The Title

by David Caldwell

Author Title Summary
Kevin Telfer Blade Runner Does the unsettling of boundaries between real and simulated memories through androids and cyborgs in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Blade Runner and Robocop reveal wider anxieties and hopes of the postmodern consciousness?
Copyright 2001 Kevin Telfer

Blade Runner

Murphy, the Detroit cop in Robocop who is killed by criminals then reconstructed to become the ultimate cyborg crimefighter, has his memories erased in order to serve the purposes of the ruthless OCP company. The Rosen Corporation in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Tyrell in Blade Runner) also subordinate a body, that of Rachel, but it is one entirely of their own making and instead of erasing memory they implant memories.What is at stake in both these scenarios, in a very raw sense, is the construction of identities and the forces that are at play in these constructions. The manufacturers of androids and the builders of Robocop are both manipulative of new technologies to construct identities that are compatible with their capitalist (profit-making) ends. However, there are commentators who see very positive possibilities in these technologies. Mark Poster has argued that what we are seeing in the era of postmodern culture is an "emerging new individual identity or subject position" commensurate in its difference from the previous humanist conception of the subject as that concept was in its self different from the previous feudal notions of the individual. This is not an analysis that is contingent upon assumptions about the viability of artificial life forms such as the Robocop cyborg or the androids in Electric Sheep and Blade Runner but one which takes the human subject as its theme. Poster's argument, based predominantly upon the effects of enormous proliferation of communications systems and mass-media, and the ways in which these compel humans to interact with one another and the new technologies at their disposal, can lead to more extreme arguments such as Harraway's. In her famous and oft-quoted cyborg manifesto, Harraway says that in "our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorised and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs." The extent to which our lives are lived through technology presently have already rendered us "hybrids" in other words. As the title "manifesto" suggests this theoretical viewpoint is an attempt to manufacture a radical politics through the opportunities that fundamentally new subject positions might allow, casting aside the 'metaphysical baggage' of the Enlightenment entirely. The purpose of this essay, through the central locus of memory, is to expose to what extent representations of 'artificial intelligence' enable us to form a positive vision of a postmodern consciousness that is so contingent upon technologies constitutive of selfhood.

In Electric Sheep, Philip K. Dick portrays a future society in which real and artificial life are placed in constant opposition against one another predominantly, though bizarrely, through the concept of owning pets. It is Deckard's great dream to own a real sheep instead of the artificial one he has grazing on the roof-garden of his apartment. Being a communal garden, other residents of the same apartment block also have various pets living there and it is clear that there is no behavioural distinctions that can be made between the real and the artificial:

Of course, some of their animals undoubtedly consisted of electronic circuitry fakes, too; he had of course never nosed into the matter, any more than they, his neighbours, had pried into the real workings of his sheep.

Despite the lack of behavioural differences then, there is genuine kudos attached to the ownership of a real animal as opposed to an artificial one. The technology is so advanced in this society that the artificial animal hospital van driver John Isidore is amazed by the sophistication of the disease circuits that he thinks are programmed into an artificial cat (by mimicking 'defects' we realise that verisimilitude is more important than bionic perfection). That this cat turns out to be genuine is revealing in the sense that distinguishing the difference between real and artificial life is evidently an extremely problematic venture, something which becomes even more evident when we move into the domain of testing to find out whether a human-like creature is an android (Andy) or not. The indistinguishability of humans from Andys or Replicants in Blade Runner is such that Samantha Holland has argued that "the only way in which their 'inhumanity' can be detected is by revealing their lack of a (genuine) childhood (and the genuine memories that go along with it)." For Holland, this means that "they are, effectively, human beings", an observation which in many respects is deliberately highlighted in Blade Runner where indecipherability of clear boundaries is key to a complex vision of postmodern subjectivity. The first scene of the film is witness to the Voight-Kampff test, a test which asks a series of questions designed to elicit an emotional response from a human subject (an amusing quirk of the novel is that these questions are almost all about animals that, because of their scarcity, should elicit a particularly strong emotional response). The interviewee, Leon, stands up when he is asked about his mother, and says: "Let me tell you about my mother", shooting the blade runner who is interviewing him. The nihilistic conclusion of the scene - killing being the final comment upon Leon's childhood - is a striking metaphor for the lack of a mother and, to echo Holland, "(genuine) childhood memories". It is this first scene according to Alison Landsberg, that posits memory as "the locus of humanity" in the film, emphasising the barren space of a consciousness without real memory.

