“We know nothing about a body until we know what it can do, in other words, what its affects are, how it can or cannot enter into composition with other affects, with the affects of another body, either to destroy that body or to be destroyed by it, either to exchange actions and passions with it or to join it in composing a more powerful body.”
– Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 257
In this series I’ve dealt on a couple occasions with masterpieces, albeit primarily misunderstood ones such as Blackhat and The Lone Ranger. However, on this occasion, I want to take a turn toward a recent pulp masterpiece, Luc Besson’s Lucy. Blurring the lines between the pseudo-scientific, the philosophical, and all-out action, Lucy exhibits a borderline unwieldy-ness as it zanily moves along almost faster and more coherently than can be believed. It is a wonderful work of visual storytelling from Besson, who has his characters and actors communicate much of what is happening through emotion and affectation. There is a world here, a world which does not need to be seen in full, only moved through and experienced.
In case it needs to be said, Lucy was a box office success, earning mostly praise or at least the respect from critics. Even still, it had its detractors, many of whom, for some reason, decided to take issue with, primarily, its narrative use of the “10% theory”. Now, this foolishness can only really be humorous, as it is a simple demonstration of a critic’s inability to grasp the difference between a plot device or narrative vehicle and an endorsement of “bad science”. Lucy knows that the 10% theory is a triviality—it has wider questions and concerns in mind.
It’s to these concerns we’ll now turn. In keeping with the theme of Conceivable Leftism, I want to try to approach and interpret Lucy and its content from a Left perspective. I think this can be done because Lucy appears to offer a number of ideas as critique of and inspiration for moving beyond the current, dominant capitalist modes of social and ecological engagement. To me, these ideas can be summed up in how Lucy 1) imagines and understands capital’s use of bodies, and in how it 2) ventures a kind of ontological communism that fully realises our connection to all life.
* * *
“We humans are more concerned with having than with being.” – Professor Norman
“Ignorance brings chaos, not knowledge.” – Lucy
We don’t yet know what a body can do, that is how my mind remembers the beginning of my Deleuzian-Guattarian epigraph; and it is a sentence that summarises very adequately Lucy’s concerns over what the human might yet be capable of and why it has not yet become capable of it. Yes, at the heart of the film is a mind and matter altering drug called CPH4, and yes attached to this drug is a kind of “levelling up” of mental and physical capacities that works in tens of percent. However, at every moment this conceit is in service of the meditation—What might the human become?—and not vice versa.
Motivating the plot throughout is the instantiation of capital-as-organised-crime and its enforced limitations in regards what a body can be allowed to do: bodies are seen as capable of being mules, of ferrying product, of directed movement on the immanent plane, of being exploited for short term gains in the name of property and the right to a dominant market positions, of being practically and mentally limited in the name of perpetuation of the status quo.
As such, in a fitting gesture, Lucy has capital synthesise a product that literally instantiates awareness of reality’s mutually interconnected nature—a nature capital is utterly ignorant, yet exploitative, of—and then tries to stymie, contain, cut, and market the results it might have on a body. Which is to say, for capital, whatever a body can be, whatever a body can do, it cannot be everywhere, it can only be where it is sanctioned to be and supplied.
The person of Lucy herself is the counterpoint to this; an unwitting drug mule who—through exploitation and gendered violence—accidentally becomes directly exposed, in an unregulated manner, to CPH4; and thus encounters and takes the human relation and connection to material reality to a higher level, awareness of which capital has been mediating and abusing out of ignorance and unconcern since its emergence.
Lucy appropriately becomes capable of recalling every memory her brain has had; of recalling every moment of physical contact her body ever received or made; of reading, seeing, and communicating over and through different waves of frequency and forms of light; of manipulating the mind and matter of herself and others; and of being able to project herself through times and spaces past, present, and future.
In relation to all of this, Lucy succeeds precisely in how it presents “how [a body] can or cannot enter into composition with other affects.” Two occasions elaborate this well. The first being when Lucy becomes cognisant of her ability to remember the earliest moments of her life (e.g. her birth, breast-feeding, her mother kissing her skin as a child) and the repulsive-yet-wondrous nature of such a capacity. The film starkly conceives of this moment and Lucy’s relation toward the affect produced in, through, and by her body. What can it do? What is being done? What compositions are becoming?
Another such occasion is on an airplane, in which Lucy must expressly make a decision to enter into composition with the affects (her burgeoning abilities that link her, in essence, to everything) that surround and are entering into her. Will she do so “to destroy that body or to be destroyed by it”—this is the risk of the scene to her life itself. Does she choose to continue the exchange of affects, and risk the destruction of those affects in the process, or does she herself succumb to said affects and evaporate under them? She persists, of course, choosing to enter into dynamic exchange with them “in composing a more powerful body”.
All of this becomes end-directed as a central theme of the film develops: pursuing awareness and knowledge of our relationship to all being. “We never really die”, Lucy at one point states; we alter and are altered by other affects, in ever-shifting relation to them. Beyond the capitalistic insistence on having, owning, profiting, exploiting, and enforcing ignorance in refusal of composing or feeling affects that might allow the formation of more powerful bodies, Lucy pursues this composition as far as it can go. She takes her awareness and relation to all space and time to its extreme, feels it, becomes it, and passes this affective knowledge on as she gives herself over to everything, joins the everywhere—becomes a new kind of body, beyond exchange and exploitation. Indeed, as she does, the film’s stand-in’s for capital make a last ditch effort to reclaim their property (CPH4) and write their authority over Lucy’s body yet again, all the while she throws off her chains.
