Treachery in Interstellar always appears in the guise of purity. Professor Brand and Dr. Mann present themselves as acting for humanity rather than their own self-interest. And yet, they end up doing more damage to humanity’s chances of survival than anyone else in the film. Professor Brand’s lie concerning Plan A is a necessary lie, though his failure to allow himself to be deceived by it renders him culpable. Dr. Mann has no such excuse, and his ethical failure becomes evident not just in his attempt to eliminate Cooper but in his resemblance to the murderous computer in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Though there are many allusions to 2001: A Space Odyssey throughout Interstellar, the most significant occurs with Dr. Mann and the robot accompanying him on the mission. When the astronauts arrive at Dr. Mann’s camp, they find him in cryogenic sleep and his robot KIPP in pieces. When he awakens, Dr. Mann explains that he had to decommission the robot because it began to malfunction by misidentifying organic life as ammonia. We soon learn that the robot correctly identified the absence of organic life on the planet, and its insistence on not sending back a false message resulted in Dr. Mann decommissioning it and setting it to self-destruct if anyone reactivated it (which directly causes the death of Romilly).

In contrast to Dr. Mann’s claim, it is Dr. Mann rather than the robot that malfunctioned during the exploration, and his decommission of the robot mirrors the attempt by the HAL 9000 to rid itself of the humans accompanying it on the trip to Jupiter in 2001. In Nolan’s film, the machine functions properly while the human does not. This contrast with Kubrick’s film reveals that in the world of Interstellar the chief danger is not external but internal. This danger is not impurity but an excess of purity—the subject that believes itself to be acting purely for the universal.[10] [open endnotes in new window]

The critique that Interstellar offers of the purportedly pure subject echoes Hegel’s critique of the Kantian system. Kant bases his theory of knowledge and morality on the prospect of the subject’s purity, even if this purity remains a regulative ideal rather than an achieved reality. This ideal of purity unites Kantian epistemology and Kantian morality, which otherwise appear as separate domains within his philosophy (and are relegated to separate books). The knowing subject, like the moral subject, operates with the ideal of freeing itself from the distortions produced by the subject’s pathological considerations. Desire cannot figure in epistemological or moral calculations.

In Kantian morality, the moral law is pure because it is formal and untainted by any particular content. Even though the subject never attains this purity itself, the law’s purity acts as a goal that guides the subject’s activity. In the Critique of Practical Reason, Kant writes,

“the sole principle of morality consists in independence from all matter of the law (namely, from a desired object) and at the same time in the determination of choice through the mere form of giving universal law that a maxim must be capable of.”[11]

Kant views formalism as a way of sustaining the law’s pure universality and overcoming the stain of particularity that threatens to impugn law. The problem with this formulation is that morality always requires an individual to act as the vehicle for the law’s universality. Kant himself recognizes this, which is why he conceives morality as an infinite task rather than as a goal that the finite subject can actually accomplish.[12]

But what Kant doesn’t recognize is the corrupting effect that his concept of morality has on the individual subject. The individual sees itself as the bearer of universality, and it sees corruption or particularity in the natural world that it confronts—both internally and externally. The moral task involves correcting the corruption. The subject posits a necessary disjunction between morality and the world, but it doesn’t see that its failure to recognize its own necessary impurity is the source of this disjunction.

Hegel criticizes Kantian morality for helping to produce the very situation that it strives to remedy. In short, Kantian morality is hysterical. Its striving is infinite because it is not genuine striving but a counterfeit designed to reproduce itself rather than change the situation. As Hegel puts it in the Phenomenology of Spirit, “Because the universal best ought to be carried out, nothing good is done.”[13] Whenever the subject conceives morality in terms of abstract purity (or, as in the case of Professor Brand and Dr. Mann, the entire species), it inevitably falls into this contradiction. Morality requires desire in order to emerge, and the subject that fails to account for this necessary impurity always falls victim to it. This is the fate of the Kantian moral subject and of the figures of moral purity in Interstellar.[14]

