Source code

Of the many sci-tech fictions to base their logic in “quantum mechanics,” the recent movie Source Code has to be one of the better attempts. Not at all because of their apt use of quantum mechanics as a theory, but rather because this movie shows us that what is possible can change. Said otherwise: there is not a “mechanics” to things that is already given. We do not live in a world where time passing is equal to the grinding of gears. Things are not determined. Or rather: through a creative thinking of what’s possible, we can get behind what was previously thought as possible, or determinable. We can “un-determine” the determined. We can reach back.

The situation in the movie is this (spoiler alert!): a large train has been bombed in an obvious terrorist attack, killing 100+ people. Gyllenhaal is, through the scientific apparatus he is connected to, able to “travel back” to that time and inhabit one of the male passenger’s body for the eight minutes preceding the detonation (some sloppy science here about the electromagnetic waves continuing to resonate even after death, and the “compatibility” between Gyllenhaal and the guy on the train). His mission is to figure out who planted the bomb on the train, so that a greater catastrophe is averted (we know that the train-bomber has threatened to drop a dirty bomb in the center of Chicago). After many failures– where he dies repeatedly in the train explosion, or is returned to his capsule by some means– he does figure out who the bomber is. He reports his findings and the dirty bomb disaster is successfully thwarted. As far as the ‘boss’ of the source code project is concerned, this is enough to call the day a huge success (and rightfully so: 2,000,000 deaths have been prevented due to his scientific invention). Whereas he had promised Gyllenhaal his death after recovering the information, after the program succeeds he wants to keep him available for more missions (he indicates that many more could be underway). But Gyllenhaal has a different priority: he wants to go back again. He wants to return to that eight minutes and prevent the first train from blowing up in the first place.

Thus, first, we have this situation: repeated entries into the “same” reality results in an acquisition of “knowledge” (in this case, the knowledge needed to avoid an even worse catastrophe). At this point, we are only able to change the “ontos,” the “being” of the future. This is what knowledge gives us access to. But in the logic of this movie, the “knowledge” rendered by the many tries at the same reality– while it is enough to keep us from entering that reality ever again, at least insofar as our initial “goals” were concerned– is just not enough. On the contrary, there is a desire to change the initial “same” situation as such, on an ontological level. Knowledge drops out as the primary concern without being rendered unnecessary. And yet it is ontological transformation– not only of the future, but equally, and more importantly, of the past— which takes the day. We could say that where knowledge makes something new of or for the future; and that when it is a question of changing the being or reality of what is past, it is a question above all of hope. Here lies the whole question of accessing the future in the past, of understanding what has been bequeathed to us, of appropriating our inheritance so as to finally inherit it, etc…

Gyllenhaal returns to the source code under the nose of the ‘boss’ who would not have allowed it (he’s assisted by Lieutenant Goodwin, with whom he’s had many emotional interactions by now in those difficult moments between his multiple attempts on the train). On this forbidden mission, he finds the gun as usual, disarms the bomb on the train successfully, steals the conductors handcuffs, and confronts the would-be bomber, knowing exactly who he is, where the dirty bomb is hidden, etc. He chains him to guardrail on the train and calls 911 from the terrorist’s phone. But then what happens when– in that reality– no bomb goes off? And all those 100 people now go on living? And there is no “leaving” that reality? After the 8 minutes have passed, there is not accidentally a long moment of a “freeze-frame” pause: everything halts as Gyllenhaal kisses the girl, and we see all the other passengers laughing at a comedian he has incited, thinking the whole thing was going to dissolve. But things don’t dissolve. “Everything’s going to be alright,” he says.

It is here that movie cannot make any more sense. All of a sudden, the reality where Gyllenhaal is connected to the apparatus, where 100s have died, is utterly negated. At that 8 minute mark, Goodwin pulls the plug on him (against the boss’ orders), yes, but what happens to her, now that that entire reality cannot any longer be, since we’ve been shifted by Gyllenhaal’s actions? The whole fiasco, including the source code project thus brought to completion, paradoxically cannot even be begun: the terrorist threat is neutralized before it even begins. We see Gyllenhaal message Goodwin– not the Goodwin of the day of the mission, but the Goodwin of the morning of the mission, before she knew about the attacks, before she knew there would be a mission– explaining to her that he is in the body of “Sean,” but that he is speaking the voice of Sgt. Colter Stevens, the man who has been in “training” for the source code missions. In the key line of the movie, he says to her (I’m paraphrasing from memory): “The source code is more powerful than you think– it doesn’t just change reality– you can make entirely new ones.” In terms of realities, there is no way to account for, basically, the whole beginning of the movie. It is nullified– the terrorist attack, the mission, everything– as if it never happened.

