Thursday 2 February 2012

Skulltopus 8: Society of the Tentacle

The quasi-tentacular returns in 'The Claws of Axos'.  Big time.

What's more, this story is an orgy of strange flesh... to the extent of looking like a precursor to John Carpenter's The Thing.

Now, if my idea is right - that, in the 70s,
Doctor Who starts invoking Weird tentacles as a kind of evasion/signification of capitalism when it veers too close to potential systemic critique - then this really, really should show up in 'The Claws of Axos'.

Not to keep you in suspense: it does.

Taking it on the Chinn

Now don't get me wrong.  I'd hate you to get the idea that I was claiming that 'Claws' is 'subversive' or anything.  I'm not.  It isn't.  As political critique goes, objectively, 'Claws' is feeble.  Yes, it is very cynical about the government, but that in itself doesn't amount to subversion.  After all, Clear and Present Danger  (to take an example more or less at random) features a secret plot by the President, the White House Chief of Staff and high-ranking CIA people to launch a covert war in South America - but Clear and Present Danger isn't remotely subversive... indeed, it is a highly reactionary film that entirely supports the specious ideological assumptions of the American empire.  This is slightly unfair to 'Claws', since it has, well, sharper claws than Tom Clancy via Hollywood ('Claws' is cynical about establishment power, while CaPD depicts the cynicism of powerful people as a danger to a fundamentally well-meaning establishment), but it does illustrate the point that simply depicting the wrongdoing of the state does not necessarily or automatically amount to a radical critique.

With its bourgeois patrician hero, its stiff-upper-lipped and self-sacrificing scientist/peer, its bog-standard sexist representation of Jo as dollybird-in-need-of-saving, its depiction of the American lawman (FBI?  CIA?  ...something like that) as a square-jawed straight-arrow, the comic neutralisation of the issue of poverty, the implication that people starve because there is a lack of food rather than a lack of profit in feeding them, and many other such representations, 'Claws' is as well integrated into capitalist ideology, and as likely to 'manufacture consent', as any other Doctor Who story, the vast majority of which are straightforwardly and entirely unthreatening to the status quo.  What political critique there is consists, for the most part, of moralistic liberal finger-wagging about greed, nationalism and xenophobia, which is itself compromised by the Axons turning out to be evil, shifty, bogus asylum seekers (that sort of thing didn't start with Gatiss, sadly).  Such moralistic liberal finger-wagging is inherently non-subversive and non-radical because it is inherently reformist rather than revolutionary, i.e. vote out the reactionaries, and get the common herd to be less materialistic, and capitalism will be fine and dandy.

However, everything is relative and context changes things.

The fact is, 'Claws' has probably the most straightforwardly, explicitly, non-metaphorical depiction of the British state as cynical and machiavellian of all Pertwee stories (though the impact is softened by Chinn's comic incompetence).  In 'Claws', the problem isn't one slimey bureaucrat, one idiotic authority figure, one cowardly warmongering parliamentary private secretary... the problem is Chinn and his boss and the government they work for.  They're not just arse-covering or being unimaginative or showing prejudice.  They're actively and covertly colluding in what is described (by Jo, the character that we - the audience - are meant to identify with most directly) as a "contemptible, underhanded deal".  Only the bias in the Cabinet Room in favour of Global Chemicals in 'Green Death' comes close to the level of systemic cynicism shown by Chinn and his Minister.  It's impossible to imagine that Chinn's Minister is acting without the sanction of the rest of the government, or at least the expectation of approval.  Indeed, his worry seems to be about public, worldwide perception.

Whatever Ministry Chinn represents (nominally he's MoD, but the very lack of specificity about his job gives it a general character that suggests a systemic problem), the nature of the "contemptible, underhanded deal" that he's trying to cut is clearly implied to be aimed at cornering economic and military power.  Chinn's behaviour is very deliberately linked to xenophobia and nationalism, via his (offscreen) remark about "England for the English".  The lack of any genuine commitment to isolationism is shown by his willingness to snuggle up to the Axons when he thinks there's advantage to be had from them.  However true to life this may or may not be, the British government is shown to be at loggerheads with the U.N., with the British state depicted as self-serving while the U.N. is implied to be universalist in its desire to spread Axonite around the world... free.  This last detail is raised so briefly that its easy to miss, but it clearly implies that the British government's plan was to capture the sole right to sell Axonite.

