Back to the Future

Post-humanistic Passing Paradoxes

0. Introduction

“Passing” as a notion of identity firstly emerged from the discussion on racial concerns and soon migrated to the field of sex and gender studies. The word "passing" refers not only to an act that could benefit oneself regarding its social status and relatable personal gains, but also describes an unfinished transformation from one group to another, because once you finish the oriental pass, the “passing” suits no longer for this condition. Amy Robinson once mentioned that “the pass can be regarded as a triangular theater of identity” which indicates that to succeed a pass there must be three communities included: the passer, the group from which the passer passes and the group the passer is passing to. (Robinson, 718) The pass is not completed until the group one passes to accept his/her/their identity. As much of the interrogation associates with topics on race and sexuality, I would like to draw the concept further to the relations between human and machines, in most condition, the robots since many films dedicated to bring up the question of the true identification of human by posing a futuristic counterpart of human, an advanced cyborg or an artificial intelligence, to make connections and divisions. Is "passing" a notion that only works in the present cultural circumstance and present "reality"? This is the ultimate question I want to answer after my analysis.

The other approach that also relates is to find the relation between the post-human passing and current heated ones: racial passing and sexuality passing. Amy Robinson in the same article talked about the difference between race passing and sexuality pass. She notes that the racial pass is mostly visible, we accept "The instability of the visual as a guarantor of racial knowledge" while the sexuality pass is usually hidden, less visible sometimes more transportable. (717) Is the post-human pass visible or invisible? Different filmmakers have diverse replies to this question because the degree of post-humanism is never fixed for the general. It relates much to the other question: what is the essence of defining a human? With an escape from this philosophical paradox, it is the way different filmmakers choose to portray the process of passing that interests me, would it be visible or not? And why? I believe the answer to this also opens a window to illustrate the films’ undertaking of the current social issues.

To answer the questions that I listed above, I selected three significant scientific features from all, which are Metropolis (1927), Blade Runner (1982) and Ghost in the Shell (1995). The three films all talked about the passing between human and machine and had all been set in different religions and times. In the first part of the discussion, I would like to differentiate the types and traits of passing in order to gather the ontological surface of the unfinished pass; with the ontological grounds, in the second phase, I move to unveil the initial attempt of human's imagination of passing and human's authority in passing; the Last paragraph locates the passing in its futurist, social circumstances, aiming to examine the embedded social calls for the contemporary world.

