Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction

Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction

by Scott Bukatman, Scott Bukatman, Bukatman

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Scott Bukatman's Terminal Identity—referring to both the site of the termination of the conventional "subject" and the birth of a new subjectivity constructed at the computer terminal or television screen--puts to rest any lingering doubts of the significance of science fiction in contemporary cultural studies. Demonstrating a comprehensive…  See more details below


Scott Bukatman's Terminal Identity—referring to both the site of the termination of the conventional "subject" and the birth of a new subjectivity constructed at the computer terminal or television screen--puts to rest any lingering doubts of the significance of science fiction in contemporary cultural studies. Demonstrating a comprehensive knowledge, both of the history of science fiction narrative from its earliest origins, and of cultural theory and philosophy, Bukatman redefines the nature of human identity in the Information Age.
Drawing on a wide range of contemporary theories of the postmodern—including Fredric Jameson, Donna Haraway, and Jean Baudrillard—Bukatman begins with the proposition that Western culture is suffering a crisis brought on by advanced electronic technologies. Then in a series of chapters richly supported by analyses of literary texts, visual arts, film, video, television, comics, computer games, and graphics, Bukatman takes the reader on an odyssey that traces the postmodern subject from its current crisis, through its close encounters with technology, and finally to new self-recognition. This new "virtual subject," as Bukatman defines it, situates the human and the technological as coexistent, codependent, and mutally defining.
Synthesizing the most provocative theories of postmodern culture with a truly encyclopedic treatment of the relevant media, this volume sets a new standard in the study of science fiction—a category that itself may be redefined in light of this work. Bukatman not only offers the most detailed map to date of the intellectual terrain of postmodern technology studies—he arrives at new frontiers, providing a propitious launching point for further inquiries into the relationship of electronic technology and culture.

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Editorial Reviews

The author teaches film at New York University. His discussion ranges far and wide in analysis of the ideas about people and machines conveyed by and reflected in science fiction books and movies. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
From the Publisher

"A major addition to the critical study of science fiction. . . . [Bukatman's] analyses of the tropes and metaphors found in recent SF illuminate key areas of concern for postmodernism generally."—Larry McCaffery, editor of Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Fiction

"Scott Bukatman is a smart man who has been thinking hard and paying a lot of attention. People should listen to him."—Bruce Sterling, author of The Hacker Crackdown:Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier

"This book should appeal to . . . anyone in the humanities disciplines working within the discourses of postmodernism. The scholarship is absolutely superior."—Vivian Sobchack, author of Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film

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Duke University Press Books
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Terminal Identity

The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction

By Scott Bukatman

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7928-7




In the real world of television, technology is perfectly interiorized: it comes within the self.–Kroker and Cook ¶ Television is the sincerest form of imitation.–Fred Allen

Several sections of Chris Marker's 1982 film, Sans Soleil, present contemporary Tokyo as a science fiction metropolis. Marker does not understand the Japanese language, and the resultant disorientation, when coupled with the high-technology compactness of this urban environment, creates the effect of a futuristic alienation. Like the protagonist/narrator of Edward Bellamy's 1888 novel Looking Backward (the significantly surnamed Julian West), Marker has awakened to find himself dislocated, both spatially and temporally. Unlike West, Marker has few guides to his brave new world, and those that do exist serve to distort more than to clarify. Cinematically, his alienation is conveyed through montage, sound/image disunion, and an evocation of the surfeit of signifiers, signs for which Marker can only guess at possible referents. Passengers doze on a commuter train as the electronic soundtrack drones, punctuated by a series of beeps and bleeps reminiscent of old Astroboy cartoons. The commuter train is intercut with shots of the space-borne locomotive from the popular animated film Galaxy Express, further implicating the film in a web of intertextual and intergalactic reference. These associations also have the effect of infantilizing the narrator, as alienation engenders a retreat to the images of childhood–or children's media.

