Technology and Cronenberg – Understanding the Implications of Scientific Advancement Through Film

     Technology is developing at an increasing rate in the Western world, a point that critic Chris Hables Gray draws attention to in his studies on the cyborg. Gray claims that ‘we do not live in the seemingly stable modern world our grandparents did’ (Gray, 2001: 13). Technology has evolved and Gray argues that the fixed understandings of space-time, life and death held by our ancestors ‘have been replaced by the fear and hope we feel about space travel … virtual community … scientific utopias, and cyborgization’ cyborg(Gray, 2001: 13). Technology plays such a central role in contemporary society that it is often taken for granted how much time, money and hard labour we can save with the aid of technological developments. Many of these developments are regarded by the majority of society as beneficial. For instance, recent developments in science and technology include scanners which can check the human body for brain tumours or cancerous cells. Similarly, with the invention of computers, we are able to research any topic at the click of a button, saving us hours of time in looking through books. A hundred years ago, humanity only dreamt of many of the scientific and technological discoveries we have to date. For instance, the fantasy of travelling to the moon was demonstrated in literature such as The First Men in the Moon by HG Wells (Wells, 2011), and even in films such as Trip to the Moon (George Méliès, 1902), but became a reality in 1969 when humans first realised this vision. Due to the advances in technology, science fiction became reality for a later generation, and this is regarded as positive in the sense that humans are able to break through the barriers of the limitations of humanity. Rocket ships travelling to the moon for example, demonstrates how with the aid of technology, humans are granted the ability to fly, a fantasy which would be impossible without the invention of spacecraft, aeroplanes and helicopters. Just as the generation of the early twentieth century regarded the possibility of what developments in technology could achieve with both hope and fear, so the same is evident in contemporary society regarding the advancements of the technology we already have. One way in which the hopes and fears are represented in contemporary cinema, is in the figure of the cyborg.

     The cyborg is a result of merging the organic body with the machine, making it part human and part robot. The cyborg has appeared in films since the early twentieth Century, a notable example being the robot form of Maria in Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927). According to Gray, the cyborg ‘horrifies some people and thrills others’ (Gray, 2001: 11). In Metropolis, the cyborg is representative of the fantasy of power, but also of the corruption and violence resulting from the abuse of that power. As the development of technology has progressed into a stage where countries are abusing it to create weaponry, bombs and other sources of destruction, the cyborg is used in contemporary cinema as a manifestation of the fear that is invoked by this power, therefore providing society with a way to make sense of the fears and fantasies resulting from technological developments. The increasing amount of films made in contemporary cinema that depict representations of cyborgs, examples including RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987), and Terminator (James Cameron, 1984), are reflective of the cultural anxieties experienced by society, a notion which can be supported by Claudia Springer in her examination of the role of the cyborg in popular culture.

     Within contemporary cinema, the distinction between cyborgs and humans, as argued by Springer, ‘is the cyborg’s greater capacity for violence, combined with enormous physical prowess’ (Springer, 1991: 78). This depiction results in cyborgs which are a manifestation of the fantasy of what humans can become, essentially strong, powerful, futuristic Gods. These superhero qualities however, are a source of fear in the Terminator when the cyborgian protagonist uses his power to commit acts of violence. However Katherine Hayles, in her essay on the life cycle of cyborgs, believes that cyborgs are not just representations of what humans can become if we persist in pushing the boundaries of the human body. For Hayles, cyborgs are very real, and she claims that they ‘actually do exist; about 10% of the current U.S. population are estimated to be cyborgs’ (Hayles, 1995: 322). She states that ‘people with electronic pacemakers, artificial joints… and artificial skin’ (Hayles, 1995: 322) are cyborgs because they have merged their organic body with technology. Chris Hables Gray supports this by arguing ‘cyborgs are real, from grandmothers with pacemakers to astronauts in space’ (Gray, 2001: 13). Katherine Hayles believes that the term cyborg can even Terminator Salvationbe applied to the teen video game players or the person who uses a computer keyboard connected to a screen, essentially, anyone who is performing a task through a mixture of using their organic body and machine parts. To paraphrase Hayles, this concept of the cyborg has, she claims, changed the perception of identity, an issue which is reflected in the stories told within the cultures it concerns (Hayles, 1995: 322). For that reason, although we may be a long way off from transforming into the cyborgs depicted in contemporary cinema, these films can be interpreted as a comment on the responses to technology experienced by contemporary society. Gray believes that ‘it is clear the times are changing’ (Gray, 2001: 13). The change implied is one in which technology is a central concern in the postmodern age, addressing a change in the perception of cultural identity and what it is to be human. These changes are precisely what the cyborg represents – a blurring of boundaries, a notion which is explored by Thomas Johansson in his studies on the transformation of sexuality in contemporary society.

