Bright Lights Film Journal

Technocratic Totalitarianism: One-Dimensional Thought in Jean-Luc Godard’s <em>Alphaville</em>

“The truth of art lies in its power to break the monopoly of established reality to define what is real.” — Herbert Marcuse

The initial working title for Godard’s 1964 science fiction tour de force Alphaville (1965) was the rather more comical Tarzan vs. IBM, and although the former was arguably the more aesthetically suitable choice, the latter symbolically evokes a key aspect of the film’s intellectual narrative. Alphaville is ultimately about the struggle of a single determined individual against a totalizing, dehumanizing, rationally driven computer society, one that is literally operated by a central artificial intelligence, known as Alpha 60. Like Tarzan, the protagonist, Lemmy Caution, is an independent, spontaneous individual, and in relation to the sterilized conformism of Alphaville he is wild, primitive, and incomprehensible in his behavior. Alphaville and Alpha 60, on the other hand, are representative of the faceless, opaquely dominating presence of the technological corporation, exemplified by IBM, which was, in the period that the film was produced, the predominant force in the emerging information industry. Expanding on the analogy, Caution is also like Tarzan in that he is the unique manifestation of a way of life that has been pushed to the verge of annihilation by a new form of rational organization. As he navigates this barren terrain he must hide his emotions and subversive thoughts just as Tarzan hides his physical body in the trees and shadows of the jungle; one could even say that the game of hide and seek has been shifted to the plane of consciousness. Unlike Tarzan, however, Caution ultimately triumphs in overthrowing the system of oppression.

A brief summary of the plot: Caution is a secret agent who arrives in Alphaville under the pretext of doing journalistic work for a publication called the Figaro-Pravda. He is from a place known as the “Outlands,” which is the name given to all the areas of the world that are not organized according to the technological principles of Alphaville. His actual purpose is first to search for a missing agent known as Henry Dickson and second to destroy the creator of Alphaville, a scientist known as Professor Von Braun, as well as the city and the system of artificial intelligence that he himself constructed. Caution is introduced upon his arrival to the daughter of Von Braun, Natacha, who has been assigned to him in the dual role of escort and supervisor. Caution travels all over the city, taking pictures with his Instamatic camera and gaining insights into the inner workings of Alpha 60. He eventually finds agent Dickson, but the latter is in poor health and dies making love to one of the countless “seductresses” that litter the city in one of the more absurd sequences of the film. Upon his colleague’s death, Caution focuses his efforts onto the downfall of Alphaville, arousing growing suspicion and hostility in those around him. Predictably, he also falls madly in love with Natacha, in whom he sees emotional potential, and commits himself to her escape. The narrative culminates in Caution’s capture by Alpha 60, but he is able to destroy the machine by confusing it with a paradoxical riddle, and after blasting his way into the headquarters of Professor Von Braum, he assassinates him and escapes back to the “Outlands” with Natacha, as the city and its inhabitants disintegrate into oblivion.

Upon his arrival in Alphaville, Caution comes across a billboard stamped with the imperatives “SILENCE. LOGIC. SECURITY. PRUDENCE.” These four words serve as a coercive reminder of the “correct” modes of behavior accepted within the city, which act as an introduction to what Michel Foucault calls Power-Knowledge — forms of knowledge that have the effect of reinforcing particular structures and institutions of political power (political in the broadest sense, meaning in all its intellectual and emotional manifestations). Throughout the film, Godard frequently inserts shots of visual symbols and images in between the events of the narrative, in order to emphasize the underlying structures of ideology that define Alphaville’s existence. The two main examples of these are the arrow and the equation. The arrow clearly represents the death of freedom and choice; with the “correct” path always pointed out, one loses the ability to individually reject or accept alternative modes of action and existence. Determinism gains the upper hand over free will, and all manifestations of free thought and self-determination are stifled. The equation, the backbone of science and mathematics, points toward similar consequences, in that it also represents a form of predecided, logically necessitated reality that by definition destroys the possibility of choice.