That memory is constitutive of some essential notion of humankind though is left in some doubt in Blade Runner, whereas in Robocop it is memory that enables Murphy to be a hero as opposed to merely being a victor. The fight against evil in the form of corruption in OCP, is as much a fight for Murphy to regain a notion of his subjecthood before he became the Robocop. As he kills the main perpetrator of the crime within OCP and sends him tumbling to his death from the window of the boardroom the Chief Executive says: "Nice shooting, son. What's your name?" Robocop, with a triumphant smile, replies "Murphy" signifying not only the fact that he is aware of their being someone called Murphy from whom he was built, but that he is Murphy. In effect, he triumphs in that most nostalgic way, he has remembered what it is that makes him human (in essence). It is this remembering that enables him to overcome all the programming that has attempted to construct his identity as something distinct from his human identity.

Many commentators have noted how Dick's naming of the central character in Electric Sheep, Deckard, is significant due to the fact that it is a homophonic of 'Descartes,' the rationalist philosopher whose Discourse on Method and Meditations are seen as cornerstones of the philosophical project of constructing the rational, autonomous subject of the Enlightenment. Descartes is often looked to when explanations of human consciousness are required - cogito ergo sum being seen as some transcendent guarantor of autonomous thought. A well known modern philosophical argument contesting the truth claim of this sentence is that of the brain-in-the-vat argument (BIV). BIV postulates that there is a 'super-scientist' conducting an experiment in which he places a brain in a vat so as to preserve it. Whilst in the vat, he feeds this brain a series of electronic impulses that simulate the workings of consciousness in all of its sensuous fullness, its understanding of a material reality and other beings with which it interacts. At any moment, the scientist is capable of pulling the brain from the vat though or stopping the electrical impulses going into it: in no way is there autonomous thought. Hans Moravec, in Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence, makes a similar point when he says:

A simulated Descartes correctly deduces his own existence. It makes no difference just who or what is doing the simulation - the simulated world is complete in itself.

This reworking of Descartes is philosophically entirely plausible and to a large extent is exactly the same scenario as the one in which Rachel in Blade Runner is placed in. She has justified belief in the truth of her own autonomous existence as there are no observable signs that she is different in any fundamental respect from real humans. She has a personal history that includes memories of her mother and of piano lessons. The truth of course is that she has never had piano lessons as such but instead has been programmed to be able to play the piano, with the memory of being given lessons a prosthetic implant. In order to prove to Deckard that she is human she shows him photographs of her mother, a gesture which proves nothing whatsoever except that memory is being contextualised as exterior from the self and that verification is sought through material criteria. That photographs can be challenged as representing any sort of conclusive evidence for truth claims through an equivalence with reality is hardly a new idea yet the storage of photographs as a kind of external memory bank has become a commonplace phenomena in western society. It is also the case that Rachel does not use the photographs as an act of deceit because they correspond with the memories that have been implanted in her. Consequently, the fact that her models of verification are ultimately 'un-testable' in the environment in which she exists, serves to sustain her belief of subjective human autonomy. Landsberg argues that:

We might say that while the photograph has no relationship to reality, it helps her to produce her own narrative. While it fails to authenticate her past, it does authenticate her present.

The significant point of course that Landsberg does not quite make is that her past is only not authenticated because there is no imposition of external criteria - an omniscient viewer. She is unable through her own 'testing' of reality, to overcome her programmed memory and see that she is in fact a replicant.

A number of critics have argued that Blade Runner is symptomatic of the "spatiality of postmodernism: a decentered ahistorical pastiche" and that the lack of real memories in the replicants emphasises the ahistoricity of the film in general. It is not only the individual replicant psyche that is saturated with simulations of reality, but the entire society in which they are situated. In part, this is underscored through the visual aesthetic of the film that has a vast mingling of cultures, that is a mediation of 1940's film noir through cyberpunk science fiction. There is an uncoordinated heterogeneic mixture of styles and historical periods in the movie that indicate a death of historical referent and a movement into the arena of simulation, a short-circuit of reality. The postmodern landscape of Jean Baudrillard seems to be a particularly fitting model for Blade Runner, a film which:

exaggerates the presence of the mass-media, evoking sensations of unreality and pervasive spectacle: advertising 'blimps' cruise above the buildings...and gigantic vid screens dominate the landscape.

