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Date Published: 5/7/2008
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Unraveling Identity

Watching the Posthuman Bildungsroman

Davin Heckman

In Toledo, Ohio, I sat down to enjoy the latest Philip K. Dick film adaptation, A Scanner Darkly. The film stars include Keanu Reeves (as Agent Fred/Bob Arctor/Bruce), Woody Harrelson (as Ernie Luckman), Winona Ryder (as Donna Hawthorn), and Robert Downey, Jr. (as Jim Barris). Directed by Richard Linklater, it is animated using the same rotoscope-esque animation technique employed in his earlier and similarly dreamy film, Waking Life (2001). Rather than claim I was stricken with a sudden insight about posthuman cinema by the film, I feel I had been prepared for this event: first, by my current writing on consumerism, lifestyles, and household technologies, and second, by my appreciation for Dick. If I remember correctly, I was halfway through the novel when I learned that the film was being released, and therefore had to finish the book quickly if I planned on seeing the movie after having read the book. A bit like Bob Arctor, the story's protagonist, or maybe like Dick, I was working on this article before I had realized it -- before I had even read the book. And, rather appropriately, I cannot even remember if this sequence of events is entirely accurate.

The purpose of introducing my subject thusly is not to be deliberately confusing, or even to be completely honest. Rather, the purpose is to talk about a sensibility: a way of experiencing reality and its absence. I have been puzzling lately over a genre of film which is hard to situate: films which deal with forgetting and remembering, in which we ride shotgun with protagonists who are just as interested in character development as we are. While the genre itself has not been fully mapped out, potential candidates for inclusion include Abre Los Ojos (1997), Vanilla Sky (2001), Memento (2000), Minority Report (2002), The Bourne Identity (2002), Paycheck (2003), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), and, most recently, A Scanner Darkly (2006). I call this genre the "Posthuman Bildungsroman."

The Bildungsroman label is commonly applied to "coming of age" tales or novels of education. For reasons discussed below, this common usage is not entirely accurate, but taken in the larger context of Western Literature such usage makes sense. The traditional questions associated with Western Literature can be summarized in this way: What is a story? An account of change. What is a good story? An account of change that all people can relate to. The assumption is that in order to be sufficiently engaging, change must center on "the human." And in practice, "the human" has overwhelmingly been depicted as an individual. [1] Outside of non-modern folk tales, children's stories, religious texts, and legends, there is little room in this essentialist construct for distributed cognition, nonhuman characters, and environmental agents. Philosophy, literature, and the self grow together/merge under the common characterization of the Bildungsroman. The result is a tradition of "good stories" about the formation of an identity that is rooted in interior personal growth.

In the Posthuman Bildungsroman, the individual is present not as the expression of a coherent self, but as the central problem of the story. Rather than triumph over external obstacles through force of will, the will itself is formed through the effects of outside forces. The story remains a tale of growth and education, but the end of this process is an attempt to stabilize the subject and construct a coherent representation of the self that is consistent with the expectations of its cultural milieu (or, perhaps, the genre).

Before I go any further in explaining this phrase, I must first define the term Bildungsroman more accurately. To understand this term, we can take two approaches: the historical route or the theoretical route. A historical view of the genre situates it in a particular time and place: "first, that the Bildungsroman is a peculiarly German form, and second, that it was the dominant form of the German novel in the nineteenth century." [2] The theoretical approach is more concerned with understanding those works which are preoccupied with the idea of Bildung: "The idea of cultivation (Bildung) through a harmony of aesthetic, moral, rational and scientific education had long been a common property of Enlightenment thought." [3] It is this second, broader sense, which has lapsed into the general usage of the term to describe stories about "growing up."

However, the consensus among scholars of the Bildungsroman is a view that takes both realities into account by recognizing that Bildung, as a concept, must be understood culturally. According to James N. Hardin, we must first understand

Bildung as a developmental process and, second, as a collective name for the cultural and spiritual processes of a specific people or social stratum in a given historical epoch and by extension the achievement of learning about that same body of knowledge and acceptance of the value system it implies. [4]

Jeffrey L. Sammons adds:

the concept of Bildung is intensely bourgeois; it carries with it many assumptions about the autonomy and relative integrity of the self, its potential self-creative energies, its relative range of options within material, social, even psychological determinants. [5]

The Bildung is described as "the early bourgeois, humanistic concept of the shaping of the individual self from its innate potentialities through acculturation and social experience to the threshold of maturity." [6] In other words, it is not just that the Bildungsroman is a German novel from the 1800s or a novel about growing up. Rather, it is a novel in which the protagonist, consistent with middle-class ideas about individuality, comes to be a "person" in the sense of the word as it was understood by the nineteenth century German bourgeoisie.

