by Steven Best
Cut, no. 34, March, 1989, pp. 19-26
With LA BAMBA, ROBOCOP became the sleeper hit of summer 1987. Audiences thrilled to its relentless action and spectacle and roared at its outrageous, dark humor. Interestingly, as ROBOCOP played in our local theaters, another black comedy, the Iran/Contra affair, played on television in our living rooms. Within our media society, where reality and unreality freely intermingle, the ROBOCOP character of a benign corporate president unaware of his subordinates' takeover seemed to have its real life parallel in Ronald Reagan, supposedly ignorant of the North-Secord coup.
In its narrative structure and in its sets, ROBOCOP represents a complex genre mix, using a pastiche of elements drawn from the sci-fi, gangster, romance, and western genres. ROBOCOP's story line is this: A Detroit police officer named Murphy gets "killed" in action. The remnants of his body are transformed into a cyborg super-cop, programmed to restore law and order. The city is a futurist, post-industrial Detroit, a nightmare world besieged by urban conflicts. Although Robocop had his memory erased, a former partner calls him by name, "Murphy," and he seeks out information about his own past and sets out to revenge his own "death," caused by gangsters and a high-tech corporation.
In addition to mixing genres, ROBOCOP mixes high and low art. This Hollywood "trash" flick is the U.S. film debut of the distinguished Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, whose critically acclaimed work includes TURKISH DELIGHT (1973), SOLDIER OF ORANGE (1978), SPETTERS (1981), THE FOURTH MAN (1983), and FLESH AND BLOOD (1985). Verhoeven initially rejected ROBOCOP's script as "just an action script" (New York Times, 7/24/87). On subsequent reading, however, he saw in it philosophical themes — the Christian themes of death, resurrection, and redemption — and agreed to do the film. Before making the film, Verhoeven studied contemporary action classics such as THE TERMINATOR and RAMBO to learn the editing and the pace of the Hollywood blockbuster genre (Chicago Tribune, 9/2/87). Verhoeven's visual skills and predilection for filmic violence allowed him a smooth transition into the Hollywood fantasy factory.
While ROBOCOP is an action spectacle, a romance, a comedy, and a revenge fantasy, it is also a complex, subversive, and even utopian text which addresses the problem of human alienation within a techno-capitalist society. I will analyze the film in terms of what I find to be its three dominant critical themes — capitalism, media, and technology. I will then read the ways in which the film critiques our society and discuss its utopian themes. Finally, I will show how ROBOCOP fails as a critical text and still affirms the capitalism and conservatism it sets out to criticize.
CAPITAL AND THE GAME OF LIFE
Early on in the film we are introduced to the key members of OCP, OmniConsumer Products, a large corporation with ties to the military. OCP has a contract to run the Detroit police department. OCP's president is a visionary capitalist intent on commandeering the new opportunities afforded by current urban gentrification and privatization of social services. Dick Jones is a malevolent vice-president who usurps control of the company. And Bob Morton is a ruthless, self-aggrandizing yuppie hacking his way to the top.
The president proudly unveils the latest OCP plan — they will construct the futurist "Delta City." To guarantee that no disorder disturbs this corporate-managed metropolis, Vice-President Jones introduces a robot designed to replace an inefficient human police force. His robot, ED209, is programmed for "urban pacification." Jones demonstrates this cop-of-tomorrow at a corporate board meeting, where he asks a junior executive to simulate a hold-up. The robot issues the man a vigorous warning to drop the gun but when the frightened employee does so, ED209 malfunctions and brutally kills him. When the president expresses grave "disappointment" in Jones, department head Bob Morton steps forward with a new plan, involving the construction of a cyborg. As he gets the approval of the president, he incurs the wrath of the displaced Jones.
This melodrama provides the frame for the film's critique of corporate capital. The president's opening words present OCP as the rational, humanitarian, and innovative corporation of the future. However, we soon see that OCP, under Jones' control, acts as an evil monopoly, profiting from crime, not eliminating it. The contrast between Jones and the President is used as a dramatic device to critique the ideology of enterprise and development, but only, as I will show, to eventually reconstruct it.
