Of Living Machines and Living-Machines: Blade Runner and the Terminal Genre


William Fisher



THE POSSIBILITY OF FINDING likeness in diversity has always been a safety valve on the critical apparatus--"when in doubt, subsume it under a rubric." Now, on the other side of long debates on the subject in film studies, we understand "genre" to be a place where social experience (in the form of narrative conventions, audience expectations, and industrial practices) combines with the critic's act of "subsuming it under a rubric" in a mutually constitutive way. But the real use value of the idea of genre rests with its divisibility: as the cultural sphere continues to expand geometrically, it is always possible to generate new headings under which to marshal any film or films. Think of the recent critical interest in "cult films" or "midnight movies," for which exhibition practices and audience constituency allow us a new generic subdivision boosting the enthusiasm of fans, the readership of film critics, and the box office of exhibitors.

With such all-round benefits in mind, generic bird watchers shouldwaste no time classifying the new one rising from the ashes of second-run art houses. I will cautiously term it--in view of the decline of the American avant-garde and the stagnation of the oppositional cinema in Western Europe--the multinational, commercial avant-garde. Or, more briefly, the "Terminal Genre."

I refer to the "up-to-the-minute," "high-tech," unrelentingly chic, and unabashedly "eclectic" feature film whose privatized, often grim vision commands a diverse and repeat nonmainstream audience. Multinational in its resources and points of reference, commercial in its appeal and intentions, avant-garde in its narrative and visual processes, the genre's uniqueness derives from its meticulously detailed representation of an altered world--apocalyptic or postapocalyptic--and all that obtains from it. Although its every production still is suitable for exhibition in the Whitney, its run sooner or later ends up on the late night circuit in the East Villages of the big American, European, and Asian cities. Among the best of the genre are Mad Max, The Road Warrior, Pink Floyd: The Wall, Vortex, Kamakazi '89, Streets of Fire, The Hunger, Buckaroo Banzai, Subway, Highlander, Terminator, Brazil, certain Grace Jones videos, and what I take to be the genre's highest achievement, Blade Runner. The practice of genre criticism is especially fitting here, because by dropping these films in some sort of container, the suitably marked typological slot, we viewers and reviewers participate in and complete the process of commodification that is the subject and precondition of this generic "signifying practice."

For the clutter and cast-off cultural debris of "consumer society", provide not only the look and texture of these films, but also the raw material on which their narrative process works. This genre takes a reckless plunge into the junk pile of contemporary material life. That it can resurface with something salvageable entitles it to a utopian claim, for it belongs to a tradition where the utopian impulse acts as a magnetic north pole guiding us through the ruins of the heuristic "dystopia" which is represented.

The route of the Terminal Genre, however, is not a traditional means of access. The classical antinomies of the imagined utopia (Fourier's willed transformation of an aesthetic or libidinal order) and the designed utopia (Saint-Simon's systematically engineered transformation of a technological or social order)--both of which yield achieved, collective internal or external "spaces"--are abandoned in favor of isolated individual practices or processes. This new utopian impulse is composed of private, virtuoso moments of action and bricolage fashioned according to a dialectic of the play of imagination and the rigors of design.

On the basis of this dialectic, I view the Terminal as the successor of the various avant-garde movements of this century whose visions of a transfigured world were expressed in terms of the interaction and commutability of play and work. For these movements, work took the form of construction, with a lasting, lapseless mechanical ensemble as the end product bearing concrete testimony to the gratifying collective efforts of the workers. From artistic movements like Italian Futurism or Soviet Constructivism, to forms of social and cultural thought like Benjamin's notion of mechanical reproduction, Delenze's figure of the "desiring machine," or recent film theory's preoccupation with the "cinematic apparatus," the wedge to be driven into existing ideological formations, the trope for new modes ot art, dwelling, or social emancipation, has been cast in terms of manual or mechanical synergy. From notions of the Party as so many gears and pistons (the prospect of "building socialism"), to Corbusier's Une ville contemporaine (of building a total environment), the utopian moment in this tradition is one of freedom from fear of the future obtained by fixing the future in the image of a controllable technical ensemble.

