Recovered Writing, Unpublished Essay, Michael Bay’s Transformers and the New Post-9/11 Science Fiction Film Narrative, 26 March 2009

This is the sixty-first post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

This publishable-length essay, “Michael Bay’s Transformers and the New Post-9/11 Science Fiction Film Narrative,” is a significant expansion of a presentation that I made at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts in 2008. I sent the longer form of the essay around for publication, but at the time, I could not invest the necessary time to meet the demands of the anonymous reviewers. It was around that time that I began studying for my PhD exams. The dissertation followed closely thereafter. Now, I think too much time has passed and too many more examples have appeared for me to re-engage with these ideas–at least at the present time. I’m confident that I would need to begin almost from scratch. Also, my research interests have moved into other areas, which would require retooling for the demands of this research as opposed to my current approaches (of course, there are texts and ideas contained here that I might bring over to my current scholarship). Thus, the essay, quotes, and works cited might best serve my readers’ purposes and interests as another Recovered Writing post. Perhaps one of you are working on a project in this vein and this essay can serve as a foil to test your approach, or this essay might encourage you to pick up the reigns and take these ideas further. If nothing else, maybe you’re a fan of the Transformers and want to think about the cultural underpinnings of these characters and their stories (if you are in this camp, you can find another essay that I wrote about Transformers and gender here).

Michael Bay’s Transformers and the New Post-9/11 Science Fiction Film Narrative

Jason W. Ellis

26 March 2009

The towers, for their part, have disappeared. But they have left us the symbol of their disappearance, their disappearance as symbol.

Jean Baudrillard, “Requiem for the Twin Towers.”

The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States of America have unequivocally and paradigmatically shifted the cultural outlook and fearful anticipation of people within and without the borders of the United States. It is the subject of this essay to explore how that shift is manifested in American Science Fiction (SF) film in the aftermath of that mid-September day through the linkages to earlier SF film rooted in American Cold War culture. Before 9/11, American imaginative fear and anxiety was firmly entrenched in the symbol of the thermonuclear bomb–a thing delivered by rockets and targeting computers, and after 9/11, that anxiety changed to the suicide bomber–a cyborg uniting ideology, high explosives or other technological means of mayhem, and the person. The Cold War threat was removed from the personal, and the inaction of thermonuclear war realization resulted in the science fictional imagining of what could be rather than a reflection of what was. The post-9/11 threat presents a reconfiguration of threat as something personal, up-close, and very real–something that has come to pass and may occur again. It is the fact that 3,025 U.S. citizens and persons from other countries were killed on September 11, 2001 that caused a transformation in the perception of anxiety, fear, and threat from elusive enemies and resulted in a new kind of personal response narrative in SF film.

It is important to more fully interrogate the differences between American Cold War SF and its milieu, and the radical changes that followed the Cold War and the intervening years prior to the September 11 attacks. John Lewis Gaddis significantly connects the “images” of the Cold War with the distancing of the threat from the everyday lives of Americans:

Despite moments of genuine fear, however, as during the Berlin and Cuban missile crises, the only images we had of destroyed American cities were those constructed by the makers of apocalypse films and the authors of science fiction novels. Real danger remained remote. We had adversaries, but we also had the means of deterring them.

Even cold war insecurities, therefore, never meant that Americans, while living, working and traveling within their country, had to fear for their lives. Dangers to the American homeland were always vague and distant, however clear and present overseas dangers may have been. The very term “national security,” invented during World War II and put to such frequent use during the cold war, always implied that both threats and vulnerabilities lay outside the country. Our military and intelligence forces were configured accordingly. (Gaddis 8)

The threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War was a real fear, but the only imaginative representation of that threat was “constructed by the makers of apocalypse films and the authors of science fiction novels” (Gaddis 8). It was left to the realm of fiction to create representations of the attack that never occurred. Additionally, as Gaddis points out, wars took place elsewhere and not on American soil. The Cold War dueling powers–the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R.–worked out their frustrated advances in other places–particularly in Southeast Asia–rather than take the fight to either country’s home front. It was the fantasy of films such as John Milius’ Red Dawn (1984) that Communist forces would invade the American heartland during World War III. In Red Dawn and all other films of that era that confronted or alluded to the nuclear annihilation of North America and/or the rest of the world were constructing one of many possible scenarios, but none of these were based on the reality of thermonuclear warfare made possible by scientific and engineering advances during the long 1950s. Fat Man and Little Boy, the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the last phase of World War II, pale in comparison to the potential devastation of warfare involving fusion bombs never once used outside of the isolated testing environments in deserts, atolls, and the upper atmosphere. Thus, there was real data about the effects of nuclear warfare, but it was this very speculative aspect of nuclear holocaust that sets Cold War SF apart from that which came after the very real, graphic, and televised hijacked airplane attacks on New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania.

It is evident that with the number of American Cold War SF films from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) to Dr. Strangelove (1964) to Escape from New York (1981) that a lot of creative energy and capital went into grappling with nuclear annihilation from outside. Part and parcel with this massive undertaking of the potential annihilation of the United States and the rest of the world is the inescapable realization that these imaginings were something that we all to some extent entertained. It is unavoidable that the threat of nuclear war and apocalypse entered into the cultural consciousness, and it was something that we all thought of alone or in the communal engagement of films that represented implicitly or explicitly the potential horrors of nuclear war unleashed from without.

The cultural currency of apocalypse did not leave SF film in the years between the Cold War and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In fact, the imaginative target reconfigured or transformed in the intervening post-Cold War years where the threat and fear lost focus. Instead of a clear and present danger presented by the former Soviet Union, there were “uprisings” and “hotbeds of activity” around the world after George H. W. Bush’s Gulf War I. It was the transformation of threat and the dream of horror, even visited upon our soil and friends and family, that culminated in the dream-turned-real on September 11, 2001 when nineteen al-Qaeda terrorists took control of four passenger airliners and turned history’s path into the undiscovered country. Jean Baudrillard approaches this counterintuitive and unspeakable truism of the dream in his shockingly provocative essay, “The Spirit of Terrorism:”

The fact that we have dreamt of this event, that everyone without exception has dreamt of it–because no one can avoid dreaming of the destruction of any power that has become hegemonic to this degree–is unacceptable to the Western moral conscience. Yet it is a fact, and one which can indeed be measured by the emotive violence of all that has been said and written in the effort to dispel it. (Baudrillard 5)

What if things were not as they were? What if this government or that multinational corporation were done away with, then what would happen? It is these kinds of “what if” questions that we all entertain. However, we do not all consider the full ramifications of our wishes, or what might have to be done to make our wishes come true. For Baudrillard, it doesn’t matter how innocent our dreams might have been. The fact is that we wished for that other future in our own daydreams or in the SF that we enjoyed. In any event, the unconscionable wish came true when we awoke, and there was no possibility of returning it to the imaginative ether. Baudrillard continues:

At a pinch, we can say that they did it, but we wished for it. If this is not taken into account, the event loses any symbolic dimension. It becomes a pure accident, a purely arbitrary act, the murderous phantasmagoria of a few fanatics, and all that would then remain would be to eliminate them. Now, we know very well that this is not how it is. (Baudrillard 5)

It is true that Mohamed Atta, Marwan al Shehhi, Hani Hanjour, and Ziad Jarrah piloted the hijacked-airliners-turned-flying-bombs into the civilian and military targets within the American homeland. However, it was the dream and wish we each held or bought into through the apocalyptic visions presented in SF film that implicates each of us in some way to the events of that day. Furthermore, it is necessary to make an account of this dimension of the events of September 11, 2001, because otherwise would be to isolate the event from the greater rhizomic networks within which it is connected. It is essential to any understanding of that tragic event, including all those things that led up to it and all those things that followed, that we also understand our own relationship to the event personally and culturally.

Understanding the September 11 attacks as a symbolic act against the United States’ economic, military, and interventionist hegemony requires juxtaposing the event with an earlier sneak attack–December 7, 1941, what former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called, “a date which will live in infamy.” However, the juxtaposition of these two events is not as well defined as was proclaimed ad infinitum on television during and following the attacks. On this point, Baudrillard offers:

The Americans lacked such a wound (at Pearl Harbor they suffered an act of war, not a symbolic attack). An ideal reverse of fortune for a nation at last wounded at its heart and free, having atoned for it, to exert its power in all good conscience. A situation science fiction dreamed of from the beginning: that of some obscure force that would wipe them out and which, until that point, merely existed in their unconscious (or some other recess of their minds). And all of a sudden, it materializes through the good grace of terrorism! The axis of Evil takes hold of America’s unconscious, and realizes by violence what was merely a fantasy and a dream thought! (Baudrillard 61-62)

The United States had not suffered a symbolic wound, or in other words an unexpected strike against the national body that carries a greater signification than nation-state warfare, prior to the September 11 terror attacks. The Pearl Harbor attack were certainly a strategic blow to United States preparedness prior to World War II, but that strike was accompanied, albeit late, by a declaration of war by another nation-state, Japan. The September 11 attacks are analogous to what Baudrillard identifies explicitly as a situation originating in SF–the attack from the “invisible man,” or the unexpected devastation by Heinlein’s bugs in Starship Troopers. The September 11 terror attacks represent the unexpected from without, from the alien Other, from out there and targeted against us. Al-Qaeda’s operation represents the culmination of this imaginative impulse that began much earlier during the Cold War era, but turned out from fear of nuclear annihilation toward the symbols of hegemonic power rooted in capital and military power. However, most alarmingly, George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” and “Global War on Terrorism” solidified the American imagination around the events of September 11, 2001 back out toward loci of ideological difference, tension, and conflict. Furthermore, Slavoj Žižek corresponds with Baudrillard when he says the following in his essay, “Welcome to the Desert of the Real!”:

The Wachowski brothers’ hit Matrix (1999) brought this logic [the logic of experiencing the “real”] to its climax: the material reality we all experience and see around us is a virtual one, generated and coordinated by a gigantic megacomputer to which we are all attached; when the hero . . . awakens into the “real reality,” he sees a desolate landscape littered with burned ruins–what remained of Chicago after a global war. The resistance leader Morpheus utters the ironic greeting: “Welcome to the desert of the real.” Was it not something of the similar order that took place in New York on September 11? Its citizens were introduced to the “desert of the real”–to us, corrupted by Hollywood, the landscape and the shots we saw of the collapsing towers could not but remind us of the most breathtaking scenes in the catastrophe big productions. (Žižek 386)

Here, the main point is that the imaginative was made real. Hollywood had been there first with images of vast destruction, albeit from a distance, that became real that early September 11th morning. The terror attacks required no computer generated effects or a special effects department. Could George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) have engineered a spectacle on the scale of the events in New York and Washington that day? Perhaps, but the reality of the spectacle shared away from the computer and television screen brought something to the event that no effects house could reproduce. The lives lost, the physical destruction, and the political aftermath are real effects, as tangible as tears, which make the events of September 11, 2001 more real than any Hollywood simulation.

