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Excavating the FutureArchaeology and Geopolitics in Contemporary North American Science Fiction Film and Television$

Shawn Malley

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9781786941190

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: May 2019

DOI: 10.3828/liverpool/9781786941190.001.0001

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(p.135) Part 3 Cyborg Sites: The Case of A.I. Artificial Intelligence

(p.135) Part 3 Cyborg Sites: The Case of A.I. Artificial Intelligence

Excavating the Future

Shawn Malley

Liverpool University Press

Perhaps the SF of this era of cybernetics and hyperreality will only be able to attempt to ‘artificially’ resurrect the ‘historical’ worlds of the past, trying to reconstruct in vitro and down to its tiniest details the various episodes of bygone days: events, persons, defunct ideologies—all now empty of meaning and of their original essence, but hypnotic with retrospective truth.

Jean Baudrillard1

The ones who made us are always looking for the ones who made them.

Gigolo Joe

In her discussion of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Zoë Sofia argues that the enigmatic appearance of the Star Child marks the completion of an evolutionary life cycle that began with humanity’s first encounter with technology and culminates in an embodied fusion with it. A ‘biomechanism, a luminous creature of special effects technologies, a cyborg capable of living unaided in space,’ the embryonic astronaut, she says, is a curious amalgamation of material science and political mediation, a ‘“special effect’’ of a cultural dreamwork which displaces attention from the tools of extermination and onto the fetal signifier of extinction itself’ (52, 54). Having joined the waltz of time that began with Moon-Watcher’s euphoric bone toss across time and space, it is unclear (p.136) whether this being conceived by the forces that delivered David Bowman beyond the infinite has returned to save or destroy its birthplace, or has some other, altogether unfathomable alien purpose. Suspending discrete chronometric categories of past, present and future, the cyborg actor is instead a figure for contemplating the (often destructive) epistemological directives of our technocratic culture.

From a disciplinary perspective, Stanford archaeologist Michael Shanks also appreciates the cyborg’s composite identity in the organic, material and social worlds. Like the Star Child, the cyborg is a poignant signifier of mutability. The ‘decay of the artefact,’ he asserts, ‘is a token of the human condition. The fragment, the mutilated and incomplete thing from the past, brings a sense of life struggling with time: death and decay await us all, people and objects alike. In common we have our materiality’ (Pearson and Shanks, 93). This syncretic view of a life cycle that envelopes things and people raises, he says, the haunting ‘spectre of the cyborg,’ the ‘epistemological threat […] [that if] the object world is collapsed into the social world […] it might appear that objective standards of truth are lost and relativism results’ (98). The archaeologist asserts, ‘We have always been cyborgs,’ a revision of Donna Haraway’s radical position that ‘we are cyborgs’ (150)

rooted in the argument and evidence for the coevolution of culture and biology, that for as long as we have been our human species, and probably before that, (material) culture and biology have been part of the same evolutionary process. Given also the duality of structure, the way an action such as making is distributed through socio-cultural structures, past and future, people have always been embroiled in mixtures of material and immaterial forms and systems. With respect therefore to both people and things, we should adopt a relational, distributed ontology. Connections, internal relations, make an artifact or person what they are; we find ourselves in others. People have always been prosthetic beings, sharing their agency with others, with things and processes beyond them. We have always been cyborgs—hybrid beings, human-machines.

(Olsen et al., 191)

Shanks’s reflexive archaeological programme thereby extends the cyborg debate from engineering, biopower, environmentalism, animal rights and gender politics to the material and historical conditions in which these technological and social issues circulate.

This introduction to ‘Cyborg Sites’ takes the form of a case study: an examination of the collapse of the organic and the material in Steven (p.137) Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), a reading that exposes the director’s outwardly nostalgic remediation of the Pinocchio myth2 to the kinds of critical questions Shanks asks about the shared life cycle encompassing people and objects. The story chronicles the travails of David, an artificial being who wants to be made into a real boy so that his mother will return his (programmed) love for her. The film’s tag line ‘His love is real, but he is not’ encapsulates the central dilemma for a feeling machine. David is positioned at the heart of ontological debates about the nature of reality in an age of advanced bio-medical and reproductive technology falling inexorably into an apocalyptic future in which humanity is survived and remembered by its post-human offspring, who excavate in the far-flung future the ruined mise-en-scene of the film and the mise-en-abyme of David’s idyllic memories of his mother.

