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Romanticism on the Net

Numéro 21, février 2001

Romanticism and Science Fictions

Sous la direction de Robert Corbett

Direction : Michael Eberle-Sinatra (directeur)

Éditeur : Université de Montréal

ISSN : 1467-1255 (numérique)

DOI : 10.7202/005958ar

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Article

Frankie and Johnny: Shelley, Gibson, and Hollywood's Love Affair with the Cyborg

Andrea Austin

Queen's University


But then if I look out the window and see men crossing the square, as I just happen to have done, I normally say that I see the men themselves, just as I say that I see the wax. Yet do I see any more than hats and coats which could conceal automatons? I judge that they are men. And so something which I thought I was seeing with my eyes is in fact grasped solely by the faculty of judgment.

Descartes

I. The Difference Engine

1

The Turing Test has been a kind of Miltonic bogey in the field of artificial intelligence research and theory. From the time of its proposition by Alan Turing in 1950, it has generated controversy. In "Computing Machinery and Intelligence," Turing declares that the question "can machines think?" is naive, and suggests that the answer to this kind of question "is to be sought in a statistical survey such as a Gallup poll." [1] He argues instead for the replacement of the question with another, "closely related to it and . . . expressed in relatively unambiguous words" (Turing, 5). What he replaces the question with, in fact, is a "test," modeled on a procedure he calls "the imitation game." Turing describes the original game thus: "It is played by three people, a man (A), a woman (B), and an interrogator (C) who may be of either sex. The interrogator stays in a room apart from the other two. The object of the game for the interrogator is to determine which of the other two is the man and which is the woman" (Turing, 6-7). He then transforms the game into the Turing Test with the question "What will happen when a machine takes the part of A in this game?" (Turing, 7). Indeed, the suggested substitution does deal with issues which are "closely related" but it is in no way "relatively unambiguous."

2

While the certainty of biological difference is a specious component of the Turing Test, its substitutionally implied equivalence of the problem of artificial intelligence with that of the problem of gender identity does, however, make a curious kind of cultural logic. [2] The importance of gender to the question of what does or does not qualify as "human" or as a "person" is familiar territory for feminist theorists. At the same time, the figure of the cyborg functions as an economical focus for questions of difference, especially in popular culture. This essay is aimed at contributing to an understanding of the connection between the problem of gender identity and that of artificial intelligence through a discussion of the relationship between Mary Shelley's foundational cyborg story, Frankenstein, and William Gibson's "Johnny Mnemonic," which is not only a re-working of the Frankenstein story, but also a foundational text of cyberpunk fiction. I argue, first, that Shelley and Gibson similarly use central cyborg characters to interrogate such culturally primary divisions as male and female, human and not human, and that each similarly refuses to provide resolution to or deferral of anxieties raised by the stories' interrogations. I argue, secondly, that two recent film versions of the stories, Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Robert Longo's Johnny Mnemonic, are at the same time both exemplary of the originary texts' irresolution as a sore spot for popular culture and symptomatic of Hollywood cinema's special difficulties with the figure of the "male" cyborg. Where Shelley and Gibson adopt a strategy of multiply-directed irony to achieve the effects of arousal and irresolution, Branagh's and Longo's films seek to resolve difference anxiety by relying on a strategy of visual substitution.

II. Prometheus and Pandora

3

In Frankenstein and in "Johnny Mnemonic," the cyborg arouses anxieties about the difference between male and female, human and not human, against a cultural backdrop of the division between technology as feminine and mastery of technology as masculine. The ambiguities Shelley instates with the doppelganger pair of Victor and his creation, and which Gibson condenses into the single character of his cyborg protagonist, Johnny, affirm Donna Haraway's thesis about the cyborg's potential to unsettle dominant gender associations but are less conclusive about artificial intelligence's liberatory potential for "imagining a world without gender." [3] Rather than portraying a gender-neutral or "sexless" cyborg, both Shelley and Gibson present an explicitly male cyborg whose story complicates because predicated upon stereotypical gender associations. Shelley presents the relationship between a masculine, masterful scientist and a feminized body of science, then turns it on its head. Gibson re-presents the relationship as that between buyers and users of information technology and the used, technologized body, shuffling the mnemonic courier, Johnny, back and forth between the two roles.

4

Shelley's novel undercuts initial characterizations of its main pair. At the start, Victor is masterful and masculine, and the creature helpless, feminine; as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have suggested, Victor is a wrathful God and the creature an Eve-like embodiment of femininity as monstrosity. [4] Science, or its embodiment, is a subject to be mastered, both feminine and feminizing. The two's positions give way to reversals and shared similarities for both to the role of Satan over the course of the novel. Victor becomes more helpless, more feminine, appears even monstrous, as the story unfolds, while the creature gains what Victor loses, and becomes more masculine, masterful, god-like. The gender dialectics of their relative positions and inverse trajectories have received thorough discussion in the critical literature, with Gilbert and Gubar's treatment being one of the more well-known and accessible. In "Johnny Mnemonic," Gibson evokes Victor Frankenstein, Promethean over-reacher, student of ancient alchemy, experimenter with electricity, in his introductory description of Johnny. A "very technical boy," Johnny prepares home-made shotgun shells, manufacturing the cartridges, building the loading press, loading the charge and seating the primers and bullets, all following the instructions of a "dug up," old microfiche. [5] Gibson's modelling of the Frankenstein story continues, as Johnny's climb to the top of the inverted pit built by the Lo-Teks parallels Victor's mountain climbs as metaphors for his ambition and ironic descent, while the courier's movement through the ruined landscape of Nighttown, his need for information taking him on a journey through or to hell, recall Victor's travels through charnel house and desolate ice-scape. At the same time, though, "technical boy" rings with ambiguity, connoting either Johnny's technical proficiency as a hacker, or his own status as a piece of technology.

