Twilight of the Floating Idol: On Anthony Galluzzo’s “Against the Vortex”
By Jordan S. CarrollDecember 8, 2023
Against the Vortex: "Zardoz" and Degrowth Utopias in the Seventies and Today by Anthony Galluzzo
Zardoz depicts a distant future in which a small technoscientific elite known as the Immortals have retreated into a domed community called the Vortex. The rest of humanity resides in the postapocalyptic Outlands, a barbaric zone patrolled by death squads called the Brutals. The Immortals have manipulated the Brutals to serve as a mode of population control, killing large numbers of people and, later, enslaving them to provide the Immortals with food.
As Galluzzo persuasively argues, Zardoz allegorizes the Malthusian panics of the late 1960s and ’70s. Paul R. Ehrlich’s 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb suggested that looming environmental catastrophe demanded the intervention of experts who could figure out ways to force people in poorer nations to adopt stringent birth control measures. The Immortals in Zardoz embody this vision of ecological balance achieved through totalitarian technocratic intervention. Indeed, Galluzzo observes that the Immortals live in what turns out to be a grounded interplanetary vessel, a literalization of Buckminster Fuller’s Spaceship Earth. The Immortals’ sustainable world is an enclosed system in which everything is monitored and controlled by an advanced computer.
This “hippie modernist” utopia depends on the violent exclusion and exploitation of the rest of the human population. Here Galluzzo draws a connection to the ecofascism of Garrett Hardin, who argued that well-provisioned First World nations should ride out the coming ecological collapse by hardening their borders against refugees, allowing the rest of the planet to die. This is precisely what the Immortals have done. For their part, the Brutals represent what Ehrlich would term a “death rate solution” to the issue of excess birth rates. The Immortals have invented a false religion to convince the Brutals to do their bidding: one of them pilots a giant floating head called Zardoz that booms, “The gun is good! The penis is evil!” before showering the Brutals with small arms to exterminate the planet’s surplus population.
But Connery’s Zed sees past this ruse after stumbling upon a copy of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), the source for the idol’s name. In a conceit as old as Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars, the high-tech priesthood is unmasked by an enlightened adventurer. Zed smuggles himself into the Vortex, where he quickly disrupts the bland communal life of the Immortals, who long for death after untold years of perpetual youth.
Galluzzo uses Zardoz as a tool for thinking about contemporary movements as well. He reappropriates the Immortals as an allegory for socialist tendencies such as left accelerationism and fully automated luxury communism that seek to overcome the ecological crisis through technological innovation directed by state planning. He sees the Immortals as an indictment of any politics founded on a bloodless rationality that denies affect, imagination, and embodiment.
Even more importantly, the Immortals show that a life without limitations is not worth living. Many Immortals go catatonic after being cut off for so long from the rhythms of birth and death that give shape to human existence. Galluzzo suggests that, even if techno-utopian socialists succeed in geo-engineering their way out of the threat of global climate change, they will only create a gray planet where human beings find themselves severed from communal and ecological ties.
Galluzzo’s alternative is a degrowth utopia that rejects modernity. He envisions small villages or towns surrounded by wilderness but perhaps connected by computers. He sees a world of human- and animal-powered transportation, a world without artificial light. Societies will be communal, organized around premodern political forms, and they will embrace self-imposed limits rooted in tradition. How this will be achieved remains unclear.
Adding to Galluzzo’s critique, we might understand Zed as the returning specter of political struggle that has often been banished by utopians who want to resolve capitalism’s contradictions through technical fixes. The Immortals recall the hippies in Adam Curtis’s documentary series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011), who thought they could eliminate power relationships by fostering open communication between individuals in a process modeled on cybernetic feedback loops. Satirizing the nasty interpersonal dynamics found in many communes, the Immortals engage in psychic struggle sessions that pretend to be democratic but ultimately turn out to be mechanisms for censoring and ostracizing anyone who expresses the wrong opinion. Zed’s role in the film is to bring these hidden social antagonisms to the surface.
However, as Fredric Jameson suggested in his 1974 review of the film for Jump Cut, the politics of Zardoz remain open to radically different interpretations. The Vortex may be computerized, but there is little evidence of the dynamic change we associate with modernist progress, and its inhabitants engage in handicrafts that would have made William Morris proud. Zed cuts the lives of the Immortals short, imposing a limit, but he could just as easily be seen as a Faustian or Promethean figure of virtual limitlessness. Connery bursts the bubble protecting the Vortex’s terrarium, thereby disrupting its fragile “equilibrium” and freeing the survivors to journey outward into the Outlands frontier to found a new community.
