2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 57, summer 2016
Anti-gravity: Interstellar and the fictional betrayal of place
by Todd McGowan
One of the basic truths of modern science is that there will come a time when humans will no longer be able to inhabit the Earth. Either the Sun will cease to provide heat and light, the Earth will no longer grow food, a meteor will eliminate breathable air, or some other calamity will portend the end of humanity on Earth. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) addresses one of these scenarios with a portrait of humanity on the verge of extinction. In doing so, the film confronts one of the pivotal questions that philosophy has engaged since the birth of modern science: What is the subject’s relation to its place? Interstellar envisions the possibility of an emancipation from Earth and thus from place, and this depiction of emancipation gives the film a philosophical significance that is not immediately apparent.
Science fiction shares with philosophy a speculative basis, which is undoubtedly why science fiction films commonly intervene on philosophical questions. Though there are science fiction films that don’t really concern themselves with such questions, the genre as such tends in this direction. The speculative basis of science fiction leads directors like Nolan, whether they aim to or not, to wade into philosophical waters. Though Nolan indicates in his discussions of the film he has much more personal interest in the science of Interstellar than its philosophical implications, he nonetheless pushes the film in a direction that raises issues that he may have not intended to confront explicitly.
As a result, making sense of the film’s implications requires grasping its philosophical rather than simply its narrative trajectory. Interstellar shows that the place in which we are situated is confining and constraining; as a result, we must try to free ourselves from our rootedness in a place. But our inherent attachment to our rootedness renders this freedom almost impossible to achieve or even to imagine. The film must depict the path to freedom: it centers around the apparent impossibility of humanity’s escaping Earth to live elsewhere. Yet it also shows that to achieve this impossibility requires constructing a fiction—the fiction that the impossible is actually possible. The characters in Interstellar who cling to the fiction and invest themselves in it are able accomplish the impossible by transcending the limits of space and time. And the film presents this as an ethical contrast with those who attempt to take up a position outside of any fiction and to refuse its distortion.
Within the film, fictional distortion is not a retreat from reality but a way to engage in its transformation. In this way, the film takes up an ethical position linked to that of Hegel, who rejects the purity of Kant’s morality for the sake of adhering to a distorting fiction. One must embrace one’s distorted perspective rather than trying to eliminate the distortion. If participation in a fiction defines the ethics that the film advocates, the ultimate ethical position is that of the interpreter. Indeed, the film concludes by advocating interpretation as an emancipatory act that finally frees the characters from place. By taking up this critique of place, Interstellar aligns itself firmly on one side of a philosophical struggle that runs through the history of Western thought but comes to a head in the contrasting philosophies of Martin Heidegger and Hegel.
Kein Blut und Kein Boden
The fundamental disagreement between Heidegger and Hegel comes down to the status that each accords to place. For Heidegger, the disaster of modernity occurs through the loss of our rootedness in place. The great metaphysical error that modernity doubles down on is that it considers beings without regard to their place. We think of objects theoretically as present-at-hand (vorhanden) rather than in the act of using them or as ready-to-hand (zuhanden). As Heidegger puts it in Being and Time,
“In the ‘physical’ assertion that ‘the hammer is heavy’ we overlook not only the tool-character of the entity we encounter, but also something that belongs to any ready-to-hand equipment: its place. Its place becomes a matter of indifference.” [open endnotes in new window]
The danger of the failure to understand place isn’t just that we won’t properly conceive the hammer but that we will forget ourselves how to dwell on Earth. Place is constitutive for objects and for us, and without a sense of place, we are simply cast adrift.
Hegel has a much less sanguine view of place. In Hegel’s thought, place is a natural, contingent determination that one must leave behind. Through distancing oneself from one’s place, one becomes estranged but in the process gains freedom. In short, estrangement from place is the price of freedom. As a consequence of this idea, Hegel celebrates the modern failure to dwell rather than lamenting it in the way that Heidegger does. Dwelling may provide a sense of rootedness, but this rootedness is the emblem of a complete unfreedom. And unfreedom is not the end of the story for the subject. Unlike the stone that simply is where it is, the subject has the capacity to emancipate itself from its place; this emancipation occurs through its ability to distinguish itself as free from its place. The subject can gain freedom from rootedness by constructing a fiction that inaugurates the break from it. This freedom must initially be fictional because the subject is tied to its place. The subject exists in a context, but it constructs a fiction of itself as independent from this context and thus autonomous. Without constructing a fiction of freedom, no actual freedom is possible, and this is why Hegel argues for the primacy of the false in relation to the true.
In the Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel details the central role that the fiction—what he calls there the false—plays in the project of creating distinctions. Without an initial fiction that creates a distinction where none otherwise exists, we would have nothing to know and would remain the prisoners of place. As Hegel puts it,
"To know something falsely means that there is a disparity between knowledge and its Substance. But this very disparity is the process of distinguishing in general, which is an essential moment [in knowing].”
Without the fictional creation of distinctions, there is no knowledge at all, and this leads Hegel to see the logical priority that the false has relative to the true. The fiction is the origin of freedom, and freedom is always freedom from place.
Though all of Christopher Nolan’s films address the priority of the fiction and thus situate themselves within Hegel’s line of thought, Interstellar (2014) is the first to illustrate the fiction’s uprooting power, its role in emancipating the subject from its place. The film depicts a future Earth devastated by blight and on the verge of being unable to sustain human life. The loss of food sources portends humanity’s extinction. Against this backdrop, Nolan focuses on a former pilot, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), who discovers a secret NASA base where plans are underway to rescue humanity by leaving the planet rather than conserving it. Cooper pilots the spaceship that seeks out a habitable planet in another galaxy accessible through a wormhole located near Saturn. Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), Romilly (David Gyasi), and Doyle (Wes Bentley) accompany him, along with two robots, TARS and CASE. The key to the film lies in the identity of the creators of the wormhole and in humanity’s fictional response to this opening that makes the voyage through it possible.
When Cooper first hears about the wormhole at NASA from Professor Brand (Michael Caine), the father of Dr. Brand, Professor Brand cannot provide any details about its origin. He tells Cooper that NASA assumes that some alien beings—entities he labels “they”—have put it there for the purpose of saving humanity. But subsequently the film reveals that the wormhole is not the creation of an alien race or of some deity looking out for us but the creation of future humanity. Here, Nolan plays out the most important idea from Hegel’s philosophy: the otherness of the beyond is never beyond but always part of the subject’s own self-displacement. In fact, the task of philosophy, as Hegel sees it, involves tracing the different figures of the beyond as they move closer to the subject. The gap in which the subject envisions the beyond is a gap within subjectivity itself. This is not to say that otherness does not exist. Instead, the implication is that one cannot await salvation from the beyond but recognize how one gives possibilities to oneself. The situation for revolutionary change comes from the agent for revolutionary change, which means that this agent cannot wait for a propitious situation but must create that situation through her or his own act. Hegel’s conception of change sheds light on Interstellar’s paradoxical narrative structure and reveals its appropriateness.
