Monday, July 19, 2021

Dystopian Science Fiction @ 3QD [the fracturing of the American psyche]

My latest article for 3 Quarks Daily is posted:

From “Forbidden Planet” to “The Terminator”: 1950s techno-utopia and the dystopian future.

I must say that I like it, I even like it a lot. Yes, it’s got problems, which I will work on a bit (see below). But I like what it is, what it does, where it goes.

Interpretive, descriptive, and formalist

For one thing it is an interpretive article. I am interpreting two specific films, Forbidden Planet and The Terminator – and, by implication, a larger body of work, against events in American political and cultural history. At the same time the article is both formalist and has a substantial descriptive element.

One of the questions that keeps nagging at me as I criticize literary criticism for its flagrant and sad neglect of form, while at the same time talking of formalism, is: What happens to interpretation in the new regime that I am proposing, where I’ve been calling it ethical criticism? It’s not that I think it will go away, and my own work, even the descriptive work that concentrates on form, has plenty of interpretation in it, but still, for whatever reason, the question bugs me. For some reason, though, this essay satisfies me on that point in a way that other work has not.

Perhaps it is because the essay is obviously both formalist and descriptive as well. It’s formalist in the way that I compare three texts, The Tempest, Forbidden Planet, and The Terminator; and that comparison necessarily involves description. One major section of the essay, “Monsters from the Id Meet Your Progeny, Skynet,” is devoted to that formalist comparison. In a more formal academic presentation I might well use a chart or two, perhaps even a diagram. Who knows?

What’s particularly gratifying is that the essay controverts an idea about formalist that is prevalent in literary criticism, that formalist criticism necessarily treats texts as autonomous and hence independent of history. Instead, I am invoking history to explain the formal difference between Forbidden Planet and The Terminator. Form does not work the way literary formalist seem to think that it does. But then they aren’t actually talking about formal elements that you can and should describe. They’re just invoking the idea of form to justify their critical approach.

Things are missing: What about the women?

There is one big thing missing from the argument: After describing the central roles that women play in these two films, Altaira in Forbidden Planet, and Sarah Conner in The Terminator, I don’t really do much with it. I don’t really explain just what they are doing at the center of these plots. That’s because I don’t quite know what to do.

But the way to begin would be with some more description, starting with The Tempest. Prospero was once the Duke of Milan, but he was more interested in magic than in governing and so neglected his duties. His brother Alonso usurped the dukedom and exiled Prospero. Ferdinand is Alonso’s son. The pending marriage between Ferdinand and Miranda is thus vehicle through which he can reclaim his dukedom.

That kind of connection does not exist in Forbidden Planet. We no know nothing about Morbius’s former life in earth or why he went into space, scientific curiosity most likely. Thus he has nothing to gain if his daughter marries the handsome captain of United Planets Starship C-57D and everything to lose, his daughter. When his daughter leaves, he has no human companionship at all. I’m inclined to read his possessiveness as a kind of symbolic incest. When Capt. Adams is successful in his courtship, he thus rescues her from that relationship. This is a very different from the psychological dynamic in the Shakespeare play, though it is structured around the same fundamental human relationships, that between a father and a daughter, and that between a young woman the man she is to marry.

The Terminator is different from both. Sarah Conner’s father plays no role in the story at all; there is no Morbius/Prospero figure. The man she has sex with, Kyle Reese, and who (we suspect) is the father of her child, was sent back into the past by her child, John, to save her from a killer robot, the Terminator. Frankly, this feels like some kind of weird hyper-incest. Think of Skynet as a predatory father who wants to murder his daughter to keep her from giving birth to a son, his grandson, who will in turn murder him (Skynet). But his grandson outfoxes him and saves his mother so she can give birth to him.

It doesn’t compute. But somehow, in the depths of myth-logic, it must. Not rationally of course. But somehow it works.


Finally, this essay has some interesting implications that I sketched out in a recent post, Mind Hacks 3: 1956 – The Forbidden Planet Within [Media Notes 59]. I argue that these two films, and their historical relationship, have something to tell us about fears of super-intelligent AI turning on us:

Those fears are projective fantasy. Just as the Monster from Id in Forbidden Planet is a projection from the mind of a central character, Dr. Morbius. The mechanism is obvious in the movie. Morbius has been hooking himself up to advanced mind technology and it has, in turn, created the monster that stalks the planet.

Skynet in the Terminator films is thus a cultural descendant of that Monster from the Id. The same is true for all that crazy advanced technology that threatens the human race in so many science fiction films. But the same is true about those fears of out-of-control AI that real people have, real people who should know better. I’m thinking of people like Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Bill Joy, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Nick Bostrom, and others. It’s a bit scary to realize that these businessmen and ‘thought leaders’ indulge, are allowed to and even encouraged to, indulge in projective fantasy so openly and transparently.

We are seeing that the development of ‘mind technology,’ that is, artificial intelligence, has this side effect, that the ‘dark side of the mind’ is being projected into policy discussions in the civic sphere.

What I’m saying is that these men are availing themselves of a trope developed in science fiction as a way of rationalizing their anxieties about whatever it is that’s bugging them but they don’t want to own up to.

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