One could object that, in least in the case of the arrow, such symbolic tools do not actually destroy choice; they merely make it harder to conceive of. It is not that the arrow prevents one from turning in the opposite direction to that indicated, but rather it simply makes it harder to imagine doing so. Whilst this is true, the extent to which nonmaterial symbols are capable of constricting our physical possibilities should not be underestimated. In the case of the equation, its outcome is not nearly as arbitrary as that of the arrow, since it is determined by various logically necessary rules and processes. It is arguably more irrational to claim that two plus two equals five than to decide to turn left where one is supposed to turn right, in that the latter is wholly contingent whilst the former is based on stronger a priori foundations. Even so, one always has the possibility of irrationally asserting illogical mathematical propositions, regardless of the reactions of others; it is a right that Dostoevsky’s underground man sees as an essential part of asserting one’s human freedom. Yet assuming that one is not willing to abandon the basic principles of mathematics, there is still the broader concern that the procedures relevant to mathematics might be applied inappropriately to other spheres of human existence, such as the subjective realms of emotion, the relation to the Other, artistic endeavors, and so on. If the positivistic, empirical methods of mathematical and scientific evaluation are applied indiscreetly to these forms of existence, the result is a stunted and mechanically dehumanized society, such as is found in Alphaville.

These two mechanisms of symbolic coercion, the arrow and the equation, refer to a broader phenomenon of mindlessness in Alphaville, or what Herbert Marcuse calls “one-dimensional thought,” meaning basically an inability to think critically or “negatively” about the conditions of one’s own existence. For the person who thinks one-dimensionally, affirmative statements about what already exists (i.e., political institutions, class/wealth relations, dominant ideologies) are all that is possible; consequently, any thought or desire that transcends those existing structures is inconceivable. For Marcuse, the existence of this type of thinking is not so much intrinsic to human beings as it is a socially constructed mechanism built by those in power to reinforce the forms of domination particular to their existence. The dogmatic repetition of the commandment “One should never say why; but only because” by the inhabitants of Alphaville is the ultimate realization of such a system of thought control. Marcuse was writing about contemporary society in the 1960s, the same period in which Alphaville was released. While Marcuse tasked himself with describing the society he saw in front of him, Godard decided to imagine its logical consequence.

Signs of this mental indoctrination, of the subordination of critical thought and agency to rules, regulations, and ideology, are everywhere present in Caution’s travels across Alphaville. When he first arrives at his hotel from the “Outlands,” he is immediately hassled by staff offering to carry his luggage, direct him to the elevator, guide him to his room, all of which he bluntly refuses, thereby establishing an initial distinction for the viewer between the robotic behavior of the locals and Caution’s brash individualism. He is escorted into his room by an attractive but lifeless woman who constantly asks him patronizingly if he is sleepy, if he needs to rest, and so on. Without even asking she begins to undress and offers to take a bath with him. Upon questioning, she reveals herself to be what is known in Alphaville as a “level three seductress,” essentially a glamorized prostitute. The apotheosis of this type of mechanical conformism is the way that the locals say “I’m very well, thanks for asking” whenever they meet Caution, even though he never actually asks for such information. The traditional linguistic relationship between question and answer, where one waits until one is asked a question before responding, is replaced with preprogrammed utterances. What one observes here, in a form highly reminiscent of the brainless constant comfort of Huxley’s Brave New World, is a society of total convenience and omnipresent guidance, where the strains of independent decision making are now relics of an unscientific past. As Caution himself aptly laments, “People have become slaves of probability.”

The one-dimensionalization of thought in Alphaville is also implemented in a more direct fashion, in the control over language and concepts through ideology. As mentioned earlier, one of the main dogmas repeatedly uttered by the scientists and citizens of the city is that one must not ask why, only because. As one of the head scientists tells Caution, “All is linked, all is consequence.” He describes the task of Alpha 60 as simply to calculate the consequences and chains of causality that Alphaville will then be bound to follow; in such a system of deterministic logic, there is no room for a “why” to emerge. When Caution responds that he is a “free man,” the expression of utter confusion on the scientist’s face is truly priceless. By forbidding the use of “why,” the technocratic elite of Alphaville is able to insulate its self-contained ruling system from challenge or criticism. Along the same lines, one frequently hears, either from Alpha 60 or from equally robotized humans, the claim that “no one has lived in the past, and no one will live in the future. The present is the form of all life.” It is instructive to return again to Marcuse, who in One Dimensional Thought describes the dehistoricization taking place in contemporary technological society, where an ahistorical attitude toward the past is slowly replacing a more holistic perspective that values and interprets the moral and intellectual contributions of historical individuals. Instead, an ideologically driven positivism suppresses the past in favor of a short-term, quantitatively driven measurement of neutral variables. Questions of where or how technological rationalism fits into a broader historical and political narrative are consequently ignored.

