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Surveillance Screens and Screening in Code 46

Peter Marks

Contemporary culture’s association of screens with surveillance dates from 1949, the year George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was published. Posters reminding citizens that ‘Big Brother is Watching You’ dominate the dystopic landscape of Airstrip One, while Winston Smith’s squalid flat contains a telescreen on which

[H]e could be seen as well as heard. . . How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. . . .You had to live — did live, from habit that became instinct — in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and except in darkness, every movement scrutinised. (Orwell 1998: 4-5)

Half a century after Orwell, Jennifer Ringley connected a camera in her college dormitory to her computer, creating the first widely accessed webcam site, “Jennicam”, which for 7 years presented a visual diary of her life to the world’s computer screens. Soon after, Dutch company Endemol co-opted the brand name and basic elements from Nineteen Eighty-Four, refashioning them into a television show that spread like a global virus, ensuring that today ‘Big Brother’ signifies celebrity, prizes and media stunts as much as state oppression. Orwellian parallels proliferate in Jennicam and Big Brother, an obvious difference being that while Winston Smith feels (and is meant to feel) dominated by constant monitoring, his modern counterparts actively court scrutiny. Additionally, in the modern version mass audiences replace the relatively small, intrusive and malignant force of Thought Police, the totalitarian imperative of surveillance superseded by a profitable blend of voyeurism and consumerism. For some (for example, Couldry 2004), the emergence of surveillance as entertainment marks a fascinating cultural moment. From a rather different vantage point John McGrath, in Loving Big Brother (2004) explores among other things how surveillance can, does and might inform theatre performance and reception. Slavoj Zizek proposes an existential reading of this revisioning of surveillance, commenting that “[w]hat we obtain here is the tragi-comic reversal of the Bentham-Orwellian notion of the Panopticon-society in which we are (potentially) ‘observed always’ and have no place to hide from the omnipotent gaze of the Power: today, anxiety seems to arise from the prospect of NOT being exposed to the Other’s gaze all the time, so that the subject needs the camera’s gaze as a kind of ontological guarantee of his/her being” (Zizek 2002: 225).

Zizek registers how, along with Nineteen Eighty-Four, Jeremy Bentham’s eighteenth century Panopticon has been inscribed as a determining metaphor of contemporary surveillance theory. Its anachronistic centrality owes everything to Michel Foucault, especially his Discipline and Punish (1979), but Foucault succeeds by inverting Bentham’s overtly utopian purpose. The original architectural model was meant to improve the behaviour and administration of the Panopticon’s inhabitants (whether prisoners, the insane, workers, hospital patients or students). Bentham argues further that the Panopticon will reform society generally, offering those not incarcerated within its walls a model for rational, productive and socially acceptable action. By contrast, the surveillance regimes written about so persuasively by Foucault offer models of totalitarian power. The virtues and shortcomings of this revision of Bentham are less important for what follows than that Bentham, Orwell, and Foucault all can be seen working within the realm of the utopia, a term capacious enough to incorporate positive and negative projections. As I argue elsewhere (Marks 2005) utopias provide particularly illuminating thought experiments for considering surveillance as it expands, morphs, and intrudes in new and complex ways into modern life. My focus here, Michael Winterbottom’s edgy 2003 film Code 46, examines new directions in and possibilities for surveillance that move beyond, or, in some senses, beneath that envisaged by Bentham, Orwell, or Foucault. Humans are made up from 46 chromosomes, and as its title indicates the film investigates the surveillance of DNA in a world complicated by recent advances in reproductive procedures. But it folds other, sometimes much older surveillance practices and systems into the mix, as well as drawing on long-established tropes and questions associated with utopias. By integrating surveillance and utopia, Code 46 fashions a provocative and alarming account of possible things to come.