Like those earlier movements, the Terminal Genre puts the figure of technology and the manipulation of worked matter to indiscriminate and ambiguous use. Scandalously enough, such representations have always looked much the same whether viewed from the left or right. Whether Enzensberger or McLuhan on technology and the "democratiization" of the media, whether Stakhanovite or Taylorist efficiency, whether Lessitsky or Martinetti on the virtues of steel and concrete, the fixation with the formal properties of semiurgy, and the prospect of a controlled future arising from such properties, are common features of these forward-looking, proto-utopian visions, whatever their political persuasion.

To the extent that they are founded on the primacy of control, these visions reveal the real stake of their utopian impulse. I will state at the outset that the utopian emancipation offered by the Terminal Genre is of an equivocal sort.


It is, however, this very ambiguity that fills in the space between the idea of utopia and that of genre. That space narrows when we view the latter not in its classical guise as typology (a method of classification and organization, of grouping according to common elements), but in its more contemporary sense as various forms of everyday experience--the body of films designated "genre films" (westerns, disaster films, melodramas) with connotations of the B-picture, the mass audience product which offers diversion and escapism. Substitute for "diversion" and "escapism" the words "engagement" and "respite," and we begin to have the makings of a utopian prospect.

But if we reintroduce older notions of genre as "mass culture"--a form of domination or one-way communication on the part of the "culture industry"--the utopian dimension takes on a terrifying character. Any utopian account of this sort of generic experience must face the fact that it is ultimately the commodity form of film itself which dictates the logic of critical and industrial generic categories. Such practices as target marketing, placing the film in the proper promotional slot or review column, and exhibition patterns all figure as vital moments of genre articulation founded on such very real material conditions as market trends, audience expectations, and theater needs.

It is in this context that I introduce the notion of the Terminal Genre as the fullfillment and conclusion of the process of generic fission. The Terminal must be distinguished from other hybrids or contemporary forms that properly belong to a "metageneric" genre--Star Wars as a space western, Flashdance as an updated, backstage musical, The Shining as a family drama with ax murderer--by virtue of a narrative apparatus that vitiates the very notion of genre as it produces and reproduces it. Compare the Terminal Blade Runner (ostensibly just another futuristic film noir) with the metageneric E.T.--The Extra-Terrestrial (melodrama with otherworldly protagonist) and their relation to the various narrative conventions and "textual" operations on which they draw--especially their relation to science fiction, the genre to which type they bear the strongest resemblance at first glance.

The easygoing suburban character of E.T. seems far removed from the celebration of technology and galactic warfare usually associated with the genre. The film also develops a cogent, if affectionate, critique of middle-class values and lifestyles--tract housing, nonstop TV watching, the dynamics of the suburban neighborhood. We find too a surprisingly subversive view of authority, of parents, police, scientists, NASA officials, adults in general--the messianic purveyors of industrial and military expertise in the classical science fiction sources. E.T. offers a benign portrait of other worlds and peoples that are both glimpses at a reestablished "natural" collectivity and a demonstration of the spurious character of such cultural collectivities as the nuclear family and its disfigurations--the broken home, the unhappy marriage. This portrait stands in sharp contrast to the desperate efforts to deliver the American way of life from the threat of invading, brain-eating aliens and body-snatchers in the science fiction of the 50s.

Think also of the relation of E.T. to contemporary notions of science fiction as a privileged "mass cultural" domain for the elaboration of political and cultural concerns not accessible to "high cultural" artistic production. Because of the genre's suspension of disbelief and the reality principle (often side by side with the suspension of "good writing" or narrative polish), sci-fi is said to give free rein to the utopian imagination. The writer may freely fabulate impossibly harmonious social worlds, fantastically functional urban designs, imaginary worlds which contain imaginary solutions to problems which are impassible in reality. Viewed as such, science fiction has something of apostindividualistic dimension which manifests itself in the disappearance of the category of "character." While the genre is often seen as presenting cut-out characters, one-dimensional bunches of clichés (a function, allegedly, of hasty writing and crass commercialism), a redemptive reading of the science fiction argues that the genre heralds instead the disappearance of the individualist form of "character" and the emergence of collective imaginary social formation. Science fiction offers in place of character a detailed "world" which itself becomes a character.

