AI & SOCIETY

, Volume 28, Issue 3, pp 267–276 | Cite as

“We Can Rebuild Him!”: The essentialisation of the human/cyborg interface in the twenty-first century, or whatever happened to The Six Million Dollar Man?

25th Anniversary Volume A Faustian Exchange: What is to be human in the era of Ubiquitous Technology?

Abstract

This paper aims to show how recent cinematic representations reveal a far more pessimistic and essentialised vision of Human/Cyborg hybridity in comparison with the more enunciative and optimistic ones seen at the end of the twentieth century. Donna Haraway’s still influential 1985 essay “A Cyborg Manifesto” saw the combination of the organic and the technological as offering new and exciting ways beyond the normalised culturally constructed categories of gender and identity formation. However, more recently critics see her later writings as embodying a Faustian deal between the individual and hegemony, where technology does not enhance but merely returns the subject to a level of normalisation. As such cybernetics is only configured as a form of prosthetic rehabilitation, to ‘re’-able the ‘dis’-abled, that ultimately re-establishes earlier essentialised subject positions through that same evolutionary process. The Six Million Dollar Man, which ran from 1974 to 1978, exampled a symbiosis between the organic and the technological where the broken human body is not just re-made via mechanical prosthesis but through a process of Cyborg hybridity which actually makes it better, faster, stronger than before. In contrast, contemporary films such as Avatar (Cameron 2009), Transformers II: Revenge of the Fallen (Bay 2009) and Iron Man II (Faveraeu 2010) portray an inherent anxiety toward the cyborg body disavowing of any human/cyborg interaction beyond re-establishing their own discrete and separate subject positions. Although human/cyborg symbiosis constructs the possibility for potentialised bodies beyond those previously imagined, contemporary, popular, film represents them as separated and essentialised. This article looks at what cultural anxieties might produce such an about turn in such representations how this positions human identity in a time of increasing technology and, as a result, asks “whatever happened to The Six Million Dollar Man?”

Keywords

Cyborg Human Six Million Dollar Man Avatar Transformers Machines 

Flight com, I can’t hold her! She’s breaking up! She’s breaking…

Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to build the world’s first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better…stronger…faster.

(The Six Million Dollar Man 1973)1

This paper aims to show how recent cinematic representations reveal a far more pessimistic and essentialised vision of Human/Cyborg hybridity in comparison with the more enunciative and optimistic ones that were seen at the end of the twentieth century. In doing this it will focus on specifically on American popular representations, mainly television and film, but which still necessarily have a large area of influence throughout ‘westernised’ cultures. Donna Haraway’s still influential 1985 essay, A Cyborg Manifesto, saw the combination of the organic and the technological as offering new and exciting ways beyond the normalised culturally constructed categories of gender and identity formation. However, more recently, critics see her later writings as embodying a Faustian deal between the individual and hegemony, where technology does not enhance but merely returns the subject to a level of normalisation.2 As such, cybernetics is only configured as a form of prosthetic rehabilitation, to ‘re’-able the ‘dis’-abled, that ultimately re-establishes earlier essentialised subject positions through that same evolutionary process. Recent cinematic representations would seem to confirm this position where the combination of human flesh and mechanic exoskeletons or prosthetic limbs aligns the owner with forces that are distinctly not human and even just plain evil. Films such as James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), Michael Bays, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), and Jon Faveraeu’s Iron Man 2 (2010) all example the instability of the human/cyborg interface positing it, if not as inherently corrupt, then at least opening the door to dark and uncontrollable forces. This view is diametrically opposed to that seen in the late 1970s with the hugely popular TV series The Six Million Dollar Man. As indicated in the opening lines of the show quoted above, the addition of cybernetic parts to the human body was not only life-saving but made him, “better, stronger, faster.” Where did this hope go to? What was the nature of the pact made that saw the original gifts of gold tarnish and change what once was the possibility of life and identity beyond this mortal coil into a curse that threatens our very existence? This article, whilst not offering definitive answers, will look at some of the most popular representations in recent film and media to see how they manifest the nature of this Faustian exchange and to ask the question: “whatever happened to The Six Million Dollar Man?”

1 Introduction

Sometimes it is worth stating, or re-stating, the obvious in regard to popular culture and it is something Roger Luckhurst in his work on Science Fiction reiterates when he quotes Adam Roberts:

The symbolic purchase of SF on contemporary living is so powerful, and speaks so directly to the realities of our accelerated culture, that it provides many of the conceptual templates of the modern Western world (Luckhurst 2005).

