Children of Men, commodification, disenchantment, dystopia, Georges Bataille, Henning Mankell, Jean Baudrillard, Kurt Wallander, Logan's Run, Max Weber, Never Let Me Go, New Age, Ninni Holmqvist, PBRF, rationalisation, Sweden
Proving that we here in the Dunedin School are interested in books other than the Bible, we turn our attention in quite another direction and continue our ongoing discussion of rationalisation – or disenchantment – and human society (see more on this here, here, here, here, and here).
Whoever pushes rationality forward also restores new strength to the opposite power, mysticism and folly of all kinds.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power
Right now, no-one else is doing fictional social commentary about the continuing process of rationalisation quite as well as Scandinavians. From Jens Lien’s lithe, brilliant 2006 Norwegian film The Bothersome Man, which envisions the afterlife as a sterile, highly controlled modern city, to Let the Right One In, which unearths an unspeakable, timeless evil living on the perfectly planned streets of Stockholm (or perhaps this evil is created by or drawn to the city because of its inhuman perfection), there is a whole host of powerful narratives emerging from the northern reaches of Europe, narratives which seriously question the social costs of quantification and reduction of all things, human life included, to exchangeable commodities.
To these more fanciful works, we need to add the growing numbers of excellent Swedish crime fiction, a list which must include Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (along with the two other titles in his Millennium Trilogy), which puts a very human face on the immense suffering and violence that goes on, unnoticed and unremarked, in the interstices of rationalised societies. The gold standard here is probably set by Henning Mankell’s brilliant Kurt Wallander detective novels, which are so popular in Germany that Mankell outsells J.K. Rowling. Over the course of nine novels, Wallander, a kind of dishevelled, stoic, and utterly baffled Everyman, fights a losing battle against a tide of violence and senseless crime in what should, by all accounts, be an earthly paradise of social planning, a triumph of the welfare state. The Wallander novels are shot through with a crawling sense of dread that is shocking not because it is so out of place in the quiet towns of southernmost Sweden, but because it quickly becomes so natural, because it feels so familiar. Mankell turns what could be boilerplate police procedurals into both a highly-nuanced character study and a far-ranging, even courageous theodicy that could only have emerged out of one of the most secular nations on earth. The Wallander novels amount cumulatively to a systematic interrogation of the failures of the welfare state and a deconstruction of the social engineering promises that were made so easily, and with remarkably little foresight, in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. (Incidentally, for the uninitiated, the suburb English-language BBC production Wallander, with a doughy and heartbreakingly human Kenneth Branagh as Wallander is a great point of entrée into Mankell’s world; for those of you who still read books, I’ll recommend 1995’s Sidetracked as a personal favourite among the novels).
To this illustrious list we should now add Ninni Holmqvist’s compelling and unjustly overlooked first novel The Unit (2006), an examination of the failures of the present through the classical allegorical strategy of the dystopia. The story is told by Dorrit Weger, a fifty-year-old woman who, as the novel opens, has been moved to something called ‘the Unit’, about which the reader knows nothing. As the story unfolds through Holmqvist’s quiet, precise, understated prose, we learn only gradually what the Unit is and why Dorrit finds herself there. In the future Sweden in which the novel is set – and its exact timeframe is ambiguous, though it is not too far in the future – anyone who has reached the end of their usefulness to society is taken to the Unit, where they are used for medical experiments and as living organ banks, forced to donate their organs one by one until they donate a vital organ, say the heart or the lungs. ‘Final donation’ is in fact the Unit’s callous euphemism for death. Dispensable Elsa, in an attempt to be light-hearted about her fate, jokes with her friend Dorrit, ‘We’re like free-range pigs or hens. The only difference is that the pigs and hens are – hopefully – hopefully ignorant of anything but the present’.
This is no prison camp, however, at least not in the traditional sense and this, for some reason, just makes the fate of Dorrit and her fellow ‘dispensables’ all the more repellent. The Unit is an immaculately constructed alternative world with no view of the outside. It is a prison, without question, but it is a comfortable prison. There are shops, gardens, healthy restaurants, and plenty of amusements. Everything is clean, rational, and as humane as such a thing could possibly be. The dispensables, within the confines of their role as human capital, are treated with respect and encouraged to pursue their own interests and look after their own (decidedly relative) wellbeing. Neither is the selection of people for the Unit random or unexpected; the selection criteria are highly rational, highly quantified, and systematised to remove those all-too-human elements of chance and luck. Anyone who does not work in a vital field – teaching, nursing, etc. – and who remains childless is destined for a one-way trip to the Unit when they reach a certain age. For women, the cut-off age is fifty, while for men it is sixty. Even this has a rational justification; male sexual function has a slightly longer life-span than female, thus men retain their usefulness for longer.
