Tenet, time, and trade: A war of fire and ice

Some say the world will end in fire, / Some say in ice. / From what I’ve tasted of desire, / I hold with those who favor fire. / But if it had to perish twice, / I think I know enough of hate / To say that for destruction ice / Is also great / And would suffice.

‘Fire and Ice’ by Robert Frost.

There’s a cold war, cold as ice. To even know its true nature is to lose. This is knowledge divided.

Anonymous intelligent narrator in Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’.
John David Washington’s anonymous Protagonist in Tenet, contemplating an unknown fate.

The Truman Show is known for popularising the idea, latent in Descartes’ ‘evil demon’ hypothesis and culminating in the Matrix film series. that there is some deliberate attempt by outside forces to keep us in the dark about our destiny and ultimate place in the world. It is a portrayal of deliberate manipulation, pure and simple. It assumes a distinction between those who monopolise knowledge — and therefore, supposedly, power — and those who lack it. As the anonymous scientist in Tenet informs the Protagonist, ‘Don’t try to understand it: feel it.’ The words of the powerful?

For Plato, knowledge is a way of developing intellectual virtue to better distinguish fact from fiction. Fact is all conceptual; fiction, physical. Those who have knowledge alternate precariously between political power and complete powerlessness, even weakness at the hands of the angry and ignorant. A little bit of knowledge is more dangerous than none. Better to be in the know, or not. To be stuck in the middle requires an extraordinary amount of moral virtue to compensate for half-and-half intellectual satisfaction. When the cup is neither full nor empty, only philosophy can give us the power to restrain our natural propensity to chase what we cannot have. But for how long?

In Genesis, the consumption of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil leads directly to God’s expulsion of his tempted children from the garden of Eden. The reason of philosophy triggers the loss of faith in theology, and the price of knowledge is the pursuit of power after power, while being shackled to the quasi-natural constraints of work and labour. Plato’s pessimism animates the Old Testament, while Aristotle’s optimism about natural capacities animates the New Testament, leading ultimately to the medieval divide between the ‘king’s two bodies’: natural, or God-given, and artificial, or man-made. Thomas Hobbes’ faith in the artificial person of the sovereign state leads to our troubled world in which knowledge, though so dearly sought-after, is divided. So, therefore, is power. In the terms of Tenet, there are no monopolies — only one ‘controlling interest’ after another.

Trade sells knowledge to the highest bidder, thus dividing power among the competing parties to trade, as the cards are continuously reshuffled. War promises a more severe means of divine punishment for the pursuit of power/knowledge than the withdrawal of the means of subsistence, and the ensuing gradual death of the human body, mind, and spirit: sudden death, by the incision of the skin by metal and mortar. Trade is deadly in its negative and subterranean sense; war, in its positive and overt sense. Trade kills in the absence of success; wars are won by death itself. ‘Work or starve’ is the twisted tenet of commerce. ‘Kill or be killed’, the more straightforward statement of conquest.

In Tenet, however, ‘we live in a twilight world’ — ‘and there are no friends at dusk’. The cold war is marked as a transition between the cool of peace and the heat of war. There is a commercial war, or temporal trade, that sacrifices the future at the altar of the present, or — with Tenet’s time-inversion technology — the past at the altar of the future and its present concerns. This is, of course, a metaphor for our current predicament: either we save our skins with carbon capitalism, or we suffer the consequences of a hasty energy transition to save the future from a climate crisis that has already begun. More pressingly, we either allow China to rise to a level where it can meaningfully challenge American hegemony, thereby undermining future security to protect near-present prosperity, or we contain China economically to prevent it from triggering a geopolitical crisis which has already begun. And attempts to contain capital’s excesses run against the same temporal limit: either we reign in world trade at great risk to domestic political stability, or we accept the dire consequences of accelerating down the path of capitalist chaos (via class conflict and the dual crisis of climate change and China’s rise) which has already begun.

You see the temporal trilemma. The past, present, and future are collapsing in on each other. Just as postmodernity was ‘the annihilation of space through time’ (Harvey), our technomedieval neoclassical modernity involves the cannibalistic self-annihilation of time through trade. Soon enough, it will not be trade that is global, but the war that trade reliably generates through human history. The difference is the global and eternal consequences of our current time of trade. Our tenets are divided even as our reality is united by the coming chaos. The political order that underpins this economic chaos is increasingly fragile, leading to war as the Clausewitzian substitution of peace with ‘politics by other means’. The concern is the purgatory of ice and the hell of fire will soon become indistinguishable, and the passage from trade to war will become its own Tenet-like purgatory. If there are worse fates, I struggle to think of them — though I am sure time will unfurl what miseries this century has in store.

There is no reason to hope. And yet, this makes room for the last vestige of human freedom, at the ends of reason and passion: faith, not in the hope that something will come of this nihilistic abyss, but in the emancipatory promise latent in nothing itself. And so, in the absence of light, darkness will shine bright, a beacon of faith. The shadow outshines the sun, but it is, after all, the sun’s shadow. If we are to do anything, we don’t have much choice. If we cannot believe in something, let us believe in nothing. Let there be dark. And then, there was —


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