This is arguably much more so when the works in question are multi-million dollar studio productions that are advertised and disseminated across the globe. Equally interesting within this is that not only are they viewed by millions but they are designed to be watched by millions.3 Although the work of one director they are specifically produced with their potential audience in mind, utilising familiar tropes to tell a familiar story, even if the outside trapping seems at first glance unfamiliar. As such, these films perform a very unique function in giving its audience what it wants, often in a very ad hoc manner, but in slightly different ways; being both of the times that makes them but also prescient of what that culture can possibly visualise as possible. These films then, I would argue, offer something of the Geist of the age from which they come; the ghost, not of the dead but the living, which utters the truths that normally remain hidden. Quite often these meanings, or ghostly utterances, are for from being intentional but uncovering what they might mean is the reason we write critical papers in the first place.
The television series, The Six Million Dollar Man, functioned in a very similar role as the blockbuster films mentioned above. First aired as a made for television movie in March 1973, it ran as a highly successful TV series for 5 seasons from January 1974 to March 1978. The show featured the actor Lee Majors as astronaut, Steve Austin, who is involved in an horrific crash and is only saved through military intervention and the surgical implantation of replacement bionic limbs and organs. The series was so popular that it inspired a spin-off series, The Bionic Woman, which featured Lyndsey Wagner as Jamie Sommers, a tennis pro that almost died in a sky-diving accident and Steve’s on and off girl-friend, and was recently re-made in 2007, with Michelle Ryan in the lead role.4 (Its huge popularity at the time is also shown in the myriad of merchandising materials such as books, games, dolls and shirts, which was produced at the time and some of which I owned myself). The idea was based on the 1972 novel, Cyborg, by Martin Caiden and it sees the hero, not just being saved but ‘rebuilt.’ Daniel Dinello describes it thus:

a series of experimental operations, [where] Austin gets turned into a ‘‘wholly new type of man…a new breed…A marriage of bionics (biology applied to electronic engineering systems) and cybernetics’’ [with] prosthetic legs and arms, silastic and vitallium pulleys for muscles, a computer brain implant, and a camera for an eye (Dinello 2005).

Interestingly, the novel differs from the series, not just in the detail—the book has Austin’s eye replaced with a simple camera but in the series it is further enhanced with a 20.2:1 zoom lens along with a night vision function,—but also in the nature of the deal between the bionic man and his makers. Both versions show him as ‘owing’ his life to a secret branch of the military. In the series, this is the OSI, the Office of Scientific Investigation (there was in fact such an office in the CIA in the 1970s) and in particular to his “handler”, Oscar Goldman. But whilst the series shows him as still ultimately under his own control, in the novel he is a man made into a weapon. This mirrors earlier military development of cybernetics where it was envisioned that a ‘modified’ pilot ‘sights the enemy target with remote eyes, “fires missiles with a word,” and drops bombs with a thought.’ (Gray et al. 1995)

Yet, on screen, Austin refutes all this being resolutely his own man in the face of a system that wants to own and control him, as such, he becomes something of a liminal figure in being both human and machine, fractured yet whole, controlled yet autonomous. This positions him as a transitional figure that is in the process of evolving or becoming something more, which strongly correlates to Susan Jeffords’ interpretation of films of this period and also Jacob Smith’s work on the Hollywood Stunt-men.5 Jeffords sees the political ideology behind the masculine bodies within films of the period beginning in the 1970s through to the late 1980s, specifically covering the period from Jimmy Carter’s time in office to that of Ronald Reagan. She identifies male heroes of the 1970s, the Carter years, as having soft bodies as a result of the national psychological trauma caused by the Vietnam war, and its is only through films such as First Blood (1982) and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), both starring Sylvester Stallone, that a representation of the national body made ‘hard’ again was made possible. Smith further places the stunt-man in this scenario as a transitional point between both soft and hard.

Read in the context of the late 1970s, the hero of the stunt-man cycle can be seen as a transitional Hollywood hero, coming after the genre revisionism of the Hollywood renaissance and before the more complete containment of these cultural anxieties in the “hard body” action heroes of the 1980s (Smith 2004).

The stunt-man here configures a body that can be broken and made whole again, much in the way that Jeffords describes the hard body of Rambo as capable of self-repair, and with its “ability to endure severe pain… [it] underscores how truly hard these bodies are.” (Jeffords 1994). The ideological import of this is obvious to Jeffords: “Rambo’s painful self-surgery insists that the national body can both heal itself and remain strong and combat ready despite its wounds.” (ibid).

The Six Million Dollar Man can be seen to function in a similar way, being an example of a national hero, an astronaut, who is irreparably damaged, and yet is brought back to life, better and stronger than he was before. Yet unlike the merely fleshy stunt-man or body builder/warrior, Austin is more than human; once repaired, he becomes virtually unbreakable. As mentioned before, this man/machine is no unthinking or pre-programmed Terminator, as envisioned by James Cameron almost 20 years later, but is a sentient self-determining body in control of its actions and its responsibilities to others.6 Resultantly, this places him more inline with Donna Haraway’s vision of the cyborg being, potentially, a category of being that is beyond, or outside, traditional or normative ones. She observes:

The cyborg is resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence. No longer structured by the polaritiy of public and private, the cyborg defines a technological polis based partly on a revolution of social relations in the oikos, the household. Nature and culture are reworked; the one can no longer be the resource for appropriation or incorporation by the other (Haraway 2000).

Somewhat coincidentally for this ‘military’ machine, she also comments that, “The cyborg skips the original step of unity, of identification with nature in the Western sense. This is an illegitimate promise that might lead to subversion of its teleology as star wars.” (Ibid). Austin indeed breaks with what is expected of him, he is not a ‘gun’ for hire but a being with a conscience. As such, his mechanical parts are not dead prosthetics, or phantom limbs that constantly remind him of a past that he has lost, but are symbolic of the hope for the future where he has agency and control over who and what he becomes. This configures his bionic parts in a fundamentally amoral way, in that although they are made by and for military use, their final meaning is given to them by their human host. Neither inherently good nor bad, their ideological imperative is created through use and experience; a palimpsest that is written upon by the organism they become one with.