As a piece of cinema, Code 46 has technological connections to the telescreens of Nineteen-Eighty Four and conceptual links to the visuality of the Panopticon, whose very name encodes the dominant form of control proposed by Bentham. The title of this article plays on various meanings of screens and screening, beginning with the common visual sense of ‘screening’ as the projection of images on to a screen. In contemporary surveillance, the computer screen, part of new technology that has transformed and massively expanded the range and type of surveillance undertaken, has supplemented cinema and television screens. The future world conjured up in Code 46 employs a variety of these screens to create a network of visual surveillance that tracks, monitors and attempts to regulate the behaviour of its citizens. Surveillance has long been part of the medical lexicon, where ‘screening’ involves a form of filtering or testing to determine the presence of disease or abnormality. In the world of genetics and genetic surveillance this form of screening has controversial implications and applications, including, as Jennifer Poudrier (2003) records, various forms of genetic discrimination. One of Code 46’s central concerns lies in the ways in which medical advances in the area of reproduction complicate questions of identity in providing novel ways by which humans can be created: IVF, cloning, and embryo splitting among them. Given that the widespread use of these developments greatly increases the possibility of genetically-related couples unknowingly or knowingly having sex, medical progress itself requires regulatory screening; the Code 46 of the film’s title sets out both the rules for procreation and the punishments imposed for the infringement of those rules.

Screens can also act as barriers or borders that separate individuals and groups. Screening in this sense entails another form of discrimination that reinforces economic, social and cultural hierarchies, so that those classified as ‘superior’ enjoy the benefits kept screened from their supposedly inferior counterparts. Territory in Code 46 is separated into utopian oases and surrounding dystopian badlands, the divisions enforced by patrolled checkpoints, screens through which only the sanctioned can pass. But even in the utopian spaces, passes (or ‘papelles’ in the multilingual patois of the future) monitor and administer movement within limited timeframes. One consequence is that those who stay beyond the temporal limits of their ‘cover’ risk getting trapped in zones they would rather leave. ‘Concealing’ provides another pertinent connotation of screening. The film’s protagonist, William Geld, can read minds, a type of cerebral surveillance performed on suspected criminals. Geld himself, however, becomes the victim of another form of mental intrusion when his own memories are eradicated by the State to hide his own illicit actions from him. Essentially he is screened from his own history. Yet the film’s viewers and other central characters recognise the duplicity entailed here, just as Geld and Maria have earlier come to understand that an array of screens and screening processes function to ensure social stability by masking the dystopian workings beneath the utopian surfaces.

Before exploring in more depth the questions Code 46 raises about screens and screenings, utopias and dystopias, a short plot summary will help orient the discussion. The narrative hinges on the relationship in a near-future world between Geld, an investigator employed by the Sphinx corporation that oversees surveillance, and one of its employees, Maria Gonzales, who manufactures papelles enabling people to travel to otherwise restricted places. Geld arrives from his home city of Seattle to Shanghai, where papelles offering short-term ‘cover’ are created. A number of these have been stolen, and Geld interviews a small group of suspects, one of whom is Gonzales, using an ‘empathy’ virus which enhances his innate clairvoyance. Having met Gonzales by chance before entering the manufacturing plant, Geld finds himself puzzlingly attracted to her. Although his mind reading reveals her as guilty, he falsely accuses another worker, who is expelled from the utopian First World urban cluster of Shanghai to ‘el fuera’ (Spanish for Outside), the desert-like Third World regions that surround it. Geld subsequently meets with Gonzales, and after she passes a stolen papelle to her friend Damian, they return to her flat where she and Geld have sex. Limited to 24-hour cover in Shanghai, he returns home to his wife and son in Seattle, although he remains obsessed by Gonzales.

Damian’s death soon after, the result of him entering a zone from which he had been prohibited for medical reasons, forces Geld to return to Shanghai. When he does so he finds that Gonzales has been hospitalised with ‘body issues’ he discovers have to do with a violation of Code 46, which proscribes sex between genetically related couples. Geld secretly has his and Gonzales’ DNA tested, discovering that she is a clone of his mother. Still smitten, he conceals this information from her. (She, in her turn, has had her memory of the sex with him and the subsequent pregnancy medically erased under Code 46 regulations.) Their continuing relationship being illegal (even if Gonzales is ignorant of the full truth) they escape from Shanghai to the Freeport of Jebel Ali. But their flight from authorities ends in a car crash, and they are captured. Geld has his memory wiped by the State and is rehabilitated, returning to the utopian world of Seattle. By harsh contrast Gonzales is consigned to the dystopian world Outside, and we see her in the closing shots as a bereft figure, wandering aimlessly and helplessly through a barren landscape.

