Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

Blog and project archive about transdisciplinary design, media theory and creative coding

“Twelve Monkeys” (film), by Alan N. Shapiro

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In a time of momentous and accelerated changes (for example, in a few brief decades we are dismantling a book culture which took centuries to construct), it is a great comfort to know that time travel will soon be available to bring us back to critical junctures in case we made a mistake. The dream of time travel is symptomatic of both our deepest anxieties and our need to escape from our own realities and memories. But there is also a secret to certain ideas of time travel that needs to be unraveled. It is a challenge to the idea of linear history. This “Möbius” secret of time travel is already glimpsed in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895), one of the earliest science fiction novels and the “original” fantasy of time travel. Terry Gilliam’s brilliant film Twelve Monkeys raises critical questions about the linear nature of time and the causality of science. Möbius time travel will provide a fruitful tool for getting out of the hyperreality and myth of the end of history which surround us in modern culture.

It is 2035 A.D. in post-apocalypse underground Philadelphia, and Bruce Willis / James Cole is an inmate with a twenty-five-to-life sentence who is offered the possibility of parole in exchange for carrying out a dangerous mission. He must travel back in time – via the time machine which is the chief technology project of the government scientists – to find out what killed the world. A crime has taken place, and Willis must solve the crime. The scientists have some clues. They know that a deadly virus was released in December 1996 in 10 major cities around the world within the course of two weeks. 5 billion people, or 99% of the earth’s population, were killed. The scientists have newspaper clippings about the Army of the Twelve Monkeys.

Cole’s entire condition is one of abjection. In one time, he is a prisoner. In another time, he is a psychiatric patient. He lives underground. His body is ravaged. The future underground world which Cole inhabits represents the “European” history which American hyperreality would like to exclude. It is deep rather than superficial. Its technology is physical, mechanical, and industrial rather than virtual and digital. It is the return of history after the apocalyptic destruction of the hyperreal America of the end of history (September 2001, September 2008).

Cole’s body is continually ravaged throughout the film. But he is Bruce Willis, action hero (temporarily lost in a complex, intellectual film!), so he can take it. He is several times naked, but in a completely non-erotic way. His body is scrubbed down with stiff wire brushes at the end of long poles by orderlies both in the future world and in the 1990 psychiatric hospital. Skin-burning chemical decontaminants are sprayed at him. Madness and harsh treatment, and the sadism of the guards, are invoked. After the time travel technology misfires again, Willis is naked again, this time in Europe’s World War I. He does not have the necessary armor which the French soldiers have, but he has another armor – he is Bruce Willis.

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