Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Metropolis Essay

(This is posted here as well as VITAL as a means of reference for future purposes.)

Assignment: Discuss forms of control in human society using images and themes from the film “Metropolis” in conjunction with ideas from 20th century social theory.

“It’s only 60 minutes, just one hour. It’s no big deal, right?”

It’s the start of Daylight Savings Time as I’m pulling the strands of this essay together. As innocuous as this change in time seems, it points, albeit subtly, to more insidious ways in which our lives are perhaps not entirely our own. The tendency is to attribute this sense of being less than free exclusively to technology. From Frankenstein to the Matrix, technology’s dark grip on humanity has long been the stuff of science fiction, whose stories have served as commentary, caution, and forecast. As the Borg repeat on Star Trek, “Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.” However, by focusing on technology as the sole bogeyman haunting us, we fail to see the deeper roots of what’s going on. In his 1927 text “The Eclipse of the Public,” John Dewey defined the complex nature of this problem: “It is always convenient to have a devil as well as a savior to bear the responsibilities of humanity. In reality, the trouble springs rather from the ideas and absence of ideas in connection with which technological factors operate.” (141) (Had Dewey been writing a generation or so later, he might have used the term “memes,” where according to Aaron Lynch, we no longer look at “how people acquire ideas, but how ideas acquire people.” (17)) Dewey’s words are as relevant now as they were then. It’s not so much that machines are attempting a hostile takeover, but that we have already willingly and complicitly surrendered to the idea of mechanization and allowed it influence over every aspect of our lives.

This mechanization of our mindset, of our very lives has been with us so long, it’s hard to imagine things being different from the way they are. In an attempt to challenge this notion and understand the pervasiveness of machines on our mindset, the following will draw together 20th century social theory in conjunction with scenes from the grandfather of science fiction cinema, Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (which like Dewey’s book was also released in 1927.) Long before Steve Austin was rebuilt and Darth Vader’s cybernetic helm swallowed the last of his humanity, Metropolis’s mad scientist Rotwang created a mechanical hand to replace the hand he lost in the process of building his Machine-Man. Themes in the film echo the philosophical discourse presented.

“Where did the time go? Can you tell me where did my life go?” – Johnny Clegg

As alluded to in opening with Daylight Savings Time, the mechanical ordering of society has its origins in the mechanization of time. The mechanical clock was first put to use in China as a means of calculating the movements of the Chinese Emperor and served as a tool for navigation as it made its way to the west. A life once based on natural cycles within our bodies, the rhythm between day and night, and the change in seasons, was uprooted when the mechanical clock was married to industrialization. [Free running about at Club of Sons segues to clockwork life of workers.] Time was now thought of in terms of the movement of a wheeled gear. [Gear imagery] Lewis Mumford noted that “Abstract time became the new medium of existence. Organic functions themselves were regulated by it: one ate, not upon feeling hungry, but when prompted by the clock: one slept, not when one was tired, but when the clock sanctioned it.” (63) In this regard, Mumford claimed the clock was even more important to the industrial age than the steam engine, because it was “not merely a means of keeping track of the hours, but of synchronizing the actions of men.” (60) [Synchronized worker movements.] Herbert Marcuse cites Daniel Bell who wrote that the meaning of “industrialization did not arise with the introduction of factories, it ‘arose out of the measurement of work…’” (29) The mechanical clock thus gave rise to the idea of a mechanized society.

“Workin’ 9 to 5” may be a fine way to make a living, but it represents a major change in how we live removed from things like biology, light, or seasons. With the advent of artificial lights, natural time had even less meaning. This is powerfully demonstrated in the workers’ society located entirely underground – no sun at all. In their world, they day is entirely based on the mechanical concept of “shifts.” (Commenting on the information age, Manuel Castells suggests that today the sequence of time is eliminated altogether and we live in what he calls “timeless time.”) The fitting of a life into a slot of time, extends to fitting that life into a box of space as our environment becomes increasingly mechanized as well. The workers live in a grid of “little boxes” in stark contrast to the organic world above. Our bodies aren’t a safe haven from mechanization either. As time and landscape go, bodies become objects – a sum of our parts and functions. This is demonstrated in the erotic gyrations of the mechanical Maria. Her movements and objectification are hypnotic to men who fall under the spell of the machine. This loss of time, place, and body, speaks to the dismantling of individual identity and “inner freedom” – as Marcuse wrote, “this private space has been invaded and whittled down by technological reality.” (10)


