Issue 16.2, May 2001


Essay Excerpt

Cyborg Violence: Bursting Borders and Bodies with Queer Machines

by Anne Allison

When first writing this paper in June 1998, the U.S. news media was awash in what was then reported to be the latest episode of "teenage rage." Predating the much more spectacularly horrific events at Columbine a few months later, this was a shooting by a fifteen-year old boy on the premises of his school in Springfield, Oregon. In this case, a boy who had been expelled the day before for harboring a gun, opened fire at his school and, shooting randomly, killed two children and wounded twenty-two others. As in my local paper (the News and Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina), the press represented this as part of a national "rash": shootings that took place at schools, in "unlikely" settings (backwater towns and, with Columbine, in the upscale suburb of Littleton, Colorado), with brutal results (twenty-six dead excluding parents shot elsewhere and scores wounded), and at the hands of white, teenage boys. Stunned by the savagery of these acts, people across the country were also stricken by their eruption in the "bedrock" of America and by homegrown boys driven to murder over alleged slights and rebuffs. Although commentary struggled with explanations (getting little further, though, than "boys caught up in teenage rage" [Cannon 1998:19A]), more profound was the incessant questioning"WHY?" as posed by the News and Observer in its headline following Springfield (Cannon 1998:19A).

Making the same query two days earlier on National Public Radio (NPR), a reporter suggested the answer lay in today's culture of violence. On this view, recourse to violence, particularly with guns, has become insinuated into everyday life in the United States like a national habit. Citing the example oftwo Hollywood movies, Die Hard (1988) and RoboCop 2 (1990), with theirlitanies of shootings (61 in the case of RoboCop 2), the report noted the normalization of such violence and how its presence in mass culture matches its spread in real-life. Gun usage has now become commonplace; a gun-laden movie like RoboCop 2 has been watched by millions of kids;1 and the recent school shootings have occurred in "middle" America rather than the inner cities (where the everydayness of violence goes unnoted). As picked up in this story, it is the mainstreaming of violence that seems disturbingly new to so many people in the United States today. And, with this perception, comes criticism of mainstream media, a staple of everyday life here and well-known for its diet of violence.

But how are these two forms of common violence actually related? Research on what is called "violent entertainment" or "media violence" was proliferating already when stimulated by the recent shootings. To date, the bulk of this has been conducted by people who assume a clear-cut definition of media violence, use quantitative methods in studying the effects it has on various audiences, and conclude that violent media is harmful for viewers, particularly children. In this research (conducted predominantly by scholars and officials in the fields of public policy, violence prevention, law, medicine, education, psychology, communication, and media studies),2 media violence refers, as it does in Sissela Bok's and James Hamilton's recent studies, to any media coverage or representation of bodily damage, destruction, or death including graphic reportage of murder in the news, video games that feature killers and killing, and the constancy of attack scenes and shoot-outs in movies and television including children's cartoons (Bok 1998; Hamilton 1998). Focusing on the effect(s) violent media has on various audiences, research such as Bok's has pointed to primarily four: increased fear or anxiety about one's world, an appetite for more violence (in whatever form), desensitization to violence, and aggression.

Where it has been most conclusive is in showing how children, particularly under the age of six and particularly for the medium of television, repeatedly demonstrate higher levels of aggression after viewing scenes of injury and destruction (Hamilton 1998). The most common explanation for this is that young children, incapable of distinguishing the fantasy of mass media from reality, mimic the former in socially inappropriate ways in their behavior (Bok 1998).

But the mimicry of violent images and scripts goes far beyond the age of young childhood, many suggest, and is at root in the new genus of casual brutality erupting in the (school) yards of middle America. In his remarks following the Springfield shooting, for example, President Clinton declared that youth today in the United States have become desensitized to violence by the degree it inhabits their world(s) of (video) games, television, and movies. This view was even more strongly endorsed at the conference Clinton held on violence after Columbine—and in the report on "Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children" by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that ensued3—where Hollywood's role in inciting youth to violence is treated as a foregone conclusion (unjustified, as a number of studies have shown, by the "evidence").4 The premise here is that media violence, even when not literally mimicked, engenders a mindset that sees violence as not only acceptable but "cool." As Sissela Bok (1998) has argued for children's shows like The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, fighting that leads to obliteration of one's opponentis normalized, glamorized, and made fun. Kids laugh when enemies are blasted and come to associate aggression with excitement, pleasure, and ego-boosts—a dangerous message, Bok concludes, for how children view both the world and themselves.

It is this conceptualization of violent entertainment and the impact it hason youth I wish to challenge in my paper by considering a specific genre—violent cyborgs popularized since the 1980s by such blockbuster hits as RoboCop and Terminator. By almost any definition, these movies are violent. But it is the meaning and organization of this violence I wish to pay attention to here as few in the category of killer cyborg—cyborgs are hybrids of living matter melded with cybernetic devices; and killer cyborgs, often indistinguishable from cyborgs, are cyborgs programmed to fight, kill, or attack—are as neatly and unambiguously drawn as critics like Bok would suggest. Although their bodies both are and bear lethal weapons, the cyborg's identity is complicated beyond that of mere aggressor. Created themselves out of body-parts from dead (often killed) human beings, these cyborgs undergo constant attack and continual reconstruction. Who or what the cyborg is, in fact, is a concern that both troubles and constitutes the plot, and establishing ones identity is a desire that drives as much as eludes the cyborg subject. Destruction then, though a dominant trope in cyborg stories, is intrinsically linked to another theme—identity construction—as cyborgs not only produce violence but are produced themselves out of violent acts. Thus while images of cutting, exploding, and splattering (re)cycle in this genre, "life" is both destroyed and reemployed as a result. (237-240)

Allison, Anne. "Cyborg Violence: Bursting Borders and Bodies with Queer Machines." Cultural Anthropology 16, no. 2 (2001): 237-265