OCT 25-27


Tues, Oct 25

VIEW: Ridley Scott, Blade Runner


  1. BulletFredric Jameson, Postmodernism

  2. Bullet“postmodernism”

  3. Bullet“postmodernity”

  4. Bullet“ideology”

  5. Bullet“pastiche”

  6. Bullet“late capitalism”

  7. Bullet“cyborg”

Thurs, Oct 27


  1. Bullet Slavoj Žižek, Tarrying with the Negative, 9-12, 40-41


  1. BulletScript of 7-24-1980 version

  2. BulletScript of 2-23-1981 version

  3. BulletScript of Hollywood Release

  4. BulletBlade Runner FAQ Page



"Blade Runner, Cyborgs, and Late Capitalism"

This week, we discussed Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, a film that has influenced not only science fiction but also postmodern theory, as various postmodern critics sink their critical incisors into this rich film. The film served as an introduction to Fredric Jameson's influential work, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. We also finished the week with a return to Slavoj Žižek (his reading of Blade Runner).


The first thing we did is review what we know about postmodernity and postmodernism so far.  We also discussed why the film is set in L.A., including 1) total urbanization with no regard for nature; 2) a city driven by corporation culture; 3) blatant inequalities in income; 4) Hollywood and media culture (including Disneyland); 5) centerlessness and disorientation; and 6) multiculturalism, multinationalism and the influence of the Pacific Rim, especially Tokyo. 


We began with a discussion of the opening of the film. What we are given here is a nod to a traditional establishing shot, a long shot of the city in which the film's diegesis is set. Such a shot is often followed by a shot/ reverse shot in which we see the person doing the looking, thus effecting a suture of the other two looks of film (the camera's look and the audience's look). As Laura Mulvey explained in our earlier reading, "There are three different looks associated with cinema: that of the camera as it records the pro-filmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion. The conventions of narrative film deny the first two and subordinate them to the third, the conscious aim being always to eliminate intrusive camera presence and prevent a distancing awareness in the audience" (25). Instead, we are invited to identify with the male protagonist who is usually in a position of power and who is in a position to look at the passive female figure in the film (the looked-at). (Indeed, film noir—the genre influencing Blade Runner—is often given as example since in that genre the protagonist is a male cop or private detective, who often goes on to punish or cure the transgressive femme fatale.) Kaja Silverman explained for us that film theory calls the editing of the camera out of the picture "suturing." The actual "reverse shot," after all, would show us the camera actually doing the recording. In Blade Runner, we are given an establishing shot, followed by a reverse shot—but with a twist. It is never explained to us who exactly is doing the looking, thus troubling our desire to identify with the narrative's protagonist. The extreme close-up of the eyeball reminds us only of the act of looking (including, by implication, the audience's own invested look). As in Lacan's formula for fantasy (the 'S' barré's relationship to the objet petit a), we have a pure reflection in the eyeball, thus suggesting at once that the subject is constituted by what it sees and that it constitutes what it sees as "reality." Thanks to Alex Reynaud and Caitlin Stamper for leading us in the discussion.

If the eye belongs to anyone, it belongs to the Replicants ("if you could only see what I have seen with your eyes..."), which is itself troubling since they represent what Lacan would term the "subject at its purest." They are subjects that have come to recognize themselves as empty, the products of ideology and convention (specifically those of the multinational corporation owned by Tyrell). As Žižek puts it, "'I am a replicant; is the statement of the subject in its purest—the same as in Althusser's theory of ideology where the statement 'I am in ideology' is the only way for me to truly avoid the vicious circle of ideology [....] In short, the implicit thesis of Blade Runner is that replicants are pure subjects precisely insofar as they testify that every positive, substantial content, inclusive of the most intimate fantasies, is not 'their own' but already implanted" (41). Of course, as I pointed out, even once we are given a protagonist with whom to identity, we are tricked yet again as he too turns out to be a Replicant. The prevalence of narratives in which subjectivity is completely overturned and shown to be constructed or false suggests that a concern with Baudrillard's concept of the simulacrum pervades our culture (Angel Heart, The Others, The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, The Matrix, Dark City, The Truman Show, the new Battlestar Galactica, Caprica, Dollhouse, etc. etc.).


