All Power to the Commune of the One!

In honor of our good friends over at MIM Notes Movie Reviews We offer this contribution to the growing body of anti-Imperialist interrogations of the superstructure. We review Iron Man 2.

As we complete our “scientific review of each existing work in the whole world” you might be surprised at how often the story of our class is told. The storytellers know what we, the oppressed, the workers, and the hungry want to hear our story: the story of how we will win.

We will be the triumphant victors of the future and we will defeat all counter-revolutionary forces in the creation of a stateless, classless society. True Communism. Lovely Anarchy!

In honor of our good friends over at MIM Notes Movie Reviews We offer this contribution to the growing body of anti-Imperialist interrogations of the superstructure. We review Iron Man 2.

As we complete our “scientific review of each existing work in the whole world” you might be surprised at how often the story of our class is told. The storytellers know what we, the oppressed, the workers, and the hungry want to hear our story: the story of how we will win.

We will be the triumphant victors of the future and we will defeat all counter-revolutionary forces in the creation of a stateless, classless society. True Communism. Lovely Anarchy!



And how, pray tell, does the second story of Iron Man fit into this trajectory? It is our story through its daring use of metaphor.

Tony Stark is the proletariat, the intelligence of the working class, under siege from the bureaucratic forces of the existing order as represented by Senator Stern, who would control the forces of revolutionary violence. He represents the contradiction between loyalty to the class-in-itself (the fruits of the workers labor), and the-pressure-of-nationalism-on-the-most-reactionary-element-of-the-class-by-the-bourgeoisie.

Pepper Potts is the voice of the libertarian proletariat: nervous that the historical moment for TS (aka the people) is quickly passing while the concerns of oppressed minorities haven’t been reconciled. Potts, USAF Lt. Col. James Rhodes, Nick Fury, and Natalie Rushman are all expressions of the work that the people need to do to reconcile the power of the oppressed with the mission of the class as a whole. As one they demand the victory of the future commune through sobriety, historical revision, political challenges to bureaucratic forces, and class consciousness through clear identification of class enemies and their lackeys.

In Iron Man 2 these forces of counter-revolution are represented by Justin Hammer and his puppet Ivan Vanko. These “whites” demonstrate the kinds of coalitions that the forces of repression are willing to endure (American style crony-ism and the backward Soviet-era strongman) to suppress the forces of the future commune. The combination of high-tech wizardry (Hammer being a Pentagon funded arms dealer) and traditional social roles (Vanko representing the alpha male of a patriarchal fairy tale) develop important themes in recognizing reactionary elements in apparent working class characters.

The story of Iron Man 2 is a simple and ancient one. When the proletariat demonstrate their power-as-a-class in the first film the internal counter-revolution begins, first by the attempted commandeering of the Iron Man prosthetic by the Senate. By the attack of the proletariat from within due to the contradictions of leadership during times of crisis (as represented by palladium poisoning in the arc reactor of Tony Stark). Finally by the external forces of repression as represented by “old style socialism” (Vanko) that has not learned to embrace the contradictions of late Capitalism and technological centralism.

The attempted co-option of the Iron Man suit is defeated through the course of the film by the clear demonstration of the class as the actual active agent of social order. The contradictions of Hammer as Capitalistic excess and Vanko as the one-dimensional socialist realist heir to the Soviet regime cannot compete against the power of the reconciled class. The power of Tony Stark as proletariat and James Rhodes aka War Machine aka the oppressed people of the third world aka the internalized colonies of the first world combined tears asunder the forces of combined counter-revolution.

The poisoning of the proletariat is resolved through the disciplined study of the canon of liberation (Tony Starks father’s film) and the scientific inquiry that only the proletariat is capable of. The creation of Ununoctium, of which only a few atoms have been synthesized to date, is portrayed in the film as the seeming magical combination of technics and inspiration but should instead be seen as the probability of what proletarian design is capable of if it were not fettered by the condition of exchange value extraction on behalf of the moneyed classes. Ununoctium is the expression of how the people’s science is the only way to resolve the capitalist math of resource extraction, information control, and repression of the social body.

