Posthuman Identity Crisis
Scott Bukatman. Terminal
Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction. Durham:
Duke University Press, 1993. xxx+410. $57.95 cloth, $18.95 paper.
Terminal Identity is a landmark book that should be read by all serious
scholars of contemporary SF and postmodern culture. In his wide-ranging study, Scott
Bukatman does a much-needed job of synthesizing numerous studies of postmodernism and of
SF literature and film to give us a new perspective on changing representations of the
human subject in the electronic age. From the realm of postmodern theory, he rounds up the
usual suspects: Barthes, Bataille, Baudrillard, Debord, Deleuze and Guattari, Derrida,
Eco, Foucault, Haraway, Jameson, Lyotard, and McLuhan (to list them in alphabetical order,
not necessarily in order of importance). But Bukatman is also familiar with contemporary
SF literary theory--Delany and Suvin, among others--and with recent work on SF film, such
as Sobchack's Screening Space and Annette Kuhn's anthology Alien Zone,
and he is thoroughly grounded in SF literature since 1950, especially the cyperpunks.
Let me state upfront my two primary criticisms of Terminal Identity. First,
this book is perhaps longer than it needs to be. There is a lot of overlap and repetition
in the argument, especially in discussions of Neuromancer and TRON,
which crop up in several chapters. Second, this is not an easy book to read, particularly
if you are not fond of "trope" used as a verb ("this movement...is troped through
Cronenberg's treatment of space" ) or "schism" as an adjective ("the schismed
nature of the series" ) or repeated buzzwords such as "figuration,"
"hypostatization," "imbrication," "instantiation," and "narrativize" ("narrate"
isn't good enough?) . I stubbed my toe on sentences like "The insistent figurations of Baudrillard, Cronenberg, and Dick represent a stunning hypostatization...." (99) or
interactivity that instantiates the very consciousness of the subject" (118). A good
editor should have caught these clunkers--but then, Duke University Press seems to
encourage leaden prose.
With that off my chest, let me further state unhesitatingly that Terminal Identity
is well worth reading and impressive for its range of reference and synthesis of ideas.
Bukatman's main argument hinges on the fact that electronic technology is invisible and
therefore hard to represent and to understand. Moreover, "it has become increasingly
difficult to separate the human from the technological" (2). In the Information Age, it
has fallen to SF to narrate the new subject of "terminal identity."
As do many other contemporary critics, Bukatman considers SF in the broadest sense,
encompassing not only literature but also a variety of other media, including film, video,
comics, computer graphics, computer games, virtual reality, theme parks, and even what
Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. has called "the SF of theory" (Baudrillard, Deleuze and
Guattari, Haraway, and Virilio, for example) . This last concept is extremely useful, for
in the age of the critic as creative artist, it makes sense to read an SF author such as
Dick not through but alongside the surreal, hyperbolic ravings of Baudrillard. If
we see the former not only as SF novelist and the latter not only as theorist but both
instead as visionary writers attempting to create metaphors adequate to a new reality,
then they become complementary figures, aspects of the same phenomenon (although I'd take
Dick over Baudrillard any day).
Terminal Identity is divided into an Introduction and five thematic
sections--1. Terminal Image; 2. Terminal Space; 3. Terminal Penetration; 4. Terminal
Flesh; and 5. Terminal Resistance/Cyborg Acceptance--with, as I mentioned, some inevitable
overlap and repetition between sections.
The Introduction argues that new technology always creates a crisis in the culture. SF
helped to invent metaphors to express the hopes and fears of the Machine Age, the Nuclear
Age, the Space Age, and now the Information Age. In the electronic era, we are living with
the breakdown of the distinction between man and machine. Much of recent SF--cyberpunk in
particular--attempts to construct a new human being that can exist within cyberspace. The
SF writers he considers--primarily William S. Burroughs, Ballard, Dick, Tiptree, Gibson,
and Sterling--all write "at the boundaries of human meaning and value" (9).
Bukatman considers SF, in Delany's terms, as a form of language play that creates
continual defamiliarization and demands an active reader. In SF film, the visual parallel
to such language play is special effects. "The special effects of TRON and T2
[Terminator 2] construct new objects and spaces that visualize abstract cultural
concerns and permit a provisional reembodying of the human subject in relation to those
concerns" (14). In 1980s SF film, it becomes harder to define the human or to assume that
the human is superior.
