Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel chronicles the days following a wealthy couple’s dinner party, during which their guests find it impossible to leave. They gradually begin to starve. An old man dies; a young couple retreat to a dark space, and commit suicide. It’s a comedy.
The film is much written about, but I think it will hold up to one more reading. The film was made in 1962, but I want to read its action, its thrust, from a digital perspective.
Bunuel’s characters are trapped by their class. Their wealth has given them a way of talking about culture, but no culture of any real value (at least not to them.) They find themselves starving in riches, so to speak. When they hammer their way into a wall in an attempt to reach a water pipe, they carry the rubble away in golden chalices.
From a class reading, the digital angle matches up less and less with Exterminating Angel as time goes on. Personal computers are increasingly ubiquitous, and often accessible to those who don’t have them. Even where personal computing remains an impossible luxury, it’s the trend.
All I want to propose is a connection between the entrapment of the dinner guests, and the entrapment (harmless or not) of a generation entrenched in the digital. The dinner party figures easily as a platform for social networking. In this particular dinner party, a constant exchange of words seems to yield no communication.
Irony, a central tenant of remix culture, is even present. When a servant trips, spilling an appetizer everywhere, it takes no time at all for the guests to reframe the accident as a bit of entertainment (it’s only a much older guest who frowns: “I didn’t find it funny in the least.”) This lines up nicely with the tendency of remix culture, and the populations of social networks in general, to reframe suffering, disruption, or any kind of action in the physical world as funny or absurd. In this way, everything becomes expected long before it happens. (This brings us to the shock subcultures of reddit, 4chan, etc.)
The characters in Bunuel’s film are being held captive by a type of modernity. Namely: custom. Custom has become a tyrant, and reduced their lives to repetition of custom. Also, by setting nearly all the film’s action inside the music room of the hosts’ home, Bunuel defines their wealth in terms of their consumption and opulence.
They aren’t shown shopping of course, but they own everything that one must own. Everything is already in place. The stage is set. All that is left for them is the endless resetting and replaying of customs.
The dinner party itself is one such custom, and inside of it there are many smaller customs. An appetizer is on its way. But then another appetizer. The guests are constantly cross-checking their reactions to every tiny experience, ritual and custom, against the reactions of their fellow guests. It’s similar to the barrage of disjointed reactions, half-thoughts, and inefficacy you find in Youtube’s comments. Action cannot be taken.
Obviously the internet wasn’t on Bunuel’s mind. But he detected the tendency of capitalism to reduce lives to complicated arrangements of objects for consumption and display. The upper classes on display in Exterminating Angel can’t bring themselves to take action in the form of leaving, and returning to their physical lives. Instead they’re trapped in the very space of their leisure, and stifled by their lack of purpose.
On the internet, a special kind of ADD is prevalent. Signing off is difficult. Even when we are not literally logged in to a social network or an email provider, we have a presence there. We have statements waiting for reactions, and questions waiting for answers, hanging in that digital place. Eventually we return to it, to see how our digital projections are fairing. This endless “returning to check” is a form of entrapment, because it primes our expectations and needs without delivering anything real.
Or maybe that’s a stretch.
Maybe the digital world does provide “real” things, and that’s why we keep returning to it. But surely being part of the leisure class provided the characters in Exterminating Angel with something very “real” as well. Whether it turned out to be sustainable, or not, is in question.
The overarching joke of the entire film is the absurdity of not being capable of taking action, even when that action appears accessible and available in the physical world. Over and over, the characters talk of leaving. Waking up after the first night, the women attempt to comport themselves as far as the dressing room, but instead stop at the edge of the music room to do their makeup.
The men aren’t surprised. They talk about leaving, and can’t decide whether they haven’t already. The details seem important, but they can’t even pin those down. “Not one of us is concerned,” says one man, apparently disappointed.
Here the analogy is simple. Online action is so simple, so effortlessly born from keystrokes, that we risk forgetting that it’s hardly action at all. Only custom. If we can’t find some way of speaking clearly and to our needs inside the digital world, we risk losing our ability to walk out the front door, and go home.