Filmic representations of (dis/re)embodiment: Notes on contemporary crises of lived/simulated (corpo)reality by Ron L. Mower

The body is something that individuals are ‘into’, like a scenario or new technological console (Baudrillard, 1986, quoted in Giulianotti, 2004, p. 229).

We are in a culture that no longer possesses any meaning for itself and which can now only dream of having meaning for someone else from a later time (Baudrillard, 1976, p. 185).

Reality is not a privileged referent but the ongoing production or articulation of apparatuses (Grossberg, 1997, p. 226).

I have always been fascinated by the way in which film can offer up new possibilities; permit the experience and interpretation of multiple ideas, surfaces of reality, and the worldviews of those involved in its production.  While film offers a source of enjoyment and escape, it is also a form of public pedagogy; the narratives and meanings inhabit our dreams, enter our conversations, and help shape our understandings of the world. Or, As Giroux contends, films:

offer up subject positions, mobilize desires, influence us unconsciously, and help construct the landscape of American culture. Deeply imbricated within material and symbolic relations of power, movies produce and incorporate ideologies that represent the outcome of struggles marked by the historical realities of power and the deep anxieties of the times; they also deploy power through the important role they play connecting the production of pleasure and meaning with the mechanisms and practices of powerful teaching machines. Put simply, films both entertain and educate (2002, p. 3).

While we cannot view popular films without acknowledging them within the broader context of political economy, we can interpret their cultural relevance and meaning in terms of how they enable a brief escape from our own realities; where we can inhabit something different, however grandiose or improbable, problematic or dystopian, which, for a moment at least, permits the unrestrained imagination of what could be. In particular, I am thinking of two recent films that, to varying degrees, offer a potentially dialogic space on issues of contemporary social crises (uncertainty, despair, hopelessness), obsessive corporeality and commodification of the body, a perpetual presentism, and hyperreal simulations of embodied experience.

Selectively drawing from postmodern theory and cultural studies, the following musings on ‘Inception’ and ‘Surrogates’ are meant to be suggestive and thought provoking. These films “matter” as forms of popular culture because, in my opinion, they not only represent sites of struggle, the “arena of consent and resistance…where hegemony arises, and where it is secured” (Hall, 1981, p. 239), but they capture, within the broader social context and historical conjuncture, what is perhaps an intensifying corporeal dissatisfaction, a dizzying/discombobulated engagement with (body centred) consumer culture as the marker of “true” citizenship and social existence, or as Baudrillard suggests, a “sociosphere of contact, control, persuasion and dissuasion, of exhibition of inhibitions in massive or homeopathic doses (“Have a problem? We solve it!”): this is obscenity” (1983, p. 29).  It is within the conditions of postmodernity—however much Jameson, Harvey et al., point toward postmodernism as little more than the reflex and “systemic modification of capitalism itself” (Jameson, 1991, p. xii)—that I view the two films as symptomatically representing our “historical deafness” and, following Lacan, a schizophrenic structure of “pure and unrelated presents in time” (p. 27) wherein, the inability to dream, to imagine something new, something different (the “end of history” as it were), has been transposed onto the celluloid surfaces of fantasy and hyperreality; a compensatory strategy perhaps?

More specifically, and getting to the subject of embodiment, I think that both Inception and Surrogates speak to a creeping fixation on, and preoccupation with, corporeality; the desire to escape the material realities of our own bodies, and the perceived dangers/stressors/problems of everyday life; an intense bodily dissatisfaction brought about by the incessant proliferation of body-centric discourse, product, science, knowledge, etc. In Fatal Strategies, Baudrillard (1983/90) discusses the concept of obesity, not strictly in the corporeal sense, but technologically and socially as well; a rampant and unrelenting expansion and excess of everything and anything in advanced societies. For example, with a pill or [insert any number of health/body centred consumer items here] for just about everything from sexual vitality to weight loss (all capitalizing on the desire for immortality, and the fear of death, disease, disability, obesity, old age…), have we so insulated ourselves (artificially at least) from the experience of bodily deterioration/death, or become so immersed in the preoccupation of self preservation and bodily maintenance that humanity begins to lose its sense of natural fallibility? Has this become too much to accept given the seemingly limitless possibilities of medical technologies and the political economic contexts of consumer based individualism? Of course, the free market will decide who can participate, what kinds of bodies really matter (Mbembe, 2003; Giroux, 2006); but the production of desire or need will be, and has been, already implanted anyway. Within the cultural politics of film, narratives of disembodied escape, of privileging the mind over the body, and of a paradoxical fascination/preoccupation with, and debasement of, the body as a shell through which pleasure is derived is perhaps indicative of the anxieties and uncertainties of our current body-crazed moment.

