On Luminous Screens
& Other Electron / Neuron Assemblages:
An Excerpt from Videodrome Scene-by-Scene
by John David Ebert
Luminous surfaces: today, everywhere one looks, we are surrounded by self-luminous electronic video screens. They come in all shapes and sizes from the tiny rectangular squares of our smartphones to the gigantic advertisements on the sides of buildings in downtown Shanghai. And now they are all digital: television has become LCD or plasma-based, while celluloid has disappeared inside the matrix of a virtual data file.
But back in 1983, when David Cronenberg’s first great masterpiece Videodrome was released in January of that year—it had originally been scheduled by Universal for a summer 1982 release, but the onslaught of such blockbusters as E.T., Poltergeist and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (together with the failures of John Carpenter’s The Thing and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner) caused it to be bumped forward—these self-luminous surfaces, though already ubiquitous, had not yet come in all shapes and sizes and were still part of an essentially analogue culture that was shared with such pre-electric media as photographs, magazines and billboards.
Nevertheless, as Vilem Flusser has remarked in his book Post-History (originally published in 1981), it was still surfaces and not texts that, by the early 1980s had already come to dominate our culture.[i] Drive-in theaters were still standing; movie theaters were still analogue, with their grainy, and highly tactile textures; and special effects were still optically-based and done in-camera (although Star Trek II contains one of the first CGI images in film history when Kirk watches the unfolding of the Genesis planet on a video monitor: it is the seed of Post-Classic Cinema waiting to germinate two decades later[ii]).
The television screen was still based on cathode ray tube technology in 1983, and indeed, its presence is ubiquitous throughout Videodrome. There is scarcely a shot that exists without one, for television—together with its supplemental apparatuses of VCRs, videocassettes and cable TV—was the dominant medium of the 1980s. It had become what Marshall McLuhan, back in the mid-1960s had termed a “total surround,” meaning an environment that is so pervasive as to become invisible to its inhabitants. “With the television image,” as Jean Baudrillard remarks in his 1987 essay on “The Ecstasy of Communication,” “—the television being the ultimate and perfect object for this new era—our own body and the whole surrounding universe become a control screen.”[iii]
Hence, Videodrome is a tale of a man who becomes swallowed up inside of a televisual reality, a subtle reality that is composed entirely out of electrons and photons because that is precisely what happened to Western consciousness during the 1980s. Our neurons had become so fused together with the electrons being sprayed at us via the cathode ray tube that there was simply no way of separating them anymore. Like Max Renn sticking his head inside the televisual mouth of radio personality Nicki Brand, we had been swallowed alive by it and were living on the inside of it, like Jonah in the whale’s belly; there was no getting out. Electronic “encephalization” was Baudrillard’s term for it.[iv]
And soon an alchemical transformation began to take place, one that was documented in three great narratives of the early 1980s that captured this neuron-electron fusion which substituted images for facts in our brains: Blade Runner (1982), Videodrome (1983) and William Gibson’s science fiction novel Neuromancer (1984). These are the three great narratives that captured the shift from textual lines to surfaces that Flusser spoke about, although it never occurred to Flusser that an over-saturation of such surfaces and their incandescent signifiers might cause paranoia, confusion and ontological disorientation in the psyches of unstable individuals not equipped with the right psychological immune systems for helping them to sort it all out.
Thus, the decade which demarcated this ontological transubstantiation in our collective psyche—an ontological shift in which phantoms slowly began to replace objects, things, facts, and indeed, even history itself (a process termed by Baudrillard “the precession of the simulacra,” in which the simulacra began to precede and displace the real altogether[v])—began with two events: on December 8, 1980, Mark David Chapman murdered the icon named John Lennon by shooting him in the back with five bullets. For Chapman, Lennon did not exist as a real flesh and blood figure at all, but only as a mediatized saint whose image appeared on the “surfaces” of album covers, television talk shows like Dick Cavett and as a disembodied voice singing on LPs. Chapman sought to hunt down and kill Lennon because he didn’t really believe that Lennon was anything more than a phantom to him until he lay dying on the pavement, blood leaking from his physical body right before his very eyes. Now he had proof at last that the mediatized phantom who had appeared on television was, in fact, a real person. Chapman had killed him. The proof lay right there on the sidewalk.[vi]
The second event was the inauguration of Ronald Reagan on January 20, 1981. Reagan had been a former movie star and governor of California, but it soon became clear to the CIA and to his Cabinet members, that Reagan could not sit still for debriefings on public affairs without being shown images. After all, each morning Reagan would turn to the funnies in the newspaper first and scan their pictorial images before he moved on to glancing at the day’s headlines. The CIA quickly realized that they had to debrief him in the form of making newsreel-style films for him to watch in order to capture his attention at all. And then, during his presidency, it became clear that Reagan couldn’t remember for certain whether he had actually been in World War II or only played characters in World War II movies. He made several embarrassing public gaffes to this effect, and they can all be found in the biographies about him.
