Children of Men, or, Europe: The Finite Task

In his 2008 monograph Europe, or the Infinite Task, the philosopher Rodolphe Gasché presents a concept of Europe that strikes me as both absolutely irrelevant and absolutely essential to analyzing the current political conjuncture in Europe. In this talk, I will try to unpack this paradoxical assessment in dialogue with Gasché and with Alfonso Cuarón’s film Children of Men, which I interpret as the political unconscious of Gasché’s book.

Gasché argues that Europe is more than a particular place with its own culture, language, ethnicity, nationality, or politics. In a move that both weakens and strengthens his argument, Gasché brackets the question of what Europe is for the sake of articulating the concept of Europe, the norm or ethical project of Europe. As concept, norm, or project, “Europe” names the “infinite task” of openness, responsibility, and hospitality to the other, an openness rooted in ancient Greek philosophy’s conception of universality, yet, by force of universality, transcends all roots and origins. The other can be conceived as a member of a non-European culture, or it can be historical change, the event, but in each case Gasché stresses the other’s irreducibility to existing knowledge and expectation. Since the task of examining its knowledge and expectations is infinite, Europe is always open to further reevaluation of itself; Europe is always in progress. There can thus be no “migrant crisis” of Europe, for that narrative falsely presumes that Europe is already defined, that Europe begins as a stable identity that is then disrupted or contaminated by the other. To touch base with the title of our conference, other Europes are, for Gasché, the future and promise at the heart of the concept of Europe. Europe is the infinite task of becoming other Europes through the encounter with the others of Europe.

It’s a bold argument that grates against the humanities’ focus on Europe’s colonialism and the suspicion that universality obliterates difference. But in my view, the main problem is not Gasché’s Eurocentrism, but the fact that his concept of Europe is so eccentric, so outside the center, so marginal in the real politics of European nations. I have to wonder how long concepts can be shielded from facts before this shielding becomes obscene, since it is also a shield against the particularity of suffering, and thus a betrayal of the very responsibility to the other that the shielded concept was supposed to articulate and champion. The concept or norm of Europe is so detached from barbed wire and drowned refugees, from Brexit and Greek austerity, from populist racism and the cynicism and opportunism of elites, that I feel it’s only right to be ashamed of it. Yet to complete the thought, I must come back around to the concept, for it is the concept of infinitely open and hospitable Europe that justifies the critique of fortress, racist Europe. To think with Gasché is ultimately to arrive at precisely this sort of Derridean aporia or double bind. I’ll come back to the aporetic quality of Gasché’s thinking later, since it is central to my critique of his concept of Europe.

I want to turn now to Children of Men, not simply to illustrate Gasché, but to expand on the stakes of his argument. Although director and writer Alfonso Cuarón adapted Children of Men from PD James’s novel of the same name, he uses the novel’s central premise—a future of global infertility—as an excuse or “motivation of the device” to tell a story about contemporary immigration, an issue that is secondary in the novel. Indeed, the shift of focus creates an incongruity in the film’s plot between the fact that humans can no longer reproduce, which has inspired a general existential despair, and the mostly unrelated fact that Britain has become the last functioning government in the world, and transformed into a police state that brutally oppresses refugees. The film’s focal character, Theo, must transport Kee, an African refugee and the world’s first pregnant woman in decades, to the boat of the Human Project, an ambiguously defined collective of scientists whose existence is in doubt until the very last frames. In bleak contrast to Gasché’s Europe, Children of Men thus depicts radical closure to the other. It is a science-fictional future whose margin of difference from the British present is, sadly, razor thin. What the film shows in a minimally hyperbolic form is the apotheosis of fortress Europe, set in a part of Europe that just days ago became a “former” part of Europe, via a referendum that, to a large extent, was shaped by right wing, anti-immigrant populism.

