Inception, Disconnection, and Atemporality

I saw Inception the other night and was pleasantly surprised. Perhaps I should have looked at the movie poster more carefully and noted the ominous presence of One Wilshire. For like One Wilshire, the film revealed more of itself as it went on and, even with all of its complexity, had a well-thought out ending, not the lame sort of ending that has frustrated me too often lately in projects that I otherwise liked, like Lost or Spook Country

The central conceit of the film is that the characters have access to a technology developed by the military to create dreams that can be inhabited and shaped collectively. I will refrain from discussing the movie in much more detail so as to avoid spoiling it for those of you who haven’t seen it, but I thought I’d make an observation about how the film engages disconnection and atemporality, the topics of the first two chapters of my book on network culture.

Let’s turn to space first. The argument that I make in the chapter of Life After Networks that I am currently finishing up is that everyday spatial experience today is marked by disconnection. Right now I am disconnecting from the space around me to connect with my readership in the mediated space of this site while teenagers in Japan are engaged in telecocoons with close friends via mobile phones, and bankers in London are getting back from lunch and texting each other on their blackberries. Now simultaneity has been a key part of our phenomenological existence since modernity came to its early adulthood and the telegraph was invented. Already in the Mexican War of 1846 to 1848, audiences in New York received daily updates from the front. By the turn of the century, simultaneity was recognized as integral to modernity and the products of the heady first thirty years of the century, from Les Demoiselles d’Avignon to Ulysses to the Light-Space Modulator evidence the modern’s fascination with this condition. Radio and television brought simultaneity into the realm of everyday experience, but it was still one-way. Local telephone calls were the exception, although these were tied to specific locations: you had to reach a location before you could reach a person. 

Still, modernity and postmodernity were both marked by an alienation that stemmed from feeling disconnected from the world around you. Today, however, we disconnect constantly in order to connect with others at a remove from us. Mobile and smart phones, wireless enabled laptops, and so on make it possible for us to leave the spaces for places in which we can feel more at home. Where disconnection is unhappy, it is generally the common phenomenon of the workplace intruding on our private lives (or occasionally the reverse)  Even the primary means of experiencing music today, iPods, are a form of disconnection, although they connect us less to other spaces than color our moods, the massive amounts of storage the offer allowing us to augmenting the world we inhabit with a soundtrack to our choosing in a much more seamless way than the Walkman or Discman ever could have.

Inception embodies this as dream piles upon dream, each at a different temporal pace, each in a different space. The experience of dreaming is not that different from the experience of entering into a telecocoon, blogging or playing an MMORPG (indeed, the film could have substituted MMORPG for dream rather effortlessly… that it did not is telling). 

In talking about the film with Kyle Hovenkotter, who is working with me at the Netlab this summer, he pointed out that Inception is also thoroughly atemporal. i’m not going to say a huge amount about atemporality here. I’ve done enough of that in the first chapter of Life After Networks here. Simply enough, atemporality suggests that more than ever, history has come undone for us and we have lost any capacity for understanding our lives temporally. Thus, we inhabit a world in which we live in the present, but are perfectly willing to treat the past as a fetish object to be recreated in perfect simulation (Mad Men, artisinal light bulbs, etc.), even as we eschew the postmodernist trope of pastiche, which operated in the mode of irony. For all that I said about technology in the preceding paragraphs, cell phones,  iPods,  even laptop computers are all conspicuously absent. Clearly we are in some moment after the invention of bullet train and the Airfone, but it could as easily be 1985 or 1990 as it could today. 

So that said, I was surprised by the Building Design review that attacked the film for the supposed blandness of its architecture. I think the reviewer missed the point here. The very corporate banality of the architecture—the LADWP building become a thousand feet tall, for example, or the repeated appearance of One Wilshire in a chase scene—is key. The ability of the dreamers to construct paradoxical architecture such as stairs that endlessly rise or streets that turn in upon themselves put the focus on the way the architecture performed, not the way it looked. Beyond that however, this kind of corporate modernism made for not just the best-collapsing ruins, but also contributed to a feeling that the people in it are not entirely real. Most of all the architecture of Inception is atemporal. To introduce a building by Libeskind, Piano, or Koolhaas would have marred the film.

Summing up, I recommend the film for anyone working in network culture today. It captures our moment and, in so doing, allows us to come to an understanding of where we are, even if, in the end, any final answer vanishes from our grasp.    


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