Jessica Solce’s “Death Athletic – A Dissident Architecture”: A Review
“The very desire to be free. Do not ask me to analyze that sublime desire; you must feel it. It finds its way into great hearts that God has prepared to receive it. It fills them; it inflames them. To mediocre souls that have never felt it, one cannot hope to make it comprehensible.”
— Alexis de Tocqueville
When Cody Wilson’s company Defense Distributed designed the first 3D-printed gun and published the blueprints in May 2013 the response was immediate: the State Department demanded that Wilson remove the files from his website under threat of prosecution for violations of international arms trafficking laws. Wilson refused, and counter-sued on First Amendment grounds, kicking off a legal saga and one big mistake that nearly cost Wilson the company he founded.
Filmmaker Jessica Solce tells this story with more than 8 years of footage tightly focused on Wilson himself. Delivered over a hypnotic score that puts the viewer right beside Wilson as he fights lawsuit after lawsuit while weathering relentless attacks in the media and confidently defending his efforts, the result is an extraordinarily intimate psychological portrait of a flawed but charismatic and fundamentally courageous man.
Death Athletic takes its title from Peter Sloterdijk’s book You Must Change Your Life: for Sloterdijk, a death athlete is someone who lives their life in service to a mission and a goal, liberated from any fear of death. Wilson’s politics and affinity with the cypherpunk movement makes it all too easy to compare him to his contemporaries Julian Assange, Ross Ulbricht and Aaron Swartz, all of whom have sacrificed their lives for their mission.
Wilson sits in this legacy as another radical with a seeming death wish, brave enough to take on the most powerful government in the world. But his emphasis on guns is what separates Wilson from these other characters, and part of what lends him his charismatic edge. All too willing to play the role of the whip-smart villain the media cast him as, his spirited defense of the right to self-defense sounds out against the ongoing American legal battles against the Second Amendment like a storm alarm. And so, as a result of Defense Distributed’s work and his rhetoric, Wired named Wilson one of “The 15 Most Dangerous People in the World” in 2012.
But as Wilson makes clear, his project was never just about guns, but about control over information more generally, and how this control is implemented. “The liberal imagines there’s a quantifiable amount of technical data related to guns and that somehow this can be seen and the flow of the info can be controlled,” Wilson reflects early in the film, over a flickering projection of a blueprint for a 3D-printed gun. “The idea that you can control these flows is a hallucination of power.”
As 3D printing technological progress continues, the comparison to the printing press may yet prove to be more than just a cliché. Thanks to Wilson and his company’s efforts, the 3D-printed gun has become more than a diversion. Interviewed by Solce together with his Defense Distributed co-founder Benjamin Denio, Wilson says it was “important to seize it and enunciate it with an alternative political vocabulary” in order to “rescue it from the hobbyists.”
The project of enabling the production of guns from blueprints is a titanic technical accomplishment itself. Innovation of this nature happens through force, and often through the efforts of a single forceful personality. Wilson is an example of such a personality, but he is also human.
In August 2018, Wilson was arrested and ultimately convicted for paying $500 to a girl under the age of 17 for sex through a website after she told him that she was a college freshman. Unlike twenty other states, Texas law contains no provision for individuals who are deliberately misled, and Wilson was compelled to accept a plea bargain. He stepped down from the company in light of the controversy. But after serving a suspended sentence, he returned to lead the company the next year where he remains to this day.
It’s clear that the charges against him take some of the wind out of his sails. Wilson no longer seems as eager to sermonize at length on the particular political aims of Defense Distributed and instead repeats Camus’ quote that “the only philosophically coherent position is revolt.” Against a sovereign that doesn’t care about the truth of an argument and only wants to see its opponents destroyed, all reasoning is futile. “It’s about pure exertion of authority and will for them,” he notes.
Writing on Shakespeare, Carlyle notes that the force that brought his literary genius into being could not have originated from “dining in a Freemasons’ Tavern, opening subscription lists, selling of shares, and infinite other jangling.” The Elizabethan Era in Britain that birthed him came “without proclamation” or “preparation of ours,” and Shakespeare appeared in the midst of it as a “free gift of Nature.” Wilson does as well, but as a product of the Information Age in America, shielding the flame of liberty.
Even as the world continues to sink more deeply into a digital dystopia, men like Wilson keep alive the hope of liberation. The mission of Defense Distributed is to give people access to the “means of production” of modernity’s most powerful weapon of personal autonomy and defense. It’s a goal that has unique legal standing and cultural resonance in the United States, and thus, unlike his contemporaries, Wilson’s project feels more specifically American.
The guns and his employ of Texas patriotism and the Bloody Arm flag of Goliad in expressing his willingness to cut off his own arm before giving up the fight brings him into superficial communion with the American spirit. But more to the point, by the end of the film, as a cynical and hunted Wilson speaks to the camera, it’s the brutish resistance to arbitrary authority that his well-reasoned political philosophy results in that reminds me most of the primitive American ego that first animated the nation. Even as he proclaims his motivations aren’t about “truth and justice in the American way,” he winds up in the same place: proudly defying an authority he deems unworthy of respect.