Theo’s and Kee’s journey from London to the coast must circumvent not only the British police, but the radical political group known as the Fishes. The film’s handling of this group is of supreme significance, not only for an evaluation of the film itself, but also for thinking about Europe and what it would mean to have hope for Europe’s future. While we might feel vaguely sympathetic to the Fishes’ pro-refugee cause in the beginning of the film, Cuarón ultimately represents them as brutal instrumentalists who commit what liberalism regards as the elemental sins of political fanaticism, namely, they are absolutely faithful to an abstract, universal cause, and are willing to use violence to defend it. Cuarón makes this point as morally unambiguous as possible when the plot reveals that the leader of the Fishes killed Theo’s wife, herself a Fish, in order to subvert the original plan to deliver Kee to the Human Project. Instead, the Fishes want to use Kee and her baby to rally mass support for a revolutionary uprising against the British state. To use Gasché’s language, The Fishes’ error is their failure to encounter Kee and her child as others. Recall that for Gasché, Europe can be responsible to the other as other, and thus as more than repetition of the same, only insofar as it encounters the other as singular, unexpected, and incalculable. Conversely, the Fishes incorporate Kee and her child into an already existing political program, which itself purports to know, in advance, the exact nature of the political problem as well as its solution, which is to be carried out with ruthless consistency.

We see the Fishes’ ultimate failure in what I regard as one of the most powerfully messianic scenes in recent Anglophone cinema. In a desperate final attempt to find the Human Project, Theo and Kee arrange to be caught by the police and sent to Bexhill, a refugee prison camp on the coast. Kee’s baby is born in prison, just as the Fishes catch up with her and the awaited uprising begins. After one of the stylized long takes for which Cuarón has become renowned, Theo, Kee, and the baby are caught in a firefight between the Fishes and the British military. The baby’s cries slowly draw the combatants’ attention, and in sheer wonder at the miracle of life, the fighting stops.

It is an amazing utopian moment when the absurdity of violence and death becomes so clear that it even stops war, which, as Vonnegut said, is as easy to stop as a glacier. Walter Benjamin’s messianic time of the now, Jetztzeit, has broken into and interrupted ordinary time. The child announces that something radically new is possible, a change of course, a reinvention of the world—in a word, hope. It is an allegorical moment of Europe’s genuine encounter with the other, embodied in a refugee child who breaks open the horizon of intelligibility and calls forth other, more hospitable Europes.

Who should betray this utopian moment but the Fishes? One of them fires on the awestruck soldiers and causes the war to resume. For the Fishes the messianic stoppage of European history was simply a chance to get a cleaner shot at the enemy. In other words, the Fishes treat the child as a mere tactical advantage in their political project. Instead of engaging in a radical reconsideration of that project, and thus a true encounter with the openness of the future, they simply double down, treating the child as a tool. Their reward within the logic of film is to be destroyed when the British military calls in jets to bomb Bexhill and crush the uprising.

Given the way Children of Men kills off the Fishes, I have to wonder about the left’s enthusiasm for the film. Žižek, for example, praises it as “the best diagnosis of the ideological despair of late capitalism.” I basically agree, but I must point out that Children of Men helps to produce this despair by symbolically destroying the left in a particularly poignant way.

What we see in Bexhill is a different kind of universality than the one championed by Gasché: the universality of struggle. Bexhill is a world prison, a prison for the world as a world of refugees, a world in which the condition of the refugee has been universalized. As the young Marx once said of the proletariat, the refugee has become the bearer of Kant’s categorical imperative, for what the refugee demands is what he is denied, the universal dignity of the human. We get glimpses of a refugee international: one moment we see an image of Lenin in a Russian refugee’s home, the next we see jihadis, and the next we see another group flying a French flag, recalling the spirit of the French Revolution and the commune. And what’s remarkable is that all of these people are on the same side. This unification of struggles, in which even so-called radical Islam is a comrade against a fascist, anti-refugee police state, is for me just as powerful a utopian figure, just as unexpected and full of weird possibility, as the scene with the baby.

