Capital Logic: Inception and Dream Labour in the Information Age
I was sitting writing on my textbook, but the work did not progress; my thoughts were elsewhere. I turned my chair to the fire and dozed. Again the atoms were gamboling before my eyes. This time the smaller groups kept modestly in the background. My mental eye, rendered conformation; long rows sometimes more closely fitted together all twining and twisting in snake- like motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by a flash of lightning I awoke; and this time also I spent the rest of the night in working out the consequences of the hypothesis.
——August Kekulé von Stradonitz1
[T]ime is money.
There are hours when Ariadne’s thread is broken: I am nothing but empty irritation; I no longer know what I am; I am hungry, cold and thirsty. At such moments, no resort to will would make sense.
It is a well-known part of scientific lore that August Kekulé (1829-1896) discovered the circular shape of the benzene molecule after daydreaming one evening of a snake biting its own tail. The benzene molecule is a ring of six carbon atoms each with a hydrogen atom attached. Much of the organic chemistry used today in the oil, plastics, and pesticide industries is derived from compounds containing benzene. One can almost imagine the scene as a sequel to Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster film Inception (2010), in which a time travelling-enabled man named Dominick Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) must incept the structure of benzene in Kekulé’s unconscious so that the modern organic chemistry industry can be born. The snake—a potent symbol of discovery and curiosity—would be incepted into a dream layer below the maze of molecules and then below a maze of swirling, twisting funhouse games until the chemist would struggle with his serpentine adversary, which would come full circle and seize itself, jolting the chemist awake and sending him back to his drawing table ready to make some oil tycoons very, very rich.
Like the hair care and beauty product industry for African-Americans dreamed up by the first female millionaire Madam C.J. Walker or Elias Howe’s inspiration for the sewing machine, the benzene molecule is just one example of the appropriation of dream space under the rubric of capitalism. In these examples, the workday is extended into depths of the night and into the unconscious; dream space becomes the creative sphere of productive labour. To be an entrepreneur you must not only work all day, you must work all night. Along much the same lines, Nolan’s Inception operates on a logic of real subsumption, a term used by Karl Marx to describe the way in which the social labour of the subject is made productive within the forces of capital. The dream of Cobb’s main target in the film, Robert Fischer, is not governed by the logic of his unconscious at all, but by the conscious design of a mercenary mod squad whose perfect mimicry of the dream state renders sleep within a post-industrial economy of power. His dream is, in other words, not very dreamlike. But if this makes his dream undreamlike, in what way are dreams dreamlike in an era in which one’s subjectivity is aggressively shaped by the accumulation of capital? And what happens to us when, in this unstoppable pursuit, Ariadne’s thread breaks and we close our eyes to do nothing but dream?
Many film theorists have been eager to explore the relation between the dream and the cinema in Inception,1 and Nolan himself accedes this link in a 2013 award acceptance speech when he says that filmmakers turn silver and plastic into dreams “that you can unspool from a reel and hold in your hand, hold up to the light, and see frozen, magically … run through a projector, thrown onto the screen.”2 Yet this angle of critique tends to elide considerations of capital in cinematic production that do not attend to dreaming. What the film itself seems most eager to show is that if films are like dreams, dreams are not like films. In the grammar of dreams, association is substituted for logic and analogy for analysis; but in cinematic dreams, association and analogy are subsumed within a logic of capital. Dream theory on film offers us thought experiments in constructed reality, personal agency, sublimated desire, and mimesis, and yet these themes are vexed categories of knowledge in an age of post-industrial capitalism where individuals are rendered consumers within a vast economy of data. As effects of Hollywood industries, dreams and films are somewhat of a capitalist tautology, emerging as indifferent commodities from the “Dream Factory” itself. Cinematic dreaming in the information age is a ready platform for negotiating relations of capital within an apparatus that is itself a product of capital. Inception offers its captive audience a nervous articulation of the final frontier of corporate takeover: the subsumption of interior space and of our unconscious lives under market calculus. This paper argues as well that the film does more than worry about personal security in the information age; it also opens new ways to think about the political possibilities of dreaming in the context of neoliberalism and how they pertain to the context of dreaming itself.
Inception’s narrative unfolds over several layers of simultaneous action, which makes providing a general outline of the film difficult. The generic structure of the film has been described as belonging to the con artist or heist genre, which includes films such as Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and F. Gary Gray’s The Italian Job (2003). Cobb, the film’s protagonist, shares the name of the con artist from Nolan’s debut feature, Following (1998), where his namesake’s role is also to weave an elaborate fiction to deceive a young man. Barred from returning to the United States upon suspicion of his role in a crime, Cobb contracts out his expert skills as a dream “extractor” to wealthy corporations. Extraction is the process of sharing the dream of a target in order to discover secrets that are of interest to the target’s competitors or enemies. Cobb and his team have the ability to intricately construct the dreams their targets will experience in order to navigate a planned environment that will lead them to the desired information. The process is illegal, but available for pay as an effective and innovative form of corporate espionage. It is routine enough that some business owners have been trained to defend themselves against extraction. When Cobb and his associate Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are hired by Cobol Engineering to extract information from the CEO of Prolus Global, Mr. Saito (Ken Watanabe), they construct an elaborate “dream-within-a-dream” sequence to defray Saito’s suspicion that he is being deceived. But because one detail of the architecture of a room familiar to Saito is wrong, Saito realizes he is being targeted and the extraction fails. Saito, nonetheless impressed with Cobb’s skills, asks him to “incept” the idea into the mind of the impending heir (Robert Fischer, played by Cillian Murphey) to the chairmanship of a competing corporation to dismantle his father’s business, with the promise of free passage back to the United States where Cobb’s children live. Cobb assembles a team to complete the inception, and the group plans an elaborate dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream endeavour to plant an idea deep into Fischer’s psyche. The film can be roughly split into two parts: the planning of the inception and its execution in Fischer’s complex nested dream. Hence the film has been called a “reverse-heist” for the way its action is directed in pursuit of an implantation rather than a theft. “Inception,” however, may also reveal something of an ur-structure of the heist genre, which requires the thief to enter another’s intimate domain like a foreign “parasite,” what Cobb calls ideas. With its complete construction of the target’s dream and its entry into the target’s mind (whether for extraction or inception), the “dream team” is its own inception into the terrain of the action. At the heart of the heist film, as it were, is always a reverse-heist. Getting something out is all about being able to get in.
Cobb and Arthur recruit the young Ariadne (Ellen Page), a student of architecture, to construct each dream level. They find Eames (Tom Hardy), who helps design the narrative of the inception and to play a part in the dream, and Yusuf (Dileep Rao), a chemist who will create a powerful sedative to send the team deep into a third-degree dream level. For those who have found allegories of filmmaking in Inception, the team mimics that of a film production team, with Cobb as director, Arthur as producer, Ariadne as production designer, Eames as actor (he also takes on the role of scriptwriter), and Robert Fischer as moviegoer.3 The chemist Yusuf, suggests Jonathan Olson, is one of those alchemists who turns “silver and plastic into dreams.” Nolan’s preference for and praise of celluloid over digital recording is well known, and Yusuf’s inclusion in the team likely emphasizes the importance of a quality medium in the production of a film.4
As Ariadne is introduced to the art of shared dreaming she discovers that Cobb’s psyche is dogged by the menacing representation of his late wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard). Through Cobb’s unconscious Mal will enter the dream with the team and obstruct the inceptors as they try to complete the job. The unfolding narrative action of the planning and execution is accompanied by a parallel plot that consists of the slow revelation of Cobb’s history with Mal and his experimental inception of her, which leads to her suicide. Through an ongoing erstaz-psychoanalytic discourse with Ariadne, Cobb must confront the guilt and shame that has taken Mal’s form within him to complete the job for Saito. It turns out that Cobb and Mal together reached a dream state called “Limbo,” a timeless psychic domain in which they were able to construct an entire world for themselves to live a lifetime together. To exit that dream state, one must commit suicide within it. When Mal does not want to leave that blissful world, Cobb incepts the idea into her mind that her world is not real. They lie down on the train tracks they built to escape their dream, but the incepted idea stays with Mal as she re-enters the waking world, and she commits suicide within that world as well. She frames Cobb for her death as a way to convince him to come with her, and Cobb must leave the United States to escape arrest.
