Cracking Cube: Cryptology And Ichnography
I - Ichnography: Bodies as Batteries
Cube, the recent/i> film by Vincenzo Natali, tells the story of six
characters caught in a maze-like death machine. Surrounded by rooms
complete with horrific traps, the film follows the characters'
attempts to escape the machine. Cut off from their being-in-the-world
we are shown how the characters are de-humanised, de-individualised,
and made dead by the alien environment they inhabit. Caught in the
Cube they are aliens in machine culture. Trapped in a system they
have all contributed something towards, they exist through the roles
In an attempt to understand their alien world, the Cube provokes
Natali's characters to invent conspiracy theories, notions of rotten
government and alien scientists. For these individuals, cast adrift
in an alien world, the conspiracy theory becomes the attempt to
explain that which seems to have no explanation, the death machine,
the monstrous world that surrounds them. Like modern conspiracy
theorists Natali's characters turn towards the ichnograph for
answers, they try to see the world from the perspective of God. Here,
Natali confronts his characters with an ironic conundrum, namely that
it was the attempt to see the world from the perspective of God that
created the alien world in the first place.
Regarding such fatalism Georges Bataille's 1 essay on religion
allows one to understand Natali's equation of the modern project with
the invention of the Cube, the death machine. Bataille explains how
the use of the world, the notion of the world as resource, elevated
man above nature towards a condition where humanity stood in direct
opposition to the environment. By expending the world, Bataille shows
how machinery obscured humanity's natural state, a condition related
to the idea of a true end. Here, the notion of the true end refers to
natural tautology, the condition which finds meaning in the structure
of the event. As Bataille explains animals are in the world '...like
water in water' 2.
Apart from the world and the idea of the true end, Bataille explains
how modern man possesses a form of external knowledge, a kind of
understanding that operates at the level of the object rather than
that of the integrated natural world. According to this form of
knowledge the world is a tool, a resource of which man is nothing
more than a part, while meaning is endlessly deferred, pushed into
future-time by the invention of duration. According to such an
atmosphere, the true world becomes God, the idea of an omnipotent
spirit is produced by the imperative that requires man to place
agency and value on nature, while the world is compelled to become a
thing, an object. In such a way man's alien relation to nature, his
attempt to find meaning in the world, confuses the immanence of
being-in-the-world, the natural tautology, and imposes a
transcendental form of knowledge upon nature. Thus, the non-distance
of meaning associated with being-in-the-world is transformed into the
absolute-distance that is constitutive of religious thought. For
Bataille, the Gods associated with religious knowledge are made
sacred precisely because they are not real, they are never present.
Like the Cartesian split, the ethereal is elevated towards the level
of the transcendental, while the body is made a thing, degraded meat
Bearing such a thesis in mind one can understand how, according to
the conspiracy theory forwarded by Natali's characters, it seems as
though machine culture, the technologocentric God that governs the
motion of the Cube, watches the movements of its prisoners. Like
Foucault's 4 conception of the panopticon, the reified machine has
the ability to alienate its inhabitants in a progressive fashion.
Their attempt to understand the alien landscape does nothing but
contribute to the original dilemma, humanity's alienation from the
world. Hence, while the initial creation of the all-seeing God
reflects man's break with nature, the expansive gaze of the
panopticon continually re-states the objectification of the body and
the rigid structure of the order of things. As Rennes, the character
Natali casts as his escape artist, explains:
"Look around, take a good long look see, I've got a feeling it's
looking at us."
Trapped within such a machine Natali's prisoners begin to imagine
that there may be no reason driving the Cube, a nihilistic suggestion
they try to oppose by searching for meaning in the structure's deadly
mechanisms. According to this strategy the group try to create reason
as they move through the trapped rooms that are constitutive of the
Cube, they attempt to discover the meaning of the machine by reaching
the transcendental God that seems to govern its systems. Here, Natali
shows how machine culture requires the endless deferral of reason,
man must create meaning as time expends, an idea that refers to the
modern notion of techno-poesis 5.
Moreover, as the group search for an escape from the Cube each of
Natali's characters seems to play a functional part. With regard to
the endless deferral of meaning, a machine that is constitutive of
the search for reason, two characters are central. Quentin, a cop,
the Law, is the figure who represents individual agency, his role is
to both constrain and control the expenditure of desire, and assert
the importance of the individual's place in the world. In contrast,
Worth, the bureaucrat, stands for the dominance of structure, he
represents the de-individualisation of the order of things and the
dehumanisation of real being, the alien structure built onto nature.
