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  • Tech-Noir: A Theory of the Development of Popular Genres
  • Jen Schneider (bio)
Tech-Noir: A Theory of the Development of Popular Genres. By Emily E. Auger. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. Pp. 492. $95.

The business of identifying film genres and sub-genres is a tricky one, typically involving either archival research and list-making or comparative analyses of a large number of films in an effort to demarcate a new genre or sub-genre from others that might be similar. Such work is necessarily ambitious, involving hundreds of hours of viewing, cataloging, and analyzing films that fit one’s definition of the new genre. It is not easy work, and for this reason it is rare to find texts that define new genres both by analyzing across films and by providing a significant filmography of movies that fit the genre’s classifications. Emily Auger’s nearly 500-page book does exactly this, and it is this ambitious effort that is the book’s greatest strength as a resource for genre or narrative scholars in film studies or STS.

A bit less than half of the three-chapters-plus-filmography book is devoted to Auger’s wide-ranging discussion of the historical antecedents to the “tech-noir” genre, which she defines as a mélange of science fiction and the detective story, but with a specific emphasis on human and humanoid victims stuck in a technological wasteland. Chapter 1, “Methods and Models,” dwells on the genre’s origins in the Greek myths of Oedipus and Prometheus. Auger defines her methods as poststructuralist, and her “theory” of genre development is that we see traces of these Greek mythologies reflected in the ancestors of tech-noir films, which she identifies primarily as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau. In chapter 2, “The Promethean Message,” Auger analyzes each of these three novels as well as their filmic offspring in order to highlight the emergence of tech-noir elements in more recent film adaptations. The tech-noir genre, argues Auger, is informed both by deep mythological and psychoanalytical narrative and by technological and scientific discourses as they evolve over time. [End Page 954]

The third chapter, which is where the book performs its most interesting and definitive work on the tech-noir genre, is followed by an explication of the elements of “tech-noir” as they manifest in various films: the technical wasteland, the cyborg body, the dominance of aesthetics, and so on. This final chapter is followed by Auger’s detailed filmography, which occupies most of the second half of the book and spans the 1970s through 2005. It is organized in separate lists by year, by type, and alphabetically, and the entries have detailed summaries, making it a useful resource for genre researchers and film instructors. Readers will leave this chapter wanting more, and deeper, analyses of the films Auger examines, as it is in this section, and not in her theorizing about genre in general, that the intricacies of the tech-noir genre become clear.

In many ways, the book’s strengths—its ambitious nature, its wide-ranging meanderings through Greek mythology, Romantic literature, and tech-noir films such as Blade Runner (1982), The Terminator (1984), and The Matrix (1999)—are also its weakness. The first chapter’s effort to connect mythology with discursive approaches and psychoanalysis, all overlaying discussion of particular artifacts and film genres, is overly complicated and belabored; detailed charts at the end of chapter 3 do not do enough to clarify the connections Auger sees between these many systems (though the reader would be better served had these charts been integrated into the chapters themselves). They also require a fairly thorough knowledge of these key mythologies, literatures, and theoretical constructs; readers deeply trained in the humanities—particularly in philosophy or other fields steeped in theory—will have a significant leg-up in wading through Auger’s first two chapters.

Undergraduate students would be significantly challenged by this work (and the cost of the text), and it would also have limited application even for graduate-level film...


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