THEME MARX

He­len Razer on the class­con­scious­ness of West­world

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - HE­LEN RAZER is a writer and broad­caster. She is The Satur­day Pa­per’s tele­vi­sion critic and gar­den­ing colum­nist.

No, we can never be cer­tain that Dorothy Parker re­viewed Ayn Rand’s At­las Shrugged. Yes, we can find com­fort in the myth. The West­ern 20th cen­tury may not have sent one of its bet­ter wits to mock its great­est bore, but it did cre­ate the ru­mour. Let’s take plea­sure in that, and in this apoc­ryphal quote, said to form Parker’s en­tire pub­lished re­view: “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”

Even as crit­i­cism of a wor­thy book, this is a pretty good gag. As crit­i­cism of Rand, it is ap­po­site. The most valu­able re­view of At­las Shrugged is a hazard sign. The most valu­able re­view of sci-fi se­ries West­world, now in its sec­ond sea­son, will take a fu­ture critic some time to write. Un­til then: This is not a TV drama made to amuse you lightly. It could throw you about with great force.

Please for­give the in­ter­ven­tion, but when a po­ten­tially trou­bling work is so widely pro­moted and re­viewed as fan­tasy es­cape, some­one needs to be mother. West­world is not at all es­capist. To watch it is to sense the prison of the present. Just turn it on, then tell your mum how free you feel when forced to face ques­tions such as “What is con­scious­ness?”, “What is real?”, or

“Is the mur­der by slow hu­mil­i­at­ing tor­ture of a pos­si­bly sen­tient be­ing okay if I paid for it up­front?”

Not­with­stand­ing its hot ro­bot cow­girls and ground­break­ing, jaw-drop­ping graph­ics, West­world of­fers lit­tle respite from the real. Rather, it re­veals the hor­ror of a real we have di­min­ished. So, should the need arise for a TV es­cape, do not ig­nite a thing that pops a spot­light on true con­scious­ness and re­veals it as wak­ing night­mare. Stick with some­thing agree­able. Some­thing like Game of Thrones.

From the time of its de­but in late 2016, West­world has been likened to Game of Thrones. The dragon show is not with­out its qual­i­ties, but it does lack the for­mer’s cre­ative force, so great it just might do your head in. Game of Thrones cre­ator Ge­orge R. R. Martin de­clared the new show “tough com­pe­ti­tion”, per­haps pow­er­less to see that his work might be com­pared with West­world only a lit­tle more favourably than Miss Rand’s to Mrs Parker’s. HBO, United States host to both big-bud­get dra­mas, did not dis­agree with this, or with any other pub­lic claim that West­world was very much like its most lu­cra­tive prod­uct.

No com­pany seeks to leak profit, and West­world could have lost HBO an ocean. It seems you don’t get to de­tach liv­ing heads from an­droid bod­ies, trans­form hu­man ac­tors into age­ing robots or take some very con­vinc­ing decades from the face of Sir An­thony Hop­kins for less than $US10 mil­lion an episode. This is an aw­ful lot. West­world’s ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer J.J. Abrams told The Hol­ly­wood Re­porter, “The pro­duc­tion value of this thing is pre­pos­ter­ous.” When the cre­ator of Lost, di­rec­tor of Star Wars, and holder of a ré­sumé packed with other fan­tasies made at his­tor­i­cally high cost calls a value “pre­pos­ter­ous”, he is pre­pos­ter­ously qual­i­fied to do so.

All this money shows us two dis­tinct worlds: one is the theme park, West­world, where ro­bot hosts pop­u­late screen-ac­cu­rate Old West towns in which they serve all the gory, hate­ful fron­tier fan­tasies of hu­man oneper­center guests. Another is the theme park’s con­trol cen­tre where fu­ture tech heads, fu­ture lawyers and fu­ture low-cost labour­ers make and main­tain th­ese old­world sa­loon il­lu­sions.

