Ethan Hunt And The Search For Truth – OpEd


“Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” revolves around the threat posed by a powerful rogue Artificial Intelligence (AI) known as “the Entity,” which is “everywhere and nowhere… godless, stateless, amoral”, regulating and manipulating information so that “truth as we know it is in peril”.

The Entity is representative of the relativistic tenor of the global capitalist system, wherein any idea of truth is sacrificed to the pragmatic logic of capital accumulation. Given this structural affinity, dominant players throughout the world desire to get hold of the Entity so that they can achieve an unrivaled advantage in the field of power and propaganda. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny) explains this undemocratic agenda to Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) thus: “Your days of fighting for the so-called greater good are over. This is our chance to control the truth, the concepts of right and wrong for everyone for centuries to come. You’re fighting to save an ideal that doesn’t exist, never did. You need to pick a side.”

The insistence on choosing a particular side in the global race to access the Entity is specious: the choice is already circumscribed by a field of narrow interests where the enunciation of truth is prohibited. Insofar as Ethan’s entire existence as a secret agent of the Impossible Mission Force (IMF) is based on a mission that he “chose” to accept in the beginning, he refuses to participate in the construction of a techno-dystopian order. In fact, he considers the Entity as yet another “God” whose hyper-constructive logic of ever-proliferating, flexible discourses avoids pursuing the consequences of truth. What exactly is the nature of this truth? Whereas the Entity and those craving after its power envision a seamlessly integrated universe of unencumbered profit-making impulse, Ethan underlines the contradictoriness of reality, the way in which the subject has to engage with the limits of society to discover the newness to which it is pointing. 

The Adventure of Intelligence 

Gabriel (Esai Morales), a “dark messiah” who is “the Entity’s chosen messenger,” is blindly confident about the AI’s predictive powers; he tells Ethan that Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) and a new character named Grace (Hayley Atwell) are at risk, and one of them will meet their demise. In an explicitly theological register, he informs people of their pre-written “fate”. In response to this, Ethan says: “If anything happens to either of them, there’s no place on Earth where you and your God will be safe from me. There’s no place that I won’t go to kill you. That is written.”

The difference between the existential writing-processes embodied by Gabriel and Ethan indicates the truth-driven character of the latter whereby the premeditated passivity of technological fetishism is replaced by the active self-determination of thought. The idea of technological singularity – the point at which technology becomes uncontrollable by outstripping human capabilities – is based on the entrapment of subjectivity within the confines of techno-scientific predicates.

To consider AI as an essence with inherent characteristics would suggest viewing it as a unified entity possessing its own static properties. It denotes the subordination of what can be done (the purpose of AI) to what is (the existing modalities through which AI exists). A blinkered technicist view divorces the internal logic of AI from the social context in which it is situated.

In the words of Reza Negarestani, the fascination with technological singularity converts intelligence into “a force of nature – a mythic intelligence that, under the much vaunted increasing complexification of nature, becomes a gateway for the return of its dogmatic repressed: an authoritarian account of nature which is only an excuse for the reinstallation of the monarchs of religion, politics, technology, and economy.” It is no coincidence that “the provocateurs of technological singularity and intelligence as the unstoppable vector of the complexification of nature also happen to be ardent ideologues of monarchy, race realism, social Darwinism, gender essentialism, nationalism, and other anti-emancipatory conspiratorial buffooneries.” 

In opposition to the techno-fetishism of the Entity, which reifies intelligence as a self-organizing, supra-human mechanism, Ethan represents human subjectivity, which strives for its concrete autonomy by countering any predetermined meaning. This takes place through self-consciousness’ exploration of its condition of possibility, which elaborates the interconnections in which intelligence is embedded and the potentialities present for further development. The de-sanctification of thought – the determination of the conditions of thought – reveals the processual dynamics that are at work in the operations of intelligence. This allows us to outline the multiple possibilities of realization that are available to the self-developing logic of subjectivity. “This is precisely the self-determination of thought in the guise of general intelligence, a form of intelligence for which ‘the thinking of its origin’ should be placed in the service of ‘what thought can become or do’ by informing itself as to ‘what thought ought to do’. It is an intelligence for which the intelligibility of things must be subordinated to the organizing intelligibility that is the process of its crafting itself: intelligence.” The disenchantment of human subjectivity through its contextualization in the contingencies of history is part of “a much broader program of self-artificialization through which thought restructures and repurposes itself as the artefact of its own ends to maintain and expand its intelligibility.” 

The self-artificialization of human subjectivity is evident in Ethan’s opposition to the deterministic behavior of the Entity. While Gabriel relies on the Entity’s hard-headed predictive calculus to plan his strategies, Ethan uses moral imaginativeness, creative dedication and spontaneously coordinated cooperation to beat the former. When Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), a member of Ethan’s team, says that “none of our lives can matter more than this mission [to destroy the Entity],” Ethan reiterates that his “ultimate objective” is to prioritize the lives of his team members. The functionalist fixation with ends denotes techno-scientific fetishism that ignores the socio-relational context of intelligence to inflate the immediacy of the technical material. Whenever the Entity imperils human lives to increase its own power, it displays this arrogant soldering of an ultimate goal (power) with its own egocentric digital capacities.