5

Irony is a key strategy in Shelley's and Gibson's interrogations of difference anxiety. Moreover, this strategy resonates strikingly with the problem of artificial intelligence when characters occupy the role of naif. Pulled through the terrain of the fiction rather than moving through it of his own accord, Johnny is a "stranger in a strange land." The courier endures a paradoxical oscillation between paralysis and desperate movement. From the early scene in which Johnny is immobilized by a neural disruptor until or perhaps, we suspect, beyond the conclusion of the story, the naif Johnny must depend on his unexpected bodyguard, Molly. Molly is the one who turns the disruptor off, freeing Johnny, and Molly is the one who, at every stage in the story, controls the action or moves the plot along by her reactions to threats against her employer. Gibson's protagonist is rendered helpless by his lack of knowledge of the Lo-Tek underground through which Molly maneuvers him, just as he is by his inability to access the knowledge/data for which the Yakuza have issued orders to "bring back his head."

6

A "stranger in a strange land," like Johnny, Victor's creature traces the course of the naif after his birth, gaining the skills to become an increasingly sophisticated commentator on what, to him, is an alien culture. His formal education, as Gilbert and Gubar and Mary Lowe-Evans have pointed out, closely parallels Safie's, [6] with his reactions to key texts for Romanticism—Paradise Lost and The Sorrows of Werther—providing a model for Johnny's own re-tracing of Frankenstein as Romantic precursor. Victor, too, plays the naif in several contexts. His at-first enthusiastic and unsophisticated, almost adolescent challenging of authoritative practice at the university marks him as a naif. In addition, he comes at both the ancient alchemists and the works upheld by the university from a fresh perspective, profiting (at least, for the purposes of his experiment) by the juxtaposition. Further, his naivete, as a form of willful disbelief, plays out in his refusal to "know" his creation, and later, to understand in time the creature's intentions as a threat to the Frankenstein family. Victor's and the creature's reverse trajectories also apply to their roles as naifs. The creature's physical difficulty at the outset as he learns to control his limbs, to keep warm and to find shelter contributes to our sense of his movement as governed by the external dictates of chance, and gives way to his physical superiority in the landscape, with purposeful demonstrations of super-human strength and endurance, as the narrative progresses. Victor, originally purposeful, pushes himself to his physical limits, but loses autonomy until he is pulled through the narrative, as through the frozen Arctic where he is a stranger in a desolate land, at the creature's desire.

7

Late in the story, after he has been pushed or pulled past his limit, Johnny has an epiphany regarding his own role as the feminine technological—an epiphany which is highly allusive given that his specific function involves information transmission: "I'd spent most of my life as a blind receptacle to be filled with other people's knowledge and then drained, spouting synthetic languages I'd never understand" (Gibson, 18). Johnny's job as mnemonic courier literalizes the concept of "blind tracing," linking the naif and the cyborg in their paradoxical relationship to knowledge and underscoring the irony of that relationship. If structural irony is born in the gap between the naif's comprehension and that of the author and reader—or if, to quote M.H. Abrams's A Dictionary of Literary Terms, irony is a result of the "compact made between author and reader over the head of the naif" [7]—the triangular configuration of programmer, user, and machine is an ironic correlative, and the naif, knowledge-thirsty but always unknowing, an approximation of machine intelligence. (In fact, Turing's early work on "Enigma," a code-breaking project, was his inspiration for the 1950 article and involved a "blind trace" experiment in which members of the Women's Royal Naval Service, or WRENS, were employed as a type of human computer and manipulated packets of data without knowing their content). [8]

8

Frankenstein has the advantage over "Johnny Mnemonic" in complexity of the ironic compact. Shelley constructs a careful nest of three narrative frames, with the creature's narrative occupying the innermost layer, as told to Victor by the creature himself. Surrounding that layer, Victor's narrative includes both his own and the creature's, as told by Victor to Walton. Finally, forming the outermost shell, Walton includes their stories with his own in a letter written to his sister, Margaret Walton Saville. The device of the naif, encompassing Walton, Victor, and the creature, results in a multiply-directed irony that undercuts not only the words of the character narrating his story, but also the words of the character re-narrating that story. A series of refracting points-of-view strung on a set of embedded frames, Shelley's novel resembles a puzzle or Chinese box, offering no objective foothold, no ultimate facts of the matter—every perspective is potentially false, every narrator fallible. Provocatively, the initials of the receiver of the complete set of stories doubles for the stories' originator, MWS—simile as closed circuit. [9]