Marker does not simply map Tokyo onto the field of science fiction, but onto the field of the media-spectacle as well. What characterizes Tokyo is the domination of the image: not simply the static, over-sized posters with their staring eyes ("voyeurizing the voyeurs," as the narrator says), but the endless flow of images across the television screen and the endless televisions which multiply across Marker's solitary cinematic frame. Tokyo constitutes the "world of appearances" for Marker–how could it be otherwise, given his selective and seemingly deliberate cultural illiteracy–but it is also a realm devoted to the surface, to the external. Tokyo exists as pure spectacle; that is, as a proliferation of semiotic systems and simulations which increasingly serve to replace physical human experience and interaction. Television brings the signs of a peculiar sexuality into Marker's hotel room, videogames serve as furniture in numberless arcades, sumo-wrestling fans gather to watch their favorites do combat along walls of TV monitors; a serial multiplication of the same image-flow extended onto a grid formation like Warhol's Marilyn or Elvis panels. Video monitors are so prevalent that the narrator finally concludes that in Tokyo, "Television is watching you."

Ultimately, the narrator finds a kind of solace with a companion who has designed a video-synthesizer as a means of resisting the onslaught of images, the bombardment of signals. Their electronically reprocessed world is dubbed the Zone (in homage to Tarkovsky's Stalker [1979]). In the Zone the image is regrounded as image rather than functioning as a surrogate reality. The passivity engendered by the spectacle has ostensibly been shattered; the filmmaker has reappropriated control of the image.

Sans Soleil presents, in compact form, a remarkable number of the tropes which recur in both contemporary science fiction and the critical discourse regarding the media. The pervasive domination by, and addiction to, the image might be regarded as a primary symptom of terminal identity. The "image addict" is a metaphor which exists in and through the media, subject to forces which might at first seem to be controlled by the instrumental forces of government and/or big business, but that ultimately seems to signify the passage into a new reality. The spectacular world of television dominates and defines existence, becoming more "real" (more familiar, more authoritative, more satisfying) than physical reality itself. Much science fiction recognizes that we now inhabit what techno-prophet Alvin Toffler has called "blip culture," a rhetorical (and perhaps "real") construct within which citizens are becoming blips: electronic pulses which exist only as transitory bits or bytes of information in a culture inundated with information. The science fiction of the 1950s resisted the advent of the spectacular society (in works by Ray Bradbury, Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth, and Robert Sheckley, for example), while more recent texts acknowledge, analyze, and sometimes apparently embrace this new state of things. A spectacular ambivalence pervades science fiction cinema, television, and comics. Television and computer cultures have repeatedly been posited as formations of spectacular control, but it is important to note that the new modes of challenge and resistance have themselves become spectacular in form.

In its discursive play, including its images, music, and narration, this section of Sans Soleil aspires to the condition of science fiction. The narrator's Tokyo journey takes him from an initial state of radical alienation in the face of the constant flow of images, through periods of an almost palpable terror of assault and invasion by the forces of blip culture. Finally, the journey into the Zone represents an adaptation to, and appropriation of, the society of the spectacle. Marker utilizes the rhetorical strategies of the genre of science fiction to evoke the experience of disorientation before the media eruption of Tokyo. Similarly, the film The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), in its depiction of an alien abroad in a distant world, bombarded by the images and sounds of the media culture which is America, might be regarded as the fictional analogue to Marker's avant-garde documentary.

This conflation of science fiction and media criticism is neither unique nor even unusual in recent years. It is already evident in the writings of Marshall McLuhan, replete with their metaphors of neurology and bodily transformation. It is evident in Alvin Toffler's paeans to technological development and cybernetic adaptation. But it is equally apparent in the more negative postures of the Situationists, in their concern with urban redefinition and individual existence; and it exists, perhaps most clearly, in the profound ambivalence of Jean Baudrillard's cyborg rants, which loudly declaim the new state of things while maintaining an ironic distance.

In all these cases, and others less notorious, the cyberneticized orientation of the respected critic aligns him or her with society's debased prophet of the technological: the science fiction writer. But the conflation of SF and critical discourse doesn't only exist on the referential level, it extends to the deployment of signifiers. If it is true, as Samuel R. Delany and Teresa deLauretis contend, that the use of language in science fiction is sufficiently idiosyncratic as to demand new strategies of reading, then it is in the similitude of the signifiers of science fiction and media criticism that the real consequences of this conflation might be discovered. The language of science fiction provides a self-critical discursive level from which theories of language and media benefit.