The Unit is many things: it is a moving study of the intense and genuine friendships that quickly develop within the pressure cooker atmosphere of the Unit among people who know they have, at most, a few years left to live; when Dorrit meets Johannes and falls in love, it is a refreshing (and refreshingly frank) study of a sexual relationship between two characters past middle age, a time of life that most popular fiction, Harold and Maude notwithstanding, renders oddly asensual; and, in the end, it is simply heartbreaking, especially when Dorrit reminisces about her simple life outside the Unit and about her dog Jock, who she was forced to leave with friends when she taken to away.
In the final analysis, what The Unit, with its focus on the usefulness or utility of human beings, is criticising is rationalisation, the increasing dominance of instrumental reason, and how this effects people living in rationalised societies. What matters in a rationalised or disenchanted system is what works, not what has meaning. Only that which conforms to a narrowly-defined idea of function has proper, demonstrable value. Those in Holmqvist’s dystopian future who find themselves in the Unit fall outside the brutal calculus of value that equates usefulness with the biological necessity of reproduction. The world that supports the Unit is thus in this sense a subsistence economy that places the highest interest in its own survival. Holmqvist makes it apparent that members of the Unit have internalised this value system, as we see Dorrit fretting, even after being labelled as dispensable, about being ‘unusable’ as a medical commodity within the Unit itself. She also spends much of her time – tellingly, she follows standard week-day working hours even while inside the Unit – writing a novel about a mother who gives birth to a deformed baby, in which she muses, ‘The question was: Is this mother to be regarded as a parent in the practical, concrete meaning of the word? Is she to be regarded as needed? The question was: Is a person needed if she gives birth to a child that will never be able to bond with her, and will never be able to make any kind of contribution?’
Rationalisation, first theorised by the sociologist Max Weber in early years of the twentieth century, has arguably held up better than its contemporary, the secularisation thesis. There are a number of sociologists, theorists (including yours truly), and philosophers who have done some very interesting work within a Weberian framework, working with what Weber famously called ‘the disenchantment of the world’. One of the more prominent of these thinkers is Georges Bataille, who captures the long and ultimately indeterminate struggle between instrumental and values-based rationalities when he writes of ‘the poverty of utility’. Bataille’s related concepts of accursed share and sovereignty have strong resonances with both Weber’s disenchantment and Jean Baudrillard’s concept of symbolic exchange. Bataille’s concept of the sovereign is also related, not coincidentally, with his challenging theory of religion, which in turn owes a good deal to Weber’s narrative of rationalisation and its identification of religious and economic history. Echoing Jean Baudrillard’s concept of ‘symbolic exchange’, which celebrates the extra-economic and extra-instrumental use of goods, Bataille writes critically of the ‘servile man’, who ‘averts his eyes from that which is not useful, which serves no purpose’. He opposes the servile to the sovereign: ‘The sovereign I speak of has little to do with the sovereign of States, as international law defines it. I speak in general of an aspect that is opposed to the servile and the subordinate’. The sovereign, then, stands apart from and opposed to the closed system of political economy, as does symbolic exchange; indeed, Bataille champions the ‘opposition to the mercantile spirit, to haggling and self-interested calculation’ that is embodied in true exchange. In the world of The Unit, human beings are understood only in relationship to their use value and are thus granted different levels of exchange value in a brutal, mercenary logic where a single older woman is worth demonstrably, quantifiably less than a young single mother of young boys. There is a good deal that this kind of instrumentalisation misses, of course, and Weber, when formulating his theory of rationalisation, noted that disenchantment carries with it necessarily a dehumanising element. When Dorrit finds out her sister had been in the same Unit and had died a few years previously, she rages against the narrowness of this calculus of value: ‘But what about me? Perhaps I needed my sister, why doesn’t anyone think about things like that?’
Though exploitative medical practices and the disposal of the aged are classic themes in dystopian fiction, from Michael Bay’s patently awful film The Island to the classic (both in novel and film form) Logan’s Run, to Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go (soon to be released as a film), The Unit is still compelling, neccessary reading, due in no small part to the fact that it is far more grounded in the realities of the disenchanted, rationalised world than many of these other texts. After all, what makes any dystopia work is that it is believable. This is why Alfonso Cuaron’s film Children of Men is so striking, so haunting: it is chillingly plausible; its account of the future is so convincing as to seem almost inevitable. What makes Holmqvist’s nightmare so recognisably grounded in our reality is that she draws out the connections between rationalisation and commodification, which are inextricably linked in consumer capitalism. Dorrit tells a friend:
I used to believe that my life belonged to me … Something that was entirely at my disposal, something no one else had any claim on, or the right to have an opinion on. But I’ve changed my mind. I don’t own my life at all, it’s other people who own it … Those who have the power, I suppose … The state or industry or capitalism. Or the mass media. Or all four. Or are industry and capitalism the same thing? Anyway: those who safeguard growth and democracy and welfare, they’re the ones who own my life. They own everybody’s life. And life is capital. A capital that is to be divided fairly among the people in a way that promotes reproduction and growth, welfare and democracy. I am only a steward, taking care of my vital organs.