     Johansson argues that in the postmodern age, there is an uncertainty of what it is to be human in the rise of the cyborg figure. He examines Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) and Terminator as revealing ‘a boundary so fragile that, in the end, it is difficult to determine who is a human and who is a machine’ (Johansson, 2007: 115). The cyborg for Johansson, represents a new era in which ‘the boundaries between nature and culture, man and machine, reality and illusion’ (Johansson, 2007: 115) are blurred. Johansson’s argument supports the benefits of transforming into a cyborg by illustrating the cyborg’s possibility of escaping the limitations of the organic human body. However, the implications of merging concepts which were previously considered binary opposites (for example reality/fantasy and man/machine), can result in an identity crisis. Humanity was previously defined by its solid understanding of what the human body was, and what humans were physically capable of. As technology has developed and changed this, society has become less certain of what our boundaries are, resulting in a sense of conflict between the opposing forces, a notion which is explored in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome.

     The films of Cronenberg are renowned for their science fiction, body horror narratives which explore the consequences of technology on humanity. Videodrome is one of the earliest and most notable examples of a Cronenberg film which explores the merging of the organic body with the machine. The blurring of boundaries in contemporary society is central to the postmodern condition in which there is an uncertainty regarding what is real. In Videodrome, the narrative follows a man, Max Renn (James Woods), who, after watching a snuff film called Videodrome, is affected by its broadcast signals which inflicts him with a developing brain tumour. This results in him experiencing hallucinations and ultimately transforming into a human video player. It is evident that the film represents the blurring of boundaries between fantasy and reality through Max’s hallucinations. Similarly, the boundaries of human and machine are also indistinguishable, illustrated by Max’s stomach progressively turning into a video player, transforming Max into a cyborg. The crossing of boundaries draws attention to the dangers of an addiction to technology in contemporary society.

     One way in which Videodrome explores an overreliance on and an addiction to the technology we have come to take for granted in the postmodern era, is in the scene in which there is a shot of Nicki Brand’s (Deborah Harry) lips in extreme close up on the television screen within the film. Max hears Nicki’s voice seductively calling out to him to “come to me”. As Max walks over to the Videodrometelevision and places his head closer to the screen, the image of the mouth bulges out of it, submerging Max’s head into Nicki’s lips and he passes what should be regarded as the physical boundary between the television screen and his body. Daniel Dinello, in his essay on technophobia within films, discusses Videodrome’s depiction of technology and claims that the scene in which ‘a pulsing television screen shows huge, female lips that swell, protrude and envelop Renn [suggest] his total domination by media’ (Dinello, 2006: 153). Television, rather than serving entertainment purposes, is presented in Videodrome as manipulating the addiction that society within the film has to sex and violence. Through visual imagery, the distorted television screen physically overwhelming Max could arguably reflect the impact the domination of the media has on humanity. Using the television show Videodrome’s corrupted broadcasting signal to inflict all of its viewers with a brain tumour, the audience of the show are made to suffer from severe hallucinations until ultimately the brain tumour kills them. Society therefore, is purged of those that watch, as Barry Convex (Leslie Carlson) describes it, “a scum show like Videodrome”.

