I saw Wall-E a couple of weeks back. Unlike most, if not all of my friends who saw the movie, I didn’t like it very much. It was of course visually awesome and charming, for the most part, and told a decent enough story. It’s hard to “disagree” with the moral of the story, which, so far as I can tell, is that garbage is bad for the earth. And that submission to the spectacle of marketing is also bad. I got that. But I do think there is a more problematic something about the film – not a “message,” but instead something more like a presupposition.
The plot of the film is pretty simple and I’m not giving anything away: the planet earth has become so polluted that it is uninhabitable, lacking all life forms and plagued by sandstorms and hot sun. Humans have relocated to a gigantic spaceship that wanders about, awaiting some sign of organic life. If there is organic life, humans can return to earth and re-inhabit the planet. Great. Environmental destruction is bad. No problem there. I don’t want to move to a spaceship!
I liked the commentary at Slate.com by Daniel Engber. The writer focused on the unfair and inaccurate connection the film suggests between obesity and environmental destruction. Blame fat people. I think the author overplays that angle in the film a bit, as it is unclear to me if the humans were actually obese when on earth or if in fact they only became obese after generations in space. Alas. It is certainly true that the dirtiness of the planet is associated with the slovenliness of the humans. So that complaint has actual traction.
What the reviewer didn’t note, and something that has stayed with me since seeing Wall-E, is the idea of the human person at work in the film. If I’m right, and I think I am, that the humans become slovenly and grotesquely obese (they can’t even walk, really) only on the spaceship, then that slovenliness is not related to environmental destruction alone. In fact, the slovenliness is related to the absence of work. Robots do everything to produce material needs and wants. Automation utopia, really.
Automation – the absence of the need to work for survival – creates slovenliness. Or, perhaps more precisely, automation brings the slovenly out of us. We become who we already are, what we’ve always been, but had forestalled by the necessity of work. Leisure time is equivalent to self-destruction. Sin. I’m not reluctant to use that word – sin – when describing the slovenly humans. We’re certainly not meant only to laugh. We’re supposed to condemn the humans for inactivity.
And herein lies my big complaint with the film. It reproduces a very Protestant work-ethic and morality, where leisure is temptation and corruption, rather than a place where other parts of our humanity come to flourish. Work is salvation. Or at least what keeps us from self-destruction. Left to our own intellect and desires, Wall-E suggests (or even insists), we become blobs. Barely human. This is the fat-mocking version of the old thing about idle hands and the devil.
I object to this. I really do. Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man remains, for me, an exemplary argument against this anxiety about leisure. Sadly, this book is pretty marginal in academic circles – Marcuse committed the sin of academia by becoming “popular.” Marcuse makes a convincing case that new forms of creativity and innovation emerge out of a new leisure, something increasingly possible with automation. Automation isn’t our death. It opens upon new possibilities.
Wall-E is emphatically anti-Marcuse, really, as automation leads to leisure leads to sin. Only toil gives salvation. Doubt me? The back-screen to the credits, which celebrates the human return to earth and happiness, depicts humans working. What does work look like? It looks just like the ant farms I had as a kid. Making perfectly symmetrical tunnels. I don’t think that’s Pixar art. I think that’s ideology.
That’s very much our anxiety about leisure or free time, no? Not to be trite, but kids have scheduled childhoods. Wow. So I’m not surprised to find that Wall-E thinks free time will make us fat and dumb.
Why fat and dumb? Why not freed from the toil of survival for art, science, and alternative possibilities in human relationships? In Wall-E, the spaceship is full of mindless consumption. Not a hint of art, literature, philosophy, religion, science…nothing that comes from human curiosity. That of course could open up a debate about human nature and the like – which is why I teach philosophy, I love that shit – but I’m content here to underscore our still very Protestant work ethic and its attendant anxieties. Indeed, for those who saw Wall-E, there is the question: did the association between toil and happiness make sense? Did you even need to question the connection between leisure and slovenliness?
Of course not. That’s how ideology works best, most efficiently. Not only does it seem natural and invisible, but you actually come to see yourself in it. Thanks, Louis Althusser! Wall-E as an ideological state apparatus! We recognize not only a return to our best state (the toil of the final credits), but also our greatest anxiety: left to ourselves, we’re shit.
Wall-E, I beg to differ.