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Barbaric struts and cosmic indigestion in Jordan Peele’s Nope

‘The world at once present and absent which the spectacle makes visible is the world of the commodity dominating all that is lived.’ – Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle

‘The villain is this otherworldly threat. And it is also something that everyone has in common — everyone’s relationship to the spectacle.’ – Jordan Peele, writer/director, Nope

3.5 billion years ago a blob in the Pangean ocean was the first thing to react to light. This twinge, this blink, this single-celled cramp caused 3.5 billion years of life to follow it: megalodon, pterodactyl, tyrannosaur, whale, human, labradoodle. And that’s just a shortlist of some of the ones we know about, or remember. All thanks to some single-celled guy straying too far from the comfort of a nearby hydrothermal vent 3.5 billion years ago. Thanks, blob. You were cool, I guess.

The blob indirectly caused the McDonald brothers to come into this world. In Gaelic, the origin of the Scottish surname McDonald is Mac Dhamhnuill, meaning ‘world ruler’, and the brothers’ planetary-scale imperial-capitalist fast-food monolith, McDonald’s, in turn willed brand mascot the Grimace to exist.

Forgotten, thought-extinct, rediscovered, and reanimated ancient species that wreak terror upon humans have been a mainstay of stories and storytelling for ages. We saw it in King Kong (1933), Godzilla (1954), Mrs. Caliban (1982), Jurassic Park (1993) and Cloverfield (2008). We saw it, as I will argue in this essay, in Jordan Peele’s Nope (2022). And we saw it, too, in John Albano’s Ronald McDonald and the Tale of the Talking Plant (1984).

In Albano’s book, the magical clown and his best friend the Grimace find themselves in the deep forest, as they often did, taking a walk. They both delight in the flowers in bloom when the Grimace alerts his buddy to the sound of a weeping willow weeping. Ronald, ever the rationalist, is quick to dismiss the Grimace’s claims—rightfully so, as they discover the crying had originated from two lost white children. The kids explain they were betrayed by a talking plant who claimed to know the way out of the forest but refused to help them. Ronald promises to lead the kids to safety, but only after locating the plant to extract answers. Peril plagues the heroes as they struggle to cross a muddy river. Luckily, Ronald McDonald can produce a comically oversized ladder from his clown pockets. And then:

Just when it seemed they would never find the talking plant, a strange voice called from behind the trees.

‘Come over here, please,’ it begged.

‘YOW!’ screamed the Grimace, who was so startled by the voice that he flipped over once again.

They all rushed toward the voice. There, behind some trees, was the talking plant.

Spreading its delicate flowers, the plant cooed, ‘Come closer and look at me. Am I not beautiful?’

‘You are pretty,’ answered Ronald. ‘But why wouldn’t you help these children?’

The talking plant, which resembles some kind of orchid/lily hybrid (cheers, blob), explains:

‘There is never anyone around when my beautiful flowers come into bloom’ and ‘When I saw children in the forest, I did not want them to leave. I only wanted someone to see my flowers. I never meant to frighten the children!’

The children, expressing pity, ask the magical clown to help the talking plant. Ronald takes a ‘clear globe’ from his clown pocket and causes it to explode into a rain of magical shrapnel. The plant vanishes. The clown and the Grimace proceed to lead the children out of the forest and all the way to the town square where they find the talking plant relishing in the spectacle its presence has conjured.

Ronald McDonald in Ronald McDonald and the Tale of the Talking Plant: ‘This is the plant’s new home. Now many people will come every day to see and enjoy its beauty.’

The story ends with the Grimace taking a clipping from the talking plant (with its consent) and attaching it to an unnoticed tree so ‘people will notice it, too!’