     The representation of television within Cronenberg’s Videodrome as a tool for manipulating its viewers is reflective of the cultural anxieties in contemporary society surrounding the fear that the developments in television may be used by authority to control its audiences in some way. Dinello claims that Cronenberg ‘calls attention both to the madness of utopian Technologism and to the ways in which such blind fanaticism can be appropriated by the technocratic order of the state’ (Dinello, 2006: 153). Dinello’s arguments emphasise the TV show Videodrome’s creators’ attempts to construct an ideal society in which only those people who resist the urge to watch images of violent torture will avoid falling victim to its tumour-inducing rays. The power of technology within the film is used to create harmful effects that indicate the dangers of falling under the control of technology that we have created, that is, the fear that the machines humans invent will malfunction and rise up against us. This is illustrated in Videodrome when the Videodrome television show creator, Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley), realises the malevolent purposes his partners wish to use the show for, and tries to stop them. In response, O’Blivion’s partners use the show to kill him, turning him into another victim of Videodrome. Brian had initially created Videodrome because, as his daughter Bianca phrases it, he saw the chance to replace human reality with the world within television “as the next phase in the evolution of man as a technological animal”. The evolution of humanity, as suggested by Brian, introduces the notion of technology’s power to alter our perception of reality, invoking uncertainty over whether the images projected on television are real or not. William Brown explores this notion in terms of the developments of technology within digital media itself.

     William Brown explores the influence technology can have on what the spectator perceives as real, not just as a result of the content within the film, (the narrative for instance), but also in the physicality of cinema itself which, he believes, can be regarded as what he terms ‘posthumanist’. This term is described by Brown ‘not as the end of humanity, but as the end of humanism… humans no longer play a central and binding role in reality’ (Brown, 2009: 67). Essentially for Brown, digital cinema allows the filmmakers to alter the image in order to ‘modify the colors of a film, to add and/or remove details that are or are not desired by the director, to add digital crowds, an animal or even an entire human character’ (Brown, 2009: 70). This alteration results in merging aspects of both reality (the actuality of the image), and fantasy (those images which have been altered), to create ‘a cinema that is no longer an indexical representation of reality… but rather a new, posthumanist reality, which… raises questions about our new, “human” reality’ (Brown, 2009: 70). Brown’s arguments highlight the impact of the development of technology in contemporary society on how some films may no longer capture the image in a lifelike representation, but instead edit it to change the spectator’s perception of the reality within the image.

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     With the aid of digital technology, films may insert characters into scenes or create whole new worlds with the use of computer-generated imagery that appears real, but is in fact a perception of reality that may only be discovered as being artificial upon close analysis. In Videodrome, the distorted, bulging television screen which appears real to Max, has been altered with the use of special effects to make his hallucination appear visually convincing to both Max within the film, and the spectator watching Videodrome. Max’s perception of reality has been affected by Videodrome, and his hallucinations appear real to him. However, the blurring of fantasy and reality in this scene leads the spectator of the film to question what is real as a result of the convincing imagery within Max’s hallucinations. Perceiving the false reality as real could be regarded as positive in the sense that film can present us with visually convincing worlds. However, the implications of digital media may also be regarded as negative if we are fed false images that are easily conceived as being real. For instance, images of an ordinary female may be manipulated through editing her image, and therefore constructing an ideal representation of women that females should strive to be. This form of manipulation makes us vulnerable to control through altering our perception of reality in the way that Max’s was. In contemporary society, the inability to distinguish between reality and fantasy is a major part of the postmodern condition, and can be supported by Jean Baudrillard’s theory on hyperreality.