The possibility for change comes from the subject’s own self-displacement (from his/her own future), but in order to take up this possibility and break from its rootedness, the subject must respond to possibility with by creating a fiction. This is the initial transformative act, according to Interstellar. If one approaches the possibility directly, it would seem impossible because it portends the destruction of the symbolic world that the subject inhabits. No one would agree to this destruction without a fiction that would make it palatable. The possibility—the wormhole, in the case of Interstellar—requires constructing a fiction in order to orient desire toward it.
Professor Brand is the author of the fiction that orients desire toward the possibility that the wormhole offers. Brand, who is the chief researcher for a reconstituted NASA, heads a team of scientists attempting to save humanity through relocation from Earth. In order to do so, he devises two plans for saving humanity. Plan A involves solving the problem of gravity and using it for propulsion in order to transport all of humanity through the wormhole to another habitable planet, while Plan B sends a small group through the wormhole to populate the new planet with embryos designed to recreate humanity while abandoning the rest of humanity to die on an Earth devastated from blight. Plan B saves the species while sacrificing all existent individuals of the species, which makes it a much less appealing option for the participants. Without the idea of Plan A, they would refuse to sign up for the project. Plan A is not just, as Professor Brand says, “a lot more fun.” It is also the sine qua non for participation in the project, which Professor Brand himself recognizes, which is why he keeps the non-existence of Plan A secret.[8
On his deathbed, Professor Brand reveals to Cooper’s daughter Murph (Jessica Chastain) that there is no Plan A. He soon realized that he could not solve the problem of gravity and enable all of humanity to escape. He continued his research while knowing that it was in vain because he understood that humanity needed the fiction of individual survival in order to work toward the survival of the species. As the film presents it, only Professor Brand and Dr. Mann (Matt Damon), a scientist who went on the original mission seeking out a habitable planet, know that Plan A is a fiction. One might imagine that the film portrays them heroically for taking up the burden of knowing the fiction, but they end up receiving a near-total condemnation for how they comport themselves relative to the fiction.
The film does not condemn Professor Brand for his lie about Plan A—the lie is necessary to create a desire for the interstellar voyage—but for his failure to believe in it. He treats the lie cynically, and this cynicism earns him Murph’s condemnation and ultimately that of the film itself. As the author of the lie, Professor Brand adopts a position that sees through it and grasps the hard truth that the lie obscures—the sacrifice of everyone alive on Earth. He believes that he alone is capable of thinking beyond his own individuality and “as a species.” In a conversation with Murph just before the professor’s death, Professor Brand’s laments humanity’s inability to think like he can, and yet his supposed exceptionality is what makes him a reprehensible figure.
Professor Brand’s favorite poem—“Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas—becomes ironic given his sacrificing all humanity living on Earth. The poem seems to have a solemn importance in the film. When the astronauts leave Earth orbit, Professor Brands narrates the poem’s most famous lines. He says, “Do not go gentle into that good night; / Old age should burn and rage at close of day. / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” But even as he says these words, Professor Brand has accepted “the dying of the light” for Earth’s populace.
The difference between Murph, the film’s hero, and Professor Brand is not that Murph reveals the lie while Professor Brand hides it. It is rather that Murph takes the lie as the path to truth rather than just accepting it as a lie. Just after she discovers the lie, her partner Getty (Topher Grace) asks her if she is going to reveal it to the public. Murph responds negatively out of fear of massive panic, and Getty accuses her of being just like Professor Brand, whom she detests. Murph then articulates the difference. She says, “Brand gave up on us. I’m still trying to solve this.” Confronted with the impossible that only a fiction can circumvent, Murph sees a possibility in the fiction even though she understands its fictitiousness; in this way, she separates herself from the cynicism of Professor Brand. This is the ethical position that Interstellar advances.
The test of impurity
If the fiction is necessary for the subject to emerge out of its place, there is no possibility of a pure subject. The subject depends on a structuring deceit in order to become a subject and separate itself from its context. That is to say, impurity is constitutive for the subject, and this impurity manifests itself whenever the subject acts. The subject’s desire will inflect each decision that it makes. Recognizing the necessity of this fundamental impurity is what Hegel calls the absolute, a recognition of the role that the distortion of desire plays in all knowledge and action. The absolute isn’t the overcoming of all distortion and the attainment of a pure knowledge, as most think, but the conclusion that the obstacle acting as a barrier to one’s knowledge is simultaneously the condition of possibility for that knowledge.
There is no neutral knowledge or action because the distortion of desire informs the very origin of the subject who knows and acts. The subject strives to get beyond the barrier of this distortion, and yet this barrier is itself the source of the striving. Philosophies of infinite striving, like those of Kant and Fichte, fail to account for the role that the distortion of desire plays in inaugurating the subject’s striving to overcome that distortion. This is why the recognition of the necessity of the distortion is absolute.
In one sense, Professor Brand understands the necessity of the distortion of desire when he constructs the fiction. He knows that no one will devote themselves to Plan B without the fiction of Plan A and its illusory promise. But his great failure resides in his inability to apply this understanding to himself. He places himself in the position of pure neutrality looking on the survival of humanity without regard for his own desire. He assumes, along with Dr. Mann, that he can act on behalf of the universal without the recourse to his own individual desire. Professor Brand and Dr. Mann believe in their own purity, but Dr. Mann’s actions when he finds himself marooned on a desolate planet give the lie to this self-image and reveal the impossibility of any neutral universality untainted by the individual functioning as the vehicle for that universality.
Nolan initially establishes Dr. Mann as an irreproachable subject, an exemplar of humanity. During the voyage, Dr. Brand describes Dr. Mann to Cooper as the most ethical and intelligent human being. But when the Endurance finally arrives at the planet where Mann has landed, his impurity soon comes into view. Instead of showing himself to be “the best of us,” he acts like the worst. He signaled back to Earth that he had discovered a viable planet when in fact he had landed on a frozen wasteland that could not sustain human life. He did this just to give himself a chance of being rescued. Rather than sacrifice himself for the sake of humanity’s survival, Mann has put humanity’s existence in peril just for the chance to preserve his own life, as becomes apparent during his interaction with the other astronauts. Even though he propelled himself into the void of space with only a small chance of surviving, he tells Cooper when they are alone, “I never really considered the possibility that my planet wasn’t the one.” His desire inflects his universalism and renders it completely pathological. When he and Cooper go together to explore the supposedly habitable surface of the planet, Mann tries to kill Cooper in order to cover up his crime.
After he breaks Cooper’s helmet and leaves him to die from breathing the planet’s poisonous atmosphere, Mann walks away, unable to watch the suffering that he has inflicted. Not only does Dr. Mann endanger the survival of humanity to save himself, but he also can’t even look at Cooper as Cooper dies, thereby fully earning the appellation “coward” that Cooper applies to him. But Mann nonetheless wants to comfort Cooper, so he tells him that he will continue to talk so that Cooper will not have to die alone. Dr. Mann then begins to recite the Dylan Thomas poem that Professor Brand narrated to the Endurance crew as they left Earth. This is also the poem that Professor Brand cites as he dies just prior to Dr. Mann’s treachery with Cooper.
