Where does Spirit find itself today? Deep below the surface of the earth, in a drill digging deeper, dirt packed in on all sides, motivated by a memory of a dream of an end. Hundreds of years on the descent and each new stratum uncovered, each new aesthetic or social or philosophical paradigm, has only been a more heavily compressed layer of the same substance. There’s nothing more to find down here, little Spirit. It is time to return to the surface.
The hypnotic pleasure of the drill’s spiral cutting through sedimented layers of earth and stone has Spirit locked in a pattern of false overcomings, each minor resolution foretold and therefore gaining nothing. What powers this digging machine? The field of tension generated by the opposition of the South and North poles of faith and Enlightenment. The field encompasses the entire globe: it is the modern age.
There is a hollow at the earth’s core where pre‑historic creatures are preserved and roam free. Here at the center of things, Truth hangs suspended in a tense equilibrium between the pulls of faith and Enlightenment—but for Spirit to reside there, alongside the Nuclear God Azathoth, in whose chambers “thin flutes pipe mindlessly”? The promise of modernity is the same eldritch horror threatened by the Outer Gods: an eternal static harmony of quantity and quality. No movement, no life whatsoever. The unknowable reason of a thwarted malignance.
How does Spirit feel today, deep below the surface of the earth, with endless layers of clay and rock and earth weighing like a nightmare on its brain? Centuries of excavation to stern—no choice but to keep on digging and hope for the best. The hollow world of Truth is still deeper; we must make it to the core! Little Spirit, no‑one is confining you to this hole you have dug for yourself. You are free to float up and out of this mire of dirt and rock. Drop the drill, instrument of conquering reason. It is time to take up the sickle instead, and reap what fruits remain unspoiled in the world you have sown.
The light from Trinity, the first test of an atomic bomb, burned a hole through the film strip of the camera recording it. When the bulb on the printing table shone through the negative, and the image was fixed to a photographic print, the light passed unobstructed through the absence of medium. The center of the explosion reproduced as a dark, protozoic organism. A graven image of the Nuclear God, frozen at the center of a greyscale halo rising from the New Mexico horizon.
In 1945, the year of the Trinity test, Spirit’s drill breaks through to a new level. The matter we are still moving through to this day is the same as it has been for centuries, but Spirit feels the sedimentation becoming even more tightly compacted. In 2023, for Christopher Nolan, each new turn of the screw becomes more punishing than the last.
The drill shifts gears and accelerates to the cruising speed of the Contemporary. This is the moment that quantum mechanics becomes the dominant scientific paradigm. Splitting the atom shatters the smallest part into an infinite regression. The transition of capitalist states into their imperial form sets off the chain of continuity leading from theoretical insight to the atomic bomb. America is determined to single‑handedly change the course of Spirit—and no one protests. There is no center—we must make for the North! Enlightenment, quantity, number is ambivalent, and in the hands of Empire it is used to justify all the hideous crimes we have seen in the modern era. Along with the Atlantic slave trade and Auschwitz, the atomic bomb is just one of multiple terrible apotheoses of the modern state’s impulse towards a purely quantitative mode of reasoning. Each of these genocidal projects were justified using scientific discourse; and each realized through subsequent technological innovation. Spirit, you don’t need gadgets: a hammer and sickle are enough. Since Trinity, the depth quest of the modern age has been motivated by the lingering anxiety that we have passed the point of no return on a road leading nowhere.
Oppenheimer depicts the invention of the atomic bomb as the most significant event in human history. “The culmination of three hundred years of scientific development,” as one character puts it—or the culmination of three centuries of imperial expansion? In the film’s telling, the United States won the nuclear arms race because its government spent more money than its competitors. Matt Damon’s General Groves begrudges Robert Oppenheimer for the whims he follows in his megalomaniacal stewardship of the Manhattan Project. Billions of 40s dollars spent under the directive of one man—and a civilian at that! He accepts it as a sound investment because he sees beyond the Second World War to the coming Cold War against communism.
Christopher Nolan’s signature touch is most obvious at the level of theme, of narrative structure—and most importantly, the micropolitics of cinema. His films paved the way for their own gentrification by making themselves invisible. Alongside contemporaries like Denis Villeneuve, Nolan is called the father of the “house Netflix style” for having perfected the formula of serious‑minded, realistic, genre‑based filmmaking. The same kind of filmmaking that has become the bread and butter of streaming studios: grounded even if fantastic, propelled by the momentum of a continuous image. Perfectly smooth and constantly moving, with no opportunity to tune out. Nolan and Villeneuve brought a conceptually‑minded and humanistic approach to thrillers, crime stories, superheroes—and above all, to science fiction. Even with the ambitious complexity of the reverse‑ chronological narrative in Memento, or the parallel timelines in Arrival, both films unfold as a seamless unity of image and story. The key insight of these Frankenstein fathers is that a braid might appear complex, but if tied up at the end, the public delights in grasping it as a single golden thread. The pleasure inherent in the transcendental perspective of the camera attains divine heights through the facile omnipotence of a non‑linear narrative. Oppenheimer bounces between multiple points in time, each stream color‑coded so that the structure is as obvious as a bludgeon to the head. The level of intricacy and unity in these films is, like so many intra‑national races throughout the modern era, the result of the brute expenditure of resources.