In this fashion, the complexity of being human is reduced to an object and assigned a number signifying interchangeability. We witness Freder trading places with the worker known only as “11811.” People serve as parts, cogs in the wheel of a great machine. Watching the workers operate in unison like the gears of the clock connects to Marcuse’s description of “mechanized work” as being “exhausting, stupefying, inhuman slavery…” (25) He goes on to characterize their state: “This is the pure form of servitude: to exist as an instrument, as a thing.” (33) The workers’ lives are given up quite literally to feed the machines as is witnessed in Freder’s vision, wherein the machine transforms into the sacrifice-requiring god Moloch. An accident on the line warrants little reaction. Workers pause only to pick up the pieces (the people) and keep on working. Replacement workers fill in the gaps.

Metropolis offers multiple versions of how the human is subsumed by the machine – Maria is replaced by the machine entirely, as it takes over her life, while the workers’ lives are given up to serve the machine. In both cases subjugation to the mechanized mindset is total. As Marcuse wrote, “The slaves of developed industrial civilization are sublimated slaves, but they are slaves, for slavery is determined.” (32)

Clockwork God

The “meta-machine” that makes possible the mechanical ordering of society and the governing of human life has a name – it’s the free, self-regulating market. Instead of it operating to accommodate human lives, humans have to fit into it and serve its perpetuation. Within the market, humans are reduced to commodities or parts. Karl Polanyi defines production as the “interaction of man and nature; if this process is to be organized through a self-regulating mechanism of barter and exchange, then man and nature must be brought into its orbit; they must be subject to supply and demand, that is be dealt with as commodities, as goods produced for sale.” (136) Under this system, the human becomes less than human.

Given the “great and permanent evils” (Polanyi 136) that men are subjected to in the market system, from where does this mechanical ordering of things still derive justification? It’s due to what Polanyi describes as an almost a religious faith in its perceived perfection of Platonic mathematical order. It’s something “sacred and holy.” (139) The market, like the mechanical man and the Heart Machine, surpasses the human. Thus from this perspective, humans function only to serve the system. Marcuse called this “Technological rationality” and said that it “reveals its political character as it becomes the great vehicle of better domination, creating a truly totalitarian universe in which society and nature, mind and body are kept in a state of permanent mobilization for the defense of this universe.” (18) This “mechanized enslavement” as Marcuse put it, of “the human instrument” is total, “not only its body but also its mind and even its soul.” (26)

Time Keepers

Despite its name, the self-regulating market is anything but. It needs people to maintain it, to wind the watch, so to speak. (Polanyi 147) Hence the emergence of what C. Wright Mills describes as the “Power Elite,” people who make decisions “that mightily affect, the everyday worlds of men and women.” (3) The elite “are able to realize their will, even if others resist it.” And do so through “access to the command of major institutions.” (9) Even living in a “free,” democratic society, Mills states that the major decisions – the pulling of the levers and pressing of the buttons – are made for us by those in the Power Elite. Fewer people thus make the decisions affecting the lives of many. (7) In Dewey’s words, the machine age made for a “Great Society” but not a “Great Community,” where the freedoms promised by democracy are bestowed upon but a minority. (126-7)

As Mills stated, the elite express the attitude that control of society needs to be “in the hands of experts. It is just that everyone knows somebody has got to run the show, and that somebody usually does. Others do not really care anyway, and besides, they do not know how. So the gap between the two types gets wider.” (294) Hence they perpetuate the myth that this is the natural order of things. They consider themselves to be “elite because of the kind of individuals they are. The rest of the population is mass, which, according to this conception, sluggishly relaxes into uncomfortable mediocrity.” (Mills 13) According to James J. Flink, Henry Ford said of his workers, “They want to be led. They want to have everything done for them and have no responsibility.” (80) Along these lines, Ford’s screen analog Joh Fredersen wants to keep the workers in their place: “Where they belong.” That there is anything natural about this is wrong, as Mills countered: “Such ideas, in fact, always arise in a society in which some people possess more than do others of what there is to possess. People with advantages are loath to believe that they just happen to be the people with advantages.” (14) But still, such notions persist.