     Victor E. Taylor and Charles E. Winquist paraphrase Baudrillard to explain his notion that the images in the media appear more real ‘than the real: they produce and define a new reality that is defined by its absence of reality’ (Taylor and Winquist, 2004: 183). In Videodrome, Brian claims that “television is reality, and reality is less than television”. Essentially, the images we see on the television screen and the emotive responses produced by them can appear more real than reality itself. Robert C. Ring examines the transition across the boundaries between fantasy and reality in his exploration of science fiction and film. Ring believes that in Cronenberg’s Videodrome, ‘the viewing of extreme violence … creates a hallucination, a new reality, in which Videodrome1those desires and experiences are a core part of our being, even to the extent that they control our actions’ (Ring, 2011: 47). Ring raises the issue that as Max transforms into a human video player, the immersion into the false reality produced by the images on television indicates that for Max, ‘reality has indeed been replaced by hallucination’ (Ring, 2011: 47). However, the hallucinations were initially caused as a result of watching Videodrome, a show filled with violence. Max, whose TV station Civic TV produces shows that feature “soft-core pornography and hard-core violence”, justifies the airing of these shows to Brian and Nicki as providing an outlet for the spectator’s curiosity and perhaps fantasy of violent and sexual acts. Max’s debate with Nicki and Brian reflects contemporary culture in which more films are made that feature sex and violence and how this may be regarded by some as corrupting humanity. The boundaries between man and machine, and fantasy and reality, are merged when Max transforms into a cyborg figure and his reality is replaced by the hallucinatory reality caused by Videodrome. Ring states ‘when this happens, the vicarious experience of violence is no longer cathartic. It is real’ (Ring, 2011: 47). The violent images that were found within the Videodrome television show have become reality as Max becomes the source of violent corruption.

     Max not only symbolises the crossing of the boundary between fantasy and reality in Videodrome, but he transforms into a cyborg as the result of the merging of man and machine. Donna Haraway in her cyborg manifesto, believes that ‘cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves’ (Haraway, 2000: 57). videodrome2Haraway’s argument indicates that the cyborg can represent a liberation from the manmade structures, rules and conventions we have evolved to follow (for example the gender binaries of male/female). Thomas Johansson paraphrases Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto and states that ‘Haraway tried to illustrate how technology can show the way out of oppression and help to form entirely new identities’ (Johansson, 2007: 116). In contemporary society, the cyborg is a manifestation of the fantasies humans have regarding a desire for complete freedom to break conventions such as those implied by gender roles. However, the cyborg can also be a manifestation of the corruption involved with technological developments. Max’s transformation into a cyborg is illustrated by his hand fusing with the gun that he pulls from the video cassette player in his stomach. With this weapon in hand, Max is manipulated by Bianca who uses his cyborg form as a technological object to command him to rise up against Videodrome and destroy it, reflecting the cultural fears of contemporary society that the technology we create will rise up against us.

     The development of technology and science in contemporary society has brought about great change to the ways in which human beings live their lives. Some of the changes may be regarded as beneficial to society in terms of healthcare or performing manual labour for us, but the affects of technology may also be regarded as harmful, particularly depending on whom it is that is in control of the technology. In Videodrome, Max, on the boundary of man and machine, a symbol of power and also a victim of technocratic control, epitomises the affects of the developments of technology on contemporary society. He reflects the uncertainty that is an inevitable part of an ever-changing way of living in the postmodern age and an increasing inability to distinguish between the real and the artificial. Developments in technology may promise humans a number of benefits, but the primary concern is whether the benefits are worth the problems technology may also cause. This is an issue explored by numerous contemporary films as humanity enters, as Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) in Videodrome phrases it, “savage new times, [in which] we’re going to have to be pure and direct and strong if we’re going to survive them”.

David Cronenberg

Bibliography

  • BROWN, W., 2009. Man Without A Movie Camera – Movies Without Men: Towards A Posthumanist Cinema?. In: W. BUCKLAND, 2009, Film Theory and Contemporary Hollywood Movies. New York: Routledge. pp.66-85.

  • CORNEA, C., 2003. David Cronenberg’s Crash and Other Cyborgs. The Velvet Light Trap, [journal] 52 (2003) pp.4-14.

