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Monday, August 29, 2011

Metropolis: The Mediator Between Head And Hands Must Be The Heart!

Metropolis
Image capture from Metropolis (1927)
Science fiction is a genre with a long tradition of social critique. Beneath its veneer of gee-whiz exploration and extrapolations of technology, science fiction of any enduring value unfailingly offers the reader an unblinking look at the society around them. The conceit of fiction gives the author a great deal of subversive license in exposing taboos and the shortcomings of accepted wisdom. This tradition of literary sci-fi extends to modern film, of course.

As with any narrative, however, even great science fiction narratives fall victim to the vicissitudes of framing.

I'd like to throw up Metropolis as an easy example of this danger. Fritz Lang, along with his wife, strove to critique Industrial society and, as any decent critique should require, resolve the contradictions this social development presented.

In order to present a coherent narrative, one must select a frame within which to construct the story, and the paradigm selected by Lang is quaintly anachronistic, to understate the matter. In the film, the movers-and-shakers of the world are characterized as Randian John Galt-like characters ("brains"), with the unwashed masses ("hands") providing the necessary proletarian contribution of executing the dreams of these indispensable men.

While the frame is infantile, this dilemma persists today in modern society, as it is so constituted - or rather, perceived. The struggle of the film lay in resolving the glaring injustice that invariably appears in such an arrangement. The resolution appears as the quasi-mystical and insufferably patronizing "heart."

In all fairness, Lang himself was not particularly pleased with its naiveté:
...You cannot make a social-conscious picture in which you say that the intermediary between the hand and the brain is the heart. I mean, that's a fairy tale – definitely.... I didn't like the picture – thought it was silly and stupid...
What is interesting about Lang's lament is that it doesn't discard the "hand/brain" frame, but only the easy and obviously childish "heart" solution.

I think that this is important, for today - in our more "sophisticated" times - we are still frozen in the amber of what I consider equally infantile a priori ways of thinking. There are indeed solutions that need be found, for there is much suffering and injustice in our social arrangements.

But any consideration of solutions must be deferred until the full scope of the hierarchical nature of our meritocratic assumptions are understood. Assumptions of most deadly fallacy.

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