Pass the Popcorn: Romantic Individualism and Technocracy 

  

[CAPTION NEEDED, something about cooks and broth]

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Only mild spoilers lie in wait for you here, but if you want compete nonspoilage, don’t read. 

The new Avengers is awesome while you watch it but doesn’t live up to the original. A certain amount of comic book schlock – magic gems and a slew of newly introduced characters and bad guys who turn into good guys in the blink of an eye and . . . a magical biotechnological AI robot/human hybrid thingy that the bad guy built to be one thing but it became something else because the program upload was interrupted and it had a magic jewel put in its forehead . . . or something . . . well, a certain amount of that is okay, but past a certain point it’s just too damn much. 

But living up to the first Avengers film is a high standard to set from someone who called it “the movie for our time.” We’ve been spoiled by too many really outstanding comic book movies. This one is a lot of fun, go see it. Just don’t try too hard to follow the plot. 

I understand the original cut of this movie was three hours and Whedon had to chop it to the 2:20 we see on the screen. That would explain not only the confusing and inadequately explained plot and the underdevelopment of the character conflicts that made the first Avengers such a triumph, but also the mismatch between the themes early web articles anticipated would be in the movie and the absence of those themes from the movie. I saw several articles written on the assumption that Ultron, programmed to establish world peace, wanted to wipe out humanity because he realized that human beings are evil and will always create war and suffering, and deserve to be wiped out. That could have made a fascinating movie, but it’s not the one we got. 

What I do think is present in this movie is the tendency of Romantic (capital R) individualism, even in its most libertarian forms, to produce a destructive and oppressive technocracy. One of the great illusions of our time is that we can escape the tyranny and dehumanization of technocracy by romanticizing the individual. That is precisely what we cannot do. It was and is the romanticization of the individual that creates technocracy. Romantic individualism consistently ends in unsustainable narcissism. As the results of the narcissism become unsustainable, the Romantics – less and less willing to give up their Romanticism as they become more and more narcissistic – seek technocratic solutions that will take care of our problems for us without any of us having to practice self-denial, which is for them the sin against the Holy Ghost. Technocracy, they hope, will maintain the necessary conditions for individual narcissism. That is what Stark is doing when he creates Ultron – solve the problem of war not by creating people who want justice but by creating machines that will eradicate [people who practice] injustice. 

The whole logic of this is laid out admirably in Tocqueville, in Eliot’s famous line about “systems so perfect,” and in Wall-E. Men who live for nothing but pleasure are fit for nothing but slavery. 

The movie clearly understands what it is that makes Romantic individualism plausible and attractive. We see it in the fact that Stark’s hubris produces Vision as well as Ultron. We see it when Stark says “I’m not in charge, I just . . . pay for everything and make everyone look awesome.” We also see it when he says to Steve Rogers, “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t have a dark side.” Here we really see, as we did in the first film, that the difference between them is a religious one, and it boils down to what one does with one’s dark side. Stark gives in to it, like Emerson, whose response to the doctrine of the sinfulness of man was that he did not think he was sinful, but even if he were, “if I am the devil’s child I will live then from the devil.” What is there for a man to do but be what he is? Stark, like Emerson, does not believe there is a Power who can purge the darkness and truly make men clean. 

Rogers opposes Stark’s individualism not by overt appeal to God but by appeal to human relationships. We are made to live and work with one another, to solve – or at least cope with – our problems “together.” The solution to our problems lies not in machines and systems but in people wanting to be in right relationship with one another. 

This is just as religious a claim as “there’s only one God, ma’am.” I am not sure it isn’t an even more religious claim. For it asserts that we are made not simply to be what we are and do what we want, but to overcome what we are and control what we want in order to achieve a fulfillment that lies outside ourselves. 

I am surprised to say that Avengers: Age of Ultron seems to recognize that it is Steve Rogers’ America, not Tony Stark’s, that holds the secret to saving all that they both hold dear. 

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One Response to Pass the Popcorn: Romantic Individualism and Technocracy 

  1. […] readers may be interested in my thoughts on Romantic individualism and technocracy in the new Avengers film, which is not “the movie […]

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