Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Video Word Made Flesh

Videodrome - David Cronenberg (1983)

In his essay "Bodies Without Organs: Cyborg Cinema of the 1980s," Hassan Melehy draws on Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus for definitions of individuals as "molecular" and "molar":

"A "molar" conception of individuals is that they are whole, complete beings with a set of mainly fixed attributes, whereas a "molecular" conception characterizes human beings as incomplete, made up of fragments that come from various sources, constantly undergoing transformation both within themselves and in relation to their enviornments, as not strictly placed in oppositional categories such as male/female, black/white, Western/non-Western, and even human/animal."1

In the essay, Melehy uses the molecular conception of individuals to characterize protagonist Max Renn's transformation in Videodrome from human to cyborg. Renn is the manager of a public-access cable station that features sex and violence. In the process of trying to find the newest in shock programming, Renn runs across a signal for a show called Videodrome which piques his interest with its realistic depictions of sexual torture. Renn tries to make contact with the show's creator, Brian O'Blivion, and receives the video we see in the Youtube scene above. Here, Renn gets a taste of transformation; exposure to the Videodrome signal causes a tumor in the brain of the viewer that results in hallucinations of melding with technology; the scenes of torture are merely the visceral means by which the signal cuts into the mind. In the horrific Youtube scene, Renn hallucinates coupling with a living TV screen which hosts the image of his lover, Nicki Brand, who had previously tried to make contact with Videodrome and who we assume had already underwent the transformation.

Melehy describes Renn's transformation as molecular in that it is the result of what director David Cronenberg calls a "creative cancer."2 The brain tumor caused by the signal destabilizes the host's mind and body so as to make drastic transformation possible: a melding of body and technology. Melehy says, "This freely acting organ... will allow hallucination, or, as it turns out to be the case, the production of simulacra such that the hold of instituted reality ceases to be viable, reveals itself to be the ruse of an imposing and exclusive simulacrum."3 The simulacrum gives Renn a new sexual encounter which does not rely on traditional sexual configurations and organs. Here we see the breakdown of molar conceptions of the individual.

Philip Hefner in Technology and Human Becoming also relies on a molecular understanding of individuals in his description of a cyborg:

"We have painted a picture of ourselves as creatures who integrate in themselves the nature from which we have emerged and the technology that has transformed nature. We have seen that technology is not, most importantly, outside us, but within us, shaping who we are and how we live our lives. Cyborg is a relatively recent term that expresses the dimension of techno-nature within human nature."4

Hefner sees technology as the medium for new selves and new identities. What would he say about Renn's transformation? Is the cyborg body Renn acquires in the course of the film what Hefner has in mind when he alludes to technology being an expression of the divine self-transcendence available to humanity? Surely, Videodrome offers a perverse take on Hefner's philosophy.

For example, Videodrome would seem to pervert Hefner's idea of the cyborg being made in the image of God. The cyborg that Renn becomes is a violent tool of the forces who control Videodrome. Renn loses his personhood, his freedom, and his imaginative ability. What is godly about the cyborg in Hefner's view is the potential for imaginative remakings of ourselves. Hefner says, "Classically, God is also the One who speaks the word of possibility to the creation and sustains its drive toward that possibility... When we participate in this drive for new possibilities, we participate also in God. This is the dimension of holiness in technology."5 There is certainly a drive towards new possibilities in Videodrome; a new creation is made with Renn acquiring this new flesh. However, is every possibility God's word of possibility? Is Renn's enslaved cyborg created in the image of God?

One could certainly argue that the violent nature of the Videodrome cyborg is due to its vulnerability to reprogramming and the destructive whims of those who would wish to take advantage of Renn's vulnerability. Thus, it is not the technology that is at fault but the sinful nature of the persons who misuse it. This interpretation becomes viable when we learn that the creator of Videodrome, O'Blivion, did not intend the signal to enslave those who encountered it. O'Blivion had control over Videodrome wrestled from him by his business partners who had other, crueler plans for it. O'Blivion, as we see in the Youtube clip above, was simply a naive philosopher/idealist who had notions, like Hefner does, about new technologies (in this case, video) allowing for a positive transformation of the self.

Aside from the gruesome acts that Renn commits under the control of others, the question remains: can we see the Videodrome cyborg transformation as a positive transformation of the self, such as to be in the image of God? To be honest, watching the film, I have a hard time separating O'Blivion's ideal of the cyborg from the violent actions of Renn's cyborg. I also have a hard time separating the end-point transformation from the means of the signal using a sexual torture program to more effectively implant the tumor. It is hard for me to see a potential positive manifestation of the Videodrome cyborg. I cannot imagine how this particular form of cyborg, with its lack of autonomy and its perverse means of becoming, could be said to be created in the image of God.

However, the film presents many ambiguities with respect to what the possibilities of this cyborg are. Cronenberg's own definition of the tumor as a creative cancer has both positive and very negative connotations. Can one harness this cancer as a Videodrome cyborg to channel its creative "growth"? The film ends with Renn's hallucinations convincing him to commit suicide to fully become the new flesh. A black screen comes abruptly with the gunshot ringing out, leading some interpreters of the film to surmise that whatever comes next for Renn, Cronenberg is implying that we are unable to imagine it yet: "We’re too early in the video revolution to know where that concept will end up."6 In having to leave behind his cyborg body, the new flesh seems to be divorced even further from what we know to constitute the human organism as we imagine God created it. If one were to say that this new flesh, whatever it is, allows for us to be created in the image of God, one would have to have a progressive imagination for accommodating human-perpetuated evolution into a reading of the Genesis 1 text.