Finally the new proletariat and coming commune are shown to resolve the contradictions of Socialism as capitalism recomposition and of Capitalism as crony Capitalism. Vanko demonstrates his disdain for his own class interests by personifying his critique of the existing order in terms of Tony Stark (the people) rather than recognizing the systematic ways in which he and his family were exiled from their power. Similarly Hammer demonstrates that Capitalism IS crony capitalism by his ever-present representation in the halls of power and the slap on-the-wrist nature (high profile, media manicured, but ultimately empty) of his punishment. The class meets this combined foe through cooperation, a disciplined analysis of current conditions, and truly democratic centralism. The commune has the strength of the collective, the intelligence of genius, and the will of a thousand years of chained spirit.

If any weakness of Iron Man 2 exists it is that the forces of counter-revolution show themselves to be too weak. We know that repression sets the terms of conflict, hides its contradictions, and attempts to ally itself with the weakest elements of the proletariat through its own organizational intelligence. The lesson to draw from this is the same lesson to draw from any super-structural form. Our dialectical prowess and ability to dissect the contradictions and communicate that knowledge to the class-as-a-whole is our greatest strength and our greatest weakness. As the commune of one we grow and become the commune of all!

Up in the Air

I came to anarchism through loneliness. I remember trying to outrun my lifelong feelings of inadequacy expressed through fits of depression and suicidal tendencies. As a consequence, I developed tricks, explored alternating personalities, became a hopper of religions, and committed myself to trendy living, in an effort to gain entry into several of the communities, sub-cultures, and relationships that surrounded me. I was dissatisfied with the pain in my life and I thought that other people could help me to fill the void. I wanted to live because I felt as though I was already dead. The great oppression of my life therefore was my inability to forge successful connections with others. I was always at war with myself.

I came to anarchism through loneliness. I remember trying to outrun my lifelong feelings of inadequacy expressed through fits of depression and suicidal tendencies. As a consequence, I developed tricks, explored alternating personalities, became a hopper of religions, and committed myself to trendy living, in an effort to gain entry into several of the communities, sub-cultures, and relationships that surrounded me. I was dissatisfied with the pain in my life and I thought that other people could help me to fill the void. I wanted to live because I felt as though I was already dead. The great oppression of my life therefore was my inability to forge successful connections with others. I was always at war with myself.




As a result of my ceaseless commitment to finding meaningful relationships, I never had one. What person, community, or sub-culture could ever outshine a great and radiant lifelong phantasy? (Growing up, I frequently reminded friends, family, and partners what love and society were “supposed to look like” — foolishly, nothing in the world could compare to it.) As I matured I began to realize that my visions were the result of phantasy itself, an attempt to outrun the pain at the heart of my existence, and that, finally, I didn’t have an answer or a place to escape – I simply knew that there were problems; problems that neither love, society nor friend could ever pretend to mend because they were first of all problems at the root of my very being. I had only to become acquainted with, rather than outrun, what Dexter Morgan has always called his “dark passenger”.

There is a great truth to the claim that one does not become an anarchist but that one might only realize that an anarchist is what one has always been. If it were as easy as becoming an anarchist, we’d only have left to set our sights on how to make others anarchists too; and, in this performance alone, we contradict the most basic of anarchist ethics, that is, we cease to be anti-authoritarian. And yet, if one were first of all born an anarchist, that is, born into chaos and confusion, then one might only come to terms with the anarchy of life. This is my darkness and it is yours; it is a passenger that remains with us wherever we find ourselves. This is what naturally resists our human interventions because it has always been the general principle of existence. It relates to the profound negativity that frere dupont describes as revolt, but it occurs just as much inwardly as it does outwardly.

I have thus this precise meaning when I insist that anarchists have always been ‘Up in the Air’: we have always been motivated by phantasies. It is here that we understand that being anarchist implies living within the contradictions and the darkness that surrounds us, it means never escaping phantasies except deep within the pits of our being; coming to terms with the phantasies that we have constructed, and will continue to construct, in order to escape the traumatic nature of our birth. Conditions will never change, but our personal, unspeakable, relationship to these conditions can change and with it so much else.