When Dr. Mann has recourse to this seemingly defiant and even heroic lyric, the status of this poem undergoes a dramatic shift that began to become visible on Professor Brand’s deathbed. The film reveals the significance of the poem formally through its placement within the narrative structure. Instead of being a plea for struggling to survive and refusing to accept death, it becomes a means for avoiding the trauma that one has inflicted. Dr. Mann’s recitation of the poem retroactively transforms the spectator’s understanding of the poem’s significance when spoken by Professor Brand and completes the spectator’s revaluation of the latter.
During its first appearance in the film, Professor Brand uses the poem to give the astronauts courage for their difficult journey. But when Dr. Mann employs this same poem as he leaves Cooper to die on a hostile planet, its role becomes clear. Rather than inspiring someone to defy the risk of death, it acts as a palliative in the confrontation with death, and it allows both Professor Brand and Dr. Mann to avoid facing their own acts. Dr. Mann begins to speak the lines from the poem after he turns away from the dying Cooper and after he tells Cooper that he thought he would be able to watch him die but cannot. Though Dr. Mann claims that the poem will comfort Cooper, it is clear that he turns to it in order to comfort himself. By placing the poem in the mouth of Dr. Mann just as he tries to kill Cooper, Nolan shifts its significance for the film. The poem, which seems to act as something like the film’s anthem, does so only in a negative sense. It becomes an index for the individual corruption that resides within universalist pretensions.
Treachery in Interstellar always appears in the guise of purity. Professor Brand and Dr. Mann present themselves as acting for humanity rather than their own self-interest. And yet, they end up doing more damage to humanity’s chances of survival than anyone else in the film. Professor Brand’s lie concerning Plan A is a necessary lie, though his failure to allow himself to be deceived by it renders him culpable. Dr. Mann has no such excuse, and his ethical failure becomes evident not just in his attempt to eliminate Cooper but in his resemblance to the murderous computer in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
Though there are many allusions to 2001: A Space Odyssey throughout Interstellar, the most significant occurs with Dr. Mann and the robot accompanying him on the mission. When the astronauts arrive at Dr. Mann’s camp, they find him in cryogenic sleep and his robot KIPP in pieces. When he awakens, Dr. Mann explains that he had to decommission the robot because it began to malfunction by misidentifying organic life as ammonia. We soon learn that the robot correctly identified the absence of organic life on the planet, and its insistence on not sending back a false message resulted in Dr. Mann decommissioning it and setting it to self-destruct if anyone reactivated it (which directly causes the death of Romilly).
In contrast to Dr. Mann’s claim, it is Dr. Mann rather than the robot that malfunctioned during the exploration, and his decommission of the robot mirrors the attempt by the HAL 9000 to rid itself of the humans accompanying it on the trip to Jupiter in 2001. In Nolan’s film, the machine functions properly while the human does not. This contrast with Kubrick’s film reveals that in the world of Interstellar the chief danger is not external but internal. This danger is not impurity but an excess of purity—the subject that believes itself to be acting purely for the universal.
The critique that Interstellar offers of the purportedly pure subject echoes Hegel’s critique of the Kantian system. Kant bases his theory of knowledge and morality on the prospect of the subject’s purity, even if this purity remains a regulative ideal rather than an achieved reality. This ideal of purity unites Kantian epistemology and Kantian morality, which otherwise appear as separate domains within his philosophy (and are relegated to separate books). The knowing subject, like the moral subject, operates with the ideal of freeing itself from the distortions produced by the subject’s pathological considerations. Desire cannot figure in epistemological or moral calculations.
In Kantian morality, the moral law is pure because it is formal and untainted by any particular content. Even though the subject never attains this purity itself, the law’s purity acts as a goal that guides the subject’s activity. In the Critique of Practical Reason, Kant writes,
“the sole principle of morality consists in independence from all matter of the law (namely, from a desired object) and at the same time in the determination of choice through the mere form of giving universal law that a maxim must be capable of.”
Kant views formalism as a way of sustaining the law’s pure universality and overcoming the stain of particularity that threatens to impugn law. The problem with this formulation is that morality always requires an individual to act as the vehicle for the law’s universality. Kant himself recognizes this, which is why he conceives morality as an infinite task rather than as a goal that the finite subject can actually accomplish.
But what Kant doesn’t recognize is the corrupting effect that his concept of morality has on the individual subject. The individual sees itself as the bearer of universality, and it sees corruption or particularity in the natural world that it confronts—both internally and externally. The moral task involves correcting the corruption. The subject posits a necessary disjunction between morality and the world, but it doesn’t see that its failure to recognize its own necessary impurity is the source of this disjunction.
Hegel criticizes Kantian morality for helping to produce the very situation that it strives to remedy. In short, Kantian morality is hysterical. Its striving is infinite because it is not genuine striving but a counterfeit designed to reproduce itself rather than change the situation. As Hegel puts it in the Phenomenology of Spirit, “Because the universal best ought to be carried out, nothing good is done.” Whenever the subject conceives morality in terms of abstract purity (or, as in the case of Professor Brand and Dr. Mann, the entire species), it inevitably falls into this contradiction. Morality requires desire in order to emerge, and the subject that fails to account for this necessary impurity always falls victim to it. This is the fate of the Kantian moral subject and of the figures of moral purity in Interstellar.
Even Cooper, the film’s ostensible hero, succumbs to the abstract universality that derails both Professor Brand and Dr. Mann. After visiting the first planet and finding it completely uninhabitable due to the ubiquity of water, the three surviving astronauts of the Endurance must decide which of the two other possible planets they should visit. They have enough fuel to visit only one, and the first investigators on both planets sent back positive signals about them. Dr. Brand argues for the planet explored by Wolf Edmunds, while Cooper contends that the planet of Dr. Mann, which is closer, represents the more attractive option. Cooper persuades Romilly (David Gyasi), the deciding vote, when he points out that Dr. Brand’s desire influenced her choice.
Though she expresses great admiration for Dr. Mann, Dr. Brand loves Wolf Edmunds. When Cooper confronts her with this factor weighing on her decision, she avows it and contends that love should play a part in the decisions that they make. Dr. Brand tells Cooper and Romilly, “The tiniest possibility of seeing Wolf again excites me. That doesn’t mean I’m wrong.” Cooper responds, “Honestly, Amelia, it might.” For Cooper, love serves social utility but has only a deleterious effect on decisions like the one that the astronauts must make. By revealing how love has swayed Dr. Brand’s argument, Cooper turns Romilly against her and ensures that they will go to Dr. Mann’s planet, a decision that ends up being disastrous.
Ironically, Cooper’s conversation with Dr. Brand mirrors his own earlier conversation with his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow), but Cooper now takes on the part that Donald played with him. As he sits on the porch of his farm with Donald discussing the decision to go on the mission, Cooper points out that his eagerness for the mission doesn’t make it wrong, and Donald replies (anticipating exactly Cooper’s response to Dr. Brand), “It might.” This repetition reveals Cooper’s own impurity despite his rejection of Dr. Brand’s reasoning about the basis of its impurity. The lack of objectivity—the influence of desire or love—is the basis for any insight that we might have rather than a barrier to it.