I think more than later figures such as Rambo, the “hard” body of The Six Million Dollar Man is not driven by memories of the past but by a hope for the future. His wounds, unlike the warriors’, are not permanently on display as medals of bravery and honour, but are hidden and gone, replaced by bionic parts that make him more human rather than less, and stronger rather than weaker. This is convincingly shown in Austin’s easy acceptance of his new limbs; the division of his body between metal and flesh rarely troubles him or threatens to destroy him either physically or psychologically. He is in total control of them as they are part of him and he is part of them. However, this was not to remain the case.

2 A mind of their own

As mentioned above, TheTerminator by James Cameron signalled a very different interpretation of the cyborg, for although the T-800 is created of both organic and inorganic material—as noted by Constance Penley, “there is much that is hybrid about its constructed elements. The Terminator, after all, is part machine, part human—a cyborg” (Penley 1990),7—it is totally controlled by those who programme it. Later films by the same director develop this theme, that is, until Avatar from 2009, where it is totally reversed, and machines and mechanical limbs are inherently evil. In many ways, the plot of the film is not hugely different from TheSix Million Dollar Man, in that its hero, Jake Sully, has been seriously damaged both physically, he has lost his legs, and mentally, and the film charts his progress of becoming whole again and ultimately “stronger…better…faster” than he was before. Within the narrative there are two cases in point in terms of the configuration of a true cyborg: there is the offer of new mechanical legs to Jake but there are also the armoured war robots. As such, they configure two notions of the cyborg: one internal and the other external; one disrupts or repairs the integrity of the organic body, whereas the other contains that body or enhances it without actually being integral to it. I will deal with the externalised manifestation of cyborgism first as it most clearly signals this change from innocence to evil. In Avatar, these robot shells, or AMP suits, are designed to carry a single soldier who then directs its movements enabling even the smallest cadet to suddenly become a huge robotic Terminator. Within the context of Avatar, they are only ever seen as at best menacing, at worst, down right nasty. This is particularly seen at the end of the film when one driven by Colonel Miles Quaritch, the baddie of the story, tries to kill anything getting in its way as it tries to destroy the pod that contains Jake’s inert body.8 As such, even when unmanned, it is seen as nothing more than a weapon, and within the context of the film, all technological weapons are inherently bad; in fact, with its somewhat fluffy New-Age/holistic ideology, the movie posits that all technology is wrong and separates humanity from its true biological roots.9

Curiously, this is very different to the view put forward by an earlier film by Cameron, Aliens, from 1986. Here, for those that have not seen it, we once again see Lieutenant Ellen Ripley take on the might not just of the Alien, but the Alien Queen. It is a film not unlike TheTerminator in that it is driven to an inevitable conclusion—the showdown between Ripley and the Queen to decide “who is the Mommy!” This happens in the cargo hold of the space ship, and we see Ripley inside the mechanical body of a loading droid, which looks remarkably like the earlier war-drone from Avatar, taking on the Alien Queen over the young girl “Newt”. This culminates in the oft quoted line from the film by Ripley: “Get away from her, you bitch!” (Aliens1986) What is interesting here is the use of robotic enhancements to achieve this. As Ximena Gallardo and Jason Smith note, in their book, Alien Woman: The Making of Lt. Ellen Ripley, “Ripley, the Final Mom must transform herself into cyborg to wrestle the Alien Queen.” (Gallardo and Smith 2004) And in an interview with the director, quoted in the same book, Cameron comments:

I wanted to have the final confrontation with the alien as a hand-to-hand fight. To be a very intense, personal thing, not done with guns, which are a remote way of killing. Also guns carry a lot of other connotations as well. But to really go one on one with the creature was my goal. It made sense that Ripley could win if she could equalise the odds (ibid).

These observations, when combined, produce a very different reading of the inherent nature of mechanical enhancements. Ripley, in becoming a cyborg, through wearing this robotic exoskeleton transforms herself into the equal of the huge Alien Queen, effectively making her more than human, or super human. Further, as Cameron points out, she is not a mindless weapon, or somehow distanced from biological contact by being a cyborg, but rather it allows for an up-close and personal encounter between the two “mothers.” Ripley’s robotic parts make her more herself rather than less, and they symbolically, or symbiotically, become part of her innate being; an extension of her organic body. How different this is to the AMP suits in Avatar that seems to be made to be bad. Although basically the exact same thing as the Cargo Droid in Cameron’s earlier film (and both are essentially military equipment), here it has a mind of its own and it can only ever have bad thoughts.