Surveillance, Utopias and Screens

The intersection of surveillance and utopias predates Nineteen-Eighty-Four by several millennia, Plato’s Republic being overseen by Guardians, represented through the metaphor of the watchdog. In Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) there are no places for privacy, while Bentham’s Panopticon attempts to employ surveillance for transformative social improvement. Each scheme exemplifies the ‘social dreaming’ that Gregory Claeys and Lyman Tower Sargent take as defining ‘utopianism’, which they define as “the imaginative projection, positive or negative, of a society that it substantially different from the one in which the author live” (Claeys and Sargent, 1999: 1). The utopian genre thus provides a conceptual umbrella for subgenres including the eutopia or positive utopia, the dystopia or negative utopia, the utopian satire, the anti-utopia and the critical utopia. This taxonomy suggests that the imagined world is either positive or negative, but many utopian works incorporate both elements. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), for example, has a rich, stable World State dotted with bleak Savage Reservations, a division muddied by the fact that a few malcontents within the World State abhor what for them is a dystopian world of narcissism and stasis. Code 46 adopts a similar geographical pattern and social critique, at least in the case of Geld and Gonzales, who flee the materialist and monitored environs of Shanghai for the grim but potential freer world Outside.

The connections between surveillance, utopias and screens also predate Nineteen Eighty-Four, two examples coming from cinema. In Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) the Master of Metropolis administers the fantastic future world via a screen that oversees the city’s inhabitants. Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) begins with Chaplin trapped on a highly Taylorised utopian production line controlled via a form of telescreen that predates Orwell by more than decade; when Chaplin escapes to the locker room for a cigarette, the boss who observes the illicit act on screen forces him back to work. Post-Nineteen Eighty-Four the cinematic connections between surveillance, utopias and screens continue, most recently in films such as The Truman Show (Peter Weir 1998), where the constructed idyll of Seahaven is under constant watch by a television studio and a world-wide audience, or Minority Report (Steven Spielberg 2002), in which clairvoyants’ visions of the future are downloaded by police and used to thwart murders before they take place. Gattaca (Andrew Niccol 1997), though, is a closer match to Code 46, in that both envisage future worlds in which DNA plays a determining factor in access to or exclusion from utopia.

These two films move beyond mere visual surveillance to worlds where an array of monitoring mechanisms on cctv, teleconferencing and computer screens track different markers of identity, and where authorities attempt to monitor and mould behaviour to ensure the maintenance of what are perceived or propounded as utopias. Of the two, Code 46 presents a more complex and plausible projection of what David Lyon in an authoritative study labelled Surveillance Society (2001) but both show how the computer screen adds immeasurably to the arsenal of surveillance tools. Fantastic though it might have seemed to Orwell’s first readers, as Lev Manovich points out the computer screen (also termed, aptly enough, a ‘monitor’) emerges from World War II military strategy and technology, along a surveillance continuum including still photography, moving film, and radar. Its function was effectively “to process and display information gathered by radar” and it was for this reason that the computer screen itself was developed. (Manovich 2002: 100) Importantly, what was being gathered and processed here was not images but information, and while the public largely understands surveillance in vaguely Orwellian terms of cctv cameras observing public spaces, contemporary surveillance crucially involves the gathering, processing and assessing of (often personal) data in ways unrecognised by those under scrutiny.