Section 1, "Terminal Image," discusses what Bukatman calls "the science fiction of
the spectacle," some works of Dick, Ballard, and the comic book artist Howard Chaykin
that deal with "image addiction" (to the televisual image) (17) or works of Dick,
Burroughs, and Cronenberg that concern the "image virus" (18) in which simulation takes
over and replaces reality.
Section 2, "Terminal Space," concentrates on representations of electronic space in Blade
Runner, Neuromancer, and TRON and on what Delany calls "paraspaces"
(parallel spaces) and Brian McHale terms "zones," narrative spaces where "language,
rationality, and subjectivity" (18) break down, as in the "trip" sequence in the film 2001.
Section 3, "Terminal Penetration," concerns "the cybernaut--the subject in
cyberspace" (19). Here Bukatman discusses the new world of virtual reality imaging,
computer games, hackers, and cyberpunks, represented once again by Neuromancer
and TRON and also by "the hypertechnologized spaces of Walt Disney World" (19).
Section 4, "Terminal Flesh," reverses direction from the human penetrating technology
to technology penetrating the human in the form of the cyborg. It considers the cinematic
figures of the Terminator, Robocop, the Alien, and the Fly, and the 1980s TV character who
personified the spectacle: Max Headroom. Bukatman also mentions in this context the rock
band Devo, the performance art of Stelarc and of Survival Research Laboratories, the SF
authors Greg Bear (Blood Music), Bruce Sterling (the Shaper/ Mechanist stories),
and Ballard (Crash), and the theorist Georges Bataille.
The final chapter, "Terminal Resistance/Cyborg Acceptance," contrasts macho fantasies
about the armored body of the cyborg (Robocop or Terminator) or male ecstasies in
cyberspace (Neuromancer and TRON again) with feminist critiques of the
cyborg in such works as Tiptree's "The Girl Who Was Plugged In." But in her cyborg
manifesto the feminist theorist Donna Haraway sees progressive alternatives in the cyborg
mythos, utopian possibilities in a new, posthuman, postgendered society in which we are
all cyborgs. "Haraway's utopian impulse is far from Baudrillard's cyborg nightmare"
(323). Bukatman concludes by comparing Deleuze and Guattari's notion of "the Body without
organs" to the works of Burroughs and the cyberpunk writers.
This brief summary cannot do justice to the rich variety of works across contemporary
culture that Bukatman analyzes and juxtaposes in new and illuminating ways or to the
proliferation of stimulating ideas he proposes; each of the five long sections is really a
monograph or book in itself. So for the remainder of this review, I want to consider in
more detail some of the central ideas of each section.
The main theorist cited in Section 1, "Terminal Image," is Guy Debord, whose 1967
manifesto, The Society of the Spectacle, is a radical critique of a contemporary
capitalist society in which the spectacle of commodities becomes the world. The spectacle
turns everyone into isolated consumers and creates infinite desire, similar to the society
of addicts depicted in the nightmare fictions of William S. Burroughs. This section begins
the book on a bleak, pessimistic note, as there seems little way out of the totalizing
control of the spectacle. Most of the works he cites are dystopian: fictions by Burroughs,
Ballard, Dick, Zoline, and De Lillo, the SF film The Man Who Fell to Earth by
Nicolas Roeg, horror films by David Cronenberg, and critical theory (or should we call it
horror fiction?) by Baudrillard. He dismisses McLuhan's enthusiasm about the media as an
extension of man as poor SF because McLuhan ignores the operations of power. The reverse
seems instead to be true: man has become an extension of the media, which constitute our
new reality. Everyone now is an image addict, "a helpless prisoner of the spectacular
society" (69). Criticism of the numbing effects of television is familiar from many
commentators on popular culture, although not necessarily from this ideological
According to Bukatman, the works of Baudrillard, Cronenberg, and Dick can "unsettle,
disorient, and initiate the crucial action of questioning the status of the sign in sign
culture: a spectacular immunization against the invasive powers of the image virus" (99).
The weapons Bukatman finds among these artists for combating the totalizing effect of the
society of the spectacle include Burroughs' "cut-up" technique, Ballard's surrealism,
and Dick's satire. Nevertheless, I wonder whether a heavy dose of such works might instead
induce either paranoia or despair about our apparently grim and hopeless modern condition.
