Revista Saeculum, Universitatea “Lucian Blaga”, Sibiu, anul XVII (XIX), no. 1/45 (2018), p. 51-70. [PDF]
Abstract: This paper undertakes a philosophical analysis of the original motion picture “Annihilation” (2018) in light of Clément Rosset’s tragic philosophy, namely his 1973 book, L’anti-nature. It is all at once an homage to the philosopher who passed away just weeks after the debut of “Annihilation”, in Mars 2018. We shall deploy Rosset’s concept of “anti-nature” to discuss the film’s argument and raise a set of questions concerning the old philosophical problem of nature, being, and the ultimate reality of what exists.
Keywords: Annihilation; Anti-nature; Phýsis, Arkhé; Necessity; Chance; Artifice; Tragic Philosophy.
Graspings: wholes and not wholes, convergent divergent, consonant dissonant, from all things one and from one thing all.Heraclitus
Nature is headstrong and slow in its operations. When it’s about distancing, approximating, uniting, dividing, softening, condensing, solidifying, liquefying, dissolving, assimilating, it always walks toward its objectives with the most impercep- tible steps. Art on its turn hurries, tires, and relaxes. It takes natures centuries to rustically prepare metals; art is proposed to perfect them in a single day. Nature spends centuries forming precious gems; art means to imitate them on the spot.Diderot
The more one is a nature, the less one is an artist.Cioran
L’anti-nature (1973) is the title of a book by French philosopher Clément Rosset (1939-2018), but it could as well be the subheading to Annihilation (2018), the original motion picture starred by Natalie Portman and directed by Alex Garland. In this science-fiction story, a group of female scientists undertake the mission of entering a region isolated by the US government due to an anomalous magnetic field that took over the place after a meteorite hit the lighthouse on a beach nearby. The field is growing rapidly and, if it’s not contained, it will encompass every single spot on Earth.
None of the previous teams returned to report what goes on inside the so-called “Area X”. In fact, one single person managed to escape from it: Kane, Lena’s (Natalie Portman) husband, one of the scientists in the last failed mission. When he set off to the expedition over a year before, Kane could not reveal where he was going or the nature of his mission. He was aware he could never return. After over a year disappeared, he then returns home one day, for the surprise–and the greatest happiness–of Lena. But he is clearly strange, different, other. It doesn’t take much until Kane starts feeling sick, with hemorrhagic seizures. Lena calls an ambulance and heads to the hospital with him. On their way to the hospital, black unidentified cars in high speed intercept the ambulance, dragging the couple out of it and taking them along by force. Lena wakes up in a laboratory set up in a military base near “Area X”. Kane is also there, in the ER, with multiple organ failure.
The interrogation of Reason
The initial scene shows an interrogation room, entirely white. Men hermetically protected by anti-radioactive vests question Lena, who is desponded, disoriented, aloof. Behind a glass wall, a group of scientists attentively follow the interrogatory. She is the only survivor of the mission. One of the interrogators tells Lena that she and her colleagues had stayed inside “Area X” for months. In her own perception, she replies, it was as though they had been there for a matter of days only. She is questioned about the fate of the other women. She confirms that two of them died, but to the question about the fate of the other two, she answers, tiredly: “I don’t know”. The profound sense of such statement–so philosophically significant, so “Socratic”–, repeated innumerous times during the interrogatory session, transcends the domain of sheer factual knowledge concerning the whereabouts of the missing women; it is, much more than that, the response to a rather metaphysical kind of question. What we see there is Reason interrogating Nature, and expecting from it satisfactory answers. Dissatisfied with the insufficiency of such answers, it insists: “So, what do you know?” Lena bends her head down, and silences.
Conceptions of phýsis: natures and anti-natures
Annihilation (2018) stands out for enouncing, in the background of the narrative, and in its underlying layers of signification, the old philosophical question concerning the fundamental nature–the phýsis, in ancient Greek–of beings, that which exists. The film’s argument sides up with the position generally associated with the sophists and skeptics of philosophical Antiquity, as opposed to the philosophers who, such as Plato, postulated the effectiveness of what is named, after its Latin root, “nature”. Now, the philosophical concept of nature (phýsis, natura), in its deep metaphysical signification, reaches far beyond what is ordinarily understood by the term “nature”. What is referred to when one speaks of a nature, of something that is, or occurs, naturally? What is natural, what isn’t? Life that blooms, grows, and then perishes? The evolution of the species? The survival of the fittest? The hierarchical ordination of beings, from the mineral to the vegetable to the animal, and then to the human complexity? What does “the natural” oppose to, after all? The contrary of the natural (tò physikon) can be said in different ways.
Unlike its present understanding, informed to a great extent by modern sciences, phýsis is originally an eminently metaphysical idea. By “metaphysics”, let us understand a speculative, transcendental rationality which attempts to reach beyond the realm of immediate sensorial experience and its multiplicity of phenomena. Since the pre-Socratics such as Tales, Heraclitus, Democritus, Empedocles, and so many others, philosophers have raised serious questions on the principle (arkhé) of reality and the ultimate nature of beings, phenomena, everything that comes to exist. Such principle or cause is not just one more among those determined and circumscribed in the phenomenal world of becoming (space and time): it is a matter of grasping the first Principle. In Tales’s conception, it was water (or some primordial substance of an analogous nature); to Anaximander, Tales’s compatriot, it was the apeiron, a purely undetermined, unlimited, infinite, eternal principle, devoid of analogy with either of the physical elements whatsoever; to Empedocles, at last, they were the four elements (fire, air, earth, water). But Empedocles openly denied the existence of a pre-existent, fundamental phýsis, absolute principle and substance of existence. Finally, phýsis results from the action of phyestai, “to sprout”, “to spring”, “to be born”, “to come into being”.
