Capital of Pain



I hadn’t checked out Alphaville for a while but when I did the other night I realized it was part of a cultural memory of mine that was instilled in me and helped shape my world view even if I hadn’t remembered every detail of the script. Here Lemmy Caution (a/k/a Ivan Johnson from Nueva York) is being asked “security questions” by Alpha 60, the farcically portrayed computer intelligence that rules Alphaville. Of course, the “security question” thing resonates with what happens every time you forget your “password” on sites from banks to Barnes and Noble. I always give absurd and illogical answers to these questions in the hopes that I can avoid profiling every single time I forget my password on every one of these corporate-owned sites. At least, like “journalist” Lemmy, while I’m still on the story.

The question he is answering here is “What is your religion?” The answer he gives is as close as I can think to my own, something that, as I viewed it, kind of froze me in my tracks. “I believe in the inspirations of conscience,” he responds in this version. Another version I saw on Netflix read “I believe in the spontaneity of conscience.” At first I believed I preferred the phrase “spontaneity of consciousness,” but after further reflection, it occurred to me that the French word “conscience” meant “consciousness,” and that consciousness implied a kind of moral obligation. If we are “conscious,” then we are responsible for each other. Thought back to that book Balibar wrote about the connection, or lack of, between Descartes and Locke, and how a French translation had mis-interpreted that Locke meant “conscience” when he really just meant “consciousness” sans this sense of morality. All of this gives the scene additional weight.

Pero anyway, for me that spontaneity of conscience is clearly God, like Spinoza said. I feel like I’m in church when ideas are in my body, pulling me along against this bad case of postmodern time-drift. I see it sparkle in me, and in the eyes of those beside me, around me, speaking in my own head as if they shared my body.

The previous question, “Do you know what illuminates the night?” elicits another perfect answer, “poetry.” Many subsequent scenes are dotted by the poetry of surrealist poet Paul Eduard, a riveting Godard strategy that also shows up in Pierrot Le Fou. Somehow I must have brought this memory with me to the stage every time I tried to make words rhyme or at least crash up against the listener, expecting spectacle or silence. This entire scene, played for laughs but dead serious makes the whole HAL 9000 thing in 2001 A Space Odyssey seem like an overwrought ripoff. But most importantly, it defines the dread every man/woman’s soul should feel when probed by the disembodied algorithms that have now come to rule almost all market and non-market interactions.

Godard may have been aware of the critical turn from “conscience” to “consciousness,” and despite, or perhaps because of the fact that his point of view is a bit mired in a patriarchal romanticism, the scene reveals why it’s such a chore for the Western subject to avoid devolving into a guilty preoccupation with his inability to grasp the other. Probably the most important thing about the Occupy movement (another irony here–if you watch the entire film, immediately preceding this interrogation scene is a shot of Alphaville agents escorting Lemmy down a corridor where the signs on the doors, which say “occupied” or “free” speak aloud, and his progress is marked by several doors saying “occupied, occupied, occupied”) is that at least for this moment, there is a voice that believes in the spontaneity of conscience as religion, a voice that knows that poetry is what illuminates the night, and is clearly visible, like that 99 per cent logo projected onto Downtown buildings.

Before Occupy, it felt like the grim (and of course sometimes darkly funny) world of Alphaville was in full effect, and there was no counterbalancing voice. This is why the Republican primary process is so thrown off now, because it was conceived for that world that existed before Occupy, when their sarcastic austerity sloganeering could fly as something close to mainstream. Score one for the people. But there’s still so much to be done. There will be a renewed attempt to silence any sort of narrative of resistance, most likely through the destruction of net neutrality or blocking communication and disrupting the uncontrollable activity of citizen journalists. And of course always lurking is the pet project of the cookie-probers, the market-is-life crowd–the destruction of love.


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