HANNAH ARENDT, Margarethe Von Trotta, 2012

The movie starts with a person screaming for help, trying to escape from being kidnapped in the middle of nowhere at night. Before you proceed to any moral judgments, think. Have a silent conversation with yourself and think deeply and carefully before you act. That’s one of the key ideas of Arendt’s political thought, represented from the publication of her first masterwork The Origins of Totalitarianism (1) (1967) until her last and unfinished trilogy The Life of Mind (1978). Now, what if I told you that the person who has been kidnapped is Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi Party member, an SS Officer responsible for riding the cities of Vienna and Prague off Jews and coordinator of the ‘final solution’ project which led millions of Jews to death camps? What if I also told you that after the defeat of the Nazis, he managed to escape and settled in Argentina until the May of 1960, when Israeli secret service captured him and brought him to Jerusalem to be tried for his crimes? Would you still have the same thoughts?

Thinking is the presupposition of the political being which leads him to an individual action of fundamental importance. The relation between thinking and acting (praxis) is one of Arendt’s main concerns as a political thinker and the main concept of her book that followed her reports of Eichmann’s trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). A book full of profound ideas about the conception of evil; an evil that humanity never experienced before, so unique but incomparably horrific at the same time but also a type of evil as Arendt puts it “neither perverted nor sadistic…but terribly and terrifying normal” (Arendt 1994, 276), just like the figure of Eichmann. Nevertheless her analysis of Eichmann in her book is about evil, Arendt is primarily concerned about the relation between thinking and acting and particularly about the importance of thinking as a political being for the good of the humanity. It is this relation that Arendt asks us to always have in mind in order to comprehend her profound analysis which is cited in her book. And this relation is, in my opinion, also the central idea of Von Trotta’s movie. The movie is split in two parts. The first part is about Arendt’s experience of the trial and the incidents that activated her critical thinking and led her to write her radical and controversial report including all the key ideas which are contained in her political thought. The second part is about the incidents that followed the publication of her report and the critic she received about it. From my perspective, the second and most important part of the movie is about the thoughts that Arendt’s report generated after its publication.

Another interesting aspect that has to be mentioned is that the script of the movie is based also on the idea of judgement and its fundamental presuppositional factor, that of thinking, and I must say with no hesitation that Von Trotta’s film succeeds to capture this relationship which is amongst the fundamental ideas of Arendt’s political thought. But what is the Arendtian idea of judgement? I think that the answer lies at the courageous speech that Arendt gives in front of her students when she says that is the capacity to distinguish between good and evil, between beautiful and ugly. That is, according to her, the manifestation of the wind of thought. On the contrary the trial of Eichmann, as Arendt believed and reported, didn’t represent its main purpose, that of to distribute justice; instead, this trial for Arendt had an indoctrinating goal. Consequently, Arendt questions and rejects the Israeli government’s decision to bring and try Eichmann in Jerusalem and she also accuses the Israeli position to be both illegal and unthinking. Illegal because Israeli secret service had no right to kidnap him and unthinking because Eichmann wasn’t tried as an individual who has committed crimes against humanity but as a German person who has committed anti-Semitic crimes against the whole Jewish community. That’s why Arendt believed that the only purpose of this trial was the indoctrination of the Israeli youth about the necessity and the importance of Zionism , a movement which the highest authors of the Jewish community used to present as the idea that had enabled the Jewish people to survive the Holocaust. However, we may not think that Arendt’s criticism was against the judicial system of Israel in whole. Rather, Arendt held a great admiration for the three judges who heard the Eichmann case and while she agrees with the final verdict she believes that their verdict didn’t face all of the important and legal issues efficiently.

Arendt’s thought was the same regarding Eichmann’s defence. She represents Eichmann as an unthinking person who he believed that he followed orders that he promised to follow and
he invoked that he was doing his duty. As Arendt emphatically and sarcastically mentions at her report:

“ The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was so close with his inability to think from the standpoint of somebody else” (Arendt 1994, 49)

In the face of Eichmann, Arendt doesn’t see a frightful person or a true representation of evil – in other words a ‘radical’ version of evil as she described in The Human Condition (2) (1958) – but he sees a nobody, a superfluous existence who though he is a biological organism, he, on the other hand, is incapable to think as a human being. Arendt presents Eichmann as a dilemma that needs to be addressed and understood also. A dilemma because as mentioned before Eichmann was so ‘normal’, and he was ‘normal’ by the fact that he invoked his obedience to his duty; his obedience to the law and the commands of a higher authority; he decided to obey the commands of his Fuhrer. That makes him a conscious person who acted on duty, as he invoked, even when it was against his inclinations. But what Arendt remarkably observes in this notion is that though this person may look as ‘normal’ the fact that he was unable to think about his action, the fact that he decided to expel any amount of autonomy from his personal existence, constitutes him also as a subhuman, as a ‘nobody’. And this observation of hers on Eichmann’s personality made her conclude to her notion about the banality of evil. A type of evil which cannot be radical because Eichmann does not embody it. His motives cannot be perceived as evil, though he contributes to evil by the very fact that he is incapable to think. At this point it has to be made very clear that under no circumstances Arendt believed in Eichmann’s innocence as she was widely accused after her report. Arendt believed that this type of evil is something that the humanity never experienced before which constitutes a serious problem that needs to be understood. To that extent, Arendt sees Eichmann as a lesson on the ‘banality of evil’ in which everyone can see clearly what can happen when a person and a culture speak and behave without thinking; they are capable of producing the most horrific actions while at the same time they contribute to the creation of an absolute form of evil.

This thesis of hers raised many controversial objections and gained only few supportive voices. Most of the objections were related to her portrait of Eichmann as ‘banal’. However, the most harsh criticism resulted by her thesis against the Jewish councils and the tactics their leaders conducted in favour of only few and not of the majority Jewish community. But these objections can’t stand for two main reasons. Firstly, when Arendt criticize the tactics of the Jewish council she was criticizing the tactics of the various societies and groups of people who were facing the Nazi occupation. As it is mentioned in the movie, Arendt’s thesis was not in favour of a direct resistance because such thing was impossible. She refuses also utterly the solution of total obedience as she mentions that:

“in politics obedience and support are the same” (Arendt 1994, 279).

What she suggests is that there must be something between resistance and obedience. A solution which can only be created through the capacity to think, in order to proceed to a moral judgement which entails an action of fundamental importance. In other words, Arendt’s critical point was that the Jewish councils did not draw a line of distinction between “helping Jews to emigrate and helping the Nazis to deport them” (Arendt 1994, 284). Some of the Jewish leaders invoked that they remained silent in order to prevent the people from panicking. A notion that raised many crucial questions on her behalf about the humanity of this type of silence. Consistently, what she implies is the notion that insofar we decide to try a person who was incapable to think for himself, we must not refuse to make any criticism or even to attribute responsibilities to those persons whom their silence caused the death of almost six million people. Particularly, Arendt cited that

“if the Jewish people had really been unorganized and leaderless, there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and a half and six million people”(Arendt 1994, 125).