Jameson criticized Zardoz because he saw the Vortex as an anti-utopian fable that presented socialism as an affront to human nature. According to Galluzzo, though, this only reveals that orthodox Marxists are unable to come to terms with human and ecological limitations. They supposedly believe that the only thing that restricts humankind is the relations of production, and these will someday be swept away by the revolution. Galluzzo is careful to exempt some Marxists—including Jameson, in his later work—but the absence of engagement with degrowth communists such as Kohei Saito is a missed opportunity that may be attributed to the book’s publication timeline (or perhaps its page limit). A reference to Saito would have corrected the record, showing that Marx worried about capitalism’s tendency to disrupt natural cycles and looked to non-Western, precapitalist societies as models for how to reverse this damage.
Less understandable is Galluzzo’s adoption of Cold War anticommunist rhetoric to critique orthodox Marxism. Galluzzo seems to endorse Eric Voegelin’s idea that Marxism is a Gnostic political religion that strives to install humanity as a godlike power capable of dismantling the material universe and building a better world in the future. The Gnostics and Soviets supposedly seek to “immanentize the eschaton” or build heaven on earth. It is fitting, then, that the Immortals call their supercomputer the Tabernacle, a place of worship.
Galluzzo extends this argument beyond the Marxists to encompass all of modernity, which he sees as devoted to “the religion of Progress.” His modern Gnostics sin not so much against God as against their own “creaturely condition,” which they hope to transcend through technoscientific means. Like the Immortals, the Gnostic progressivists find themselves feeling inauthentic and repressed, denying their own animal embodiment in an impossible fantasy of becoming minds or spirits unrestricted by material responsibilities or impediments. We are all in danger of becoming floating heads.
There is a lot to agree with here if we limit the critique’s application to techno-utopians—one hears echoes of N. Katherine Hayles on cybernetics—but the fact that it is articulated in a conservative theological idiom should give us some pause. Other than James Lindsay, Voegelin’s most prominent contemporary heir is Mary Harrington, a so-called “reactionary feminist” who indicts the fight for transgender and reproductive rights as a Gnostic conspiracy to turn men and women into sexless, self-authoring cyborg gods. Taking up a common survivalist theme, she looks forward to the day when industrial capitalism’s collapse will return men and women to their traditional complementary roles, governed by innate sexual dimorphism. Given this argument’s potential to slide into fascism, we should be highly skeptical whenever someone frames the allegedly “natural” body as inherently normative.
To his credit, though, Galluzzo is a much more complicated and ambivalent thinker than either Voegelin or Harrington. He endorses traditionalism but describes the heterosexual nuclear family as a “dead end.” He calls for a return to embodied nature but allows that humans must necessarily create social and symbolic worlds that are more than natural. Although he sometimes treats biophysical limits as moral constraints, he begins a more productive line of inquiry when he takes up the work of Martin Hägglund, who suggested that our finitude is precisely what commands us to be free. Knowing that both our lives and the planet are fragile and finite, we cannot abdicate our choices about what to do with them to capitalism. Limits are incitements to democratic and anti-capitalist freedom. Galluzzo’s fascinating meditations on Zardoz are sure to provoke spirited debate.
Ecological limits can be answered equally well by calls for austerity or autonomy, and this points to a larger problem surrounding degrowth discourse. We have precise accounts of how capitalism imposes economic growth as social necessity, but degrowth often appears as a bundle of policy options that might be implemented by any number of social systems. Political theorists have attached the adjective “degrowth” to revolutionary, reformist, or reactionary tendencies. We on the left need to make a sharp distinction between our degrowth and theirs.
This is maybe too big a problem for Zardoz to resolve, but we can begin by affirming Saito’s argument that degrowth communism should expand the realm of freedom as far as the realm of ecological necessity will allow. Rather than demand that everyone curb their excessive appetites and return to the virtues of tradition, we should encourage many different experiments in sustainable living, including what Kate Soper calls “alternative hedonisms.” A degrowth utopia worth fighting for might therefore look campy, queer, weird, extravagant—it might look like Zardoz.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Andrew Ahern reviews Kohei Saito’s “Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism.”
Terry Babcock-Lumish reviews Greta Thunberg’s “The Climate Book.”
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