Meanwhile, the team members encounter Robert Fischer on a flight from Paris to Los Angeles and they use the eleven-hour flight to carry out the inception. Inside Fischer’s dream, the work becomes more difficult than anticipated when they discover that Fischer has been trained to defend himself against extraction. That training takes the form of dream projections of militarized personnel who shoot at the intruders. The team’s situation becomes dire when Cobb reveals that because they are under such heavy sedation, dying in the dream could send them into Limbo for the rest of their lives. When Mal appears in the third dream level and shoots Fischer, Cobb must follow them into Limbo to confront his residual pain and to rescue Fischer. Saito, who enters the dream with the team, is also shot and must live in Limbo for what feels like fifty years before Cobb can rescue him and return him to the real world to fulfil his promise of a clean record for Cobb.
In the last scene Cobb returns home to his children, but we are left wondering whether he has truly found reality or if he is still caught in the fantastical Limbo. Many critics have noticed blind spots in the film that provide the experience of dreamlike irrationalities. For ixample the film gives no explanation for how Cobb gets Fischer out of Limbo without dying, nor for how he is able to remain in Limbo to find Saito and exit the dream with Saito to open his eyes in tandem with the other inceptors on the plane. Because each dream level operates within a different time stream, a dream sharer must be given a “kick,” an external jolt that is the film’s explanation of the myoclonic jerk, to exit the dream, and the kick must be synchronized across dream levels for all the team members to exit the dream simultaneously. Yet the last two kicks remain unaccounted for, so it is entirely possible that the reverse-heist is a failure and that Cobb has, like Mal before him, created a blissful world that he believes is real.
“So how did we get here?”
This framework of simultaneous action—with the disparate timelines of all four dream-levels running concurrently, the action plot and the psychoanalytic plot—is where my critique begins. The world of Inception exists thoroughly in what Antonio Negri has called a “tautological time,” and it is through this theoretical figure that I want to begin to look at dreaming as real subsumption. In Time for Revolution Negri explores Marx’s conception of time in value realization, in which use-value is determined by the labour time invested in commodity production. Because commodity value is both measured by and composed of time, time is both measure and that which is measured, creating a “flow between labour and time. A continuous time. A tautological time.”5 Indeed, in tautological time, time and labour are indifferent. In Negri’s formulation time is both the measure and substance of social labour, such that “social labour covers all the time of life, and invests in all its regions” and it becomes impossible to distinguish “the totality of life (of the social relations of production and reproduction) from the totality of time from which this life is woven.”6 In a tautological time, there is no longer any surplus time outside of the forces of capitalist production and reproduction, and the totality of life is constituted by the temporality of capitalism. As Nicole Shukin reads Negri, “there is no longer any life time extrinsic to the time of capitalist production.”7
Inception introduces us to a world in which labour time is not only extended into sleep, but in which time itself expands exponentially to fill the demand of the extractor’s task. As Arthur tells Ariadne after her first shared dream experience: “five minutes in real time gets you one hour in the dream.” This is somewhat of a dream of investment finance, for the investor receives a return of 1,200 per cent upon his initial investment. For the extractors, dreamtime is a time of maximum efficiency. Like the corporations that purchase the service, the dream operates on a corporate logic that strives to maximize production by restructuring labour time into more “efficient” intervals for producing surplus value. Even different dream levels offer different temporalities according to their respective proximities to the unconscious. If the return upon an investment in the first dream level is over one thousand per cent, one could conceive of selling shares in what might be called the “gold level” (second dream level) or “platinum level” (third dream level) that would deliver returns of astronomical proportions. These extended opportunities for labour time privilege the needs of the buyer over those of the extractors. The scaffolding of time over the respective dream levels at first seems like a huge advantage; it is the deus ex machina that allows the extractors to complete the inception before the car containing them falls into the ocean in the first dream level, and it allows Cobb and Mal to experience a lifetime together in a short amount of time. But with the advent of shared dreaming institutionalized as corporate espionage, an extractor could conceivably be required to perform ten years of labour for ten real hours of paid work. When Ariadne exclaims that the team could be caught in the third dream level for ten years, she is realizing that the amount of energy and labour required for the job could vastly exceed that for which she has—experientially—been contracted to perform. In this post-Fordist labour model, the employer pays for the equivalent of a fraction of the labour time required to complete the job. The employer no longer needs to atomize complex tasks to maximize production because the mediated workspace completely exploits the social labour of the employee. In the current integrated work environment this model somewhat simulates the experience of the employee being awoken by a work-related phone call during what should be sleep, with its sense of work time expanded into sleep and rest; or checking one’s email at night after one has come home from work.
The film imagines temporality as a relative production of a mental state rather than the more Western conception of a universal, linear force. The characters experience time differently depending on the “dream level” they occupy. Dreams in Inception offer a platform in which labour is made ultraefficient by the measuring standards of “real time,” but where time is also the substance (that which is measured) of oneiric labour. In other words, time becomes the substance of an individual and the panoply of her psychical expenditure. Once measured by the industrial economy with tasks or shifts, time is reimagined as a psychological product. As Negri explains, “Being is materially given in the form of time.”8 Further, the individual’s labour time may not only be considered to include that time for which she is salaried, but her social time in which her debt influences how she behaves towards the market and towards others. In Seeds of Time, Fredric Jameson writes that “each ‘mode of production’ produces a temporality that is specific to it: it is only when we adopt a Kantian and ahistorical view of time as some absolute and empty category that the peculiarly repetitive temporality of our own system can become an object of puzzlement.”9 In “real time,” or what might be more accurately described in the contemporary moment as “capital time,” the burgeoning tautological time of sleep dilates to accommodate the labour requirements of corporate power, and the paradigm of temporality is defined by the owners of production in the current moment. If in the neoliberal moment the individual is seized as the basic unit of productive and consumptive power, then it is on the level of personal psychology and interiority that time is measured and made indifferent to capital.
But perhaps the situation more frightening than being kept up by work, or kept working by being up, is when sleep itself becomes an ever-lasting insomnia conscripted by market demands. Watching Inception, I began to wonder if the inceptors get tired while working in a perpetual dream state, or if during the lifetime that Cobb and Mal spend together in their dream, they ever slept together, or if they were ever together in the mode of rest, exhaustion, unconsciousness, or indeed vulnerability to each other and to their world.10 In their own happily-ever-after dreamworld of love, one wonders if they have access to “sleeping together,” that time of shared exposure and inactivity that has always been something more than a euphemism for the soothing force that encloses within one’s erotic life the movement into the time of sleep and rest. When dreaming, one can experience several affective drives such as fear and arousal, but not fatigue.11 One does not sleep in one’s dreams.12 Cobb would have lived his creative fantasy in Limbo without fatigue but clearly not without boredom, for he corrupts Mal’s mind out of a form of exhaustion with his world. Cobb’s disavowal of fatigue for a lifetime cannot eliminate the underside of action. Writes Paul Harrison: “as sleep is to waking life the blind flight of fatigue is to action and will: its necessary unworking, its dissolute condition.”13 Even as he embraces the unspent reality of his dream, Cobb recoils before that reality, finding exhaustion where there is no fatigue and requiring lassitude in a place of boundless creation.
What kind of creative power is this? Cobb’s exhaustion is built in, so to speak, to the built environment that itself undergoes a process of dismantling. Limbo is rife with endless modernist skyscrapers, office buildings that would contain people making money for themselves, more for the corporations they work for, and who would take that work home and dream about it. The lovers’ creative productivity (on full display in the rows of buildings) is moored to these built engines of productivity, places designed to create, produce, and metabolize work. But the skyscrapers are empty; for all this architecture designed for labour and productivity, nothing gets done in the creations. They are workless and dissolute. The empty buildings provide a strangely countervailing force against the fact of the lovers’ limitless construction. Why build an office building in which no one will work? Why build a city no one will inhabit, that supports no economy, and that is always asleep? In the emptiness of the productions, the lovers’ productivity is revealed to be empty. It is no wonder that Cobb becomes bored
These capitalist structures are hollow, and they seem to express their own vacuity by degrading and falling into the sea. In the first scene of the film Cobb washes up on the edge of this sea onto what he calls the “shores of the unconscious.” His body is roughed and exhausted, as if he could be part of the refuse that has been treated to erosion and filtration by the same sea into which his buildings sink. Indeed, if the sea is our representation of Cobb’s unconscious then the force that delivers Cobb’s body to the shore is the same force that erodes the skyscrapers and diminishes them to stray deposits. The unconscious eats away at the lovers’ lifetime of work, suggesting that their limitless command of that space does have limits and that, in the end, they still stand before the mysterious force of unconscious life.14 The internal destruction of Limbo mirrors the external destruction brought about by the characters’ actions in the dream: the death of Mal on the one hand and the dissimulation of Fischer-Morrow on the other. While the latter is intended, there is no saying what will be the unintended consequences of the shift in the balance of corporate power that the inception effects. It is clearly designed to create a vacuum that Prolus Global will fill. Could “Mal” (Latin for bad, wrongful, ill) happen again, this time on a global scale? And all this in a dream. The shared vulnerability of Cobb and Mal immobilized on their living room floor and of the inceptors napping on a plane heading to Los Angeles is consumed by an active process of creation that transforms the simultaneous work of production and perception in the dream15 into the concomitance of creation and destruction. Neither the inception nor Cobb’s and Mal’s dreamworld abjure sleep, but both have made sleep into a function of agentive labour for which the subject remains continuously intact and coextensive with its identity.
