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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Tony Stark in the Integrated Circuit: The Iron Man films and Cyborg Feminism

In Iron Man 2, Tony Stark describes his suit, the Iron Man suit, as a prosthesis. Now, granted, he's describing it that way in order to flummox a congressional committee who assert that his suit is, in fact, a weapon. The scene as a whole is full of uncomfortable, almost Randian grand standingone. It's a problematic scene, to be sure.

The wild thing about Tony's claim, though, is that the films are almost calculated to back him up and support his claim. Iron Man--or, later, the Iron Men--is/are an extension of Tony's being. They are a prosthetic not in the sense that they restore him to some idealized "normal" human functionality but in the sense that they are a tool that acts as an extension of the human body in order to facilitate a human's aims.

It should be obvious that Tony Stark is a cyborg, though not a conventional one. His most obvious cybernetic feature is the power core embedded in his chest, but his suit, in the way it extends both his body and will, is also a part of his cybernetic being. The films consistently portray the Suit as a second self for Tony, an eventually unlimited tangle of extra limbs that transform his body into a fluidly-bounded and ambiguous mass.

Why am I bringing all this obvious stuff up?

Well, because these concepts aren't just of interest to transhumanists and science fiction fans, they're also of interest to a particular strand of contemporary critical theory--Cyborg Feminism. And the films don't just have a veneer of cyberization, they also can serve as an access point to these ideas and the deconstructive power they level at the existing power structures of the world.

Let's talk about Tony Stark the Cyborg.

I'm on a Giacometti kick after last article.
Now, one of the keys to understanding Cyborg Feminism is understanding that the Cyborg is not necessarily literal (although it certainly can be!) but stands as a symbol of hybridized, complex, and fluid identities. The notion of Cyborg Feminism can be traced to Donna Haraway's essay "A Cyborg Manifesto," which is fittingly and conveniently available online for anyone interested in reading it. I'm not going to be able to summarize everything Haraway has to say here, because there are about two or three intriguing notions condensed in each sentence. It's a superdense article, and it's written in an assuredly literary way that might be inaccessible on the first reading. Haraway starts out, after all, by describing her work as faithful to Marxist Feminism in the way that blasphemy is faithful--as a heretical reaction rather than an apostatic disavowal of the tradition. And that's just the beginning of the mindbending "serious play" that Haraway is engaged in.

There are a few key features that I want to pull out here, despite the density of the text. For Haraway, the Cyborg is not just a literal fusion of human and machine, but a metaphorical description of those who resist the Informatics of Domination--hostile power structures of white supremacist patriarchal capitalism as translated into the age of information--by way of appropriation, disruption, perversity, deconstruction, and a radical disregard for essential identities. See, Haraway is reacting against the feminism of the 1970s here and the notion of Women as having fundamental qualities that unite them against Men. This notion, in her reading, both reaches beyond even the Patriarchy itself in demanding a particular victimized role for women, and denies the possibility of queer identities and identities of women of color. Chela Sandoval, in expanding on Haraway's work, similarly is interested in the possibility of creating a politics that relies less on fundamental identities--essential notions of what it means to be a woman--and more on broad affinity-based coalitions between groups in order to resist power structures. This is part of the move in Third Wave Feminism to dismantle the White Cishet Woman as the truest representation of femininity and the feminist cause.

The Cyborg enters into this in part because the Cyborg is a powerful symbol of hybridity. In the Cyborg, the binary between Man and Machine is disrupted. One blends into the other fluidly; you can't sever one from the other without inflicting a psychic and physical wound onto the cyberized individual. And for Haraway, the Cyborg is the state of existence in which we are already embedded, and which Marxist Feminism must manipulate in order to resist:

"The dichotomies between mind and body, animal and human, organism and machine, public and private, nature and culture, men and women, primitive and civilized are all in question ideologically. The actual situation of women is their integration/ exploitation into a world system of production/reproduction and com-munication called the informatics of domination. The home, workplace, market, public arena, the body itself- all can be dispersed and interfaced in nearly infinite, polymorphous ways, with large consequences for women and others — consequences that themselves are very different for different people and which make potent oppositional international movements difficult to imagine and essential for survival."
This isn't, remember, apostasy--Haraway isn't a post-feminist and she doesn't deny the importance of resistance. But there's no essential Female Experience to rely on in order to build coalitions, because power structures impact different people in vastly different ways based on the multiple identities of which they are a part.

