Umberto Eco once said that he was concerned with everything that dealt with semiotics. This is another way of saying he was concerned with the world since the world, following Derrida, is nothing but a text meant to be deciphered; a system of signs conveying messages, signifiers denoting signified, meanings obscured in other meanings, referents re-directing to new signs, ad infinitum. Of course, if the world is a text then what is the plot, its thesis? AS it turns out the thesis is rather sordid; it is this spectacle, a hyperreality of sickly dialectical meanings spun around commodity production. It is this false reality which, in this late hour of capitalism, has negated signification to the point where fundamental facts, such as poverty, can be glossed over as bias.
As unfortunate as it may, or may not, sound, however, this essay will not be focusing on Derrida or Eco. Fortunately, it will focus on Theodore W. Adorno, Guy Dubord, Walter Benjamin, and Jean Baudrillard, with some focusing on Cornel West and Travis Smiley. Utilizing theory from Dialectic of Enlightenment, Spectacle of the Society, and the chapters “Fatal Strategies”, “Capitalism as Religion” and “Poverty of Affirmation”, as applied to the films Natural Born Killers and Blindness, I will demonstrate a semiotic deconstructive of culture during a time of spectacle and after, during a hyperrealistic moment born from spectacle.
All the readings have something in common—they discuss culture. Adorno stated that “culture is infecting everything with sameness” (94), while Baudrillard maintains that this sameness is a result of the “infinite proliferation” of things being ‘potentialized’, which eludes the “dialectic of meaning” (185). Understanding ‘potentials’ to be the unrealized possibility of a sign, we can then dissect how such potentials operate within the ever-expanding proliferation of a sameness infected culture, one wrought with tension between the realized potentiality and the yet-to-be realized.
Natural Born Killers is relevant precisely for this reason. From beginning to end it is the distancing of the signified from the signifier; a breakdown within the linguistic-machine of signs. Viewers see this entropy through unrelenting parody and violence, of meshing together cultural tropes in order to reveal a non-truth, or a distorted signification of a formerly possible potentialization (ex. The sit-com throw back where the laugh track is set against domestic abuse). With the ending prompting the whole spectacle into completion, of showing how the reproduction of sign’s potentialized value are able to metamorphose into new significations by merely being thrown into relation against other similarly shifted signs, brings meaning to the blindness of society at large just to the extent of the spectacle which they are subsumed within (one needs to think of the women from the smiley and West text).
Walter Benjamin emphasis, in this light, of capitalism possessing self-referential meaning, of satisfying the torment formerly brought to heel by theism (259) has special meaning when understood within the framework of ideology: of the discussion promulgated by Cornel West and Travis Smiley when dissect bourgeois outlook of criminalizing poverty, of pretending it does not exist since it then “opens the door to perilous thoughts” (72). This so-called peril being not merely the supposed “shame” brought on cities for possessing homeless, something engendered to every metropolitan center by capitalism, but also being the possibility for the opening up of new understandings of socioeconomics and race-relations.
The film “Blindness” concerns itself with precisely this reactionary phenomenon. Concerning itself with ignorance and mutual solidarity during times of crisis, but ultimately of presenting the historical evolution of bourgeois civilization, “Blindness” follows a women, identified only as “The Doctor’s Wife”, as she struggles to care for others within a sanitarium filled to the brink with the infected; those people unfortunate enough to be stricken with a condition which deprives them of their vision. Filled with poignant scenes of struggle and exploitation, the film depicts the irrationality of a decaying spectacle.
From beginning to end Both West, Smiley, and Benjamin’s theses are shown in full light. The ‘disease’, after all, is nothing but an allegory for societal ignorance; just as West and Smiley argue that “the truth about poverty must be affirmed” (72) in order to communicate “a shared interest in the humanity of our fellow citizens” (94), the majority of the characters within the film stricken by the blindness condition, whether through direct or indirect means, display an otherwise callous disposition toward their fellow man. Ultimately, such a disregard for their proletarian brothers and sisters ends up costing them their sight; the price paid for formulating, as Benjamin would put it, their adherence to “the pure religious cult” (259) that is bourgeois individualism, that means which enabled the capitalist system to be birthed.
Any educated in-look into the representational meaning of the sanitarium will conclude that it represented an allegory for capitalism as a whole. To demonstrate, let’s look at the film with the following points in mind: (1) the re-orientation of the sanitarium to a prison was the result of economic crisis; the blindness disease, which ended up devastating the capitalist world, has direct parallels with the bourgeois revolutions of epochs past which overthrew the primitive feudalist and mercantilist systems (a system in peril due to unexpected developments within the economic life of society); (2) the population infected with the blindness disease is representational of the non-proletarian strata becoming ‘proletarianized’ by industry; if we assume that the sanitarium is a “screen”, following Zizek’s understanding of Lacanian psychology, which projects ‘something’, in this case the historical materialist evolution of capitalism, then when the viewer witness the sanitarium become flooded with an ever increasing amount of victims, a connection is drawn between them and the growth of the working class during industrialization; (3) the usage of violence on the part of the group, led by The Doctor’s Wife, to one group of individuals, who rose up through violence (the use of a gun), in order to forcefully expropriate others, represents the natural evolution of class based—bourgeois—society in that it accurately depicts the “visible” non-blind, class conscious strata violently, that is to say revolutionary, rising. The subsequent burning of the sanitarium indicative of the destructive potential of capitalism in that is able to annihilate the world as it stands should conflict become never-ending; (4) when after the so-called “war” with Ward-3 ends, a conflict rendition inevitably indicative of capitalism when we consider its organized aspects, the survivors of the conflict wander into the post-blindness world to hunt and scavenge for food; this moment clearly shows a dialectical display of society returning once more to a hunter-gather lifestyle, the connotation being a new future lying in wait now that humanity, overcoming, or at least surviving the spectacle, now understands once again to rely on each other in order to survive.
To a degree, the sign system has been reset. People must once more reply on a basic culturally constructed sign in order to survive: the bare necessities of language as instruction. Of language leading to physicality, of solidarity, of communitarianism. The sign in this case is not one which is able to be actually seen but one which survives thanks to its prior inscription, only now reduced, to its bare meaning within the context of lacking sight.