Writing for the New York Times, Eve Fairbanks observes a shift in the value imputed to sleep in the media around the turn of our century from a negative drain on productive life to a positive aid for productivity and efficiency. An onslaught of new products designed to improve sleep entered the market along with new medical and spiritual discourses affirming quality sleep as a function of increased productivity. “In the early 2000s,” she writes,
the small number of New York Times articles that referred to sleep mostly instructed new mothers on how to get their babies to nod off. Not so in 2013 and early ‘14, when there were articles on how insomnia makes you fat, sleep seminars, exercising for better sleep, napping for success, sleep as depression cure and an array of new, supposedly soporific devices and products, including dozens of sleep-monitoring smartphone apps, alarm clocks that won’t wake you during REM stages, sleep-inducing chocolates, candles that crackle like fireplaces, technologically enhanced sleep masks that “switch off your mind,” fitness bracelets that give you a sleep score (“I really want to do well in terms of sleep, I want to maintain my streak!” one user wrote) and a $12,000 sleep-enhancing mattress containing soothing seaweed and coconut husks.16
What’s more, the products are accompanied by self-help titles such as Sleep for Success! (2011) by James B. Mass and Rebecca S. Robbins, The Entrepreneur’s 3 Steps To Restful Sleep Every Night (2013) by Darren McNelis, Sleep Smarter (2014) by Shawn Stevenson, Sleep Mastery(2015) by Michele Gilbert, Sleep Engine Optimization (2014) by Andrew Thompson, and many more. This thirty-two billion dollar business, Fairbanks notes, is also fuelled by the influence of spiritual entrepreneurs such as Tony Schwartz who helps corporations increase productivity by “meeting the needs of their employees.”17 He is the author of Be Excellent at Anything (2011) and the co-author of The Art of the Deal (1987) with Donald Trump. In his role as the chief executive of Energy Project, he argues that sleep gives one a competitive advantage and “is a uniquely powerful fuel for sustainable performance.”18 Instead of a sum of debt against which one’s waking life is to be remitted, sleep is a nocturnal engine of labour wholly continuous with daily functioning. “We want to sleep more now not because we value sleep more on its own terms, but because we are so fixated on productivity.”19 The idea that one need not only sleep but have quality sleep reconstitutes rest in the language of commodity fetishism, but also suggests that sleeping provides access to the labour market and may be regarded as part of one’s human capital. In Sleep For Success! Mass and Robbins claim that most individuals are sleep-deprived and they encourage employers, “Next time you interview someone for a job, ask how many hours of sleep he or she gets per night. If it’s six or less, call in the next candidate.”20
The appropriation of sleep by the rhythms of capital is part of a range of immersive conditions of life that Negri along with Michael Hardt fold into what has been called cognitive capitalism or cognitive labour.21 For Hardt and Negri, biopower is exercised through the production of particular psychological subjects and the exploitation of psychic and intellectual energies. Through the expansion of what they call “immaterial labour,” such as the analytic skills associated with data processing and the affective bonds of cooperative work, the Empire (their word for the current system of capital) strikes back at the Multitude of social individuals by mobilizing its socialities to function in the pursuit of capital. Desires are made productive under cognitive capitalism, but so is the anxiety and fear it can generate, the sense that one does not own or direct one’s emotions and talents but is owned through them.
A symptom of life in the Empire is a difficulty understanding the context of my cognitive and affective life; the ability to understand what my life is and what is happening to me is obscured by these conditions of indiscernibility. If I cannot make discernments between my dream life and my waking life, then I cannot discern the object of my emotions or their source. I don’t know at whom to direct my anger or credit for my happiness. And if I am “incepted” by capitalist socializations, I don’t know where my ideas come from or to whom I am answerable. The context of my imagination is taken away from me, as Robert Fischer’s unconscious has been hijacked and substituted for a constructed reality. Fischer’s inception goes even beyond the violation of his mind. While the saving grace of the inception project for viewers is that Fischer gains positive associations with the memory of his father, the project has obliterated the only meaningful relationship in his life, the relationship with his godfather Browning. The isolated and now orphaned young man is made more isolated with the poisoning of his last familial connection. The distrust Fischer will now feel for Browning does not come from anything either of the men did, but from the abstract movements of capital that brutally invest in Fischer’s emotions. Fischer is “owned” through his dream as he is dispossessed of it; his affective connections become the stage for the ambitions of capitalist forces that are largely outside him and are indifferent to his reality.
The cinema is one mode that shares with the dream the staging of experiences and possibilities that transgress reality. Associations between dreams and films have a rich history, particularly within the field of modern psychoanalysis. The staging of the dream and of images that we have come to call dreamlike have an important place in cinema studies, particularly in Gilles Deleuze’s second volume on film. Dream-images are one of the first examples of the time-image in Deleuze’s Cinema 2, directly preceding the thinker’s introduction to the crystal-image and the crystalline regime, which capture for him the chiasma between the dimensions of the virtual and the actual in modern cinema. Cinematic representations of the dream (or cinematic images that strike us as dreamlike) are therefore positioned in that text as the “sensory-motor linkage,” as it were, between the pre-modern “movement-image” (elaborated primarily in Cinema 1) and the time-image, which reaches its deepest expression within the crystalline regime. Indeed, anomalous experiences such as the dream, reverie, hypnosis, and hallucination characterize for Deleuze an early stage of European cinematic canon. Infused with the sensibilities of surrealism and Dadaism, “European cinema saw in [these] a means of breaking with the ‘American’ limitations of the action image, and also of reaching a mystery of time, of uniting image, thought and camera in a single ‘automatic subjectivity,’ in contrast to the over-objective conception of the Americans.”22 The dream-image constitutes early attempts at creating a cinema that turns upon an impersonal coupling of imaginative forces and the capabilities of the moving picture apparatus.
Inception does contain some dream-images as Deleuze describes them, such as the paradoxical architecture or the vertiginous hotel that “takes responsibility for the movement that the subject can no longer or cannot make,”23 but the dream-image does not adequately capture what happens in Inception, nor does it explain why this particular distortion of the imagination returns to American theatres in 2010 to such an enthusiastic audience. Considering that so much of the film is staged within dreams, it is surprising how few dream-images we encounter. The “American action image” is fully alive within the context of dream space. Characters appear in the dream as they do in reality (not one experiences shrinking limbs, distorted features, or new prostheses), interiors are appropriately furnished, the sky does not change colours, the ground does not become hollow or grow faces, and the characters cannot fly. The aberrant distortions that tend to mark dream life are diminished almost to nothing. Perhaps we are to believe that these dreams are so stable—so undreamlike—because they are built from without. Yet more fundamentally, Inception does not share the same inquiries and influences that activated surrealism. The dream is put to a much different (and at times opposing) use in the film than it was for the early European and Soviet filmmakers and the French surrealists. For the latter, attention turned upon interior intelligences, and the reception of recent movements in psychoanalysis (The Interpretation of Dreams was first published just before the turn of the century) fuelled a highly experimental set of practices against the backdrop of tremendous change and political unrest in Soviet Russia and Western Europe. Dreams and altered states were seized as sources of alternative modes of thought that carried intelligences and rationalities that the waking or sober mind could not generate. The surrealist experiments in “automatic writing” and autonomous thought in general are pursued precisely because they break with the normative channels of thought that drive our actions and creativity. Deleuze notes as much when he reminds us that “[the dream-image] does not, then, guarantee the indiscernibility of the real and the imaginary any more than the recollection-image does. The dream-image is subject to the condition of attributing the dream to a dreamer, and the awareness of the dream (the real) to the viewer.”24 The imaginary is prized in the early movements of cinema because it offers a chamber tucked under the surface, but not out of reach, of reality.
Inception, by contrast, must present reality-like images because it seeks to trouble the boundaries between dream life and reality. For Mal, the “indiscernibility of the real and the imaginary” is fatal, and Cobb must take the audience with him as he walks into a world that could be either. Indiscernibility is one way that Inception captures the feeling of tautological time and the more abstract running-together of modern life. The dream in Inception is not a place to think but to do. It is not a place to experiment but to construct and capitalize. So although it feeds (as did surrealism) upon phantasmatic notions of dream life and imagery, Inception is set within a later period of cinematic development that Deleuze describes with the concepts of the crystal-image, false continuity, and others.