As a condemnation of an increasingly rationalised world where everything and, more importantly, everyone, can become a unit of economic value, The Unit is a very fine novel and a nice bit of social criticism. However, there is something going on further in the depths of the text that should be immensely troubling to anyone invested in the idea of therapy. That the usual therapies of our world go on unhindered with the Unit, that Doritt regularly visits a psychologist, or that art therapy is available to the doomed residents, suggests something deeply subversive; that the whole therapeutic ethos that dominates contemporary European cultures, with its rhetoric of healing, wholeness, mind-body unity, self-awareness, and self-fulfilment and its social structure of support groups, twelve-step programs, talk therapy, is nothing more than an integral part of the rationalised and rationalising apparatus that prepares and maintains human capital. That very few of the people who work at the Unit (though they live outside of it) have any intimation of the sheer hypocrisy of the whole enterprise is telling of the perverse coexistence of the recognisable world of therapy and the utterly ruthless logic of exploitation and violence that exists behind the whole edifice of the Unit. Slavoj Žižek gets at this point in his contributions to the recent The Monstrosity of Christ:
Spiritual mediation, in its abstraction from institutionalised religion, appears today as the zero-level undistorted core of religion: the complex institutional and dogmatic edifice which sustains every particular religion is dismissed as a contingent secondary coating of this core. The reason for this shift of accent from religious institutions to the intimacy of spiritual experience is that such a meditation is the ideological form that best fits today’s global capitalism.
This paints the whole of The Unit in a new light and draws out the fact that the novel voices a criticism of the whole edifice of contemporary spiritual/therapeutic culture, most visible in the New Age movement, which often calls for a reversal of disenchantment and the creation of a ‘reenchanted’ world (and here Thomas Moore’s best-selling book The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life is but one example). Viewing it from the angle set out by Ninni Holmqvist’s The Unit, what is going on in the development of the whole therapeutic ethos is in reality very different. In important ways that go largely unspoken, the world of universal individual achievement, the world where we can go to a yoga class or purchase ancient Mayan herbs to mediate the effects of a stressful life, is a world not unlike that of the Unit, and we, as its residents, are not unlike the human capital that is corralled there to serve a purpose and then to be discarded when our usefulness is finished. All of this raises a series or vital, necessary question: Is therapy really just another management technique and, worse, one that many people gladly submit themselves to? Are we concerned with all of this healing and wholeness because it allows us to more effective employees, voters, and consumers? Is all of this a symptom of the commodification of the human subject? Is the New Age, rather than a new era of freedom and respect for the individual, in reality an ideal embodiment of disenchantment and a pathway to an even more dysenchanted world?
Sheer pointlessness is a deeply subversive affair.
Terry Eagleton, After Theory
Brief excursus on rationalisation and the contemporary university: That this poverty of utility has permeated the contemporary academy to an unprecedented degree goes perhaps without saying. That the value of university research and teaching is now primarily filtered though economic concerns is immediately obvious to anyone working within the Performance Based Research Funding (PBRF) system in New Zealand, a system which imposes an inappropriate and ultimately harmful standard of ‘excellence’ and ‘performance’ drawn from the business world and situated within a narrowly-prescribed system of valuation. Education is not a product, nor is it a service and to treat it as such has serious detrimental consequences, such as the need to court and treat students as customers. On the reverse side of the coin, we find significant numbers of students who are unwilling or simply unable to make the intellectual leap to find the value in studying something that will not help them find a job or in studying for a purpose other than gathering marks towards a degree. The great tragedy here when thinking about the value of the study of religion, or any of the Humanities for that matter, is that, in spending time and energy attempting to prove their worth in the narrow strictures of utilitarian and economic value, scholars are distracted from doing work that is truly valuable (Mark Bauerlein has an excellent piece on this in the Chronicle of Higher Education). Perhaps all of this ultimately breaks down to a question of belief; either one believes that the pursuit of knowledge is valuable in its own right, or one does not. This may be one of those things about which one must square one’s shoulders and declare, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’.
