How Humanity Ends (Akira, Videodrome, Tetsuo: The Iron Man) – Wisecrack Edition


What’s up, guys? Jared again. It would be the understatement of the century
to say that technology has profoundly affected our lives. But instead of beating a dead horse talking
about fake news, twitter making us angry narcissists, or instagram branding our psyches with FOMO,
let’s talk about something much more fun- drill dicks! While we’re all aware of how technology
has shaped the world, we often spend less time thinking about its relationship to our
bodies. Luckily for us, there’s an entire microgenre
of horror that asked this precise question: Body horror. Body Horror films focus on the mutilation,
violation, and mutation of the human body. A particular tradition of body horror focused
on technology ravaging the body, often raising deep questions about what it
means to be human in a technological society. We like to think we’re living in a very
unique time in history where advances in technology are changing our social landscape quicker
than we can grasp. But, as body horror can help us understand,
that’s always been the case. So to put things into perspective, let’s
analyze some classics of body horror in this Wisecrack Edition on the End of Humanity. And spoilers ahead for some amazing 80s films
that I recommend everybody see ASAP. Part 1: TETSUOOOO. One of the most enduring films in the body
horror genre is undoubtedly Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, the iconic anime feature based on the
6 volume manga. But before we can understand its particular
relevance to body horror’s relationship to technology, we have to understand the broader
context of Japanese cinema after World War 2. When we talk about technology changing humanity,
Japan is a particularly illustrative example. The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
has been explored by their national cinema in a number of ways. On one level, films like Shohei Imamura’s
Black Rain do this literally: it starts with a horrific recreation of Hiroshima and follows
the physical and emotional trauma of dealing with radiation poisoning. But the bomb’s effects were also explored
more metaphorically. Consider Godzilla, a monster brought forth
by American nuclear testing who, like the bomb, levels entire cities. After the war, American occupation partly
eroded traditional Japanese values and brought Western capitalism to the island, and hence
we get this character in Mothra. “I ask you to do only what I think is right
sir. That’s enough, if you’re not careful I’ll
see that you’re sued for interfering with private enterprise!” Which brings us to Akira, a film that explores
a vision of Tokyo on the brink of chaos. Akira follows bikers Tetsuo and Kaneda in
a post-nuclear “Neo Tokyo.” A run-in with an escaped government experiment
leads to Tetsuo displaying supernatural powers, which continue to intensify until he completely
loses control and mutates in an abomination of flesh and metal, and eventually, leaves
his material body behind. Nuclear anxieties are still present in the
film as we see in the mutated government subjects reminiscent of radiation poisoning. The loss of Japanese identity via industrialization
and American occupation are seen in the Metropolis of Neo Tokyo, but the development of this
logic comes as Tetsuo transforms into the metal flesh hybrid, which some scholars read
as the birth of a new Japanese identity. Multiple times throughout the film, we’re
presented with images that juxtapose the body with industry, suggesting a proximity between
the two. Early in the film, blood is likened to the
structure of the metropolis, and later, images of networks of pipes are juxtaposed with Testsuo’s
body parts falling out. And then, of course, there’s the final transformation
where Tetsuo’s already grotesque body dematerializes entirely. A particularly poignant reading of the film
comes via scholar Susan Napier, who has interpreted the mix of metal and flesh that ravages Tetsuo’s
body as a functional metaphor for post-war Japan:
a nation whose innovation had given it such a sudden surge of power that Tetsuo’s fate,
as she puts it, “is both threatening and exciting, suggesting a new Japan and a new
world.” She goes on to write that whereas previous
destruction a la Godzilla was something that threatened Japanese culture, Tetsuo’s transformation
suggests a country that is no longer a victim of powerful outside forces, but a powerful
force in its own right. Not unlike modern concerns that social media
is changing communication faster than we can discern its consequences, Akira reflects an
anxiety that rapid technological change can overwhelm us entirely. However, it simultaneously shows how technology
can push us to form new identities that can be exciting and empowering. Part 2: The Retinae of the Mind’s Eye. “The television screen has become the retina
of the mind’s eye. Yes. That’s why I refuse to appear on television,
except on television. O’Blivion is not the name I was born with. It’s my television name. Soon, all of us will have special names, names
designed to cause the cathode ray tube to resonate.” As I’m sure is news to no-one, we spend
a staggering amount of time glued to screens and people like to freak out about it and
people like to freak out about it. But is this issue with our media consumption
unique, or have we dealt with it many times before? Enter what is quite possibly my favorite movie
of all time: David Cronenberg’s 1983 film Videodrome. Videodrome follows Max Ren, co-owner of a
subversive late night channel, who stumbles upon a black market show called Videodrome
that depicts REAL torture and violence. He soon learns that watching Videodrome gives
its viewers a brain tumor that induces hallucinations of bodily transformation, and eventually,
kills them. Or, is it all real? Hard to say what ‘real’ is but we’ll
get there. There’s a lot to unpack in this admittedly
bizarre film. Videodrome came out in a time where there