So, Haraway and Sandoval and others turn the fluidity of identity into a weapon against domination. For these Cyborg Feminists the dissolving of identity through technology creates a new field of battle where those who are dominated have the advantages necessary for survival.

How does all of that relate to Tony Stark, upper class, highly educated and intelligent white cismale?

Well, it relates in the way Tony's own cyborg identity can serve as an access point to these ideas.

See, Tony Stark, throughout the Iron Man movies, is linked explicitly with his suit. He is, as the famous line from the end of the first movie runs, Iron Man.

This results in some strange realizations, however. For one thing, Iron Man, this prosthetic, this extension of Tony's will, can be put on by other characters. The most obvious early instance of this is, of course, Colonel Rhodes's seizure of the "War Machine" suit during the second movie. There is a very brief moment of apparent confusion when Rhodey arrives on the air base wearing the suit, which, while seemingly resolved upon the revelation that it's Rhodey inside rather than Stark, suggests that the Iron Man identity is less dependent upon the wearer than Tony's assertions of identity suggest.

And, of course, throughout the films Tony is not wearing Iron Man alone. He is constantly assisted by Jarvis, and the reality of whether the suit is "inhabited" by Tony, Jarvis, or some combination shifts from scene to scene. When Tony is unconscious in the third film, for example, Jarvis takes over and flies him to safety based on a flight plan they determined together. In the sequences that follow, the comatose suit represents, variously, a part of Tony, an entity in its own right, and the depowered Jarvis. The thrilling plane rescue is possible because Tony can manipulate the suit remotely as a prosthesis separate from his physical self. In the conclusion of that film, Jarvis takes over as pilot for most of the suits, but Tony can take control at any moment, resulting in a prosthesis that is owned simultaneously by two consciousnesses--one human and one artificial.

So, we've got various moments throughout the films where the boundary lines between Tony Stark and Iron Man and other characters becomes blurred. The cyborg nature of Tony Stark is a vehicle for a blurred identity, an identity contingent on position. But this blurring of identity isn't the most interesting aspect of Cyborg Feminism. What about the dismantling of binaries--Male and Female, Civilized and Barbaric, Man and Machine?

Well, I think we can look to the very first film for a window into these ideas. Now this might all seem a bit Freudian for a moment here but I don't think we must necessarily think of it in Freudian Psycoanalytical terms. Just because something deals with weird sexual metaphors doesn't make it Freudian. The Surrealists, for example, were interested in the Unconscious but Freud reportedly once told Dali that he didn't find the artist's work a good representation of that concept, and their methodologies certainly went into far stranger realms than Freud himself necessarily ventured. I'd like to move culturally beyond this notion of ascribing to all sexual symbolism a Freudian, Oedipal dimension.

Rather, let's just think in terms of popular cultural signs--let's think semiotically and mythologically, in other words--about what it means for a woman to slide her whole hand into a man's wet, slimy hole.

Mm yes we're talking about THAT scene.

Like, ok, this is going to sound weirdly essentialist but there's a point to all of this, right? I'm talking here about the scene in the first film where Pepper helps Tony replace the power core in his chest, upgrading him essentially. And there's all sorts of signifiers here that are rather hard to assimilate in a traditionally defined semiotics of gender. Tony here is passive, powerless, totally vulnerable to his partner, who literally penetrates his body with her hand, all while he encourages her. The inside of Tony Stark is slimy and strange, a Cronenbergian pit that, as you watch the sequence, seems to extend far beyond what is probably biologically possible. It is a deep hole, fearsome and alien.

