Note: Contains spoilers!
It’s been a while since I’ve watched a James Bond movie. While No Time to Die had plenty of typical spy-thriller tropes, I was surprised by two side themes. The first was a reasonably complex attempt to make Bond a bit of a relational creature. The second was a cautious dip into metaphysical concerns about the viability of nationalistic instrumental power as a genuine higher cause. These two themes are related, but it is the way the film’s narrative dabbles in metaphysics, in particular, that I want to explore.
The explosion of interest in Agatha Christie–style murder mysteries after the Second World War, the nostalgic fascination with modern military derring-do (such as The Guns of Navarone) in the 1950s, and the Cold War led naturally to the James Bond movie phenomenon. By the early 1960s the sexual revolution was about to break as well. So Dr No, the first 007 movie, released in 1962, births the Bond mythology at the high noon of the postwar boom. Raw sexual energy, unconstrained violent power, and nationalistic and Western freedom, in a global battle of good against evil, made the early Bond movies a lot of fun. Things started to take a turn towards existential doubt after the Cold War ended, and by now, whether any higher purposes justify a ‘boys will be boys’–style violent and sexual adventure (in the name of world peace and national glory, of course) is hard to say. So there is trouble for the ongoing cultural reception of the original Bond narrative, and by 2021 this trouble is expressed in No Time to Die in an interesting way.
Three themes stand out: 1, the absence of a meaningful higher reality in nationalist ideology; 2, a recognition of the ‘capture’ of the state by invasive bio-technologies of military control, and; 3, a worrying sense that maybe survival-focused political realism is somehow subhuman. Let us look at each of these in turn.
In the story, ‘M’—the head of MI6—has made a serious mistake in developing a DNA-targeting bio-weapon, transmitted by human contact or by airborne means, which has fallen into the wrong hands (as if such a weapon could ever be in the right hands). Bond has to try to fix this potentially world-ending security cock-up. (This sounds a bit like a ‘what if?’ parable of the US-funded coronavirus research labs in Wuhan, only in the movie there is an evil non-state genius who steals and releases the technology. Reality needs no evil genius, but the fantasy plot is more compelling with a recognisable psychotic villain.) When ‘M’ is (obliquely) confessing his role in the disaster to Bond, ‘M’ tries to justify his actions. This really doesn’t work, and all he can come up with— somewhere in the heart of London— is that he runs British intelligence ‘…for all this’. That is, he does not really know why contemporary English life is a good life worth defending, or even if he is actually serving the highest good of the English people in running MI6. There is no transcendent or moral horizon to national security; it is simply about protecting the vested interests of his employer (as he would have to do as an employee of any large corporation), and staying one step ahead of the competition in developing and controlling the technologies of superior violent power. The metaphysical poverty of contemporary power seeps out of this movie in a very interesting way. It reflects ourselves back to us, as any good story should.Following on from the absence of any high concept of intrinsic moral or human meaning, the relationships between science, technology, the military and the state (this movie leaves corporate power out) display the signatures of ‘capture’. People who study the practice of science (like Bruno Latour) and the philosophy of science (like Isabelle Stengers) are intimately familiar with the close relationship between that nineteenth-century invention the professional scientist and commercial and military power. Our universities and state-funded research facilities have deep ties to commercial and military power, and are never ‘pure’ knowledge enterprises. Funding is only available to science and technology that is useful for someone, and someone with enough financial power to fund expensive research. This is a ‘metaphysical’ theme because we still largely believe the powerful cultural ideology that pure scientific progress is intrinsically a good thing (a ‘high’ cultural value). In practice, however, this ideology does not define the knowledge and power nexus that energises the modern corporation and the modern state (or the modern university). Again, a ‘low’ realpolitik ethos permeates our knowledge, surveillance and social control industries, which are remarkably free from both genuine political accountability and any meaningful higher purpose. A somewhat lost cultural anthropology—that wonders out loud, what on earth does it mean to be human?—has seeped into all aspects of our world. The patriotic horizon of ‘serving the nation’ within the national security and surveillance workforce has been erased. This means that even 007, the self-sacrificing licenced killer for the state, has what David Graeber describes as a ‘bullshit job’, governed by petty bureaucratic minds and self-serving political minions who don’t seem to have any higher purpose at all.
