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Askr Svarte examines how post-cyberpunk and biopunk movies envision the profound societal implications of blending sexuality and reproduction with futuristic technologies.

Excerpted from Askr Svarte, Tradition and Future Shock: Visions of a Future that Isn’t Ours (PRAV Publishing, 2023).

Looking closely at (post-) cyberpunk and futurist cinema, one can see what such a future holds for us in the spheres of eros (soon to be digital sexuality) and reproduction. One of the prospective developments in the sex industry is the remote transmission of tactile and bodily sensations and pleasure with the use of virtual reality gloves or costumes connected to the web. Worlds where such technology is the normative means of sexual contact are shown in the films Demolition Man and The Zero Theorem.

A short scene in Demolition Man shows sexual freedom reaching its peak in the future, with sex becoming an everyday practice. The difference is that, instead of physical contact, the pacifistic people of the future use virtual reality glasses and neural interfaces to exchange brain waves with each other. Mixing pleasure waves and signals from the brain with other emotions and audio-visual images, the boundaries of sexual experience can be expanded like the use of narcotic substances. This digital sex is a priori public, since it can be intercepted and published as a file. This technology implicitly enables replacing intercepted data remotely. Instead of pleasure, a person can download a seance of hopeless agony.

A similar plot is shown in The Zero Theorem, where the reclusive programmer protagonist strikes up a relationship with a virgin prostitute who offers only virtual contact services in 3D reality by means of a costume that provides body feedback. After modification, the main character completely digitizes his soul and finds himself locked in virtual space.

Surrogate eros can only be to the liking of people who have lost their nature, to fearful pacifists of the near future (physical contact is heavily loaded with “violence”), programmers (as in The Zero Theorem, where the protagonist solves an equation that proves the nonexistence of God), or completely surrogate people.

Post-relationships and post-sexuality between two simulations are exhibited in Blade Runner 2049, in which the protagonist is a replicant, i.e., a high-tech clone without a past who maintains a warm and trusting relationship with a highly realistic 3D holographic girl programmed to be a partner. The girl can exist only within the apartment where projectors are installed. She does not have any density and is merely a corporate template product for lonely singles who takes on sets of individuations adjusted to her partner’s preferences. Showing their relationship at the very beginning of the film, the creators hint to the viewer that the protagonist himself is not a replicant. However, since the prostitute is a replicant, he is irrationally drawn to the illusion, not to a real woman. When he sits down to have dinner, she brings him a beautiful, tasty dinner, but it too is a hologram projected over ordinary processed prepacks. Even sex with a street prostitute is arranged in such a way that the prostitute is “dressed” in the 3D projection of his holographic partner. The real female body serves only a supporting role, a “peg” for the digital shell that is more important to the main character.

Futuristic plots featuring artificial reproduction are at once textbook examples of the “uncanny valley” and illustrations of the cyberfeminist agenda.

The pathological character of erotic relationships in such a technogenic environment is shown in the works of David Cronenberg, particularly the film Crash. This film is centered around a strange community of fetishists who are obsessed with car accidents and the mutilations of the human body they cause. The main characters, a man and a woman, fall under the spell of this idea. They reenact famous celebrity accidents, have sex in wrecked cars, during crashes, and surrounded by prosthetics. The characters’ sexuality centers around speed, broken glass, mangled metal, smoke, and damage, i.e., the elements of car accidents that release their positive sexual energies. Cars act as bodies of technology without which sexual life is disgustingly cold and boring for these rather successful young people. Yet, it is not simply technology, but twisted, mangled technology that mirrors the twisted bodies and psyches of the disabled “last people.” The object of pathological desire becomes whatever is broken, perverted, defective, and therefore individual and unusual.

Futuristic plots featuring artificial reproduction are at once textbook examples of the “uncanny valley” and illustrations of the cyberfeminist agenda. The self-reproduction and self- generation of machines is one of the last frontiers of the “uncanny valley” where the distinction between the living and the constructed is still glaring.