John Albano’s book deploys the talking plant as a conduit for commenting, perhaps, on neoliberalism’s sickly obsession with brute-forcing an individual’s self-worth to the spectacle of receiving validation from strangers in the town square (Instagram influencer culture as town square, etc). Jordan Peele’s Nope does a not entirely dissimilar thing by drawing a container of ambiguity in the form of a sentient entity of unknown origin and genus—at once Grimace and talking plant—whose terror spreads at the speed humans choose to notice it. At first the heroes in Nope misidentify the entity as a UFO. Later, protagonist OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) works out that it’s not a ship but ‘something else’—something singular and living and territorial—and nicknames it Jean Jacket.

Where fulfilling the desire to be the centre of the humans’ spectacle saved the talking plant from existential doom—because nothing screams ‘you too can be a commodity if you work hard enough’ like an anthropomorphic flower wresting the entirety of its value on being perceived as ‘beautiful’ by humans—the inverse is true of the world inhabited by Jean Jacket: the more humans attempt to monetise the spectacle of Jean Jacket feeding itself, the more abundant the violence becomes. Unable to walk away from commodifying and fetishising the spectacle, the humans in Nope are commissioning surplus death. Or, as OJ states in the film: ‘bad miracles.’

Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism:

There is no punctual moment of disaster; the world doesn’t end with a bang, it winks out, unravels, gradually falls apart. What caused the catastrophe to occur, who knows; its cause lies long in the past, so absolutely detached from the present as to seem like the caprice of a malign being: a negative miracle, a malediction which no penitence can ameliorate. Such a blight can only be eased by an intervention that can no more be anticipated than was the onset of the curse in the first place. Action is pointless; only senseless hope makes sense. Superstition and religion, the first resorts of the helpless, proliferate.

Jean Jacket shapeshifts in the final act: no longer mimicking a pop sci-fi flying saucer or a clump of clouds, it takes the form of what many have suggested could be a literal interpretation of how angels are described in the Bible. Ultimately, the same questions can be asked of it as of the Grimace: What is it? Why is it? How is it? Is it a ghost? Is it from another planet or dimension? Ancient animal, perhaps? A living sky fossil? Is Jean Jacket the Grimace’s mother? Father? The Face of God? Is this what you meant by life, blob? Maybe they are one and the same: Jean Jacket and the Grimace are the Gods of ancestors forgotten by their descendants, but they’re still here, toiling. Perhaps the Grimace is Jean Jacket’s prodigal son, never returned, enclosed in capital’s ontological tomb, unalive, waiting to be repossessed by the memory of ancient ways before humans stepped outside of nature to use nature against nature. Thanks blob, see what you’ve done.

The human heroes in Nope are OJ and his sister Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer), descendants of Alistair Haywood—the Black jockey who appeared riding a horse in the very first motion picture ever recorded, and who established the enduring family business Haywood’s Hollywood Horses. This intertextual fiction is rooted in historical fact, as Eadweard Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion is indeed remembered as being the first ‘motion picture’, but the identity and story of the Black jockey featured in the film have been erased from history. OJ and Emerald inherit the Haywood ranch and business after their father Otis Sr (Keith David) is killed by a quarter that fell out of the sky along with a bunch of other seemingly random items (keys, coins, slushie cups, etc).

Peele’s command of storytelling is borne of the same stuff as great poetry. The imagery of the father’s death comments on capitalist society’s fetishisation and commodification of the spectacle (the money literally plunges through his eye and into his brain). Peele holds this image in the metaphorical air until the final act of the film, when Emerald discovers a trove of quarters regurgitated by Jean Jacket hidden in the dust at Jupiter’s Claim, a Western theme park which forms part of the siblings’ plan to take down Jean Jacket. And it is in this moment that Peele reveals the rest of the image he started painting at the beginning of the story: the quarter that killed Otis Sr wasn’t spare change—it was a token. Otis Sr, a Black man who worked in racist Hollywood, was killed by tokenism.