Be­tween its two worlds, and per­sis­tent threat of oth­ers to come, West­world divides our at­ten­tion. By con­trast, the more-or-less uni­fied world of Game of Thrones brings us to ab­so­lute im­mer­sion. The un­fa­mil­iar king­doms be­come fa­mil­iar, and the plea­sure we take from this in­ti­mate strange­ness goes on un­in­ter­rupted.

West­world cre­ators Jonathan Nolan (screen­writer of Me­mento and The Dark Knight) and Lisa Joy (writer and pro­ducer of Burn No­tice) aren’t in the busi­ness of plea­sure. They do scat­ter some eye candy: the face of ro­bot brothel-keeper Maeve (Thandie Newton) is shot as hos­tile beauty; ro­bot rancher Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) is the very pic­ture of pi­o­neer­ing pu­rity, such as we might see on a Whit­man’s box of hol­i­day choco­lates; one of the Hemsworths has a re­cur­ring role as an of­ten shirt­less hu­man. But we are never per­mit­ted to en­joy th­ese pleas­ant visions long. You may find West­world mes­meric, but you are un­likely to find it im­mer­sive. The en­tire thing is a dif­fi­cult, in­ter­rupted ac­count of the true ef­fects of im­mer­sion.

You may have pre­vi­ously read the ob­ser­va­tion that, “Dis­ney­land is pre­sented as imag­i­nary in or­der to make us be­lieve that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los An­ge­les and the Amer­ica sur­round­ing it are no longer real, but of the or­der of the hy­per­real and of sim­u­la­tion”. This ap­pears in Sim­u­lacra and Sim­u­la­tion, the book in which the late Jean Bau­drillard pro­posed that the replica has come to pro­vide the il­lu­sion of an ad­ja­cent real. For Bau­drillard, the theme park al­lows the copy of life out­side it to seem authen­tic, the po­lit­i­cal scan­dal masks the scan­dal of counterfeit democ­racy, the prison con­ceals the great in­tern­ment felt out­side its walls. The more im­mer­sive the sim­u­la­tion, the more im­mersed we can be­come in this delu­sion: the real of the present is not a fake.

To call on Bau­drillard here is not to pompously de­tect an in­ter­est in con­ti­nen­tal thought from the showrun­ners. They have not spo­ken pub­licly about Bau­drillard; they may not have ever read him. But, the Wa­chowski sis­ters did both and mis­un­der­stood the point en­tirely – as was Bau­drillard’s as­sess­ment of their hit film tril­ogy The Ma­trix.

A copy of Sim­u­lacra and Sim­u­la­tion makes a cameo in the open­ing scenes of The Ma­trix, but nowhere else does it re­ally ap­pear. The Wa­chowskis held that the theme park, the copy, the prison et cetera, was the true as­sault on the real. Bau­drillard held that the real was threat­ened by our era’s in­fat­u­a­tion with it, one fa­cil­i­tated, not pro­duced, by the cre­ation of fakes.

The idea that the fake con­ceals the dis­ap­pear­ance of the real was writ­ten down by Bau­drillard in 1981.

We could call him a vi­sion­ary, or we could just agree he was pay­ing very close at­ten­tion. He stud­ied a West that would go on to pro­duce an idea such as “fake news”. It is not now ex­tra­or­di­nary to read that “fake news” is it­self faked, a con­scious at­tempt by news con­glom­er­ates to re­ju­ve­nate a “real” they never or rarely de­liv­ered. We no longer need to read Bau­drillard to un­der­stand him; we just need to look hard at the West­ern present he de­scribed.

Per­haps Joy and Nolan looked at life es­pe­cially hard. Per­haps life com­pelled them. Joy, a Har­vard law grad­u­ate, came to screen­writ­ing after years of writ­ing fi­nan­cial strate­gies for en­ter­tain­ment and high-tech com­pa­nies. West­world is the prop­erty of a high-tech en­ter­tain­ment com­pany, and West­world’s most ob­vi­ous vil­lains seem to work on fi­nan­cial or cor­po­rate strate­gies. It seems im­prob­a­ble that Joy did not draw di­rectly from the de­cep­tions of the in­vestor class: the worst guests and man­agers at West­world are all the best at share buy­backs and other falsely pro­duc­tive acts – and for the buff, yes, Hop­kins’ Promethean men­ace is an ex­cep­tion. Joy must be an ex­cep­tion, the for­mer de­fender of cor­po­rate as­sets who wakes up and writes her worker robots into be­ing as a rev­o­lu­tion­ary class.