The cinema of the post-war time-image is the cinema that Inception most relates to as an analogy of dreaming. The disconnect between reality and time in the film, where time in the dream functions seemingly independently of universal forces, relates powerfully to Deleuze’s notion of a cinematic temporality that functions transgressively with regards to space and movement. “Dream-images” in Inception may be less about the automatic generations of the unconscious than about hypnogogic states of modern rhythms, such as how digital media expand time while also shrinking our attention spans. It is also a comment on the cinema’s own “subsumption” of time. In a film, five days of narrative time can be represented in two hours of diegetic time, or twenty minutes of narrative time can be represented in two hours of diegetic time. As the dream uses processes of condensation and displacement to distend time within it, the film provides a rather standard timespan capable of producing a surplus of narrative time.25 Narrative time is not bound to the cinematic apparatus’s material limits. In both the dream and the film time becomes somewhat of an affect rather than a measure of one’s activity (time as substance and measure): “That movie felt like hours!” “That was so fast-paced, I felt like it was over in twenty minutes!” “I got so bored, it’s like we were in the theatre all day!” “I felt like I really grew up along with that character, from childhood to adulthood!” It is not only that time expands or shrinks regardless of material limits, but that changes in dimension reflect changes in the substance of time: from measure to feeling. We never only expend the time of day, but the time of experience.
In Cinema 2, Deleuze moves away from his previous conception of cinematic images as related through a series of “sensory-motor linkages” (such as linear action sequences) and comes to see the temporal logic of the cinema as a force unbounded by movement. In the time-image, he explains, “[t]ime ceases to be derived from the movement, it appears in itself and itself gives rise to false movements. Hence the importance of false continuity in modern cinema: the images are no longer linked by rational cuts and continuity, but are relinked by means of false continuity and irrational cuts [original emphases].”26
There is a scene in Inception in which such “false continuity” is made visible to the viewer. After Cobb recruits Ariadne for the Fischer job, the two sit at a table outside a Paris café as Cobb explains the circuit of creation and perception in the dream to Ariadne. Ariadne is concerned about accruing the level of detail necessary to make the dreamer believe his dreamworld is real, and Cobb asks the new recruit “so how did we get here?” She contemplates the question and responds, “well we just came from the … uh.” Ariadne and the audience have just realized that she is in a dream and that they have been watching a representation of one. Ariadne arrives in her lucid state by being confronted with the “false continuity” between her waking state and her presence at the café. The audience is also made lucid from a participatory state of false consciousness as it becomes mindful of the artifice linking the previous scene (Arthur preparing the warehouse) and the current scene (Cobb introducing Ariadne to shared dreaming at the café). The two scenes are linked through no logical connection, and it is instead our own creative imagination and our cinematic pedagogy as modern viewers that have sutured these two images together with artful seamlessness.
The café scene in Inception recalls another scene from a film that has since become famous for its oblique reference to cinematography, M. Night Shayamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999). After shots fly through the window of Dr. Malcolm Crowe’s (Bruce Willis) and his wife’s house, the film cuts to a scene of the doctor waiting for a patient on a bench with the words “the next fall” printed at the bottom of the screen. We assume the doctor has survived the attack and has been waiting on the bench prior to our experience of the scene; yet, the doctor was not anywhere prior to our experience of the scene because we are watching a fiction in which our virtual experience of the doctor constitutes his entire existence. Like the ghost his character turns out to be, Bruce Willis appears on the bench at the very start of the scene. The film suggests that the narrative logic of the cinema is illusory and is not produced by the images themselves but by normative cinematic conventions; in other words, the cinema produced a narrative logic that is not reducible to a film. If the practice of inception is only a speculative concept as a technique of dreaming, it is a near universal practice as a technique of cinema.
Yet, the inceptive effects of continuous action in these examples are only metonymical instances of the inception of cinema, the illusion of movement. The image of movement in cinema is the psychical product of twenty-four frames per second. Between each still frame there is a tiny slice of the film that is not film, a little moment in which what is not image is needed to suture the image together. We don’t see this interplay of interstitials and transitions, as we often do not see the cuts between continuous scenes or within scenes. The phenomenon resembles what Cobb tells Ariadne about detail in the dream state: “it’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange.” Indeed, much of the construction of cinema remains unseen and unheard. In narrative cinema, action appears natural and continuous even though the characters are actors who have been carefully coached and the scenography has been carefully built and shot in an order entirely different to that of the narrative. Films resemble not the dreams we experience at night, but the ones that Cobb and his team build from the top down for the purposes of extraction and inception.
Deleuze develops a vocabulary to describe this sense of continuity and cohesion that he calls the organic regime. In the organic regime,
the real that is assumed is recognizable by its continuity—even if it is interrupted—by the continuity shots which establish it and by the laws which determine successions, simultaneities and permanences: it is a regime of localizable relations, actual linkages, legal, causal and logical connections. It is clear that this system includes the unreal, the recollection, the dream, and the imaginary but as contrast.27
The cut between the warehouse and the café appears natural until the suture between the “real” and the “unreal” is brought to consciousness. Nolan disrupts the enchantment of the organic image to show the artifice behind it, absorbing the machinery of cinematography into the film itself. It is a comment on his own process but also a staging of the mastery of the cinematic form, a form shown to be so dynamic and absorptive that it can appropriate its making as its own. If the making of cinema belongs, as it were, to cinema, the same might be said for reality and the dream. In Inception the dream does not belong to a prior reality that it refracts but leaves nonetheless intact. Mal’s pronouncement that reality is “all a dream” and the film’s final shot of the spinning totem hold as a possibility the radical porosity of the boundaries between the real and the unreal in the film. Ariadne’s manipulation of Parisian topography, after all, occurs inside Cobb’s pedagogic dream. The making of the dream and its aftermath—in the warehouse, in Mombasa, in Cobb’s children’s home—could belong to the dream itself, a totalizing reality.
Cobb’s children, one of the only memories that invades his dream (recollection-images, in Deleuze’s terms), also establishes the dream-within-the-dream as a commentary on film. The children appear and reappear always in the same pose and orientation with their faces turned away. Cobb cannot see them any other way, confounding the fact that he presumably parented them up until his departure from their lives, and would have many memories of their faces and of their different activities. However, these memories are withdrawn in the face of Cobb’s last glimpse of his children. The same image returns and the children do not age, even as Cobb undergoes radical changes and trials. Like the cinematic image that stays the same while reality moves, the children remain unmoved and unaged as Cobb watches them again and again. The looped image of the children’s backyard play also mimes the process of projection onto a screen, as the image is projected into whatever oneiric reality Cobb inhabits.28 Their movement in time is both interruptive, presenting a timeline at odds with the time of life, and stalled, looking and behaving the same way upon each return to a narrative that does progress in spite of them. The children are like tiny screens refracting a reality of which they are not a part.
What the film seems to suggest is that the logic of the dream twins the logic of cinema. But we can conceive of this twinning in industrial rather than, or as indistinguishable from, formal terms. As I noted, the making of the dream in Inception belongs to the dream itself.29 This reflexivity is even more fully elaborated in the oneiric structure of the “dream-within-a-dream,” which sets the action upon a mirrored stage. Indeed, Fischer’s dream is a model of a postmodern aesthetics of citationalism or reflexivity, with its own workings turned inwards and made to be the object of its own reflection. When in Cobb’s pedagogic dream Ariadne turns each side of a mirror to face each other around Cobb, creating infinite images of her teacher reflected through both mirrors, she is creating her own “mirrored” image of the dream-within-a-dream. Between the mirrors, Cobb is multiplied like the nested dream he creates and he stands in the ultimate objective position of being able to see himself and see it to infinity. This position of self-reflection will be mirrored again in his talk therapy with Ariadne when she becomes the object of transference for his own psychological rehabilitation. If Nolan would like us to twin the logic of the dream with the logic of cinema, then the dream-within-a-dream may also be conceived as a film-within-a-film, with the work of planning, casting, and editing on display in the production.