9

"Johnny Mnemonic," narrated in the first-person, also resists authorizing an objective point-of-view. Johnny, at once recorder and cipher, is a fallible narrator, too. Undercutting his own story at different points, Johnny recounts events in a way which both suggests an attempt to create the appearance of a factual transcription, similar to an electronic recording, and reveals the retrospective construction of the story as unavoidably subjective. Describing the death of his fence, Ralfi, Johnny refers to "playback on full recall" (Gibson, 7), but at several points fills in the narrative by surmising the thoughts of other characters, as when he describes a friend of Molly's from Nighttown, Dog. Of Dog's scarred and patched face, Johnny remarks, "his posture told me he enjoyed living behind it" (Gibson, 15). Whether Gibson's protagonist recounts such conclusions as being drawn at the time of the events, or whether he retroactively fills these blanks with information gained later as he comes to know more about the Lo-Teks, is unclear. As the story's ending has Johnny decide to take up residence in Nighttown, this narrative uncertainty is all the stronger. "Johnny Mnemonic," like Frankenstein, ends in limbo and having come full circle. Not quite a Lo-Tek or Nighttowner, Johnny nevertheless seeks to blend in. He plans to have the chip removed from his brain some day, but has not done it yet. Commenting on this interim arrangement, this state of suspension, Johnny observes, "it's really ok up here, way up in the dark," and then concludes as he began, recalling Frankenstein's circuit of "MWS": "I'm getting to be the most technical boy in town" (Gibson, 22). Nor does "technical boy" lose its ambiguity in transit from introduction to conclusion.

10

Earlier in the story, he himself explains why the Yakuza prefer to kill him rather than simply retrieve their data: even after the information has been erased, a "Squid" ("superconducting quantum interference detector") can read its "trace." Two meanings of "trace"—the action of following a pre-determined line, or the remains of something pre-existent—vie for semantic space. In spite of the ostensible recoil against advanced technology, Gibson's story does not repudiate the feminine technological any more than Shelley's novel, even if it holds scientific discovery to ethical considerations, repudiates scientific practice. "Johnny Mnemonic" establishes an apparent opposition between the Lo-Teks and the sophisticated cyborgs, but the difference between high and low technology suffers erosion from the outset. Johnny calls his gambit with the shotgun "crude," yet demonstrates considerable technical skill in preparing it. Likewise, he observes that Dog's Doberman tooth-bud transplants hardly fall under the category of low technology: "immunosuppressives don't exactly grow on trees" (Gibson, 14). Further, Molly has something in common with the Yakuza assassin that even Johnny does not, her intimacy with the Lo-Teks notwithstanding: Molly's surgical alterations also derive from Chiba City, signalling that they are almost as advanced. Jones, too, can be said to blur the hi- and low-technology boundaries as the simple carnival "War Whale" and the code-breaking Squid.

11

Similarly, although it presents a warning against the misuse of science, Frankenstein does not dismiss the scientific. Samuel Vasbinder was one of the first Shelley scholars to provide evidence suggesting that Mary was not only interested in and excited by scientific subjects, but was also far more fully conversant with them than it had been typical for critics to allow. [10] Walton and Victor, Vasbinder argues, represent attitudes of skepticism and the practice of drawing conclusions from personal observation that marked the "new" sciences. Frankenstein represents scientific discovery as a slow process of experiment and observation; its depictions of and allusions to experiments in electricity and galvanism are accurate, and the novel may take as part of its source material Aldini's experiments in the electrical stimulation of the muscles of both human and animal corpses. Frankenstein also reveals a close familiarity with the curriculum in sciences offered to young men at university during the period (Vasbinder, 35-73). Additionally, Vasbinder argues that Shelley modeled the creature's emotional and intellectual development on the psychological theories of Hartley and Condillac (Vasbinder, 57-8).

12

Victor's explorations in the "new" sciences and in the teachings of the ancient alchemists are analogous to the high tech / low technology opposition established, and exploded, in Gibson's story. It is not easy to discern which category is which in Frankenstein, either. The association of alchemy with magic brings home the point that an advanced technology—such as, in this period, advances in galvanism—may appear to be a form of magic to persons unfamiliar with it. Shelley's knowledge concerning the "new " sciences is important, but to argue, as Vasbinder does, that Victor discards the university curriculum and the alchemical teachings in turn and develops his own, rational method of scientific investigation (Vasbinder, 65) is to either miss, or seriously downplay, the novel's interrogation of the difference between the two. Victor's animation of the creature by means of electricity is as like as unlike the giving of life by divine spark or breath in the animated statue (and other) analogues—either scientific breathrough, or magic, or both. [11]

13

Frankenstein and "Johnny Mnemonic" re-tailor the animated statue story. They remind us that the infamously knowledge-thirsty Pandora was not, or not only, a curse created to counteract Prometheus's presumption. Pandora, like Eve, is an over-reacher; Pandora is Prometheus. The Prometheus/Pandora figures of Shelley's and Gibson's stories come complete with the iconography of the box (or vessel): the chip in Johnny Mnemonic's head, the Lo-Tek pit, Jones's tank, Victor's lab, the re-animation chamber, Victor's journal, which the creature opens and reads, even Walton's ship-board cabin, all complete the portraits of each major character as Pandora. It is Prometheus's relation to Pandora, though, I would argue, with which even contemporary AI theory has trouble, insofar as it re-visits the ground of the Turing Test, and which Hollywood cinema so often frustratedly seeks to resolve.