Screening Spaces

Radar scrutinises spaces in order to detect intruders, and this border patrol function is central to modern surveillance. Yet the borders need not be national ones, as internal zones within regions, cities and buildings need to be monitored as well. Although Code 46 deals with the surveillance of the body (something dealt with in the next section) the initial narrative impetus comes from the theft of papelles that allow short term access to restricted areas or activities. The film opens with aerial shots of a largely desert-like world marked only by occasional hieroglyphs of human habitation. We see Geld in the plane taking him to Shanghai, looking down on the landscape, his lofty signifying an elevated position in a world divided into wealthy utopian enclaves and dystopian desolation, where social and economic divisions accord to modern First World and Third World categories. These contiguous zones are patrolled and controlled by borders and barriers that screen out those who for largely unexplained reasons are denied access to the wealth and ease of the cities. The excluded must live in harsh deserts surrounding the affluent zones, or in poor conurbations. As a consequence of his privilege, Geld passes quickly through the first screen, an airport check-in, before taking a taxi into Shanghai. On the way he comments on the harsh conditions in the desert surrounds to his driver who replies sardonically that, “It’s not living, just existing”, reinforcing the social and existential divisions. They then pass through a checkpoint, yet another screen that separates the social zones, protecting those with access from those without it. Here Geld must employ another electronic document, a pass or ‘papelle’ that allows him to enter Shanghai.

Geld’s progress over the dystopian waste and into utopian comfort only slightly extends the experience of many Western travellers today. In a world of increasing mobility, in which globalisation entices citizens from the developing world to try their economic luck legally or illegally in more economically developed nations, the argument today for increased surveillance has become louder and more insistent in the recipient countries. The prospect of millions of environmental refugees, raised by Al Gore in the documentary An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim, 2006) suggests that problems of defining and maintaining national borders in times of ongoing global disaster might well become one of the twenty-first century’s most compelling ‘problems’. Border control is not new in itself, of course, John Torpey offering a detailed and wide-ranging account of the history of this surveillance of national spaces in The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship and the State (2000). For Torpey, a crucial development comes with the introduction of the international passport during World War I. More recently Didier Bigo notes that “[t]he function of border change with the regime (political and economic) over time” and that the “delimitation between inside and outside is not a natural one” but is framed by “the routines of technologies of surveillance” (Bigo, 2006: 53). While questions of access at the macro level are pressing, in modern surveillance societies scrutinised entry to and between different zones within borders has been normalised. Maria Los notes that in surveillance worlds in “order to exercise freedom and become included in multiple zones of freedom, we have to present a proof of our legitimate identity, which allows for both individualization and authorization.” She quotes from Nikolas Rose’s Powers of Freedom (1999), where Rose speaks of the “securitization of identity” in terms of the conditional nature of “access to circuits of consumption and civility” as we daily pass numerous “recurrent switch points. . . .in order to access the benefits of liberty” (Los, 2006: 73). Both immigrants and citizens negotiate external and internal screens to gain access to benefits, submitting themselves to surveillance systems designed to establish their digital identity. Only then can they enjoy benefits, or be screened from them.

In the early stages of Code 46, Geld has privileged access to most areas and their benefits. But the time limits placed on his cover for Shanghai signal that his movements are circumscribed by temporal as well as physical boundaries, that the exercise of freedom even within the utopian space is limited. In Geld’s case it is predominantly functional; he has freedom only to perform his job, to repair the screens that have been perforated by the theft of the papelles. And of course his act of deception in protecting Gonzales ensures that the repair work is not undertaken, so that her friend Damian can fill his dream as a naturalist to visit a particular colony of bats that inhabit a cave near Delhi. For eight years Damian has been denied cover to go there, but the stolen papelle permits him to fulfil a childhood desire. When Geld argues the authorities’ case that if the Sphinx corporation has denied him cover there must be a good reason, Damian retorts: “Some things in life can be worth the risk. Anyone who has ever wanted something knows; you have to be prepared to take a risk to get it.” Damian’s risk-taking in fact proves fatal: he is susceptible to the bite of the bats in the cave and dies as a result of being bitten. By entering prohibited space, he puts himself (perhaps knowingly) in mortal danger. Yet this protective form of surveillance and prohibition is an exception in the film, where the rationale justifying the barriers is not explained. Once the surveillance screens are put in place, it seems, they operate independent of any underlying principle. In the first half of Code 46 Geld eases his way past these screens by a form of party trick based on his clairvoyant abilities. Each citizen on the Inside has a personal code word or ‘palabra’ supposedly known only to him or her. By successfully guessing the palabra Geld inveigles himself into forbidden zones. But when this power fails him, and once his time-restricted cover runs out, Geld himself is forced to succumb to the power of surveillance screens. An insider on the Inside suddenly finds himself on the outer. Eventually he and Gonzales escape the scrutinised spaces of the Inside for the materially poorer but less monitored el fuera regions. There their incipient romance blossoms until the measures in place under Code 46 track them down, precipitating the car crash. At this point the border screen is reinstated with telling effect, Gonzales being kept Outside while Geld is returned to the inner sanctum of Seattle.