was a lot of concern over the fact that the only thing that was guaranteed to produce
ratings was sex and violence, and the affect that would have on a generation of kids increasingly
glued to the TV. “TV rots your brains! These criticisms range from TV will make us
all sensory addicts to television will make us mimic the behaviors we see on screens. We meet two factions in the film, one led
by glasses mogul Barry Convex, who wants to use Videodrome to punish those who are addicted
to violent television, and another led by Bianca Oblivion, who thinks that Videodrome
will bring about the next stage in human evolution. And it’s through Barry Convex that we see
these aforementioned criticisms of TV consumption. Firstly, Max Ren and his girlfriend Nicki
Brand are so overstimulated that they can’t find joy in anything that isn’t brutal and
extreme. Max is so accustomed to the sex and violence
his TV station peddles that he has to find something tougher. “Looking for something that will break through,
you know. Something tough.” Similarly, Nicki coaches people through emotional
distress all day on her radio show, to the point where she, too, seeks stimulation in
tougher things like S&M. “Take out your swiss army knife and cut
me here, just a little.” We see the latter criticism of monkey-see-monkey-do
when Convex inserts VHS tapes into an orifice in his stomach to literally program Max to
kill his partners. But the much more interesting depiction of
how media affects humanity lies in Bianca Oblivion, who believes that the hallucinations
Max experiences are not unreal. The hallucinations of bodily transformations
are part of the process of ascending to a higher plane of reality, one where video has
replaced the corporeal as the anchor to reality. The best way to explain this is to look at
this scene where Bianca informs Max that her dead father is in fact alive because he exists
in a library of pre-recorded videotapes. “My father helped to create Videodrome. He saw it as the next phase in the evolution
of man as a technological animal. He wasn’t afraid to let his body die.” This ambiguity between the realness of flesh
and video is depicted not only by showing us images of video invading the body, but
of the body invading video. If we’re accustomed to think of the corporeal
as real and tangible, and the video as unreal, the film perhaps asks, why is one more real
than the other? At the end, Max kills himself, because, as
Nicki says, “Don’t be afraid to let your body die.” Any concerns about the body are the old flesh. “Long live the new flesh.” Now, yes this is a genre film, so all this
is a little bizarre and campy. But Cronenberg is actually exaggerating some
very real ideas about how media affects humanity. In fact, Bianca’s father, “Media Prophet”
Brian Oblivion is a stand-in for real world media scholar Marshall McLuhan. “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.” Compare that to McLuhan, who once said, “Just
as the wheel was an extension of the human foot, and the axe was an extension of the
arm, electric media, ie television, is an extension of the human central nervous system.” For McLuhan, one cannot overstate the importance
of how media affects humans. He believed that any great new medium of communication
changes the entire outlook of its user. And “medium” really is the operative word
here, as his most famous aphorism is the medium is the message. Essentially, it doesn’t matter whether you’re
watching something saccharine like Queer Eye or as depraved as 90 Day Fiance. Television itself is the message. The importance of the medium rather than the
content is not lost on Videodrome. When Max first meets Bianca Oblivion, it’s
at a homeless shelter that doesn’t only dole out food, but heaping portions of television. “It’s a disease forced on them by their
lack of access to the cathode-ray tube. You think a few doses of TV are gonna help
them? Watching TV will help patch them back into
the world’s mixing board.” It doesn’t matter what they’re watching. Only that they watch television. Okay, so what’s the real life corollary
to the so-called “new flesh,” or the higher plane of reality that Videodrome watchers
arguably ascend to? How exactly does media fundamentally change
humanity? To answer that we’re going to have take
you back in time to what McCluhan regards as an innovation in communication that radically
changed humanity- the alphabet. Before the alphabet, the vast majority of
communication was done audibly, as such, society was oriented around the ear. McCluhan referred to this as the acoustic
mode. Knowledge was transmitted orally, through
stories, conversations, poems and songs. Importantly, this information hit us all at
once, and meaning is immediately derived once people heard the sound. So for example, if you said the word “bread”,
I would immediately know that you’re talking about the thing you use to make sandwiches. Then everything changed in the Western world
with the introduction of the alphabet, which made society more oriented towards the eye. An alphabet is a series of fragments that
need to be ordered in a linear way to create meaning. So if I wrote the letters B-R-E-A-D in a line,
you would have to consider each line in a linear fashion, combine them, and from there,
deduce the idea of that thing that tastes really good in sandwiches. This revolution encouraged man to think spatially,
visually, and in a prescribed order, leading to a civilization-making game changer. Without the alphabet, most of the things that
made our world would be impossible: books and records that transmitted knowledge to
enabled the scientific revolution, transportation, modern democracy and bureaucracy. Eventually came television and other forms
of what he calls “electronic media.” Although we watch television, McLuhan argued
that television is an acoustic medium more than a visual one. Just as back in the prehistoric days we would
