The slave that frees his masters: Ulterior agency from Zardoz to Žižek

I recently watched the 1974 film Zardoz for the first time. The film is bizarre and compelling, defying easy comparisons to other movies. Set in the 23rd century Zardoz depicts a post-apocalyptic society where groups of armed men called Exterminators rove the barren countryside hunting and killing people they refer to as “Brutals”. The Exterminators worship a giant stone head called Zardoz that flies around and dispenses guns and ammunition from its mouth. Zardoz teaches his chosen followers:

The gun is good. The penis is evil. The penis shoots seeds, and makes new life to poison the Earth with a plague of men, as once it was, but the gun shoots death, and purifies the Earth of the filth of brutals. Go forth … and kill!

Disillusioned with Zardoz, an Exterminator called Zed (played by Sean Connery) stows away in the giant floating head to discover the truth about his god. Zed discovers a hidden society, the remnants of human civilization, who have secluded themselves from the rest of humanity and live in a community protected from the outlying lands by an invisible force field. It is explained that as society collapsed and the ecosystem deteriorated the rich, powerful and clever elite broke away from the rest of the species so that they might preserve the best of human civilization among themselves.

The aim of this essay is not to provide a synopsis of the plot of Zardoz (which is highly recommended viewing), but to elaborate on a particular story element. Quoting from the Wikipedia entry for the film:

Zed is less brutal and far more intelligent than the Eternals think he is. Genetic analysis reveals he is the ultimate result of long-running eugenics experiments devised by Arthur Frayn — the Zardoz god — who controlled the outlands with the Exterminators, thus coercing the Brutals to supply the Vortices with grain. Zardoz’s aim was to breed a superman who would penetrate the Vortex and save mankind from its hopelessly stagnant status quo. The women’s analysis of Zed’s mental images earlier had revealed that in the ruins of the old world Arthur Frayn first encouraged Zed to learn to read before then leading him to the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Zed finally understands the origin of the name Zardoz — Wizard of Oz — bringing him to a true awareness of Zardoz as a skillful manipulator rather than an actual deity. He becomes infuriated with this realization and decides to plumb the deepest depths of this enormous mystery.

To reiterate: Zed discovered books, learned to read, and began reading voraciously. Eventually he read Frank Baum’s “Wizard of Oz” which features an old man who controls a society by using a large mask and booming voice to create the illusion of a powerful superbeing, as well as offering a clue as to the origin of the name “Zardoz”. Zed resigns himself to discovering the truth about Zardoz and in doing so manages to get inside the secret community of the Eternals. Once there he eventually learns that he was the result of selected breeding controlled by Zardoz (Arthur Frayn), with the goal of producing a “mutant” who would be genetically superior to even the Eternals. Frayn reveals that it was he who led Zed to discover the books and to eventually read “The Wizard of Oz”. He intended for Zed to infiltrate the Vortex and to destroy the Eernals’ society, thereby liberating them from their stagnant and disaffected existence as immortal beings reduced to petty squabbling with one another. Frayn explicitly refers to Zed as “the slave who frees his masters”.

I use the phrase “ulterior agency” to refer to the notion of a person who takes action to undermine a controlling force, only to later discover that their subversion was designed and intended by the very forces they believed themselves to be working against. There are other examples of ulterior agents in popular cinema, notably in The Matrix Reloaded and Total Recall. Neal King has written an essay on this theme titled “Secret Agency in Postmodern Cinema”. King analyzes several films that feature ulterior agents as part of a sub-genre he calls “mind-fuck movies” in order to “reconsider the status of authorship and agency in a postmodern world–in which subjects are commodities to be redefined for profit and prestige.”

King begins his content analysis with the David Cronenberg film Videodrome:

Tired of the banality programmed by the television station he runs, Max searches for “something harder.” He samples recordings of torture called “Videodrome.” The footage turns him on, and Max watches until he hallucinates a blend of video display, sex, and violence. But he soon learns that “Videodrome” is a mind control tool, wielded by fascists who induce Max to kill.

Max discovers that his status as agent-in-training has been kept so secret that neither he nor the audience knows about it until late in the film. He is a postmodern pawn.