This may be liberal moralism (isolationism? profiteering? tut tut!), and it may be unrealistic (the U.N. isn't generally prone to demanding free, worldwide distribution of valuable substances)... but it at least raises the issue of nation states trying to corner and capture resources, and of control over global supplies of such resources conferring economic power.  And it doesn't depict the British state as either morally impeccable or morally neutral in the face of such opportunities.  On the contrary, it depicts the British state as cynically (if shambolically) conspiratorial in its efforts to seize and hold such an opportunity.  The aim of the state is to exploit the commercial advantages and economic power conferred by a valuable commodity (a commodity, moreover, that seems to represent capital itself - see below).  Edge of Darkness, this ain't... but it may actually be the most overtly negative portrayal of the British state in Doctor Who until 'Turn Left'.

This, by itself, is nowhere near enough to invoke the tentacles.  But there's more.

Get on Your Bike and Find Work

'Claws' raises the issue of poverty, by implication and explicitly.  Famine is mentioned several times.  The idea mooted by some of the characters is that Axonite will help to feed the starving millions by vastly increasing food stocks.  Of course, it's also strongly implied that this will come at a price - if it happens at all - if Chinn and his bunch manage to grab Axonite for the exclusive control of the British state.  When Chinn gives the Axons his assurance that Axonite will spread around the globe, he's betting that the globe will pay to get it.  (We'll come back to this.)  This all bubbles along beneath the surface of the story, but there is a shot in Episode One that threatens - albeit very faintly - to raise it to the surface along with some very awkward questions.  It's this one:

Let's take stock of this image.  A homeless man, clearly implied to be mentally ill, who has just been seen rummaging around in a rubbish dump, is out in the cold... next to a nuclear power station.  Winser's reactor alone is later said to have cost £50 Million.  So, the British state can afford to spend that kind of money on nuclear power, but it can't stop the kind of poverty that puts someone like Josh outside, without shelter, in freezing "freak weather conditions".  Ah, but the reactor is supplying energy to vast swathes of Britain!  Yeah... but if you haven't got a home, you haven't got any way of enjoying any of that energy, have you?  Josh has to create his own energy with his own generator: pedals.  But even his bike is useless.  The problem with Josh is that he is worth nothing to anyone powerful.  He's unprofitable.  Axos doesn't even get much sustenance out of consuming him.  The Axons say it themselves when they analyse him: "this specimen is valueless".

Later, of course, Axonite meshes itself with the reactor to the point where they seem to merge.  It is a miracle power-source that hides the deadly potential for mass destruction.  Later still, the Nuton Power Complex explodes.  There is clearly some queasiness about nuclear power submerged in Axonite.

Once again, don't misunderstand me.  I'm not saying any of this constitutes angry political comment.  It does not.

The lead characters casually saunter back - unprotected - into the wreckage of the reactor plant after it has exploded, which takes the edge off any anxieties the story might seem to have about nuclear power, even nullifying the effect of the Master's dry remarks about "sticky tape on the windows", which parody the farcical advice people used to get given about What to Do in the Event of a Nuclear Holocaust.

Meanwhile, Josh is depicted as a comedy character.  He jabbers unintelligible 'yokel' gibberish and puts up his fists at Axos.  He's a comedy nutter, backed by cutesy Steptoe & Son-esque music.  We're evidently supposed to find him funny.  (Oh yeah, homelessness - what a giggle.)  He's a parodic figure.  He serves to neutralise and naturalize poverty, to make it seem like something amusing that only happens to crazy old drunks.  Such people (whisper it) have brought it on themselves and (whisper it) prefer being homeless, which is a kind of freedom.  And all that bollocks.