Žižek further elaborates on the realization of the imaginative through a discussion of another tragedy, albeit one sentimentally and visually recreated through film–the HMS Titanic:

            When we hear how the bombings were a totally unexpected shock, how the unimaginable Impossible happened, one should recall the other defining catastrophe from the beginning of the twentieth century, that of the Titanic: it was also a shock, but the space for it was already prepared in ideological fantasizing, since Titanic was the symbol of the might of the nineteenth-century industrial civilization. Does the same not hold for these bombings?

Not only were the media bombarding us all the time with the talk about the terrorist threat; this threat was also obviously libidinally invested–just recall the series of movies from Escape from New York to Independence Day. The unthinkable that happened was thus the object of fantasy: in a way, America got what it fantasized about, and this was the greatest surprise. (Žižek 386-387)

Žižek’s point is that in tragedies such as the sinking of the HMS Titanic, or the September 11, 2001 terror attacks that the news media and entertainment media prompted or prepared the United States and the world for the inevitable execution of imagined horror. Also, Žižek, like Baudrillard, invokes SF as an example for the imaginative dream for the attacks. However, it is the brilliant observation that the surprise was not the attacks, but the realization that the United States received the results of a dream transformed into reality. Hence, the fantastic became real on September 11, 2001.

Like the Ouroboros, the fantastic-become-real in the symbol of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks returns with serious consequences for the fantastic and SF in the post-9/11 world. The key element of American Cold War SF and the SF that follows the 9/11 terror attacks is anxiety over the possibility of harm from the Other. In Cold War SF, the anxiety comes about from an anxiety of a terrific and horror-laden future resulting from thermonuclear war. However, this nuclear future was not made real–it represented an anxiety over an amorphous and transparent future of non-reality. Essentially, the bomb was not made real in the sense of fulfilling its purpose–detonation over enemy targets. Additionally, it bears repeating that the only use of atomic weapons took place during state-to-state warfare during the Second World War. It was literally on the other side of the world from the United States that the B-29s Enola Gay and Bockscar performed their respective atomic bomb missions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, two Japanese cities largely unknown to the American people prior to the war. Also, there was not the build-up and immersion in the impending actions by the United States government and military against the Japanese people in the media (it does not seem plausible that a significant number of readers had perused Cleve Cartmill’s 1944 short story, “Deadline,” and realized its immediate implications). Therefore, the anxiety over nuclear attack was nicely isolated around a particular aggressor (i.e. the Soviet Union), and the attack itself was not made real beyond the limited and largely non-engaged Japanese home front. On the other hand, the September 11 terror attacks by the religious and ideological al-Qaeda soldiers against the symbols of American hegemonic power and all persons in the vicinity of those symbolic places reconfigured the locus and understanding of anxiety of attacks by the alien Other. The threat was made surprisingly real, and the battleground shifted radically from elsewhere to here. Furthermore, it is in this reconfiguration of anxiety over the 9/11 terror attacks that resulted in something else in SF film narrative concerning the way in which individuals engage their anxiety made real. In the following section, I will discuss the transformation of anxiety into citizen soldiery through the emblematic and representative example of Michael Bay’s Transformers (2007).

Michael Bay’s Transformers is a slick and action packed summer blockbuster brimming with special effects featuring the battle between the Manichean Transformers in the here-and-now of planet Earth. Obviously, Bay’s film suffers from a certain amount of blockbuster engineering. On the surface, the film is about a one-dimensional conflict between the good Autobots who serve as humanity’s protectors and the evil Decepticons who aspire to kill and destroy anyone and anything in their path towards recovering the regenerative “All Spark.” Luckily, the film is about much more than meets the eye.

A useful point of entry into Transformers is the movie poster tagline, “Their war. Our world.” This sums up the autonomous robot, alien Other war between Autobots and Decepticons. Their war moves from the barren and resource-depleted Cybertron to the lush and resource-rich Earth, which is effectively mirrored in the resource producing Middle East and resource consuming American West Coast. However, the Transformers tagline can be read as applying to the here-and-now of the Global War on Terror. “Their war” is what the military analyst William S. Lind calls Fourth Generation warfare:

Characteristics such as decentralization and initiative carry over from the Third to the Fourth Generation, but in other respects the Fourth Generation marks the most radical change since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. In Fourth Generation war, the state loses its monopoly on war. All over the world, state militaries find themselves fighting non-state opponents such as al Quaeda [sic], Hamas, Hezbollah, and the FARC. Almost everywhere, the state is losing. (Lind par. 13)

Fourth Generation warfare is essentially non-state actor controlled guerilla warfare, i.e., between non-governmental organizations and states. This is the kind of war al-Qaeda wages with America, and its symbolic declaration was the September 11 attacks. Furthermore, “our world” is another way of saying the United States of America–our supposedly isolated world safe from threats abroad and the hot zones of war during the Cold War and post-Cold War years leading up to the September 11 attacks. Thus, Transformers is a veiled SF narrative that points the way to a reconfiguration of SF narrative following the changes in American homeland isolation and the false sense of safety following the end of the Cold War.

The reconfiguration of SF narrative post-September 11 is best approached by returning to Žižek’s potentially inflammatory essay, “Welcome to the Desert of the Real!” In this work, he describes the fantastic origins of the terrorist attacks on the United States and the uncertainties surrounding our post-9/11 future. However, the point that bears discussion on the transformation of post-9/11 SF film is where he writes:

We don’t yet know what consequences in economy, ideology, politics, war this event will have, but one thing is sure: the United States, which, till now, perceived itself as an island exempted from this kind of violence, witnessing this kind of thing only from the safe distance of the TV screen, is now directly involved. (Žižek 389)

The key to understanding new post-9/11 SF narratives has to do with Žižek’s idea of “direct involvement.” During the Cold War, and in the post-Cold War years before 9/11, United States citizens indulged in viewing war and conflicts around the world from the armchair comfort of their own home. The television screen separated the viewer from televised war, and the real-world distance between viewer and those enduring war was great. Improvised explosive devices and suicide bombings were largely a world away. It was understood that there was no war within the American homeland. It took place elsewhere, and that elsewhere was safely very far away. And as I discussed above, Americans dreamed about the destruction delivered on September 11, 2001 in the way that we all imagine the annihilation of oppressive hegemonic powers. The anxieties of the American Cold War do not hold up any longer when the threat was made real during the 9/11 terror attacks. Following the realization of the fantastic dream, individuals must respond to a threat in ways before that were speculative at best. It is the transformation of anxiety that yields a new kind of personal response to the anxiety of the real. I argue that Michael Bay’s Transformers represents a reconfiguration in SF film narrative following the September 11 terror attacks and the beginning of what former President George W. Bush labeled the Global War on Terror. Instead of revealing anxieties and veiling commentary in a Cold War mode of SF narrative, post-9/11 SF narrative focuses on the threat to the American homeland, and the way “directly involved” citizens deal with that threat. The border between the supposedly safe American homeland and the dangerous outside world is broken, and the threat is transferred from a visually imagined somewhere else to here. Thus, anxiety over the fantastic is transformed into a response to that anxiety made real.

The visual narrative that interconnects the film with the intensive media coverage of 9/11 facilitates the direct involvement of citizen soldiers in Transformers. Visual cues and the film’s edited form construct these correspondences. First, the overall narrative structure shifts between images of the American homeland and American war-making abroad. The former includes the large and well-manicured Witwicky home, a high school, and a relatively peaceful lake setting populated with young Americans. The latter includes scenes from Qatar in the Middle East, the Pentagon, and the President’s Air Force One aircraft. The film is edited to repeatedly show a war scene away from the home front followed by a scene at the home front until climaxing with a juxtaposition of the two–war on the home front. For example, the first scene of the film features Captain Lennox (Josh Duhamel) and his team of American soldiers returning to their “home base” in a state-of-the-art vertical-lift V-22 Osprey air transport. Soon after arrival, the Decepticons Blackout and Scorponok, disguised as a U.S. military helicopter, attack the base with advanced weaponry and gigantic robotic brawn. Instead of seeing American war making in the Middle East, the audience is treated to a special effects extravaganza of killer robots from another planet simultaneously attacking physical and virtual nodes in the American military Communication, Command, Control, and Intelligence (3CI) network.

Following the visually dazzling attack on the American military, the film transitions to an idealized, quiet high school setting on the West Coast where Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) hocks his great-great-grandfather’s belongings. Among these artifacts is his ancestor’s glasses, which bear the imprint of an otherworld sublimity from the so-called “ice man,” who we later learn is the Decepticon leader, Megatron. The film is consciously edited in such a way to transition between there (desert and military) and here (high school and suburbia). However, it is significant to the narrative build-up that the violence and intensity of the confrontations on the home front increase as Captain Lennox’s team moves closer to the American homeland. In a sense, Lennox’s team is radioactive and their return heralds a critical mass explosion and narrative release at the end of the film. Hence, the away-war overlaps the homeland creating a new war on the home front. Therefore, the recall of Lennox and his soldiers to America is the basis for the reconfiguration of the American homeland as an isolated space to the new battlefront in the Global War on Terror veiled within the Autobot/Decepticon war.

Bay’s film further embraces 9/11 narratives through borrowed rhetoric and visual images left unseen during the television coverage of the terror attacks. The first mise-en-scène is prominent at the beginning of the film with our introduction to Sam’s high school. There is a newspaper, half folded on his history teacher’s desk with the visible headlines: “Smash Jap” and “War Extra: Yanks Sink.” This homage to the director’s pre-9/11 film Pearl Harbor (2001) connects it to the circuits leading to and from 9/11. The September 11 attacks are imbued with the sneak attack narrative of Pearl Harbor despite the obvious differences between the two discussed above. However, the sneak attack narrative embeds this newspaper image, as well as Transformers, with the overarching American sense of victimization at the beginning of our involvement in World War II and its reemergence almost sixty years later on September 11, 2001.

Further engaging 9/11 narratives, and perhaps visually exploiting them, Transformers sets up the final confrontation with a plane and a building. The end bracket situating Transformers within a 9/11 narrative takes place during the climatic battle between the good Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), leader of the Autobots, and the evil Megatron (Hugo Weaving), leader of the Decepticons. Megatron transforms into a menacing otherworldly aircraft and flies toward his nemesis. Optimus Prime grabs and holds onto Megatron who then swoops up and through a high-rise office building. The audience sees Megatron’s aircraft with Optimus in tow enter, fly through the building, and exit with a visibly wounding and destructive effect. Joshua Clover describes this short sequence as, “by far the most detailed reconstruction of what was hidden from our human eyes within the spectacularly visible violence of September 11, 2001” (7).

