The Cyborg Dystopia

Emily Rothkopf

The representation of cyborgs in pop culture can be explained as an extension of Sigmund Freud’s theories on human pleasure, as articulated in his 1930 book Civilization and its Discontents.  Freud theorizes that in the absence of understanding one’s purpose in life, option B is simply to live a life in search of happiness.  And that quest for happiness is satisfied by fulfilling man’s basic pleasures, which Freud explains as fulfilling sexual desires and predisposed aggression.  He continues to theorize that one means to pleasure is to remove the limits of man’s motor and sensory functioning.  So for example, “thanks to ships and aircraft, neither water nor air can hinder [man’s] movements; by means of spectacles he corrects defects in the lens of his own eye…” (Freud 1930).  Thus, we see that the pattern and development of technology is part of man’s means to pleasure and happiness.  The cyborg is the highest form of technology enhancing man’s motor and sensory functioning.  However, when the aggressivity factor of Freud’s theory is added to the mix, trouble ensues.  Classic films like Frankenstein and The Terminator expound upon this notion, in dramatic, dystopian fashion.

“Man has … become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times” (Freud 1930).



The protagonist in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is “consumed by the desire to discover the secret of life and, after several years of research, becomes convinced that he has found it”; he embarks on his journey to create “Frankenstein” (SparkNotes 2014).  His creation is deemed a monster and is instantly regretted; Frankenstein acts out in fits of rages and then, as an outcast, needs his sexual desires fulfilled through the creation of a mate, or second “monster.”  As Freud discusses in his pleasure principles theory, civilization imposes great sacrifices on man’s aggressivity; in other words, there are societal norms and accepted rules that govern man’s behavior and limit the output of aggression.  These norms are ingrained in man subconciously over time.  But when a cyborg is created without that social development, a la Frankenstein, the cyborg often acts out its aggressive instincts just as a child throws a tantrum in public.  A cyborg is part man, combined with more powerful technology that enhances its movement or capabilities.  The resulting effect is a powerful creature with unsuppressed aggression.  The cyborg will act out on the uninhibited aggressivity, and in the case of Frankenstein, can unintentionally cause devastation. 

The Terminator II

James Cameron’s The Terminator series represents a more intentional fulfillment of aggressivity, which in essence portrays a revenge of the aggressivity suppression.  In the series, cyborg assassins that outwardly appear as humans are commissioned by the antagonist, Skynet, to exterminate the human race (Wikipedia 2014).  The film pits artificial intelligence against the human race, a clash against good and evil.  AI represents an unsuppressed civilization and the human race represents a civilized population that has adopted societal norms to suppress the aggression.  The film portrays a classic theme of the threat of a more advanced race, both technologically and physically, overtaking the human race.  In the end, the human race is able to outsmart the cyborgs and their uncontrolled agression.

The portrayal of cyborgs in pop culture examines the differences between man and machine.  This is crucial to the study of the posthuman in today’s technologically advanced age.  How do/will technological prostheses change human behavior and culture?  WIll new societal norms be created and/or set aside?  While film often portrays the cyborg in a dramatic dystopian future, real world scenarios and applications may play out resulting in a more subtle dystopia.


Works Cited

“Frankenstein.” SparkNotes. SparkNotes, n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents, 1930.

“Terminator (franchise).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 8 Apr. 2014. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.