Bond in this movie is a sort of Adam figure, fighting the inhuman forces of power, interest and bullshit that control those whom he, as a secret agent, is accountable to. Ironically, his own ‘side’ only tolerates him because he is a military asset that they need. The more ‘realist’ our modern violence movies get, the more of the metaphysics of The Iliad they display. (See Simone Weil’s astonishing essay ‘The Iliad, or the Poem of Force’—everyone who commits violence, be they a glorious hero or a brutal bully, becomes the dehumanised tool and servant of violence. The same, actually, applies to bullshit.)
Inhuman power has captured science and technology in our time, and if there is to be an answer to the problems of our time it will not be a technological answer but a human answer. The idea that Bond is a largely powerless pawn in the ‘higher’ (yet ultimately meaningless) violence games he serves seems to me to be a significant metaphysical undercurrent in this movie.
Something that is overt in the film is the rejection of the higher purpose of ultimate commitment to the state, and replacing this with (spoiler alert!) the preparedness to lay down one’s life for one’s kin. Bond actually loves a woman and has a daughter by her in this movie. Protecting those he loves and has a physical bond with energises him to make the ultimate self-sacrifice, whereas serving his country would not. There are two interesting metaphysical features to this part of the movie.
The villain knows he has leverage on Bond because Bond wants to save his young daughter, and the villain treats this dynamic as a brute biological reality. The only way we can gain immortality is through our offspring, and—to put a Dawkinsean ‘gene-machine’ natural philosophy into the mind of the villain—we are the hapless servants not only of violence (or Freud’s death instinct) but also of Eros, the irresistible drive for genetic transmission. Even though Bond does not know his daughter, the narrative makes it clear that the villain has not grasped Bond’s motives. Bond saves his daughter for the love of her mother, and for his own astonished appreciation of the beauty and wonder of the innocent child. Bond, surprisingly, develops a previously unseen spiritual intelligence. He rejects a reductively naturalistic metaphysics of (meaningless) human meaning, and gives ‘love’ a higher meaning than any merely sexual, genetic or natural realist outlook could account for. This is love as a genuine high meaning; a metaphysical truth.
After Bond is dead, his former colleagues at MI6 have a final whisky to honour him. This is a very strange moment in the narrative. Some unidentified wise book is produced and a short passage is read from it in which it is proclaimed that one does not live in order to survive, but one survives in order to live. Preserving ‘bare life’ at any cost is not human. Being a dominant winner in a competitive game of force is not human. Being a gene-machine that simply achieves reproduction is not human. Living and dying for a higher purpose that is genuinely meaningful—in this case, love—is to be human.
What is philosophically and theologically fascinating here is just how empty of moral and spiritual belief content the category of a meaningful human life now is. And yet, that very emptiness must be left there and not filled with any lower purpose (mere survival, mere victory). This is an expression of what the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls the subtle languages of higher meaning that are characteristic of our ‘secular age’. Taylor points out that since the late nineteenth century we have lost cultural confidence in metaphysical and theological truth, and as a result lower categories of purpose have defined the spoken language and practice of meaningful activity. Survival, dominance, sex, success, wealth, knowledge, pleasure, health, shopping, sport, stamp collecting…all our primary preoccupations are, let us be honest, meaningless as ultimate purposes. Our lower meaning categories now ring with metaphysical hollowness, and yet we have no common language of higher meaning to collectively draw on any more. But the experience of love still speaks to us of genuine higher purpose. Perhaps we still actually believe that ‘God is love’ and that eternal qualitative values, intrinsic human meanings, and ultimate spiritual purposes are still found by us in the midst of the most humble and ordinary of humanly bonded experiences. The concrete experience of high human purpose is to be preferred over abstract ideologies of state power and the ‘bare life’ imperatives of mere survival and animal self-interest.
Bond is dead. But Bond dies well and seems to have become strangely wise in his final exit. Could we also need to learn some higher wisdom? Could it be that reductive instrumental power and merely animal defined needs and desires are just as hollow in our reactive and posturing politics, our bullshit jobs and our consumer lives as they were ultimately found to be by this fantasy hero of a now fading era? Do we also need to try to recover a metaphysical or even theological horizon to human life and power? Of all the Bond movies I have watched, this was the only one that left me with any questions of this nature. It’s a good movie about the need for, and crying absence of, a viable metaphysics one can actually live by in the contemporary life-world.