Willow Lloyd offers a queer retrospective on the Ridley Scott classic.
Blade Runner is not an obviously queer film. But sexuality and gender are at work in its rich layering of meanings, and they deserve a close look.
In an early draft of the screenplay, the replicant Roy Batty is described as “somewhere between a Comanche warrior and a transvestite”. Even his surname – Batty, Jamaican slang for homosexual – points to a character with an indeterminately non-heteronormative sexual identity.
There is something about robots that is particularly frightening to the modern patriarchal psyche. The surname of Rick Deckard, Blade Runner’s protagonist and a police bounty hunter of androids, is a pun on the name of Enlightenment philosopher René Descartes. Descartes not only understood the world in strict dualistic terms, dividing the modern subject- the person- from the object of his activities- the world around him, but was the pioneer of a decidedly anti-sensuous mentality which has cemented itself in bourgeois thinking ever since.
The anxiety about robots taking over, in evidence from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to James Cameron’s Terminator, is the fear that the tools of modern Man’s work on the world will defy his intentions and turn against him. At the root of many robot horrors is modern, patriarchal masculinity’s fear of losing control.
But when the patriarchal mind sought to subdue nature with the aid of modern science and technology, he also sought to suppress his own nature. Descartes himself was rigorously committed to the dominance of intellect over desire, or what in Freudian terms we might call ‘ego’ over ‘id’. Disdaining sexual relations in preference for philosophy, Dušan Bjelić has described him as “the model of an enlightened subject who remains present in this world as master while renouncing earthly desire”. Like Descartes, Deckard is committed to self-reliance and self-mastery. But his determination to war with the insurgent replicants whom he has been ordered to kill begins to fray when Deckard becomes romantically involved with a female replicant called Rachael. His desires begin to make him question the mission he has been assigned. In the end, he even questions whether he himself is human and not a replicant aswell.
There is another layer to all this. The modern terror of machines which take over has another source; in the organisation of capitalist production itself. Marx was neither the first nor the last to notice how machines in industrial production operate in a way inimical to the physical and mental needs and desires of the worker. But the bourgeoisie are separated from the modern machinery of production.
To be controlled by desire, rather than in control of it, is to be like a worker: a slave to an alien machine. Rick Deckard hunts and destroys replicants as a way of fighting his own desires and achieving self-mastery. The replicants in Blade Runner are escaped slave workers from the off-world colonies. They represent sexuality and an openness to desire that threatens the armoured character of Rick Deckard. In one scene, Deckard is administering a test designed to distinguish humans from replicants- the so-called Voigt-Kampff test. His subject, Rachael, asks him: “Is this testing whether I’m a Replicant or a lesbian, Mr. Deckard?” The armoured male ego fears intrusion by desire, of the disruption of its rational subject-to-object relationship with the world by sensuous feeling.
Transsexuals often understand well what it means to be considered ‘artificial’ and ‘unnatural’. In her brilliant essay, ‘My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix’, Susan Stryker reflects at length on her affinity as a trans woman for the monster of Shelley’s classic novel. Her body, a “technological construction” inspires the horror of those for whom transsexuality is a violation of natural laws. Stryker recognises this demonising of the transsexual as a projection. The supposedly ‘natural’, non-transsexual is really terrified that they themselves are mere creatures, created things, rather than lords of creation, dominating the world around them. Stryker has no such anxiety. “I find no shame…in acknowledging my egalitarian relationship with non-human material Being”, she says. Like Roy Batty and his lover Pris, who live comfortably with J.F. Sebastian’s vast collection of mechanical toys, unnerving to the Oedipally self-disciplined Rick Deckard. Stryker compels her enemies: “investigate your nature as I have been compelled to confront mine”. Just as Rachael asks Deckard: “that Voigt-Kampff test of yours- did you ever take that test yourself?” The transsexual is no more ‘constructed’ than the cissexual.
In one scene, Deckard is administering a test designed to distinguish humans from replicants- the so-called Voigt-Kampff test. His subject, Rachael, asks him: “Is this testing whether I’m a Replicant or a lesbian, Mr. Deckard?” The armoured male ego fears intrusion by desire, of the disruption of its rational subject-to-object relationship with the world by sensuous feeling.
Deckard’s growing self-awareness is ambiguous. Has he discovered that he is a replicant? Or that replicants and humans are the same? Either way, he disavows his own nature through his fight with the replicants.
What the bourgeois inventors of machines fear is more social than narrowly technological. The scientific and technological innovations of early modernity set in train what Deleuze and Guattari named a process of ‘deterritorialisation’, an upsetting of the rigid social norms and hierarchies which had controlled feudal Europe until that time. The development of capitalism and thus modern cities made queer lives possible in ways they had not been hitherto enchained by family and religion. The Frankenstein fear is a concern that the social streams of desire set loose by rapid technological change could threaten patriarchal and ruling class power itself. Deckard is an heir to these modern anxieties, and his mission to quash the replicants’ slave rebellion is part of the process of ‘reterritorialisation’, an attempt to stabilise class, racial and gendered power in the face of the rebellious streams that have been unleashed.
In Blade Runner, the struggle against the replicants’ liberation is a violent struggle against threats to the bourgeois male ego. On the fascist soldiers of the interwar freikorps, Theweleit wrote
“For the soldier-male dam, none of the streams we’ve mentioned can be allowed to flow. He is out to prevent all of them from flowing: “imaginary” and real streams, streams of sperm and desire. Even taking pleasure in the stream of evil (the kind that flows in Mr. Hyde) is impossible for him. All of these flows are shut off; more important, not a single drop can be allowed to seep through the shell of the body. One little drop of pleasure—a single minute flyspeck on the wall of a house, or a single escapee from a concentration camp—threatens to undermine the whole system (the system of dams). Those drops are more than mere metaphors; they are harbingers of imminent defeat…”
The machinic proletarians of Blade Runner are queer in that they are the surging of open bodily desires which, in rebellion, threaten to upend capitalism.
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