Jupiter’s Claim is owned by Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park (Steven Yeun), a former child actor who survived a massacre on the set of the film Gordy’s Home when the title character, played by a chimpanzee, murdered the actors during a live recording. The chimp not only spared Jupe but, after killing his co-stars, gave him a ‘fist bump’. As a result, Jupe believes he has a special connection to wild animals, a perceived talent he seeks to exploit by secretly rehearsing a show in which Jean Jacket eats a horse. However, Jupe’s delusion leads him to the same fate as his Gordy’s Home co-stars decades earlier: as soon as Jean Jacket is put in front of a live audience, Jean Jacket kills and eats everybody. The tension between the fallout of capitalism’s delusion of control over nature (death, destruction, and tragedy as embodied by the fate of Jupe and the fate of the spectacle-consumers he invited to ultimately share the same death), and the need to collaborate with nature (represented by how OJ views horse wrangling as a collaboration with nature, and approaches wrangling the monstrous Jean Jacket with the same candour) in order to survive nature (ie the metabolic rift, or the many ‘bad miracles’ visited on us by human-induced catastrophic climate change).

Nope is also a story about accumulation or, more precisely, a story about capitalism’s grotesque efficiency in commodifying and fetishising its own barbaric strut. The film interrogates our desire to not only consume spectacle, or to participate in it, but to own the means of producing it.

Then there is the slain TMZ reporter Ryder Muybridge (an easter-egg reference to Eadweard Muybridge), who would have survived had he surrendered his obsession with taking and selling photographs of the spectacle. Muybridge’s obsession with selling images of the spectacle of death and violence called to mind the line ‘they’re selling postcards of the hanging’ in Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row. The song comments on the twentieth-century practice of selling photographs of lynchings as postcards, specifically the 1920 Duluth lynchings in which three Black circus workers, Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie were murdered by a white mob.

Muybridge and Jupe could also be read as elucidations of social media’s false economy of ownership over the spectacle of the individual, and how the ontological entrenchment of this desire for self-spectacle online is a major component of the business model of the ruling class that rules the ruling class today—that is, the vectoralist class, a class ‘above’ the capitalist class. Coined by McKenzie Wark, the phrase, as I understand it, describes how this class extracts its wealth from mining the data of individuals as they interface with information systems, such as social media or government services. The individual doesn’t have to spend any money, they just have to spend time online, and every time they do they become bigger vectors for commodity exchange. The vectoralist class are not those who own the means of production, but those who own the means of information through which modern modes of production are dependent. Think: Bezos (Amazon), Pichai (Google), Musk (Tesla), Zuckerberg (Meta/Facebook), and anyone else considered to be an ‘emerging trillionaire’.

Jean Jacket makes it rain capitalist artifice and in doing so makes it rain death. Jean Jacket punches the drive to accumulate into reverse and uses capitalist society’s waste against itself: abductees are converted into nutrition while their effects rain down on the living, killing and injuring without rhyme or reason. In Nope, the objects produced by the alienated labour of the working classes are subsumed by nature (Jean Jacket) where they are distilled into their two purest forms: violence and chaos. More material is produced than can be sustainably metabolised by nature (Jean Jacket’s cosmic indigestion) without causing a rift, a tear, a bad miracle. However, supernature is not the negative miracle—it is capitalism’s barbaric strut and the violence of the spectacle commanded by it.

Peele illustrates two metabolic rifts: 1. Environmental and ecological destruction and degradation caused by surplus production of materials (tangible); and 2. Social degradation and the destruction of class solidarity along lines of race produced by the conditions of oppression necessitated by colonial capitalism in the form of racist ideology (intangible and tangible).

Guy Debord in Society of the Spectacle:

This is the principle of commodity fetishism, the domination of society by ‘intangible as well as tangible things,’ which reaches its absolute fulfillment in the spectacle, where the tangible world is replaced by a selection of images which exist above it, and which simultaneously impose themselves as the tangible par excellence.