Nolan tells Entertainment Weekly, “in trying to write a team-based creative process, I wrote the one I know . . . It’s rare that you can identify yourself so clearly in a film.”30 But there is more to the film industry than raw construction, unlike the liberated construction that Cobb and Mal undertake in Limbo. For Deleuze, the film-within-a-film represents filmmaking’s shady industrial ties: “The cinema as art itself lives in a direct relation with a permanent plot, an international conspiracy which conditions it from within, as the most intimate and most indispensable enemy.”31 If this sounds like the conspiracy to incept Robert Fischer, it is not only that:
This conspiracy is that of money; what defines industrial art is not mechanical reproduction but the internalized relation with money. The only rejoinder to the harsh law of cinema—a minute of image which costs a day of collective work—is Fellini’s: ‘When there is no more money left, the film will be finished.’ Money is the obverse of all the images that the cinema shows and sets in place, so that films about money are already, if implicitly, films within the film or about the film.32
Federico Fellini would have been familiar with making a film-within-a-film about the angst occasioned by the steep cost of filmmaking, for his film 8 1/2 (1963) is based upon the experience of arriving at a set on the first day of production with no screenplay. The director shut himself in a room and began to compose a letter of resignation until a grip came and invited him to join in a birthday party they were holding for a member of the crew. He realized, “I was about to cost all of these people their jobs. They called me the Magician. Where was my ‘magic’?”33 “Time is money,”34 adds Deleuze, cynically gesturing to the tautological time that structures the cinema. Deleuze’s swipe at Walter Benjamin appears to emphasize the capital required to underwrite the mechanical reproduction of copies (subsequent simulacra of art, like dreams within dreams) and therefore the system of capital that supports but perhaps is also similar to the machine. Money, he notes, does not support the art of cinema from without, but is internal to its construction. Thus Saito must enter the dream with Cobb and his team and become part of Fischer’s experience.
The dream-within-a-dream becomes a way of punctuating those features of film that are not dreamlike and that are not reducible to the dream. Willful construction and an influx of capital underwrite the dreaminess of the cinema, so importantly become part of that dreaminess, part of what we have been schooled to call dreamy. Besides the fortune that underwrites the inception project (which includes the purchase of an airline), capital is internal to the film in subtle ways. If the dreaminess of the cinema is an effect of its “condensation and displacement” of time, the image of the real from the surface of the unreal, and logic-defying CGI, then the dreaminess of our experience is the dreaminess of commodity fetishism.
In Films and Dreams, Thorsten Botz-Bornstein explores how the “dreamlike mode of existence … is linked to a capitalist dreamworld of consumption.”35 Indeed, Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism had a similar effect to that of the lucid dream for modern Europeans. He claims that the commodity, “at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood,” is actually quite strange, “abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.”36 Theorizing the modern, Western commodity with a vocabulary of pre-modern spirituality, Marx revealed that not only was the commodity itself a mystical, powerful thing, but that the society from which it was produced was itself grounded in “pre-modern” sensibilities. The fetish has a powerful, dreamy quality that the cinema has reproduced from its outset. Inception also plays into these mythological anachronisms; the architect of the maze, Ariadne, bears the name of the Greek mythical keeper of the Minotaur’s labyrinth who helps Theseus navigate the maze. In order for Cobb to effectively incept Saito’s business aspirations into Fischer’s mind, he needs the mythical Ariadne to build a constructed reality. The reality in which Fischer is incepted is a fantastic site of power that sucks its potency from a mythical past in the service of a profit-driven future.
But as I claimed above, the formal qualities of Inception are perhaps not as dreamlike as they purport to be. Mark Fisher in “The Lost Unconscious: Delusions and Dreams in Inception” claims that one of the most interesting qualities of the film is “how undreamlike the dreams in the film are [original emphasis].”37 He suggests that “the spatial distortions at work in Inception don’t resemble the ways in which dreams distend or collapse space” and that when Ariadne folds the Paris cityscape in Cobb’s pedagogic dream, “she’s behaving more like the CGI engineer who’s creating the scene than any dreamer.”38 While I would hesitate to pin down what spatial and temporal distortions are really dreamlike or undreamlike (such certainties reproduce the inceptors’ own supposed mastery of the aesthetics of the dream), this author raises an interesting problem, that is, which tropes, movements, perspectives, or aesthetic profiles are dreamlike? Are dreams organized by genre? With its assemblage of sublime landscapes, mundane rooms, and moveable skylines, Inception asks if dreams themselves are dreamlike, inviting us to return to the dream as the site of profound non-knowledge.
Although Fisher may be premature in his assertion, he is right to imply that one does not watch Inception (or any film) with the same innocence that one experiences a dream; that division is important, for it separates the experience of the dream from its use or instrumentalization (what I will later call the “dream work”). I contend that the most dreamlike quality of Inception is that which does not resemble or evoke the formal qualities of dreaming but the experience of the dream in the waking state, in which we subject the dream to strategies of interpretation. Inception’s 2010 release was met with rumours of an usual number of patrons leaving the theatre during screenings, as well as rumours of Academy members walking out of the Academy screening. Peppered among the rave reviews of Inception on Rotten Tomatoes and Reddit are a number of individuals who claimed to have walked out (or saw others walk out) of the film in theatres. There is even a thread in the fora on the site Nolan Fans discussing viewings in which theatre patrons left the film before it was over.39 For some, the desire to locate a coherent narrative in the film was too overwhelming and frustrating to engage with the film itself. That frustrating experience reminds me of the way I feel when I wake up from a dream: I find that I cannot remember all the details; what made sense to me in the dream no longer makes sense; and I struggle to communicate even the most vivid features of my dream to others. In my waking state, the dream will always resist perfect interpretation and will refuse to be subjected to the conventions of Hollywood narrative that I expect from films.
The ever-imperfect science of dream analysis performed in the waking state can never completely consume its object. According to Slavoj Žižek’s Lacanian theory in The Sublime Object of Ideology, there is always an original trauma, a “kernel,” that cannot be assimilated into the symbolic.40 For the Inception walkouts, we are faced with the noise of this trauma, residue, or excess that resists symbolization and that circumscribes the consumption of the film-text for the viewer. The most dreamlike quality of Inception gestures to the experiential waking state rather than the experiential dream state; in the waking state we subject our dreams to a cognitive process that necessarily fails. Dream analysis is always a sublime process of failure, if an illuminating failure. The process of symbolization built on the conventions of narrative and hermeneutics that inform the success of American cinematic and literary culture is at once invoked and challenged for the walk-out viewers of Inception who could not consume the original trauma of the film, and for whom the film was a kind of a trauma objectified for the purposes of cognitive analysis. Even within the culture of viewers who sought alternate readings of the film, the need to address and assimilate the “kernel” finds its expression.
The difficulty with which we process dreams in our waking state and the imperfect interpretive science of dream analysis strikingly resembles the difficulty of theatre patrons who refused to engage with the diegesis. What makes the uneven and unfinished reception of the film so interesting is that Nolan has remarked on several occasions that he seeks to create an “immersive” cinematic experience.41 There has been much discussion about the inconsistencies and alternate narrative possibilities in Inception, so it seems as if even patrons that did engage with the film went in search of problems and alternate explanations, a ritual not unique to Inception.42 Contra Nolan, I argue that the most dreamlike quality of the film is that it resists easy consumption. In other words, it was not immersive.43 The most dreamlike quality of the film is that which—in some cases—threatens its commodity status.
The walkouts are suggestive of the film’s participation in Deleuze’s crystalline regime, a model of the cinema that seems to trouble, rather than affirm, our conventional sense of the real and the unreal. “[In] the crystalline regime,” explains Deleuze,
the actual is cut off from its motor linkages, or the real from its legal connections, and the virtual, for its part, detaches itself from its actualizations, starts to be valid for itself. The two modes of existence are now combined in a circuit where the real and the imaginary, the actual and the virtual, chase after each other, exchange their roles and become indiscernible. It is here that we may speak the most precisely of crystal-image: the coalescence of an actual image and its virtual image, the indiscernibility of two distinct images.44
Whether patrons walked out of the film or left as the credits began to roll, Nolan’s film seems to have shaken its audiences at their core. Like a more effective Matrix sensibility, the viewer not only wonders what was dream and what was reality, but begins to contemplate the intimate logic of her own dreams and the forms of extratextual influence in “real time” that construct her most intimate experiences. The experience of dreaming, says Bert O. States, “seems to divide our life cycle into two primary states of consciousness.”45 Perhaps the most vertiginous quality of Inception is that both dreaming life and waking life exist in a tautological time, in which one feeds seamlessly into the other and neither exists outside of capital.
“We’re here to work”
Just as Dom Cobb spots a projection of his dead wife in Saito’s dream, his associate, Arthur, warns him not to get involved in personal issues on the job. “We’re here to work,” Arthur tells Cobb. For Cobb and Arthur, dreams are places of work and the individual’s unconscious is a mine that contains valuable material that must be carefully extracted and delivered to an independent third party. Of course, Cobb is unable to keep his unconscious projections out of other people’s dreams, and he is ultimately required to confront the inner representation of his wife to complete the job that will allow him to return to his children in the United States.
