TERMINATOR TECHNOLOGY: Hollywood, History, and Technology

From: M. Tinkcom & A. Villarejo (eds), Keyframes: Popular Cinema and Cultural Studies (Routledge 2001)

Paul Smith

University of Sussex

The end of the twentieth century came a little bit later, by a decade or so, than the end of the first century of cinema, but the specific character of the 20th century can hardly be grasped, and imaginaries about the new millennium can hardly be formed, without recognizing the crucial function of film and, later, the other visual media, in helping the era be resolved into representations. The visual media (mass media from the very beginning and used deliberately as instruments of mass perception as well as mass distraction) have facilitated and enabled a popular or demotic sense of the world which has been thicker, stronger and more consistent than in any other era. Even if older channels of perception--like books and newspapers--can be said to have been gradually democratised over the course of the long 19th century, their efficacy was immediately and spectacularly outstripped by the appearance of  the technologies of the visual media--those technologies that have marked this century as surely as (or in symbiotic cahoots with) total wars, holocausts, genocides, revolutions and so on. From the very first exhibited films which terrified audiences with the realism of their representations, to present day movies like  The Blair Witch Project  that terrify audiences with the realism of their representations, mass visual productions have caught the imagination of subjects and held them in thrall with a thoroughgoing efficiency.

This is one sense in which the cinema can be thought of as a kind of "terminator technology," taking a ruthless hold on our subjectivities while at the same time producing a virtual monopoly on the product and spreading it (whatever its effects) across the world. I'm making an analogy, of course, to the "terminator technology" with which we're probably all familiar by now:  the controversial apparatus of the biotechnology industry, led by the corporation Monsanto,  which can manufacture seeds whose genes are altered  such that they essentially become sterile once they have been grown. The upshot for farmers is that the age-old practice of  collecting seeds for re-use is made impossible and so each year they have to buy a new order of seeds from their corporate suppliers. This seems to me an apt conceit in several respects for the way in which the American media industry operates, producing commodities whose use-value in the public sphere is confined precisely to allowing the consumer to spend a moment or two in the act  of consumption and whose meanings can hardly circulate except in the pre-established world of the entertainment and media industries and whose net result can only be described as an advanced sterility in the body public.

In some areas of media studies one can still find the occasional discussion about how exactly movies have managed to take such a firm grip on subjects. Some of that discussion will be about the primacy of visual perception in the human sensorium, or about our inherent psychological need for realism, and so on.  Whatever the merits or demerits of those kinds of discussion, what's usually overlooked in them--and overlooked too in most interpretative work about film--is the simple fact that film was, from the beginning, sold as a commodity  and that its power has clearly something to do with the single-mindedness with which an industry was built up around the new and continually renewing technologies of the visual. The film industry has, it almost goes without saying, been America's single most consistent industry in the last hundred years. That's not to say that it has been the most profitable in purely financial terms (although as an export dollar earner it currently ranks second only to the aerospace industry), but to point to its unusual stability and consistent performance in relation to almost any other industry apart from the basic utility industries.

I stress this industrial character of the media not simply because it is an element that is often mysteriously absent from much analysis in media studies; and not just because the history of the industry is in and of itself a fascinating case study in the nature of American capitalism. But I stress it also because I want to argue that the industrial forms of media production inevitably inflect the kinds of meanings manufactured in and as the commodities sold to the mass market. There are few enough political- economic studies of American media which would treat the imbrication of the circumstances of production with the nature or the meaning of the commodity. Even if there are some good studies of the American film industry which concentrate on its economic aspects (such as much work by people like Douglas Gomery, Robert Allen, or Janet Wasko), [1] there's certainly nothing of the order of Richard Ohmann's recent book, Selling Culture, which takes a properly political-economic kind of approach to the growth of a different industry--that of mass market publications in the late 19th and early 20th century--and by properly I mean that the approach sees the cultural and economic facets of the publishing industry as mutually determining, mutually informing. [2] Ohmann's book offers up a number of hints that could be adopted into a parallel analysis of American visual media. For instance, his proving that the capitalist interest in developing mass market publications was neither ideologically driven nor even especially committed to the nature of the product is particularly important. Rather, his work suggests, these publishing  commodities were always mostly accidental in their nature, ephemeral combinations of available discourses, existing and emerging technologies, and available industrial capacities which are then developed willy-nilly into a self-defining industrial endeavour. That kind of observation about forms of production is consistent with a Marxist sense that capitalism is mostly indifferent to the exact nature of the commodity and primarily attends instead to the simple process of converting money to commodity to money.

