Inception: Ideas and Politics

Kadri Kaan Renda*

Inception, a science-fiction film written and directed by Christopher Nolan, is based on the long-existing curiosity about human mind and dreams. Understanding how human mind works, seeking the ways of controlling and manipulating the human mind have been an inextricable interest for scientists, sci-fi novelists, and film producers. In Inception, Nolan, similar to what he did in his well-acclaimed movie Memento, significantly draws on burgeoning scientific, literary and cinematic work about the mysteries of the human mind and the interplay between dreams and reality.

Dominic Cobb, the main character of the movie, and his colleagues are specialized in extracting or stealing what is inside a man’s mind through penetrating into his dreams. This time Cobb makes a deal with a business tycoon, Saito to implant an idea into the mind of a rival businessman, Fischer. In order to achieve that Cobb contrives a long con to be performed in Fischer’s dreams. I don’t want to give away all the details about how Cobb and his team do that and whether they accomplish their mission. On a personal note, Nolan’s brilliant idea makes the movie one of my favourites. I, personally, think that without Nolan’s idea about corporate espionage through dreams, Inception is merely another ordinary action movie, not even better than the last couple of James Bond movies. I reckon that action-lovers will mostly be disappointed, sci-fi nerds and thriller-seekers will not exactly find what they want to see. There is a little bit of all in the movie, which is why perhaps it has been drawing wide range of audiences into the theatres and makes it one of the highest-grossing films of 2010.

In this review, I will not question the cinematic features of the movie or artistic performances. Nor do I compare and contrast The Matrix trilogy and Inception by making references to the well-known philosophical debates on post-structuralism, anti-foundationalism and psychoanalytical theories on the interplay between the reality and dreams. I have neither enough space nor thorough knowledge of these philosophical thoughts to give a comprehensive account of them. My purpose is, thus, more modest and sober. In fact, from Inception, I want to jump into the role of ideas in day-to-day politics and political science. Whilst I was watching the movie a question popped up in my mind. Who implants ideas about contemporary economic, political, and social structures into our individual and collective mind? And how can one do that in the domain of politics? It seems to me that politicians, opinion leaders, writers, people in the show businesses and advertorials strive for implanting ideas into people’s mind at a larger scale than Cobb and his team aims at in the movie. What is striking is that they can im- plant an idea even without entering into the dreams of each individual and going all the way down to the ‘limbo’. Starting from such mind-boggling questions, I will write a brief review on ideas and their role in day-to-day politics and their influence in the field of political science.

Sigmund Freud, founding father of psychoanalytical method in psychiatry, written a great deal on dreams, subconscious and mind. Freud, to his dismay, conceded that he failed to come up with an answer to the aged-old question as to what a woman wants – which, I suppose, will remain a mystery quite a long time. Like most of the men who want to figure out what is in women’s mind, politicians always wonder what the public wants. They want to learn more about the demands and desires of the public in order to find new ways to either satisfy them or more likely to manipulate them. Throughout his- tory political movements which succeeded in winning the hearts and minds of the public were the ones that grasped the public desire well enough to manipulate them to their own advantage.

Every political movement starts with an idea, revolves around that fundamental idea and its off-shoots, competes and clashes with other ideas and eventually permeates into the hearts and minds of people. By and large politics is about selling ideas to the public and winning the public opinion. In other words, politicians do what Cobb and his colleagues do in the movie: implanting an idea into people’s mind. Politicians, opinion leaders, writers, people in the show businesses, advertorials bombard us with so many ideas in every moment of our life. I am not saying we are living in a dream, on the contrary, we live in an absolute reality but we are frequently exposed to a myriad of ideas even if we are awake. Some of those ideas take root in our mind, turn into knowledge or memories, and manifest itself in behaviour whereas the rest lurks around the maze of sub-conscious or simply vanishes in the air.

What are ideas, then? Broadly speaking, ideas include images, symbols, complexes, emotions, norms, beliefs, and values that carry meanings about the world and attributes meanings to material realities. Building blocks of reality are ideational as well as material. Material things are out there and it is easy to identify them when we see one. Whereas ideas are not tangible and not easily identified, hence it is hard to predict their effect on behaviour. Yet, ideas are non-negligible and their impact can be more vital than material elements. An idea is a living creature or a virus as Cobb calls in the movie. It is contagious, it can be planted, diffused, imitated; it can be creative as well as destructive; besides, it can be good or bad regardless of its truth claims. When an individual believes in an idea, s/he automatically renders it true. When enough number of individuals believes in an idea, it becomes a social truth and a reality. By this way, sociologist Robert Merton argues, even a false description of an idea can cause a chain of errors which results in the actual reification of the initially wrong truth claims of the idea.

