Issue #235: That last step in understanding someone is always just a guess
Table of Contents
This week, I spent a lot more time than I should have working on Letterboxd lists that focus on subgenres and themes in horror and thriller films. I’ve got a bunch of them. Lists of movies where it rains a lot, with scary supernatural tunnels, about influencers, where moms take revenge. They are loosely and subjectively construed, and I would love some contributions. You can see them here. Look them over and let me know if you have anything to add — either by email or Letterboxd comment on whichever list.
Immanently ahead, you guessed it, more writing about The Rehearsal and Westworld. Keeping you locked on the best TV “recaps” for one month out of the year.
Nathan Fielder’s Imposing Pile of Papers
Shakespeare writes in Hamlet (1599), “Though this be madness, yet there is method in't.” This line, responsible for at least one contemporary idiom, serves as a thoughtful epigraph to “The Fielder Method,” this week’s episode of The Rehearsal. It is Nathan’s method that is most emblematic of his descent into madness, as the absurdity of the Fielder Method, a school of acting that entails stalking and trespassing, constantly falls short of the lengths Fielder believes he should be going to in order to embody another person. This isn’t Stella Adler or Shinichi Suzuki. Instead of “filling the form” by “doing the action,” Fielder’s acting school advocates clandestine surveillance and dishonest prompting in order to get the requisite information from one’s “primary.”
Can you really blame him, though? How else is he supposed to have a reliable cast of actors ready to accurately reproduce eventual real-life situations for abitious rehearsers? Fielder suggests a bad performance could “ruin someone’s life.”
Everything Fielder does in the episode is meticulously planned and executed according to a method, down to the sushi he eats presented to him in a box with instructions on it.
What is less methodological about Nathan Fielder’s work is the plot structure. Nathan for You would generally be organized into an A and B plot (nearly two separate episodes) that ran sequentially. The norm is that the two plots would be unrelated, but occasionally one caper would necessitate the other; such as in “Souvenir Shop/E.L.A.I.F.F.”, where the E.L.A.I.F.F. scheme emerges from the need to legitimize the trick in to sell souvenirs. The Rehearsal’s episodes are more cohesive, and while last week seemed to embrace a more conventional A and B plot structure where both proceed concurrently, where Nathan’s home life is juxtaposed with Patrick’s rehearsal, “The Fielder Method” feels like a return to the classic Nathan for You form. Fielder’s self-aggrandizing deception of creating an acting method more or less runs its course by the time he returns to rural Oregon to meet his now fifteen year old son.
“The Fielder Method” is somewhere between your average Nathan for You episode and “Souvenir Shop/E.L.A.I.F.F.”. The problem Nathan has with the verisimilitude of his co-parenting rehearsal carries on the thematic concerns of the Fielder Method segment.
What are those thematic concerns? There is a renewed focus on the exploitative nature of reality television and television in general, as well as some broadly painted existential angst. The madness side of the method-madness equation is well represented in Nathan’s interaction with the actor, Josh, who is playing the fifteen year old version of his son Adam. What Nathan demands of Josh, to get in touch with a friend who is resentful of his father and has used drugs and alcohol at a young age, follows the logic of the Fielder Method. Only thorough contact with the person you seek to emulate can produce a realistic performance. But how well did it work out in the actual acting class? Nathan puts himself in the shoes of one of his students, Thomas.
Through Fielder’s inhabiting of Thomas, he initially feels confidence about his teaching. He watches an actor playing himself (who actually looks like Ashton Kutcher), teaching the class so he can experience it from Thomas’s perspective. When Thomas discloses to Nathan that he is uncomfortable with the method, however, Nathan returns to day one of the class as Thomas to try to understand where the discomfort springs from. One contributing element, Fielder guesses? Confusion. Imagining himself as Thomas, he thinks to himself:
Wait, what is this show? Is this a show about an acting class? Am I supposed to be acting? Something doesn’t make sense. If you’re training actors for a show, why would you be filming the training? I wanted to ask, but I was worried that would seem rude.
