NOV 17-22


Thurs, Nov 17

VIEW: Terry Gilliam, Brazil


  1. BulletLouis Althusser, ‘Ideological State Apparatuses’

  2. BulletAlthusser Module on Ideology

  3. BulletAlthusser Module on ISAa

Tues, Nov 22


  1. Bullet Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish

  2. BulletMichel Foucault, ‘The Subject and Power’

  3. Bullet“subject and subjectivity”

  4. Bullet“power”

  5. Bullet“panoptic, panopticon and carceral”

  6. Bullet“bio-politics and bio-power”



"Brazil, Ideology, and the Panoptic Machine"

This week, we examined  Terry Gilliam's film, Brazil, yet another dystopic film that attempts to mount a critique of aspects of our own culture (bureaucracy, capitalism, simulacra, and the loss of connection with the suffering of others) from within a mass-market product. The film also served as an exemplification of the ideas of Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault.


The first day was spent discussing other examples from the course that exemplify Althusser's understanding of ideology and ISAs:

    The idea that ideology is material and only manifests itself through actions; by going through the motions of ideology, we come to believe. Perhaps the best example from the course is Buffy, "Once More, With Feeling" and the dance sequence "Going through the Motions," which, as we've discussed, also explores Judith Butler analogous understanding of performativity.

    The idea that we are always-already subjects, that interpellation into ideology occurs even before we are born, is exemplified by the various examples in the course in which characters learn that their identity is, in fact, being manipulated by hegemonic forces: Thomas Anderson in the Matrix; Dawn in Buffy, Rachael and Deckard in Blade Runner.

    The relation between ISAs and the SA is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that Buffy's psychology teacher is, at the same time, the leader of a secret government agency. One might also give the Matrix as an example: anyone plugged into the Matrix can at any moment become an Agent, can become a representative of the repressive state apparatus (SA). Each person jacked into the matrix also functions as a battery literally (em)powering the system.

    The idea that ideology wishes us to choose freely our own subjection is exemplified in the Metacortex scene of the Matrix in which Neo's boss asks him to choose between order or dismissal.


We started with the very first shot of the film: an opening POV from within Sam Lowery's dream. Since the opening POV shot is of Sam Lowery in his dream, we can already begin to wonder if the entire film is perhaps nothing but a psychotic fantasy, as Vivian Gu suggested, with the only objective treatment of events occurring in the very last frames of the film when we see Mr. Helpmann appear in front of Sam's fantasized happy ending for the film. This reading is supported by the fact that Sam is humming the "Brazil" song that we've been hearing throughout the film, one of the clues that the whole film exists as his effort to fantasize an escape from both his torture and the constraints of life in the postmodern condition. ("Brazil" itself functions as a metaphor for escape in our culture, as I suggested.) We should also consider the other logical inconsistencies of the film, for example the fact that Sam sees his object of desire in his dream before seeing her in "reality" (first in a screen, then in a mirror). Brazil thus joins the many other examples from the course in which the distinction between objective treatment and subjective treatment breaks down ("Jose Chung's From Outer Space"; the entire Buffy universe; La jetée; Fight Club). That breakdown certainly appears to be one of the symptoms of postmodern cultural work. We might also recall Jameson's claim that schizophrenia is a dominant trait of the postmodern condition.


We then turned to the first sequence of Brazil to see how it ties in to our discussions so far. Here's what you said: I suggested that the series of screens and windows in the opening exemplifies postmodernism's depthlessness, its inundation by kitsch commercialism (thus supporting Fredric Jameson's argument), although, as others of you pointed out, what we are seeing is a self-conscious kitsch in the film, which is to say camp. Ross Piedmonte pointed out how the jingle that playing at the start of the sequence exemplifies capitalism's (and the superego's) control of humanity by way of enjoyment (like the Coke campaign that commands us to "Enjoy!"): "we do the work, you do the pleasure." The ubiquitous ducts of the film function as a metaphor for bureaucratic and government control (encroaching into ever more private spaces in our lives, much like the blimp’s search lights in Blade Runner). You also pointed out that the selling of "new" ducts exemplifies the kitschiness of mass-market culture, since they amount to repainted versions of the same old ducts. Linda Hutcheon in our reading from two weeks ago pointed out that the opening's opposition between specificity (8:49 p.m.) and vagueness ("somewhere in the 20th century) exemplifies the film's self-consciousness about the illusion of film and the fact that the movie is, in fact, a pointed critique of our present. You pointed out the various ways that the opening plays with the usual establishment of a film’s diegesis, playing with both time and space (e.g., the film has nothing to do with the place, Brazil). The fact that the whole film is set at Christmas further underscores its critique of kitsch, as Cailin Stamper suggested. We also explored the extreme self-reflexivity of the opening, including not only the mise-en-abyme television screen but the additional framing from the plate glass window.