Before talking about the cyborg within, it is worth mentioning a more recent representation of the external cyborg enhancement, or robotic shell—the Iron Man series of movies directed by Jon Favereau, and in particular, Iron Man II (2010).10 The franchise itself is one of the many that is a re-visiting of either a Marvel or DC-Comics hero from the 1960s, being simultaneously nostalgic and contemporary, familiar yet new. More often an excuse for CGI fireworks than coherent story lines, Iron Man, though stretching credibility, does contain some complex and believable characters, if ultimately stereo-typical ones. The Iron Man is multi-millionaire industrialist/arms dealer, Tony Stark, played by the charismatic actor, Robert Downey Jnr., who is kidnapped by terrorists who replace his heart for a cybernetic one, powered by palladium (how and why, is too complicated to explain here, but it is a source of enormous power). To escape his captors, Stark constructs a metal suit which he later develops into the familiar shiny red and yellow robotic shell that identifies Iron Man. There is always an inherent military application for this mechanical exoskeleton, and not unlike the AMP suite from Avatar, it is intended to enhance, or magnify, the average soldier’s capabilities into the superhuman, or super warrior. Iron Man II extends this idea with John Stark becoming increasingly conflicted over the enhanced power provided by the suit to both his own body and his already huge ego.11 As such, the cyborg enhancement is not inherently evil, but potentialises the human it contains in ways that make it more itself.

However, individual empowerment without limit can be difficult for even the most level-headed of us, and we see Stark, on learning of his impending death due to palladium poisoning, acting increasingly erratically. Yet all the while the suit is an extension of himself and we know that deep down, however conflicted, or dangerous, he seems, he is a good guy at his “cyborgian” heart. However, the film also features other versions of this suit. Firstly, Stark himself is updating the construction of his robotic exoskeleton, ostensibly to change its power source to become one that does not inherently kill him, and an earlier version of this (Mark II) is handed over to the American military by Iron Man’s friend, Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes. More central to the narrative is the creation of an army or armoured drones by Ivan Vanko. Whilst originally meant as a gesture of opposition by rival weapons manufacturer, Justin Hammer, the evil genius of Vanko, who wants to enact revenge on the Stark family, soon corrupts the arms dealers original plan of increased sales into one of world domination, indicating not just the misguided nature of an”arms race” but that, on some level, the mindless drones are inherently evil. This is largely configured around the fact that rather than being suits to be worn they are modified to become pilotless drones that are programmed to mindlessly follow the orders of their creator. Interestingly, this is also configured in their construction: whereas the Iron Man suit is far more human in look, a typical “hard body” from the 1980s but made in metal rather than skin over muscle, the drones are angular and sharp and far more “weapon-like” and militaristic in appearance, not unlike the AMP suits in Avatar. This difference is further emphasised by the difference in colouring of the suits/drones with Iron Man always the distinctive, and individually recognisable, red and yellow, whereas the drones are dull grey, indistinguishable in both look and intent.12

Once again the underlying feeling is produced that these machines are inherently evil. This is further enhanced by Penley’s work on the Terminator film, mentioned above. Both human and machine are configured as cyborgs as Sarah Connor becomes more machine-like and uses machines to destroy the terminator but the robot is also human-like in its appearance and its mimicking of human actions and speech patterns. Implicitly implied in this, though not commented on by Penley is that the human becoming, or controlling, a machine is seen as good, if vaguely de-humanising, whereas the machine becoming human is always bad.13 Though obviously a plot device to delineate the good versus evil narrative, it consolidates ambivalence toward the cyborg and who and what ultimately controls it; that on some level robotic extension can never be harmless blanks, or palimpsests that can be continually overwritten. We see this in the original Iron Man suit where the palladium, that is its power source, is killing Tony Stark. He then has to re-assert his control and dominion over the suit to make it ‘safe’ again, configuring the human/machine union as a battle of wills rather than a cooperative endeavour. When the cyborg parts are directly joined to, or covered by flesh, this becomes even more problematic and so we return to Avatar and Jake Sully’s deal with the devil for metal legs.

3 Born to be bad

Jake Sully: “When I was lying in the V.A. hospital with a big hole blown through the middle of my life, I started having these dreams of flying. I was free. But sooner or later, you always have to wake up” (Avatar2009).

Adam Bostic in his essay Automata: Cyborg imagery in film and television divides such stories into two distinct narrative forms: the “hero” and the “collective.” (Bostic 1998) Here the hero’s identity is configured around the eventual acceptance between the organic and the mechanical:

a common theme in the cyborg hero narrative focuses on disembodiment along with the hero’s transformation through technology into a new, improved whole. The hero struggles with his or her new found identity but in the end accepts and utilises his or her own fragmentation as an element of an enhanced cyborgian body and self (ibid).

Avatar disavows such a view from its very beginning. Early scenes show us Jake Sully, a former marine who has lost his legs, now confined to a wheelchair. He has been drafted to the planet of Pandora to take the place of his brother, who was killed in the experimental “Avatar” programme there. This programme sees human and alien DNA combined and grown to produce a clone, or avatar, which can be controlled by the mind of the owner of the human DNA. Jake’s DNA is close enough to his brother’s so that he can replace him and control the Na’vi avatar produced from his sibling. Jake is quickly configured as a liminal body when he arrives on Pandora. The human population is divided predominantly into military or scientific personnel and Jake’s “broken” nature excludes him from both. We see him physically unable to keep up with the fully limbed soldiers who constantly run around him, and mentally not only is he unable to “keep up” intellectually with the scientists but his shattered self-worth alienates him from their singularity of focus and purpose.