All that exists stems from a unique principle, or multiple depending on the pre-Socratic conception. From the mixture of diverse elements, or from the unfolding of a single one, there comes to be the diversity of every existing being or thing, the possible or actual multiplicity of the forms of life, within the limits fixed by necessity. The category of the necessary, as an intrinsic property of the phýsis, in its ontological-metaphysical sense, opposes to chance and contingency on the one hand (inertia of inanimate matter), and to freedom and arbitrariness on the other hand (man’s creative openness to the novel, the unexpected, the artificial, the ingenious). Necessity has the force of a universal, inexorable law which, according to Greek poet Simonides from Ceos (c. 556-468 BCE), not even the gods can defeat. All things, all existences subject to the conditions and limitations imposed by necessity, which corresponds, in Greek mythology, to the divinity that goes by the name of Ananke: mother of the Moiras, she is the Queen of Fate and of individual fates, of the Fatum. “So it has to be… It cannot be otherwise… It is necessary that… and not…”–this is how Ananke speaks, while ruling sovereignly over all beings, mortal and immortal (mortals shall die; gods shall not be like mortals). The ontological necessity that circumscribes and delimits the domain of being, circumscribes and delimits the domain of rational knowledge as well, making them coincide onto-logically: the limits, conditions and structure of being correspond to those of all thinking and knowledge possible.
Clément Rosset’s L’anti-nature (1973) is all at once an ant-metaphysics treatise and an artificialist manifesto. The book’s argument is that we should get rid of the concept of nature as phýsis since it amounts to an atavistic prejudice, a metaphysical superstition, a “naturalistic mirage” in his own words. “Nature” that is defined, according to the tragic philosopher, as a third domain distinct on the one hand from sheer inanimate matter and chance, and on the other hand from the ingenious artifice of the human creative spirit (man as zoon poietikon). It opposes both to the formless, indistinctiveness of matter submitted to chance, and to human artificiality and technology. It is due to all the arbitrary, imponderable, divine or monstrous there is to it that man’s art/artifice opposes to that which is natural. According to Rosset, such absolute entity–the phýsis–is nothing but a “mirage”, an ontological illusion or convention.
Inglorious task, that of debating over the concept of nature and its very idea, judging by the atavistic strength of the naturalist prejudice, firmly rooted in our Western psyche as it appeals to our deepest wants and yearnings. Man is always in search of fixedness, stability, permanence, foundations. Annihilation (2018) is a motion picture that embraces such task in the form of a fictional narrative. Many anti-naturalistic, artificialist theories–proposed and counterpoised for centuries to the prevailing naturalistic-metaphysical paradigm–underlie the film’s philosophical problematics. The history of the philosophy of anti-nature undertook by Rosset approaches the most important ones among them. His concern is eminently philosophical, and as such it is inevitable that he diverges from modern sciences which, even though being optimistic when it comes to the possibility of ruling over nature by means of man’s technical genius, have not accomplished the task of demystification of the idea of nature. Quite the contrary, “it is not altogether evident that the progress in modern science has managed to seriously problematize the foundations of naturalism”. After all, “great is the depth of the naturalistic rooting in human consciousness.”
Demystifying the idea of nature is not a task for natural or human sciences whose eminently pragmatic character does not cease to demand a certain degree of mystification, prejudice, belief pure and simple. On the other hand it has been demystified for millennia now, by thinkers whose foremost concern is philosophical and artistic rather than scientific and pragmatic, metaphysical and poetic rather than technical. From Gorgias to Lucretius, from Pascal to Leopardi, from Nietzsche to Cioran, a long tradition of thinkers, poets and artists in general have been undermining the foundations of the idea of nature, without however prescribing “practical remedies aimed at hindering the terrible effects of these pseudo-forces stemming from chance disguised as pseudo-nature.” Away from the metaphysical continents of Nature, henceforth with an allegorical capital letter, one approaches the territory of the Tragic, for the anti-naturalistic philosophy denies that there is, in “nature”, anything more necessary than sheer artifice, which in its turn frees itself from necessity to become an accomplice of chance (hasard in French, acaso in Portuguese, azar in Spanish).
Modernity has lost, as it seems, the profound metaphysical signification of the concept of Nature, henceforth immanentized, and hence the reduction of its corresponding problematics to a mere technical-scientific scope, determined by the pragmatic purposes of ruling over nature and its phenomena, devoid of all density, transcendence, underlying unity. The fact that the Ancients struggled with the idea of a phýsis deemed indomitable and inimitable, and that some among them, much more than the Moderns, utterly refuted such idea, as rooted as it happens to be in the Western psyche, “shows that the debate between nature and artifice is not set from the perspective of a nature repressed by artifice (modern nature), but from the outlook of a vaster, deeper interrogation encompassing the notions of necessity and chance.” According to Rosset, the naturalistic conception has been resisting to attacks as frequent as violent:
Since Antiquity, by Empedocles, the Sophists and Lucretius; until the beginnings of modern philosophy, by Bacon–maybe the first thinker ever to denounce the distinction between artifice and nature–and his main contemporaries (exception made to Descartes); by Nietzsche: “Life is but a variety of death, and a rather exotic one”; by modern biology whose tendency would be, preferably, to consider the natural as the artificial continued, as a particular–and favorable–case of the artifice, and, contrarily to Diderot’s assertion, nature, whose order is fundamentally artificial, would only be distinguished from human artifice for proceeding much more rapidly than the latter.
Rosset draws our attention to the anthropomorphic core of the naturalistic prejudice, hence its being so deeply rooted in the psyche. Supposedly, “the natural” is what’s “made without man”, a great part of which man would not be capable of achieving no matter how much effort he puts to it, despite all his science, technology, ingenuity. How could he reinvent life, or invent immortality? And yet, despite all limitation, that is precisely his titanic ambition, his desire of ruling over nature and the gods, something that the ancient myths grasped so well. Overwhelmed by the multiplicity of beings, in all shapes, sizes, and colors, the abundance of phenomena in their continuous becoming, man tends to project, in their mute indifference that has nothing to say to us, humane meanings and qualities. Our attachment to the idea of Nature is mediated and reinforced by the notion of a “human nature”; if it wasn’t for this one, which more directly concerns us, the naturalistic prejudice would lose its strength. Two prejudices that reinforce one another mutually: if there is a human nature, an essence in which I partake, then all things must have some nature of their own, an essence, a natural, necessary mode of being.