In response to this genre come the triumvirate of speculative genres: the gothic, the detective, and science fiction. The gothic aims to represent a rotten heritage beneath the polite and hopeful exterior of the bourgeois world. This heritage can take the form of perverted bloodlines, clerical corruption, and/or supernatural remnants from the old world. The detective story aims to represent, within the pride of bourgeois progress, the corrupt heart of the city. This corruption is both hidden and pervasive, but it exists everywhere that modernity exists. Finally, the science fiction story breaks with the promise of the bourgeois world altogether to point to a multitude of possible worlds: utopian and dystopian. Some are unlike ours, and all the better for it. Some are quite like ours, and utterly miserable because of it. The three genres point to the three possible temporal sources of corruption: the past, the present, and the future. Their chief mechanisms are the supernatural, the everyday, and the technological, respectively. All three of these responses represent a dissatisfaction with the model held up in the coming of age novel, as if to proclaim that the past, present, and future of modern society are doomed.

The purpose of this essay is not to add a banal definition to an already embattled literary term. Rather, the purpose is to use the term Bildungsroman as a heuristic device. This leads to a couple of fundamental questions. First, what does the protagonist of the Posthuman Bildungsroman learn? And, second, what does this process of discovery and its conclusion tell us about the current state of Western culture? Certainly it remains informed by bourgeois notions of the individual. The key similarity, I will argue, is that this new genre, which constructs identity from the trappings of consumer culture, is concerned with the same matter as the Bildungsroman: it tells a story of becoming a fully-formed person in relation to society as a whole. However, it differs significantly in the means and ends of this personhood. In an age when capitalism's "creative destruction" has trickled down, even to the deepest recesses of the individual (in body, mind, and spirit), the moral lessons of the Bildungsroman are indistinguishable from the moral critiques of the speculative genres. Good and evil are no longer a meaningful backdrop for the human story. For posthuman subjects, these are stories about learning what it means to be human.

The Genre and Its Origins

If we wish to take a historical view, the Posthuman Bildungsroman can be seen to break off from earlier innovations leading up to and including reality television. [7] While reflexive narrative techniques have a long history in the literary tradition, the 1960 Twilight Zone episode "A World of Difference" represents an early gesture towards the coming "realization" of representation that would appear with the first reality television show. "A World of Difference" tells the story of a businessman whose daily life comes crashing down around him when a director shouts "Cut!". Over a decade later, An American Family debuted on PBS. This twelve-hour documentary follows a real family as it falls apart. [8] In 1979, Albert Brooks' comic film Real Life revisits the concept of An American Family in a fictionalized form. Throughout the 1980s, the taste for "realism" in television spawned a wide range of "real" and dramatized courtroom shows, talk shows, and the still-running television series Cops (which has aired nearly seven hundred episodes). In 1992, MTV introduced viewers to the Real World (now in its eighteenth season), a show which is widely acknowledged as the inspiration for the current popularity of the reality television genre. With the development of websites such as/including YouTube and MySpace, the distinctions between everyday life and entertainment continue to blur.

In an insightful essay on the contradictions inherent in "reality" television, David Banash writes:

Set within the confines of a small house, Big Brother pitted ten houseguests against one another under total surveillance that included twenty-four hour web-cam feeds. While the program sold itself as a glimpse of everyday life, the house is particularly odd in that it lacks almost every kind of device its core audience takes for granted: no phones, televisions, computers, or radios. In essence, what most Americans spend most of their time doing (consuming media) is almost the only thing that Big Brother really forbids. Thus, the authentic moments of emotion which the show sells as its real attraction are, in fact, generated through the most heavy-handed and apparent simulations. The same could be said for similar programs such as Survivor, The Mole, and Temptation Island. The very heavy-handedness of the narratives, their utter dissociation from everyday life, moves them further and further away from the kind of realism with which the documentary has traditionally been associated, and yet the promise is still always the real itself. [9]

The reality genre does not focus on "reality" per se, but an admission that reality is "under construction." As Banash points out, reality shows operate under a compromised definition of reality. If there is an "authentic" thread that connects these media artifacts, it is our own anxieties about reality in the face of media. It is a worldview formed with the expectation of the spectacle.