Jake’s quest to become whole again is quickly established as a contest between the scientific and the militaristic, between the search for understanding and knowledge as opposed to that of control and exploitation, respectively. The militaristic view, as intimated before, is concentrated in the body of Colonel Quaritch, who takes on a Mephistopheles type role as he tempts Jake to betray the scientists in return for new mechanical legs; a deal which Jake readily accepts. We never actually see what these legs might look like and only have the intimation through a comparison with the hugely over-determined robotic might of the AMP suits. Interestingly though we do not need to see them to know they are evil for in comparison with the biologically created and holistic nature of the organically grown limbs of the avatar, they can only ever be a lesser choice. This is further compounded by the film’s construction of the mechanical as inherently evil, as mentioned above. We can tell from this that if Jake chose the robotic legs to make his body whole again, he too would become inherently bad, they indicative of the soulless system that created them, the system that wants to consume and destroy an innocent alien race, and would also consume Jake and any goodness that he has left. This division between the human and the robotic, the organic and the mechanical creates an amazingly essentialist view of the two categories where the biological is inherently good and the cybernetic is bad. Even though both can be seen as “man-made,” any form of robotics grafted onto the human body will inevitably corrupt it and make it part of the exploitative world that created it.

This if further emphasised at the end of the film when we see Jake made whole again; however, this is not through mending his broken human body but through exchanging it for an entirely new organic one, as though having an alien body is better than having a compromised human one. And to complete this statement the organic whole, or world spirit of Pandora, Eywa, once achieving victory over the invaders, banishes both the humans and their machines from the planet. As such, the cyborg body will inevitably go bad because of the inherent evil of its metalised parts that will inevitably corrupt the whole. This corruption by the robotic is seen in many films, before and since, Avatar, Cameron’s earlier Terminator series being a well-documented example. But perhaps of greater interest is a more recent representation that of Alice in Transformers: The Revenge of the Fallen (2009).

The Transformers trilogy of films by Michael Bay comes from the highly successful animated series and line of toys produced by Hasbro, and features a breed of robotic life-forms that can disguise themselves by transforming into everyday machinery, and have come to Earth after the destruction of their home world of Cybertron.14 They are divided into two opposing factions, the Autobots, who want peace and try to protect humans, and the Deceptacons, who want power and to destroy the Earth and its inhabitants. Alice has a very special place within this as she is the only true cyborg that we see in the entire series.15 Though nominally labelled as a “Pretender”, within the larger Transformers franchise, this is a robot with a synthetic organic shell; in Revenge of the Fallen, she functions as something far more disconcerting as she is a Deceptacon but also human. In the film she is shown as a nubile and sexually available young girl and is indistinguishable from the other students around her. In this role, her mission is to find and extract vital information from the brain of Sam Witwicky, the human hero of the series, and so she follows him to college and integrates into the freshman year to track her prey. As such, she takes on the characteristics of both the bad Terminators from Cameron’s earlier films, being both a robotic organism covered in human flesh, as the first Terminator did, but also able to transform and mutate at will, as in Terminator II.16 We see this as she chases Sam, changing form between the human girl and a rampaging robot. That Sam is overwhelmed and fully taken in by her earlier sexual advances makes her even more dangerous as not only has she corrupted the flesh that covers her but is about to penetrate and invade Sam’s as well. This is graphically shown when she straddles Sam on the bed in his college dorm, and rather than seeing male arousal, we see a large snake-like tail emerge from under her dress that, scorpion-like, threatens to stab her victim.

The inherent monstrosity of this action and the bodily disruption that it implies is re-iterated by Sam’s roommate when he anxiously and repeatedly questions him:

She violated your orifice with her nasty alien probe? She did it? She went in there? All her little embyo alien babies are gestating and hatching inside of you. They’re growing right now, probably!

(Revenge of the Fallen 2009)

Alice then performs the two most anxiety causing acts of the cyborg, those of imitation and bodily disruption. Sue Short describes the first of these threats in terms of the life-like mimicry performed by the cyborg in the Terminator:

infinitely more frightening than previous models not only because of their lifelike skin, but also because they have ‘sweat, bad breath, everything – very hard to spot’. They are designed specifically to ‘pass’ undetected among humans, with successive models that are even capable of altering their appearance to imitate people (Short 2005)

Alice, like the mutating later model of the Terminator the T-1000, exacerbates this situation because, as Daniel Dinello notes, “[it] easily transforms into the comforting appearance of a handsome policeman or John Connor’s pretty mother. Like an anti-human terrorist, the T-1000 easily becomes an imperceptible part of normal reality.” (Dinello 2005) This, I think, pinpoints the true focus of anxiety within the cyborg body or the robotic prosthetic: that its replication or enhancement of the human organism is not passive and receptive but active and aggressive. Rather than repairing or making the organic body more than it was, or is, it will somehow corrupt or destroy it for its own nefarious ends. This fear of being contaminated, or even killed, through contact with cybernetic parts is seen in the T-1000, whose mimicry of the organic necessarily kills it, and in Alice’s attempts to penetrate Sam’s body that would corrupt it in ways that Leo, and by extension we, can only imagine.

