Terminal Films

By Christiansen, Steen | Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Spring-Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Terminal Films


Christiansen, Steen, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts


Abstract

This paper analyzes two films, The Ring and Pulse, as examples of "terminal films"--a recent development in the science fiction / horror hybrid genre. I suggest that these terminal films articulate an anxiety of the precarious ontological status of the human in a posthuman world. Employing the concepts of affect and contagion, the films are shown to question and blur the boundaries between biology and technology. In this way, these two films participate in a larger cultural shift away from a conception of human being as a fixed, stable entity into an understanding of the human as part of a larger assemblage.

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MCKENZIE WARK'S PRONOUNCEMENT THAT "WE NO LONGER HAVE ORIGINS, we have terminals" indicates a shift in cultural sensibilities: an emphasis that the end is closer than the beginning. Terminal films, or films that portray a dissolving boundary between human biology and media technologies, participate in a larger cultural shift in how we perceive human ontology. The Ring and the Pulse trilogy are good representatives of a cultural anxiety that the concept of the human has no special ontological status but exists on a flat ontological scale with other entities such as media technology, animals, plants, rocks: an ontology where "humans are," as Donna Haraway puts it, "congeries of things that are not us" (328). The Ring and the Puke trilogy suggest that the human is permeated by media technologies and only finds its constitution through things other than itself.

My argument, that the concept of the human is dependent on media technologies, is located within a posthuman critical tradition, extending from the shared belief that the human is not a stable entity in the world but is rather continuously articulated within an assemblage of media, machines, and animals. Of course, terminals can also be read as computer terminals, in the way that computers mold humans even as humans build computers, to paraphrase Katherine Hayles. Terminal, then, suggests a transition from one to the other. Posthuman critical theory, extending from Donna Haraway through Katherine Hayles to Eugene Thacker, suggests that there is a constant give-and-take in our understanding of the human. Hayles argues in her book How We Became Posthuman that any change in human embodiment will change our definition of the human. Thacker, on the other hand, shows in his book Biomedia that we no longer regard biology or technology as distinct entities simply because everything is defined by code and informatics. Conceptions of the posthuman center on how the human and media technologies are tangled in a complex articulation of each other.

The Ring and Pulse are interesting because they give narrative voice to the question of where the boundary lies between the human and media technologies. The speculative bend of these films allows for scenarios where the human is either absorbed by technologies--essentially the argument of The Ring--or where the human is destroyed by technologies--the argument put forth by Pulse.

Terminal History

Earlier films have of course dealt with similar concerns but usually maintained a more metaphoric relation to their topics. Films such as Shocker (Wes Craven 1989) provide images of a human being dissolving into our electrical infrastructure. (1) Usually these films locate a malevolence in human-technology hybrids, rather than allocating full-blown agency to media technologies. A liminal case would be Videodrome (David Cronenberg 1982), which is one of the first films to regard the human body fully as simply yet another media technology. In this film, the pirate television channel, Videodrome, indicates a shift in human ontology towards the possibility of the human living on (endlessly) on television. Brian O'Blivion, the film's mass media messiah, is a proponent for allowing human consciousness into media technologies. However, there is a human-centric dimension to Shocker and Videodrome not located in the films identified as terminal films; O'Blivion wants to transcend into media machines and leave the human body behind. …

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