In Tenet time is stalled for forever plunder.
As a child, I never liked riding on tilt-a-whirls or other spinning rides. My equilibrium must have been unbalanced. I got dizzy. There is a moment when riding them, though, between when you’re nervous and when you’re sick, that the world, the amusement park around you, is completely blurred out and the centrifugal force puts into relief only what’s within the limits of the ride—other passengers, kids, people wincing or screaming with joy. Time stops outside of your own ecstasy before you’re plunged back into the reality of your body, your sickness. Before you’ve come to terms with the terrifying fact of the machine, the ride ends.
Meditating about the implications of Tenet’s themes leaves one with a similar sort of nausea, except without the smell of frying bread and sugar—depending. The experience of the film represents a pervasive existential condition: the suspension of time under techno-capitalism despite and because of the impending environmental disaster. It is a time travel narrative that effectively shrinks time down to the dimensions of an action movie, propelled by a general economy that draws in the past and future simultaneously.
That the film is, despite its pretensions, about stopping time altogether is uncanny next to the fact that Nolan insisted it be released traditionally, in theatres, despite the COVID closures, regardless of reality. Anyone could buy tickets to see it, but the dismal reality it presents to the viewers is one where only an elite set get a ticket to ride.
In theory, Tenet tries to do what many stories succeed in: transcending time. Shared narratives usually seek to represent the endurance of culture in the face of constant pressure. They work to project a version of the present into the future as an edifying or memorializing object. The film take the form of an epic but one that is disengaged from the world and future making.
In the film, the main character is even named in an archetypal way. “The Protagonist” is an intelligence operative who finds himself enveloped in a war with a murky future technocracy that has figured out ways to send materials backwards through reversing the processes of entropy. The transcendence here is not of edifying narrative but of hyper-accelerated processes, of the feedback loop of capital seeking to preserve itself through endless subterfuge and terrorist scares against an eternal enemy.
Like any good contemporary Marvel-esque, lovingly-ironic character, The Protagonist is pure relatability. He controls his own destiny without knowing it (his future self establishes Tenet, the organization that guides him as he operates in an unimaginatively spy-movie way). He is military, is American, as opposed to his ensnarled European co-actors; he is moral; he is presumably of lower class origins—judging by his interaction with the British operative Michael Caine during a scene in which an waiter scoffs at the Protagonist for asking if he can take his fancy breakfast food to go. He is the above average but believably quotidian viewer/actor, the glamorous subject of individualistic modernity, who, through the machinations of advanced technology, gets to transcend time and live in an eternal spy-world, suspended in the present. At times he is sexy and bespoke, a mythic ideal from the pages of Vogue. However, the main character of the film is not the Protagonist at all, or the viewer at home ten hours deep in media. It is the feedback loop that creates his overlapping life, the potential for eternal return in the present that Nolan reifies.
Unlike other science fictions, the physics of Tenet require objects and people to pass through a machine in which the entropy of their cells is “inverted.” The future utilizes this technology to work backwards into the past in order to assemble a machine that would bring on the Armageddon of the present. It is the constant threat that resembles the constant state of emergency that justifies contemporary atrocity that the agents of Tenet must stop, no matter the cost—at one point someone mentions that a billion deaths are worth keeping the future at bay. Here the play between future and past is startling and reminiscent of the contemporary desire to defer the absent future of apocalypse further and further. The present is the only possibility.
One thing the film does well are descriptions of entropy—and thus the experience of time, conceptually—as a stream, which inverted objects and people have to swim against. The experience of car crashes in reverse and fight scenes played forward and backwards is dazzling, though impractical, an endemically modern set of traits. Entropy here is the great equalizer that must be overcome, because time is not in favor of the main players of the film: state agents, oligarchs, and an inevitable future, where the Earth’s resources have been sucked dry and the only option is to go back. The end of the ride.
