Posts Tagged ‘analysis’

Powering the Distraction Engine: Black Mirror, Slavery, and the Abstraction of Power

April 15, 2018


The British television show Black Mirror often envisions a dystopian future, mostly surrounding our impending and pernicious relationships with technology. The series’ second episode, “Fifteen Million Merits,” is often received in this same way: a critique of smartphone culture, social media avatars, and social isolation. These critiques seem to miss the underlying relationship that the episode’s characters have with energy production and consumption, however, as they neglect an ecocritical approach. Ecocriticism, the interdisciplinary study of storytelling and environmentalism, has taken on narratives that reveal much about the energy culture from which cultural stories emerge. Such stories reach beyond the historical canon of literature, and certainly beyond our contemporary relationship with energy in the twenty-first century. “Fifteen Million Merits” inherits the nineteenth and early twentieth century tradition of “energy slaves,” using sources of electrical power – human beings – to reinforce social power structures. These social power structures are abstracted from the lives of the characters in “Fifteen Million Merits,” rendered invisible until the episode’s protagonist suffers a grave injustice. Once the power structures become visible to the protagonist, “Fifteen Million Merits” becomes a tale about how power can destroy relationships, societies, even one’s own identity and convictions. Black Mirror suggests that our problematic relationships to contemporary energy sources won’t be solved by a technological panacea. Such a future might, in fact, be worse.

“Fifteen Million Merits” takes place in an enclosed facility that houses hundreds of thousands (perhaps more) people. The characters in the story wake up each day and head towards endless rows of stationary exercise bikes. Each meter travelled on the bike translates to a “merit” (i.e. currency) that can be redeemed for resources within the facility: toothpaste, water, food, etc. These merits are predominantly used in the consumption of digital entertainment, however, as each character is locked into cramped, isolated bedrooms each night. These bedrooms feature all four walls entirely covered with digital screens, almost in an Orwellian manner, and these screens forcibly advertise to the residents of the rooms. To skip these mandatory advertisements requires a substantial cost, something to the effect of 10,000 merits – more than a day’s work. Thus, unless someone is willing to be mindlessly subjected to ads for crude digital entertainment, they are virtually trapped on the exercise bikes forever.

It is relatively unclear where energy comes from in the episode’s beginning, but the showrunner Charlie Brooker’s notes reveal a post-petroculture that still inherits metaphors from past non-renewable energy resources. The first instance of petroculture in the screenplay describes Bing’s toothpaste dispenser in his bedroom. Brooker writes, “Using a wall-mounted mini-pump, like a miniature petrol pump nozzle, he dispenses a small amount of bright green toothpaste onto a brush.” The question for Brooker would be whether this description should be taken as a mere artistic flair, or whether he was commentating on the collective unconscious of a post-petroculture in this episode. As evidenced by a description further in the episode, Brooker’s answer would assuredly be the latter. For the next instance is equally petrol-centric, towards the end of the episode, when Bing is saving up merits. In the process, Bing becomes extremely frugal with his expenditures. This frugality is best captured when Brooker writes, “Bing keeps an eye on the screen — he’s trying to stop the nozzle at a nice round number, like someone filling a car with petrol trying to stop on an even figure.” Again, this nozzle is explicitly described in terms of petrol and energy consumption. The merits stand in for Bing’s reckoning with his own relationship to the culture of excessive energy production and consumption. To complicate this relationship further, the episode never once mentions fossil fuels. Energy seems to come from somewhere else: the bikes.

The exercise bikes in “Fifteen Million Merits” often appear as set pieces that facilitate character proximity, representing how hard it is to remain isolated while exercising in a public space like a gym. Characters can of course stop riding these bikes, but will be relegated to a lower class almost immediately. Overweight people, in the episode, are downgraded from the bikes to become “Lemons,” or yellow-dressed custodians for the (relatively speaking) middle-class bikers. Those who don’t participate in energy culture are doomed to be crushed by its powerful machine. Thus, the plot unfolds in a way that, despite intense character motivations to accumulate enough merits to escape this labor-demanding facility, reinforces the hierarchies of power throughout the society in which they find themselves. One way to escape the facility is to earn fifteen million merits, which buys a “golden ticket” to join a game show not altogether unlike America’s Got Talent. Escape is not guaranteed, however, even if they pay into the system. One can infer the motivations of those in power based on the ubiquity of these stationary bikes: these bikes generate electricity, and the human power required to generate these bikes is too valuable to allow people emancipation.

The digital interface of the exercise bikes in Black Mirror serves to obscure, render “opaque to ordinary perception,” the mechanisms by which characters enslave themselves to endless hours on the bikes (Shannon 312). The bikes feature digital technology integrated into each unit that functions in a lot of ways like social media. This digital technology becomes important for questions of energy’s and power’s (in)visibility, and why the inevitable reveal of power at the episode’s climax is so devastating for Bing’s character. Laurie Shannon writes of how “Western culture has transitioned to forms of energy whose origins are opaque to ordinary perception, whose material workings are comprehended only by specialists, and whose business operations are shielded and securitized” (312). Only the “specialists,” or those who are in charge of the facility in which the episode’s protagonists find themselves, have a deep understanding of how these bikes work, how the factory works, why this mode of energy generation is the way humanity – or, “Western culture” – has transitioned into this unorthodox and labor-intensive mode of producing power. When characters are motivated to investigate and challenge their relationship to the system, their dissent is squashed by the system itself.

