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  • Mechanized Bodies, Human and Heavenly:Melancholia and Thinking Extinction
  • Andrew Wenaus (bio)

Something is taking its course.

Samuel Beckett

Thinking has interests that do not coincide with those of living.

Ray Brassier

In his 2011 film melancholia, lars von trier posits an intractable problem: the extinction of all living bodies as the result of Earth’s inevitable collision with a heavenly body, a rogue planet named Melancholia. Melancholia is a science fiction masterpiece, yet there are none of the robots, cyborgs, or prosthetics often characteristic of hard sf, new wave sf, and cyberpunk fiction concerned with the human body. Instead, von Trier’s film considers mechanical philosophy and mechanism to pose uncomfortable questions recently examined by speculative realist philosophers: “how does thought think a world without thought?” (Brassier 223). That is, when considering extinction, “how does thought think the death of thinking” (223)? What can it mean to think and feel in the context of the inevitable extinction of all life on Earth? To address such questions, the film establishes a structural dialectic between the bodies of human [End Page 133] beings (and other living animals) and the heavenly body Melancholia. On the level of human beings, von Trier uses the metaphor of melancholia (incomplete mourning) and depression1 (expressed in the film by the sense that it is—literally—the end of the world) in remarkably nuanced and unflinching character studies of two sisters: Claire (performed by Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Justine (performed by Kirsten Dunst). On the second level, von Trier employs a visual language of scientific realism and the absolute indifference of the slow, mechanized movement of the rogue planet Melancholia as it approaches its unavoidable collision with the planet Earth. Dunst remarks that “Justine was a very sensitive, creative human being that felt things … more than other people and to me her relationship with the planet turns into her … being a representation of the planet” (von Trier “hdnet: A Look at Melancholia”). With this dialectic, Melancholia seeks to unravel the bias in thought that posits that beings exist only as individuals who, Ian Bogost notes, “correlate between mind and world” (Bogost 4); ultimately, Bogost suggests that according to the logic of this correlation, “if things exist, they do so only for us” (4). To dismantle this correlation, von Trier revisits the rule-based principles of the avant-garde filmmaking movement Dogme95 and game theory to mobilize a meditation on nihilism and its significance in facing inevitable disaster with scientific calm. In the film, human beings are the automata of mood disorders while planetary bodies are the automata of a clockwork universe that runs according to the scientific laws of complex interplanetary motion: both are, ultimately, cogs in a universal mechanism with utter disregard for the privileged place of human thought and experience in the universe.

Darko Suvin suggests in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (1979) that the best kind of science fiction is that which confronts readers with options for historical, political, or philosophical alternatives. He defines science fiction as the literature of cognitive estrangement, a mimetic mode through which we are able to recognize the referent but, at the same time, experience it as unfamiliar (Bould and Vint 18). Suvin is unconcerned [End Page 134] with science fiction that introduces novel technologies where existing social relations remain intact; he is, rather, concerned with a literature of transformation. Melancholia, ultimately, pushes this understanding of science fiction to its logical conclusion. The film posits a transformation toward nihilism and absolute estrangement in which we are confronted with contemplating the absolute extinction of the site of contemplation: the living human body existing on Earth. Ultimately, von Trier’s film confronts extinction as a cosmically mechanical inevitability. Extinction is, paradoxically, a reality that cannot be empirical. And yet Melancholia does not ask us to resolve extinction by entertaining the idea of the posthuman as is the case in much science fiction. Instead, von Trier invites disaster both metaphorical and inevitable into a dialectic that conflates inner experience with the world out there as a foundation of new insight. The film considers art and experience not as affirmation or justification but instead as yet another mechanistically nihilistic function amid a vast...


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pp. 133-153
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