quarta-feira, 30 de maio de 2012

Technophobia by Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner

Science fiction films concerning fears of machines or of technology usually negatively affirm such social values as freedom, individualism, and the family. In 1970s films, technology was frequently a metaphor for everything that threatened 'natural' social arrangements, and conservative values associated with nature were generally mobilized as anti-dotes to that threat. But technophobic films are also the site where the metaphor of nature which sustains those values can be most saliently deconstructed.
From a conservative perspective, technology represents artifice as opposed to nature, the mechanical as opposed to the spontaneous, the regulated as opposed to the free, an equalizer as opposed to a promoter of individual distinction, equality triumphant as opposed to liberty, democratic levelling as opposed to hierarchy derived from individual superiority. Most important for the conservative individualist critique, it represents modernity, the triumph of radical change over traditional social institutions. Those institutions are legitimated by being endowed with the aura of nature, and technology represents the possibility that nature might be reconstructable, not the bedrock of unchanging authority that conservative discourse requires. Indeed, as the figure for artificial construction, technology represents the possibility that such discursive figures as 'nature' (and the ideal of free immediacy it connotes) might merely be constructs, artificial devices, metaphors designed to legitimate inequality by positing a false ground of authority for unjust social institutions.


The significance of technology thus exceeds simple questions of mechanics. It is usually a crucial ideological figure. Indeed, as the possibility of reconstructing institutions conservatives declare to be part of nature, technology represents everything that threatens Mu- grounding of conservative social authority and everything that ideology is designed to neutralize. It should not be surprising, then, that this era should witness the development of a strain of films that portray technology negatively, usually from a conservative perspective.

The technophobic theme is most visible in the early 1970s in George Lucas's THX 1138 (1970), a quest narrative set in a cybernetic society where all of life is regulated by the state. Individuals are forced to take drugs to regulate sexual desires; thoughts and individual action are monitored by electronic surveillance devices. A sense of mass, collectivist conformity is connoted by shaved heads, the assigning of numbers instead of names, and starkly lit white environments. The lack of differentiation between individuals is suggested by the limitless quality of space; everything lacks boundaries, from the self to the city. The libertarian basis of the film's value system cuts both ways politically - liberally, in that recorded messages allude to the McCarthyite repression of dissidents; and conservatively, in that they also refer negatively to socialism ('Blessings of the State, blessings of the masses.

We are created in the image of the masses, by the masses, for the masses'). Against undifferentiated totalitarianism, the film valorizes the differentiated individual. THX flees the cybernetic society, and the last image depicts his emergence into freedom and nature. His liberation is associated with a bright orange sun that strikingly isolates him as he emerges. The bright sun is a metaphor for individual freedom, for the departure from a world of contrivance and artifice into nature. The sun literally singularizes THX by giving him a distinguishing boundary. He is no longer one of the intersubstitutable mass. In addition, the sense the image imparts is of something literal, the thing itself, nature in its pure presence.
Indeed, nature is supposed to be just that, something outside contrivance, artifice, technology, and the sort of substitution which rhetorical figures (the very opposite of what is literal) usually connote. The grounding of the ideology of liberty in nature is tantamount to grounding it in literality, since literality implies things as they are, unadulterated by the sort of artificial intersubstitution of people which prevails in the egalitarian city. Visual style connotes political attitudes, and given a choice between the deep white frieze of equality and the warm orange glow of liberty, one suspects what people are likely to choose.

The rhetorical strategy of many technophobic films, therefore, is to establish a strong opposition between terms (liberty vs equality) that does not permit any intermediation. The elimination of the middle ground is an essential operation of this ideology. A major mid-seventies film that executes this strategy is Logan's Run (1976), in which a police-man named Logan is induced into fleeing a cybernetic city by a young female rebel against the city's totalitarian regime. The representation of the city evokes all the negative traits in the conservative vision assigned to the figure of technology - the destruction of the family, the inter-changeability of sexual partners so that feeling is destroyed by rationality, enforced mass conformity that places the collective before the individual and effaces individual differences in an egalitarian levelling, the power of state control over the freedom to choose, and so on. The city is a mid-seventies liberal pleasure dome where one can summon sexual partners at the touch of a button, or periodically receive a new identity.
Population size is regulated, and no one has parents. This lack of self-identity is associated with hedonism and collectivity. Logan and the woman rebel get caught up in an orgy at one point, and the colours suggest hell. When the two are separated (divorced, one might say, to emphasize the ideological motif), they almost lose their identities in the teeming crowd. In such a sexually permissive, hedonistic world, clearly no social hierarchy or subjective boundary can be established or maintained. Collectivity is thus associated with a loss of self-identity and a lack of sexual discipline that breaks family bonds.