It is because of these theories which mentioned above, that Arendt paradoxically has been given a different role to play; from that of a reporter in an important trial, to this of a prosecuted person at the court of the public opinion. There are several times shown in the movie when Arendt receives threats and curses by people who felt disappointed by her report. He even lost some of her good friends such as Hans Jonas and Kurt Blumenfeld who they decided to cut any relationship with her. But she never took back any of her beliefs. The only thing that she was always trying to do was to arouse the critical thinking of her readers, asking them to engage to a silent conversation with themselves and think politically just like she does. And any time her thoughts led her to a dead end, as we see in the movie, she called “the king of her thoughts”, the great philosopher, Martin Heidegger. A person of great importance to her progress as one of the most prolific philosophers of the 20th Century, who introduced her to the idea of thinking. Unlike Heidegger’s view though as captured in the movie about thinking as a ‘lonesome business’, Arendt’s view is based on the notion that thinking is meaningful only when it is expressed in the public sphere. That’s the main reason she decided to publish her book regardless the controversies it might raise, and to give a public speech about it in front of her students and fellow-professors of the university she was teaching at, some of which they accused her for a crime she didn’t commit. What Arendt gives is not an apology; rather, what she tries to do is nothing more but to explain the importance of thinking to her audience. That is the manifestation of her courage. A presentation of her great strength to speak to an audience in order to express her thoughts publicly and to highlight their importance. Lastly and once again, the other interesting aspect that the movie is based on is the fundamental idea of Arendt’s political universe: that of the relationship between thought and praxis. As Yasemin Sari cites in her review about the movie:

“for Arendt, thought is manifest in conversation. Nevertheless, conversation can best be understood as happening in two levels: one personal, and the other interpersonal. In thinking we are in a dialogue with ourselves. Thoughtlessness, then, for Hanna Arendt, is the absence of inner dialogue. This thoughtlessness, in turn, leads to the absence of judgement, which is a ‘moral collapse’.

And she concludes:

“What Arendt does by way of Eichmann’s trial is to argue that evil lies not in the passions of a monster, but rather, in Eichmann’s inability to think with and for himself’. (Sari 2014, 42-43)

This is a general moral problem which has to do with the idea of judgment specifically. How we, as human beings, can we draw a line of distinction between good and evil, between ugliness and beauty. Thus, after the end of the movie you may think that human instinct is an insufficient factor to be related with the decisions of a moral agent, or even of a human being at all. Again, Arendt’s analysis of the trial of Eichmann clarifies the fragility of what we call mostly human, while at the same time she leaves us with the hope to be capable to draw this line of distinction, to be political beings and critical thinkers, only when we decide to have a silent and inner dialogue with ourselves and after that to express our thoughts in the public sphere.

Now think and ask yourself: Do you still have the same thoughts as before?

Dimitrios Davis


(1) The book was originally published as The Burden of Our Time in Britain, 1951.

(2) In The Human Condition, Arendt, gives another interpretation of the Kantian conception about ‘evil’ when she identifies aspects of radicalism on its appliance. For Arendt, evil becomes radical when it is the conclusion of an action so horrific that cannot be forgiven, yet cannot be punished properly.


Arendt, H. 1994. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York, N.Y., U.S.A : Penguin Books.

Arendt, H. 1967. The Origins of Totalitariansim 3d Ed. London : Allen & Unwin.

Arendt, H. 1958. The Human Condition. Chicago ; London : University of Chicago Press.

Arendt, H. 1978. The Life of the Mind. London : Secker & Warburg.

Sari, Yasemin 2014. Hanna Arendt – Courtroom Drama. Philosophy Magazine Issue 100 January/February 2014, pp 42-43.

THE BIG LEBOWSKI, Joel and Ethan Coen, 1998

Abide With Me: The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski is a 1998 film written and directed by the Coen brothers. The film follows the Dude, played by Jeff Bridges, a laid-back, easygoing slacker whose aims in life are to avoid any trouble or exertion and to get compensated for the damage done to his carpet.

The Dude is presented as a man ‘for his time and place’ – Los Angeles, in the period directly before the First Gulf War. This setting evokes collision, conflict and indeterminacies. The 1980s are over, Thatcher and Reagan are gone, but the period remains under the long hangover from that decade. Culturally, the mid-to-late 80s and early 90s present us with a reaction against yuppie culture exemplified in slacker and counterculture movies like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Wayne’s World and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. These movies reject the values of conformity, hard work and wealth which animate the discourse of the eighties, but retain a frame of reference formed by these values. This is shown, for example, in Wayne’s World, whose plot shows the dangers of commercialism even as it celebrates ‘cool’ consumption, e.g. Wayne’s idolisation of a rare model Fender Stratocaster. Thus the purported anti-materialism and individuality of the slacker movement still finds its expression in consumer capitalism instead of any more durable or supposedly ‘authentic’ forms. The very idea of a counterculture therefore becomes reduced to a set of consumer preferences and fashion instead of the lifestyle which advocates of the slacker movement idealise – it is possible to be ‘laid-back’ and ‘easygoing’ but still essentially fulfil a role without in fact challenging the majority culture. We move, if you will, to an over-the-counter counterculture in which one’s professed commitments and attitudes matter more than actually putting any of them into practice. In this way, Clerks (1994) represents the true face of ‘slackerism’ better than the early examples of the genre: the main character, Dante, fulfils the slacker archetype whilst remaining a (relatively) conscientious worker, and the ‘true’ slackerism which his friend Randal embodies is presented as excessive and ambiguous in its effects.

The Big Lebowski, at first glance, fits easily into the slacker pantheon. The Dude, after all, is nothing if not an easygoing, self-defining man with little regard for the opinions of wider society. Unlike the slackers of the early 90s, however – the twenty-something college dropouts of lore – the Dude is presented as already middle-aged by the time the film begins. Crucially, his formative experiences were not Reagan-Thatcher excess but the social revolution of the 1960s, and the Dude refers to his participation in student radicalism and occupations. For the Dude, therefore, it is not a case of simply adopting a rebellious veneer by which to pursue an ultimately similar set of values. It is not a case, either, of the disaffection and anomie which are supposed to characterise ‘Generation X’. His rebellion fundamentally springs from his conviction that life ought to be lived in a different way, prioritising easygoing authenticity, pacifism and comfort over material success and prestige in the world. The Dude, that is, lives his values, and remains his calm poise in the face of everything which befalls him during the course of the movie. This does not mean that the Dude is a stoic, or entirely passive: his activist past and the conviction with which he accepts Walter’s suggestion that he seek recompense from the other Jeffrey Lebowski shows that he is willing to act when necessary. The Dude should not be seen as a merely passive victim of circumstance, then, but as an active creator of his own existence and its conditions of realisation. But the adoption of these principles leads the Dude into some uneasy situations and exchanges, notably the contrast between the ease with which he makes himself at home wherever he ends up and the uneasiness of his encounters with strangers, particularly those like the other Jeffrey Lebowski, who represents the uptight, conservative opposite of everything the Dude stands for, and Maude, who wears her principles on her sleeve and tries to reshape the world rather than fit herself into it. These situations are characterised by failures of communication between world and Dude, who struggles to articulate his viewpoint in the face of aggressive or assertive behaviour. In this way we see that the Dude, though presented as strongly self-reliant and self-constituting, still has a childlike core about him in his inability to stand up consistently for himself and his lack of articulation. This provides a clear contrast to the slackers of Gen X, whose standoffish, fuck-you attitude contrasts with their general failure to adopt or to even consider radically different forms of life. It also suggests that we ought not to over-idolise the Dude. Despite his success in forming an individual lifestyle, he remains at the mercy of wider society, and in particular to the whims of his friend Walter, whose belligerence and self-interestedness cause many of the problems and conflicts in the movie. We can see in here a critique of individualistic countercultural movements ranging from the hippies of the Dude’s youth to Gen X counterconsumerism: the individualism, nonconformity and pacifism, understood as passive-ism, of these movements fails to provide a cohesive and unified way in which to change society. It is therefore easy for such movements to ‘sell out’ or for capital to accommodate and absorb them. Here the Dude’s quest for a replacement carpet can be read, however tenuously, as exemplifying this move from authenticity to Gen X consumerism.

