This is part of Tim Maly's 50 Posts About Cyborgs, a collaboration between blogs celebrating 50 years of the term "cyborg". Here, I'll be talking about David Cronenberg's film Videodrome, and there'll be some description of sadomasochism. Consider yourselves warned. It's also an imperfect effort to bring together thoughts on a number of subjects, and as such has a slightly unfinished feel. For that, my apologies.
What is the secret of the Videodrome signal? Not its origins or its meaning, which are the objects of James Woods' quest in David Cronenberg's film Videodrome (1983). I mean the secret of its shiver. We get the shiver when Max Renn, played by Woods, is introduced to the signal by his colleague Harlan. The signal was sniffed out by the pirate satellite dish operated by Renn's cable network - Videodrome is a brutal sadomasochistic television programme apparently emitting from Malaysia. Nothing but torture and snuff, filmed in a studio with walls of wet clay. Wet clay - absorbs sound, and it can be electrified. How's that for a deviant architectural detail? You have to love Cronenberg. An illicit television programme, operating beyond the reach of any risk of penalty and specialising in savagery, is a sinister enough premise. And then he goes and throws in a baroque, left-field detail like walls of wet clay. It just emphasises the otherness of the signal - the fact that it is a product of thought processes that are not like ours. We think.
And there's the shiver. An illicit television programme. Something we aren't meant to be seeing. But it's right there, on the spectrum, just waiting for an ear cocked in its direction. It's inherently fascinating. Broadcast television is a rigid, hierarchical, top-down, hermetic system, a trumpeting modern edifice. Underneath a veneer of raucous diversity, it's monolithic and monopolistic. Breaches in that monopoly are at once unnerving and exotic - such as the sinister surrealism of the Max Headroom signal intrusion incident (video).
Finding this hotline to depravity, Renn does what any sensible person would - he pirates the programme and puts it on his own channel. He also becomes obsessed by it, and discovers that not only is it not faked, it is also being broadcast from no further away than Pittsburgh. As Renn gets closer to the source of the signal, he suffers from terrifying hallucinations. His television warps, swells, pulses and erotically reaches out towards him; his abdomen splits into a maw like a VCR cassette slot; he learns that the signal has a direct physiological effect, causing brain tumours. It's a product of the military-industrial complex: weaponised television, designed to destroy the minds and bodies of undesirables.
Body horror is of course what Cronenberg is best known for. The director had previously shown the boundaries of the body collapsing (most memorably in 1975's Shivers) and mind control (in 1981's Scanners). But Videodrome is I think the first proper foray into cyborg transgression - the merging of flesh and technology, a catastrophic breakdown in the separation we take for granted.
Or do we take it for granted? It makes sense that the vector of this breakdown is a broadcast signal. We are, as a species, not entirely convinced that visual information has no power over us - photosensitive epilepsy is of course real, and Videodrome-like mind control has seeped into urban legends, always a good barometer of modern pathologies. (The arcade game Polybius is a particularly fine example of this line of mythmaking.) We feel sensitive to the non-visual electromagnetic spectrum around us, even where it doesn't affect us - witness the pseudoscientific health scares over mobile phones, phone masts, electricity pylons, "electrosmog". Television was the first electronic love-object, the focus of an extraordinarily widespread devotion. As a consumer item, it has consistently adopted different strategies to get closer to us - reproducing, breaking out of the living room and into different rooms in the house, and also attempting a more intimate connection. First it experimented with miniaturisation (portable TVs, pocket TVs, wearable TVs); now its preferred method is immersion, giant screens, clearer images and sound, refining the purity of the signal rather than its portability. The relationship of the 20th-century consumer to the television signal has always been a kind of romance - a ferociously close but off-balance, sadomasochistic romance. Renn is simply acting out the atavistic dream-journey of the 20th-century consumer - he is getting inside his television, letting it get inside him, finally breaching that air-gap and bathing in the electromagnetic spectrum. In an ecstatic climax within the film, when all the distinctions between reality, television programe and hallucination have disappeared, Renn finds himself inside the orange chamber with the wet clay walls. There, he whips a television; on the screen, Debbie Harry's lips moan and cry out approvingly.
Clear-eyed and unsentimental as always, JG Ballard was on top of this relationship. The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), contains the shadow of Videodrome - it's filled with giant screens, with broadcasts, with violence as entertainment. While the discourse around social change was mostly fogged with petty conservatism, Ballard saw deeper psychological instincts and pathologies being acted out in our relationship with consumer goods.
In fact, too few things are bad for us, and one fears an indefinite future of pious bourgeois certitudes. It's curious that these puritans strike such a chord - there is a deep underlying unease about the rate of social change, but little apparent change is actually taking place. ... Real change is largely invisible, as befits this age of invisible technology - and people have embraced VCRs, fax machines, word processors without a thought, along with the new social habits that have sprung up around them.
-- JG Ballard, notes to "Death Games (a) Conceptual", The Atrocity Exhibition
Ballard, one feels, would have approved of Renn's self-destructive line of enquiry - his advice in The Atrocity Exhibition is that we should "immerse ourselves in the most destructive element, ourselves, and swim"; he thought there should be more sex and violence on television, seeing it as a powerful catalyst for social change. Videodrome is a thoroughly Ballardian film. And Renn really does immerse himself in himself - his tool for becoming one with the Videodrome signal is the Image Accumulator, a kind of helmet; in this helmet, reality, television and hallucination are the same non-judgemental flow of electrons.
The Image Accumulator.
The Image Accumulator is profoundly reminiscent of works by the German artist Walter Pichler. Attempting a critique of television, Pichler combined the device with prosthesis and architecture, fashioning "rooms" that are in fact helmets with integrated televisions. Pichler exposes the dependence in the relationship with television, its total demand on the user - the helmets are not convenient or liberating, they are blinding and immobilising. He gives us the cyborg endgame of devotion to television. But the astonishing thing about his helmets is that they manage to be appealing - they have the finished surface of consumer products, and despite ourselves we're curious about what's inside, how the experience works. The risk of course is obvious - it's not that we'll find these absurd contraptions uncomfortable and debilitating, that's a given; the risk is that we'll find the payoff worth it for final oneness with the signal, the warm umbilical with the machine, and that we'll come to forget we're wearing the helmet.
"Portable Living Room", Walter Pichler, 1967
"Small Room Prototype", Walter Pichler, 1967