The onto-logical opposition between nature and artifice–necessity and chance, nature and freedom, necessity and contingency–has crucial implications to human existence and life in general. Think, for instance, of a cancerous cell, say, a tumor: wouldn’t it–such destructive anomaly that devours itself and everything around it–be just one more possible mode of Nature being itself? Or should we deem Nature demented? Isn’t cancer something natural, laid down in the order of being? On can have it “naturally”; how should we determine the border between the natural and the unnatural, the normal and the abnormal, order and disorder, nomos and anomy? If everything is, at the bottom, foundationless, groundless, nothing but the manifestation of a game of artifice played by Chance, why not consider death and dying as an accident, as extraordinary an event as its complementary opposite, life and living? This dilemma puts us in face of two alternatives: either cancer is natural and is circumscribed within the field of necessity, or else Nature itself is surrendered to the extraordinary, the anomalous, the state of constant exception.
Even though it comes across as easy to counterpoise empiricist criticism to folktale and mythical confabulation, rooted in imagination and affectivity, one must not be naïf as to underestimate the close ties linking religion (and all sort of mysticism) to the idea of Nature, even if is meant to be degraded under the category of the a supernatural divine. Poets and scientists are equally moved by the spectacle of Nature. The contemplative bewilderment and the ecstasy of the unio mystica would hardly resist the intimate suspicion of some kind of intentionality, design, purpose, supreme intelligence underlying natural phenomena. “The idea of nature precedes that of a supernature, and, far from making its critique, promotes it”, reinforces it, legitimizing it by means of a relation of complementary opposition in which the former derives and depends upon the latter; “theism is a demi-option that seeks to infiltrate in between the materialistic option and the theological one, relying on a nature that finds itself halfway between chance and divine order.” By the way, here is a dialogue between Lena and Kane, while they are lying in bed contemplating the moon at daylight:
Kane: It’s always so weird seeing it like that in the daylight.
Lena: Like God made a mistake. Left the hall lights on…
Kane: God doesn’t make mistakes. That’s… somewhat key to the whole “being a god” thing.
Lena: Pretty sure he does…
The typical atheism of a man or woman of science does not hinder all theistic daydreaming, the metaphysical speculation. In order for something to appear, arise, become, it takes appearing, arising, becoming from something else, from a principle (arkhé). The biblical worldview, stranger to the Greek idea of phýsis, postulates that the universe is a creation ex nihilo, that is to say “made out of nothing”. Such nothing, or nothingness, constitutes Creation and its creatures, man included, in contrast with the absolute Being which is God, the Creator; the fundament of Nature, within this hermeneutic horizon, does not lie in itself, but in the creative and maintaining power of a supreme Creator who transcends his own creation and is not consubstantial to it. The idea of chance, Rosset remarks, “is perhaps, among all, the most difficult one to be embraced due to its affectivity, since it implies the radical meaninglessness of all happening, all thinking, all existence.” It is the tragic idea par excellence, in the face of which man’s free will and deliberative faculty lose all effectiveness. Arisen less from a logical-intellective necessity than an affective want, the idea of Nature enjoys wide prestige precisely for providing that which the idea of chance cannot promise. It is the ground of both myths and theories. However imbued of a disenchanted worldview in which divine forces are absent as they might be, a scientist nonetheless may as well rely on the certitude–the belief–of a given Nature which Reason can count on, communicate with, exchange questions and answers, establishing a relationship from which man can be granted benefits and advantages. It is the classical axioma concerning the communion–the onto-logical identity–between phýsis and logos, nature ad reason, being and thinking, that which is (the determined totality of being) and what is (can be) thought/known by the intellect. It is a rather comforting way of things, as it makes as though any feeling of meaninglessness, emptiness, was eliminated.
Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776), a skeptic kind, argued that it is only out of habit, out the inertia of daily repetition, that we come to count on the rising sun day after day, not at all based on some logical-deductive (a priori) certainty. It is not because the sun has risen everyday until the present day, argues Hume, that we can be certain that it will always rise, to eternity. In the naturalistic conception, the natural becomes predictable, reliable, manageable, instrumentalized. Annihilation (2018) explores the potentialities of the dynamics between the natural and the unnatural, or anti-natural. The film is full of surprises, the first of which being the scene when Kane shows up home after more than a year disappeared. We spectators are led to suspect, in the scene where he arrives home acting in a rather odd way, that he might be a projection of Lena’s imagination daydreaming, a delusion, or even a ghost. But, by all appearances, it is indeed Kane, flesh and bones.
After his disappearance, and before her own expedition, Lena happens to be working as a professor in a major league university. In one of the first scenes, she is teaching a class where she shows students the projection on the board of a cancerous cell multiplying frantically:
Like all cells–she explains–it is born from an existing cell. And by extension, all cells were ultimately born from one cell. A single organism alone on planet Earth, perhaps alone in the universe. About four billion years ago… one became two, two became four. Then eight, 16, 32. The rhythm of the dividing pair… which becomes the structure of every microbe, blade of grass, sea creature, land creature… and human. The structure of everything that lives… and everything that dies. As students of medicine, as the doctors of tomorrow, this is where you come in. The cell we’re looking at is from a tumor. Female patient, early 30s, taken from the cervix. Over the course of the next term, we will be closely examining cancer cells in vitro and discussing autophagic activity.
In a dialogue between Lena and doctor Ventress, the psychologist and leader of the mission played by Jennifer Jason-Leigh, the protagonist asks her why would her husband have volunteered for a suicide mission as it seemed.
I’d say you’re confusing suicide with self-destruction. Almost none of us commit suicide… and almost all of us self-destruct. In some way, in some part of our lives. We drink, we smoke. We destabilize the good job. Or the happy marriage. These are not decisions, they’re… They’re impulses. […] Isn’t self-destruction coded into us? Programmed into each cell?
Attention should be drawn to doctor Ventress’s altogether bored, apathic character. She is the incarnation of what the French call ennui: “boredom”, “melancholic weariness”. We later come to discover that she has cancer. The dialogues between these two and the other characters imply the idea that the mission to “Area X” is a form of suicide, or at least a deliberated pursuit of self-destruction. What would lead each of those women to set off towards certain annihilation? Lena’s motivation is, firstly, the attempt to try and find the antidote for her husband’s condition; secondly, and perhaps most importantly, the need for his forgiveness, since Kane had found about Lena’s affair with a colleague, a professor from university. Kane’s very motivation for embracing his previous mission had been determined by this recently discovered fact. Lena is devoured by guilt. She has nothing to lose by entering the same mortal zone from which her husband managed to escape only to fall into a coma. There are sex scenes throughout the film, some of which between Lena and Kane, others with her lover. In both cases, the same naturality, intimacy, voluptuousness. The end of the story, as surprising as it is, confirms an intuition raised by this perceived indifference in how the film director depicts Lena having sex either with her own husband or with her secret lover. Such intuition draws us back to Arthur Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of love, derived from his metaphysics of the world as will and representation. According to Schopenhauer, what is normally taken to be the romantic love between a man and a woman would be but a pretext, a trick, a ruse of the Will or Nature in order to fulfill its purpose of indefinite perpetuation, at the cost of the beings it generates by reproduction only to perpetuate itself.