III. Thinking Outside the Box

14

As Laura Mulvey stresses, Pandora, "as a manufacture, is a prototype for the mechanical female, androids we might say today." [12] The myth of Pandora, Mulvey also argues, perfectly explains the allure of cinema (Pandora, p. 7). Mulvey discusses the importance of the figure of Pandora, and the identification of Pandora with the box, to the "cinematic machine" ( Pandora, pp.6-9). Pandora, she proposes, is a spatial metaphor for the feminine. "Surface and secret," "femininity as artifice," this mythical female represents a cultural link between femininity and simulation or masquerade. The image of woman, in Mulvey's much-quoted formulation, "connotes to-be-looked-at-ness," and combines the flat screen and the mask of femininity. [13] In classic Hollywood cinema, Pandora and the box collapse together: "the luminous surface of the screen reinforces the sense of surface radiated by the mask of femininity, flattening the image....; the woman 'fronts' for the cinematic machine, giving suspension of disbelief the added backing of the fascinating female form, attracting the gaze and supressing inquiry of knowledge of the machine's functioning" (Pandora, p.15). The image of the feminine or feminized male can throw a monkey wrench into the machine by disrupting the functioning of cinema as a form of scopophilic fetishism, a disruption with significant consequences for film's representation of technology.

15

Assessing David Cronenberg's Videodrome and its portrayal of technology as terrifyingly threatening, Tania Modleski locates the "terror" in the movie for the male protagonist and implied male viewer in the feminizing effect of video. [14] She notes: "One of the effects of this [video] signal on the film's hero is to cause a gaping, vagina-like wound to open in the middle of his stomach, so that the villains can program him by inserting a video cassette into his body" (Modleski, 162). Terror abates, Modleski continues, when mastery is "reasserted through projecting the experience of submission and defenselessness onto the female body,....enabling the male spectator to distance himself from the terror" (Modleski, 163). In this model, distance from and control over the feminine technological can set the machine comfortably in motion again. My work on this paper really began with two questions: why did Branagh, and his co-writers, Steph Lady and Frank Darabont, decide to present the re-animation of Elizabeth? And why did Longo and Gibson introduce the character of Anna in the script for Johnny Mnemonic? Both films depart radically from the literary texts by introducing a female cyborg not present in the originals. A commercial context, which in any event surrounded the original stories' production as well, is not so much a crucial determining factor in these revisions as is the visual effect of the image of the male cyborg.

16

In fact, in the context of psychoanalytic feminist film theory, these female cyborgs are a completely logical addition and an especially neat device for bringing the narrative to an apparent resolution. If anxieties evoked by the image of the male cyborg can be projected onto the image of not just any female but, even better, a female cyborg, gender difference and the difference between human and not human collapse together (like Pandora and her box), and the film can economically kill two birds with one stone, attracting attention back to the place where the threat of difference has always already been both attributed and disavowed at once. The Branagh and Longo films, in the tradition of classically fetishistic Hollywood cinema, each accomplish this projection of anxiety onto the image of the female cyborg primarily through the logic of visual substitution, and secondarily, in a move similar to that Marj Kibby details as a counter-balance to the feminization of the cyborg in such hyper-masculine representations as RoboCop and the Terminator, [15] through an increasing emphasis on the masculinity of the protagonists.

17

Branagh shores up Victor's masculinity, a defense against the technologized body and its feminizing effects, by emphasizing the scientist's passionate relationship with his fiancee. The Victor of Branagh's film is more aggressively masculine—and, as Michael Laplace-Sinatra has pointed out, more aggressively heterosexual [16]—than he appears in the novel. Certainly, Victor's relationship with Elizabeth is far more physical in this screen adaptation than critics typically discuss it as being in the novel. At the same time, while Branagh leaves intact Frankenstein's university friendship with Clerval, he downplays Victor's role in fulfilling Walton's strongly, more intimately-voiced desire for a friend, for someone he "would be happy to have possessed as the brother of his heart", [17] and an obvious echo of the creature's desire for a friend, then a mate. Instead, Walton evinces immediate distrust and even dislike for his uninvited guest, Frankenstein.

18

Longo's Johnny Mnemonic similarly emphasizes Johnny's masculinity and mastery. The film takes as its initial present a point in time much further back than that of which Gibson's story grants us knowledge. Such backtracking allows revisions that are key to the new spin the film gives the character of Johnny, for in the film version, the cybernetic courier is quintessentially an action hero, the central, active figure in a series of armed conflicts. Gibson's short story begins with Johnny in transit for his meeting with Ralfi; the film, however, begins with Johnny meeting the clients who provide the fateful data. Johnny makes the decision to overstep his storage capacity (the crisis of data overload and imminent neural seepage, of course, do not appear in Gibson's original text). In this new arrangement, Johnny is even more strongly the Promethean over-reacher than in the short story and, as the plot will bear out, his presumption speaks solely of success and mastery with nothing of error. Longo also has the courier's bodyguard appear barely capable, so that she does not so much protect and direct Johnny as fight alongside him, her subordinate status clearly signalled by her frequent pairing with villainous underlings while Johnny engages the chief villains during the conflict scenes. Thus, Molly's climactic confrontation with the Yakuza assassin on the "killing floor" in the original story is re-written in the film as Johnny's confrontation first, with Takahashi, the PharmaCom executive, and second, with the Yakuza boss from Beijing. Longo even minimizes Johnny's close relationship with the cybernetic dolphin, Jones, expunging the immediate sense of kinship the short story Johnny feels for Jones, [18] and muting the significance of the Johnny/Jones name similarity by substituting the name of the bodyguard with one even more similar to the cyborg dolphin's than is the protagonist's: "Molly" becomes "Jane" in the film. Jones, too, like Molly/Jane, is less controlling than in the original text. The short story's Jones easily retrieves the access code, and Johnny has nothing to do to facilitate the retrieval but to stand there. Longo's film, though, has Johnny take the lead role in the retrieval, with the cyborg-dolphin acting as merely an aid, a transmission conduit.