One of the first things that Logan says upon emerging into nature is, 'We're free'. In nature one knows who one's mother and father are, whereas in the city of collectivism and sexual hedonism no one knows his/her parents. Thus one can only be an individual, a self, within a society of monogamous marriage, in which sexuality primarily serves the 'natural' function of reproduction rather than pleasure. In the film's conservative ideology, the restoration of the traditional family, the preservation of individualism, and the curtailing of nonreproductive sexuality seem to be interdependent, and they all depend on the rejection of everything technology represents - mediation, equality, intersubstitutability, and so on. In this vision one catches a glimpse of the actual ingredients of the emerging conservative movement whose values the film transcodes.


Outside the technological city, the rebels discover nature as well as supposedly natural institutions like patriarchy and political republicanism. The woman ceases to be an equal of the man, a structure of equivalence generated in the city by representations, primarily wide-angle long shots of crowds, that place everyone on the same plane in the same frame and imply their equality. In nature, she assumes a subordinate position, both socially and within the camera frame as they sit by a crude campfire. Close-ups connote an unmediated spontaneity of 'natural' feeling, a literality of social structure uncontaminated by liberal revision. This is the real thing once again, not a technical substitute or an artificial contrivance. One senses why empiricism is often the best recourse of ideology. At the level of empirical literality, equivalences cannot be established of the sort that thrive in the technological city, where the possibility of infinite copies annuls individual differences. At the level of social literality, everything is radically individuated, incapable of comparison.

Appropriately, then, Logan kills his police partner, who has followed the rebels out of the city. He is a double or copy who is Logan's functional equal, and his death individuates Logan, who renounces his identity as a cybernetic functionary precisely because his intersubstitutability means he has no identity as such. The death occurs at the moment in the narrative when the rebels have come to Washing¬ton and rediscovered the United States's republican political system. With it, they rediscover the predominance of liberty over equality, the individual over the collective.

The peculiar twist of this ideal of liberty, therefore, is that it is a social theory that rejects the social (being other than oneself, mediated by social relation, a copy or technological robot). The choice of nature, as an alternative to technological collectivity, is thus appropriate, since nature is what is entirely nonsocial. What conservatives ultimately want is a ground of authority that will make inequalities that are in fact socially constructed seem natural.

This is tantamount to saying that such instituted inequalities must seem to embody the literal truth of nature, things as they are and should always be. For this reason, the strategy of ontologizing, of making technology and technological constructs seem as if they possess a being or essence in themselves, independent of context and use, is crucial to the conservative ideological undertaking. Technology must seem to be intrinsically evil, and this is so if the natural alternatives to technological society - the family and the individual especially - are to seem inherently good, ontologically grounded in themselves and not subject to figural comparison or connection to some-thing outside them that might possibly serve as a substitute or equivalent.

What is literal cannot be transported, as in metaphor, out of itself and made to stand for something else. Thus, technology represents a threat not only to self-presence in the sense of individual freedom in the conservative frame, but also to presence as the criterion of the onto-logical ground, the nature and the literality that anchor conservative social institutions.

A deconstructive analysis would point out that what is posited in this ideology as an ontological and literal cause that gives rise to social institutions - as well as to derivative, secondary, and unauthorized deviations of the original intent of nature through technological simulation and figural substitutions - is in fact an effect of those very things. The nature of ideology is the product of technology; literality is an effect of rhetoric. One notices this as those moments when nature and the literal are shown forth in films like THX and Logan.

