Whose Survival? Mad Max: Fury Road and Two Forms of Human Adaptation


Judging by what I read about the new Brad Bird film Tomorrowland, he and I share a general distaste for apocalyptic pessimism. Where we appear to separate is in the way that Bird’s apparently future-oriented optimism is more directed toward the past, reveling in retrograde utopias planned and built by/for scientific experts. But for me calls for blind optimism are almost as wearisome as stark nihilism. Mad Mad: Fury Road surprised me in that it ended up avoiding both traps.

After setting up a world of absolute environmental degradation, a rot so deep it contaminates human beings’ bodies, it offers the audience a utopian escape as bate. Roughly following the plot of a high-octane Book of Exodus, Fury Road gives us a Moses in Imperator Furiosa, an Egypt built on slavery and profane religion in the Citadel, and the light of a Promised Land in the distance. All at once, however, the film snuffs out that utopian spark and presents our protagonists with a remarkable choice: flee the world into oblivion or return to overthrow the Citadel and put its parasitism to death.

This parasitism manifests most obviously in a patriarchal form, as women in the Citadel function almost as pure property, comparable to the pigs milling underground in Beyond Thunderdome. But their subjugation is not the only one, and the film dedicates a large portion of its plot to the redemption of a War Boy, Nux, to illustrate this point. Women are hooked up to milking machines like livestock and interred in bank vaults, their bodies treated as little more than machines for biological and social reproduction. Why Imperator Furiosa is an exception to this rule is unclear, though her status as a janissary kidnapping victim/favoured slave might explain it.


Stopping there, however, would leave out the other important social group that resides in the Citadel, namely the War Boys. Their muscles provide the energy that keeps the Citadel’s machinery running, especially the symbolic lift that separates the two worlds. Promised glory and a redemptive afterlife as compensation for absolute obedience and their shortened “half-lives,” the War Boys are subjected body and soul to the parasite just as the women are, albeit to differing degrees and effects. Because their bodies are perceived as more dangerous than the women’s, the men are indoctrinated, at least treated to the illusion of Valhalla and integrated into the ideological and military power of the Citadel rather than just being its chattel. All the same, Nux and his comrades are nothing more than war fodder in the end, far more accessories to their muscular vehicles than actual human beings. After all, when the political cartoon caricature of a capitalist, the People Eater, counts the cost of their expedition to reclaim Immortan Joe’s “property,” he has no room on the bottom line for the War Boys caught under the wheels of their own chariots. All the while, of course, the expendable masses teem below looking for drops of water; little bits of survival, dispensed for the sole purpose, it seems, of giving Joe an army of abject subjects at his mercy. All of these modes of exploitation and oppression are qualitatively different, but those who struggle struggle against a common dehumanizing foe, personified by Joe and his army of machines.

What I find most enlightening and entertaining about Fury Road and its themes is its depiction of different forms of human survival. It is not content to use “survival” in the most generic sense to justify resignation or an exploitative revelry in violence. There is an element of catharsis in the spectacle here, but the main emotional release in the film comes at the end when the weak overcome the strong and the revolution happens. Survival is initially just a basic fight or flight for Max, who uses his car to flee from danger. Like all the characters in the film, though, he cannot escape the Citadel, whether in body or in mind, and that drives him into the story in the first place. Survival means something different to the rulers of the Citadel and its satellites in the Bullet Farm and Gas Town: parasitizing on the power of human capacity to think, to work, to fight, to reproduce the species. For Furiosa and the refugee sex slaves, though, once we find out that Eden has been swamped and spoiled, survival can only mean liberation. It is that final definition that the film favors in the end: abolition. It rejects the simplified world of the parasite, where things are as they are and human beings’ beautiful strength is alienated and sucked into its great iron guts. This view is the view of the oppressed masses, who are the only ones who really recognize that humanity itself cannot survive by this slow cannibalism.

One of Robert Biel’s most important themes in his magnificent book The Entropy of Capitalism is that capitalism is something like a parasitic organism, keeping its hosts––humanity or nature to twist Spinoza’s phrase––alive only so as to capitalize on their abilities to perpetuate itself. Alienation and exploitation, the ravages of militarism and the exacerbation of scarcity for the purpose of accumulating more and more in the dragon’s hoards: these are the death throes of a system without a future. Humanity only has a future without the parasite, the barbarism that so clearly manifests itself in visions like Fury Road. We have all the information we need to see that capitalism has to be destroyed, and it will be our own conatus, our own right to preserve our own being, that will finally put it to death that we might find life.

They Might Be Giants: Glean


Marketing for Glean pitches the album as a cross-section of the band’s Dial-a-Song output. They Might Be Giants coined the name Dial-a-Song for their answering machine service in the 1980s. Fans or curious neophytes could call a Brooklyn-based number and listen to a song play over the line. The band has now existed for over three decades, and its promotional techniques have always been almost as charmingly forward-looking as their music, which has been consistently entertaining since their debut. One problem that might result from cherrypicking the output from their new Dial-a-Song incarnation could have been incoherence, but eclecticism has always been a virtue in itself on TMBG records. Glean is therefore neither a step forward or backward for this long-running band, and its songs more or less stand on their own terms. Mostly I would like to justify analyzing some of my favorite songs on their own merits. As for the album, I’ll leave my judgment right here: it’s worth getting for fans––well beyond the near-mediocrity of their early 2000s work––and a serviceable introduction for those who are just getting into the band, though last year’s Nanobots is a much better record overall. It’s a cabinet of wonders approach to pop music that emphasizes esoteric subject matter, catchy melodies, and wordplay. It’s TMBG again.