Regarding the tension implicit within this relation the following
dialogue proves instructive:
Worth: "There is no conspiracy, nobody is in charge, it's a
headless blunder operating under the illusion of a master-plan,
big-brother is not watching you. If this ever had a purpose then
it got mis-communicated or lost in the shuffle, this is an
accident, a forgotten perpetual public works project. You think
anybody wants to ask questions? All they want is a clear
conscience and a fat pay-cheque."
Quentin: "Why put people in it?"
Worth: "Because it's here, you have to use it or admit it's
Quentin: "But it is, it is pointless."
Worth: "Quentin, that's my point."
Quentin: "You make me sick, Worth."
Worth: "I make me sick too, we're both part of the system. I
drew a box, you walk a beat, it's like you said Quentin, keep
your head down, keep it simple, just look at what's in front of
you. I mean nobody wants to see the big picture, life's too
complicated. Let's face it, the reason we're here is because
it's out of control."
Like the machine culture described by the recent film, The Matrix,
the group trapped within the Cube represents a microcosm of
late-capitalist society. In much the same way that the Matrix refers
to the imaginary structure projected onto the world, a system which
allows machine culture to use bodies as batteries, the Cube reflects
the alien nature of the capitalist world. Similarly, akin to The
Matrix and its bodies as batteries metaphor, Natali shows how the
Cube feeds on the pseudo-individual's desire to escape. Thus, in both
Cube and The Matrix the desire of the created individual, the
being taken out of the world and given the appearance of agency,
represents the life-blood of the machine, mimetic desire 6. Here,
independent desire is little more than the battery power that drives
the structure, while agency is the myth that re-codes the notion of
mimetic desire in terms of a more palatable imaginary.
Regarding the pseudo-transgressive nature of desire and action, the
way the attempt to escape feeds back into the machine, Deleuze and
Guattari explain: "Capital is dead labour, that vampire-like, only
lives by sucking living labour, and lives more, the more labour it
sucks." 7 Here, the authors of Anti-Oedipus show how the attempt
to transgress the machine is limited by the demands of the machine.
When the characters trapped within the Cube or the Matrix try to
escape the suffocating mechanism they are either constrained by the
Law or consumed by technology. Thus, desire is battery power, while
the body is an expendable shell, dead meat. For example, in Cube,
the first victim of machine culture's need to expend energy is
Rennes, the escape artist, a criminal body Foucault 8 would call
the dangerous individual. According to theories of sacrifice and
expenditure, namely those of Bataille 9 and Girard 10, one can
see why Rennes becomes the Cube's foundational murder. Apart from the
character who is cut to pieces in the film's opening sequence, Rennes
represents the machine's first expenditure because he is the most
transgressive individual and thus the most energetic character, the
best battery, the most potent power supply.
Beyond Rennes' expenditure the group's desire to escape the Cube
becomes less transgressive and more systematic. Leaven, the Maths
student, realises that in order to transgress the machine the group
must crack the Cube's code, the numbers printed on the frame of each
room's entrance. Initially, Leaven believes that trapped rooms can be
identified by prime numbers contained within the code, later she
realises that the code also refers to three-dimensional map
references, Cartesian co-ordinates, before finally reaching the
conclusion that the code relates to the motion of the Cube. As such,
Leaven's search for meaning re-states the notion of techno-poesis,
the processual creation of meaning, and relates to Deleuze and
Guattari's 11 concept of the fractal. Indeed, considering the idea
of fractal geometrics as it refers to the creation of meaning
Massumi, author of A User's Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia,
In spite of its infinite fissuring, it looks like it can
function as a united figure if we adopt a certain ontological
posture toward it: monism as produced meaning, optical effect.
On closer inspection, it is seen to be network of bifurcation:
duality. On closer still inspection, it becomes a web of
proliferating fissures in infinite regress towards the void.
Such a figure can be expressed as an equation (paradox with
precision). Like the directions above, the equation does not
strictly speaking describe the figure, as one would describe the
static form. Instead it maps a procedure 12.