Even Cooper, the film’s ostensible hero, succumbs to the abstract universality that derails both Professor Brand and Dr. Mann. After visiting the first planet and finding it completely uninhabitable due to the ubiquity of water, the three surviving astronauts of the Endurance must decide which of the two other possible planets they should visit. They have enough fuel to visit only one, and the first investigators on both planets sent back positive signals about them. Dr. Brand argues for the planet explored by Wolf Edmunds, while Cooper contends that the planet of Dr. Mann, which is closer, represents the more attractive option. Cooper persuades Romilly (David Gyasi), the deciding vote, when he points out that Dr. Brand’s desire influenced her choice.

Though she expresses great admiration for Dr. Mann, Dr. Brand loves Wolf Edmunds. When Cooper confronts her with this factor weighing on her decision, she avows it and contends that love should play a part in the decisions that they make. Dr. Brand tells Cooper and Romilly, “The tiniest possibility of seeing Wolf again excites me. That doesn’t mean I’m wrong.” Cooper responds, “Honestly, Amelia, it might.” For Cooper, love serves social utility but has only a deleterious effect on decisions like the one that the astronauts must make. By revealing how love has swayed Dr. Brand’s argument, Cooper turns Romilly against her and ensures that they will go to Dr. Mann’s planet, a decision that ends up being disastrous.

Ironically, Cooper’s conversation with Dr. Brand mirrors his own earlier conversation with his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow), but Cooper now takes on the part that Donald played with him. As he sits on the porch of his farm with Donald discussing the decision to go on the mission, Cooper points out that his eagerness for the mission doesn’t make it wrong, and Donald replies (anticipating exactly Cooper’s response to Dr. Brand), “It might.” This repetition reveals Cooper’s own impurity despite his rejection of Dr. Brand’s reasoning about the basis of its impurity. The lack of objectivity—the influence of desire or love—is the basis for any insight that we might have rather than a barrier to it.

Nolan also displays the generative power of impurity when Murph solves the problem of gravity with Cooper’s aid. Cooper can communicate with Murph across a vast distance and across time through his love for her, according to the conceit that the film develops. When he is on the edge of the black hole, he locates his daughter’s bedroom across space and time because of this love. And when Murph makes the actual discovery of the solution to the problem of gravity, the sequence occurs with Hans Zimmer’s score drowning out Murph’s words and making them almost inaudible. Nolan chooses to emphasize Murph’s psychic investment in her work through the overpowering music. Just as the music is more important than the words, so is Murph’s desire the leading factor in her discovery.[15]

In contrast, Cooper’s rejection of Dr. Brand’s reasoning due to its impurity reflects his own kinship with Professor Brand and Dr. Mann, the two partisans of pure universality in the film. The problem with the pure subject—as with Kantian morality—is that this subject achieves purity only through an impure investment in purity. The commitment to eliminating desire is itself a product of desire, or, in other words, there is no way to get around desire without desiring to do so. This is why Alenka Zupancic claims that from a Kantian perspective there is no way to distinguish the moral act from diabolical evil. Both acts originate in the desire to eliminate the pathological and have exactly the same structure. According to Zupancic,

“Following Kant—but at the same time going against Kant—we thus propose to assert explicitly that diabolical evil, the highest evil, is indistinguishable from the highest good, and that they are nothing other than the definitions of an accomplished (ethical) act. In other words, at the level of the structure of the ethical act, the difference between good and evil does not exist. At this level, evil is formally indistinguishable from good.”[16]

Zupancic contends that this realization doesn’t deal a death blow to Kantian morality but rather forces us to consider the ambiguity of the moral act: it is, in some sense, beyond good and evil. But the implication of her argument actually takes us to the terrain of Hegel’s critique of Kant. The moral act is formally identical with diabolical evil—that is, evil for evil’s sake—because it originates in the subject’s desire without regard for considerations of interest that might dilute this desire. It is, one might say, a pure impurity, a desire unadulterated with pathological considerations.

