TENET: algorithmic desire vs tenetic drive

There is a strong Nietzschean element to Christopher Nolan’s TENET. Nietzsche’s tenet is expressed in the maxim of amor fati: live in such a way as to will the eternal recurrence of the same. This Stoic precept represents Nietzsche’s attempt to overcome the nihilistic pathos resulting from the discovery of entropy. Expressed in purely scientific terms this constitutes Neil’s choice in TENET.

Bernard Stiegler would retort that Nietzsche did not have available to him the concept of anti-entropy. Nolan does have this concept, but like Stiegler he warns against using it as a new totalising concept and practice. Total inverted entropy is synonymous with the time-driven apocalypse, the total destruction of our world in favour of an unknown, but hostile, future.

The third choice explored by the film is an article of faith, a tenet, that combines the two movements, but not both at the global level. To protect life, to ensure love, a local temporal « pincer » movement (not a loop) within the global entropic flux may succeed.

Etymologically tenet derives from the Latin tenere, to hold. Our hero, who comes to designate himself as « the Protagonist », holds to Kat and her love for her son, Max (who may or may not be Neil).

Thus TENET’s cast of characters is distributed around these different time images. Sator – the totalising algorithm, Ives – the fragmented algorithm, Neil – amor fati, Protagonist – tenet.

Are we slowly cancelling a future that will then turn on us and proceed to « cancel » our present? that is the question posed by TENET. If that is the case, what possible defence could we have? The response of the film is that a sustainable tenet retroactively posits its presuppositions by means of a series of local anti-entropic interventions.

TENET is about algorithmic desire. That which is slowly cancelling us in the present and our projected future is the « Algorithm », a future desire for the death and annihilation of our present as a past to be cancelled. Against algorithmic desire it opposes the tenacity of the drive, whose tenets posit and safeguard a past that need not result in the present that the algorithm observes nor in the future it predicts and tries to impose by temporal war, by eradicating the past that leads to a different future.

Mark Fisher, who thought much about the temporal loops that are deployed to confine us within capitalism or that can be made to serve our release, argued that the past that led to a different future than it promised was not so much wrong as impatient. For him, the struggle against algorithmic cancellation proceeds by tenetic patience.

Terminological note: in this post I have been working on the interface Stiegler/Zizek. For Stiegler the algorithm is destructive of desire, and releases and composes with the drive. For Zizek desire is algorithmic and drive is deterritorialising negativity. For Deleuze desire exists in both territorialised forms (including algorithmic desire) and deterritorialised forms (including tenetic drives). Given this diversity of terms and of problematics, all of which are relevant here, my own lexical practice is eclectic.


I have been discussing TENET from the point of view of the film that it could have been, but that it didn’t quite manage to be. This mismatch between the virtual film and the actual film is not new to Nolan, and it may be of use to recall some of Mark Fisher’s comments on INCEPTION that apply equally to TENET.

1) TIME-IMAGE vs ACTION-IMAGE. From my perspective, based on its treatment of time, TENET is one of a series of films where the ontologically and epistemologically disturbing time-image is re-transcribed into a cognitively puzzling action-image.

Fisher writes in GHOSTS OF MY LIFE

At points, it as if Inception’s achievement is to have provided a baroquely sophisticated motivation for some very dumb action sequences. An unkind viewer might think that the entirety of Inception’s complex ontological structure had been constructed to justify clichés of action cinema

2) COMPLEXITY vs COMPLICATION. A consequence of this reduction to the action image is that the potential for conceptual and imaginative complexity is renounced in favour of narrative complication: the plot is difficult to follow in the details, even if the broad lines are readily assimilated.

Once again Mark Fisher diagnosed a similar problem with INCEPTION

you want to be lost in Escheresque mazes, but you end up in an interminable car chase.

In conclusion, Christopher Nolan’s TENET transposes the class war into a temporal war, and then re-transposes this temporal war into a grand spectacle action film. Instead of time as labyrinthine protagonist we have the self-found Protagonist of time regained.

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