Cracking Cube: Cryptology And Ichnography

I - Ichnography: Bodies as Batteries

Cube, the recent 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 they perform.

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 ' 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 3.

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 pointless."

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, notes:

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 transgressive body.

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 things.

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 desire spiral.

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 25.

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 27.

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.

3. O'Neill, J. "Descartes' Theatre of Dis-belief" forthcoming in Communication and Cognition. Ghent: University of Ghent, 1999.

4. Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. London: Penguin Books, 1977.

5. Heidegger, Martin. The Question of Technology and Other Essays. New York: Harper Row Press, 1977.

6. Girard, Rene. The Girard Reader. New York: Crossroads Publishers, 1996.

7. Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Volume I. London: Athlone Press, 1984: p.228.

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16. Nietzsche, Friedrich. "Dionysus versus the Crucified" in Will to Power. New York: Random House, 1967.

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18. Reineke, M. Sacrificed Lives: Kristeva on Woman and Violence. Indianapolis: University of Indiana, 1997.

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21. Murphy, T. Wising up the Marks: The Amodern William Burroughs. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

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24. Girard, Rene. A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

25. Serres, Michel. Genesis. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995: p.43.

26. Kafka, Franz. The Trial. London: Penguin Books, 1935.

27. Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986: p.73.

28. O'Neill, J. "Descartes' Theatre of Dis-belief" forthcoming in Communication and Cognition.


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.