Throughout the course of the episode, energy remains implicit within the factory. As we’ve seen, for the majority of “Fifteen Million Merits,” energy is rendered invisible and somewhat magical to the characters. By virtue of the episode’s sophisticated technology, and how seamlessly it is integrated into the characters’ lives, it seems like this facility has moved beyond crude, non-renewable forms of energy like fossil fuels. But to see this technological advancement as a kind of moral advancement would be too simple a reading, neglecting the power structures that demand human bodies to be used as capital. As Bob Johnson recounts in his history of energy slaves in the 20th century, “Fossil fuels did not replace human labor, they displaced it by rendering physical exploitation less visible to the privileged” (974). In “Fifteen Million Merits,” human labor has been displaced entirely from the eyes of those in power; the countless lives spent entirely on the exercise bikes is one indication; the mindless digital “dopples” (avatars) from the episode reinforce how futile the characters’ efforts are; and the relegation of the laboring class of bikers to this facility is a way of masking a kind of human slavery from who are later to be revealed as the upper, privileged classes.

The relationship between energy-producing bikes and the larger facility trapping these people finally becomes visible in the episode’s culminating tragic scene, in which Bing loses his merits to the arbitrary whims of the privileged class, represented by three obdurate judges. These judges listen to a song by the young woman Abi, for whom Bing has bought the golden ticket, but they don’t hear her beautiful voice. Rather, they crudely offer her a career in Judge Wraith’s porn industry with the tempting offer, “You’ll never have to pedal again, not one minute. We could really work with you.” Abi resists this dehumanizing remark, but Judge Hope persists:

“Who do you think’s powering that spotlight? […] Millions of people, that’s who. All out there right now, putting in an honest day on the bike, giving back to the world, while you stand in the light they’re generating and dither. And you know what? They would give anything, do anything to be where you are now, to have what you have.”

At this point in the episode, the energy-producing role of these exercise bikes can no longer be ignored. One key phrase that indicates that these bikes are explicitly acting as electrical generators is the idea of “giving back to the world.” Their efforts, their “honest day on the bike,” somehow give back, notably in the form of “generating” power, as indicated by Judge Hope’s first question: these people, everyone in the facility, are powering those spotlights. (Who knows what else they’re powering?)

Energy’s presence, revealed as the invisible heart of this episode’s factory, shapeshifts into what Imre Szeman calls “an absence inescapably present through negation” (324). This “absence” borrows from in Jean-Paul Sartre’s mode of “nothingness.” Nothingness, in Sartre’s conception, is a present lack, something you’re looking for but don’t see mise en scene. As Szeman relates to Black Mirror, then, this absence – this nothingness – becomes a “gap,” one which arises out of “the apparent epistemic inability or unwillingness to name our energy ontologies, one consequence of which is the yawning space between belief and action, knowledge and agency” (324). The ignorance of self-circumstance displayed by the characters in “Fifteen Million Merits” plays to the upper-class’ advantage. It’s within the scope of interests for the (absent) nameless people in charge of this episode’s facility to keep people in the dark, on the bike. In not being able to name their own “energy ontologies,” they aren’t equipped to stand up to the unfair conditions in which they find themselves. But, as will be seen in the episode’s cynical conclusion, it’s not unthinkable to imagine an akrasiatic response to the revelation of energy’s dark role in these characters lives: that “we know where we stand with respect to energy, but we do nothing about it” (Szeman 324). Or, returning to Sartre’s terminology, our epistemic inability leads to “inaction and bad faith” (Szeman 324).

Our historical relationship to energy anticipates this perverse relationship between the people and energy bikes in Black Mirror. Returning to Bob Johnson’s 2016 essay, “Energy Slaves: Carbon Technologies, Climate Change, and the Stratified History of the Fossil Economy,” he traces the pejorative terms from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that referred to the first “energy slaves” (955). Energy slaves were considered to be “any labor-saving device that could convert energy into the functional equivalent of a laboring body,” and emerged as a remedy to household labor (956). Energy slaves, replacing human slaves, perform(ed) “ideological work on behalf of modernity’s privileged classes” (956). In this light, the characters of “Fifteen Million Merits” perform as energy slaves: they convert energy from the toils of a laboring human body; they reinforce the ideological agenda and do the work of the upper, privileged classes (e.g. the Judges). The most these characters receive as compensation is a made-up digital currency: merits. The energy slaves of Black Mirror are “obedient and docile,” given all their technological distractions (Johnson 960). As long as there’s something new to pedal for, Johnson suggests, the characters will remain on the bikes, subjected to the abstract power structures in which they find themselves embedded.

Though “Fifteen Million Merits” begins in medias res, the visual context of this episode suggests that these energy slaves may have “submitted to being ‘shackled,’ and ‘obeyed,’” their enslavement due to economic pressures (Johnson 960). As with Johnson’s historical energy slaves, the characters of Black Mirror “go to ‘sleep’ when ordered to do so” (960): their digital cubicle rooms artificially mimic sunrise and sunset, and are monitored by the anonymous powers that run this facility. The energy slaves are responsible for powering the very system that enslaves them. As the episode suggests, it would be impossible for any single person (energy slave) to throw off their shackles (bikes) and overthrow the system that oppresses them. But why the universal complacency? Greg Singh offers a convincing explanation, warning that the energy slaves of “Fifteen Million Merits” are in, what he calls,

a permanent waking-sleep, a zombification of sorts that is seductive precisely because it shuts off so much of the relentless affect felt through the pressures of supermodernity. This disconnection is desirable in the first place because the affect alerts us to the alienated state to which we may succumb at any moment, through the always-on relationships we have with and through technology – the very last thing that many would wish to be reminded of (127).