If the central theorist of "Terminal Image" is Debord, that of Section 2, "Terminal
Space," is Baudrillard, who writes, "I also take theory into the hyperspace of
simulation" (181). Electronic space is intangible, difficult to visualize and to
understand. SF tries to redefine this impalpable realm in terms of the known and the
familiar: "the function of the genre, then, is to compensate for the loss of the human in
the labyrinth of telematic culture by simply transforming it into an arena susceptible to
human control" (118). In Neuromancer, for example, the decentered, sprawling
network of the city is echoed in the matrix of cyberspace. Most of the works cited in
Section 2--Neuromancer, Blade Runner, TRON, and 2001--are not as
dystopian as those in Section 1. The function of these SF works is not simply to unsettle
the reader but also to provide cognitive maps to a new reality and to anchor "these
unsettling phenomena [of quantum reality] within the relative familiarity of its narrative
Bukatman seems not to have noted an inherent contradiction in part of his argument in
Section 2, between his view of the postmodern city as dominating the individual and
determining subjectivity and the notion he introduces a few pages later: "In the world of
quantum physics...the observer fundamentally determines events" (173).
Section 3, "Terminal Penetration," criticizes the naive enthusiasm about virtual
reality of propagandists like Timothy Leary. Bukatman considers these utopian hopes for
the possibilities of VR to be ungrounded in any political understanding; he
dismisses such fantasies as "cyberdrool" (189). He finds a qualified hope instead in computer
hackers and Gibson's cyberspace cowboys. "The result is not the overthrow of a system
recognized as massive and monolithic, but instead a nibbling at the edges of power and thus
an elision of control" (211).
Bukatman next provides a novel and intriguing critique of Disneyland and Disney World.
"The enormous, paraspatial, and cybernetic realm of Walt Disney World thus comprises a
massive and self-regulating interface in which an illusory terminal space is rendered
visible, controllable, and perhaps even adorable" (239). Nevertheless, his analysis here
becomes a bit too facile, dependent upon a proliferation of metaphors: he compares
Disneyland variously to a mall, a movie, a television program, and ultimately to a giant
computer processing blips which are us. Although there may be a degree of truth to all
these comparisons, it is finally too easy to compare anything and everything to TV or a
computer. I prefer E.L. Doctorow's metaphor in his novel The Book of Daniel
(1971): Disneyland as concentration camp.
Section 4, "Terminal Flesh," deals with modifications to the human body as it merges
with technology and becomes a cyborg. SF film tended to deny the body until Alien
(1979): "it is this flood of bodily fluids that separates Alien from the
antiseptic and virginal spaces of the science fiction cinema" (266-67). After Alien,
horror in 1980s American SF cinema was primarily body horror, as the human body was
endlessly transformed through special effects, suggesting "a new uncertainty of bodily
definition, "as in the remakes of The Thing and The Fly (267). And in
Sterling's Shaper/Mechanist stories of the 1980s, the human body is refashioned so often
that, in one character's words, "'Mankind no longer exists'" (178).
Once again, Bukatman finds some hope in the "techno-surrealist art" of the
cyberpunks. Unlike surrealism, which accomplished no social transformation, cyberpunk,
"by de-emphasizing the individual consciousness, and acknowledging the dynamism of our
technological unconscious...might describe a trajectory for real change" (298).
Nevertheless, the promise he chooses to see in cyberpunk seems to me ambiguous: how can
you pin your hopes on the machine dreams of a hypothetical "technological unconscious"?
I think, for example, of the "monsters from the id" in the film Forbidden Planet.
Bukatman retains in the end a qualified faith in the political possibilities of
cyberpunk, despite his acknowledgment of the fundamental ambiguity of this literary
movement: "The texts promise and even produce a transcendence which is also a surrender"
(329). Thus his enthusiasm in the final chapter for Donna Haraway's cyborg manifesto and
his attempt to recruit Deleuze and Guattari as cyberpunks. He began the book with the
bleak, dystopian vision of Burroughs, Ballard, Dick, and Baudrillard. He seems at the end
to be straining for an upbeat conclusion about the terminal identity which is "our new,
and inescapable, state of being" (329).
Despite my quibbles, Bukatman has tackled a huge task and largely succeeded. He makes
an exhaustive and persuasive case for the centrality of science fiction to postmodern
culture, our "terminal reality that is simply changing too rapidly to chronicle" (xii).
The identity crisis of the posthuman era continues; this will be a much-discussed book.
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