1. The Ontological Surface of Posthuman Passages

With reference to Donna Haraway’s cyborg theory in A Cyborg Manifesto, a cyborg is a "beta" version of posthuman, which we can borrow to interpreted the passing subjectivities from human to posthuman or vice versa. Their passing then could locate in the name of a "posthuman pass." In the three films, the ontology of posthuman passing differed from each other. Metropolis did not elucidate the actual passing in a biological perspective, the only thing we can make sure of is that the cyborg inherited the body of Maria, whose name already gives the hint of her as an extremely purified, innocent girl that wishes for a peaceful revolution of the labors. The cyborg Maria while performed just in reverse to the human Maria: She incinerated the violence of the labor and was deeply drown in the “seven sins” which in turn infected the labors and led to unstoppable chaos. In the final revelation sequence, the cyborg Maria was burnt like a witch, and she laughed as hard until the machine body burned out into the ashes. Does she obtain the subjectivity from a cyborg identity? Is she passing to human? Fritz Lang did not portray much of her subjectivity, but from the pleasure she enjoyed, we can assert that she had an emotion, even though it has overly sinned, and she wished to continue to live as a human. Confirmed with her cyborg identity, we can also find clues of Fritz Lang’s definition of a human. It is lack of the sacredly purified humanity that caused the failure of her passing, in other words, the ontological surface of this posthuman to human passage lies in the human virtues, which are essentially unobtainable for cyborgs. This 1927's setting is now unacceptable for most of us contemporary human-beings because we tended to believe the posthuman as creatures which can obtain both intelligence and humanity, so the latter two films made in the 80s and 90s offered a more "realistic" imagination of the posthuman passing.
Blade Runner outlines a world of hunting game. Nexus-5 Replicants, who were manufactured by the high-tech company and were made highly alike human both intellectually and physically, are now sentenced to death because human wanted to replace them with an advanced model which contains emotions. The passing here is of no doubt in demand for the sake of remaining living/existing for the replicants. The identification of replicants is utterly intriguing: most of them are set to not realize their true identities as cyborgs, and in this sense, the replicants positioned themselves as human because they inherited some authentic memories, they do not need to pass. The actual passing commences when they by any means, find out the truth, and they are in a forever passage because human will never justify their passes for their technical incapability of sympathy. Authenticity is here relating to the emotion. Tihana Bertek’s examination of the humanness in the article The authenticity of the replica argues that “The authenticity should not be taken for granted as something given and unconstructed: both replicants and humans perform the idea of humanness and are thus equally (in)authentic. (Bertek, 7) She also borrowed Scott Bukatman’s iteration that “Identity stands revealed as a construction, the result if conscious or unconscious social and physical engineering.” (7) The emotion, standing in the road as a signal or proof of authenticity is here questioned, also leads me to rethink about how we tend to define humanness as sympathy. My explanation of this is that sympathy can link with the identical cognitions of humans and possibly the only term that helps to enhance our identities in the group, it is where we share subjectivities which react to the objectified other beings in the world.
Moving away from the Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell further demonstrated a world that conducted a large scale of human to posthuman transformations. The leader of the police unit, Major Motoko Kusanagi, owns a cybernetic body and a cyber-brain. In a society of multi-stages of cyberization, the passing seemed not worth discussing, but the passing phases of posthuman are still interesting to look at. When we admire the sacrifice of situating in an entirely devoted cyborg body for Motoko, what left for thinking is why she fell surprisingly vulnerable and scattered in the end and what do we know about her identification. Her foregrounding passage to the posthuman granted her a name of heroin. However, it is an incomplete pass indeed, because no other objectives are there on the other side of the passing, to be clear, it is a passage to the totality of unknown. The friction and the struggle that presented in her confrontation with the virus also visualize the harness of the unknown world – are we ascending the journey of evolution or are we going the opposite? Aiming to the superb as a common wish, but can we have the chance to decide on the next habitat of our mind? The paralyzing body in a way suggested the "Paradox of the Theseus's ship," again steering on the question of where human find their identities. The epistemic ontology of a human-being relies much on the integrity of body, and our protagonist, who has no choice of losing her body, becomes the pioneer of human's self de-constructualization, giving up the identity of human but finds no other existed identity she can resonate to. The passing is again stuck in the process. I examined my own experiences of watching her be injured only to find the sympathy emerged again, helping me to construct a tactual bond with her cyborg body even if I perceive the fact that she as a cyborg will not necessarily bear the pain of body. The ontological surface of Motoko’s passing could be traced in the dilemma of why she could not step back as human or machine. She cannot stay as human because the machine has rooted and functioned in her neuro-system doing alternations of the way she perceives the world; she also cannot stay as a machine because she has the sense of human morality and responsibility. Noted as the most inspiring animation in the last century, Ghost in the Shell opened up the possibility for the whole next century’s generation to explore.

2. Human, posthuman, and deity: examining the unidirectional paradox

Scanning through the passing ontology of the three films, a rough deduction would come to that the humanness is often seen as a highly granted feature in the passing route. I never entirely make sense of why a posthuman creature would ever want to pass for human and repeatedly fail itself. Metropolis elaborated the reason for passing is that Maria enjoyed the feeling of being in control over the human. Blade Runners pass for the legitimacy of their existence. Ghost in the shell offered a retreated passing in which the passer tries to maintain unpassed in most situation, which could be reckoned as another lever of passing: passing to unpassed. Regardless of their in-depth orientations of passing, the irrationality of their passing composites an imagined hierarchy to me, in which the human seated on the top of everything beyond humanness. Citing the Olympic Games spirits, "Higher, Faster and Stronger," I was reminded of the initial transcendence of human's self-identification, to achieve the higher power of one's body, which has realized in the imagination of cyborgs. Moreover, it leads to the fear of otherness, the unknown power of one transcended otherness. The power relations that always exert influences in enhancing the humanistic social hierarchy explain much of the centralization of the human. I argue that the pleasure of imaging a stronger self breaks when the in-depth fear arouses the distinction of reality and fantasy, and it leans on the compensational imagination of human's control over the higher power to reassure the anxiety of the displacement. That is how the essential paradox existed. In another word, human needs the authoritative fantasy, a deify, to confront the unease of the threaten that embeds in the upcoming unknown. As a result, the emotion, the humanity, and the integrity of oneself became the obstacles of posthuman passing, which is doomed to be failed. Also, this subconsciousness legitimated the gravitational attraction of the group from which cyborgs passes, and an example would be Major Motoko. She managed to obtain an invincible body and a highly evolved cyber brain, but she still pledges the loyalty to the people who have not passed, and is dependable of scientists healing devices, most importantly, she seems to be in an endless struggle with herself not being a pure human.
The paradox of human’s imaginative passing to posthuman and the compensative imagination of passing from human to posthuman eventually falls onto the epistemology of human’s self-identity. Tihana is her article interrogates the same concern with regards to Blade Runner. She declared that the vulnerability of human’s identity is due to “the absence of an other”, because, she draws on Charles Taylor’s argument saying “ an original identity needs and is vulnerable to the recognition given or withheld by significant others," and she further argues that "the ground for identity is lost and so is ontological security."(8) The posthuman world performs and unfolds just like a heterotopia raised by Foucault, on the one hand reflecting the human's behaviors, the social compositions, and the sins embedded; while on the other hand, losing the ontology of self makes its projections unorderly chaotic and stores no actual response to the real worlds. It is an "other" that does not land on nothing, a "placeless place." Tihana ends her analysis with an assertion that "the definition of human is not only a philosophical but an administrative issue shaped by the complex interrelations between those who theorized the rules and norms and those who legislate and enforce them." (8)She mentioned the power relations as it corresponded to the mythic paradox of the human and posthuman passing, which then opens up next chapter’s topic that concentrates on the social issues and political orientations in the passings.