Capital's expansion has an underlying ethic, and this is revealed in the characters of the archrivals, the VP Jones and the younger executive, Morton. Morton, too, is ultra-competitive and callous toward his fellow employees. When his colleague is killed by ED209, Morton writes it off as "life in the big city." In response to the damage he inflicts on the older Jones' career, Morton says, "He's old, we're young, and that's life." But Morton, in fact, "fucked with wrong guy," as Jones tells him in a menacing washroom encounter. When it becomes clear to Jones that Morton threatens his own position, he hires a gangster to murder Morton.
Throughout ROBOCOP, human lives are readily disposable in the quest for profit and money mediates all personal relations. In a gross visual metaphor about the corruption of human relations, the film repeatedly returns to the TV show of the future, a sex farce/game show where the lascivious host's eyes bulge out amidst the mammoth female breasts surrounding him. Over and over he says, "I'd buy that for a dollar!" Everything comes cheap in the techno-capitalist world of ROBOCOP.
The film uses this game metaphor in other ways. Morton's murderer plays a video to him made by Jones, who says wryly from the TV screen before Morton dies, "Think of it as a game, Bob. Every game has a winner and a loser. I'm cashing you in." Here ROBOCOP shows what "game theory," so dear to bourgeois academics, actually amounts to in practice: Social Darwinism is a fundamental aspect of both capitalist ideology and popular imagination. Bourgeois individualism turns life into a game where basic rights and freedoms have to be "won" rather than granted. The unfortunate losers and non-players must simply accept their status as unskilled social actors, in fact, without rights.
To buttress this attack on bourgeois ideology, the film also constructs its narrative around the theme of theft, seeing "free enterprise" as a self-legitimated system of theft. Members of the Boddicker gang, which killed Murphy, wonder why they bother with bank robberies when "there's no better way to steal money than free enterprise." In addition to its representation as legalized plunder, free enterprise is also portrayed as an anarchic, Hobbesian war of all against all. In one of the film's hilarious news scenes, a "man in the street" interviewee says, "It's a free society, except there ain't nothin' free. There's no guarantees, you know. You're on your own. It's the law of the jungle."
Through such sustained satire, ROBOCOP builds one of the strongest cases against monopoly capitalism yet delivered by Hollywood. And by having constantly inserted fictionalized TV shows into its narrative, it critiques this system's main cultural support, the media.
ROBOCOP often cuts from events in Detroit and the rest of the world to their mediated TV news representation, itself represented within the film. This "play within the play" works to show how "objective" media reports are, in fact, ideological constructions.
ROBOCOP begins with a newscast which brilliantly critiques the genre. The news' slogan is, "You give us three minutes, and we'll give you the world." The news offers a hyper-intensified compression of social and political reality to miniscule sound bytes, here only slightly more absurd than today's thirty minute newscasts (which have only 10-12 minutes of actual news). Journalistic objectivity is itself problematic with its time constraints, dramatic codes, and ideological frames that filter the "reality" represented. ROBOCOP also shows how the news makes all events seem "equal" in the cycle of image exchange. After reporting a key political event, the newscasters simply smile and move on to the next issue as though everything had the same insipid value. This satire works because it only slightly exaggerates what real newscasts now do — just enough to expose the artificiality of TV news codes without appearing too unbelievable. It provokes audience reflection on an important contemporary issue: how the news reduces information to entertainment.
The events represented in these media scenes are scripted to match the film's overall cynical attitude and buttress its critique of technology, particularly of SDI and nuclear weapons, which are featured in every news scene. The first news scene brings us reports from South Africa, where the ruling white government may use nuclear weapons against the black insurrection. Then we see a story about the first Presidential press conference from a Star War's "peace platform," which was interrupted by a power failure. Then there's a commercial break, brought to us by "The Family Heart Center," where a capitalist medical institution of the future offers "a complete line of hearts," which have brand names including "Yamaha."