As extractors—and later, inceptors—Cobb and Arthur are literally engaged in “dream work,” a term first used by Freud to describe the interpretive process by which the analyst investigates “the relations between the latent dream thoughts and the manifest dream content, and the processes through which the former have grown into the latter.” In his lectures, Freud describes the process more simply as a form of interpretive labour that takes as its object the patient’s psychological labour “which transforms the latent dream into the manifest one.”46 Since Freud, psychologists, therapists, and humanists have taken up dream work liberally and applied its interpretive logic beyond the margins of Freud’s initial theories of sexual repression and wish fulfillment. Cobb engages in both types of dream work in Inception; he both exploits dreams for their labour potential and deconstructs the manifest content of his own dreams with Ariadne. Cobb must mobilize both types of dream work in order to complete the inception, and as we will see, these two forms of dream work are ideologically and functionally inseparable in the sense that they signal dreams as a site of power.
The double-gloss, “dream work,” locates the symbolic intersection of psychoanalysis and capital on the interface of the dream. Since the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s, dream work has been appropriated by self-help authors and assimilated into popular psychology as a labour of personal discovery and transformation that appropriates the dream state as a field of creative potential. The dream state becomes a category of productive knowledge for the individual and the manifest content, as Freud called it, becomes a terra nullius for the raw material of market success.
The modern dreamer is expected to do dream work as a form of auto or group espionage to cultivate the productive self in a neoliberal marketplace. Recent titles such as Carl J. Patrasso’s Dreaming For Success (2012), Deirdre Barrett’s The Committee of Sleep (2010), Ryan Hurd’s Dream Like a Boss (2014), and Eric Maisel’s The Power of Sleep Thinking (2011), to name only a few, exploit our desire to instrumentalize the dream for personal and industrial gain. But these titles are only some of the latest in what has become the dream work industry. Inception comes at an intensified moment (but by no means the end) of at least two decades of self-help literature that evokes strategies of dream interpretation and sleep science for harnessing the creative use of dreams. In Dreaming True (2000) Robert Moss and Marshall McLuhan promote the cultivation of creative potential through dream work as a strategy of corporate ingenuity and as a structure of groupthink. In their examples, team leaders and department bosses exercise dreaming as a time of problem solving that produces effective solutions for daily tribulations:
Every corporation, agency and faculty I have ever come across would support the idea that fostering creativity is a good thing. However, they often fail to pay sufficient attention to the techniques that support creativity. Dreamwork and dream incubation are wonderful engines of creativity. As we have discovered, dreams help us see things from new perspectives, bring different elements together and tap into a deeper source. They give us blueprints for better and attainable realities.47
The authors describe a pitch meeting that could be a group therapy session, with each member asked to report his or her dreams to galvanize the creative process. Twelve years later in Dreaming For Success (2012) the message is similar: “Your potential—to be a good husband or wife, have a successful career, raise your children, stay healthy, and develop a meaningful life—this is all actualized during your dreams. Your unconscious mind keeps tabs on people, places and events involved in your life as accurately as a receipt from the register.”48 The blueprint and the receipt both seem to recall Freud’s analogy of the Mystic Writing Pad with one significant transformation: the former two are both forms of inscription accessible to the conscious mind, available to be read like words. In these guides, the unconscious is strangely unmonstrous, flattened into consciousness, and visible just on the other side of the eyelids. No longer accessible only through its effects, as Freud famously wrote, but a secret passage (or a safe) to be found within you. As we will see, this is only the beginning of the reduction of unconsciousness within popular dream science.
The speculative concept of shared dreaming in Inception also has precedent in therapeutic practice. By a grammatical reversal, “shared dreaming” becomes “dream sharing,” the process by which a formal or informal group of people convenes to perform group dream work. Several of the authors above advocate dream sharing as a way to provoke the creative potential of dreaming. Both shared dreaming and dream sharing locate the dream in a public or collective orientation in the service of private ends. The dream sharer shares her dreams in order to unleash her own creative potential, and the shared dreamer shares in others’ dreams for profit. Dream sharing and shared dreaming may even come to resemble each other. Jean Campbell’s Group Dreaming (2006) describes an experiment undertaken by ten individuals to create a shared dream. Through a long process of sharing each others’ dreams (often in various states of lucidity) and meditating on activating ideas, Campbell reports that group members’ dreams began to feature the same themes as other members of the group. As the woman in Dreaming True who led her pitch team in a dream work session exclaimed of her dream, “It was as if they had all made that dream their dream.”49
Much of the interest in the labour value of dreams has centred on the possibilities of dream lucidity, in which the dreamer is aware that she is dreaming. This has also been called “consciousness in the dream,” and it is what Cobb and his crew require to do their work. Inception has even been linked to renewed interest in the phenomenon.50 Dream lucidity has gained such popularity as a radical new virtual experience and as a way “to get ahead”51 that when I began researching dream work and dream theories used in the business world I was taken to pages full of books containing techniques to induce and enhance lucid dreaming. What sets the current interest in lucid dreaming apart from dream work is the impoverishment of the unconscious state and unconscious action. Even in Dreaming True, the rhetorical power of dream work lay in the ambiguous encounter with the unconscious mind and the experience of unconsciousness during sleep. But in lucid dreaming, unconsciousness during sleep is minimized so that one feels awake while dreaming. Profiled in Business Insider in the column “Executive Life,” lucid dreaming is being refined for its entertainment and healing potential and because “it also lets you get twice as much done in a day by turning your sleep hours into a night shift.” The author announces, “I wrote this story in my sleep,” excited by an experience that promises that “limits of your imagination [are] entirely under your control.”52
The speculative world of Inception has a very real counterpart in lucid dreaming. The feeling of being conscious of the dream state is lauded and cultivated as the pinnacle of oneiric experience, with the goal of increased productivity and total control over the resting imagination. Like the use of sedative compounds and generators in the film, some practitioners take low doses of psychoactive drugs to achieve the lucid state or stimulate an area of the brain with lights or electric shocks. Lucid dreaming marks a shift from the appropriation of psychoanalytical models of the dream for self-help to the appropriation of neurochemical models. Whereas previous literature explored the semiotics of the dream, research on lucid dreaming is concerned with the neurogenic production of the dream state and its potential for manipulation. This evidences an even greater shift towards an individualistic ideology of the dream. Semiosis requires the presence of others to fuel its development and complexity, for the arbitrary connections between objects or ideas are born of an individual’s linguistic and social life. The symbolic dream must always occur out of an encounter with a world outside of the subject and in a language that is never wholly unique to it. As Harrison elaborates, the passivity of sleep and subjection, and not our control over these states, is what marks our exposure to an outside: “It is the extreme or radical passivity of the corporeal subject, its exposure and susceptibility beyond and outside activity, purpose, and will, which defines its rapport with alterity.”53
Semiotic and hermeneutic interpretation of the dream relies upon a broad set of dream theories that assume and value the existence of the other within the self, a place that self-knowledge cannot touch but through its effects. We are never totalized by our own rationality, liberty, and will because the other outside is mirrored within. In the dream we are our own other, although we don’t own it. But the induction of lucidity in the dream yields the dream content to the agent and turns the oneiric state into a narcissistic domain of subjective control and conscious desire. Lucidity is primarily an auto-affective state that feeds conscious subjectivity back through itself so that the freedom one is normally granted in the dream to explore what is inadmissible to the waking mind is overwritten by the ego in its search for mastery.
The otherness in Cobb is coded as trauma in the image of Mal that figures Cobb’s biting guilt, betrayal, and shame. She is that part of him for which he is not the architect, and in that capacity she harasses, entices, manipulates, and kills, pulling Cobb back from the goals he wills for himself. Her image betrays the character of the woman that Arthur calls “lovely.” Indeed, Cobb’s guilt stems also from the fact that he has internalized his “lovely” wife as a terrifying monster; his grief has taken a horrid form, for his wife lives on in him as the parts of himself that are most dissolute. She is the worst of him. Worse than that is the knowledge that he has made her the worst, and if there is a fate worse than death for Mal, that is it. In these respects the image of Mal is Cobb’s own otherness, in that she represents the underside of his will and the unanticipated consequences of his ambition. But this is an otherness hijacked by trauma; it is irreducibly threatening and dangerous, not in the least because of its repeated return.