The metaphoric rendering of the refusal to feed the spectacle as a way of surviving raises questions about the limits of ‘witnessing’ and the dangers incurred when it crosses over into capitalogenic spectacle. To draw on the words of Rachel Zolf in their work No One’s Witness, Peele brings Medusa’s ‘obliterative head’ to the screen and asks non-Black audience members to ‘listen to what is said and unsaid in the monstrous duration, not as voyeurs or spectators but as participants in an ongoing disaster.’ Also in Zolf’s work is their relating of Saidiya Hartman’s reasoning for choosing not to reanimate Frederick Douglass’ eye-witness account of the brutalisation of his Aunt Hester at the hands of a slave owner as an enunciation of the problematic limitations of ‘witnessing’ in the age of social media, uprisings against racist policing and prisons, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Zolf quotes Hartman from her work, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America:

What interests me are the ways we are called upon to participate in such scenes. Are we witnesses who confirm the truth of what happened in the face of the world-destroying capacities of pain, the distortions of torture, the sheer unrepresentability of terror, and the repression of the dominant accounts? Or are we voyeurs fascinated with and repelled by exhibitions of terror and sufferance? What does the exposure of the violated body yield? Proof of black sentience or the inhumanity of the ‘peculiar institution’? Or does the pain of the other merely provide us with the opportunity for self-reflection? At issue here is the precariousness of empathy and the uncertain line between witness and spectator. Only more obscene than the brutality unleashed at the whipping post is the demand that this suffering be materialized and evidenced by the display of the tortured body for endless recitations of the ghastly and the terrible. In light of this, how does one give expression to these outrages without exacerbating the indifference to suffering that is the consequence of the benumbing spectacle or contend with the narcissistic identification that obliterates the other or the prurience that too often is the response to such displays?

Peele is also preoccupied with what Hartman’s terms the ‘the precariousness of empathy and the uncertain line between witness and spectator.’ He crafts an atmosphere of unrelenting danger from racist police not by depicting interactions with law enforcement, but through the negative (and unnerving) space provided by the knowledge that the police are never distant, always near, always watching. In one scene, Emerald is seen wrapped in yellow crime-scene ribbon, another visual koan pointing to how police and prisons loom large over Black lives. Given the unreliable and unpredictable weathervane of white empathy and understanding, Nope aims for a truth deeper than what is recorded by spectacle. What is clear by the end of the film is that, even though Emerald and OJ ingeniously take down a cosmic stingray archangel creature from another dimension, the police will always act in the interests of capital and white supremacy, and for as long as police and policing exist, they will remain a threat to Black lives.

Nope opts to embody rather than depict the violence of racist authorities throughout the film’s ‘monstrous duration’ (Zolf’s words again). In refusing to make it easy for white audiences to consume the spectacle of re-enacted racist violence perpetrated by police, Nope is refusing the spectacle. Rather than being told how to digest bearing witness to the reanimation of a specific act of racist violence, its audience is left to chew their own food as they attempt to metabolise the infinity of violent possibilities invoked by Peele’s choice of poetics over didactics. The effect is a call to action to think critically, to critically engage and reflect, inward and outward. The ambiguity of the outcome of the police presence at the story’s end is—like racist violence everywhere—inconclusive, unresolved, and ever-present.

As Emerald becomes aware of the police pulling into Jupiter’s Claim, the audience are positioned to feel the same as her, to want the police to go away, to fuck off. In that moment the audience and Emerald are each abolitionists, and in that moment at the Blacktown drive-in where I witnessed Nope, everyone in that carpark, however briefly, behind their tinted car windows, desired the absence of police, for the police to fuck right off, and in the infinite violent possibilities invoked by Peele, we all wanted to see the police, the dutiful henchmen of capital that they are, gone for good.  

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Dan Hogan is a non-binary writer and public-school teacher from San Remo (Awabakal Country). Dan’s poetry and prose have been recognised by the Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize, Val Vallis Award, XYZ Prize, Woollahra Digital Literary Award, and the Wheeler Centre Next Chapter Fellowship. In their spare time, Dan runs small DIY publisher Subbed In (www.subbed.in). More of their work can be found at www.2dan2hogan.com

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