Wednesday, April 7, 2010

An Objection

"Our self-transformation into androgynous cyborgs is not a prospect to be celebrated and blessed, for it marks a callous disregard for the embodied particularity that defines us as finite and temporal creatures, created in the image and likeness of God."

- Brent Waters, From Human to Posthuman: Christian Theology and Technology in a Postmodern World (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2006), p.121.

In the above referenced book, Brent Waters is responding to what he sees as a failing of much post-modern theology in regurgitating posthuman discourse in a Christian dialect without offering an attractive, alternative moral vision. The above quote highlights a caution he gives to consideration of human transformations through technology. It would appear that Brent Waters would have some objections (from a theological standpoint) as to the breakdown of gender dualities (and other "particularities") that are definitive of the molecular conception of an individual. Bukatman's terminal identity is also in question here.

I realize that I didn't properly address in the last post the prospect of terminal identity being amenable to a Christian faith. To what theological resources would Waters point to argue against embracing a terminal identity that would lead to the breakdown of embodied particularities (if he were indeed to do so)? I want to know more about what Waters means by embodied particularity in the phrase "the embodied particularity that defines us as finite and temporal creatures, created in the image and likeness of God." Is the embodied particularity of keeping the following dualities intact - male/female, human/non-human, organic/inorganic - necessary for remaining creaturely in the manner intended by the Genesis creation texts?

In two films I've seen recently, Videodrome and The Man Who Fell to Earth offer images of bodies losing gender specificity in a technologized, sci-fi space. In the former, Max Renn develops a massive, vaginal slit in his stomach to receive the Videodrome program's videocassettes. In the latter, the alien Thomas Newton and earthling Mary-Lou are captured in a gender-neutral image that recalls the melding of Alma and Elizabeth in Ingmar Bergman's Persona. In both of these films, these visuals are backed up by other narrative and thematic elements (which I won't get into) that emphasize the androgyny of the male protagonist.

Videodrome - David Cronenberg (1982)

The Man Who Fell to Earth - Nicholas Roeg (1976)

A third film that I will spend a little more time with - Tron - at times paints a similar confusion over gender and sexuality visually but in every other way tries to erase this confusion. Taking place for much of the action in a cyberspace world in which computer programs find representation, it is curious that these programs are anthropomorphized in a distinctly homogeneous manner: "Computer programs are human - in fact, computer programs seem to be white, heterosexual, and chaste."1 Visually, there is the androgyny of the programs in their appearance (common uniforms, the lighting) as you can see below.

Tron - Steven Lisberger (1982)

However, in many other ways, there is an emphasis on the division between male and female (it is no small wonder that the film is a Disney film) and the establishment of the heterosexuality of the main characters. For instance, there is the love triangle that is awkwardly set up between Tron, Yori, and Flynn in the virtual world to parallel that of Alan, Lora, and Flynn in the real world. In no scene is this more apparent than in the scene where Flynn is introduced to Yori (at around 1 hour, 12 minutes in). Flynn recognizes Yori as Lora's corollary in the virtual world and steps towards her to be cut off by Tron, who, playing the protective and domineering boyfriend, is wary of Flynn's approach. The rest of the scene involves a series of dialogue cuts between the Flynn on the right of the space and Yori and Tron on the left. In the film world, the three are still standing right next to each other; yet, the way the scene is shot, the scene explicitly captures and separates the three in their heterosexual roles. Flynn is the charming lone ranger desiring a woman who has been deemed "hands-off" by Tron.

Yori is captured as stereotypically feminine in her submissive lower positioning on the screen in the shots with Tron. In the image below, she looks fawningly at her masculine lover. In addition to Tron playing the possessive boyfriend, Tron is clearly in control in this relationship: he is the one that does the talking in the scene. Thus, there seems to be the distinct attempt to represent these traditional stereotypes of the male/female duality (and traditional male/female roles in a relationship) to overcome any potential element of terminal identity that might be expressed in the virtual representation otherwise.

Returning to the original objection of Waters, I do share his questioning of what it might mean for dualities such as gender to crumble in future human becomings. To the extent that we occupy a terminal identity in engaging with films that feature these gender-neutral human becomings, for a Christian skeptic of such matters, viewing such films could be seen as a dangerous activity. However, and perhaps this is my critique of the idea that engaging terminal narratives comprises a significant factor of human becoming in the direction of terminal identity (my last post), I think it's quite possible to establish a reflective distance from these narratives such that we consider them but don't embody them in such a way that they dictate our becoming.

I do see the benefit for Christians to take a reflective stance on the traditional ontological dualities. When viewing the shattering of these dualities, we ponder the way in which many aspects of these dualities are socially-constructed. For example, male-ness and female-ness are often defined in crude terms by society, such as in Tron, and to laugh at these representations is one step towards freeing ourselves from oppressive societal definitions. Establishing a distance from these gender distinctions, we recognize that we are beloved in God's eyes even if our personalities and bodies don't align with societal expectations about gender. We recognize that others are also beloved and we treat them lovingly.

There is, of course, the matter of God creating us biologically male or female, human, and organic, and perhaps this is more precisely what Waters is concerned about. These particularities could be seen as what God intends for us. It might be undesirable, then, for our bodies to in any way be changed. Certainly, a sex change would be a radical example of this, but a tattoo, or glasses, or a piercing could also be seen as distortions of God's original creation of our bodies as these foreign objects become a part of our bodies in some way. What is the line at which we say that we are sinfully altering God's design for us? Is there a line? If there is a line for us personally, should we hold others to the same standard? Should we condemn films that portray individuals crossing it?

1Scott Bukatman, Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), p.222.


  1. What's the "this matter"? Gender neutral work? or technologized space? I'm not sure what you're wanting to follow up on...

  2. Sorry Mary, I should have put incomplete on the post before publishing it. I hope that my thoughts and questions are now more clear.

  3. Have you seen much or any of the new Battlestar Galactica? That series takes a much different tack on gender. The show has many strong female characters who are leaders characters with agency and authority, several of whom are cylons. These characters stand in stark contrast to the damsel in distress of Tron.

    BSG also takes up this notion of evolution towards a non-gendered super-human technical ideal and ultimately rejects it.

    It is also interesting how in BSG, both humans and cylons depicted as experiencing and doing the will of God. While cylon and human religious traditions view and narrate the divine differently and exclusively, the show portrays a divine action that stands above and both religions. In many cases both contain truth and both are seen as constraining.

    I think your questions regarding particularity and God’s design are interesting questions. And I think it is also interesting to see how different films take up those questions and arrive at different conclusions.

    How would you answer your own questions: What is the line at which we say that we are sinfully altering God's design for us? Is there a line? If there is a line for us personally, should we hold others to the same standard? Should we condemn films that portray individuals crossing it?