THX 1138, was, says it director, George Lucas, ‘a parable about how we were living in 1970.’[i]. Its screenwriter, Walter Murch, has described the science fiction film as being about ‘a culture that has lost any connection to the organic world and is completely self-contained.’[ii] Released in 1971, and set in a technologically advanced underground city, control, confinement, and the cold logic of computation are its overriding themes. The film’s mise-en-scène is one of monochromatic interiors and flickering video monitors. Its narrative one of technocratic manipulation, surveillance, dehumanization and, eventually, escape.
In the subterranean world of THX 1138 personal identity has been reduced to a license plate-like alphanumeric code – ‘THX 1138’ designates the film’s main protagonist, ‘SEN 5421’ and ‘LUH 341’ its other main characters – and communication condensed into a series of stock phrases, prerecorded messages and computer-issued commands. Emotions are regulated through mandatory chemical sedation and sexual activity is confined to prescribed norms. State-sanctioned religious conformity is administered through automated confessional booths furnished with over-sized reproductions of Hans Memling’s Christ Giving His Blessing, Christ’s gaze refashioned into an image of panoptical surveillance redolent of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s all-seeing computer HAL. Clothing is uniformly white and utilitarian, and hair is close-cropped so that the city appears, at times, to be populated by a homogenous mass. More frequently, though, individuals are represented as isolated components in a vast machine. Characters appear confined within cubicle-like spaces that circumscribe mobility and constrain their physical and emotional connections to one another. The tight framing and fixed camerawork of the cinematography underscore the impression of sterile confinement.
Compliance with the city’s computational order is maintained and justice dispatched by the chrome-faced android police force that beat the defective THX, in their whited-out ‘treatment’ room, before pursuing him as he attempts to escape from his ‘electronic labyrinth’ in a stolen vehicle.[iii]
The film is, of course, not unique in its concerns, or in its manner of articulating them. In fact THX 1138 bears a striking resemblance to Jean Luc Godard’s Alphaville of 1965 (a work with which Lucas was probably familiar, given his exposure to the work of the French-Swiss film director during the 1960s). The story of this dystopian science-fiction noir centres upon the figure of detective Lemmy Caution, assigned to persuade the exiled Professor Von Braun to leave the city of Alphaville and return with him to the ‘Outerlands’ of the galaxy.[iv] Like the underground city of THX 1138, Alphaville constitutes a self-contained world with strictly policed borders. It operates according to a rigidly technocratic rationality and is overseen by an omniscient central computer, ‘Alpha 60’, manifesting as a signal light, its blinking bulb syncopated to its mechanically intoned proclamations. The citizens of Alphaville are tattooed with the coded sequences of letters and numbers that mark their identities. They speak in rehearsed and robotic phrases – “I’m very well, thank you, not at all.” Their sexual needs are catered to by a state-run system of prostitution performed by officially designated ‘seductresses’. ‘Love’, as Caution discovers, is a concept alien to their understanding and experience.
Much as Marx put it in his account of the mechanization of industrial labour in the Grundrisse, the inhabitants of Alphaville, like those of Lucas’s film, have stepped ‘to the side of the production process instead of being its chief actor[s].’[v] Rather than serving to valorize the ‘social individual’ and the ‘general intellect’ as instruments of capital’s productive wealth, however, human intellect and interaction, in these visions of the late-twentieth century, is rendered largely redundant. Computation has achieved the mechanization of thought itself, and subsumed the social to the endless reproduction of a functionally optimized system. In both films humans are reduced to the role of merely tending to the performance of the huge banks of mainframe computers bearing over them in the control centres of the city. The inhabitants of Alphaville are motivated from without, their agency displaced onto the central computer that determines their actions according to its programme. Pharmaceutically numbed and stripped of the language with which to express feeling, they are themselves reduced to the status of automatons, mere relays for the formulaic speech and thought patterns of Alpha 60’s operating system.