Then, also, an extension of the imago dei question is that of the "video word made flesh." Traditionally, the Word made flesh refers to Jesus as Logos of John's Gospel. Through him, the Word/Logos, all things were made in the beginning of creation (John 1:3). Also, the addition of Word made flesh comes into play in the fourteenth verse: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” Jesus as Logos is God becoming flesh in the human person of Jesus. This is a profound affirmation of humanity as being made in the image of God. If the human Jesus can reflect the glory of God then might it also be possible for other humans to reflect God's glory as well? At the very least we know in the Word made flesh that beyond the act of creating creation, God continues to work in and with creation.

What do we make, then, of the film's use of the title "video word made flesh"? The film introduces the idea when O'Blivion's daughter Bianca gives the title to Renn and enlists him to destroy those who have enslaved him. This titling seems to be another reprogramming of Renn, who is at the whim of those who know how to use him. Bianca, representing her late father's interests, wants to exact revenge on her father's murderers by using Renn. Bianca's use of the biblical title gives her a powerful symbolic propaganda by which to redirect Renn's attentions. "Death to Videodrome" is the mission Bianca gives to Renn as a proper vocation for the "video word made flesh." There is some confusion, however, in the mission slogan in that Bianca is not actually having Renn destroy Videodrome, the ideology behind Videodrome or the technological apparatuses by which Videodrome is made or submitted. Rather, Bianca wants Renn to assassinate those misusing Videodrome. Wrapped up in all of this violence and ideology, it is hard to see how this particular word made flesh would reflect God's glory (the Christian God anyway). In fact, one would be hard-pressed to discern a god of Videodrome. Whose glory does Renn mediate? Is O'Blivion the god figure? Is Videodrome itself? Do Bianca (and Cronenberg by extension) misappropriate the title as we understand it?

This word made flesh, imagined in the film, is of course very different from the Biblical symbol. It is hard to compare the Biblical story to the Videodrome mythology, but since Cronenberg appropriates a biblical title, he's asking for some attempt at parallels between the two "words." The titling of Renn's cyborg hails him a savior of sorts. Just as the Word made flesh in the person of Jesus brings the divine Gospel Word to the world, Renn, reprogrammed as the video word made flesh, represents the potentially salvific philosophy of Videodrome's creator, O'Blivion. One can draw parallels between the content of the "words" as well. Both offer a message of death to an old life and the possibility of a new, connected life. They offer connection to a deeper something. And then, both Jesus and Renn embody their messages in their lives. Jesus lives a life that prefigures the Kingdom of God in his subverting of social norms and relationships, welcoming the outsider and challenging the insider. Renn goes to every length to achieve mystical union with the new life, the new flesh, and destroys everything that stands in his way representing his old life, even his own cyborg body. One can only go so far in drawing these parallels. Renn is not much of a savior. Who does he save, other than himself?

Renn does, however, present a model of sorts for spirituality within the Videodrome framework. This spirituality is very much connected to and driven by the becoming of molecular individuals. Philip Hefner also sees spirituality in this way. He says, "Since we are cyborgs, technology is also the place where, like Jacob, we wrestle with the God who comes to engage us."7 Technological restlessness may be key to both spiritualities, but I can't imagine that Hefner's cyborg would look similar to the Videodrome cyborg. The process of becoming is too dependent on violence and oppression to be desirable. There is a sense of perversion, horror, captivity, and loneliness that pervades the becoming so as to isolate the cyborg. It is hard to see how such a becoming would allow the freedom for the human imagination to work. And there is no room in the Videodrome framework for the Christian Gospel to challenge the new life to be other-oriented, communal, and loving. No, Videodrome has its own gospel, and from what I can make out of it from the film, it is a poor substitute.

But this is an obvious point to make. Videodrome is, after all, a horror film and a satire. Perhaps it is more appropriate to ponder which gospel modern society takes as its truth. There are some eerie parallels between reality TV and the online world of Second Life and O'Blivion's statement that "the television screen is the retina of the mind's eye; therefore the television screen is part of the visible structure of the brain; therefore, whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it; therefore, television is reality and reality is less than television." Can the Christian Gospel accommodate this other gospel?

1Hassan Melehy, "Bodies Without Organs: Cyborg Cinema of the 1980s," in Gregg Rickmann, ed. The Science Fiction Film Reader (New York, NY: Limelight Editions, 2004), pp. 332-333. Definitions given in footnote 8.
2Chris Rodley, Cronenberg on Cronenberg (London: Faber and Faber, 1992), p. 80.
3Melehy, p. 327.
4Philip Hefner, Technology and Human Becoming (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), p. 74.
5Ibid., pp. 83-84.
6Travis Mackenzie, "Videodrome: Home Invasion," Reverse Shot, no. 19.
7Hefner, p. 88.

1 comment:

  1. I’m intrigued by how you are exploring the intermingling of technology and human becoming and how that might or might not be a location for divine encounter. You mention reality TV and second life as two places where you see this now. Each of these offers different levels of participation; I wonder how that shapes one’s experience of it.

    In reality TV for the great majority of people, it is a thing to be watched. While some “real” people participate, most people are relegated to watching the edited and sound-tracked final 48min. product. Additionally how should we think about the “reality” of the participant’s situations? Are they real at all? Does the fact that the actors are not given explicit scripts mean that this is real? or Are the situations in which these people are placed so contrived as to negate any reality?

    Second Life seems different. While the interactions one has with another in this space are mediated by the computer and the graphical software environment, what a user experiences of another is not edited by a third party. In second life, it is much harder to be an observer, in many ways one must participate.

    I’m thinking of Mary’s 3 A’s: Agency, Authority, Authenticity. How these three play out seems very different between reality TV and second life. So, how does this shape or change any thinking about how one might encounter God in these spaces?