  • DINELLO, D., 2006. Technophobia! Science Fiction Visions of Posthuman Technology. Texas: University Texas Press.

  • GRAY, C.H., 2001. Cyborg Citizen: Politics in the Posthuman Age. London: Routledge.

  • HARAWAY, D., 2000. A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s. In: G. KIRKUP, 2000, The Gendered Cyborg: A Reader. New York: Routledge. pp.50-57.

  • HAYLES, K., 1995. The Life Cycle of Cyborgs: Writing the Posthuman. In: C.H. GRAY, 1995, The Cyborg Handbook. London: Routledge. pp.321-340.

  • JOHANSSON, T., 2007. The Transformation of Sexuality: Gender and Identity in Contemporary Youth Culture. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

  • MANKIEWICZ, F., and SWERDLOW, J.L., 1979. Remote Control: Television and the Manipulation of American Life. New York: Ballantine Books.

  • MURPHIE, A., and POTTS, J., 2003. Cyborgs: The Body, Information and Technology, Culture and Technology. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • PINSKY, M., 2003. Future Present: Ethics And/As Science Fiction. New Jersey: Rosemont Publishing & Printing Corp.

  • RICHES, S., 2012. The Philosophy of David Cronenberg. Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky.

  • RING, R.C., 2011. Sci-Fi Movie Freak. Wisconsin: Krause Publications.

  • SOBCHACK, V., 1997. Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University press.

  • SPRINGER, C., 1991. The Pleasure of the Interface. In: E. UTTERSON, 2005, Technology and Culture: A Film Reader. Oxon: Routledge. pp.71-86.

  • TAYLOR, V.E., and WINQUIST, C.E., 2004. Encyclopaedia of Postmodernism. London: Routledge.

  • WELLS, H.G., 2011. The First Men in the Moon. London: Penguin Books.

  • ZIMMER, C., 2010. Learning to Love Science Films: Carl Zimmer comes around to the idea that science and movies can enjoy a happy union. Nature, [journal] 468 (7320) pp.35-36

  • ZYLINSKY, J., ed., 2002. The Cyborg Experiments: The Extensions of the Body in the Media Age. Cornwall: MPG Books.

Filmography

  • A Trip to the Moon, 1902. [Film] Directed by George Méliès. France: Star-Film.

  • Blade Runner, 1982. [Film] Directed by Ridley Scott. USA: The Ladd Company.

  • Metropolis, 1927. [Film] Directed by Fritz Lang. Germany: Universum Film.

  • Robocop, 1987. [Film] Directed by Paul Verhoeven. USA: Orion Pictures Corporation.

  • Terminator, 1984. [Film] Directed by James Cameron. UK: Hemdale Film.

  • Videodrome, 1983. [Film] Directed by David Cronenberg. Canada: Canadian Film Development Corporation.

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About Enchanted By Film

1st class Film uni graduate who has a love for films old and new. I write for Diegesis and Film Matters film journals. Currently saving to do a Masters and PhD in Film. My ambition is to be a University lecturer on film and write about film academically. I also wouldn't mind working for the BFI or writing for Sight and Sound :-)
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2 Responses to Technology and Cronenberg – Understanding the Implications of Scientific Advancement Through Film

  1. Interesting post! I never thought about calling James Woods’s character in “Videodrome” a cyborg before. I think it is because of the merging of fantasy and reality you mentioned. I’d add “Tetsuo” (1989) here, though it’s a very surreal and graphic movie. Also, thank you for the link to my blog! 🙂

    • Oh I will have to give that a watch, I haven’t seen it!! Yeh I thought it would be interesting to consider the theme of technology with its benefits and threats in terms of Cronenberg’s movies. He really draws on those ideas and explores them in his films. Scanners is another film I found to explore that idea, and I did originally write a little about Scanners in this essay, but as it ended up being too much alongside writing about Videodrome, I just focused on the latter so that I could explore it indepth 🙂 Thank you for reading!

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