Massumi's description of Deleuze and Guattari's fractal refers to
Leaven's creation of meaning by illustrating the idea of progressive
development. Leaven's initial reading of the Cube's code refers to
the nature of each unit, whether or not the room is trapped. Later,
she begins to see the Cube in terms of a three-dimensional map, a
static model. Finally, when the notion of the static ichnograph
proves limited, she begins to understand the Cube in terms of a
procedure, a movement governed by the tension Massumi calls 'paradox
with precision', an idea that refers one back to the thesis on the
machine's ability to re-order transgression as pseudo-transgression,
the use of the desiring body as battery.
Thus, while it is apparent that Leaven's search for meaning appears
to create some form of transgression within the Cube, it is also
clear that the group's desire to escape feeds back into the machine
where it is re-ordered and turned into pseudo-transgressive energy.
For Massumi the discovery of the fractal represents the invention of
the void, the possibility Deleuze and Guattari 13 call the Body
Without Organs. However, one must also realise, as Deleuze and
Guattari do, that such innovation is essential for the sustainability
of the machine, it cannot exist without the energy the desire to
create produces. In terms of Leaven's mathematical strategy, hot
science, Cryptology, begins to show the prisoners of the Cube an
escape route. Yet, further progress is prevented by the limits of
Leaven's scientific strategy, she is unable to think beyond the Cube
because she is a part of the machine.
II - Cryptology: Speed and Violence
Within the revolving Cube Natali's society is continually threatened
by breakdown. The speed of the machine - the oscillation between
structure and agency, a dynamic represented by the Worth / Quentin
dialogue, and the constant re-codification of desire as mimetic
desire, a movement exemplified by the endless deferral of meaning,
the group's progress through the rooms - begins to cause the social
to fracture. Here, Girard's 14 idea of the scapegoat mechanism is
particularly useful for allowing one to understand how Quentin, the
Law, attempts to restore order by expending the sacrificial body on
the behalf of the machine. At once this thesis explains Quentin's
function as the Law and describes the Law's tendency to boil over in
times of crisis.
As Quentin's paranoia, his attempt to create meaning through
conspiracy, turns to madness one is reminded that the Law threatens
to descend into demagogy and fascism at times of extreme stress.
Within Natali's narrative one can observe such a tendency in both
Worth and Holloway's references to Quentin and Nazism, on several
occasions one is led towards an equation that links Quentin's use of
violence with the extreme form of the scapegoat mechanism enacted by
the Nazi state. According to such a comparison Quentin, the Law,
reflects the violence of the Cube, while the Cube, the speeding
mechanism, becomes a metaphor for Dionysus, the organisation of the
furious social system.
Regarding the idea of Dionysus and the violent social, the mechanism
Girard calls the scandalon, one should not necessarily refer to the
thesis that equates the content of Nietzschean philosophy with the
racial intolerance promoted by the Nazi state. As Girard 15
explains in his reading of Nietzsche's 16 essay "Dionysus versus
the Crucified", the fascistic aspects of Nietzsche's thesis are not
to be associated with the racial implications of the content of ideas
such as the Ubermensch and the will to power. Rather, Girard's
problem with Nietzsche's philosophy is rooted in the form of society
such ideas advocate. Like the machine culture referred to by Cube
and The Matrix, the Nietzschean dynamo requires conflict and
expenditure, the violence associated with the consumption of the
Thus, one can see how the idea of Nietzschean vitality is predicated
on the consumption of excess, the remainder Bataille 17 calls the
Accursed Share, the thesis described by The Matrix through the
bodies as batteries metaphor. Similarly, like the indiscriminate
machines referred to in both Cube and The Matrix, the content of
the remainder expended by the vital Nietzschean dynamo is subordinate
to the formal demands, the fact that the sacrifice is seen as
transgressive in some way. Indeed, the only time that content
impinges on the choice of the body to be consumed is when the
quantity of transgressive potential is altered by the constitutive
elements of the remainder. As such, Rennes, Natali's escape artist,
is the first character to be consumed by the Cube, initially because
he presents the machine with the most transgressive potential, and
therefore the most battery power; the fact that he is a criminal, his
content, represents a secondary consideration, related to the nature
of the expenditure only insofar as content is concerned with form.
