Mark and Nikki came round for dinner last night. He helped to edit the Weblog poem. I cooked a curry; Aubergine and spinach, and a coconut and sweet potato dish. I drank far too much and was ready for bed by the time they left at 3 in the morning.
Our conversation was very interesting. We spoke about reality and the nature of identity. Identity is always interesting to me, afterall celermansworld is about my interest in identity in a postmodern age.
The text that is most responsible for my interest in Postmodernism is the film The Matrix. It raises issues of identity and reality. It led me to read Baudrillard. It led me to Blade Runner and Philip K. Dick. It is responsible for a lot of my beliefs about the world we live in.
It is not however as radical a film as I first thought. I suppose this shouldn't be a surprise, especially when read against the background of my comments on the CREATION frontpage.
Despite this however, it remains a text that continues to touch upon and raise ideas about society and the self that I find fascinating.
What is real? How do you define real? (Morpheus, The Matrix)
Any construction of the self as a coherent entity holds faith in the ability of language to represent, to define, the real object. It implicitly assumes that there is a reality to define, to categorise. Behind the signifier “I”, is a real person with a stable identity. “I” am unique, knowable. “I” am that which “I” was yesterday, and will be tomorrow. In short, “I” exist. Jacques Derrida coins the term ‘logocentrism’ to describe Western culture’s implicit trust in this metaphysics of presence. Baudrillard also acknowledges that:
All western faith and good faith became engaged in this wager on representation: that a sign could refer to a depth of meaning and that something could guarantee this exchange – God of course. (Baudrillard 1994, p. 5)
This conception, it is argued, has been naturalised into our modes of thought since the age of the Enlightenment and the Renaissance configuration of ‘modern’ man. Even today, within the so-called postmodern era, the individual subject maintains a firm hold over modes of thought. The fundamental principle of the Self is overtly asserted even within genres regarded as exemplifying postmodernism. Madonna’s ‘Express Yourself’, M-People’s ‘Search for the Hero Inside’, are examples from popular music. Book’s still bear the author’s name on the cover, even Roland Barthe’s, and at some stage in this essay I will refer to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. But:
Reality is a bitch. (Baudrillard 1996b, p. 3)
Coming from a man described as a “guru” of postmodernism, Jean Baudrillard’s irreverent and aggressive comment would suggest that postmodernism considers this faith to be problematic. Baudrillard draws attention to the complete naturalisation of the concept, the inability of the western subject to entertain the disappearance of the real, the disappearance of the self in terms that validate my own conflation of the ‘Real’ with the ‘Self’.
Say: This is real, the world is real, the real exists (I have met it) – no one laughs. Say: This is a simulacrum, you are merely a simulacrum, this war is simulacrum – everyone bursts out laughing. (Baudrillard 1996b, p. 95)
If we accept the premise that, contemporary science fiction cinema is “a privileged cultural site for enactments of the postmodern condition” (Khun 1990, p. 178), then it seems logical to investigate the validity of the question in relation to science fiction as the most likely scene of the abolished self.
The self has been the “cherished cornerstone of western culture for centuries” and
Our humanist picture of individuality is a product of modern western systems of knowledge. (Ward 1997, p. 133)
These systems of knowledge, or discourses, construct notions of the Self within particular frames of reference such as race, gender, nationality and labour. As such they are not essential but have become naturalised. As Morpheus says in The Matrix:
You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so hopelessly inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system that they will fight to protect it. (Morpheus, The Matrix)
People, according to Morpheus, don’t recognise, cannot accept, that their identity is a social construct, that what they believe to be themselves is the product of state discourses of power, an authorised (legitimate and written at the same time) identity. In the more advanced projection of an imagined technology even living on Earth can be withdrawn from the hegemonic classification of human:
Loitering on Earth potentially meant finding oneself abruptly classed as biologically unacceptable, a menace to the pristine heredity of the race. (Dick 1968, p. 15)
The Self is defined within discourses that are appropriated by an official culture that constructs an ideal hegemonic subject. Any subject not encompassed within these state-regulated definitions is marginalised, cast as Other. It is exactly towards these marginalised groups that Postmodernism looks:
Deconstruction’s challenge to the traditional full subject the cogito of Western philosophy implies a corresponding ideological commitment to minorities in politics, sex and language. (Brooker 1992, p. 13)
Who am I? Within the scientific discourse of biology I am a human being - Homo sapiens. Scientific discourse suggests clear and irrefutable boundaries that determine identity. But contemporary technologised society would appear to destabilise such rigid essentialism. A human being divides into two subsets, male and female, but contemporary surgical procedures deconstruct the differences. The female is the side of the species that gives or is equipped to give birth, but what of the woman who undergoes a hysterectomy to treat cancer? A woman has mammary glands. But what of mastectomies? Surgical techniques to combat serious illness put conventional classifications of gender into doubt. The scientific dependence upon clearly delineated lines is present in these texts. Agent Smith attempts to re-categorise humans:
I’d like to share a revelation I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species. I realised that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move into an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You are a plague, and we are the cure. (Agent Smith, The Matrix.)