The second media tableau occurs midway through the film. At this point, Robocop has had success on the crime-infested streets of Detroit. He is now a media hero. The news shows him with a group of children at "Lee Iacoca Elementary School," a satiric comment on the media's hero worship of a mediocre capitalist manager backed by U.S. government capital. When asked for advice, Robocop warns the children, "Stay out of trouble," i.e., obey social laws and norms. In another segment, Morton appears on TV and predicts the end of crime within forty days, thanks to their new "security concepts" system based on Robocop. Finally we see that elsewhere in the world, the U.S. and Mexican governments cooperate to smash a revolution in Acapulco. The commercial accompanying this news program advertises a new game, NUKE'M, where family members can act out destruction fantasies together and nuke their opponents if their imagined political differences prove unresolvable.
The third and last news tableau comes after Robocop has broken free from Metro West police station to pursue his killers. The news reports that the Detroit police have gone on strike and that an SDI laser satellite has accidentally fired upon multiple points on earth, creating a raging forest fire and killing two ex-presidents in Santa Barbara (one of which, no doubt, would have been Reagan). As I discuss below, this particular newscast gives a specific focus to the film's critique of technology.
Television figures in ROBOCOP in other ways. Television sets displaying the sexcom appear as a recurring visual motif. The thugs, besides being bloodthirsty killers, are also inveterate couch potatoes. One thug is so attuned to the hyper-reality of the tube that when he stands before an electronics store while Detroit is being looted, he, too, smashes a window. But he only wants to turn up the sound of the sexcom, with its slogan, "I'd buy that for a dollar!"
The postmodern privileging of TV reality over "real" reality (to contrast them is only to make an analytic distinction) is again evident early in the film. The real cop Murphy, cajoled by his son, learns a twirling gun trick from the TV cop T.J. Laser (himself a robot). For Murphy's son, pop is not a "real" cop unless he simulates the unreal actions of TV heroes, an accommodation Murphy doesn't mind at all. Indeed, Murphy and his partner, the tough female cop Lewis, seem to be acting out fantasies of invulnerable TV cops when they chase criminals into an abandoned steel mill without any backup, much as U.S. soldiers went into Vietnam with images of John Wayne storming the hill in their minds. Once inside the building, he and his tough female partner, Lewis, both strike stereotypical cop poses, and almost gleefully, Murphy walks into his death trap.
Where do these poses come from? Are they what "real" cops do? Are they media exaggerations? Or do real cops pick up these poses from media representations of their roles? It becomes a hyper-real role with no identifiable origin. Murphy's alacrity to adopt a TV simulation of cops as a model suggests that his transformation into Robocop is not as sharp a division from his former self as one might initially think. In a sense, Murphy was already "Robocop," a simulacrum following the programming of law and order. But, as Jean Baudrillard notes, "Law and order themselves might be nothing more than a simulation," alibis for the fact that everything in late capitalism is chaotic and corrupt (ibid., p. 38).
TECHNOLOGY AND REIFICATION
ROBOCOP's sharpest criticism is directed not against media or capitalism per se, but against technology. In the film's paranoid world, technology reigns supreme and out of control. The movie shows humans trying to master nature but ultimately failing. We often see technological failures: for example, ED209 made a wrong response to a simulated holdup; later it could not climb down stairs to pursue Robocop.
Robocop, too, cannot be controlled. He cleverly finds ways to override his programming, which forbids him to arrest any OCP executive by killing both the vice-lord Bottinger and OCP's Jones. Despite his programming, some of his memory returns. He develops a will of his own as he escapes from the police station. At the film's end, he regains his personal identity as "Murphy." Despite all corporate attempts to produce a flawless machine, a perfect technological simulation of a cop, the human component returns — with a vengeance. Robocop is a postmodern Frankenstein who rebels against his technocratic creators.
There is a powerfully ironic moment toward the end of the film. As Robocop and Lewis lay wounded, having successfully battled the Boddicker gang, Robocop says: "They'll fix you. They fix everything." But it is clear at this point that "they" — the technocrats — cannot fix everything, and Robocop sarcastically is referring to how brutally they had "fixed" him.
At this level, ROBOCOP attempts to present its main message. Failed robot technology is a metaphor for and warning against the policies and attitudes behind the U.S. government's SDI. This program assumes that a failsafe nuclear "protection" device can be created to scientifically manage world conflicts. It is no accident then that the "news" inside the film shows SDI actually misfiring.
