Inception’s Meme Ecology

Inception's Meme Ecology
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Regardless of whether you loved or hated it, or worse, you were indifferent, Inception is a good object to think with. And I think Christopher Nolan is a clever filmmaker. Mind you, clever doesn’t always mean wise. But he has a knack for making films that can splinter your mind. Even the Batman franchise’s The Dark Night had some deep guano buried within its pyrotechnics. But is Inception the zeitgeist film it aspires to be?

I was about to write a ho-hum review when I realized that Nolan was a bit smarter than I had initially understood. He made an entirely self-referential film about implanting ideas into stranger’s minds, and abracadabra, here we are talking about a film’s idea playing with our thoughts. It took a few days to gestate, but that’s one of the major points of the film: ideas don’t simply replicate, they ripen. (Coincidentally, Steven Johnson has a video about his new book, Where Good Ideas Come From, which deals with this very issue.)

As I wrote here about Nolan’s The Prestige way back when, I had noted that though the movie was ostensibly about rival magicians on screen, in fact it was really about film as an act of magic. Likewise, Inception is about the consequences (and ultimately ethics) of trying to make people believe things that are against their better interests. For those who study media, this is called hegemony, which deals with how cultural institutions shape our beliefs so that they become “common sense.” The hegemonic view is concerned with how systems influence us, and not so much about narrow ideas, but like Inception, it becomes a question of how it is that certain beliefs seem natural. What should concern us is the seemingly invisible belief that corporations are the mediator of the common good.

Inception‘s primary meme is a simple concept that drives Dominic Cobb’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) wife mad: reality is just a dream. OK, for readers of Reality Sandwich this idea is old news, but thanks to postmodernism and the persistence of mass mediation, the trope continues to circulate widely (i.e. The Matrix, Truman Show, Videodrome, etc.). As it should. Inception makes the argument rather clinically, however, and certainly lacks the poetics of Plato or the Vedas. I also think we can agree the film is mostly un-dreamlike, unless we’re talking about James Bond’s lucid dreaming skills. Yes, there are several spectacular moments like Paris bending over itself, but where’s the utter weirdness that dreams so inspire? In a way, the film reflects what’s distinct about our historical moment: that reality is co-produced by a corporate agenda. And if a corporation were to dream, it would certainly look more like Inception than one in which we commune with nature spirits.

Because mass media are the dreamlife of corporations, Inception‘s dream stages naturally mirror capitalism’s hierarchical state (dreams within dreams in which you can kick “up” levels, a bottom “limbo” that is a kind of hell realm). Within this scheme it’s important to acknowledge who’s doing the dreaming (like in the case of The Matrix in which the machines dream our reality for us). For example, Inception presents a vision of dreamers being dreamed within an architecture designed by multinational energy corporations, with our only defense being our projected dream “antibodies” (one of the film’s more intriguing concepts). No doubt, without proper mindfulness and training, we are vulnerable to being dreamed by interests that are not our own. A hegemonic analysis would point out that the architecture of most corporate media is oriented around the interests of multinational energy companies (such as car ads being one of the primary revenue sources of commercial media). It takes due dilligence on our part to recognize how ingrained the petroleum reality is within our corporate mediated dreamspace.

The corporate character of Inception’s dreamscapes is that they were far too logical and controlled, with the exception of the occasional train coming out of nowhere. But to impose a Hollywood narrative on a dream, well, that’s Hollywood. I think films by the likes of Maya Deren or Luis Buñuel are far more successful at emulating the dream state and marrying the potential of film with the creative energy of the universe (and let us not forget the infinite possibilities of animation, such as Richard Linklater’s Waking Life or A Scanner Darkly). Highlighting the creative potential of dreaming is a far more libertarian message than what you’d expect from a blockbuster spectacle. A Hollywood narrative, however, does offer us the experience of entering into another reality and temporarily believing that it is real–just like a dream– but so do books (good ones at least). This is a matter of master storytelling, and not necessarily medium.