We are witnessing the alpha male Tony Stark transformed into a vulnerable but also disturbingly alien entity.

See what I mean about this being somewhat essentializing? Like, there's no way around it--there's a weird psychosexual dimension to this that draws upon traditional conceptions of male and female sex roles.

Buttwo these signifiers here function much the same way that they do in some extreme queer artthree--as a disruptive and deconstructive force applied to an unfamiliar body in ways that confound and disturb the boundaries of traditional binaries. The vulnerability of Tony Stark stems here from a confusion of Man and Machine. Tony's process of cyberization parallels his development into a strangely fluid subject, vulnerable, hysterical, clinging to the symbols of masculinity while he is bodily transformed into an entity that, in its cyborg dependence upon those surrounding him, mirrors traditional conceptions of femininity. He is totally at the mercy of Pepper Potts, and the moments when she causes him pain (through touching the wires to the side of the casement for his cybernetic heart) that flipped power dynamic, with the woman wielding the instruments of painful penetration over the male subject, is emphasized. But all the while he asserts the masculine rationality of the scientist, asserting that the state of his own body is acceptable, expected, within anticipated parameters. So, there is a strange interplay here of signs.

Tony Stark in this scene becomes, basically, a deconstructive entity.

In this scene, boundaries that the film has heretofore asserted dramatically--masculine/feminine most prominently--are not simply flipped but confused as different conflicting signifiers come into play.

This is a window into the kind of deconstructive force that Haraway, Sandoval, and others bring to bear in their work with cyborg feminism. The essentialized notions of what Male and Female mean in their methodology are confused and disrupted in a radical poetics of symbols. Here we see Masculinity and Femininity, at least as understood by patriarchal post-industrial ideology, disrupted and blended into one another in a visceral and embodied way, through Tony Stark's cyborg body. And we see, too, a disruption of the Man/Machine binary. Tony Stark's biology, and the weird slimy secretions of his body, are part and parcel with his cybernetics, the metallic technology that keeps him alive.

This game of binary disruption ultimately culminates in the third film, which disrupts political boundaries between East and West, personal boundaries between Self and Other, and, above all, notional boundaries between Technology and Biology.

The third Iron Man film hinges upon the understanding that the simple East/West division of the previous films (already suggested as false, in characters Obadiah and Justin Hammer) is false and ultimately a tool of domination. The vaguely Eastern threat The Mandarin is revealed to be a construct of decidedly Western forces, the terrorist threat collapsing into the self-generated perpetual motion machine that is the War On Terror. The apparently solid identity of the Mandarin as a man of color is revealed to be far more fluid, revealed to be the construction of the actor Trevor Slattery, a Brit. The racist and racialist assumptions of the characters (and the audience, and the source comics) are here overturned and deconstructed.

But this is only the most obvious manifestation of the deconstructive force of the third film. Perhaps more interesting to Cyborg Feminist aims is the way in which bodies become fluidly bounded over the course of this film. I've already discussed the way in which Iron Man is revealed as a prosthesis and even an extension for or stand in for Tony Stark, and also the way in which those boundaries are blurred. It is worth keeping this in mind as the film progresses, because one of the recurring story beats involves Tony Stark surrendering this extension of his being to another person. This occurs most notably when, during the Christmas attack on his home, he casts the suit outward from himself and relinquishes control of this part of his body to Pepper.

This is not only a cool scene, it also is intriguing from the perspective of the symbolism that the films have already established. The suit here acts as Tony's proxy in protecting Pepper, but ultimately she wears and commands it, using it to save the life of Maya Hansen. While Tony ultimately has the power to reclaim his control, for this moment, and for other moments in the film, Pepper commands what elsewhere exists as an extension of Tony.

In these moments, then, the boundary between Tony and Pepper, Man and Woman, Human and Machine, are disrupted.