Perhaps more importantly than the film’s engagement of 9/11 narratives is the way in which Transformers represents Žižek’s idea of “direct involvement.” The home front lead characters of the film are Sam and Mikaela (Megan Fox)–two average Hollywood-generated uncanny high school kids. Initially, Sam is protected by his Autobot guardian, Bumblebee (Mark Ryan), but after the temperature of the home front war increases with the arrival of Captain Lennox and the release of Megatron from the hidden caverns in the Hoover Dam complex, Sam is required to step-up in the heat of battle. His charge is to get the transforming, technoscientific All Spark MacGuffin out of the combat zone and into the hands of the U.S. military, which is believed capable of protecting the All Spark from the U.S. military doppelganger Decepticons. During a moment of reluctance on Sam’s part to become “directly involved,” Captain Lennox grabs his shirt collar and yells, “You’re a soldier now,” which effectively drafts Sam as a young citizen soldier. Additionally, Mikaela, without needing a soldierly pep talk, employs her knowledge gained on the other side of the law from her car thief father to steal a tow truck and extricate her wounded Autobot friend, Bumblebee, from the fight. However, in the escape, she, with Bumblebee’s approval, decides to turn around and fight. In doing so, she makes a more active contribution to the battle than Sam’s thrilling getaway and rescues Lennox’s team from a storefront firefight reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001). This, along with earlier scenes revealing Mikaela to be a knowledgeable and strong female character presents a complicated picture of the gender politics in the film that deserves further study. Additionally, Mikaela’s decision to turn back, and Sam’s last minute choice to use the All Spark to destroy Megatron reveal another major difference from earlier American Cold War narratives. One such film is the previously mentioned Red Dawn, which is the kind of story that Tom Engelhardt calls “the American war story,” in which, “you had no choice. Either you pulled the trigger or you died, for war was invariably portrayed as a series of reactive incidents rather than organized and invasive campaigns” (Engelhardt 4-5). Transformers develops from a series of events that present choices whereas the teenagers of Red Dawn react to the conditions placed upon them by the Communist invaders. Therefore, Sam and Mikaela, as young U.S. citizens, are drafted into the Global War on Terror as signified by the Autobot-Decepticon war raging between the buildings and on the streets of the fictional Mission City–a city that emblematizes the mission of promoting the new ideal of the American citizen soldier protecting the now invaded homeland within the intertwined Transformers/September 11 narrative.

Within that narrative space, Sam’s “direct involvement” in the new war on the homeland hinges on his family motto, “No sacrifice. No victory.” This is an often repeated saying in the film, particularly between Sam and his father, Ron (Kevin Dunn). The family motto, made famous, or perhaps infamous, by Sam’s explorer great-great-grandfather, Captain Archibald Witwicky (William Morgan Sheppard), is ingrained in Sam’s identity and figures heavily in his character’s overt motivations. As a “directly involved” citizen soldier in the Global War on Terror, Sam’s family motto connects him to the professional soldiers in the film during a scene in the Sector Seven bunker at Hoover Dam. Captain Lennox and his men have a showdown with the Sector Seven operatives, because they agree with Sam that Autobot Bumblebee should be freed to aid in the fight. During this confrontation, the Defense Secretary John Keller (Jon Voight) tells Agent Simmons (John Turturro), “Losing’s not really an option for these guys.” As Secretary of Defense, he represents the armed forces of the United States, and his saying “losing’s not really an option” conjures the memory of a whole host of losses that America still struggles with in maintaining a decaying triumphal identity following World War II. Additionally, Engelhardt notes that “with the end of the Cold War and the ‘loss of the enemy,’ American culture has entered a period of crisis that raises profound questions about national purpose and identity” (Engelhardt 10). The faltering of American triumphalism during the Cold War and after is emphasized by this exchange between Keller and Simmons. Furthermore, Sam’s family motto, “No sacrifice. No victory,” represents the American need for triumph in this new struggle brought to the American homeland from afar while acknowledging the necessity for sacrifice. Thus, Sam’s identity as a citizen soldier bound by his family motto operates as an analog of the professional American soldier’s need for fulfilling a historically and culturally constructed belief in triumphalism.

Unfortunately, Sam’s “direct involvement” in the Autobot-Decepticon transformation of the Global War on Terror falters, because he appears to make no real sacrifice. Sam’s central role seems to primarily fulfill what Peter Clines reports Steven Spielberg wanted to be the focus of the film–“a boy and his first car” (32). Furthermore, Sam runs away from danger in the hopes of passing along the All Spark to military authorities, but in the end, he destroys the All Spark in order to defeat Megatron. This sacrifice costs Sam nothing, and destroys the Autobots’ hopes for revitalizing their dead planet. Besides this heavy loss, the only apparent American/Autobot casualties are Jazz (Darius McCrary) and a few U.S. military “red shirts.” So, what did the American citizen soldiers really give up? Apparently nothing. Sam gets the girl as well as a car that transforms into a robot, and Captain Lennox is delivered home by Autobot Ironhide (Josh Harnell) to see his wife and baby girl. The majority of the Decepticons are killed and disposed of in the deep waters of the Laurentian Abyss. Therefore, humanity, read as Americans, gives up very little to win their war with the Decepticon disguised technological threat without having to consider Žižek’s question regarding the “surprise” of the average American to suicide attacks: “Does not this surprise reveal the rather sad fact that we, in the first world countries, find it more and more difficult even to imagine a public or universal Cause for which one would be ready to sacrifice one’s life” (388)? How can we accept Sam risking his life as cars tumble about him, and windows are blown out by explosives when we know as a literate film audience that in general he is not in a great deal of danger? We see Sam hanging on the precipice, but in the back of our minds, we understand that it is only a film and tremendous safety precautions are in place, or he is merely lying on his back on a green screen devoid of any real danger. Sacrifice cannot be simulated, or can it?

The only characters shown in the film to sacrifice are the heroic Autobot Transformers, but these computer-generated characters are simulacra masquerading as human technologies. In the case of the Autobots, the origins of their name come from the fact that original Transformers toys were organized such that the automobiles were the good guys or Autobots, and everything else (pistol, F-15, microcassette recorder) were the bad guys or Decepticons. In Bay’s film, the Autobots tell Sam and Mikaela that their name means, “autonomous robotic organisms.” This is a clever explanation, but an unsatisfactory one. In fact, Autobot can stand for all of the Transformers, just as Decepticons, an amalgamation of “deception” and “con,” represents the deceptive nature of all of the Transformers to infiltrate and hide via the mask of human technology. What does it mean for the heroes and the villains of the film to carry the same transformational signification? I assert that this underlies the most significant source of the post-9/11 anxiety, which is the fear of the invisible Other. Americans learned on 9/11 that the ideological enemy carries no flag and wears no uniform–those persons who perpetuated the terror attacks infiltrated American society by a transformative performance. Depending on the context of their surroundings and the exchange of information and messages between cells, these Fourth Generation warriors used the assumption of a social contract to their advantage in the preparation, staging, and implementation of their attacks on the United States. Unlike the Transformers in Michael Bay’s special effects laden film, the 9/11 attackers are true transformers in the sense that they were shadow warriors who hid in plain sight. However, the 9/11 attackers are not the same as the earlier Cold War image of the subversive Communist agent. The 9/11 attackers and their ilk do not desire to sow discontent, but rather intend to create a symbolic event from the death of others facilitated by their martyrdom. Therefore, the reality of the al-Qaeda operative is far removed from any imaginative belief in the elusive Communist agent during the American Cold War.

Transformers is evidently connecting to a number of emblematic issues in the post-9/11 cultural landscape including anxiety of the dream made real, citizen response to the real, concern over sacrifice in response to the real, and the issue of distinguishing friends from enemies. There are a number of other SF films that connect to and explore these issues as part of a growing trend in post-9/11 narrative creation. One such film that I argue is science fictional due to its uncanny recreation of the events of September 11, 2001, is Paul Greengrass’ United 93 (2006), which presents a strong example of citizens turned soldiers. Films such as Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005) and Matt Reeve’s Cloverfield (2008) engage narratives of the city under attack, and individuals attempting to save their own lives and the lives of others while trying to make sense of an imminent, seemingly unstoppable threat. Also, the expansion of superhero movie franchises including Spider-Man (2002, 2004, 2007) Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and Iron Man (2008) all represent citizens turned soldiers who make choices and sacrifices to contend with unexpected threats made real. Alfonso Cuarón’s film interpretation of Children of Men (2006) further strengthens the concepts of responding to anxieties inspired by the unexpected real. Another film adaptation is Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend (2007), which presents a reevaluation of the protagonist Robert Neville (Will Smith) and his providing the genesis for the future through a cure he developed to the transformative vampire virus. Another perspective is presented by George Lucas’ Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005) in which a chosen son falters down the wrong path, guided by the elusive and hidden-in-plain-sight evil mentor in the hope that his choice will protect his wife. These are only a sampling of the many SF films released after the September 11 terror attacks, but there is obviously a trend in the representation of and personal response to anxiety resulting from the fantastic made real.

How long will the new post-9/11 SF film narrative be with us, and what is its long-term meaning for American culture? Unmistakably, the new post-9/11 SF film narrative developed from two deeply rooted historical developments–the September 11, 2001 terror attacks and the ensuing call for a “Global War on Terror” by then President George W. Bush. The attacks initiated an unparalleled realization of vulnerability and a new call for individuals to deal with matters that were, until that point, dealt with a world away by the United States government and its military forces. The realization came that the government and its military might is incapable of fully deterring Fourth Generation warfare. This catalyzing comprehension initiated the anxiety of the real, true event that Baudrillard and Žižek confronted in their respective works. Furthermore, the Global War on Terror and the Department of Homeland Security’s “National Threat Advisory” (currently yellow, signifying “Significant Risk of Terrorist Attacks”) serve to sustain the anxiety of the catalyst event, and it is evident that the perpetuation of that anxiety of the real event that has taken place and may take place again has worked its way into the capital-driven cultural productions in American cinema. It has taken almost eight years to arrive at our present position from the September 11 terror attacks, and there was little chance of a shift in perspective during the Bush administration, which launched a retaliatory war in Afghanistan and a war of misguided retribution in Iraq. These wars are still with us today, and will be for some time. However, there are shifts in perspective taking place within the United States government following the historic election of President Barack Obama that may soon find resonance in SF film. According to a report in The Washington Post on March 25, 2009, the Obama administration, as aware of the incendiary and rhetorical power of words as its predecessor, quietly backed away from the use of the phrase “global war on terror” (par. 1).   The monolithic and essentializing conceptualization of the “global war on terror” served to increase the anxiety initially generated by the September 11 terror attacks by sustaining it through Bush’s dualistic stance, “You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror.” Unfortunately, the problems emblematized by the September 11 terror attacks are not so simple as to align a country against “terror.” The term “terror” cannot contain or represent the complexity of problems that brought about an equally complicated network of persons with varying (and sometimes conflicting) ideological and religious beliefs as al-Qaeda. Additionally, al-Qaeda is not the only group (or individual) engaged in the use of non-declared attacks against civilians in the United States, or elsewhere. And, it is the issue of elsewhere that the new President of the United States, and entire American citizenry, should turn their attention. Following the September 11 terror attacks, there was a massive turning inward, a collective mourning for those persons lost in the attacks, but more significantly for the loss of innocence and the separation between the individual and the real. Žižek puts it more directly:

Either America will persist in, strengthen even, the attitude, “Why should this happen to us? Things like this don’t happen here!”–leading to more aggression toward the threatening Outside, in short: to a paranoiac acting out–or America will finally risk stepping through the fantasmatic screen separating it from the Outside World, accepting its arrival into the Real world, making the long-overdue move from “Things like this should not happen here!” to “Things like this should not happen anywhere!” (Žižek 389)

Unfortunately, Transformers and the other post-9/11 SF films falter on this very point. The new post-9/11 SF narrative is still hung up on the idea that real events like the terror attacks should not happen to America and Americans. These new films resist an ethical cosmopolitanism that symbolic events with real casualties and destruction should not happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime. The new American President, elected in part on Shepard Fairey’s iconic “Hope” and “Change” political artwork, has not yet embraced this cosmopolitan attitude as evidenced by his retaining Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the unabated use of unmanned Predator aerial drones to kill al-Qaeda militants and Pakistani civilians. Will new post-9/11 SF films engage and critique this most significant aspect of the pain and anxiety Americans face when confronted by the real? It is certainly my hope that the SF films in the future question the change that remains the same, and that audiences walk out of the cinema troubled, angry, and eager to make change real.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays. Trans. Chris Turner. New York: Verso, 2002.

