Drive-In Part III: Telemetry

“I’ve just picked up a fault in the AE35 unit. It’s going to go 100% failure in 72 hours.”

  • Ship computer HAL, to characters David Bowman and Frank Poole about a device which makes communication with Earth possible, in 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • I’ve been enjoying using Kubrick movies here, so I’ll keep going. 2001 works as an allegory for various aspects of the concept, “the Act,” a Lacanian idea about which Zizek has written quite a bit. I’ll keep the summary as spare as I can, since the movie is so well known, but I’ll post the transcript here[1] . (It is an incredible film, though, so I highly recommend the real thing to those who haven’t seen it yet.)

    The Odyssey starts at the dawn of man, with Moonwatcher and his clan discovering the Monolith. Its utter strangeness awakens their curiosity, leading to their viewing other things in new ways – specifically to their seeing the bones lying around their territory as tools. The enigma of the Monolith’s connection to the birth of humanity can throw light on this discussion of the paradox of human freedom:

    I am as it were thrown into my freedom when I confront [the opacity of the Other’s desire] as such, deprived of the fantasmatic cover which tells me what the Other wants from me. In this difficult predicament, full of anxiety, when I know THAT the Other wants something from me, without knowing WHAT this desire is, I am thrown back into myself, compelled to assume the risk of freely determining the coordinates of my desire.
    The Act And Its Vicissitudes [2]

    At the end of the segment, Moonwatcher throws a bone into the air in triumph. In a brilliant segue, Kubrick cuts from the bone spinning in the air to a bomb orbiting the Earth, matching the size and position of the two objects on the screen.

    In contrast to the first, in the second segment finding the Monolith does little to inspire its discoverers – The colorless official sent to investigate it, Dr. Heywood Floyd, seems more concerned with keeping the find quiet (at least temporarily) than with looking for any meaning in it. Through this contrast we can connect this paradox of freedom to a Samuel Beckett quote that Zizek was fond of:

    “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” [sometimes we must] descend back to the starting point: one should begin from the beginning, not from the place that one succeeded in reaching in the previous effort. In Kierkegaard’s terms, a revolutionary process is not a gradual progress but a repetitive movement, a movement of repeating the beginning, again and again.
    How To Begin From The Beginning [3]

    We cut to several months later, when the spacecraft Discovery One is taking Bowman, Poole and three hibernating crew members to Jupiter. The two astronauts watch an earlier interview of themselves and the HAL 9000, in which HAL asserts that 9000 computers “are all, by any practical definition of the words, foolproof and incapable of error.” This belief is soon questioned, however, when he makes the claim that is quoted at the top of this entry, and a thorough check by Frank, Dave and another “infallible” computer finds nothing wrong with the unit. The astronauts, discussing the discrepancy in a part of the ship where HAL cannot overhear them, decide to put the unit back, and if it doesn’t fail, to disconnect HAL’s higher brain functions. This preoccupation with absolute infallibility brings up another aspect of the Act which scholar John McSweeney brings up in the International Journal of Zizek Studies:

    [A]cts occur within the context of prior failures, and the attentiveness to the possibilities of act may be intensified by the ethics of failure – via what is revealed about a situation and by the encounter with the limits of one’s position and the mundane otherness that exceeds it in failure…
    The Cold Cruelty of Ethics: Žižek, Kristof and Reflexive Subjectivization [4]

    As the astronauts speculate on how he might react, we get shot from HAL’s perspective of Frank and Dave’s lips moving. The screen goes black. We then watch HAL using the pod to kill Frank when he goes outside the ship to replace the unit, then shutting down the life support of the hibernating astronauts while Dave takes another pod to rescue Frank. Dave, however, despite having forgotten his helmet and despite HAL’S refusal to open the pod bay doors, is able to get in through the emergency airlock.

    He moves relentlessly to HAL’s logic memory center as HAL tries to dissuade him, first coaxing, then pleading. The painfully slow process of shutting down a being that for months had been considered a fellow crew member as well as the brain and central nervous system of the entire ship – providing all Dave’s creature comforts and needs – can remind us of another feature of the Act – sacrifice:

    [I]n order to properly be able to oppose the power you must sacrifice that innermost part of yourself, your mode of enjoyment by means of which you were attached to power.
    The Superego and the Act [5]

    A recording plays revealing the purpose of the mission. We cut to the words, “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” and hear the strange music that has accompanied the Monolith. We see the pod moving towards it and then some colorful beams of light draw us into a space that almost gives one the sense of being made to stand facing the corner in a psychedelic schoolroom.

    This seems like a good place to bring up the “leap of faith” needed in the Act:

    Kant admits that we cannot effectively practice morality while constraining ourselves to our inner intention alone, totally dismissing actual consequences—we are compelled to engage in a kind of “leap of faith,” and commit ourselves to a fundamental trust in the friendly structure of reality.
    The Parallax View [6]

    Suddenly, we are looking through the pod window at a room decorated in Rococo style, but for the modern floors lit beneath it. We see, then take the point of view of, increasingly older Davids until the final version sees the Monolith. In his place, the “Star Child” appears. “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” the music that had accompanied Moonwatcher’s discovery of tools, plays as the Star Child returns to Earth.

    In an authentic act I do not simply express, or actualize my inner nature. I rather redefine myself, the very core of my identity. In this [sense] I claim that an act is very close to what Kierkegaard was trying to conceptualize as the Christian rebirth.
    – The Superego and the Act [7]

    I’ll end with an article that expresses ways that these ideas might be applied on Earth here[8] – perhaps a call to come out of hibernation.

    1. Stanley Kubrick. “2001: A Space Odyssey”. in: ark tv transcripts. Aired at 12:15 PM on Saturday, Feb 20, 2010 (2/20/2010).
    2. Slavoj Zizek. “The Act And Its Vicissitudes.” in: The Symptom. 1997/2005.
    3. Slavoj Žižek. “How To Begin From The Beginning.” in: New Left Review 57, May-June 2009.
    4. John McSweeney. “The Cold Cruelty of Ethics: Žižek, Kristof and Reflexive Subjectivization.” in: International Journal of Zizek Studies. Volume Five, Number Four (2011.)
    5. “The Superego and the Act: A lecture by Slavoj Zizek August 1999” in: The European Graduate School. 1997-2012.
    6. Slavoj Zizek. The Parallax View. MIT Press. 2006 in:
    7. “The Superego and the Act…”
    8. Frances Moore Lappé. “Could Our Deepest Fears Hold the Key to Ending Violence?” in: Common Dreams. April 19, 2013


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