Tech-Noir Film: A Theory of the Development of Popular Genres

Tech-Noir Film: A Theory of the Development of Popular Genres

by Emily Auger

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From the post-apocalyptic world of Blade Runner to the James Cameron mega-hit Terminator, tech-noir has emerged as a distinct genre, with roots in both the Promethean myth and the earlier popular traditions of gothic, detective, and science fiction. In this new volume, many well-known film and literary works – including The Matrix, RoboCop, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein –are discussed with reference to their relationship to tech-noir and one another. Featuring an extensive, clearly indexed filmography, Tech-Noir Film will be of great interest to anyone wishing to learn more about the development of this new and highly innovative genre.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781841505404
Publisher: Intellect Books Ltd
Publication date: 06/01/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 498
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Emily E. Auger has graduate degrees in art history and English literature. She has taught art history in Canadian and American universities for over twenty years.

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Tech-Noir Film

A Theory of the Development of Popular Genres

By Emily E. Auger

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2011 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84150-540-4


Method and Models

Mythology is the prototypical form of discourse from which popular genres developed and Oedipus is currently the most frequently cited exemplar of a specific myth influencing popular genres in literature and film. The structural relationships between the genres of gothic, detective, science, and tech-noir fiction, like those between myth and other narratives, can be shown by the identification and ordering of constituent units or elements in a manner that brings forward content that may not otherwise be apparent. Vladimir Propp (1928) addressed fairy tales and Claude Lévi-Strauss (1958) revisited Oedipus in this manner. Similarly, Jack Burnham (1971) has shown how the structurally defined "myth" of the avant-garde in the visual arts involves the treatment of cultural elements, such as tube paints and spray guns, as "natural" elements and then "culturalizing" them by processing with choices and decisions about application and arrangement. The structuralist approach taken here demonstrates the association of primary fields of discourse – psychology, sociology, science, and aesthetics; with realms of experience – the symbolic, the real, the imaginary, and the simulacrum; and with specific genres and their constituent elements (Chart 1). Discourse, realms of experience, and genres are all somewhat artificially compartmentalized to facilitate the identification and understanding of their presence, relationships, and dynamics.

Any discourse may develop in any realm of experience, but specific areas of discourse take on conventionalized roles in relation to specific realms of experience, the constituent elements of popular genres, and individual popular genres. In other words, areas of discourse are articulated in the experiential realms and constituent elements of popular genres: characters; relationships between characters; the crime, mystery, or social issue at stake; its detection; and its resolution. This structural arrangement of areas of discourse, realms of experience, and constituent elements facilitates charting of the characteristics that historically distinguish individual genres and mark their cumulative development. It is demonstrated here in relation to the Oedipus myth and, more specifically, to exemplars of popular genres: Horace Walpole's gothic The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Tale (1764), Arthur Conan Doyle's detective fiction "The Speckled Band" (1892), Arthur C. Clarke's sciencefiction Against the Fall of Night (1948), and William Gibson's scifi-cyberpunk Neuromancer (1984).

Realms of experience and genre

Prometheus is undisputedly the Titan of technology and, by association, of tech-noir; but the Oedipus myth, not that of Prometheus, is the most commonly cited template for Western literature in general, and the inspiration for numerous structural and psychoanalytic analyses of narrative. The story of Oedipus, as compiled, summarized, and popularized by Robert Graves (1955) from sources including the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles, is as follows: Oedipus is abandoned as an infant by his mother Iocaste because of an oracular prediction about the future damage he will do and is thus raised by adoptive parents whom he later abandons because of a similar oracular prediction. His travels bring him to Thebes, a city tormented by the Sphinx sent by Hera as punishment to Laios, Oedipus's biological father, for abducting a boy. Not knowing him to be his father, Oedipus kills Laios in a fit of temper. He then answers the Sphinx's riddle and is rewarded for this accomplishment with the crown and the hand of his own mother, whom he also does not recognize, in marriage. Years later, when a plague blights the land, Oedipus seeks explanation in some human crime against the gods. He eventually identifies his own incest as this crime and blinds and banishes himself to wander as a beggar aided only by his devoted daughter Antigone. His sons (and brothers), Eteocles and Polyneices, war for his kingdom and Antigone has to see to it that the body of the defeated Polyneices is properly buried.