The fact that the facility in this Black Mirror episode is always on means an enormous demand of energy needed to keep the place running. These imposed “always-on relationships” alienate the characters within, who have hopes of eventually escaping, thus renewing the cycle (pardon the pun) of their lives being spent on energy bikes.

A final consideration about human relationships to energy arises out of Richard Heinberg’s book, The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrialized Societies, when he writes of how, over the course of centuries, humanity’s “increasingly utilitarian frame of mind led them to begin treating other human beings as tools” (27). With the rise of energy-capturing and energy-reliant tools, writes Heinberg, sources and systems of energy have consolidated and allocated energy distribution to non-local places (27). Further, the growing complexity of human societies has lead to hyper-specialization within individual “technological-economic ‘ecosystem[s]’” (27). In “Fifteen Million Merits,” for instance, each corridor of exercise bikes serves as a microcosm of both familiarity and social currency. Each character can feel better about themselves when another out-of-shape, overweight person is kicked off the bike, bound to become a “lemon.” Dominance is established by characters like Dustin, throughout the episode, as they mindlessly buy into the internal dominance hierarchies within the facility. Dustin thinks that he can treat others contemptibly simply because he’s “put his time in on the bike.” In the same way, historical sources of energy have formed these “ecosystems” that Heinberg describes, rendering a kind of meritocratic contempt for the unsuccessful society to be treated as subhuman. Heinberg claims that we use tools to “adapt ourselves” to a variety of habitats,” which function like “prosthetic devices” (25). In this instance, the compulsory exercise and energy generation on the bikes is a way of demonstrating human adaptation; people don’t wield tools, tools wield people. By this conception, the oppressive relationships between human and bike in this episode becomes a kind of “prosthetic device,” allowing rapport and social cache to develop with the hopes of working hard enough to retire the bike for good.

Over the course of the episode’s second arc, Bing furiously works towards achieving fifteen million merits once more. This time, his efforts are not for Abi, but rather for himself. Rage, resentment, and bitterness have consumed Bing’s heart since the atrocious conscription of Abi into the pornographic Wraith Babes channel. The episode frames a montage of Bing now getting up impossibly early, cycling far more than anyone else, climbing back high with a newfound determination. He endures watching all the adverts, even the porn ones. He miserly monitors his spending, ensuring he uses only one merit for toothpaste. He waits for the vending machines to jam up so he can fish the food out for himself. He waits for people to leave their scraps behind before snatching them up greedily. Eventually, weary from merciless determination and effort, Bing reaches 15,000,000. He stops, gets off the bike. Now, with enough merits, Bing purchases another Hot Shots ticket, and slips a shard of glass into his waistband, along with the used Cuppliance from Abi’s visit. Bing fakes a dance routine, sneaking past the guards, concealing the shard of glass. On stage at last, Bing raises this shard of glass to his throat and, shaking, delivers an impassioned speech, the highlights of which are worth reproducing here at length:

“It’s not people, you don’t see people up here […] Real pain, real viciousness: that we can take. Stick a fat man up a pole and we’ll laugh ourselves feral because we’ve earned the right. We’ve done saddletime and he’s slacking, the scum, so ha ha ha at him. We’ll happily meld with the sheer callous madness of it because we’re so out of our minds with desperation we don’t know any better. All we know is fake fodder and buying shit. That’s how we speak to each other, how we express ourselves; buying shit. ‘I have a dream’? […] We buy shit that’s not even there. Show us something real and free and beautiful? You couldn’t. Cos it’d break us. We’re too numb for it; our minds would choke.”

Embedded in Bing’s captivating and extemporaneous rant is a fusion of the ideas of energy and power that have been explored here. Putting in the “saddletime,” according to Bing, is a way of justifying the status quo. For inside this facility, the status quo is social stratification, enslavement, and the worst parts of consumerist capitalism – all perpetuated by bike pedals.

Bing doesn’t have access to the outside world; these ideas are all raw, his own. But his psychological insight rings in harmony with the ideas of energy and power reinforcing each other. The production of energy in this bike-bound society is what allows any of them to have their own lives; the maintenance of their lives allows corrupt power structures to end up controlling them. Bing, and perhaps many others, recognizes this fusion when he concludes his ardent monologue:

“We’ve grown inside this machine, breathed its air too long. There’s only so much wonder we can bear. That’s why when you find any wonder whatsoever, you dole it out in meagre portions — and only then when it’s been augmented and packaged and pumped through ten thousand pre-assigned filters till it’s nothing more than a meaningless series of lights to stare into while we ride, day in, day out: going where? Powering what? Powering the whole distraction engine. All tiny cells and tiny screens and bigger cells and bigger screens and FUCK YOU.”

Bing – impassioned, tired, adrenaline burnt out – goes silent. The hall goes silent. Stunned but composed, dignity on public display, the unexpected occurs. Shockingly, Judge Hope offers Bing a 30 minute show twice a week where he’s encouraged to “perform” like this again, this “gimmick” of ranting with a shard to his throat.