We  spent a good amount of time discussing Michel Foucault's understanding of both carceral culture and power, thinking of examples in our own culture. We then continued examining the opening of Brazil. You might say that Brazil gives us a world that is caught between "a society of spectacle" and a "carceral culture," the two ends of Foucault's historical progression. Carceral culture ideally functions without torture since it is reliant on the belief that subjects freely choose their own subjection, freely internalize the panoptic tower. We discussed the facelessness of the bureaucrat in the Brazil sequence where "Buttle" is falsely arrested in the place of "Tuttle." The bureaucrat uses euphemism ("invited to assist the ministry of information in certain enquiries") and paperwork ("that is your receipt for your husband... and this is my receipt for your receipt"). This is a world in which proper procedures stands in the place of actually taking responsibility for one's own actions. The victim in the scene is also made literally faceless because of his constraint jacket, and, of course, the torturer follows by literally wearing a mask. The historical analog, as I pointed out, is Nazism, and one might ask whether the situation of the everyday citizen in Nazi Germany was one of power or one of force (a distinction Foucault makes in his essay "The Subject and Power").


We also examined the restaurant sequence near the start of the film: a number of students explored the logic of the gift in the film. Such gifts have been transformed from a personal exchange to a mass-produced industrial product, yet another ritual one is expected to perform for the sake of the ritual itself; hence, the same gift continues to circulate throughout the film: a mechanized decision maker that itself literalizes a theme of the film: the conferral of free will and responsibility to the machine. The food itself then illustrates to what extent even material acts like eating are being taken over by a bureaucratic and simulacral logic.
Once again, Sam is forced to follow the correct procedure (he must order the food by number); the neon menu, with its numbered meals, resembles MacDonald's—the reduction of food into mass produced "fast food"; each meal is served as a pile of goop accompanied by the "advertisement" for what you are supposedly eating, thus marking advertisement's encroachment even into the supposedly "real" or material act of ingesting food. As in the Tastee Wheat sequence or the Cypher steak-eating scene of the Matrix, taste itself is here supplanted by the simulacrum.

Later in the film we are given a similar exemplification of Baudrillard's simulacrum, the substitution of "the signs of the real for the real." I am referring to the sequence in which we find a model for "Shangrila Towers" literally supplant the real. In the sequence, we are continually made to experience precisely the collapse of any difference between model and reality. The advertisement behind the model ("Shangrila Towers") functions like the advertisement next to the food in the earlier sequence: the ideality of the simulacrum is there to make you forget the gross materiality of what is before you (goop, urban wasteland).


We also discussed the separation from the suffering of the individual that is exemplified in the scene where Sam meets Jack next to the torture chamber. The stenographer exemplifies the ability of bureaucratic jobs to dissociate you from the pain of others or to exculpate you for being a partisan to such injustice, as Caitlin Stamper explained. The same bureaucrat-logic is exemplified, of course, in Sam's discussion with Jack later in the sequence—or Sam's own earlier refusal to help the victims of a terrorist bomb at the earlier restaurant scene ("it's not my department"; "besides, it's my lunch hour"). The best example may well be during the torture scene when, as Jack states just before he begins the torture session, "This is a professional relationship." Jack is, of course, the perfect bureaucrat: he even has babies in triplicate.

I pointed out that a student in a past version of the class, Sam Patacsil, brilliantly suggested that, if the film is, in fact, a long subjective treatment, the scene with the stenographer is also significant because at this point Sam could be said to come close to his own real torture. What he sees on the stenographer's page are, arguably, his own cries. Indeed, Jack's questions to him in the scene that follows are the same ones that would be asked of him in the torture chamber ("How much do you know about this?"; "What does B58-732 mean to you?"; "Who else knows?").


Finally, we added to our ongoing list of things that constitute postmodernity (postmodern society) and postmodernism (postmodern art and theory).

POSTMODERNITY: Carceral Society, the breakdown of the distinction between fiction/desire/dream and the real; commodification (e.g., fast food, kitsch), simulacrum, pastiche, facelessness (through bureaucratization and specialization), refusal to accept responsibility for one's own actions, mediatization, multinational capitalism.

POSTMODERNISM: there's no escaping ideology, working from within, self-reflexivity, critique, parody/camp, and the breakdown of the distinction between high and low.


Synopsis for Nov 17-22

ENGL 373H: The Theory of SF&F

INSTRUCTOR         : Prof. Felluga

OFFICE                    : HEAV 430

OFFICE HOURS      : T,Th 1:30-2:30 (or email me)

E-MAIL:                   :


In this third block of classes, we will examine a number of science-fiction examples that explore our current age, which has been termed by many ‘postmodernity.’ We will explore the various elements of our current ‘postmodern condition,’ including computer culture, image culture, media culture, pop culture, and multiculturalism.  Alongside the films, we will be reading some of the most influential postmodern theorists of the last three decades. In so doing, we will explore a number of concepts that have been used to understand our age (pastiche, parody, cyborg and the simulacrum).