The film Blade Runner 2049 once again presents us with a double riddle. The plot revolves around the search for a human child, the first in history to be born to a female replicant. For the corporation, whose replicants were previously incapable of generating life, this promises huge profits and a technological breakthrough. For the underground of fugitive replicants, this is a chance to prove their equal status with humans and their right to life. The situation of “the miracle of childbirth” is further complicated by the fact that in the original Blade Runner, the main character, Deckard, was also a replicant. In other words, it is not the miracle of childbirth from a human father and replicant mother that is so groundbreaking, but the birth of a child from two replicant parents. And this child is absolutely real: there are no serial numbers or factor barcodes on his bones, eyes, or organs. Although not born to humans, he ends up being practically the only human character, confirmation of which is seen in his dream-memories.

The reproductive barrier is one of the last barriers allowing for distinguishing between real people and modified clones, replicants, or surrogate products.

In Babylon A.D., the main character is also a “replicant,” or more precisely was “born” to a supercomputer, her body and brain having been programmed to give birth to two children, the progenitors of a new, future race of superhumans. The irony is that the main heroine biorobot was created on the order of a religious, specifically Christian megacorporation-sect which needed the miracle of immaculate conception and the birth of superchildren to raise its shares and increase its flock.

It is no coincidence that the miraculousness of the generation of life by the body of a machine is a common leitmotif in all futurist works. For now, this is only desired, anticipated technology. The reproductive barrier is one of the last barriers allowing for distinguishing between real people and modified clones, replicants, or surrogate products. Yet BioBag technology, with its artificial womb and human cultivation, is very realistic and promising on this front.

If many science-fiction films offer us pictures of a large flask in a sterile laboratory filled with people, then the film I Am Mother centers this theme in non-human, post-apocalyptic scenery. The movie portrays the growing up and everyday life of a nameless girl raised by a robot with the female identity of her mother in an underground, high-tech bunker after the end of the world. The girl treats the iron android like her own mother, and the robot raises the child on Kantian ethics and admonishes her that the outside world has not yet recovered from the disaster and that survival on the outside is futile. Together, however, they gradually begin to grow a new generation of people, as the bunker stored tens of thousands of human embryos which can develop into newborn babies in a day. This cybernetic idyll is interrupted by the sudden intrusion of a surviving woman from the outside world seeking shelter in the bunker. Succumbing to the ethical guidelines she had been taught, the girl hides the woman in the bunker, which does not escape the vigilant android mother. The situation turns into a conflict between the two adult “women” over whose “daughter” the girl should be. The motivation of each side is convincing and deadly. The conflict is resolved by an “escape from paradise,” as the girl inevitably returns to the bunker, which is surrounded by armies of human-killing robots. Life is impossible in the outside world, where there are no human communities left.

One indicative feature of this film is the complete absence of male characters, as all of the plot’s subjectivity is expressed by the feminine principle in hysterical form, acting in the same way regardless of biological or cybernetic incarnation. The world of I Am Mother is almost the world of Donna Haraway’s cyberfeminism, where a test-tube child with no name is given unto a bunker-womb and robot-mother. Any male born would be the first and would be raised in a world of mothers as a post- Oedipal being (a man without a father, or a future father without the psychological structures of fatherhood) who transmits this pattern to future generations.

One characteristic feature of the heroes of the (post-) cyberpunk and biopunk cinema and literary genres is their brokenness, their inner contradiction, their alienation from reality or their own humanity.

The conflict between the biological woman and robot spills over into a conflict between two“mothers.” The future alternative to the myths of Oedipus and Elektra becomes this perverted “myth” of two “mothers.” The only male that appears in the film, the future “brother” and “son” of the teenage girl (metaphorical parthenogenesis instead of conception) is a black-skinned infant who becomes the object of the final dispute between the robot mother and daughter wanting to become this newborn’s mother. This is the sterile, feminine world of surrogate matriarchy, which will inevitably collapse.

