Children of Men

Slavoj Zizek
In a Hollywood story, its rich historical background serves merely as the excuse for what the film “really is
about” - the initiatic journey of the hero or of the couple. In Reds, the October Revolution is the
background for the reconciliation of the lovers in a passionate sex act; in Deep Impact, the gigantic wave
that inundates the entire east coast of the US is a background for the incestuous reunification of the
daughter with her father; in The War of the Worlds, the alien invasion is the background for Tom Cruise to
reassert his paternal role… not so in Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men, where the background
In a typical Hollywood sci-fi, the future world may be full of unheard-of objects and
inventions, but even the cyborgs interact exactly the way we do – or, rather, did in old Hollywood
melodramas and action movies. In The Children of Men, there are no new gadgets, London is exactly the
same as it is now, only more so – Cuaron merely brought out its latent poetic and social potentials: the
greyness and decay of the littered suburbs, the omni-presence of video-surveillance… The film reminds us
that, of all strange things we can imagine, the weirdest is reality itself. Hegel remarked long ago that a
portrait of a person resembles it more than this person itself. The Children of Men is a science-fiction of
our present itself.
It is 2027, with the human race rendered infertile - the earth’s youngest inhabitant,
born 18 years ago, was just killed in Buenos Aires. The UK lives in a permanent state of emergency, antiterrorist quads chasing illegal immigrants, the state power administering the dwindling population which
vegetates in sterile hedonism. Are these two features – hedonist permissiveness plus new forms of social
apartheid and control based on fear – not what our societies are about? Here comes Cuaron’s stroke of a
genius – as he put it in one of his interviews: “Many of the stories of the future involve something like ‘Big
Brother,’ but I think that’s a 20th-century view of tyranny. The tyranny happening now is taking new
disguises — the tyranny of the 21st century is called ‘democracy’.” This is why the rulers of his world are
not grey and uniformed Orwellian “totalitarian” bureaucrats, but enlightened democratic administrators,
cultured, each with his or her own “life style.” When the hero visits an ex-friend, now a top government
official, to gain a special permit for a refugee, we enter something like a Manhattan upper-class gay
couple loft, the informally dressed official with his crippled partner at the table.
Children of Men is
obviously not a film about infertility as a biological problem. The infertility Cuaron’s film is about was
diagnosed long ago by Friedrich Nietzsche, when he perceived how Western civilization is moving in the
direction of the Last Man, an apathetic creature with no great passion or commitment: unable to dream,
tired of life, he takes no risks, seeking only comfort and security, an expression of tolerance with one
another: “A little poison now and then: that makes for pleasant dreams. And much poison at the end for a
pleasant death. They have their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night, but
they have a regard for health. ‘We have discovered happiness,’ - say the Last Men, and they
The Last Men doesn’t want his daydreaming disturbed – this is why “harassment” is a key word
in his mental universe. At its most elementary, the term designates brutal facts of rape, beating, and
other modes of social violence which, of course, should be ruthlessly condemned. However, in the
predominant use, this elementary meaning imperceptibly slips into the condemnation of any excessive
proximity of another real human being, with his or her desires, fears and pleasures. Two topics determine
today's liberal tolerant attitude towards others: the respect of otherness, openness towards it, and the
obsessive fear of harassment. The other is OK insofar as his presence is not intrusive, insofar as the other
is not really other. Tolerance coincides with its opposite: my duty to be tolerant towards the other
effectively means that I should not get too close to him, not to intrude into his/her space – in short, that I
should respect his/her intolerance towards my over-proximity. This is what is more and more emerging as
the central 'human right' in our society: the right not to be harassed, i.e., to be kept at a safe distance
from the others.
The courts in most of the Western societies now impose a restraining order when
someone sues another person for harassing him or her (stalking him or her or making unwarranted sexual
advances). The harasser can be legally prohibited from knowingly approaching the victim, and must
remain at a distance of more than 100 yards. Necessary as this measure is, there is nonetheless in it
something of the defense against the traumatic reality of the other's desire: is it not obvious that there is
something dreadfully violent about openly displaying one's passion for and to another human? Passion by
definition hurts its object, and even if its addressee gladly agrees to occupy this place, he or she cannot
ever do it without a moment of awe and surprise.