In Alphaville one sees the culmination of such a mode of analysis: rather than being simply ignored, the past is claimed to literally not exist. The destruction of the future dimension has a similar effect; it prevents the inhabitants of the city from contemplating future possibilities for their society, thereby preventing them from critiquing the status quo. Alpha 60 describes time as “a circle that turns endlessly,” again emphasizing a static view of reality comprehensively removed from a consideration of the alternative possibilities that are so threatening to established forms of power. In this context, Caution’s frequent use of his camera to take photos of everything that goes on around him is highly significant. The camera as object represents the ability to record and document the past; it is the historical memory par excellence. The elite are not oblivious to this, and so cameras are banned amongst the citizens of Alphaville. But unlike the brainwashed people around him, Caution comes from a world where the process of dehistoricization has not been fully realized, and so his desire to preserve the past causes him to sharply stand out. Yet he is rarely warned, even by members of the higher authorities; in fact, it often appears as if his act of taking photographs is barely registered by them. The suppression of history and conceptual thought has been so effective in Alphaville that the notion of recording it has become practically inconceivable.

The control over concepts exemplified by the definition of time as an endless present is further refined by the Alphaville technocratic elite’s control over language, over individual words and meanings. Alpha 60, in one of his many ideological rants, announces that in his system, “everything has been said, provided words do not change their meanings, and meanings their words.” In attempting to control the limits of thought, the manipulation of language is perhaps the most foundational tool of all, for an individual can only think in the vocabulary available to them. Once again one observes a similarity between Marcuse and Godard, as the former frequently points to the redefinition of language as a key element in the formation of one-dimensional thought. The highest symbolic representative of authority over language is arguably the dictionary, in that it is generally seen as the legitimate arbitrator over how words are to be used in a particular society, thereby setting the boundaries of how that society’s individuals are able to express themselves.

The decision to include or exclude particular words has clear political consequences, and so it is appropriate that in the technocratic dictatorship of Alphaville, the dictionary is instead known as the “Bible.” The attitude of unquestioning reverence most often associated with the religious devotee is transferred by Godard to a total obedience of established language, and therefore of established thinking. When the scientists are describing the operations of the city’s ruling computers, they admit that most of their formulas and calculating mechanisms are too complicated for finite human minds to grasp; here again one sees a manifestation of the religious impulse. They are following the commands of an entity whose inner workings they are unable to understand for themselves; like the devout follower prostrate before the all-knowing priest, they must have faith. Alpha 60 explains how in Alphaville, “only isolated words can be understood. The meaning of the whole escapes.” Similarly, Marcuse describes a trend he observes in contemporary philosophy and academia toward an obsession with highly particularized problems of language and meaning, rather than an all-encompassing analysis of how such meanings form a whole. This again has political implications, because as in the case of dehistoricization, a focus on concentrated specialization leads to a contextual blindness and ignorance that can only facilitate domination and exclusion.

Marcuse also expands his discussion of over-particularization to the realm of social situations; he argues that this trend has contaminated the way they are reflected on by citizens in technocratic societies, resulting in individuals who are only able to interpret situations individually rather than seeing them as part of broader social structures. He gives the example of a factory where a worker has filed a complaint about his working conditions. Rather than see his problem as the product of an entire system of productive relations and class dynamics, the management elite consider it only in the specific context of their individual factory; the problem is not that factories in general are miserable places, but that this particular factory is not clean enough, or quiet enough, or safe enough, etc. Such parochial forms of analysis ultimately have the effect of shielding the dominant structures of power-knowledge from comprehensive opposition. Interestingly enough, there is an almost identical situation in Alphaville: when Caution asks Natacha why people in Alphaville look so sad, she replies “because they lack electricity.” Her limited conceptual abilities prevent her from contemplating the issue at a deeper level, and therefore from discovering, perhaps, that people are actually unhappy because they lack the freedom to openly express their emotions or thoughts.