3. Passing in the futuristic megalopolis

Aside from the similarities of posthuman passings that shared by three films, the background of the story also resonated. The metropolitans, hyper-tech reformatted cities decorated the narration as a glitch, offering a cinematic spectacle for every cinema consumer. The structure of the metropolitans signified the power relations inside. All the passers all live underneath the ceilings of higher powers: they do jobs for the power, they live by delivering and enhancing the power that controls them. Another paradox is here to discuss.
All the stories begin with a grandiose panorama of the metropolitan, and soon a dominant middle-age commander makes his debut in the film. The two stylish features converged into the notion of patriarchy. The passers at the very start yield to the power of patriarchy, in forms of realizing their ambitions or guarding their governs. Foucault once concluded that "the management and control over life and death have become inextricably linked to the reproduction of both the state and capitalist relations." (Foucault, qtd. In Wolfe 52) Cyborg’s identification was not granted by the people but by the dominance. Simply put, they are the default slaves of the power, and this concealed setup reverberated the picture of a deity human, an ultimate upper level, a hand that controls over the passings. Within the context of patriarchy, those films offer us a perspective to make a comparison with race passing as well as sexuality passing and the posthuman passing. As Amy underscores the distinction of "visibility," the essential question goes to: Is cyborg a new race or new sexuality? I would consider the posthumans are inheriting both traits and situating in between the two. Since the majority of cyborgs could masquerade their looks as authentic as human-beings, the hidden cyborgs tend to pass invisibly; while after some human unveils their masquerade, for example, when the plugs underneath their skin get exposed, they would have to pass visibly. The violation of visibility added another level of hardship to their passing, as well as another pair of paradoxical conflicts.
Another observation of posthuman passings in the cinema is the gendered cyborg. If they could escape from the humanistic biological reproductions’ procedures, why they are made gendered? Not much in a physical way, but in an identical way. Also, most of the passing cyborgs are female ones. I herein assume their gendering female also as a product of patriarchy, in which the female communities are asked to take invisible responsibilities of serving the dominant males, in ways such as an object being gazed at, being abused of, and being stuck in the binary trap. In the 2014 film Ex Machina, the abuse of female robots is cruelly depicted as faceless objects and further racialized in the figure of a Japanese model who cannot speak. Regarding Ex Machina as a revolutionary passing film to our discussion, Ava in the final scene successfully passed. The “trespassing” of Ava breaks the endless process of the cycling passing and brings up the other voice, a much clearer voice of all the passers, cyborgs and all the post-humanistic creatures, speaking the words of truth: the time of passing has finally passed.

4. Conclusions

Through the analysis above, the paradoxical myth of the posthuman passing has to an extent unveiled. The posthuman passing comprised the nature of both race passing and sexuality passing; it violates from visibility to invisibility. Besides, the ideological passing could never be achieved if the passing only located in the imagination of human because of the embedded insecurity of human individuals and patriarchal social systems. Looking back on the ultimate question I raised in the beginning, “Is ‘passing’ a notion that only works in the present cultural circumstance and present ‘reality’?" My answer is yes. Considering passing as a masquerade looking for the suitable habitat in the society, the contemporary human societal structure is deeply capitalized and always orienting to the dominant's benefits, human within the system could not possibly imagine a complete post-humanistic "utopia" without referring to the hierarchical binary ideology; as a result, the passing from human to posthuman repeated in a deadlock, while the reverse passing from posthuman to human remains problematic and unfinished. The passing of posthuman is in a sense a permanent ongoing status.

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