I know: The Lorax (dir. Chris Renauld/Kyle Balda, 2012) is a kids’ film, based on a childrens’ book. It’s a fable, with a positive message, a moral whose truth we all benefit from hearing, kids and adults: nature is good, we mustn’t destroy it with destructive self-interest or the pursuit of profit. No need to look into it any more than that.
But the daring, surprising first half of the movie made me sit up. I wondered whether the narrative would hold its nerve, and offer a subversive, or at least consistent end. Alas, the finale is a betrayal, employing a fallacy that is highly interesting.
I’ve not seen an animated movie — or any mainstream movie for that matter — that so honestly shows the state of contemporary western culture as a space of total ideological control and consumption; a society that has expelled everything that is not manufactured, mediated or ‘administered’, to use Theodor W. Adorno’s term. All traces of ‘nature’ have been eradicated. Trees, grass, the birds and bees: all are mechanical, all are commodified. There is no private space: everyone is under total surveillance. The town’s patriarch, Aloysius O’Hare, boasts that he has ‘eyes’ everywhere, and knows every activity of every citizen in Thneedville. The O’Hare company sells fresh air in plastic bottles to the townsfolk, and the boy protagonist Ted eats ‘Empty-Os’ for breakfast, demonstrating that, as Slavoj Žižek says, it is ideology that we consume, not things. And O’Hare realises that making plastic bottles degrades and pollutes the environment, increasing the need for his branded fresh air and spinning the wheels of capitalism faster, in the endless dynamic of self-generating false needs and environmental destruction.
The fallacy I mentioned is contained in the possibility that there is a place, outside of town, that is outside of ideology, that is not ‘administered’. The young hero Ted escapes the confines of Thneedville on his cool single-wheel motorbike, crossing a devastated, colourless wasteland. The only life in this exterior place is the Once-ler, who tells Ted the tale of how he destroyed the land with his selfish business enterprise involving the manufacture and marketing of the ‘thneed’, a useless ‘snake-oil’ thing with apparently inexhaustible applications, like the one hawked in Tom Waits’ hilarious song ‘Step Right Up’. The land may bear the scars of the Once-ler’s enterprise in this outer realm, but he is free to tell his tale, he acknowledges his responsibility, with no one monitoring or policing him. He is effectively beyond the reach of society.
But Louis Althusser argues that ‘ ideology has no outside’. At the same time it appears, to an individual, that ideology does not exist at all: that ‘it is nothing but outside’ (‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses [Notes toward and Investigation]’). This means that his or her thoughts, desires and actions are influenced — ‘administered’ — without awareness or consent. There is no possibility of taking up a point of view beyond the influence of ideology.
In fact, this fallacy is introduced quite early in the movie, while life inside Thneedville is still being layed out. Citizens go about their business within the constraints of capitalist ideology. The only things of value are those that are fabricated and marketed. All a subject’s needs are provided by the system. Even if your child glows after swimming in the town’s poisonous waters, you express nothing but servile gratitude and blank-eyed contentment.
But there really is no ‘outside’. Fantasising about such an outside, where you could step beyond the governing narrative, take stock, and take action, allows hegemony to continue unchallenged. In fact, it is a fantasy created within and by hegemony. The Lorax movie itself was used to advertise the Mazda CX-5 car, and tied to more than seventy product integration deals.
Only by realizing the impossibility of an ‘outside’ does the possibility of emancipation arise, as Žižek similarly argues (in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology) that the contemplation of waste — of useless ineradicable detritus — is the only way to understand the commodity’s logic, its shiny surface, its aura of ineffable value.
There is another fallacy in The Lorax: ‘nature’ — the seed of the Truffula tree — is ‘natural’ in the sense that it is unmediated, purely other. Adorno reflects upon ‘nature’ as forever tied to the violence of human concepts. The creation of an artwork, as here (if The Lorax can be called art, however degraded) replays the intersection of ‘nature’ and ‘art’ where ‘nature’ looks to ‘the experience of a mediated and objectified world’ and ‘the artwork [looks] to nature as the mediated plenipotentiary of immediacy’ (Aesthetic Theory). The point being that ‘nature’ is never immediate and the seed can never appear as it really is within consciousness.
But the situation is not hopeless. As I understand Adorno — reading him is equally depressing and uplifting! — everything may be sewn up by ideology, but nonetheless there remains a vital momentary experience within the individual, that cannot be entirely eradicated or obscured. This has to do with the way in which consciousness collides with the world of objects, meeting it with immediate intuitive experience, pushing against it in the creation of language and meaning, and depending upon it for its entry into the symbolic, social, inter-subjective world. Immediacy is always there, it cannot be commodified, any more than it can be contained within a sign. But it must remain zero: the object, the ‘thing’ of nature cannot be given any positive designation. It is lost and obscured if it is.
The true ‘seed’, then, is not a thing that, when planted in the middle of town, will amaze all who see it and prompt every citizen to rise up and expel the evil capitalist. It is nil, a ‘nothing’ that disturbs more than it inspires, that is unknowable to the ‘administered’ mind, whose presence will not go away once it has been confronted, and which fractures the mind enough for it to glimpse something ‘outside’ for the first time.