Nolan also displays the generative power of impurity when Murph solves the problem of gravity with Cooper’s aid. Cooper can communicate with Murph across a vast distance and across time through his love for her, according to the conceit that the film develops. When he is on the edge of the black hole, he locates his daughter’s bedroom across space and time because of this love. And when Murph makes the actual discovery of the solution to the problem of gravity, the sequence occurs with Hans Zimmer’s score drowning out Murph’s words and making them almost inaudible. Nolan chooses to emphasize Murph’s psychic investment in her work through the overpowering music. Just as the music is more important than the words, so is Murph’s desire the leading factor in her discovery.
In contrast, Cooper’s rejection of Dr. Brand’s reasoning due to its impurity reflects his own kinship with Professor Brand and Dr. Mann, the two partisans of pure universality in the film. The problem with the pure subject—as with Kantian morality—is that this subject achieves purity only through an impure investment in purity. The commitment to eliminating desire is itself a product of desire, or, in other words, there is no way to get around desire without desiring to do so. This is why Alenka Zupancic claims that from a Kantian perspective there is no way to distinguish the moral act from diabolical evil. Both acts originate in the desire to eliminate the pathological and have exactly the same structure. According to Zupancic,
“Following Kant—but at the same time going against Kant—we thus propose to assert explicitly that diabolical evil, the highest evil, is indistinguishable from the highest good, and that they are nothing other than the definitions of an accomplished (ethical) act. In other words, at the level of the structure of the ethical act, the difference between good and evil does not exist. At this level, evil is formally indistinguishable from good.”
Zupancic contends that this realization doesn’t deal a death blow to Kantian morality but rather forces us to consider the ambiguity of the moral act: it is, in some sense, beyond good and evil. But the implication of her argument actually takes us to the terrain of Hegel’s critique of Kant. The moral act is formally identical with diabolical evil—that is, evil for evil’s sake—because it originates in the subject’s desire without regard for considerations of interest that might dilute this desire. It is, one might say, a pure impurity, a desire unadulterated with pathological considerations.
The condemnation of moral purity in Interstellar is unrelenting, and it follows directly Hegel’s critique of Kant. Neither Professor Brand nor Dr. Mann are Kantian moral subjects any more than Adolf Eichmann (who claimed to be so) was. Most obviously, Kant would never countenance their lying. But Professor Brand and Dr. Mann show, unlike Eichmann, the ultimate failure of the idea of moral purity even as a goal after which we strive. The pure subject is simply a subject unaware of its impurity and thus vulnerable to treachery as a result of this unawareness.
Hegel insists that the subject is constituted through a gap in its knowledge and in its moral being. This gap indicates the necessary impurity of the subject, but it also points the subject toward what might fill this gap. The subject seeks the beyond insofar as it promises to provide what the subject is missing. We call this beyond various names—God, the Other, they—but in each case, it marks the inexplicable for us, a hole in our knowledge. The beyond holds the solution for humanity in Interstellar, but this solution depends on reconceiving the beyond, as Hegel puts it in the Phenomenology, “not only as Substance, but equally as Subject.” Rethinking the beyond renders the beyond intimate to the subject, and this act that radically transforms the status of this beyond.
The inexistent they
The beyond in Interstellar takes the form of the wormhole and the source of its appearance. Most often, when we encounter a gap within our understanding, we translate this gap into a positive entity, which is what the characters do in the film. Either we substantialize the gap and give it a metaphysical significance—seeing it as God or as some form of alien intelligence—or we anticipate a future empirical substance that will fill the gap and complete our understanding. According to the former position, we will never understand what exists in this gap because it has a transcendent status relative to us. According to the latter position, if we don’t understand something today, we will understand it tomorrow when our capacity for knowledge has improved. The former position represents the religious response to the gap in knowledge, and the latter represents the scientific. Hegel refuses both of these options. His philosophical project compels us to recognize what we experience as a beyond as an unbreachable gap and yet, at the same time, as immanent to the subject itself.
The gap in our knowledge first appears to us as a strange beyond that defies our comprehension. It is an otherness that seems to exist on another plane, or, in the terms of Interstellar, “they.” When we mistake the immanence of the gap in our knowledge for a substantial “they,” we commit ourselves to the exploration of the mysterious otherness, and it is this exploration that dissolves the otherness and reveals its ontological status as insubstantial. If one recognizes the otherness right away as an effect of the subject itself, then one misses the truth of the constitutive gap within knowledge that creates desire and thereby makes knowledge possible. The initial error of seeing “they” instead of a future “we” is a necessary error, without which no understanding is possible.
Many spectators, even on a first viewing of Interstellar, are able to predict that the “they” that creates the wormhole for humanity is humanity itself in the future. The savvy spectator might also predict that the ghost communicating with Murph in her bedroom at the beginning of the film is not an alien being but her father in another time and place. In all of Nolan’s films, it is possible to figure out the deception prior to its unveiling at the conclusion. One can guess, for instance, that that Borden (Christian Bale) can perform his magic trick “The Transported Man” in The Prestige (2006) because he has an identical twin brother. Nolan’s filmic deceptions do not dupe the cunning spectator.
And yet they should. If one immediately sees through the deception and understands that the “they” that opened the wormhole is simply future humanity, then one doesn’t gain direct access to the truth but completely misses it. In Nolan’s films, as in Hegel’s philosophy, it is necessary to pass through the deception—to allow oneself to be deceived—in order to discover the truth lurking within (rather than behind) the deception. To discern the truth right away would be akin to skipping directly to “Absolute Knowing” while reading Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. The reader who does this avoids the deceptions of sense certainty, perception, and the other conceptions of experience, but in the process she or he misses the truth of absolute knowing. This truth is indissociable from and is constituted by the failures to arrive at it. To proceed to the truth directly is to miss it entirely
Cooper comes to the realization that the mysterious “they” is humanity itself while he is suspended on the brink of the black hole Gargantua in the Tesseract that future humans constructed for him. As the Endurance slingshots around Gargantua in order to investigate the final possible planet in the system, the robot TARS ejects in order to lighten the ship’s load and to transmit data from the black hole. Just after TARS leaves the ship, Cooper follows the robot in a sacrificial gesture designed to increase Dr. Brand’s chances of making it to Edmunds’s planet and finding a new home for humanity. But when TARS and Cooper enter the black hole, they discover the Tesseract where they can see and communicate with their own past. The proximity to the black hole creates the possibility of overcoming the barrier of time and space through the power of gravity, which the advanced version of humanity is able to harness.
As Cooper looks into his own past, TARS reproves him for losing sight of the mission, which involves the future of humanity rather than its past. He says, “They didn’t bring us here to change the past.” But Cooper recognizes the paradox that TARS misses. He replies, “They didn’t bring us here at all. We brought ourselves.” At this point, Cooper sees that what appears as an alien beyond that transcends our knowledge is our own self-transcendence. The possibility for emancipation that the wormhole offers to humanity is a possibility that emerges out of humanity’s own future. By depicting this relationship between the future and the present, Nolan offers a rethinking of emancipation: we don’t free ourselves by creating a different future but by creating a different past—exactly what TARS says they are not meant to do.