This blog will discuss Videodrome further in an upcoming article. King goes on to compare Total Recall and the Matrix films.

Both heroes are rudely awakened to the fact that they have been brainwashed, their apparent normalcy all lies. Both begin to search for truths about their origins. The films’ second acts introduce complications: one hero may be the foretold savior of the last colony of humankind, unplugged from the brainwashing matrix in order to free people from parasitic machines; the other may be a spy, also implanted (with false memories and a sham marriage to make the subterfuge more convincing) into a proletarian rebellion.

In each case, a rebel mentor is captured or killed by an oppressive ruler; and it turns out that the deluded heroes were being used by secret police. “That’s the best mind fuck yet,” says the hero of Total Recall, who must escape another brainwashing in order to realize (what might be) his destiny. The hero of The Matrix must rescue his kidnapped mentor to fulfill his own. The fourth, climactic acts test heroes in the combat that suggests who they, and what their destinies, are. Both rescue people they love and appear to be foretold saviors after all, but both also know they were programmed by others to work their miracles. They may be heroic, but are hardly free in any liberal sense. Brainwashed to do good is brainwashed nonetheless; and they do not know which identities might be all their own, or whether there is such a thing. Indeed, the Matrix cycle saves its final revelation of the hero’s purpose for the climax of its first sequel; then, as in Total Recall, he learns the dispiriting truth that his savior status was manufactured by oppressors to subvert rebellion.

Indeed, the revelation at the climax of the Matrix Reloaded completely recontextualizes the events of the first film and lays the groundwork for the final installment. Apparently many viewers were confused by the exposition delivered by the Architect (there’s even a youtube video that presents the Architect scene translated with “for dummies” plain-English subtitles). Web site Matrix 101 elucidates the information relayed in this scene as follows:

Zion is another level of control by the machines over humanity. It was designed by the machines as a destination for the malcontents that reject the Matrix – a place for them to believe they are free, and deceive them into thinking they have an opportunity to free the world. In fact, the machines have a necessary cycle, one that’s been played out five previous times: Zion is built up by those who free themselves from the Matrix, the war intensifies, the One is located, trained, and directed by the prophecy to the Source, the machines destroy Zion, the One picks 23 people to free from the Matrix to begin rebuilding Zion (with no prior knowledge that Zion ever existed), and the cycle begins anew. This is the sixth time this has happened. Neo is the sixth One. The machines have destroyed Zion five times before. This cycle is likely what the movie’s title refers to – each time the cycle begins again, the Matrix is reloaded. It’s also a necessary evil for the Matrix – until the Architect can achieve 100% acceptance of the Matrix and eliminate the need for the One, this cycle must play out as described or the system will become unstable and crash.

The prophecy isn’t true: the One is not meant to free mankind, just to further ensure their servitude to the machines.

I often analyze the content of popular entertainment to identify messages of socialization or ideological framing. The theme of ulterior agency is one that strikes me as especially intriguing and potentially significant. But what is the social or political parallel pointed to by ulterior agency plots?

One possibility posed by the plots of both Total Recall and Matrix Reloaded suggests that “the monomyth itself is a potential hegemonic tool that can be used to perpetuate an even more totalitarian system of control” (quoted from a post by user Octaveon on AICN. The quote comes from an excellent comment that Octaveon posted in an Inception discussion thread. Unfortunately I have not been able to locate the original post.). To elaborate: comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell coined the phrases “hero’s journey” and “monomyth” to refer to a fundamental narrative found in myths and stories shared by cultures around the world, and now used as the basis for most Hollywood screenplays. Campbell believed the monomyth structure was universal in story telling, and indeed virtually all popular cinema narratives conform to the monomyth. Campbell’s own succinct synopsis of the hero’s journey is:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

Total Recall and the Matrix both follow this basic structure (in fact, the Matrix is a “textbook example” of the monomyth, as is the wonderful The Truman show). The plot of The Matrix is a paragon of monomyth storytelling, as is the first Star Wars film. Yet the transformative power of the hero’s journey is not limited to the mechanics of mythmaking. Encountering Campbell’s explication of the monomyth has enabled people to view themselves as heroic beings, and their lives as journeys of adventure and overcoming. In fact, Campbell believed that the meaning of the hero’s journey was not in learning how to tell a story, but in understanding how to live your life. Campbell’s writings have inspired many to recognize a spiritual element unifying all life; the present author included.

