The Immune System and Blade Runner

Kelly Maudslien

"Have you ever retired a human by mistake?"
"But in your position that is a risk, isn't it?"

In Blade Runner, as in Donna Haraway's works, the blurring of self and other creates opportunities for violence and stress as well as intriguing new possibilities. In his essay "At Home with Replicants: The Architecture of Blade Runner", Andrew Benjamin draws the distinction between replicant and cyborg. A replicant is not a true cyborg because it is only a human creation. Humans intend it to be a slave devoid of all humanity. If we are to accept this argument, then the replicant is the Other to the human Self. The distinction grows blurry in the film, however, because both humans and replicants are essentially cyborgs. Blade Runner is, in a sense, a Bildungsroman about the growth of the replicants into cyborgs. It is true that the film does not portray a human growing into this cybernetic state. However, Haraway informs us that culture constructs humans just as much as science constructs replicants: "Science is culture" (Haraway, p. 230). Human beings are formed by their cultures, histories, memories, and mothers, of which photographs give evidence. This is not fundamentally different from the implanted memories and falsified photographs of the replicants. Both humans and replicants are coded by the texts (e.g. the photographs) they possess.

Neither human nor replicant is

a system of work, organized by the hierarchical division of labor, ordered by a privileged dialectic between highly localized nervous and reproductive functions, but instead... a coded text, organized as an engineered communications system, ordered by a fluid and dispersed command-control-intelligence network. (Haraway, p. 211)

When the clear divisions of labor between master and slave, brain and body, and T-cells and viruses break down, the blurring of boundaries result in networked, misrecognizable texts. That is, humans and replicants can be misrecognized as each other; everyone operates in an intimate network despite the attempts to enslave the replicants in the off-world colonies. The replicant-as-cyborg is the "text [of] the coded systems of recognition -- prone to the pathologies of mis-recognition -- embodied in objects like computer networks and immune systems." (Haraway, p. 207)

The immune system is a fitting metaphor for human-replicant interaction. In the immune system,

any antibody molecule must be able to act functionally as both antibody to some antigen and as antigen for the production of an antibody to itself... there could be no exterior antigenic structure, no 'invader'... 'Self' and 'other' lose their rationalistic oppositional quality and become subtle plays of partially mirrored readings and responses." (Haraway, p. 218)

Humans do not only partially mirror themselves by creating replicants. They must respond to the replicant threat by creating blade runners within their population, a mirror of the mirrored replicants. The binary oppositions break down after the semantics become too complex and for all intents and purposes, everyone becomes cyborgs.

Accelerated decrepitude and stress also link to the image of the immune system. Just as the antibody-antigen cycle repeates itself endlessly, so does the production-consumption cycle of postmodern Los Angeles. People have taken the consumer society to such an extent that it creates a blinding fog of air pollution and alleys filled with waste. More waste requires more people to take care of it who require more commodities which create more waste and so on and so forth, hurtling towards denaturing stress and certain destruction. The accelerated decrepitude of Los Angeles is embodied in the short-lived replicants and J.F. Sebastian, possibly an earlier replicant model.

Along with the waste and violence of this dystopian future comes the breakdown of public and private space. Deckard does not seem to have a right to private space; he must unwillingly assume his role as blade runner when a police chief requires it. The public and private are also blurred when Deckard visits Zhora in her dressing-room. She seems to accept his presence there. When he says that he is there to make sure that no one has made her feel uncomfortable or has drilled holes in her walls, she asks incredulously, "Are you for real?" The intrusion of the public into the private is an everyday occurrence in 2019. Zhora's response more importantly points to Deckard's ambiguous status in reality. Is Deckard a real human or not? Her question mirrors his purpose as a blade runner; Deckard is also asking himself if Zhora is for real. Finally, Deckard's most private space of his unicorn hallucination/dream/memory is thrust into the public realm when he realizes that his partner knows about this implanted text.

If the public can be interfaced with the private just as the self can be construed as the other, individuality and individual rights decay. Even the memories of replicants are subject to surveillance. "No objects, spaces, or bodies are sacred in themselves; any component can be interfaced with any other if the proper standard, the proper code, can be constructed for processing signals in a common language" (Haraway, p. 212). Although Haraway rightly points out the negative consequences of such interfacing, other possibilities exist. Roy is not sacred in himself but he never was on a quest for his individual identity. He wants to live longer so that he can share his experiences and information with others. When the boundaries between human and replicant cease to become as natural as once supposed -- when they are de-natured -- then empathetic links can be forged or at least simulated. When the shaken Deckard looks at Zhora's dead body lying in the glass shards of the broken display window, flurries of false snow from the display swirl about his head. Deckard shivers. He could not be actually, physically cold -- his shivering is a simulation of cold and empathy with Zhora. This empathy may be a simulated emotion but it is an emotion nonetheless.

[To other discussions of this topic by members of English 111, Cyberspace and Critical Theory, Spring 1998.]

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