Driven by its popularity and low production costs (no writers and no professional actors), reality television has metastasized in recent years, bringing the techniques of its format to every conceivable demographic. Many shows seem to pick up where the hit talk shows of the 1980s and '90s (like Oprah, Donahue, Jerry Springer, Montel Williams, etc.) left off. As a result, these shows tend to reflect a self-help formula in which problems are identified, exposed, confronted, and resolved within a single episode. Any titillation or scandal that occurs is contained within a safe, therapeutic context. And though frank discussions of human conflict have great utopian potential, these shows rarely challenge the root causes of interpersonal conflict or address systemic structures that exacerbate them. Instead, they tend to reassure the dominant values, producing solutions consistent with comfortable norms and the neo-liberal worldview.

For the sake of expediency, contemporary reality television shows can be broken down into eight general themes: sociocultural, makeover, survival, professional, romance, fame, reform, and practical joke shows.

Sociocultural shows like Wife Swap, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (eventually shortened to Queer Eye), Dr. Steve-O and The Simple Life draw their inspiration from areas of social and cultural conflict. In Wife Swap, two families, typically from different social, economic, and cultural backgrounds, exchange wives/mothers for a two week period. The conflict in the series circulates around the collision of cultures, habits, and expectations. The recently cancelled hit Queer Eye features gay cultural experts who are enlisted to bring style and panache to the bland world of the heterosexual male. Dr. Steve-O, on the other hand, bills itself as an "antitdote" to Queer Eye and promises to "de-wussify" American men. [10] The Simple Life focuses on class distinction in the United States. These shows often aim to bridge different worlds and open up entertaining discussions about demographics and particular "types" of people.

Makeover shows such as Extreme Makeover and Pimp my Ride focus on self governance. In Extreme Makeover, men and women subject themselves to radical physical change through diet, makeup, hair styling, fashion, and surgery. The subjects of The Biggest Loser struggle against obesity aided by a "coach." Shows like Trading Spaces and Pimp My Ride focus, respectively, on home improvement and automobile customization. Rather than examining large external conflicts, these shows turn the subjects over to guided self-improvement regimens.

Survival shows like Survivor and Fear Factor advance contestants based on their ability to compete in adverse circumstances. Survivor, the classic example of an elimination-based survival show, combines social and physical endurance with competition and cooperation by allowing contestants to be "voted off the island" by their teammates. Fear Factor focuses on stunts that capitalize on popular phobias like fear of heights, spiders, drowning, etc. As with makeover shows, these shows emphasize overcoming personal limitations through determination.

Professional shows, from American Chopper to The Apprentice, highlight individual success in a trade or a profession. In American Chopper, the celebrity motorcycle mechanics of Orange County Choppers create outlandish custom bikes. In contrast, The Apprentice pits aspiring executives against each other in an ongoing survival competition.

Romance shows including Flavor of Love and The Bachelor focus on heterosexual relationships starring conventionally attractive, young women. In The Bachelor, twenty-five women compete for the hand of one bachelor (for the sake of gender parity, the show was followed by The Bachelorette). The Flavor of Love (and the spin-off Rock of Love) features former celebrities (Flavor Flav and Brett Michaels, respectively) who select a mate from a field of female contestants. These shows put a competitive spin on romance, reinforcing the idea that relationships are held together through submission to the desires and expectations of another.

Fame-based shows circulate around the cultivation of a celebrity (American Idol) or on life as a celebrity (Surreal Life). Like professional shows, America's Next Top Model, American Idol, and Making the Band glorify exceptional individuals, but they contain the added dimension of celebrity. Meanwhile, shows like Gene Simmons Family Jewels shine a light into the daily lives of famous people.

On the other end of the spectrum, reform shows like Judge Judy and Supernanny are primarily concerned with punishment and shame. Judge Judy is a courtroom show which stars a feisty, outspoken "judge" who cuts through grievances by telling it like it is to the guilty and innocent alike. Supernanny serves up discipline both for unruly children and inept parents. These shows, along with the long-lived Cops, create a spectacle around deviance and highlight the desire for aggressive solutions to social problems.