If carried over to the media generally, this point about the indifference of capital to the exact nature of the commodity might give some comfort to those who nowadays consider the film industry to have abandoned all decency and standards. We'll probably be hearing a lot more on that topic in the upcoming US presidential race, where both major parties are already sharpening their rhetoric against the dubious morality of public spectacles, and darkly linking that to events such as the Columbine high school massacre. No doubt on some level it's true that the indifference of capital to the commodity habitually forecloses on questions of morality and ethics. But I don't mean to join that particular assault on the media right now, since as far as I can see, from their mass beginnings the media have always been charged with some crime of this sort and in any case the tension between, as we might put it, market and community is endemic to American culture and has been ever since the founding fathers determined that "we mean to be a commercial people."

But it's also true that the media have chronically in this century been associated with some form of loss, and the more sophisticated assaults on the media's role in American culture will talk of the loss of memory, of affect, of history itself.  These kinds of observation have been formulated with especial dignity by Fredric Jameson or with more abandon by the postmodernist likes of Jean Baudrillard. [3] The argument goes, roughly, that the representations produced in and by the media are capable somehow of displacing the real, eradicating the referent of history itself. Here I want to reject the notion that media representations are somehow "hyper-real", or simulacra to be taken for the real, and I take rather take the more common sense view that there ís nothing more real--certainly nothing excessively real--about them. They are, simply, part of our lives in mediat(is)ed cultures and they have real effects. Once again these effects are the intended and unintended consequences of the business or the industry that sustains any particular media representation and are, in the long run, quite analogous to the effects of consuming any other commodity at all.

To reject the postmodern "hyper-real" theses about the media image and at the same time to reject the liberal view of their decadence and danger, this has certain consequences for thinking about the role of the media as the engine of a set of powerful yet historically located representations. These representations are not just any old representations. That is, what kind of representations they are, what they do to produce meaning, and what effects those meanings have is still of crucial importance. Part of what I want to suggest here is that they are in one way at least deeply satisfying representations whereby the world is resolved into images and which therefore help forge memories and identities, but they are representations also turned towards a kind of repeatability: the regime of the action replay and the ideology of sensationalism subventing it are not just psychologically but socially powerful phenomena which we live with and which forge a general consciousness about how the world works--the world as endlessly repeatable action and renewable sensation, and subject to all the immediacy and ready consumability of the image.

Here I'm half repeating and then somewhat extending what Hayden White has had to say about the media as historical texts, their function as he puts it rather clumsily as historiophoty. Responding to some fellow historians who are all in a tizzy about the place of historical discourse in the media century, and about the status of film texts as historical evidence, White points out that there is nothing intrinsically different, still less anything inferior about "historiophoty," and that a historiophotic text is a "text like any other;" he then goes on to argue for the need to analyse carefully the specificity of images as representation and for the need to gauge their ability to predicate historical reflection and not merely complement it. [4] The most immediately useful texts for White's discussion would be self-avowedly "historical" productions, such as  Shoah or Reds or Elizabeth, and more directly documentaries and testimonial film. But his main point must taken to extend to all other kinds of media representation, so that we can try to see more exactly what place particular kinds of representations play in the construction of our everyday culture and popular memory, and what kind of ideological and rhetorical work they do. Here again for White the crucial task is the study of the production of meaning within the overdetermined formations of contemporary culture and to that I would want to add the sense that it is the industrial formation of American media which informs and inflects the kinds of meanings produced. In that sense the historical matter that is treated in media texts, as well as the historical reflection they can give rise to, must be considered as a function of the scene of their production.