So what exactly does it mean to say that the monomyth is a hegemonic tool used to perpetuate a system of control? How can we apply this reading to an understanding of our current socio-political situation or personal lives? I confess that I do not know for certain, but I have some ideas on the subject.

After the final installment of the Star Wars series, Revenge of the Sith, was released, Slavoj Žižek penned an essay titled “Revenge of Global Finance,” in which he analyzes the political implications of the Star Wars saga.

How did the Republic turn into the Empire, or, more precisely, how does a democracy become a dictatorship? Lucas explained that it isn’t that the Empire conquered the Republic, but that the Republic became the Empire. “One day, Princess Leia and her friends woke up and said, ‘This isn’t the Republic anymore, it’s the Empire. We are the bad guys.’ ” The contemporary connotations of this reference to Ancient Rome suggest the Star Wars transformation from Republic to Empire should be read against the background of Hardt and Negri’s Empire (from Nation State to the Global Empire).

Of course, when I consider the developments of the prequel trilogy I don’t think of Rome’s transformation from republic to empire, but of America’s (“This is how liberty dies,” Natalie Portman’s character says in the film, and Žižek does acknowledge the parallels to America’s post-9/11 metamorphosis in his essay, writing: “In today’s “war on terror,” the real danger is what this war is turning us into.”).

The influence of Joseph Campbell’s work on George Lucas is well-established. Luke Skywalker’s journey in Star Wars is precisely the hero’s journey, and Lucas continued to draw from that tried-and-true narrative framework in presenting the story of Anakin Skywalker in the prequels. Žižek picks up on this by noticing the Christ-like elements of Anakin’s story and contrasting them with the “Western Buddhist” New Age values espoused by the Jedi Knights. This provides the departure point for Žižek to address the place of New Age spirituality in the dominant system of global capitalism:

At the very moment when, at the level of “economic infrastructure,” Western technology and capitalism are triumphing worldwide, at the level of “ideological superstructure,” the Judeo-Christian legacy is threatened in the West itself by the onslaught of New Age “Asiatic” thought. Such Eastern wisdom, from “Western Buddhism” to Taoism, is establishing itself as the hegemonic ideology of global capitalism. But while Western Buddhism presents itself as the remedy against the stress of capitalism’s dynamics—by allowing us to uncouple and retain some inner peace—it actually functions as the perfect ideological supplement.

Here, one is almost tempted to resuscitate the old, infamous Marxist cliché of religion as “the opium of the people,” as the imaginary supplement of real-life misery. The “Western Buddhist” meditative stance is arguably the most efficient way for us to fully participate in the capitalist economy while retaining the appearance of sanity. If Max Weber were alive today, he would definitely write a second, supplementary volume to his Protestant Ethic, titled The Taoist Ethic and the Spirit of Global Capitalism.

Could this be the ultimate political significance of ulterior agency? That rather than being opposed to the capitalist system the Buddhist mentality is perfectly suited to it? Even more, that a Western Buddhist ideological stance is now a necessary position to take in order to endure the anxieties of living in a modern capitalist system? Or that as consumers awaken to their spiritual nature and seek liberation from the soul-draining and life-negating capitalist system of totalitarian thought control, they end up buying into a ready-made subculture that is happy to sell them the yoga mats and meditation manuals that symbolize their liberation while leaving the status quo unperturbed? Certainly something to consider. But preserving the status quo isn’t quite the same as “the slave freeing his masters.” Neo in the Matrix and Schwarzenegger in Total Recall were manipulated to preserve the existing order by joining the resistance groups and serving as unwitting infiltrators, allowing the controllers to preserve their dominance by destroying the rebellion. But in Zardoz, Zed is used to disrupt the status quo, to shake the elites from the monotony and stagnation of their perpetual supremacy. Indeed, the Eternals celebrate Zed for freeing them from their immortality. Perhaps I will return to this issue another time.

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