Bay, Michael, dir. Pearl Harbor. Touchtone Pictures. 2001.

—. Transformers. Dreamworks and Paramount Pictures. 2007.

Carpenter, John. Escape from New York. AVCO Embassy Pictures. 1981.

Cartmill, Cleve. “Deadline.” Astounding Science Fiction 33:1 (March 1944): 154-178.

Clines, Peter. “Transformers.” Creative Screenwriting 14:3 (May-June 2007): 32-33.

Clover, Joshua. “Dream Machines.” Film Quarterly 61.2 (2007): 6-7.

Cuarón, Alfonso. Children of Men. Universal Pictures. 2006.

Engelhardt, Tom. The End of Victory Culture: Cold War American and the Disillusioning of a Generation. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.

Favreau, Jon. Iron Man. Paramount Pictures. 2008.

Gaddis, John Lewis. “And Now This: Lessons From the Old Era For the New One.” The Age of Terror: America and the World After September 11. Eds. Strobe Talbott and Nayan Chanda. New York: Basic Books, 2001. 1-21.

Greengrass, Paul, dir. United 93. Universal Pictures. 2006.

Kubrick, Stanley. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Columbia Pictures. 1964.

Lawrence, Francis. I Am Legend. Warner Bros. 2007.

Lind, William S. “Understanding Fourth Generation Warfare.” ANTIWAR.com. 15 January 2004. 17 March 2008 <http://www.antiwar.com/lind/index.php?articleid=1702&gt;.

Lucas, George, dir. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Twentieth Century Fox. 2005.

Milius, John. Red Dawn. MGM/UA. 1984.

Nolan, Christopher. Batman Begins. Warner Bros. 2005.

—. The Dark Knight. Warner Bros. 2008.

Raimi, Sam, dir. Spider-Man. Columbia Pictures. 2002.

—. Spider-Man 2. Columbia Pictures. 2004.

—. Spider-Man 3. Columbia Pictures. 2007.

Reeves, Matt, dir. Cloverfield. Paramount Pictures. 2008.

Scott, Ridley, dir. Black Hawk Down. Columbia Pictures. 2001.

Spielberg, Steve, dir. War of the Worlds. Paramount Pictures, 2005.

Wilson, Scott and Al Kamen. “‘Global War on Terror’ Is Given New Name.” The Washington Post 25 March 2009. 26 March 2009 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/&gt;.

Wise, Robert. The Day the Earth Stood Still. Twentieth Century Fox. 1951.

Žižek, Slavoj. “Welcome to the Desert of the Real!” The South Atlantic Quarterly 101.2 (Spring 2002): 385-389.

Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Queer Studies, Final Paper, “Transsexual Technology: The Political Potential of Gender Shifting Technologies,” May 8, 2008

This is the forty-fifth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

This is the last of seven posts of material from Professor Kevin Floyd’s Queer Studies seminar at Kent State University.

At the time, I was heavily interested in Michael Bay’s Transformers and the roots of his film in the 1980s Japanese toys and cartoons of the same name. On another project, I was thinking about how Transformers heralded a new kind of SF cinema–a project shelved and likely a future Recovered Writing post in its own right. In this project, I was thinking about how Transformers are gendered in various ways and how technologies in general are assigned genders that shift and transform–hence this research paper. Below, I am including my proposal followed by the resulting essay to illustrate how the project itself shifted and transformed from its genesis to its conclusion. I presented a short version of this essay at the annual Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts conference in 2008 (this will likely get resurrected as a Recovered Writing post, too–with a link back to this post).

Proposal:

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Kevin Floyd

Queer Studies

20 April 2008

Paper Proposal: Reversing the Order: Transsexualizing Technology

            Transsexual and transgender discourse often situates transsexual identities as being facilitated or created by technology (e.g., medical or scientific–technology of the modern era). This creates a hierarchy in which the transsexual is subordinated to technology. Without the social changes facilitated by technology in the modern era and the medical classificatory and surgical techniques developed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, transsexuals as a group would not have group identification or the means for transforming his/her sex to match his/her self-identified gender. Furthermore, it would not have made possible Sandy Stone’s insightful posttranssexual subjectivity.

Technology features centrally or implicitly within any discussion involving the transformation of bodies to a desired, gendered subjectivity. Janice Raymond’s charged and condemning work, The Transsexual Empire (1979), is the early touchstone work of the last three decades of transsexual/transgender discourse, and technology significantly in her argument. Raymond sometimes pities transsexuals as falling into the medical-technology matrix that facilitates male-to-female (MTF) transsexual transformations, while simultaneously railing against what she terms the MTF penetrative act of men subverting feminism. Admittedly, she is approaching this from a radical lesbian feminist perspective predating the coalition politics of the 1980s and 1990s, but the prime factor of her work is the technology that makes transsexual transformation possible.

Over a decade later, Sandy Stone, a sound engineer turned queer scholar who Raymond outed in The Transsexual Empire as infiltrating a women-only record label, responded to Raymond’s claim that transsexuals rely on appropriating the feminist political project for their own ends. In her “A Posttranssexual Manifesto,” Stone calls not only for a transsexual politics, but also a reconfiguration or re-imagining of transsexuality. Again, technology lies just beneath the surface in her argument as well as in the anecdotes of her own life. This is even further reinforced in her recent book, The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age (1995).

Following Stone’s groundbreaking work, technology continues to be a significant aspect of transsexual/transgender discourse. In her introduction to the transgender special issue of GLQ, Susan Stryker writes, “transsexual technology would be my vehicle for what Jacques Lacan called, in another context, ‘an impulsive leap into the real through the paper hoop of fantasy’” (151). Despite her gesture toward a “transsexual technology,” Stryker, as liberated as she is by accepting for herself the transsexual sign, is still bound by the realities of “regulated technologies” that make transition possible (151-152). It is the purpose of this paper to invert the hierarchy of technology and transsexual subjectivity. The floating sign of technology (representing multiple technologies for diverse purposes and the engineering and science that promotes a progressive increase, circulation, and sprawl of that technology) is as much made possible by transsexual subjectivity as that subjectivity is made possible through reconstructed, refigured, and transformed bodies (there is more to be said about non-surgical transgender subjectivities in the paper).

A unique, and as yet critically unexplored, work that is situated at the convergence of technology, subjectivity, and gender is Michael Bay’s recent film, Transformers (2007). Beneath the surface of otherworldly, human technology doppelganger robots fighting it out within a Global War on Terror narrative, the Transformers themselves enter into transsexual/transgender discourse. Their necessary “passing” and aping unnecessary gender roles (some interestingly in the film and others significantly cut) indicates a deeper narrative that connects to transsexual discourse. Additionally, the rich history of the Transformers franchise dating back to the mid-1980s in the United States, also presents further correspondence between embodied technology and transsexuals.

Beginning with a discussion of Transformers and transsexual/transgender discourse, I establish a deconstructionist argument against the technology-transsexual hierarchy. I show how, through example and recent scholarship, transsexual subjectivity and technology do not necessarily supersede one another in any necessary order. Technology and transsexual subjectivity is shown as operating within a decentralized network of possibilities rather than in a one-to-one causative relationship. Through this argument, I aim at Stryker’s charge that, “As a field, transgender studies promises to offer important new insights into such fundamental questions as how bodies mean or what constitutes human personhood” (155). Personhood is neither part of or given to technology is a subordinate sense, but rather, situated within a diffuse, rhizomatic network.

 

 

Working Bibliography

Bay, Michael, dir. Transformers. Perf. Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Peter Cullen, and Hugo Weaving. Dreamworks and Paramount Pictures. 2007.

Elliot, Patricia and Katrina Roen. “Transgenderism and the Question of Embodiment: Promising Queer Politics?” GLQ 4:2 (1998): 231-261.

Furman, Simon. Transformers: The Ultimate Guide. New York: DK Publishing, 2007.

Morris, Meyer. “I Dream of Jeannie: Transsexual Striptease as Scientific Display.” TDR 35.1 (Spring 1991): 25-42.

Namaste, Ki. “‘Tragic Misreadings’: Queer Theory’s Erasure of Transgender.” Queer Studies: A Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Anthology. Ed. Brett Beemyn and Mickey Eliason. New York: New York UP, 1996. 183-203.

Raymond, Janice G. The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. Boston: Beacon Press, 1979.

Stone, Allucquère Rosanne. The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995.

Stone, Sandy. “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto.” Sex/Machine: Readings in Culture, Gender, and Technology. Ed. Patrick D. Hopkins. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1998. 322-341.

—. “Split Subjects, Not Atoms; or, How I Fell in Love with My Prothesis.” The Cyborg Handbook. Ed. Chris Hables Gray. New York: Routledge, 1995. 393-406.

Stryker, Susan. “The Transgender Issue: An Introduction.” GLQ 4:2 (1998): 145-158.

—————————

Final Paper

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Kevin Floyd

Queer Studies

8 May 2008

Transsexual Technology: The Political Potential of Gender Shifting Technologies

Summer blockbusters are a guilty pleasure produced with A-list actors and actresses, formulaic plots, and fantastically expensive special effects edited together into two hours of mind-numbing heteronormative reinforcing cinematic bliss. These movies, which are often disregarded and resigned to low culture status by film scholars, nevertheless touch the lives of millions of viewers. In direct and tangential ways, the images on the big screen affect the audience. The images may represent real world debates or events of the here-and-now. They may indirectly lead to a chain of associative thoughts originally only gestured by the flashes of light on the screen. It is the latter that led to the genesis of this essay.