In the Tesseract, Cooper can see into Murph’s bedroom and can communicate with her by pushing from behind her bookshelf and dislodging various books. He begins by using Morse code to give her the message that he should stay and not go on the mission. He follows this up by proving the coordinates to NASA in binary code. We have seen both events from the other side earlier in the film, but then he sends a message that we haven’t seen. Finally, with the help of TARS, he encodes (again in Morse) the solution to the problem of gravity in the movement of the second hand of the watch that he gave to Murph before he left. Through these gestures, Cooper is able to change the past and create the possibility for his own act of changing the past. He acts as the future humans do when they open the wormhole: his act violates the logic of chronological time and creates the conditions of its own possibility. )
One can imagine spectators objecting to Nolan’s conception of temporal causality in Interstellar. Future humans open the wormhole to rescue humanity from the blighted Earth, but their existence depends on the very rescue that they make possible. This is the paradox at the core of the narrative structure of Interstellar, and it defies our usual thinking about causality. But Nolan’s film asks the spectator to rethink causality in Hegelian terms. For Hegel, the past doesn’t shape the present—he is not a historicist philosopher—but the present shapes the past. That is to say, the present creates its own conditions of possibility in the past and thus violates the seemingly straightforward structure of temporality.
When an event occurs, it retroactively changes the past so that it becomes possible. The event seems as if it were inevitable, as if the causes for it were present all along. But these causes become evident only after the event. Prior to the event’s taking place, it was impossible, and its occurrence changes the structure of the past in order to make it possible. As Alain Badiou puts it,
“An event is the creation of new possibilities. It is located not merely at the level of objective possibilities but at the level of the possibility or possibilities. Another way of putting this: with respect to a situation or a world, an event paves the way for the possibility of what … is strictly impossible.”
Interstellar asks us to believe, following what Badiou says here, in the possibility of the impossible—that is, in the possibility of an act worthy of Baron von Münchausen, who could purportedly lift himself out of his own chair without touching the ground. This capacity exists because the subject posits its own presuppositions and can change its own past when it accedes to the power of the fiction. But cynical distrust of the fiction has the effect of incapacitating it, which is why Interstellar includes an interlude attacking the prevalence of cynicism today.
In the midst of the exposition of the future devastated Earth, Interstellar pauses in order to introduce a brief commentary on a conspiracy theory about the moon landing. In the structure of the film, cynicism about the reality of the moon landing stands in for all conspiracy theories, which originate from a refusal to allow oneself to be duped by a controlling fiction. Conspiracy theories have garnered such popularity today because they serve as a vehicle for cynical distance from the fictions that govern collective existence. As collective fictions have lost their efficaciousness, cynical distance has become a source of respite for the subject, and conspiracy theories offer this distance in abundance. They promise freedom from lies and direct access to truth, but direct access is never as direct as all that. If Nolan’s films all propound the creative power and the ethical importance of the fiction, then the appearance of the critique of conspiracy theory in Interstellar should not take the spectator by surprise. The conspiracy theorist wrongly sees truth as separable from the fiction and attempts to postulate their absolute distinctiveness through the rejection of the fiction for the sake of the hidden truth.
Conspiracy theory is prevalent across the contemporary political spectrum. The Right sees sinister forces of the United Nations attempting to usurp national sovereignty, while the Left imagines pharmaceutical companies keeping magical remedies (like colloidal silver) off the market in order to increase their own profit margin. Other conspiracy theories, such as the belief that the World Trade Center collapse was an inside job or that shooters from the grassy knoll killed John Kennedy, know no political boundaries. In fact, in the contemporary political climate it is difficult to avoid investing oneself in some form of conspiracy theory. The problem is that even if these conspiracy theories are factually accurate—say, pharmaceutical companies have really discovered the medical efficacy of colloidal silver and decided to suppress their findings—the conspiracy theory nonetheless has a pathological effect on the subject invested in it. In fact, one is tempted to say that if the conspiracy theory is correct, so much for the worse for the conspiracy theory because it strongly encourages the proponent of this theory in her or his own cynical position.
The function of conspiracy is to provide subjects with an assurance that some agency is actually directing events with full knowledge and thus that events are not simply the result of our own activity. Conspiracy solidifies our belief in a substantial beyond that remains unknowable and at the same time unimpeachable. Any fact that pokes a hole in the conspiracy becomes not evidence against the cover-up but rather further evidence of its vastness.
Conspiracy theories perform an essential ideological function by substantializing the gap within knowledge and thereby obscuring the absence of any authority consciously pulling the strings of society. The conspiracy theorist cannot recognize, to put it in Hegel’s terms, that substance is subject, that the authorities are as divided and lacking as the subject itself. Conspiracy theories supplement ideology, but they are seldom institutionalized within the structure of ideology. Typically, the conspiracy theorist gains an extra libidinal benefit from believing in the conspiracy because such belief defies the official version of events. One experiences the conspiracy theory as a radical act of questioning what one is told to believe. But it is possible to imagine the conspiracy theory integrated into the institutional history, which is what occurs in Interstellar.
Today, cynicism about the moon landing is a minority position, but in the world of Interstellar, it has become the official version of the events. Murph runs into trouble at school for her refusal to accept that the landing didn’t occur, and at a parent/teacher conference, Cooper confronts her teacher Ms. Hanley (Collette Wolfe) about the incident, which ended with Murph in a fight with fellow students. According to Hanley, the Apollo 11 moon landing was an effective piece of U.S. propaganda designed to lure the Soviet Union into increasing expenses in the space race. Hanley admits the efficaciousness of this strategy, but she feels that it’s important to teach students the cynical (and to her mind, true) history.
The conspiracy theory about the moon landing has a privileged importance in the world of Interstellar because this theory evinces a skepticism about the possibility of transcending place in a way that theories about the assassination of John Kennedy do not. If even the voyage to the moon were faked, this demonstrates that we are irrevocably stuck on Earth, and the authorities promulgate this theory in order to convince the populace of their stuckness. Subjects stuck in place cannot emancipate themselves. Though movement itself is not revolution, it is nonetheless the condition of possibility for revolution. But radical movement is precisely what the conspiracy theory about the moon landing denies. It comprehends humans as Earth-bound beings.
Like any disciple of Hegel, Nolan finds conspiracy theory especially noxious. The conspiracy theorist refuses to invest herself or himself in the symbolic fiction that structures the social order. In her or his resistance to being duped, this subject misses out on the fiction, which is the only path to truth. The conspiracy theorist wants truth too quickly, without the detour of falsity, and as a result, she or he never escapes the self-deception of believing herself or himself to be in possession of direct access to the truth. Nolan includes the interlude about the moon landing to reveal the error of the position that refuses to submit to error.