With regard to Girard's debate with Nietzsche and in particular the
essay "Dionysus versus the Crucified", the implications of such a
mechanism are clear. While Nietzsche is concerned with the consumer,
the vital subject empowered by the expenditure of the remainder,
Girard considers the machine from the perspective of the victim, the
scapegoat, the object of "Dionysus versus the Crucified"; Christ.
Against Nietzsche's idea, a thesis that explains how the notion of
the foundational victim introduces morality into the world, an ethic
that does violence to the natural order, Girard shows how the
repetitive character of Nietzsche's violence is far from natural.
Natural violence is concerned with the limited sphere of significance
associated with animals, while the repetitive violence of order of
things refers to the expansive territory of alienated humanity.
According to the world where man sees nature as a resource,
everything is significant, humanity's being-in-the-world has at once
expanded beyond all boundaries and contracted out of existence. With
regard to this point, Girard explains how the expenditure of the
remainder, the scapegoat, is enacted precisely because humanity is
out of joint, being has been taken out of the world. For Girard,
violence is fundamental to the dynamism of the machine, the
scandalon, the Nazi State, the Cube, the Matrix, Satan.
Similarly, in contrast to Nietzsche's objectification of the victim,
Girard argues that the violence done to the scapegoat should be used
to expose the savagery of the machine. Far from moralising the
scapegoat, Girard attempts to uncover the heinous mechanism that
objectifies the other, the technology that creates the idea of
difference as resource, bodies as batteries. Reading Christ, or any
other outsider, Girard shows how the objectification of the
expendable body through the subordination of content to form allows
the scapegoat mechanism to consume any manifestation of difference
over a repetitive duration, time. Here, Girard is not concerned with
the content or agency of the scapegoat precisely because he aims to
show how the category of the individual is a construction predicated
on the domination of the order of things. The critique 18 which
argues against Girard's pessimism, his denial of agency, fails to see
how the construction of individualism represents an anxious response
to humanity's radical break with the world. Indeed, it is precisely
because of Girard's recognition of the manufactured nature of
individualism that the idea of the scapegoat mechanism is able to
highlight the fury of machine culture, the cycle of violence, and
refer to the expendable body only insofar as its role as sacrificial
site can expose the indiscriminate nature of the savage order of
Following Girard's 19 insight into the violence of Nietzsche's
Dionysus one can understand how the expenditure represented by the
scapegoat at once provides the machine with an infusion of energy and
the social with a temporary tranquilizer, a brief form of meaning and
community, rather than a permanent sense of peace. Like the junk
sickness that plagues Burroughs' 20 addict, the turbulence that
drives the scandalon is relieved by the consumption of the excessive
remainder, the social is re-ordered, united around the expenditure of
the sacrificial body. While the addict is narcotised by junk, the
machine is driven by the consumption of the transgressive body, the
addict that pushes the limits of consumption and threatens to
over-turn the Law 21. Indeed, akin to Burroughs' equation of the
junky with capital, Natali's Cube shows how the idea of the
individual is related to the machine by its desire to transgress the
order of things and re-discover being-in-the-world, a movement which
feeds back into the structure where it is converted into the
expenditure that at once drives the machine and restores order to the
fractured social (bodies as batteries). The imposition of such
differentiation, a separation that explains why the Law can never
absolutely repress disorder and violence, is represented by Natali's
idea of the Cube within the Cube, the inner and outer limits of the
machine. Here, the notion of the inner limit refers to the way the
pseudo-transgressive practices of the addict, the body alienated from
its being-in-the-world, are fed back into the machine; while the idea
of the outer limit concerns the absolute boundary of the machine, a
distant point that can only be reached by the Foucauldian 22 idea
of thinking otherwise. Considering Natali's story, one can see how
Kazan, the character that represents thinking otherwise, seems to be
redundant to the demands of machine culture. Apparently crippled by
autism, he has no place, no function, in the vicious desire / mimetic
While Kazan's lack of functionality, his inability to enter into the
pseudo-transgressive event, is exemplified by Quentin's attempt to
consume his useless body at the spear room, the scene which revolves
around this trap highlights both the furious nature of Dionysus, the
Cube, and the violent nature of the society encased within its walls,
the demagogic impulse that allows Quentin to suggest that the group
leave Kazan behind in the first place. Later, Natali expands upon
this recognition by again referring to the pseudo-transgressive
nature of the internal limit and the temporality of the Law's
violence. According to this re-statement, Holloway, the group's
liberal element is expended as the Cube's movement becomes ever more
violent. Here, Holloway's violent death at the hands of the Law, her
fall at the impasse described by the inner shell of the Cube, refers
to the moment of expenditure, the internal limit of the capitalist
mechanism, the structure which is unable to comprehend action beyond
the level of the pseudo-transgressive event. At this point Leaven's
mathematic strategy has reached its limit, science can never exceed
the machine that sustains its invention.