4 Conclusion: whatever happened to The Six Million Dollar Man?

What happens when humans merge with machines?…Maybe the machines will then become more important to us than another human life. Those who have become cyborgs will be one step ahead of humans. And just as humans have always valued themselves above other forms of life, it’s likely that Cyborgs will look down on humans who have yet to ‘evolve’ (Warwick 2000).

What kind of Faustian deal was involved with our love affair with The Six Million Dollar Man, and what else did we invite into our homes as we willingly beckoned Steve Austin and his bionic limbs to join us on the living room sofa? Did the saviour of the free world, as he was styled, just clear the way for a far wider and far more menacing domination of the human spirit, and corruption of the human body? Or has the cyborg become a convenient signifier of other societal fears and anxieties? As mentioned earlier, Science Fiction is a hugely popular medium through which to express such concerns, where demon robots and aliens from far off worlds can symbolise troubles much closer to home. The immense popularity of “blockbuster” films manifests them as natural carriers of a cultures dream as well as its nightmares and the slippery distinctions between the two. As such, the circumstances that create the vision of a cyborg future where humans might all be more than they are and the best they can be, very quickly erodes to a dystopian world where humans are not only obsolete but provide the energy source for other forms of life (see The Matrix 1991 by the Wachowski Brothers). Various commentators have described what they see as the primary anxieties at the interface of the relationship between the human and cyborg bodies. Veronica Hollinger, echoing the words of David Warwick above, sees it as “the valley, or abyss, [of] the disappearing body which have been influenced by technological fictions of its looming obsolescence.” (Hollinger 1997) Such sentiments are taken up by Scott Buketman who sees humanity’s vision of itself as one that is “terminal”. He says: “faced with the possibility of its own extinction, or at least its new irrelevance, the human subject has produced a range of representations of itself as melded with the matrices of terminal existence.” (Bukatman 2001) The “dead” metal of the cyborg that contaminates the “living” flesh functions in just such a way.
Adam Bostic continues this line of analysis in his work on the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation, when figurehead of the narrative, Captain Jean Luc Picard, is captured by the Borg. Here the Borg configures the supreme example of mechanical parts corrupting human flesh to create a mindless cyborg horde. As the Borg begin their process of assimilation upon the Starship Captain Bostic describes it thus:

This image of a penetrated, compromised, genderless, and unfamiliar Picard collapses conventional binary terms of difference: self and other, attraction and repulsion, culture and nature, man and machine, life and death. Punctured by multiple inorganic implants, Picard’s body is a body in crisis — contestable, without desire or agency, dissembled and reassembled, and spectacularly incorporated and assimilated (Bostic 1998).

This sees the human body as a continual site of crisis, both in itself and in its relations to others and so the anxiety produced by the cyborg is not just of dissolution of the flesh but of individual identity. As such, it might express not just the threat of cyborg/human interrelations but of hybridity in general. In the age of post-colonialism, the “global village” and instant communications old notions of national and societal borders are eroding, and the fear of losing “real” flesh may be more akin to a loss of the feeling of uniqueness and authenticity. As noted by Avtar Brah and Annie E. Coombe: ‘hybridity signals the threat of “contamination” to those who espouse an essentialist notion of pure and authentic origins’ (Brah and Coombes 2000). Sue Short sees such loss of authenticity more as a product of late capitalism than post-colonialism and asserts:

for postmodernists the cyborg/simulacra is an ideal metaphor of conditions within “late industrial” society, representing the extent to which mass reproduction and sophisticated media technologies have rendered the concept of originality and authenticity intensely problematic (Short 2005).

All of these anxieties are expressed in the films previously mentioned where cyborgs purposely mimic the human form and become indistinguishable from living flesh; pretending to be something they are not and often with nefarious, or even murderous, intentions. Cyborgs then become signifiers that make manifest certain cultural anxieties indicating, not just the imminent dissolution of the “terminal” human body, but, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, when the traditional borders between the self and other, friend and foe, are becoming increasing blurred.

This becomes more prescient, I believe in looking at representation of the cyborg in American culture before and after 9/11. Suddenly home soil was no longer the safe haven that it once was and the potential terrorist is not the obvious stranger or outsider but looks exactly like “us”. This anxiety is noted by Amanda Craig when she observes: “the outsider who looks like us plays to our deepest preoccupations now that Britain and the US feel under siege from home-grown terrorists.” (Craig 2006) This statement possibly configures the most frightening aspect of the cyborg which is able to replicate the human form, becoming indistinguishable from ourselves and then infiltrate our cities, towns and homes and remain undetected? Once here it can destroy us, or even worse, infect and corrupt us. Just like Jake Sully’s promised robotic prosthetics non-human additions become the carrier of an ideological intent that we would be unable to resist. In allowing them into our bodies, we would lose our soul and our control over ourselves.

The phenomena described above, as mentioned earlier, are largely confined to popular representations that are being produced by current American cinema. Interestingly Japan, commonly configured as widely embracing technology in general and robotics in particular, manifested a similar anxiety in regard to the penetration of the human body by mechanical parts at the start of the twentieth century. Miri Nakamura in his article Horror and Machines in Prewar Japan relates this to the Japanese literary forms “Taisho” and “Showa” and their subgenre of “irregular detective fiction.” Here he describes the “mechanical uncanny” and how it is an expression of the fear of a loss of national and personal identity:

The mechanical uncanny threatens what we perceive to be “natural,” including personal memories and personal identities as a whole. The idea of a coherent self comes under attack, as bodies become both divisible and mechanical, and as characters are duplicated and become reduced to statistical beings (Nakamura 2002).