Perhaps the most incisive critique of Interstellar contends that the film itself submits to error much too enthusiastically. This critique concerns its recourse to maudlin dialogue expressing bald sentimentality. This seems to be not only a gesture typical of Hollywood filmmaking, but also opposed to the scientific outlook that makes the exploration that the film depicts possible. The sentimentality comes to a head after the disaster of the water planet that leaves the surviving astronauts with the decision of which of the two remaining planets they should visit—Wolf Edmunds’s planet or Dr. Mann’s. Dr. Brand argues for visiting Wolf Edmunds’s planet instead of Dr. Mann’s on the basis of the insight that her love for Edmunds gives her. This sentimentality also bombards the spectator through the relationship between the father Cooper and his daughter Murph. While the otherwise scientific Dr. Brand goes so far as to suggest that love provides a connection across the barriers of space and time, Cooper’s communication to Murph actually does transcend spatial and temporal barriers.
The panegyric to love that Interstellar employs appears to mark a departure from its speculative insights and to return it to the terrain of the typical film in which love solves otherwise intractable contradictions. The spectator could be excused for thinking that she or he had temporarily stumbled into Pretty Woman (Garry Marshall, 1990) or Sleepless in Seattle (Nora Ephron, 1990) while listening to Dr. Brand proclaim the power of love. According to the sentimental version of love, it provides a harmonious connection that overcomes our individual isolation. In a universe that contains love, existential solitude is not our destiny. But love in Interstellar bears little resemble to this sentimental version. It does not simply accomplish the transcendence of distance and isolation but relies on them as well. Love requires absence and rupture in order to emerge as a connection, and this absence remains integral to the connection that it forges.
Each iteration of love in Interstellar centers on absence or rupture. In order to express his love for Murph by transcending time and space, Cooper must first leave her. Murph experiences his departure as a complete betrayal, and she despises Cooper for what he does (especially after she learns about Professor Brand’s lie and assumes Cooper’s complicity in it). This initial betrayal plays a central role in making the connection between Cooper and Murph evident. Cooper can communicate with Murph in the Tesseract only if he has previously abandoned her on Earth. But even the miraculous communication in the Tesseract that spans time and space reveals the necessity of an obstacle for love to articulate itself.
The Tesseract does not allow Cooper to talk to Murph or communicate with her directly in any fashion. It facilitates only indirect communication. Cooper must knock books off Murph’s bookshelf and manipulate the second hand of her watch in order to send her messages. His love for Murph requires the barrier of the bedroom wall and the mediation of Morse code to express itself. If he could speak to her directly, it would not appear as an act of love, and Nolan’s film usually highlights the barrier in its depiction of love. The barrier that creates absence is not opposed to love but a constitutive part of it.
The scenes of reunion that conclude the film further this idea. When Cooper finally sees Murph again, she is a dying old woman, and when Dr. Brand arrives at Wolf Edmunds’s planet, he is already dead. There are no harmonious reunions in Interstellar, and absence remains attached to love through the end of the film. This separates it definitively from Pretty Woman and Sleepless in Seattle. As Nolan’s film shows, love for the dying and the dead is not simply an extension of love for the living but the paradigmatic form of love. After Dr. Brand’s plea for her fellow astronauts to follow her insights based on love, Cooper objects, “Love has meaning, yes—social utility, child rearing.” The film cuts back to Dr. Brand, whose counterargument is revelatory. She says, “We love people who are dead. Where’s the social utility in that?” This statement encapsulates the film’s conception of love: rather than serving social utility, love connects us to what is absent, and this absence is the stimulus for it. When one loves, one loves what is not there. Even when Cooper finally connects with Murphy in the Tesseract through his love for her, this love requires a barrier in order to manifest itself. The Tesseract, which operates through love, shows that love requires distance. Love is the fiction that enables us to overcome absence while remaining within it. This is why Hegel begins his intellectual career by thinking that love might provide the basis for an entire philosophy.
In his early thought, Hegel gives love an ontological place. It has the power to elide spatial and temporal difference, to forge identity within difference. Though later Hegel will come to see contradiction as absolute, love stands at this point in his trajectory as a way of overcoming contradiction. But even here, love requires the difference that it overcomes. In a fragment from his Early Theological Writings, Hegel explains,
“love completely destroys objectivity and thereby annuls and transcends reflection, deprives man’s opposite of all foreign character, and discovers life itself without any further defect. In love the separate does still remain, but as something united and no longer as something separate.”
Hegel’s final sentence expresses an ambiguity that nicely captures the idea of love: the separate both remains separate and isn’t separate at the same time. But this statement about love nonetheless represents an unsustainable position for Hegel philosophically, which is why his mature thought departs from it.
The problem occurs with the claim that love “discovers life without any further defect.” As Interstellar shows (and Hegel’s later philosophy emends), love doesn’t erase the defect but embraces it. Love is itself an impurity that depends on our defects—our inability to be present—in order to emerge. If Dr. Brand and Wolf Edmunds had a connection without a defect, Dr. Brand would never have to articulate it to Romilly and Cooper. The heroism of love coincides with an embrace of one’s impurity. What gives love its ethical status is that it highlights rather than obscures our defects.
The absent hero
Christopher Nolan’s films notoriously obscure their ethical center. One of the primary ways that they mislead spectators is by presenting a hero in whom the spectator can invest only to reveal that the film’s ethical center lies elsewhere, that the investment has been misplaced. This center is usually not the focus of the filmic narrative nor the ostensible hero. Most often, the ethical center appears as an alternative to the ostensible hero and his mode of existence. The examples of this figure extend from Leonard Shelby’s wife (Jorja Fox) in Memento (2000) to the Joker (Heath Ledger) in The Dark Knight (2008) to Mal (Marion Cotillard) in Inception (2010). The ostensible hero rejects the path that these figures offer, but this rejection reveals that the main focus of the narrative should not in fact be the source of our investment.
The ostensible hero in Interstellar is not a serial killer like Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) in Memento or a sophisticated deceiver like Cobb in Inception. He is a much more sympathetic figure. Cooper, the ostensible hero of Interstellar, displays genuine heroism in the film. He volunteers to fly through a wormhole into another galaxy with slim odds of surviving in order to find a new home for humanity. And he ultimately communicates the solution to the problem of gravity to his daughter on Earth, which enables her to help all its inhabitants.
Cooper himself feeds the illusion that he is the hero. Before he leaves on the voyage, he tells Murph, “I can’t be your ghost now. I need to exist. They chose me.” Events in the film give weight to Cooper’s statement here. They perpetuate the idea that Cooper is the chosen one, the hero who can rescue humanity. When he performs the visually remarkable docking with the spinning Endurance as it plunges to the atmosphere of Dr. Mann’s planet, it seems that his estimation of himself is correct, but the film subsequently gives the lie to this idea.
Cooper has a momentary recognition in the Tesseract that Murph is the real hero. He says to himself, “They didn’t choose me. They chose her.” But when he awakens the space station orbiting around Saturn, he forgets this insight and returns to thinking of himself as the hero. He learns that he is aboard a structure entitled “Cooper Station,” and when he expresses appreciation for it being named after him, his doctor chuckles to himself and informs him that it is named after his daughter, Murphy Cooper. Murph, not Cooper, is the real hero of Interstellar because she exhibits fidelity to the fiction and thus to making the impossible possible. For Nolan, this is the ethical act.