But it is too harsh to see the Dude as ultimately failing. To have carved out his niche is no small achievement, and he holds strong to his principles and lifestyle despite the manifold temptations and tumult of the film. The Dude abides. And this presents us with a path to successful rebellion. We might characterise Gen X ‘counterculture’ as a sort of homeless rebelliousness, which never feels entirely at ease and so seeks to assert and justify its own existence. The Dude, by contrast, is entirely at home in his own self and situation, and seeks to justify himself to no-one. Whilst we have seen that even this is ultimately no defence against capitalist appropriation – and we must not forget the numerous examples of student ‘radicals’ who cut their hair and earned their fortune during the 80s – the abiding of the Dude provides him with the resilience needed to mount a continuing, if individual, resistance.

The Big Lebowski can therefore be read as a commentary on post-Yuppie culture. The example of the Dude challenges the countercultural movements contemporary to the movie’s setting whilst reinforcing the general ineffectiveness of all such individual resistance. Ultimately, the film provides no solution to this ineffectiveness, merely choosing to remind us that the Dude abides. Perhaps, though, it is still worthwhile to abide with him.

Jack Price

TWIN TOWN, Kevin Allen, 1997

‘Good understanding giveth favour: but the way of the transgressor is hard’ Proverbs 13:15

Or in an edited and embellished version proposed by the character Jeremy Lewis, one of twins played by Rhys Ifans in Twin Town:

“The way of the transgressor is fuckin’ ‘ard.’”

Which, although removes the positive condition offered in the Biblical proverb, remains true, if not profanely so, to a powerful negative condition. It is with this in mind that we approach the negative condition and must ask the questions that this condition provokes. The first of which being: what is it to transgress? Which leads us directly to the second and perhaps more difficult question: what is it that the act of transgression entails that ensures ‘hardness’ or difficulty in the way, path or life of the transgressor?

In answering these questions we must stray from an analysis of the film; instead we must pose them outside the narrative structure of the film. Therefore, to take these questions in turn, we must first note that the act of transgression is one that exceeds, goes beyond or violates a boundary. The act of transgression can be seen as one which violates the law and is perhaps the least provocative in our society, but is one that entails the second question. This further question, which we must devote to the remainder of the paper, is situated within a space of immense historic contention, the scope of which exceeds the precise limitations of this paper. However, drawing upon the work of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben we can perhaps embark upon a tentative path with regards to this second question.

Those who transgress are those who go beyond the law, as was said earlier, however what was not said, which the work of Agamben attempts to remark upon is the notion of the simultaneously outside yet inside, which is inscribed into the very nature of the transgressor. For these remarks to become clearer it is prudent to draw upon Agamben’s work and in particular Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life of which the chapter entitled ‘The Ban and the Wolf’ will be of greatest import for us.

In this chapter we are acquainted with the notion of the medieval ban, which as an action, ‘to ban’, is considered by Cavalca ‘to say that anyone may harm him’ [2]. However, legitimately we should ask who is to be banned? The answer, which is by no means exhaustive, must be put simply as the transgressor. He who transgresses or strays beyond the law must be considered subjected to the ban, thereby assuming the name bandit. As a figure the bandit’s liminal status is expressed for Agamben in Germanic and Anglo-Saxon sources by ‘defining him [the bandit] as a wolf-man (wargus, werewolf …[3] Furthermore, Agamben uncovers an echo of the wargus or werewolf in the laws of Edward the Confessor (1030-35) in which the bandit is defined as a  ‘wulfesheud (a wolf’s head).’ [4] The decisive aspect, which must be underlined here, is that the bandit is not simply a wolf or pure animality, instead the bandit is a hybridisation of animal and human; a werewolf. In the words of Agamben:

The life of the bandit, … is not a piece of animal nature without any relation to law and the city. It is, rather, a threshold of indistinction and of passage between animal and man, physis and nomos, exclusion and inclusion: the life of the bandit is the life of the loup garou, the werewolf, who is precisely neither man nor beast, and who dwells paradoxically within both while belonging to neither. [5]

What follows from this must be an attempt to bring to light that which maintains the simultaneity of animal and man in the person of the bandit. For Agamben, an echo of this simultaneity can be found in the work of Thomas Hobbes, and in particular the Hobbesian notion of the state of nature. Contra to many readings, which oppose the City to the state of nature – in that the state of nature is supposed as chronologically prior to the foundation of the City – Agamben asserts that the state of nature is ‘but a principle internal to the City, which appears at the moment the City is considered tanquam dissoluta, “as if it were dissolved.”’ [6]  Therefore, in a certain sense the Hobbesian state of nature can be seen as a state of exception. Moreover, it is through reference to a state in which ‘”man is a wolf to men,” homo hominis lupus,’ [7] that Hobbes in the eyes of Agamben founds the notion of sovereignty; not by reference to the ‘fera bestia and natural life but rather a zone of indistinction between the human and the animal.’ [8] In this we can read not a state of all against all in which the state of nature may be posited as prejuridical, rather the Hobbesian state of nature dwells within the law of the city, only to be realised in the tanquam dissoluta or state of exception, thereby giving rise to the condition in which everyone is a wargus to everyone else.

Returning now to the Hobbesian notion of sovereignty we can see that in Agamben’s words sovereign power is based upon ‘the sovereign’s preservation of his natural right to do anything to anyone.’ [9] The sovereign’s natural right, or what maybe discerned as sovereign violence, is neither targeted toward natural nor qualified life, rather it is for Agamben targeted at ‘the bare life of … the wargus, a zone of indistinction and continuous transition between man and beast, nature and culture.’ [10] Therefore, the foundation of sovereign violence is in ‘the exclusive inclusion of bare life in the state.’ [11] What we are confronted with here is an echo of the previous formulation in which ‘”man is a wolf to men,”’ [12] wherein the sovereign in his person becomes, ‘the wolf-man of man’ [13] and as such the sovereign preserves his natural right or animality whilst dwelling ‘permanently in the city.’ [14]

From this Agamben asks us to ‘reread from the beginning the myth of the foundation of the modern city.’ [15] This must for Agamben take the shape of a reading in which the foundation of the City is: ‘not an event achieved once and for all but is continually operative in the civil state in the form of the sovereign decision,’ [16] by which is meant, always open to the state of nature in which for an instant the City appears tanquam dissoluta.