There are other similarities between THX 1138 and Alphaville. Alphaville appears as a city of almost constant night, the impervious surfaces of its artificially lit institutional corridors, glass-screened laboratory rooms and anonymous apartments suggesting an unheimlich environment. Godard’s editing of Alphaville is punctuated with extreme close ups of illuminated signals, switchboards and control panels, a Brechtian-inspired alienation device that intermittently compresses the world of the film to a single dislocated plane. This is echoed in the close ups of lit signs and computer interfaces in THX 1138, and in both films this invokes the idea that the perception of space has become a merely signaletic operation where the subject responds reflexively to programmed commands.[vi] As Henri Lefebvre wrote of this kind of instrumentalization of space and vision in his The Production of Space:
“Space is defined … in terms of the perception of an abstract subject, such as the driver of a motor vehicle, equipped with a collective common sense, namely the capacity to read the symbols of the highway code, and with a sole organ – the eye – place in the service of his movement within the visual field. Thus space appears solely in its reduced forms. Volume leaves the field to surface and any overall view surrenders to visual signals spaced out along fixed trajectories already laid down in the “plan”.”[vii]
Both Lucas’s and Godard’s films effectively convey this lost capacity to achieve anything like a comprehensive grasp of space, and the downgrading of vision to a mere receiving mechanism for signals and commands. The relationship to and purpose of these within any larger plan remains opaque to the perception of either city’s subjects.
The perception of time, and its movement, is rendered similarly obscure. Temporality figures as the constant looping of pre-programmed scenarios and the habitual repetitions that characterize labour, communication, sex and leisure. The threat this poses to historical consciousness is articulated through the discourse on time and history that Godard has delivered by Alphaville’s central computer:
“The Central Memory is given its name because of the fundamental role its plays in the logical organisation of Alpha 60. But no one has lived in the past and no one will live in the future. The present is the form of all life, and there are no means by which this can be avoided. Time is a circle which is endlessly revolving. The descending arc is the past and rising arc is the future. Everything has been said.”[viii]
What both films envision for their audiences is the appearance of an unsurpassable end point to human history in an instrumentally rationalized programme of technocratic modernization, the arrival of what Kristin Ross has described, in other words, as ‘a changeless world functioning smoothly under the sign of technique.’[ix]
Alphaville, Colin MacCabe has written, alerts us to the ‘future within the present’,[x] and Godard’s concerns over the imminent emergence of a technocratic totalitarianism were shared by others in France, and elsewhere, at this time, particularly (but not exclusively) on the left. The specter of fascism that haunts Alphaville, in the figure of the former SS officer Professor Von Braun, and of its afterlife within post-war technocratic modernization, had been a concern to many since the 1950s. At the 1958 conference of the CGT (Confédération Général due Travail), ‘Politique et Technique’, Pierre Le Brun warned:
“A State in the service of Technology that would itself serve Capital would be a technocratic State, a State that … would tend to govern men as though they were things … Fascist corporatism, which we experienced in France from 1940 to 1944, is also, in its negation of class conflict, a form of technocracy and it is no coincidence that so many technologists and technocrats sat in the Vichy government …”[xi]
