Christopher Nolan’s TENET: Absolute Knowledge as living with temporal paradox

Here is my full review of Christopher Nolan’s TENET. It can be read as a homage to the concepts and perspective of Bernard Stiegler, whose books and online seminars I have followed for over a decade.


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, self-designated « Protagonist » of time regained.


Christopher Nolan’s TENET transposes the class war into a temporal war, and then re-transposes this temporal war into a grand spectacle spy action film. Instead of time as protagonist we have the self-found « Protagonist » of time regained. As Mark Fisher well knew, the time war is a class war.

TENET registers the fact that the ruling class is waging war on the rest of humanity, and to the fantasy (?) that this war of attrition may seek to to transition to total war once the right algorithm has been found.

From a Stieglerian point of view, as the Anthropocene understood as Entropocene turns increasingly towards algorithmic governmentality, the struggle against capitalism must be a struggle for the Negentropocene by means of the dealgorithmisation of desire. This dealgorithmisation of desire proceeds by its noetisation, and the tenet is the degree zero of such a noetisation. Such a tenet is a wager on the incalculable.

TENET is thus the opposite of INCEPTION, where the goal was to seed an idea, a tenet, in the mind of a financial rival, one calculated to ensure its defeat. In TENET the goal is to establish a tenet strong enough, and clandestine enough, to defeat the algorithm.

TENET, like INCEPTION, is a film that literalises the virtual. However the virtual does manage to resonate in a few places. For example, at the end:

It’s the bomb that didn’t go off. The danger no one knew was real. That’s the bomb with the real power to change the world.

Considered as a science fiction film TENET is disappointingly simplistic and hand-wavy. Christopher Nolan affirms that he had been thinking about its ideas for many years, but a quick read of some science fiction classics, including Robert Heinlein and Philip K. Dick, could have reduced that research time to a few weeks.

TENET evokes uknowingly Stiegler’s idea of the Neganthropocene/Negentropocene. It would be a mistake to suppose that the « bad » future is punishing us for allowing global warming to ruin their lives. On the contrary, there is full continuity in the ruling class’s strategy. Climate change did not get rid of us, so more drastic measures are needed: the time war.

TENET literalises and totalises Stiegler’s concept of the current epoch the Anthropocene as Entropocene. If the necessary solution, the Neganthropocene, interpreted as totalised Negentropocene, comes to mean the elimination of humanity as such (except for some constitutive exception) then the negativity of the death drive will have become a system subordinated to the master algorithm of destruction.

Algorithmic drive is no better than algorithmic desire.

TENET, like the Owl of Minerva, spreads its wings at dusk, as the password/refrain at the beginning of the film makes clear:

We live in a twilight world. We live in a twilight world. And there are no friends at dusk.

In this twilight world Neil is the Spinozist, believing in the substance and immutability of what has happened, but the Protagonist is Hegelian, he subjectivises the substance of what has happened (that is how he becomes the Protagonist), and so can become active.


TENET, while being an enjoyable spy-thriller, is not so good science fiction. It is also not so good philosophy, but it has its moments.

Unlike an inverted non-sentient object such as a bullet, a human being who is inverted (negation) and subsequently de-inverted (negation of the negation) has a knowledge of and through the process that the original linear version does not have.

Unlike the bullet, the human has the capacity for an apprenticeship of time, learning to abandon linear thinking and to think otherwise, to think in non-linear terms.

This non-linear thinking permits the resistants to make efficient use of the « temporal pincer ». Yet they remain only executants of the actual: « what happens happened ». This is the domain of inverted causality, not of retroactive causality.

A further step comes from not just knowing one’s presuppositions (Neil) but from the ability to posit one’s presuppositions. This is the passage from executant to Protagonist. Speculative retroactive causality cannot be reduced to scientific inverted causality.

Semantically, the passage from executant of the actual to protagonist of the virtual is presented in the action image, as executed. Syntactically, the speculative protagonist of the film as executed is Nolan himself.


TENET describes the attempt to create a movement of resistance that is not registered by the big Other. No archives, only minimal information (a word and a gesture), loose ends are « tied up ». The structure of knowledge (cognitive map) is supplemented by a structure of feeling (But what does your heart tell you? »), and finally by a speculative decision (« I am the Protagonist »).

The film turns on the ontological parallax between the perspectives of Neil (Spinozist) and the Protagonist (Hegelian).

In TENET the apprenticeship of time follows the sequence laid down by Zizek in SEX AND THE FAILED ABSOLUTE in his explication of Lacan’s topology: the Moebius strip, the Cross-cap, the Klein Bottle.

The first step, which will become clear only later, is when our nameless Protagonist is taken out of his life, he is « vanished ». At this stage he has not yet decided that he is the Protagonist, so let us call him Prot.

