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The Velvet Light Trap 52 (2003) 4-14

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David Cronenberg's Crash and Performing Cyborgs

Christine Cornea

Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, the cyborg has emerged as a dominant figure in science fiction cinema. Images of this figuration have entered the popular imagination, and the celluloid cyborg has become synonymous with an understanding of contemporary life, a life that is heavily reliant upon the information technologies of our postmodern age. Scott Bukatman rather boldly states that "it is the purpose of much recent science fiction to construct a new subject-position to interface with the global realms of data circulation," and he famously calls this new subject-position "terminal identity" (8). He also goes on to argue that "[c]inematic style [has] become a part of social and gestural rhetoric, an integral part of the presentation of self in the era of terminal identity" (43).

At the least, Bukatman is suggesting that the various behaviors and etiquettes acquired by subjects of a postmodern technological society are highly influenced by cinematic portrayals. In this panoptic era, our self-presentations are not only becoming increasingly mediated by and through visualization technologies, but postmodern identities are also, somewhat literally, bound up with the performed images presented by cinema. Consequently, given that the cyborg manifestly enacts a form of subjectivity that interacts with technology on the most intimate of levels, close attention to the way in which it is enacted and performed in cinema is very important.In fact, I would argue that presentation of the celluloid cyborg necessarily highlights how aspects of performance are currently part of postmodern living. For instance, the actors involved in depicting a given cyborg can be understood, literally, as cyborg actors, their performance being so obviously enmeshed with the technological apparatus of the cinematic machine. It follows, then, that the performing cyborg may also serve to defamiliarize aspects of supposedly "naturalistic" acting and characterization in film, therefore bringing into contention questions of authenticity in both the real and reel world.

The importance of the cyborg as a provocative figuration has not been missed in academia. The cyborg is, by definition, a hybrid interconnected figuration, a figure that complicates traditional Cartesian dualisms, a figure that presents a challenge to established philosophies/models built up around conceptual divisions and used in the production of "authenticity narratives." By this I am primarily referring to narratives that characterize the human subject by what it is not, that use oppositional exclusion as a process with which to define human subjectivity. Even though ambivalences associated with the hypergendered cyborg have been well documented in film studies and beyond, very little attention has been paid to certain aspects of the performances involved. For instance, although it would seem that Arnold Schwarzenegger's acting skills (or, as many would have it, lack of acting skills) are not brought to the fore in his playing of the Terminator, is this a good enough reason for not paying close attention to how this performance is achieved? How it may interact with the narrative? How his performance may or may not "fit" with current acting styles? How and in what ways it may differ from supposedly "naturalistic" acting stylizations? In part, the narratives of The Terminator (1984) and its sequel (Terminator 2: Judgment Day, 1991) justify his rather robotic performance by maintaining [End Page 4] his Otherness in a comparison with the "fussier" performances given by the fully human characters surrounding him. 1 In fact, the vacuous style displayed by Schwarzenegger appears remarkably similar to performances given by many other celluloid cyborgs (e.g., Jean-Claude Van Damme in Universal Soldier [1992], Peter Weller in Robocop [1987], Keanu Reeves in Johnny Mnemonic [1995], etc.) and can therefore be understood as a generic form of acting that is common to science fiction films. 2 In addition, the blockbuster science fiction/action films mentioned above concentrated on bringing thrilling spectacle to the screen through their use of cutting-edge special effects and the fast-moving physicality of fight-and-flight sequences. This is standard fare within the contemporary action genre, and...


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