The implications of Agamben’s thought are far reaching. What at first began with an attempt to answer questions related to the transgressor, has now come to concern us all. Perhaps this is, in a sense, a result of the disingenuous character of presenting the ‘originary political act as contract or a convention,’ [17] a characterisation that for Agamben must be discretely and definitely ‘left wholly behind.’ [18] The transgressor was seen as the one who violates the originary political act of contract and therefore as subject to the ban. In opposition to this conception Agamben’s reading asserts the primacy of the ban as the ‘originary juridico-political relation.’ [19] Therefore, who is subject to the ban is neither dependent on their natural nor qualified life, an act of transgression or not; rather the ban is precisely bare life’s original connection with sovereignty. It is this tie which constitutes the indiscernibility between nomos and physis; the consequences of which are displayed when the State tie, in the form of ban, is for Agamben ‘always already … non-State and pseudo-nature, and in which nature already appears as nomos and the state of exception.’ [20]

The power of the ban remains essential to the structure of the State today. It is for this reason that Agamben asserts that: ‘we must learn to recognise this structure of the ban in the political relations and public spaces in which we still live.’ [21] Moreover, in the final passage of this chapter Agamben elucidates the true consequences of that which we have explored, by arguing:

…The banishment of sacred life is the sovereign nomos that conditions every rule, the originary spatialisation that governs and makes possible every localisation and every territorialisation. And if in modernity life is more and more clearly placed at the centre of State politics (which now becomes, in Foucault’s terms biopolitics), if in our age all citizens can be said, in a specific but extremely real sense, to appear virtually as homines sacri, this is possible only because the relation of ban has constituted the essential structure of sovereign power from the beginning. [22]

In lieu of any concluding remarks we might say that a once seemingly innocuous instance of the Swansea vernacular has allowed us to bring to light – with aid of the work of Giorgio Agamben – the originary juridico-political relation of the State: the ban. However, to end I must assert that this paper must serve as the faintest glow in the darkest forest, of which many experienced travellers have carved a difficult route, which nonetheless remains unlit.

Alex Smith


[1] King James Bible – Proverbs 13:15, available at http://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/Proverbs-13-15/

[2] Desiderio Cavalca, Il bando nella prassi e nella dottrina medieval, in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, G. Agamben (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1998) p.105.

[3] Giorgio Agamben,  Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1998) p.105.

[4] Ibid., p.105.

[5] Ibid., p.105.

[6] Ibid., p.105.

[7] Ibid., p.106.

[8] Ibid., p.106.

[9] Ibid., p.106.

[10] Ibid., p.109.

[11] Ibid., p.107.

[12] Ibid., pp.105-106.

[13] Ibid., p.107.

[14] Ibid., p.107.

[15] Ibid., p.109.

[16] Ibid., p.109.

[17] Ibid., p.109.

[18] Ibid., p.109.

[19] Ibid., p.109.

[20] Ibid., p.109.

[21] Ibid., p.111.

[22] Ibid., p.111.


Agamben, Giorgio, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1998)

King James Bible – Proverbs 13:15, available at http://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/Proverbs-13-15/

TYRANNOSAUR, Paddy Considine, 2011


Tyrannosaurus Redemptor

In Christopher Deacy’s book Screen Christologies we are introduced to the idea of film as a ‘fertile site of religious significance’, and as one in which redemption narratives are commonly played out.[1] For Deacy, film has co-opted traditional religious themes and acts to (in some sense, and only so far) ‘fill the void’ left by the disappearance of traditional mass religion in European culture. It is in this context that I wish to discuss Tyrannosaur and in particular its themes of redemption and atonement. I’ll be explaining what exactly I mean by this, and then I will be arguing in favour of a secular ethics of redemption on that basis.

Tyrannosaur follows two characters, and it is clear from the frankly devastating opening scene onwards that Joseph is an angry, damaged man unable to connect in a meaningful way to others. Hannah, meanwhile, appears as a mild-mannered and devout Christian woman, although we soon find she has problems of her own – her husband is abusive and cruel, and, as with her Biblical namesake, she cannot conceive.

The plot of Tyrannosaur stems from the recognition by Joseph that he is out of control, and needs to change. But his attempts to do so are frustrated when he tries to do so on his own: immediately following his revelation and what at first sight appears to be a Damascene conversion, he lashes out at Hannah, and soon afterwards we see him frustratedly turning his anger in on himself in a desperate bid to change his ways. And this is the first insight into redemption: it is not, at least in the Christian tradition, something which one can confer upon oneself. Redemption is rather something given by somebody to someone else: whilst we talk about such and such a character ‘redeeming themselves’, what we really mean is that they have helped somebody else in such a way that it somehow makes up for their past misdeeds, and that this has been recognised. So Joseph’s ‘redemption’ can only begin in earnest when he has the chance to atone for his own bad actions. This happens when Hannah comes to stay with him: it is hinted that Joseph, like James, was an abusive husband, and that he was a negative influence on his best friend, to the point where the friend’s daughter barely tolerates his presence. In other words, Joseph is presented with a choice: to either continue to act in his habitual way, or to become a ‘new man’ by caring for the vulnerable and scared woman who has appeared on his doorstep. This conflict – which is played out throughout the second half of the film – is nothing if not a traditional narrative of redemption, salvation, sin and grace.

But what do I mean by these words? You may have noticed that I have not just been using the word ‘redemption’ in a talk supposedly on just that topic. Rather, things like ‘atonement’, ‘reconciliation’, ‘salvation’ and ‘grace’ have come into the picture, along with that very unfashionable word, ‘sin’. So I had better explain what I mean here. I am going along with Paul Tillich, the great existentialist theologian, who declares that ‘sin’ should best be understood as ‘separation’ – we might say also ‘estrangement’.[2] Tillich claims we are separated in three ways: firstly from others; secondly from ourselves; thirdly from the ‘Ground of Being’, which is God. But this separation is not merely passive: instead, we ‘actively participate’ in upholding it, and the knowledge that we do so causes us guilt and suffering. Indeed, separation is inherent in the very act of existing: it is perhaps the most profound state of our being. Grace – which is the state in which Christians are supposed to find themselves when in Christ – is therefore to be understood as reconciliation, the ‘reunion of life with life’ which happens despite the estrangement that is our natural condition.[3] With this in mind, we can understand what Tillich means when he interprets ‘salvation’ as ‘healing’.[4] The healing of Christ consists in our coming into the ‘New Being’, the ‘conquest of estrangement’ through his saving power.[5] What we may notice here is that, so far at least, there has been no moralistic overtone in what Tillich says: salvation is not a moral question but an ontological one. It is only once we feel the effects of the New Being that we begin the process of atonement, which is for Tillich the human reaction to the ‘divine act’ of reconciliation by which we are transformed. ‘Redemption’ therefore expresses this process of atonement, forgiveness and absolution, through which we achieve a change in our being. This includes a change in our moral character and outlook.