It is suggestive to view in this context the decline of the Hollywood star system in recent successful metageneric films (who are Dee Wallace or Mark Hammill anyway?) in light of the emphasis on "world" linked to innovations in such areas as special effects, design, art direction, or accompanying trends such as "spinoffs"--the generation of objects ranging from plastic antennae headbands to E.T. dolls to Tron videogames to Reese's Pieces. But in the last instance, E.T. offers "unique," well-developed characters in the old sense of the word, with whom we empathize and identify. On the count of "ideological effect," can there be any doubt but that it is melodrama with which E.T. ultimately has the strongest affinities?

For all its "progressive" content--its recuperative reinvention of classical science fiction themes and morals--the narrative apparatus of E.T. serves quite a different function from that of the Terminal Genre. For the former retains its stake in transparency and the cultivation of that imaginary relation with the spectator which is properly emotional rather than cognitive.

Consider such properly "filmic" moments as special effects work or musical scoring in the two films. Blade Runner's special effects, though dazzling, are never perceived as simply bravura technical performances Instead they efface the expertise they require, rendering artifice not so much transparent as invisible, functioning rigorously in the service of representing the world of twenty-first-century Los Angeles. Even in its most opulent moments--representations of aircraft, aerial views of the city--the film's special effects dazzle on account of their seamlessness with the live action. Compare these with the italicized moments of special effects work such as the flying bicycle sequence in E.T., set off further by the swelling strings of a John Williams musical score. Even Blade Runner's music lends itself to this generic effect of effacing the nature-culture opposition, slipping back and forth between the diegetic and nondiegetic, its soothing electronic sonorities becoming a very part of the hypnotic, inescapable background noise of public spaces like elevators and cafes as well as the beeeping and squelching gadget-ridden homes and apartments. It is precisely this unity of narrative effort that makes the terminal Blade Runner a mechanism without lapses, a precisely assembled, detailed representation of an entire world.

Although the film has many traditional elements (the iconography of science fiction, the film noir voice-over narration by a world-weary protagonist), Blade Runner "constructs" a very nontraditional spectator far removed from the teary-eyed adolescent viewer positioned by the narrative machinery of E.T. While the latter's recourse to melodrama and science fiction is synthetic and used principally to invoke those collective forms and reference points for telling a story in an old-fashioned (if uncannily skillful) way, recourse to science fiction and film noir in Blade Runner functions in a spirit of eclecticism that aims at nothing less than fashioning a qualitatively new mode of storytelling. Blade Runner seeks to abolish those reference points which in E.T. guide us through the labyrinth of generic experience. The Terminal Genre aims precisely at letting us lose our way in that labyrinth.


The prospect of losing the way, of being at play in a strange, new world, has always been a part of the agenda of the avant-garde. Like Futurism, Precisionism, or Constructivism, the Terminal film thematizes estrangement and uses it as a principle of assembly. It estranges, in fact, the very notion of genre--both as a set of formal narrative or visual conventions and as moments gleaned from the everyday. This principle in its latter sense rests on the aestheticization of the endless processes and analog flow of "the daily grind" (rather like MTV, whose "look" that of the Terminal Genre resembles in no small measure), transfiguring it into something engaging and exhilarating. Whether in the crowded, neon-blinded streets of twenty-first-century Los Angeles, the unrelenting stretch of two-lane blacktop in The Road Warrior, the New Wave disco in The Hunger, or leopard skin and fishnet stockings in Kamakazi '89, the Terminal offers an almost drug-induced, heightened perceptual experience that raises the everyday to the intensity of a head rush.

Yet this process is no mean formalist exercise offering simply the estranged perception as an aesthetic (or anaesthetic) end in itself. Like those products of earlier avant-garde movements, a work like Blade Runner may be viewed as a map through the strange, compelling world it anticipates and represents. In the last instance, perhaps, it even gives us directions. In the vital, pulsating night life of L.A. 2019, the thrill-'n'-kill world of the postapocalyptic Australian outback, or the luminous urban world of Vortex, we are presented with the possibility of the disappearance of the atomized individual, of its surrender to an unbroken chain of excitement and a world of beckoning unconditional consensus, a libidinal future beyond sex, class, or race. It is ultimately this alternative and its attraction/repulsion against which the Terminal genre squares off.