Nature takes on meaning as such within the films only as the other of urban technology. Its immediacy is mediated by that against which it is posed, just as the individual is necessarily mediated by society. Moreover, the supposed literal ground of social institutions is the effect of the metaphoric comparison of those institutions to nature. In order to call them natural, one has to engage in precisely the sort of metaphoric or figural comparison, the sort of rhetorical 'technology' that is supposedly excluded by that ascription. It is a case of innocence by association, and as a result, those institutions are guilty of being something they must claim not to be, that is, rhetorical constructs, mere technology. Thus a deconstructive reading points out the extent to which representation plays a constitutive role in the making of social institutions, because the metaphors and representations that construct the ideal images of such institutions are also models for social action.

The ideological character of the conservative technophobia films stands in greater relief when they are compared to more liberal or radical films that depict technology not as in itself, by nature, or ontologically evil, but as being subject to changes in meaning according to context and use. For example, the figure of technology is given socially critical political inflections in Silent Running (1971), which opposes nature and individual freedom to corporate misuse of technology in an ecological vein, representing the corporation as putting profit before the preservation of the environment.
In Star Trek (1979) a human actually mates with an astral body born of a space probe, proving that humans and machines can get along more intimately than conservatives ever imagine. And in Brainstorm (1983), the story of a technological invention that can be used either for war or peace, the family is shown falling apart, then mending with the help of the invention. Through this narrative motif the family is depicted as a constructed institution, itself an invention reliant more on negotiation than on naturally given laws.


Perhaps the most significant film in regard to an alternative representation of technology that takes issue with the ideology deployed in conservative technophobia films is Blade Runner (1982), directed by Ridley Scott. The film, based on a novel by Philip K. Dick, concerns four androids ('replicants') who revolt against their 'maker', the Tyrell Corporation. A policeman, Deckard (Harrison Ford), is assigned to 'retire' them. Deckard falls in love with Rachael (Sean Young), one of Tyrell's most advanced replicants. With Rachael's help, he manages to kill three of the rebels and fights a final battle with the fourth, Roy (Rutger Hauer), who allows Deckard to live because he himself is about to die.

At the end, a fellow policeman allows Deckard and Rachael to escape from the city and flee to nature. The film offers a mediation between technology and human values. 'Replicants arc like any other machine. They can be a benefit or a hazard,' Deckard says. And the film concludes with a happy marriage of humans and machines. Blade Runner deconstructs certain ideological oppositions at work in more conservative technology films. The marrying of human and replicant undercuts the posing of nature as an opposite to a negative technological civilization.

The film also deconstructs the conservative romantic opposition of reason and feeling. In the film, reason is represented by analytic machines that dissect human and objective reality. The police detect replicants with analytic instruments that observe emotional reactions in the eye. When Deckard analyses the photograph of a room, he breaks down the reality into small parts until he captures what he seeks. The analytic gaze is thus represented as an instrument of power. Posed against this power is feeling. But the film suggests that feeling is not the polar opposite of reason. Rather, feeling, especially in the replicants, is the product of technology. And these machine humans are shown to be in many ways more 'human' than their makers.
Analytic rationality is depicted as irrational and anti-human when used instrumentally in a policed, exploitative society, but it is also the instrument for constructing a more communal ethic. Thus, the film deconstructs the oppositions - human/technology, reason/feeling, culture/nature - that underwrite the conservative fear of technology by refusing to privilege one pole of the dichotomy over another and by leaving their meaning undecidable.


Blade Runner also calls attention to the oppressive core of capitalism and advocates revolt against exploitation. The Tyrell Corporation invents replicants in order to have a more pliable labour force, and the film depicts how capitalism turns humans into machines, a motif that recalls Lang's Metropolis. Indeed, German Expressionist features are evident throughout. The bright pink and red colours of the huge electric billboards contrast with the dark underworld of the streets, and this contrast highlights the discrepancy between the realm of leisure consumption and the underclass realm of urban poverty and labour in capitalism. In addition, the neo-Mayan architecture of the corporate buildings suggests human sacrifice for the capitalist god, and Tyrell is indeed depicted as something of a divine patriarch.