Like Godard in Alphaville both Lefebvre and the Situationists had targeted architectural modernization and urban planning in their critique of capitalism and its apparent trajectory.[xii] In The Urban Revolution of 1970 Lefebvre noted that ‘a kind of overall colonization of space by “decision-making centres” seems to be taking shape.’[xiii] Arguing that ‘urban reality’ had been subordinated to a technocratic system of ‘general planning’ and the ‘logistics of restricted rationality’, he wrote that this had reduced space to ‘a homogeneous and empty medium, in which we house objects, people, machines, industrial facilities, flows, and networks.’[xiv] In Society of the Spectacle Guy Debord argued that ‘[u]rbanism – “city planning” – is capitalism’s method for taking over the natural and human environment’, its ‘technology of separation’, and the means by which it refashions ‘the totality of space into its own particular decor.’[xv] ‘[U]rbanism’s conspicuous petrification of life’, he continued, referring to the absence of historical consciousness with which Godard also concerns himself, ‘can be described in Hegelian terms as a total predominance of a “peaceful coexistence within space” over “the restless becoming that takes place in the progression of time.”’[xvi] ‘The ruling class’, wrote Debord, had ‘reified history’.[xvii]
Social scientists of this period, Jean Meynaud and Alain Touraine for instance,[xviii] also produced critical analyses of technocracy, drawing attention to the ways in which technocrats ‘breached the boundaries between technology and politics.’[xix] Technocracy, it was argued, threatened to supplant political democracy with social programmes and economic policies decided upon by unelected ‘experts’. This critique of the technocratic, as concerned only with the rational instrumentalization of society as a mere function of the economy, and tending toward a totalitarian outcome, echoed earlier critiques of instrumental reason made by the Frankfurt School, particularly those presented by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. In their Dialectic of Enlightenment they argued that ‘reason itself has become the mere instrument of the all-inclusive economic apparatus’, [xx] and that society was, in the process, being ‘steer[ed] toward barbarism.’[xxi] In One Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse calls upon Adorno to voice his contention that ‘advanced industrial society’ is premised on the erasure of historical memory and consciousness: ‘“the advancing bourgeois society liquidates Memory, Time, Recollection as irrational leftovers of the past.’”[xxii]
Alphaville, then, is a projection of contemporary social and political anxieties into the narrative and mise-en-scèneof a near-future dystopian urban condition.[xxiii] Its characters– Natasha (Von Braun’s daughter with whom Lemmy caution escapes the city), the seductresses, the lab technicians – are confined within the bureaucratic spaces of modern planning and architecture, caught in the circuits of a programme that erases history and memory. Technocratic urbanism, in this projection, constructs a subjectivity closed in upon itself, isolated, save for the scripted interactions and formulaic speech patterns through which communication functions. It constructs a space-time of fixed coordinates and limited perspectives for its operatives. Alphaville’s premonition of all of this is echoed in that of THX 1138. If anything, the condition of confinement and dehumanization is expressed with greater intensity in Lucas’s film than in Godard’s. But THX 1138 parts company with Alphaville, and with its broader critical perspectives, in the type of escape route found for its protagonist.
In the final scene of THX 1138 its eponymous hero escapes his subterranean confines, climbing out of a ventilation shaft and ascending into the daylight of the world above. The heat-hazed image of the enormous sun setting behind THX frames the protagonist as a figure newly (re)born into the natural world. The film’s closing images speak of a new beginning, of a subject liberated into and reconnected with his natural environment.
The left were unable to so easily envisage such an escape from the spaces and techniques of instrumental reason. Lemmy Caution’s flight from Alphaville with Natasha in the detective’s Ford Galaxy will return the couple to a world governed by the generic conventions of the B-movie. They will escape only to another shadowy scenography populated by the stereotypes of the hard-boiled detective and the ingénue. The left looked to nothing less than a revolution, and with it the collective transformation of social, political and historical consciousness, as the means to avert the subsumption of social existence to the programmed logic of technocratic capitalism. Socialism or barbarism. THX 1138, though, betrays its sympathies to American countercultural sensibilities, rather than to the politics of the left, in the type of exit it suggests.[xxiv] Filmed in the West Coast city of Port Hueneme, the film’s final scene has THX turn up on a Californian beach.