The setting for this skirmish--what is, finally, assembled and estranged by the narrative process of the genre--is everydas life in the postcontemporary metropolis. The latter emerges as the navel of all dystopian impulses, as well as the background for the possibility of liberation from them. The Terminal in general and Blade Runner in particular fix the future in the image of the city as living-machine and living machine: a man-made, fully automated world through which we live, a willful, voracious organism which lives through us. The utopian stake of the genre as well as its claim to terminality rests with the impossibility of controlling that image of the future.

The Terminal Genre takes this instability in part from science fiction: the city is transformed from a backdrop or landscape against which human events transpire to a protagonist in its own right, organizing and dispersing human experience at will. On its cue, daily life takes on a remarkably concrete character: "low-lives" are those who cannot afford to live above the hundredth floor in a three-hundred-story apartment complex; the corporate hierarchy is housed in a pyramid. Consumer goods and urban design of once determinate use take on a life of their own quite distinct from their original function, becoming so many blinking advertisements for no longer extant goods and services.

It is the totalizing effect of this indomitable, man-made flotsam and jetsam returned to the human world that emerges as the main conflict of the film. In an integrated, polylingual, polyethnic urban world where everyone is equally debased, the role of the proper object of social hatred descends upon the man-made Replicant. The living machine, a consumer product, legitimates and contains contempt and hatred ("skin jobs") or becomes an object of free sexual privilege ("basic pleasure model"). As Blade Runner's ad campaign promised, "Man has made his match--now it's his problem." In the manufactured wilderness of the twenty-first century, man's own handiwork becomes his worst enemy (like the acid rain that unabatingly pelts the city, or the ubiquitous neon that assaults the eye). T he effective breakdown of physis and nomos has given birth to a man-made anti-environment that now exacts revenge from its creator.

This revenge takes the form of a life sentence to absolute dependence on the array of already produced goods and services--extant, remembered, or fabulated. Given the saturation of` American cities and the great expense of construction, thorough restoration, or maintenance, urban designers, architects, and planners in Blade Runner's futuristic L.A. have opted for short-range shoring-up of the crumbling metropolis--installing new heating or cooling systems, elevators or other newly required apparatus on the very face of the buildings. This principle of design, with the various chambered spaces and lumpy additions it af`f`ords, bespeaks the notion of "mega-structure"--a massive, monumental design which elicits and contains individual habitational responses.

Think, for example, of the abandoned Bradbury Hotel, home of J. F. Sebastian, where dwelling space is up for grabs, reacly to be recuperated and manipulated according to the needs and means of the squatter. But this older, capitalist utopian prospect of free land and unlimited opportunity (remember the "Off-World Colonies--a Land of Opportunity and Adventure") is disfigured by forced recourse to bricolage and scavenging. These living-machines, like the sprawling mini-city of the Tyrell Corporation, are polymorphous, sealed self-contatned structures which operate according to the assembly of various styles and periods, themselves "terminal" in their cannibalistic recourse to what precedes them. (How far removed are these structures/processes from, for example, some of the recent Philip Johnson designs such as the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Building or the Republic Bank Building in Houston?) Although "functionalist" in the most basic sense of the word, the force and expressiveness of the retrofitted cityscape rests solely with its connotative content--its evocation of the gothic, the infernal, Jugendstil, or of cinematic landscapes such as the California of the American detective film.

The cumulative accretion of motley objects and styles creates not simply a static constellation of blinking lights, but an active process, a "practice" of objects as densely figured symbols which are a part of a consuming pleasure palace. But this free combination of terms--New Wave fashion, Heavy Metal fantastic gadgetry, film noir stylistics, and the rest--is exercised not as a principle of democratic choice, but as something desperate and ineluctable. The film's costume design, for example, bespeaks transgression--the aberrant, the bizarre, the arbitrary--but of a highly codified sort whose force derives from the dispersal of the traditional signs of power into style: the black leather jacket, the SS boots, the padded shoulders and wasp waist. Authority has been displaced; it appears in the guise of a set of cultural symbols that is fashion. To don these symbols is to put on authority, which has lost its central seat in the form of the police, the state, big business--who are forced in their turn to resort to a symbolic show of power in the form of monumental, brutal, or grotesque design (the Tyrell pyramid, the police uniforms).

