“Teaching Post-Humanism: An Exploration of the Blurring Boundaries Between Science Fiction and Social Reality”
Presented at the 2013 Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association Conference
Abstract: Since the Industrial Revolution, the boundaries between science fiction and social reality have been dissolving as our physical reliance on and adaptation to new technologies (in medicine, communications, entertainment, bioengineering, mass production and even waging war) have continued unabated. In 2011, I developed and taught a graduate-school course examining how bio and machine technologies are changing our minds and bodies, and investigating what it means to be human in the 21st century—the first course on this topic at the University of Minnesota. In this SF/F presentation, I’ll discuss my bibliography, course content, and the role of science-fiction literature, film and television in my lecture/presentations. The presentation will also include how the course examined cyborg characters in science fiction as metaphors for human-technological integration, and discussions on determining human-technological identity in comparison to science fiction characters and narratives. Central to the presentation are highlights from the students’ final papers, which ranged in topic from questioning the limits of the imagination in current science fiction, to comparing the sentience of Ultron to that of an imagined God-like AI, to studying such robot uprisings as the one in Robopocalyse (Daniel Wilson, and soon to be a major motion picture) as a means of averting an AI-driven Singularity.
“Terrors in Tutus: Balletic Transfiguration as Metaphor in Science Fiction and Fantasy Film”
Presented at the 2010 Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association Conference
Abstract: No art form is more predicated on physical transformation than ballet. No film genre is more concerned with post- and trans-human mutation than science fiction and fantasy (SF/F). Both have originated dancing human-machine and human-animal protagonists that—through such transfiguration—serve as metaphors for liberation and totalitarianism, creativity and repression, sanity and madness within fairy-tale-like narratives. From the winged sylph of “La Sylphide,” to the automaton “Coppelia,” to the cyborg ballerina in “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” the hyper-real, hybrid ballerina continues to embody the wonders and terrors that threaten the status quo’s ideologies.
Drawing from Stuart Hall, Frederic Jameson and Jane Gaines’ theories on the “double movement” by which cinematic texts simultaneously capitulate to and resist the ideological dreams they manifest, this paper explores balletic hybridity in two recent SF/F films. In “2081” (2009), Chandler Tuttle’s adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s story “Harrison Bergeron,” ballerinas are mechanically “handicapped” to bring their physical beauty and prowess into equality with the rest of a subjugated, stupefied humanity. In Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” (2010), the protagonist physically and psychologically mutates into a human/were-swan as she dances dual roles within the fantastical narrative of “Swan Lake.”
The paper analyzes how these balletic hybrids reinforce the dominant ideologies in these films, while simultaneously terrifying and terrorizing the hegemonic order. In doing so, the paper also explores alienation from or affinity with these terrors in tutus—as metaphors for human autonomy and subservience in the real world.
Panel Coordinator: The Hyper-Virtuosic Body in Science Fiction/Fantasy Film and Television
Panel Presentation: “The Ballerina as Cyborg: Summer Glau in Angel, Firefly/Serenity, and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles”
Presented at the 2009 Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association Conference
Abstract: In Episode 7 of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, the character Derek Reese—an anti-cyborg warrior sent from the future to save John Connor—spies on the cyborg Cameron Phillips as she beautifully executes a ballet phrase she recently assimilated. Reese’s face is a mix of horror, awe and disbelief as he watches the machine arabesque and pirouette with lithe, fluid grace. Meanwhile, Sarah Connor’s words echo in Reese’s and television viewer’s minds: “There are things machines can never do…. They cannot appreciate beauty. They cannot create art. If they ever learn these things, they won’t have to destroy us, they’ll be us.”
Perhaps. But diegetically, what Reese doesn’t realize is that the cyborg, in this scene, also mirrors the inverse image of the ballerina as a hybrid of earthly woman, otherworldly sylph and mechanized dancing machine generated during the Europe’s Romantic Era of ballet. This paper unpacks the viewer’s (Reese’s, and thus the public’s) intense, palpable anxiety about the blurring of human/cyborg identity encapsulated in the scene by:
Investigating the history of the hyper-virtuosic (cyborgian) female ballet body through the addition of such prosthetic devices as pointe shoes and wires (for flight), and an increasingly rigorous, militaristic training regime; and discussing how actor and dancer Summer Glau’s ballet training serves her fictional roles as human/cyborg/otherworldly dancing machine from the “Waiting in the Wings” episode of Angel, through her portrayal as River in Firefly and Serenity, and in her role as the cyborg Phillips.
In doing so, I argue that just as the directors of these productions deploy Glau’s ballet training as a way of feminizing her cyborgian characters (the soft, ethereal, Romantic Era ballerina still dominates the public and popular culture consciousness as the embodiment of the feminine ideal), such portrayals instead—when viewed through the lens of dance history—simply reinforce the ballerina as a breed apart, both victim and wielder of supernatural power.
“Rage Against the Colonialist Machine: Movement as a Means of Liberation in the Matrix Trilogy”
Presented at the 2008 Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association Conference
Abstract: Throughout the history of colonialism in the United States, indigenous people retained their cultural identity and sense of freedom through dance, often while incorporating colonizing influences: e.g., the Ring Shout of the African slaves and Ghost Dance of the American Indians. In the fictional post-apocalyptic city of Zion in the 20th-century Matrix films, the human population—those liberated from the immobilizing pods created by the colonizing machines and connected to a mainframe through which their minds experienced the Matrix simulacrum—gather together in a tribal rave prior to battle with the machines.
This paper examines this tribal rave—created by concert-dance choreographer Charles Moulton—as a historic approximation of dance ritual as a means of liberation among indigenous, colonized populations. At the same time, this paper contrasts the tribal rave with the movements of the liberated humans who plug back into the simulacrum as individual, asexual, cyber-enhanced rebels in scenes choreographed by martial-arts expert Yuen Wo Ping.
In particular, the paper examines the movements of the re-birthed Neo who, while prone in the Nebuchadnezzar, re-enters the Matrix as a superhero progressively defying the simulacra of time, space and gravity. Only by plugging into the Matrix can Neo’s body move as an act of subversion and defensive measure against colonialist control. In the process, his movement becomes a neo-colonial facsimile of the robotic agents’ who patrol the Matrix. Within these provocative layers of simulacrum the mind is free, but the body is the means to an end.