Back when the Internet was almost new, I overheard a conversation between two computer geek-boys. They were hunched over a table in a university campus cafe. One of them was telling the sad story of his cyber love affair which had gone wrong. ‘I realised that she wasn’t a person at all. She was a persona,’ moaned broken-hearted Geek One. It seemed that he had fallen foul of the playful opportunities for masking identity that are offered in e-mail and chatrooms. I never found out the exact nature of the betrayal of Geek One, but it seemed he felt that he had been deceived. I wondered if perhaps his lovely cyber-she turned out to be a bodily-he; or maybe his disembodied lover was playing a fictional character in a kind of virtual-life-theatre; or it could have been that the lover simply bounced back the expectations and assumptions which ‘she’ had gleaned from their chats and, in that way, turned Geek One into some sort of Narcissus staring longingly at himself reflected in the screen-pool. There is a wide scope for speculation about the possibilities of self transformation, and deception, when you enter into the realm of intimacy without presence. Geek Two, up till then the sympathetic listener, gently clarified the conundrum for his friend: ‘You were attracted to a cyber-lover, but you still wanted to really know her, to believe that she was for real’.
I was reminded of this eaves-dropped moment when I looked at the films which emerged from 1999’s millenial anticipation. It brought back the confusion of Geeks One and Two – trying to fit a desire for authenticity with an exploration of new technology. Last year saw the release of films which posed similar questions but in other ways: messing about with the idea of self and playing on anxiety about the status of the human body. Three, in particular, which take up this identity/body speculation, are Existenz, Being John Malkovich and Fight Club.
With a concentration on the body, Existenz is typical of David Cronenberg’s filmaking. Having both written and directed this latest production, he was able to exercise many of his familiar representations of a cross-over between the body and technology. Like Videodrome (1983), Existenz indulges in some salaciously gooey connections between hard technological artefacts and the soft tissue of organs. In this film, the key image is a computer-like game which is programmed into a ‘MetaFlesh Game-Pod’. It is, in turn, attached via an ‘umbycord’ to the player. The cord plugs right into the body at a ‘bioport’, looking like a cross between an anus and a power socket, located at the base of the player’s spine. Existenz explores a dissolution of the boundary between the world of objects – still objects, even if they are squishy and pulsating – and the skin-bound realm of the body. Unlike the sad story of Geek One, the body is not made absent by technology, rather a kind of technologised body dominates Cronenberg’s vision of a new self. This is a common aspect of many speculative or science fiction films now: the future has ceased to be shiny and clean, like in Star Trek, and has become instead grimy and disordered, like in Blade Runner. Perhaps since Ridley Scott’s Alien, technological development has been incorporated into the banal mess of living. Of course Cronenberg’s messy technology extends this further still, being likely to make squelching sounds as its secretions collect in a puddle on the floor. The representation of technology as an imposed order, or as a means to control human and natural environments, is replaced by a kind of organic ubiquity. Soft and meaty machines are everywhere, like microbes or creeping weeds. Instead of the Enlightenment image of the human as sophisticated machine, Cronenberg goes in the other direction. We are presented with a machine that squeaks when you massage its bumps; bringing it closer to our own fleshy potential for intimacy and horror.
I was also struck by the similarity between Cronenberg’s ‘Metaflesh Game-Pod’ and the ‘LUMP’ or ‘Life Form with Unresolved Mutant Properties’ which features in the computer-manipulated images by Australian photographer Patricia Piccinini. In Psychotourism 1996 and Psychogeography 1996, both recently acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria, the LUMP appears as a kind of baby being shown around simulated landscapes by a computer-glossed mum in the form of Sophie Lee. Piccinini has described the LUMP as ‘the human form completely redesigned by an engineer and an ad agency; physiognomically efficient and marketably cute’. (Gallery, Dec 1999-Jan 2000)
Aside from the visual similarity between Piccinini’s imagery and Cronenberg’s, the theme of the marketability of organicised technological fantasy is another link. (I hope this will eventually bring us back to the problems of Geeks One and Two.) The narrative in Existenz revolves around the consumer trial of a new game which plays like the now-familiar computer adventures. However, instead of images flickering in a beige box or clunky goggles, the game is acted out within the ‘space’ of the players’ minds – a kind of networked dreaming. The sinuous circuitry, kidney-shaped mobile phones, and games which hook straight into the unconscious, are the result of carefully managed marketing. All the action, real or otherwise, takes place within a focus group of potential consumers. Standing in the role of producers, the film has ‘Antenna Research’, the typically faceless corporation staffed by young designers and promoters. It is mysterious in its decision processes and apparently centreless in its structure. In the background there is a fear of betrayal from within the invisible company, creating an X File-like atmosphere of paranoia about institutions. The theme of manipulation of the individual by unseen forces is strong here, like it was in another of 1999’s body/consciousness movies, The Matrix. While that film could be read as an anti-capitalist fairy story infused with an individualist populism (which the US also produces in another form: the right-wing militia), Existenz is more mundane in its representation of the way the market reaches inside us. The manipulation of desire sits uncomfortably alongside an expectation of increased freedom, creating a murmuring dissent within. It’s a contradiction already familiar to our two Geeks.