But in the figural economy of Children of Men, the destruction of the one is the political price of the other. The miraculous cessation of time by the birth of the other is a powerful figure of other Europes precisely because the film murders the unique political collective that could create other Europes unmiraculously, through the universality of their struggle.

After Theo, Kee, and the newborn baby flee the scene, they eventually make it onto the ocean, where they await the Human Project boat. The explosions in the background assure us that the uprising failed, that radical action is pointless. And while the film does eventually provide closure by giving us some brief shots of the arrival of the Human Project boat, suggesting that at least Kee and the baby will be rescued, I interpret the ending as a figuration of Europe’s infinite task. The misty ocean is a figure for the wide-open indeterminacy of Europe’s future, beyond the solidity of land, of that which is intelligible in advance as a program or platform. As such the ocean is an ideal space for the arrival of the other and the event, for what Derrida, in a passage quoted approvingly by Gasché, calls “awaiting without a horizon of the wait,” awaiting “the event that cannot be awaited as such, or recognized in advance…, the event as the foreigner itself, her or him for whom one must leave an empty place, always, in memory of the hope.” I think this is an apt assessment of the cultural politics of Children of Men: it produces the “memory of hope,” a future that we paradoxically experience, after the film ends, as the past, so that the viewer, suspended in the present as if floating in the sea, without horizon or direction, experiences hope as simultaneously past and to come. The viewer is denied the fulfillment of hope and is given instead its infinite promise.

I respect the messianism of this gesture, that is, the film’s Derridean refusal to show something better, a positive alternative, not because it’s cynical, but because it respects the radical otherness of hope, the singularity and unpredictability of the future as event. But I’m also suspicious of messianism, which owes its power precisely to its disempowerment of action. Surely the scene in which the child miraculously stops war speaks directly to our sense of political powerlessness whenever we wonder how the Syrian civil war, or the war against ISIS, or any number of other wars, can possibly end. In this way, Children of Men is indeed symptomatic of ideological despair, as Žižek claims, but also of a questionable figuration of messianic hope that compensates for this weakness.

You can’t critique a symptom, since it is by definition an effect of something else. What, then, is this “something else”? It is the film’s ideological identification of the universality of struggle with murderous instrumentalist violence. As long as the left sees its choice as either the Fishes or the ocean, determinism or indeterminacy, dogmatism or openness, ruthless calculation or messianic waiting, it will remain unable to imagine other forms of militant struggle by which it can change the world through collective political practice.

In the current conjuncture, to focus on the concept of Europe is the most irrelevant and most essential task. Irrelevant, because in practice, the dominant nations of Europe care about the borders of Europe, not its infinite task. Essential, because the concept of Europe is what enables this very critique.

I’ve also tried to show that the messianism that fuels Children of Men’s—and indirectly, via Derrida, Gasché’s concept of Europe—is in part a consequence of a political imagination that is so haunted by the idea of fanaticism that it cannot imagine the collective, principled political agency necessary to create other Europes without miracle. The film shows the political unconscious of Gasché’s “infinity,” “openness,” “event,” “indeterminacy,” and “aporia”: the appeal of these concepts is proportional to skepticism toward determinate political movements that make strong partisan demands and are unwilling to wait interminably before they are met. Terry Eagleton once quipped that Derrida’s event is “a perpetual excited openness to the Messiah who had better not let us down by doing anything as determinate as coming.” Europe doesn’t need a messiah; it needs mass political movements that develop a concrete, alternative vision of society that can challenge both the racist right and the technocratic elitism of the center and liberal left. There is probably more evental power in the closed demand that asylum seekers be allowed to fly to Europe, so they aren’t condemned to drown, than in an infinitely deferred openness to further debate or hang-wringing over the “aporias” of respecting asylum commitments. Perhaps what Europe needs is fewer infinite tasks and more finite ones.

Delivered at the panel “Spaces of Hos(ti)pitality,” MLA Duesseldorf. 

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