The action of the film moves around a core battle in which Tenet fights against the future’s agent, Andrei Sator who was recruited by an inverted time capsule with instructions to reassemble a technology that has the power to reverse all of matter. Sator is the psychotic death drive at the heart of the narrative. He is an oligarch who desires wealth beyond measure but also, somewhat inexplicably, to end the whole of the world, an end that is endlessly deferred by the perfect battle between Tenet and Sator’s forces that happens in a loop.
This loop forms a perfect machine, where the production of the present, the future, and the past are all geared towards a transcendental moment, and the irony of the capitalism in perfect stasis takes the form of exhausted action movie tropes: the banal reproduced desires paraded out by the market for mass consumption.
Mark Fisher remarks[i] on Nolan’s representation of the tendrils of global capital seeping into the mind. Besides calling Nolan’s work “duplicitous” and built to “[draw] audiences into labyrinths of indeterminacy,” Fisher charges Nolan with being the play-master for the fantasies of violence and nostalgia. His films become a display of “the impasses of a culture in which business has closed down not only the strangeness of the unconscious, but also, even more disturbingly, any possibility of an outside—” Here Fisher is referring to Inception, but the generalized aesthetic and use of the mechanics of big budget movies and car chases applies to Tenet. But what Inception did for the dream-space, Tenet has done for the time continuum. There is no time outside of capital. Or atleast, no time worth living in or spending money on.
The pining of everything on an endless present siphons attention away from the history of the machine, and this overturning of time represents what Bernard Stiegler sees as an erosion of social structures and memory itself by technologies at the service of exploitative economics. Humans, faced with a lack that they supplement with technology, have lost control of the machine and now serve it. What were technologies of entropy reduction have become entropy accelerators. The centering of the profit-generating machine, now merged with media and culture through information technology becomes central. The continuation of mechanical production for the sake of endless growth and profit become the point. A general technocentrism takes over and the world outside of its movements becomes blurred.
“Technocentrism means the development of technics “for itself,” when it is an end unto itself, the autonomization of technics by which it is its own law, indeed the law; this possible development has always been perceived as the epitome of hubris qua alienation violence that brings human “freedom” qua freedom of being to an end, brings an end to time, evacuates the future…”[ii]
For Stiegler, technological forces are able to evacuate the future in our cultural telling because memory itself is related closely with technologies. Story and narrative are passed to the next generations, and we share our vision of the future through the technologies of various media. Just as capital infiltrates the depths of the unconscious, narrative time is being coopted by the proliferation of information technologies causing a “reticulated, automatic society”[iii] (Before, the day-to-day of Kafka’s bureaucracies shifted the way we view time. Stiegler calls this the industrialization of memory, where the temporal structures enabled by technologies like the calendar have been made to service the forces of production. During the industrial revolution this process had already started to really upend rhythms as people adjusted to long work days and electric light, but has only increased with the multiform stimulations of digital labour and consumption. As a shared element time is very much a communicative technical tool, an epistemological one, through which the world is viewed, and thus the way that the future is constructed.
“Everything that for individuals forms the horizon of their future, constituted by their protentions, is outstripped, overtaken and progressively replaced by automatic protentions that are produced by intensive computing systems”[iv]
The reality of this cooptation of social memory, coupled with the disastrous environmental predictions of the future, create the conditions for Fisher’s much-talked-about lost futures, the inability to imagine the other side of the current system. Against this sort of transcendental vision, the accelerationist hope is that the only way out of capitalism is through it, as it looses steam and burns itself out. This thesis relies on time and on being able to wait it out. But if time itself is dictated by technologies that are out of our control, can we place any more hope in this thesis?
Some may say that talking about this film gives it too much credit. Many (myself included) left the film scratching my head, and one wonders if Christopher Nolan makes films only to see how many hours of explanation videos he can rack up on YouTube. Yet, the banality of the film, the frills of its machinic movements meant to shrink time down, are prescient.
