Dire Need for Definition


There's an easy way, and there's a Harraway...

Daniel Parke

[Note: the @ indicates an OFF-SITE link, which will open in a new window.]

The self is the One who is not dominated... but to be One is to be an illusion... to be other is to be multiple, without clear boundary, frayed, insubstantial.

[Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto," Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, 177]

Fan(atics) of psychoanalytic theory would have it that the dualism of self/other is the driving force behind the actions of every language-using adult. Haraway, on the other hand, sets up this and other dualisms just to knock them down. For her the indistinct boundaries and origins of high-tech culture challenge these dualisms, "It is not clear who makes and who is made in the relation between human and machine" ["A Cyborg Manifesto," 177].

Entry into language, the Mirror Stage, and the imaginary and symbolic orders are steps in the development of a non-existent creature in today's world: the wo/man of difference. The dualisms necessary for that construction of psychoanalytic theory break down in the social relations of science and technology. In response, Haraway posits an alternative to the self/other identification of Western thought, the cyborg, "not of woman born, who refuse the ideological resources of victimization so as to have a real life." ["A Cyborg Manifesto," 177]

It is the interaction of these two different ideologies, the illusory security of self by naming and exclusion and the indistinct boundaries of a cyborg identity's oppositional consciousness, that is played out again and again in science fiction and film. Often times there are aspects of both ideologies warring within a single character struggling to find their place in the technology ridden world in which they exist.


... in Blade Runner

Deckard: She's a replicant, isn't she?

Tyrell: I'm impressed. How many questions does it usually take to spot them?

Deckard: I don't get it Tyrell.

Tyrell: How many questions?

Deckard: Twenty, thirty, cross-referenced.

Tyrell: It took more than a hundred for Rachael, didn't it?

Deckard: She doesn't know?!

Tyrell: She's beginning to suspect, I think.

Deckard: Suspect? How can it not know what it is?

Tyrell: Commerce, is our goal here at Tyrell. More human than human is our motto. Rachael is an experiment, nothing more. We began to recognize in them strange obsessions. After all they are emotional inexperienced with only a few years in which to store up the experiences which you and I take for granted. If we give them the past we create a cushion or pillow for their emotions and consequently we can control them better.

[Ridley Scott, Blade Runner @]

The human-like replicants in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner are built to such perfection as to be indistinguishable from biological humans without mechanical aid. In the passage above, the protagonist, Deckard, has just completed a test to see if a woman, Rachel, is a replicant. It takes unusually long because although Rachel is a replicant, she does not know it.

At the movie's beginning Rachel seems to exist in in the realm of the imaginary, but she is becoming aware of difference, as Tyrell suggests. However her awareness of difference is not as a fragmented self seeking an ideal other to identify with, she is becoming aware that she is the other.

Rachel tries to deal with this growing awareness first by denial (Freudian repression) of this awareness of difference.

Deckard reopens the door, and Rachael enters.

Deckard: Do you want a drink? No? No?

Rachael: You think I'm a replicant, don't you? [ pause ] Look, it's me with my mother.

Deckard: Yeah. [ pause ] Remember when you were six? You and your brother snuck into an empty building through a basement window--you were gonna play doctor. He showed you his, but when it got to be your turn you chickened and ran. Remember that? You ever tell anybody that? Your mother, Tyrell, anybody, huh? You remember the spider that lived in a bush outside your window: orange body, green legs. Watched her build a web all summer. Then one day there was a big egg in it. The egg hatched--

Rachael: The egg hatched...

Deckard: Yeah...

Rachael: ...and a hundred baby spiders came out. And they ate her.

Deckard: Implants! Those aren't your memories. They're somebody else's. They're Tyrell's niece's. [ pause ] Okay, bad joke. I made a bad joke. You're not a replicant. Go home, okay? No really, I'm sorry. Go home. [ pause ] Want a drink? I'll get you a drink. I'll get a glass.

Rachael runs away when Deckard turns to get a glass. Then, Deckard looks at Rachael's photo.

Eventually Rachel seems to accept what is apparently true, she is a replicant, but she has not solved anything with this identification, merely substituted one taxonomic classification for another. She still wants an identity constructed by positive terms and by exclusion. She needs more information to construct a water tight container for her identity, however, because simply being a "replicant" leaves too many boundaries unclear, mutable, permeable.

Rachael: Deckard? You know those files on me? The incept date, the longevity, those things. You saw them?

Deckard: They're classified.

Rachael: But you're a policeman.

