Last night I watched a pair of films with my girlfriend, and they got me thinking about all the different ways we can approach the world, and the contents thereof. Usually on this website what I talk about links in with Heidegger, and I suppose these ideas will as well.
The first film was Howl’s Moving Castle, obviously. It makes me cry I think every time I see it. Studio Ghibli movies are always so earnest, and I’m a real sucker for it. Something about this one does it for me even more.
What makes it so much different for me is how naive it is in its pursuit of the idea that life without love is a curse. Each of the three main characters (Howl, Sophie, Calcifer) are either trapped in forms of life that they can’t escape, or are at constant risk of it– which means they’re still trapped, but just in a different way.
Sophie, the female lead, is trapped not only in a form of life that she sees as devoid of possibility, which is the condition we find her in at the start of the movie; she also literally gets trapped in an old woman’s body.
Howl and Calcifer meanwhile are stuck in a sort of narcissistic dyad: Calcifer, being a demon, is the sort of being that just does displace people’s hearts. Howl, being a transparently Faustian sort of guy, is just all too happy to trade his heart for power, regardless of the risk therein.
In the end, it’s the arrival of Sophie at the Moving Castle that makes it possible for Howl and Calcifer to break out of their cycle. What makes me cry is the bit at the end where the war is over, where love has conquered all and the main characters are all living in a beautiful harmony. It’s like an expression of the Platonic form of Home.
That’s why it was such a shock when decided to carry on our double bill by watching the documentary based on Thomas Picketty’s book Capital in the 21st Century. Which also made me want to cry but in the other way.
There is no strong throughline for Picketty’s like there is for Howl‘s. So it’ll be easier to describe the emotional effect in terms of contrasts: Where Howl‘s scenery is door-to-door gorgeous scenery handpainted in the sorts of colours you wish your dreams would show up in, Picketty’s is grey, and where it isn’t grey, it is in the garish, explosive shades of the ultra-rich. Think Donald Trump’s golden toilet. Where Howl’s is populated by people for whom the ultimate dream is harmony and wholeness, the persons referenced in Picketty’s are so dominated by enravelment in the financial system that personhood is something I maybe wouldn’t want to attribute to them.
Consider the following: Howl and Calcifer can be understood as trapped in a dysfunctional dyad because they’re each using the other instrumentally. Calcifer feeds on Howl’s heart and Howl uses Calcifer to power his magic, move about his castle, and show off to pretty girls.
Heidegger, in The Question Concerning Technology, would maybe refer to them as ‘enframed.’ Or otherwise as ‘being held in standing reserve.’ This is a dysfunctional form of relationship, where the thing being enframed is unable to be as it is uniquely in the context in which it originated, and towards the end to which it would naturally find itself oriented without outside interference.
Compare this dysfunctional relationship to the perils of colonialism and globalization outlined in Picketty’s: wherein the wealthy are depicted as relocating sites of industry internationally to maximize profit, and where their profits are cleverly hidden in offshore accounts to minimize taxes paid to the original contexts in which the transactions taxable originate.
We could understand this as a form of enframing, where the context in which the value originated ceased to be in a relationship of mutual relevance with the value itself. We could say that value extraction is problematic precisely because of the ex-tractive nature of it.
In The Gift of the Artist, Lewis Hyde describes a gift first as the primary carrier of value in human relations, ontologically prior to the transaction. Second, he describes a gift which is removed from its original context as ‘dead’; unable to propagate the original value which it signified through having been offered and accepted.
For Heidegger, it was an abomination that the Rhine would be dammed. This represented a harnessing of the otherwise self-determining and autopoetic operation of the world as expressed through the forces and resistances of a flowing river.
I’m not the first person to suggest in reaction to the Anthropocene Chaos that we might be best to treat the world like a gift and less like a resource that serves a part of a ‘standing reserve.’ So I won’t deliver any sermons on this topic.
At the same time, the contrast was so bitter because of what the awkward truths presented in Picketty’s entail, which is that it will become harder and harder across time to establish meaningful communities.
We could compare the empty shells of nations and communities hollowed out by rent-seeking to fields that have suffered from soil erosion. Where once it was possible for complex organisms– whether social or organic– to take root and find some nourishment in an environment that had not yet been completely instrumentalized, now we find ourselves like grains of dust, blown on the wind in whichever direction it decides to take us.
It’s possible that’s just my own experience as a ‘third culture kid.’ In which case I shouldn’t be projecting it. But I suspect that plenty of people have the experience of displacement from home that I’m talking about. Sometimes I wonder how many people would be willing to accept the agonizing atomization and loneliness of the lockdowns this year had they not had access to the internet. It poses an interesting question: what now valid incentives would we never have accepted before as worthwhile, that now we must act on because of what we can do with technology?
Regardless of what you think of Ted Kaczynski– I personally don’t think that nailbombing people is the right way to get your point across, though I can acknowledge it sure worked for him– he was right to point out that an industrial society is inevitably going to start instrumentalizing its citizens. He didn’t think there was any way around it. We can understand him as maybe a prototypical victim of technologization– an absolutely atomic subject. If so, then there’s plenty to fear. Or maybe we can understand him as a lone nutjob, and conclude that most people wouldn’t quite go that way if cut of wholly from society. But who’s to say?
In any case, I don’t know how to get my mind off the contrast between a beautiful garden, floating in the sky, populated by a chosen family in perfect love on the one hand, and a melting globe of plastic and smog, populated by animals who don’t know what’s good for them on the other. That’s the contrast I can’t live with: between that ideal harmony of the home and the screaming chaos of the planet. It sort of overwhelms me.