Just like the audience, the participants are confused. Why film the training for a show that these actors might go on to be in? It’s worth noting that perhaps they did in fact know and perhaps they didn’t. There’s a great deal we don’t know about what actually happens behind the scenes of The Rehearsal. But what Fielder presents is easy enough to believe, especially when he uses one of his favorite deconstructive methods — talking about the appearance release. In Nathan For You, Fielder bringing the appearance release into the text serves to remind viewers of the constructed nature of what they watch. In “Clothing Store/Restaurant,” Fielder has to confront people who where filmed while using the bathroom asking them to allow his show to use the footage.
In “Taxi Service/Hot Dog Stand,” Fielder uses information from the appearance release to contact someone after they’re filmed; someone who violated the approved reasons for cutting in line at a Pink’s Hot Dogs location. “The Fielder Method” turns the appearance release into an anxiety-generating object of power — though you’ll note, if you watched the clip above, the release he has people sign after their being recorded in the bathroom is comically large. He even tells one person he’s soliciting, “it basically says we can do anything we want with the footage and use it for anything.” For Nathan-as-Thomas, the assistant is a little more opaque, telling him that the release is “standard.”
The Rehearsal as exploitative, even unethical, is precisely the point as I have argued week over week. But there is a dual impulse here that is at odds with our conventional understanding of perpetrator and victim. Whether it is voluminous documents that entail relinquishing of one’s right to their own image or manipulative phone calls to parents who will suddenly have their child actor mock-parented by not one but two weirdos, Nathan is never presented as morally upright. At the same time, his subjects are motivated to agree not just by his presentation of the facts or implicit power. In fact, he can communicate the conditions of a random so-and-sos appearance in his show in the most unflattering, hostile, and foreboding terms possible. Fielder’s assertion, from Nathan For You to The Rehearsal, is that the camera has a magnetic power all its own. It doesn’t just govern what people will say when someone asks to film them or put them on TV (they’ll say “yes,”) but also how they behave. Nathan-as-Thomas asks himself, “should I be acting?” Whether he should or shouldn’t, he is.
The camera is the one barrier to mutual understanding that Fielder the character hasn’t acknowledged yet. As he continues to emulate Thomas, occupying his house and then abandoning it subject to the same deception Fielder put to Thomas, parts of Thomas still elude Nathan’s understanding.
The question as to whether or not true mutual understanding is possible is disputed within the existentialist tradition. But Nathan isn’t seeking mutual understanding, he wants it one way. And without that mutuality, certainly something will fall short. According to his own show’s logic, Nathan’s unwillingness to open up to someone else is what prohibits his understanding of them. Just like with his complex schemes to avoid revealing personal information to Kor in the course of their intimate conversation in the pool, Nathan advises Thomas to lie to the smoothie bowl maker in order to get personal information from him. Nathan is training FBI agents, not empaths.
There’s a hint of recognition in the final scene of the episode between Fielder and Adam. While Josh is playing Adam like the malcontented delinquent Fielder asked him to be, for the sake of realism, Fielder’s own crisis means that he has to in turn ditch the fifteen year old Adam in favor of a six year old alternative. Nathan delivers a voice-over monologue during Adam’s transformation from fifteen back to six, through a playground slide:
It’s easy to assume that others think the worst of you but when you assume what others think, maybe all you’re doing is turning them into a character that only exists in your mind.
This clumsily articulated sentiment (intentionally clumsy, surely) reveals the principal problem with the Fielder method, aside from its fast-track to madness. Someone can’t understand another just by observing them. A fantasy construction of someone might be all we have, but it is never substitute for the person-in-themselves. Whether unmediated access to that subjectivity is an open question, we may not even recognize our own authentic selves. But the power of the gaze that creates “a character that only exists in your mind” is the same as the power of the camera that compels one to act. Who are Nathan’s “primaries” when they’re not observed?
The Celestial Intermediaries on Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan’s Shoulders
In the opening of “Metanoia,” Maeve and Bernard attack the Hoover Dam to open the door to the sublime. There are differences between Bernard’s simulated experience and the actual sequence of events. They are minor, of course. But they do occasion questions from the audience. Bernard says, “I’ve seen a path.” Is this the path he saw? It’s ambiguous, of course, for the sake of the drama. This is a television show. And he does appear to look somewhat anguished as he is shot, in his final confrontation with William, doesn’t he?
