Man Eating Machines
Digitization, Modulation, and the death of the Self
May 15th, 2017
Within the realm of Science Fiction has always existed the screen. Science Fiction long imagined the television screen would become the great mediator of communication and interaction. That its ability to provide a mode of transcendence for the self into metaphysical particles, pixels, and data numerical values would become the medium by which individuals move about their world. These new individuals that live behind the screen, this new flesh, are defined by a term coined by Gilles Deleuze in his essay “Postscripts on the Societies of Control”. In this essay, Deleuze argues that the “individual” has become the “dividual.” He writes, “The numerical language of codes mark access to information, or reject it. We no longer find ourselves dealing with the mass/individual pair. Individuals have become ‘dividuals’, and masses, samples, data, markets, or ‘banks’.”
Dividuals are in a constant state of modulation, and can be infinitely divided and reduced. They are parsed out and categorized into markets, demographics, private information i.e, bank numbers, passwords, and usernames, and public information i.e images, locations, and personalities. Rather than experiencing a metamorphosis, the dividual experiences modulation, flux and movement within these structures. They are stretched, and codified infinitely. The world imagined by science fiction, life behind a screen, has become reality. Our eyes have become fixed to the screen, and an alternative digital existence is impossible to avoid. Those who are in the “real world” are hardly aware of the constant modulation that their dividual counterparts experience. Because of the control society around us, we are only allowed to see through a narrow window. We are unaware that the Self, is constantly being sliced, so much so that in some forms we may be unrecognizable to ourselves. If you were shown the block of code that together becomes your Facebook profile, it would be unrecognisable as uniquely you. But it is, you.
In these societies, surveillance has become the primary form for which states interact with their citizens. A voyeuristic culture is normalized and encouraged when the state relies upon the dividual profile to keep an eye on citizens. Thus, surveillance becomes the primary mode for the citizens to interact with each other. Constantly tuning in to the curation of each others dividual avatars, willfully submitting ourselves to be watched and marketed to based upon our dividual profiles, forfeiting privacy becomes normalized. What happens to the Self when it experiences constant division, modulation and surveillance? Four characters from science fiction narratives help explore this question: Brian Oblivion and Max Renn from Videodrome (1983), Bob Arctor of A Scanner Darkly (2006), and Josh Harris, a documentary subject of the film We Live In Public (2009). All of these characters undergo a transformation of self via a form of media. By examining these characters we will seek to discover how they respond to division, modulation, and surveillance. Subsequently, we will question whether or not life in-dividual creates opportunities for a positive, liberatory transformation of the Self or rips the Self from its organism and destroys it. And finally, we will explore capitalism and corporate industries role in the death of the Self.
Brian Oblivion is a character who exists solely on the screen. He acts as a televisual Virgil to the main character Max Renn (James Woods), who sheds light on the world of Videodrome and guides him through his digitally induced hallucinations. Oblivion has transcended the physical. Though his films were created prior to his death, his physical body is now a past tense, and he continues to exist as an omnipresence that interacts personally with Max. In the film, a snuff-porn signal called Videodrome is used induce hallucinations that allow the corporation Spectacular Optical to enslave those who are exposed. Brian Oblivion transcends into the media digisphere when he dies on an operating table while undergoing surgery to remove a brain tumor. At minute 35:23 to 36:54, Oblivions says,
The Battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena. The Videodrome. The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye. Therefore the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, television is reality, and reality is less than television.
Oblivion’s character is constantly addressing an unseen audience, proselytizing in monologues. In this scene, he offers his philosophy that the screen is indeed another part of the eye, and therefore another part of experience. Oblivion attempts to problematize the watcher and the watched attitude opting to show that video can be conversational. That the pixelated image has agency. He then speaks directly to Max,
Your reality is already half video hallucination. If you’re not careful it will become total hallucination. You will have to learn to live in a very strange new world. I had a brain tumor. I had visions. I believed the visions caused the tumor and not the reverse. I could feel the visions coalesce and become flesh. Uncontrollable flesh. But when they removed the tumor…it was called videodrome.