And yet not everything has been left unchanged: a dead man has come back to life in a new body. What’s more, in the first scenario, there was a huge triumph for the techno-scientific-capitalistic sphere, which designed and built the source code technology; but in the second scenario, not only is there no triumph, but there isn’t even the terror to triumph over. Whereas Gyllenhaal’s acts could have been paraded as a source of pure national heroism, worthy of due pride, in the second scenario, he walks off to a new life, in a “teacher’s” body, no credit for what he’d done at all. It’s here that the subtlety of actually “reaching behind reality’s back” shows itself. It isn’t a flashy event that transforms the whole course of human history in a recognizable way. It is, rather, an event that vanishes immediately; an event that really wasn’t even possible in the first place; an event that changes the course of things ever so slightly, but changes them in such a way that no one on a global scale would have ever noticed or known the difference. In terms of the movie, a “perfected world,” where no one in Chicago is harmed that day, is surely created– but no one in Chicago knows it. Only Gyllenhaal knows it, and Goodwin (and we can’t tell if she believes him, this “Sean” who messages her the “good news”). As Ernst Bloch puts it: “There is no way of direct shipping– that is what this kind of actuality means– of these goods, to these destinations.”


Let’s recall what Zizek emphasizes over and over again as the kind of “reality” quantum mechanics indicates to us (along with German Idealism and Lacanian Psychoanalysis, of course): reality is ontologically incomplete. As this is one of his most pertinent theses, it seems important to dwell on it a bit. First, this suggests that the being of things (not the “Being of Things,” but any thing’s being-what-it-is) isn’t finished. In simple terms, reality is a process that isn’t over yet, and which can thus be modified. It’s easiest to think of this in terms of a living body; and on a molecular level, nothing is ever “fixed,” despite the rigidity of what we see. One could also liken it to a book: in holding a book, it presents me with its full “reality” in terms of its object; but this “reality” is utterly incomplete until I start to read the book; and how many times might I have to read the book for the book to “really be”? The modern idea of reading philosophers in a way that they themselves couldn’t have, of discovering the hidden kernel of their thinking that they were blind to, indicates this “incompleteness” of reality (while also, incidentally, situating us within concrete historical forms in need of constant critique). In the quantum realm, Zizek will go so far as to say that “God didn’t think we’d go looking that deep,” and that that is why we see such a complex world of wave-particles, why the introduction of the observer and its position matters so much in the observation of “what really is,” why everything is reduced to “possibility.” There can’t be an answer (wave or particle) because how you ask the question, and from where you ask it, matters. Or: reality is incomplete until you ask the question from somewhere, until you decide to complete it in this way. And of course it remains incomplete, no matter what you decide about it. Holding this constitutive incompleteness in mind is part of Absolute Knowing.

Second, we should note here that the reason reality is a process towards the “Real” in this way is because there is something missing from reality “as it is.” More importantly, it’s this something’s missing (Brecht) which sets the entire totality in motion (as is the case with reading a book). This is why Laclau suggests that all revolutionary or emancipatory actions have to do with occupying the signifer of an “absent fullness” in the community (which is the role that the proletariat ‘should’ play): it is never a specific group around which one organizes, rather there is only the organization of groups around the truth of this “absent fullness.” Much should be said here, but in a word: what really is is because (something of) it isn’t yet. I will not say that there is necessarily an “anticipation” of what will come to fill the space where something is missing, not anymore than Gyllenhaal knows what is going to transpire with his new lady now that he is living in a reality that simply wasn’t possible prior to his meeting her; and yet there is surely an anticipation of “something better” in his decision to go back again. And so: what’s real about what’s real is missing. Our third point should make it clear why we cannot posit “what” the absent fullness would “be,” why we cannot talk about “filling the hole” of what’s really missing.

