Estefanía Tocado Orviz
Monsters, as hybrid and mixed identities of the self, have long generated ambiguity and anxieties in their social context (Irvine). Generally, monstrosity over the centuries has been utilized as an instrument to dismantle authoritative discourses of political, sexual, and social nature. Andrew Smith, who studies ghosts stories and the role of monstrosity in 19th century American and British literature, affirms in his book Gothic Literature that there was an important change in the treatment of monsters and ghosts within the field of gothic writing around 1790-1890. Up to that point monsters had been represented as externally manifested sources of danger, but with the appearance of Frankenstein a new monster had emerged, one in which “the monster lived in you,” installing the evil in the human body. This miscreation, now an integral part of the self, also invaded private spaces such as the home as well as other sacred spaces that the individual, to that moment, had thought to be safe (Smith).
Similarly, in the 21st Century cyborgs, half human and half technological machines have been the focal point where human concerns about the fear of technological agency and sexual representation have been portrayed. According to Donna Haraway a cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. Social reality is lived social relations, our most important political construction a world-changing fiction (117). As Haraway states, cyborgs are social as well as fictional entities and, therefore, they condense the image of both the imagination and the material reality (118). Moreover, cyborgs, in the same way that monsters did in the 19th century, are the reflection of material and ontological cultural anxieties of their time.
The purpose of my essay is to analyze how technological hybridization incarnated in cyborgs projects the social anxieties and repressed sexual desires through their culturally hybridized representation of the postmodern society. These anxieties are, in the most part, a sign of the cultural, political, and social traumas as well as sexual fantasies of their historical period. I would specifically like to use three films as case studies: Cronos (1993) that deals with issues of vampirism and cyborgs in contemporary Mexico, Matrix (1999) by Andy and Larry Wachowski which makes us question reality, hyperreality, simulacra, and simulation of human life in a world where machines have taken over human beings at the turn of the millennium, and Avatar (2009) by James Cameron which immerses the audience into the virtual world of the Na’Vi culture, a non-technological world that has been threatened by the arrival of a highly machine based human world.
Sigmund Freud asserts in his essay “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” that the resistance of the conscious and the unconscious ego operates under the sway of the pleasure principle: it seeks to avoid the unpleasure which would be produced by the liberation of the repressed (172). Therefore, according to Freud, the patient cannot remember the whole of what is repressed in him and that forces him to repeat the repressed material as a contemporary experience instead of remembering it as something belonging to the past. These reproductions, which emerge with such unwished for exactitude, always have as their subject some portion of infantile sexual desire (171). This need to repeat and experience one more time a traumatic event of the past is known as “the return of the repressed” and, in many cases, ghosts, monsters, and cyborgs have been an incarnation of the unconscious projections of societies hidden fears as well as repressed sexual desires.
As Freud also asserts in his book Civilization and Discontent, society has forced the individual to repress their sexual libido in order to enter into civilized society, but those hidden primitive sexual impulses come to light through our unconscious (Felluga). As Freud asserts “we believe that civilization is to a large extent being constantly created anew, since each individual who makes a fresh entry into human society repeats this sacrifice of instinctual satisfaction for the benefit of the whole community” (qtd. in Felluga). Therefore, the unconscious finds a way out to these repressed impulses through dreams, literature, and fantasy… (Felluga). It is precisely through fantasy and the literary and media world that society has channeled these desires towards vampires, monsters, and cyborgs as instruments to deal with these socially repressed sexual impulses and as a platform to collectively project all these fantasized libidinal desires, in many cases turning them into fetishes.