Finally, practical joke shows like Girls Behaving Badly, Bam's Unholy Union, and Punk'd create absurd situations that disrupt the expected norms of daily reality. Punk'd exposes celebrities to ridicule and shows them in unflattering situations. Bam's Unholy Union (a spinoff of Jackass and Viva la Bam, with a nod to the Newlyweds) exposes the social order and plays with the rules of polite society by focusing on the absurd domestic life of the anarchic Bam Margera. The stars of Girls Behaving Badly pull pranks on unsuspecting subjects, usually in a consumer-oriented public space, often exposing gender norms to ridicule. While the other types of reality shows borrow freely from the practical joke shows for comic relief, these shows are the most difficult category because of their challenge to the status quo.

It is important to note that there are also many shows that do not rest easily in any of the categories outlined above. Shows such as MythBusters (a science show about testing urban legends) and Sweet 16 (a showcase of debutante excess) are among them. In fact, none of the shows operate exclusively in any single category. For example, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Flavor of Love could be viewed as makeovers, while shows like Girls Behaving Badly and Survivor both drift into the sociocultural categories. The Simple Life is also a fame-based show and, at times, a dating show. And The Apprentice and Extreme Makeover certainly comment on discipline and punishment.

That which unites these shows has little to do with their content and more to do with their production and the subjects they produce. Underneath the popular discourses on demographics, self-improvement, personal achievement, professional life, dating, celebrity worship, discipline, and other consumer practices, is a more basic underlying principle. In order to take hours of raw, meandering footage and cultivate them into a coherent human drama, the production values take center stage. In effect, we witness characters that are developed by the editor. Narrative arcs are pieced together and aided by voiceovers, soundtrack choices, and visual effects to create drama, inspire emotions, and provide closure. The individuals who provide the "reality" at the center of the enterprise are, in fact, people living in front of rolling cameras, but their subjectivities are entirely constructed by context, editing, and consumption. Characters emerge from the stream of real time, written after the fact by an elaborate sociocultural apparatus.

Thus reality television plays a crucial role for contemporary audiences. In the same way that the traditional Bildungsroman served to educate citizens in the emerging norms and values of the middle class, the reality genre provides instruction in postmodern ontologies. Through popular media, we engage in the process of "governmentality." In "Technologies of the Self," Michel Foucault defines this concept as "[the] contact between the technologies of domination of others and those of the self." [11] Nikolas Rose's Governing the Soul provides a more detailed discussion:

The citizen is to enact his or her democratic obligations as a form of consumption through new techniques such as focus groups and attitude research. This kind of 'government through freedom' multiplies the points at which the citizen has to play his or her part in the games that govern him. [12]

In other words, governmentality is the means by which subjects discipline themselves in order to conform more fully to systems of power. Reality television, rather than offering a naturalistic representation of the world as it meets our senses, educates viewers in an "idealized" version of identity construction vis-à-vis consumer culture. The genre aims to represent reality not as it is, but as it will be, provided we follow the roadmap of becoming that is held up in its text.

By the late 1990s, films like Peter Weir's The Truman Show (1998) and Ron Howard's EdTV (1999) emerged to criticize the place of reality television in contemporary culture. In The Truman Show, Truman Burbank (Jim Carey) lives his entire life on an enormous soundstage called Sea Haven. Televised twenty-four hours a day, Truman's life is the ultimate reality show, that is, until his blissful existence is shattered by the realization that his life is an elaborate media contrivance. The film plays on both the fascination with reality television and the unreality of the gated community, suggesting that the two species are coexistent. In EdTV, Ed Pekurny (Matthew McConoughey) rises to superstardom as the subject of his own reality show. Both films give voice to a wider popular skepticism about the merits of the reality genre.

More interesting are the films which invert the reality television conceit (by playing on the supposed unscripted character of the real), and use the idea of the pre-scripted as real. Though not explicitly about reality television, these stories draw upon the same zeitgeist: surveillance, editing, and image figure prominently in the development of character. While drama is traditionally rooted in change, these dramas are about the subject's conformity to what is. In the traditional detective genre, the protagonist must sift through competing narratives to uncover the truth. In these ontoteleological films, the protagonist must sift through the multitude of subjective states to realize the self. Chris Nolan's Memento, Steven Spielberg's Minority Report, and John Woo's Paycheck all feature protagonists who must discover their identities through the course of the narrative (although each director approaches this in different ways and with different levels of cinematic success).