Baudrillard is constantly seeking to challenge epistemic assumptions in postmodern society, arguing that we are saturated in repetitive, circular forms of representation that through their guise of reality, constitute a new zone of the real - the hyperreal. It is clear that Rachel is in some senses a personification of this simulation due to the fact that her consciousness is constituted from simulations, but equally the technologies of mass media impact simulatory notions of the real upon genuine humans in capitalism's relentless drive for profit. In many ways, this is a conclusion similar to Harraway's - that the distinction between cyborg and human is not to be based upon ideas of embodiment of technological and biological hybridity but rather through the notion of an interaction with technology that leads consciousness into strategies contingent upon it.

Baudrillard may certainly be accused of wrongly positing an essentialist reality which communications and mass media technologies have subverted, destroying a referent that never actually existed due to the fact that reality has always been mediated through discursive strategy. There is a distinction to be made though between the utopian model of equivalence of sign with the real that has operated as the key epistemological premiss in modernity, and the advent of postmodern technologies in which referentiality is mediated in infinitesimally more complex ways, a mediation which doggedly refuses metaphysical evaluation. Baudrillard's vision of the hyperreal is a fairly bleak one in contrast to Harraway's model of human and technological hybridity - rather than forming a radical new politics, it enables the most totalizing kind of regime yet known to mankind. In Blade Runner though we can see some evidence of Harraway's model of cyborg politics being in some ways a viable one.

For Harraway the cyborg is important partly because it is not natural and recourse to arguments about inherent biological/genetic traits can not be used to narrowly classify the cyborg - it opens up new spaces of identity to be explored. If we treat the cyborg as a new organism then we can consign 'man' to the status of a relic, something that Moravec sees as being the inevitable conclusion of advances in artificial intelligence:

Very little need be lost in the passing of the torch - it will be in our artificial offspring's power, and to their benefit, to remember everything about us, even, perhaps, the detailed working of individual human minds.

Though Moravec is addressing intelligence in purely technological terms, his ideas can be seen as analogous with the adoption of new identities in cyborg theory. Against the universalising instinct of so much thought, it is difficult to grasp the possibilities of transcending an essentially humanist conception of identity, though Michel Foucault invites us to consider deeply what a fundamentally constructed notion of humankind modernity has sustained:

man is only a recent invention, a figure not yet two centuries old, a new wrinkle in our knowledge; he will disappear again as soon as that knowledge has discovered a new form.

The replicant Roy Batty in Blade Runner is perhaps the most sympathetically portrayed character in the film - certainly more so than in Dick's novel where despite his obvious intelligence he is seen as brutal, sneering and, as Dick himself has notably commented, "less than human." It is through Roy that we can perhaps see the possibilities of radically new subjectivities. Despite his evident strength and Ayran features, Roy is a character capable of every emotion who is hungry for life and cannot cram enough experience into his life-span of four years. He is both poetic and ruthless, "straight" and camp ("'ve got a lot of great toys here" he says at one point) but most strongly exhibits a strong sense of performativity. There is no fixed character to Roy as he, unlike Rachel, relishes his status as a being without memory and metaphysical baggage for whom the universe is a huge poetic landscape. His actions resonate with Harraway's words on the cyborg.

The cyborg is resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian and completely without innocence.

Roy certainly demonstrates the way in which cyborg identity can be consciously constructed. However, it seems an inescapable conclusion that Roy is weighed down by concepts of subjecthood that have both been programmed into him and which he has learnt from humans. He is in essence a romantic, aspiring to achieve heights of the humanist sublime, exemplified by his last words when he recounts the experiences that he has had: "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe, attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion, c-beams glimmering near the Tannhauser gate..." Roy can consequently seem like a character who bereft of memories, and aware of his lack of connectivity, seeks solace in trying to beat humankind at its own humanist game - and in doing so becomes an exemplar of modern human identity.

Just as Derrida has often said that his thinking is inevitably tinged with metaphysics no matter what strategies of resistance he might employ to expel it, so we might posit that it is impossible to try and represent 'new identities' distinct from the paradigms of modernity. In many ways, we are operating in the arena of the speculative because representations are so inescapably mired in the models of thought from which we are trying to escape. Harraway's manifesto seems to run up against these boundaries and deploys strategies for a radical politics that is ostensibly anti-foundationalist but which forms a vocabulary precisely out of the very ideological forces that it is trying ot rebel against. Derrida has written specifically about the "cybernetic programme":

If the theory of cybernetics is by itself to oust all metaphysical concepts - including the concepts of soul, of life, of value, of choice, of memory - which until recently served to separate machine from man, it must conserve the notion of writing...until its own historico-metaphysical character is also exposed.

