Dark City, Descartes, and Narrative Doubts

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Over the long Labor Day weekend, my partner and wife-to-be and I watched the movie Dark City, for her first time and for perhaps my twentieth viewing.  After seeing it in the theater when it first came out in 1998, I've shown it in various Philosophy classes, and I've watched it on my own a number of times to enjoy again its semi-noir, moody, dimlit setting, its decent and entertaining play both with some philosophical concepts (or perhaps, rather, tropes), its reliably good though not outstanding acting.  A man wakes up without his memories, but possessing two advantages his fellow humans do not -- both of which reveal to him, call the attention of, set him in conflict with. . .  and make him the object of fear and fascination to, a race of thoroughly creepy aliens who nightly rearrange reality in order to progress their endless experiments with human memory, behavior, social roles

She noticed one apparent problem, a discrepancy between the stories and explanations provided by those who are "in the know" -- the Strangers and Doctor S -- and what actually does happen with the various characters.  The detective who goes mad -- what happens with him should have been impossible, or if not that, if the Strangers really were omniscient and omnipotent, if they knew that city inside and out and what was going on with all of its residents, presumably they would have nipped his madness in the bud, kept him from talking to anyone, revealing what he had learned.

For those who haven't seen the movie yet, or need their memories refreshed, reinfused so to speak, the movie centers around a set of human characters caught up in a dark, neo-noir city constructed as a world by a race of aliens who employ human corpses as vehicles and carry out complex experiments upon the human beings, altering the very fabric of the shared reality, and -- aided by a human doctor who they have permitted to retain enough of his memories to be of use to them (and seemingly his entire personality).  The experiments rearrange the entire city, piece by piece, permutation after permutation.  They also do this with the interior landscapes of human minds, recombining elements of memories, swapping those batches of images, feelings, experiences, encounters among the human subjects.  They move humans whose memories have been reworked, redistributed into new locations, assign then new jobs that they think they've worked for years, and partner them with new associates, friends, even spouses.  They carry this out every night, stopping all the clocks at midnight, and sending every human being into a somnolent momentary slump.

One human, named John Murdock -- at least at that point in the endless combinatorics -- unexpectedly develops new capacities beyond the normal human range, along lines that take lifetimes for the Strangers to master.  One of these is the capacity to "tune," to rework the physical reality of the cityscape.  Another is to resist being reimprinted with new concoctions of memories, which occurs just before the movie's action begins.  He can also, unless he chooses, remain awake during the midnight time when the humans doze and the Strangers prowl -- though the Doctor does as well.

Now, its true that there are other "plot holes" in this movie, other gaps in the imaginary world, the development of the plot, and the course of the overarching narrative.  But, they can be overlooked -- one can invoke the willing suspension of disbelief, the disengagement of suspicion, except of certain sorts, aligned along particular interests shared with -- or communicated to us by -- the characters.  The whole mechanism of memory, for one, could never be as simplistic as it had to be to readily accommodate the movie format  -- but why dwell on these inconsistencies?  Insist too rigorously upon them, and the movie would so entirely unravel as to become impossible.  The conundrum that Detective Walenski poses, however, given the overarching narrative of the Strangers within which the narrative of the humans is situated -- that is a bit more interesting, more tractable, and if we pull on it, it does not unravel all the movie's threads, but rather tightens their knotted latticework into a net that can capture and hold fast.

To better glimpse this, we have to detour into a philosophical theme which was noted and discussed considerably when Dark City first came out, namely that the Strangers bore some resemblance to the Cartesian malin genie, or evil spirit, raised as a possibility in the second of his famous Meditations.  In Descartes' own words:

But there is I know not what being, who is possessed at once of the highest power and the deepest cunning, who is constantly employing all his ingenuity in deceiving me. Doubtless, then, I exist, since I am deceived; and, let him deceive me as he may, he can never bring it about that I am nothing, so long as I shall be conscious that I am something.
That assurance of one's own existence does not extend so far, though -- and raises a deep question
But as to myself, what can I now say that I am, since I suppose there exists an extremely powerful, and, if I may so speak, malignant being, whose whole endeavors are directed toward deceiving me?
As in a number of similar movies where issues of systematic deception, progressive uncovering of the mystery, and self-identity are key themes -- one might think not only of the Matrix, but also of the Thirteenth Floor or The Game -- one can certainly draw parallels or at least analogies to the situation Descartes raises as an imaginary possibility, and many critics, bloggers, and plain old conversationalists have done so since Dark City aired.  And, when I first saw it, when I first used it in classes, I thought there was a strong connection as well -- which the longer I think about it, the less I think really works -- at least as far as mapping Descartes' problematic situation and his highly individualistic path of solution goes.

John Murdoch does not recover his identity, see through deceptions and illusions, develop a method whose application keeps him from being deceived, and ultimately regain a world through following anything like a Cartesian path -- other than doubting some things here and there. John is not the Cartesian subject, working his way out from a Cogito of self-knowledge towards a reliable world, even in the face of one or countless (since they supposedly share a "mass mind") malin genies.  There is no Archimedian point. He pieces things together, but is aided in this by several other characters -- and by keeping his eyes and ears (perhaps if this were a novel, also his nostrils -- but cinema has to work principally with light and sound) open, attending to what he does take in through use of the external senses -- a door that appears yawning out of a brick wall, buildings that rise and shrink, a concierge who is replaced in the space of a night and then shows up as a newspaper seller.