What manifests itself in the individual consciousness as instinct of sex in general, without being concentrated on any particular individual, is very plainly in itself, in its generalised form, the will to live. On the other hand, that which appears as instinct of sex directed to a certain individual, is in itself the will to live as a definitely determined individual. In this case the instinct of sex very cleverly wears the mask of objective admiration, although in itself it is a subjective necessity, and is, thereby, deceptive. Nature needs these stratagems in order to accomplish her ends. The purpose of every man in love, however objective and sublime his admiration may appear to be, is to beget a being of a definite nature, and that this is so, is verified by the fact that it is not mutual love but possession that is the essential.
Darwin’s lysergic experience turning out to be a nightmare
Annihilation (2018) stands out not only for raising the philosophical question about the phýsis, but also for ultimately dissolving the idea of Nature which we are used to. The film possesses the quality of creating a tragic narrative in which, by means of a series of twists, we spectators are displaced and expropriated from all which is most natural, familiar, most our own, and therefore most well-known, reliable, viable when it comes to our basic human affairs. Is that which appears to us indeed what we believe it to be? There, in “Area X”, Nature as we know it is absent, denaturalized and supplanted by another, an uncanny and obscure presence, another nature, or an anti-nature. It is the perfect cinematographic representation of the anti-naturalistic intuition elaborated by Clément Rosset: Nature as nothing but Artifice, arbitrariness, caprice, overwhelming originality, extravagance.
The ecosystem around the Shimmer, as the center of the magnetic field is named, is the big esthetic attraction of the film. The art direction stands out for creating a fantastic atmosphere inside “Area X”: dreamlike and disquieting, a combination of the natural and the unnatural. The luminosity, soft and intense all at once, the predominance of purple and violet tones stemming from the beams of light shining through the trees, all that provides us with the feeling of lucid somnolence in an eternal sunny morning. The viewer might as well remember the scorching jungle of Apocalypse now (1979). Another esthetic reference is Flemish painter Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), with his creatures half fantastic, half infernal.
Seen from the outside, “Area X” looks surrounded by a translucid membrane, colorful like a soap bubble, constantly flowing. Inside, a dense biome with vast fauna and flora, abounding with different forms of life. Yet, all over, oddities, mutations, anomalies, aberrations that become more frequent–and alarming–as the women advance deep into the forest, towards the Shimmer. They observe, analyze, dissect, catalog; fascinating and/or scary, the forest does not cease to cause curiosity and disquiet. Multicolored, infinitely complex forms of life, like alien fungus, grow from the stems of trees, drawing familiar shapes on their wrinkled surfaces; huge formations similar to colonies of bacteria spread all over the place; crystal-like trees with irregular, cutting edges sprout on the desert sand; anthropomorphic plants grow in the devastated fields. The most extraordinary and bizarre forms of life–sublime or grotesque–dwell in that environment.
Annihilation (2018) seems to be placed somewhere between the antinaturalistic stance and a rather heterodox “naturalistic” prerogative. There is something enchanted in there, a spell, some magnetism, a miasma. It appears to be inhabited b some supernatural mysterious force beyond all understanding. It could as well be said that there is a certain order to it, an internal logic, an alien “intelligence”, maybe even the presence of a genius loci, or a legion of them. The point is that such “intelligence”, if any, macroscopically fractal as it is, turns out to be radically distinct from our rationality, obscure, unfathomable, abyssal. Should it be expected from sheer chance the begetting of forms of life as idiosyncratic, as inventive, as precious as those seen in “Area X”? They may at first look like true prodigies, wonders of nature, and subsequently grotesque, repulsive. It is the Artist-Nature (or anti-Nature), with its macabre and nihilistic tendencies, gifted with a wondrous (deinós) imagination. Necessity is suspended there; ontological anarchy, orgy of the elements; nothing is in its place, as we believed and expected them to be; everything is out of the planned order, everything is displaced, deviated, deturpated, deformed. In one of the most significant moments of the interrogatory, Lena reminisces: “The mutations were subtle at first. And more extreme as we grew closer to the lighthouse. Corruptions of form, duplicates of form, echoes. It was dreamlike.” “Nightmarish?”–the interrogator questions; “Not always”, Lena replies, “sometimes it was beautiful…” In “Area X”, Nature’s caprice and idiosyncrasy are the rule, operating on all levels of reality; necessity there is not that of identity and determination, but that of mutation, displacement, impermanence, mixture, con-fusion. If Darwin had visited “Area X”, he would have written The revolution of the species, followed by The nihilism of the species.
One could as well question if the absolute inexistence of all phýsis is conceivable at all, or else if human rationality, in its very reflective and speculative activity, does not presuppose something (“nature”, “world”) to be known. In other words, it could be questioned whether non-nature, the absence or deprivation of all substantial phýsis, would not lead one way or another back to the very notion of phýsis, non-nature being in this case just another–alien–nature, no longer the same, no longer familiar, ever diverging, deviating, generating new forms of multiplying differences in the plot of existence. If Reason is uncapable of any activity whatsoever without the solid foundation of the idea of Nature, then the cause of anti-naturalistic philosophy is doomed to fail even before it starts, for one only abandons one conception of phýsis to glide into another conception of it, no matter how negative it claims to be. One only denies the existence of all phýsis due to our limitation in acknowledging and understanding other possibilities of generating and ordaining life, other principles and laws of nature different than those that constitute the existence which we are accustomed to. It is because we are not capable of thinking beyond the conventional opposition between a given conception of nature and its negation that we come to the aporia of an anti-nature.
