Aesthetics & Identity in Blade Runner

PrefaceThe Gothic : IntroductionGothic Aesthetic TechniquesTransgression and AbjectionTerror, Horror and the SublimeThe Gothic and the Postmodern • Blade Runner : IntroductionPower in Blade RunnerReality in Blade RunnerDeath in Blade Runner • Identity in Blade Runner • RestorationConclusionWorks Cited


Identity in Blade Runner

The postmodern has denied the idea of a stable, unified subject and the possibility of universal, objective knowledge by which it can be defined. The subject has become decentered. We are composite beings. There is no one aspect of us that can be said to be dominant or central. Each aspect is susceptible to influence and change. We are non-coherent, non-constant, always in process. Knowledge is only available from the point of perspective. We adjust our perspective and knowledge whenever we encounter something new. This theory is also known as the fragmentation or death of the subject.

A stable, discernible reality and objective knowledge are necessary to support a stable subject. Having shown how reality and objective knowledge are undermined in Blade Runner, identity has already lost its primary supports. With the lack of reality of reality exposed, we must question all.

Rachael is of course the perfect simulation, in that she initially does not know she is a replicant. She is not feigning humanity or identity; she is experiencing it. However, her experience of herself is hyperreal. Previous to her VK test, she is confident, self-reliant, to the point of arrogance. Her responses to Deckard‘s questions are pith and exact, expressions of her convictions.

The knowledge that she is a replicant unmakes her. She is entirely deconstructed. She cannot know what part of her personality is her own, if any, and not a simulacrum, an implant of memory and artificial behavioural conditioning. In her desperation, she looks to other images to reconstruct herself, modelling herself after the photographs that litter Deckard‘s piano. Deckard is instrumental to Rachael‘s unmaking in that he mercilessly confronts her with the facts of her constructed self. Does he recognise in her despair his own diluted being and the fragility of his own identity, reacting with anger and equal despair? Is he disturbed by his attraction (and sympathy) for this unspeakable “Other”?

Rachael‘s memory implants are an experiment to control the replicants and that ‘strange obsession’ with identity and origin that has surfaced in them. Memories that are Gothic in nature no less, as Rachael‘s most secret memories reveal, related as they are to death and shame. Memory becomes a form of control. Identity is revealed as a construct which can be applied as conditioning.

Rachael‘s predicament demands that we question our concept of identity. What is identity? Where does it come from? What defines it? What makes a person? A past? Memory? Are the past and the memory at all reliable sources of knowledge? Responses, then? Form, even? How do we know who (or what) we are?

‘How can it not know what it is?’ asks a bewildered Deckard on learning of Rachael‘s “condition”. The idea is, simply, terrifying, and unacceptable.

Therein, i.e. the question of what we are, lies another timorous doubt. Leon the replicant collects photographs in the attempt to establish a past; to locate himself in a greater context. Unlike Rachael, who has received a ready-made identity, Leon is constructing his own. The photographs provide Leon with tangible proof that he exists. Is he in doubt that he exists? Must we have proof who we are in order to prove that we are? Or is he trying to legitimise himself? A human being has a past, a context; if he constructs one, will he complete the simulation and be Human?

Baudrillard tells us that to be ‘Human’ is an invention that brings with it its structural double, the ‘Inhuman’. Not just ‘Other’, but ‘Nul’ (Symbolic 125). Hence the replicants’ powerful hatred of the humans.

If you are not “someone”, you are “nothing”. If you question your identity, do you question your humanity and status in the world in the same breath? In Blade Runner, we must question both concepts. What defines humanity? Who decides the definitions? As Leon asks the blade runner conducting the VK test on him, ‘Do you make up these questions or do they write them down for you?’.

Sebastian owns a studio in an abandoned sector of the city. The building could not be more Gothic. Decay and darkness are slowly dissolving the frame of the building, intruding everywhere.

Within, Sebastian‘s studio presents itself as a graveyard; parts of dismembered replicants are everywhere, some arranged in mock-life, or partially activated, making almost imperceptible pre-programmed movements. The sound of buzzing flies is heard, that of a busy swarm, attracted to a large carcass.

Having been exposed to the transgression between man and machine that resounds in Blade Runner, these plastic parts become symbolic of flesh, but also the parts, the structures, which form our reality, the composites, which form ourselves. The engineer‘s studio becomes an abattoir or hideous chop-shop. We understand what the flies are drawn to; Death, the death of the unified subject, and of reality. Sebastian‘s studio brings all the terrors of Blade Runner to a peak.

Curiously, the rogue replicants operate as a form of commune, bound with common purpose. They suggest a unity and exhibit a passion and intent which is absent among the humans. They represent both our longings for unity and discernible meaning and values and our fear of the dissolution of distinctions and identity, of Death and the “Other”.

We are drawn to the replicants, despite their violence, despite and because of the abjections that they represent. They unsettle our definition of identity and humanity, which strikes us with terror, but what they are offering is the expansion of our definitions, an extended understanding of who and what we are. As Beville identifies in Kristeva‘s concept of abjection, abjections are tools to define our selves ‘hence we feel mysteriously attracted to them while casting them off as “others”’ (40). Roy is taunting us; ‘Show me what you‘re made of!’. They are our imaginary come back to haunt us, which we have expelled to maintain the idea of unity within and satisfy our ‘strange obsession’. We are drawn to the promise of death and terror in them which might overthrow the burden of the limited self, the idea of the unified, closed subject. They are the possibility of the postmodern subject, learning, reaching, always in process.


© 2010, 2011, 2012, 2019 Kirstin Sørensen

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