The truly sinister side of the regime reveals itself in the way it deals with those who are not able to fully conform to the accepted forms of Foucauldian power-knowledge. When Caution finds the missing agent Henry Dickson, he is being harassed by his landlord to kill himself. Dickson then explains to Caution that such is the initial method chosen by the regime to eliminate outliers; citizens are taught to encourage those who do not fit in to commit suicide. When this fails, the state forcefully executes the remaining rebels, in a glamorized ceremony that involves the “guilty” being shot by a firing squad and then thrown into a swimming pool to drown. Around them, synchronized swimmers mechanically perform various acrobatic procedures in a bizarre accompanying spectacle, in what Foucault would see as symbolic of the state’s total control over the human body, down to the minutest movements. In another of Alphaville’s imaginative horrors, dissidents are executed by being taken to a cinema and electrocuted unexpectedly whilst engrossed in the entertainment on offer. Apart from its absurd hilarity, the procedure is an apt metaphor for societies, such as Alphaville or those in the contemporary Western world, that are literally entertaining themselves to death.

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault traces the evolution of punitive mechanisms from medieval times to the present, and based on this genealogy, he concludes that a shift has taken place from the exaggerated mechanism of the public execution to more subtle modern forms of disciplinary power. These consist of a constant, formless surveillance and of punishments that are kept out of the public eye, in an attempt to disassociate the state from the acts of violence it is required to commit. Yet in Alphaville one observes a combination of the modern and premodern forms of punishment, of concretized physical violence and hidden ideological violence. The state is active in processes of subtle surveillance, coercion and manipulation, as is evidenced by the numbered stamps found on all the citizens of Alphaville, as well as the encouragement of one-dimensional language and thought discussed earlier. Yet it is also glad to transparently assert what Walter Benjamin would call its capacity as “violent lawmaker” — that is, to establish its ultimate supremacy over those who would attempt to subvert it. The ruling class of Alphaville does actually offer those who show “promise” a chance to escape death, but first they must be quarantined in hospitals and “normalized.” If they respond appropriately to the propaganda and subliminal coercion on offer, they are allowed to return to society. What this illustrates is the integration of all of society’s institutions, even those that are ostensibly nonpolitical, into the enforcing mechanisms of power-knowledge.

Does Godard have a solution to such a bleak situation? If there is even a hint of one, it is embodied entirely in the character of Lemmy Caution. His abrasive and uncooperative attitude plays in dramatic contrast to the ideological slavery that characterizes everyone else in Alphaville. When asked why he enjoys shooting his pistol so frequently, he answers that it his “only weapon against fatality.” His initial interrogation by Alpha 60 is useful in demonstrating this. When asked if he knows “what illuminates the night,” Caution responds, “Poetry.” In its essence, poetry, and art in general, represent the dialectical opposite of technological rationality. Their purpose is not cold efficiency or endless technical improvement; rather they aim at triggering a certain qualitative experience of consciousness based on subjective awareness, emotion, and a deepening of man’s understanding of his place in the world. Furthermore, art has the political potential to suggest new modes of existence and conceptualization; it is able to expand one’s perception of what is possible and therefore equip one with the ability to oppose established forms of reality, with all the practices of domination and exclusion that go along with them.

Marcuse refers to art as having “negative” capabilities, similarly emphasizing its ability to raise consciousness to a higher level of awareness — that is, the “second-dimension” — by negating the established reality. Caution demonstrates his commitment to this principle by responding, when asked by Alpha 60 what his religion is, that “I believe in the inspirations of conscience.” With the example of poetry, it is able to have this expansionary effect by combining words and meanings in combinations incomprehensible to the dominant structures of thought, thereby causing a conceptual rupture. For Marcuse the stimulation of the second-dimension is the only way that those oppressed in technological dictatorships can liberate themselves from mental bondage. Clearly the technocracy of Alphaville recognize this fact, for those who write poetry are immediately banished, and whilst Alpha 60 attempts to make sense of it, it is unable to do so with its limited conceptual architecture. Furthermore, the regime’s recognition of the danger that unsanctioned language can pose to its legitimacy is displayed in its selected removal of particular words from the dictionary in an Orwellian manner.