Otto Rank (1909), Lord Raglan (1936), and Lévi-Strauss (1963) all studied this myth and their research identified what they believed to be a list of the constituent elements for the hero, including, among others, a royal bloodline, unusual conception, attacks on his life in infancy or early childhood, foster parents, a successful battle in early adulthood with some enemy or beast, a royal marriage, a crown, and the eventual loss of favor, dethroning, and mysterious death. Lévi-Strauss carries the structuralist analysis further and identifies the myth's constituent elements as representing opposites that form patterns of mediation made more recognizable by their arrangement in four columns. He includes additional elements from the story of Cadmos, ancestor of Oedipus, and Cadmos's search for his sister Europa after she is abducted and raped by Zeus and mothers three children by him, including Minos. Cadmos follows the directions of the Delphic oracle, kills a serpent and sows its teeth, which sprout the "sown" men who immediately begin killing each other until only five remain. These five swear their allegiance to Cadmos and become his servants.

The first of Lévi-Strauss's four columns includes those elements showing various kinds of excess or the exaggeration of blood relations: Cadmos seeking his sister, Oedipus marrying his mother, and Antigone burying her brother. The second includes those indicating the devaluation or underrating of blood relations: the "sown" men kill each other, Oedipus kills his father, and Eteocles kills his brother. The third column shows the denial of the indigenous origins of humankind insofar as it involves monsters unwilling to allow humankind to be born or to take up residence in a particular location: Cadmos kills the serpent and Oedipus kills the Sphinx. The fourth column includes the names of the male characters and their meanings: the name of Laios's father, Labdacos, means lame; that of Laios means left-sided; and Oedipus means swollen foot. These names affirm the autochthonous origins of man by referring to what Lévi-Strauss claims is a universal characteristic of myth: the difficulties men have walking when they first emerge from the earth. Lévi-Strauss interprets the entire Oedipus myth as an attempt to resolve the conflict between the belief in autochthonous origins and the actuality of birth resulting from a union of man and woman, or, put another way, the myth is about how babies come to be and, more broadly, the question of how unity derives from individuals, diversity, and multiplicity. The first pair of columns identifies the extremes of relations between men and women and the second pair moves the dilemmas of this relationship to the mythic dimension of ultimate, rather than individual, origins.

The Oedipus myth also provided inspiration for Sigmund Freud's famous Oedipus complex, summarized in the cliché about little boys wanting to kill their fathers so they can sleep with their mothers, and Jacques Lacan's "mirror" stage of child development. Lacan describes both the Oedipal and mirror stages in relation to the experiential realms of the Imaginary and the Symbolic; that which is beyond these realms is the Real. Capitalizing his terms to emphasize the specific meanings he assigns them, Lacan explains that the Imaginary is experienced during the "mirror stage," which lasts between 6 and 18 months, during which time infants derive a sense of wholeness and completeness through the "gaze" of the Other, typically the mother. This stage ends when a child realizes that his mirror reflection is not himself, that the "gaze" from a mirror is merely a reflection and, coincidentally, becomes aware of his own mortality. This moment is also that of the realization of difference, the basis of awareness of the self in relation to society and the purported Oedipus complex, and the moment when the unconscious is supposed to be created as repression begins when the child leaves the realm of the Imaginary to enter the realm of the Symbolic, forcing the mind to split into conscious and unconscious parts. Lacan believes that the child experiences a new sense of alienation when the mirror stage ends which he attempts to overcome by reconstituting himself as subject through language: he invests energy in various types of substitutes for the lost Other, the mother, substitutes that are frequently "linguistic" insofar as they are metonymically associated with the mother, and which recover something of the feeling of wholeness associated with her and the constitutive power of her vision. Lacan believes that the mind often attempts to restore a sense of the wholeness and totality experienced during the mirror stage in dream images of a fortress, whereas in life individuals often attempt to re-create a sense of wholeness through the endless "contemplation of women."

