I wanted to Storify my back-and-forth with my friend Aaron Bady (and a few other people, but mostly him) on the question of guilt and complicity in liberal politics, which was prompted by his Texas Stands With Gaza post and ultimately looped around, as all things must, to Snowpiercer.
Aaron is right that I’m using Snowpiercer (along with Pacific Rim, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and some other recent Anthropocene science fictions) in a piece of academic writing I’m working on, so I’ll hold off on doing a full reading of the film here for now. But I think the film actually figures this debate we’re having in a pretty direct way. The people on the train are all “guilty” and “complicit” with the Snowpiercer system, albeit in different ways and to different degrees; like any necropolitical survivor, they are all alive while/because someone else has died. Even on the level of character development, much of the movement of the film is directed towards making Chris Evans’s character Curtis feel as though he is worthy of great things despite the guilt he carries with him; characters frequently say this to him explicitly, even, most notably, the character he once tried to eat as a baby and who he later abandons in the name of the larger mission! In fact this guilt, in properly liberal terms, is indistinguishable from his worthiness to lead, with the final act of the film culminating in Curtis being offered the position of the Wizard of Snowpiercer. The Curtis plot in the film is more or less a familiar liberal drama about coming to terms with your own guilty complicity in the system, a process which as if by baptismal magic thereby makes you worthy to run the whole thing as if you’d never been guilty or complicit in the first place.
Aaron’s reading on the film insists that this is the only trajectory open to us, even as he repeatedly turns to Kang-ho Song’s Namgoong as the voice of alterity, rejecting his plan as nonviable. Namgoong knows the train is a horror and knows the train is doomed by its own entropic breakdown, rejects guilt or complicity as a frame, and instead works to blow open the doors and escape. (And this is the position Curtis ultimately settles into as well, having finally hit an encounter of guilt which he can’t autoredeem his way out of in the form of the children in the engine.) Here then we see one version of the Canavan position: guilt is a way of becoming re-trapped, linked back into the atrocity engine, while refusing to identify with the system and its terms opens up the horizon of the future. Neither Namgoong nor Curtis survive the derailment of the train (“there is hope, infinite hope, but not for us”), but their protégés do, and in the final shot of the film see a live polar bear moving outside the train, indicating that life of some kind persists outside the train and that therefore there is something like hope after all.
Now, Aaron rejects all of this — “it’s too cold out there! they have no skills or supplies! that polar bear will probably just eat them!” — and of course he’s right to do so on the level of cold realism; like most such apocalyptic scenarios, the situation is too far gone to allow any sort of genuine renewal. (I always think of the way the Matrix sequels had to confront this, ultimately having the heroic rebels make a truce with the monsters they were supposed to slay because the world is too far gone to actually free anyone anymore.) But this is where Aaron’s flattening of Jameson’s theory of utopia hurts him a bit — because the kernel of the Jamesonian reading of the film is not to imagine it as a practical alternative to the present so much as to figure the ongoing exist alternative in an era that, at every turn, loudly insists there isn’t one.
For it is the very principle of the radical break as such, its possibility, which is reinforced by the Utopian form, which insists that its radical difference is possible and that a break is necessary. The Utopian form itself is the answer to the universal ideological conviction that no alternative is possible, that there is no alternative to the system. But it asserts this by forcing us to think the break itself, and not by offering a more traditional picture of what things will be like after the break. (Archaeologies 232)
Snowpiercer, it seems to me, is pretty plainly about this effort of the imagination; neither the setup nor the climax is really amenable to any sort of realistic analysis about the practicalities of the situation. It’s preposterous from start to finish. The point of the film is to disrupt our guilty comfort and our comforting guilt about a system we all know is terrible (“those crooked fuckers”) but think we can’t oppose, only picket and sigh about and be more beautiful than (“oh, we guilty sinners, oh this fallen world”). So of course the film is an allegory after all; what it figures isn’t the actual situation of capitalism but the hopeless prospects for people who can’t see any way to stop the train, other than a crash, and who perhaps for that very reason have come to believe they’re the ones who are driving it.