However, the only thing that makes Josh so 'safe' is the tone the story takes with him.  Changing the incidental music alone could easily transform him from a figure of fun to one of pathos.  Then, the sight of him freezing his nuts off in an icy lake, a few miles away from a colossally expensive nuclear power plant (which later explodes), while the British government connives to gain exclusive control and profits from an even more deadly source of power, would have an altogether different effect.  We might even be tempted to connect Josh's condition with that of all those hungry people who haunt this story at the extreme edges.

Planet of Gold

At his TARDIS Eruditorum blog, Philip Sandifer identifies 'Claws' as utilising... well... the horror of Glam rock (as someone else once put it).

Glam rock... is in part about taking the opulence of conspicuous consumption and rearranging it into the wrong aesthetic. It's all the over the top excess of the luxury associated with power and authority, except it's all put together pointlessly and haphazardly. It revels in decadence and consumption while denying the systems that ostensibly justify that behavior in society.
Does The Claws of Axos follow this approach? Largely, yes. On the one level, the pleasure of The Claws of Axos is a revelry in spectacle and glitz. We are meant to enjoy its images for their own sake. On the other hand, look at its ostensible plot, which is a straightforward anti-consumerist parable. The Axons are beautiful creatures of gold who offer untold wealth and then drain the world of its resources. But look, these two things don't go together at all. The story is simultaneously reveling in superficial images and warning of their malign influence.
But this isn't a contradiction or a case of sloppy and incoherent execution. This is what concern about the rise of a purely image-based culture of spectacle (which was one of the major concerns of the Situationalist International in France in '68) looked like in 1971. The critique of images was phrased in an image-based, superficial form. The Claws of Axos is designed to make the viewer feel uncomfortable about the pleasure they are taking in the object. It's constantly reveling in images that are not fun but rather lurid and unnerving - images that are over the top and unlike what things should look like - while simultaneously cautioning us about the very pleasure it is taking.

He goes on to say other interesting things about Pertwee as playing a Hero, a fundamentally consumerist role where the male lead is commodified for the audience's enjoyment... except that, in 'Claws', he is a grotesque amidst a cast of unchanging and functional stock characters who always react the same way.  Thus Pertwee ends up unwittingly playing a joke version of this Hero.  His Doctor becomes a kind of Glam subversion, revelling in outrageous behaviour, flouncy togs and bourgeois ostentation while simultaneously losing the legitimacy that makes such things work they way they're superficially supposed to.

But the bit I'm interested in is Sandifer's reference to Guy Debord's idea about the Society of the Spectacle.  I wont linger over this here (how it relates to Doctor Who - and film/TV SF/fantasy generally - is a whole separate series of posts in itself).  Here's the book itself; here's [PDF] the best intro to it I've ever read.

However, I think Debord can lead us to something fundamental about what Axonite/Axos is.

Early on in Society of the Spectacle, Debord delivers this crucial disclaimer: "The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation between people, mediated by images."  Debord locates the spectacle in commodity fetishism.  The spectacle is "the main production of present-day society" and "is the image of the ruling economy".  It "subjugates living men to itself to the extent that the economy has totally subjugated them."  It is "the true reflection of the production of things, and the false objectification of the producers."  Just as Marx wrote that capital is the material expression of social relationships of production, so Debord says that the spectacle is the expression in images of material relationships of production.  For Debord, the spectacle is the way modern society expresses the concentration of capital.

Now, Sandifer's interest is in how the story itself uses spectacle strategically.  I'm more interested in how, within the frame of the story, Axos uses/is spectacle.  When the Axons offer the humans their most tempting aspect, they personate as images that embody various seductive elements of Western heritage and capitalist ideology.  They represent themselves as a patriarchal nuclear family (post-nuclear, more like... as someone once said).  According to Miles and Wood, the script described the Axons who greet the humans as looking like "the adman's dream Coca-Cola family".  They are commodifying themselves and their image for the humans' consumption, drawing on ideals of consumer culture.  These ideals are themselves drawn from older - sometimes classic or neoclassical - tropes about beauty, health, normalcy, etc.  The Axons actively employ classical motifs: their slender bodies, sculpted hair and blank eyes make them look like Greek or Roman statues.  They use the spectacle to dazzle the humans.  Most of all, they appear - spectacularly - to be made of gold.

