Today we explored the question, "why does science fiction appear in the nineteenth century," from another angle: Donna Haraway. She states in her chapter, "A Cyborg Manifesto," that "the cyborg is our ontology" (150) and that "the machine is us" (180). We seem to be presented with the same sort of statement in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, "I Borg." As the captured cyborg states, after being given a human name rather than a numerical designation, "We are Hugh/you." I asked students how these statements could possibly be true. Suggestions made include the following:
- Machines are increasingly human-like. Conversely, the evolution of machines is now so fast that they will soon become like us (or make us obsolete).
- We can't live without machines; think, for example, of the effect on the family structure of such innovations as the car and the telephone. We also rely on machines to live (pacemakers, etc.) and they help to run our lives (as such problems as the recent loss of a North American satellite or the Y2K computer bug remind us). One need only think how much we rely on computers, telephones, cars, etc.. Also, as Emily Rosko pointed out, our reliance on machines acts like a vicious circle: each new technology leads to the creation of new technologies to augment the new creations, which then leads to yet newer technologies--hence, the immediate obsolescence of electronic equipment (particularly the computer).
- Craig Stalbaum and Brad Vest explored the affect of machines on gender relations, following Donna Haraway's argument that technology also ensures equality between the sexes: earlier hunter/gatherer distinctions no longer apply in a technological world. A good cinematic moment that exemplifies this view is the final scene of Aliens in which Ripley fights off the Mother Alien while strapped into a machine. Even female reproduction is, potentially, made inessential in the envisioned future given the possibility of reproduction or replication (eg. Bladerunner's Replicants) either via cyborg or cloning technology.
- Is the drive of the machine inherent in the human spirit, for example through our drive to colonize. In this way, the Borg could be said to be not simply the Federation's greatest enemy but in fact the shadowy mirror of the Federation's own colonizations.
- We rely so much on machines that we have begun to understand ourselves by way of machine logic, as in the rapidly growing field of systems theory.
- Craig Stalbaum and Matt McCarty then suggested that perhaps the effect of our technology on our understanding of ourselves and the world may be yet more radical then we've been suggesting. One could say that each culture understands the world through its programming; in other words, are our cultural preconceptions that different from the programming of any computer?
- I suggested how much a technology as seemingly innocuous as writing has changed our understanding of the world. I asked the question: "What is a tree?" As Natalie Garrett and others stated, a tree is a plant with bark, branches, and leaves that produces oxygen and processes the sun's energy through photosynthesis. The class unanimously agreed 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 Natalie's 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 students of a scientific language that, I would venture to say, these students 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 indeed machines? After all, we now understand the world through the logic of the machines we create. Machines have thus become the prostheses by which we live. As in Frankenstein, could it be that our monsters and machines are us?
If all this is true, could it also be that science fiction appears in the nineteenth century as one way to get out of the machine-produced reality that we take for granted, so that we can begin to question the machine-controlled transformations that so surreptitiously transform who we are? This led to a discussion about science-fiction utopias and dystopias. What science fiction could be said to attempt to do in these sub-genres is to comment allegorically upon our present, either by imagining how it could be better or by illustrating how things we take for granted can potentially lead to disaster. In this way, science fiction allows us to step outside of our ideologies, forcing us to acknowledge the ideologies that surreptiously "program" our lives (as, for example, Margaret Atwood in "Homelanding" did with, in particular, our notions of gender).
I ended the class by showing the final scene of the X-Files episode, "The Postmodern Prometheus." I asked class what made this final scene "postmodern," unlike the "Modern Prometheus" of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Some of the postmodern elements that were mentioned include: self-consciousness/ self-reflexivity (Mulder's calling for the writer; the medium shift between film and the comic book, the use of black-and-white film, the self-conscious intertextual allusions to Frankenstein, etc.); wry, satirical humor (the comedic "mob", the appearance of Cher); references to pop culture (Mask, Jerry Springer, etc.).
Note: I decided not to do a separate page based on our relatively short discussion of Bladerunner following the film. The main concepts we covered include: 1) the film's emphasis on perception (particularly through the eye motif); 2) the multiculturalism and media advertising that suggests the take-over of multinational corporations in a world run not by nations but by global capitalism; 3) the self-conscious generic nod to film noir, eg. the Maltese Falcon (the fashion, the cigarette holders, the black-and-white photos, the art-deco buildings, the fact that almost the entire film is shot in darkness; the voice-over [in the Hollywood version of the film]); and 4) the relation of the photo to memory.
Note: the following are the names of the characters in Bladerunner: Bryant (head cop), Gaff (Bladerunner in training), Chew (maker of eyeballs), Taffey Lewis (owner of the Casablanca-like bar, Tyrell, J. F. Sebastian (Tyrell's chess partner and genetic engineer), Deckard, Rachael, Leon, Pris (Darryl Hannah), Zhora (the snake-striptease Replicant), and Roy Batty (the Replicant leader).
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