Cronos: The Vampirised Cyborg,Transnationality, and Hybrid Cultures
This film introduces the audience to the Cronos device through a short story of the alchemist who created the machine. In 1536, Uberto Fulcanelli was fleeing from the Inquisition and arrived in Verazcruz, Mexico. After his arrival and with the help of the Viceroy, he was granted the opportunity to invent a device that will provide immortality to its owner. Uberto hid the device inside the statue of an angel. In 1937, 400 years later, Uberto reappears as a dead vampire under the vault of a building that collapsed. His belongings were sold in a public auction and ended up in the hands of Jesús Gris, the protagonist. As an allegory of the future of the main character, the film uses the metafictive biographical story of Fulcanelli as a way to advise the audience about the dangers of the Cronos device (shaped as an insect with several sharp metal shavings that look like bee stings, these penetrate the skin in search of blood) in his quest for immortality.
As soon as Jesús Gris is bitten by Cronos, he starts experiencing all of the symptoms related to vampirism: the first after he was penetrated by the device, he ate raw meat from his refrigerator in the middle of the night after he had inserted the device into his chest becoming a cyborg. That night, paradoxically, occurs during Christmas time as a metaphor of the new postmodern messiah, introducing an embedded Christian component to the movie´s storyline. Progressively, as he starts transforming himself into a vampire, he suffers from light disruption and other common symptoms associated with vampires. However, it is interesting to point out that he looks younger, more sexually virile, and his physical appearance improves. Despite his efforts to repress his need for human blood, he succumbs to his desires.
As Geoffrey Kantaris asserts: “Vampires and cyborgs are the prototype of the modernist and postmodernist use of these figures encoding multiple fears about hybridization, racial-cum-sexual pollution, the corruption of the virginal ‘nature,’ and the transfusion of body into simulacrum – the latter being one of the reasons why the vampire has had such cinematic resonance” (Kantaris 2). As vampires and cyborgs incarnate the projection of hidden fears of hybridization and repressed sexuality, it is interesting to note that in the film the character of Jesús Gris, after being bitten by the Cronos device, becomes a cyborg immediately, later on a vampire, and finally a zombie. Jesús Gris represents the cultural fear of the loss of masculinity and sexual virility. As he becomes addicted to the Cronos device, he feels younger and more sexually satisfying to his wife. Ironically, his counterpart character, Dieter de la Guardia, an old sick man who lives thanks to a highly technologized room with a number of machines that keep him alive, whose obsession for acquiring the device is to gain immortality and, therefore, to turn into a vampire, underlines the current cultural concerns with the use of cyborgs in the medical field. Moreover, as a vampire he would bite his victims to suck their blood as a metaphor of sexual intercourse as Jesús does and, in this case, neither Jesús nor Dieter would make any distinction of gender regarding their potential victims, pointing out issues of homosexuality or bisexuality.
As incarnated by Jesús Gris, a fallen messiah, issues of religion, hidden sexuality, and life extension (immortality) are portrayed in the film as some of the main collective anxieties of postmodern society. These could also be related to a transnational apprehension of our current society with issues of time, gender as a social construction, fears of technology agency, and territoriality of urban space[i]. In reference to this last issue, the fact that the film setting is in Mexico City has been argued as being presented as a globalized technological society as well as a hybridized city. It could be claimed that this is presented to the audience through a constant code switching between Spanish and English, cross-cultural references to Argentinian culture through Tango dancing and the main actor´s nationality, Federico Luppi (who has a noticeable Buenos Aires accent), streets signs in Russian, and the vampire machine brought from the Old World to the New World by an Italian alchemist (The Ghost Smith 2). This plays as an uncanny allegory of the highly hybridized Mexican culture, as Paul Julian asserts, as well as the close ties between the Latin American world, particularly Mexico, and the United States, as can be seen in the mixture of American and Latin American actors that integrate the main cast, providing in this way a transcultural and transnational background to the movie.[ii]
Matrix: The Hyperreal Aestheticized Cyborg