Prot is inducted by a mysterious master, who recruits him, and gives him just the bare minimum of knowledge: a word (« tenet ») and a gesture (hands interlocking fingers) and the information that there is a Cold War (physics pun, where « cold » refers to entropy).

This master institutes a process of anamnesis, only inverted, of remembering a future that hasn’t happened yet. Even the word « tenet » is a piece of that future. Prot will later come to conclude that he will have been recruited by his future self by way of temporal inversion.

Thus begins Prot’s induction out of linear ideology and into the real world of temporal complexity. He does not know it yet, but he is being incorporated into a series of loops, of Moebius strips constituting his own timeline.

After encountering a series of inverted objects Prot finds himself in a struggle against inverted humans, and by means of a « Turnstile », a technology of inversion, proceeds to invert himself, travels back in time, and then de-inverts himself.

This is his first conscious experience of a temporal Moebius strip.

Prot has begun to learn dialectical (« nonlinear ») thinking and can thus work effectively in a « temporal pincer », that makes use of two simultaneous but inverted with respect to each other, Moebius strips.

This is his first conscious experience of a temporal cross-cap.

Whereas the Moebius strip permits him an awareness of the identity of opposites that remain antagonistic (fight scene with himself), the Cross-cap converges on a point of suture that is in danger of being de-sutured by the Algorithm to create a negentropic apocalypse.

The « bad » future, despite inventing the technology of inversion, seems to think in linear terms: create a massive inversion that eliminates the past, accomplish this by means of a few Moebius strips. This technological future is not capable of thinking dialectically in terms of cross-cap temporal pincers. This is its weakness.

The passage to the further stage of the apprenticeship comes about when Prot realises that he is not the pawn of some mysterious Other, but that he is working for himself (in his speculative identity of positing his presuppositions). The cause is simply the effect of its effects.

This is his first conscious experience of the Klein Bottle.

The space of thinking requires us to move outside the linear, in whatever direction, to the unorientable. To maintain this unorientability a different type of abstraction than the algorithm is needed.

This abstraction that comes to us from our future is called « tenet ».


Synthesising the results of the previous chapters, we can say that TENET is a film about an apprenticeship in « dialectical » thought: encountering anomalies and paradoxical objects, seeing things inverted, moving in strange loops, in double mutually inverted loops, in double loops converging on point of suture or of de-suture, progressing from multiple intersecting causal loops to speculative quasi-causality.

Thinking about the film we may use Zizek to explain TENET, or TENET to explain Zizek (iterated inversions), or both to examine our contemporary world or our own mode of philosophising (textual pincer). These are basic moves of thought, and belong to no one.

We can proceed on an idea that we did not know we have, and that we will only really have later, an idea that we perceive in present anomalies, cryptic words and gestures, strange loops of thought that we dimly feel before we come to understand.

This is the lesson of incommensurability: if our future thought were to be explained to us now in our own terms and we could understand it we would never make a true leap, it would seem to be just more of the same, only perhaps more efficient.

Inversion, turning things on their head or into their opposites, is not the only answer to the problem of the present, nor is it always the best, or even the most innovative. It may be a useful but preliminary move, needing to be supplemented by further, more subtle or more complex steps.

The future is always already trying to eliminate us by dogmatic, axiomatic, and now by algorithmic means, but we need not cling to our simplistic ideologies. Elimination as a technique is a form of simple linear inversion.

The eliminativist solution to the grandfather paradox is to make it systematic: kill all the grandfathers and invert their world, and all will be well!

The ideology of eliminative materialism whether in politics (neoliberalism), art (death of art) or in science (radical physicalist reductionism) is just as simplistic as folk politics and folk psychology.

Wholesale inversion or elimination do not constitute a viable alternative. They are too linear, they miss the loops.

Bibliographic note

For the discussion of Christopher Nolan’s INCEPTION I am indebted to Mark Fisher’s GHOSTS OF MY LIFE

The discussion of the « loops » of thought builds on Zizek’s discussion in his recent book SEX AND THE FAILED ABSOLUTE. I initially clarified his concepts by expanding on and completing his analysis of the short story « The Waistcoat ». My analysis of TENET builds on this previous analysis:

For the concept of « algorithmic governance » I am indebted to the work of Antoinette Rouvroy. I first became aware of her work through Bernard Stiegler’s seminars.For an interesting and accessible interview in English see:

For the concept of « algorithmic desire » I am indebted to the work of Maryse Carmès. Her work adumbrates a problematic which synthesises concepts from Deleuze, Latour, and Laruelle with those of Stiegler and Rouvroy.

See her « Désirs algorithmiques de l’action publique : une lecture sémiopolitique », in Algorithmes et décisions publiques (published 31 January 2019, edited by Gilles Rouet).

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5 commentaires pour Christopher Nolan’s TENET: Absolute Knowledge as living with temporal paradox

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