The flaws in the theory of the mirror stage, not to mention that of the Oedipus complex, are many; among the most obvious are the abandonment of girls and the anthropomorphization involved in the "projection" of experiences and feelings into a being unable to speak for himself. Nevertheless, the mirror stage theory has been used extensively as an interpretive model in literary analyses. For example, Philip Armstrong's (1996) discussion of the stage as mirror and the mirror stage in Hamlet lends particular emphasis to the constituent power of the performance and to this constituent power as analogous to that of the mirror in the mirror stage. Hamlet holds up an image reflecting the audience back at itself, but also constitutes that audience in a manner that evokes considerable identification with and response to it: "Drama works not only like a mirror, but like a mould, keeping the impression or imprint left upon it by contemporary society." Armstrong adds an interpretation of the content of the play relative to the psychoanalytic model of the mirror stage, observing that it contains various "doubles" or mirror images: Laertes is the mirror image of Hamlet and Hamlet's struggle with Laertes is a dramatization of his struggle with his ego ideal. It is equally apparent that the mirror itself serves as a useful motif in discussions about self-awareness and conscious-awareness of the world in relation to specific characters. This "mirror stage" scene comes in Act III scene IV, when Hamlet confronts his mother about her sudden marriage to the brother of her recently deceased husband:

Come, come, and sit you down. You shall not budge.
You go not till I set you up a glass
Where you may see the inmost part of you. (3.4.19–21)

The Queen's marriage amounted to incest in Shakespearean England and would have offended the original audiences of the play as much as it does Hamlet, who not only accuses her of this crime, but suggests she is also guilty of poor taste when he pairs his father's portrait with that of his uncle. Gertrude finally responds to her son's tirade:

O Hamlet, speak no more!
Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul, And there I see such black and grainèd spots As will not leave their tinct.
O, speak to me no more!
These words like daggers enter in my ears. No more, sweet Hamlet! (3.4.89–98)

Clearly, Gertrude finds Hamlet's confrontation and accusations startling and she seems to do so in the context of a kind of "mirror stage" revelation: she does not like what her son sees or what she then sees and can no longer bear to hear the words that he speaks.

The association of looking into a mirror with self-scrutiny may be traced back to the third century, and became popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. At the time Hamlet was written, mirrors were usually only a few inches across, often convex, and they provided an extremely distorted reflection, yet this does not seem to have diminished their use in metaphors about the individual's discovery of aspects of self of which he was previously unaware. In both play and theoretical essay, the "mirror stage" is associated with an individual's increased self-awareness of his place in the social order. Indeed, with this understanding of the historical associations of mirrors, Lacan's "theoretical" essay appears as merely the most recent literary form to employ an already centuries-old idea.

Jean-Joseph Goux (1993) explains the relationship between the theory of the Oedipus complex and the Oedipus myth in similar terms: "it is because the West is Oedipean that Freud discovered the 'Oedipus Complex.'" Using the myths of Perseus, Bellerophon, and Jason as examples, he argues that the Oedipus myth is the exception, not the standard, Greek "mono-myth." The standard myth involves a man coming of age, three different kings, an attempted murder, the setting of a trial, a battle with a feminine monster, and a reward. The hero's defeat of a monster leads to his marriage and eventually to the crown. Contrary to this model, Oedipus is never given a trial by a king; instead, he unwittingly kills his own father, encounters and defeats the Sphinx in a trial by language, and ends up married to his mother, a crime which later costs him the crown. In effect, says Goux, the Oedipus myth is a parody of the mono-myth in which the sequence of patricide to incest replaces that of matricide to marital engagement; thus it is the myth of "failed royal investiture, or of avoided masculine initiation." The trial by physical combat and the death of the "female monster" are replaced by shrewdness and wit alone.