The main character of the movie, Neo (the newcomer and messianic character), is rescued from his cyborg[iii] enslaved life as a human electric power generator for the machine ruled world by Morpheus´ team including the woman Trinity (her name is undeniably embedded with Christian connotation). As a result we learn that there are two worlds: the so called “real” world, and the “virtual” world in which humans were defeated and enslaved by intelligent machines. The humans are enslaved to provide electric power with their own bodies to sustain the cybernetic world[iv]. As the film progresses, Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus (the mythological Greek god of dreams) live in the real world but access the virtual world[v], called “The Matrix,”[vi] in which they fight against Agent Smith and a number of other machines who are trying to prevent them from succeeding in their insurgence. Morpheus’ team takes Neo to the Oracle to find out if he is the chosen One to lead the insurrection, but the Oracle advises him that he is not the One. At the end of the film when Neo dies in the virtual world and therefore the real world, Trinity kisses him in the real world and grants him new life in both worlds[vii]. The number of literary, philosophical, and media references are numerous, but it is worth citing some such as Alice in Wonderland[viii], Dorothy of The Wizard of Oz, the Old Testament (Nebuchadnezzar), Nietzsche’s ideas on nihilism, and Jean Baudrillard´s Simulation and Simulacra. Drawing on this last reference, the idea of living in a simulated reality serves as a utopian projection (the same way it functions in Avatar) as a parallel platform in which to forecast the cultural anxieties of controlling technological devices, the virtual “internet-based” world, and how to regulate it from the “reality world.” According to Baudrillard: “The real is produced from miniaturized cells, matrices, and memory banks, models of control – and it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times from these. It no longer needs to be rational because it no longer measures itself against either an ideal or negative instance. It is no longer anything but operational. In fact, it is no longer really the real, because no imaginary envelops it anymore. It is the hyperreal, produced from the radiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere” (2). If reality does not exist, as the Matrix tells us, and it can be produced and reproduced an infinite number of times, the phenomenological questions of what is reality and how human senses perceive them comes into debate. As an ongoing debate for the last centuries[ix], the Matrix, and the figure of a cybernetic figure like Neo, promotes this idea of a cyborg who easily traverses all these levels of reality and is aware that he has been freed from his life under the machines’ rule. His constant entries into and exits from these analogous worlds causes him and the audience simultaneous uncanny moments in which the familiar becomes unfamiliar and vice versa. It is also remarkable that the figure of Neo is a highly aestheticized, attractive, good looking, and futuristically dressed in leather cyborg (incarnated by half English half Chinese-Hawaiian Keanu Reeves).
The fetishistic sadomasochistic leather attire brings to light other culturally significant concerns as a global collectivity. When looking at Freud´s theories about the repression of the libidinal sexual desires, he affirms that individuals that have not successfully passed the oral-phase in surpassing their previous “love-objects” or “objects-cathexes” become fixated with these libido objects or are driven to abnormal reaction-formations or substitute-formations. One of the possibilities to those that remain fixated on earlier libido objects is perversion in which the individual pursues repressed desires and follows his alternative sexual practices such as the sodomists or the sado-masochists (Felluga). In a more general context it could be argued that the aesthetization of Neo as a sexy cyborg with a sadomasochist hint alludes to the actual repressed sexual desires that have culturally been repressed when entering civilized society. However, all these non-normative and socially unacceptable practices are redirected to a cybernetic character such as Neo, converting it into an approved and attractive fetishistic sexual object that calls to all these unconscious inhibited desires in a traditionally and communally adequate manner.
In regards to this matter, the character of Trinity as well as Neo´s is close to presenting a quite androgynous appearance. The blurring boundaries of the culturally constructed image of the masculine and the feminine are deconstructed in these two characters. Trinity plays a dominant role in their love relationship which is normally attributed to the man, and Neo is more passive which is traditionally related to the woman according to Hélène Cixous (579). Nevertheless, this image, from my perspective, corresponds to the dismantling of culturally constructed roles attributed to men and women as argued by Butler. This is a reflection of the current cultural and social redefinition of the lack of correlation between sex and gender as Butler affirms, but also with the postmodern need to escape fixed identities. As Frederic Jameson defends, in postmodern society the individual lives in a “perpetual present” that is clearly a sign of the ongoing frenetic changes of our current society and the need to dismantle traditional concepts of temporality and gender (29).
