Inception and the Shared Dreams of the Digital Humanities

“What’s the most resilient parasite? An idea. A single idea from the human mind can build cities. An idea can transform the world and rewrite all the rules. Which is why I have to steal it.”

Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), from the movie Inception (2010)

As part of its critical reception, Inception has been frequently linked with the film Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982). A.O. Scott’s review at The New York Times was one of many that touted a connection between the two films. Beyond cinematic comparisons, I want to consider how Inception might, like Blade Runner, inspire new academic discourses and commentaries on digital culture. In this regard, I am thinking about the plethora of scholarly articles and books on Blade Runner by scholars such as Giuliana Bruno and her famous essay on Ramble City and postmodernism, or Scott Bukatman and his book on Blade Runner, or Mike Davis’s use of the film to describe actual scenarios in contemporary urban environments. In a similar vein, I believe it is worth considering Inception as a film that reveals something important about our current cultural moment. What is the hermeneutic power of Inception? Does Christopher Nolan’s film have the same capacity as Blade Runner to inspire new ways of thinking about technology, media, and culture?

Inception contains big ideas and offers a more complex narrative design than the typical summer blockbuster. Director Christopher Nolan’s digitally-created dream worlds required an extensive budget (reportedly around 200 million dollars), so its big ideas are embedded in a film that tries to have it both ways: entertaining mainstream audiences while also trying to appeal to the art house crowd. While I have issues with the film as a film (i.e. I would probably not put its cinematic accomplishments on the same level as Blade Runner, or even The Matrix), I have a hard time putting the film out of my head. I find myself returning to the film, and can easily recall many of its most potent moments: like the van, in extreme slow motion, going off the bridge into a river; or Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt) in the zero-gravity dream-space of that hotel hallway. These set pieces are visually captivating and the work of a talented visionary, like Ridley Scott’s take on 2019 Los Angeles or the Wachowski Brothers’ innovative use of bullet time in The Matrix. And while this blog entry doesn’t need a spoiler alert, you will likely follow my argument better if you have seen this film.

But I do not analyze Inception through the lens of film studies. Instead, I take some of the film’s ideas and use them to think through the current state of the digital humanities. A lot of the potential of the digital humanities right now lies in a dream state, and there is still much work for humanities scholars in transforming their digitally-cathected dreams into reality. And since the digital humanities are the featured topic of this blog, I won’t get too much into defining the term in this particular post. I am more interested here in ways that Inception may help us frame our understanding of the digital humanities.

Yet I can’t avoid the “definition problem” entirely. As an umbrella term, the term “digital humanities” encompasses many different disciplines and approaches. Patrick Svensson has written an excellent overview of the topic: “The Landscape of the Digital Humanities” published in Digital Humanities Quarterly. Svensson notes the terrain of the digital humanities results from “…a rich multi-level interaction with the “digital” that is partly a result of the persuasiveness of digital technology and the sheer number of disciplines, perspectives and approaches involved. Humanists are exploring differing modes of engagement, institutional models, technologies and discursive strategies. There is also a strategy-level push for the digital humanities which, among other things, affects university research strategies, external funding and recruitment.” [1] Furthermore, as does Svensson, I find Tara McPherson’s typology of the computing humanities, the blogging humanities, and the multimodal humanities useful for making distinctions and for navigating this large and growing field. McPherson also makes the case for how certain projects in the digital humanities expand the scholarly imagination.

There is yet another level of connection between Blade Runner and Inception: both films owe a big debt to film noir and noir studies. Many interesting science fiction films of the last thirty years have had a noir element to them. I have argued elsewhere about the link between new media and film noir, in a talk entitled The Noir Logics of New Media. This connection is not unexpected as there are many points of connection between new technologies and the noir phenomenon, starting in the 1940s when the noir style developed in the era of postwar cybernetics and in the shadows of the atomic bomb. Just as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was caught up in the noir-tinged discourses of cyberpunk in the 1980s, Nolan’s noir sensibilities add new insights to noir’s continuing power in the digital age. In many ways, noir is experiencing a renaissance in films today and provides a roadmap into our contemporary culture of fear and uncertainty. Noir logics bring with them dark and menacing undercurrents that serve a valuable function—especially vis-à-vis readings of digital technologies and digital culture—as a caution against having too much optimism, or as a corrective towards utopian notions of technological progress.

There are three key ideas I wish to extract from Inception to help frame the current state of the digital humanities:

Idea #1: It takes great skill and imagination to implant a new idea

I love this idea from Inception. The film follows the actions of a team of technologically adept thieves who steal, or “extract,” information from a person’s dream. The film begins by showing how these techniques are useful tactics in corporate espionage. You can literally enter into a person’s dream and steal their most private ideas from within their deep subconscious. But as the characters in the film discuss, it is easier to extract an idea from a dream than to plant a new idea into a dreamer. If you implant an idea, the dreamer tends to reject the implanted notion as a foreign and unacceptable thought. In fact, the word “inception” refers to this more difficult dream task. While both dream tasks, extraction vs. inception, require skill and training, it takes greater skill and imagination to induce the inception of an idea. I find this useful in thinking about the introduction and adoption of new ideas and projects in the digital humanities.