Thirdly, what’s missing in terms of fullness is what creates “fullness”; but this “fullness” is created in the very drive to fill out the missing term. The desire or move to find out what’s missing constitutes in itself what “exactly” is missing. What’s missing isn’t there to be found. This is why this desire outstrips knowledge and digs beneath, suspends or interrupts, the “ontos” of all past and present. We’re perhaps only able to say this: the fact that something is missing is given to be seen, and this fact can come to animate a kind of “utopian behavior.” The need to “fill it out” is given voice, but reality is never “filled out”; and that which would potentially “fill it out” has no being, no essence, and no existence except in the filling out itself. Or rather, it’s “filled out” in and as the very act of attesting to the need to fill it out (again): revealing the fact that something is missing even in the revealing of this fact. Knowledge is ruled out, even if knowing is not (we should maybe say acknowledging).

This is one of Hegel’s prime insights for Zizek: in seeking the Absolute, one is not slowly peeling away layers until finally one sees the Absolute behind the curtain. It is in fact precisely the opposite: there is nothing behind the curtain. Or rather, what’s behind the curtain is nothing but ones own wrought and hardened attempt to draw the curtain back. The Absolute “is” its own seeking for itself; and the Absolute is in the traces (ashes) it leaves behind itself in seeking itself only insofar as something of the Absolute is missing from those traces. In a word: it is in requirement of something(s), or of someone(s). I would say: what the Absolute requires even to be the Absolute (again, it can never “be” properly) is your animation of it, your seeking yourself out. What’s missing from the question is what animates the question: the possibility of an answer. It is not unlike how a text gives you nothing to read but yourself. And yet the truth of any answer already lies in the question(ing): the text, while guiding us to its reality, guides us to our own reality (history, heritage, inheritance, etc.). This– even this– proves to you what you are: you are like a dead man, sent back again and again to prevent a senseless killing (needless squandering of potentials), and once you know how to prevent it, you do, and then you get to die, thereby staying in that possible world you created with a resurrected body, in a place where senseless killing can be averted, and where potentials are no longer going to go untapped…

To say that reality is “ontologically incomplete” is thus not to imply a telos (a given direction towards which Being is headed in the form of a destiny and final completion); on the contrary, it is to emphasize that “incompleteness” is constitutive of “reality” as such. This is the “more nothing than nothing,” where what matters is not knowing what reality “is,” but digging underneath this “is” and into what makes it possible (death). What matters is the capacity for “nothing,” to in a sense “be the incompleteness of being”: our capacity to reach “behind the ontos,” to dig our nails beneath “what’s happened,” and to change what reality is for good, future and past. If it is as trivial as having a “new outlook” on the past, it must simultaneously be as pivotal as having a “new body.”

New vision, new creation, new world: what we have here is a navigation and reorientation of what’s socially possible. Insofar as Gyllenhaal transforms his relationship to military service (he effectively becomes a teacher), to his father (who he’d had a falling out with), etc., there is a definite transformation of subjectivity as well (to call upon some arguments in my last post). In terms of his initial mission, all that was possible was to avoid the bombing of Chicago; but in terms of his passion, a new possible was created: the possibility to prevent the bomb from going off at all, the possibility of talking to his father again, the possibility of walking off with the beautiful girl. He knew that the dead didn’t have to stay dead, even if it meant his own death– dying to everything he’d ever known before.

Now, of course “real life” is no movie. We do not get to re-run the same few minutes over and over until we get the knowledge of it straight, let alone until we can change the very coordinates of its possible. But I don’t think that this lessens the “ontological” lesson that we can draw from this movie. Put simply, it is this: we can reach back behind ourselves; transforming our past is already to transform the future, and they rest on equal footing, albeit a restless one. Really, they are one in the same question, the question of the incompleteness of what is, right at the test of what’s possible. I don’t think it is for nothing that Gyllenhaal had to undergo a few “deaths” for this movie to work the way it does, for death is that which, “disturbs one constantly so that one cannot be satisfied, no matter how great the satisfaction is” (Bloch). It is “the power of that which merely is,” just as it is, on the other hand, “the attempt to go beyond it” (Adorno). Although there are many loose knots to tie up here, and quite a bit more lines of inquiries suggested, I will leave it at that.

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