In a book a few years ago, Clint Eastwood A Cultural Production, [5] I tried to describe how those processes of cultural meaning production worked in relation to that one figure. The aim was to demonstrate the thick and complex imbrication of American media practice and production within the particular events and ideologies of particular cultural moments. It was rather usual at that time to see films like those of Eastwood through the lenses of all those over-familiar shibboleths of American mythography (the frontier, vigilantism, the lone heroic saviour of community, the integrity and wholesomeness of small-town America, and so on--all the standard tropes of what I would call a non-materialist brand of American historiography). What I was trying to show, in contrast, was that the meanings embedded in those tropes were by no means mythographic but needed to be specifically co-ordinated with a sense of the industrial work done by--the industrial practices of--contemporary media production, stressing, after Woolacott and Bennett, the "professional ideology" of media production, the professional ideology that sets the range of possibilities for plots and stories, characterization, image construction, production values, and so on. [6] That is, the semantic task of movies like Eastwood's would be  to adjust the continually shifting public discourse about America, its history, politics and culture—civic discourse, in short--back into familiar, manageable and pre-set frames (literally), frames whose calibration to the contexts of contemporaneous circumstances is the only work on meaning that the film industry either wants to do or is capable of undertaking.

In that book, then, I was trying to point to the need to understand the parameters of the industrial production of meaning. This was largely  in order to avoid falling into the easy arms of mythographic tropes,  but also to try to counter two tendencies in most film/media studies: first, the propensity towards offering ‘readings’ of individual texts in the way of a kind of practical criticism; and second, the then emerging "new audience studies" which seemed to me to fall too easily—perhaps inevitably—into a celebration of audience freedom. Without a sense of the way that  professional ideologies and the whole scene of production limit and contain what can be said in films, media criticism  will simply continue to replicate the very effort of the media industry itself. That is, critical reflection will do not much more than what  is already done by what I call in Clint Eastwood the tributary media (those fraternal and co-operative, partially owned and operated branches of Hollywood in the TV networks, entertainment magazines and movie distribution corporations); no more, that is, than subvent the accommodation of fictional-mythical histories to the ideological demands and parameters of the moment.

Of course the era of Eastwood and of that type of production has waned in many respects. It gave away its predominance first of all to all those action heroes of the 1980s, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steven Seagal and the rest, more or less all of whose films' main burden seemed to be to carry  on a discursive battle over America's failure in Vietnam and which tried to win that battle in a different decade by way of  Body By Jake heroes and Star Wars technology. The more spectacular and brutal the action and the more over-the-top the technology and special effects of that decade's movies, the better; and, of course, the more evident it became that the industry's simple aim was to form a semantic alliance with the Reagan revolution. While many of the films produced at this time specifically addressed the matter of re-fighting the Vietnam war, the consonance between the Hollywood ideological product and the ideological agenda of the Reagan years could be heard in other registers too. Thus, one film of that time stands out for its complaisance and its attempts to resolve the cultural narratives of the 1980s into images: perhaps rather obviously, given my title, I mean Terminator, James Cameron's film starring Arnold Schwarzenneger (19xx). This film is interesting on all kinds of levels, but its at the time groundbreaking special effects, its use of special effect technology that is, to construe a technological time travelling hit-man were and are especially informative. The film essentially pits an inhuman or inhumane use of technology--time travel, technologically over-endowed cyborgs, novel hi-tech weaponry--against more humane uses in a scenario that is at one level a paradigm for a "just war;" on another an instance of the industrial stand-by of the western. And consonant with its moment of production, the film is also a perverse kind of meditation on abortion, with the Terminator intent on performing a cosmic hi-tech abortion and the humans attempting to save a single baby for future leadership. Along the way the contemporaneous consumer technologies are shown to be weak and ineffectual--an answering machine that doesn't do its job, a shotgun ineffectually used against the Terminator's armoury, flimsy and clunky motor vehicles, a Sony Walkman that deafens a victim to signs of danger, and so on. These ordinary technologies of 1980s America are set against the startling technologies of the cyborg terminator and of time travel itself. The film's view and use of technology is just one illustration of the kinds of logical and ideological imaginaries that tend to congeal around  technology in US public life and have done throughout the growth, rise and supposed triumph of capitalism.