The condemnation of moral purity in Interstellar is unrelenting, and it follows directly Hegel’s critique of Kant. Neither Professor Brand nor Dr. Mann are Kantian moral subjects any more than Adolf Eichmann (who claimed to be so) was.[17] Most obviously, Kant would never countenance their lying. But Professor Brand and Dr. Mann show, unlike Eichmann, the ultimate failure of the idea of moral purity even as a goal after which we strive. The pure subject is simply a subject unaware of its impurity and thus vulnerable to treachery as a result of this unawareness. (31)

Hegel insists that the subject is constituted through a gap in its knowledge and in its moral being. This gap indicates the necessary impurity of the subject, but it also points the subject toward what might fill this gap. The subject seeks the beyond insofar as it promises to provide what the subject is missing. We call this beyond various names—God, the Other, they—but in each case, it marks the inexplicable for us, a hole in our knowledge. The beyond holds the solution for humanity in Interstellar, but this solution depends on reconceiving the beyond, as Hegel puts it in the Phenomenology, “not only as Substance, but equally as Subject.”[18] Rethinking the beyond renders the beyond intimate to the subject, and this act that radically transforms the status of this beyond.

The inexistent they

The beyond in Interstellar takes the form of the wormhole and the source of its appearance. Most often, when we encounter a gap within our understanding, we translate this gap into a positive entity, which is what the characters do in the film. Either we substantialize the gap and give it a metaphysical significance—seeing it as God or as some form of alien intelligence—or we anticipate a future empirical substance that will fill the gap and complete our understanding. According to the former position, we will never understand what exists in this gap because it has a transcendent status relative to us. According to the latter position, if we don’t understand something today, we will understand it tomorrow when our capacity for knowledge has improved. The former position represents the religious response to the gap in knowledge, and the latter represents the scientific. Hegel refuses both of these options. His philosophical project compels us to recognize what we experience as a beyond as an unbreachable gap and yet, at the same time, as immanent to the subject itself.

The gap in our knowledge first appears to us as a strange beyond that defies our comprehension. It is an otherness that seems to exist on another plane, or, in the terms of Interstellar, “they.” When we mistake the immanence of the gap in our knowledge for a substantial “they,” we commit ourselves to the exploration of the mysterious otherness, and it is this exploration that dissolves the otherness and reveals its ontological status as insubstantial. If one recognizes the otherness right away as an effect of the subject itself, then one misses the truth of the constitutive gap within knowledge that creates desire and thereby makes knowledge possible. The initial error of seeing “they” instead of a future “we” is a necessary error, without which no understanding is possible.

Many spectators, even on a first viewing of Interstellar, are able to predict that the “they” that creates the wormhole for humanity is humanity itself in the future. The savvy spectator might also predict that the ghost communicating with Murph in her bedroom at the beginning of the film is not an alien being but her father in another time and place. In all of Nolan’s films, it is possible to figure out the deception prior to its unveiling at the conclusion. One can guess, for instance, that that Borden (Christian Bale) can perform his magic trick “The Transported Man” in The Prestige (2006) because he has an identical twin brother. Nolan’s filmic deceptions do not dupe the cunning spectator.

And yet they should. If one immediately sees through the deception and understands that the “they” that opened the wormhole is simply future humanity, then one doesn’t gain direct access to the truth but completely misses it. In Nolan’s films, as in Hegel’s philosophy, it is necessary to pass through the deception—to allow oneself to be deceived—in order to discover the truth lurking within (rather than behind) the deception.[19] To discern the truth right away would be akin to skipping directly to “Absolute Knowing” while reading Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. The reader who does this avoids the deceptions of sense certainty, perception, and the other conceptions of experience, but in the process she or he misses the truth of absolute knowing. This truth is indissociable from and is constituted by the failures to arrive at it. To proceed to the truth directly is to miss it entirely.

