Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Tolkien: prophet of the posthuman?

Lately I've been hard at work on my dissertation proposal. For the last three weeks, I have fretted, researched, written and re-written, and then scrambled to submit it last-minute, committee approval still pending (at this point, I have 2 out of 4 signatures...I'll keep everyone updated.) So, the other day I was completely exhausted, both physically and mentally, and looking for something comforting and familiar to watch as I propped my awkward achey self up on couch pillows to rest as comfily as possible on my left side (can anyone out there enlighten me as to the actual mechanics of why the left side is better than the right for pregnant women? c'mon, Al, this is a plea directed straight at you). So I popped in the The Lord of the Rings and settled in. The cat joined me, I had a cup of tea within reach, and it seemed that relaxation was within my grasp.

And discovered that dissertation-brain, even when acute and causing apparent total cessation of coherent thought, is not a condition that can be cured even with a good movie familiar after dozens of viewings. Instead, I found myself riveted by the implications of Galadriel's recounting of the story of the One Ring. I found myself interpreting the whole thing as a fable of bad technology and the menace of the posthuman.

So here it is: LOTR as a posthuman cautionary tale.

The Ring as technology: 1) "It began with the forging of the rings." The rings are manufactured items. They are made deliberately and with crafty skill, not found lying about, simply there as a natural given. 2) "the Ring of Power has a will of its own." The Ring, like all technology, is an object, not a person. And yet the Ring is consistently personified, as if it did have sentience and its own wishes and desires. It possesses an uncanny measure of autonomy. Despite being wielded by its wearer, the Ring itself works in its own way, sometimes contrary to the wishes of the wearer. This is extremely similar to the depiction of technologies in Neil Postman's Technopoly: a technology, once in play, will do whatever it does. 3) "victory was near; but the power of the Ring could not be undone." That is (again borrowing from Postman), once a technology is in play, it cannot be un-played. Whatever the consequences are, they are not reversible.

The Ring as unqualifiedly bad technology: 1) The character of the Ring is derived from the character of the one who made it: Sauron. This equation, very clear in the story, might force us to ask, is this one possible way to distinguish between "good" and "bad" technologies in reality? Or is this an oversimplification which works nicely in a grand epic tale, but falls apart when comsidering the deep moral ambivalence of all human beings, which is mirrored in our technologies? 2) The wise fear to use the Ring, even for good purposes. Gandalf refuses the Ring when Frodo presses it on him, explaining, "I dare not. I would use this ring from a desire to do good, but through me it would wield a power too great and terrible to imagine." The same sentiment is voiced again at the Council of Elrond, in response to Boromir, and is echoed again in Galadriel's refusal to take up the ring. The reverse of the wise position is shown in the character of Saruman, whose downfall into foolishness is yet another piece of bad technology: the palantir. When Gandalf rebukes him, calling it a "dangerous tool," Saruman's reply is blunt and revealing: "Why should we fear to use it?"

The dichotomy of Technology versus Nature: 1) The clearest example of this is Saruman's transformation of Isengard into an industrial factory and strip mine. In the movie this is shown to great visual effect--all the great trees being torn down and cast into great glowing pits as fuel for the fires of industry. The word "industry," in fact, is invoked by Saruman as he gloats over his hellish new empire. 2) Hobbits are an incarnation of the "natural." They live underground and walk barefoot--literally and symbolically close to the earth. They are childlike and innocent. Their enormous appetites are a celebration of the goodness of the natural gift of food. Their way of life and culture is depicted as agricultural and unchanging; they have no sense of "Progress" and they are isolated from the wider world which, presumably, does. This furnishes an explanation of why hobbits are depicted as possessing an unanticipated strength in resisting the unnaturalizing power of the Ring. 3) There is a contrast between technology and magic throughout; technology is unnatural, that is, manufactured, but magic draws upon the power of things as they already are (the Ents, Arwen's use of the river). This can be seen in the movie as symbolized by the differences in Gandalf's staff and Saruman's; Gandalf carries a gnarled stick of wood, while Saruman carried a pointy iron thing that looks manufactured, ugly, dangerous, and above all, unnatural. Gandalf could've picked his up off the forest floor, but Saruman obviously could not have.

The motif of power: 1) Obviously, Sauron's quest for total control over Middle Earth is as naked a bid for power as could be. 2) "Nine rings were given to the race of men, who above all else desire power." Though the rings themselves count as bad technology, and the purpose of them is indeed to "govern each race," the real fault is located squarely in the realm of human nature, and is depicted as a universal fault. This could equally serve as a description of Sauron, and Saruman (although there is also a tinge of despair in his conversation with Gandalf). Thus the danger of bad technology is again bound up not only in its own nature but in the character of those who chose to wield it. (This brings one to the theological dimension, as what we're really talking about is a characterization of original sin. Aragorn, as the one man who can resist the temptation of the ring, is thus "sinless," making him a bit of a Christ figure. I think there are other weaker clues toward this as well but this is the main one. He is willing to lead, but not willing to grasp at power.)

