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Total Recall and the neverending dream of liberation from oppression

I sometimes wonder whether people have noticed that many movies (as well as novels and short stories, which are not my concern here) thematise the fight for liberation from some or other dictatorial regime that oppresses people, often depicted as the working class. Just off the top of my head I can think of several: The Wachowski brothers’ (now brother and sister’s) The Matrix trilogy, Paul Michael Glaser’s The Running Man, James McTeigue’s V for Vendetta, Andrew Niccol’s In Time (see my previous post), Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall of 1990 and the 2012 “remake” of Total Recall, directed by Len Wiseman – both of which were loosely based on Philip K Dick’s short story of 1966, “We can remember it for you wholesale”. (One could add James Cameron’s Avatar here, too, although there an “alien” people are the oppressed.)

In brief, the recent Total Recall depicts a world (2084) laid waste by chemical warfare, with only two areas still viable for habitation – the UFB (United Federation of Britain) and the Colony (Australia), from where workers travel through the earth’s core by means of The Fall, a gravity elevator, to work in the UFB factories. The protagonist is Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell), a factory worker who is plagued by disturbing dreams. He visits a company, REKALL, which promises fulfilling artificial memories of a client’s choice, and is talked into choosing those of a secret agent by the proprietor.

Condensing mercilessly, he discovers that his present self is one directed by implanted memories, and that his “true” self is Carl Hauser, a highly skilled UFB secret operative who infiltrated the Colony’s resistance movement, but was persuaded by a woman, Melina (Jessica Biel), to change sides, before UFB agents captured him and pacified him with false memories. As may be expected, Quaid/Hauser and Melina eventually save the Colony, against overwhelming odds, from an invasion by UFB “synthetics” (robot soldiers) led by Cohaagen, UFB’s Chancellor, and with sufficient “action-scenes” to satisfy even the greatest action-junkie.

Leaving aside the irony, that the making of these films was motivated by profit, what they have in common, thematically speaking, is the struggle, on the part of some liberating agent or protagonist, to free the oppressed working class from an oppressive regime. Why would this be the case – that the myth of true liberation underpins so many of the popular films made for people’s entertainment?

I would suggest two possible answers. First, that the myth of liberation virtually has the status of a Jungian archetype in the human unconscious, thus shaping many narratives, some grounded in history – like those of gladiator Spartacus, who opposed the might of Rome for the liberation of slaves (see this post). The legend of Robin Hood, who robbed the rich to sustain the poor, is supposed to be based on actual characters and events, too, but whether it is a mixture of history and fantasy or not, in either case it, too, is the expression of a deep longing for freedom from servitude.

The second, more interesting, answer is that – and I believe that this happens at a curiously intertwined conscious and unconscious level – the production of so many (stories and) movies that embody the social-political imaginary of “the good fight for freedom from political and economic servitude”, is motivated by the wish to provide a fictional substitute for real liberation, which ensures vicarious fulfilment and catharsis, while serving to perpetuate conditions of economic and political subordination.

To the extent that it is unconscious, it partly taps into the first answer, above, namely that the collective unconscious is endowed with an archetypal wish for freedom from oppression (think of its expression in religious texts such as the Christian Bible, where “freedom” acquires a supramundane meaning). Then, at a simultaneously unconscious and conscious niveau, it is driven by the need for catharsis – not quite in the Aristotelian sense of “being purged by (or from) pity and fear” by witnessing a character’s tragic suffering, but in a related sense, which has to do with the need to be given fictional relief from a sense of being hemmed in on all sides by sometimes suffocating laws, rules and regulations, which a mere individual cannot overcome, and by the endless struggle to survive.

Think of the following. In the context of the contemporary world, where, despite all the incessant talk of human rights, political and economic oppression is inseparably conjoined, it makes no sense to imagine that people could be “free” by simply deposing a tyrant of some sort. Those who believe that this is possible, haven’t learnt to “cut off the head of the king”, as Foucault put it graphically, that is, to stop thinking of power as something that resides in one person. If that was ever the case (and I’m not so sure it was; even powerful monarchs or emperors needed a support-network of advisors, vassals and the discursive vindication of their rule to have power at all), it certainly is not so now.

When the president of the US is said to have power, it is not because of the person he (or she) is, but because of the agency that the position of president bestows on this person. In a word: power, today, has to be conceived of as a function of an almost incomprehensibly complex system of political, military, social, technological, juridical, cultural and perhaps most important, discursive and economic relations. Hence it makes no sense to think of people being oppressed by one person, either – like power, oppression is systemic, too.

This is the reason why I claimed that stories of liberation, like those of Total Recall or The Matrix, are engendered by a curious mix of conscious and unconscious motives – consciousness where the reality of systemic oppression is concerned, and unconsciousness relating to the archetypal wish for liberation, on the one hand, and the need for a quasi-catharsis, on the other. The latter is needed for the short-lived illusion that freedom is indeed within one’s reach, which explains why members of audiences who have just seen Avatar, or In Time, or Total Recall, leave the theatre with a sense of exhilaration. Haven’t they just participated, through acts of identification, with the protagonists (Jake and Neytiri in Avatar, Quaid/Hauser and Melina in Total Recall, Will and Sylvia in In Time) in successfully liberating society from the unjustified oppression and exploitation by some or other group intent on their subordination (the humans in Avatar, the wealthy UFB in Total Recall, and the time-rich in In Time)?

It follows from this explanation, of course, that these liberation-narratives are symptoms of a deeply pessimistic realisation that “it ain’t gonna happen”, that the oppressive global system is too complex and too tight to overthrow. (The director’s cut of Total Recall even confirms this, where the ending suggests that Quaid/Hauser did not really manage to free the Colony, and that the entire narrative was techno-chemically induced while he was in the “artificial memory-chair” at Rekall.)

This is partly true, I believe; but only partly. Because while they serve the function of quasi-catharsis for audiences – and, on the other hand, ironically serve to entrench the system even further through the corporate profits they generate – they also, willy-nilly, keep the motif of freedom from oppression alive. And while this is the case, what some call a new, alternative globalisation movement can grow, finding inspiration in these narratives. For only a new “system” can replace the present one. Its contours are not clear yet, but that it is slowly taking shape, leaves no doubt in my mind. (Anyone interested in this should read Paul Hawken’s book, A Blessed Unrest (see this Thought Leader post and this one.)


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.