For glimpses of this “dark passenger”, this darkness that emerges from the outermost inside of the anarchist milieu and then from everywhere else outside of it, one has only to look at the recent lineage of nihilistic films on the big screen. Most recently, a film called “Up In The Air” depicts the sad life of Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) who spends his time flying around the world helping large companies fire their employees when they decide to downsize. A number of techniques emerge to help soothe the fired employee upon hearing the news, including but not limited to: constructing comforting and soothing environments, constructing future fantasies (the employee now has time to ‘chase his or her dreams’), technological mediation (layoffs via webcam), creating elaborate discourse to embellish layoff packages, etc. For all of the fancy words, soothing environments and future fantasies, Ryan is still aware of the darkness that exists beneath all the talk but he does little to combat it. Indeed, he builds his empire upon its soil. He helps construct phantasies for other people.

It appears for a while that Ryan has no darkness, that he enjoys his life – he is captured by his phantasy—the phantasies of others—repressing his own darkness. What he thinks he lacks is connection. He is resistant for a while, protecting himself from the light. He eventually submits to the love of a co-worker and, at the end of the film, we are left with an unsettling feeling: Ryan stands alone, still without the connection, he continues his career, he returns to the darkness of his life now aware of it but brutally facing it. This is why we should go to watch movies – movies that reject the happy ending in favour of the more realistic reminder that our lives are lived among the darkest of passengers. Disappointed spectators are faced with the sadness of their own lives, some release the pain with tears, others with bad words, still others remain seated for minutes after the movie, just reflecting. They return, like Ryan, to their everyday world and rebuild phantasies until they are ready, again, to face the darkness of life.

I am brought to tears for the beauty and honesty of film and then question my own love for the film. I realize that being an anarchist, in the political sense of the term, doesn’t mean that I have to be immersed in the milieu, interested in anarchist things, or vocally against everything that currently exists. If it helps, [I] think of it this way: I am an agent from the future; I must live a normal life in the circumstances in which I find myself. There is no need for me to go looking for ‘events’ – they will find me. Any action, for me, is only a running away, a phantasy, and, as a result, I run away from the fundamental struggle of my own life. Anarchism, like all things, is simply a preparation for death during life. And if I die an anarchist, I will have been more prepared than most.

Spoiler Alert!

In the symbolic order, the mind twists. Objects stand naked. They convince you that they are clothed. They are clothed. There they stand, protected by the material properties of the fabric of your ideology. By the fate of paradox they at last stand draped. They were never naked. I am lost in the cloth of this object which has forever been stripped of its sublime status.

In the symbolic order, the mind twists. Objects stand naked. They convince you that they are clothed. They are clothed. There they stand, protected by the material properties of the fabric of your ideology. By the fate of paradox they at last stand draped. They were never naked. I am lost in the cloth of this object which has forever been stripped of its sublime status.



The sublime object, according to Kant, is essentially formless. It becomes an object of utility, a foreign object of exchange, only upon the ground of excess and waste which erupts ceaselessly from within the net of the ontological machines. There are times when the only psychological defence against this eruption is to reveal the eruption itself as if by revealing it its truth has been robbed. Eminem did this during his rap battle, stripping his enemy of his weapon but nonetheless inscribing the truth upon his body – he really is white trash. I did this when I was younger: I have a lisp, I said, my father cleans toilets and my mother takes care of the mad. In the end, my comedy only revealed the truth: I am a lowlife and will always be a lowlife. This is the psychological structure of jokes, as Freud was well aware: “Two Jews meet in a railway carriage at a station in Galicia. ‘Where are you travelling?’ asks the one. ‘To Cracow,’ comes the answer. ‘Look what a liar you are!’ the other protests. ‘When you say you’re going to Cracow, you want me to believe that you’re going to Lemberg, But I know that you’re really going to Cracow. So why are you lying?”