Like Existenz, Being John Malkovich places the desire to expand the self into the heart of the contemporary consumer. But both films show this desire for image commodities being accompanied by an anxiety about how we can hold it all together. How can any part of a person – identity or body – remain inviolate against such a pervasive want? Being John Malkovich presents this terrible freedom explicitly. The film works from the fantastic premise of a ‘portal’ which allows anyone to enter the body and mind of the celebrated actor John Malkovich. The Malkovich ‘ride’ lasts only fifteen or twenty minutes, but the intensity of total integration into somebody else has ordinary people lining up to experience the ordinary life of a semi-famous man. The porousness of Malkovich’s consciousness is an accident of fate, not a condition of his fame. In this world anyone could, at some point, be open to unwilled occupation by others. Malkovich’s fear of having no part of himself which is not fluid, not able to be tapped by strangers’desires, is the other side of the consuming self. Being John Malkovich, like Existenz, shows an openness of the body leading to a kind of fissuring of being. The ease of access to alternative identities not only represents a techno-enabled liberation of consumption, but also a profound exposure of the self – identity unhoused.
In Existenz marketable objects are like bodies and in Being John Malkovich the whole self is for sale, body and soul. Both films show crowds of consumers unafraid of the technical processes which they must undergo in order to absorb other people as images. While this might be celebrated by some as a breakthrough to the post-human, the nastier side of the breach is the way we, in turn, become more like things. The logic is essentially pornographic in the way that all our desires become freely available. Our appreciation of others is separated from any surrounding meaning which might unwrap the consumable parcel. This is where Fight Club shows a swing in the opposite direction, helpfully pointing out the differences between you and your apartment. This film reasserts the body as the primary location of identity, but not without finally slipping into nihilism. The disquiet about an exposed self and the conflicting desires for authenticity and freedom, which haunt Existenz and Being John Malkovich (and our Geek friends), are the real meat of Fight Club. This longing for vividness of experience is the linking motif across the three films. Authenticity of self becomes the same as feeling things intensely. But in Fight Club the power of intense consumption has reached its limit. The strong identification through solid commodities (Ikea’s lifestyle-in-a-lounge-suite packages are targeted nicely here) is replaced by a communalism based on a reassertion of masculinity. Risk, death and violence – usually invisibly present in information societies – are made explicit. So the fearful anticipation of the plane or car crash, with which we quietly live, is instead met head-on in a kind of ritual embodiment where men beat the hell out of each other. There are parallels with Trainspotting in this withdrawal from the clean and tidy self that shops for identity at the mall or through the Internet. The alternative presented is an authenticity derived from the exaltation and suffering of a body under pressure. And I can almost see those Geek boys in the fight scenes; the murmuring need for intensity charged up to a testosterone scream. Maybe, if they hadn’t had good IT jobs to go to …
The men in Fight Club find worth in the exposure of euphemism. As they crack open the smooth surfaces of the spectacle society, as in guerrilla operations they destroy pieces of corporate art, chain stores and banking centres, they increase their sense of group identity. Even if that action is no deeper than a ‘boyish’ pleasure in destruction, the physical – even libidinal – thrill endows meaning in pointed contrast to the models offered by pop psychology or the work ethic. But Fight Club, again like Trainspotting, also points to the difficulty of containing identity in extreme physical experience. It requires continuous escalation of the way that the event, the body and the self can coincide. The whole burden of self-formation is heaped onto the body. A charismatic male leader, the physical closeness of other men and the continuous presence of risk are all that holds the group together. Along with the masculine pack mentality there is a kind of anti-modern rejection of technology, bolstering these men left behind by a de-industrialised society. Locating identity on the body appears to be stabilising, reclaiming self from the seething flow of transient images.
While Fight Club tries to fix the self in the exhilaration of the body it celebrates the primitive, presenting a physical kind of identity as constrictive nostalgia. Of course it is not surprising that a film coming out of a Hollywood studio (Fox) would portray a commune as regimented, brainwashing and backward-looking. In that generic requirement, Fight Club reverses its critique. The expansive aspiration of identity, which drives vertiginous consumption to new heights in Existenz and Being John Malkovich, even breaks out in base world of Fight Club. (Protecting the pleasures of plot, I won’t reveal the film’s exact twist on the inventive resources of identity.) The solid boundary of muscle and sweat becomes a claustrophobic restriction. Worse still, nothing comes after the intense physical moment. The face-to-face meeting with destruction and risk is merely a respite from an ongoing meaninglessness. In the end, total body identification provides an authenticity as lame as piped images and electro-simulations.
Am I any nearer a resolution of the Geeks’ prescient problem? Does the kind of oozing and physical technology offered in Existenz and Being John Malkovich provide some kind of satisfaction of their desire for intimacy? I don’t think so. Those Geek boys were talking about a kind of presence which isn’t enabled by the simulation of proximity. Getting a sense of the virtual surface of interchangeable personas doesn’t get Geek One any closer. The inadequacy of that kind of spatial solution is even a half-acknowledged tension within the films themselves: the anxiety of a constant and caustic search for authentic identifying images. And the other side of their troubles, the hope to expand the self in new terrain, tipping over into abstraction and ephemera? Geeks beware the return of the repressed body as played out in Fight Club! But physical intensity diminishes over time, not unlike the aura of the image-commodity. The body can’t contain the longing to augment the self in the world – a fact that the Computer Geek knows well.
Is there a way through? If only this Book Geek had sat down with them and talked face-to-face, instead of just listening in like some low-tech bugging device. Maybe we could have worked out a reconciliation of self: perhaps a new social form which incorporates a certain mobility of identity and a bodily security. But then maybe resolving such issues will require more than a tableful of Geeks, talking.