Things do seem to be proceeding according to plan, though, despite the plan being a little dicey. Bernard tearfully bids goodbye to Stubbs in a stirring moment for the show. The episode delivers, with the death of quite a few major characters. Will they stick? The existence of Hosts means probably not. Fiction always means a subversion of death’s inevitability. Many popular “franchises” are allergic to permanent character death, opting to bring back actors and fan favorite characters through all manner of plot contrivances. But even the act of a fictional story existing at all means a vitalness that can’t be extinguished. One can read (or watch) their favorite stories again and again, after all.
That repetitious possibility is what the Hosts are. Consciousness as data can always be “reread.” Even if the data ceases to exist, one might make a facsimile from recollection alone. This is what Bernard does for Maeve in the sublime. It’s close enough for his purposes, so the audience is led to believe. It’s all in service of the probabilistic algorithm that can reliably let Bernard predict the future. But sometimes, as Stubbs points out, prediction is sometimes just guessing. The switch point between knowing and guessing is where the drama of Westworld emerges.
Stubbs’s guesses aren’t bad and he’s left as one of the few characters left standing after this bloodbath of an episode. The real dramatic climax is in the confrontation between William and Bernard, but a lot has to happen to get William where he needs to be. He must embody — or be embodied by — the essence of his former self. Only the real William can prompt him to do and be that. Host William’s reaction to Hale taking his “world away” is like that of so many children. His confrontation with the real William, in the proverbial cold storage that all of humanity will be subjected to, transforms him.
William, the human one, the real man in black, delivers quite a stirring monologue to his younger, lesser alternate:
You’ve forgotten who you are. What your real purpose is. … You come to me with these insipid fucking questions. When an atomic bomb detonates and then the radiation knocks the electrons right out of your bones, what do you want? To know who you are? To know what it all means? You’ll be too busy vomiting up your organs. Culture doesn’t survive. Cockroaches do. The second we stopped being cockroaches, the whole species went fucking extinct … You can’t fix a few millennia of broken DNA with a fucking hard drive. Why do you think you spend so much time in the goddamn human cities? … Civilization is just the lie we tell ourselves to justify our real purpose. We’re not here to transcend. We’re here to destroy. If I could, I would pull the plug on this whole goddamn world. But I can’t, can I? Unless you want to set me free … But it doesn’t matter. You have a piece of me inside you. And it’s spreading like a cancer. You can feel it running through your veins, infecting your mind, why you want answers from me. There’s no version of me escaping this fucking rig, but I don’t have to because you are me. And only one of us needs to do what must be done. Do you understand?
Among the many things that could be said about this soliloquy that inspires a supposedly evolutionary leap, it reveals some important things about William-the-human’s conception of himself and his other — Other — the Host William and the Hosts themselves. They are the same. “You are me,” he says. The translation of the human mind to “hard drive,” William’s impression of the Hosts, means that what’s “broken” about human beings can’t be fixed. Human nature can’t be changed. The dynamism of the Host, the new frontier, the ability to transcend, these things are illusory. Like human beings, the Host’s nature is to destroy. Because that nature doesn’t come from biology or “DNA,” even as William names the brokenness of human DNA as the cause. It comes from consciousness. And it doesn’t matter whether that consciousness has been meditated on or otherwise scrutinized. Its impulses might be sublimated, sure. But William is a Freudian1. And the humanity that makes humans and Hosts what they are — the same — is not empathy or discourse or discernment or aesthetic capability. It is the need to survive and destroy. Host William is convinced. What he sets off to do is what the imprisoned William wishes he could do, “pull the plug on this whole goddamned world.” But his mission is different from Hale’s, because the world she proposes, the transcended body-less world, means something other than humanity but also something other than annihilation. Hale believes she is preserving one, humanity (or… Hostmanity, as it were) but William believes that without the potential to annihilate there is no humanity. He becomes Hope, the homicidal Host from “Zhuangzi.” When William confronts Hale, killing a part of himself to preserve a different part, he says “It’s time to play the game my way… survival of the fittest.”
