Pikul: I don’t want to be here. We’re stumbling around in the unformed world, not knowing what the rules are, or if there are any rules. We’re under attack from forces that want to destroy us but that we don’t understand.’
Watching Cronenberg’s Existenz while teaching existentialism recently, I found myself finally persuaded of the director’s claim that the film is ‘existentialist propaganda’.
Existenz has worn well, and repays re-viewing now. In retrospect, it is possible to position the movie as part of a rash of late 90s and early 00’s films that can be seen as symptomatic expressions of the traumatic transition from the ‘irrational exuberance’ of the bubble economy to WoTerror. Along with Vanilla Sky, Mulholland Drive and The Matrix, Existenz‘ ‘reality bleeds’ anticipated the crashing into the US’s simulated interiority of ‘the desert of the real’ on 9/11.
In a wonderful Zizekian shift, Existenz‘s Real is precisely not the empirical reality defended by the film’s Realists (those committed to the destruction of the gamepods and the ontological contamination they threaten), but the Real of the cosmos as ongoing ateleological event: ‘purposiveness without purpose’ (Kant). The realists, by contrast, are those who treat whatever consensual hallucination they find themselves thrown into – and the random rules and protocols which make it liveable – as the only authorized reality.
Cronenberg: ‘I’m talking about the existentialists, i.e. the game players, versus the realists. The deforming of reality is a criticism that has been levelled against all art, even religious icons, which has to do with man being made in God’s image, so you can’t make images of either. Art is a scary thing to a lot of people because it shakes your understanding of reality, or shapes it in ways that are socially unacceptable. As a card-carrying existentialist I think all reality is virtual. It’s all invented. It’s collaborative, so you need friends to help you create a reality. But it’s not about what is real and what isn’t.’ (Sight and Sound interview).
Cronenberg’s is a kind of ontological existentialism, then, in which the very nature of reality itself, not only the individual choices of subjects, is radically open. The Existenzialists precisely refuse what Nick Land in ‘Meltdown’ called ‘the dominator ur-myth that the nature of reality has already been decided.’ Jude Law’s Ted Pikul confronts the existential horror of abandonment, anguish and despair when he complains to Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Allegra Geller (who at this time seems to be the designer of the very game, Existenz , that they are playing) that the game is without final purpose, that they are forever being accosted by malevolent forces intent upon their destruction. It’s a game that would be hard to market, Pikul moans. And yet, as Geller tartly rejoins, it’s the game that everyone is already playing.
The realists believe – or rather want to protect the self-delusion – that the particular world (=consensual hallucination) in which they find themselves is fixed and determined. What guarantees such fixity is of course the functioning of a transcendent designer – the game programmer, whose role is inevitably paralleled with what God does – or did – in/ for ‘our’ particular consensual hallucination. What Existenz demonstrates with admirable lucidity is that reality can only be authorized if it is authored – if, that is to say, its nature is controlled by an additional, allegedly ‘more real’ plane of reality, one level up from in which we find ourselves.
Thus Existenz turns on the Sartrean opposition between the in-itself and the for-itself. The players (Pikul and Geller) are for-itself, capable, or seemingly capable, of making choices, albeit within set parameters. (Unlike in the ludicrous Matrix, the players are constrained by the rules of the world into which they are thrown). The game characters are the in-itself, pre-programmed drones who can only respond to particular cues.
These in-itself pre-programmed game characters are one of the greatest sources of uncanny humour in Existenz. That’s partly because their strange fugues and inability to act unless triggered by exactly the right stim are immediately reminiscent of so many interactions with ‘real’ human beings in late Kapitalism. In late Kapitalism, the experience of listening to a cheerful more-human-than-human robovoice announce, inevitably incorrectly, the arrivals and departures at a railway station and the experience of talking to a ‘real live’ call centre employee or ultra-trained estate agent, are all but indistinguishable. Professionalization = becoming as much like a bureaucratically controlled robozombie as is humanly possible. In none of these cases are there any signs of autonomy or ability to sensitively engage with either the situation or people around them. In the ‘age of artificial stupidity’ (Iain Hamilton Grant) , the tendency is for everyone and everything to be encouraged to act as if pre-programmed.