19

Laplace-Sinatra suggests that, in Shelley's Frankenstein, the "absent presence" of female characters like Margaret Walton Saville, Elizabeth, and Victor's mother forms a comment on women's restricted roles in society that is not carried over into the Branagh version (Laplace-Sinatra, 256). Importantly, though, "absent presence" is also highly suggestive of fetishism. Representation of the male cyborg's growing masculinity goes hand-in-hand with a transferral of subjection onto the image of the female cyborg in these films. Elizabeth's substantial on-screen presence in Branagh's film version does not just comprise a token nod towards updating her role; the woman's visual presence is absolutely necessary to the fetishistic process. Elizabeth's presence in the story consists primarily of her threatened absence, and her image stands as well for the other absent women. Branagh's Elizabeth continually threatens to leave Victor, issuing a series of ultimatums, insistently moving in and out of his life, and in and out of the camera's view. She plays a fort/da game with Victor and with the film's spectator and holds the gaze each time she re-enters the picture. Branagh strikingly intensifies her role by dressing her in red and setting her in motion against a monochromatic background. Victor's fiancee is a moving spot of blood that draws the eye, a walking wound, and an echo of Victor's mother's blood-covered body, when she moves through the crowd after leaving Victor's Ingolstadt lodgings, when, though wearing her wedding dress, she clutches in her arms the body of William clad in a red suit, and later, when Victor carries her body wrapped in a red sheet to his reanimation chamber.

20

Using a logic of visual substitution and juxtaposition, the Victor of the film carries out the animation of the creature in part as a frenzied response to Elizabeth's visit and angry departure. Visual substitution continues to operate immediately after the animation as Victor, gazing up at the creature hanging near the ceiling from an apparatus of chains, some portion of which has knocked him unconscious and entangled him, appears to really "see" his creation for the first time. The camera cuts from a shot of Victor staring upwards, to a shot of the suspended creature, to a flashback image of the hanging corpse of the murderer whose body provided Victor with the bulk of primary materials. The visual substitution of the hanging corpse for the hanging reanimate extends, in a metonymic displacement, to another set of substitutions, this time, attracting the gaze to twinned women—the hanged Justine and the re-animated Elizabeth.

21

Trace memories—the affliction of the fetishist—dog questions concerning the difference between the human and the cyborg within this plot of visual substitution. At the point where Branagh would have had to have the creature relate his story in order to hold to Shelley's narrative structure, we see instead a discussion between Victor and the creature about the validity of trace memories. During their meeting in the ice cave, the creature challenges Victor with evidence of memory as inhering in the flesh; he gestures with a flute,"Did you know I knew how to play this?" Victor is uncomfortable, unable to face the interrogation of difference the creature's challenge represents, and evades the question with one of his own, "What would you have me do?" The creature takes Victor to a grave and selects the body of Justine for the raw materials of his mate, so that the tension of his challenge is thus transferred to a second set of corpse twins and the image of the female. When the creature comes to claim his finished mate, trace memories are what Victor relies on to settle the question of to whom the reanimated female belongs.

22

Where in Shelley's novel Victor rends the mate he manufactures for the creature before finishing it, Branagh's film insists on the re-animation of Elizabeth and then has her choose to immolate herself. Victor and the creature pull the re-animated Elizabeth between them like a yo-yo in a parodic performance of Solomon's test. Each would-be bridegroom tries to signify or ratify his power over the other by his possession of the girl. The scene builds up the creature's masculinity in his competition with the other male, a grotesque version of the homosocial triangle that at the same time deflects the portrayal of the creature as feminine (and feminizing) squarely onto the image of the female cyborg. Though reluctant to raise psychoanalytic theory's infamously convoluted discussion of castration anxiety and scopophilia, I do need to offer a brief summation of its conclusion because of its coincidence both with the final scenes of these films and with recurrent arguments concerning AI. The image of the female, according to psychoanalysis, simultaneously represents the source of castration anxiety and its disavowal. The anxiety that results from this looking has two possible outlets: investigating and punishing the woman (confronting the original trauma), or disavowal, achieved by the substitution of the female image as fetish [19]—an upholding of its face value, so to speak. The creature here, in this triangle, takes the position of the (male) fetishist. He repeatedly comments on the female cyborg's "beauty," valorizing the image of the woman and her aesthetic value. Victor now takes the other path, insisting in this scene on Elizabeth remembering who he is, and reversing his earlier stance on trace memory, now insisting on hers, searching for it, investigating the woman's "trace"—"Say my name," he chants.