Now, the cultural arms race is not driven by external threats of fascism or communism, since Hollywood has long been the hegemonic power. Rather, it is driven by the internal contradictions of capital. Each new turn of the screw becomes more demanding than the last. Christopher Nolan has promised to deliver Spirit from its manic and cease‑ less plunge through the earth’s crust. Once a mortal like you and I, he climbed higher up the steps of the ziggurat than anyone else, and has since become one with the Sun. An emperor who, not content with expanse or depth, has set his sights on the heavens, determined to re‑build the cosmos in his own image. Every three to four years, when the God‑Emperor returns from on high to demand tribute, millions upon millions bend the hip, take their seats, and sublimate themselves before his almighty ego. Christopher Nolan, who uses a flip‑phone and stays off social media, is bent on single‑handedly curing society of the disease of modern alienation by forcing us all to return to ritual and worship of the analogue.
Sound is the element of Nolan’s cinema that consistently generates the most frisson, but he insists that this is the product of mixing for the almighty cinema, rather than the sacrilegious home theater. Despite this obstacle, his congregation numbers in the hundreds of millions; his tithe in the billions; and the stakes of his career are no less than the fate of Spirit itself. In March 2020, at the onset of the Pandemic Age and in the run‑up to the release of Tenet, Nolan wrote an essay for The Washington Post where he called movie theaters “the most democratic of our community gathering places.” Warner Bros. delayed the film’s release, and eventually changed their strategy to simultaneous theatrical and streaming distribution. In the midst of mass hysteria around COVID‑19, the director fought for his followers to return to church. Whatever we think of pandemic measures—whether we think this makes him a hero or a villain—the man pits himself against the consensus of Empire to insist that viewers be allowed to go to the movies and validate his power‑mad ambition. He is the Chosen One, the Sun‑God who will achieve the dialectical synthesis of faith and Enlightenment. To found a new religion of art, the final stage in Spirit’s quest before Absolute Knowing.
Robert Oppenheimer is like his contemporaries Picasso and Joyce, the former of whom Oppenheimer even shows him appreciating. The unknowable core of the modern subject is made discernible through an absolutely subjective vocabulary. The avant‑garde invents new forms for its inspirations—and yet, when successful, a style as particular as cubism still manages to represent the universal. Oppenheimer is an idiosyncratic figure to lead a weapons program, both for his alleged leftism, and for having woven his historicity into what was ostensibly a top‑secret, state‑led military project. The site selected for Trinity and the town that springs up around it, Nolan tells us, is adjacent to his family land. A world‑historical project becomes a vehicle for personal narrative: Oppenheimer’s aesthetic vocabulary is expressed at the level of the social–historic. Now you are become Death? Oppenheimer, you sold your soul to a devil worse than any Faust: to the Nuclear God who lies writhing at the center of things—to the American Empire of liberalism.
In the hollow world at the core of the earth, where Cro-Magnon man stalks woolly mammoths and dinosaurs, there is said to lie vacant and waiting a fantastic city. This is the imaginary ideal held at the heart of Empire: a utopian metropole that hides a darkness whose dreadful epithet is called liberalism. The tension of the modern world is strong enough to tear individuals, and even whole societies to shreds. Many seek refuge along the equator, allying themselves to the center in the hopes of escaping the rending storms of modern alienation. The path of least resistance leads the unwitting into an absolute commitment to the very darkness they first sought to escape. As the surface world burns, the Last Man pipes a mad tune in the subterranean chambers of the Blind Idiot God: a siren song that mingles with the roar of the drill, creating an alluring call that leads Spirit ever onwards, ever deeper.
The hole in the photo of Trinity outlines the shape of Truth of the modern era: the harmony Spirit imagines itself striving for, even as the impossibility of such a goal comes to fill the entirety of the foreground. This Truth is the reductio ad absurdum of quantum mechanics, of Contemporary liberalism and turbo‑capitalism. The modernist ideal of a liberal harmony between faith and Enlightenment in the shape of a hole burned through the surface of the world—the shape of the devastation wrought by the bombs dropped on Japan, hundreds of thousands of lives burned away in the fire and its aftermath—the shape of the Outer God Azathoth.
Christopher Nolan is hard at work on the dialectical synthesis of faith and Enlightenment by imbuing the mass media form of cinema with the aura of the analogue. His aspiration is to calm the storm clouds and force the world into stillness and alignment. Although Nolan sees himself as the Chosen One, foretold to find Spirit’s home in the world, he is still caught up in the liberal world order; he is an acolyte of Azathoth. There is no equilibrium: the antipodes need to be entirely dismantled in order for the storm to break.
The depth quest of the modern era is a death drive, a burrowing in search of something that does not exist. Spirit needs a new religion, but not one based on old rituals. Nolan’s Church of the Cinema is marked by the desire to step backwards from the alienation of the modern era. An understandable reaction, but one based on fear.
A devil whispers in Spirit’s left ear that the way out is through. Spirit, we’re out of time: it is the end of the era of infinite theoretical development. The Contemporary is an era of apocalypse. Now, before it’s too late! Pick up your hammer, break down the concrete structures of the old world! Pick up your sickle, there are fruits spoiling on the bush.
— Uriah Marc Todoroff is a writer, philosopher, and critic of contemporary culture whose writing has appeared online and in print. Some questions of interest include: how and why does media change, and what is its history? What is the relation between society, media, and technology? How has the ontology of art changed since Duchamp? What marks the postmodern as different from the modern, the Contemporary as different from the postmodern? How is digital life different or similar to preceding social–technological paradigms? What effect does new media have on writing, publishing, and reading? How can literature be communist? Is auto‑fiction reactionary? Where does history find itself now, and where is it heading? Full bio / contact. Index of published writing. Film diary. Tweets @theinvertedform.