If metaphorical screens divide zones, more conventional cctv cameras and monitors as well as computer screens provide surveillance links across spaces. Not surprisingly in the future world the film depicts, cctv cameras scrutinise the movement and activities of citizens and (especially) workers. In addition, teleconferencing offers possibilities for more interactive communication over vastly separated spaces, though this need not necessarily be a good thing. A few examples sketch in the larger picture. At a security desk where Geld goes to find some information about Gonzales, the man on the desk, who refuses Geld access to information (information Geld will secure from him by clairvoyance) is himself under constant cctv scrutiny. The plant where the papelles are made, naturally enough, is under constant visual surveillance, but in an indicative show of the way screen surveillance can be carried out at a distance, Geld at one point observes Gonzales at work in Shanghai from his office in Seattle. Given his passion for her, any putative security motive he might have for looking at her is massively overridden by voyeurism. But he himself is under some form of observation from afar when he conducts videoconferences. One is with his son, in which the positive ability of this technology to promote quasi-personal communication is registered. But he also conducts a rather colder videoconference call with his boss, who demands that he return from Seattle to Shanghai to find out who really has been stealing the papelles. David Lyon notes that in a surveillance society where so many of our interactions are not face to face, or take place with individuals we cannot see (what he calls a world of “disappearing bodies”) “[g]reat effort is expended . . . in attempting to make disappearing bodes reappear, as for example in a videoconference” (Lyon 2001: 16). But the screen exchange between Geld and his boss is marked by her unemotional professionalism and his floundering attempts to extract himself from suspicion. The exchange also indicates that he is under surveillance by his own firm, his boss’s stern tone registering the scrutiny he is under. Even the relatively elite on the Inside are monitored, and (as Winston Smith does) come to recognise that reality.

Computer screens also function to maintain the surveillance system. Modern information-based societies today rely on ‘dataveillance’, what Roger Clarke defines as “the systematic monitoring of people’s actions or communications through the application of information technology” (cited in Lyon 2001: 143). Dataveillance gets carried out by private and commercial agencies as well as by the state, so that at the everyday level credit and bank cards provide records of an individual’s transactions, as well as their time and location. Geld’s easy movement between sometimes restricted spaces and zones is less dependent on his corporeal self than on information about him, a composite digital figure sometimes called a ‘digital double,’ each of which has what Daniel Solove has termed a “digital dossier” (See Solove 2004: 13-26). This dataveillance, carried out with digitised information and displayed and therefore regulated from computer screens enables what Oscar Gandy labels The Panoptic Sort (Landy 1993), which uses individual and group data to classify people by criteria that can lead to forms of inclusion in or exclusion from regions, as well as from a multitude of goods and services. This form of screening, often unknown to those classified by it, has generated the surveillance neologisms “data-mining” and “digital discrimination”. Data-mining integrates two aspects of surveillance and screening--information and prediction. Gandy defines it as “a process that has as its goal the transformation of raw data into information that can be utilized as strategic intelligence within the context of an organization’s identifiable goals.” This rather bland statement has important implications:

At its core, data-mining is concerned with prediction. Data-mining efforts are directed towards the identification of behaviour and status markers that serve as reliable indicators of a probable future. (Gandy 2006: 364)

While Geld’s behaviour falls within the parameters of the acceptable, his digital double retains its sanctioned status, allowing him access to select zones. Once his behaviour, mapped via that double, becomes either unpredictable or illicit, access is denied to the ‘real’ figure; data-mining gives way to digital discrimination.

