DAVID CRONENBERG’S VIDEODROME TURNS 30 THIS YEAR, AND ITS VISION OF TECHNOLOGY AS THE “NEW FLESH” ISN’T SO SHOCKING ANYMORE.
Videodrome is the best movie ever made about Facebook.
The film turns thirty this year, and what felt “vaguely futuristic” about it in 1983 is prescient today: technology and media are ever more intimate, personal, embodied, an interpenetration that David Cronenberg’s film graphically explores. I won’t recap the plot here—I’m not writing about Videodrome’s anniversary, or its place in film history.
Instead, I’m proposing that Videodrome offers a long-needed correction to how we collectively view, and talk about, technology. As the anti-Matrix, Videodrome understood that media is not some separate space, but something which burrows into mind and flesh. The present has a funny habit of catching up with David Cronenberg.
Still, Videodrome is deeply of its time and place. It’s set in Toronto, where Cronenberg was born and studied at the same time as University of Toronto superstar media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who coined the phrase “the medium is the message.” Beyond McLuhan’s reputation, Toronto was also known as a wired city; among other things, it was an early adopter of cable television.
In suit, Videodrome follows a Toronto cable television president, Max Renn (James Woods). He becomes involved with a radio psychiatrist named Nikki Brand (Debbie Harry, of Blondie fame), who reminds us of popular criticisms of television culture: we want to be stimulated until we’re desensitized, becoming (at best) apolitical zombies and (at worst) amoral monsters. Television signal saturates this film. The satellite dishes, screens, playback devices, and general aesthetics of analogue video are on glorious, geeked-out display. Although Videodrome’s operating metaphor is television, this film can be understood as being a fable about media in general. And what seemed possible with television in 1983 seems obvious today with social media.
Over the course of the film, Max comes to know a “media prophet” named Professor Brian O’Blivion—an obvious homage to Marshall McLuhan. O’Blivion builds a “Cathode Ray Mission,” named after the television set component which shoots electrons and creates images. The Cathode Ray Mission gives the destitute a chance to watch television in order to “patch them back into the world’s mixing board,” akin to McLuhan’s notion of media creating a “global village,” premised on the idea that media and technology, together, form the social fabric. O’Blivion goes on to monologue,
“The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye. Therefore, the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore, whatever appears on the television screen appears as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, television is reality; and reality is less than television.”
This is Videodrome’s philosophy. It’s the opposite of The Matrix’s (1999) misreading of Baudrillard’s theories of simulation, and it goes completely against the common understanding of the Web as “virtual,” of the so-called “offline” as “real.” O’blivion would agree when I claim that “it is wrong to say ‘IRL’ to mean offline: Facebook is real life.”
This logic—that the Web is some other place we visit, a “cyber” space, something “virtual” and hence unreal—is what I call “digital dualism” and I think it’s dead wrong. Instead, we need a far more synthetic understanding of technology and society, media and bodies, physicality and information as perpetually enmeshed and co-determining. If The Matrix is the film of digital dualism, Videodrome is its synthetic and augmented opponent.
As P.J. Rey illustrates, fictional Web-spatiality is the favorite digital dualist plot device. Yet more than fiction books and films, what has come to dominate much of our cultural mythology around the Web is the idea that we are trading “real” communication for something simply mechanical: that real friendship, sex, thinking, and whatever else lazy op-ed writers can imagine are being replaced by merely simulated experiences. The non-coincidental byproduct of inventing the notion of a “cyber” space is the simultaneous invention of “the real,” the “IRL,” the offline space that is more human, deep, and true. Where The Matrix’s green lines of code or Neal Stephenson’s 3D Metaverse may have been the sci-fi milieu of the 1990s, the idea of a natural “offline” world is today’s preferred fiction.
Alternatively, what makes Videodrome, and Cronenberg’s oeuvre in general, so useful for understanding social media is their fundamental assumption that there is nothing “natural” about the body. Cronenberg’s trademark flavor of body-horror is highly posthuman: boundaries are pushed and queered, first through medical technologies in Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979), and Scanners (1981), then through media technology in Videodrome (1983) and eXistenZ (1999), then, most notoriously, in The Fly (1986), where the human and animal merge. If The Matrix is René Descartes, Videodrome is Donna Haraway.
Cronenberg’s characters are consistent with Haraway’s theory of the cyborg: not the half-robot with the shifty laser eye, but you and me. In the film, the goal is never to remove the videodrome signal that is augmenting the body, but to reprogram it. To direct it. As Haraway famously wrote, “I’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess.” “Natural” was never a real option anyways.
Max Renn is especially good at finding the real in the so-called “virtual” because he is equally good at seeing virtuality in the “real.” From the beginning, he understands that much of everyday life is a massive media event devoid of meaning. The old flesh is tired, used up, and toxic. The world is filled with a suffering assuaged only by glowing television screens. As the film progresses, the real and unreal blur, making each seem hyperbolic: hallucinations become tangible, while the tangible drips with a surrealism that’s gritty, jumpy, dirty, erotic, and violent—closer to Spring Breakers (2012) than The Wizard of Oz (1939). As such, Cronenberg’s universe is always a little sticky: an unease which begs the nightmares to come true, so that we at least know what’s real.
Videodrome’s depiction of techno-body synthesis is, to be sure, intense; Cronenberg has the unusual talent of making violent, disgusting, and erotic things seem even more so. The technology is veiny and lubed. It breaths and moans; after watching the film, I want to cut my phone open just to see if it will bleed. Fittingly, the film was originally titled “Network of Blood,” which is precisely how we should understand social media, as a technology not just of wires and circuits, but of bodies and politics. There’s nothing anti-human about technology: the smartphone that you rub and take to bed is a technology of flesh. Information penetrates the body in increasingly more intimate ways.
This synthesis of the physical and the digital is mirrored in the film’s soundtrack, too. In his book on Videodrome’s production, Tim Lucas calls Howard Shore’s score “bio-electronic” because it was written, programmed into a synthesizer, and played back on a computer in a recording studio while live strings played along. Early in the film, the score is mostly those strings, but as time passes the electronic synthesizers creep up in the mix, forming the bio-electronic synthesis.
Sex times technology equals the future. The uneasy and sinister marriage between ourselves and technology is going to change all our values.
The most fitting example of techno-human union in Videodrome is the famous scene of Max inserting his head into a breathing, moaning, begging video screen; somewhere between erotic and hilarious, media and humanity coalesce. There isn’t a person and then an avatar, a real world and then an Internet. They’re merged. As theorists like Katherine Hayles have long taught, technology, society, and the self have always been intertwined. Videodrome knows this, and it shows us with that headfirst dive into the screen—to say nothing of media being inserted directly into a vaginal opening in Max’s stomach, or the gun growing into his hand.
Thirty years after its release, Videodrome remains the most powerful fictional representation of technology-self synthesis. This merger wasn’t invented with the Internet, or even television. Humans and technology have always been co-implicated. We often forget this when talking about the Web, selling ourselves instead a naive picture of defined “virtual” spaces which somehow lack the components of “real” reality. This is why The Matrix and “cyberspace” have long outworn their welcome as a frame for understanding the Internet. It should be of no surprise that body horror is as useful for understanding social media as cyberpunk.