The posthuman: 1) what could be more obvious than Orcs. In the movie we see Saruman manufacturing his Orc army in a gross combination of warped nature and technology. It is clear that their origin is completely unnatural. There is a hint in the dialogue elsewhere that the real origin of Orcs lies with Sauron and that they are a perverted form of Elf. What's interesting to me about this juxtaposition is that if Orcs are "made" and they are also a form of Elf, what is the genesis of Elves? Are Elves also generated in some way that circumvents the natural? One might be tempted to conclude that there might be a clean, moral, good version of this sort of genesis--but the love story of Arwen and Aragorn knocks that out. After all, if they establish a line of kings, it's clear that elves are equipped with wombs. So I think there's some fuzziness here, and it may be the fault of the movie and much more in clear in the books (I am obviously due for a new re-reading). 2) "the Ring gave to Gollum unnatural long life." Also to Bilbo. And, there are the scary shadowy figures of the Ringwraiths. As the word "unnatural" is itself invoked I think all that's pretty clear. But there's more to be said here. Wearing the rings is an incorporation of technology into one's body such that bodily integrity, while not visibly compromised, is invaded. The effects of the rings are perpetrated on one's own physical body and issue in unnatural long life. This "long life" is qualitatively different from the immortality of the elves (perhaps furnishing the reason that Galadriel can wear her ring and yet resist its badness?). Anyhow, the most compelling thing is to notice that the technology insinuates itself into one's very being; it affects the physical and it affects the personal dimension of existence as well--Gollum being the extreme example of what 500 years of the ring will do to a hobbit-like creature, and the Ringwraiths the extreme example of what the rings can do to human beings. 3) Finally, there is the open question of Sauron. Was he once human? No clue is ever given. But the figures of the Ringwraiths seem to function as "lesser Saurons," and they were clearly once human. Reading Sauron back through the interpretive lens of Rowling's Voldemort (who is obviously a reincarnation of Sauron--think about it--what is a Horcrux but a generic One Ring?), it is tempting to conclude that Sauron is more a posthuman than a Satan figure.

Okay, so that's what went through my mind as I tried relaxing on the couch with my movie. In retrospect, Legally Blonde for, like, the millionth time might have been a better choice for relaxation purposes.

7 comments:

jocelyn said...

I love it! Interesting thoughts. You're not alone in this. Even though I'm not writing a dissertation, I annoy my husband all the time with various readings of movies we're watching (though I freely admit that it's irritating when someone talks during a movie; you're smart to write it down!) I also commend your choice of material. I always end up doing things like discussing 'woman as commodity' in Indiana Jones or something...

Anyway, interesting insights. Hope all goes well with the proposal!

JTB said...

I made Brent pause a movie a couple nights ago so I could complain about how the line "parents aren't supposed to outlive their children, they just aren't," displayed an appalling lack of appreciation for how "the natural order" of things is dependent upon the advent of modern medical technologies (i.e., it's only in the last couple generations that parents can expect not have a certain percentage of their offspring not die in infancy/childhood--and even that is only true in certain places!). Clearly I was violating the spirit of the movie there. Normally I'm not quite so hardhearted a viewer...

Can I look for a post on 'woman as commodity' in Indiana Jones soon? :)

pat said...

Your mind never ceases to amaze me. How did my and Dad's DNA do this? I love this explanation. It makes perfect sense to me. What I love about reading your posts is that you can put down what you're thinking. I think it...I just can't organize it so that it makes sense and so that I can write it down. Your brain has evolved from my brain. It's a little scary...what will Baby ____ be like???

JTB said...

oooh, obviously she will be "posthuman" in the most brilliant and positive sense...

Sarah said...

This is really bloody brilliant. I never put it in the posthuman context before, and what is even better about it is that it forces the category of human to expand to include all rational/emotional creatures (I think emotion is part of reason, hence the linkage of the two), sort of like Thomas Aquinas does with angels.

I usually think of things from a fantasy angle, so I didn't make the distinction before between magic and technology, but I think it's a fruitful one. However, as I have grown and gradually had to disentangle and disenchant myself from the fairy-tale reality with which I surrounded myself most of my life, I have come to have issues with magic too. If you'll forgive the shameless self-promotion, here's the link to my ruminations on "The End of Magic":

http://www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft0202/articles/hinlicky.html

I am well aware that there is a factual error in reference to a volume of the Lord of the Rings, so I hope that any fanatics out there will kindly not bug me about it. :)

JTB said...

Bummer! Apparently First Things is holding a grudge against our server and the link doesn't work...

Wasn't it y'all who tipped me off to the distinction between magic/fantasy ("The Glove of Power") versus tech/sci-fi ("The Power Glove!") ?

James McKinnon said...

I really enjoyed your thoughts. The analysis was good within the scope of LOTR. I would like to see you expand the context to include Silmarillion. (Tolkien's history of Middle Earth)
Tolkien gives Sauron's background in Silmarillion.
Sauron and Gandalf are the same type of being. They are both what Hierocles called terrestrial daemons, or minor gods who can take human form. You should also take a look at Tolkien's creation myths in Silmarillion.
They are very Pythagorean. For Tolkien the Universe is a type of music streaming from a single consciousness he refers to, like Parmenides, as The One.
I would very much like to see your thoughts in this wider context, because what you've done so far is really brilliant.