Song Rundown: The Highlights

“Music Jail, Pts. 1 & 2”

A two-part song that begins with a shrill violin riff before transitioning into its bouncy main theme, driven by a sax rather than a bass. Part 1 is an invitation to come to the Music Jail, which is vaguely defined but somehow involves “taking a stand.” The tone is a typical TMBG mix of sinister and upbeat, bringing in the violin at moments of climax before transitioning to the second part. Here, we get more of a wind gust, with clarinets dubbed over a guitar-driven rhythm section. John Flansburgh, the glasses-wearing one of the pair, does one of his best vocal performances of the album in this part, pining for someone to post his bail. Music Jail looks much less appealing in the second part.

“I Can Help the Next in Line”

I have an irrational affection for bass-driven songs, and this two-minute ditty features John Linnell, the pretty boy of the group, singing in the role of a clerk of some kind. His persona alternates between warm invitations and threats, asking for the customer to keep his hands visible at all times. “Next in Line” is another song to feature trembling string sections, which is a departure from the norm for TMBG. It closes with a pleasing round between Flansburgh and Linnell, dissipating the tension of the song after a more aggressive guitar bit. Good stuff.


Ever since joining up with a full rock band in 1994 or so, They Might Be Giants has rocked much harder, not always to good effect for their clever but often slight novelty concepts. “Unpronounceable” is an example of a rock song that preserves the fun eccentricities They Might Be Giants thrive on. Its subject is the narrator’s inability to pronounce someone’s name, which feeds into the style of the song as well: take, for example, the staccato guitar rhythms and the digital distortion added to the song in the bridge. Voices break up and crack, literally destroying pronunciation as we know it. “Unpronounceable” is appealing and melodically sound despite being one of the more conventionally arranged songs on the record.

“Hate the Villanelle”

Having been forced to write villanelles in school, the paranoid hate mongering for complex poetic forms in this song is cathartic. Its lyrics are complex imitating the form it is mocking. Synthesized voices and echoing guitars help Linnell narrate his descent into an inferno of scholarly anxiety. At under two minutes, it’s succinct and threatening, a song that requires little explanation but is probably the most ambitious track here in terms of writing.

“Let Me Tell You About My Operation”

After finishing the last of their children’s albums, TMBG has gotten back into making “adult” records on a regular basis, and the last three they’ve produced have all shared in some patterns. For instance, they all start with rollicking narrative-based songs––”Can’t Keep Johnny Down,” “You’re on Fire,” “Erase”––and, towards the middle of the second half of the record, feature the most daring and, invariably, best song on the album. For Join Us it was “The Lady and the Tiger,” and for Nanobots it was “Darlings of Lumberland,” one of the creepiest and best songs they’ve ever made. “Let Me Tell You About My Operation” is not up to that calibre, but it is without question the best song on the record. Its theme is medical crisis meets urbane swing dance. Jaunty, piercing horn stings, and Flansburgh’s vocal charisma carry this song into my favorites with ease. Even the instrumental breaks manage to impress.

Why Should Marxists Read Spinoza?


The demands of academic writing have been bearing down on me lately, especially my 50-page opus about Iran-US relations that I hope will see a broader audience someday. But that does not mean I don’t have time for some recreational reading. For the last two months or so, I have been engaged in a mostly-attentive reading of Baruch Spinoza’s major works: his Ethics, the Theologico-Political Treatise, and the Political Treatise. Between reading the second and third of those books, I also read Deleuze’s book Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, which has a useful dictionary of Spinozist terms and some original analysis I found illuminating. Not to mention some dark comedy:

“[Spinoza’s] biographer Colerus reports that he was fond of spider fights: ‘He looked for some spiders and made them fight together, or he threw some flies into the cobweb, and was so well-pleased with that battle, that he would sometimes break into laughter.”¹

Thank you, Deleuze, for reminding me of my cruel halcyon days, spent torching ants on the sidewalk with a magnifying glass. Beyond the casual arachnophobic cruelty, Spinoza is a singularly intriguing figure, and I can understand why so many people, especially Marxists, have been attracted to him. Marxian appreciations or uses of Spinoza have come from the Soviet dialectician Evald Ilyenkov, the Althusserian group of French philosophers (especially Balibar), and, of course, Deleuze and his descendants. In these digital days, there is even a whole blog dedicated to Spinoza-spiced autonomism. Reading that blog is what gave me the idea of reading Spinoza in the first place, and it provided me with a little laundry list of what to expect;

  1. A thoroughly immanent form of analysis, integrating God and Nature into a kind of rationalist-materialist system.
  2. A pathbreaking psychology that in some ways prefigures Freudianism.
  3. His love of happiness and vitality, for which Deleuze would compare him to Nietzsche––the latter of whom actually despised Spinoza.