His theory is similar to Baudrillard’s and is therefore also within the discourse of the postmodern:
Man, with his humours, his passions, his laugh, his genitalia, his secretions, is really nothing more than a filthy little germ disturbing the universe of transparency (Baudrillard 1988, p. 38)
Is this really challenging though? The agent is so obviously the tool of the state apparatus that he is merely dramatising the function of hegemonic institutions by trying to naturalise a definition through the discourse of science. The narrative logic does not allow for this redefinition to be seen as anything other than an abuse of power by an authoritarian state. Its presence here serves only to reinforce the necessity of Neo’s spiritual quest. Ultimately Neo is “the one”; the ultimate symbol of unified individual. Whilst acknowledging the radical possibilities of postmodernism, the film withdraws into a conventional narrative that explores the power of the human spirit to overcome.
Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep each dramatically explore the boundaries of the species through the representation of the Replicant. For Baudrillard the clone, the exact replica of the human, deconstructs identity by destroying the space between Self and its Other. I can’t be unique if there are more than one of me:
Clone, cloning, human cuttings ad infinitum, each individual cell of an organism capable of becoming the matrix of an identical individual (Baudrillard 1994, p. 95)
real than real, the hyperreal, the replicant is potentially the technological manifestation of the hyperreal, a
simulacrum, a clone, that cannot be distinguished from the real:
‘Then at one time an authentic Garland existed,’ Phil Resch said. ‘And somewhere along the way got replaced.’ (Dick 1968, p. 109)
The novel questions more rigorously the authority of the Voigt-Kampff test and thus threatens to destabilise Scientific discourse, a discourse used to define the Self. The Leningrad psychiatrists think that a small class of human being could not pass the Voigt-Kampff test. (Dick 1968, p. 33) The simulacrum, the virtual, threatens western culture's perception of the real, of the self. I am no longer, in the realm of hypertechnology, able to define human. Baudrillard recognises that homogenisation which occurs when the gap between Self and Other collapses, destroys the real, the Self as it is conventionally known:
With the virtual, we enter not only upon the era of liquidation of the Real and the Referential, but that of the extermination of the Other. It is the equivalent of an ethnic cleansing which would not just affect particular populations but unrelentingly pursue all forms of otherness. (Baudrillard 1996b, p. 109)
When Deckard leaves to begin a new life with Rachael the gap between the replicant and the human is completely broken down and thus radically threatens the conventional construction of the Self, but the absurdity of the scene, the inexplicable Utopian countryside, immediately undermines this. Ultimately the film remains faithful to a more conventional Self. The Voigt-Kampff test proves to be correct. The discourse of science is re-established as the conveyor of essential truths. In each text a potentially radical challenge to human identity is suppressed through a hegemonic scientific discourse. The replicant doesn’t threaten to de-centralise the human Self, it attempts to be embraced within that centre. When Pris says “I think, Sebastion, therefore I am” (Blade Runner), she is stating her desire to be recognised as the central hegemonic norm. Her desire for acceptance re-establishes the dominance of the traditional Self. The replicants deny their status as Other and thus weaken the text’s radical potential.