Despite the culture industry metathemes working in the background, nothing is black and white and we as an audience are always the co-creators of any mediated phenomena. Consequently, it has been argued that the audience is the medium through which Hollywood’s affective economy passes. Without us, they are nothing. As such, the discussion we are now having is an indicator of our own lucid dream skills which help us navigate a corporate framing of the world. For example, one of the better insights the film offers is the point that you can’t just implant a meme and expect it to produce results the way you intend: minds are not programmable machines. Everyone has history and a context, so ideas won’t motivate unless they have some kind of emotional charge specific to the person’s lifeworld. Isn’t this what advertising aspires to? Really, rather than DiCaprio, the best “extractor” for the job is Mad Men‘s Don Draper. But Inception‘s take on memes is refreshing, because usually they are treated far more mechanically, such as the view that an idea simply replicates itself like downloaded music files that pass from one person to another perfectly intact. At least Inception acknowledges that you can’t simply throw a mind bomb without unintended collateral damage.

As the film suggests, ideas have an ecology. Ideas and information (“in”-“formation”) are not the same thing. As such, unlike a song or book, ideas cannot be copyrighted. This is due to the public nature of them. It is very hard to trace the origins of an idea to a pure source, just like in the dream you cannot remember how you got where you are. Ideas are networked beyond the individual’s interior reality. So when it is proposed during the movie to make an “inception”–to implant an idea in a person’s dream so as to make him think it is 100% his own–the film’s pros believe it’s impossible. The characters understand that ideas really do not have a beginning, and aren’t necessarily real, at least in the tangible sense. The capitalist system likes to reify and commodify everything into objects, but ideas evade enclosure. This notion is similar to Buddhism, which speaks of thoughts as being like flames that light other flames. But try to capture fire and you get Prometheus and his eternal suffering. In the end, an idea can’t be a thing that you transport from one place to another. Just as the great sages tell us about the nature of thought, ideas are pure potential.

No doubt, regardless of whether or not it is possible, the concept of making an “inception” is a marketer’s wet dream and will be the subject of lots of wasted money and human creativity. You can see evidence of it in the tactics of peer-to-peer marketing and from brand managers who dream of colonizing mindshare by dropping brand viruses here and there, hoping that they infect and reconstitute people’s thinking. But marketing slogans and images are more like weeds. They only grow under specific conditions, although unhealthy minds can certainly get overgrown by them. It only goes to show that in our age of mass mediation we have to learn how to be good cognitive gardeners.

Inception had one detail that I liked quite a bit. The main action takes place during an overseas flight. As I have argued in my discussion of Lost (chapter five in my book) and in my RS review of 2012, airplanes are the techno-dream bodies of our high-tech world. In pop culture they often represent the vehicles through which we travel the liminal realm between worlds. It was symbolically appropriate that the major dream sequences took places during an intercontinental flight, the jetliner being an excellent metaphor for corporate media.

The difference between Inception and say a good PK Dick story (or even a David Cronenberg film like eXistenZ) is that by the end, you really don’t know what was/is “real.” Though Inception‘s closing shot leaves you with a question, I was not–spoiler alert–confused about whether or not DiCaprio was dreaming his life into existence, nor did it really matter, because it was just a way to conclude a convoluted plot that justified a lot of action sequences. There are definitely other movies where I’ve been left with a much deeper sense of unease about the groundless condition of the universe. By the end of Inception, the only unease I felt was about the degree I had been manipulated by hype.

My final verdict? Part Citizen Cane (with its Rosebud moment and pretense for greatness), part PK Dick (although light on the mindfrak quotient), part James Bond (skis, guns, fortresses and global corporate intrigue), and part self-reflexive magic trick. It is the latter characteristic I associate with Christopher Nolan, and will likely be his signature for years to come. In the end, the fact that we are having a broad cultural discussion about dreams is always a good thing, and even more so when we connect dreams with media. Ultimately because so many are talking about this film, it’s the mark of a successful work of art (depending on how you define art, of course). The more unsettling question regards what compels this conversation. The Hollywood hype machine, artistic merit, or the affirmation that things aren’t what they seem?

My biggest complaint about the current zeitgeist is that I can’t tell a sales pitch from a sincere desire to communicate. Which begs the question, was I impelled to see Inception for reasons beyond my knowing? Why did I have to see the movie the day it opened in Italy months after its US premiere? Did Warner Bros., part of one of the biggest media corporations in the world, dream the Inception dream for us?

Talk about a real mindfuck.

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