Screening Bodies

The often-ambiguous relationship between real and digital selves feeds into Code 46, but the film’s title indicates its main focus of attention as the body, or at least the complications generated by recent advances in reproductive technology. Utopias have a long history of interest in reproductive strategies that attempt to duplicate the perfection or radical improvement of political states in humans themselves: in The Republic breeding takes place between members of the same caste, so as to improve the quality of (especially) the elite gold caste, while in Brave New World futuristic technology (for the time) produces sets of citizens custom-made for different roles. Code 46 also envisages a future world fashioned in part by genetics, and the rules of the code itself are overlayed on the opening shots. The first article reads as follows:

Any human being who shares the same nuclear gene set as another human being is deemed to be genetically identical. The relations of one are the relations of all. Due to IVF, DI embryo splitting and cloning techniques it is necessary to prevent any accidental or deliberately genetically incestuous reproduction, therefore

  1. All prospective parents should be genetically screened before conception. If they have 100%, 50% or 25% genetic identity, they are not permitted to conceive
  2. If the pregnancy is unplanned, the foetus must be screened. Any pregnancy resulting from100%, 50% or 25% genetically related parents must be terminated immediately
  3. If the parents were ignorant of their genetic relationship then medical intervention is authorised to prevent any further breach of Code 46
  4. If the parents knew they were genetically related prior to conception it is a criminal breach of Code 46

Mandatory screening must take place either before conception (subsection i) or after it if the pregnancy is unplanned (subsection ii). In both instances this compulsory process determines whether prospective parents are permitted to have children, whether a foetus is permitted to develop, or whether it must be aborted under state supervision.  These stipulations in some ways are far more punitive than those in the film that shares a family resemblance to: Gattaca. Both essentially dystopian films consider genetic advances, but whereas in Gattaca genetic differences divide humans hierarchically into superior, privileged Valids and inferior In-Valids, the rules imposed under Code 46 focus on stamping out the prospect of incestuous reproduction that have resulted from medical advances. In Gattaca, surveillance centres on denying InValids access to the zones and privileges of their supposed genetic betters, while in Code 46 the separation of utopian and dystopian spaces is fundamental to the maintenance of social stability, with the genetic problems being secondary. Nevertheless, the violation of Code 46 constitutes a dangerous breaking of rules, especially given mandatory screening of prospective couples and the children they create.

For Geld (whose name carries obvious connotations in terms of reproduction) and Gonzales, the breaking of Code 46 has far more serious implications than the cover up of stolen papelles, even if this is the cause that initially brings them together. What neither of them realises at their first meetings is that they are genetically related: Gonzales is a clone of Geld’s mother, while he has no ‘birth’ parents as such, being the product of in vitro reproductive treatment. These arcane medical facts mean that their relationship, especially as it becomes sexual, raises worrying implications of incest and Oedipal forces at work. As it is meant to do, the surveillance of pregnant women such as Gonzales reveals the disturbing truth. A doctor later explains to Geld that Gonzales’s pregnancy was terminated by the state as a result of the Code 46 violation, and that her immediate memories of the pregnancy and its cause have been taken out as well. Consequently, she has no recollection of the abortion. Having found out these details he secretly has them confirmed by DNA testing that he conceals from her. Thus their escape to Jebel Ali, where they continue to have sex, is an act of massive bad faith on Geld’s part. Their earlier sex violated subsection iii of Article 1 of Code 46, while the excuse that they could not possibly know of their genetic links is invalidated by the fact that the code’s prohibitions and demands for mandatory screening are designed to prevent just such acts. The sex in Jebel Ali, though, is even more illicit given that Geld now knows that he is consciously having sex with a genetic relative. Gonzales does not, however, and one of the cruel complexities of the film is that she is made to suffer great deprivation, while he eventually continues on in blissful and materially rich ignorance. The spatial surveillance that ultimately keeps them apart, though, is triggered by genetic surveillance.