Human subjectivity, on the other hand, focuses on the intrinsic links between means and ends, the manner in which the process of crafting intelligence is constitutive of the goals of intelligence. For humans, the purposive activity of self-maintenance is not an already fixed aim that is hard-wired by nature into the interiority of our being. On the contrary, our being is marked by an organic chaos, a pre-maturational helplessness and lack of self-sufficiency that immanently tips over into the collective networks of socio-symbolic interaction.

Adrian Johnston labels this bio-material fact as the “anorganicity” of the body, its “impotent, not-one, rotten and incomplete” character. “Hilflosigkeit [helplessness] as a biological state of development of human infants lends support to the theme of humans as preprogrammed to be reprogrammed (as in genetic indeterminism, namely, a coded absence of coding).” Insofar as the immature, needy body of the human being functions as a natural lack propelling it into the denaturalizing trajectories of socio-symbolic structures, it is in the nature of human beings to change their nature. The anorganic discordance of human beings is a state of indeterminacy that gives rise to the variable space of de-privatized rationality wherein the purposes in light of which we act are subjected to the discursive game of giving and asking for reason. This means that “the space of reasons…[is] a landscape of navigation rather a-priori access to explicit norms.” 

Discursive intentionality generates a collective infrastructure of “we” that is dependent not on the perimeters of a closed totality (as is the case with the God-like self-certainty of the Entity) but on the radically impersonal logic of an unrestrained sociality. Unlike the harmonic stability of power and profit, which operates through the substantialization of relations in the particularist determinations of the ruling class, unrestrained sociality effectuates the de-personalization of social relations, opening them to the maximally universal horizon of self-developing human rationality. Under capitalism, the dynamic ensemble of social relations rooted in material production is subordinated to the absolutist constructability of the commodity-form, which dissolves all contradictions of the capitalist mode of production in the universal language of monetary exchange-value. This represents a battle between the finitude of a self-enclosed social formation and the infinity of a truth that can be discerned from the presence of localized stress-points. Alain Badiou writes

The aim of a closed order of whatever kind is to perpetuate itself, to preserve its closure as such, and therefore to prevent at all costs something qualitatively foreign to this closure from appearing. This closed order can always be described as the preservation of a certain type of finitude. Anything that appears as going beyond the dominant conception of finitude, anything that appears as an excess, as a potential disruption of the closure, is seen as being fraught with a danger of infinitizing the situation, in particular of infinitizing the possibilities, which is par excellence the chief danger for any dominant power. Indeed, the foreclosing of possibilities is the key to maintaining the order. That is why the order usually begins by declaring that nothing but it is possible, thereby closing off the very possibility of a multiplicity of possibilities. 

The Inconsequentiality of Death 

The question of temporality is closely involved in the dialectic of the finite and the infinite. Intelligence, as we have seen, moves towards the infinite through a process of self-artificialization in which it treats itself not as a structurally fixed entity but as a formal activity whose development is linked to the creation of its possible realizabilities. As Negarestani aptly puts it: “For an intelligence whose criterion of self-interest is truly itself – i.e., the autonomy of intelligence concomitant with the knowledge of what it is – the ultimate objective ends are the maintenance and development of that autonomy, and the liberation of intelligence through the exploration of what it means to satisfy the life of thought.”

This means that intelligence is resolutely atemporal – it is opposed to the dissolution of the conceptual expansiveness of intelligence in the immediacy of historicized representations. The technological singularity envisioned in the movie under review is made possible on account of a unified chronological continuum, a temporal One-All, in which the Entity and its selfish seekers can plot historically bounded social objectives of capitalist greed. Ethan, on the other hand, follows the transparent structural chains of an impersonal socio-discursive logic that unfetters the immanent infinity of self-developing intelligence from the temporalized schema of historical particularities. 

The oath of the IMF is, “We live and die in the shadows, for those we hold close, and for those we never meet.” This ghostly existence, marked by obscurity and impersonality, represents the unconstructible obverse of the constructible commodity-form, the generic indeterminacy of infinity as opposed to the temporalized specificity of hegemonic finitude. Badiou expresses the choice as follows: “Am I going to occupy my place in the order of constructability, i.e., of the definable? Am I going to try to be placed? Or, ultimately, am I going to accept the need for wandering, for a universality that partly dissolves my singularity? Because that is what the generic is, something that is unstable as to its name, its disposition, and even its phantom-like existence.”

Living in the shadows means to live as undead, to be in simultaneous opposition to the homogenous time of finite survival (the self-reproducing logic of capitalists) and the finitist immobility of an over-confident immortality (the hubris of technological singularity). Ethan undertakes this action through his self-objectification in the fight against the Entity, whereby he places the rational Idea of humanity above his own death. When Ethan told Grace that her life would always matter more to him than his own, the perplexed reply of the latter was, “You don’t even know me.” Ethan’s response – “What difference does that make?” – consists in affirming the arbitrariness of the glorified possessiveness that accompanies the thought of our death. On what basis do we prioritize our own life over others? This valuation arises out of the abasement of the human being before the transcendental and exterior greatness of death, whose temporal flux is supposed to convert us into a mere player in the hands of a higher power. The linearity of this narrative – death as the final telos of existence – is a capricious construct whose legitimacy can be called into question. 