One important point is that salvation is not, for Tillich, an all or nothing process, just as one is never either completely healthy or terminally ill: rather, we are all incompletely healed, and as such never free from estrangement, sin or sickness. This much should be clear; at least, the perils of the opposing viewpoint which in extremis posits the infallibility of the elect were summed up in James Hogg’s novel Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

This redemption narrative, as I have said, is played out in Tyrannosaur. Joseph is nothing if not estranged; at the beginning of the film, the only real relationships he has are with a dying man and a small child, and in the course of the film we learn that he feels responsible for his best friend’s death and guilty for not protecting the child Samuel. He is otherwise unable to form meaningful relationships and frequently lashes out at other people. He is largely contemptuous of Tommy, the only other person who could be called his friend; his interactions with other characters, Hannah aside, are characterised by mistrust and violence. Again, Joseph is not merely a passive victim, but – whether consciously or not – reinforces his alienation from others with his erratic behaviour. But Joseph is given the opportunity to change through his meeting with Hannah. She actively attempts to connect with Joseph, and prays for him, which moves him to tears and helps him to realise that he needs to change. Despite this, he continues to battle against his former self – for example, in his changing attitudes towards letting Hannah stay with him, and with his brutal murder of the dog which attacked Samuel. Nonetheless, Hannah represents the possibility of redemption for Joseph. Through her, he is able not only to connect with another person on a fundamental level, but also to admit his former mistakes. We can see this when Hannah asks Joseph more about his wife:

Hannah: Do you wish she was still here now?
Joseph: No. I’d have still treated her like a dog.
Hannah: Why?
Joseph: I’m not a very nice human being.
Hannah: Well, I don’t agree. I think you are a good person.
Joseph: You know nothing, girl.
Hannah: I feel safe with you.
Joseph: Nobody’s safe with me.

But this exchange comes when Joseph has already begun to atone for his mistakes. Even at this stage he has helped Hannah, despite the force of his habitual aggression and self-isolation. And indeed Joseph is able to overcome his ‘old self’: on this view his assault on the dog is almost a sacrificial offering which symbolically represents the death of his old self and the birth of the new Joseph, who lays flowers on his wife’s grave and who connects finally with Hannah at the very end of the movie.

This is not to say that Joseph is now ‘free from sin’. Nobody does no wrong. Nor is it to suggest that Joseph’s actions somehow negate his former sins; rather, he has come to terms with them and, through the process of reconciliation and healing, has become a ‘new’ person with a different and better moral outlook. In a word, his sins are forgiven by Hannah in the moment of love (agape) and the formation of a connection between them.

This reading is by no means decisive, or exhaustive, and there is another story to tell about Hannah’s journey, which I have unjustly neglected in this talk. But what I want to discuss now is whether these concepts can be of use to us in our ethical discourse. Tyrannosaur does not, after all, present the redemption narrative in exclusively Christian terms: Joseph is redeemed not (or not only) by Christ but by Hannah. The film therefore suggests that there may be a secular way in which we can understand redemption.

In fact, what I want to argue is that such an understanding of redemption is not only possible but would be of great benefit. First, though, I want to clarify what I mean by a secular idea of redemption. Here, the ‘redeemer’ is not God, or Christ, but each other: the process of healing and reconciliation is something which we must actively engage in for the sake of another as well as for ourself. This will, of course, necessarily be incomplete and imperfect, as we are ourselves, but it is nonetheless valuable. Valuable because of the form our redemption must take, the only way we can possibly be healed: through love and forgiveness.

Love itself implies absolute acceptance of the beloved. Whatever they have done, whoever they may be, however they act. This is not to say we might not wish those we love to behave differently, or that they can do no wrong: but when we admonish those we love we do not thereby stop loving them. This acceptance plays the key role in Tillich’s account of Christian Justification: human beings are saved in spite of their guilt and de facto hostility towards reconciliation, once they ‘accept that they are accepted’ having been born into the New Being of Christ.[6] In the secular terms I want to put it, we are redeemed despite ourselves by the love shown to us by others. The love which lets us change our very life. This, I believe, is suggested to us in the final scene of Tyrannosaur.

One might reasonably object at this point that what I am talking about seems to be exclusively eros, that while we might be able to do this for someone we are passionately in love with we are hardly likely to be able to do it for everybody. It is true that I have expressed the above in those terms. I would argue, however, that we are able to have the same effect through agape. Joseph and Hannah’s relationship begins as an act of kindness, not as in any way erotic, and it is at best ambiguous as to whether it ever moves beyond agape. Nonetheless, their relationship is strong enough that by the end of the film both Joseph and Hannah are healing and arriving towards reconciliation with themselves and with the world. But this reconciliation is only possible because of the compassion they have been treated with and the compassion they have had to learn to treat themselves with.

The second element of redemption is forgiveness. I do not mean a glib, easy ‘forgive and forget’-style forgiveness of actions which have not affected you in any way. True forgiveness is much harder. It does not involve forgetting that which another has done; you must forgive despite the pain they have caused. Forgiveness in this sense is perhaps the cardinal Christian virtue, displaying as it does compassion, agape and the recognition that nobody is irredeemable. Everybody can turn their life around.

At this point we are talking from the standpoint of the ‘redeemer’, who must show love and forgiveness. Redemption and reconciliation, however, is a two-way process. For us as ‘redeemed’, it is a chance which we are given, and not a state bestowed upon us. The secular redemption of love and forgiveness is ill-used if it just salves our conscience whilst we continue to act in a way to reinforce our separation. The chance we get is to atone: to admit and come to terms with our past actions and the worse parts of our nature, but to accept the love and acceptance we are offered anyway and to begin a process of healing and reconciliation.

The value of this should be apparent: we are presented with a solution to the separation and anxiety which can consume us; we are offered the chance to make up for our mistakes; and the cultivation of an attitude of love and forgiveness will improve our own character and outlook on life. The valorisation of redemption would create a more caring and connected society, one in which we are less likely to ignore the pain and suffering caused every day by natural disasters and by the injustices of our economic and political system. My final suggestion, then, is this: that in our ethical conduct and relationships with others we do all we can to heal and redeem rather than scorn and condemn, and that after two thousand years of Christianity we begin at last to listen to the lessons of Christ.

Jack Price


[1] Christopher Deacy, Screen Christologies: Redemption and the Medium of Film (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2001).

[2] Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962), p156.

[3] Ibid., p158.

[4] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology Volume Two (Welwyn: James Nisbett and Co, 1957), Chapter XXI.

[5] See Ibid., pp.144-155.

[6] Ibid., p206.