Most generally, ROBOCOP tries to voice a warning against "technicism," an ideology which sees technology as the solution to all problems and seeks unqualified technical mastery of the world. The postmodern world has seen the victory of what Canadian theorist George Grant, following Nietzsche, has termed the "will to will," willing purely for its own sake; that is, for the sake of technology. This "will to will" would nihilistically absorb human morals and values within the unlimited, autonomous movement of technology. It's philosophically the completion of Enlightenment logic. Whereas technology has always constituted an important aspect of human existence in postmodern culture, it seems to delimit our existence and inform our most basic attitudes and experience. It marginalizes all other languages, recasting all values in a means/ends schema of maximum efficiency. It sees all problems — be they the "disorders" of the personal or social body — resolvable through technology.
Ultimately, technology's goal is to replace natural life with machines and create an artificial, processed environment. Although prone to exaggeration, Jean Baudrillard has provocatively described the increasing technological-semiotic mediation of our experience. We gradually have become immersed in an hermetic universe of signs, consumption, technique, cybernetic codes and models. Baudrillard's narrative about "simulation" not only helps us to understand the eclipse of the human life-world, but his distinction between the automaton and the robot and provides a conceptual space in which to locate the historical specificity of ROBOCOP.
According to Baudrillard, the automaton belongs to the first "classical period" of simulation, the "counterfeit era," which begins in the Renaissance and ends in the "industrial era." Previously in the symbolic era of feudal society, signs were non-arbitrary and referred to persons with distinct social obligations. With the bourgeois revolution, signs became "democratic" and arbitrary, referring only to their own "disenchanted signifieds," now simulating an obligation and referent to the real world (Simulations, p.85).
The arbitrary sign is the beginning of semiological hegemony, the triumph of signs over reality. Within this world, the automaton is still seen as being in the realm of analogy and resemblance, still bound up with the metaphysics of being and appearance. The social and psychological distinction between human and machine is still maintained, as is the distinction between truth and falsehood, being and appearance.
The robot belongs to the next stage of simulation, the industrial era with its infinite multiplication of identical objects within a series. The robot liquidates the "otherworldly" metaphysics of being and appearance and brings everything into the strictly technical logic of production, ruled by exchange value. Unlike the automaton, the robot is not the analogy of "man," but his equivalent. Both are serialized simulacra.
ROBOCOP goes one step further and offers us the cyborg, which must belong to the third stage of simulation, the era of "hyperreality." Here, images, signs, and codes dominate and engulf objective reality. Robocop is the product of cybernetics, media, and simulation. In the Baudrillard scheme, Robocop would be neither the analogy of "man" nor his equivalent, but a computer-generated simulation that surpasses man. This "part man, part robot" is a prosthetic being in a prosthetic age, where signs are "realer-than-real" and stand in for the world they erase. The film emphasizes the scientific/medical replacement of human parts. This not only graphically represents our technological present, and future reality, but it becomes a metaphor for the replacement of nature, reality and society. We seem to be living in and headed for a technologically processed, automated, consumer world which continually proliferates signs and simulacra. "Everything is obliterated only to begin again," resurrected within technique (Simulations, p. 22). The sudden rebirth of Murphy as Robocop speaks to the mutation of our age, seeing in it the age of mutation.
Robocop is the perfect metaphor of our postmodern condition and postmodern bodies. He represents, first, what Frederic Jameson has termed the "waning of affect." Jameson is not referring to a death of emotions, but to the reduction of the expressivist energies of modernism (such as angst) to a flat, monotonous, solipsistic and lifeless plane, a robotization of the life-world. In one sense, Jameson is describing how cultural productions mechanize emotions. Thus Robocop's blank stares from the video screen parallel our dull gaze into it. But, in another sense, Jameson is also describing the explosion of emotions into a diffuse, socially schizoid world. This is the sensation Robocop comes to know when jolted by memories of his former self; he experiences his former life-world reduced to staccato bursts of conflicting "intensities."