“We are born in captivity” – T-Bone Burnett

The plight of the workers in Metropolis both on the line and flooded out of their homes parallels the annihilation of people (Polanyi 137) exploited in the name of the free market. Polanyi writes that people being made unemployed, destitute, and their constitutional liberties all lost, are “judged a fair price to pay for the fulfillment of the requirement of sound budgets and sound currencies, these a priori of economic liberalism.” (148) The elites aren’t spared either, as even the higher ups end up being subsumed by the needs of the system. As Marcuse wrote, “The capitalist bosses and owners are losing their identity as responsible agents; they are assuming the function of bureaucrats in a corporate machine.” (32)

So why do people buy into this system, sleepwalk through their lives even when it means their own destruction and enslavement? Dewey wrote that “The instrumentality becomes a master and works fatally as if possessed of a will of its own – not because it has a will but because man has not.” (175) The machines don’t subjugate us by force, we let it happen. This resonates with Marcuse: “If the individuals find themselves in the things which shape their life, they do so, not by giving, but by accepting the law of things – not the law of physics but the law of their society.” (11) In “The Dialectic of Freedom” Maxine Greene discusses the source of this acceptance: “The persuasion is often so quiet, so seductive, so disguised that it renders young people acquiescent to power without their realizing it. The persuasion becomes most effective when the method used obscures what is happening in the learners’ minds.” (133) To that effect, Alan Moore wrote, “You’re in a prison… You were born in a prison. You’ve been in a prison so long, you no longer believe there’s a world outside.” Born behind bars, we only know them as our reality. The clock has been ticking for so long in the background, we assume it’s as natural as the sun rising.

“Sleepwalker, open your eyes. Sleepwalker, rise.” – Blue Nation

Winning freedom is not achieved by simply smashing the machines to bits. We have to get beyond “too much technology” and critically examine where we are. Dewey would remind us that the State isn’t “sacred,” (170) and that in fact, the author of the State is “nothing but singular persons, you, they, me.” (P37) If we’re submitting to it, it’s only because we all sign off on it, we all allow it. (Dewey 53) What we’ve invented, we can also dismantle and reinvent as well. But in order to do so, society, as Marcuse wrote, “must first enable its slaves to learn and see and think before they know what is going on and what they themselves can do to change it.” (40)

What’s ingrained in us from birth, can only be lifted off by means of education – empowering individuals to imagine life as something other than “as it is.” As Dewey wrote, “Every care would be taken to surround the young with the physical and social conditions which best conduce, as far as freed knowledge extends, to release of personal potentialities.” (200-1) By treating people with care – the heart uniting head and hand – we can release their possibilities, rather than the probabilities that mark a person’s life from the day they’re born. Education is the promise to see differently, to imagine in Greene’s terms “what is not and yet might be.” From such a perspective, according to Marcuse, “The individual would be free to exert autonomy over a life that would be his own.” (2) In seeing the mechanisms at work, we find the means to make our time and our lives are own.


Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” 1935.
Castells, Manuel. “An Introduction to the Information Age.” 1997.
Dewey, John. “The Public and Its Problems.” 1927.
Flink, James J. “The Car Culture.” 1975.
Greene, Maxine. “The Dialectic of Freedom.” 1988.
Lang, Fritz. “Metropolis.” 1927.
Lynch, Aaron. “Thought Contagion.” 1996.
Marcuse, Herbert. “One Dimensional Man.” 1964.
Mills, C. Wright. “The Power Elite.” 1956.
Moore, Alan and David Lloyd. “V for Vendetta.” 1988.
Mumford, Lewis in Arthur O. Lewis, Jr., ed., “Of Men and Machines.” 1963.
Polanyi, Karl. “The Great Transformation.” 1944.

Addendum: While Walter Benjamin is not directly cited, this piece does I hope honor a part of his spirit in making use of diverse quotations throughout – what Hannah Arendt described as “thought fragments” or “pearls,” and the writer as “pearl diver” excavating “rich and strange” fragments from the depths.

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