Tenet has been celebrated since August being an intellectacle – which is what the Anglo-Saxon press calls the industrial version of educational novels – and as a show, but above all as a product good enough to fill halls again in the middle of a pandemic. The film is certainly a visual and argumentative damascene work of a precise and enveloping nature, one of those films that lead one to believe that IMAX will still be able to triumph over home cinema and the old Hollywood scriptwriters will displace Netflix writers with their identity and apostolic fervor. But, fortunately, it was not enough for millions of people to risk being infected. But it is a film to be remembered, which reflects important elements of our time… far beyond the pandemic.
1 Tenet, is the first relevant film since the end of the cold war whose drive is the imminent total destruction of the world. Not a climatic disaster, an asteroid, an invasion or an exacerbated social decomposition… a total destruction of the human species and its traces until today. The comparison with the old catastrophes is explicit when the protagonist asks if the threat is a total nuclear war and his counterpart answers that no, it is something even worse.
2 Within the conceptual jumble at the center of Tenet is represented in an almost parodic way one of the main contradictions of science and knowledge under capitalism.
Let’s summarize: Modern, bourgeois science does not directly apprehend, understand nature. It represents it in a particular way – generally through a concrete, determined relationship to Mathematics. That is, science is first of all a way of representing reality. And only later, through the internal logic of that mode of representation, it is an effort to understand it and predict it pretending that, in a tendential way, the representation and the represented will be equal (as science moves forward).
The problem is that the difference between the causes of what it studies and the internal mathematical logic of the way it represents it are confounded because every mode of representation is, in the end, a social product reproducing elements of the way its dominant class represents itself. In a word: it is Ideology.
And in bourgeois science, mathematics routinely replaces understanding: what does not fit into the model’s predictions is considered an annoying and despicable residual -a hindrance due to pollution or sampling error- and the technique that was adjusted to represent what is under study is simultaneously presented as a method indistinguishable from the phenomenon itself.
In other words, science is mediated by ideological forms of representation of reality. These forms unconsciously reproduce self-representations of the dominant interests, distorting and limiting their results. Science as it exists today is the articulation of this form with its supposed content, the reality to be understood.The fact that science is dependent on that particular mode of representation is what explains why discussions and studies on science itself are irremediably similar to Aesthetics (understood as the study of the relationship between form and content in the plastic and artistic modes of representation of reality) and why aesthetic criteria quite often replace epistemological criteria (what is true and why). Problems: to begin with, the distinction between content and form is itself a derivative of the idealistic superstition of the separation between body and soul, the oldest ideology, most attached to the very origin of the alienation proper to class societies; to follow, what is considered beautiful or -more coyly- interesting, which intuitively leads hypothesis-making, is determined by social values. It is no surprise for the social class which started to direct production by building water mills and windmills ruled over social time with mechanical clocks and dominated society with mechanical devices and steam engines to intuit that everything in the universe is symmetrical: the basic requirement of mechanical systems is symmetry in all spatial directions, time and interactions.
And this leads us to the gist of Tenet’s argument: its use of Physics and time travel in its plot. Long story short: the whole argument depends on a certain conception of antimatter. Antimatter is one of those concepts developed by Physics in order to explain why quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity did not fit together. The history of antimatter theorization in itself an example of how mathematics replaces understanding. The theory was developed from an equation – the famous Dirac equation – which allowed in its range of results the existence of particles of negative energy (no negative charge, but energy lower than their rest energy). To the scientists of the time – the 1930s – it was absurd, but that equation so beautiful, so elegant, opened a new Physics based on a massive and cosmic symmetry! So it was assumed, once again, that however impossible or absurd something may be, if it could exist mathematically (in reality if it could be described mathematically) it must correspond to something that really exists but we do not know yet. A nice example of an idea creating reality.
For decades, the plan worked and more and more antimatter particles were discovered. Today, for instance, positrons (the antiparticles of electrons) are commonly used in medical machinery. A new twist occurred in the 1960s, when the discoverer of quarks, Murray Gell-Mann, announced that the entire coterie of known particles could be grouped into clusters based on axes of symmetry, one of which Murray named the Eightfold Way, openly inspired by Buddhism. However, at the beginning of this century the model stopped working. No matter how big new particle accelerators were, the predicted particles and antiparticles did not appear in the experiments. Did most researchers and theorists rethink this? No. They were even more insistent on the importance of mathematical beauty and symmetry in explaining the cosmos. Idealistic epistemology in its pure state. This is the scientific equivalent of saying that because something can be described in words, however absurd or impossible it may be, it must really exist. Even if it is eventually right, it is right for the wrong reasons.
But let’s keep going. How is antimatter defined? As matter symmetrical to the one conforming the world around us. But in addition, the mathematics of antimatter allows us to represent it as matter that travels back in time. The fact that this already seems too much of a delusion even to most theoretical physicists did not prevent Nolan from adopting it as the scientific basis for his film. In the end, his work is very different from that of a scientist, isn’t it? He doesn’t pretend to be doing science, but rather something… aesthetic?
3 And via the Physics of antimatter and matter traveling in time… we arrive at the most brilliant plot element of the film: the mortal danger suffered by Humanity today… lies in its future, so the main characters fight -and they literally say it- against the past that could have been.
Can there be a better definition of the anti-historical situation of capitalism? Their threat lives in the future and literally feeds on it. Meanwhile, their state keeps up a systematic effort to manipulate history and erase that past that might have happened. Yes, the bad guys in Tenet, unsurprisingly, are our class. And no surprise either, our existence is denied throughout the entire timeline, we only keep a probabilistic existence in that possible future they fear so much, possible if we keep struggling today.