This logic of atrophy and displacement positions all sectors of the postconsumer society created in the film, calling forth new forms of gadgetry that mediate and organize experience. Deckard's Mayan/Art Deco/Wrightian apartment complete with voice-controlled photoenlarger, Sebastian's collection of homemade playmates, the souped-up flying autos--all represent various stages in the process of what Philip Dick in the film's literary progenitor, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, calls "kippilization": the accumulation of forgottten discarded byproducts of a waning high-technology society. Even the various android detection devices, of which the Voight-Kampf is the most advanced (recall its ridiculously homemade appearance) can't keep pace with the android industry's ability to create machines that are, as Tyrell claims, "More human than human." And the accelerated obsolescence of manufactured objects finds its ultimate expression in the four-year programmed lifespan of the Nexus 6 Replicant itself.

In a world where the streets are filled with nomads carrying their homes on their backs, where the greatest indication of status rests in super high-rise living, and where servants are manufactured to specification, real animals replaced by artificial ones, the "practice of objects"--their function as symbols of display and exchange rather than use--takes on a social role only vaguely anticipated by such brain-storms of today's marketing industry, such as "Drink Coke," "Buy Our Pizza," or fifteen-second spots featuring Bill Cosby consuming a given product. The character of all communication takes on the form and content of the advertising message, which is itself reduced to a strategy of bombardment by slogan-studded floating blimps.

The components of the world of Blade Runner are all those pseudo-goods and services that mobilize its denizens as part of a totalizing process according to which the individual is submerged in a pleasure principle which is controlled and designed, yet unable to be controlled and designed. This latter space is the postcontemporary physis, a man-made environment and an acculturated nature against which we find ourselves pitted in struggle as we did with the forests and mountains two hundred years ago.

But if that cluttered, pulsating world of the futuristic metropolis is the source and locus of everything that is alienating and alienated, it is also the material precondition for the assembly of its antithesis. As in the novels of Philip Dick, here we find an essential link between the shoddy trappings of urban life and transcendence. In Dick's novel Ubik it takes the form of the canned aerosol absolute of the same name. In The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch we find it in the drugs Can-D and Chew-Z, the addictive, hallucinogenic drugs that give paradisical respite from the bleak landscape and unrelieved boredom of colonial life on Mars. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? this link takes the form of Mercerism (the state religion of the near future) and the sanctity of empathy, the sole human trait which cannot be genetically engineered. While Mercerism proves to be a humbug in the novel, a dimension of hope resides in its tawdry yet precious rituals and gadgets (the "empathy box," a sort of futuristic counterpart of the utopian "orgone box" of Wilhelm Reich). In Blade Runner it is somewhere in the midst of the jungle of wraiths--the countless parking meters never used, the empty shells of buildings, the cordoned-off areas of the city, the stalled, abandoned autos blocking the streets--that we find the principle of hope. An essential element which Blade Runner shares with its literary progenitor is the importance of memory, of images from an authentic past, recuperable in spite of all the cultural debris that threatens to obscure them. As in all of Dick's written work, we find here an obsession with the past, with the symbolic density of original objects (arts and crafts in The Man in the High Castle, the tribal "water witch" in Martian Time Slip). In Blade Runner it rests with the importance of photographs, which represent a constant or certificate of origin and value that is contraposed with the burned-out obsolescence of consumer goods. It is this longed-for authenticity that the cinematic adaptation of Dick's novel substitutes for the possibility of transcendence offered by Mercerism.

It is fitting that these glimpses of a utopian past, of no longer existing homes and families, take the hardened, congealed form of an object, the photograph, the mere tracing of those former collectivities. For this is the fate of all such impulses in a world of rampant consumerism and unchecked industrial advance.


Can there be any doubt but that the utopian impulse, the possibility of liberation presented to us in Blade Runner, is a moment of regression? From the nostalgia of photographs recalling a stable, privatized past to valorized acts of bravery, it is moments of individuation that are given as possibilities of equilibrium in an otherwise vertiginous world. The prospect of release from selfhood offered by the throbbing world so forcibly developed by the Terminal film is ultimately defined against the perceived passivity of collective life--the motley hordes of punks, religious freaks, and dwarves in the street, the countless oriental artisans, the anonymous, teeming beautiful people of the cafes. It is this collective life which is the real locus of anguish for the protagonist, whose pangs of conscience, desperate assertions of self-identity, and reluctance to surrender are vestiges of a fading individualist mentality which is a source of both the narrative frictiton and the utopian drive of the genre.