PRINCESS MONONOKE, Hayao Miyazaki, 1997

The Zen of Hayao Miyazaki

Zen is a science of spiritual investigation.  The practitioner strives for a clear and direct understanding of self and world through a rigorous process of meditative calming and intuitive reflection.  The Zen way (known within the tradition as the Ox path) is to observe the mind, following thought to the root of consciousness; unravelling one’s Karma in order to arrive at a clear view of being.  Here, the term Karma is relieved of its controversial metaphysical implications of past and future lives, it is simply the chain of causality that gives rise to the self; it is our conditioning.  All that ride the Ox path home arrive at the same realisation; the delusion of self is shattered, and an awareness of the unity of being arises.  Selfishness dissolves, the suffering of the world is felt as one’s own, as intimately as the deepest secret, and compassion arises spontaneously and without bounds.  If you were to go now and meditate, you would hear the whisper of this realisation from the very beginning.  You try and clear the mind of wondering thoughts yet you find that despite your best efforts the mind remains ferociously busy; you can barely count ten breaths without being ridden out by some fantasy or distraction.  So if you (the conscious self with which you identify) are trying not to think, where are the thoughts coming from? And if the self is not the originator of thought, then what is? Could it be just another thought? If so then who am I?  You are hooked, and have begun down the Ox path.  But don’t take my word for it, this is not a doctrine, it is a method, with the past experience of other practitioners to serve as guide and inspiration; go and try it for your-self.

So what does any of this have to do with the filmmaker Miyazaki?  It is in his expression of this ethic of indiscriminate compassion that we find Miyazaki’s Zen bones.  This worldview is manifested throughout his work, whether intentionally is of little concern, because either way it demonstrates how deeply ingrained this attitude is within Japanese culture.  He conveys and evokes this compassion through a blurring of ethical boundaries, nothing is ever clear cut, because under Miyazaki, much as with Shakespeare, all characters are sympathised with, and the audience’s values are brought into question more so than the characters’.  In Princess Mononoke, even the destructive human presence in the forest is not as easy to hate as we might like, as the mistress of the iron works is revealed to be a philanthropist, taking in lepers and brothel girls and giving them a better life.  Miyazaki also embodies the Zen principle of self-realisation in his method; a crucial aspect of Zen being its resistance to dogmatism; what the Zen student learns he learns for himself.  He achieves this by drawing out our cruel and judgemental tendencies, then shocking us into a realisation of their presence with his sympathy.  At crucial ‘satori’ points in the narrative, where the demise of the perceived villain is at hand, Miyazaki has his protagonist show extraordinary compassion.  For example in Howl’s Moving Castle when Sophie takes pity on the Witch of the Waste, who has brought a life of great suffering down upon her, not only sparing her life but taking her into her home.  In this moment, as we are touched by their compassion, we become acutely aware of our damning judgement, we perceive something shared, and begin to question ourselves.  Perhaps what we initially took to be a sense of justice is in fact a heartless, unimaginative and short sighted view of human potential for change and redemption.  In Princess Mononoke this compassion is made manifest by the protagonist Ashitaka’s constant and selfless struggle to protect both the humans of Iron town and the creatures of the forest.  When we witness this, however briefly, a similar potential in ourselves is stirred, a wonder arises; a wonder at the love which drives him; we wish to see the world as he does, be in the world with that same love.  It is in this inspiration to act that Miyazaki’s work becomes great moral art; as a beautiful expression and cultivation of compassion.

Sam Robinson

THE BELIEVER, Henry Bean, 2001

I wish to argue that The Believer asks us to consider our ideas, inclinations, prejudices and thoughts in the light of historicity and multiplicity. Danny Balint (played by the masterly Ryan Gosling) begins his life as a promising Jewish yeshiva student who challenges teachers with his heterodox thoughts on sacred texts. The first scene of the film depicts a 20 year old Danny in his bedroom lifting weights sporting a triskele (or three sevens) tattoo. Over the scene plays an audible clip from Danny’s past where he challenges his teacher on the meaning of the Binding of Isaac story. Danny claims that the point of the scene at Mount Moriah was to show God’s power over Isaac and that God is conclusively a bully.

These initial pangs of theological curiosity that Danny exhibits in school ferment over time into a poisonous hatred of the faith he was raised in. His rage is manifested early in the film when Danny is shown intimidating and assaulting a young yeshiva student at a train station. In just under a decade the promising young pupil transforms into the very bully he himself decried as a youth.

The film’s opening wants us to hate Danny. It presents him unforgivingly as a rancorous monster that we should reflexively despise. We initially treat Danny not as an individual as we perhaps should, but rather, as a symbol loaded with all the connotations and meanings that the triskele on his arm possesses. We allow him the all the patience and understanding that a symbol can expect, namely, a sudden, knee-jerk moment of judgement. But as the film goes on to explore Danny’s inner conflicts and contradictions we are faced with a character that frustrates our own views, both of Danny and of our ideas of belief and identity.

What separates The Believer from other neo-Nazi films is that the main character’s hatred is directed inwards at his own Jewish roots. (1) Danny despises what he sees as the essence of the Jew: weakness. One poignant scene places Danny and his skinhead friends with a group of holocaust survivors. One man in particular tells of watching his own son die at the hands of a Nazi officer. Danny charges the man with cowardice and bolsters his own convictions on the weakness and cowardice of the Jew. However, throughout the film Danny dwells on this story and visualises himself as both the Nazi and the Jewish father in recurring visions.

There are two scenes in the film which best illustrate this inner conflict: the desecration of the Synagogue and Danny’s prayer scene. The former sees a group of neo-Nazis vandalising a Jewish temple: holy texts fly through the air, anti-Semitic graffiti is sprayed on the walls and one member is seen urinating off of mechitza or balcony. Amidst the chaos, Danny walks solemnly down an aisle, seemingly oblivious to everything but the temple, a place he undoubtedly associates with his childhood. Danny’s racism is challenged for the first time in the film and the scene comes to a tense conclusion at the altar with the skinheads inspecting the Torah. When Danny explains to them that the calligraphy is what is called the ‘Flame Alphabet’ he is asked by a fellow Nazi, ‘How come you know all this shit?’ to which he responds, ‘how come you don’t? How can you say you hate Jews if you don’t know anything about them?’ He goes on to utter a string of Aramaic terms and then cites Adolf Eichmann’s own study of Jewish texts as a defence for his knowledge.

This charged event at the altar is an almost external play of Danny’s internal conflict, of his faith and his racism. To read the scene superficially as Danny simply reverting back to his faith would misunderstand the extent of his confusion; after all, Danny may have defended the Torah from being completely destroyed, but he seems comfortable with planting a bomb intended to wipe out a sermon of over a hundred attendees. His referencing Eichmann as inspiration also confirms his allegiance to the cause.

I will go on to analyse the existence of two contradictory stances later but for now I wish to investigate further the eruption of faith or belief experienced in the synagogue. One explanation for this resurgence can perhaps be found in Nietzsche. ‘Thoughts’ says Nietzsche, ‘are the shadows of our sensations – always darker, emptier, simpler than these.’ (2)  Danny’s racist beliefs are a part of his thought – his cognitive faculties. They are beliefs arrived at through logic (3) (no matter how skewed), through reading and analysis of the Jewish texts. Like Nietzsche observes, Danny’s racism is simple and easy to understand. The fact that he is able to articulate his political ideas furthers this notion. Danny’s racism is fairly uninteresting, even if it is supported on an intellectual level rarely manifested in other famous cinema skinheads. The film’s richness lies in that eruption of faith seen in the Synagogue. Danny’s faith is contrasted against his racism on all levels. Danny cannot articulate his feelings of faith nor does he ever fully reconcile with his religious past. His faith is manifest through action. This can be subtle like when he rolls up the violated and abandoned Torah or explicit when he dons a tallit (a shawl worn over the head and shoulders by Jewish males) and acts out a Jewish prayer (more on this later). In this, his faith is not thought but felt. It is a sensation.