Prompted by a question about why we keep seeing the Geisha advertisement in the film, we had a conversation about the advertisements.  It was suggested by Gabby Teter that the Geisha ad is closely tied to the other prominent ad in the film, that of Coca Cola and its motto, “Enjoy!”  (It’s worth noting that the Geisha ad is for birth control, thus underscoring that we’re talking about desire rather than procreative sexuality.)  Žižek has on several occasions explored the sublime perfection of the Coke ad with regard to Lacan's ideas. By claiming to give you "the real thing," the Coke campaign in fact robs you of the real, replacing it with simulacra (multimedia images, advertisements, etc.). Like our exploration of Lacan's superego command when we watched "Hush," here multinational capitalism (like Lacan's superego) controls even our private desires. That idea is literalized when Tyrell implants memories into Rachael (and, possibly, also Deckard) in order to control her. As Žižek puts it, Blade Runner thus gives us a "world in which the corporate Capital succeeded in penetrating and dominating the very fantasy-kernel of our being: none of our features is really 'ours'; even our memories and fantasies are artificially planted. It is as if Fredric Jameson's thesis on postmodernism as the epoch in which Capital colonizes the last resorts hitherto excluded from its circuit is here brought to its hyberbolic conclusion" (10). We are thus given in the film a perfect amalgamation of Lacan's psychoanalysis and Jameson's critique of capitalism. We might also consider the scene where Roy Batty confronts Tyrell. We are obviously given a strong Oedipal scenario in this sequence, including the blinding/castration of Tyrell (itself evocative of Oedipus who blinded himself after killing his father), as Aaron Wagoner argued in a previous version of this class; Tyrell’s glasses, which underscore his role as the Gaze; Roy's deliberate collapsing of father/fucker (as in motherfucker) in his demand to Tyrell; and Tyrell's perfect superego command to Roy: "Revel in your time!"


We also pointed out the mix of futuristic and "old" elements in the film, particularly the B&W photos, fashions, technology, and even cars, each evocative of the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s but in a way that is divorced from any clear connection to actual history. The instances thus function like Jameson's concept of "retro pastiche" (a term we've already seen Anya use in the Buffy musical episode, "Once More, With Feeling"). According to Jameson, we have lost our connection to the historical real, leaving us with nothing but Baudrillard's simulacra, mere stylizations from the past. As Jameson puts it in the first sentence of Postmodernism, we live "in an age that has forgotten how to think historically" (ix). Unlike Linda Hutcheon, who finds things to value in postmodern parody (particularly the self-consciousness and self-reflexivity of such parodic works), Jameson argues that what we find in postmodern works is nothing but pastiche: "In this situation parody finds itself without a vocation; it has lived, and that strange new thing pastiche slowly comes to take its place. Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language. But it is a neutral practice of such mimicry" (17). As he goes on, "Pastiche is thus blank parody" or "blank irony." To tie Jameson to your discussion of "Once More, with Feeling," in postmodernism all we have is "blank camp" or mere kitsch. According to Jameson, the stylizations in Blade Runner (e.g. fashions from various periods) are little more than mere simulacra.


We also explored the ways Blade Runner examines the "depthlessness" of the postmodern condition: the proliferation of advertisements, of screens, of shop windows, and so on. As Jameson explains in our reading for this week, "a new depthlessness" (6) is one of the marks of the postmodern condition. The intrusion of multinational capitalism (another element of postmodernity, according to Jameson) is exemplified by the blimp that, throughout the film, sends search lights into all the private spaces of the film. I offered as example the first shot of Deckard, surrounded by television screens while reading a newspaper. The effect ultimately is one of alienation. One symptom of this depthlessness is the desire to counter our "reality" with a search for what Jameson calls "intensities." Arguably, this helps to explain the alcoholism in Blade Runner (or the meth use in The Matrix): the drugs at once further dissociate us from the real (giving us artificially generated emotions) and represent a desperate desire to reinstitute the real we have lost.  We might also read that opening shot of Deckard as a self-reflexive moment when the film is thinking about the history of the very medium you are watching (back to old-style cathode-ray-tube tv’s).  


