(This entry is a copy of my proposal for the Louisville Conference on Literature since 1900 happening later this spring. If you’d like an explanation for why I think it’s a good idea to post these proposals to my blog, here’s an old entry offering some reasons.)
One of the primary themes of traditional cybernetic theory has been the relationship between humans and machines. Most cultural scholars following this line of inquiry have focused on the print texts of science fiction, eventually expanding into analysis of popular films. Most cybernetic theorists have focused on machines which have progressively come to resemble humans, such as robots, cyborgs, and artificially intelligent computers. Only recently, however, has there been a contemporary group of main human characters who have all made the ontological shift toward becoming machines.
Science fiction films have an admittedly long history of characters shedding their human forms for digital identities or incorporating mechanical components into their anatomies for various reasons. However, in recent Hollywood films, the technological transformations are far more subtle and varied. Iron Man is only a superhero to the extent that he designs, masters, and executes his own technology. Batman, too, relies on technology to heighten his human powers, but in his most recent incarnation, explores politics and the law as powerful social technologies. And while The Incredible Hulk might be the least subtle of all these characters, his superpowers are the product of tiny, genetic technologies, which are themselves part of a much larger military industrial technocracy. This paper draws on the work of various cyborg and posthuman theorists to argue that these aesthetic and narrative shifts in cybernetic attitudes reflect increasingly nuanced and complex understandings of both the hope and anxieties of current popular technological ideologies.