This is the case even with the growing prohibition of
smoking. First, all offices were declared "smoke-free," then flights, then restaurants, then airports, then
bars, then private clubs, then, in some campuses, 50 yards around the entrances to the buildings, then in a unique case of pedagogical censorship, reminding us of the famous Stalinist practice of retouching the
photos of nomenklatura – the US Postal Service removed the cigarette from the stamps with the photo-
portrait of blues guitarist Robert Johnson and of Jackson Pollock. These prohibitions target the other's
excessive and risky enjoyment, embodied in the act of "irresponsibly" lighting a cigarette and inhaling
deeply with an unabashed pleasure (in contrast to Clintonite yuppies who do it without inhaling, or who
have sex without actual penetration, or food without fat) – indeed, as Jacques Lacan put it, after God is
dead, nothing is anymore permitted.
In today's market, we find a whole series of products deprived of
their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol... and the list
goes on. What about virtual sex as sex without sex, the Colin Powell doctrine of warfare with no casualties
(on our side, of course) as warfare without warfare, the contemporary redefinition of politics as the art of
expert administration as politics without politics, up to today’s tolerant liberal multiculturalism as an
experience of Other deprived of its Otherness (the idealized Other who dances fascinating dances and has
an ecologically sound holistic approach to reality, while features like wife beating or incest rape remain out
of sight)?
We from the First World countries find it more and more difficult even to imagine a public or
universal Cause for which one would be ready to sacrifice one's life. It effectively appears as if the split
between First World and Third World runs more and more along the lines of the opposition between
leading a long satisfying life full of material and cultural wealth, and dedicating one's life to some
transcendent Cause. Is this antagonism not the one between what Nietzsche called "passive" and "active"
nihilism? We in the West are the Last Men, immersed in stupid daily pleasures, while the Muslim radicals
are ready to risk everything, engaged in the nihilist struggle up to their self-destruction. No wonder that
the only place in Children of Men where a strange sense of freedom prevails, a kind of liberated territory
without this all-pervasive suffocating oppression, is Blackpool, the whole city isolated by a wall and turned
into a refugee camp run by its inhabitants, illegal immigrants, and, at the film’s end, ruthlessly bombed by
the air force. Life is thriving here, with Islam fundamentalist military demonstrations, but also acts of
authentic solidarity – no wonder the newborn child makes it appearance here.
In a debate about the
fate of Guantanamo prisoners on NBC about in 2004, one of the weirdest arguments for the ethico-legal
acceptability of their status was that “they are those who were missed by the bombs”: since they were the
target of the US bombing and accidentally survived it, and since this bombing was part of a legitimate
military operation, one cannot condemn their fate when they were taken prisoners after the combat –
whatever their situation, it is better, less severe, than being dead… This reasoning tells more than it
intends to say: it puts the prisoner almost literally into the position of living dead, those who are in a way
already dead (their right to live forfeited by being legitimate targets of murderous bombings), so that they
are now cases of what Giorgio Agamben calls homo sacer, the one who can be killed with impunity since,
in the eyes of the law, his life no longer counts. If the Guantanamo prisoners are located in the space
“between the two deaths,” occupying the position of homo sacer, legally dead (deprived of a determinate
legal status) while biologically still alive, then the Terri Schiavo case which hold our imagination in March
2005 presents the opposite. She suffered brain damage in 1990 when her heart stopped briefly from a
chemical imbalance believed to have been brought on by an eating disorder; court-appointed doctors
claimed she is in a persistent vegetative state with no hope of recovery. While her husband wanted her
disconnected to die in peace, her parents argued that she could get better and that she would never have
wanted to be cut off from food and water. The case reached the top level of the US government and
judicial bodies, with the Supreme Court and President involved, the Congress passing fast-track
resolutions, etc. The absurdity of the situation, when put in the wider context, is breath-taking: with tens
of millions dying of AIDS and hunger all around the world, the public opinion in the US focused on a single
case of prolonging the run of a naked life, of a persistent vegetative state deprived of all specifically
human characteristics. These are the two extremes we find ourselves today with regard to human rights:
one the one hand those “missed by the bombs” (mentally and physically full human beings, but deprived
of rights), on the other hand a human being reduced to bare vegetative life, but this bare life protected by
the entire state apparatus.