Gold is the ultimate symbol of wealth.  Even with the days of the Gold Standard long gone, gold prices still have a great effect upon the world economy, heavily influencing currency rates, especially in Asia and Australasia.  Its symbolic weight is enormous.  It is associated with plenty, wealth, power, pleasure, conspicuous consumption, health, purity... but it is also tarnished with the dirt of history, of the Gold Rush and other such examples of acquisitiveness which devastated native peoples and raised cities full of miners and brothels and gambling houses, etc.  It speaks of unreasoning temptation, of a rush to gain.

Gold also stands for money, the 'universal equivalent', the commodity that stands for and realises the respective values of all others.  Gold is not money, not anymore... but it does imply money like little else.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that, aside from deliberately using glam and glitter to ensare humans, Axos is also expressing something true about itself.  Axonite is offered as, "a gift, a payment" (in accordance with our customs).  Note that "gift" and "payment" are incompatible, even mutually exclusive terms.  It's as though the Axons do not fully understand the meaning of the word "gift", even as they go on to ask for and suggest charity.  But they are clearly offering Axonite as a payment, in return for shelter (as they claim).  Actually, they are buying human cooperation.  The spectacle of the glittering golden people expresses the fact that their entire nature is essentially monetary, commodified, capitalistic.

Axonite is inherently spectacular.  It transforms things, engorges things, shrinks things, foams, blasts, crackles and seethes.  Given that Axonite, the Axons and the Axon ship are all, essentially, the same thing, that means that everything we see inside Axos (see the pictures above) is also Axonite.  That unnerving glam rock orgy of strange flesh is all performance, spectacle... all of it, Axonite in change and motion.

In the world of Axos, everything is spectacular and everything is a commodity.  After encountering Axonite as a payment (exchange value), we are immediately shown its qualities (use value).  It can "absorb, convert, transmit and program all forms of energy".  Essentially, it can do anything.  It is omniuseful.  It is, say the Axons, "the source of all our growth technology".  Well, that sounds a helluva lot like the commodity form to me.

In our world too, everything is commodified.  Commodities can be anything and everything.  The commodity can take any form.  It can be huge or small; it can be a single bolt or an entire warship.  Commodities can absorb each other's value.  The value in the automated machinery of the production line (itself a commodity - made to be sold and bought) transfers value into the commodities produced on the production line.  (I'll have mercy on you and skip any further discussion of 'the organic constituion of capital'... except to note how interesting it is, in respect to this story, that Marx speaks of capital as being 'organic' and 'variable'.)  Commodities can transfer value.  They can be used to ship other commodities from place to place.  Commodities can transmit value.  The cable or satellite (themselves commodities) can transmit the drama (commodity) and/or the advert (the commodity that sells commodities) to the television (a commodity).  Watching the television is a person who sells their labour (commodity), gets a wage (which she uses to buy commodities) and forms part of a market based on her personal details (these markets being sold to advertisers in the form of ad space between appropriate programmes).  And so on and so on.  In a system like ours, one of generalised commodity production, the commodity can do all the things Axonite can do.  It can even engorge frogs, if you want.  Even before genetic engineering (itself heavily commodified, with patented genes, etc), the market would have found a way to breed monstrously large frogs if there'd been a way of selling them.

The humans immediately see the possible applications... which is understandable.  The Axons have offered something that humans in capitalist society understand very well.  They call Axonite "growth technology"... they mean it literally, but the humans see another kind of growth.  Economic growth.  Axonite is a new development of the productive forces, waiting to be applied to the system of commodity production.  "Unlimited food!" says Hardiman.  Now, putting aside the child-logic that assumes people starve because there's a world shortage of food, what is Hardiman really saying?  He's saying that Axonite can increase human capacity to produce... and what do humans produce in capitalism?  Commodities.  Axonite will mean that humans will produce more, bigger, better, faster, with less outlay, etc.  Even if Hardiman doesn't see this, the Doctor and Chinn certainly do... at least, in their different ways.  The Doctor doesn't usually talk about economics, so he sees the issue as one of Axonite conferring "unlimited power" of a kind he doesn't specify.  Chinn, however, immediately reacts acquisitively, nationalistically and in terms of the British state.  "We must have it," says he.  By "we" he means 'Britain'... which, of course, to him, means the British state.  Economic power is implicitly what he's thinking about.  He immediately begins trying to cut a deal for "sole distribution rights to all Axonite materials" to be "vested in the British government".  By "materials" he probably means literal materials, i.e. the stuff itself... but that doesn't stop his words sounding, nowadays, like part of an intellectual property rights contract.