Bear with me while I tell you a story about “a boy and his first car” (Clines 32). Actually, I’m more interested in the car than the boy, because the car also happens to be a robot from another planet. Michael Bay’s 2007 special effects extravaganza, Transformers, has many obvious connections to embodied autonomous technology and the Global War on Terror.[1] After watching the film on several occasions, an easily missed, but altogether compelling image lifted from the screen into real world queer studies discourse. This has to do with the tongue-tied, computer generated character, the Autobot Bumblebee,[2] who bodily transforms between the anthropomorphized otherworldly robot soldier in the Autobot-Decepticon war, and vehicular Earth technology, namely a yellow Chevrolet Camaro.[3] What struck my attention was the way this alien robot engages gender through human language in contrast to the other gendered robot characters in the film. The other Autobots and Decepticons assume a recognizable male voice, emphasizing a bodily male gender associated with male pronouns, while Bumblebee vacillates between aped male and female voices from Earthly cultural artifacts–radio, television, and film. The sexually ambiguous body of the towering robot warrior is also lacking a definitive gender sign due to, as Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) describes it, “you talk through the radio?” Bumblebee remixes gendered voice performances to generate his/her own voice–his/her own subjectivity and the mechanism through which this character communicates is the radio. Bumblebee’s “transgender” vocalizations include Nichelle Nichols’ portrayal of Star Trek Chief Communications Officer Uhura saying, “Message from Starfleet, captain,” followed by Orson Welles as Professor Pierson in the Mercury Theater radio production of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds observing, “Through the inanimate vastnesses of…space.”[4] Thus, Bumblebee uses these and other definitively gendered voices to construct his own narrative and voice in order to interact and engage the clearly heteronormative discourse established by the teenage love interest subplot of Sam and Mikaela (Megan Fox).

There is another important aspect of Bumblebee’s gendered voice that brought the film into focus with queer theory. That has to do with the character’s “vocal processor.” The Autobot medical officer Ratchet says, “His vocal processors were damaged in battle. I’m still working on them.” While he says this, he extends an array of red laser light at Bumblebee’s throat that gives Bumblebee obvious discomfort. The interesting gendered pronoun usage by Sam and Mikaela, which assumed Bumblebee to be male, and Bumblebee’s doctor’s likewise use of the pronoun “his,” marks the transforming Camaro as a male amongst other male gendered anthropomorphized robots. Thus, the gender signifier of voice is a central aspect of Bumblebee’s robot subjectivity within the heteronormative network in which it’s placed, and that enforced transformation is a painful one.

What struck me about Bumblebee’s character was that he represents a wholly technologized form of transsexuality. As a transforming robot, capable of reconfiguring its body, and inventively playing with gendered voices for linguistic communication, Bumblebee gestures toward an idealized transsexual subjectivity–one, sans the technological gatekeepers such as psychologists, endocrinologists, and surgeons, that lies at the intersection of bodily transformative technologies and the transsexual subject, which I define as a human subject established by the bodily need, enacted as a demand, to transform the body from one set of sex signifiers to its heterosexual opposite such that the outward appearance mirrors an interior gender belief. Thus, Bumblebee and Transformers joins queer theory discourse as a representation of transsexual embodied technology on the big-screen.

Before returning to the example of Bumbleebee, where does technology fit into transsexual discourse? Transsexual studies has long centered on cultural explanations and manifestations of the transsexual through a historical analysis. However, a split in the discourse developed, which Susan Birrell and Cheryl L. Cole gesture towards in their sports media study of the Renee Richards outing on the tennis court. Birrell and Cole, drawing on Anne Bolin’s “Transsexualism and the Limits of Traditional Analysis,” points to the, until recently, predominant modes of transsexual analysis:

The knowledge that organizes our understanding of transsexualism has been divided into two major approaches: clinical approaches that characterize the psychiatric and psychological research and are based on a medical model in which transsexualism is constituted as an individual problem…and sociocultural approaches taken by ethnomethodologists and anthropologists, which focus on “the relationship of…transsexualism to the culture at large.” (Birrell and Cole 4)

However, underlying the clinical and the sociocultural approaches to studying transsexualism is technology. Transsexual subjectivity depends on the transformative potential of technology to facilitate the desired bodily change. Bernice L. Hausman provides a convincing argument that transsexual subjectivity is dependent upon technology in her influential work, Changing Sex: Transsexualism, Technology, and the Idea of Gender. I agree with Hausman regarding the influence of technology on the development and creation of transsexual subjectivity. Medical technologies materially substantiate the transformations of bodies from one physical sex to another. Her argument challenges cultural critiques of transsexuality, which disregard the importance of technology in constructing transsexual subjects. However, I find that technology, even if glossed over, is still of primary importance to cultural/historic and technological subjectivity arguments. Thus, I see technology as a common denominator of these ideologically opposed discussions. If you map these two opposing arguments along a Cartesian plane on X and Y axes, then my argument is at a right angle to these, projecting outward into three dimensional space along the Z axis. I argue that technology, marked by its convergence with transsexuality and delineated by gender, substantiates culturally in much the same way that transsexuality subjectively manifests itself via Hausman’s techno-central argument. This leads to a number of questions. How do transsexuals affect technology? How do gender signifiers operate on technology? What is the transformative potential of technology within a cultural context? Is there such a thing as “transsexual technologies?”

In order to answer these questions, it is necessary to uncover the confluence of technology with transsexual subjectivity. Hausman’s argument is about technology creating transsexual subjectivity. That is clear enough, but what about technology and its appearance in cultural critiques? The most recognizable and possibly acerbic example in this category is Janice Raymond’s 1979 work, The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. From a radical feminist perspective, she makes a totalizing argument that “male-to-constructed-female” transsexuals rape women by subversively penetrating the women’s movement, or as Sandy Stone summarizes it, “I read Raymond to be claiming that transsexuals are constructs of an evil phallocratic empire and were designed to invade women’s spaces and appropriate women’s power” (324). There’s an interesting Cold War charm to her subversive critique of transsexuals tapping into the hard-fought gains of women during Second Wave Feminism. She specifically outs Sandy Stone, a transsexual, for subverting the woman-only operated record label, Olivia Records through her employment as a sound engineer. This initiated a public dispute, not between Stone and her employer, but over the supposed betrayal of a transsexual in a woman-only domain (Hausman 144:8).[5] Therefore, the text is tangentially engaged with Cold War paranoia of subversion from the invading Other, which further connects it to the overarching technological apparatus of the Cold War’s military-industrial complex.

A more significant aspect to Raymond’s book is her use of technology-laden words in the text. She insists on the use of “constructed” throughout The Transsexual Empire. She gestures toward a critique of “‘nature’ versus technology” (Raymond 1). Also, she discusses chromosomes and a clinical etymology of the term “transsexual” (Raymond 4-5 and 20-21). Furthermore, she says of the “fetishization” of the female body by the male-to-female transsexual:

In this sense transsexualism is fetishization par excellence–a twisted recognition on the part of some men and incarnated in the usurped female biology. This usurpation of female biology, of course, is limited to the artifacts of female biology (silicone breast implants, exogenous estrogen therapy, artificial vaginas, etc.) that modern medicine has surgically and hormonally created. Thus transsexual fetishization is further limited not even to the real parts of the real whole, but to the artifactual parts of the artifactual whole. (Raymond 31).

In this passage, Raymond equates transsexualism to fetishism that is attained through medical techniques and technological artifacts that carry the signifier of female. Therefore, technology is a deep-seated element of the touchstone example of transsexual cultural critique, and there is, even here, a motion toward the transsexual instantiation by technology (i.e., a built or constructed subjectivity).

Michel Foucault’s 1978 (English trans.) The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction provides an important link between the cultural and technological critiques of transsexuality. In this work, Foucault presents a paradigm shifting idea regarding the employment and diffusion of power. Instead of the classical notion of institutions and governments wielding power from above, he argues convincingly that power is diffuse and interpenetrates subjects on a local level, yet he maintains a certain distance from individual subjectivities in his theory. For this formulation, there is no constitutive outside. What he terms the knowledge/power dynamic is a network encompassing us all, with interaction producing the effects of power.

In his formulation of the knowledge/power dynamic, Foucault talks about “technologies of sex” in this significant passage:

This history of sexuality, or rather this series of studies concerning the historical relationships of power and the discourse on sex, is, I realize, a circular project in the sense that it involves two endeavors that refer back to one another. We shall try to rid ourselves of a juridical and negative representation of power, and cease to conceive of it in terms of law, prohibition, liberty, and sovereignty. But how then do we analyze what has occurred in recent history with regard to this thing–seemingly one of the most forbidden areas of our lives and bodies–that is sex? How, if not by way of prohibition and blockage, does power gain access to it? Through which mechanisms, or tactics, or devices? But let us assume in turn that a somewhat careful scrutiny will show that power in modern societies has not in fact governed sexuality through law and sovereignty; let us suppose that historical analysis has revealed the presence of a veritable “technology” of sex, one that is much more complex and above all much more positive than the mere effect of a “defense” could be; this being the case, does this example–which can only be considered a privileged one, since power seemed in this instance, more than anywhere else, to function as prohibition–not compel one to discover principles for analyzing power which do not derive from the system of right and the form of law? Hence it is a question of forming a different grid of historical decipherment by starting from a different theory of power; and, at the same time, of advancing little by little toward a different conception of power through a closer examination of an entire historical material. We must at the same time conceive of sex without the law, and power without the king. (Foucault 90-91, emphasis mine)

Foucault is working through the ouroboros relationship that he establishes between power and the discourses of sex. In his analysis, he focuses on sex and its bodily pleasures rather than gender. Furthermore, he talks about a “technology of sex,” which refers to the institutions responsible for codifying, categorizing, and pathologizing sex, especially in the nineteenth century. However, these “technologies of sex” have positive potential, and they serve as the means by which Foucault shows that power is diffuse, because if these developments were merely top-down prohibitions, they would not have unsanctioned positivity. He is interested in the micropolitical interactions and distributions of power, and the “technologies of sex” are part of that network.

Gender must be incorporated into this account of “technologies of sex” in order to formulate the relationship between transsexual subjectivity and technology.   Teresa de Lauretis does this in her significant essay, “The Technology of Gender,” which is included in her 1987 collection, Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction. In this essay, she expands on Foucault’s notion of “technology of sex” to also encompass a “technology of gender.” Her approach integrates with this paper’s original example, because she uses her film theory background to discuss gender as representation and the way film is itself a “technology of gender.” She builds on Foucault’s work when she writes:

A starting point may be to think of gender along the lines of Michel Foucault’s theory of sexuality as a “technology of sex” and to propose that gender, too, both as representation and as self-representation, is the product of various social technologies, such as cinema, and of institutionalized discourses, epistemologies, and critical practices, as well as practices of daily life.