Cooper comes to the realization that the mysterious “they” is humanity itself while he is suspended on the brink of the black hole Gargantua in the Tesseract that future humans constructed for him. As the Endurance slingshots around Gargantua in order to investigate the final possible planet in the system, the robot TARS ejects in order to lighten the ship’s load and to transmit data from the black hole. Just after TARS leaves the ship, Cooper follows the robot in a sacrificial gesture designed to increase Dr. Brand’s chances of making it to Edmunds’s planet and finding a new home for humanity. But when TARS and Cooper enter the black hole, they discover the Tesseract where they can see and communicate with their own past. The proximity to the black hole creates the possibility of overcoming the barrier of time and space through the power of gravity, which the advanced version of humanity is able to harness.

As Cooper looks into his own past, TARS reproves him for losing sight of the mission, which involves the future of humanity rather than its past. He says, “They didn’t bring us here to change the past.” But Cooper recognizes the paradox that TARS misses. He replies, “They didn’t bring us here at all. We brought ourselves.” At this point, Cooper sees that what appears as an alien beyond that transcends our knowledge is our own self-transcendence. The possibility for emancipation that the wormhole offers to humanity is a possibility that emerges out of humanity’s own future. By depicting this relationship between the future and the present, Nolan offers a rethinking of emancipation: we don’t free ourselves by creating a different future but by creating a different past—exactly what TARS says they are not meant to do.

In the Tesseract, Cooper can see into Murph’s bedroom and can communicate with her by pushing from behind her bookshelf and dislodging various books. He begins by using Morse code to give her the message that he should stay and not go on the mission. He follows this up by proving the coordinates to NASA in binary code. We have seen both events from the other side earlier in the film, but then he sends a message that we haven’t seen. Finally, with the help of TARS, he encodes (again in Morse) the solution to the problem of gravity in the movement of the second hand of the watch that he gave to Murph before he left. Through these gestures, Cooper is able to change the past and create the possibility for his own act of changing the past. He acts as the future humans do when they open the wormhole: his act violates the logic of chronological time and creates the conditions of its own possibility.

One can imagine spectators objecting to Nolan’s conception of temporal causality in Interstellar. Future humans open the wormhole to rescue humanity from the blighted Earth, but their existence depends on the very rescue that they make possible. This is the paradox at the core of the narrative structure of Interstellar, and it defies our usual thinking about causality. But Nolan’s film asks the spectator to rethink causality in Hegelian terms. For Hegel, the past doesn’t shape the present—he is not a historicist philosopher—but the present shapes the past. That is to say, the present creates its own conditions of possibility in the past and thus violates the seemingly straightforward structure of temporality.[20]

When an event occurs, it retroactively changes the past so that it becomes possible. The event seems as if it were inevitable, as if the causes for it were present all along. But these causes become evident only after the event. Prior to the event’s taking place, it was impossible, and its occurrence changes the structure of the past in order to make it possible. As Alain Badiou puts it,

“An event is the creation of new possibilities. It is located not merely at the level of objective possibilities but at the level of the possibility or possibilities. Another way of putting this: with respect to a situation or a world, an event paves the way for the possibility of what … is strictly impossible.”[21]

Interstellar asks us to believe, following what Badiou says here, in the possibility of the impossible—that is, in the possibility of an act worthy of Baron von Münchausen, who could purportedly lift himself out of his own chair without touching the ground. This capacity exists because the subject posits its own presuppositions and can change its own past when it accedes to the power of the fiction. But cynical distrust of the fiction has the effect of incapacitating it, which is why Interstellar includes an interlude attacking the prevalence of cynicism today.

Suspicious minds

In the midst of the exposition of the future devastated Earth, Interstellar pauses in order to introduce a brief commentary on a conspiracy theory about the moon landing. In the structure of the film, cynicism about the reality of the moon landing stands in for all conspiracy theories, which originate from a refusal to allow oneself to be duped by a controlling fiction. Conspiracy theories have garnered such popularity today because they serve as a vehicle for cynical distance from the fictions that govern collective existence. As collective fictions have lost their efficaciousness, cynical distance has become a source of respite for the subject, and conspiracy theories offer this distance in abundance. They promise freedom from lies and direct access to truth, but direct access is never as direct as all that. If Nolan’s films all propound the creative power and the ethical importance of the fiction, then the appearance of the critique of conspiracy theory in Interstellar should not take the spectator by surprise. The conspiracy theorist wrongly sees truth as separable from the fiction and attempts to postulate their absolute distinctiveness through the rejection of the fiction for the sake of the hidden truth.