Oblivion here expresses that he believes his visions in fact became what he later refers to as “a new organ.” That Videodrome is in fact living flesh, raw experience that emerged from him. We are never given insight to Brian Oblivion before he becomes what Cronenberg terms “new flesh”. His televisual, digital existence is all there is. But Oblivion himself recognizes that he is divided. That the tumor that is of his flesh becomes a new and dividual existence in and of itself: that of Videodrome. Of course this is all very metaphorical of the dividual concept. The tumor that is Videodrome is a modulation Oblivion experiences, and one that is part of his Self, his hallucinations, but becomes something in and of itself, much like data and markets do to the modern person’s individuality.
Oblivion’s existing through a mediated form is one that emblematizes the positive transcendence offered through death and becoming the screen. Brian Oblivion is the anti-market, his modulation is embraced, his digital body is not reduced but pluralized beyond predictability, into a vast catalogue of tapes that can answer any question and penetrate the minds of those affected by Videodrome. But we can only accept this as so (and therefore as positive) because there is no physical body tethered to the real. We do not see his modulation, only the result of it. He only exists as pixels, while the hallucinations produced by Videodrome have a place within reality. However, we can see how the transmission that allowed him to transcend effects Max Renn. Max Renn becomes a monster. He suffers a detrimental break from reality due to his hallucinations. He is incapable of distinguishing his reality from the hallucinations. This mental disassociation is what allows him to become susceptible to coercion. A vessel to be programed, and to modulate in form; the video word “made flesh.” After his exposure to Videodrome, Max grows a new opening within his stomach. This opening becomes the vessel for a living cassette which is plunged into his stomach by the CEO of Spectacular Optics. He coaxes him saying, “I want you to open up Max” and plunges the cassette into the slit. Max then undergoes a transformation; his hand absorbs a gun and it becomes a part of him. He is programmed to kill, and his former Self disappears. Max experiences a violent form of modulation, one that enslaves him. Again, this is incredibly metaphorical. The CEO as capitalism and Max as the consumer. Additionally, in the moment he becomes “the video word made flesh”, he is not liberated but mearley reprogrammed. His transcendence to the digisphere and becoming new flesh requires his death. His opening up to coercion results due to the deterioration of his cognitive awareness of the real. This produces complete lack of agency in whether or not he became new or stayed the old. Much like Bob Arctor in A Scanner Darkly, his life in modulation results in cognitive dissonance and a loss of the Self.
Bob Arctor, played by Keanu Reeves, is an undercover narcotics investigator in a near-futuristic Los Angeles. This Los Angeles is under heavy surveillance, police cameras on every corner and face recognition software is normalized. The city has been ravaged by crime and drug usage, specifically a hallucinogenic called “Substance D.” Arctor is on assignment to infiltrate the circle of Donna (Winona Ryder), a drug dealer whose supplier he is trying to discover. Bob Arctor also happens to be addicted to Substance D, and is additionally surveilling another person: himself. Arctor’s identity is protected by a futuristic technology called a “scramble suit” which takes the voices and images of many identities and modulates through them in order to obscure the identity of the wearer. The suit is created and owned by a company called New Path. Bob Arctor, the drug addict, lives in a run down house with a cast of delinquent characters. He indulges a great deal of drug use and gets into a variety of paranoid antics with his addicted cohort. When Arctor is in the scramble suit, he is known as Fred and he is made to watch hours of surveillance video from inside his house. In these tapes he seems himself moving through various spaces. In one scene, he is shown his viewing station from a supervisor whose true identity is unknown. The suits are constantly fluctuating in terms of images, an eye of unknown man coupled with the face of an unknown woman. The voices are male with an occasional mechanical feedback. All this coupled with the rather jiggly nature of the animation makes for an interesting example of modulating bodies. They discuss how to analyze the surveillance material, and to watch for Bob Arctor. They joke about how Fred could really be Bob Arctor. It creates the perfect analogy for the dividual. His body is constantly being modified in appearance, and he is divided into two Selves.