Imagine that. Jude Law, Forest Whitaker and Alive Braga, servants of ideology, revealing themselves for the cameras in Repo Men (2010). Remy, employed as a Repo Man for a high-tech organ producer, eventually succumbs to sickness and and by the fate of irony becomes can not pay the bill for his own heart. Activists, Reactionaries, Politicians and Scholars—servants of the symbolic order, of knowledge—spend a great deal of time writing about the metaphor of health care, nicknamed ObamaCare. But this misses the truth which is right in front of their eyes. Remy, disillusioned by his employer, tries to take down the system. He believes that his unique insider status provides him the unique standpoint upon which to mount his attack, and indeed it does. In the end he wins.

The power of the symbolic order is its ability to retroactively inscribe meaning where before there was resistance and victory. Viewers are eventually brought back to an early moment in the movie when Remy was knocked unconscious (what was it, for the fourth or fifth time?): like a cruel joke, viewers witness the magic trick: the majority of the movie was a figment of Remy’s and our imagination, a post-ideological ideology – Remy’s brain was replaced with a neural net device invented by his employer. His resistance was a manifestation of the system he meant to defeat. The symbolic order possesses us and then repossesses us.

Althussar once said that “those who are in ideology believe themselves by definition outside ideology: one of the effects of ideology is the practical denial of the ideological character of ideology by ideology,” he continued, “It is necessary to be outside ideology […] to be able to say: I am in ideology or: I was in ideology […] ideology has no outside, but at the same time that it is nothing but outside.” Radicals eventually reach a point of saturation at the hands of ideology. Despair sets in. Let us look to the fantasies of cinema to see how they manage their affairs! They put all of their cards on the table and so should we. They play magic tricks with our minds, renewing their tricks in still purer forms. Perhaps its time we play a few tricks of our own.

What are you looking at?

What are you looking at?
A review of The Chicago Conspiracy

“We believe that the most honest position we can take is to reject any notion that a camera presents a detached and passive view of our world.”
Subversive Action Films

In Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland, one of the characters, an ex-hippy revolutionary who has dropped out of the struggle and into the Fed’s witness protection program, reminisces about her radical film collective in the ’60s, that naïvely presumed to use the camera as a weapon, turning it upon the ugly face of Authority, as though this ignition of consciousness would be enough to demobilize Power and encourage rebellion.

In their newly released documentary, The Chicago Conspiracy, the folks at Subversive Action Films have set themselves the project of surmounting the resident limitations and illusions of their medium. The Chicago Conspiracy tells of anticapitalist struggles in Chile in the years since the dictatorship, focusing on the students, battling neoliberal educational reforms; the residents of the poblaciones, struggling for the autonomy of their neighborhoods against the exclusions of capitalism and the incursions of police; and the Mapuche, fighting for their land and integrity against the continuing colonialism of the Chilean state and multinational timber corporations. The title of the film refers to the Chilean economists who studied under Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago and who utilized the brutal Pinochet dictatorship to implement their neoliberal theories on Chilean society.

What are you looking at?
A review of The Chicago Conspiracy

“We believe that the most honest position we can take is to reject any notion that a camera presents a detached and passive view of our world.”
Subversive Action Films

In Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland, one of the characters, an ex-hippy revolutionary who has dropped out of the struggle and into the Fed’s witness protection program, reminisces about her radical film collective in the ’60s, that naïvely presumed to use the camera as a weapon, turning it upon the ugly face of Authority, as though this ignition of consciousness would be enough to demobilize Power and encourage rebellion.

In their newly released documentary, The Chicago Conspiracy, the folks at Subversive Action Films have set themselves the project of surmounting the resident limitations and illusions of their medium. The Chicago Conspiracy tells of anticapitalist struggles in Chile in the years since the dictatorship, focusing on the students, battling neoliberal educational reforms; the residents of the poblaciones, struggling for the autonomy of their neighborhoods against the exclusions of capitalism and the incursions of police; and the Mapuche, fighting for their land and integrity against the continuing colonialism of the Chilean state and multinational timber corporations. The title of the film refers to the Chilean economists who studied under Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago and who utilized the brutal Pinochet dictatorship to implement their neoliberal theories on Chilean society.