And then of course, John Hinckley, jr., modeling himself after Mark David Chapman, tried to assassinate Reagan on March 30th of that very same year because he was in love with a celluloid phantom: the thirteen year old prostitute named Iris who was played by Jodi Foster in Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver. Hinckley was certain that the act would impress the real Jodi Foster—in his case, at least, he knew there was a real person behind the phantom—enough to make her fall in love with him.[vii]
Thus, the Age of Phantoms had begun, the age in which, as Flusser remarked, technical images (which are post-alphabetic) had come to replace historical events, because it is precisely writing—i.e. one-dimensional lines of text that seek to explain and decode two-dimensional images—that makes history possible (every scribe, as he puts it, is a demythologizer of images)[viii] and this new culture of self-luminous images had begun to replace the brain’s perception of things, objects and facts—the temporal procession of which actually makes up history—with phantasmatic images that had come to stand in for them.
For Baudrillard had already recognized three distinct historical orders of simulation: in the pre-modern epoch of first order simulation, the dominant paradigm is that of scene and mirror, as in Velazquez’s painting Las Meninas: the representation reflects a real that is actually “out there” and is its faithful reflection and copy. But in the second order of simulation during the Industrial Revolution, the relation between the representation and the real begins to disintegrate since representations are now mass-produced and therefore begin to exhibit a problematic relation to the “original,” from which, as Walter Benjamin argued, the aura is leeched by the copy.[ix] Finally, in the postmodern epoch of third order simulation, the simulacra has nothing to represent, for it precedes the real, which no longer exists outside of the representation. There is only the hyperreal, or signs that signify other signs, but never refer to any kind of a real beyond them that they are supposed to represent. This is the precession, or precedence, of the simulacra over the real in the triumph of hyperreality.[x]
Now, Marshall McLuhan made a fundamental distinction in his 1962 book The Gutenberg Galaxy between media that function by means of “light through” them vs. media that operate in terms of requiring “light on” them. By the term “light through,” McLuhan had in mind the cultural phenomena of the Medieval epoch, with its age of stained glass in which light irradiates colored glass to create self-luminous Biblical phantoms, but also things like illuminated manuscripts and the scribal art of “seeing through” a Biblical text using exegetical methods.[xi] But with the shift to the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, the textural and highly tactile pages of illuminated manuscripts were traded out for the one-dimensional and uniform lines of type that required “light on” them in order to make them visible. The cosmology of saints and angels turning the etheric wheels of the heavens was traded out for that of Newtonian physics, in which matter was simply pushed and pulled about by external forces that required the light of the mind to illuminate the magical equations that made such forces possible.
The inception of the electric age, however, beginning with the telegraph and then evolving onwards through radio, radar and television screens, according to McLuhan, retrieved the cultural phenomenology of media that operate, once again—like stained glass—on the principle of “light through,” rather than “light on” them. The visual bias that had been stepped up during the Renaissance was now in abeyance as the earlier Medieval biases of ear and hand—which he realized that Joyce had already foreseen in Finnegans Wake with his character of Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker—were brought back into play. Jobs were traded out for roles, as the specialist was deprivileged over the generalist, for it was McLuhan’s contention that both computer and television favored generalists. (“‘Come into my parlor,’ said the computer to the specialist” was one of his favorite aphorisms).[xii] Hence, the eye—which scans rows of text one line at a time—was traded out for the ear, which hears everything all at once in a 360 degree radius.
McLuhan’s distinction—as I have written about elsewhere[xiii]—can also be mapped onto a distinction made in ancient Hindu philosophy between two different types of material forms: those that compose the lower vibrational world of heavy, dense physical matter (which they termed sthula) and which require external light, such as the sun, to see them; and the forms of dream, myth and religion that are self-luminous and compose the higher vibrational realm of subtle matter (termed sukshma).[xiv] No external light is required to see them for they irradiate their own incandescence and, like video screens, are actually best seen in the dark.