There are definite Cartesian -- or at least modern philosophical -- themes though, if we look at the Strangers, their assumptions, and their course of action.  They break problems -- human beings and the very components of their identities, their souls, just as much as the map of the city, the look and location of buildings -- down into their parts, recombine them, examine them closely keep track of results -- a recipe for making progress towards their goal, understanding "what makes us human." Ironically, the Strangers are looking for unpredictability -- whether human beings will be simply what fits with their memories -- they make John a killer, a man encumbered with the past and the memories of a killer, who ends up feeling revulsion at that possibility, rejecting it until the evidence of what the flesh that is now his has recently done is incontrovertible.

When Descartes introduces the malin genie as a way to intensify his hyperbolic doubt, he assumes a being who is of almost unlimited power, and who bends his entire will, all his efforts and energies, to deceiving him -- and creating an ultimately unreal world to live, love, act and desire, learn, think, and debate, that would do the trick.  The Strangers do spend all their time experimenting and deceiving, and they are portrayed as painstaking and assiduous not only in reworking the world, "tuning" it, piece by piece, but just as much in monitoring every effect, each person's reaction -- and just as much in maintaining consistencies.

Four human characters realize in different ways that things are not as they seem.  The Doctor, of course, knows, because he collaborates with the Strangers.  As it turns out, they don't entirely know what he is up to.  John Murdoch wakes up lacking memories, unlulled into sleep when the Strangers come out to work, motivated by desire to know, and armed with superhuman powers.  He falls -- and for them, frustratingly remains -- outside the purview of the Strangers' knowledge and power.  Inspector Bumstead -- not least because in his current configuration he was made by the Strangers into the kind of cop who worries every aspect of a case more tenaciously than a dog with a bone, who notes the details others miss, who deduces conclusions others seemingly can't -- by working the "Murdoch Case," starts to piece things together, in a way that the Strangers can't predict, since he plays his cards close to his vest. We do learn that the Strangers modify aspects of his personality when instead of his noticing and then pointing out a rookie's untied shoelace -- which happens early on -- the same rookie later returns the favor.

So far, no real problem with the overarching narrative and characterization of the Strangers -- which we get mainly from Doctor Schreber, but also from the aliens themselves -- as nearly omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent (at least in that they can penetrate nearly anywhere in the City). Detective Wolisnky, however, poses a real problem.  He is one of those people who wakes up, who sees something, an anomaly. But what we're told is that the Strangers take care of such unpredictable deviations from the smooth workings of their plan.

They don't though. Walenski tries to make sense of the world he is caught within, whose seamy underside he has witnessed, and he develops a sort of metaphysical vertigo that first has him obsessively drawing spirals and locking his wife out -- who he realizes and then maintains was not always, or even recently, his wife -- then jumping in front of an oncoming subway train.  But before that, he talks -- he talks to both Bumstead and Murdoch, and he clues them in, he confirms suspicions in their minds, he sets on the table and in language the real moment and expression of methodological doubt:  this is all fake, the work of powers beyond the human inhabitants.

That shouldn't be able to happen.  It has to, so that the other human characters can converge in a spiral of their own, developing true knowledge of their condition -- not as isolated Cartesian meditators, but by coming together in conflict and conversation.  But, given what the Strangers and the Doctor -- who after all got it from the Strangers -- tell us, Walenski should have been isolated, effaced, unable to communicate his suspicions to the other inhabitants of the City.  But he wasn't.  And what that means is that the Strangers, while they are very powerful, while they extend a wide, deep, adaptable penumbra of observation and intervention through the alleys and interests of the City, even into the minds of its inhabitants, are so far from omniscient that they fail to understand even how far their own lack of omniscience extends.  In one sense, they know what they don't know -- and they assign resources, they experiment, to find those things out.  But there are other gaps of which they remain ignorant.

In literary terms, the Strangers and the Doctor compose an unreliable, only seemingly omniscient narrator.  And that is the solution to my fiancee's puzzle.

As I end this post, I'd like to briefly point out two other interesting issues which Dark City does not raise directly, but which do suggest themselves:  the possibility of actual characters, and the moral condition of the Strangers.

Can there really be characters, lasting characters, when one's memories, and thus who one has been, the trajectories of who one will become, are manipulated, manufactured, multiplied and divied out? Steve Biodrowski, in a Cinefanstique review, points out:
Starting with an amnesiac character makes it difficult to establish audience identification—it’s hard to relate to a guy when you don’t know who he is, and you can’t know who he is when he himself doesn’t know
Apparently, even after the injections, and the modifications of scenery and setting, even social role, some things continue.  But, is this consistent with the narrative of the Strangers?  This one is also inconsistent, which means that things cannot be as they seem to the Strangers or even the Doctor.

We can also ask;  Are the Strangers genuinely evil?  Could they conform to Descartes' malin genie? They certainly are alien, curious, methodically and yet desperately inquisitive about human beings -- and they don't seem to care much about what we value in seeking what makes us tick.  Is that evil?  Of a sort, particularly if it is evil to interfere with the self-determination and volition of human beings -- not only of individual acts, but to shape oneself.

They cause evil, by making some human beings into evil ones -- or at least placing them in such situations that the combined weight and slides of their memories can be expected to steer them towards evil -- murder, theft, cheating, etc.  But, who actually is, becomes most recognizably evil?  The one who is injected with John's former memories, those of a killer, who becomes, if only for a space of time, human -- Mr. Hand -- in him you do sense genuine evil.

One reviewer, Deneb (whose summary is well worth a read for the vividness and punch of its language) says about this:
Moreover, note that I said “antagonists” rather than “villains”. There is a reason for this – despite appearances, they are not actually evil, merely misguided. They have what seem to them perfectly good reasons for what they do, and they seem genuinely frightened and disturbed when their plans are disrupted. Most of the more typically villainous actions are performed by their main operative, Mr. Hand (Richard O’Brien), and those are mainly due to… outside influences, let us say