Inception literally takes us step-by-step through a key difficulty in the implantation of a new idea: it requires the construction of an entire world—a world that must be complex and believable. For inception to work at all, Cobb’s crew has to create dream worlds of amazing detail and make that world feel like part of a “normal” dream. In fact, to accomplish their objectives, Cobb’s team needs a dream architect, Ariadne (Ellen Page). The name Ariadne itself is meaningful: in Greek mythology, she is the person who gave Theseus the thread by which he found his way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth. In Inception, Ariadne creates the labyrinthine dream world that Cobb’s team enters in its attempt at inception. The film shows the level of detail that an architect must command in order for the dream world to work. The architect must also remember she is designing for a dream, so she must build imaginative Escher-esque city spaces and structural impossibilities like the paradoxical Penrose stairs.

I bring up the world-building aspect of Inception, because frequently in the digital humanities, from game design to virtual world building to new media curricula, the successful inception of a digital humanities project requires the scholars and their teams to successfully project visions of “new worlds” into the collective imagination of their colleagues. The process is not unlike what Ariadne the Architect does in Inception. As the character Eames (Tom Hardy) says, “if we’re going to perform inception, then we need imagination.” In the digital humanities, we need to use our imaginations not only to build better projects, but to help colleagues understand how these projects will transform the future of the humanities. Cutting edge research is always a dream projection, a view of the world as it may become in some potential future. And this is some of the hardest work in the digital humanities, because you not only need to introduce a better idea or a novel approach, but simultaneously create the entire world that will come to surround and support it.

Idea #2: Time slows down the deeper you go into a dream

Inception’s ideas about “dream time” really got me thinking about the demands and time commitments of digital humanities projects. The dream logic of the movie states that as you go into a deeper level of a dream, time is literally expanding. For example, you might be only asleep and dreaming for 15 minutes, but the events in the dream take place over an entire day. This idea should sound familiar to anyone who has worked for any length of time in the digital humanities.

The film’s labyrinthine depiction of space and time has generated a host of attempts to graph these spatial and temporal dimensions: user-generated fan activities that try to make sense of the film’s complicated narrative dynamics. My favorite is this one, which is a beautiful example of graphic design. Another useful infographic depicts five different levels of space and time in Inception, and yet another tries to capture the film’s branching narrative design in a flowchart.

But Christopher Nolan’s playfulness with dream time suggests that even though time is experienced as “normal” on each level of the dream, the deeper you go into a dream, time actually moves by much more slowly. So seconds at the beginning of a dream can stretch into minutes, then stretch in hours, drag on into days…you get the point. This is a great way of thinking about the digital humanities because these kinds of projects have a way of expanding over time, or making time feel like it is going by slowly. I don’t think this is a reason to avoid working in the digital humanities, but I would be remiss if I didn’t address the “time bleed” that digital projects tend to have. They take much longer than anticipated, and scholars need to have realistic time expectations. I have worked on many projects that I thought would get done in a semester’s time, only to see the project spread into a new year, or continue to evolve over my entire career in unexpected ways. In fact, the truism that “a work of art is never done, just abandoned” is equally true of digital humanities projects. Like a neverending story, when should one post the last blog? Or create the last version of program? Or make the last episode of a series?

Nolan pushes his conception of dream time to its very limits: at the very bottom of a dream, one’s perception of time is similar to that of “being in limbo.” In the film, characters can age an entire lifetime at this stage of a dream. I’m sure every digital humanities scholar has had that feeling of “being in limbo” on one of their digital projects. But, like Cobb, we must always fight to get out of those kinds of limbos.

Idea #3: It takes a well-trained, well-organized team to make it work

Another idea that might be easy to overlook in Inception is that Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) does not act alone in this movie. This is not about a single individual who pursues a solitary goal on his own. Rather the film clearly demonstrates that Cobb can’t do his work without the ensemble talents of the team surrounding him. There is the architect, the pointman, the forger, and the chemist. And they must work together in complete synchronicity. In fact, their very lives depend on their ability to work as a team. And the team requires very different kinds of expertise to function properly. This is collaborative activity at its best. Inception shows the impact of “shared dreaming,” as all the members of the team occupy the same dream spaces.

This reminds me of the best practices behind successful digital humanities projects. The best projects are the shared dreams and concerted efforts of teams of scholars and dedicated personnel, more than the work of single individuals. And yet, institutions of higher education have not yet caught up with the underlying processes necessary for long-term success in the digital humanities. There are still too many barriers in the academy for initiating team projects, and there is still not enough scaffolding in undergraduate and graduate programs for research that requires interdisciplinary collaborations. Some of this is changing, though I suspect it will shift naturally as new forms of connection and scholarly exchanges (such as blogs and social networks) proliferate and mature.

The ideas in Inception help me think about the shared dreams of digital humanities scholars. While it might be hard to implant new ideas, and projects take a tremendous amount of time, and digital efforts require well-trained and well-coordinated teams, the benefits and potential for the future of the humanities are dramatic. As Cobb so powerfully states in Inception: “An idea can transform the world and rewrite all the rules.” The digital humanities is one such idea.

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