In Elemental, Bernie and Cinder Lumen, fire elements, face a devastating storm that shatters their dream convenience store in their native home Fireland. Seeking refuge in Element City, they encounter not a warm welcome, but rather scorn and prejudice. The city’s water-centric infrastructure, notably its subway system, proves an unwelcome fit for fire-people. Undeterred, Bernie and Cinder establish “The Fireplace” on the city’s outskirts, sparking the birth of Fire Town, an enclave where fire-people find solace in isolation from the rest of the city.
Their daughter, Ember, joins the store’s operations, with Bernie planning to pass it down to her one day. However, a plumbing mishap during Ember’s solo store management leads to a fateful encounter with Wade Ripple, a water element inspector. To rescue their store, Ember and Wade embark on a mission to mend a dam breach, growing closer as they work together. Their feelings deepen, leading Ember to secure a glassmaking internship and question her role in the store. But conveying her emotions to Bernie proves challenging.
As Bernie hosts his retirement party, a surprising turn unfolds when Wade confesses his love for Ember. But Bernie remains wary of water-people and resists this change. Tragedy strikes as a dam breach floods the fire district, trapping Ember and Wade in the Fireplace, where scorching heat causes Wade to evaporate. After the flood recedes, Ember opens her heart to Bernie, expressing her love for Wade and her reluctance to assume control of the store.
Realizing that Wade has become absorbed into the stone ceiling, Ember succeeds in returning him to his normal state. A few months after their reunion, Ember and Wade decide to leave Element City behind and embark on a journey together. Ember plans to study glassmaking, and they look forward to exploring the world side by side.
The movie’s centering of a romantic couple – Fire and Water – whose very union is supposed to be impossible can easily be interpreted as a rehashing of liberal humanist themes of individualism. Ember exercises her choice in transgressing the conventional norms of elemental existence and thus establishes her own self against the institutions of family and society. This analysis would have worked were it not for the absence of individuality displayed by Ember.
Unlike the rational subject of the Enlightenment, she hardly seems to be able to deploy her critical faculties in a consistent manner. In fact, it is her self-destructive rage that causes the water leaks in the store and brings Wade into her life. The sanctity of the object of intergenerational inheritance and identitarian affiliation is compromised by an excessive dimension of Ember’s existence that refuses to accept harmony and stability.
Ember looks upon her rage as an irritating and irrational excrescence that needs to be controlled and eliminated. Wade, on the other hand, says, “When I lose my temper I think it’s just me trying to tell myself something I’m not ready to hear”. This represents a radicalization of Enlightenment: rationality is no longer tied to the confines of the individual will but expands to include the causal explanation of unconscious symptoms.
A symptom is created when the repression of a personal urge overcomes that repression to re-appear in a disguised form. In the words of Wilhelm Reich, “the symptom contains both the rejected urge and the rejection itself: the symptom allows for both diametrically opposed tendencies”. The possibility of subjective agency lies in that very opposition: subjectivity is the gap between our existential urges and the socio-historic signifiers that attempt to satisfy them.
Rational autonomy is not a source of individual power that is ready at hand to be invoked for the exercise of choice. Rather, it is the very impossibility of that power: it is only insofar as we can’t attain a state of absolute satisfaction and completion that we keep striving to fulfill ourselves. If we enjoyed a durable paradise of enjoyment, we wouldn’t be interested in forming new relations with others. It is the lack of such a paradise that motivates us to take interest in society and that accounts for the movement of history.
Bernie left his indigenous land because he clearly felt a sense of nonbelonging in the world in which his life was embedded. As Bernie prepared to depart, he respectfully bowed before his father, yet his father neither acknowledged his gesture nor offered his blessing. Thus, the founding scene of Bernie’s life was a destabilizing break from native security and a journey into the unknown. When confronted with the hostility of Element City, Bernie doesn’t falter in setting up his store.
Over time, the existential longings that drove Bernie to break his ties with his homeland and pursue a new project are forgotten and solidified into the stoniness of his store. The original act of disruption whereby Bernie transcended his constricting circumstances are themselves transcended in an ever intensifying futural direction that values stability over everything else. The productivity of the store becomes a transcendent goal to which every goal must be sacrificed. Writing about this ethic of compulsive renunciation, Herbert Marcuse notes:
One may no longer ask, transcendence for what and toward what? Transcendence as such suffices for the essential determination of freedom, and the questions, Why this transcendence? Why this uninterrupted going beyond every already attained state? Why should precisely this dynamic define the essence of man? remain just as open as the question, why in fact should augmented productivity be the highest value and motive force? The freedom thus determined as end-in-itself and rigorously distinguished from gratification becomes free of happiness.
As a member of an immigrant community that is discriminated against, Bernie has every right to practice his cultural identity. However, this identity transforms into a burden when it no longer functions as the expression of our ceaseless desires (for equality, for self-development, etc.) but as the final destination where life has to stop. Refusing to establish such an ultimate endpoint and recognizing that life’s journey is all there is, is the only way for us to experience enjoyment.
Enjoyment is achieved not by directly aiming at a clearly defined goal but by repeating wrong choices. These wrong choices the expose the gap between our social identity and our existential desires. Consider, for instance, the fundamental rule of Element City: “elements don’t mix”. Ember and Wade make the utterly preposterous choice of mixing with each other, whose end result proves to be gratifying for both of them.
In this sense, enjoyment is not a pre-fixed ideal to which we have to subordinate ourselves. Rather, it is a retroactive product that emerges from the haphazard process of its becoming. This dynamic of existence accounts for the randomness with which Ember and Wade end up in a romantic relationship. They could never fall in love if they expected to fall in love and constantly searched for the right person.
Their ability to fall in love is dependent upon their embrace of the open-endedness that characterizes desire, which is never able to complete itself as an all-knowing totality. Only when we give up on the wish to understand everything can we be capable of being touched by love. No longer organized by the directions of an intentional and premeditated future, we enter a state of flexibility where we are alert to the possibilities that may arise from any region of the environment. Only the destruction of a competent ego can create a self that stops plugging the holes of its incompleteness and explores the plenitude of a dynamic world.