Contemporary Japan, however, is constructed as openly embracing and encouraging developments in the fields of technology, cybernetics and robots as shown in recent tabloid headlines such as “Japanese Robots Enter Daily Life” in USA Today and “What’s Behind Japan’s Love Affair with Robots?” in Time Magazine.17 This cultural difference between “East” and “West” is possibly illuminated most clearly in Stephen T. Asma’s book On Monsters. Here he describes how microbiotics teams and biologists at Tsukuba University in Japan have been refining a cyborg “robo-roach.” Asma observes how they:

Have successfully outfitted cockroaches with microprocessors and replaced their antennae with pulse-emitting electrodes. The scientists can actually control the movements of the roach, making it turn left and right and move forward and backward, here, then, is the real-world manifestation of out worst fears. Are we creating technology that will eventually put us in the place of these hapless roaches? (Asma 2011)

This would seem to neatly summarise the anxiety in popular culture that robotic and technological implants or enhancements not only turn us into something other than ourselves but also put us under the control of outside agents.18 Within this is an increasing essentialism that would seem difficult, if not impossible, to reverse. The Transformers series, in particular, keeps humans and robots strictly separate and even the robots are not allowed to reproduce. The continuing conflict between the two robotic factions is for control over “Energon”, a life giving energy from Cybertron, that the “good guys”, the Autobots, continually seek to control and stifle, and such hybrid creations as Alice are destroyed on sight. Even in Iron Man II, there is the inherent view that uncontrolled and autonomous use and creation of cyborg enhancement is, at best, dangerous, if not downright deadly. There is here a wish for stasis, if not to go back on the deal we once made, then to hold it in place and resist its implicit compulsion to go forward. Returning to Haraway’s earlier view of the cyborg body and what she saw as its innate ability to offer new ways of structuring the world and our place within it, this turn of events would seem to be a denial of such change and radical realignments. As George Myerson notes, “you can tell you are in the presence of a cyborg figure when you feel a new world coming into being around you.” (Myerson 2000) The worlds of Avatar and Transformers would appear to vilify such changes, and the “new worlds” that forcefully attempt introduce them.

Yet there are also ways beyond this position and they are dramatically exampled in Avatar by the Na’vi avatar itself, for that too can be seen as a cyborg creation. In her later book Modest_Witness, Haraway extends her notion of what constitutes the “cyborg figure”. Here it becomes constitutive of all non-human bodies working for “earthly survival” and so includes “seed, chip, gene, database, bomb, foetus, race, brain, and ecosystem” (Haraway 1997) as well as primates, coyotes, Mixotricha paradoxa, vampires, OncoMouse™ and FemaleMan©. David Bell identifies these categories as “products of global technoscience” (Bell 2001), whereas Haraway views them more as figures “shocked into being from the force of the implosion of the natural and the artificial, nature and culture, subject and object, machine and organic body, money and lives, narrative and reality.” (Haraway 1997) These new additions to what a cyborg body might be are predicated not so much on what that body is but in the nature of the infrastructure that brought it into being, or at least the knowledge to understand and utilise its innate capabilities. As Haraway then notes, “all the materialising instruments, discourses, and political economies of transnational technoscience—from scanning electron microscopes, to molecular genetic analysis, to theories of evolution, to circulations of money and people.” (Haraway 1995) In this way, the cyborg box that appeared to be firmly closed on the alien world of Pandora is actually left wide open for the Na’vi avatars are nothing if not cyborg in their creation and intent. Although organic in nature, they were wholly brought into being by techno-science—we see this in the early parts of the film where we are shown them “growing” in huge tanks in the medical laboratories. The resultant biological shells, or even suits, can then only move or have “life” once a human operator has been installed within it. Once inside the avatar, the human body is virtually discarded, leaving the disembodied consciousness in control of a bigger, stronger and faster biological machine, and one that is more in tune with its environment. This perhaps indicates a subtle shift in perspective that suddenly brings Myerson’s earlier statement into focus that “a new world coming into being” is actually here when we start to look with new cyborg eyes, that is, when our view of what might constitute, or is brought into being by, the cyborg body is altered. As such, the world we live in becomes a cyborg body, an engineered shell, which makes us more than what we were. This feeds into notions of how we are created by the spaces within which we live and that, on some level, we are only as intelligent as the environment that we live in.

This is already seen in “smart homes” which can both think and act on our behalf. As Diane J. Cook, Michael Youngblood, and Sajal K. Das explain:

We define an intelligent environment as one that is able to acquire and apply knowledge about its inhabitants and their surroundings in order to adapt to the inhabitants and meet the goals of comfort and efficiency. Our goal is to create a home that acts as a rational agent, perceiving the state of the home through sensors and acting upon the environment through effectors (in this case, device controllers). The agent acts in a way to maximise its goal, which is a function that maximises comfort of its inhabitants and minimises operation cost[s] (Cook et al. 2006).