Robocop represents both the waning of affect and the technification of the human body. He is the fantasy expression of our new "technobodies" (Arthur Kroker), "half-metal, half-flesh" (George Grant), a completely "new man" who is daily "x-rayed by television" (Marshall McLuhan), a video being whose very body is transformed into some sort of "operational screen" (Jean Baudrillard).
Drawing from Marshall McLuhan, Arthur Kroker describes the current technological dialectic. First, we find the full and final exteriorization of our senses in technology-the "technological extensions" (McLuhan) of human experience. If the wheel was an extension of the human foot, then informational technologies are an extension of our central nervous system (as Samuel Morse was the first to point out) and the computer is an extension of our brain. Modern electronic technologies bring about a final exteriorization of the senses and "complete the cycle of mechanization of the human sensorium."
According to McLuhan the (technological) environment is not a passive container but a dynamic shaping process which "works us over completely," altering not only our social relations but our very "ratio of senses." The technological sensorium, which has been produced as a simulation of the human body, returns to encompass the body. In particular, we no longer experience a substantial distance between the body and its technological extensions, so that we feel one with Sony Walkmans and IBM computer screens, as well as with the semiotic excess of by consumer capital.
In this merger, the human being becomes increasingly subjected to a technical apparatus that substitutes a language of codes and processed information for "natural experience." Mostly, as an experience, it has gone unnoticed. Earlier, this process motivated McLuhan's theorizing as he attempted to shock us into a heightened awareness of technology's and media's transformative power. Now, we're approaching a closed system, and the system itself adapts us to its workings. "[T]he new media…are nature." As a technified, schizoid subject, Robocop symbolizes the disintegration of the bourgeois humanist ego.
But ROBOCOP can be read at still a more literal level. Technobodies are becoming a real possibility as genetic engineering moves closer to the simulation/ reproduction of life. As we move into the twenty-first century, science not only has been able to substitute technology for biology (artificial hearts, etc.) but seems capable of simulating life itself through technological creation (genetic splicing). This is a giant step beyond McLuhan's concept of technological extensions of the body. Is the brave new world of full technological simulation only a matter of time? What is certain is that the scientization of capital and the capitalization of science brush ethical questions aside. Especially in the military and medical fields, a new "ethics" has emerged based on technological imperatives.
ROBOCOP seems intensely aware of our new "postmodern condition." It articulates the fear of a completely alienated, rationalized, mechanical world where human beings and their body parts are technologically processed, where simulation approaches perfection, where emotions are lacking, where the ego is in ruins, and where personal identity is absent. The fear conveyed by ROBOCOP is two-fold: that human beings will be replaced by machines (automation) and that human beings are becoming machines (alienation). We may be becoming spiritually and emotionally lifeless rationalists as well as technologically processed and simulated beings. Both developments augur the end of the life-world, about which ROBOCOP sounds an important warning.
Importantly, ROBOCOP not only dramatizes the results of untrammeled technological development, it resists the fatalism of critics like Baudrillard, who concludes that the Subject has lost its battle with the Object and so should surrender. While ROBOCOP depicts a post-catastrophic, technified world, it also suggests that technology cannot achieve its goal. The corporation does not gain a perfectly enclosed, self-referential police system, robot strategies do not necessarily succeed, and the human subject is not so easily erased. Robocop struggles to understand what has happened to him and who he is. He identifies with his former human self entrapped within the steel body. He rebels against his corporate creators; and he forges his own will against any technological determination. These constitute the utopian moments of this film. ROBOCOP dramatizes the resilience of a subject, albeit a cyborg, amidst the most incredibly reified and subjugating conditions. The film allegorizes the robot's attempts to find meaning and, value within a corrupt world. The film preserves a moment of struggle and refusal.