The image of Cobb’s children represents an additional feature of trauma. The children are unthreatening, but eternally so. Unlike Mal, who despite her fixed role is dynamic and interactive, the children return in the same benign pose. Cobb presumably has many memories of them, but his long relationship with his children is eclipsed by this final moment. They are frozen in time, harnessed within Cobb’s last experience of them. Cathy Caruth has argued that trauma is a “break in the mind’s experience of time”54 in which the subject experiences a psychic dissociation with the traumatic moment brought on by his indirect experience of the threat. The mind’s relation to the threat is not of direct exposure, “but precisely the missing of this experience, the fact that, not being experienced in time, it has not yet been fully known.”55 Therefore the subject is left with the feeling that he has arrived “too late” to the traumatic event, driving the repetition compulsion, the need to continually revisit the event that he was not there to fully experience. Playing off this sense of missed time, Cobb’s repetition compulsion is produced from his own departure “too soon” from his children’s lives. Too soon to see their faces one last time, too soon to fully explain Mal’s absence to his small son, Cobb revisits the static image that reminds him of how much he missed and how much he continues to miss in his fugitive state. “It’s all too late,” says Cobb about his children, “the moment’s passed.” Between them, Mal and the children are the most pointed manifestations of Cobb’s unconscious, but they are spoiled. Both threatening and static, they create a constellation of trauma’s most described symptoms.
Cobb tries to control and to master his otherness, as one does when lucid dreaming, but his efforts are unsuccessful. Although he domesticates Mal in the house and the beach and the hotel room that are connected by an elevator to both enjoy and conceal her, that domestication readily fails; Cobb is haunted by her in any dream he inhabits and she is always at work to destroy him while he is at work. He does not, as Ariadne suggests, imprison her there, because she frequently gets out, if she can even be thought of as being “there.” Mal, as we noted, is Cobb’s biggest failure, but even as she continues to show her face—reminding Cobb that she is not in the home he promised to take her to —she is “housed” in trauma. The constructed dream manages to domesticate Mal within the pathologizing terms of trauma. Perhaps this is all the constructed dream can do with these thoughts. Dreams use memory and waking perceptions as their material. They are a form of thought that is directly linked to the material world—the “architecture” of our memories and lived experiences. By telling Ariadne (and himself) never to build from memory, Cobb disavows something very central to the dream: how it takes its form and reasoning from memory. What is a dream that is stripped of this? This would be a dream with no context, and if dreams are the traces of the material world on the psyche, then dreams are, in a sense, nothing but context, and the dreamer is a site of a convergence of worlds. The dream is the immanent context of life as that life unfolds. Cobb’s instructions aim to inoculate him and others against the dream within the dream, what he deems too unstable or dangerous to allow the inceptors to do their work. In other words, there is something dreamlike that is anathema to the kind of work Cobb and the others do. That something is threaded through memory and perception and the peculiar logic generated by the unconscious with these materials. The dream, as it were, must be suppressed in the dream for its instrumentalization to take over. This is why the fractions of memory that make it into the dream (Mal and the children) must be dramatized as trauma. If unable to eliminate them, the constructed dream must code the latent material as a horrible bottleneck, a threat against the very constructed nature of the dream and the instrumental intent within it.
In an environment like lucid dreaming, an environment in which the self strives for awareness, control, and mastery, instability and the unknown can only be coded as degenerate, debased states of being. Memories can be instrumentalized, but if they are not, they hold us back from moving forward. In the aggressive world of corporate competition in which Cobb lives, anything that is unwilled, unmanaged, or uncontrolled becomes intelligible only as trauma. Mal resembles debt, a sum of value that returns but is not returned and whose demand for remittance is attached to an affective load of guilt and shame. Cobb has no otherness or memories within him that he encounters as strange, mysterious, sublime, or disturbing outside the orbit of trauma. Instead, Cobb’s unwilled visions become domesticated in pathologizing terms. In capitalism, trauma and pathology paradoxically become the “safe space” for what capital cannot tolerate: loss, failure, and the unknown. In Inception, Cobb’s unconscious is allowed to be monstrous only in a superficial way: it can terrify and terrorize him. In other words, his unconscious can be meaningfully read as monstrous. But it is not permitted to be the true monstrosity of the unconscious, which is the thing that is unmeaningful, unreadable, and inhuman. For Freud, dream formation involved “overdetermination” in addition to condensation and displacement. Even for the author of The Interpretation of Dreams, the dream did not give itself to an absolute meaning, but diverted energy into a built-in excess that challenged the authority of interpretation. When Freud describes the unconscious as a “monstrosity”56 it is not because it manifests our darkest demons, but because through strategies of misdirection, subterfuge, encryption, and transference it evades representation itself. In this sense, it is not unlike the workings of a con artist (or for that matter, an actor).57
As Fisher notes, the shared dreaming technology in Inception is markedly neoliberal. It is “a military invention turned into a commercial application.”58 Shared dreaming conceives of the mind as a form of property that may be inhabited and secured. In both shared dreaming and dream sharing, dreams “contain” ideas that can be isolated, refined, and processed. Scott Bukatman writes that the speculative fiction genre seeks to create a new type of subject that can interface with a “global, yet invisible, realm of data circulation.”59 Inception creates this type of subject. In the film, information is the currency and the field of action begs comparison to a virtual reality. In a world in which shared dreaming has become an expensive yet fully operational form of corporate espionage, the protections that currently guard intellectual properly are insufficient, and Fischer has secured his valuable estate with projections of militarized personnel. Marcus Schulzke writes in “Mental Burglary” that the film conceives of a mind vulnerable to a society saturated with influences.60 Inception is the practical and ethical extreme of a sphere of social influence that includes “brainwashing, hypnosis, propaganda, peer-pressure, and advertisements,” albeit one that is much harder to resist.61 Cobb figures this influence as a form of infection: “A resilient parasite” is how Cobb describes ideas to Saito, which makes extraction and especially inception a form of bioweapon. Influence is figured as two forms of neoliberal activity: information processing and biological warfare, both of which prompt the culture of heightened securitization. One can be influenced by others and one can also “be under the influence” of a foreign substance. While I have argued above that Fischer’s dream is undreamlike because it is externally constructed, we must concede that our dreams are certainly influenced by corporations if corporations create a fetishistic desire for products that permeate our lives and shape what we envision to be a good life. This is why we cannot completely disavow the constructive forces in Inception’s dreams as undreamlike. Corporate influence is part of the material world on which dreams feed. If CGI inventions and IMAX effects are what the cinema codes as dreamlike, that image library feeds back through the unconscious metabolism and becomes available to the dreaming mind. But it is precisely through those processes that Inception suppresses, like the uptake of subjective perception to build the dreamworld, that the fetish object returns to us as the dream and the dreamlike.
As Daniel P. Malloy observes in the same anthology,
[t]he major plays in Inception are not the characters—they are aren’t even people. They are corporations. Cobol Engineering sends Cobb after Saito. Saito, acting as head of Prolus Global, sends Cobb after Robert Fischer. Fischer becomes a target, not because of anything he’s done or even knows, but because of his impending ascension to the chairmanship of Fischer-Morrow.62
Of course, as he notes, corporations are legal people. It is just this transitivity of the category of the person to include corporations that reflects the transitivity of labour time to include an individual’s social life, the domain of the unreal to include the domain of real labour. The fear of corporate influence permeates the film’s textual anxieties but, just as Jean Baudrillard said that “The Matrix is surely the kind of film about the matrix that the matrix would have been able to produce,” Inception is quite literally a film about corporate influence that a corporation has produced.63 Offering a lucid account of a speculative world of corporate influence, the film suggests that lucidity is not the instrument of control it appears to be.
If what is at stake in Inception is the intensity of media influence, it is worth asking why the film goes out of its way to tell us something so obvious, unless to suggest that knowing about the corporate subsumption of our inner lives does nothing to change it. The conclusion of Inception is ambiguous; we have hope that Cobb has excised himself from both his real criminal life and his unreal melancholic dreaming and entered the world of real domestic bliss, a non-tautological social existence. It marks a stark contrast to the aged Saito in the first scene of the film, who warns Cobb against living a life of regrets. It also sets him on a different track than the deceased Maurice Fischer, who dies a death unmourned by the son he rejected after the death of his wife. They are the corporate CEO and the family man, the one living in an unreal world of invisible capital and the other still holding in sight the opportunity to rejoin reality and enjoy a social existence with the visibility of his own children’s faces. Yet the film clearly wants the last scene to unfold as a question, a problem rather than a solution to Cobb’s trials.