In David Cronenberg’s Videodrome—which is a visually poetic transform of McLuhan’s ideas into narrative mode—the Videodrome signal erodes the cognitive ability of an individual to discern the difference between these two realms. Self-luminous phantoms made out of subtle matter—electrons and photons; hence McLuhan’s “light through” phenomenon in which the television screen retrieves the mediatic effects of stained glass—invade the visual field of his waking reality where he is supposed to be able to survive amidst the clutter of the world of heavy matter, composed of the hard, unyielding atoms and molecules of Newtonian physics (“light on”).
The psychological immune systems which Vilem Flusser overlooked as necessary for giving the individual a basis for discerning between this “plague of fantasies” (Slavoj Zizek’s phrase)[xv] and the Real that it overcoded, have to do, of course, with literacy and education. It was the Greek theoretician Cornelius Castoriadis who said that today, all anthropomorphic types—in past civilizations these were types like the thinker, the artist, the warrior—have been crushed into precisely one type, that of the consumer, while there has been a vast diminishment of all our “imaginary significations” to those which cluster about consumption. Imaginary significations, for Castoriadis, include a society’s guiding archai: for the Greeks, this would’ve been things like the Greek gods and the guiding ideals of the democratic polis; for the Hebrews, it would’ve been Yahweh, together with all his commandments.[xvi] But with the “closure of signification” after WWII and the rise of the consumer as a single anthromorphic type, all dissent is crushed, and the signification process is closed. No one is encouraged to be critical of this consumerized consensus, and so no new meanings can emerge, since it is precisely through and by means of the tradition of the Greek agon, which involved a struggle between competing thinkers, that new meanings together with their significations are born.[xvii]
The individual, with the failure of our schools and the undermining of literacy with the rise of iconic culture, becomes as hapless as Plato’s proverbial prisoner who mistakes the shadows on the wall cast by the firelight behind him for substance. Max Renn is that very figure who is held captive by the Videodrome signal that is beamed at him through the television screen that stands in for Plato’s realm of phantoms and flickering shadows cast on the walls of the cave (what McLuhan would’ve called the “acoustic cavern of electric technology”).[xviii] Renn never makes it out of the cave because he becomes more and more entranced and seduced by its images until his entire waking reality becomes the red room of the Videodrome stage without walls.
But Renn is, of course, a signifier—like Joyce’s H.C.E.—who stands, as part for the whole, for us all today captured and dazzled by the spectacles of the video arena. The character of Truman in Peter Weir’s 1998 film The Truman Show, unlike Renn, managed to escape from the cave of simulation and so Andrew Niccol’s screenplay for that film comes much closer to the optimism of Plato’s myth of the cave than David Cronenberg’s narrative in Videodrome.[xix] Niccol and Weir never tell us what Truman found beyond the stage set of the faux sky that his craft manages to poke a hole into, but Cronenberg’s Videodrome suggests that we are all becoming irrevocably transformed—and dehumanized—by all these electronic images into something else, a New Flesh that has been physically and mentally altered beyond all recognition into something much more terrifying.
And with the ever-rising proliferation of spree killers making headlines daily, it seems that Cronenberg’s film was more prescient than The Truman Show—which remains an ideal, but not a reality—while Cronenberg, back in 1983, held up the mirror to show us exactly where we were headed.
So here we are at last on the show called Videodrome, a strange new world in which we are going to have to learn how to survive. No Truman has yet arrived to show us the way out, but there are plenty of Max Renns who are being born into its New Flesh on an almost daily basis.
Thus, Videodrome remains the classic film dramatizing the fate of the psyche captured by what Jean Baudrillard called its “telemorphosis.”[xx] Information overload, paranoia and cognitive dissonance are its by-products, and we are seeing the end results of the replacement of history with post-historical surfaces unfolding, like Lennon dying on the sidewalk right in front of Chapman, before our very eyes.
Welcome to the video word made flesh.
This way to the arena ↘
On Luminous Screens & Other Neuron / Electron Assemblages
[i] Vilem Flusser, Post-History, trans. Rodrigo Maltez Novaes (Minneapolis, MN: Univocal Publishing, 2013), 91.
[vi] For my account of this incident and its cultural phenomenology see John David Ebert, Dead Celebrities, Living Icons: Tragedy and Fame in the Age of the Multimedia Superstar (New York: Praeger / Greenwood, 2010), 109-112.
[xi] “This theme enters into the very texture of medieval thought and sensibility, as in the technique of the ‘gloss’ to release the light from within the text, the technique of illumination as light through, not on, and the very mode of Gothic architecture itself.” Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, (University of Toronto Press, 2011), 121.
This book can be ordered on Amazon at: http://www.amazon.com/Videodrome-Scene—Scene-David-Ebert/dp/1530202922/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1456389925&sr=8-1&keywords=videodrome+scene+by+scene