I reminded the class of our earlier discussion about the ways that technology affects our very perception of the world. I gave as example the difference between how oral and literate societies answer the question "What is a tree." As you all explained, a tree is a plant with bark, branches, and leaves that produces oxygen and processes the sun's energy through photosynthesis. Any class would unanimously agree with this definition. I then explained that studies of those oral cultures that still exist in the former Yugoslavia have asked the same question of non-literate people. Surprisingly, there too the response to the question was, for the most part, unanimous and yet completely different from our own: a tree is like a man whose arms reach up to heaven but whose roots are caught in hell. Why this incredible difference in response? Can we not even agree on an issue as fundamental as the answer to the question: "What is a tree?" Well, the REASON we, in a literate culture, can all unanimously agree with our definition is that we automatically turn to our communal literate source—the dictionary, which structures our experience of the world through the conventions of science and taxonomy (hence the use by some in defining "tree" of a scientific language that they do not use as readily in everyday speech). The question is this: if something like writing could so much change our understanding of reality, then how are such machines as the car, the telephone, the television, and the computer radically changing the way we understand the world and ourselves. Could it be that, in this sense, we are already machines? After all, we now understand the world through the logic of the machines we create (for example, the photograph). Machines have thus become the prostheses by which we live. Our reliance on photographs for memory is, of course, explored throughout the film, with one telling sequence moving from a shot of Deckard's photographs on his piano (following his unicorn dream) to his examination of a photograph recovered from the Replicants. The examination of the photograph creates the illusion of depth (we appear to move through the space captured by the image); in fact, what we are seeing is a series of reflections. The reflections upon reflections of Lacan's mirror stage could thus be said to replace the depth model by which Freud usually understood dreams: one thinks that the unicorn dream must mean something important with regard to Deckard's subjectivity but, as we learn at the end of the film, it is nothing but a simulacrum implanted by others. A series of oppositions are set up only to be undone in this sequence, as many of you pointed out: "real" piano music vs. Vangelis synthesized soundtrack; nature (in the dream) vs. urbanization; B&W portrait photography vs. the subjectless and centerless photo taken by the Replicants (or, rather, the center of the photo is appropriately taken up by a mirror). The sequence also functions self-reflexively as a commentary on film, which is also nothing but a fantasy illusion reliant on a series of (artificial) photographs and machines for looking. We could even be said to have a commentary on suture in the photo, Caitlin Stamper and Vivian Gu pointed out, since the mirror does not reflect back the person supposedly taking the picture. 


The photo-analysis scene is followed by an extreme close-up of what later turns out to be a snake scale inside an evidence bag. As you argued, what we are given here is yet another metaphor for narrative, joining the chantilly lace in "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose," the microphone wire Giles follows in "Restless," and the tree rings and airport runway in La jetée. Here, the snake scale is tied explicitly to the fall of man in Genesis (which is alluded to in Zhora's striptease show): that fall first initiated man into temporality (he was eternal before and, so, not driven by the death drive; he also did not experience desire in the same way). Like the squiggly line in Balzac that later interpreters turned into a snake (as explained in our early Peter Brooks readings), we are thus given yet another metaphor for the twists and turns of narrative. Note that the snake later appears as a tattoo on Zhora's face, in this case turning upon itself like the ourobouros image we discussed in relation to "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose."


We also discussed Deckard's "retiring" of Zhora, a scene that exemplifies a traditional film noir plot: the cop/protagonist must punish the transgressive femme fatale. Indeed, as many of you pointed out, the sequence and the earlier photo-analysis sequence are all about the objectification of women (the mannikins, the striptease, the show windows, even the clear plastic raincoat that resembles packaging). The difference is that this sequence brings with it no satisfaction, and is later overturned by the fact that the protagonist turns out himself to be a Replicant that must be hunted down. (As Elise Duncan pointed out in a previous version of the class, even the sheer raincoat gets overturned—at first, it objectifies the female body but, after Zhora is shot, it turns into a device to make her death all the more abject.) The scene provides us with a nice segue to the opening of The Matrix, in which the Wachowskis attempt to overturn the usual gender politics of the look—but for that you must turn to the next synopsis.


Synopsis for Oct 25-27

ENGL 373H: The Theory of SF&F

INSTRUCTOR         : Prof. Felluga

OFFICE                    : HEAV 430

OFFICE HOURS      : T,Th 1:30-2:30 (or email me)

E-MAIL:                   : felluga@purdue.edu


In this third block of classes, we will examine a number of science-fiction examples that explore our current age, which has been termed by many ‘postmodernity.’ We will explore the various elements of our current ‘postmodern condition,’ including computer culture, image culture, media culture, pop culture, and multiculturalism.  Alongside the films, we will be reading some of the most influential postmodern theorists of the last three decades. In so doing, we will explore a number of concepts that have been used to understand our age (pastiche, parody, cyborg and the simulacrum).