Alphaville: Une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965) dir. Jean-Luc Godard
With the coming of the Enlightenment, we see a sort of secularization of the Protestant principle: sola Scriptura becomes sola Ratio. - Julián Carrón
One of the central battles between post-Enlightenment utopian and dystopian thinkers is over the role of reason.
The gauntlet was symbolically thrown down during the French Revolution. One of the first waves of leaders created what they called the “Cult of Reason,” staged mass executions of clergy and, famously in 1793, worshipped the “Goddess of Reason” in Notre Dame.
The governing style of the Hébertists is quite different than that of the Stalinists, but the common thread is the Enlightenment humanism that both share with nearly all of the non-theocratic failed utopias of the past two centuries.
The ideal shared by utopianists from Ayn Rand to Edward Bellamy to Adolf Hitler is that pure reason – whether achieved by a computer, the scientific method, or a really long novel – can be used to fully explain the universe and govern human affairs.
The problem, as pointed out by everyone from Jules Verne to Fyodor Dostoevsky to Stanley Kubrick, is that men are not rational actors and that when morality is systematized and mathematized, its output is evil.
Alphaville enacts this drama in a simple and moving way. Lemmy Caution meets Alpha 60, the computer who controls the society through the ruthless, rational pursuit of “the greater good.” Those who act irrationally, such as a man who weeps at his wife’s death, are executed. The words “love” and “conscience” are but two of many banned from use.
So, Caution does the obvious thing and gives the computer something it cannot understand. He and computer programmer Natacha Von Braun fall in love. He reads poetry to the machine. Alpha 60 is unable to process the non-rational. The gears quickly come off.
By 1965 of course, love defeating the soulless machine was a well-worn trope. But if he’s working with old ideas, Godard expressed them most beautifully. I’ve written before about my love of his style. Alphaville rivals WALL·E for the best love story on the list.
Alphaville is a natural fit with Godard and the French New Wave. Dystopianism itself is essentially a poststructuralist, post-modern exercise. Walter Chaw wrote a good essay looking at linguistics in Alphaville.
Alpha-60 complains that “We are unique. Wretchedly unique.” Uniqueness and individuality are the enemies of nearly every dystopian ruler, both real and fictional.
We live in a world full of different people viewing truth at different angles and sharing different perspectives. An attempt to gain a “objective” perspective is the task of the scientific method, and the Enlightenment can be easily cast as an attempt to escape particularity. It wants to see the truth without having to look at it.
Of course, this is impossible. Consensus, even after following a long series of well-designed double-blind tests, only means agreement by individuals who agree a priori to all follow the same rules. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, but the conceit appears when the contingent conclusions we’ve reasoned to are paraded as Ultimate Truth. In both fiction and reality, those who disagree with the Ultimate Truth are judged insane or deliberately dishonest. They are either treated or punished, and there’s not much difference between the two.
Human brains are limited and since we all have them, we can’t know just how limited they are. They evolved within particular circumstances on a particular planet with a particular set of conditions.
Likewise, with Alpha-60. Although it shares the Enlightenment conceit of being able to process pure reason, apart from biases of history, culture and influence, it too is a creature, with Professor Van Braun as its father.
Ultimately, this realization is what destroys Alpha-60. Sola Ratio demands an absence of inconsistencies, but it itself demands one.
Alphaville is the 8th entry in my 45.1 Essential Dystopias list.