From that point on, Tony's identity becomes more and more fluid, as the Iron Man suit transforms steadily from proxy to identity in its own right and back again. The Iron Man suits in the climax to the final movie serve as a reflection of Tony's fractured psychology and his fears, but they also serve as a networked, destabilized, and distributed identity that Tony can put on or take off at will. The Iron Man suits enable Tony to achieve in physical matter the kind of fluidity of self that Cyberspace has long promised.

And it is that fluidity of identity that ultimately allows Tony and Pepper to triumph over Killian. While Killian is a transhuman entity possessing incredible powers of regeneration, he ultimately is reliant upon a monadic identity--"I AM the Mandarin!" he shouts during the final confrontation. "No more masks!" For Killian, his own body stripped down to its Extremis core, and Tony stripped of his Iron Man suit, represent "true" forms that exist beneath the lies and parallel identities.

But he is defeated by a one-two punch from the Iron Man distributed identity network.

First, Tony Stark entombs Killian in the suit that he's spent the most time interacting with as an alternate identity and sacrifices the prodigal son in an act of symbolic suicide in order to defeat Killian. An entire sequence of Tony shedding and fluidly replacing skins concludes with him commanding the destruction of one extension of himself when it becomes more strategically viable to lose it. His identity has become a matter not of definitive form but of strategic use, a self selected based on his positionality and the positionality of the entities he interacts with. (This strategic fluidity parallels the strategic use of language patterns in racial contexts, the strategic fluid movement in and out of the closet depending on the relative safety of particular spaces, and so on--the fluidity of identity is already a mode of resistance, we just see it dramatized here through science fiction means.)

And then, his final defeat comes at the hands of Pepper, appropriating the Iron Man suit. There's a lot packed into these last few seconds that we should really dig into. First of all, Pepper's survival and ability to defeat Killian comes from Killian's own forced medical procedure inflicted upon her. She is literally here turning the tool of oppression against her oppressor. Furthermore, the way she defeats him is fundamentally predicated on identity. Jarvis misidentifies her as a target due to her Extremis heat signature--from the perspective of a simplistic division between Extremis/Non-Extremis she is a target. That inarticulate binary formation, though, allows Pepper to first destroy the inbound Iron Man suit, and then to capture components of the suit for her own use. She first deconstructs the object bent on destroying her, and then appropriates it, makes this separate identity a part of herself, in order to blow the true-identity-asserting Killian up.

A little on the nose as a description? Maybe, but that's kind of the point here--we can see this stuff as a metaphor for ideas that Haraway and Sandoval are interested in. It's a way of making these notions clear.

And I think it highlights the fact that when at the conclusion of the trilogy Tony states definitively "I am Iron Man," that statement is fraught with uncertainty and difficulty. It is not wrong as a statement, but it also doesn't encompass the totality of what Iron Man might be. Tony Stark is Iron Man, but is Iron Man Tony Stark, or has Iron Man become such a distributed identity that many entities could eventually claim the title, just as there are many Human Torches, many Batmans (particularly after Grant Morrison mucked around with the continuity), many iterations of other characters?

From this perspective, the multiversal, fluid, costumed nature of Superhero Comics in general becomes a powerful representation of Cyborg identities and the potential space for semiotic resistance. While Thor becoming female and Captain America becoming black is certainly a publicity and marketing stunt, from this perspective it also represents a dangerous and threatening dismantling of the semiotic system of superhero comics--and the proof of its danger lies in the furious reaction and demands for a monadic identity for these characters, a demand that we accept that these are not the REAL Thor or Captain America!

I am the Mandarin.

I am Iron Man.

This is Thor.

This is Captain America.

All of these statements are conditional, complicated, temporal, determined by multiple factors, as are the statements:

I am straight.

I am white.

I am male.

I am Cyborg Maria.

They depend on rigid binaries that no longer exist in culture, if they ever did. Science is late to the party, but it's on the doorstep of the right house finally and it's rapidly discovering what Theory has asserted for a long time: binary identities are bullshit. The turning of this polymorphous perversity against the very forces of military-industrial capitalism that birthed it is the great ironic project that, to crib notes from Saul Williams, we symbolic-language readers and sparrow feeders are called upon to engage in and transform into politics of resistance: the Methodologies of the Oppressed.