This moment of truth for Bing’s character toes the line of what Tim Jordan describes as “culture jamming.” For Jordan, culture jamming is “an attempt to reverse and transgress the meaning of cultural codes whose primary aim is to persuade us to buy something or be someone” (102). Culture jamming bears particular relevance to ecocriticism and its relationship to viral marketing, attempting to stop or change a particular politically salient conversation and shed light on otherwise obscured or silenced issues (e.g. the BP oil spill). In Black Mirror, Bing is conscripted into the very “distraction engine” that has kept him on the bike, that took away his brother, that took away Abi. His protest has succeeded and, when presented with this prisoner’s dilemma, his resolve comes into question.

Bing’s reaction can be usefully described in Eleftheria Lekakis’ article on the relationship between climate change activism, culture jamming, and what she describes as “the logic of appropriation” (312). For Lekakis, forms of “discursive political consumerism” tend to recycle themselves (e.g. the Truth campaign against the tobacco industry). Culture jamming, seen through the logic of appropriation, “appears to be a modality of creative activism creative activism that both asserts the power of consumer politics and contests the commercialization of social change” (312). Protest and resistance can quickly be appropriated by those in power, however. For, at this point in “Fifteen Million Merits,” it appears that Bing has won. He has made his point, left the world speechless, and perhaps generated true activism within the episode’s facility. Black Mirror offers a darker conclusion. Instead, offered with a life off the bike, offered bigger living quarters, merit-free amenities, Bing caves into power. The culture jamming has been reinscribed, rebranded, and, as Bing’s rant points out, repackaged, into the culture.

The episode doesn’t entirely wrap up Bing’s complicit relationship with the power structure that has enslaved him and so many others. Rather, the episode provides small snippets that suggest, amongst other things, that nothing has changed for the people inside the system, still toiling away on the bikes. Kai, a young man who has biked in Bing’s corridor throughout the episode, is seen at the end of the episode to be purchasing a “Bing Shard” for his dopple. Bing’s enraged rant, seen by everyone, has evidently become part of a fashion trend. It’s now cool, edgy even, to tack on this little sign of rebellion to one’s dopple. Of course, this shard doesn’t actually get anyone off the bikes. Implied in Bing’s absence is the fact that the powers that be won’t let another incident like Bing to be aired for all to see. Rather, the episode concludes in Bing’s newly expanded apartment. We see Bing’s new show end, and watch him carefully rest his shard of glass perspex in a velvet case. This “gimmick” has indeed become a gimmick. Bing has bought into the machine that he sought freedom from. And it seems that the amenities have coerced him into complacency: he drinks from a chilled carafe of orange juice, stretches out over the wide apartment, and saunters over to the windows on the other side of his apartment. But these windows are deceptive. The episode’s script reads, “And he stands before an immense window overlooking a beautiful green forest, resplendent beneath deep blue skies.” And yet, clearly, this immense window is just another series of digital screens. It looks real, but the viewer gets the ominous sense that even this newly found freedom from the energy bikes is its own kind of imprisonment. The power structures, momentarily rendered visible by Bing’s righteous indignation, are once again obscured, made invisible by the dominant culture.

“Fifteen Million Merits” presents the kind of future that most technocratic thinkers denounce as far behind societal progress. It’s thought that technological advancements will bring about a more fair, equal society that provides energy access to all who seek it. This attitude is also borne out of the sorts of intersectionality that Ecocriticism adheres to; it’s thought that paying attention to how issues of social justice overlap with environmental and energy issues will be enough to solve the problem. Black Mirror suggests something more bleak: as long as there are dominant modes in control of energy and energy production, as long as we are mindlessly enslaved to our digital lives at the expense of our real ones, these problems of energy, social power, and social justice will only compound in their pernicious consequences. Individual efforts, like Bing’s, to subvert the dominant modes of discourse and power, will be squashed by the strength of the system itself. Collective efforts, virtually impossible within the world of “Fifteen Million Merits,” are also doomed to fail because of social complicity and political apathy. Culture jamming, in this instance, is doomed to be conscripted into the very culture itself.

If “Fifteen Million Merits” teaches anything, it’s that optimistic vignettes of the future fail to seriously engage with the all-pervasive forces of entrenched capitalism and unregulated technological development. As technology increases in scope and scale, so too will inequality increase. If we don’t stare this brutal fact in the face now, far before any such energy bike-driven dystopia comes into being, then the future might look something not altogether unlike the Black Mirror hellscape. “Fifteen Million Merits” mordantly critiques the picturesque mirages of the future, not out of some kind of sadism (although that too, at times), but out of an authentic need to think about these questions now. Even better, Black Mirror insists, start thinking about them yesterday.

Works Cited

Heinberg, Richard. The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies. New Society Publishers, 2008.

Johnson, Bob. “Energy Slaves: Carbon Technologies, Climate Change, and the Stratified History of the Fossil Economy.” American Quarterly, vol. 68 no. 4, 2016, pp. 955-979.

Jordan, Tim. Activism! Direct action, hacktivism and the future of society. London, UK: Reaktion Books, 2002.

Eleftheria J. Lekakis. “Culture jamming and Brandalism for the environment: The logic of appropriation.” Popular Communication, vol. 15, no. 4, 2017, pp. 311-327.

Shannon, Laurie. “Greasy Citizens and Tallow-Catches: Early Modern Equivocations on Fuel.” PMLA, vol. 126, no. 2, 2011, pp. 311-313.

Singh, Greg. “Recognition and the Image of Mastery as Themes in Black Mirror (Channel 4, 2011–Present): An Eco-Jungian Approach to ‘Always-On’ Culture.” International Journal of Jungian Studies, vol. 6, no. 2, May 2014, pp. 120-132.

