Aesthetics & Identity in Blade Runner

Preface • The Gothic : IntroductionGothic Aesthetic TechniquesTransgression and AbjectionTerror, Horror and the Sublime • The Gothic and the Postmodern • Blade Runner : IntroductionPower in Blade RunnerReality in Blade RunnerDeath in Blade RunnerIdentity in Blade RunnerRestorationConclusionWorks Cited


The Gothic and the Postmodern

Everywhere, today, beliefs are being questioned, challenged and shattered. Distinctions collapse, uncertainty is rampant. Post-structuralists tell us that unity, identity and reality are constructs, myths, meta-narratives. The postmodern position is that ultimately there are no absolutes or conditions, values or narratives which are not constructed. What we consider natural is in fact cultural.

We find ourselves in a situation where knowledge is no longer reliable, challenged repeatedly. Existence has arguably never been more fragmented than now (or is that just another construct?). Some watch in horror at what is seen as a deterioration of value everywhere, others embrace the possibilities.

Lyotard has no patience with the regressive longings of those who look back to a (mythic) past of stable values and discernible unity; ‘We have paid a high enough price for the nostalgia of the whole and the one‘. Universality holds its own terrors. He asks that we ‘wage a war on totality’ and ‘activate the differences’ by embracing the sublime, and fight terror with terror (‘Answering’ 46).

Lyotard defines the postmodern, not as a period anterior to the modern, but as its prerequisite. The postmodern is an event which formulates the new rules by which the modern can exist (44-46).

Modernity cannot take place without ‘a shattering of beliefs’ and the ‘discovery of the lack of reality of reality’ (43). ‘Modernity takes place in the withdrawal of the real’ (45) along with the invention of new realities, i.e. perspectives. The postmodern artist is instrumental to this by presenting that the unpresentable exists. By means of the sublime experience, reality is destabilised, and other realities brought to light (43-46). In other words, destabilisation is not a threat to progress, but necessary.

One recognises the kinship between the Gothic and Lyotard‘s concept of the postmodern; the focus on the sublime sentiment, the disruption of boundaries and realities, and the expansion of experience enabled by the sublime. The Gothic emerges as potentially instrumental to modernity.

Another theorist who resists universality is Jean Baudrillard. Like Lyotard, he identifies something of the monstrous and terrible in the concept. Universality is based in another idea, totality. Totality is not only unacceptable, but untenable. Baudrillard tells us that any totalitarian, closed system ‘is shadowed by mockery and instantaneous subversion’ and haunted by its own death, precisely because it denies its death and asserts its perfection. Such systems are doomed to ‘collapse under the weight of their own monstrosity’ in that totality implies both ‘total perfection’ and ‘total defectiveness’ (Symbolic 4-5). Baudrillard sees global capitalist economy as the major enforcer of, and as an example of, current totalities.

According to Baudrillard, a system of structural opposites has been superimposed on everything. These distinctions have become the way by which we determine value, such as the real and the imaginary, life and death, good and evil. The first value constitutes the normal, the positive, the real; the secondary the deviant, the negative, the imaginary. In effect, Baudrillard asserts, “universality” operates by exclusion (125) and exposes it as a contradiction in terms. The assumed opposite values are not it opposition to each other, but exist by mutual distinction and are interrelated. By expelling the “negative” value from our midst and divesting it from the “positive” we upset the balance with dire results. The differences, which Lyotard would activate, are lost. It is precisely the differences which infer each value meaning. Without the differences, there is no meaning, only value, dictated by capitalist economy. Without meaning, all becomes abstract, fragmented, and hyperreal.

The real divested of the imaginary becomes the hyperreal (Impossible 12). The hyperreal is the more real than real (Selected 168); a hallucination of the real, generated by simulacra, simulating the real, but which are signs with no referent and no substance whose only impetus are to proliferate and combine.

Everything becomes an idea. Everything is confused with its own image. We become separated from our body, our bodily needs and the physical world. We lose our sense to distinguish between nature and artifice. We become aesthetically fascinated with everything, drawn in by a sense of deception abiding in all things, or, rather, we are fascinated with the disappearance of the real (Symbolic 74-75). In a hysteria of reproduction and production trying to capture the real (Selected 180), to refute the “lack of reality of reality”, we simulate everything. We project ideas of the real on everything. These projections of the real are dangerous; it causes us to naturalise fictions, like the ones which got us into the predicament in the first place, i.e. totalities.

Like the concept of universality is haunted by subversion and its own death, so is the positive value haunted by its own death and disruption in the form of its imaginary (Symbolic 133). The hyperreal, however, has absorbed art as part of its production and holds a similar role to the real as the imaginary, as its subversion. Thus the imaginary‘s subversive power is diminished.

However, in the symbolic we may find means to overthrow the system of opposites (133), re-evaluate their values and restore meaning. In other words, a symbolic that alerts us to the lack of reality of reality and makes new realities possible. In particular, the purely symbolic gift, unrelated to capitalist values of exchange, ‘unique, specified by the people exchanging and the unique moment of the exchange’ and to which one cannot respond (Critique 64) is most powerful.

Death assumes a powerful symbolic power in Baudrillard‘s theories. Baudrillard claims that western culture has become ‘a culture of death’ (Symbolic 127). Death has never been so taboo as it is now. We can barely say its name. At the same time, we are obsessed with it.

In the name of the positive value, we have excluded both death and the dead from our midst. The dead, the dying, the old and the sick are depreciated and denied an existence. They have been symbolically destroyed (126). Life expectancy has become a currency; status is determined by how many years you have left (168). And, for this reason, death haunts us: ‘the price we pay for the “reality” of this life … is the ever-present phantasm of death’ (133). It has seeped into existence everywhere.

We are prohibited from a death outside the accepted parameters of the system. It must be ‘natural’, unremarkable, unsymbolic (177). This control is necessary in that death is dangerous. Since death has become the dividing line between life and death, it can no longer be exchanged for anything else but itself (127). It must not be permitted to attain a symbolic value, because it may collapse the system entirely. Symbolically, it effects excess, ambivalence (154) and reversal; is the ‘form in which the determinacy of the subject and of value is lost’ (5). In other words, it holds similar promise as the sublime to destabilise. In fact, it is a source, the superior no less, of the sublime, as Burke observes; ‘what generally makes pain itself, if I may say so, more painful, is, that it is considered as an emissary of this king of terrors’ (36).

The consequence of this cultural expulsion of death is that we all dream of our death. We practice symbolic death in order to approximate it (Symbolic 177) and are attracted to the symbolic in “unnatural” deaths. Yet it is not only because it has become our imaginary, and has invaded all, that we dream of it; it is also its promise to disrupt the system that draws us.

Baudrillard thus recognises the revolutionary potential in the symbolic and in death and, in addition, our ambivalent relationship to revolution, being simultaneously needful of and resistant to universal structures. Death, the symbolic, and terror being primary conventions of the Gothic, the Gothic can, according to Baudrillard‘s model, be identified as a means to break free of totality and make apparent the differences which can re-infer meaning and allow for other realities. As Radcliffe writes, we want the terror. Hence yours truly‘s fascination for disaster movies. Hence Deckard‘s attempt at “retirement”. Hence we are drawn to the replicants, as our “Other”, our shadow, our death.


© 2010, 2011, 2012, 2019 Kirstin Sørensen

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