Unlike the fantastic game-like terrains of gravity-intolerant hotels and sniper-laced ski slopes, the last scene into which Cobb enters is mundane. It is not difficult to accept the former scenes as dream material because they resemble the unworldly realities of the genre of speculative fiction in which Inception participates and codifies as the “look” of dreaming. In contrast, the house of Cobb’s children offers a different sort of host for Cobb’s unconscious to feed. What qualifies this scene as a potential dreamscape is the dreamed-of family unity. The private space of the house and the reproductive family have so far been set in the other private sphere of wish fulfillment, but here they become the totemic symbol of private life. Said Margaret Thatcher, “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.”64 As the final note of the film, the fantasy of family life subsumes the competing scores of reality and unreality, obscuring the real with the ideological fantasy of domestic transcendence. It does not so much matter if this final scene is real or oneiric because the family is a dream that marks the absolute tautology between life and labour. It is the socialized labour.
The spinning totem steals the last focus of the camera, a belaboured effect to throw our indecision into relief. We don’t know if this is real, but so what if it is, if it isn’t? The most compelling evidence suggests that it is real, but if knowing about these things does nothing to change them, perhaps it goes further to suggest that all the will in the world is not enough to undo the binds of tautological time, because will (like the dream) is precisely that form of individual energy that a neoliberal order embraces as the ingenuous path to personal fulfillment.65 It is in our real dreams when we are exposed, vulnerable, and laid bare in our own unconsciousness to a mysterious reality we could not build and barely understand that we enter a time not yet dominated by the burdens of subjectivity. The value of dreams and sleep is perhaps that they allow us to embrace a state of being—assailable, naked, exposed—that in our waking lives is colonized by negativity, fear, and insecurity. Sometimes, perhaps eight or nine hours each night, Ariadne’s thread is broken and we lie prone in a state that will cannot touch. Forget harnessing creativity; dreams have value precisely because they offer us nothing, because they are filled with emptiness, and because they are confusing, unambitious, and unproductive.
Why is it important to dream? Cobb is no longer able to dream outside of the shared dreaming apparatus, and although the film does not dwell on this loss, the fact persists as its unfinished remainder. In what is perhaps one of the saddest scenes in the film, Cobb visits Yusuf and his opium den of shared dreamers. An elderly caretaker weaves around the unconscious bodies like an ambling ghost amid trapped souls. He looks just to the right of the camera, telling Cobb what must only be too familiar to him: “They come to be woken up. The dream has become their reality. Who are you to say otherwise?” It is a provocation to the viewership more than it is to Cobb: The hybridization of dreams and reality is a form of tautological time but also its bleak symptom, a place where one tautology seamlessly produces others. If resistance to tautological time is accomplished through the constituent action of what Hardt and Negri call the Multitude, there is no hope here, for the Multitude lies deflated, enthralled by a constructed reality. Like Cobb, these dreamers are not really dreaming; they are in an immersive video game. Life is so poor it has become a permanent sleep, broken only by sedated sleep. A connection is surely being made to addiction as a symptom of precarious life, but this place is also a perverse movie theatre, with individuals gathered in a dark space of shared entertainment. For a film that revels in its metacinematic references, it glances here at what looks like cinema’s finitude. It reflects even its own death. In a future where shared dreaming has begun to take up the social bond of moviegoing, authentic dreaming is surely on its way out. In the future, the film suggests, there is neither films nor dreams. These subjects’ inability to dream on their own is cast as the anguished underside to Cobb’s happy reunion with his children. His joy does not resolve their loss, nor the loss of his own dreams. Their sorry state is an answer to Ariadne’s question to Cobb in the elevator in his dream. “Why is it important to dream?” she asks. What does it mean that Ariadne asks this question, and to a man who no longer dreams but, like the figures in Yusuf’s shop, plays a video game of dreaming?
While for Hardt and Negri the Multitude is the answer to Empire (in the shared space of the Commonwealth), Inception proposes a more complex logic of opposing biopolitical forces and forms of resistance to neoliberal socialization, one that depends upon an encounter with an outside but that is radically private. By radically private, I mean a holding space so personal it cannot be owned. When we dream we are no longer ourselves but neither are we necessarily part of a collective. It would make no sense in the dream to divide the world into the private and public spheres and their hybridization under postmodern capitalism. For the dream is not a hybrid state but an uncontained interior, a midst that is not in-between. The dream may be a way, as Sean Gaston has said, “to register the midst as the uncontained. The midst would not be the middle, as a subject-orienting ground or position, but in medias res, a finding oneself in the midst, in the middle of a relation to an indefinite and ungraspable beginning and end.”66 Like a neutral space from which opposition retreats, the midst is the unintegrated reality of playing with being a subject in a shared world. The subject does not find herself in the dream; rather, the dream finds her in its midst. Even for Cobb the form of the dream keeps watch over this betwixt state. He observes to Ariadne at the café, “you never remember the beginning of a dream, do you? You always wind up right in the middle of what’s going on.” After false continuity, we end up in the midst.
Dreaming is a concept of world that does not exclude external forces of socialization, picking up as it does from the material world and keeping watch over desirous life. From the state of unconsciousness we explore the consequences of subjectivity and subjectivization without taking up their mantle. Why is it important to dream? There are no dreams in Inception, and this loss returns us to the unharnessed capacities of imagination that form the ground for freedom.67 Cobb’s loss opens for us the possibility for a different way of being. Critiques of neoliberalism are typically oriented towards the development of constituent and destituent action as the only possibilities for resistance. Attention to dreaming may be seen as taking away from important issues in the real world, or siding with Empire’s investment in affective capital. The worklessness of dreams combined with the wicked reflections they offer of the self make them a suspicious site of resistance. Consider the extraordinary violence that occurs across the dream levels that competes with the mundane nothingness of the peaceful team members as they cross the Atlantic. “It was only a dream,” we tell the frightened child, and we tell ourselves. Only, indeed. The pain and violence in our dreams becomes caught between their felt reality and effects and the dream’s status as fiction, a nothing that is subject to an almost instant forgetting. Dreams become oddly immobilized between the inner reality of their action and the external reality of their inoperativity. But as Sharon Sliwinski has shown, it is precisely in that midst that we find the space to be and to think:
Violence is enacted in the material world, to be sure, but it draws upon the imaginary realm to gather its awful force. Here is where the potent work of dream life comes in, generating, as it does, a buttress between these sometimes hostile dimensions. Dreaming offers a potential place in which to be, to exist, in all the rich senses of that verb, an interim space in which to negotiate the conflicting demands of a hostile external reality and the relentless drives from the inside.68
As an alternative to tautological time and to the instrumentalization of dream life we sense dreams otherwise than in the mode of having them. This does not mean that dreams provide answers to problems of exploitation and domination but that they render the gathering of space and time in which to negotiate the forces of biopolitical life under neoliberal reign.
Mark Fisher asks his readers, “What are Nolan’s films about, after all, but the instability of any master position?”69 Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the master position conferred by postmodernity —the ability to reflect on oneself; the instrumentalization of death in suicide; and the capacity of industrial art to appropriate its own machinery—is proffered by the very systems that undermine it through the inscrutability of power. Power works best—most efficiently, effectively, deeply—when we do not know it is there. The slippage between the real and the unreal, the dream state and the waking state, the individual and the corporation in Inception is itself a form of power. I began this essay with a discussion of Negri’s concept of tautological time and the indifference between labour and time as a hallmark of real subsumption under capitalism. The slippages that both fascinate and unnerve viewers of Inception participate in a tautology in which increasingly spectral boundaries and limits are a function of the forces of capital. The terror of tautological time is not that labour time vampirically encroaches upon the social, but that we can no longer tell what is labour and what is social. From there, dream life enables a temporary but habitual walking-out of this immersive space in which the self becomes immobilized between the layers of desire and influence. If we consider how Nolan repeatedly seeks to create immersive cinematic experiences, the fact that Inception is remembered in part as a film that audiences left is a powerful statement about the tautological couple of dreams and films. That some audiences were not immersed and refused immersion as a cinematic experience suggests a rejection of the forms of identification and objectification that conscript us in the fictions that grid our lives. The walkouts collectively declare a desire to be without desire and specifically that desirous relation that structures our subjective relation to the objects on screen. That the will of the walkouts and their symbolic gesture does nothing, does not make it negligible, for it is precisely the inoperativity of will that speaks so powerfully about the demands of living in a tautological time. Cobb is both a dreamweaver and a con artist, and if we take note from the Hollywood that tells us that dreams are individual ambitions and goals, Inception teaches us that our dreams may not only come from within, but from an indissoluble temporality that clashes with our own.
Roshaya Rodness is a senior doctoral candidate in the Department of English & Cultural Studies at McMaster University. Her work has appeared in the journals Canadian Literature and Chiasma: A Site for Thought, and in the online publication DisruptED.