Postscript: The End of the Story

So, what do we make of the end of the final film in the trilogy?

God, I don't know.

It's tough, because the end of the film provides a resolution to Tony's character arc across the films as he realizes that the Suit has become a way of combating the nebulous constant threat from Outside that he fears.four From that perspective, the rejection of the eternal vigilance of the Military-Industrial Complex as a pathology, literallized in Tony Stark's post-traumatic stress disorder, is a fitting conclusion to a film aimed squarely at the engines of eternal war that still drive this nation and others.

And even from the perspective of Transhumanism as a whole the end of the film is remarkably well considered. Tony Stark does not reject science wholly but comes to recognize that drive to create without a true ethical framework ("don't create weapons" doesn't cut it when you build yourself a basement full of super suits that could take out several whole squads of trained soldiers without any trouble!) is untenable. He still ultimately embraces science as a way of healing his body of the shrapnel inflicted in the first film, of curing Pepper of her unstable Extremis treatment, of inspiring and improving the life of Harley, and of, ultimately, finding a way to move on from the wreckage of his life. All of this is good!

But from this perspective of cyborg feminism it's frustrating, because it seems almost like a symbolic return to a previous order where machines and bodies are separate, Man, Animal, and Machine severed from each other in a series of binaries that the film elsewhere disrupts and dismantles. The film isn't incoherent, exactly--not like, say, Dark Knight Rises, which stumbles over itself semiotically and thematically at each turn--but it doesn't explore this concept to the full extent that I think it could.

And honestly, there's very little chance that it could have reached its true potential. For Cyborg Feminism is not post-identity, and Tony Stark is still very much a white cishet rich able-bodied American man, and I think there is a recognition, even within Cyborg Feminism, that while the ultimate aim of the project is to dismantle structures, there are still folks on the top of the social heap who have access to greater powers of speech than others. There is a danger in Tony Stark, in part because of his privileged position, that he might become himself a totalizing essentializing figure of the True Cyborg Experience when the technologies of Cyborg Feminism may be mobilized in far different ways by different individuals and groups.

The promise of this film might only manifest in a film Marvel is unlikely to produce in the near future, due to its frustrating conservatism--or, not conservatism, say, but Liberalism, a broadly leftist stance that still shies away from producing films starring women, queer characters, people of color, or god forbid queer women of color.

No, the Iron Man movies are a useful access point (in part because they're so damn good) but they do not represent the full manifestation of a Cyborg Feminist political strategy. For something like that... hm, you might start with Serial Experiments Lain perhaps, which I dug into during the Party in the Wired on Tumblr. Of course, Janelle Monae comes to mind as a useful source. The works of Ursula LeGuin and Octavia Butler are cited frequently in texts drawing upon this framework. There is material out there, in short.

So, I'm not going to criticise the film too strongly for lacking the conviction and structure to see this particular thematic strand through to the point where I'd prefer it to end up, because it's still a very, very good film, and it can, at the very least, serve as an access point to these notions.

It is not, after all, that the product must be perfect. The Cyborg is not innocent, it is not unproblematic, but it is not questing after a primordial pre-Fall Eden. It makes use of the tools that are available to it.

So do I.

So do we all.

Somewhat mitigated by the revelations in Iron Man 3 about the corrupt nature of the military-industrial complex and the revelation in Captain America: The Winter Soldier that the head of the congressional committee was a member of Hydra and also kind of a sleeze ball.

as with Cronenberg, interestingly

See Jennifer Doyle's Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art

And, in case you were curious, this is a concept that pops up in contemporary theory too--just as liberating forces can be fluid and rhisomatic, so may violent enemies, and the modern state is obsessed not with singular powers--i.e. the Soviet Union or China--but with a nebulous threat--hackers, mutating disease, terrorist cells, all spreading organically, unpredictably.

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