Here we function as a small, if vital, piece of a much larger organism making us implicitly part of a cybernetic body. Effectively, we all become cyborgs. As such, whilst Avatar, Iron Man II and Transformers might show a world trying to control individual robotic and cyborg bodies, it is a world already irrevocably changed; a cyborg world. So to answer the question that started this conclusion: “Whatever happened to The Six Million Dollar Man?”, the answer is “he is all around us!”

Footnotes

  1. 1.

    Opening lines of The Six Million Dollar Man from Internet Movie Database http://www.imdb.com/title/H0071054/ [accessed December 11th 2010].

  2. 2.

    This is seen in one of Haraways more recent works "Modest_Witness @Second_Millennium" where she describes the creation of a patented mouse which develops human breast cancer and showing “nature enterprised-up” and consequently how the cyborg-isation of nature is used to restore ‘normality’ to human life. It can be seen, as noted by Eleanor M. Miller and Frank B. Varney in their review of the work in (1999), to "Both force a revaluation of what may count as nature and artefact, of what histories are to be inhabited by whom, and for whom" p. 119, but also example how the promise of the Cyborg Manifesto, has been compromised through commercial interest.

  3. 3.

    Avatar grossed $2,740,405,721 worldwide, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, $836,303,693 and Iron Man 2, $621, 751, 988. All figures form Box Office Mojo.

  4. 4.

    The original Bionic Woman series ran from January 1976–May 1978, whilst the more recent version was on from September 2007–November 2007.

  5. 5.

    Interestingly, the actor playing Steve Austin, Lee Majors, followed this series with a highly successful one where he played a stunt-man called Colt Seevers, who moon-lighted as a bounty-hunter. It was called The Fall Guy and ran from November 1981–May 1986.

  6. 6.

    The Terminator by James Cameron was released in 1984 and the flesh-covered machine sent back from the future, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, is very much a weapon on legs that has no control over itself and can only fulfil the commands it has been given.

  7. 7.

    Penley, not unlike Haraway, sees the cyborg as a hybrid category, but one that is predicated upon actions as much as actual mechanisation and so a human can be seen to act like a machine and vice versa.

  8. 8.

    For anyone who has not seen the film, and according to the viewing figures, that should be a scant few of us, Sam requires a special pod to encase his body in so that his consciousness can be utilised to operate the body of a cloned Na’vi, the indigenous people of Pandora.

  9. 9.

    There is an odd conflation of H.G. Wells here and Marxism where machines inevitably distance humanity from authentic experience and connection to the world, in the same way that labour is turned into a commodification of the worker but also the symbiosis between a world and the organisms that inhabit it. This is seen at the end of Wells’ War of the Worlds when the invaders are killed by bacteria that do not affect humans, or as Wells describes it: ‘By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all comers’ (Wells 2005).

  10. 10.

    Iron Man was released in 2008 with a third instalment planned for 2013.

  11. 11.

    Downey Jnr. is possibly the ideal actor for this role as it reflects his own off-screen physiological and personal conflicts.

  12. 12.

    There is a slightly different reading of this in terms of the merchandising deals that are inherently part of the film—the Iron Man franchise has deals with Hasbro and Sega. Here there is an underwritten plot of accepting only original products, the red and yellow Iron Man, and rejecting ‘dangerous’ and generic imitations.

  13. 13.

    This is continued in the later Terminator films where they level of mimicry of the robot distinguishes as being bad. The old version of the Terminator can only take on one form and so is relatively stable and so safe. However, the new version can change, almost at will and so is viewed as a far more dangerous threat.

  14. 14.

    The series consists of Transformers (Bay 2007), Transformers II: Revenge of the Fallen (Bay 2009) and Transformers III: Dark Side of the Moon (Bay 2011).

  15. 15.

    Other representations of humans by either faction of robots in the series are designed to specifically deceive human observers and do not interact on a physical basis with them. This is largely as holographic drivers of whatever form of mechanical transport they are imitating.

  16. 16.

    The first Terminator, or the T-800, famously played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, was a robot covered by living flesh which looked human but could not transform itself. The T-1000 that featured in the two later Terminator films, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Dir. James Cameron (1991), and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Dir. Jonathan Mostow (2003), was made from sentient liquid metal that could take on the external form of any object.

  17. 17.

    see “Japanes Robots Enter Daily Life” in USA Today, 03/01/2008 [online]. Available at: http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/robotics/2008-03-01-robots_N.htm and “What's Behind Japan's Love Affair with Robots?” in Time Magazine,03/08/2009 [online]. Available at: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1913913,00.html.

  18. 18.

    Interestingly Asma’s book qualifies this assertion by linking it with another monstrous body, which he somewhat all purposely identifies as “the military” making the worst consequence of such experiments being that one is turned into a weapon, This same anxiety is also seen in Iron Man II and Avatar where the robotic exoskeletons are controlled by outside forces that then make the human body within them do as it wishes. This circumstance is specifically denied by Steve Austin in The Six Million Dollar Man where his cybernetic enhancements, though explicitly configured as military interventions, are entirely under his control and he has full agency over whether he undertakes the missions required of him.

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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag London Limited 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Independent ScholarPoznanPoland

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