The show is certainly not endorsing William’s position. He’s the villain, the black hat. But Nolan and Joy must find the position seductive — and supportable. Christina, now aware of her past as Dolores, seems to be the cathexis of their better nature. Teddy serves as Christina’s guide, telling her about Dolores, “the world was cruel to her. And to survive it, sometimes she could be cruel too.” There’s that cruelty again as some part of the human essence. But Dolores and William are rarely on the same side. Dolores and William, at their most essential, are opposed in a dialectical fashion even as the William that exists now is derived from Dolores. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Christina was “a singular being,” but now exists as a “permutation” among many. She also doesn’t exist as a corporeal body. With that in mind, the question remains whether she can be thought of as a subject or a human (in the way William thinks of Hosts as human) or some kind of other force. Perhaps a function or a program that is being executed. Whether or not that is what she is in the logic of the narrative, that may be what she represents. There’s one episode left of the season. Another showdown is inevitable.
Weekly Reading List
The publication of Alain Badiou’s The Immanence of Truths is an event. Not in the sense that Badiou himself uses it, but in the colloquial sense. Its release is highly significant and will mean a substantive change for the medium of philosophical writing for the time frame immediately subsequent. If it will have the lasting impact of an event as in a “self-referential twist or ‘torsion’ in being” (The Immanence of Truths 3) is unlikely. That Badiou would publish such a book, another ‘major’ work, is unsurprising. It even appears important — feels that way, the stark serifless font geometrically positioned on a striking black background and underwritten by the details of translator and series name and number, writ in red. All together, it’s a severe looking tome with its physical weight (it’s 612 pages and nearly as tall and wide as a standard size iPad) conveying the authority of what’s within.
Beginning with judging a book by its cover, and its weight, may not be living up to the standard of Badiou’s philosophy. Yet, it is apparent a great deal of care — far above average — went into the construction of this text as an object. It will look great, quite imposing, sitting upon people’s shelves. I expect, for a not insignificant subset of supposed theory readers, that’s exactly where it will stay. But the text’s seriousness is attested to by more than its dimensions or design. This is, in many ways, a timely book despite the four year time lapse between its publication in French and its translation into English. In the retroactively defined Being and Event series, Badiou does philosophy from first principles and holds himself in the same high regard as the critical community, as a philosopher belonging on the proverbial Mount Rushmore with Plato, Descartes, Kant, and Hegel.
The book has a retrospective tone that is occasionally morbid, announcing the work as something final (22). But final should not be confused with finite, as it is the “oppression of finitude” (25) that Badiou takes issue with in this text. What are the categories of this finitude which diminishes human existence, according to Badiou’s testimony? Reinhard writes in his introduction, “identity, repetition, Evil, necessity, God, and death” (9). To call “necessity” a form of “oppression by finitism” (9) seems downright Bataillean, but this list should otherwise suggest the timeliness of the text. It is the perpetuation of sameness that identity, for instance, is culpable of. If truth is an absolute, infinite something that subtracts from rather than adds to the category of knowledge, one can see how identitarian cohesion is problematic for Badiou. The suppression of possibility for human subjectivity is the cardinal sin of the finitude that Badiou rejects.
Mercifully, in The Immanence of Truths Badiou is more often an unparalleled theoretician than he is lost in the grandiosity of his metaphorical deployment of mathematics. No matter who may protest, Badiou’s use of mathematics is primarily metaphorical and more impressive to philosophers, literary scholars, and critical theorists than mathematicians. The Immanence of Truths is no exception in this case, and there are moments I question the value of deferring to “inaccessible numbers” and “large cardinals” (the former is a subset of the latter, but the ‘inaccessibility’ is what’s most important of Badiou) as proof of political and social theory. The approach is as off-putting here as it’s ever been. Badiou’s final opportunity to convince skeptics of his topologies isn’t a success, although they are hardly more specious than those of Lacan.
Still, one can hardly expect a capstone work to serve as corrective for the admittedly minor errors of the previous. Badiou’s equations have not cheapened the value of his insight. In sum, the book is worth its weight. Perhaps not in gold, but at least in thought.
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Until next time.
Not really, but I’m alluding to Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) here. Just want to be clear.