Szeman, Imre. “Literature and Energy Futures.” PMLA, vol. 126, no.2, 2011, pp. 323-325.


Narratricide: An Analysis of the Tree in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot

March 1, 2017


“I don’t know why, but I just don’t trust trees. I appreciate that they are supposed to provide oxygen for us, but I’m not entirely sure that I believe that. They intimidate me—probably because I’ll end up dressed in one before long.”
—Jarvis Cocker

The famously sparse stage directions of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot begin with three terse images: “A country road. A tree. Evening.” Beckett’s simple images are often deceptive and transmographic – ideas that resist any artistic tendency to linger over specificity or detail. Lest the mind become lulled into lazy, comfortable patterns of thinking, Beckett creates images that take on quasi-symbolic roles, serving to provoke an unclarity in the imagination. This lack of clarity is employed by Beckett to suggest what is suggestible but isn’t already there on stage, or on paper, mise en scene. Of the three opening stage directions, the tree becomes of most concern – mostly because it recurringly appears, but also because of its narratological significance. Though the tree appears to be as symbolically feeble as its branches, it keeps Godot’s characters rooted to the spot throughout the play.

Beckett’s stage directions are rather bare like Godot’s tree, and have presented a challenge to set designers over the years. Indeed, Beckett himself fell victim to his own brevity in 1961, attempting to revive Godot in Paris. At the time, Beckett had found himself persistently critical of the productions of his own works, particularly the shortcomings of set designers for Godot. Thus, in 1961, Beckett reached out to Alberto Giacometti, a sculptor with whom he had long held drinking ties. Giacometti’s task was to collaborate with Beckett on the (in)famed tree’s design, a task which “confounded them both.” Beckett and Giacometti spent the whole night sculpting Godot’s tree, “trying to make it sparser, smaller, the branches thinner. It never looked any good,” wrote Giacometti, “and neither he nor I liked it. And we kept saying to each other, Perhaps like this…” It is with this anecdote in mind that Siobhan Bohnacker writes, “What motivates Beckett’s protagonists is the pursuit of the Absolute, similar to [Beckett and Giacometti’s] persistent, deep-rooted doubt that they would ever find the perfect artistic form.” In comparing Beckett and Giacometti to Godot’s characters, Estragon and Vladimir, one can see how Beckett eventually embodied the very “plot” to which he subjected Godot’s characters: waiting. It’s as though Beckett, in leaving the stage directions as bare as the tree he wrote, was playing a trick on himself, taunting his future self’s frustrated attempts to reify what would otherwise belong to the hidden, personal realms of the imagination.

Beckett’s tree frustrated not only himself and his sculpting companion, but the characters in (and audiences to) Godot as well. In Beckett’s play, the tree is first acknowledged by the characters when Estragon questions Vladimir on why they are, in fact, waiting for Godot – and yet this serves to calm no one and solves no questions:

Estragon: [despairingly] Ah! [Pause.] You’re sure it was here?
Vladimir: What?
Estragon: That we were to wait.
Vladimir: He said by the tree. [They look at the tree.] Do you see any others.
Estragon: What is it?
Vladimir: I don’t know. A willow.
Estragon: Where are the leaves?
Vladimir: It must be dead.
Estragon: No more weeping.
Vladimir: Or perhaps it’s not the season.

The tree, in this scene, serves as an organizing plot device which anchors Vladimir and Estragon to the location that will remain constant on stage throughout Godot’s performance. They are waiting there, on stage, because “he” (presumably Godot) told them to wait by the tree. And yet, “he” is never quite specified, nor is Godot ever made present to Beckett’s characters. It’s as though this tree were a stand-in for Godot himself. What’s curious about this interpretation, however, is in the symbolism underlying Vladimir’s characterization of the tree as “a willow” and the subsequent exchange that follows. For the image of the willow tree is religiously charged, both in the Celtic and Christian traditions (which Beckett, an Irish expatriate, would be no stranger to). Planted in memorial of the dead, a willow tree is a sign both of grief and of hope for new life. Furthermore, willows are usually planted along the coast of a body of water, at a site that physically represents the ever-changing nature of life. It is with these mortal concerns in mind that one can find morbid humor in Estragon’s classic non-sequitur, “No more weeping.”

The debate between Estragon and Vladimir regarding the tree’s “tree” status is also of note for Godot. In an otherwise humorous exchange that wouldn’t be out of place in a Monty Python skit, the tree is examined:

Estragon: Looks to me more like a bush.
Vladimir: A shrub.
Estragon: A bush.
Vladimir: A–. What are you insinuating? That we’ve come to the wrong place?

As the characters argue about the nature of the tree (as a beaconing object) by which they were told to wait for Godot, they simultaneously call its role as a symbol into question. If we entertain the common interpretation of Godot’s (lack of) arrival as symbolizing salvation for Vladimir and Estragon (i.e. Waiting for Salvation), then the characters, as early as the sixth page of the play, negate the tree’s possibility as a “site of salvation.” For, in questioning its existence as a tree, Vladimir and Estragon question salvation itself. Despite their simultaneous faith and eschatological skepticism towards Godot’s arrival, the characters remain rooted to the spot, in vain, waiting for Godot.