Like sexuality, we might then say, gender is not a property of bodies or something originally existent in human beings, but “the set of effects produced in bodies, behaviors, and social relations,” in Foucault’s words, by the deployment of “a complex political technology.” But it must be said first off, and hence the title of this essay, that to think of gender as the social or bio-medical apparati, is to have already gone beyond Foucault, for his critical understanding of the technology of sex did not take into account its differential solicitation of male and female subjects, and by ignoring the conflicting investments of men and women in the discourses and practices of sexuality. Foucault’s theory, in fact, excludes, though it does not preclude, the consideration of gender. (2-3)

She connects with Foucault’s theory of sexuality by pointing out how Foucault’s ideas and her own are the “product of various social technologies.”   Importantly, she makes the move to show that sexuality and gender are not embedded in bodies, as is sex. However, de Lauretis theorizes below the level of Foucault, because she goes down to the level of individual, gendered subjectivities whereas Foucault maintains a distance away from the level of the person. Also, this is not to say that Foucault’s theory cannot accommodate the individual, but it was not the extent of his project. Therefore, de Lauretis digs deeper into the subjective in order to uncover the meeting of gender and technology.

She develops the idea of “technology of gender” by first describing that, “The construction of gender is the product and the process of both representation and self-representation” (de Lauretis 9). Gender is represented within the social either by gendered subjects or by technologies that represent it. Also, gender is “constructed” and “produced” from “processes.” It is here, that she directly gestures toward what I term “transsexual technology,” which I will discuss shortly. She continues to elaborate on this when she writes:

The construction of gender goes on today through the various technologies of gender (e.g., cinema) and institutional discourses (e.g., theory) with power to control the field of social meaning and thus produce, promote, and “implant” representations of gender. But the terms of a different construction of gender also exist, in the margins of hegemonic discourses. Posed from outside the heterosexual social contract, and inscribed in micropolitical practices, these terms can also have a part in the construction of gender, and their effects are rather at the “local” level of resistances, in subjectivity and self-representation. (de Lauretis 18)

For de Lauretis, gender is constructed through “technologies of gender” as well as by “institutional discourses.” Furthermore, the manifestation of gender production takes place on the micropolitical level involving individuals. The “technologies of gender” are of most importance to this paper’s project to address the gendering of technology and the transsexually aligned transformative potential of that technology, and its relationship to the persons engaged in its use.

Now, we arrive at the other end of the transsexual discursive spectrum. Raymond’s seething cultural study embedded with unrecognized technology gives way to Foucault and de Lauretis’ separate and respective arguments about the interconnection between sex and technology, and gender and technology. It is from this overarching discourse of transsexuality, sex, gender, and technology that Bernice L. Hausman wrote her remarkable 1995 book, Changing Sex: Transsexualism, Technology, and the Idea of Gender. Her convincing thesis in the book is that transsexual subjectivity is made possible by the intervention of technology, that without technology, transsexuality would not be possible as a phenomenon or a subject position. As she remarks:

The emergence of transsexualism in the mid-twentieth century depended on developments in endocrinology and plastic surgery as technological and discursive practices. This would seem to be a self-evident claim, insofar as “sex change” is impossible without the technological and ideological support provided by medical practitioners and the medical establishment. However, these links between medical technology, medical practice, and the advent of “sex change” in the twentieth century have been ignored by most scholars who study the subject, who more usually understand transsexualism as representative of a transhistorical desire of some human subjects to be the other sex. (Hausman 2)

Hausman makes it evident that transsexualism and the desire for surgical intervention inextricably links transsexuality and technology. Her argument convincingly shows that there is more going on at the level of transsexual subjectivity than an evolutionary desire for bodily sex change. As she details later in the book, the convergence of medical practice, psychology, endocrinology, and surgical intervention all made possible the transsexual subject. Without these things, the key element for desire and knowledge of the possibility of change would be eliminated, and there would be something categorically different than what is now understood as the transsexual subject. Thus, as she goes on to say, “transsexuals are subjects who choose to engineer themselves” (Hausman 9). Furthermore, the demand for bodily transformation is what distinguishes the transsexual:

By demanding technological intervention to “change sex,” transsexuals demonstrate that their relationship to technology is a dependent one. Ostensibly, the demand for sex change represents the desperation of the transsexual condition: after all, who but a suffering individual would voluntarily request such sever physical transformation? Yet it is through this demand that the subject presents him/herself to the doctor as a transsexual subject; the demand for sex change is an enunciation that designates a desired action and identifies the speaker as the appropriate subject of that action. Demanding sex change is therefore part of what constructs the subject as a transsexual: it is the mechanism through which transsexuals come to identify themselves under the sign of transsexualism and construct themselves as its subjects. Because of this, we can trace transsexuals’ agency through their doctors’ discourses, as the demand for sex change was instantiated as the primary symptom (and sign) of the transsexual. (110)

The interaction between the transsexual and the medical professional, gatekeeper of the transformative pharmacological and surgical technologies, via the demand made on the part of the transsexual, constructs transsexual subjectivity. Additionally, Hausman expresses it more clearly, “That the demand for sex change became the key signifier for transsexualism demonstrates the centrality of technology to the consolidation of transsexual subjectivity–asking for technologically mediated sex change is in one and the same gesture to name oneself as transsexual and to request recognition as a transsexual from the medical institution” (129). This is what distinguishes transsexuality from other Foucauldian “technology of sex” categories. The transsexual claims this subjectivity for his/herself through the performative act of demanding technological intervention, whereas other marginalized groups need not make demands for technological transformation to be considered, for example, gay subjects or lesbian subjects.

The transsexual demand for transformation illustrates the integration of technology with the transsexual subject, and it is this point that connects to my earlier question of “inverting” the relationship of technology and transsexuality. However, where does gender fit back into this picture? I have been discussing the transformation of bodily sex to match the transsexual’s internal formulation of gender. Hausman observes, “It is possible that the concept of gender identity gone awry (that is, the conviction of being the other sex) covers over some kind of subjectivity that would more openly demonstrate the dependence of transsexualism on a demand for technological intervention–a demand, in other words, to engineer oneself as a human subject” (137). In other words, technologically mediated bodily intervention may have more to do with human subjectivity than gender per se. However, she later addresses the issue of gender and subjectivity:

Gender, which has been theorized as the dominant determinant of subjectivity in transsexualism, serves to mask other divisions central to the phenomenon (as well as to the contemporary cultural formation) through a strategy of containment. The transsexual’s investment in traditional gender ideologies serves as a cover for another, more radically destabilizing structure of subjectivity–a compulsive relation to technology through which the transsexual demands recognition as a subject of the other sex. Rather than its “first cause,” the sex/gender system represents the goal of transsexualism. Demanding physical transformation through surgical and hormonal technologies, transsexuals seek admittance into the cultural system of gender difference as its recognizable subjects. (139)

So, not only are transsexuals aware that their gender doesn’t match their bodily sex, but the realization of transformation provides access to “the cultural system of gender difference as its recognizable subjects.” Technological transformation is the access card for navigating gendered culture. With the undesired sexed body, the transsexual is unable to engage those aspects of culture that are limited to or provided for particular gendered subjects. Therefore, the technological alignment of bodily sex and gender provides the transsexual subject a certain carte blanche regarding gendered social life.

Thus far, I have demonstrated the progression from the cultural explanations of transsexuality, represented by Raymond, to the more recent developments revealing the convergence of sex, gender, and technology, culminating with the technology enabled, transsexual subject in the works of Foucault, de Lauretis, and Hausman. The internal sex and gender conflict within the transsexual subject serve to evoke the subject’s demand for technological intervention in resolving the sex/gender crisis. What I mean by technology, borrowing from Hausman, is “cultural technologies”, such as those described by Foucault in his theory of sexuality, as well as “material technologies,” such as artifacts and practices, which in this context refer to surgical techniques, hormone treatments, and surgery (Hausman 14-15). Understanding the dual aspects of technology is essential to understanding the means by which transsexual subjectivity comes about. Furthermore, the interpenetration of the transsexual subject with transformative technologies may mark that technology, and implicate technology in general with the sliding signifier of gender. Is technology inherently transsexual? What are transsexual technologies, and how do they operate?

All technology may be conceived as transsexual, because all technology carries the potentially transformative sign of gender. Just as one technology (e.g., artifact, technique, or system) may be repurposed, modified, extended, streamlined, or reconstituted as an element of another technology, that technology may carry different gender signifiers depending on application, setting, subject user, or a host of other culturally constructed representations of gender as applied to or constructed by that, or other, technology.

Returning to the example from the beginning of the essay, consider Bumblebee’s Earth form technology–the Chevrolet Camaro automobile. In the here-and-now, the Chevrolet Camaro is not autonomous and it has no volition of its own. It is a technological artifact designed by teams of engineers, built by factory workers and automated robots, and marketed and sold by men and women around the world with particular populations and cultural considerations in mind. Consumers meet the sellers in the marketplace to purchase the Chevrolet Camaro end product as a stockroom item or a customized special order. Additionally, these buyers are purchasing the images and representations associated with the car that bleed gender.

What does the car signify? For some buyers, it may signify a character from a big-budget Hollywood film as long as it has the appropriate body color and black racing stripes. This signification probably doesn’t hold for other buyers. That’s the point. These technological signifiers are slippery and always shifting. They are complex and effect people in different ways. The car’s body style, accessories, and color all signify different things, with the representations of gender being paramount among those. Technologies carry gender signifiers, and those signifiers may be changed on the surfaces of technology. Cars with one set of signifiers, when sold or traded, may acquire new signifiers by the new owner via re-accessorization or a paint job. Also, these surfaces may be material surfaces or ideological representations maintained within the networks of knowledge/power through the minds of individual gendered subjects. Furthermore, these gendered signifiers create transsexual technology, because technology carries the transformative potential to represent and signify male or female gender while reinforcing and promoting heteronormativity. The culturally created gender signifiers that mark real human bodies, thus creating subjectivity, also marks the technology created and exploited by those human subjects. Transsexuals carry the burden of heteronormative gender signifiers and the very technology that substantiates their subjectivity carries and reinforces that same male-female gender system.

This revisioning of the technology that interpenetrates modern life, as well as constructs transsexual subjectivity, is transsexual in the sense that it carries the potential for gender transformation and it reinforces heteronormativity. However, might this also point the way for new forms of political resistance and gender subversion? If technology is inherently transsexual, might it be deployed to challenge heteronormative gender dimorphism? Can technology be used to modify our understandings of sex, gender, and gendered subjectivity?

