They Live

They Live
Jeoffrey A. Pucci 

Film and cinema provide modes of explanation in the most varied domains, because they are often for us the site of profound change and reflection, crucial for self-development and experiencing what we call “the self.” Perhaps a film occurs in a manner similar to that of an “event.” For each of us it is easy enough to show that the concept of who we are and the question of how we became "ourselves” is as old as the history of the Western tradition itself. Nevertheless, the experience of molding the self is often shared — up to this point, film theory has sought to stake it out, marking and drawing us together into a common nexus of experience. The function of this shared or lived experience is not to disorient us, but rather, to orient us together, balancing and organizing our horizons of meaning towards a common meridian. If each film we watch may be explained as a certain puncturing or rupturing of our distinct horizons, let us endeavor to conceive of this “event” as a profound return or remembrance of our commonality.

Now, let us consider the very basic premise of John Carpenter’s film They Live (1988): a relatively simple working class man discovers a box full of sunglasses that allow him to see the hidden message behind very common and mainstream advertisements. A billboard of a woman tanning in the sun is transformed into simple one or two word phrases such as “Obey”, “Marry and Reproduce”, “Stay Asleep.” Newspapers become “Obey Authority” and “Watch T.V.” The experience of the decay of urban society and the blind compulsion towards acts of consumption is not difficult to locate within a certain political context. However, in order to determine the status of these glasses, the film tempts us towards a certain ideological re-inscription. We are, at first, tempted to articulate a contemporary critical (Leftist) perspective, which speaks of the alienation of labor, a sense of distractedness presented to us in consumerist society, materialist greed eroding society, and so on. In a certain sense, They Live serves as a model for a kind of materialist interpretation of consumerism, because, as we readily see, it is the poor who work on the construction of objects, and are much more easily awoken to the political and economic exploitation than those closer to the ruling ideology, i.e., the construction-site workers, and the tenants of the homeless shelter as opposed to the police and store-clerks.

However, the brilliance of They Live is how it offers a second reading. The political and social foreground quickly becomes a space where, as we shall argue, we, as viewer, become a sublime object of an ideological reflection. Subtly, what we at first encounter as the film begins is simply an ideology that is being forcibly stripped bare and laid out in front of our very eyes by another oppositional ideology. In the most basic sense, as the film unfolds we perpetuate a sense of aggression into the landscape of this film. Thus, the space generated or “event” — that is, a certain rupture, the puncturing motion of our common horizon, embodied in our aggression towards advertisement — is both our feelings towards the film and the brilliance of this film. Without knowing that the uneasiness we feel towards these “fake” advertisements is actually an aggression towards our own ideological position, They Live makes us, simultaneously, both the aggressor and victim of these “glasses” of truth. 

Carpenter, the astute director, at first perpetuates a simple horizon of meaning, i.e., we meet the main character Nada and shortly after he gets a job working at a construction site. All the signs of the symbolic world are evident around him: lavish riches, expensive cars, high rises, and so on. Then we see a radical line of demarcation. Nada discovers the true message behind the advertisements and responds with an uncannily violent rampage: escaping the police, gaining multiple firearms, and assaulting a bank. In short, we, in viewing, ascend into a relatively common and acceptable depiction of everyday life, and then quickly watch it be retracted as we, alongside Nada, affix the ideological glasses onto our horizon. Thus, the common reality, one which we come to know as our own, is inverted and thrown right back at us. The changes that the film introduces do not point toward some bizarre secondary reality, one that is simply lying underneath this existence. Rather, this film makes reality, as a Lynchian would say, that seems more real than it already is — in sum, it forces us to see that this second world is actually a part of the first world — our world.

In the age of daily psychological (Symbolic) reconstitution (i.e., a new product is released, we gain opinions of the performance of it, develop ideas regarding how this product effects the brand, and so on), the role of advertisement has a distinctive role in daily life. We come to experience and know advertisements in two profound ways. The first is as either an indication of a certain system of classification, i.e., social class, or, as Jean Baudrillard says, a social code within “consumer society.” A mark that lacks actual active syntax, but nevertheless formalizes a universal system of recognition of “social statuses” or a certain “code of social standing,” as he puts it. And the second, much more simply, we opt to understand the world through these codes or stereotypes of knowledge, thus consolidating a product into a larger idea of “brand.” Thus, we understand the product only in relation to the “brand” it comes from (but also, paradoxically, only know the “brand” through its product).

Herein lies the subtle brilliance of They Live. What comes before all of this is the drive towards consumption, the desire to “know” this system, and this drive towards knowing the system manifests itself in acts of consumption.