Although the film contains several sexist moments (Deckard more or less rapes Rachael), it can also be read as depicting the construction of female subjectivity under patriarchy as something pliant and submissive as well as threatening and 'castratory'. (The female replicants are sex functionaries as well as killers.) Similarly, the flight to romance and to nature at the end of the film gives rise to at least a double reading. Romance is escape to an empathetic interior realm from the external realm of public callousness in a capitalist society. Although it promotes personalization and atomization, the final flight also creates a space of autonomy and compassion which can be the basis for collective and egalitarian social arrangements. If the film privileges privatism, it may be because in US society of the time, it was possible to locate humane values only in the private sphere.

The film implies that even the supposedly grounding, ontologically authoritative, categories of conservatism like the individual, nature, the family, and sentiment are indeterminate. They have alternative political inflections that revalorize their meaning according to pragmatic criteria of context and use. It is important, then, that unlike the conservative films that end with a move toward (cinematic as well as ideological) literality that supposedly reduces constructed social institutions to a natural or ontological ground of meaning, this film ends in a way that foregrounds the construction of alternative meanings from the literal through the figural or rhetorical techniques of substitution and equivalence, especially the equivalence of human life and technology (of Rachael the machine and Deckard the human at the end, for example).

Figurality is foregrounded through juxtapositions that are not justified by the literal logic of the narrative. For example, Roy suddenly carries a white dove that soon becomes a symbol of charity and forgiveness. He himself in fact becomes a figure for Christ as he lowers his head and dies. The dove he releases flies up into a blue sky that also appears out of nowhere for the first time in the film, for no literal reason. The figural or rhetorical quality of these images is thus underscored by their narratively illogical emergence. The same is true of the origami doll the other detective leaves for Deckard as he and Rachael flee; it signals that the detective allows them to escape and becomes a figure for charity. And the wry, ironic comments Deckard makes at the end about his new relationship with the android woman foreground a figural doubleness or undecidability of meaning.

All of these figures place literality in abeyance, and they underscore the fact that the metaphors conservatives employ to create a sense of a natural or literal ground are irredeemably figural. Indeed, the re-constituted family at the end is working on such a high level of constructedness and figurality, an open-ended relationship between a human and a machine, that it could never touch ground with any literal authority of a sort that the closing images of nature might have conveyed in a conservative or ideological film.

What rhetoric, like technology, opens is the possibility of an ungrounded play with social institutions, simulating them, substituting for them, reconstructing them, removing them from any ground of literal meaning that would hold them responsible to its authority. Perhaps this is why technology is such an object of fear in conservative science fiction films of (he current era. It is a metaphor for a possibility of reconstruction that would put the stability of conservative social institutions in question.

But the longing for literality and nature in conservative technophobic films might also be indicative of an antinomy of conservatism in the modern world. As conservative economic values became ascendent, increasingly technical criteria of efficiency came to be dominant. In addition, conservative economic development emphasizes the displacement of excessively costly human labour by machines.

The increasingly technical sophistication of the economic world and the shift away from industrialized manufacturing to tertiary sector 'information age' production creates a hypermodernization that is at odds with the traditionalist impulse in conservatism, the desire that old forms and institutions be preserved.


Yet the new technologies make possible alternative institutions and lifestyles, as well as the reconstruction of the social world. Perhaps this accounts for the desire for a more literal, natural world in conservative films.

It is a reaction to the world they themselves help create through an ideal of efficient economic development. One antinomy of conservatism is that it requires technology for its economic programme, yet it fears technological modernity on a social and cultural plane. This can be read as a sign of the dilemma conservatives faced in the 1980s. In control of political and economic life, they could not gain power in the private realm of social values that on the whole continued to be more liberal.

Although in the mid eighties there was a marked decline in the number of conservative technophobic films, those fearful of technology do not give up easily, as might be suggested by a film like The Terminator (1984), in which androids continue to look and act like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Indeed, the film is about a punitive robot that just won't give up. It keeps coming on, not having seen Blade Runner, unaware that it is supposed to forgive and forget.
In: Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema. Edited by Annete Kuhn. London Verso, 1990, p. 58-65.

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