Avatar: Cyborgs as an Extra-Terrestrial Aboriginal Hybrid Species
This film starts in 2154 with the arrival of a unit of men who are going to the planet Pandora. The purpose of their trip is to obtain some of the natural resource of this planet. However, in order to do so they had to create an individual avatar (a hybrid species produced with human DNA and indigenous Na´Vi DNA) that would allow them to breath and work in that biosphere (Wikipedia). As the film progresses, the protagonist Jake Sully (who is in a wheelchair and was only asked to participate after his brother Tommy was killed) realizes about the destruction and exploitation that Colonel Quiaritch[x] and the human beings have caused, and allies himself with the Na´Vi after meeting his later partner Neytiri. As it is a widely well-known plot, Jake fights against the human troops to preserve the Na´Vi culture and land, an indigenous people who live very attached to their mother land and whose deity Eywa is also a mother figure. Clearly, the polarization of the masculinity and femininity is reinforced in the figure of Captain Quaritch, a military white man and his highly technological men in opposition to the feminine, natural, blue-raced, and non technological world of the Na´Vi, represented in the figure of Eywa, the goddess of the mother land.
Therefore, one of the main issues of the film arises since the very beginning, where the repressed femininity and the imposition of a very masculine society remind us of the duality created by the colonizer and the colonized. Moreover, it also reminds us of Butler’s affirmations about how gender is a social construction and how these feminine and masculine attributes are also a product of a cultural and discursive normativity (11). It is also interesting to regard the fact that the avatars are, despite their reptilian tail, a highly-sexualized and beautifully sculptured half naked bodies that project present anxieties with physical appearance, the body, and also the culturally constructed perception of the canon of physical and sexually attractive bodies.
A second major anxiety related to gender issues and repressed sexuality is that of imperialism. In the majority of cases when looking at Western history and the field of post-colonial studies, the invader has always been associated with male attributes and the indigenous people to female features. As Steve Norton affirms, Avatar´s latent desire is the possession of an archaic feminine-primitive, which is constructed upon an Oedipal drama: a controlling father, Colonel Quaritch, the insubordinate son, Jake, and the feminine object of desire, Neytiri (133). This symbolic triangle points out the underlying issues of authoritative discourses that have to be dismantled by promoting a rebellion of the indigenous people and with the new leader, Jake.
There are also other remarkable current cultural angsts that are latent in this film besides that of imperialism and gender construction. There are clear references to racism and the vision of the primitive as infantile and the civilized as mature (Norton 134). Commonly, indigenous tribes have been associated with Native Americans in the United States context, manifesting old racial tensions. All of these issues are introduced thanks to the projection of a utopian and idealized environment of the Na´Vi where all these concerns are disguised in a fictitious world where unresolved anxieties are set free from the normative diegetic reality of the film. There are also issues of territoriality and space, reinforced with the idea of a highly technological society that has used machinery for non-moral purposes, being the epitome of human moral degradation. Comparisons can be drawn between the invasions of Pandora for natural resources and the pillaging of American Indians enclosed reservations as well as the deforestation and expulsion of indigenous people by multinational companies in the Brazilian Amazon forest.
In opposition to the negative vision of the type of cyborg that Colonel Quaritch incarnates, the film promotes a positive vision of another type of cyborg, one that is created as a hybrid entity, half human and half Na´Vi, that uses technology for morally acceptable scientific purposes. The avatars, like Jake, are connected through a computer in order to access their avatar Na´Vi self. Hybrid identities represent the declining label of national identity in the postmodern world. According to Stuart Hall, a possible consequence of the globalization of cultural identities is the rise of new identities of hybridity that are taking place and which are diminishing the idea of national identities as we understood until recently (619). In reference to Hall, it is also relevant that there is dissolution of the self or a loss of the stable self, called dislocation or de-centering of the subject, incarnated in the figure of Jake who is able to fully integrate into the indigenous environment creating a new self (597). When the film ends, Jake, now a member of the Na´Vi community, asserts the globalized foundations of our present society and, at the same time, reminds us of the hybrid grounds of all nations.
As seen in these three films, the cyborg represents in a number of different ways in which social anxieties of diverse natures are articulated under the half machine and half human body of the cyborg. The similarities drawn between cyborgs and vampires are clearly stated in Cronos, and allegorically also in Matrix as well as the idea of their protagonists being fallen messiahs. Both films share also the idea of the cybernetic seed as incarnated by a mechanized insect, maybe as an undergoing cultural phobia against these species. Also cyborgs, seen as alien creatures connected to their indigenous origins and to their motherland, recapture the idea of an illusory world in which the mistakes committed by capitalist society and its relationship to natural resources and ecology are questioned. As a way to come to terms with our mistakes, Western society has created these mechanisms by which we identify and rework haunting ghosts that keep culturally stalking us, projecting them into cyborgs. The fears of technological agency and robotic intelligence in the contemporary world underline the repressed sexual libidinal desires articulated in the hybridization of human species and robots, and at the same time questions, as it happened in 19th century gothic literature, how to control this integral part of the self that cyborgs represent in our current society.
Avatar. Dir. Jame Cameron. Perf. Sam Worhtington, Zoë Saldana, Steve Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, and Sigourney Weaver. Twentieth Century Fox, 2009.
Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of Simulacra.” Cultural Hybridity, Dialogic and Remix Culture, Art, Music, Photography, Film, Technology. Georgetown U. 2005-2013. Web. 13 December 2013.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York-London: Routledge Classics, 2006.
Cixous, Hélène. “Sorties.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, Massachussets-Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1998. 578-584.
Cronos. Dir. Guillermo del Toro. Perf. Federico Luppi, Ron Perlman, Claudio Brook, Margarita Isabel, and Tamara Shanath. Producciones Iguana and Ventana Films, 1993.
Felluga, Dino. Introduction to Sigmund Freud: Modules on the Unconscious. Purdue U. 2002. Web. 12 December 2013.
Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and its Discontents. New York-London: Norton, 2010.
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—. “The Uncanny.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, Massachussets-Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1998. 154-167.
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Matrix. Dir. The Wachowski Brothers. Perf. Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Wealing, and Joe Pantoliano. Warner Brothers, 1999.
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[i]Néstor García Canclini focuses on the local-global dialectic where Mexico City is a paradigm of the Latin American urbanized and globalized mega city. In a mega city local communities can only exist in fragmented isolation from an unknowable, unnarratable, unmappable whole (qtd. in Kantaris 2).
[ii] Kantaris uses the term “linguistic hybridization” when referring to the constant code switching from English to Spanish and vice versa (14).
[iii] As seen in Cronos, an insect like machine is inserted in the human body to create a cyborg.
[iv] The cyborgs are the new vampires, they drink the power of humans. In Cronos, an earlier version of the cyborg is presented in the character of Jesús Gris, one who still drinks human blood.
[v] The telephone serves as a means to communicate between the two worlds.
[vi] Interestingly, the term “matrix” is similar to the Spanish word “matriz” that means “womb.” It can be argued that machines make humans a power source womb-like generator. Humans are stored in a womb like facility and are the energy providers that allow the cyborgs to live. They function as a womb to the matrix world.
[vii] There is direct intertextual / intermedial reference in this scene to the fairy tale “The Sleeping Beauty.” However, in this case the gender roles are changed, Trinity kisses Neo, dismantling in this way the traditional cultural expectations about gender performance.
[viii] The white rabbit that Alice follows to Wonderland is referenced when Morpheus types on Neo´s screen to “Follow the White Rabbit.” This is a clue that Neo sees on the arm of a girl at his door. He follows the girl to a club where he first meets Trinity.
[ix] The idea of life as a dream related to skepticism and determinism versus free will is a constant concern in 17th century Spanish Golden Age literature, especially in the author Calderón de la Barca and his theatrical play: Life is a Dream (1635).
[x] Colonel Quaritch cyborg is a gigantic robot that he controls and uses to fight the Na’Vi.