Deckard: I didn't look at them.

At the end of the film we are left with many unanswered questions, as is Rachel. She is a replicant, but what does that mean if it doesn't show with a passing glance? She doesn't know her incept date, she has no way of knowing how long she will live... four years from birth? A hundred? (This is working from the Director's Cut of Blade Runner, the real version of the movie.) When was she born? Her memories stretch back to a childhood she knows her present body was never there to experience, but when were those memories injected into her shell? Rachel has memories and a consciousness which extends beyond the boundaries of her body and this is symbolic of her existence without a label that completely identifies her. Her beginning is unclear, ambiguous, and as such she has no origin.

Every story that begins with original innocence and privileges the return to wholeness imagines the drama of life to be... war, tempered by imaginary respite in the bosom of the Other. ... A cyborg body is not innocent; it was not born in a garden. [A Cyborg Manifesto, 177, 180]

Rachel begins the film with innocence (in psychoanalytic terms pre-language, before, pre-Mirror Stage) but after she becomes Other no such return is privileged. Her origin disintegrates, her boundaries disintegrate, her concept of self disintegrates. As the word "Other" suggests, she is not a name but is, rather, not-something-else. "Feminist practice is the construction of [a] form of consciousness... the self-knowledge of a self-who-is-not." [A Cyborg Manifesto, 159] To find a belonging, Rachel could adopt Chela Sandoval's model "oppositional consciousness" using awareness of her self-who-is-not, build her "identity out of otherness, difference, and specificity" [A Cyborg Manifesto, 155].


... in Ghost in the Shell

Motoko: Sometimes I wonder if I've really already died, and what I think of as "Me" isn't really just an artificial personality comprised of a prosthetic body and a cyberbrain.

Dinner Companion: Eek! Motoko, don't even say scary stuff like that! Hey, we've got grey matter, and people treat us like humans...

Motoko: How do you know? You've never seen your alleged grey matter. Maybe you're just assuming you've got it because of the situation you're in. Maybe someday your "maker" will come... haul you away, take you apart, and announce the recall of a defective product. What if all that's left of the "real you" is a couple of lonely brain cells, huh?

D. C.: Well I am a human, and I'm sure the number of parts needed to be human in more than two or three cells! 'Course I do that chemicals and mecha can substitute for a fair number of the functions of the cerebrum today...

[Masamune Shirow, Ghost in the Shell (Manga), 106]

Motoko is an agent for a governmental bureau called section 9. She is also a cyborg. While the Manga and the Anime differ in some plot elements (with the movie being a condensation of the much larger comic) both deal with the same theme: the borders of technology and humanity. While Motoko is very aware that her identity is uncertain, her dinner companion, another female cyborg, seems to deny her otherness, hanging on to that part of her that is human with exclusion of all other aspects of herself.

Working parallel to Motoko's malaise and uncertainty of her place in a linear spectrum of human to machine, is the emergence of an artificial intelligence that is becoming self-aware. This intelligence exists initially in the net and from it becomes intelligent and aware. The net is without border, reflexive and interconnected, and as such the entity also has indistinct boundaries. It is forced into a cyborg body, its awareness becomes embodied. "I am not an AI. I am a life form spontaneously created from the sea of information." [GitS, 249]

Motoko interfaces with this intelligence and the entity tells her that they could fuse, reduplicate, and create a something new that is both of them and each of them at once. This offer would blur many boundaries between the human and the machine (something that is indistinct in both Motoko and the entity to begin with); just as the new fusion would have a different cognition from either of the two, it would have to expand and merge the boundaries that its two parent intelligences had.

Communications science and biology are constructions of natural-technical objects of knowledge in which the difference between machine and organism is thoroughly blurred.

["A Cyborg Manifesto," 165]

Throughout the story the boundaries of individuals are blurred. There is the case above which is central to the plot, but permeable boundaries pervade. Through technology not fully explained (the best kind in science fiction) members of section 9 can communicate to each other with thoughts. This is more apparent in the Manga, but can be inferred from the movie. That communication blurs the line between several individuals just as the puppeteer's ability to alter a garbage man's memories blurs the lines between real and imagined past. The puppeteer can also slip into other people's bodies and control them by entering through the net, making the boundary of the body less containing-- or reassuring. The crime of ghost dubbing, duplicating a single ghost into multiple cyborg bodies, is unsettling and crosses a stranger boundary: that of uniqueness.