As such, Quentin sustains the cycle of violence, the vicious
scapegoat mechanism, the dynamo Girard 23 calls the scandalon.
Indeed, as the Law's violence escalates and the integrity of the
social system begins to break down, Kazan, the autistic character,
comes to the fore. Like Girard's 24 un-differentiated monster,
Kazan is made visible by the crisis of degree that occurs as the Cube
reaches critical mass. Akin to Max Cohen, the main character in
another recent science fiction film, Pi, Kazan is revealed as the
true Cryptologist, the role Leaven was able to perform until the
internal impasse represented by the Cube's inner shell re-ordered her
machinic escapology. By contrast to Leaven's code-breaking, Kazan
pushes science beyond its internal limit, he stretches maths beyond
its hyper-abstract boundary, past the point where degree begins to
melt into hyper-value and the towers of reason start to creak. As
Michel Serres explains:
When the sign loses its meaning, when it loses all possible
meanings, then it becomes pure sign, naked sign, abstract sign,
it enters deeper still into calculation, into mathematics, into
money, the god is more than god himself. The thing becomes a
number, the number becomes a letter, the letter itself is a
symbol, the information, the software un-differentiates itself,
as if it were slowly entering its own faculty, its own nakedness
In other words, Kazan, thinking otherwise, is the character who is
able to understand the Cube in its entirety. While Leaven represents
the scientific paradigm, the system that discovers the patterns that
under-write the machine, Kazan describes the potential for critique,
the power to move beyond the limitations constructed by the order of
things. Thus, Kazan exemplifies the figure of the Cryptologist, the
body that can decipher the machine's codes and break out of the tomb,
the box that keeps its inhabitants trapped in a state of deathly
inertia, docile bodies confined by suffocating capital roles.
Described as the schizoid body Kazan cracks the Cube's double-logic,
the vicious circle represented by the room that acts as the scene for
both the beginning and end of the film. Here, at the intersection of
the double-bind, Kazan re-plays K's escape from the machine in
Kafka's 26 The Trial. As Deleuze and Guattari explain in their
Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature:
K becomes increasingly aware that the transcendental imperial
law refers in fact to an immanent justice, to an immanent
assemblage of justice. Paranoid law gives way to a schizo-law
Possessed by the ability to think otherwise, Kazan watches as the
double-bind unravels. At the point of transference, the moment when
the expenditure of the remainder powers the machine and re-orders the
social, hyper-abstraction melts degree. As Deleuze and Guattari state
the paranoid machine collapses into schizophrenia when the
transcendental law confronts the truth of immanence. Caught in such
excessive turbulence Quentin, the Law, is torn apart, while Worth,
administration, is similarly unable to exist beyond the order of
things. Only Kazan, the schizoid body, is equipped to live outside
the Cube, beyond Capital's external limit. Thus, Natali embodies the
knowledge required to critique machine culture, thinking otherwise he
is able to re-connect body and world, being-in-the-world, and stand
against Cartesian error, the temper which idealised the break between
man and nature 28.
I would like to thank John O'Neill for his invaluable direction,
Siobhan Holohan for her constant encouragement, and Staffordshire
University for the funding that has made my research possible.
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2. ibid.: p.23.
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25. Serres, Michel. Genesis. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan
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26. Kafka, Franz. The Trial. London: Penguin Books, 1935.
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Cube. Vincenzo Natali, 1997.
Matrix, The. The Wachnowski Brothers, 1999.
Pi. Darren Aronofsky, 1997.
Mark Featherstone is a doctoral candidate at Staffordshire
University. Apart from his PhD thesis, "Knowledge and the Production
of Non-Knowledge", he has also worked on contemporary cultural
theorists such as Rene Girard, Paul Virilio, and Jean Baudrillard.
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