From a methodological individualist viewpoint in political science, ideas exist because an individual want them so, hence their existence depends on the will of the individual. In this individualistic reductionist paradigm, ideas are treated as either a complementary or an intervening variable which cannot explain human behaviour on their own. The role they play in human action is merely instrumental so as to see the situation from a slightly different angle. The role of ideas remains important as long as ideas help to solve the problems that decision-makers encounter. Nonetheless, this reductionist account is incomplete since it overlooks the socio-cultural environment in which an idea emerges.

On the other hand, looking through a holistic and sociological prism, some scholars ar- gue that ideas enjoy their own life and their ultimate influence on human behaviour is more than being an intervening variable. As long as an idea is shared by many and institutionalized within the social structures it gains its own life and wields a unique impact on individual action even it is against the will of an individual or even if an individual is not aware of. In this holistic paradigm, ideas are regarded as intersubjective, normative, and constitutive rather than objective, instrumental and regulative. Ideas are not solely new information that needs to be counted in the rational calculations. Rather than focusing on the agent and cognitive processes ideas are treated in its social and historical context. Indeed, ideas pertain to social structures, and thus ideas cannot be comprehended apart from their social origins. Alexander Wendt defines ideas as ‘socially shared knowledge’, which are more than a total of shared ideas of individuals. Ideas criss-cross cognitive and social aspects of human mind. According to this school of thought ideas do not work mechanically in a deterministic way. Ideas not only prescribe but also proscribe certain actions and policies. Thus, the causal mechanism of ideational factors is relative in the sense that their impact varies across time and space since the impact de- pends on social and historical context.

How does an idea come into existence? How does an idea spread? How do people espouse an idea? What makes an idea more powerful than its rivals? To my knowledge, we know little as to how an idea pops up in the mind. The formation of an idea necessitates a bunch of factors that shapes, and nurtures the idea, and links its existence to time and space. The substance of an idea is of great importance for its life-span and resiliency. Ideas that affect our subconscious states of mind such as danger, fear, food, and sex have different influences than the ideas that affect socially-oriented high-level cognitive states of mind such as shame, pride, social acceptance, and justice. However, when it comes to politics, power of an idea lies not so much in the substance of that idea but in its ability to problematize existing ideas and mobilize social structures so as to garner more support. It would be erroneous to try to comprehend an idea out of its context in which it is born. Once Victor Hugo claimed that ‘all the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come.’ Put differently, a political idea can tip when the circumstances are ripe. An idea might exist for a long time but it reaches its zenith if and only if it is acclaimed by a significant majority of the public.

Any political idea should be articulated one way or other either through speech or writing. Unuttered, unarticulated idea is nothing more than a chemical reaction in our brain. Sharing the idea reifies it by making it social. While language is the instrument that provides signs and symbols to express ideas, individuals such as politicians, academics, opinion leaders are the ones who utter political ideas and draw attention to that specific idea. Articulation of an idea is much more complex than language itself. I, therefore, at- tribute more power to an individual than the language as individuals per se are the idea entrepreneurs, who not only utter ideas but also sell it to the others and act on that idea. Idea entrepreneurs (read: politicians and political elites) not only utter their ideas with the help of the language but they also use metaphors, analogies and frames to persuade recipients (read: public) into the idea. Idea entrepreneurs are vigorous promoters of ideas. To put it frankly, idea entrepreneurs sell the idea by wrapping it with the cultural and historical foil of the time and society. So, an idea entrepreneur is an idea-hunter, idea-producer and idea-seller. Besides, s/he must embody the idea but not necessarily adhere to it wholeheartedly and s/he has to have an ability to act on that idea.

Alongside the relationship between idea entrepreneurs and the recipients, societal factors facilitate or constrain the pace of spread of ideas. Acclamation of an idea entails a social network. Exploring such social networks would help to understand the phenomenon of social contagion. Ideas can trickle down from the society to agent as well as they can trickle up from agent to the society. Ideas diffuse into every member of the society at exponential rate that is spreading geometrically rather than arithmetically in proportion with the number of its bearers. Hence, social proximity between idea entrepreneurs and the public and the social proximity between different social networks within a society determine the pace and scope of the social contagion.

“Any political idea should be articulated one way or other either through speech or writing.Unuttered, unarticulated idea is nothing more than chemical reaction in our brain. Sharing the idea reifies it by making it social. “

In the opening scene of the movie Cobb tries to convince a businessman Saito to get training in order to protect himself, or rather his mind from the dream extractors. Then the question is in information age how can we protect ourselves from the chunks of ideas served to us every moment? Should we just listen to the voice of our conscience? Notwithstanding intuitive judgment, the best solution seems, at least to me, to be self-reflexive so that we can assess the validity of those ideas by reflecting on ourselves as well as on every idea we are exposed to. In other words, having an idea about the idea might protect us from being infected by absurd and delusive ideas of the past and present, such as racism, ethnic and religious fundamentalism. Otherwise, it is highly likely that as Cobb’s deceased wife Mal did to herself in the movie we will pursue an absurd idea to the point it destroys us and others. PR


* Kadri Kaan Renda is Doctoral Researcher at King’s College, London.

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