Am I not overstating?  Isn't Axonite just another of those fantasy materials, like zyton-7, trisilicate, duralinium, argonite, spectrox...  well, yes and no.  You see, they are all examples of a commodity and some of them are shown to cause people and/or companies to do terrible things because they are commodities... but, with the possible exception of spectrox, none of them seem to stand for the commodity, for the commodity form itself. Axonite, however, does this through its omniusefulness, its ultra-utility, through its apparently protean nature, through its ability to be and to copy anything, through its hyper-desirability, through its resistance to analysis, and through its nature as spectacle. Like Nestene plastic (which is also spectacular and also stands for the commodity, for capital... hence the tentacles) it is autonomous, it can mass produce and re-produce, it attacks.  In one sense, it is less sharp a signifier than Auton plastic because it is not made by humans, but on the other hand there is the matter of its cyclical nature.  Auton Plastic does not circulate; Axonite does.  The Nutrition Cycle sounds very much like the circulation of capital.  The commodity dazzles, it is distributed in return for payment, it moves from hand to hand, it is shipped, it reaches every corner of the globe, increases yields and develops production, confers power and growth, achieves saturation and monopoly... and the end result is a massive collection of energy (profit) at the centre, achieved through the absorption of resources, with all the profit feeding back into the system, engorging it, enabling it to reproduce itself and start the cycle again.  Not for nothing do the Axons refer to the Nutrition Cycle also as a cycle of reproduction.  Axonite is like the commodity in that it is one aspect of an all-encompassing system, an aspect that circulates globally and 'returns with' the profit, reproducing the system in the process.

Nestene plastic is capital: labour alienated from humans, commodified and fetishized to the point of hostile autonomy.  Inside the Autons there lurk the Nestenes... i.e. within the alien/ated human images, 'Spearhead' finds capital, which manifests as incoherent tentacles.  Axos too is constituted of alien/ated human images within which there hide masses of tentacles.  Axos takes up the clues in 'Spearhead' and uses the incoherent tentacular as a spectacle in itself, but a spectacle that behaves like the commodity synthesized to the point of abstraction, which is what the commodity form is anyway: an abstraction.

Axos is capital.

Nice Tentacles, Shame About the Skull

Axos is described and depicted in many ways during this story, many of them incompatible and incoherent.  Their 'ship' (which is, of course, not actually a vessel for occupants so much as a bag of skin around a single entity) looks like a leech or a tapeworm, its opening resembling a scolex.  The thing that reaches out to grab Josh and Filer is partly a tentacle, partly a tongue, partly a stamen, with a spider on the end of it.  The interior has tendrils, eyes, fronds, membranes, claws, mouths, hard dribbles that look like scabs or dried pus, ganglions, foreskins, you name it.  Axos is an incoherent chimera.  It's a bag of bits and pieces, randomly stuck together and constantly reshuffling.  It's an obscene body landscape.  Being inside it is like being a morsel of food being digested through the internal organs of a monstrous, scrambled creature.

However, according to Miles and Wood, the original idea for the story was about "a giant skull landing in Hyde Park and offering to fulfill people's desires, for a price, by making its human-sized nerve-cells become whatever anybody wanted".

Now, I've never read that first script, but surely, inevitably, somebody would ask the Skull to use one of those "human-sized" cells to recreate a dead loved one.  Which probably wouldn't work out, I'm guessing.

This sounds like a straightforward gothic parable about the return of the repressed.  The wishes that are granted and which then prove undesirable, as in the ghost story 'The Monkey's Paw' by W. W. Jacobs.

We all know that, right up to the last minute, the story was called 'The Vampire from Space'.  The vampire being a thoroughly gothic monster.  Barry Letts changed it at the eleventh hour... apparently feeling it necessary to insert the dialogue likening Axos to a vulture in order to justify the new title.