One characteristic feature of the heroes of the (post-) cyberpunk and biopunk cinema and literary genres is their brokenness, their inner contradiction, their alienation from reality or their own humanity. The atmosphere surrounding these protagonists and their traits often contains elements of noir style. On the social plane, the classic cyberpunk hero is a marginal individual on the periphery, a renegade from the System, whether a former policeman, a fugitive programmer, an opposition rebel, or an underground hacker. An exhaustive palette of these character types is presented in such cult and experimental films as Johnny Mnemonic, Hackers, Nirvana, the Blade Runner dilogy, Repo Men, Ghost in the Shell, and others.

The eponymous protagonist of Johnny Mnemonic is a courier working on the data black market. His tool is his own brain turned into a hard drive by erasing his memory and part of his personality. Moving between gangs and corporations, he transports the most valuable corporate data, which makes him everyone’s target. Johnny’s dream is to leave the criminal business and regain his memory. The mnemonic character is the transhumanist subject, in which the biology of the body and digital technologies for data storage and service functions are all soldered together. He is both a human, an object (a hard drive), and a data delivery service for wealthy clients.

The movie Nirvana, which laid out many of the themes that would later be developed in The Matrix, tells the story of a genius renegade programmer who betrays his corporation. A virtual reality game developer, he decides to save one of his game characters who has been infected by a “soul virus.” Abandoning his life of abundance yet loneliness, he plunges into a world of underground hackers, implant sellers, data traders, fugitives, and opposition activists fighting the corporate regime. In order to penetrate the corporation’s secure servers, he has to overcome his fears in virtual reality, where death means death in the real world. He is told of the dangers before him by priests of a cyber-Hindu sect and a digital copy of his deceased wife’s consciousness, and sets off with his former employer’s armed agents on his trail.

Typical of cyberpunk as a whole is the merging of the State and Corporation or high-tech criminal and financial clans. The Transnational Corporation is the System, the subject par excellence. It is fought by rebel programmers (as in Hackers), fled and eluded by fugitives, and the lower social classes dig and survive in its waste (as in Elysium). It is telling that over the course of the evolution from cyberpunk noir to post-cyberpunk, the prototypical protagonist has come to be appropriated by the State-Corporation. He is built into the periphery as part of the system, albeit located somewhere at the bottom of it. For example, he is an agent, a tax collector, a detective, or a journalist. In older futurist-noir productions, the protagonist used technologies and enchantments for criminal cases and to encrypt his tracks from the system’s sleuths, i.e., he uses such to try to find a way to freedom. In post-cyberpunk, however, the heroes’ embeddedness in the System is reflected on the bodily level: now his own enhancements and cyber-prosthetics are a leash by which he is kept by powerful, faceless employers. The image of a detective enhanced by all sorts of prostheses and gadgets is typical, such as the team of policemen from Ghost in the Shell, the detectives in Anon and In Time, etc.

Playing on the border between uncertain anthropological status and the desire of machines to prove their humanity and overcome their creators is one of the key nerves of the situation of internal alienation, rupture, and distrust of oneself that is recurrent in cyberpunk and in the psychology of future-developed transhumanists.

The ruthless capitalism of the high-tech future is depicted in the movie Repo Men, which tells the story of two corporate debt collectors, or, to be more precise, collectors who remove biomechancial organs for unpaid loans. In this world, any human can improve or restore their damaged body by taking any organ of choice on credit from a medical corporation. In many cases, inability to repay the loan leads to the corporation sending agents to repossess the property and resell it to the next client. As a result of an unsuccessful operation to extract an organ from another debtor, one of the henchmen becomes the owner of an artificial heart and a huge debt, which leads him to completely rethink his values, after which he goes on the run. In the nocturnal world of low-quality organ dealers and underground surgeries, he meets a girl, almost all of whose body parts have been replaced with artificial ones. The only chance for them to escape the clutches of the system and its repos is to scan the barcodes of all of their loaned organs at a warehouse. In one of the last scenes, the main characters literally turn themselves inside out, bleeding out and scanning their internal organs, thus repaying their debts and freeing themselves. The final plot twist changes the whole story, plunging it to another level of dystopia. All of the film’s events turn out to be a simulation into which the protagonist was immersed after a brain injury sustained while trying to flee the Corporation. It turns out that one way to facilitate the vegetative life of people in a coma is to plug their brains into a neuro-simulation system that feeds them pleasant images and pictures. For the sake of his friend, the partner takes this system out on loan.