Conspiracy theory is prevalent across the contemporary political spectrum. The Right sees sinister forces of the United Nations attempting to usurp national sovereignty, while the Left imagines pharmaceutical companies keeping magical remedies (like colloidal silver) off the market in order to increase their own profit margin. Other conspiracy theories, such as the belief that the World Trade Center collapse was an inside job or that shooters from the grassy knoll killed John Kennedy, know no political boundaries. In fact, in the contemporary political climate it is difficult to avoid investing oneself in some form of conspiracy theory. The problem is that even if these conspiracy theories are factually accurate—say, pharmaceutical companies have really discovered the medical efficacy of colloidal silver and decided to suppress their findings—the conspiracy theory nonetheless has a pathological effect on the subject invested in it. In fact, one is tempted to say that if the conspiracy theory is correct, so much for the worse for the conspiracy theory because it strongly encourages the proponent of this theory in her or his own cynical position.

The function of conspiracy is to provide subjects with an assurance that some agency is actually directing events with full knowledge and thus that events are not simply the result of our own activity. Conspiracy solidifies our belief in a substantial beyond that remains unknowable and at the same time unimpeachable. Any fact that pokes a hole in the conspiracy becomes not evidence against the cover-up but rather further evidence of its vastness.[22]

Conspiracy theories perform an essential ideological function by substantializing the gap within knowledge and thereby obscuring the absence of any authority consciously pulling the strings of society. The conspiracy theorist cannot recognize, to put it in Hegel’s terms, that substance is subject, that the authorities are as divided and lacking as the subject itself. Conspiracy theories supplement ideology, but they are seldom institutionalized within the structure of ideology. Typically, the conspiracy theorist gains an extra libidinal benefit from believing in the conspiracy because such belief defies the official version of events. One experiences the conspiracy theory as a radical act of questioning what one is told to believe. But it is possible to imagine the conspiracy theory integrated into the institutional history, which is what occurs in Interstellar.

Today, cynicism about the moon landing is a minority position, but in the world of Interstellar, it has become the official version of the events. Murph runs into trouble at school for her refusal to accept that the landing didn’t occur, and at a parent/teacher conference, Cooper confronts her teacher Ms. Hanley (Collette Wolfe) about the incident, which ended with Murph in a fight with fellow students. According to Hanley, the Apollo 11 moon landing was an effective piece of U.S. propaganda designed to lure the Soviet Union into increasing expenses in the space race. Hanley admits the efficaciousness of this strategy, but she feels that it’s important to teach students the cynical (and to her mind, true) history.

The conspiracy theory about the moon landing has a privileged importance in the world of Interstellar because this theory evinces a skepticism about the possibility of transcending place in a way that theories about the assassination of John Kennedy do not.[23] If even the voyage to the moon were faked, this demonstrates that we are irrevocably stuck on Earth, and the authorities promulgate this theory in order to convince the populace of their stuckness. Subjects stuck in place cannot emancipate themselves. Though movement itself is not revolution, it is nonetheless the condition of possibility for revolution.[24] But radical movement is precisely what the conspiracy theory about the moon landing denies. It comprehends humans as Earth-bound beings.

Like any disciple of Hegel, Nolan finds conspiracy theory especially noxious. The conspiracy theorist refuses to invest herself or himself in the symbolic fiction that structures the social order. In her or his resistance to being duped, this subject misses out on the fiction, which is the only path to truth. The conspiracy theorist wants truth too quickly, without the detour of falsity, and as a result, she or he never escapes the self-deception of believing herself or himself to be in possession of direct access to the truth. Nolan includes the interlude about the moon landing to reveal the error of the position that refuses to submit to error.