In Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, a techno-thriller set in the permanent twilight of Los Angeles in 2019, an owl perches in the main offices of the Tyrell Corporation, creators of the cyborgs that have set the story in motion. In a nice visual allusion, this owl takes flight through the penthouse suite, passing in front of a wall of plate glass windows, behind which a brilliant orange sun is setting. Since its first release in 1982, Blade Runner has been taken by critics as a vision of a particular historical epoch, the period many people today are calling postmodernism. Its portrait of ecological disaster and urban overcrowding, of a visual and aural landscape saturated with advertising, of a polyglot population immersed in a Babel of competing cultures, of decadence and homelessness, of technological achievement and social decay, has appeared to many people as prescient. By bringing Mary Shelley's story of the creation of an artificial human into the era of genetic engineering and new reproductive technologies, the film succeeded in crystallizing some of the fears, uncertainties, and desires that surround the coming of the postmodern. Curiously, this updated story is a better replication of the original than any of the adaptations that gesture toward the period of the novel, including Kenneth Branagh's recent version, which pledges fidelity in its very title, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994).
Blade Runner conveys the advent of a new age by the paradoxical means of marking its end. The flight of the owl is one of many apocalyptic touches that define for the viewer the limits of a period, the far end of an epoch just now getting underway. Hegel's words from my epigraph refer to the wisdom that comes only with hindsight, the retrospective understanding available at the end of an epoch. But the film's use of the owl is not exhausted by this insight. There is something more in the image, something that unsettles this venerable sign of closure. One can identify the extra feature in a number of ways--as irony, parody, self-reflexivity, the simulacrum--and each of these labels invokes a familiar conception of postmodern art. Like other contemporary texts, the film relies upon a gesture that it simultaneously dismantles.
Before indicating how the film pulls off this trick, I want to say that my purpose is not to catalogue the deconstructive strategies of postmodernism. That task, useful as it once was, has been performed often enough. My purpose, rather, is to look at the relation of postmodern theory to the history that makes it possible. I shall argue that postmodern theory is enabled by the exclusion of one set of historical connections and reliance on another, very different set of historical links. The circuits that make this theoretical creature go, so to speak, are not the only circuits etched in the recent past.
The owl has spread its wings, though. What has the power to deconstruct so evocative an image? A monster, of course. But at first the viewer is unaware that a monster has entered the scene. As the bird settles serenely back onto another perch, a handsomely dressed woman strides into the room, introducing herself with a question: "Do you like our owl?" Dekard, a police officer played by Harrison Ford, has come to Tyrell to examine one of its new generation of cyborgs. "It's artificial?" he replies. Still advancing, the woman answers, "Of course it is." The camera lingers on her face, forging a link between owl and woman. The implication that both are equally artificial flickers to consciousness before being submerged in a more powerfully sexual suggestion--that both are property, objects to be bought and sold. "Must be expensive," Dekard comments, the innuendo audible in his voice. The camera remains focused on the woman's face. "Very," she replies, then adds, as if to underline the association, "I'm Rachel."
The image of the owl is destablized in at least three ways-- as artificial creature, as commodity, and as woman--which in the film's terms turn out to be the same way, as monster. These three complications are significant because they represent places where postmodern discourse reveals its affiliations, establishes its links to a particular version of the past by writing the history of its break with that past. Artificial life, commodification, and gender are some of the principal contact points, where lines of force intersect and where energy is relayed from one system to another. They are places, in other words, where the transfer from modernity to postmodernity is accomplished. Book after book explores one or more of these contact points to demonstrate postmodernism's break with a stable conception of identity, say, or with the universality of reason. Such highly charged nodes, however, can have multiple effects. They can also be places where wires cross, short circuiting the system, interrupting the standard flow of current.
last modified 1/9/99