As with spatial surveillance, genetic surveillance functions not only as a form of screening, but also is carried out using computers and various form of screens. In Gattaca, when the parents of the protagonist, Vincent Freeman, find that the mother is pregnant again, they begin the process of selecting a more genetically perfect egg by looking at potential ‘candidates’ on a video screen. In Code 46, information of the background of the parents that begins to link Geld and Gonzales also is displayed on screens. The actual genetic test that confirms the genetic fit is not shown of itself, but the speed with which it is carried out makes it certain that a computer has performed the process, with the results displayed on a monitor for the laboratory technician. She subsequently shows the findings to Geld using a computer program that presents the digital information in the pictorial form of two colour-coded double helixes, one for the Geld’s mother, the other for Gonzales herself. When these two towers of DNA are brought together on the screen, the perfect mapping of one onto the other confirms Geld’s fears. The technician’s subsequent quizzing of Geld about the provenance of the samples and her admonition that the couple bearing these DNA sequences are forbidden by Code 46 to have sexual relations causes Geld to bluster badly. The revelation momentarily undermines him and he starts to flee Shanghai for the safety of home. Only then does he discover that he has exceeded the time limits on his cover and cannot leave for Seattle. The same system that in the first instance allowed him to pass through the borders that screen Shanghai from the surrounding environs now refuses him a way out. He is forced to ask help from Gonzales for another stolen papelle, but in the end cannot bring himself to part with her, despite his knowledge (and her ignorance) of the fact that, genetically speaking, their relationship is incestuous.

Screening Memory

If screens and screening can separate, discriminate and reveal, they can also conceal, and the perplexing ending of Code 46 hinges on the fact that the state has screened certain vital information from both the protagonists. That they inhabit starkly different spaces, enduring or enjoying remarkably different lives (one in some ways utopian, the other more obviously dystopian) is complicated by their ignorance, which, at least in the case of Geld, ensures the ongoing stability of utopia. Gonzales had the embryo from her sexual encounter with Geld aborted under the provisions of Code 46. At the same time, the doctor overseeing the procedure tells Geld, Gonzales’s so-called “memory cluster” of the sexual act itself and any memory of the sexual partner (Geld) were also has eradicated. Since surveillance involves information as well as images, information can be manipulated or destroyed to produce results amenable to state policy. By eradicating her memory, the regime has hidden from her the original criminal act, and this potentially allows her to be integrated back into the social system. She returns to her job at the papelle manufacturing plant, but as her memory of stealing papelles has not been erased, she is placed at a lower level of security clearance.  Having beaten the surveillance screens before, she loses access to restricted areas where they are made.

Geld, by contrast, knows what she does not, and this includes the fact that they not only had sex but that perhaps in the past they had fallen in love. Certainly he remains obsessed, which only adds to his despair that she does not remember him at all. In order to re-establish himself in her memory and therefore in her life, he shows her video footage taken on the night they met Damian. We can see this as an instance of the modern phenomenon of ‘peer-to-peer surveillance’ in which people record with various audio and visual digital devices their actions and that of their friends. But though the video recreates his ‘presence’ in her former life, the evidence of events for which she has no recollection distresses her deeply, undermining her comprehension of her past and consequently her sense of herself. In this instance the video screen, as it reconstructs the reality of past events and people, partly deconstructs her identity. Once she has integrated the screen memory into her own recollections, she can ‘begin’ a relationship with Geld, one that for him is a continuation of their emotional narrative. The video, though, has only shown her that she spent time with Geld in the past, not that she has been intimate with him, or that she became pregnant because of that intimacy. Screened from a full understanding of their relationship, she subsequently acts in innocence of the true implications of her actions. By contrast, Geld, who knows all the facts, screens her from them in order to pursue his own desires, using the state’s wiping of her memory for his own advantage.

The state’s ability to ‘wash’ or reprogram the brains of its citizens for its own benefit has an obvious dystopian precursor in Nineteen Eighty-Four, where the traumatised Winston Smith ultimately professes to love Big Brother. Orwell’s model for this ending might well have been Yevgeny Zamyatin’s futuristic We (1927) which he reviewed in 1946 (Orwell 1970: 95-100).  This influential projection of a hyper-rationalist state, which also presages elements in Brave New World, ends with its protagonist, D503, undergoing a state-imposed Great Operation, essentially a lobotomy, and subsequently proclaiming his faith in the world he had previously rebelled against. The removal of Gonzales’s memory of her initial relationship with Geld and her subsequent abortion are not so transformative for her — certainly she does not worship the state as a result. But it does serve to pacify her and make her reusable by the state, until she rebels again and flees to Jebel Ali with Geld.  But the eradication of her memory must also be seen in relation to the same process being performed on Geld. After the car crash that sees them both captured and her assigned to the Outside, Geld is rehabilitated to the Inside, where his serious infraction of Code 46 is rationalised as being the result of the empathy virus. He then has his memories of his rebellious acts wiped by medical procedure, and now completely unaware of the existence of Gonzales, he returns to his wife and son in Seattle. We see him finally in a passionate embrace with his wife, back in the luxurious comfort he had enjoyed before his momentous trip to Shanghai. The last shot of Gonzales has her wandering the barren sands el fuera in the clothes of a poor Third World pedlar, distraught about the loss of her beloved. Code 46 ends with her cry in voice over: “I miss you”.

