Tenet, trade, and time

I have previously analysed the film Tenet from two angles: political economy, and philosophy. I have viewed the film through the lens of István Hont’s Jealousy of Trade, on the one hand, and the prism of Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, on the other. Now I would like to consider Tenet as a totality: through trade, and time.

John David Washington in ‘Tenet’.

Tenet is set as a war, but not the usual kind. It is a ‘temporal war’ between the present and the future. A technology to invert the flow of time, a ‘turnstile’, allows sides to travel backwards and forwards in time without missing a beat. The war is sequential and simultaneous. It arises from a set of trading relationships between our time and the future, specifically involving a temporal broker who just so happens to be an arms dealer. This intelligent take on James Bond explains the banality of being in terms of the time of trade. There is no meaning to what is predetermined, and the complex contracts between trading times make every move inevitable. But each move lacks any reasoning behind satisfying the next debt repayment or, alternatively, avoiding repayment by violence. The inversion of debt is the revenge the future seeks on our time through making us pay for the crime of climate change. By treating future devastation as contingent on the past, the future makes the past inevitable by its own actions. Every attempt to change the past, or the future, merely makes it happen.

Trade is the promise of freedom but the reality of slavery to time. War is the promise of a restart but the reality of hell. Trade deals in time, while war is fought across space. Tenet collapses trading classes and warring states into each other, with a temporal war arising from spatial trade turns our understanding, and the world, upside down. But for all this confusion, there remains an underlying clarity: that quantum time cannot overawe Newtonian space. The new world cannot overthrow the old world. It merely realises it. The temporal war concerns a bomb that doesn’t go off. It annihilates itself, and the negation is negated. But to follow the concluding lines by Robert Pattinson’s Neil, scripted by the director Christopher Nolan:

No-one cares about the bomb that didn’t go off. Only the one that does. It’s the bomb that didn’t go off — the danger no one knew was real. That’s the bomb with the real power to change the world.

— Tenet.

Of course, if the bomb doesn’t go off, how can we evaluate its significance? Of course, we’ll never know. But if Heidegger was right about Being and Time, it is the ability to pose this kind of unanswerable question that makes us human. And if Hont was right about the Jealousy of Trade, the interests of combatants to temporal war will always trump their philosophical ideas about the chances of victory. For if there is one thing that unites the human endeavour, it is the attempt to surpass our limits — to do the impossible. Any attempt to contain this tendency will merely postpone the time of its release and magnify its scope and power. To be human is to ask the unanswerable and reverse the irreversible, to fail, and to try again. For it is the question that wasn’t answered, the puzzle no one knew was real. That’s the mystery with the real power to change reality.

Then again, mustn’t someone know? Is not an enigma in the eye of the beholder? If we do not know, might we never do anything, and what we don’t know cannot hurt us? Unfortunately, the world is not kind, and what we ignore has equal, if not greater, capacity to hurt us than what we focus on. For to be human is not to know, but to ask all the same — and, then, to act.

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