That which requires continual demonstration by theorists of natural language is already something of a truism in media criticism: the medium is the message; language and its structures transform cultural activities into signs of a "natural" order; dominant language usage is complicit with dominant ideological formations. The clear and demonstrable imbrication of TV, radio, and the press with the political, economic, and technical bases of the social system makes perceptible a relationship which still remains elusive when dealing with the apparently "unmediated" circulation of language in everyday life. The media belong to the mainstream, and any tolerance of divergent views or lifestyles is only a token nod to pluralistic diversity. Such clichés of spectacular society are, of course, equally applicable to, although not as evident in, less spectacular forms of communication such as writing or speech.

Frequently, however, the discourse of media criticism posits a separation, as though the difference was one of kind rather than degree. The mass media are, correctly, perceived as a hyper-language possessed of unimaginable powers of reification; the unfortunate correlate is that other discourses are thereby inscribed as the "voice" of truth. The shortcomings of this argument ought to be obvious enough, yet it remains implicit in much of the critical work produced on, and by, media culture.

Writings on the mass media, and television in particular, concentrate on the passivity of the audience in the face of the spectacle. The seductiveness of the media have apparently resulted in the decline of moral values, the trivializing of politics, the increase of illiteracy, shorter attention spans, and a heightened capacity for violent behavior–all from the surrender of the consumer. The invasion of "the real" by the proliferating forms of "the spectacle" in much science fiction and critical theory might in fact serve as a metaphorical projection of the threatened subversion of language and its claims to veracity. In Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1967), to take an obvious example, books are burned and written language has been forcibly superseded by television–an explicit turning against the word. Book burning is no idle choice on Bradbury's part, summoning up as it does overwhelming images of the Inquisition, the Holocaust, and the successive waves of fundamental hysteria in contemporary America. The overthrow of the Word is presented as tantamount to the overthrow of Reason itself, leaving an infantilized–if not barbaric–citizenry poised passively before the pseudo-satisfactions of the spectacle, bereft of the ability to think, judge, and know. The 1966 film adaptation by Truffaut emphasizes this by limiting reading matter to wordless comic books, an evocation of the preliterate status of the young child. In fact, and as a large number of contemporary artists (Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, for example) have acknowledged, the Word has become a complicit part of the image culture, especially within the constructs of consumer society.

It seems that many works about the spectacle are, in fact, concerned with preserving and protecting the power of the word against the barbarizing forces of image culture (which is frequently linked to commodity culture and mass forms, most unlike the rarefied discourses of criticism or literature). I would further suggest that the anxiety surrounding the spectacle is not privileging any specific discursive form such as written or spoken language, but that it is directed at the feared manipulation of representational truth at a time when the complex interplay of data and representations have usurped earlier forms of cultural and physical engagement and validation. Television, computers, and the hybrid forms of virtual reality having arisen to comprise Toffler's blip culture, the loss of the often unexamined, empirically accepted category of "the real" has instantiated a crisis throughout our hardwired cultural circuits.

To take one example, the advent of digitally "retouched" photographs, which can seemingly (and seamlessly) reconstruct the representation of events and spaces, has raised questions about the relation of the photograph to truth. What is most fascinating, in the face of this electronic onslaught, is the retrospective instantiation of the photograph as the very sign of truth. The New York Times (which might admittedly have some stake in its position) reports, "Ever since its invention a shade more than 150 years ago, photography has been seen as a medium of truth and unassailable accuracy." While this may have been true in the years immediately following the invention of photography, the establishment of photography as an "art form" (encouraging creative manipulation) and a tradition of doctored photographs quickly called this attitude into question. The complex mediation of reality that marks the photographic process has also produced a range of complex artistic and philosophical meditations, and not the uncritical acceptance the writer implies.