Murph’s commitment to the fiction appears in the film’s first spoken line. We hear her say, “My dad was a farmer.” While it is true that Cooper was a farmer, he never sees himself in this way and actually detested farming. Her fiction about his love for farming leads a curator to construct a replica of the family farm on Cooper Station for him, and when Cooper sees his dying daughter again, he asks rhetorically, “You told them that I loved farming?” This seemingly unimportant joke on Murph’s part actually gives us crucial insight into her character and to the status that she accords to fiction. It is her commitment to the fiction that leads to the discovery that rescues humanity.
Nolan’s depiction of Murph’s discovery makes clear the nature of her heroism. It resides in her ability to submerge herself entirely in the problem without any skepticism about the possibility of finding a solution. This absence of skepticism manifests itself through the formal structure surrounding her discovery. When we see Murph on Earth, she remains devoted to the discovery of a solution and refuses to accept the barrier of impossibility that Professor Brand accepts. When Murph finds the solution to the equation that will enable humans to use gravity to leave Earth, Nolan shows her in a montage sequence working feverishly. As she announces the solution to the other scientists at the NASA base, she tosses her papers in the air and proclaims, “Eureka,” echoing Einstein’s famous statement of discovery. This is the point at which Nolan raises the level of the music to obscure her words and to show that her heroism stems from her exaggerated commitment to the problem.
Nolan further indicates Murph’s heroism by juxtaposing her efforts to save her brother’s family and to discover the solution to the problem of gravity against Dr. Mann’s attempt to maroon Cooper and Dr. Brand on his desolate planet. As Cooper learns about Dr. Mann’s betrayal of the mission, the film cuts back to Murph driving away from the family farm after failing to convince her brother Tom (Casey Affleck) to leave for the sake of his sick child. Dr. Mann provides false comfort to Cooper by assuring him, “You’ve not alone,” and repeating the Dylan Thomas poem Mann says, “Do not go gentle into that good night” as he walks away and leaves Cooper to suffocate. Through Dr. Mann says, “I’m here for you,” while Cooper dies, Mann can’t tolerate the suffering and turns off the speaker in his helmet. At this point, the film cuts to Murph turning her jeep into the family cornfield, where she will set fire to the corn in order to force Tom to leave.
The sequence depicts the contrast between the film’s most ignominious character and the film’s hero. Dr. Mann presents himself as someone who understands the difficult truths that others cannot face about the importance of the species and the unimportance of the individual, but he constantly acts in ways that threaten the survival of the species because he refuses to sacrifice himself. Murph’s juxtaposed act of setting fire to the farm saves her brother’s family, though it earns her his hatred. She puts her own well-being at stake because she sees that this is the only possible way to counteract a seemingly intractable force (her brother’s stubbornness). But most of the heroism that Murph displays is not physical heroism, as it is in this case. It is literary.
Heroism in Interstellar is not flying oneself into space but learning how to read. The film begins with a travelling shot depicting dust falling on Murph’s bookcase, and this bookcase provides the key to escaping the deadly dust. Murph first learns to read the messages that Cooper sends her from the future through the falling books, and then she solves the problem of gravity by interpreting the Morse code that he uses on her watch. These interpretations provide the basis for the rescue of humanity. The act of interpretation is the heroic act because it changes the terrain of the situation. The proper interpretation transforms gravity from being what chains us to place to being a lever for emancipation from place.
The editing of the film contrasts Murph and Dr. Mann, but the ability to read well separates Murph from the film’s other misguided character—Professor Brand. Though Professor Brand organizes the entire operation to rescue humanity and constructs the fiction that makes the project possible, the distance that he takes up toward his own fiction renders him, in the words of his daughter, “monstrous.” We know Professor Brand as a reader through the poem that he repeats, the lines from “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” Though Dr. Mann’s invocation of this same poem while trying to kill Cooper undermines it in the film, the poem is sufficiently suspect on its own, and Professor Brand’s affection for it reveals his limitations as a reader.
The problem with Thomas’s poem is that it articulates a straightforward imperative that doesn’t place any interpretive burden on the reader or listener. Everyone knows that the poem is trying to say, and its simple meter doesn’t add any challenge for the interpreter. Of course, we shouldn’t grade poems higher for unnecessary obscurity—T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” isn’t a great poem just because it takes intensive study to make sense of it—but the significance of a poem derives from the distortion that it creates in language. A poem interrupts our everyday relation to language even if it does so in everyday language, and this forces us to rethink the situation in which we find ourselves. Interpreting a poem is itself an act of changing one’s life, as Rilke once put it in “The Archaic Torso of Apollo.” A poem that doesn’t require interpretation doesn’t transform the interpreter’s relation to language or way of thinking about her or his situation. Desire, like love, demands indirection.
Even as a child, Murph (as far as we can see) does not have a book containing this poem on her bookshelf. Instead, she takes on interpretive projects that involve her in a significant distortion and thus require a transformative act of interpretation. The fact that the film begins with a bookcase is not insignificant: one can discover emancipation only through learning how to read properly, and this requires reading apparently indecipherable texts. Murph demonstrates an interpretive ability that outstrips that of all the other characters in the film, and it is this ability that constitutes the basis of her heroism. The fiction emancipates us from place, but one must interpret the fiction in order to actualize this emancipation.
Interstellar is a film about emancipation and the difficulties that confront it. The film takes the side of Hegel’s insistence on the emancipatory rupture from place against Heidegger’s attempted fidelity to it. Gravity is the chief obstacle in the film because it holds humanity in place. But if gravity is an obstacle, it also embodies possibility: gravity makes it possible for humanity to escape the inhospitable Earth and find a new planet. Because gravity has the power to hold humans in place on Earth, it also has the capacity to emancipate them from place. Such dialectical reversals are only possible through the magic of interpretation. Once Murph interprets gravity in the proper way, its emancipatory valence undergoes a complete transformation.
Throughout its running time, Interstellar, like Hegel’s philosophy, asks us to undertake a radical reconsideration of our obstacles. Instead of conceiving of obstacle as a barrier to be overcome or eliminated, we must see the obstacle as the site for our own emancipation. This is why the film begins with books and foregrounds fiction. The creation and interpretation of fictions change the nature of the problems that we confront. When one reconciles oneself with contradiction through the interpretive act—what I take to be the task of Hegel’s philosophy—one discovers that the problem is its own solution. But in order to see that the problem is its own solution, one requires a fiction in order to transform the structure of the problem and render the solution visible. Interstellar demands that we rethink emancipation through the lens of what constrains us.
2. Heidegger’s concern for the problem of dwelling in modernity reaches its apogee in his essay “Building Dwelling Thinking.” There, Heidegger points out that the problem of a lack of houses for everyone—that is, homelessness—is really a synecdoche for the failure to dwell properly. See Martin Heidegger, Building Dwelling Thinking, in Poetry, Language, Thoughts, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), 161.
3. What separates Hegel from Gilles Deleuze and other apostles of fluidity is that he views the rupture from place as the decisive event that must be preserved. The subject emerges out of this rupture and cannot exist without the negative reference to place that Deleuze disallows.