Thus, the dystopian projection of a hyper-alienated future coincides with an utopian hope for spiritual salvation and redemption. In an interview published in The New York Times (7/24/87), director Paul Verhoeven stated that ROBOCOP "is about losing your soul, even part of your body, and then being resurrected into a new body, which is a very Christian thing, isn't it?" Verhoeven is expressing the utopian aspect of Christianity, which drew him to the film. Where subjectivities are increasingly in peril, within conditions of technological control and consumerist pathology, the search for human identity and human meaning becomes a necessary precondition for an emancipatory politics. Thus, as George Grant saw, any movement that seeks to transcend the present technological horizon must begin by re-forming human identity. ROBOCOP poses this problem, but it in no way provides an adequate solution.
THE POLITICS OF NARRATIVE
ROBOCOP offers a powerful critique of high-tech corporate U.S.A. and its scientistic ideology; a vivid portrayal of corporate corruption, bureaucracy, and its profit imperative; a dramatic narrative about how social values become subsumed under the abstract powers of science; and an affirmation of subjectivity over technocratic and bureaucratic alienation. Nevertheless, the film is still problematic and reactionary on other counts.
Ultimately, ROBOCOP cannot project anything beyond fear of and paranoia toward the impending brave new world. A key weakness of the film is its one-dimensional, technophobic attitude toward automation. ROBOCOP gives us a powerful critique of technicism, but it cannot see how people could have a positive relation to technology. It creates a metaphysics of technology, in which technology is the evil which erases our human essence, substituting its artificial machinery for our natural being. The film remains locked with the bourgeois drama of "man" vs. machine, without undoing this opposition. It could have suggested the possibility of a humanized and socialized technology. Thus, if ROBOCOP understands the alienation of technology, it doesn't see how compulsory labor is also alienating and how automation must figure into any future emancipation.
The film is most reactionary in its treatment of crime. It shows crime as the anarchic danger of the future. At a fundamental level, ROBOCOP's narrative, controlled by its capitulation to traditional genre form, is articulated around the binaries good vs. evil and order vs. disorder. It tries to convey a picture of a moribund urban metropolis ravaged by crime and anarchy. Because of its genre form, it lacks any historical context, which would let us analyze the crisis-ridden nature of late capitalism as the ultimate cause of social disorder.
At one point in the film, Sargeant Reed responds to a strike proposal by saying: "Without cops, the city would tear itself apart." ROBOCOP projects the need for a Leviathan bureaucracy to subdue and civilize the masses. It satirizes everything but the pathological need for security and order. At this level it seems to provide reactionary affirmation of the demand for Social Order. In that way, the film's depiction of crime neatly coalesces with rightwing fantasies of social subversion and the Reagan/Meese program, in which the fight against crime and drugs becomes a front for increased surveillance and the rollback of constitutional rights. Without exception, every bad guy in the film becomes vanquished by the forces of good, paradigmatically represented by the uncorruptable Robocop (though it may be an ironic comment or even an unwitting argument for automation that it takes a machine civil servant to attain true moral status).
ROBOCOP takes us through an orgy of pity and fear. It teaches the lesson that good always wins. It tells us that social order is possible only through the imposition and acceptance of external authority and that, most importantly, a moribund capitalism is more desirable than any alternative world which might emerge from its destruction.
This key shortcoming of the film is consistent with its liberalism, its inability to locate the real sources of alienation and reification. At no moment does ROBOCOP suggest that the numerous serious social issues it raises — from nuclear disaster to monopoly control — are inherent in or fundamentally related to the corporate system it critiques. The president is portrayed as an unknowing and unwitting dupe of the VP Jones' usurpation of OCB. In relation to the evil Jones, the president stands as the rational and beneficent capitalist who wants to bring us a better tomorrow. His position and function are never questioned.
In this way, the film's end legitimates and exonerates the corporate system by reducing the structural problems of late capitalism to issues of individual psychology. The film could have shown the entire corporate leadership as engaged in corruption and public deception (surely not stretching the truth). Or it could have made an explicit connection between SDI corporate research, and the profit imperative. Instead, it only condemns greed and ambition at the level of personal values. Jones' evil allows for the narrative recuperation of the capitalist system. As it stands, ROBOCOP does not offer a structural critique of capitalism, but a bourgeois morality play which affirms rational capitalism, moral virtues, and (in its sentimentalized portrayal of Murphy's home life), the traditional family.