In the last few years, leading up to the millennial moment that we are assured is the moment of fully globalised capitalism, the notion of technology has come to play an almost talismanic role. Not too long ago in Washington DC there was an outdoor advertising campaign that provided an ordinary instance of the current technological imaginary in a poster proclaiming that "Technology is changing the face of the World: Washington DC is next" (without, incidentally, telling us what particular technologies might be applied to us, or how they change the face the world). In our moment of the dotcom economy we've been bombarded in an especially intense manner with similar claims about how technology is changing or will change the world by changing the very nature of capitalism itself. The most extreme claims of this sort--extreme but nonetheless currently taken as gospel in business, government, and the media--propose that technology can and will advance so drastically that economic value will no longer be produced by labour, or through the exploitation of labour in the way that Marx understood. Rather, the core of value production in a fully technologised capitalism will be the intangible elements of information and knowledge that are essentially the "content" of our new technologies and that will somehow magically . That idea seems to me to constitute nothing more than what I've called elsewhere a "millennial dream"--a wish-fulfilling fantasy about a totally whole and wholesome capitalism whose permanent dialectic other, labour, has now been transcended and, along with it, the class struggle that attends capitalism's exploitation of labour. Thus technology becomes a sort of panacea--not just in the everyday sense that suggests that technology can solve all practical problems, but in the sense too that it has rid us of capitalism's central antagonist, labour. [7]   

In such a cultural and economic climate where such ideas are taken as commonsense, we need to be especially clear about what role technology per se really does play  in capitalism--or rather, in the project of capital accumulation. While it's obvious that the development of capitalism's productive capacity is and always has been intimately related to the development of particular technologies, the role those technologies play is not, essentially, the kind of determining role that capitalism's current discourse would have us believe. Traditionally, it hasn't been especially important to capital that technologies should be able to engender "new" commodities, since what has been important usually  is the use of technologies as constant capital in the production process and their facilitating cuts in production costs. But since the beginning of this century Hollywood has, I want to argue, led the way in changes in capital's use of technology in so far as Hollywood's use of new technologies actually continually shifts the nature and meaning of the commodity sold. That is, for media industries technologies have chronically been less about the logic of production and more about the logic of the commodity itself. When I say Hollywood has led the way in this regard, I mean to point to the now more generalised situation today where capitalist technologies not only directly inflect the nature of the commodity but also more and more frequently become commodities themselves. We now live in the moment where technology-commodities, often developed from state operations like the military or NASA, form a major part of the consumer market and it becomes cheaper and cheaper to purchase say a cell phone and more and more expensive to produce say a ton of steel. This tendency is, I'm suggesting, something that Hollywood has pioneered and which is a now an especially important trend in the millennial moment where production and consumption get closer together.

At the same time as Hollywood leads the way in this process whereby new technologies inflect the nature of the commodity (we've seen this from the birth of sound technologies, through advances like deep focus technology, and on to the development of video, DVD, cable and satellite, and electronic games), Hollywood has always been able to construe the very image of advanced technologies on screen: from Chaplin's assembly line in Modern Times, through to Hal the computer in 2001, and on to Schwarzenneger's Terminator and beyond, Hollywood has hung the same kind of imaginary onto these technologies.  That is, technologies can always be seen as a threat, they will always be open to abuse, they can be invasive and destructive; but, Hollywood seems to claim, in the way of an industrial template, the proper human control of technologies within the context of the values of patriotism, the family, independence and heroism is desirable and above all possible.

