Wall-E and Agency

by - Tuesday, March 20, 2012

from skymovies.sky.com
This weekend, for our post-draft chilling, we watched Nick's favorite movie Wall-E. Even though I love the love story part of the movie and identify with Wall-E more than like any character ever (love of musicals? giant hoard of weird stuff? Usually dirty and kind of a mess? I've got it all), these are not the parts of the movie that resonate most with me. Every time we finish watch the movie, I resolve that this is a movie I need to show my children, because it is presenting an ethics that I feel is so important right now. This movie, more than anything else, is about the ease of falling into pure consumerism and the absolute importance of agency and responsibility. As narrative morals go, I am not sure there is anything more poignant and pressing for a children's movie to touch on.

from unrealitymag.com
I am going to assume everyone has seen this movie, but if for some reason you don't want it spoiled, don't keep reading. Wall-E may be a hero who signifies a sort of spunky spirit and very specific aesthetic taste, but from the beginning of the film he is primarily identified with labor. We see him working, cleverly fixing himself to continue the labor that the other robots have eventually failed at. His leisure time at home, dancing to musicals, collecting sporks and lighters, are fruits of his thoughtful labor- not only does he keep working, but he does so with certain judgement, filling his cooler with things he perceives as valuable. His lady friend robot Eve is also driven by her "objective" and they both eventually work as a team to complete her labor, so they can get back to Earth and back to work on his.

When Wall-E and Eve finally make it back to the Axiom, a ship sent off Earth where humans could chill while robots did the work of undoing their wastefulness, they find a world where there is absolutely no human labor- humans are treated only as consumers, with their screens immediate, their food in cups, and have essentially forgotten how to walk. Their immobility has paid off with fat baby bodies- their bones have shrank and they've lost the ability to move or really connect with each other. In one scene with the captain, who you would think would have some control, you realize they have also lost the ability to learn as he keeps talking at a manual as if it will spill its contents to him, not realizing he would have to read it to learn. They are these creepy constant consumers who all look exactly alike and can't even really process what they consume. The story becomes about how the robots re-teach the humans to work, to be agents, to connect with each other, and most importantly to accept the responsibility of their actions and their world. Of course, you could be rather critical of the conclusion, which suggests their ignorance and irresponsibility is easily redeemed, but I still think there are so many messages here that should be uncomfortable to any adult watching. 

I have a lot of anxieties about a cultural shift towards people being valuable only as consumers; in his book Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Frederic Jameson explains a shift in capitalism (deriving from Marxist theory) that we are in a culture of consumerism. I wonder, and I am sure this is naive, how many of our economic problems are actually due to this shift, where companies are constantly trying to broaden their consumer appeal and minimize their staff to make the most money. Though I understand the immediate logic, how much of this thinking contributes to the lack of jobs? Simultaneously, I think people now define themselves less by what they do and more what they have, so there is a growing disconnect between our identities and our agency. This of course causes all sorts of problems with personal finances as well, because people want more than they can have. 

Of course, just because your house isn't foreclosing doesn't mean you are immune to this- I know I'm not. I mean, I feel like being an art historian has just transformed my consuming into my action (though I think the action will actually be teaching people to consume their culture more thoughtfully). I also wonder this about our wedding, which is as much about buying this thing or that thing than the actual transition into being married people. The place where I am actually most anxious about this is in education, where I feel like people expect that they have bought their grades and are hesitant to actually earn them. 

Of course, I am pretty sure Wall-E isn't talking to those specificities, but it still makes me wonder. I also think that the ending is slightly annoying to me, because I really want to understand what the next step is after this, and how we can turn things to something more productive. I think that's part of why I feel like this would make the canon of movies I would actually let my children watch, because these are things worth worrying about, and I think we could all remember that dreams should be as much about doing as having.

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