Memento's Leonard (Guy Pierce) cannot remember anything that has happened to him since his brain injury. For him, every day is a clean slate, a mystery. In order to discover how his wife was murdered and how he became who he is, he leaves himself mementos: clues in the form of polaroids, tattoos, notes, and instructions. Through these physical markers he constructs an autobiography and thus attempts to learn who he is. In the end, we discover that it is Leonard who has deliberately distorted his autobiography and created a false and troubling solution to the crime. Not unlike the editor of a reality television show, Leonard engages in a process of elimination that reduces the many facts of his existence into a single narrative thread with which he can live. In his discussion of Memento, Nate Burgos notes the fundamental similarity between cinema and cognition: "Memory is the camera, the film, the sound, the projector, and screen." [13] For Burgos, the film succeeds in laying bare the nature of human subjectivity: "[E]veryone is an auteur." We construct ourselves in real time as we shoot, edit and project our memories forward. However, to truly understand the nature of this auteurship, it is important/necessary to contextualize the film both within its genre, and alongside the closely related reality genre. The film is not simply a statement about truth. It is the statement of a particular truth that exists within the individual engaged in the discovery qua production of the posthuman self.

In Spielberg's Minority Report, John Anderton (Tom Cruise) is a "pre-crime" detective who prevents murders and convicts would-be murderers based on tips provided by "precogs" (technologically augmented clairvoyants). When the precogs reveal that Anderton himself is to become a murderer, the detective sets out to discover why. In "Time and the Fragmented Subject in Minority Report," Martin Hall explains Anderton's negotiation of the dissonance between who he considers himself to be and the way in which he is represented:

We see Anderton dismantling and restructuring images, searching for whatever possible versions of this representation are available to him, other than the one that represents him as a murderer. In the Lacanian sense, he is not merely trying to describe his trajectory, he is staging its movement: he believes that the play of images represented will resolve themselves into the absolute knowledge that the future anterior tense this fragmentation has placed him within does not allow for. [14]

Through the course of the film, we learn along with Anderton how he comes to complete the image. But in a clever twist, the "murder" that Anderton is to commit is revealed to be a suicide. Although Minority Report works as a critique of the "surveillant assemblage" that seeks to pre-empt future disasters, [15] it shares with Memento the sense that, ultimately, identity construction emerges from the will of the individual in dialectic with the constellation of things which holds that identity in place.

John Woo's 2003 Paycheck (based, like Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly, on a work by Philip K. Dick, whose novels also inspired the films Bladerunner [1982] and Total Recall [1990]) is the story of a reverse engineer who takes a job so secret that his memory will be deleted upon its completion. When he discovers that his assignment has the potential to destroy the world, he leaves a trail of clues that will help him reverse engineer his deleted memory and allow him to undo the product of his labor. While the protagonist of the film discovers himself in his objects, Paycheck shares with Minority Report the hope that the individual can come to an honest self-representation in spite of the conspiratorial nature of the coming future society.

The ambiguous nature of the Posthuman Bildungsroman comes to its clearest representation in A Scanner Darkly. Agent Fred is a narcotics officer living in deep cover amongst addicts under the name Bob Arctor. His cover is so deep that Agent Fred must always wear a disguise to conceal his identity, even from his colleagues. As part of his investigation, he must record the everyday activities of his household. To keep his cover intact, he must use the drug Substance D and file surveillance reports on himself along with everyone else. In order to succeed, he must convince both his friends and his employers that he is Bob Arctor. His addiction to Substance D only complicates things further, a substance which has a botanical name of Mors ontologica, or "ontological death." The primary side effect of Substance D dependency is a growing disconnect between the hemispheres of his brain and a resulting split in his subjectivity. Uncertain about his actions as Arctor, he must submit to the authority of police surveillance. Eventually, he loses his job over his covert activities and enters rehabilitation. In the New-Path rehabilitation program, he takes the name Bruce, and must undergo extensive behavior modification in order to destroy his former self and be rebuilt into a functional member of society - which, in the end, is revealed as part of a police plan to find the source of Substance D: New-Path's farm labor camps. By then, of course, Agent Fred/Bob Arctor has been fully replaced by Bruce, who can barely function and who would be unrecognizable to any of his former selves.