Counter to this, not one aspect of life, Lucy informs us, was ever anything you could do anything so simple-minded as own. Capital’s ignorance gives way to knowledge, and knowledge takes us beyond price as a form of measurement to a form of communism in which there are either affective composition or there aren’t; dying forms of parochial uniqueness or life in an ever-changing affective flow; becoming everything, everywhere or insisting on self-effacing expressions of violence to reclaim one’s “property”.
“In a certain sense everything is everywhere at all times.” – Alfred North Whitehead
“I am everywhere.” – Lucy
Through all of this Lucy presents us with the thesis that a fetishisation of money and the contemporary prevalence of liberal notions of property and possession are among the chief reasons a coming together of the human/world has never been achieved, let alone a distinct priority. The film knows a deep relation (particularly as it constantly intercuts the “human” moments and dilemmas with “animal” reflections for a deep, pervasive insistence on context) and the capitalistic refusal of that relation.
In this way the Leftist dimensions of this consideration of what a body can do come out further if we reflect somewhat on the metaphysical architecture of the film’s and our own world. With more of a neo-metaphysical (through Whitehead and Deleuze) tinge to its Marxist traits, Lucy ends, as has been mentioned, with Lucy declaring that she is everywhere. An indisputable statement in many registers, as everything is everywhere all the time. Time and space are folded together and dispersed at every moment. Dynamic exchanges come and go, asking for nothing, changing everything—it all written deeply into the structure of our lives and our lives’ relation to everything else. A certain heightening of physical (or metaphysical) reality, for Lucy, challenges the economic and social order of the world.
As Whitehead would have it, everything comes down to the actual occasion (the most basic elements of and in existence) and the societies of occasions that decide (in a certain sense) to take themselves into a new moment, choosing what shall persist and what shall not. A body is, for example, a complicated nexus of more and less complex occasions and affects deciding to move into a new moment. Yet, all of this bleeds together, the occasions and their elements that decide to become do not do so alone, but at simultaneous or even incongruous moments, in united or disparate ways, in negotiation or without it. In the advent of consciousness we become an occasion that ascents to or attempts to reject this entirely equitable communistic landscape, we feel and join the affects and decide with them or we don’t—as much as the complexity of the occasions allow. We feel it all together or we don’t.
Lucy herself instantiates just this—“Now you know what to do with [life]”. Do as she did. Open up and feel the flow, freely, and pass it on; feel it as it feels you, pass it on as it passes through you. There’s no price or monopolisation or commodification, the plane is open, all moments deciding in varying complexifications of relation, impacting without permission or ownership. You ascent to the affects persisting around you because you can and so grow in awareness; or you contract and destroy—and so are destroyed—by said affects.
We may not become or do exactly as Lucy does, the realm of film is somewhat different to our own. The capacity to project our mind through time and space or feel past moments present on our flesh is likely beyond us; but the deep truth of becoming together; knowing the boundlessness of our occasions, as they occur and ramify upon all else; existing as a result of untold becomings prior given to us for nothing, all bring to bear a certain communistic metaphysics that in turn advances Lucy’s capitalist critique.
* * *
Lucy and Lucy rail against the commodification, privatisation, and exploitation of property and the consequent limitations this parochiality places upon our knowledge and awareness of reality as a deeply communal nexus of becoming and relating. The untold possibilities of this relating draw us toward thinking of what we might become, what might be possible of were we to overcome our neoliberalisation and truly become cognisant of our interconnection. We do not know anything about what our bodies could yet do—but we do know the alienation our bodies feel under capitalism and the intrinsic limitations it sets upon our relation to the world, as something to be exploited rather than felt.
We could be everywhere, as much as we are already with everything. More than a spectre of communism, the human/world becomes everywhere through the feeling and composing of affects, aiming to become ”a more powerful body.” This is what our body might yet do, who we might yet be—with the world.
The film entirely succeeds in meditating on what we might become. Sure it’s heightened, but what it achieves through its range of influences and styles, at the speed at which it moves, is breath-taking, not least for its singular pulpiness and dedication to its themes. Lucy is a deeply felt affair, and the accusations directed at Johansson’s supposedly “robotic” characterisations efface the barely disguised horror, her attempts to recompose her former self within her new becoming, and the singular determination that underpin the greater breadth of affects she has joined with. Little reaches, dramatically speaking, the phone conversation Lucy has with her mother (which I mentioned above) as she begins to become one with her past and its imprint on her body. The nuance in the performance comes as we see a character gaining awareness of human ephemerality and the new kinds of decisions that asks one to make, particularly and especially for the human/world collective.
In all of this, Lucy comes to refuse cis. patriarchal capitalism’s containment and propertied, transactional claims to and use of her body—and with it all other bodies, all affects, all things—and demonstrates to us what our bodies might yet do, and the new more powerful body we might yet become—with everything, everywhere.
- Festival Roundup: ASH IS PUREST WHITE (2018, dir. Jia Zhangke) - October 1, 2018
- Festival Roundup: DEAD SOULS (2018, dir. Wang Bing) - September 20, 2018
- Festival Round-Up: TOO LATE TO DIE YOUNG (2018, dir. Dominga Sotomayor) - September 11, 2018