But, of course, to demand a structural social critique is asking far too much of mainstream film. Ultimately, the inherent limits of the Hollywood industry and its traditional narrative form prevent more radical critiques. In ROBOCOP we see the usual contradiction between progressive textual encodings and traditional narrative form. Beneath Robocop's steel flesh, inside his computerized brain, there lies the old bourgeois ego, rising phoenix-like from its ruination in the postmodern technoscape, unified and complete in the totality of its memory. Robocop's resurrection as Murphy — that final moment when he smiles and reclaims his former human name/self — is an outrageous capitulation to genre form. It climactically completes the metaphysics of closure, resolution, and redemption that structures the film. This moment is not satirized. It suggests Murphy's complete recovery of the lost content of his human identity, the erasure of his angst despite his destroyed physicality and life-world, the resolution of any damning schizophrenia. The themes of human identity and technological reification are expressed within a logic beyond social critique, that is, within a narrative of redemption. The final scene might have contained pathos and poignancy, as we wondered where this metaphysically homeless being could go next, perhaps seeking out a life amidst the ruins of industrial modernity. Instead, we know that everything will be all right and we can imagine that Robocop — like all hero-redeemers — although walking alone, walks happily, perhaps still rounding up the bad guys. For he has become the morally aware gunslinger he has always wanted to be.
ROBOCOP attacks the audience's complacent beliefs in capitalism, media, and technology, but it also simultaneously draws them into the powerful spectacle of its redemption/ revenge narrative and its unremitting graphic violence. It encourages both a critical reflection on its political themes and an uncritical consumption of its visual drama. The audience experiences both reflexive distantiation and affective participation in the spectacle. The dual objectives to satirize and entertain, critique and make money, provoke thought and contain it, make this film highly uneven and ambiguous.
The film has, on the thematic level, conflicting strains of conservative and progressive ideology. On another level, all thematic encodings vie for attention with the film's excessive spectacle, both in ROBOCOP's narrative drama and in its visual intensity. While there can be no question that the visual and narrative spectacle of ROBOCOP might predominate over its critical encodings (and so decodings), it would be wrong to conclude (e.g., as do many postmodern critics) that all thematic content is occluded. This presupposes too mechanical a view of how people view films, and it obscures the socializing aspects of mass media texts. Every viewer will no doubt decode ROBOCOP in a different way. Some will find support for their conservative belief in the need for order or hero redeemers. Others will be mesmerized by the sheer spectacle of the film and come away only with a remembrance of its surface pleasures. For still others, the film will sharpen — or awaken — their skepticism toward media, capitalism, and technology.
I would like to thank Miles Mendenhall, David Cahill, Doug Kellner, and Joe Grohems for their helpful comments on early drafts of this article.
1. Arthur Kroker, Technology and the Canadian Mind (Montreal: New World Perspectives, 1984), p. 30. In the section on technology which follows below I am much indebted to Kroker.
2. "Go and organize a fake hold-up…But you won't succeed: the web of artificial signs will be inextricably mixed up with the real elements." Jean Baudrillard, Simulations (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983), p. 39.
3. This is Arthur Kroker's term. For Kroker, technicisme is "an urgent belief in the historical inevitability of the fully realized technological society," the symbiotic linkage of technology and freedom (p. 247, The Postmodern Scene).
4. Fredric Jameson, "Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late-Capitalism, New Left Review, No. 146.
5. See Technology and The Canadian Mind and Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory, 11: 1-2 (1984).
6. McLuhan quoted in Kroker, Technology and the Canadian Mind, p. 75.
7. "Environments are not passive wrappings, but active processes which work us over completely, massaging the ratio of the senses and imposing their silent assumptions. But, environments are invisible. Their ground-rules, pervasive structure, and overall pattern elude easy perception." Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage, (New York: Bantam, 1967), p. 68.
8. McLuhan quoted in Kroker, Technology and the Canadian Mind, p. 56.
9. See Kroker, Technology and the Canadian Mind, pp. 20-51.
10. For a critique of this position, see Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, "(Re)Watching Television: Notes Toward a Political Criticism," in Diacritics, Summer, 1987.