Much like Max, he experiences cognitive dissonance and bizarre hallucinations before finally becoming too far gone from reality. Between Arctor’s heavy drug use and third party surveillance of himself, he starts to become incapable of distinguishing himself from his existence within the scramble suit. In one particular scene he recites a bizarre monologue, in which Arctor as the investigator expresses concern for the well being of Bob Arctor the drug addict as a third party. Arctor here epitomizes the “man of control” according to Deleuze. “The disciplinary man was a discontinuous producer of energy, but the man of control is undulatory, in orbit, in a continuous network.” The scramble suit uses modulation in order to obscure, but also to divide and detach. Bob Arctor’s Self is severed into two forms, the drug addict and the investigator. He is detached from those who also wear the scramble suit, from himself, and from his immediate reality. At the finality, Arctor is only mere remnants of himself. His shell is left to work for the New Path corporation to cultivate Substance D. Much like Max, his transformed Self is enslaved. But instead of via modulation, Arctor experiences reduction and through division his Self is dismantled. Mediation made reconciliation of the two parts impossible.
Josh Harris and his project “Quiet: We Live in Public” epitomizes Science Fiction made real. Josh Harris was there at the birth of the internet. He founded a technology consulting firm, Jupiter Communications, in 1986 and became a millionaire. He predicted the future of the internet, foreseeing that internet chat rooms would become the new sex industry and browser based channel surfing the new television. He believed that one day, we would all live behind the screen. In his project, Harris built a human terrarium, a capsule hotel with every bed outfitted with a camera and a television screen. He gathered 100 artists and allowed them to live inside the hotel, meals and alcohol provided for free given one stipulation: they consent to be filmed twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, with all their activities broadcast to the television screens in each bed, even the private capsules. Science Fiction is brought to life. He sought to prove that anyone will willingly forfeit their privacy for the recognition and connection that comes with being surveilled. The documentation of the project is truly incredible, akin to a reality tv show like Big Brother. On December 3rd, 1999 the participants were made to register and forfeit private information including social security numbers, fingerprints, and personality profiles. They were made to wear uniform jumpsuits. People seem excited to participate in this free experience, but as Josh Harris so cryptically states, “We own the tapes.” What occurs over the course of the next few weeks is truly fascinating. The participants became absolutely wild. The hotel offers such things as a shooting range, bar, and drugs with no restrictions. Rows of pods show people sitting in their beds tuned into each other’s channels while others perform for their cameras. It achieves its goal in that it turns surveillance into a form of entertainment. Harris becomes a proverbial Oz in a land of debauchery. Harris said that, “As time goes by we’re going to increasingly have our lives lived in very public and private ways.” And the participants proved him right. Heightened sexual deviancy and public sex becomes the performance within the hotel. The egos of the individuals are made incredibly apparent as every aspect of life becomes performance. Harris equates this to everyone’s desire for infinite fame.
But towards the end the project takes a dark turn. People begin to break under the pressures of public life. Those with former drug addictions and mental disorders feel tested and the constant surveillance both on screen and in person begins to drive people to the edge. People become increasingly animalistic, threatening and committing physical harm. The project was shut down, appropriately, on Y2K just after midnight. After the project ended, Harris continued by setting up cameras all throughout his house for six months, broadcasting the cohabitation of him and his then girlfriend, Tanya Corrin. The video feed was accompanied by a chatroom for watchers to interact and they are constantly interacting with the watchers by speaking aloud. At one notable point, Corrin loses her wallet and asks the viewers to help her find it. Harris and Corrin begin are incredibly playful at first and their relationship appears strong. But as with Quiet, the mood turns darker. Harris and Corrin become alienated from one another, maintaining constant connection with their viewers but losing intimacy with each other. Then, they have a fight on the live feed which turns violent. As Corrin notes, the fight became less about hearing each other and more about performing their egos for the audience. Once the fight ended unresolved, they return to their respective computers to converse with the viewers. The relationship ends, and Harris continues alone for only a few more months and then ends the broadcast.
