Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Categorizing Humanity's Future

As The Time Machine emphasizes, the Time Traveller’s experience of his temporal destination is shaped by his understanding of the present. When time travellers are displaced from their own eras, they often must reframe the world by fitting it within their own conceptions of society. By imposing his “current” social/philosophical theories into the unfamiliar world, the Time Traveller simultaneously recognizes historical continuity and defines the new era through its differences from the current one. These observations probably seem intuitive and obvious, but reading and watching The Time Machine and The Terminator uses these themes to raise important questions about the way we think of the present.

One prime example of subjecting the future world to a contemporary world view occurs when Wells’s time traveller analyzes 802701 A.D. through a socialist lens. Even as he finds information that contradicts his theories, the time traveller refuses to consider that his observations can’t be explained through socialism’s theories or prophecies. Interestingly, just as George Orwell and Aldous Huxley and Ayn Rand crafted worlds that emphasize the evils of socialism, H.G. Wells shows a future where capitalism continues to widen the rift between social classes, and the “have-nots” are ultimately both crafty and resourceless enough feed off of the lazy “haves”; this is supposed to show us the dangers of not overthrowing the oppressors.

The Time Traveller also assumes that the Eloi and Morlocks descended from humans. He seems preoccupied by categorizing their behaviors as “human” or “inhuman.” One of his initial fears before he meets the Eloi is that “the race had lost its manliness, and had developed into something inhuman, unsympathetic, and overwhelmingly powerful?” (20). As he observes the Eloi and Morlocks, readers gain insight into what he considers “human” qualities - humans have language and they read and write , but the Eloi don’t. Weena seems “more human than she was, perhaps because her affection was so human” (51). He continues to cast himself as human, and the Eloi and Morlocks as inhuman, even justifying his own “inhuman” actions (“Very inhuman, you may think, to want to go killing one’s own descendants! But it was impossible, somehow, to feel any humanity in the things.” (54)) The 1960 movie version casts cannibalism as “the lowest form of human life.” It seems that humanity is often defined by what is less human or inhuman - it constitutes itself by stigmatizing its "Other" and its "inferiors." The movie version makes these divides even more clear - the time traveller only identifies with the (Aryan) Eloi, pushing them to rebel against their captors. The movie erases the only marginally-sympathetic aspect of the Morlocks - that they were the “have-nots” who were forced to hunt their captors; instead, the Morlocks always bred and controlled the Eloi like cattle.

Watching/reading about the Time Traveller’s way of organizing the future world prompted me to think about our current ways of labeling and categorizing the present and the past. When we impose a philosophical theory (ie. as Engels imposed Marxism on the distant history of humanity in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884)) upon “known” facts, are we forcing those details into an anachronistic labeling, one that will always be inadequate? Also, how many other things do we define through biased characteristics? (I’m sure that quite a few cultures do not have a high literacy rate or produce many formal written works, and it doesn’t make sense to deem them “inhuman” or “less human”). Also, I wonder what a time travel narrative that is entirely isolated from current political/theoretical agendas might look like (and I don’t think that’s entirely possible.) Finally, the movie definitely pointed to these questions much more at the end: should the time traveller intervene and reshape the world specifically through his 1890s knowledge of what humanity should be? That already looks odd to me - there’s already an entirely new world of theory that has surfaced in the last century, and it’s clear that the Time Traveller might have a severely narrow world view. Both The Terminator and The Time Machine raise questions about the ethics surrounding time travel, but they do not directly engage them.


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