Technology deconstructs the once clearly defined boundaries between human and not human. Contemporary surgical procedures transgress earlier definitions of human/non-human or male/female binaries. For Baudrillard we are now in an age where “from a biological, genetic and cybernetic point of view, we are all mutants.” (Baudrillard 1988, p. 51) In The Matrix, Neo has a computer port in his head. Where exactly does the machine end and the human begin? In Neuromancer Molly holds out her hands
palms up, the white fingers slightly spread, and with a barely audible click, ten double-edged, four centimetre scalpel blades slid from their housings beneath the burgundy nails. (Gibson 1995, p. 37)
The character Flatline isn’t even alive. He is a computer programme, a fact that challenges Case, the conventional Self:
It was disturbing to think of the Flatline as a construct, a hardwired Rom cassette replicating a dead man’s skills, obsessions, knee-jerk responses. (Gibson 1995, 97)
These science fiction texts certainly bend the rules when it comes to defining identities, but the conventional narratives that construct characters in heroic roles negates the radical efficacy of such an approach. Despite the margins being full of unconventional figures who do indeed challenge conventional notions of reality, of humanity, of the Self, at the centre of each is a human who is successful in the quest posed by the plot.
Man is a "zoon politikon" [social animal] in the most literal sense: he is not only a social animal, but an animal that can individualize himself only within society. (Marx 1976, p. 444)
role within modes of production. In Blade Runner, Deckard’s identity is almost exclusively determined by
his profession: “Ex-cop, ex-blade runner, ex-killer.” It is an indication of the importance of profession in
any construction of character that this is the first thing Deckard says, and from this much information is
implied. This is a typically modern and not postmodern rendition of the individual. This Marxist
understanding of the individual within capitalist culture is embedded in language. When asked, “what do
you do?” the reply is invariably “I am…” We are what we do. Even the replicant’s identity is constructed
around the Marxist metanarrative of labour: Roy Batty – combat model, Zhora – off – world murder squad,
Pris – a basic pleasure model. Throughout Blade Runner, in its narrative and its visual structure the status of
production, of capitalism is foregrounded. The streets are an open factory floor as well as a market place in
which objects and labour are exchanged for money. One of the key differences for Baudrillard between the
modern and the postmodern era is
The end of labour. The end of production. The end of political economy. The end of the signifier/signified dialectic which facilitates the accumulation of knowledge and meaning, the linear syntagma of cumulative discourse. And at the same time, the end of the exchange-value/ use-value dialectic which is the only thing that makes accumulation and social production possible. The end of the linear dimension of discourse. The end of the linear dimension of the commodity. The end of the classical era of the sign. The end of the era of production. (Baudrillard 1996, p. 440)
At first glance therefore, Blade Runner appears not to challenge the Self in this postmodern way. It depicts a rather reactionary capitalist society of free enterprise, it was after all made during the ultra conservative Thatcher/Reagan years.
In contrast to Blade Runner’s heavily industrialised metropolis, The Matrix presents a post-capitalist scenario. Neo is categorised as a computer programmer. There is no object of production; he is part of a manufacturing process that produces hypertext, a text that has no objective reality. His working environment is almost devoid of the articles of the capitalist consumer society; there is no paper. This is in stark contrast to Deckard's apartment that is littered with commercial trappings. Indeed Deckard rather conventionally requires a hard copy of a photograph, despite the technology at his disposal. Neo may be identified as a computer programmer, but he is not only that, not reduced to the single productive role. Unlike Deckard, Neo’s identity is multiple, despite his name:
It seems that you have been living two lives. In one life, you’re Thomas A. Anderson, program writer for a respectable software company… The other life is lived in computers, where you go by the hacker alias Neo. (Agent Smith, The Matrix)
The hacker is a symbol of anti-capitalism, the source of viruses like the recent ‘Love bug’ which aims to topple large corporations. It is a social group associated with anti-capitalist rioting, which has been a social phenomenon of recent years. Neo may be defined by his role within the corporation, but he is also defined as radically challenging such structures.
Elsewhere in The Matrix, the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar is also outside of the realms of production. The group are terrorists, freedom fighters. They perform specific tasks, jobs if you like, but these are not conducted within the conventional boundaries of exchange and use value. So does The Matrix represent a more radical postmodern challenge to the self than Blade Runner does?