The common thread running through these films is the idea that a self that can be encoded, erased, and re-written. In spite of the specific characteristics of each film's protagonist, they share a common identity in that they are all cobbled together from the images, objects, and information that surround them. If an inner self or authentic identity exists at all, it is in the will to self-actualization vis-à-vis the material world. These characters personalize and give the blessing of "agency" to the surface of this process. Unlike a true Bildungsroman, culture in these films does not offer the means by which one can discover a deeper, more authentic self. In the case of Memento, the external datastream confounds and distorts the protagonist to the extent that his only hope of a self is to embrace a lie. In Minority Report, the protagonist manages to buck the system, even as the image itself remains true but misinterpreted. In Paycheck, the protagonist's possessions are ultimately the only markers of truth. All three protagonists strive frantically for self-discovery, but must rely on the world of commodities, media, and representation in absence of a centered self. To return to the roots of the genre, the protagonists resemble reality television stars in that their reality is produced before their very eyes. The Fred/Arctor/Bruce personality in A Scanner Darkly seems to have totally abandoned the possibility that a "self" exists at all.

For a better understanding of the genre, it is useful to consider Scott Bukatman's concept "terminal identity." Terminal identity is spawned by "terminal culture" (which plays with definitions of "terminal" as destination, interface, and demise). Developing a discussion initiated in Haraway's "Cyborg Manifesto," Bukatman claims that the ambiguous postmodern self of contemporary popular culture is characterized by a "transcendence which is also always a surrender." [16] To paraphase, terminal identity is the subject position which can embrace the slick surfaces of the virtual without looking for something deeper. The terminal subject accepts the image at face value.

If we accept Bukatman's theory of terminal identity, then we might ask what sort of "coming of age" tale these films invoke. [17] Traditionally, we have had novels where "being" is uncovered: the first type being the traditional Bildungsroman, and the second type being those which exist in opposition to the genre -- incest genealogies of the gothic, the cracking of the mystery in the detective novel, or the radical revisions of science fiction -- all of which revel in the secrets of modern society.

The postmodern "coming of age" is radically different not just in its construction of identity through an assemblage of surfaces and images, but also in its ambiguous relationship with its purposes. The reality genre appears as a representation of what really is, but it also implies its own satire by exposing the flaws of "real people" and the flaws of "representations of real people." Hence the nearly instantaneous arrival of films like EdTV and The Truman Show. On the one hand, these shows reveal a scorn for mediation and a scorn for the bourgeois culture that they aim to police. On the other hand, they are pure forms of mediation and pure expressions of bourgeois values. The self becomes only the agent of its own destruction, saying "yes" to/by affirming reformatting and the installation of new operating systems.

Unlike the traditional Bildungsroman, whose countertype was the triumvirate of speculative genres aforementioned, the countertype to reality television is more essential in its critique. The two genres of reality television and its satire do not battle over the questions of Good and Evil; rather, they battle over the very existence of the self. In this way they resemble the gothic, the science fiction, and the detective story. But within these texts, there is fundamentally little difference between tales of disassembly and reassembly: they are equivalent processes of posthuman becoming.

The twist presented in these stories is not a discovery that pertains to some other; instead,it comes in the realization of who the protagonist has been all along. Where things get interesting is in the protagonists' utter mystery/uncertainty and befuddlement as to who they might be. Rather than wondering what is concealed beneath the surface, the characters themselves are pieced together from external cues, arriving at a subjective space that is not determined by an interior state, but by an assemblage of surrounding signs. Hence, Leonard's erroneous story is written on his skin. Anderton's story is edited into a coherent scheme which fits social knowledge about crime and deviance. Jenning's story is tucked into an assemblage of objects. Finally, Arctor's story is molded to fit the narrative of substance abuse, therapy, and law. If there is an inherent, internal knowledge of the essential self, these protagonists do not seem to know it/are unaware of it.

Unlike the traditional Bildungsroman, these tales do little to affirm the value of bourgeois society as an instrument of personal growth. Rather, they challenge the possibility of individual personal growth in favor of the outward signs of a coherent subjectivity and, in the process, call into question the validity of an atomistic self. This approach to externals affirms the conventional wisdom of what we know about postmodernism as an aesthetic that is preoccupied by surfaces and which eschews depth and interiority. It also confirms the assumptions of posthumanism, which suggest that the "person" is not simply the expression of an eternal, immutable state, but rather, is the point where discursive threads converge. Personal identity is an interpretation of culturally constructed notions of subjectivity.