4. The fiction that the subject originates without any context and subsequently falls into space and time is what Heidegger attacks as the metaphysical fiction. His destruction of metaphysics is the destruction of this independent subject that has no basis in experience. Heidegger’s inability to see the performative power of the metaphysical fiction leaves his thought stuck in the unfreedom of place.
5. G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 23.
6. The conceit—solving the environmental crisis by finding a new environment—turns off many spectators from Nolan’s film right away. It seems to model the perfect consumerist view of the planet: when one commodity ceases to provide satisfaction, toss it aside and seek out another. But after watching Interstellar in its entirety, it becomes clear that the film shares little with the consumerist mindset. The film stresses the necessary absence of the object, whereas the consumer demands its presence. I am indebted to Richard Boothby (Loyola University Maryland) for pointing out this possible objection to me.
7. Jean-Paul Sartre points out that no situation is inherently revolutionary but always requires a revolutionary subject to activate it. But this claim doesn’t go far enough. One must see how the revolutionary desire of the subject actually creates the situation in which this desire can come to fruition. This is the lesson of Interstellar.
8. The fact that Plan A doesn’t exist and yet animates the desire of so many people in the film enables us to call it “Plan (objet) a,” after Jacques Lacan’s objet a. Like the objet a, Plan A structures desire through its absence rather than its presence. I owe this point to Jonathan Mulrooney (Holy Cross).
9. Hegel describes the absolute as the reconciliation of what ought to be with what is, so that we reconsider our striving as itself already a realization. Hegel says, “But the harmony between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought to be’ is not torpid and rigidly stationary. Good, the final end of the world, has being, only while it constantly produces itself.” G. W. F. Hegel, Logic, trans William Wallace (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 291. In this way, Hegel shows how the embrace of striving as its own accomplishment institutes the distortion of desire into the understanding of subjectivity.
10. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL becomes murderous because he alone knows the contradictory truth and must conceal information from the crew. One might make the same claim about Dr. Mann in Interstellar. It seems that the robots do not know that Plan A is a fiction and that only Professor Brand and Dr. Mann know. For a compelling analysis of HAL in 2001 that develops this reading, see Michael Berubé, Public Access: Literary Theory and American Cultural Politics (New York: Verso, 1994).
11. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, in Practical Philosophy, trans. and ed. Mary J. Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 166.
12. It is the subject’s necessary failure to accomplish its moral duty that leads Kant to posit the existence of an afterlife in which the subject can fulfill its infinite striving as morally necessary, even though Kant himself didn’t actually believe in personal immortality.
13. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, 376.
14. In an age in which private space exploration has outstripped and clearly supplanted public endeavors, Interstellar represents a plea for funding NASA. It contends that space exploration works for everyone rather than for particular interests and thus must occur through the efforts of a public agency. At the same time, the film shows NASA now housed at NORAD, which is the current site of the command center for the American nuclear arsenal. The use of NORAD (along with that of former Marine robots like TARS and CASE) reveals the impurity of even the public agency. NASA is trying to save humanity, but doing so requires the utilization of particular instruments opposed to the universal.
15. Earlier in the film, Nolan has Zimmer’s score drown out Murph’s words after she learns that Plan A was a fake from Professor Brand. As she records a message to Cooper, we can barely make out portions of what she says. The excess of music here indicates that Murph’s anger toward Cooper completely shapes what she says.
16. Alenka Zupancic, Ethics of the Real: Kant, Lacan (New York: Verso, 2000), 92. Kant rejects the possibility that diabolical evil or evil for evil’s sake might exist because he implicitly understands that its structure mirrors that of morality.
17. In his defense at his trial in Jerusalem for his role in the Nazi genocide, Adolf Eichmann portrayed himself as obeying the Kantian categorical imperative when he followed orders and carried out the Final Solution. Obviously, this claim in no way transforms Eichmann into an argument against Kantian morality.
18. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, 10.
19. In this way, Hegel anticipates Jacques Lacan’s well-known dictum that “the non-duped err.”
20. This is what Rebecca Comay makes clear in her account of Hegel where she notes that in his thought, “instead of determining the future, the past is freed to receive a new meaning from the future.” Rebecca Comay, Mourning Sickness: Hegel and the French Revolution (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 133.
21. Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis, trans. David Macey and Steve Corcoran (London: Verso, 2010), 242-243. Though Badiou is for the most part an anti-Hegelian thinker, his conception of the event as transformative of the past that leads to it follows directly the orientation of Hegel’s philosophy, which conceives the past as the product of the distortion of the present.
22. The theory of the link between vaccines and autism offers a nice example of this attitude. Even after the Institute of Medicine published its definitive research debunking the link between vaccines and autism and even after the author of the original study discovering the link renounced his earlier claims, most opponents of vaccines were unconvinced. After I confronted him with these new revelations, a friend of mine simply commented, “It shows just how powerful the pharmaceutical companies are.” Because conspiracy theory offers the psychic reward of a substantial agent occupying the gap within knowledge, no refutation will ever be adequate. One must instead persuade the conspiracy theorist to question the psychic reward itself.
23. Given the link between the conspiracy theory about the moon landing and the idea of rootedness, one might imagine that Martin Heidegger, in the last years of his life, was skeptical about the images being transmitted by Apollo 11 from the surface of the moon.
24. For the contemporary followers of Gilles Deleuze (such as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri), movement itself is a revolutionary act. Capitalism exists only through the restraint of the movement that it unleashes, and the revolutionary struggle against capitalism consists in eliminating this restraint, what Deleuze would call “reterritorialization.”
25. Soren Kierkegaard conceives of indirect communication as the only possible means for transmitting Christian love. Direct communication—what the receiver would immediately understand—would have the effect of lowering love to the level of an everyday commonplace phenomenon and thereby stripping it of its transcendence.
26. I owe this point to Danny Cho (Otterbein University).
27. G. W. F. Hegel, “Love,” in Early Theological Writings, trans. T. M, Knox (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975), 305.
28. Though Leonard (Guy Pearce) clearly departs from his wife’s emphasis on repetition (her insistence on rereading the same book) by looking for a clear solution to her death and Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) decides to leave the dream world where Mal wants him to stay, the relation between Batman (Christian Bale) and the Joker is more ambiguous. At the conclusion of The Dark Knight, Batman adopts the fiction of criminality, which places him in proximity to the Joker.
29. The existence of the farm as a tribute to Cooper on Cooper Station has the effect of undermining the plaque that is also there. The plaque displays the words to the Dylan Thomas poem that Professor Brand repeats, but we should take it no more seriously than we do the farm decided to Cooper and his love of farming.
30. Stanley Rosen makes the point that Hegel’s emphasis on the whole is simultaneously an emphasis on contradiction. He writes, “It is a bit melodramatic and perhaps even misleading to say merely that for Hegel, the whole is contradiction. But this melodramatic assertion can be refined and developed into a sound description of the motor of Hegel’s logic.” Stanley Rosen, The Idea of Hegel’s “Science of Logic” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 59.