With a skillful mixture of personal interviews, archival or media footage, and shots of riots, protests, festivals, and other events, the film gives the viewer an emotive and thoughtful impression of these struggles rather than an informational explanation. The filmmakers describe the situation through the contradictory words of students, parents, fugitives, combatants, youth, elders, news anchors, politicans, and economists, presenting a multifaceted range of analysis that includes the progressive, the Marxist, the anarchist, and the neoliberal. It is interesting that in a documentary that from the very beginning attacks the notion of objectivity, a narrator figure would be so minor of a character. The political voice of the film is neither hidden nor explicit. Much of the analysis is conveyed implicitly, through the juxtaposition of these interviews.

For example, the Chilean economists who provoke the film’s name are described only minimally, yet scenes of repression and street fighting are periodically interrupted by shots of a grandfatherly Milton Friedman, sitting in a comfortable room as an orchestra plays, using this civilized setting and a patronizing smile to construct a didactic and simplistic metaphor to justify the heartless mechanics of the Free Market. His arguments are never directly confronted, but they do not need to be; the rest of the film shows how the putatively natural and fair market mechanisms are imposed. The social war does not need to be justified or explained; it is unarguable. Here the filmmakers find an instance when filming is revolutionary, when the camera can illuminate, in the way a burning church illuminates.

Without fetishizing the abandonment of research and reason, we must still somehow dismiss the debates of Authority with the contempt they deserve. Friedman’s facile words of gifted children inheriting talent as property do not need to be debated because the words themselves are not the point; any argument would do. Capitalism expands itself not on the basis of considered reasons but on the basis of internal imperatives. The rest of us are meant to contemplate the discourses Capital’s technicians offer us to give an alibi to what already is, which is the continuous forceful rearrangement of our lives. Thus, not by picking apart his sophomoric syllogism but by showing the police forces that stand behind it, the rage provoked by it, do the filmmakers show that Friedman has a corpse in his mouth.

In The Chicago Conspiracy the filmmakers rarely speak in their own words, but rather in where they choose to look. Their anti-objective subjectivity is conveyed not in arguments but in sympathies. Solidarity spreads, after all, not through agreement but through the communalization of the lived experiences of struggle. One couldn’t agree, simultaneously, with both the student talking about rights and better education, and the anarchist talking about subversion, but one can sympathize with both, sympathize with the struggle, and choose one’s place in it.

Because the filmmakers choose less to inform and more to invoke, or so it seems to me, they evade some of the illusive traps that pervade the medium of film, especially in leftist usages thereof. They recognize that what we need to hold up to power is, to paraphrase Brecht, not a mirror, but a hammer. But is the tool itself adequate?

Some would argue that film itself is inherently spectacular. While I personally could not conceive of being in a riot and choosing to occupy my hands with a camera, I also acknowledge that in calmer moments I love to watch footage of social tempests occurring elsewhere.

It seems that a sort of wordplay has come to be the current interpretation of the spectacle; that any activity which includes the role of spectators is in and of itself spectacular, a manifestation of the spectacle. Before dismissing this hypersensitivity towards ever being a spectator of anything, I want to mention that the filmmakers frequently use narrative interruptions to subvert the narcotic effect of film and repeatedly resituate both themselves and the audience in the act of making and viewing the documentary, so that The Chicago Conspiracy functions as a sort of meeting rather than another displacement. They accomplish this by starting the film with the words “What are you looking at?” and a scene of a clash between a corporate photographer and their own subversive film crew; by calling attention, via interruptions at the beginning of each of the film’s three chapters, to the borders of the medium; by framing shots so that the shadows of the camera person and interviewer often appear on the ground next to the interviewee.

But clever tricks aside, is film inherently spectacular? While I disagree with Debord’s, and all other Marxists’, belief in the totality of their own ideas, and I would argue that the totality is in fact incomplete, I find it worthwhile to come back to the first chapter of Society of the Spectacle: the spectacle is “a means of unification […] the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of universal separation […] The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images […] The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual excess produced by mass-media technologies.”

