Laws of Desire

What did David Cronenberg's Videodrome get right about us?
by Tom McCormack  posted January 26, 2012
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It can be both fun and necessary to revisit famously prescient works of art and take account of just what they got right.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell was right that the most successful authoritarian regimes of the future would limit dissent by using mass media to control our conceptual tools. He was wrong about how they would do it; instead of issuing messages through a unified voice, the most durable authoritarianism has flourished by dispersing control among a small set of global corporations that justify their outsized power through their success in the marketplace. In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley was right that sexual freedom and the triumph of therapy culture would develop alongside rigid class structures. The mainstream acceptance of casual sex and prescription pharmaceuticals really did happen alongside a consolidation of class power—a radical one we're still reeling from. But in Huxley this was accomplished through an exaggeration of class difference and an expanded language for class; in reality, the culture witnessed the atrophy of a language for class and an erasing of outward signs of class in terms of professed values, fashion, and manners of speech (hence "bourgeois bohemians" and "the millionaire next door").

David Cronenberg's Videodrome offered in 1983 a vision of dystopia that rivaled in ambition and sweep and foresight Orwell's and Huxley's more famous works. So what did Videodrome get right? And what, if anything, did it get wrong?



Cronenberg was right that new technologies would unleash a craving for scenes of increasingly extreme and increasingly realistic—if not just plain real—sexual violence. He was right about what this violence would look like ("No plot, no characters. Very realistic"); why the entertainment industry would turn to it ("I'm looking for something that will break through. Something tough!"); and how those in the media would talk about it ("It's absolutely brilliant. I mean look: there's almost no production cost!"). He was right that many people would experience these new products as addictive and would report a psychic bleed into the texture of their daily lives, frequently to their great concern.

Cronenberg was right, in a more subtle way, about what would cause the cultural turn to sexual violence. The movie isn't called "photodrome" or "cinemadrome"—it's not about the nature of mechanical reproduction or motion pictures but about the consequences of private access to public imagery. Professor Brian O'Blivion, Videodrome's resident philosopher, tells us that the television has become the "retina of the mind's eye"; that "the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain." What he's talking about is what contemporary social scientists studying the Internet call—borrowing terms from psychoanalysis—"solipsistic introjection." This refers to the tendency of individuals to believe, on at least a semi-conscious level, that things happening on their electronic devices are actually happening inside their heads. Describing how this effect works in online chat rooms, John Suler writes:

Reading another person's message might be experienced as a voice within one's head, as if that person magically has been inserted or "introjected" into one's psyche... The online companion now becomes a character within our intrapsychic world, a character that is shaped partly by how the person actually presents him or herself via text communication, but also by our expectations, wishes, and needs... People fantasize about flirting, arguing with a boss, or very honestly confronting a friend about what they feel. In their imagination, where it's safe, people feel free to say and do all sorts of things that they wouldn't in reality. At that moment, reality IS one's imagination. Online text communication can become the psychological tapestry in which a person's mind weaves these fantasy role plays, usually unconsciously and with considerable disinhibition. All of cyberspace is a stage and we are merely players.


James Woods in Videodrome

This accounts in part for what Suler calls the "disinhibition effect" of online communication: people's tendency to act in ways they wouldn't act in person-to-person communication. It also accounts for people's tendency to watch things they wouldn't watch in public. The lone media consumer is, like Gyges discovering his magic ring, eerily freed from societal disapprobation.

But the argument of Videodrome is that the disconnect only functions in one direction. When consuming media in private we're cut loose from civil society; but when we go back to civil society we very much bring with us the fantasy life we've developed through media. The private consumption of media is immune to public morality; public morality is shaped by this private consumption, irrevocably. In Videodrome, an encounter with the strong stuff creates a tumor that eventually kills you.

Cronenberg was wrong that technology would fundamentally compromise the material integrity of our bodies. The bodily degradations in Videodrome are a metaphor, of course—for the destructive nature of desire, compulsion, the qualities of fetishes—but they're also not a metaphor. What lends Cronenberg's films from this period their sense of immediate, real, abject horror is that they refuse to ever let the body become a metaphor entirely. The physical fact of the body is always italicized, the terror it inspires arising from the fact that its pain is more difficult to reconcile ourselves to than pain on the level of metaphor. (Oscar Wilde: "God spare me physical pain and I'll take care of the moral pain myself.") The way Cronenberg deals with the principal theme of invasion as both a metaphor relating to culture and a fact relating to the body makes him perhaps the last great Cold War filmmaker and the first great AIDS-era filmmaker.



Cronenberg was right that technology would become increasingly personalized and integrated into the self. But instead of technology, as in Videodrome, becoming more embodied and entering us, we've become more virtual and entered it. Perhaps this accounts for why we've confronted these recent changes with less hysteria than the inhabitants of Videodrome. In fact, as many of the film's predictions have come to fruition, they've often been greeted with enthusiasm.

A deep feeling of conservative pessimism—about new technologies, the liberalization of sexuality, and the intersection of the two—structures the world of Videodrome. The tone is out of step with much of contemporary popular culture, like the cyber-utopianism of Internet seers like Clay Shirky and Lawrence Lessig or the sexual utopianism of writers like Dan Savage and shows like Sex and the City.   

According to the latter, the outrageous fantasy lives formed within the new media environment can be used by couples as raw material for safe, playful, and mutually rewarding activities that promote intimacy and ultimately strengthen family life. This is, for those of us born into this new media environment, a comforting social vision. But is it maybe a little Pollyanna-ish? Does this vision fully account for psychic life in the 21st century? The anomic phantasmagoria of violent sexual excess that is Videodrome—the portrayal of a brutalized subjectivity lost in the endlessly regenerating expanse of its own desires—may offer a useful corrective to our contemporary optimism about desire. 


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Videodrome, directed by David Cronenberg
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January 21–February 12, 2012 David Cronenberg


David Cronenberg  |  Videodrome  |  film review  |  technology  |  sexuality  |  violence  |  psychology  |  television


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Tom McCormack is a critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in Cinema Scope, Film Comment, Rhizome, The L Magazine, and other publications. He is a regular contributor to Moving Image Source, an editor at Alt Screen, and the film and electronic art editor of Idiom.

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