23

Intriguingly, the opening sequence of Longo's Johnny Mnemonic establishes the theme of trace memory in a mis-en-scene that figures the scopophilic fetishism of cinema itself. Johnny sits on the bed in his hotel room and switches on the television; the camera cuts to a split-second image identifying the channel—the "Nostalgia Network"—then cuts back to Johnny watching the screen, then back to the television, which has become a blue computer screen. The next important television/computer screen image combinations will be those which comprise the setting and retrieval of the access code to Johnny's neural unit, a code which reifies the image of the female face as fetish. The introduction of the character of Anna Kalmann, former founder and CEO of PharmaCom, is entirely an addition for the film version, and a crucial point of deviation between it and the short story. The key image of the access code is another female "absent presence," and a return of the repressed for PharmaCom. Anna is a neural persona existing as part of the PharmaCom mainframe, integrated with the mainframe sometime after the death of the former CEO. The integration, we are told, was undertaken so that Anna could advise the future leadership of the company, but she has now taken on a "life" of her own inside the mainframe, a ghost in the machine in possession of the company's darkest secret. Appearing on some screen or other at strategic moments to provide Johnny with information or warnings, as when she appears uninvited on Takahashi's desktop computer screen, in the screen Johnny uses to discover the address of the data's intended recipient, and on every screen in the huge tower of televisions housed near Jones's tank, her face aids Johnny in fulfilling his role as hero. Near the film's conclusion, a virtual Johnny, recalling the metonymic substitution in Branagh's film, "twins" himself in order to defeat the virus operating as the PharmaCom mainframe's defense system. Johnny must "hack his own brain" to retrieve the final image in the access code, a retrieval which occurs when a virtual Johnny, in a computer graphics-generated sequence, grapples with a square box, shakes it, until it reveals itself as a picture of Anna's face, enhanced to emphasize glowing red lips, shadowed eyes, and the surrounding pink glow of an energy halo.

24

It is worth noting that Jane has a "jacked-up" nervous system instead of the surgical inlays that Johnny first takes to be Molly's glasses in the short story. Jane's unmutilated face is heavily made up with cosmetics, while her occupation is rendered trivial and feminine when, during her walk through the sewers of Nighttown with Johnny, she drops a purse that she carries. Jane's "tools of the trade" spill out: a grenade, ornamented with red beads; a lipstick tube, which appears to contain a hidden weapon. Such ornamentation reinforces the similarity of her role to Anna's, underscoring the fact that the female cyborg as fetish is hyper-feminine, a mask of femininity. As in Frankenstein, the anxieties generated by the figure of the male cyborg are projected onto the image of the female cyborg, where their residence can coincide with the scopophilic fetishism of Hollywood-style cinema and allow the film's conclusion, a conclusion which postures as a resolution of difference anxiety. The film prepares for this resolution for which Anna is key, and which Jane supports, by reversing Johnny's relation to Pandora. The information he downloads at the beginning of the story turns out to be the cure for the plague, "NAS" ("Nerve Attenuation Syndrome"). A repudiation of the feminine technological could hardly be more explicit. The cinema's Johnny is the saviour, not doom, of humankind, and what he "saves" everyone from is technology. Spider, a doctor for whom the data was originally intended, makes it clear: the plague is caused by computers, by technology, by information overload. "It's killing everybody," he says.

25

By truncating the story immediately after the successful conclusion to the battles with Takahashi and the Yakuza assassins, the film also avoids the limbo that predominates at the end of Gibson's original version. The original Johnny melts into the Lo-Tek underground, obtains dog-tooth implants, and speculates about a future removal of his neural prostheses. His cinematic counterpart gains more distance from technology. The film version not only ends with the broadcast of the cure for NAS, but also, intimating the hero's return to wholeness, restores to Johnny the childhood memories that he had removed in order to increase his neural unit's storage capacity. The complete, three-image access code is in actuality also a perfect precis of the film: the first image is that of a comic-book hero (signifying the protagonist/hacker as hero but, in its reference to comic-book style heroes, also evoking Johnny's status as cyborg); the second image, defining the field of his heroism and representing a repudiation of technology and cyborg status, depicts a sign which reads "NO NAS" against a black backdrop (in saving the world, the hero "saves" himself); and the third image, Anna's face, is the suture point for sealing up the chasm opened by the image of the male cyborg and recuperating anxiety about difference through a fetishistic projection onto and repudiation of the feminine, technologized body.