I am confident that the answer is yes, and technological challenges to gender via the transsexual technology I have theorized are already underway. A recent example is David Levy’s 2007 book, Love + Sex With Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relations. Levy argues that humans will be having sex with robots in the not-too-distant future. This raises questions about the kinds of sex and the gender options human subjects may desire in their technological concubines and gigolos, which is further explored in Greg Pak’s earlier, 2003 film, Robot Stories. Pak’s film, billed as “science fiction from the heart,” is a series of vignettes revealing the way people in the future interact with robot lovers and companions, though not necessarily in the overt technofetishistic way that is the boon of much Science Fiction. Additionally, there are the alt.sex.fetish.robots (A.S.F.R.), or technosexual enthusiasts who fantasize about sex with the technological Other. And, there is the interest in teledildonics, or the ability to have sex at a distance with the mediation of technology, and websites such as fuckingmachines.com, which features women having sex with a variety of remote controlled devices that feature large motors and/or hydraulics connected to an assortment of ersatz penises. A non-motorized example is the Real Doll, a life size and substantive male or female human simulacrum that is also available in a variety of “shemale” configurations–female body with penis, penis and testicles, or penis and vagina. The Real Doll (realdoll.com), already well-known online and from the HBO program Real Sex and The Howard Stern Show, entered mainstream cineplexes through Craig Gillespie’s 2007 film, Lars and the Real Girl, in which Lars (Ryan Gosling) deals with his problems interacting with women by publically dating a Real Doll he names Bianca and treats as if she were alive. And a final example is the obvious strap-on dildo, which provides instant access to the male signifying phallus for a range of sexual situations that break gender and heterosexist norms.

These examples demonstrate the transformative nature of technology to carry shifting gender signifiers further by emphasizing the potential of transsexual technology. Transsexual technologies are tame and explicit. Additionally, there are obvious alliances between transsexual technology and Donna J. Haraway’s cyborg, “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (434). Transsexual technology and its power of shifting gender signifiers integrate into what Haraway calls “cyborg sex.” She writes that, “Cyborg ‘sex’ restores some of the lovely replicative baroque of ferns and invertebrates (such nice organic prophylactics against heterosexism). Cyborg replication is uncoupled from organic reproduction” (435). Cyborgs replicate rather than reproduce. Cyborg integration with technology substantiates their subjectivity in much the same way as transsexual subjectivity is constructed by technology. Transsexuals are cyborgs in the sense that their bodily existence is mediated by technology. Cyborgs are transsexuals in the sense that they both have the transformative potential embedded in technologically shifting gender signifiers. Transsexual technology is a tendril branching from and feeding back into cyborg and transsexual subjectivities. Thus, it represents shifting gender signifiers and instantiates recoding as well as challenges to heterosexism.

Sandy Stone picked up on the transformative potential of transsexual identity when she wrote her 1991 magnum opus, “The Empire Strikes Back: The Posttranssexual Manifesto,” which is a demand for the status of “speaking subject” without reinscription into heterosexism (Stone 333). However, she writes, “I could not ask a transsexual for anything more inconceivable than to forgo passing, to be consciously “read,” to read oneself aloud–and by this troubling and productive reading, to begin to write oneself into the discourses by which one has been written–in effect, then, to become a (look out–dare I say it again?) posttranssexual” (Stone 336). As Hausman has said, transsexuals engineer their subjectivity through technology. Here, there are obvious parallels between engineering and “writing oneself.” Stone gestures toward moving beyond mere rewriting, into the realm of what she calls the “posttranssexual.”[6] Through posttranssexuality, she hopes to reveal the “intertextual possibilities of the transsexual body” (334). For Stone, the transsexual body is at the interstice of gender, technology, and subjectivity, but it’s bound by the current system of gender dualism. She wants to move the transsexual body into the truly postmodern, which would allow for reinscription of transsexuality and gender in general. Therefore, it’s this powerful aspect of her theory that also applies to the transformative potential embedded in social and material technologies.

Technology–cultural and mechanic–has the transforming potential for creating transsexual subjectivity, and it contains within itself, in all of its myriad forms, the sliding gender modifier also present in transsexual and cyborg subjects. Transsexual technologies’ reflection of gender signifiers transparently empower human subjects to problematize, challenge, remix, and transform the dimorphic gender landscape and ultimately reveal that there is “more than meets the eye.”

 

Works Cited

Bay, Michael, dir. Transformers. Perf. Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Peter Cullen, and Hugo Weaving. Dreamworks and Paramount Pictures. 2007.

Birrell, Susan and Cheryl L. Cole. “Double Fault: Renee Richards and the Construction and Naturalization of Difference.” Sociology of Sports Journal 7 (1990): 1-21.

Bolin, Anne. “Transsexualism and the Limits of Traditional Analysis.” American Behavioral Scientist 31:1 (September/October 1987): 41-65.

Clines, Peter. “Transformers.” Creative Screenwriting 14:3 (May-June 2007): 32-33.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

Gillespie, Craig. Lars and the Real Girl. Perf. Ryan Gosling and Emily Mortimer. MGM. 2007.

Haraway, Donna J. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Sex/Machine: Readings in Culture, Gender, and Technology. Ed. Patrick D. Hopkins. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1998. 434-467.

Hausman, Bernice L. Changing Sex: Transsexualism, Technology, and the Idea of Gender. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.

Levy, David. Love + Sex With Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relations. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.

Pak, Greg, dir. Robot Stories. Kino Video. 2004.

Raymond, Janice G. The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. Boston: Beacon Press, 1979.

Stone, Sandy. “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto.” Sex/Machine: Readings in Culture, Gender, and Technology. Ed. Patrick D. Hopkins. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1998. 322-341.

 

[1] I presented on this topic in an essay titled, “Michael Bay’s Transformers, the Global War on Terror, and the New Post-9/11 SF Narrative,” at the Association for the Fantastic in the Arts annual conference in Orlando, Florida on 19-23 March 2008.

[2] The term “Autobot” is explained in the film as signifying “autonomous robots,” and Bumblebee’s name is a reference to the character’s name in the original animated television series called The Transformers, which aired from 1984 to 1987 in syndication.

[3] Bay chose Chevrolet’s recent Camaro muscle car concept vehicle as Bumblebee’s Earth mode transformation over the original Volkswagen Beetle. When the Camaro goes back into production in 2009 after a seven-year hiatus, it will reportedly have a 400 hp engine in opposition to the 53 hp Volkswagen flat-4 engine. More on automobile gendering later.

[4] Listening to the mp3 of the original broadcast, available from archive.org, I believe the word “sidereal” was excised during the editing process to make this sequence involving several different voices faster and more cohesive in conveying Bumblebee’s message.

[5] As you sow, so you shall reap. Sandy Stone later became a student of Donna J. Haraway, and produced an influential response to Raymond’s work titled, “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto.” I will return to this in the conclusion.

[6] About her choice to use the term “posttranssexual:” in the front matter of the online version of the essay,” Stone says, “‘Posttranssexual’ was an ironic term, since when this essay was first published everything in theory was post-something-or-other. I was looking for a way forward.   ‘Transgender’ is way better.”

How to Build a Sparring Lightsaber with Parts from Home Depot and Spare Parts (with thoughts on learning and haptics)

Photo courtesy of Ryan Cox.
Photo courtesy of Ryan Cox.

My cousin Ryan Cox is a longtime practitioner of a variety of martial arts including kung fu and tai chi. Ryan and his two older brothers–Ian and Jarret–grew up learning, sparring, and developing uncanny skill in hand-to-hand combat and weapons sparring. While Ryan and his brothers have developed rhizomic networks to enhance their abilities and pass on what they have learned to others, Ryan has went the most far afield when he traveled to Wudang Mountain to train with the kung fu monks who reside there.

Photo courtesy of Ryan Cox.
Photo courtesy of Ryan Cox.

When we were younger, I remember myself being the one drawn to the Star Wars mythos more than anyone else in my family, but now Ryan tells me that he was always interested in the Jedi, their mystique, and their lightsabers. In more recent years, he has learned a lot of the backstory of the Star Wars universe from books and video games. His knowledge in those realms far outstrips my own.

So, I was intrigued when he began talking with me about building his own lightsaber for demonstrating his swordmanship and possibly sparring if the “blade” were strong enough to withstand strikes. The guide that follows illustrates the first lightsaber that I built for Ryan in the fashion of General Rahm Kota’s. I used off-the-shelf parts easily obtained at Home Depot or any hardware store. Since I built this lightsaber, Ryan has modified it more, and I have built two lightsabers for myself–one that resembles Luke Skywalker’s Return of the Jedi lightsaber and one that resembles Darth Maul’s The Phantom Menace double bladed lightsaber. This guide focuses on Ryan’s “Mark I” lightsaber.

Pedagogically, I promote the idea that haptics, building, and making are integral parts to any kind of education. We are embodied beings who do things physically in the world–whether it be in real life or online. I enjoy building things in my own time as another way to think about things–in this case, Star Wars, science fiction, Jedi mythos, world building, canon vs. noncanon, and design considerations: rhetoric of technology, aesthetics, practicality, etc. In Ryan’s case, haptics, proprioception, and movement are integral to his learning and lived experience. I am looking forward to learning from him with this artifact that I designed and built. The modes are the same–physicality, materiality, and haptics–but our efforts converge from different directions for a kind of haptic, learning synergy.

I began the project by assembling the parts that I needed for creating the lightsaber’s hilt and belt clip. I carried an image of Rahm Kota’s lightsaber on my iPhone and went to the plumbing aisle of my local Home Depot.

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These parts included:

  • 6″ x 3/4″ galvanized steel pipe
  • 3/4″ coupling
  • Two 3/4″ to 1/2″ coupling (one for display and one for sparring with permanently installed “blade”–these two couplings are interchangeable)
  • “Close” 3/4″ pipe (approximately 1 1/2″ long)
  • 3/4″ cap
  • D-ring
  • Carabiner
  • Hose clamps

Roughly, these parts are assembled to create the lightsaber:

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Other parts that I used for this build include:

  • 1/4″ white nylon rope (grip wrap)
  • 36″ x 1/2″ oak dowel rod (scrapped due to paint problem)
  • 48″ x 1/2″ paint brush rod (cut to 36″ and replaced the oak dowel rod)
  • Doorbell button assembly (for parts)
  • 80mm computer case fan (for electromagnet assembly)
  • JB Weld
  • Rustoleum Florescent Yellow Paint

To create the lightsaber’s handle, I screwed all of the handle components together except for the 3/4″ to 1/2″ coupling like this: 3/4″ cap | 6″ x 3/4″ pipe | 3/4″ to 3/4″ coupling | 3/4″ close pipe.

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Then, I prepared the nylon rope to create the grip on the two pipe sections (6″ pipe and close pipe) by burning frayed ends to melt the nylon.

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Beginning at the business-end of the lightsaber, I tucked a small piece of rope under the first wrap against the 3/4″ coupling to hold the rope in place and prevent unraveling.

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At the top end, close to where the 3/4″ to 1/2″ coupling (or lightsaber emitter/business end), I created a loop with the rope under the last wrap, which I ran the last wrap through and pulled into the wrap, which hid the end of the rope under the wrap.

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I cut the loose ends.
lightsaber-DSC02023Beginning on the other side of the 3/4″ coupling, I repeated these steps with the longer wrap of the 6″ pipe section. First, a small piece under the first wrap.