The entrance in “Area X” is at the same time the exit from the domain of Nature we are used to. On a first basic level of reading, it is a movement from outside to inside, from Nature to Anti-nature. On a deeper level, the movement is rather from inside to outside: the old Nature left behind, that’s in fact the Anti-nature disguised under the cloak of normality, becoming absent and making room to the true (anti-)Nature, combination of chance and artifice (if not an evil Nature based on an evil necessity, a wicked form of intelligence or something of the sort). In one of the scenes, when they are rowing along a river, Lena and a colleague talk about their previous lives, and become informed about the stories of the other women’s lives. The remarks about their lives, and the motivations that led them to accept the mission, reveal the troubled, inconsistent character of actual human condition. The entrance in “Area X”–zone of non-necessity, non-identity–cannot help but to reveal the deeply troubled character of the Nature left behind.
The mutations and deformations, both on a psychic and on a material level, begin to take place long before their effects become perceptible, on the surface of the skin or the consciousness. They are already operating since the very moment the women step inside “Area X”. Initially, they feel dizzy, disoriented, confused. They wake up the next morning, in their respective tents, not knowing how they got there or remembering the moment of setting up camp. The film raises the question of the connection between memory and matter, mind and body. Inside “Area X”, memory is vertiginously fugitive, evanescent, as though it did not belong to their individual existences, not remaining within the physical limits of individuation, just as their genetic structures. Memory vanishes in the rhythm of becoming, like Heraclitus’s river: impermanent, transitional, it incessantly drains away from the mind towards the inert matter in which it plunges and dissipates. Dualisms are abolished such as Subject-Object, Identity-Alterity, Selfness-Otherness, Being-non-Being, among others. The continuous flow of becoming prevails over all permanence, identity, fixedness, determination, necessity.
A particularly special philosophical reference to Annihilation (2018) is Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535-475 BCE). As indicated by the epigraph to this essay, his paradoxical conception of phýsis (“Nature loves to hide”, he enigmatically writes), his necessarily antinomic ontology–one that postulates the convergence of opposites, “wholes and not wholes, convergent divergent, consonant dissonant, from all things one and from one thing all”–makes the Obscure from Ephesus the pre-Socratic philosopher whose ideas best illustrate the film analyzed herein. Commenting on the fragment used as an epigraph here, Aristotle remarks that, to Heraclitus, “the contrary is divergent, and from the divergent grows the most beautiful harmony, and all according to strife.” When it comes to Heraclitus’s thought, the necessity is one of harmony through strife, divergence of the convergent. War and Strife are “father of all and king of all”. Nothing more pertaining to Annihilation (2018). We could as well take the poetic license to say that entering “Area X” is like returning by means of imagination to Heraclitus view of the world. Heraclitus is the successor to Anaximander (c. 610-546 BCE), who wrote (no less enigmatically) that “out of those things [namely, the opposing powers] from which their generation comes, into these again does the destruction of things take place, in accordance with what is right and necessary; for they make amends and pay the penalty to one another for their aggression (adikia, injustice), according to the ordinance of Time (DK 12.B1)”. Charles H. Kahn explains the meaning of Anaximander’s proposition, eliciting how it is going to be received and reconfigured by Heraclitus:
Here the pattern of physical change and transformation, the birth of what is new and the death of what is old, is seen as a conflict regulated by an ‘ordinance of time, where the contestants appear in turn as victor and vanquished. And this ordering is itself described in the language of justice, where the wrongdoer must pay the penalty for his aggression or excess. This Milesian notion of cosmic order as one of opposition, reciprocity, and inevitable justice, is faithfully taken over by Heraclitus, with all its poetic resonance and association with older, mythical ideas: “What is shared [for the killer will be killed in his turn], and [hence] Conflict is Justice.’”
Prior to entering “Area X”, the scientists–full of clever theories–debate over what might have happened to the previous missions that never returned. One of them, Anya, speculates: “One, something kills them; two, they go crazy and kill each other.” Barely do they know that such exclusive alternative (or… or…) does not apply, has no validity in there whatsoever, just as the “something” versus “they” duality: the agent of annihilation is outside and within them, it is them, at the same time that they, being in there, turn out to confuse themselves, on a deep level of being, with the principle of their madness and their complete dissolution in the anomy of an alien Anti-nature. In that place, it’s as though all beings deviated from the path that had been traced to them by force of necessity: what should be single becomes double, triple; the animal, vegetable and mineral realms interchange elements randomly; individual consciousness migrates to other bodies; everything is matter, and yet everything is mind, determined and undetermined, necessary and contingent. One could justly speak of an “ontological anarchy”, of an “artistic nihilism” of the Anti-nature.
Attention should be given to the vertiginous speed in which these processes take place: acceleration is one of the main features of the Anti-nature in “Area X”. What would normally take hundreds of thousands of years is just a matter of days in there, maybe even hours. The closer they get to the Shimmer, located in the lighthouse, the more rapidly those strange phenomena occur, almost instantly. It is nothing but the transposition, to the realm of the (supposedly) natural, of the rapidness, the “hurry” with which Art, according to Diderot, accomplishes the same works that it takes Nature ages to fulfill, with the most imperceptible steps.” The first contact with the odd forms of life in “Area X” are shown under the suspense of the still-unknown; what has already happened with the previous expeditions, as distant in time as it may seem, it’s as if it had just taken place moments before. And it won’t be long until it gets to them just as well. Let us analyze some of the crucial moments of Annihilation (2018):
1. On day one, one of the women is standing in the threshold of a door in a lake house half-inclined underwater, when all of a sudden she is violently pulled inside. Neither the other characters or the spectator can see who, or what, abducted her that way. Moments after, they find out that the raptor is actually a huge gator with slight humane traces of intelligence, besides an extraordinary physical strength which allows it to resist to long machine-gun blasts.
2. As soon as they arrive at an abandoned military base inside “Area X”, the women have a terrifying revelation, to Lena more than anyone else, thanks to the footage equipment left by the previous team. It is thanks to the artificiality of electronic devices, immune to the decomposition of everything that lives, that they begin to understand what happened to those who didn’t escape “Area X”. They watch the footage. It’s a scene in which Kane (whom Lena’s peers still don’t know is her husband, except for doctor Ventress)–in front of other men inside a dark location, the floor flooded with dirty water–cuts open the belly of one of them, who is sitting and immobilized, desperate but clearly consenting with the summary surgical intervention. Kane cuts open his belly in the shape of a large skin lid, while the others, including the patient, look at his insides in a mix of terror and a strange scientific satisfaction. Instead of the guts one would expect to see, there is some huge vermin, mostly likely a serpent, twisting and turning inside the man’s body. Shaken, the women then decide to stop watching the video.