Caution’s belief in the value of an ethic of new possibilities, of the “inspirations of conscience,” reaches its culmination in his final discussion with Alpha 60. In it, Alpha informs Caution of its plan to eliminate all those who are “inferior, that is, those who do not accept the dominant system of technological rationality. When Caution argues that its plan is “impossible,” the robot responds that it “shall calculate, so that failure is impossible.” Caution smirks and heroically declares that he “shall fight, so that failure is possible.” In Caution’s admirable declaration one finds the ultimate form of a commitment to the second-dimension of thought; rather than simply reject established reality and observe that other forms of reality might be possible, he puts his body and life on the line to ensure that such possibilities are genuinely realized. Here, the conceptual becomes the political, and thought is transformed into action. Or, to put it more bluntly, when Alpha states that “it is logical to condemn you to death,” Caution brashly responds with “Fuck yourself with your logic.” He then proceeds to destroy Alpha and the system he upholds by telling him a riddle, one that “fucks up” its logic. Faced with a problem that cannot be solved by the concepts and meanings of its closed structure of limited rationality, Alpha 60 is liquated. Yet, although one would hope that the inhabitants of Alphaville would be liberated by the destruction of their virtual dictator, the opposite is in fact the case, and the final scenes of the film see them stumbling around in disoriented confusion, before finally collapsing. One would assume that Godard is commenting on the way that forms of power-knowledge and ideology become irreversibly interwoven into those they indoctrinate, to the point where the two become indistinguishable and inseparable; when one dies, so must the other.

The moral of the story, if there is one, seems to be that a commitment to one’s ideals, to one’s possibilities, regardless of how implausible they may appear to the society that one lives in, are the sole method through which can oppose systems of mental and political domination. In the aforementioned execution ceremony in the swimming pool, those being disposed of are the ones who challenged the dominant system of technological rationality by being committed to ideals outside of the accepted structures of knowledge, regardless of the consequences. This attitude is exemplified by a brief speech one of the prisoners makes before his death, in which he defiantly proclaims that “we see the truth you no longer see. The truth is that the essence of man is love and faith, courage, tenderness, generosity and sacrifice . . . the rest is the obstacle created by the progress of your blind ignorance!” There is a strong resemblance in this speech to the philosophical commitments of Alain Badiou, who describes the importance of what he calls “fidelity to the event,” meaning the act of being faithful to an “event” that shatters the dominant paradigm by being unassimilable. The event triggers a “break” with established reality, which in the case of Alphaville could be something as simple as discovering that one has the ability to cry (one of the men is executed for precisely this), and this event must then according to Badiou be elevated to an ultimate ideal, and used as a source of inspiration for the rest of one’s life.

The citizens of Alphaville who are executed are exemplary of such an ethical commitment, for they would rather die than continue to exist in a society they see as fundamentally defunct, or be sent to the hospital to be “reformed” and have their fidelity destroyed. In the case of Caution, his “event” or break with reality is his arrival in Alphaville; the contrast between it and his society creates for him an imperative of destruction that he feels obligated to remain faithful to at all costs. As for Natacha, her discovery of love (as opposed to the sensuality that is all she understands initially) serves as her “event”; it reveals to her a universe of emotion and irrationality that she had never known to exist. In fact, her role in the film is essentially to illustrate the possibility that an individual completely imprisoned within a system of ideology may still somehow break out. Yet her experiences are less believable than those of Caution: whilst the latter is an outsider whose rebellion against such an alien system seems natural, Natacha’s almost effortless abandonment of her mental chains comes across as rather implausible. There is, however, the not insignificant fact that she was brought to Alphaville by her father rather than being born there; perhaps Godard would argue that this underlying foreignness is what gives her the capacity to break free.

But if only those who have existed outside of a particular system of power-knowledge have the potential to escape from it, do those indoctrinated from birth have no hope? And then of course there is the question of what happens to those who escape from oppressive systems; are their new destinations ever free from forms of political oppression and domination? Foucault would not be optimistic about such a scenario; from his perspective, unequal structures of power are an intrinsic feature of reality. Perhaps Alpha 60 is correct when it claims that “the essence of the so-called ‘capitalist world’ or the communist world . . . is not an evil volition to subject their peoples to the power of indoctrination or of finance . . . but simply . . . that there is the natural ambition of any organization to plan all its actions.” The organization of human beings into political structures seems inseparable from the exercise of power.