This is the industrial ideology that crosses all those action films of the 1980s and it might have everything to do with Adorno’s notion that “the image of the technological world possesses an ahistorical facet that enables it to serve as a mythical mirage of eternity.” [8] It is, of course, by means of that "ahistorical" aspect that the real conditions of production and the social relations of production are smothered and denied representation. The "technological world" in that sense comes to elide history, not just in the service of a transcendent mythology or ideology, but in the service of a kind of wish-fulfillment whereby the central antagonisms of capitalism's history are as it were silenced by the ahistorical, by the "eternal."

But of course, as is clear from even a cursory glance at the varied  ideological adventures of Hollywood throughout this century, even eternity is always open to reconfiguration and recalibration under capitalism and we recall how in fact that industrial template of action movie meanings was throughout the 1980s also subvented by a peculiar and apparently decisive stage in US anti-communism. Thus with the fall of actually existing socialism, those action heroes and all their technologies had in their turn to pass the baton, their particular kind of rhetorical task having been transcended by what Frances Fukuyama famously dubbed the "end of history"--by which he meant to point (in another wish-fulfilling millennial dream) to the end of a world-historical dialectical conflict between capitalism and its enemies and to the triumph of capitalism. [9] If the 1980s generally demanded a certain kind of engagement with that world-historical conflict, the 1990s were left, ostensibly, with a little less to do at the overtly political or ideological level. It is that circumstance, perhaps, which best explains the change in Hollywood's mode of operation in the 1990s and its turn towards the kind of  familiar tropes and paradigms that enable the emergence of a very different kind of film.

With different films come different kinds of star and for me the paradigmatic figure in the 1990s is the rather homely one of Tom Hanks.

In the course of that decade Hanks steadily became a premium, if not the premium, bankable actor in Hollywood, through films such as Philadelphia, Apollo 13, You've Got MailSaving Private Ryan, and of course the inimitable Oscar-winning movie, Forrest Gump. I'll come back to the latter film below, but in the meantime it's interesting to note how each of these Hanks blockbusters of the 1990s assumes a particular relation to recent history. Each of them, that is, can be seen as an instance of how Hollywood "works through" significant historical matter. Even if the 1990s no longer demand a direct confrontation with an ideological enemy, it would seem that there are elements of recent history still to be dealt with--elements that we might think of as domestic matters. Thus, for instance, Philadelphia is the first Hollywood movie to tackle directly the arrival of AIDS into American life. Or else, You've Got Mail takes as its central diegetic problematic the eradication of small retailers in the path of mega-corporations and their monopolistic power.

In each instance of this sort (and there are of course many others beyond just these few Hanks movies) the working through of the historical matter results in a predictable kind of elision or wishing away of the central diegetical or historical material. Thus in Philadelphia, to put it very simply, the politics of AIDS and the scarifying consequences of the disease for social relations are swept up into an affirmation of the private values of family life. Similarly in You've Got Mail, the big corporation's railroading of small bookshops is turned into the most banal of love stories (and where the Meg Ryan character, the small bookshop owner falling for Hanks's corporate CEO,  must now stand as the dictionary definition of "internalizing one's own oppression").

And then of course, there's Forrest Gump, the movie that sets the standard for what we might once have called revisionist history with its technological sleights-of-hand and plot devices which place the very face and very figure of Hanks in the midst of the main events and cultural trends of the last forty years. If the action movies of the 1980s had in a sense refought the Vietnam war, Gump puts a full stop on all of that by taking a sardonic and even playful view of the conflict as well as of the social conflicts that used to be called the war at home. Gump's decades-long relationship with his childhood sweetheart essentially puts an end to the "war at home" in that the girl passes through all the social no-go areas of the 1960s and 1970s (she's a hippie and anti-war protester in the 1960s, stripper, disco girl and cocaine addict in the 1970s), only to return to Gump, marry him and produce a child before dying of AIDS. This is, as we might say, all that Hollywood allows: in much the same way as capitalism’s millennial dreams have worked to wish away the social contradictions of capitalism and its relation to labour, this film resolves the conflicts and contradictions of the recent American past into a image of continuity lent by the birth of a son. At the end of the film, the son replays Gump's own first school day, getting on the school bus. The film offers, then, a typical Hollywood image of continuity and regeneration through the family--less the regeneration through violence that Richard Slotkin sees as the motor to American life, it's more regeneration though hebetude. [10]