3. One night, they hear screams from one of the women, Shepard. She has apparently been abducted by a large savage animal and dragged into the woods. She is deemed dead. The following night, during an argument among them, they hear more screams coming from afar, outside, clearly Shepard’s voice. They start to believe she is alive. But to their greatest terror they are soon faced with a huge animal–similar to a bear, with its nose altogether worm-eaten, which gives it the looks of a hell hound–that brakes into the place hesitating between attacking them and leaving them alone. Instead of growling, the monster utters human sounds in Shepard’s voice: “Help me! Help me!”–as if the woman’s consciousness had been locked inside the creature. I keep imagining the Buddhist idea of transmigration, or even the Platonic metempsychosis, taking place instantly, in a matter of minutes: one dies and immediately reincarnates in another being, animal or plant; it is a kind of super-becoming, hyper-temporality, the Greek aion compressed in an eternal present.
4. The episode described above interrupts a critical moment of the relationship between the women which crumbles in the intense rhythm of life in “Area X”. Anya, who had raised the hypothesis concerning what had happened to the previous teams, is the first to freak out, ending up devoured by Shepard-the-hell-hound and having her theory debunked. The cause of the disagreement among them are the secrets kept by each one of the concerning the others, and whose disclosure they deem fundamental for the continuity of the mission in mutual trust. Only doctor Ventress knew that the surgeon in the video was Lena’s video. Anya then surrenders the other women and tie them to chairs. She starts to interrogate them. First she remarks: “When I look at my hands… and my fingerprints… I can see them moving.” Anya is the one struggling the most to keep her sanity, and yet she just can’t handle all that natural bad trip. She was the one to refuse to keep watching the footage. She is flipping out psychologically. She wants and does not want to find out whether she is hosting the same thing that was twisting and turning inside that man’s body. “If I let you go, and you tie me up to a chair and cut me open… are my insides gonna move like my fingerprints?”–she asks, panting, nervous, losing it altogether. “But… I’m not the one tied to a chair. You are.” Her intention of cutting open one of her colleague’s belly is frustrated by the creature that breaks into the place and devours Anya savagely. This is what could be justly named a metaphysical terror in face of the Anti-nature’s abyssal character, in its complete lack of known necessity, open to literally all possibilities, including the uncanniest ones.
5. The following scene is in the morning; its depiction inspires serenity. Josie is sitting in the front yard of an abandoned house–the lawn is high due to the lack of mowing–as if she meditated in peace. It is the exact opposite atmosphere of the previous night terror. Lena joins he, and sits on the grass to talk to Josie. “We should go”, Lena says. Josie asks her how long Kane stayed in “Area X”; Lena is not sure, more or less a year. “That’s a long time to be inside and remain intact”, Josie remarks. “I’m not so sure he was intact”, Lena replies, expressing resignation. Josie seems in peace, unworried. Then they start talking about the strange phenomenon of refraction which leads all cells to divide endlessly until the complete annihilation of the original organism. “It’s… in me”, says Lena, who had checked a sample of her own blood in the microscope the night before. “It will be in all of us”, replies Josie with a smile. Her skin displays a strange aspect, the appearance of wounds or tree skin that spread all over her dermic surface. Josie then reminisces about the Shepard and Anya’s tragic fates, devoured by that ugly creature. “It was so strange hearing Shepard’s voice in the mouth of that creature last night. I think as she was dying, part of her mind became… part of the creature that was killing her. Imagine dying frightened and in pain, and having that as the only part of you which survives… I wouldn’t like that at all”, she calmly remarks, then looks down at her arm, leaves are sprouting on it. She stands up and starts to walk towards what was once a botanic garden full of colorful species. Josie stops, looks back at Lena, and says: “Ventress wants to face it [the Shimmer]… You want to fight… But I don’t think I want either of those things.” She continues walking and disappears behind a large tree. Lena goes after her, worried. When she reaches Josie, she has already disappeared; in her place, one more of those anthropomorphic plants standing still in the middle of the garden.
6. When leaving all by herself into the woods to search for the mortal remains of one of the women, Lena is faced with a duplicate exemplary of what seems to be a deer, flowers growing on its horns much larger than usual, as though it had come out of a Bosch painting, only “cute” in this case. What is to be assumed is they are not two, not twins, but one and the only animal reflected, duplicated objectively in the physical world of space and time. She admires them from afar. Their perfectly synchronized movements are like the reflection on the mirror doing the exact same thing as the reflected subject does. The deer(s) then notice(s) Lena’s presence, and flee, always synchronized. There–in that figure of the doppel–is the key to the mystery concerning Kane’s fate and also Lena’s.
7. All alone, Lena finally reaches the Shimmer. Around the lighthouse, laying on the sand, human and animal bones form some kind or ritual or esthetic ordinance. On the surface of the lighthouse’s external wall, a thick layer grows of what seems to be the trunk of a gigantic tree similar to the African baoba, with its roots spreading all over the place. Lena accesses the inner chamber of the beacon. Inside she sees a charred body, sitting in a meditation-like position, a deep hole on the ground caused by the meteorite, leading to the center of the earth, and a second footage device.
We spectators find out, alongside Lena, that her actual husband, the one she thought she knew, never came back home. She watches the second footage: the camera is placed exactly the same spot as it is now inside the lighthouse. No one shows up in the frame initially. Kane then walks to the front of the camera and sits on the floor. He is wearing a military uniform, as though he was setting off to a war. From this moment on Lena knows the charred corpse is her husband’s, but the twist here is not exactly this. Kane stays silent for a few seconds, breathes deeply and then starts a speech addressed not only to the camera but apparently also to an invisible interlocutor standing behind the camera: “I thought I was a man. I had a life… People called me Kane… And now I’m not so sure. If I wasn’t Kane, what was I? Was I you? Were you me?” Kane silences for a few more seconds, breathes deeply again, and resumes his speech: “My flesh moves… like liquid. My mind is… just cut loose. I can’t bear it. […] You ever seen a phosphorous grenade go off? They’re kinda bright. Shield your eyes… If you ever get out of here, you find Lena.” A voice from behind the camera then replies: “I will.” Who is he talking to after all? If the footage shows Kane killing exploding himself, who was that other Kane who had come back home? He then removes the pin off the grenade and instantly turns into char. From behind the camera comes one second Kane, identical to the one who has just vanished.