The fact that this feeling is one of faith is incidental to my main argument (there is perhaps something relevant about the power of liturgy and ritual that I will come to later) and I don’t wish to make a grand statement about the nature of religious belief. My point is more about parentage and heredity. Nietzsche argues that a child uses up ‘the best of his energy and time in the imitation of [the] feelings’ of those ‘relatives and acquaintances among whom he grew up’. (4) In other words, it isn’t explicit thoughts that are passed down from parents to children (for otherwise heredity would be wholly deterministic) but feelings. This isn’t just to say that certain emotional traits are inherited, but the subtle habits. The reason faith is such a fine example in this case is because habit is manifest in faith as ritual. For Danny, there are significant items that cause his unified racist shell to rupture such as the Torah, or more specifically, the words and the calligraphy in which they are written. It’s also Danny’s upbringing within a Jewish family and community that would have made sensation a large part of his childhood; it’s not just the Yeshiva teaching (which is what Danny rebels against most explicitly) but the atmosphere: the colours, the dress, the food, the songs, and all the bright intensities of a strong religious life.

Danny clearly abandons the Jewish thinking of his community and adopts a belief system that isn’t merely anti-Semitic or racist but is loaded with historical significance – a system of action as well as belief. The Third Reich represents a terrible episode in the history of Judaism, one that makes Danny’s allegiance all the more potent. This allegiance is a reactive decision, that is, a decision made in direct response to Danny’s history as opposed to one made independently. Following his previous argument, Nietzsche states that ‘under the pressure of this experience towards which he feels powerless, [the child] admires neutrality of sentiment, or ‘objectivity’… and refuses to believe that this too is only the child of habit and discipline.’ (5) Danny’s reaction against his Jewish upbringing leads him into a view which he believes is objective; an ontology based on a conception of identity that is fixed or essential. Danny goes beyond this essence of weakness by dominating it (usually by dominating that ‘weakness’ in other Jews) through power.

On a Kantian conception of a unified self, such internal conflict and contradiction would be in danger of being pathologised. A richer view can be found in an account of identity that is fragmented. There isn’t a singularly contained identity, but rather, shifting multiplicities that constitute a self that is always ‘becoming’. In §19 of Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche states that the self is composed of a number of hierarchical forces competing for dominance. These forces exist as a complicated and shifting network of commanding and obeying drives. Nietzsche argues that philosophers and metaphysicians have ignored these divisions by appealing to the synthetic concept ‘I’. (6) This grammatical invention has its roots in primitive psychology but our habitual usage of the concept has worn away its origins giving the ’I’ an impression of being a given or default concept. (7) Such a fixed and stunted notion of identity complicates and does little to explain a self which exhibits numerous appearances and identities in different situations. (8) Nor does it allow for the conflictions and disharmony felt between certain feelings, thoughts, sensations and beliefs.

Danny is a character where this conflict is most clearly fought. The rage felt toward his heritage can perhaps be attributed to this conflict. In his essay On Moods, Nietzsche claims that a mood arises either from ‘inner conflicts’ (which we have already covered) ‘or else from external pressure on the inner world.’ (9) These thoughts and feelings are ‘wild factions’ inhabiting ‘two enemy camps’. (10) In other words, they are fighting for power and control. This doesn’t happen dualistically, with the mind having conflicting thoughts and the winning thought becoming acted out; this conflict is an embodied one, both felt and thought (thinking, dare I say, being merely an appendage to habit anyway). This embodiment of warring beliefs is manifested in the second key scene of the film in which Daniel is seen wearing a tallit and performing a combination of the Nazi salute and Jewish prayer – shown by extending his little finger which is traditionally done upon having read the Torah. Conflict, for Nietzsche, isn’t necessarily awful: ‘The soul destroys and thereby gives birth to new things, it fights energetically and yet gently draws the opponent over to its own side for an intimate union.’ (11) When Danny’s conflict is finally exposed in the physical act of prayer, something peculiar does indeed emerge from within him. Like I mentioned earlier, the two beliefs are never destroyed or reconciled fully, but they do eventually meet in a most perverse, yet intimate fashion.

As a point of closure, I wonder how much control we have over our thoughts, beliefs and feelings and whether we have created an illusion of proprietorship over such things. I’m not talking about indoctrination or external psychological coercion, but rather, something elusive from within. Humans are full of vague and peculiar inclinations that we explain by imposing a causal picture or narrative on our lives (‘I like x because of such and such an event that occurred in my life’). Gilles Deleuze argues that our ‘concepts are exactly like sounds, colours or images, they are intensities which suit you or not, which are acceptable or aren’t acceptable.’ (12) In the same inarticulate way that we cannot adequately explain our predisposition for attraction to certain people, our concepts and beliefs may be grounded in the same abstract and intangible forces circulating within.

Simon Booth


[1] Danny is actually loosely based on Danny Burros, a Jewish American who was an active member of the American Nazi Party and a Kleagle [recruiter] for the United Klans of America.

[2] Thoughts, Gay Science

[3] A number of critics commented on the worry that the film is in danger of glorifying racism by having Danny act as a respectable, intelligent ambassador for the cause. Though as Roger Ebert rightly asserts: ‘And if the wrong people get the wrong message – well, there has never been a shortage of wrong messages. Or wrong people.

[4] Parentage, Daybreak

[5] Parentage pt. II, Daybreak

[6] §19 BGE

[7] Nietzsche Reader, p. xxxi

[8]The company of parents causes us to act in a different manner than we would around friends, yet we are hesitant to say that we are not being ourselves.

[9] On Moods

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Deleuze, dialogues.

ROBOT & FRANK, Jake Schreier, 2012

The Stories We Tell About Ourselves: Narrativity, Episodicity and Identity

Robot: The truth is I don’t care if my memory is erased or not.
Frank: But how can you not care about something like that?
Robot: Think about it this way: you know that you are alive. You think therefore you are…In a similar way I know that I am not alive. I am a robot.

For John Locke, memory is the key to personal identity: it is, more than anything else, the fact that I carry within me a living awareness of my own history that makes me the person I am. In resting on memory, personal identity relies upon psychological continuity to identify a person. Locke gives the example of a prince taking over the body of a cobbler. For Locke, as long as the prince’s thoughts are transferred across to the cobbler’s body, he remains the same person – the prince – even though his physical appearance has changed. On this account what matters then is not the body or physicality but a consciousness bound by memory which over time creates a sense of who one is. But what happens when our memories become disrupted? Are our present and future so inextricably tied to our past?

In answer to this question Locke claims that, ‘in all these cases, our consciousness being interrupted, and (our) losing sight of our past selves, doubts are raised whether we are the same thinking thing.’[i] This notion of not being able to hold on to our own personal histories; of not being the “same thinking thing” over time, may strike us with an existential dread and a fear that it marks the beginning of the end for us giving a meaningful account of who we are. A life where we cannot rely on memory seems too much to bear. Indeed, in one telling exchange between Robot and Frank, Robot declares, “The truth is I don’t care if my memory is erased or not,” to which Frank replies, “But how can you not care about something like that?!” How else, we may ask, are we to constitute a sense of selfhood if the stories that we tell about ourselves are not grounded in psychological continuity? Do we even need a narrative as a clear foundation on which our sense of identity is established?

