Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Psychic Doubles & eXistenZ

 tags: mind-body, psychic doubles, visceral reactions, the real vs. the symbolic 

eXistenZ is an uncomfortable movie. Despite the heads-up we got about the film’s bodily imagery at the end of class last week, I couldn’t help but squirm through much of the film. A good portion of the squirming might have been due to the terrible accents and the worse dialogue, but a good portion was definitely also due to the bodily imagery associated with the original gaming apparatus. And by a certain point in the film, I actually couldn’t help but physically react to the images on screen (specifically, I kept saying “Ow” aloud in anticipation of the moment when Ted cuts Allegra’s umbilical-cord-like connection to the diseased pod in the factory). A mild reaction, yes, but striking nonetheless, considering that nothing was actually happening to me – not IRL (in real life), anyway. 

Throughout the film, Cronenberg takes full advantage of the visceral reaction that so many people have to unusual uses of bodily imagery – from surgical imagery to a gaming console that literally becomes an extension of the human body (and even shares its visual texture). The result of Cronenberg’s use of such imagery is a heightened awareness of what is already the case in almost any work of fiction we read, see, or hear – an extreme sympathy with the main characters, one that often borders on empathy (and which is probably part of the reason why sexual scenes in film and romance novels can be so arousing for their audiences).

I haven’t read (enough) Foucault, but Dr. Bombay tells me that I shouldn’t find it mind-blowing to learn that “sex is never so much an exchange of fluids as it is an
exchange of signs” (Dibbell 5). Commenting acts like sex in LambdaMOO, Dr. Bombay/Julian Dibbell writes, “To participate, therefore, in this disembodied enactment of life's most body-centered activity is to risk the realization that when it comes to sex, perhaps the body in question is not the physical one at all, but its psychic double, the bodylike self-representation we carry around in our heads.” (5)

The visceral bodily imagery of eXistenZ performs a function not all that different from the one the virtual world of LambdaMOO does for its participants, making them suddently exquisitely aware of their psychic doubles. In addition to emphasizing the way in which its viewers are always deeply attached to the the characters of any fictional story they are involved in, eXistenZ also makes its viewers aware of the same psychic double which allows such an attachment in the first place.

But of course, when we watch a sex scene in a film, even a rape sex scene in a film, there isn’t an issue of whether the viewers themselves have been raped, or whether they go through the post-traumatic reaction of the rape. The key difference lies in the interactivity of LambdaMOO, the fact that its players not only have avatars to identify with, but avatars they see as extensions of their own selves, because of their role in the creation of the avatar. Such interactivity creates a link so strong that it overcomes even the lack of visual imagery that eXistenZ is so reliant on. Or maybe it is even stronger, because of the lack of that imagery – because in the absence of someone else’s provided imagery, you can create your own.

Ultimately, it is Dibbell’s discussion of the interactive magic of words and the role they play in terms of working on a computer which I find most intriguing: “After all, anyone the least bit familiar with the workings of the new era's definitive technology, the computer, knows that it operates on a principle impracticabley [sic] difficult to distinguish from the pre-Enlightenment principle of the magic word: the commands you type into a computer are a kind of speech that doesn't so much communicate as 'make things happen'...” (Dibbell 13-14; emphasis mine). 

In the operating systems and interfaces of today, the role of words, of knowing the “right” words in order to “make things happen” has greatly diminished – but the blurring of the line between the real and the symbolic has remained. Have the same questions about freedom of speech remained as well?


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