The classic dilemma involved in these pictures is the one faced by Deckard, the replicant hunter in Blade Runner. Deckard’s name practically resembles that of Descartes, and his job is to distinguish humans from high-tech copies, i.e., subjects from objects. This inevitably leads him to question his own ontological status: is he himself just another replicant programmed to hunt his own kind? Much of the first part of the Blade Runner dilogy points to this being the truth about his identity. In the second part, the new replicant K is subject to the converse doubt during an investigation: is he himself a human, the son of Deckard and a replicant mother?

A similar range of existential problems preoccupies Major Motoko in Ghost in the Shell and the detective protagonist of Surrogates, who spends his days investigating murders without ever leaving his room. The latter remotely uploads his consciousness into an identical, or even more attractive surrogate robot that is more enduring and is plugged in to global databases. But, the question arises, where does real life and humanity take place: in the body of the robot and the perverted electroshock pleasures, violence, and death with impunity (damage to robots does not qualify as violence against living people), or in the dark room with neural interfaces, where the biological body still ages and is deprived of the living warmth of other peoples’ bodies and authentic communication skills? Playing on the border between uncertain anthropological status and the desire of machines to prove their humanity and overcome their creators is one of the key nerves of the situation of internal alienation, rupture, and distrust of oneself that is recurrent in cyberpunk and in the psychology of future-developed transhumanists.

The loss of subjectivity in future cyberpunk is accentuated with images of VR addicts, gamers and escapists who plunge headlong into oneiric and neural simulations.

Another matter is the apotheosis of joyfully being plugged into a cynical and irresponsible game-like reality, as is depicted in the cyberpunk comics series Transmetropolitan. In this series, the main character is the gonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem, a drug addict and cynic who is an adept and consumer of chaotic acts and everything provided by the City, a massive high-tech megalopolis on Earth that is inhabited by rhizomatic zero-people, aliens, punks, perverts, beggars, preachers of the most exotic religions, and politicians. Spider is a cross of Hunter Thompson and Charles Bukowski, two iconic figures of gonzo and drug counterculture. He is a typical Postmodern surfer of virtual spaces, a quasi-demiurge of symbols, and someone suffering from brain damage, drug use, and debts who devotes all evening to watching ads in order to “be in the know” and to drive a TV presenter to suicide with a live call-in. He buys a new model of sneakers, “Christ sandals,” and goes along with strippers to write a scandalous report on an uprising of half-human-half-aliens in a suburban ghetto. Especially noteworthy is how the image of the journalist depicted in Transmetropolitan is in many ways already iconic in the profession and popular in Western culture.

The next step of transformation is from a subject viewing a TV screen with advertising or a smartphone screen with an algorithm-selected news feed into an object formed by the content of the screen, or into a screen that views-and-reflects another screen in a steam of clips. The loss of subjectivity in future cyberpunk is accentuated with images of VR addicts, gamers and escapists who plunge headlong into oneiric and neural simulations. They lie or sit plugged into the “matrix” around the clock; in the worst case scenario, they vegetate as drug addicts deprived of access to the web. Such is the case of the protagonist of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Nirvana’s renegade entourage, and the other “web-trapped” bodies scattered throughout sci-fi films. This image is also already embodied in current reality in the form of online gaming epidemics and addictions to social networks and entertainment services.

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Translated by Jafe Arnold

Askr Svarte

Evgeny Nechkasov (aka Askr Svarte) is a Russian traditionalist philosopher and the publisher of the pagan almanac Warha. He is also a political activist, who helped develop the pagan movement in Russia, and the author of several books about the German-Scandinavian tradition, pagan theology and traditionalist philosophy. He lives in Novosibirsk.

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