When social conflict reaches a level that is undeniable, it is the function of the media to turn their cameras there, in order to unify the rupture with the common stream of the spectacle. How are these cameras different from the cameras of the activists and combatants? Often, as we have too often seen, they are not. But to argue that the problem lies in the camera itself seems akin to the perplexing argument that the master’s tools cannot be used to dismantle the master’s house, a turn of phrase so sloppy that it does not even make sense in its metaphorical clothes. By bringing weapons to a riot, are anarchists performing the same job as the police, who also bring weapons to riots? Be gone, pacifists, clinging to the cupboards of our mind like cobwebs!

The camera in the hands of a combatant can attack the spectacle if it is a means of separation that achieves a subversive language of unification. What does this mean, if I am not simply playing at opposite day? It means using juxtaposition as detournement, placing the narrative of the spectacle next to the images of its ruptures, its exclusions. It means using their words of social peace to explain our world of social war. In the spectacle, images of rupture are fragmented from their emotional reality and tailored into a unified narrative of senselessness and fear which calls for more order, more of the same thing that lies behind the rupture.

Attacking the spectacle with images means exposing social relations as they exist and moving towards social relations of solidarity and mutual aid, towards communalization. This documentary clearly comes out of relationships of solidarity developed between anarchists and filmmakers in Chile and the US, and audibly calls on the viewer to sympathize with those in struggle in Chile and to include them in our community of insurrection. It is a first step towards widening our struggle by becoming aware of other manifestations of that struggle. Awareness and sympathy—consciousness and emotional ties—are prerequisites for solidarity.

The film itself accomplishes nothing unless those who view it get up from their seats afterwards and build those relationships of solidarity. Whereas the spectacle is “the result and the project of the dominant mode of production,” a radical documentary is not a completed object but an invitation, whose project lies outside of itself, in the streets to which it beckons us. The effect of a film, the question of whether we are locked in permanent contemplation, it turns out, will be decided by us. The Chicago Conspiracy is well made not only as a film but also as a framing of exactly this choice. It seems most fitting that in the end we turn our critique not on the film, but on what we do with it.

Subversive Action Films

Websites with information and anarchist news from Chile (learn Spanish, US anarchists!)

http://www.ourwar.org/

http://www.hommodolars.org/

http://liberaciontotal.entodaspartes.net/

Human Nature

If one function of ideology is to make things that have a history appear natural, then perhaps ‘nature’ is the ideological concept par excellance. On the other hand, if ideology forms a distorted or deceptive image of the real, something like nature is an indispensable correlate to ideology, without which a critique of the latter would be meaningless. This ambivalence is inherent to the concept of nature; for all the conceptual pairings it seems to so naturally elicit—nature/culture, nature/civilization, nature/artifice, nature/humanity—it refuses to be limited to one side of a pair. Nature, as much as ‘nature,’ is the ultimate colonizing force: it appears where it is least expected, even—I should say especially—when it was thought to have been banished. Not only is this as true of nature as it is of ‘nature’; more, the seemingly obvious distinction here between the reality and the concept of nature is dangerously unstable. Nothing is more natural than the unnatural.

If one function of ideology is to make things that have a history appear natural, then perhaps ‘nature’ is the ideological concept par excellance. On the other hand, if ideology forms a distorted or deceptive image of the real, something like nature is an indispensable correlate to ideology, without which a critique of the latter would be meaningless. This ambivalence is inherent to the concept of nature; for all the conceptual pairings it seems to so naturally elicit—nature/culture, nature/civilization, nature/artifice, nature/humanity—it refuses to be limited to one side of a pair. Nature, as much as ‘nature,’ is the ultimate colonizing force: it appears where it is least expected, even—I should say especially—when it was thought to have been banished. Not only is this as true of nature as it is of ‘nature’; more, the seemingly obvious distinction here between the reality and the concept of nature is dangerously unstable. Nothing is more natural than the unnatural.


The hilarious and thought-provoking Human Nature, with a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman (who also wrote the equally hilarious and thought-provoking Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Synecdoche, New York) is a movie about the pathology of civilization, which is a common enough conceit; but it could equally be said to be a send-up of the idea of civilization itself, as it shows the latter to be a series of ideological justifications that skim along life’s surface while nature goes on about its business undisturbed, and at the same time a send-up of the idea of nature, as it continually mutates and forms itself into civilization, culture, art, and pathology, simultaneously inventing and undermining its own distinction from all of the aforementioned terms. Everything the characters in the movie do is perfectly natural, which is to say it’s often perverse, self-conscious, pretentious, absurd, and petty, and it’s almost always self-defeating.