The sense of déjà vu evoked by Spielberg’s cyborg returning to his birthplace arises in part from A.I.’s origin story. After decades of wanting to adapt into a feature film Brian Aldiss’s story ‘Supertoys Last All Sumer Long’ (1968), for which Kubrick bought the rights in 1983 (Loren, 211), Kubrick asked Spielberg in 1995 to complete the project.3 Kubrick’s main obstacle was that cinematic technology lagged behind his vision of a realistic cyborg character. Kubrick’s legacy to Spielberg, whose Jurassic Park (1993) convinced the elder director that an artificial actor was possible, is a film that deals explicitly with the problems of what happens when technology catches up with our dreams, when film is itself symptomatic of the cascading social trauma A.I. explores through the trials of David and his cyborg friends. Like 2001, the bio-material figure of the cyborg in A.I. articulates complex relationships between memory and extinction. A.I. chronicles two extermination events, two ways of experiencing archaeological time. The first is through the artificial boy himself, who represents the end of fertility in a world collapsing into environmental unsustainability. We experience with David the imagined joys and the real horrors of artificial people in a world whose social structures are delimited by its strictures on biological reproduction. We are then abruptly cast like David Bowman into a 2,000-year proleptic leap into a world in which we are survived by artificial life forms who glean an ironic past through the artificial boy’s memory and his interaction with his ‘mother,’ whom the aliens clone from a surviving strand of (p.138) her hair. In the short resurrection scene with which the film concludes, the narrative folds back onto itself as we watch, like Bowman regarding his own death bed, the imagined incarnations of our future selves rummaging among the shards of their long-forgotten origins, which is to say our imminent future stored in the memories of artificial beings.

These distinct epochs pivot upon a geographically and historically specific image of ruin. Released in June 2001, the film is itself an archaeological record of the future it documents fictionally. Flyover scenes of the ruined Twin Towers rising out of a flooded and uninhabitable Eastern Seaboard are the dystopic analogue of cyborg struggles for actualization. While the visual reference of the WTC in ruins just a few months prior to 9/11 is entirely coincidental with the attacks, it is, like the beached Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes, a prognostic image, an archaeology of the future. The towers are poignant reminders of the entropic forces that consign the lessons of global sprawl to the watery depths. A.I. makes us remember (and in a sense pre-remember) through the figures of David and the Love Mecha Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) that this site of corporate control is a beacon sent from a post-apocalyptic future that draws humans and objects together, the cyborg world looming just beyond the horizon. Like the Forbidden Zone in Planet of the Apes, the Restricted Zone for Mechas holds the truth about the origins of a species born out of the disasters wrought by global capitalism. Though drowned—and later frozen—the Twin Towers remain perfect mirrors of each other, indifferent and closed off from the globalized world order from which they were conceived, a perfect singularity that holds in the balance David’s faith in his uniqueness and the fatal knowledge that he is one of the many simulacral boys available to fulfil Monica Swinton’s (Frances O’Connor) emotional void. The site of origin is the end of a worldview that David dissimulates and ultimately survives physically and emotionally as a gift to the archaeologists of the future, the Super Mechas. From these ruins the co-evolution of biological and artificial life radiates: the Twin Towers are an ironic Ellis Island through which cyborgs emerge as un-naturalized citizens.

The geopolitical complexion of David’s manufacture is dramatized in the film’s second act, which concerns his quest to become a real boy after Monica abandons him in the woods. Accompanied by Gigolo Joe, who chaperones the child through the world of experience and human-Mecha relations, David’s voyage is an odyssey that leads him back to his birthplace, Dr. Hobby’s (William Hurt) android factory, Cybertronics in Manhattan. Never dissuaded from his desire to be real—which seems to be an unforeseen consequence of his programming as a mother-loving son—David is an innocent who cannot look directly (p.139) or intelligibly like Gigolo Joe upon the cruelties latent in his function as a surrogate child. Instead, like a ‘real’ boy, David internalizes the oppressive nature of human attachments in his own desires for his mother to reciprocate his unconditional love for her. From an archaeological perspective, two related scenes expose David to what Despina Kakoudaki characterizes as the ‘nihilistic tendencies’ devolving from David’s ontological dilemma that he is manufactured but psychologically indistinguishable from a real boy (186). His crisis epitomizes the tension between what she calls the ‘paranoid’ and ‘performative’ models of cyborg narrative:

If paranoia inspires storylines that depend on stable definitions of human and nonhuman and showcase the disruptions that emerge when one does not police these definitions adequately, in stories that engage forms of performativity the search to define the human appears as a more ambiguous and open-ended process that often returns to insights about the arbitrariness of distinctions. (175)

In A.I. these storylines merge at a site-specific location. The group stumbles across an uncanny scene: a midden heap of robotic parts left to bait runaway Mechas for cannon fodder in Lord Johnson-Johnson’s (Brendan Gleeson) carnival show, ‘Flesh Fair.’ In one of the film’s most pitiful sequences, outmoded Mechas rummage through cast-off appendages, looking for prosthetic replacements for their worn bodies. Here David is exposed to the social as well as material conditions of his kind. Images of fear, slavery and service to human needs and desires are cast onto artificial others: nannies and doctors, construction workers and cooks. As a child, David cannot reconcile his manufacture with their fragmentary existence, their parody of assembly-line production, this anti-teleology of progress that is literally in his cybernetic DNA but incompatible with his faith in the superiority of humans that governs his insistent sense of his own uniqueness as a loving son. Fittingly, it is here that he encounters Gigolo Joe, a character defined by his very name for a human need that has outlasted, it seems, human ability. Like humans, Mechas are subject to a murderous symbolic order that seeks perfection beyond death. As a visible sign of human entropy cast into terms of the cyborg other, the cybernetic boneyard attempts but ultimately fails to maintain the distinction between object and subject. As Michael Shanks reminds us, our performances of selfhood reveal that ‘in common we have our materiality’ (1998, 19).

The material politics of the film are most affective in the scene of androids helping one another survive by scavenging. Acting according (p.140) to what appears to be their own desire to save each other beyond the dictates of programmed service to humans bears the hallmark of a species evolving towards self-individuation, an ironic genesis at the site of decay that serves the sinister purpose of gathering subjects for torture and dismemberment at Flesh Fair. The ultimate scavenger of society’s detritus, Lord Johnson-Johnson is a scrap dealer who orchestrates a spectacle of marginality from the margins, a sensational paratextual arena of the politics of replication far away from the tranquil domestic rituals of the Swintons’ comfortable suburban life. The point behind these ‘grotesquely dramatic enactments of abjection’ is to ‘maintain the boundaries of the human, [to] separate the non-human where it threatens to compromise these borders’ (Loren, 224). But David’s presence—his performance of childhood innocence—ultimately undermines the social iniquities that Flesh Fair purports to address. The crowd (mis)recognizes David as a child, which allows the party to escape, dispersing the cyborg thereafter into the social world. The David simulation has at this moment obliterated the original by standing in for all children. In this regard, the carnival is transformed into an exhibition, a freak show that shares its genealogy with World’s Fairs and expositions of technology. In his backward-looking desire to recover the human from the machine, Lord Johnson-Johnson ironically orchestrates a pageant of material progress from which the cyborg may recognise, claim and ultimately reject its own origins.

This exhibitionary sensibility resurfaces when the friends fly to Cybertronics headquarters. In the laboratory of Dr. Hobby, David encounters himself, one of many identical artificial boys created in the image of Dr. Hobby’s lost son for every couple who has lost theirs. This has disastrous consequences for David’s psyche, which cannot reconcile his hard-wired love for his mother with the ontological condition of replication. When David destroys David in a re-enactment of Cain’s murder of Abel to secure his mother’s love for himself, he unsuccessfully tries to escape the entropic logic of the Twin Towers that still stand as the ruling paradigm of his purpose and identity. David has come to the point in his existential journey in which he is confronted, like many people, with the realization that ‘the danger of human-likeness revolves around what the copy reveals: that there is no certainty in the original’ (Kakoudaki, 185). David murdering David by striking off his head with a lamp is an inherently futile attempt at self-actualization reminiscent of Flesh Fair’s entertaining destruction of objects that threaten Lord Johnson-Johnson’s paranoid definition of (the organic) self. In the case of A.I. this dismemberment precipitates David’s self-murder by throwing (p.141) himself into the ocean encircling Cybertronics and the Twin Towers. David’s suicide marks the limits of his struggle to imagine utopian otherness in a world in which the reality principle has become overrun by its own simulations. The ‘personal’ tragedy for David is that love itself is a simulation, such that the object of his affection, his mother, can only be returned to him as a figment of simulation technology. Jumping into the watery oblivion represents the failure of the symbolic order to transcend the horror of replication that he, unlike real people, must accept as a condition of his life.