I did find these things, and moreover discovered that, in thoughtful translations, Spinoza is fairly easy to grasp once you have a handle on his “geometric” method and peculiar vocabulary. But what use is Spinoza to Marxists?

I am no autonomist, being a party-builder and vanguardist to the core, and it seems that most of the attention Spinoza has gotten has been from autonomists and their ilk. Most prominently, authors like Fréderic Lordon––whose book on Marx and Spinoza I have acquired but not read––see in Spinoza a way of exploring the production of capitalist subjectivity. In other words, the old 17th-century rationalist’s Ethics are meant to fill in the gaps in Marxist ideas about how capitalism manufactures not just goods but consent for its domination. I can’t comment much further on Lordon, except to say that reading the book’s conclusion makes it seem more speculative than useful. But after a first read of Spinoza’s works on politics and ethics––or “ethology” as Deleuze puts it––I can see the attraction. For me, that attraction has to do with what Ilyenkov identifies here:

The sole ‘‘body’’ that thinks from the necessity built into its special ‘‘nature’’ (i.e. into its specific structure) is not the individual brain at all, and not even the whole man with a brain, heart, and hands, and all the anatomical features peculiar to him. Of necessity, according to Spinoza, only substance possesses thought. Thinking has its necessary premise and indispensable condition (sine qua non) in all nature as a whole.

But that, Marx affirmed, is not enough. According to him, only nature of necessity thinks, nature that has achieved the stage of man socially producing his own life, nature changing and knowing itself in the person of man or of some other creature like him in this respect, universally altering nature, both that outside him and his own.²

Spinoza understands the link between thinking and material reality is not mechanically materialist nor is it that the world only exists as sense impressions in the brain, but that human beings as a part of natural substance alone can exhibit the powers of thought. Of course, what Ilyenkov is doing here is establishing Spinoza as a historical and genetic predecessor to Marx, who himself did little to nothing with Spinoza in his own work. As for what Spinoza can teach us these days, about political economy, psychology, or anything, to me has to do with emotions and the body, as well as his understanding of freedom as recognition of necessity. I don’t have very coherent thoughts on these matters as of now, but here is my best shot.

One of the most famous Spinozist phrases is “we know not what the body can do,” that it is not consciousness but what we are unconscious of that conceals true potential. Our bodies are, as Deleuze writes, “a complex relation between differential velocities, between deceleration and acceleration of particles.”³ There is no absolute evil, but only what is bad, what causes the power or integrity of a particular relation to deteriorate. To me, to get into some thoughts that are still speculative and unmoored, the analogy of an organism or ecosystem to a mode of production has always been attractive. All function as system of information and energy flows and processing; just as the marshland has to harness new sunlight to maintain its energy levels without entropic decay, so capitalism has to exact its demands on nature, which it imagines to be external, without limit. Deleuze identifies that which breaks down such systems as “toxins” or “poisons,” foreign elements that disintegrate the system. My question is this: is there any practical or even rhetorical value to conceiving of a communist movement, of a vanguard party, as a poison for capitalism? From capitalism’s point of view, the proletariat and oppressed masses are useful elements but can also transform into revolutionary elements bent on its destruction. The good of the world depends on the destruction of capitalism, but what is the best concoction, the best venom, for the job? Clearly, this is an unsteady foundation, and is beginning to sound like rambling. But, at the same time, the connections between our own bodies and the systems into which our bodies are inserted excites me, at least in an academic sense.

And when examination season and the uncertainty of summer are bearing down on you, even the gentle respite of pleasant reading means more than one might think. In any case, I have found Spinoza useful to my Marxist thinking as a peripheral character, one who has a rigorous vocabulary for thinking immanently about systems––we haven’t even gotten to conatus or “affects” in this post––and who has been used by many Marxists in the last fifty to sixty years or so.


1. Gilles Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy (San Francisco: City Light Books, 1988), 12.

2. Evald Ilyenkov, Dialectical Logic, 23.

3. Deleuze, 123.

Red and Internationalist May Day!

Happy International Workers Day to one and all my readers.

New Communist Party - Liaison Committee


Workers of the World Unite! Long Live Marxism-Leninism-Maoism

Crises, wars, repression, oppression, unemployment, poverty!

Proletarians and oppressed people, let us unite and take the future in our hands!

Long live …. Revolution!

Imperialism continues crossing a deep economic crisis and unloading it on the proletarians and peoples of the world. They speak about recovery, but the only thing that recovers is the rush to profits, wealth and arms.

For the proletarians, poor peasants and other people’s masses in every country of the world, instead, we see unemployment, labor laws increasing precariousness, exploitation and slavery, misery, plunder of raw materials and energy resources, devastation of environment and territories. Youth without work are now the majority, in spite of their educational and cultural growth. New technologies are used to make more profits, intensify exploitation and the despotic command and control on labour and increase the destructive power of arms.

Against this situation proletarians and masses rise up, in…

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