Dr. Nathan Bronfman is a psychologist whose life’s work and guiding passion is to teach table manners to lab rats. “If I can teach manners to rats,” he explains, “then maybe I can teach them to humans, and maybe the world will be a little safer.” Presumably manners don’t come naturally to humans, then, but it really seems unnatural to see rats holding chairs for each other and selecting the proper fork for the salad. But nothing could be more natural than the system of stimulated responses Bronfman uses to teach the rats; after being shocked enough times grabbing for the wrong fork, a rat quite naturally gravitates toward the correct one. If nature can be manipulated in such a way that manners are the result, Bronfman reasons, then there is hope for the human race. Nature must be doubled back onto itself, and the result of such an operation is civilization. What experimental behaviorism demonstrates, above all, is that domestication is eminently natural.

Bronfman’s upbringing would seem to have been an influence on his choice of work. His overbearing mother drilled into him the maxim, “Never wallow in the filth of instinct.” Without civilization, she insists, we’d be just like the apes. In other words, human nature is just the same as any other old nature, something we must rise above. But if there is no difference between human nature and ape nature, how did we become civilized to begin with? The notion of human nature is rendered problematic once we reflect that, if our ‘nature’ is our specific difference, then that difference is, more or less, to be creatures of culture, which is to say creatures who modify our nature and thus come to have an idea like ‘nature’ to begin with.

If the preadolescent Bronfman so much as touched the wrong fork, his mother would send him to bed without his supper. In such a situation, nothing is more natural than to become obsessive about table manners; after all, Bronfman learned his manners the same way his rats do, by responding to repeated stimuli in a predictable manner. But Bronfman is contemptuously dismissive when his shrink suggests his childhood had anything to do with his choice of career: “Isn’t that a tad convenient, Wendell? You can’t reduce my passion to ‘childhood.’”

Bronfman is, quite naturally, disgusted by his girlfriend, a nature writer named Lila Jute (author of a book called Fuck Humanity), when he discovers that she regularly shaves her entire body, which in its natural state is covered with fur. As ‘unnatural’ as this irruption of nature on Lila’s body is, this is small beer compared to the most unnatural character in the movie, Puff, who lives in the woods and thinks he’s an ape; or anyway, comes to think, in retrospect, that when he lived in the woods he was an ape. As Puff later tells a congressional committee, “I was an ape. I wasn’t really sure what type. Apes don’t think in terms of type. Apes don’t even know they’re apes…” If apes aren’t species beings who think in terms of type, this is as much as to say that nature knows nothing of nature; to an ape, the Empire State building, the atom bomb, and The New York Review of Books are just as natural (or as unnatural) as a ripe banana, although perhaps a bit less interesting.

Bronfman and Lila find Puff while out hiking one day. Bronfman tolerates these excursions into nature in order to keep Lila happy; in one of the funniest lines of the movie, when she gets angry with him for nervously laughing along with his mother as she denigrates nature, he protests “No, honey, I love nature! It’s my favorite!” Bronfman actually mostly hates nature, at least in the form of trees, babbling brooks, and hairy, sweaty, unruly instinct, but of course nothing could be more natural than his feigning a love of the wild in order to preserve his sex life.