The third act, which features the return of the Super Mechas to the frozen wasteland of New York City, their awakening of David and Teddy, and the reanimation of Monica, shifts from one version of the future to another, from one SF fabula to another. For an audience perhaps as traumatized as the attendees of Flesh Fair by the film’s spectacles of child abuse, the wistfully hopeful fairy tale extended to David in the final act is nostalgic at best and sentimental at worst. After hearing the long-awaited words ‘I love you’ from his mother, David falls asleep to Ben Kingsley’s soothing voiceover, a promise that he is drifting ‘to that place where dreams are born.’ With their advanced cloning technology, the Super Mechas rescue David from the frozen symbolic order only to re-establish the utopian myth of transformation incarnate in the Pinocchio story. Spielberg’s sadly comforting, yet ultimately misremembered past conjured from David’s fairy tale dreams of maternal devotion holds out two distinct conclusions, two discrete interpretations that correspond in broad strokes with the futures of simulation propounded by Jean Baudrillard and Donna Haraway. In ‘Simulacra and Science Fiction,’ Baudrillard argues that the era of hyperreality signals the ‘end of SF.’ In the cyber age

it is the real which has become the pretext of the model in a world governed by the principle of simulation. And, paradoxically, it is the real which has become our true utopia—but a utopia that is no longer a possibility, a utopia we can do no more than dream about, like a lost object […] We can no longer imagine other universes; and the gift of transcendence has been taken from us as well. (311, 310)

The Super Mechas, yearning for their own origins, entrust their desires for historical certainty in their human forebears. The cultural conditions in which the referent is lost to nostalgia in a sea of hyper-mediated signs is the malaise the Super Mechas share with David. Their ‘lost object’ is humanity itself, whose reality principle lay in a half-remembered (p.142) fairy tale, the imagined powers of the Blue Fairy refracted through the tangled circuitry of a cyber boy’s child-like mind.

But if, like Lord Johnson-Johnson, Baudrillard attempts to close the door on the cyborg future, then Haraway opens another onto a new frontier beyond the ‘awful apocalyptic telos of the West’s escalating dominations of abstract individualism’ (150–51) that the fearful figure of loss of human agency holds for Baudrillard. According to Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, for Haraway SF affords ‘the necessary hopefulness that comes with knowing that neither the initial conditions (the origin) nor the outcome (the apocalypse) of any process, no matter how highly rationalized, can be determined’ (1991, 394). This perspective also informs the cyborg archaeologists’ reading of the bygone Anthropocene. As in 2001 (and Battlestar Galactica), the appearance of these cyborg beings is the climax of a vast home voyage, a nostos. Their interpretation of what they uncover is inseparable from the material and technological conditions of their very composition. Instead of Baudrillardian harbingers of apocalypse they appear as emancipatory figures, drawing from David traces of a hope that seems to have survived as a condition of his cyborg identity. Immortality—the denial of death—that fuels the human desire for progress is moot for them. While interested in origins, they are beyond death, implying that they are not beholden to myths of origin and can thereby, as Haraway states in her ‘Manifesto,’ thrive ‘outside salvation history’ (66) and the totalizing mythology that ‘legitimates the patriarchal, capitalist, heterosexist quest for reunion with a Mother Nature it was alienated from at The Origin’ (Csicsery-Ronay, 1991, 397).