Most importantly, the Posthuman Bildungsroman might simply be a refinement of narrative itself. As Bernard Stiegler points out in "The Time of Cinema": "Memory is originarily forgetting because it is necessarily a reduction of what has occurred to the fact of being past, and therefore, it is less than the present." [18] If the function of memory is to edit a dense informational realm of perception into a coherent stream of significance, memory is functional insofar as we can forget. Film attempts to accomplish this experience in advance of perception, editing, focusing, and streamlining information in the service of narrative while "forgetting" the static and noise that would confound its coherence. A Scanner Darkly takes this streamlining process a step further, replacing the "live" actors with animations. Viewed in light of Foucault's notion of "governmentality," these stories dramatize subjects who arrange themselves around power. Teetering at the edge of the void, scrambling to find meaning, the subject submits to the disciplinary system in which he or she makes sense.

The protagonists of these "ontoteleological" genres, then, are only doing what all characters have been told to do. They have been scripted such that they come to develop personalities free from histories, free from an interiority or an essence, but also remarkably free of their own autonomy. This conceit -- that the narrative is self-consciously unreal -- has been with us at least since the time of Shakespeare (and perhaps throughout human history), but what differs is that now it has become a stable and compelling subject of narrative itself. It has long been understood that postmodernity is tied closely to the experiences and lessons of mass mediated representations, but in films such as A Scanner Darkly, we discover that this solipsistic realm of experience has congealed into the terra firma of postmodern truth.


[1] This trend makes Mary Shelley's Frankenstein all the more interesting: A being formed outside of the human biological process, assembled from multiple bodies, striving to form himself in accordance with the perceived norms and values of his society.

[2] Jeffrey L. Sammons, "The Bildungsroman for Nonspecialists: An Attempt at a Clarification," in James N. Hardin, ed., Reflection and Action: Essays on the Bildungsroman, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991, 26-45, p. 28.

[3] Fritz Martini, "Bildungsroman -- Term and Theory," in James N. Hardin, ed., Reflection and Action: Essays on the Bildungsroman, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991, 1-25, p. 5.

[4] James N Hardin, "An Introduction," in James N. Hardin, ed., Reflection and Action: Essays on the Bildungsroman, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991, ix-xxvii, pp. xi-xii.

[5] Sammons, p. 42.

[6] Ibid., p. 41.

[7] This section is a divergent interpretation of texts presented in my book, A Small World: Smart Houses and the Dream of the Perfect Day, Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.

[8] David Banash, "From an American Family to the Jennicam Realism and the Promise of TV," Bad Subjects 57 (October 2001): n.pag. 16 March 2004 Accessed April 3, 2008.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Christopher Rocchio, "USA to debut new 'Dr. Steve-O' reality makeover series on October 1," Reality television World, 21 June 2007, Accessed April 3, 2008.

[11] Michel Foucault, "Technologies of the Self," Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988, 16-49, p. 19.

[12] Nikolas Rose, Governing the Soul: The Shaping of the Private Self, New York: Free Association Books, 1999, p. xxiii.

[13] Nate Burgos, "Memento, Memory, and Montage," CTheory, 27 November 2001, Accessed April 3, 2008.

[14] Martin Hall, "Time and the Fragmented Subject in Minority Report," Rhizomes 8 (Spring 2004),, par. 8. Accessed April 3, 2008.

[15] For a more complete discussion of the "surveillant assemblage" and Minority Report, see Samuel Nunn, "Tell Us What's Going to Happen," CTheory, 12 September 2006, Accessed April 3, 2008.

[16] Scott Bukatman, Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Post-Modern Science Fiction. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993, p. 329.

[17] Ultimately, I think these tales are about the expression of a larger, incorporated subjectivity which dwarfs the individual. They tell the story of the emerging character of a system that increasingly interprets subjectivity through the external assessment of personality via pattern recognition, data-mining, and demographics research and presumes to meet desires and needs through an ever-evolving matrix of lifestyle norms.

[18] Bernard Stiegler, "The Time of Cinema: On the 'New World' and 'Cultural Exception,'" Tekhnema 4 (Spring 1998): 66-112, p. 84.


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Davin Heckman is an Assistant Professor of English at Siena Heights University in Adrian, Michigan. He is the author of A Small World: Smart Houses and the Dream of the Perfect Day (Duke University Press, 2008).

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