The mental screening process that both have undergone complicates and extends the poignancy of that expression of love and loss. Gonzales has had her earlier memories wiped, but not her recall of their ‘romantic’ time together in Jebel Ali. To add to her suffering, she must deal with this anguish in the ravaged zone Outside, its poverty a harsh analogue of her emotional state. Worse still, she remains ignorant of the memory wipe and that Geld withheld the fact that they are genetically related, something not only that required them to escape the Inside, but also which constituted the real reason why eventually she is expelled from the Inside. All this remains screened from her. Her continuing love for the person who deceived her in order to reinvigorate his compromised and illicit sexual desire is simultaneously touching and agonising. Geld, however, on the utopian side of the border that separates them, has no memory at all of her, and so the despair at the ending of their relationship is something only she experiences. He, on the other hand, can carry on in pleasure-filled innocence, ignorant of his earlier rebellion. Screening (in the sense of concealing) Geld’s memories from him allows him to be reincorporated back into mainstream society in a move that illustrates how surveillance systems, by tracking down illicit behaviour that is subsequently neutralised, can maintain social stability. Those on the Outside are not subject to the same level of scrutiny, except when they attempt to evade or break through the screens that separate them from the Inside, and so, ironically, Gonzales is under less surveillance than Geld. But in this case, as in the contemporary world, she like countless excluded others, would rather be Inside. People are willing to endure surveillance if it ensures security and comfort; the price of utopia may be eternal vigilance.

Yet while Geld seems to benefit inordinately despite his rebellion, in fact his repeated resistance to and evasion of the surveillance systems guarantees that he will be under even more scrutiny in the future. The potential for resistance is built into the dynamics of surveillance. Haggerty and Ericson note that Gary Marx has identified eleven tactics used for subverting and resisting surveillance (including switching, distorting, avoidance, masking, and co-operation) adding themselves that “[a]ll such efforts are based in an assumed familiarity with the protocols and optics of a particular surveillance system, knowledge that is used to defeat, deceive, or subvert the system” (Haggerty and Ericson 2006: 19-20). Geld and Gonzales at times employ some of these tactics themselves, but Code 46 shows that resistance may not succeed. While subversive and resilient individuals are able to slip between or around layers of surveillance, the accumulated force of monitoring systems tends to uncover extended or extensive rebellion. Small-scale subversion that does not undermine entrenched power can be tolerated (and might even be seen as a useful factor for maintaining a level of flexibility). Ultimately, though, the film suggests that authorities control and maintain the power that enforces decisions. And the fact that the world of the Inside is relatively utopian suggests the likelihood of compliance by its citizens; especially given the fear that rebellion or failure will lead to exile in the dystopian world of the Outside. In Code 46, surveillance can be resisted, but not in a way that seriously challenges the power structure. Geld and Gonzales are rebels on the personal level, not revolutionaries on any societal scale.

The re-incorporating of Geld into the utopian world and the expelling of Gonzales to its dystopian equivalent offers little succour for those wishing for a happy, or even an upbeat ending; we get a beat-up ending instead. Yet the film does not predict a grimly determined future where hope is eradicated as much as it depicts a potential scenario resulting from the failure to take account of complex technological, cultural and political developments. Utopias propose imaginary worlds, but inherently they provoke readers and viewers to think up alternatives, to engage in informed critiques of the proposals, to actively work to stop or at least to modify the illustrated dangers, and in doing to help construct actual worlds whose boldness and daring make them brave as well as new.


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