These post-human beings embody what is for Baudrillard and Haraway SF’s social vocation, communication (Csicsery-Ronay, 1991, 389). They are in fact rendered as communication. They encounter in David a version of humanity that has as its lost origin the emotional investment in sharing, a reiteration of cyborg compassion enacted at Lord Johnson-Johnson’s midden site. Clearly nostalgic for a lost age survived by an artefact crafted to fulfil a human need, the Super Mechas are spellbound by David’s utopian drives. They retain the hopeless wish to commune with beings displaced by the ersatz experiences conjured from the boy’s programming. Their desire for the lost humans—‘certainly human beings must be the key to the mysteries of existence’—is articulated in a manner of speech that is physically awkward for beings who retain only animated skeuomorphic traces of human facial features. The process of recollection—here through archaeological re-collection—is always contingent and fluid. The critique of human relationships in the global capitalist state in the final scenes is framed by archaeologists of the future, who, like biological television sets, communicate through (p.143)

Part 3 Cyborg Sites: The Case of A.I. Artificial Intelligence

Figure 20. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Warner Bros., 2001).

images and sounds projected onto and through their bodies. Community is created when these aliens join hands and share their knowledge in a way that replicates in kind through cinematic imagery the familial logic programmed into—but ultimately withheld from—David. The Super Mechas are a network, an assemblage in a new set of cultural and technological relations: the dreams of human connection are realized in these beings, the dream of David’s purpose to love his mother. The film thereby returns the future to the ‘precession’ of simulacra and cleanses it of the horrors it once held for their cyborg ancestors.

Ultimately the film does not and cannot offer any definitive answer as to what these future artificial people learn from their excavations of a material world coeval with David’s memories and dreams. All we truly know lies within the diegetic realm of the film wherein Gigolo Joe’s prophetic words come true: ‘We are suffering for the mistakes they made because, when the end comes, all that will be left is us.’ Can the Super Mechas understand the irony of David’s idyll? Do they watch with pity or detached interest? While answers are not readily forthcoming, it seems clear that their empathetic abilities forecast the revolutionary energy Haraway ascribes to the cyborg. For Spielberg’s cyborgs are also filmmakers who produce from David’s memories a short feature characterized by ‘retold stories […] that reverse and displace the hierarchical dualisms of naturalized identities […] [by subverting the] central myths (p.144) of origin of Western culture’ (175). The Super Mechas embody if they do not explicitly name the ‘condition of freedom from the illegitimate categories of “nature” (race, gender, species, kingdom)—a freedom that can only emerge with the destruction of those rationalities and of the mythologies of essential identity’ (Csicsery-Ronay, 1991, 396). While certainly revisionist, the cyborg history in A.I. transcends the destructive mythologies of essentialism incarnate in origins by exposing origins not just to their apocalyptic finale but to a utopian frontier in which apocalypse is a revolutionary rather than world-ending force. A.I. realizes Michael Shanks’s prognostication that archaeology is the preeminent science in the cyborg age, because the cyborg cannot dissociate object and subject. The Super Mechas offer a version of cyborg storytelling that questions the binaries of the real and unreal, the self and other, gesturing towards a narrative model that, as Lisa Yaszek relates, ‘marshals other representational strategies that undermine the tragic or ironically detached tendencies of postmodern writing itself, replacing them with narrative trajectories that end toward a certain cautious hopefulness’ (2002, 15).

It is certainly arguable that the Super Mechas fall entirely within the purview of Haraway’s cyborg canon, yet they do exhibit a genealogical tendency towards the transformation of subject/object into an archaeological practice that challenges even as it aesthetically mirrors the political instabilities of the world they observe through David. David is a found object lost in time by aliens whose physicality, which is the very source of David’s anxieties about the nature of reality, is their triumph over the discourse of objectification. Having evolved beyond the historical and material conditions that make fairy tales necessary forms of narrative closure for David—and for we human spectators of our future selves—Spielberg’s archaeologists accord partial liberation from David’s decidedly human tragedy, his fatal attraction to origins and ends.

In the chapters that follow, the cyborg offspring of space-faring humanity—namely the Cylons and another David—likewise embark on existential journeys through archaeological investigations of their origins in human technology, excavations that expose the material conditions of the cyborg birth to the politics of simulation in which we are constantly remaking and unmaking ourselves. Like those in A.I., archaeological expeditions in Battlestar Galactica and Prometheus uncover ironic origins from which to create alternate archaeologies of the future, which is to say, disruptive histories of our current geopolitical investments in apocalyptic teleology and technology.


(2) Cf. Morrissey on Spielberg’s adaptation of the Pinocchio story.

(3) Elaborate concept drawings by Chris Baker and facsimiles of Kubrick’s production notes and treatments have recently been made available in a folio volume (Harlan and Struthers).