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I pulled the rope tight around the pipe and pushed each wrap down to keep the grip as tight as possible.lightsaber-DSC02041

Mose tried to help with the process as much as possible.lightsaber-DSC02043

At the end of the 6″ long pipe, close to where the end cap goes, I placed the D-Ring and ran the rope through its eye to connect it to the handle.

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As in the shorter section wrap, I created a loop and pulled the end of the rope through and under the last lines of wrap to hide the end and prevent the grip from unraveling.

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Finally, I installed the cap. Before doing this, I wrapped the grip higher than necessary so that the the cap would compress the wrap when tightly screwed onto the 6″ pipe.lightsaber-DSC02052

Since Ryan would likely bang his lightsaber when sparring, I wanted to make it as practical as possible while giving it a technological appearance. First, I tried attaching a circuit board from an average doorbell button with two hose clamps.

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While I thought this fit the rugged look that Ryan might like for his lightsaber, I thought that it would be more practical to use only one hose clamp and affix the doorbell components with JB Weld after removing them from the circuit board.

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I liked this configuration best. The hose clamp protects the switch, lights (non-functional), and resistor.

Next, I wanted the display emitter on the deactivated lightsaber (3/4″ to 1/2″ coupling) to look “realistic,” so I pulled the electromagnet from an 80″ computer fan, crushed it with my channelocks, and inserted it into the 3/4″ end of the 3/4″ to 1/2″ coupling. Repurposing the electromagnet draws on a visual/physical rhetoric of technology in the same way that movie props and set design use this for world building, extrapolating, and establishing plausibility.

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The next phase of the lightsaber build involved the other sparring emitter. I needed to rigidly attach a wooden blade to the second 3/4″ to 1/2″ coupling in the 1/2″ end of the coupling and paint it to match the yellow blade color that Ryan sought (signifying the Consular Jedi).

I began by taking an oak dowel rod and whittling one end enough to screw it into the 1/2″ end of the 3/4″ to 1/2″ coupling.

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Then, I used JB Weld to permanently connect the coupling to the dowel rod.

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I had to make sure that I did not put too much JB Weld on the tip closest to the 3/4″ pipe thread, which screw into the “close” end of the lightsaber when the blade needs to be drawn.lightsaber-DSC01989

I made sure that it was centered and straight.
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Finally, I painted the dowel rod above the coupling with a primer and then with the florescent yellow.

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Unfortunately, I misread the spray paint cans and ended up with a mess when the florescent yellow would not stick to the dried primer (I mistakenly picked up white primer + paint instead of simply primer).

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Luckily, I had a paint brush handle in the garage that was long enough to serve the same purpose even if it might be made out of pine instead of oak.

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I cut the paint brush handle down to 36″.

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Set it up for painting with the remaining florescent yellow paint.

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Many coats later, it was a bright yellow befitting a Consular Jedi!

After the paint dried, I screwed the metal end of the brush into another 3/4″ to 1/2″ coupling and bonded the blade to the coupling with JB Weld.

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After everything had dried, I mated the blade with the lightsaber handle.

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I was happy with the outcome of the lightsaber in deactivated mode, too.

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I gave the lightsaber to Ryan as a birthday present. I included this explanatory diagram that explains how the saber is more than simply parts (e.g., the rope is from the same bundle that Ryan and I used when we cut trees down in my yard last year).lightsaber-DSC02085

Since I build this lightsaber, Ryan removed the nylon rope grip and improved it with three layers of bank line or tarred twine. The result is quite impressive aesthetically and practically!

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Photo courtesy of Ryan Cox.
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Photo courtesy of Ryan Cox.

I will post future posts on the lightsabers that I have built for myself and examples of our sparring (when we have the time for Ryan to teach me some things).

UPDATE: Readers asked me to post photos of my other lightsabers–one inspired by Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber in Return of the Jedi and Darth Maul’s double-bladed lightsaber from The Phantom Menace. When I built these sabers for myself, I didn’t take as many photos of the process as in the lightsaber above for Ryan, but these photos should illustrate the basics of how to build similar DIY lightsabers.

Luke Skywalker ROTJ Lightsaber and Stand

IMG_4671This was the first version of Luke’s lightsaber. I am working from memory as I do not have the lightsaber in front of me to give the exact specifications. I believe that working from the left to the right: 3/4″ to 1/2″ reducer, 1/2″ threaded pipe 1″ long, 1/2″ to 3/4″ bushing, 3/4″ coupler, 3/4″ pipe 7″ long, 3/4″ coupler, 3/4″ to 1/2″ bushing, flat washer with eye bolt affixed (epoxied into bushing). The orange lightsaber control attached to the first coupler is from a computer motherboard heatsink (sawed in half with a hacksaw) and epoxied to the coupler. The wrap is nylon rope.

IMG_4761In the next iteration, I replaced the nylon rope wrap with rubber o-rings that I ordered online (pack or 40 or 50). To install the o-rings, remove the last coupler on the right and roll down the o-rings one-by-one.

To display Luke’s lightsaber, I used smaller pipes attached to a wood base (two different sizes of lumber screwed together through the metal base connected to the pipes).

Darth Maul’s Double-Bladed Lightsaber

IMG_4672I built this Darth Maul inspired lightsaber as a way to figure out an easy way of having a two bladed saber that can split into two separate lightsabers. My solution was to use quick disconnect air hose fittings.

IMG_4673In order to make this work with the larger pipes used for Darth Maul’s lightsaber, which appears heftier in Episode I, I had to use two bushings to reduce down to the smaller size of the air hose fittings.

IMG_4593Here is the double-bladed lightsaber connected.

IMG_4594Here is the double-bladed lightsaber disconnected into two separate sabers. I didn’t build blade attachments for this saber, so I couldn’t test how much pressure/stress could be applied to the quick disconnect coupler that holds everything together. I suspect that this kind of assembly can only be used for show rather than demonstration of saber techniques (as I had constructed the two sabers above). With further modification, I believe that someone could sheath the quick disconnect coupler with metal so that the saber appears more solid from end-to-end instead of having this smaller, weak point in the middle as this demonstration saber appears.

I hope these extra photos and explanation help. Good luck with your builds, and please share any photos that you post online of your sabers in the comments below!

Photos from Europa Report Screening Panel at the Atlanta Science Festival

Europa Report panel: from left to right: Marcus, Gil, Sidney, and me.
Europa Report panel: from left to right: Marcus, Gil, Sidney, and me.

After the screening of Europa Report on March 28, 2014 at Kennesaw State University as part of the Atlanta Science Festival, Gil Weinberg moderated a great discussion between the panel (Sidney Perkowitz, Marcus Davis, and me) and the audience of ~25 people. The audience had great questions, comments, and observations. My fellow panel members brought an exciting range of knowledge to the discussion that taught me a lot in a very short time.

Much of the conversation focused on the authenticity of the film, its relationship to the authenticity of other SF films, and what a film like this teaches (right or wrong) its audience. I was very happy to have had some things to say about SF’s didacticism going all the way back to Hugo Gernsback and his “scientifiction.”

My cousin Ryan Cox accompanied me to the screening and took these pictures of the event.

Fund a New Western-Comedy Titled the Gorda by the Filmmakers Behind The Black Earth

My buddy James Warbington, who I worked with on the 48-Hour Film Festival twice and who created the zombie-comedy feature film The Black Earth, is fundraising for his next filmmaking endeavor: the western-comedy The Gorda!

If you want to donate to a project by someone with a track record of successful crowdfunded projects, check out The Gorda’s IndieGoGo campaign.

You can find out more about the film, read about the project, and see movie posters by going to the official The Gorda website.

Learn more about James’ production company Family Curse Films here.

Listen to an interview with James that I recorded last year here. In the interview, he talks about how he makes films, how he uses crowdsourced funding, and what inspires his filmmaking ideas. There’s plenty more about James’ previous projects on DynamicSubspace here, too.

On Watching Jurassic Park in 3D

Last night, Yufang and I went to see the new 3D version of Steven Spielberg’s classic Jurassic Park at the Regal Hollywood 24 in Atlanta.

When Jurassic Park was originally released in 1993, I saw it three times on the Saturday of its opening weekend. I was in high school, and I followed science and cinema with a singular devotion. The images of the dinosaurs as living creatures amazed me. The possibilities of science to make something like Jurassic Park a reality captivated my imagination as much as the reality of the computer and special effects technologies that breathed life into these lifeless images on the screen.

I do not believe that I have seen Jurassic Park since that important opening weekend back in 1993. Of course, I have thought about the images and techniques that made those images possible, but I didn’t return to Jurassic Park as a film experience until last night.

Yufang had never seen Jurassic Park in the movie theater, but she had seen the film several times on VHS or DVD. Certainly a smaller screen experience than what I had had, but nevertheless, it was a science fiction film that she enjoyed and wanted to experience again on the big screen. Thus, we decided to find out how the film had been transformed by 3D post-production.

As soon as the sounds and the opening titles began, I knew that we were in for an exceedingly fun experience. However, I quickly found the 3D effects more distracting than immersive. Perhaps my respect for and expectation of Spielberg’s framing choices and other filmmaking techniques created a gap between my expectation and the unequivocal thereness of 3D. While I thought that the 3D effects were interesting and occasionally exciting, I do not believe that they add anything of substance to an already important and engaging film like Jurassic Park.

Yufang and I enjoyed seeing the film together, but I was haunted by the artificiality of the 3D effects. I think that the 3D re-processing of the film created with artificial dinosaurs makes the unreality of the dinosaurs that much more present. However, I do not mean that the 3D effects make the dinosaurs seem fake. In fact, there are several scenes–particularly involving T-Rex after Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) shuts down the security fences–that make the dinosaurs seem more real. What I mean is that the 3D’s cardboard-cutout-ness of layered scenes (foreground, midground (action usually), and background) makes the film feel more artificial than the original 2D film. The trick that our brains play on us as we see a 2D film is far more immersive to me than most 3D films–especially the ones that have 3D added as an afterthought and money making venture. Of course, Avatar is a different story altogether that I spoke about at the 2010 Science Fiction Research Association Conference [some details available here].

Films like Jurassic Park should, I believe, remain in the precious state of 2D where our brains can give us the trick of immersion that 3D post-processing cannot provide. Nevertheless, Jurassic Park in 3D is a fun movie and I am glad for having gone on its updated tour with Yufang.

Sci Fi Lab Radio Show Full Interview with James T. Warbington, Co-Director of The Black Earth

On October 25, 2012, the Sci Fi Lab Radio Show on Georgia Tech’s WREK.org 91.1 FM in Atlanta aired my hour-long interview with James T. Warbington, co-director of the upcoming feature film The Black Earth, as its pre-Halloween, zombie-themed episode of the fall semester. Unfortunately, the interview was cut short on the radio due to a technical issue. Never fear, the Internet is here! You can listen to the full, uncut episode in mp3 format here or on YouTube here.

The Black Earth makes its world premiere on November 3, 2012, 9:30pm at the Plaza Theater on Ponce de Leon Ave (what better place for a Grindhouse-style zomcom?).