Each of these hanks movies in its way constitutes, as I've said,  a revisionist history of sorts. But it's not exactly their relation to the truth of history that is of prime interest here. Rather it's the way that they each resolve a part of American history into images that some would say epitomise the essence of American ideology but which I would say are simply the rhetorical reflexes of an industry indifferent to the nature of its commodities: that is, images of ordinary-Joe heroism, family strife and the affect of reconciliation, the loss of loved ones and the most quotidian of love stories. Under the guise that the industry has adopted over the years of catering to "ordinary people," each of these films in the end (that's to say, at their end) resolves into images of the gooey clump of sentiment that the industry is fond of calling "the human spirit" (the human spirit, preferably  captured in its even gooier phase of "triumph"). 

It's perhaps here that some of the ideas that I'm trying to suggest are easiest to grasp--the notion that the American media's imposition of a template of industrial meanings onto the material of history incessantly anneals the contradictions of that historical material, and produces  a history that is, in essence, domesticated, or rather is the history which will anneal the contradictions of any given contemporaneous moment. And so it is this non-contradictory history which will come to stand in popular memory as a history of our past. If as Benjamin says, "history resolves itself not into narratives but into images," [11] it only remains to add that the American media have ensured that the images which elide narrative are images of what is thought of as universal or essential human affect, an appeal to a static set of human values to tame the difficulties and contradictions of narrative.

I'm not intending to be especially critical of this process--at least not as critical as I probably sound. Rather I simply want to mark the way these representations arrive on our doorsteps and the annealing work they have to do to get there.  Their dominant and even domineering emergence into the public space of the nation is the result of a specific kind of industrial process used to make a commodity and fertilized  by the multifarious tributary media which most of us spend a disproportionate amount of our time attending to (television, radio, popular magazines and papers, and now the internet). The criticism I have is not of the commodities themselves (I'm almost as indifferent to the different instances of them as is capitalism itself), but rather of the process itself—the process by which capitalism produces its commodities and at the same time tries to transcend, elide or simply wish away the social relations of production.  And critical too of the sterility of the public sphere that has been thus induced, a public sphere where all history is ritually represented through the givens, the shibboleths, of an emotive humanism whose terms are not open to debate--or rather which have no forum in which to be debated.

It's with that point that I can return to the title of this essay, "terminator technology." If there are any benefits to be had from the biotechnology industry, for me the best so far is that they've given us this astonishing metaphor for capitalist production and for the way it works with the trope of technology to elide and wish away the troublesome material base of capitalism's procedures. "Terminator technology" is a metaphor that seems an apt way to talk about Hollywood especially--the locus of technologies that produce commodities which, once they've been purchased and planted in the soil, are effectively consumed once and for all since they're sterile and thus cause the consumer to buy them again next year and again the year after and so on into the new millennium of globalised capitalism. It's into this image, the image of this terminator seed,  that  I think some part of the history of the twentieth century most tellingly resolves itself.


[1] Gomery Allen See too J. Wasko, Hollywood in the Information Age: Beyond the Silver Screen Cambridge Polity 1994

[2] R. Ohmann, Selling Culture London Verso

[3] See for example F. Jameson,   or    ; and J. Baudrillard

[4] H. White

[5] P. Smith, Clint Eastwood: A Cultural Production U. Minnesota P.

[6] J. Woolacott and T. Bennett, Bond and Beyond

[7] P. Smith, Millennial Dreams Verso

[8] Adorno q

[9] Yet another citation to F.Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man!

[10]   R. Slotkin, Regeneration through Violence

[11] I have been alluding to this phrase of Benjamin's throughout this essay; see W. Benjamin