Fred Ritchin (whose book on computer imaging prompted the article) notes that with digital technology, "there is no equivalent to an original archivally permanent negative." There is thus a loss of representation, a loss of the object, and finally, a lost relationship to the real. What we regard as "reality" stands revealed as a construction–a provisional and malleable alignment of data. "If photographs can no longer be perceived as unalloyed facts peeled from the surface of the real world, what will replace them?" the Times asks, but there is no answer. Video, a startlingly ubiquitous documentary medium, is also the archetypal electronic–and hence manipulable–form. It is increasingly evident that society, ever more defined by a system of electronic representations, is based on an accepted fiction, or a "consensual hallucination," to use William Gibson's definition of cyberspace.

The perception of a spectacular assault on the dominance of written language stands revealed as a defense of pre-electronic representational forms (writing, photography, and even cinema) which actually reifies a pre-electronic, empirically verifiable definition of "the real." Although much science fiction participates in precisely such a reification, a significant set of reflexive works, across a range of media, acknowledge a more complex relation with a world increasingly defined by electronic data circulation and management. A more reflexive critical discourse is required to combat a writing in which the critic or scholar is inscribed as the bearer of truths produced through "natural" language structures.

It is in this context that the appropriation of the forms of science fiction, and what Delany has called its "reading protocols," can be considered. If, as Delany and deLauretis argue, science fiction de-naturalizes language through an inherent reflexivity of form, then something is added in what we may term the science fiction of the spectacle. Textuality now becomes an explicit theme in the science fiction work; language will comprise the content of the discourse as well as determine its form. Reflexivity is extended as the text turns in upon its own production. The constant meditation upon the mediation of the real, the usurpation of traditional experience, and the reduction of reality to a representation is emphasized by a text that foregrounds its own textual status, a text that emphasizes the estrangement of the sign. The science fiction of the spectacle, even in its more diluted instances, acknowledges its own complicity with the spectacularizing of reality.

Paul de Man has written that "the allegorical representation of Reading [is] the irreducible component of any text," and it is indeed easy to situate spectacular science fiction within such a paradigm of textuality. He further notes, "The allegory of reading narrates the impossibility of reading," by which we can understand that de Man refers to the impossibility of reading through to an unproblematic, nonfigural, totalizing meaning. The range of approaches which exists within the genre of science fiction toward comprehending the society of the spectacle might be provocatively reexamined within such an allegorical model. In his scholarly work, The Soft Machine, David Porush has productively demonstrated the relevance of the "science" of cybernetics to a range of postmodern narratives (by Beckett, Pynchon, and Burroughs, among others), all of which emphasize communication, control, and information management (and, in these fictions, a pervasive and strategic information disruption and willful mis-management). While Porush unfortunately neglects science fiction in his study, an oversight he has corrected in his subsequent writings, his postulations concerning the existence of an emergent "cybernetic fiction" are especially relevant. The cyborg formations of terminal culture, the melding of human and machine, would then further represent the dialectic of reality and representation, the dialectic which exists between the "natural" semiosis of the referent and the cybernetic "machinery" of the text: terminal identity fictions are a cyborg discourse.

Within the matrices of consumer culture, science fiction offers a new complexity of form to replace the absolutism and transparency of most writing. The polemic is rendered spectacular in an avoidance of any assumption of an uncontaminated discourse and in a diegetic and textual acknowledgment of an already existent complicity. The simultaneous technologism and reflexivity of the text permits a deeper engagement with the issues raised by the spectacle while maintaining the distance of the writerly, the ambivalent, the self-aware. Whether used by Toffler to evoke an era of technological promise and prophecy or by Baudrillard to construct a labyrinthine discourse of technocratic control, science fiction functions as a dominant language within the society of the spectacle. As J. G. Ballard wrote, "Science and technology multiply around us. To an increasing extent they dictate the languages in which we speak and think. Either we use those languages, or we remain mute." Sans Soleil incorporates science fiction as a metadiscourse on spectacle, in a movement which fully participates in what it might at first appear to simply condemn.

The analysis performed in this chapter concentrates on the axiomatic form of electronic spectacle: television. In the first section television becomes an important social control by substituting its own pseudo-realities for the "real thing," while in the next TV operates in a more explicitly malevolent manner, penetrating and invading the physical body of the viewer like a virus. In both cases the viewer becomes little more than an adjunct or extension of the media.


Excerpted from Terminal Identity by Scott Bukatman. Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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