empty as all that is solid melting into air. What is outside the window is still there, and also not at all. So the question remains: will it be able to successfully pass itself off as non-fiction, consequential to so-called reality, as something other than one more theatrical iteration of itself, and one more liturgical service to the total-culture of total- war—in The Zone?

When reality is chronically, comprehensively rendered as fiction, and when fiction renders itself as reality, with our own spectacular collaboration, it’s not that they become indistinguishable from each other. We can of course still tell the difference. Can’t we? Yes. We can. The difference engine, or the exchange that occurs is more artful, and potent, and toxic, and healing. Reality realizes itself as the fictional real, as replicant; and we carry them simultaneously, as each other—as proof—of this very real dream which cannot possibly be happening, but is.

So what we encounter in November 2019 and in the results of Blade Runner’s fictional Voight-Kampff Test is a prisoner’s dilemma of sorts, on the other side of fiction, in which I am both the subject and the official administering the test, to myself. Will we corporate? If what we allow ourselves to feel, in the memory of engineering Time, is so irresolvable as to be beyond proof, then we risk being driven into a perpetual state of terror and fleeing for our lives from the total apparatus that gave birth to us. If on the other hand we flat-line into the performed noir of a sincere fraudulence, unable to feel the memories of the present which we cannot prove, then we risk the fate of the replicant, or the psychopath, which as we have seen, in November 2019, will also get us killed, either by the Blade Runners, or by our own termination dates.

To put it another way, can we simultaneously believe and disbelieve in the ceremony that we live in and as the fictional real? Can we can stomach the falling, the failing, the very real vertigo and excruciating paranoia of being human?

Or the alternative: can we stomach the possibility of failing a Voight-Kampff Test?

What has happened in November 2019, when fiction and reality cross over each other in the engineering of memory as Time… We don’t know yet. But I think we do. Here we are. How does it feel?

 

 

Just after the new year I take a walk along the Berlin Wall Memorial near my home in Berlin. It’s cold out and gray as the wall, but I stop to watch some hooded crows poking about on the ground. Their quirky clockwork movements have caught my eye as they hop around in the gravel and winter scrub grass, foraging for scraps. They move like funny windup toys in ashen tuxedos, with spring-motored legs and scanning black eyes, cocking their heads from side to side, seeing. I wonder what would be the difference, if they were replicant or real, but for their mothers.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jeff Wood
 is an actor and writer from Ohio currently living in Berlin. He was a founding member of the experimental film/art group Rufus Corporation. His cinematic novel The Glacier was published in 2015 by Two Dollar Radio. His essays ‘Monuments of Fire’ and ‘Hurricane Bob,’ among others, have been published by 3:AM Magazine. He is currently at work on The Spider’s Remorse: Encounters with the Algorithmic Taxidermist, an unreliable account of the replicant real.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, March 17th, 2020.