Initially, Puff is devoid of language, but, using the methods he has honed working with his rats, Bronfman quickly transforms him into a fully-fledged man of the world, with the help of an electrical collar that is fixed around his neck. Puff is initially recalcitrant, but after seeing Bronfman and his assistant Gabrielle have sex in the laboratory, as unashamed as if Puff were a dog, he makes rapid progress. As he later tells the assembled Congressmen with a whimsically arched eyebrow, “To use the vernacular, gentlemen, I wanted me some of that.” Puff figures that learning the ways of civilized humanity is the best way to get out of his glass pen in Bronfman’s laboratory and get laid.
Being civilized, according to Bronfman, means “When in doubt, don’t ever do what you really want to do.” Accordingly, civilizing Puff for the most part involves repeatedly shocking him when he tries to hump waitresses, Lila, pictures of women, or anyone or anything else. Getting laid, Puff soon learns, mostly involves not getting laid. Now fully civilized (Bronfman remarks “He’s awfully well-read for someone who’s only been literate for a month”), Puff learns the intricate game that is perhaps what is most natural to human beings: deferring gratification in order to get what we want, acting against out desires, against our nature, in order to satisfy our deepest drives.
Although Bronfman is the most civilized of the three main characters in the sense of cultural refinement, he is also the most natural; everything he does is explainable by lust or pathology, covered with a veneer of half-baked idealism. Because Bronfman always has a selfish motive lurking behind his actions, he could be said to be perfectly natural: despite his upbringing, he is entirely motivated by instinct. Perhaps he truly pities Puff when he finds him; he ponderously muses, “That poor man…never to read Moby-Dick or marvel at a Monet!” But his insecurities are so strong that they motivate even his most ostensibly altruistic actions. He is thus demonstrably devoid of one supposed feature of the civilized human being: he acts entirely out of interest.
In any case, Lila eventually kidnaps Puff and forcibly returns him to the wild, retraining him to be an ‘animal’ with the help of the shock collar that remains around his neck. When Bronfman tracks them down, Puff kills him, but Lila insists she take the rap so Puff can return to the forest after telling his story to a congressional committee.
As painfully unnatural as the evening-jacketed, wine-sipping, opera-loving Puff must appear to us, nothing, of course, is more unnatural than a human being living in a forest alone and naked, without human company and unable to speak. When Puff decides to return to the forest, it can only be as a kitschy gesture calculated to make a point. He manages to capture the public imagination by appealing to our sanctimonious nostalgia for what we imagine to be a more natural lifestyle. Even the Congressmen are visibly moved, although Puff manages to shame them with a supercilious sneer when they titter at the juicier parts of his story. And Puff himself is carried away by the nobility of his gesture, captivated by an image of himself as no ape could ever be.
Puff marches out of the congressional hearing and trudges down the road until he reaches the path to his former home, shedding his clothes as he goes. However, as soon as the crowd of supporters who has followed him to the edge of the woods disperses, Puff sneaks back out into Gabrielle’s waiting car and the two ride off into the proverbial sunset. The naked and shivering Puff immediately demands some clothing, and announces that he needs to go to a restaurant. Puff forsakes nature for the ultimate trinity of natural needs: food, shelter, and sex, none of which are in abundant supply in his forest idyll.
What Human Nature shows is both the inescapability and the incoherence of nature, both as a concept and as a supposed thing-in-itself, if it’s even possible to tell the two apart. It’s not, of course, but the distinction remains indispensable. As that which is not a concept but nevertheless underlies all conceptuality, nature infects every concept just as much as it disappears at the first attempt to define it. In that case, the concept ‘nature’ is perhaps the fundamental concept, even as, in erasing the distinction between concept and reality, it undermines both naturalness and conceptuality. Nature needs something that is unnatural in order to appear at all, but having done so it immediately spills over into the unnatural, rendering it natural, thus effacing itself. Because apes don’t think in terms of type, they are not conservationists.
That is why, as the basis of any social critique, ‘nature’ is always an ideology. And ideology is, of course, perfectly natural. But the function of critique is to interrupt ideology, even if the latter cannot be ultimately banished from our lives any more than nature can. In order for that to be possible, it would have to be possible to finally disambiguate the two, and that is of course not possible. But without a critique of ideology, this very indistinguishability would not become apparent. If the critique of ideology is itself ideology, then, that does not render it any less necessary. Nature is necessary, impossible, and in any case unavoidable. But it mocks those who seek it in intuition or mysticism, or who promote it to a political fetish. The only adequate position toward nature (which is not the same as to say natural phenomena or the environing world) is not one of worship, veneration, protectiveness, affirmation, or contempt, but rather ruthless critique. That is above all because, as Heraclitus recognized, “Nature loves to hide.”