Staring into the blank, infinite morass of boredom, Estragon eventually offers to Vladimir a solution to confront their own existential ennui: “What about hanging ourselves?” In other words, Estragon presents an inversion to their own hopeless situation of boredom; if salvation isn’t coming for them, then they must confront it themselves, by suicide. Both characters rather abruptly agree that hanging themselves would indeed be a welcome respite from their endless waiting (as Estragon continues, “Let’s hang ourselves immediately!”). Yet, Beckett doesn’t allow the tree to provide the characters (or the audience, in fact) with the means to flee their existential confinement. Rather, as the characters quickly discover, the tree’s branches wouldn’t be strong enough to hang even one of them. Thus, Estragon and Vladimir are forced to abandon their suicidal impulses (to kill time), lingering around this tree, waiting for Godot.

Act Two begins with more robust stage directions, including how “The tree has four or five leaves,” a marked change from yesterday’s bare limbs. The stage directions continue, as Vladimir enters “agitatedly” and “halts,” taking a long look at the tree. Then, as though the tree’s regeneration has sparked some kind of revelation (or panic) in Vladimir’s mind, he “suddenly begins to move feverishly about the stage.” Unlike the introduction to Act One, the second act overtly begins with the tree as the main object of concern in the play. As critics of Godot, such as Emily Atkins, have suggested, the tree’s very obvious presence in the beginning of the second act is an “indication of the characters’ impending salvation.” The dawn of the new day in Act Two is accompanied by a seemingly symbolic regeneration of the tree – an act which harkens (and yet subverts) mythology from time immemorial such as the Tree of Life, the Tree of Knowledge, and so on. The tree’s regeneration deceptively suggests that the second act will bring about the conclusion for which Vladimir, Estragon, and the audience, are waiting for.

Further on in Godot’s second act, Vladimir and Estragon reenact a scene from Act One. Estragon asks Vladimir what they do now that they are “happy,” to which Vladimir responds, “Wait for Godot. [Estragon groans. Silence.] Things have changed here since yesterday.” After a moment of puzzlement between the two characters, Vladimir implores Estragon to look at the tree:

Vladimir: The tree, look at the tree. [Estragon looks at the tree.]
Estragon: Was it not there yesterday?
Vladimir: Yes of course it was there. Do you not remember? We nearly hanged ourselves
    from it. But you wouldn’t. Do you remember?
Estragon: You dreamt it.
Vladimir: Is it possible you’ve forgotten already?
Estragon: That’s the way I am. Either I forget immediately or I never forget.

This exchange between Beckett’s characters must indeed be as frustrating to the audience as it is to his characters. As far as the audience (and Vladimir) is concerned, the tree is the same – give or take a few leaves. Estragon, on the other hand, in the act of forgetting, radically calls the tree’s continuity into question: “Recognize! What is there to recognize?” However, as Atkins suggests, Estragon is not madly arguing against Vladimir’s memory – the tree is clearly on set, and the characters have interacted with it multiple times – thus Estragon’s “exclamation” of recognition must be interpreted as his undermining the very stability of symbolic meaning, as well as the stability of memory’s fixation of objects (such as the tree) in time. Atkins concludes that Estragon’s outburst “undermines any hope that the tree is moving toward a symbol of possible redemption, despite its new leaves.”

Further on in Godot, Vladimir and Estragon return to their hollow affirmations of happiness. Trailing off between ellipses, Vladimir drones on:

Vladimir: Wait…we embraced…we were happy..happy…what do we do now that we’re happy…go on waiting…waiting…let me think…it’s coming…go on waiting…now that we’re happy…let me see…ah! The tree!
Estragon: The tree?
Vladimir: Do you not remember?
Estragon: I’m tired.
Vladimir: Look at it. [They look at the tree.]
Estragon: I see nothing.

As Vladimir seems to recognize in this scene of meditation around the tree, happiness is manifest through his memory, not through his experience of the present. His insistence that “we were happy” [my italics] coupled with “go on waiting” indicates that happiness, as conceptualized in Godot, is as transient as the other fleeting aspects of this play. That is, happiness is something only identifiable in retrospect, and if we seek to prosthetically emulate the feeling in the present, then we will, like Vladimir, “go on waiting.” The characters in Godot are so intent on coming to an end – a conclusion, a closed stage curtain, Godot’s arrival, etc. – that they have, like Estragon, missed what has been right in front of their eyes for the entire play: the tree and its new leaves.

Vladimir is not willing to allow Estragon’s forgetfulness to distract the audience from the tree’s newly formed leaves. He insists that the tree has significance, that the seasons have changed, that time has passed:

Vladimir: But yesterday evening it was all black and bare. And now it’s covered with leaves.
Estragon: Leaves?
Vladimir: In a single night.
Estragon: It must be the Spring.
Vladimir: But in a single night!

Vladimir and Estragon have radically different interpretations of the tree’s imbued significance, both as a stage prop and a symbol of potential meaning. Vladimir, excited by the tree’s new leaves, projects hope (for the future, for life, for creation) onto the tree, while Estragon sees the tree with a sense of loss (of memory, of time, of meaning). Atkins suggests that, “by playing with the image in this way, Beckett removes its ability to convey a set answer or explanation to his characters or his audience. It is up to each person to determine for himself the tree’s ultimate significance.” The tree, devoid of objective meaning, purposefully presented as an anti-symbolic image, becomes itself a kind of character – one which the audience must interact with as they negotiate the tree’s meaning.