In a very profound scene when Nada gives a pair of glasses to his best friend Frank (Keith David), he tells Frank to not wear the glasses for too long because, “It becomes harder to take them off.” What is curious of this exchange is how each character that we observe in this film, as he or she wears the glasses, seems to revert to a passive observer, one that is content with watching the different types of individuals consuming the various products present in society. It is as if these two characters need to keep the glasses on in order to make sense of the advertisements they are bombarded with on a day-to-day basis. What we have here is a hidden reversal of the film’s simple anti-consumerist political message, in which we come to say that advertisements create, as Marcuse would say, “false needs”: the obscene, uncanny, and absurd messages behind the advertisements only have a second dimension because of the first dimension. Let us be clear: we can only perceive this second “truthful” dimension because we have possession of the first.

In many scenes we are located in small shops, banks, or grocery stores, and at each, we see where there is a relatively homogeneous collection of people: some, those at banks or highbrow stores are not even human, while others at lower end stores all resemble each other. The longer we observe this film, the clearer this homogeneity becomes to us. Each individual that is consuming seems to consume the same type of product as those with similar tastes, looks, and affects as him or herself does. This is not incredibly surprising. However, and this is the real genius of They Live, is that when given the chance to change this pattern of consumption they simply won’t. It is here we leave behind the simple materialist conception of consumerism, and broach a very Derridian conclusion: one “reality” only exists because of the other “reality.”

It is no coincidence that as dreamers, we invent our own logic. The perception of one “reality” must be affixed to the other “reality.” Thus, in our case we must be driven towards and into a certain “reality” of consumption in order to understand this second “reality;” that is, the drive to consume objects becomes a necessary component to the individual’s life since the products are as much a part of the individual's identity as they are a part of this second “reality.” The glasses and the awakening of class consciousness observed in Nada and Frank take on a new dimension. As Derrida puts it, a certain becoming of the “I” - that is, one must be interpellated as a consumer first to come to see this second anti-consumerist reality.

The “event” I have called for now interlocks with a certain rupture in the history of Marxism itself. It consists in reflecting on the status of consumer ideology and why we have not yet “replaced” this consumer reality with another, i.e., the proletarian one. Thus, They Live ventures a very daring Post-Marxist interpretation: We cannot simply “replace” this reality with another, because the other reality would only be entangled within a system of relations and exchanges with the replaced reality. We see in They Live that the act of consumption is never driven directly by a material mode of production, nor of a societal code of “affluence.” It is rather, much more akin to our daily lives and experiences, in this discord between the visual substance and the imagery and messages affixed unto them, collectively signifying the organization of the system that one wants to have as their system of understanding.

What is consumed is not objects, but as Baudrillard says, “the relationship itself.” This is to say that the consumption of products, “brands”, “identities” must be conceptualized as consumption in a purely virtual sense: “[S]ignified and absent, included and excluded at the same time - it is the idea of the relation that is consumed in the series of objects which manifests it. This is no longer a lived relation: it is abstracted and annulled in an object-sign where it is consumed.”[1] This virtual act of consumption has to be conceived precisely in the sense of the individual consumer, as we commonly say today, ‘buys into a certain lifestyle.’ Thus, we profoundly see that a consumer never simply purchases one object, nor is it about simply replacing this “reality” with another “reality.” All at once, we have to think about when we purchase something, we are flushed with a new desire, one more object to adorn this manikin within a greater constellation of reflecting and bifurcating desires. How do we escape this? Unlike the conclusion of the film, which ends in a traditional revolutionary fantasy (akin to the Leninist party with a total violent revolution), the real message is simple: these are realities of consumption, without consumption neither of these would be possible.

This is a sentiment I’ve long carried with me, an emergent desire found in the definable moments of cultural frustration as my life has been modernization, a line drawn in my life that clearly marks everything either as “before” or “after.” It is less of a singular point, a moment of reconstitution, and is rather a change of direction, a generation of a space, a shift in movement. One that only becomes apparent when I look closely at the person I used to be, the beliefs I once held, and understanding that there was a particular weakness that lead me towards a sense of modernism, an event that quickly has tried to erase the past or separate the “before” from the “after.” But like the continual frustrations suffered by the Left – and its thirst for the emergence of a new political and economic order – there is a conceptual design that forecloses such a possibility: I cannot ignore that what I was, how I understand my own being and its meaning. This is, obviously, not to say we should return to the past in some kind of Christian traditionalism or Stalinist necessity of rescuing the past from itself. Rather, to accept the premises of They Live as literal as possible, we must acknowledge that to bring about a new and perhaps different existence, we must understand the past differently, that is to say, recognize how the past that we keep alive, as objectively as we tend to treat it, keeps the present fixed and ordered. If I am to dream of a different dream, a different future, I must continually write and rewrite, interpret and reinterpret how the past is in order to alter the present.

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Jeoffrey A. Pucci is a philosopher born in Tampa and raised in rural New England. He has earned degrees from American University and conducted research at Korea University. The main focus of his work is in the History of Philosophy and Comparative Philosophy. He is currently a visiting student at Georgetown University in the history of psychoanalysis, Marxism, and finance.

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Work Referenced

Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects