by Abby Bisbee
As technology has improved moving into the twenty-first century, the question of our humanity has become even more prevalent. The exponential growth of our technological capabilities has allowed humans to mediate technology as an extension of their bodies. Representations of this combination of the machine and the organic human body, otherwise known as cyborgs, have become increasingly more abundant through the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries. In blockbuster cinema the cyborg has captured the minds of the western audience, perhaps due to a subconscious recognition that our culture appears to be entering a post-human world (Hayles). This is partially because of a recognition that the machine is becoming so advanced that soon it may surpass the abilities of its human creator.
While considering the presence of cyborgs in contemporary cinema, I found it interesting that both the representations of machines and technologically enhanced organic organisms stress their superiority in every factor to human beings, but most cyborg representations but it is their human characteristics that the viewer to which the viewer connects. This plays into an inferiority complex perhaps of the human mind, concerned that we may be left behind our post-human counterparts. This is present in both James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) and Bicentenial Man (1999) staring Robin Williams.
In Bicentential Man, Robin Williams plays a robot who has human characteristics such as emotions. Recognizing his own potential beyond his mechanically programed skill, he sets off on an adventure to become as human as he possibly can. This movie was released in year before Y2K, a year that carried many anxieties both about the loss of our technological gains as well as a fear of our technology overpowering our human existence. As a family movie, Bicentenial Man reinforces that technology is still our friend and that humanity is still superior to technology. The character of Robin Williams, however, does propose that a combination of machine and human, or a cyborg, can be better than a robot or a human individually.
The second film I wish to discuss, Avatar, is film about a bounty of anxieties that confront the human race in the twenty-first century. Some of these basic anxieties include those of first world domination (and the resulting 3rd world destruction), the loss of ethically sound morals in a capitalist-driven world, bigotry, and, of course, environmental issues such as global warming. One of the greatest anxieties captured in Cameron’s film, however, has to do with the inferiority of the human race in relation to the physically superior Na’vi. The only way that the humans can out perform the native Na’vi is by engineering a technology that transfers the soul/mind of a human into a genetically enhanced and engineered organism, in this case a body of the Na’vi. Living in the body of another organism, or an Avatar, Jake Sully is able to destroy the technology and machinery that is run by mankind on Pandora. While the technology the human military is using is powerful and destructive, the Na’vi’s superior physical stature, adaptation to the world of Pandora, and almost magical connection with the environment around them allows them to conquer the humans. In the end, Jake Sully chooses his avatar form to his human one, a decision that reinforces the concept of post-humanism. It was only through the combination of machine and man, however, that his character was able to make the decision to completely hand himself over to the Na’vi race. One of the most prevalent issues that were discussed in this weeks readings, particularly in the work of Foucault, is that of sex and sexuality. The Na’vi exude this sexuality, they are desirable because of incredible physique, part human, part animal. They do not deny their sexuality and have no inhibitions that have been socially constructed by human experience (Foucault).
In both of these films cyborgs play an elemental role not only to the plot, but to the underlying themes that the movie is addressing. Both Robin’s character and Jake Sully’s avatar are cyborgs – the former shifting from the pure machine towards humanity and the latter shifting from humanity towards an technologically enhanced organism. This is particularly noticeable if one compares the two posters from earlier in this piece. Despite their different directions, both end up in the realm of cyborgs, as defined in Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” –
“A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.”
Trailer for Bicentennial Man: Bicentennial Man (1999)
Trailer for Avatar: Avatar (2009)
Avatar. Dir. James Cameron. Perf. Sam Worthington. Twentieth Century Fox, 2009. DVD.
Bicentennial Man. Dir. Chris Columbus. Perf. Robin Williams, Embeth Davidtz, Sam Neill, Oliver Platt. Columbia Tristar, 1999. DVD.
Foucault, Michel. The history of sexuality. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978. Print.
Hayles, Katherine. How we became posthuman. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Print.
Haraway, Donna Jeanne. Simians, cyborgs, and women. New York: Routledge, 1991. Print.