The tree, understood as a symbol of a symbol, is an instance of what H. Porter Abbot calls “narratricide,” a dismemberment of narrative meaning. In his book, Beckett Writing Beckett, Abbot writes, “[Beckett’s] texts are littered everywhere with the barest fragments of narrative irrelevancy which lead nowhere and […] frequently feature objects,” a tree in this case, “which augment their alinear, achronological condition.” The tree in Godot, according to Abbot, augments the achronological condition of Vladimir and Estragon’s predicament, serving to alienate (rather than situate) them within the broader narrative arc – if that could be said – of Godot. Beckett, it would seem, “unwrites” his images as soon as he allows us to see them.

As the second act progresses, Vladimir and Estragon mistakenly hope for a moment that Godot is on his way (“At last!” “We’re saved!”), only to panic in the realization that they are “surrounded.” The characters rush to escape the scene, and Vladimir says to Estragon:

Vladimir: Your only hope is to disappear.
Estragon: Where?
Vladimir: Behind the tree. [Estragon hesitates.] Quick! Behind the tree. [Estragon goes and crouches behind the tree, realizes he is not hidden, comes out from behind the tree.] Decidedly this tree will not have been the slightest use to us.

This moment of comic relief demonstrates yet again the tree’s loss of all objective meaning. Not only is the tree “useless” to the characters as a source of symbolic meaning, but it is useless as a physical prop to hide behind. Vladimir’s remark, despite its self-referential tone, speaks to our need as an audience to have allegorical meaning imbued in scenes such as this one in Godot. By resisting the obvious symbolism of trees, Beckett presents to us an image as image, or, as Abbot writes, “an image of an image.” The image of an image, in Abbot’s conception, is not penetrable in the way that a traditionally symbolic image would be. The tree, then, does not offer concrete, objective meaning to the audience; it rather opens up the audience to projecting their own meaning onto the tree.

As Godot concludes, Estragon suggests to Vladimir that they abandon their persistent waiting. This sense of downtrodden failure, fatigue, and spiritual famine culminates in one final scene with the tree:

Estragon: And if we dropped him? [Pause.] If we dropped him?
Vladimir: He’d punish us. [Silence. He looks at the tree.] Everything’s dead but the tree.
Estragon: [looking at the tree] What is it?
Vladimir: It’s the tree.

To this end, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s On Certainty comes to mind, in which he expounds upon theories of epistemic agreement. “The information ‘That is a tree,’ when no one could doubt it,” Wittgenstein writes, “might be a kind of joke and as such have meaning.” In this light, Vladimir’s remark, “It’s the tree,” become itself a sort of joke which we, the audience, are in on. Wittgenstein’s idea is that making obvious remarks, such as Vladimir’s, is a way of turning what is otherwise forgettably mundane into something remarkably memorable – in this case, Godot’s tree. Vladmir’s comment could also be interpreted as “a platitude that houses a profundity,” as Matthew Bevin suggests, or that the presence of the tree is a paradox: “things are both clear and not clear.” If Bevin is correct, then Wittgenstein’s remark that “a good and serious philosophical work could be written that would consist entirely of jokes” becomes all the more relevant to Beckett’s play. For, as is frustratingly evident in Beckett’s writings, Beckett was well-versed in philosophy and yet refused to engage seriously in its work. If Wittgenstein can be read as applying to Beckett, then it seems that this tree – a joke, in Wittgenstein’s conception – appears to meta-textually evoke the sort of “serious” philosophical work that Beckett refused to write.

[Estragon draws Vladimir towards the tree. They stand motionless before it. Silence.]
Estragon: Why don’t we hang ourselves?


Love at Last Sight

March 10, 2016


The Flaneur is he who wanders, observes, and turns those observations into works of art; but perhaps the most crucial detail specific to the Flaneur’s activities is his seeing in motion, seeing in time. That is, the Flaneur pays primacy to the fleeting, fugitive aspects of life. William Carlos Williams’ works most clearly exemplify this constant characteristic of change. His poetry, both literally and metaphorically, moves through spaces, through time. Reading Williams as a Flaneur, in addition to his being a doctor and a poet, reveals the ways in which Flaneurs have captured something in their works, something reflecting a deep-seated wisdom about the present moment, namely, the Modern.

William Carlos Williams was a man who spent much of his life in motion. As a doctor, he was incessantly immigrating from house call to house call; he was seeing the world in motion. Constantly faced with the births of many newborn babies, Williams invariably was forced to see the world in time. One could go on about Williams’ biography, but this motion and time with which Williams navigated his everyday life moves into his poetry as well. For example, in “Aux Imagistes,” he wrote of the motion of blossoms: “I think I have never been so exalted, / As I am now by you, / O frost bitten blossoms, / That are unfolding your wings / From out the envious black branches.” In this opening stanza, Williams gives the flower blossoms agency of a kind; the “unfolding” of “your” wings is juxtaposed with the “envious” branches. This agency suggests not only the literal movement of unfolding wings, but that the plant itself will soon follow with spring’s insistence.

The poem continues, “Bloom quickly and make much of the sunshine. / The twigs conspire against you! / Hear them! / They hold you from behind!” The easy target of this second stanza is the word “quickly,” as the reminder of temporality is interpolated by the poem’s narrator. There are, however, several more subtle suggestions of movement and time within this stanza. The invocation to “make much of the sunshine” implicitly acknowledges the fleetingness of daylight, how night will return, how the seasons change. The anthropomorphic, conspiratory “twigs” of this stanza also implicate how the changing of the seasons will soon rid the plant of blooms, and restore it with leaves. Even the image Williams’ poem provides, “They hold you from behind,” suggests a literal, physical movement of the twigs–militantly, as though fighting to take back territory–to retake the branches from which the blossoms now dwell. Both elements of the Flaneur’s seeing in motion, and seeing in time, surreptitiously dominate the background of this poem, in the form of a plant, thus far.