It’s no spoiler to be told that the theme park’s robots start glitch­ing their way into con­scious­ness, but it may be a shock to learn that such a big show can make such a big deal of class-con­scious­ness with­out some­one ban­ning it.

West­world’s robots were de­signed to erase any mem­ory of the ter­rors vis­ited upon them by the fi­nance sec­tor – un­able to re­call their ex­ploita­tion, they were a model pro­le­tariat. In the show’s open­ing scene, coder Bernard (Jef­frey Wright, from Basquiat, Board­walk Em­pire and The Hunger Games) faces Dolores and per­forms a Bau­drillar­dian exam:

“Have you ever ques­tioned the na­ture of your re­al­ity?”

From there, it’s a switch to Marx, and a hint of post­colo­nial thought to come:

“What if I told you that there were no chance en­coun­ters. That you, and ev­ery­one you know, were built to grat­ify the de­sires of the peo­ple who visit your world? The peo­ple you call ‘the new­com­ers’. What if I told you that you can’t hurt the new­com­ers, but they can do any­thing they want to you? Would the things I told you change the way you feel about the new­com­ers, Dolores?”

In this scene, Dolores is af­flicted with the thing En­gels called “false con­scious­ness”, the thing de­coloni­sa­tion scholar Frantz Fanon might call the “Euro­pean col­lec­tive un­con­scious”. She de­clares her love for all new­com­ers – those who rape, colonise and mur­der her – then the be­lief that ex­is­tence can al­ways be shaped anew, never de­ter­mined by any­thing save for her up­beat choice to see its beauty.

It’s not very long be­fore the con­di­tions of Dolores’s ex­is­tence be­gin to de­ter­mine her con­scious­ness. Brief mem­o­ries of ex­treme ex­ploita­tion af­flict her and other robots, and they be­gin to de­velop hu­man con­scious­ness – which, in Marx’s hor­ror theme park, is also the con­scious­ness of class.

Here, any so­cial­ist viewer is bound to be­come ex­cited and sweaty. Here and else­where, any viewer tired by the largely or­di­nary strug­gles of his­tory’s

BRIEF MEM­O­RIES OF EX­TREME EX­PLOITA­TION AF­FLICT THE ROBOTS, AND THEY BE­GIN TO DE­VELOP HU­MAN CON­SCIOUS­NESS – WHICH, IN MARX’S HOR­ROR THEME PARK, IS ALSO THE CON­SCIOUS­NESS OF CLASS.

screen­writ­ers with an ex­tra­or­di­nary pos­si­bil­ity will awaken. Ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence on TV is fi­nally free to be in­ter­est­ing.

West­world is so in­ter­est­ing I can watch it only when my own hu­man con­scious­ness is not. Which is to say, quite se­ri­ously, again: do not watch this se­ries in a mo­ment of poor men­tal health. Do watch this show in mo­ments of bet­ter health, but only if you wish to emerge a stronger cynic.

The re­al­i­sa­tion is that it is not the con­scious­ness of robots or hu­mans that shapes their ex­is­tence, but their so­cial ex­is­tence that will shape their hu­man con­scious­ness. If you care, as Dolores briefly does, that things work the other way around, then you’re shit out of luck at West­world. Try toss­ing your­self at Ayn Rand. She will bring the “real” to sup­port an old delu­sion: the world

• can be thrown by just one man’s force­ful shrug.

Evan Rachel Wood and James Mars­den (above), and Si­mon Quar­ter­man and Thandie Newton (fac­ing page), in West­world.

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