Anxieties over technocratic subjugation were as prevalent within countercultural circles as those of the left, even where it was communism, rather than fascism, that figured as the locus of these. In 1957 the young Stewart Brand, later to be the creator and editor of the Whole Earth Catalogue and a leading figure of the counterculture, had written in his diary of his fears of Soviet invasion:
“That my life would necessarily become small, a gear with its place on a certain axle of the Communist machine. Perhaps only a tooth on the gear … That my mind would no longer be my own, but a tool carefully shaped by the descendants of Pavlov. That I would lose my identity. That I would lose my will. These last are the worst.”[xxv]
It was the threat to individual identity and free will posed by technocracy that most exercised countercultural sensibilities, rather than the broader political concerns that concerned left. In Alphaville Lemmy Caution confronts the central computer, Alpha 60, causing its circuits to breakdown and the system to collapse. In THX 1138, the hero simply opts out of the system, leaving it to its own devices while freeing himself. He doesn’t battle the system. In fact, it is the system’s own economic protocols that facilitate his escape. These shut down the operation to pursue him because of its cost. The imaging of a future scenario of technocratic totalitarianism in Alphaville is consonant with a left critique of existing structures of power, particularly those concerning urban space and its instrumental rationalization, and with arguments for the necessity of radical social transformation. In THX 1138, as in the counterculture in general, the technocratic scenario serves as a foil through which to valorize individualized liberation and self-expression, to achieve immediate freedom from constraints of any kind rather than to collectively confront and transform existing conditions through class struggle. Rather than fighting in its streets the counterculture advocated abandoning the technocratically rationalized city altogether.
[i] George Lucas, Artifact from the Future: The Making of THX 1138, 2004, documentary bonus material for DVD release THX 1138, 1971, distributed by Warner Home Videos, 2004.
[ii] Walter Murch, the film’s screenwriter and sound designer. Ibid.
[iii] The film made by Lucas as a student at University of Southern California in 1967, on which THX 1138 is based, is titled Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB.
[iv] ‘Professor Von Braun’ was named in reference to the German rocket engineer and former SS officer Wernher von Braun recruited to work for NASA at the end of World War II.
[v] ‘Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, trans. Martin Nicolaus (London: Penguin, 1973) p. 705.
[vi] For a fuller discussion of the use of such Brechtian strategies in Godard’s Alphaville, see Douglas Spencer, ‘Alphaville: A Strange Case of Urbanism and Genre’ in Genre, Volume 24, (2004), pp. 151-164.
[vii] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), p. 313.
[viii] Jean Luc Godard, Alphaville – Screenplay, trans. P. Whitehead (London: Faber and Faber, 2000), pp. 42-43.
[ix]Kristin Ross, Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture (Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 1996), p. 10.
[x] Colin MacCabe, Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at 70 (London: Bloomsbury, 2003), p. 168.
[xi] Pierre Le Brun, quoted in Hecht, The Radiance of France, p. 30.
[xii] These perspectives featured in films made by Godard around this time, notably Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle (1967).
[xiii] Henri Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution (trans. R. Bononno, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), p. 113.
[xiv] Ibid., p. 48.
[xv] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (trans. K. Knabb, London: Rebel Press, 2004) p. 95.
[xvi] Ibid., p. 95.
[xvii] Ibid., p. 84.
[xviii] Jean Meynaud, Technocracy (trans. Paul Barnes, New York: Free Press, 1968); Alain Touraine, The Post-Industrial Society: Tomorrow’s Social History: Classes, Conflicts, and Culture in the Programmed Society, trans. Leonard F.X. Mayhew, New York: Random House, 1971).
[xix] Gabrielle Hecht, The Radiance of France: Nuclear Power and National Identity after World War II (Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 2009), p. 32.
[xx] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment (trans. John Cumming, London: Verso, 1979), p. 30.
[xxi] Ibid., p. 20.
[xxii] Theodor Adorno, ‘Wes bedeutet Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit?, 1960, quoted in Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 102.
[xxiii] Much of the film was shot on location in suburban projects being constructed in Paris at the time, suggesting that Alphaville represented not so much another world as the contemporary remaking of the French capital.
[xxiv] Lucas had earlier immersed himself in the San Francisco arts scene and its independent cinema in the early and mid-60s and the screenwriter and sound designer for THX 1138, Walter Murch, had staged happenings while a student at this time. The film’s cinematographer, David Myers, also shot footage for the films Woodstock (1970 and The Grateful Dead Movie (1977).
[xxv] Stewart Brand, ‘Notebooks’, March 14, 1957, quoted in Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, The Whole Earth Network and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2008), p. 41.