To imagine a complete rebellion is evidently a naive project in Derrida's terms. The obliteration of all those constitutive aspects of the essentialist human has its own metaphysical agenda which is not capable in a single stroke of upstaging existing ontological narratives.

In the director's cut of Blade Runner, Scott focuses on the possibility that Deckard is himself a replicant, an approach that has resulted in much debate. Dick never poses the same ambiguity in the novel but does suggest that Deckard is equally as incapable of empathy as the androids. In both instances the distinctions between Deckard and the beings that he is "retiring" are ambivalent in the upmost which is to say that the human animal is losing the criteria for separating itself from the artificial. This separation can not be complete as it must retain, as Derrida says, aspects of dominant ontological narrative. However, in marking the ambivalence, Blade Runner and its pre-text Electric Sheep offer a direct confrontation with the project of postmodern consciousness in the age of technology and mass communications.

This ambivalence is not one that Robocop maintains and is why Blade Runner remains a much richer source of exegesis for examinations of postmodern consciousness in confrontation with technology. However, it is a film that is complimentary in an understanding of the type of problematic that Blade Runner confronts us with. Rather than offering an escape from metaphysics, Robocop emphasises the importance of the human over and above that of the technological which is reductive and limiting. The story, though rather firmly with tongue in cheek, offers charicature and stereotypes (the tiring Chief Executive, the ambitious Vice President, the ruthless capitalist corporation) in an exemplar of postmodern surface. After Murphy becomes the robocop, he maintains a particular behavioural trait that makes a fellow cop (his previous partner Lewis) aware of the fact that the robocop is in fact Murphy. This trait is the peculiarly human way in which robocop whirls his gun in his hand before replacing it a la Clint Eastwood, back in its holster. Murphy learnt this skill ostensibly to impress his son who wants to have an impression of his father resembling a fictional TV crime-fighter, but when Lewis asks him about it when he is still alive, she reveals through questioning that it is something of the 'child' in him. He has learnt the skill because it impresses him. That this type of 'irrationalism' is carried over into his robotic form gives the audience of the understanding that beneath the programming there somewhere remains a human being. Memory is the crucial aspect of Murphy's process of rediscovering his true self. In his caged home in the police station he begins to dream about his family and as the dreams become more and more emotional, he transgresses the programming that has constituted his new identity, and breaks free from his shackles. The film is effectively a humanist myth or fable about the invincibility of the human spirit, about the need for metaphysics as providing a true understanding of what the human animal is. No matter how much technological control exercises itself, the human spirit will shine through. History is not dead and memory is alive and well.

It is in the light of this analysis that Blade Runner reveals itself as a film that offers itself both to the aspirations and fears of man's engagement with technology and the implications that this has upon conceptions of human consciousness. As Landsberg has pointed out, the film "problematizes any concept of memory that posits it as essential, stable or organically grounded." By revealing the scope of construction, the ease with which man can become indistinguishable from machine, with the new technologies that surround it and divorce it from its metaphysical criteria of consciousness, Blade Runner is a text that offers great possibilities in the formation of a discourse on postmodern consciousness. It also refers the terms of reference towards humankind as opposed to writers on artificial intelligence such as Penrose and Moravec who still maintain strong distinctions between man and machine, predicting either the triumph of humankind or, in more cases, the triumph of computers. It is important to understand our present-day involvements with technology that render us complicit with the structures that these technologies engender. It is also significant to notice the way in which technologies in all three of the texts that I have looked at are manipulated by bastions of capitalism and memory/programmes are reified as commodity. We can understand perhaps that this is, as Jameson would have it, the "Cultural logic of late capitalism" arguably rendering critique redundant and participating in a politics of passivity. Whether or not this is a negative factor or not is one which rests primarily upon a humanist criteria of ethics and understanding of the individual and is a judgement that I should prefer to avoid. If Rachel is able to exist quite happily with her simulated memories though, why should we similarly not do the same so long as we remain clear of the Descartes (Deckards) of this world.

Copyright 2001 Kevin Telfer
Published by in the Blade Runner and DADoES Analysis Section

This analysis has been saved from extinction as "Writers Reign" where it was originally published is now defunct. I would appreciate it if Kevin Telfer would contact me, or anyone who knows if this site is resurrected elsewhere.