Ghost in the Shell deals most heavily with the boundary of consciousness; with possibility of frequently and rapidly shifting boundaries the difficulty of self-knowledge is a difficult thing to arrive at-- much less hold on to. Identity is not static, and just as evolution occurs over generations, it can occur many times over the space of a lifetime, and each time there is alteration of boundaries the self changes.


Short takes...

Alien 4

An article in the December 4, 1997 issue of The College Hill Independent @ an article by Jason Marsh was printed reviewing Alien 4. He examines many interesting aspects of the film, both in the story and in its production, that relate to waning humanity in the face of technology. Marsh says that Alien 4 follows the vision of the series' original director, Ridley Scott, except the vision being heeded is the one Scott shows in Blade Runner.

In Blade Runner, Scott conceived the future as postmodern hell; as a world which lacks connections to its history and memories, and where robotic "replicants" ultimately prove themselves more humane than humans.

[Jason Marsh, "Technical Difficulties," College Hill Independent]

The technology that is the premise for the film is cloning, a technology that is of very immediate concent at the present. From her blood, Ripley is cloned, complete with a gestating alien in her belly, but the Ripley they create is not entirely human. The blood had some element of the alien in it and it became a part of all of her cells. As such she is neither human nor alien, is not a true clone of the pre-alien Ripley, and is without origin. She is copy without an original, a hybrid and a simulacrum.


Robert A. Heinlein's @ novel Friday also brings up the issue of cloning. Friday is a courier, and very good one, but she is also an AP, an Artificial Person. "The courts say I can't be a citizen; the churches say I don't have a soul. I'm not 'man born of woman,' at least not in the eyes of the law." [Heinlein, Friday, 36].

AP's are biologically indistinguishable from a human if all of the usual barcodes and tattoos are removed from them. In Friday's case, all evidence of her being an AP has been erased by the 'Boss' for whom she works placing the stigma of AP only in her mind. The boundaries between AP and human are all either imagined or ideological after creation; AP's are faster, stronger, but they still work with the same genes regular humans have to deal with.

The world Friday grew up in taught her that she was Other and her education is the slow realization that such a boundary is illusory and ideological-- in other words, permeable. Everyone she meets assumes she is human, but often her insecurity with her perceived status as other leads her reveal her "true" self. She wants to belong and to be accepted as an AP, but to label herself as AP is to subject herself to "appropriation, incorporation, and taxonomic identification" ["A Cyborg Manifesto," 157] which is inherently exclusionary-- at her expense.


Fusing it all together...

A recurring element in each of these stories is the absence of a complete answer, rather the reader/spectator is given an awareness of the shape of the knowledge. They are given a picture which constructs a space around the enigma of the story, the unknown and unclassifiable aspects of the characters identities.

There is no drive in cyborgs to produce total theory, but there is an intimate experience of boundaries, thier construction and deconstruction.

["A Cyborg Manifesto," 181]

This is the best part of science fiction-- open-endedness, uncertainty --and at the heart of that is the other, the alien which fascinates us in its search for a self, allowing us to identify with it by our own search. With no absolute answer, no unquestionable this-is-how-it-is, there is a denial of the apocalyptic, unambiguous, revelation that is the resolution of the Western psychoanalytic cycle. Denying that Western longing, reversing and displacing the hierarchical dualisms of naturalized identities and forcing the boundaries of identity out, out, out until it dissolves.

In Blade Runner Rachel is under the illusion that she is human, complete with memories and emotions, but these are all borrowed from someone else; realizing her nature is the awareness of difference, identity must come from difference, then, too. In Ghost in the Shell Motoko can make the claim that, once upon a time, she was 100% human, but that is no longer her. If she no longer identifies with the body she used to have it is no longer her option to lay claim to a human origin. Ripley in Alien 4 is a different Ripley from the first three films, she has some of Ripley's memories and some of her genes; she is not simply human, but neither is she simply a monster. Friday was not born of human parents, her "mother was a test tube, [her] father a knife" and she has no origin without difference, no imaginary for language to draw her out of... she, like the other characters lack original wholeness, they are simulacra constructed out of difference into the other of Western logos.

A concept of a coherent inner self, achieved (cultural) or innate (biological), is a regulatory fiction that is unnecessary-- indeed, inhibitory...

["'Gender' for a Marxist Dictionary," Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, 135]

It is a delusion to believe that we were ever whole to begin with, at creation we are not only the sum of our parts but of our differences as well. We can not say what we are, can not calculate our sum into a single discrete value or label; it is easier to say what we are not. Let us suffer no illusions to the contrary.

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

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