Because of his experiments, Harris became a man who felt he could only live on the screen. A later video he posted shows him saying goodbye to his dying mother, who he did not want to be with physically, claiming that video was the only way he knew how to say goodbye. This transformation is the Brian Oblivion with a body. Isolated, segmented, and relegated to a life on the screen. Harris lives a divided life, much like we all do, one in virtual avatar and the other in the physical real. But Harris is incapable of detaching what he knows of himself from the avatar and transcends further than the average Instagram user. All four of these characters and the Quiet participants undergo a death of their Selves, their humanity eaten by machines of surveillance, division, and modulation. Whether it is Brian Oblivion and Josh Harris’ transcendence to a digital form of existence, or Max Renn and Bob Arctor’s loss of agency, divided until rendered null each character loses elements of the parts that makes up the natural occurring cognitive Self. The transcendent being knows only ego and the pleasure of being watched and watching others. Of being all knowing. It modulates when physicality becomes no longer sustainable. While the divided form knows only enslavement and violent transformation. Though it may consent it is sliced and segmented in ways that the transcended never can be.
Though appearing opposite, these two forms come together to complete a whole being that exists in the less powerful position of a very violent relationship; that of the consumer to the corporation. The consumer opts in to being surveilled, with the hopes that their egos will be satisfied. Steven Shaviro writes, “flexibility also characterizes consumers, who no longer settle for Fordist standardization and uniformity, but instead demand products that are customized for their own particular’preferences,’or whims of the moment. In a world of flexible accumulation (Harvey 2006, 141–172), modulation is the process that allows for the greatest difference and variety of products, while still maintaining an underlying control.” The consumer opts into becoming their digital avatar, to sharing publicly the image they want to be perceived as. But underneath, they are being ripped apart. The transcended form alone is an illusion to be bought and commodified under the guise that it is liberation, that it is individual. Robert Williams says, “Thus we must ask: how individual is the self when it too is marketed and targeted by government organizations? How autonomous, sacrosanct, and centered is the individual when autonomy is defined as choosing from pre-selected political or consumer choices? When we are buffeted by multiple claims on our identity? […] When pandering to our psychological and physical fears are central features of marketing?” When living a life in-dividual, the individual as we know it becomes no more. As dividuals, we are products and tools just as much as the products we buy. We are forced to divide, and forced to transcend. Each of our individual characters underwent violent modulations at the hands of powers of control, and in Harris’ case he became his own victim. Though these films don’t perhaps seek to proselytize, they do offer a critique that should be heeded. The Self cannot sustain such acts of digitization and it is dangerous to think otherwise. The avatars are not us, and we are not them. We are not our coded selves, and if we seek to maintain the Self, binding of the two should be rejected.
“Post Scripts on the Societies of Control”. Deleuze, Gilles. October, Vol. 59. Winter, 1992. 3–7.
“Corporate Cannibal”. Shaviro, Steven. Post Cinematic Affect, O-Books. Winchester, UK: 2010.
“Politics and Self in the Age of Digital Re(pro)ducibility”. Williams, Robert. Fast Capitalism, 2005.
Videodrome. Dir. David Cronenberg. Perf. Debbie Harry, James Woods. Canadian Film Development Corporation, 1983. Digital File.
A Scanner Darkly. Dir. Richard Linklater. Perf. Keanu Reeves, Winona Rider, Robert Downey Jr. Warner Independent Pictures, 2006. Digital File.
We Live in Public. Dir. Ondi Timoner. Prod. Keirda Bahruth. Perf. Josh Harris. 2009. Web.