This poem’s final stanza, however, pulls together these threads of motion and time nicely: “You shall not take wing / Except wing by wing, brokenly, / And yet– / Even they / Shall not endure for ever.” The image of a wing is one which conjures the image of some bird or butterfly, some animal capable to freely move, unfettered, through the air. To characterize this poem’s plant as one bearing wings is peculiar, but not in the analogical realm. That is, the wings of this plant may be as literal as its leaves, but the following line, “wing by wing, brokenly,” can be read as each leaf falling, wing by wing (one by one), brokenly (leaving the plant bare). In other words, the plant will try to fill itself out in vain. It struggles against the weather, the elements, the seasons, and does what it can. But it will lose leaf by leaf, inexorably, in the end: “And yet– / Even they / Shall not endure for ever.” This poem’s closing stanza acknowledges the physical changes in the plant over time–capturing both of the Flaneur’s fluid fascinations of motion and time. On the surface, one might not be inclined to attribute movement to plants, or think of them as anything remotely exciting to watch in time. However, as evidenced by William Carlos Williams’ many plant images throughout his poems, plants were something he saw as very much in motion. This poem is an example of the very thing Williams read into the world itself: Motion and Time.

A less abstract instance of Williams’ seeing in the Flaneur’s fashion is seen in his poem, “The Young Housewife.” This poem begins “At ten A.M.” where this young housewife “moves about” from the narrator’s perspective, behind the walls of “her husband’s house.”. Initially, time has already been accounted for in the very first line; motion has been observed in the housewife, motion contrasted against the still backdrop of her husband’s house. The narrator, himself, is also in motion, as he passes, “solitary in [his] car.” Not only is the housewife in motion, but so is the narrator. The poem continues, “Then again she comes to the curb,” suggesting both the further movement of the housewife “to the curb,” but “again,” as though the narrator has watched her make this movement repeatedly. As the narrator continues on, he witnesses her “shy, uncorseted, tucking in / stray ends of hair, and I compare her / to a fallen leaf.” The narrator’s noticing of her lack of corset reveals the movement of his eyes, and her tucking in of hair provides the reader with a fluid motion of delicate fingers securing loose locks of hair into proper place. But why compare her to a fallen leaf? Given the value Williams gives to the motion and time of plants, this image suggests that this woman does not belong on the metaphorical tree from which she came: her husband’s “wooden walls.” One wonders if this woman as unhappy in her marriage, sexually inviting in a “shy” way, perhaps even as adulterous, as she comes out to meet the “ice-man” and “fish-man” in an “uncorseted” manner. Returning to the narrator’s emphasis on seeing her make these motions “again,” it could be that the narrator has indeed concluded that this young housewife is indeed unhappy in her marriage. All of these possibilities branch out into realms of speculation, all containing within them the transformative movement and time with which the Flaneur sees the world.

The poem concludes: “The noiseless wheels of my car / rush with a crackling sound over / dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling.” This final stanza captures further the themes of motion and time, and even harks back to the speculative connection between the “fallen leaf” and “wooden walls,” given the sound of “dried leaves” as the narrator passes by. That is, Williams used the image of leaves twice in this poem: once “dried,” and once “fallen.” Like with “Aux Imagistes,” these leaves could be literal, but a connection between the “dried” and “fallen” leaves is begging to be made. For example, the plurality to the leaves at the end of the poem leaves open the possibility of being in a crowd, rather than literally in a car. If this woman is a leaf, and he is driving amongst the leaves, then perhaps he is in a crowd, not as isolated as the poem insists. In any case, this poem serves as an illustration of the brief encounters of modern life, the fleeting nature of motion and time, in Williams’ poetry.

These two poems, “Aux Imagistes,” and “The Young Housewife,” are but a sliver of the kind of vision which Williams’ poetry offers. It is as though Williams saw the movements of life and love and lust in every realm of his life. As banal as a plant, or as seductive as an uncorseted young woman, Williams’ penetrating clarity of observation reveals the effects of modernity on the Flaneur. It is as though, borrowing from Walter Benjamin’s writings on the Flaneur, Williams’ delight was not “love at first sight,” but, rather, “love at last sight.”The plant evoked a motion and moniker of temporality to Williams because he was seeing these blossoms about to be “conspired against” by the twigs. He was seeing the blossoms “at last sight” when he stumbled upon them. Also, with the housewife, Williams saw the young housewife, who may not love her husband, who has a story ongoing in time with his own. But he passed her by. He saw her love “at last sight,” as though it may as well be over before it had begun. These kinds of seeing, Benjamin calls the “never” of the poet’s encounter with this notion of “love at last sight.” The “never” Benjamin describes is “the high point of the encounter, when the poet’s passion seems to be frustrated but in reality bursts out of him like a flame.” That is, the poet’s “passion” which “bursts” forth is, in Williams’ case, his poetry; Williams was intent on documenting these “nevers.” There is a sensuous delight in the involvement we have–only once!–with the blossom, with the plant, with the housewife, and from which life then continues. Seeing the world as fleeting, fugitive, and full of wonder to be had–including the “nevers”–seems to be the philosophy with which Williams navigated his everyday life. Taking the moment to recognize and transcribe these “nevers” into poetry was, to Williams, more the point than the passing itself.