Questions of Progress: Scary Sci-Fi Hits and the Sacrificial Human Body

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The Doctor and Madame de Pompadour

Well, it happened.  I finally sat down to watch an episode of Doctor Who –an episode that Michael promised me was horrific enough to write about for my blog.  And he was correct about that. The episode under examination, “The Girl in the Fireplace,” was at least moderately unnerving—I’ve seen scarier, of course, but it was pretty unsettling—but what excited me the most about the episode was the connection to other science fiction classics it provoked.  I have become interested, to that end, in a prevalent motif that I see in contemporary/semi-contemporary science fiction: the fear of sacrificial embodiment.  So what exactly do I mean by that?  In a lot of contemporary science fiction, we’re afraid that our physical bodies will be sacrificed as vehicles to further technological progress.  Underlying that fear, I think, is a perceived incongruence between the so-called “natural” body and the man-made technology that runs off it.  But, to further explain my point, let me delve into three science fiction works that elucidate it: Doctor Who’s “The Girl in the Fire Place,” the popular classic The Matrix, and Black Mirror’s “Fifteen Million Merits.”

I’ll start with “The Girl in the Fire Place,” which was the T.V. episode I’d initially planned on writing about for this evening.  The show centers around the presence of the once-living, pre-French Revolution Madame de Pompadour, who was a chief mistress to Louis the XV and ran many of his affairs despite her frail health (thank you, Wikipedia!).  But in this particular episode, Madame de Pompadour’s life is programmed to be accessible from a spacecraft made in the 51st century, 3,000 years beyond our present time.  And the reason this particular space craft wants Pompadour is that her brain is the most compatible with its needs.  Indeed, the damaged spacecraft is being repaired with human body parts (utilizing, for example, a human eye and a human heart) culled from the one-time crew, and Pompadour’s brain is considered the ideal match for the spacecraft, so that her brain could be the spacecraft’s sort of command central or super computer.  Of course, Pompadour herself would be sacrificed for the technological needs of the society that’s invading her body, and indeed, she’s visited multiple times by terrifying robots dressed as masked men living in 18th century France who are trying to keep track of her so they can eventually steal her brain.

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Creepy, masked, body-part stealing robots

Okay, spoiler alert: the Doctor swoops in to save the day, and Pompadour’s brain is never used as a sort of computer-esque center with which to man the spacecraft.  The point remains the same though.  While this is a science fiction show, it may as well be classified as horror for the disgust we feel at the prospect of dismembering the human body – the purportedly “natural” human body – as a price to pay for progress, for the forward movement of technology, for the supplementing, the bettering, the augmenting of the machine.  One shot of the show pans in on a human heart, connected to metal piping and being used as a sort of motor for the spacecraft.  We become disgusted at the thought of the so-called natural human body being sacrificed just so the spacecraft can run.  The juxtaposition of the organic heart and the inorganic metal piping is intentionally disquieting and borderline gag worthy.

I am tempted, then, to talk about post-humanism, insofar as I know about the theory (I’m no expert) and make a connection between the show and this perspective.  Post-humanism, among its many points of cynicism, doubts that human beings are completely separable from machines, or that there is such a thing as a discreet human entity.  The theory posits that we rely on technology so much that it has become an appendage to us.  I wear glasses, for example, a technological appendage that allows me to see more clearly.  Michael injects himself with synthetic insulin and monitors his blood sugar on a blood sugar machine.  And of course, we’re all indelibly attached to our cell phones which, in most cases, are veritable computers now that smart phones are the norm.  The theory goes, then, that there is not necessarily such a thing as discreet humanity, and that (especially when we think of contemporary medical technology of all sorts) the division between the so-called organic human and the inorganic machine aren’t as stark as we think.  Indeed, we’re all part machines just walking around.


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Aforementioned creepy robots, unmasked

This episode of Doctor Who, then, does a couple of things: First, it both reverses and extends that theory.  It verifies, because the ship finds it can run off human parts, that there’s not much difference between the human body and the machine, even as it shows us the reverse of post-human thought: we’re so far in the future, that the machine is no longer an appendage to the organic body.  The organic body has essentially become an appendage to, or a cog in, the machine.  At the same time, our disgust at the amalgamation of natural body and synthetic machine (when, for example, we see a human eye being used as a security camera in the Doctor Who episode) reifies the binary between the natural body and the man-made machine.  The episode provokes a sense of discomfort that stems from the premise that the organic body and the machine, in some contexts, are unsettling when they’re connected, an underlying assumption that completely disrupts the post-human premise that the human and the machine are indistinguishable, even as something very post-human is going on in the episode.  Phew!  It’s fascinatingly paradoxical, even mind-blowing, when you think about the contradiction going on here.  And it all happens because science fiction plays off our fear of the so-called natural body being sacrificed for technology, for the progress of the unnatural machine.

This is fun.  Let’s look at another example!  In “Fifteen Million Merits,” the second episode of the first season of the hit show Black Mirror, our characters live in a dreary dystopia that requires them to spend all day, every day, riding a bike, to keep electricity running through the city.  It’s clear in the episode that the bikers are oppressed, that they’re heavily controlled, given few options in life, and relegated to unsatisfying jobs.  Indeed, they’re sedated by partial fantasy: the false hopes of winning big on the one popular reality show that screens contestants voices, along with a lot of propaganda-esque video games that they can enjoy while they ride.  There’s also the byproduct of this need for human bikers: chubby individuals (like myself) are highly persecuted because they buck normative conventions and become less useful to society.  Indeed, if there’s anyone lower than the biker, it’s the guy in the yellow uniform, the corpulent janitor walking around cleaning up the room that the bikers are working in.  Indeed, the token douchebag in the show is particularly rude and condescending to these individuals, and he’s supposed to be representative of at least a sect of society that thinks it’s okay to act that way, to disparage overweight individuals.  (Not that such a mentality exists today…ahem…sarcasm….ahem).  In any case, then, there’s an interesting reversal going on here; even as the body is being sacrificed for the machine, instead of being dismembered and destroyed, it’s controlled to be as healthy as possible.