So what went wrong with us? Any attentive reader of Marquis de Sade
cannot help noticing the paradox of how the Sadean unconstrained assertion of sexuality, deprived of the
last vestiges of spiritual transcendence, turns sexuality itself into a mechanic exercise lacking any
authentic sensual passion. And is not a similar reversal clearly discernible in the deadlock of today's Last
Men, "postmodern" individuals who reject all "higher" goals and dedicate their life to survival filled with
more and more refined and artificially aroused pleasures? If the old hierarchic societies oppressed vital
forces through their rigid ideological systems and the state apparatuses that enforced them, today’s
societies are losing their vitality through their very permissive hedonism: everything is allowed, but
decaffeinated, deprived of its substance.
And the same as for our pleasures goes for our democracy: it
is more and more a decaffeinated democracy, a democracy deprived of its substance, of its political edge.
A century ago, G.K. Chesterton wrote: “Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of freedom and
humanity end by flinging away freedom and humanity if only they may fight the Church.” The first thing
one should add to it today is that the same holds for the advocates of religion themselves: how many
fanatical defenders of religion started with ferociously attacking the contemporary secular culture and
ended up forsaking religion itself (losing any meaningful religious experience). And is it not that, in a
strictly homologous way, the liberal warriors are so eager to fight the anti-democratic fundamentalism
that they will end by flinging away freedom and democracy themselves if only they may fight terror? They
have such a passion for proving that the non-Christian fundamentalism is the main threat to freedom that
they are ready to fall back on the position that we have to limit our own freedom here and now, in our
allegedly Christian societies. If the terrorists are ready to wreck this world for love of the other, our
warriors on terror are ready to wreck their own democratic world out of hatred for the Muslim other.
Jonathan Alter, Alan Derschowitz, and Sam Harris love human dignity so much that they are ready to
legalize torture – the ultimate degradation of human dignity - to defend it… Today’s predominant
mode of politics is a politics of fear, a defense against potential victimization or harassment: fear of
immigrants, fear of crime, fear of godless sexual depravity, fear of the excessive State itself (with too high
taxation), fear of ecological catastrophies, fear of harassment (which is why Political Correctness is the
exemplary liberal form of the politics of fear). Such a politics always relies on the frightening rallying of
frightened men. The big event in Europe in the early 2006 was that the anti-immigration politics “went
mainstream”: they finally cut the umbilical link that connected them to the far Right fringe parties. From
France to Germany, from Austria to Holland, in the new spirit of pride at one’s cultural and historical
identity, the main parties now find it acceptable to stress that the immigrants are guests who have to
accommodate themselves to the cultural values that define the host society – it is “our country, love it or
leave it.”
This is why the “clash of civilizations” is the Huntington's disease of our time – as Samuel
Huntington put it, after the end of the Cold War, the “iron curtain of ideology” has been replaced by the
“velvet curtain of culture.” This dark vision may appear the very opposite of Francis Fukuyama’s bright
prospect of the End of History in the guise of a world-wide liberal democracy; perhaps, however, the
»clash of civilizations« IS »the end of history,« i.e., the ethnico-religious conflicts are the form of struggle
which fits global capitalism. In our age of »post-politics,« when politics proper is progressively replaced by
expert social administration, the only remaining legitimate source of conflicts are cultural (ethnic,
religious) tensions. So, to quote President Bush’s unforgettable Freudian condensation, do not
misunderestimate Children of Men – Cuaron’s new film strikes at the very heart of our predicament.
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