This is almost too good to be true, from my point of view.

I've been working with China Miéville's fascinating and original thesis (see my account, here, which links to his essay) about the tentacle and skull being in "non-dialectical superposition".  They represent two conflicting ways of expressing the horrors of modernity, the gothic (hauntological) and the Weird.  The gothic is about that knowledge which haunts us even as we try to deny it; the Weird is about the lack of comprehension, the terrifyingly unknowable.  These modes do not interpenetrate, rather they oscillate back and forth.  As a result, you never get monsters that merge the skull and the octopus - skulltopuses... a combination that would otherwise seem quite obvious, given that octopuses have central bodies that are almost skull-like in shape.

In the production history of 'The Claws of Axos' we can almost see this very process of oscillation at work!

The skull is pushed out by the incoherent tentacular.

But... this isn't quite what's happening.  In his thesis, Miéville is talking about large-scale oscillations which take place across Western culture, graphics, political art and, most especially, literature.  He's talking, for the most part, about fiction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Moreover, 'Claws' is not a case of hauntology being outright rejected in favour of Weird opacity.  In its broadcast form, 'Claws' retains a hauntological charge.  Putting aside any possible Freudian interpretations (off the top of my head... the death wish, anybody?), Axos clearly haunts us (in that material way Who has of doing hauntology) with repressed social/political/cultural anxieties about greed, materialism, acquisitiveness, hunger, starvation, foreigners and refugees, our own prosperity, etc.  Axos even becomes semi-spectral at times, i.e. the floating disembodied heads.

While it may be a very strange, almost unprecedented creature - it really is quite hard to think where any TV viewers in 1971 would've seen anything quite like it before - Axos is still, in many ways, a vampire.  Vampire is actually a much more apposite description than Letts' implied carrion bird.  Vampires drain the life from the living.  Axos wouldn't be about to feed on a "carcass".  Axos is gothic to that extent.  It even chimes with a brilliant Marxist reading of Dracula by a guy called Moretti, who saw the fanged Count as a monster of monopoly capital, trying to takeover the world and integrate all humanity into his dominating system, opposed by the British middle classes and a professor from Holland (the home of free trade).  Marx himself was fond of comparing capital to a vampire.  Axos is also, as I've suggested above, capital.  It is a single system that wishes to circulate units of itself, in commodity form, around the world, in search of a total, global monopoly of all power and profit.

This, I think, is the key.  'Claws of Axos' uses Doctor Who's materialist method of doing the gothic and the hauntological to create a gothic monster... but finds its intended critique of greed and consumerism sliding inexorably into a gothic-style critique of capitalism... of capitalism as a destructive and vampiric system (the unitary nature of Axos makes it systemic, all its parts being aspects of itself) of commodity circulation, aided by a cynical British state.

Doctor Who
, under the right-on stewardship of Barry Letts, is happier with this idea than ever before... such things were hardly even dreamt of in the 60s show until the last few seasons... but still can't fully commit to a systemic critique on this level, what with its place in the capitalist culture industry, tasked with educating the nation's goggle-eyed chidlers in the virtues of mainstream Enlightenment values and liberal bourgeois morality.  As this conflict - between ideological position and implied critique - develops, the most overt trappings of the gothic are shed and, in their place, comes a processed, stylistic, creatively misunderstood version of the Weird.  Out goes the skull that offers the barbed wishes... in come the tentacles, the claws and the strange flesh.  As with 'The Macra Terror' and 'Spearhead from Space', the themes of the story have been converging upon a point that needs to be obscured, scrambled, covered, Weirdified into incoherence... so in comes the radically incoherent monster, purloined from the Weird, the apparent opposite and antithesis of the gothic.

The connection between these two modes is never entirely severed, however.  This is not the process described by Miéville in its full sense but rather an echo if it.  The remaining connection between the gothic and the Weird is most visible in the look of the Axon 'ship'.  It looks like a leech.  It looks like a bloodsucker.  The story has found its resting point at the place where the gothic and the Weird almost meet before they repel.

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