The footage also showed some very short clips of some weird object inside the hole caused by the meteorite. An incandescent ball of fire, something that glows brightly by its own. Lena then goes down the “rabbit hole” to find out what is inside it. She has a machine-gun with her. What happens in there appears to be some kind of mystical experience, something ineffable as the close encounter of the first kind with an alien form of life. The dark walls throughout the hole look as though they’re in constant movement, flowing up and down as an obscure living organism. Doctor Ventress is down there, sitting with her head down. The dim light and her hair laid to the front cause her face to be in complete darkness. She seems demented. We can barely see her face but when we do, we catch a glance of her eyes disappearing and reappearing on it. Her skin changes colors. She seems to prophesize: “It’s the last phase”, doctor Ventress says as she senses Lena approach (which may remind us of some ancient mystery cults, such as the Egyptian cult of Osiris or the Greek cult of Dionysus). “Vanished in havoc… Unfathomable mind… and now beacon… and now sea…” Her body is dissolving, her mind are refracting, dispersing, wandering everywhere and mixing itself with the whole, detached from the limits fixed by the principium individuationis. As she is interpellated by Lena, doctor Ventress comes back to normal and turns toward her companion:
Lena, we spoke. What was it we said: That I needed to know what was in the lighthouse. That moment’s passed. It’s inside me now. It’s not like us, it’s unlike us… I don’t know what it wants… or if it wants. But it will grow… until it encompasses everything. Our bodies and our minds will be fragmented into their smallest parts, until… not one part remains. Annihilation…
Here we reach the climax, Lena’s mystical experience (collective to some extent), her unio mystica with that alien Anti-nature named the Shimmer. She then sees doctor Ventress spit a ball of fire and turning into a huge mass of bright light floating in front of her eyes. She is paralyzed, in ectastic trance, staring deep into that thing, in whose center a hole opens that pushes everything to its core, like a vortex. Lena stares fixedly into the Shimmer, its brightness reflects deep inside her eyes. Suddenly it turns into a human-shaped being standing in front of Lena in the dark, its flashy skin apparently made of carbon, no eyes, no mouth, no nothing. Terrified, she unloads her machine-gun on that creature, which remains still, invulnerable to the bullets. Here is one of the most touching scenes of Annihilation (2018). As Lena tries to run away from the lighthouse, the human-shaped creature stands in her way, holds her, does not let her go. She runs toward the door, but it reaches it first and keeps her from leaving. It immobilizes Lena. She gets angry and hits it on the face. The creature instantly does the same to her. She bleeds. She falls on the floor, the creature follows her movements in synchrony. She then realizes it’s her own double, the objective materialization of her troubled self. It’s not that the creature is keeping her from leaving, it is her who has no reason to go back as she has lost the love of her life. Lena decides to cheat her double. She hands it a phosphorous grenade and removes its pin. Her doppelganger holds it obediently. At this moment, Lena’s physical traits are transferred to the undetermined body of the creature. It becomes her. Old Lena walks out the beacon’s door and looks back, to her doubled self, while it holds the grenade about to go off. Everything blows up and starts burning. Apparently, Lena saved the world, but at the cost of sacrificing herself for it. Annihilation (2018) ends in the military base where Lena (henceforth Anti-nature) is being interrogated by the team of scientists (Reason). This last dialogue is worth citing:
Interrogator: So, it was alien. Can you describe its form?
Interrogator: Was it carbon-based or…?
Lena: I don’t know.
Interrogator: What did it want?
Lena: I don’t think it wanted anything.
Interrogator: But it… attacked you.
Lena: It mirrored me. I attacked it. I’m not sure it even knew I was there.
Interrogator: It came here for a reason. It was mutating our environment, it was destroying everything.
Lena: It wasn’t destroying… It was changing everything… It was making something new.
Interrogator: Making what?
Lena: I don’t know.
Reason can be as pretentious as it is naïve. Know it or not, agree or disagree with it, the explanations expected are no less “metaphysical” than purely factual. They don’t ask about the natural causes alone (the carbon) but spread out toward the question concerning first causes or principles in a deep transcendental sense. Nothing more symptomatic than the equivocal identification–the Reason’s confusion–between the creature that attacked Lena (her own duplicated self) and the principle, the cause, the origin, the source of that unnatural evil: it takes the effect for the cause. It’s the risk entailed in all naturalistic metaphysical conception that postulates some principle or cause exterior and prior to becoming itself, be that principle or cause Being, God, Reason, Will or anything else, according to the philosophical conception. If there is something, it is necessary that it comes from something else. Since Antiquity, many “artificialist” thinkers have thought differently: take for instance Democritus of Abdera, deemed patron of modern materialism, or Empedocles, according to whom in nature nothing is created or lost, but transformed into something else. So it seems to be Lena’s outlook, henceforth become Anti-nature, judging by the dialogue above. Firstly, that alien life was not destroying anything, for there is nothing–no being, nature, world–constituted once and for all to be destroyed, in the sense presupposed by naturalistic Reason. Secondly, it didn’t “want” to destroy or change anything, for wanting is an eminently human way of being, and one we are naturally inclined to project upon everything else, like we do with our human thinking.