Tenet wants to talk about science, make relative time to entropy more general, so that humans are living within what Walter Benjamin called the “empty homogenous time”[v] of nature. History is reduced to the scale of the eventual heat death of the universe, it becomes trifling. But history is the only weapon we have against the logics of a technological system that would condemn the future and erase the past. The future is reduced to a place from which inverted products comes, but a bad place where we do not want to go, no matter the cost. Only the perfect present of capitalism can save us. The ride must keep spinning, and though its rising within us, the nausea must be held down.
Every moment, the value of data unmoored from reality goes up. Computers can live an eon in an instant. In many ways the virtual world is the world of Tenet’s. As the economy digitizes and the brain virtualizes, we drown on the surface of too-much-being, too-much-present, never even close to accessing the whole of thought which has indeed become externalized.
Today, we live neither in historical time as the culture industries warp the past, nor in mythic eternal time, as the looming environmental catastrophe makes all too clear our finitude. While Tenet works in material reality, it stands in for something more insidious, which is the constant expansion of the present through the virtual. If time is a function of human thought, and human thought is exploding, the machines that record its proliferation expanding, allowing for whole worlds to exist within the real. Shared worlds as is the case with the mass fantasies that today motivate thousands to violence in the name of fantasy. Years’ worth of video is produced each day.
The technological world of data is outside of time in any real sense, like an airport lounge or the “freeports” where some of the action in Tenet takes place, which represent the stateless flow of international capital outside of the bounds of the state or written history, outside of the law as history. Where sci-fi has previously given some sort of vision for the future, this film forecloses apocalypse all together, for those who are in on the machines inner circle, at least. It is Kafka’s pointless bureaucratic labyrinths with all the flair of Bond, with more excess than entropy can burn. The irony of a system moving towards transcendental stasis in the name of fighting an apocalyptic future that it itself is causing is one that we all live with. This is the primary, fatal contradiction within the capitalist order or the construction of time in a market dominated by finance . All of the past and future is simply fodder for these exospheres: fantasies that reproduce themselves endlessly as malignant products and pipe dreams of a space imperium—all at the touch of a bottom, right now in the spinning hot core of history.
Around this spinning core represented by the plot of the movie, the masses move towards the cold edge of the future. I shiver thinking of the huddling masses of the future, crawling towards the edge of oblivion, out of the gilded stage light of the present. In a cruel twist of Hegel, the super egoic whole at the end of history becomes menacing and out to get us, jealous of what we have, as is the future in Tenet. We should be jealous of the future who will inherit our art and culture, who will have the benefit of an expanded field of history, and who will look upon our moment with context and clarity.
No, the future is forsaken. Prosperity is differed for those that live in entropic time, as the rich retreat into the expanse of the present, through the thick, flat time of media, production intensifies. It is not in the interest of the elite to slow the primacy of the machine over man. Sycophants, they will work in its name, as long as the result is eternal play, wealth, and the excitement of acquisition and war. We are all stuck in the machinations that result.
Maybe Christopher Nolan is the contemporary Kafka we all deserve, elucidating the banality of the goals of advanced technology and the flaunting of complicated mind fucks over actual thought. But modernity bred transgressive art, and so too maybe the reticulated fold of data, spinning the present into eternity, will give way to its own further forms. Though, critical thinking feels exhausted when to be transgressive in this sense is to simply imagine the future at all.
Is it possible to re-think a technology that would help us deal with the reality of time? Of relativity? Of our place in the systems of entropy? Would it be a mourning machine to counter the feedback loop? One that placed us firmly within the historical trajectory that would stop the ride and let us see the amusement park burning all around us.
[i] Fisher, Mark. “The Lost Unconscious: Delusions and Dreams in Inception.” Film Quarterly. Vol 34, 3, Spring 201
[ii] Stielger, Bernard. Tehnics and Time 1, The Fault of Epimetheus. Translated by Richard Beardsworth and George Collins. Standford 1998.
[iii] Stielger, Bernard. Age of Disruption: Technology and Madness in Computational Capitalism. Translated by Daniel Ross. Polity.
[v] Bejamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations. Edited by Hannah Arendt. Shocken. 1968.
Header image by designer and illustrator Erika Solway