Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

We Can Rebuild Him and Her: Bionic Irony, Hysteria, and Post-Fordism's Technological Fix in "The Six Million Dollar Man."

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

We Can Rebuild Him and Her: Bionic Irony, Hysteria, and Post-Fordism's Technological Fix in "The Six Million Dollar Man."

Article excerpt

THE WORKING MAN'S CRASH LANDING

Silvia Federici and George Caffentzis have observed that, when it comes to utopian visions regarding the societal benefits of space travel, it is not so much the alleged reasons for making a journey to Mars that matter but "what they can do to you on Mars when they get you there" (58). Programs such as the Apollo missions or even current speculation about manned missions to Mars, whatever scientific benefits might be expected, simultaneously generate a host of less obvious outcomes that are nonetheless useful from the point of view of social control, nation building, and ideological reinforcement. Collecting moon rocks might have added to the storehouse of human knowledge, but the Apollo missions were also immensely useful to the U.S. government for providing a unifying goal by which to capture the national imagination in the midst of such legitimation crises as those related to Vietnam, the Cold War, and environmental destruction. We might go further, with Caffentzis and Federici, and discern in the asceticism and other-worldliness required by space exploration a way of disciplining the terrestrial labour force: "The launch of today's high-tech industry needs a technological leap in the human machine--a big evolutionary leap in creating a new type of worker to match capital's investment needs" (61). Just as a space program that trains only a handful of actual astronauts might have a much larger effect on the national imaginary, creating the utopian fascination needed to implement new disciplinary structures, so too can popular culture about science and technology provide the fantasy scenarios that help generalize new modes of control even while entertaining and stimulating our imaginations. (1)

The popular 1970s television show The Six Million Dollar Man (hereafter Six) is a case in point. Celebrating technological aspiration in the face of sensational failure, the show's opening montage uses historic footage of the 1967 crash of nasa's experimental M2-F2 lifting body aircraft, in which test pilot Bruce Peterson was almost killed when his plane hit the ground at over 400 km/hr. The M2-F2 was part of a series of experimental aircraft that led to the development of the U.S. Space Shuttle program in the 1980s. In Six, Peterson's crash is used as the background for an opening sequence detailing the reconstruction of the fictional astronaut Steve Austin, a man literally reduced to "human scrap," in the words of the government agent who oversees Austin's transformation into a cyborg super-soldier. Using digital sound effects with computerized graphics superimposed on images of Austin receiving his robotic implants, the opening sequence famously proclaims in voiceover: "gentlemen, we can rebuild him ... we have the capacity to create the world's first bionic man."

The show's dramatic juxtaposition of high and low, of "human scrap" with $6 million of high-tech machinery, offers insights into the tensions faced by a largely white male American workforce confronting the contradictions of capital in the 1970s, a decade that saw the fraying of postWorld War II Keynesianism and the initial stirrings of the more turbulent and unruly neoliberal market that would replace it. With the escalation of Cold War tensions, labour unrest, energy prices, economic and environmental crises, and an increasingly unpopular military entanglement in Vietnam, the value of American lives seemed under question in a more nebulously unsettling manner than the century's two horrific but spatially and temporally circumscribed world wars (and the economic depression in between) had managed to do. The white male factory worker privileged by postwar Fordism was further confronted with threats of deskilling and obsolescence through technological innovations and shutdowns ferociously pursued by industrialists as a means of both "streamlining" the workplace and disciplining the workforce. In the midst of these tensions, like the fallen astronaut from the opening of Six, hegemonic American masculinity might have keenly felt the proximity of the "human scrap heap" confronted by Austin. …

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