"Black Mirror" Season 1, Episode 2 "Fifteen Million Merits"
The gray clothes accurately encapsulate the drab life of the bike-riders in this episode.

On the surface, this episode isn’t as grotesque as the aforementioned Doctor Who episode.  There is no dismemberment of the body, or threat of bodily dismemberment.  And still, the whole of the individual’s strength and physical activity is utilized, on a daily basis, to perform repetitive motions that will keep the power on.  Almost every action of the physical body is geared toward keeping the so-called machine running, even if the separation between the body and the machine is (at least slightly) clearer in this Black Mirror episode than in the Doctor Who episode mentioned above.  The machine is not necessarily an appendage of the body, and the body is not necessarily an appendage of the machine – although it might be – but they work symbiotically to provide power for individuals (so typical in dystopias) at the invisible top of a highly divisive, pre-ordained power structure.


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Day in, day out…

What is particularly interesting here, though, is that we begin to see the concept “fantasy” evolve because the body – indeed, the entire human – is being sacrificed for the well-being of the machine, a machine that ostensibly serves the invisible elite.  Marx says religion is the opiate of the masses.  I’m not so sure that that’s true, but I think that every hegemonic power structure does need one, or many opiates, and such opiates combine to form a sort of fantasy world for the characters in this episode: they’re enmeshed in television and video games all day (thus insinuating the assumption that such technology, which has the potential to be subversive and beneficial, can be used equally unfavorably) and dreams some characters have of “making it big” prove to be just that – dreams that can never really come to fruition, possibilities that the elite feed the bikers so they think they have a possible way out of their mundane life, when really, they don’t.  Thus, I think we can begin to add to our thesis: Not only does contemporary science fiction elucidate and contradict post-humanist theories while suggesting that we fear sacrificing our natural body to fuel the unnatural machine.  But, furthermore, such science fiction proposes that an element of fantasy to sedate the body naturally evolves when this happens (which is, perhaps, a more typical dystopian thesis).

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When Abi Khan tries out for a reality singing show, they drug her and convince her to become a porn star.

So, let’s look at one more example.  I think we can make the argument here that The Matrix, released in 1999, was well ahead of its time in suggesting these themes.  The Matrix is probably the foundational science fiction movie that espouses a fear of sacrificing the physical body (and, to an extent, the mind, insofar as there is a dichotomy between the two) to the betterment of the machines.  In this future, where machines are the ruling class of individuals, human beings (except for a select few who live in Zion) are relegated to the status of batteries, living, unbeknownst to each individual, in a world of virtual reality while the machines power their cities with the physical human body.  Here, not only do we see a sort of reverse-post-humanism, where the machine relies on the human to function, but the machines play a sort of vampiric role, sucking on the metaphorical blood of the human (and that metaphorical blood is, I think, the ability to know and live in reality) to maintain their own lives.

What is interesting about The Matrix is that it is, to my knowledge (although I admit I could be wrong about this) it is the first such science fiction T.V. show or movie to heavily integrate fantasy into bleak reality.  In other words, our Christ-figure protagonist, Neo, and the other bodies who are being used by the machines, live in a virtual reality called the matrix, with no knowledge of what is actually around them.  Thus, The Matrix suggests that for the human body to be used completely as an instrument, sacrificed for the benefit of technology and the class (the machines) that use the technology, the individual must be subjected to complete fantasy, in this case a level of fantasy more severe than the degree of fantasy presented in the above-mentioned Black Mirror episode.  Again, post-humanism has flipped, or has progressed so far that while humans and machines remain less distinguishable, the human has become the appendage, the support for the machine, instead of the other way around.  Which brings us, perhaps, to the reason we find such plot lines so terrifying:  they empower the machine to become what we consider “human” and they relegate the human to the status of “machine.”

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Trinity and Neo!

We see precursors to this motif, of course, in earlier dystopian novels.  For example, in Brave New World, the human body is partially sacrificed for the betterment of society, for the metaphorical machine, because humans are cloned to be given specific physiques, and even the highest ranking human beings (I think) develop skin problems and lupus.  In 1984, Orwell continuously references Winston Smith’s goiter, and the deterioration of his body, as he works in an unfulfilling propaganda-creating job to serve Big Brother, and, again, the invisible elites represented by Big Brother.  We have gone, then, just a step further, when we make the physical human body fuel for the machine, when the human becomes the machine, and the machine becomes human.

The question, then, becomes, are we unreasonably afraid, or are these things that are likely to happen in some near or distant future?  Could we become veritable batteries, appendages for vampiric machines?  Will we be relegated some day to a version of fantasy as our bodies are used to fuel a city?  Such musings, which find their home in post-humanism, seem bombastic, but only time will tell – only time will tell if the machine rules us, or if we rule the machine.

 Questions of Progress: Scary Sci-Fi Hits and the Sacrificial Human Body