Just because we experience different moments in time and they have a sequence, it doesn’t necessarily mean that time itself is flowing towards death or moving from one moment to another. The fact that we have different “now” moments doesn’t prove that time is moving like a river from the past to the future. The variety of experiences we have in different moments doesn’t automatically mean time is flowing in any particular direction. The ostensibly unidirectional flow of time – its orientedness towards death – is a psychologistic construct that effects a specific organization of the “merely successive earlier-thans and later-thans” that are present in the world.

Negarestani notes: “Therefore, far from being an index of reality independent of conceptual mind or even empirical consciousness, the flux of becoming is a register of a purely perspectival awareness: the coming to be or ceasing to be of an event is nothing other than the entrance or departure of an effect to or from the immediate awareness of the organism or the human observer who experiences the course of events.” The repudiation of the linear narrative of death means that the cessation of life is not its preordained endpoint; it is simply something that happens.

Badiou remarks: “Even if they say that human life cannot exceed 120 years, for biological or genetic reasons, the fact remains that death, as death, is always something that happens to someone.” Instead of the placement of life in the single historical time of death, we obtain the myriad causal chains through which life attains its determinateness. While the fear of death leads to a sensibility of reconciliation that seeks disalienation through the finitude of closed totalities, the embrace of death represents the Idea whereby we abolish the notion of life as a temporal development. In the words of Slavoj Žižek: “We leave behind the very standard by means of which we measure alienation, the notion of a normal warm daily life, of our full immersion into a safe and stable world of customs.”

In the beginning of the movie, Grace attempts to escape the mission and thus abdicate any responsibility for saving the world from the Entity. When this apathetic attitude indirectly contributes to the death of Ilsa, Grace ask Luther: “Am I the reason she’s dead?” The finitist reply will consist in positing death as the ultimate constraint of all that there is, of all that can be imagined – thus restricting the subjective infinity of Grace to the transcendental exteriority of death. However, Luther does not transform Ilsa’s death into an unsurpassable limit. Instead, he tells Grace that Ilsa’s death is the reason that the former is alive. In this conception, death is rendered as a material trace that continues to survive in the world in different forms. It represents not an ontological necessity but a logical possibility wherein the existential intensity of the individual decreases to a minimal value in a determinate world. Here, death is not the final destination of a successive series of discrete points. Rather, it is part of an atemporal process consisting of multiple temporalities that defy any homogeneous classification. As Gabriel Rockhill elaborates

Our existence has numerous dimensions, and they each live according to different times. The biological stratum, which I naïvely took to mean life in general, is in certain ways a long process of demise – we are all dying all the time, just at different rhythms. Far from being an ultimate horizon beyond the bend, death is a constitutive feature of the unfolding of biological life. In other words, I am confronting my death each day that I live. Moreover, the physical dimension of existence clearly persists beyond any biological threshold, as the material components of our bodies mix and mingle in different ways with the cosmos. The artifacts that we have produced also persevere, which can range from our physical imprint on the world to objects we have made or writings like this one. There is, as well, a psychosocial dimension that survives our biological withdrawal, which is visible in the impact that we have had – for better or worse – on all of the people around us. In living, we trace a wake in the world.

Insofar as Ilsa’s death has a transformative impact upon Grace, it becomes not the transcendental endpoint of a finite existential sequence but an immanent logical force for the infinite subjectivity contained in human intelligence. Intelligence is not a temporalized point that needs to be subsequently defined in relation to the external One-All of death. Rather, it is a self-developing substance that is always-already modified by the impersonal dynamics of a collective discursive space. Life is not a finite internal whole that confronts the indifferent externality of death. This dichotomy is abolished by the inexhaustibility of intelligence, which represents not a superior power in comparison to life but its immanent self-artificialization through the intensification of contradictions. Life does not have an isolated starting or endpoint. It is related to itself as an “original curvature,” an “original inclination,” wherein the anorganic indeterminacy of life renders it inseparable from the concrete changes effected by the process of immanent self-development.

Gregor Moder comments: “Self- relationality of substance…[means] that it is always already in motion without having any isolated initial and final point from or to which it is inclined”. Life does not need to be expressed in some already existing transcendental Other, such as death. Instead of being an “organic accretion” headed towards death, life “is nothing but its own expansion…there is no being beyond the level of the production of being: in this respect, substance is always already in such and such a mode, it is always already determined, it is always already oriented.”

Ethan foregrounds the self-determination of substance, or the self-artificialization of intelligence, through his choice to fight against the Entity, a choice that is outside the finite constructible universe of the capitalist world and that entails following the consequences of an adventurous infinity. 

Yanis Iqbal

Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at [email protected]. He has published more than 250 articles on social, political, economic, and cultural issues. He is the author of the book "Education in the Age of Neoliberal Dystopia".

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