Hugh Ruppersberg notes that:
The alien messiah has been such a pervasive figure in science fiction films of the last twenty years as to mark some sort of cultural phenomenon. (Ruppersberg 1990, p. 32)
Both The Matrix and Blade Runner invoke such a figure in Neo and Roy Batty but each film does so in contrasting ways. Roy Batty is the anti-hero, the bad guy within the logic of the film’s narrative whilst Neo is configured as the messianic saviour.
Neo is something of a reluctant hero and his reluctance is foregrounded by his other name, (doubting) Thomas Anderson. The text however displays textual and visual clues to affirm his messianic status. The audience is forced to concur with Morpheus’ confidence:
Morpheus: We’ve done it Trinity. We’ve found him.
Trinity: I hope you’re right.
Morpheus: I don’t have to hope. I know it. (The Matrix)
Whilst Thomas may express Neo’s self-doubt, Anderson, his dominant patronym, reveals his ‘true’ nature: Son of man. Choi makes the connection explicit:
Hallelujah. You’re my saviour man. My own personal Jesus Christ. (Choi, The Matrix)
Whatever doubts the text’s narrative may present to the audience there is no doubting that Neo will finally realise the truth of his importance. Given the film’s blatant use of the Christian story, his resurrection at the end of the filming is compellingly predictable. Having been unplugged from social programming in an encouragingly postmodern fashion, Neo ultimately embarks on a quest that leads to predictably humanist conclusions: He just needed the time to find the hero inside. As Ruppersberg says, messiah figures in science fiction are “finally reactionary.” But what about Blade Runner and Roy Batty?
Thomas Byers, in a quote that reinforces the earlier conclusion that Blade Runner presents a modern and not postmodern city, says Blade Runner:
specifically explore[s] the relationship between high-tech corporate capitalism on the one hand, and individual modes and styles of personal behaviour on the other. (Byers 1990, p. 39)
Thus, Deckard’s victory over this anti-Christ, a figure who invokes Christ in every aspect except that he is not good, can be seen as a reactionary retreat back into orthodox capitalism. Deckard, who begins as a series of ex’s, reiterates his identity by establishing the supremacy of the state authority. Roy is a product of industry; he is an object who desires to be a subject. This threatens the internal logic of capitalist discourse but it is a threat that is defeated and order is restored.
Definitions of the self have an intrinsic relationship with nationality and race. National or racial labels come with stereotypical baggage. Attributes associated with race and nation are projected onto individuals whenever someone says, “I am English”, for example. To be English connotes certain characteristics. In postmodern society these attributes are brought into doubt. What am I really saying about my Self when I proclaim my Englishness, when today in England more people work in Indian restaurants than do in the steel, coal and ship building industries combined? In the light of global economies and multicultural communities, definitions of Self are once again challenged.
The Matrix and Blade Runner are American Fictions. Any sense of personal identity is informed by the context of nationality and these texts are no different. Being placed within the cultural context of American cinema constructs a specific backdrop for an audience’s perception of character. For instance Deckard is perceived to be a science fiction equivalent of a private detective. The film noir techniques, the voice over, his penchant for getting beaten up and falling for the femme fatale, clearly associates him with Philip Marlowe, with Robert Mitchum, James Garner, or any number of other actors who have played that role. The characteristics of Rick Deckard are in part a projection of characteristics from a tradition of other American fictions. And yet in what ways is this American. Despite our era being labelled postmodern it is still normal to take the director of a film as the individual responsible for the creation, much as an author of a book still is. Barthe’s declaration of the author’s demise may have been a little premature. So this American fiction is the creation of the English born Ridley Scott?
definitions of the species, what was once a clear definition is no longer so transparent. Once we delve into
the narrative of these texts, the delineation of nationality and race become even more unstable.