Goux finds the Oedipus myth to be the "mono-myth" of modern Western society. The avoidance of "liberating matricide" and the resulting split between the conscious and unconscious has become a social norm: "the madness of Oedipus has become Western reason" and man's destiny a "prolonged liminality [...] an endless process rather than a passage." The Oedipus myth, he believes, marks the departure from the transcendent social norm associated with the gods and the ancestors and asserts the emergence and autonomy of the individual that is of such ideological importance in the modern world. At least some aspects of Goux's opinion may be confirmed by the prevalence of Oedipal elements in twentieth-century fiction; however, while the popular genres analyzed here share many constituent elements with mythology in general and some of these also appear in the Oedipus myth, as melodramatic variations of myth they tend to end with a happier sense of closure for both the beleaguered "city" or "fortress" and the individual who must meet the challenge of its salvation.

The metonymic chains of association and metaphors which, in Lacan's psychoanalytic model of human development, are understood to begin during infancy and early childhood are recognizable in the conventions of discourse found in popular genres, such that the realm of the Symbolic is associated with the father, language, and the law and the Imaginary with the mother, the visual, and images. The Real is, as always, what is, or rather what seems to be, beyond representation. The simulacrum is the model or map established by a given set of beliefs and values, which, as Jean Baudrillard (1981) has so aptly observed, actually precedes reality. In popular genres, the simulacrum is what is compromised or threatened: it usually represents an idealized order of things that the hero is inevitably called upon to restore or reaffirm – this order is always one grounded in history and conventionality.

Popular genres are melodramas and the characters of melodramas are predisposed to certain kinds of experience; thus the articulation of the realms of experience in popular genres tends to be uncomplicated, even transparent. Northrop Frye (1912–1991) took the Aristotelian approach when he categorized different types of literature (1957), including popular genres, according to different "modes" identified according to the hero's varying power of action, even though he was well aware that these modes are not mutually exclusive. In myth, the hero's power of action is superior to that of men and the environment; in romance, that power is superior in degree; in epic and tragedy, the hero is superior to other characters but is subject to the forces of nature; in comedy and realism, the hero is superior to no one and nothing; and in irony, the hero is inferior such that the audience looks in on his or her "bondage, frustration, or absurdity." The popular genre hero is very often in a position that is equivalent or inferior to that of the audience; but the audience is likely to enjoy that relationship because, as Robert Heilman (1968) notes, they do not have to suffer with the character's internal dilemmas or contradictions and can simply enjoy his or her limited and uncomplicated emotions.

The melodramatic hero is monopathic, lacks any tendency to self-reflection, and is capable of complete single-minded dedication to the task or crisis of the moment, either because of the stressfulness of that situation or because he or she has been trained, as military types are, to function that way. Where tragic characters, such as Oedipus and Macbeth, are concerned, even public actions are given meaning in terms of revelations of the self within a private reality. Tragedy does not actually require a villain since the main character's inner conflict may serve that part; the tragic hero may even be responsible for his own situation. The melodrama, on the other hand, needs a villain, individual or collective, who is opposed by some general or specific insistence that "right" prevail. Attention goes to the melodramatic hero's virtue or innocence in the face of some threat to those qualities, a situation or a person, that has turned him or her into a victim. This difference in emphasis on plot in melodrama and character in tragedy has often led to a confusing misuse of terms. As Heilman observes, tragedy is widely overused as synonymous with the disaster narrative, even though disaster stories are really all about fatalities resulting from factors outside the victim, such as accident, illness, and other violence or bad luck: disaster is about "quantity of life." Tragedy, on the other hand, is about "quality of life" affected by experiences generated from within and by the hero's actions.


Excerpted from Tech-Noir Film by Emily E. Auger. Copyright © 2011 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Foreword by Gary Hoppenstand,
Chapter 1: Method and Models,
Chapter 2: The Promethean Message,
Chapter 3: Tech-Noir,
Appendix 1: Charts,
Appendix 2: Tech-Noir Films by Date,
Appendix 3: Tech-Noir Films by Type,
Index 1: Film Titles,
Index 2: Film Motifs,

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