As the Unit’s librarian Kjell tells Dorrit early on in her stay, ‘there are so many intellectuals here. People who read books … People who read books tend to be dispensable. Extremely’. That the Unit is also home to a number of artists and writers should perhaps come as no surprise, for the arts, like the pursuit of knowledge, are formally – and often economically – useless. That these things make life worth living is, of course, of no consequence.
 Ninni Holmqvist, The Unit, translated by Marlaine Delargy (New York: Other Press, 2006), 52.
 Holmqvist, Unit, 93.
 See Georges Bataille, Theory of Religion, trans by Robert Hurley (New York: Zone Books, 1989), 35-42 and 90.
 Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share, vol. 2, trans. by Robert Hurley (New York: Zone Books, 1991), 15. Emphasis in original.
 Bataille, Accursed II, 197.
 Bataille, Accursed II, 42.
 Holmqvist, Unit, 136.
 Holmqvist, Unit, 103.
 Slavoj Žižek and John Milbank, The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic?, edited by Creston Davis (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2009), 28.
 Holmqvist, Unit, 48.
judith gurewich said:
As the proud publisher of Unit, and as a sociologist deeply indebted to Weber, I am deeply moved by your article that I will make sure to send to the author. It is not often that my years of delving in theory and my present publishing life meet in this way, but I believe there is no real coincidence after all. I must I have known that this book stood out because it seeks meaning in the mist of the worst kind of instrumental reason. But it does not stop there. Your take on therapy, reminiscent of the brilliant work of the Frankfurt School, also touches me deeply. I have been trained as a Lacanian analyst and has written a little on the normative function of psychoanalysis, both in America and to a certain degree in France as well. Thank you for this. It brought up important memories and gave me the feeling that I can still remain an intellectual of sorts while pitching, buying and promoting my books.
Eric Repphun said:
Many thanks for this. As I am sure you know, much of the life of the intellectual takes place in the mind and it is always very nice to hear what the people involved in actually making books – rather than analysing them – think about these more academic discussions. Thanks also for passing this on to the author.
It’s also a comfort to know that there are still places outside of the universities where the life of the mind and of ideas can flourish, especially in light of the fact that this is becoming less and less true in the universities themselves.
I am currently working on a book about rationalisation, critical theory, and text and I am now thinking, based in no small measure on your comments, about adding a chapter on dystopian fiction, which would include a more thorough analysis of The Unit. I’ll be happy to keep you posted.
Keep up the good work out there. We all need challenging, critical books, now more than ever.
judith gurewich said:
Would love to hear about your ideas and the state of academia these days – let me know how to be in touch with you, aside from this site –
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Lucy Burke said:
I’m an academic at Manchester Metropolitan University (UK) and I teach a course on medicine and ethics in contemporary literature and cinema. The course begins by juxtaposing Giorgio Agamben’s concept of bare life and Peter Singer’s utilitarian model of personhood and goes on to develop the students’ understanding of the political,legal, economic and ethical dimensions of particular bioethical dilemmas through an analysis of novels and films about organ transplantation, global pharma, life support/coma and cognitive disability. I just wanted to say how much I have enjoyed reading your compelling analysis of The Unit (one of the course texts). I will direct my students towards this blog, but I wondered whether you have a version of the piece in word format or PDF that I could post on our virtual learning environment?
Just made my afternoon, coming across this!
All the best
Eric Repphun said:
Thanks for this. I am glad people are reading and teaching this book, which deserves more attention than it has gotten.
I’ve emailed you a pdf file of the essay. Please let me know if that works for your needs.
Katrine Obel-Grønbæk said:
I happen to be one of Lucy’s old students and found the course, and especially The Unit, very interesting and thought provoking – so much so that I’ve chosen to do my BA thesis on it. I find your essay very helpful and was just wondering:
In one of your earlier replies you said that you were working on a book about rationalisation, critical theory, and text and were thinking about adding a chapter on dystopian fiction which would include a more thorough analysis of The Unit. How far are you with that project? And is it possible to get hold of your work on it in some way? It would be very useful for my thesis.
Eric Repphun said:
Sorry about the delay in replying, but we don’t post on the site anymore (for various reasons) and I only check for new comments about once a week.
I am currently in the process of finishing the book on rationalisation, but this version of the book does not include the chapter on dystopian fiction, which I never got around to writing, so I can’t help you on this one, sorry.
Best of luck with the thesis, and feel free to contact me at erepphun[at]xtra[dot]co[dot]nz if you’d like any other help, as this is a topic I am very much interested in.