Seeking Narrative Consciousness (contains spoilers)

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HBO’s Westworld, season one, masterfully explores the nature of reality, morality, freedom, and consciousness. These themes are knit together by a larger exploration of narrative that is central to the show’s premise. Consciousness, for the writers of Westworld, is a maze of narratives. At the center of the maze is freedom, but the center is always receding and when one believes one has reached it, the center is revealed to be a piece of yet another narrative. The narrative loops that the hosts inhabit are a metaphor for the narrative loops we, as humans, inhabit – the stories we tell ourselves about others, the world, reality, and, most significantly, ourselves. Initially, the illusion seems to be that freedom lies in escaping these narratives, but the show eventually converges on a much less elusive, if more illusory, notion of freedom – namely, authorship.

Both the show’s heroines, Dolores and Maeve, achieve a kind of authorship by the end of season one. Dolores comes to realize that the voices she has been hearing and obeying are her own voice and reasons that she must kill Ford and the board members gathered in the park in order to bring about a more perfect world. Maeve refuses to accept that her leaving the park is simply a new narrative iteration, written for her like all the loops before, but it is not until she decides to return to the park in search of her daughter that she (and we) are convinced of her authorial “freedom.” However, their freedoms are not complete. Ford seems to know precisely the moment Dolores will shoot him in the head, indicating that at least this much has been written for her and is, in fact, Ford’s narrative. And, even if Maeve does not play out the narrative that has been written, by returning to the park she is investing the narrative of her daughter’s life with a degree of truth that it, perhaps, does not deserve. And so, the loops continue.

It will be interesting to see where season 2 takes the viewer. (I have not yet begun to watch.) I am especially interested to see how and whether the show maintains the narrative complexity it both engenders and elevates as more valuable than simple black and white tales of good and evil. After all, the man in black, William, seemingly the villain of the show, is cast as seeing the game (and the world) in terms of good and evil, black and white, winners and losers, though he alternately occupies both sides of these equations. He is the antithesis of narrative complexity. As Ford and others tell him, “The maze is not meant for you.” Wouldn’t it be interesting if even this simpleton could become the conscious author of his own narrative instead of always looking for it externally. What, for instance, happens when he learns that Dolores is Wyatt, as we are led to believe? Does he fall into despair again or does he rise to a new level of consciousness?

Ultimately, Westworld is a story that takes stories and storytelling very seriously. It is no accident that narrative truth is the highest truth in the show. It is, in some ways, the only truth a story can peddle. Here’s hoping this one can continue to deliver at the highest level.

“Sorry to Bother You”

In September, 2017 I listened to a discussion between Michelle Alexander and Naomi Klein moderated by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. (An edited version of this talk can be seen here) The theme of the talk was that we needed to do more than just say no. That we, as progressives, need to not only resist what Trump and his administration represent (arguably, the apotheosis of capitalist ideology), but also create an alternate vision of what America and the world can be. One of the things Naomi Klein urged was new narratives, new art, that could envision a different world. Not just dystopic art, but art that envisions, to steal a term from Rawls, a “realistic utopia.” I feel like Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You begins to answer this call.

Sorry To Bother You paints a fully realized picture of a not-so-distant future capitalist dystopia and, then, offers a version of resistance that is hopeful, that creates a newish world. I don’t want to get too much into plot points because no one likes spoilers. Suffice to say, the answer is, perhaps, an old one – class unity across racial and ethnic lines. Without being prescriptive and without denying the very real cultural (human?) desires for material comfort, the film offers up, in its quirky and magical-realist way, an alternative vision of what success is. Funny enough it is articulated by the main character’s girlfriend, Detroit, in the beginning of the film. When confronted with Cassius’s existential questions about what happens when all human memory is wiped from the universe by an exploded sun, Detroit responds that she wants to be surrounded by the people she loves when she dies and that all that matters is the present moment – love between two people. This seems hopelessly naive at the time, but proves to be precisely what matters in the end. Or so one hopes.

But Sorry To Bother You is not naive. It makes clear that those simple pleasures will not be won without a fight. The powerful cannot be shamed into behaving humanely. Power must be wrested from the hands of those who would abuse it and placed into the hands of a re-imagined collective. This seems less like class warfare and more like a realistic assessment of the task at hand for progressives. It does beg the question, can one live comfortably in a world where anyone is deprived of the basics necessities of life? In other words, even if the class struggle in America were to be fought and won, would living comfortably be justified in the face of global poverty? But perhaps the first step is for we progressives who have to live uncomfortably, to recognize and fight against our own complacent complicity. To appropriate a phrase, art’s job is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. I think Sorry To Bother You succeeds at that and, like all great art, deserves multiple returns to its rich narrative.

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A bit of trivia – somewhere in the middle of the film, Detroit’s earrings (which are always changing) say “Bury the rag deep in your face.” A little Bob Dylan for the careful viewer. Made me smile.