In both films, death loses its sense of finality, and with it, the fears, apprehensions, and anxieties that people normally feel towards it (dreamers in Inception, depending on the level of the dream and sedatives used, only ‘wake up’ when/if killed in the dream; people in Surrogates are likewise immune to actual death since they live out their lives in the safety of their home while linked into a robotic surrogate who assumes all the risk). In both cases, the risks and consequences accompanying everyday lived experience are mitigated in terms of corporeal physicality; the mind however, can experience an unrestrained freedom by inhabiting a sterile, hyperreal world that is normally made impossible by the material constraints of our own corruptible bodies. Again, in terms of death as the ultimate violation of embodiment and its invested value, Baudrillard (1976/93) explicates the irony of security that I think is interesting to consider here as much as the idea, desire, and fantasy of ‘absolute freedom’ from bodily death or injury is made implicitly throughout both films:

Thus car safety: mummified in his helmet, his seatbelt, all the paraphernalia of security, wrapped up in a security myth, the driver is nothing but a corpse, closed up in another non-mythic, death, as neutral and objective as technology, noiseless and expertly crafted. Riveted to his machine, glued to the spot in it, he no longer runs the risk of dying, since he is already dead. This is the secret of security, like a steak under cellophane: to surround you with a sarcophagus in order to prevent you from dying (p. 177).

In Surrogates in particular, this sort of security driven, bodily preservation is critiqued through the depiction of falsity, of complete corporeal commodification, and the dystopian inability of the masses to live in reality. Even in Inception, the blurring of fantasy and reality creates the sort of tensions that communicate to the audience a need to answer and determine for good, what is actually real? However, while Surrogates ends with the destruction of the network powering surrogate capabilities (as if to suggest its diabolic unnaturalness), Inception perhaps leaves the viewer with a more open and favorable sentiment towards hyperreality and the supposed non-materiality of (sub)consciousness.

While there are several other themes and narratives that emerge from these two films (not the least of which is the representational politics of those depicted as having the means through which to engage the technologies of hyperreality and mind/body distinctions), I have very briefly focused on the ideas of (dis/re)embodiment and death as the modes through which the experiences of fantasy and reality are played out. In broader society, new technologies, scientific/medical discoveries, and the fitness/health market combine in ways that create a perpetual and overwhelming preoccupation with corporeality.  Furthermore, this “omnipresent cult of the body” wherein the form and content of the body has become an “object of frantic concern” (Baudrillard, 1986, p. 35) must also be negotiated with concern for technologies that permit vicarious forms of lived experience in alternate hyperreal spaces (gaming, third life, virtual networking, etc.) in which death, injury, or risky behavior is accepted and enjoyable. The idea that the body (actual or simulated) is used as a conduit through which the mind experiences the world perhaps reflects the sort of monist ontology of physicalism that posits a singular reality rooted in material phenomena. In this case, the themes of Inception and Surrogates seem to both challenge and reinforce this concept in different ways. Ultimately, film narratives in general, while sometimes contradictory, incomplete, or nonsensical, clearly impact upon and reflect, broader social, cultural, political, and technological contexts; there is always a reason why a film is released at a particular moment and in a certain way! This is also why film (and all mediated texts) must continue to be negotiated as a site of critical cultural politics; representing a medium of mass consumption where power is manifest, understood, and challenged, popular media is never neutral.

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