all listen simultaneously as one person spoke, television operates in that everyone around
the world simultaneously listens to one message; unlike the written word, which can be read
at different times by each person reading. The ability for everyone to gather around
a single worldwide broadcast would lead to what he called “The Global Village,” which
savvy McLuhan scholars today consider to be the internet. Oh, and McLuhan thought this village would
be a savage and violent place, so, do with that info what you will. Cronenberg is essentially hyperbolizing, if
simplifying, McCluhan’s ideas. If the written word can catapult humanity’s
consciousness to adopt reason and civilization, then might television lead us to leave behind
our physical bodies and ascend to a higher plane? Point is, technology has long been moulding
humanity, and if you’re worried about twitter making people deranged, know this has all
happened before. Part 3: Drill Dick. While McLuhan conceived of technology as an
extension of the human body, a couple of thinkers went further, theorizing that everything is
a machine, including the human body. And rather than seeing technology as an extension
of an organ, we can see organs as machines interfacing with other machines. We can better understand this through the
thing you’ve all been waiting for: the drill dick. There’s no doubt that Shinya Tsukamoto’s
1989 film Tetsuo: The Iron Man is one of the weirder films ever made, but it’s also a
perfect example of this idea. The film depicts a Japanese salaryman being
haunted by the spirit of a metal fetishist as he transforms into an abomination of flesh
and metal, similar to the Tetsuo of Akira. The film ends with a showdown between the
two iron men, in which they “bond” to become a new being. In their book Anti-Oedipus, philosopher Gilles
Deleuze and psychoanalyst Felix Guattari, argue that we should ditch the dichotomy between
human and machine, and instead see the world, the body, and society as a bunch of interlocking
machines. For instance, we could consider how lungs
are a breathy-machine, connecting to a blood-pumpy machine, that compose an assemblage of machines,
the human. That human machine is connected to say, an
agricultural machine that produces food, the output from one drives another. Tetsuo the Iron Man is fixated on the reproductive
machine, which is just a fancy Deleuzian way to say sex parts. But, aptly, the movie constantly juxtaposes
our sexual desire with literal machines. It inserts technology into something we may
consider wholly human, sexuality. This happens in subtle ways, like a woman
leaning on a fan while having sex, to less subtle things like the salaryman fantasizing
about, this. Let’s take a look at one scene that very
overtly sexualizes technology. As the Salaryman feeds his girlfriend from
a pan, every “sexy” chew is punctuated by a booming metallic sound. This highly sexualized eating ritual escalates,
*metal squealing* until- *metal grinding* you get it. And when she bites down, the scene climaxes
to the sound of metallic banging solidifying his transformation as one who is aroused by
metal. Likewise, phallic imagery is all over this
film. From the obvious, to their final form, the
film is constantly blurring the line between human sexuality and machines. If we’re all machines, as Deleuze and Guattari
wrote, stressing that it was not even a metaphor, what’s the harm in having my meat machine
interface with some metal machine. Or, someone else’s desire for their reproduction
machine to interface with say, a drill and/or penis machine. Deleuze and Guattari say that we’re desiring-machines,
which, to put simply, means we’re kind of like a factory producing a ton of desires
on a set of criss-crossing pipelines. And because we exist with other machines,
the control board of this factory gets input from external factors, like say, society. This control board limits some desires, amplifies
others, and so on. It’s kind of like how society, at a very
subconscious level, taught me to recoil from the desire to break the law, or walk around
naked in public, while teaching me to lust after Pamela Anderson. In Videodrome, similar juxtapositions are
made to drive home the point that technology shapes our sexual desires. Max makes out with an image of Nicki on a
TV screen as it pulsates like a veiny dick. Not only does the conflation of bodily organs
with technology echo our previous discussion, but it also points to the thing that we really
derive desire from, the television. It’s worth noting that Cronenberg would
continue to juxtapose sexual organs with technology including in Existenz, in which people hook
up to a second-life-esque VR game via an orifice that looks like an anus. Oh, and Cronenberg’s son also makes movies
and seems to be bent on continuing in this tradition. There’s also Crash, a whole movie about
people fornicating on and around car crashes. At the end of Tetsuo, the salaryman and the
fetishist bond to create a new being and vow to spread their message of metal and love
to the world. This fusion is one that Guattari might celebrate,
who argued that we can create new assemblages of machines, including humans themselves,
that can radically transform the world. As the classics of body horror so awesomely
illustrate, technology has been shaping humanity for a long time. So next time you’re freaking out that Instagram
will make humanity to fall into a pit of narcissism that it will never be able to pull itself
out from, just remember, bigger changes have happened. Every new form of media makes the previous
one irrelevant, and hey, the division between man and machine might just be dumb anyway. So what do you think, Wisecrack, is it high
time for body horror to make a comeback but with something like a hashtag orifice? And what would McLuhan have said had he lived
to witness the rise of the internet? Let us know what you think in
the comments, and as always- thanks for watching! Peace!

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