26

Branagh's Frankenstein is more subtle in its repudiation of the feminine, accomplishing the effect by stripping away the multiple, subjective narrative perspectives. The Branagh Frankenstein has been much praised for its efforts towards a sympathetic portrayal of the creature and to be sure, the film goes further in this direction than some of its cinematic predecessors. [20] However, this time, the effort truly is token. The creature's story, as Shelley provides it, extensively develops the creature's perspective in concert with an exposition of contextual philosophical questions and through which Shelley casts the creature as an unjustly impugned Eve or Pandora. [21] The corresponding section of the film, though, approaches caricature. Significantly brief, it comprises less than twenty minutes of the hundred-and-twenty-eight-minute total and only sketchily recounts the creature's story. In addition, the outermost frame of Walton's letter to his sister is barely alluded to. The structural irony of the original suffers with these revisions, but is yet more compromised by a disruption of the narrative layers which has the creature's and Victor's narratives no longer fall inside one another. A temporal integrity governs the story Victor tells, one that rejects the narrative integrity of the novel's nested structure, and positions scenes involving the creature's story as they would have unfolded in time. All of those scenes, from the creature's flight from Victor's laboratory up to his meeting with Victor in the ice cave, would have had to have been shown in flashback during that meeting in order for the film to approximate the narrative structure of the novel. Instead, we see the creature's escape from the city, his residence in the de Lacey's barn, his increasingly cognizant perusal of Victor's journal, and so on, all before Victor can possibly know anything of these incidents because they occur before his first meeting with the creature since his "birth." Victor's narrative now adheres to a temporal integrity of plot that accords well with a cinematic verisimilitude, a sleight of hand which increases his appearance as an authoritative narrator. With this stretch of representational omniscience, a greater coincidence grows between Victor's perspective and the spectator's own position of representational mastery as viewer of all the stories. Victor's guilty rejection of the cyborg comes to function as the implied viewer's own.

27

To insert an important caveat: scopophilic fetishism is not inherent in narrative cinema in its portrayal of the male protagonist/spectator and the female image. This point is clearly articulated in work by film theorists like Mary Ann Doane, Constance Penley, as well as in some work by Mulvey, all of which focus on discussion of other kinds of spectatorial relationships permitted even in popular, mainstream genres (such as film noir according to Doane). [22] The Branagh and Longo films, though, are stereotypical representatives of scopophilic fetishism at work in Hollywood's horror and science fiction genres, and in particular, underscore Hollywood cinema's simultaneous attraction to and discomfort with the figure of the male cyborg.

28

One of the well-known refutations in the cognitive and AI sciences of the fundamental points of Turing's Test is John Searle's "Chinese room experiment." [23] Searle asks us to imagine a locked room in which a person (as the experiment is originally formulated in "Minds, Brains, and Programs," himself), who understands no Chinese whatsoever, is given batches of Chinese writing. Along with these batches, the person is given a set of rules or instructions, in English, which tell him or her how to manipulate the Chinese symbols. "Suppose also," Searle argues,

that after a while I get so good at following the instructions for manipulating the Chinese symbols...that from the external point of view—that is, from the point of view of somebody outside the room in which I am locked—my answers...are absolutely indistinguishable from those of Chinese speakers. Nobody just looking at my answers can tell that I don't speak a word of Chinese...For the purposes of the Chinese, I am simply an instantiation of the computer program. [24]

His argument here is that Turing's Test does not establish the presence or absence of artificial intelligence in the systems to which it is applied, but rather (like Descartes's proposed tests), it checks for the appearance of intelligence; the computer does not "know" what it is saying, does not understand the information it manipulates. Moreover, Searle's proposed room combines the blind trace experiment with the spatial metaphor of the box in a way strongly resonant with the puzzle of Pandora. Searle's proposal, to investigate the contents of the box, compares with Victor's investigation of the female cyborg's trace and Johnny's preoccupation with trace memories, while Turing's reliance on "as if"—on appearance or face value—compares with the creature's claim to the re-animated Elizabeth and Johnny's reliance on Anna. Though indirect, the comparisons illustrate a point of connection between representations of AI in scientific theory and in popular culture.

29

Frankenstein has functioned as a fulcrum for anxieties about the relationship between gender and artificial intelligence, anxieties which the AI sciences and AI fictions have repeatedly sought to re-present and resolve. The wound that Frankenstein refuses to re-locate, refuses to stitch, must be healed, according to the dictates of cultural logic, for only then will we know that we are human.


 

Notes

[1]

A. M. Turing, "Computing Machinery and Intelligence", Mind 59 (1950): 6. Hereafter referred to as Turing.

[2]

Not only are such obvious exceptions as hermaphroditism and transvestitism "untestable" under this model, but also, and more to the point for a consideration of artificial intelligence, real difficulties arise with this test model and an AI like that represented by Data, in the Star Trek: The Next Generation television series. Data, "anatomically correct and functioning in every way," as he once remarks to crew-member, Tasha Yar, "thinks" that he is male. James Sennett also makes this point in "The Ice Man Cometh: Lt. Commander Data and the Turing Test" (Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology Meetings, 1996; Louisiana Philosophy Convention, 1995. http://www.faculty.mcneese.edu/jsennett/iceman.htm. Jan. 8, 2000) p. 1.

[3]

Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991) p. 150.

[4]

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Imagination (New Haven: Yale UP, 1979) pp. 187-246. See also Mary Lowe-Evans, Frankenstein : Mary Shelley's Wedding Guest (New York: Twayne, 1993).

[5]

William Gibson, "Johnny Mnemonic," in Burning Chrome (New York: Ace, 1986) p. 1.

[6]

Gilbert and Gubar, pp. 237-8, and Lowe-Evans, pp. 54-6, trace in detail the creature's parallel education to Safie's.