Blade Runner is set within a futuristic and unrecognisable metropolis, nominally given the name Los Angeles. None of the actual city’s landmarks are obviously recognisable and the population has changed considerably. There are no black people for instance. In fact the film is largely set in Chinatown. Whilst great lengths have been taken to construct a sense of the real environment, these glitches serve only to magnify a sense of unreality. It is San Francisco, LA’s Californian neighbour, and the setting for Dick’s book, that has the more famous Chinatown. Does the film suggest that the city has sprawled to encompass both sites under one name? No, not really. In fact, within the film there is a strange sense of the absence of the wider world. The replicant is portrayed as posing a serious threat to society and has come from an off-world colony. Within the aforementioned tradition of American detective stories, this is out of the local law enforcement agency’s jurisdiction. Where is the FBI? Where has America gone? Blade Runner then is a film directed by an English man that depicts a post-American globalised metropolis and yet is still perceived in relation to America. Principally this is because it is an American financed product(ion), in the same way that Nissan cars built on Tyneside are Japanese. The film may explore postmodern subjects such as fragmented identity in the postmodern metropolis but it still functions within a world that is distinctly modern. Postmodernism may indeed be concerned with the “precession of the simulacra”, with the image, with a hyperreal society, with reproducibility, but film is still firmly established within the discourse of production and not reproduction. It is hard to imagine a truly radical postmodern fiction coming out of the institution of the large corporate film making industry.
As has already been determined, it is not necessary to fulfil all criteria when it comes to definitions. German owned Rolls Royce is still an icon of English manufacturing. A woman without a womb is still a woman. Deckard “ex-cop, ex-killer, ex-blade runner” is still a cop, a killer and a blade runner. So what if I were to contend that all the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar are black, apart from the colour of their skin?
Baudrillard says “History is our lost referential, that is to say our myth.” (Baudrillard 1994, p. 47) To be a
black American is to define oneself as belonging to a racial group with a particular history, a history of
slavery. It is to place oneself within a fragmented tradition, a tradition under the power of white slave
owners. The past, history, becomes lost, unrecorded in the written documentation of the hegemonic class.
The parallels are clear with The Matrix, which can be regarded as a slave text, a story of emancipation. The
narrative makes reference to a lost history, two centuries of unrecorded time from which a past has to be
reconstructed through stories, verbally passed down to generations who cling on to remnants of this past to
maintain an identity. Hegemonic, white conservative, western culture is reliant upon a teleological history, a
history with a beginning and an end. As Baudrillard says,
Our entire linear and accumulative culture collapses if we cannot stockpile the past in plain view. (Baudrillard 1994, p. 10)
This potentially poses a radical challenge. The Matrix dramatises such a collapse and within the context of black American culture. It draws distinct parallels between the two. The film blurs the distinction between black and white. The two centuries in The Matrix is an approximate match of American slave history. If the roots of the crew of the Nebuchadnezer are still doubtful then “dodge this.” (Trinity, The Matrix.): In Neuromancer, the novel acknowledged as informing The Matrix, the crew are “Dreads. Rastas.” (Gibson, p. 127) The ship is called Zion, and the terrorist group associated with them is called the Panther Moderns. The Matrix crew is modelled upon a futuristic black community of freedom fighters who take their name from the radical Black Panthers of the 60’s and 70’s. If a film’s identity is American, then this contextuality effects the identity of characters.
The Matrix occupies a position within a specific social context. For America, the similarities with black slavery and black emancipation and civil rights movements, projects an identity upon its characters. It could be argued that Neo is an allegorical black American. After all Morpheus is described as “a father to us all.” (The Matrix)
But this position, whilst seriously challenging notions of self, is far from radical. One has to ask the question, given the content of the novel, why did the film version of The Matrix cast the majority of the crew as white? Admittedly, the two natural children of Zion, Tank and Dozer, are black, but there parts are minor compared to Morpheus, who despite being literally black, plays a character who is based upon Far Eastern mysticism. He is a Kung Fu master who talks like Confucius.
Into the 1990’s, the human subject has become a blip: ephemeral, electronically processed, unreal. Numerous writers have noted this implosion, the passage of experiential reality into grids, matrices and pulses of the electronic information age. (Bukatman 1998, p. 196)
This may well be true, but these texts, all of which are from a science fiction genre regarded as potentially the archetypal site of postmodernism, are created within an industry of individuals. The novels are still the story of individuals, as are the films. In the films the individual actors hold a particular elevated position within western culture, which still worships the individual. The texts are still the work of an author – God, and the identity of the texts within a national context, is still rooted in the economics of production. Science Fiction, it would seem, takes the best visual images from postmodern theory and reworks them into traditional narratives. Whilst this in itself can be regarded as postmodern style over content, in relation to a Western construction of the Self, these texts are decidedly modern.