Some philosophers have addressed these questions by way of a distinction between two categories that act as rival claims in the construction of selfhood: Narrativity and Episodicity.

Narrativity has two main elements:[ii]

  • 1)     Psychological Narrativity: This is a straightforwardly empirical, descriptive thesis about the way ordinary human beings actually experience their lives. This is how we are, it says; this is our nature. It is informed by the narratives that we create for ourselves; the identities under which we construct a sense of Self. This Self is, in the words of Jerry Bruner, ‘a perpetually rewritten story’[iii] and that, ‘in the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we “tell about” our lives.’[iv]
  • 2)     Ethical Narrativity: This states that it does not matter whether we are storytellers by nature, but rather that we ought to live our lives narratively because a richly narrative outlook is essential to true or full personhood. As Charles Taylor argues, a ‘basic condition of making sense of ourselves is that we grasp our lives in a narrative’ and have an understanding of our lives ‘as an unfolding story.’[v] This understanding is vital because it allows one to fully develop as a person and in turn allows others to understand who we are.

Both these narrative views of the Self broadly align themselves to what Galen Strawson calls ‘diachronic self-experience.’[vi] This is a Self whose past, present, and future has indelible continuity, stretched out across time, and is prone to think of itself in narrative terms (let’s call defenders of this position, Diachronics).

This narrative viewpoint, however, is challenged by the concept of episodicity, or what Strawson calls ‘episodic self-experience.’[vii] Here, although the Self is perfectly aware of its continuity aspect, the narrative drive is dispensed with. One’s decisions are informed by the particular demands of a situation as it presents itself and cannot be processed into an objective filter determined by a narrative of “how one has always gone about these things.” This does not mean that defenders of episodicity (let’s call them Episodics) obliterate their connection to their past. On the contrary, as Strawson makes clear:

Faced with sceptical Diachronics, who insist that Episodics are (essentially) dysfunctional in the way they relate to their own past, Episodics will reply that the past can be present or alive in the present without being present or alive as the past. The past can be alive – arguably more genuinely alive – in the present simply in so far as it has helped to shape the way one is in the present, just as musicians’ playing can incorporate and body forth their past practice without being mediated by any explicit memory of it.[viii]

Thus, the memories themselves are not the most important thing, but rather the fact that we are creatures who are able to remember.

Strawson, himself a committed Episodic, argues that narrative structures limit the ethical possibilities available to human beings, ‘Many are likely to be thrown right off their own truth by being led to believe that Narrativity is necessary for a good life. My own conviction is that the best lives almost never involve this kind of self-telling.’[ix] In a sense, then, one is freed up to be whatever one wants to be unencumbered by what they might have been in the past. Strawson continues, ‘I’m a product of my past, including my very early past, in many profoundly important respects. But it simply does not follow that self-understanding, or the best kind of self-understanding, must take a narrative form, or indeed a historical form.’[x] So, Episodics would want to claim that such a storyboard relationship with one’s past is unnecessary because it does not allow for the full flourishing of living in the present in which one is not fettered by the history narrated for it.

But can we reasonably argue this thesis to be the case for Frank? Can we really take the position that Frank is better off without some sort of systematic engagement with his past? Can we make the claim that the past need not have a bearing on the present, and even less so on the future? I would suggest no as an answer to all these questions and that there are strands in Robot & Frank which pose problems for Strawson’s theory.

Firstly, however much we may argue that the Self may be able to resist the construction of an ethical autobiography built to make sense of its ‘personality,’ it is still at some level in thrall to wider social objectification. Self-telling here is indelibly linked with Other-telling. In as much as all human beings are seen by others through whichever filter of assessment they may choose to use (including diachronic analysis, as well as psychological or ethical Narrativity), Narrativity appears to be a tool far more compelling in the way that we make sense of the world than an Episodic injunction to withhold from this kind of Self/Other-telling or Self/Other-assessing. This is brought home most tellingly in the film when Frank’s daughter Madison defends him against suspicion that he has burgled one of his neighbours, “Come on, that’s ridiculous. The police have been hassling him for his entire life about a few mistakes he made when he was a kid.” Of course, this does not wholly invalidate Strawson’s argument; it just makes his task of living in the moment so rigorous that it would seem difficult to say for certain that one could wholly resist some kind of Narrative evaluation of who any person is.

Furthermore, there is also a familial aspect in the film which would seem to override episodicity.  It is clear that Frank’s past has left an indelible mark on his relationships with his family, perhaps most fractiously with his son, Hunter, and most poignantly with his ex-wife, Jennifer. This suggests that not only is there the possibility of genetic pre-disposition to being a certain kind of Self, but there is also a clear Narrative strand which cannot be so easily dismissed by a call to Episodic priority. Again, this does not invalidate Strawson’s thesis. He accepts these linkages, but describes them as ‘piecemeal,’[xi] which is to say that they do not represent some definitive, objective writing on the wall about who one is.

However, perhaps our definitions of ourselves (and each other) lie somewhere between Narrativity and Episodicity. The visceral sense of belonging which one associates emphatically with one’s own history cannot just be explained away as “piecemeal,” or as something which should be so easily discarded. Nor should we fall lazily into the bad habits of continually constructing pulp fictions about ourselves. The attempt should be instead, as Strawson quotes from V.S. Pritchett, to ‘live beyond any tale that we happen to enact.’[xii]

There is a moving scene at the end of the film when Robot convinces Frank to wipe out his memory. Does Robot do this in an episodic manner to best meet the immediate requirements of the situation? After all, we learn earlier in the film that Robot’s primary function is to best serve Frank’s health, even if that means lying, or in this case, his own extermination.  Or is there something else going on? Is there a notion of a deeper story from a shared history which emerges here? Does Robot develop a narrative both for itself and for Frank based on that shared history?

Bash Khan


[i] John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Book II, Chapter XXVII, Section 10.

[ii] The definitions entailed below are put forward by Galen Strawson. See, Galen Strawson, Against Narrativity. Ratio (new series) XVII 4 December 2004 0034–0006. pp. 428-452. Also available on: http://lchc.ucsd.edu/mca/reviews/against_narrativity.pdf

[iii] Jerry Bruner, Life as Narrative, quoted in Galen Strawson, Ibid., p.435.

[iv] Jerry Bruner, The “Remembered” Self, quoted in Galen Strawson, Ibid.

[v] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self, quoted in Galen Strawson, Ibid., p.436.

[vi] Galen Strawson, Ibid., p.430

[vii] Galen Strawson, Ibid.

[viii] Galen Strawson, Ibid., p.432

[ix] Galen Strawson, Ibid., p.437

[x] Galen Strawson, Ibid., p.449

[xi] Galen Strawson, Ibid., p.448

[xii] V. S. Pritchett, The Myth Makers, quoted in Galen Strawson, Ibid., p.450.