[7]

M.H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 6th. ed. (Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Brace, 1993). pp. 97-9. According to Abrams, the "knowing reader" and the "implied point of view of the authorial presence behind the naive persona" share an understanding of events that the "naive hero" does not (Abrams, 98). See also Candace Lang's "Irony/Humor: Assessing French and American Critical Trends" (Boundary 2 10.3: 1982). pp. 271-302; Lang discusses gender in connection with definitions of irony and includes analysis of Romantic irony.

[8]

The concept of machine intelligence as "blind tracing" is allusively intriguing in the context of Turing's own activities on code-breaking projects during the second World War. Turing directed a code-breaking project which he records as having been a major inspiration for the work in his famous 1950 article. Members of the Women's Royal Naval Service (Wrens) acted as "human computers," participating in what was essentially a blind trace experiment, using decryption programs developed by Turing. Later, Turing developed machines, called "Bombes," to take over the work of the Wrens. Andrew Hodges comments that Turing was "fascinated by the fact that people could be taking part in something quite clever, in a mindless way," and concluded that the Wrens were doing something "mental," thus, were "thinking" (Andrew Hodges, Alan Turing: The Enigma [London: Burnett, 1983] p. 211).

[9]

Lowe-Evans comments on the correspondence of initials. See Lowe-Evans, p.47. See also Michael Laplace-Sinatra, "Science, Gender and Otherness in Shelley's Frankenstein and Kenneth Branagh's Film Adaptation", European Romantic Review 9.2 (1998): 253-70, for commentary.

[10]

Samual Vasbinder, Scientific Attitudes in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1984).

[11]

See Laura Mulvey for discussion of the animated statue analogues and Pandora ("The Myth of Pandora: A Psychoanalytic Approach," in Feminisms in the Cinema, eds. L. Pietropaolo and A. Testaferri [Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995] pp. 5-6). Also, see Vasbinder for a discussion of the animated statue analogues and the figure of the golem, pp. 25-8.

[12]

Mulvey, "The Myth of Pandora: A Psychoanalytic Approach", p. 6; hereafter referred to as Pandora. Mulvey apologizes for her use of psychoanalytic theory in "The Myth of Pandora" (interesting in that no apology was required in her earlier work), and expands on some of the ideas from her previous, much-anthologized article on visual pleasure in narrative cinema.

[13]

Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," in Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, eds. B. Wallis and M. Tucker (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984) pp. 359-74.

[14]

Tania Modleski, "The Terror of Pleasure: The Contemporary Horror Film and Postmodern Theory" in Studies in Entertainment. Critical Approaches to Mass Culture, eds. T. Modleski and K. Woodward (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986) p. 159.

[15]

Marj Kibby discusses how films like The Terminator and Robocop, which present hyper-masculinized male cyborgs as action heroes, are in effect reactions to the feminizing associations of technology, and represent just this kind of shoring up of masculine identity ("Cyborgasm: Machines and Male Hysteria in the Cinema of the Eighties," Journal of Interdisciplinary Gender Studies 1.2 [1996]: 139-146).

[16]

Michael Laplace-Sinatra, "Science, Gender and Otherness in Shelley's Frankenstein and Kenneth Branagh's Film Adaptation", European Romantic Review 9.2 (1998): 253-70. Laplace-Sinatra, too, argues that the far-more-physical relationship of Victor and Elizabeth is an attempt to enhance Victor's masculinity; the revision, Laplace-Sinatra suggests, occurs in concert with an attempt to downplay a homosexual sub-text in the novel. See Laplace-Sinatra, 255-7 for a more extended argument of this point.

[17]

Mary Shelley, "Frankenstein," in The Mary Shelley Reader, eds. B. Bennett and C. E. Robinson (New York: Oxford UP, 1990) p. 23.

[18]

Johnny's immediate sense of kinship with the dolphin is apparent in his first reaction to Jones's behaviour upon payment (with drugs): Johnny remembers "that he wasn't a fish, that he could drown," and feels a "strange panic" when the dolphin goes motionless in his tank, p. 11.

[19]

See Mulvey,"Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" , p.368.

[20]

See, for example, James Heffernan, "Looking at the Monster: Frankenstein and Film," Critical Inquiry 24.1 (1997): 133-58. Heffernan argues that Branagh's praiseworthy attempts to portray the creature sympathetically are not, however, as successful as James Whale's.

[21]

See Gilbert and Gubar on Shelley's dovetailing of philosophical debates with debates on women's roles, pp. 222-9.

[22]

In "The Myth of Pandora," for instance, Mulvey is concerned with the role of the female spectator as an investigative one in such films as Rebecca and Caught. Mary Anne Doane, too, discusses the female spectator with respect to film noir ("Film and the Masquerade: Theorising the Female Spectator," Screen 23.3 [1982]: 74-87). And Constance Penley offers an overview of approaches concerned with the male spectator and the possibility of other implied spectatorial positions (" 'A Certain Refusal of Difference': Feminist Film Theory," in Wallis and Tucker, pp. 375-90).

[23]

John Searle, "Minds, Brains, and Programs", Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3 (1980): 414-26.

[24]

John Searle, "Minds, Brains, and Programs", p.418.

Auteur : Andrea Austin
Titre : Frankie and Johnny: Shelley, Gibson, and Hollywood's Love Affair with the Cyborg
Revue : Romanticism on the Net, Numéro 21, février 2001
URI : http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/005958ar
DOI : 10.7202/005958ar

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