Deckard's "work" or mission, like that of other protagonists of the Terminal Genre, represents a kind of nonalienated and nonprodutive labor, a throwback to individual spontaneity, ingenuity, and courage that ultimately proves ineffectual against the products of the collectively organized and executed efforts of the Replicant industry, and against the phlegmatic Los Angeles crowds. His efforts nonetheless emerge as a heroic and liberating alternative to the debased piecework of the coolies, or the systematized drudgery of police work. The free contemplation of the poverty of both alternatives roots the protagonist's quest in an unabashed libertarianism while placing it in a postindividualist dimension.

For all the distrust summoned by authority and the unchecked exercise of individual power (the unflattering portraits of business magnate Tyrell or police chief Bryant), how much more unsettling its opposite--the prospect of surrender and release to something amorphous and collective in character. Although the Terminal Genre may be "multinational" in geographical scope, narrative coordinates, and appeal, let us not forget that like other multinational organisms, it has its source in American values and traditions of free enterprise, expansionism, and domination.

Like those other multinational bodies, it stands as the fulfillment of the promise of those traditions. Like those, too, it spells their end and anticipates the beginning of something else. The sense of the utopian impulse in Blade Runner and the Terminal Genre rests with this hesitation between the pull of an older individualism and the push of a nascent collective life. Older forms of domination (over nature, over those very collective inclinations) and rational, planned control of the future founded on a model of clear-cut voluntarism are no longer adequate to the challenge of the material conditions which they have wrought.

Yet neither is the prospect of submission to the spurious utopia of a totalizing pleasure palace an acceptable alternative. The de facto loss of subjecthood, the hopelessness and anonymity offered by both options, becomes a fetter which the fits and starts of the protagonist are determined to overcome. Although these efforts may take the form of isolated moments and discontinuous efforts rather than of an achieved space or developed plan, we must view them as proto-utopian moments in their own right, an ad hoc strategy called for in strange new surroundings where all coordinates (such oppositions as domination and submission, activity and passivity, nature and culture) break down. The very problem of distinguishing between the human and the simulacra, the nagging doubts of "false memory implants" (that the Blade Runner himself may be a Replicant), the takeover of the media and police by androids who believe they are human in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, force us to scrap earlier utopian designs--and with them the drawing board.

For the Terminal Genre, although specifically and painstakingly designed, has no stake in the possibility of design. And although powerfully imaginative, none in the power of imagination or contemplation. For all its likenesses to earlier avant-garde forms, the Terminal makes none of their claims to be able to surpass cultural or social crises. Its sentence and peculiar utopian strategy is to produce and reproduce those crises until the whole complex gives way at the roots. Although it shares with those movements an impulse to construct, its materials are not glass, steel or concrete, but the hand-me-down furnishings and gadgetry of contemporary urban life and the leftover stock scenarios of old movies. Indeed, the image of the future it assembles bears a stronger resemblance to the doomsday machines of the everyday of Tinguely or Rube Goldberg. The undeniable fascination evoked by the Terminal Genre is not far removed from the engagement summoned by the ensemble of cranks, catapults, fulcrums, and levers by which the latter contrives to remove a wad of cotton from an aspirin bottle. As with those technical ensembles, we may not demand too much from the Terminal: I hope that it is not disingenuous to add that although it is "terminal"--the conclusion and fulfillment of generic experience and subdivision--it is, in the last instance, only one genre among many.

So too its utopian strategy. Terminality in the cinema is partly human, partly a tangle of pumps, hoses, and dials, man-made machinery that has taken on a life of its own, sustaining the life of its host organism, yet ticking and clicking its remaining time away before the final explosion. Its agenda is to pass that time. The motto of its utopianism could be the corny, cynical, not wholly satisfied words of Deckard as he takes his leave of the city, his mechanical bride with her indeterminate programmed life span at his side: "I didn't know how long we'd have together--who does?"


PARIS