In conclusion, Lena finds out that, once the Shimmer has been decimated, its power over our worldly nature is cancelled, as also its effects on human life. Kane comes out of his coma–“lucid”, as says the doctor in charge of treating him. Lena goes to visit him in the ER, still in observation. He is sitting on the edge of the bed, his eyes lost staring at the infinite, as if he daydreamt. Lena enters the room. Kane looks at her with an expression hard to describe, though easily interpreted as odd when it comes from someone who’s seeing their wife again after leaving a coma. He looks at her as though he saw her after a long day of work, exhausted and accustomed to her daily presence. They stay in silence. An inquisitive look from Lena: “You aren’t Kane, are you?” He seems to think over the question for a few seconds, then replies: “I don’t think so. Are you Lena?” She does not respond. Kane then stands up, approaches Lena, their faces come close, but instead of kissing he hugs her as though she was just an old friend. They stay in silence. The camera zooms into Kane’s eyes, and then Lena’s, still embraced: deep in their eyes, that same gleam from the Shimmer, and an air of absence…
Post-scriptum (in memoriam): of the joy of being but an effect of Chance
This essay is dedicated to French philosopher Clément Rosset, who passed away in the same month the film herein analyzed was released. The coincidence could not be greater: after watching it, I immediately started writing about it, having Rosset’s book as a philosophical reference. To my utmost grief, I would learn two weeks later that he had just deceased. This essay was initiated while Rosset was still alive, and it was concluded when we was no longer so.
It should be noted that the subheading to Rosset’s book L’anti-nature (1973) is: “Elements for a Tragic Philosophy”. As previously said, when one evades the continents of naturalistic thinking, one is forcefully in the “territory” of the Tragic. No contemporary philosopher like Clément Rosset sought to elaborate and put into practice a strictly tragic philosophy, uncomplacent with any form of pretext or justification, any metaphysical excuse whatsoever for the idiocy of existence. What is real has no double, no reflection, no image, no Other to confirm it in itself. Reality, according to Rosset, is uninterpretable.
Tragic philosophy, in Rosset’s conception, is all the contrary of everything absurd. Antinaturalistic philosophy does not understand the language of the absurd. For the absurd entails a metaphysical residue, and a more or less manifested pessimism. The absurd is born from a discordance between Reason and Nature (phýsis), Reason and the World, the subject and its object of representation. It is born out of a frustrated attempt at interpreting the real. But it is the nature of reality to be an idiot, having nothing to say, or signify, to us. The Tragic Antinaturalistic Philosophy corresponds, in terms of intellectual attitude, to skepticism, skeptical suspension of all judgement and global interpretation of phenomena.
It should be said that Clément Rosset did not die, he did not “pass away”. For essentially, in his own tragic thinking, he was never generated, never a being unless as a metaphor, never a constituted substantial Nature that is now losing its vital substance. Nothing close to some being with the right to be and live eternally, absolutely. Rosset became something else, Anti-nature refracted Rosset into a myriad of reflections and reminiscences and images and writings about Rosset. He has become fertilizer for the philosophically Tragic. Did he return to some kind of primal indistinction? To the inorganic according to Freud? Is he in Heaven telling the angels philosophical jokes? What happened to Clément Rosset? Like the Annihilation, the movie, Rosset’s works hold that individuality is a convention, a fiction, just as the idea of Nature (and that of a “human nature”). Copernicus displaced us from our geocentric worldview; Nietzsche made us orphans of a divine fatherhood; Freud deprived our self (ego) of its psychological sovereignty by postulating the reality of the unconscious; the upcoming findings of science, the advances in cutting-edge technology may perhaps provide us with one more–much more overwhelming–metaphysical disillusionment. Still, for a philosopher graduated in the School of Tragic like Rosset, ignoring the need for a “metaphysical pillow” to lay his mind on, maybe it’s not quite a disillusionment. The motto of his Tragic Artificialist Philosophy, we find it in the following verses of a fable by La Fontaine: Tenez-vous lieu de tout, comptez pour rien le reste.
Pessimism and the absurd go hand in hand. None of them is Rosset’s cup of tea. He advocates joy (la joie) as a major driving force of existence. He is Nietzschean in his unconditioned approbation of existence, despite all its problematic aspects. Thinking against the idea of Nature, and for the tragic notion of an Anti-nature, means all at once thinking against the substantial notion of a world constituted once and for all. According to Rosset,
the pessimist speaks after having seen; the tragic terrorist speaks to communicate the impossibility of seeing. To put it in other words: pessimism–as a philosophical doctrine, present for instance in Schopenhauer or Edward von Hartmann–presupposes the acknowledgement of “something” (nature or being) of which it later affirms the constitutively dissatisfactory character. In this sense, it is evident that pessimism amounts to an affirmation of the worse. […] Bad ordinance, but still an ordinance: the world is (badly) built up, it amounts to a (wicked) “nature”; and it is precisely to the extent in which it is a system that the pessimistic philosopher may deem it doomed in aeterno, not susceptible to any change or improvement whatsoever. […] The world of the pessimist is given once and for all; hence the great pessimistic proposition: “You can’t escape it.” The tragic world, on its turn, hasn’t been given; hence the great tragic question: “Therein you can never enter.”
Annihilation (2018) is an outstanding screenplay piece, very well done. I wouldn’t even say it’s science fiction; I’d rather coin up the neologism for a new genre: anti-naturalistic fiction. An artificialist manifesto. After a (still ongoing) flood of science-fiction films and TV series, such as Black Mirror and Westworld, among so many others, after the recent intoxication with technology and scientific utopia fostered by these productions, Annihilation most likely represents a “hangover” resulting from all this techno-apocalyptical fever. Here, the nightmare is not in the face of machines, mobile devices or artificially intelligent robots. It’s the nightmare in the face of an infernal (lack of) Nature, or the Anti-nature: naturalistic–metaphysical–terror. Annihilation, the movie, seems to symbolize a return au naturel after so many incursions into the technological, into the man-made artificial. Problem is, after such a long period not paying attention to old Nature, we turn back to it only to find out it’s disappeared, or else it’s no longer the same we believed it to be…
JACCARD, Roland, Cioran et compagnie. Paris : Presses Universitaires de France, 2005.
KAHN, Charles H., The art and thought of Heraclitus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
ROSSET, Clément, A anti-natureza – elementos para uma filosofia trágica. Transl. by Getulio Puell. Rio de Janeiro: Espaço e Tempo, 1989.
_______________, Lógica do pior. Transl. by Fernando J. F. Ribeiro & Ivana Bentes. Rio de Janeiro: Espaço e Tempo, 1989.
SCHOPENHAUER, Arthur, Metaphysics of love. Transl. by Mrs. Rudolf Dircks, University of Adelaide, Australia, 2014.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition).