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Postmodern Village
est. 1999
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Dangermouse Battles the Body Cybernetic
by E.W. Wilder

By 1985 the self as recreated by increasingly technology-driven mass media began to be reflected back upon the average person as an increasingly mechanized being. Certainly, the mechanical model of medicine that had developed over the century before helped to further this trend, but increasing computer work in businesses and homes was a far more prevalent and insidious reminder of the technologization of what was contemporary life. We can trace the (con)-textualization of the cybernetic to 1948 and Norbert Weiner "to describe a new science which united communications theory and control theory . . . . [C]ybernetics encompassed the human mind, the human body and the world of automatic machines and attempted to reduce all three to the common denominator of control and communication" (Featherstone and Burrows 2). Thus was born the image of the self as part of the machine age and, by extension, as part of the burgeoning information age, as bodies had been reinvented through the past ages:

Weiner noted . . . that these stages generated four models of the human body: the body as a malleable, magical clay figure; the body as a clockwork mechanism; the body as a "glorified heat engine, burning some combustible fuel instead of the glycogen of the human muscles"; and, most recently, the body as an electronic system. Weiner's two-fold periodization is significant because it reveals an awareness, by one of the principle founders of cybernetics, of important disciplinary phases in the machine-based history of the western body. It is also significant because it draws attention to parallel phases in the body's functional reimaging as a fundamental element in a machine culture. (Tomas 23, emphasis his)

Contemporary with the creation of the cyberpunk novel in the mid 1980s was, then, a pre-existing re-visioning of the body in cybernetic terms, as extensions of the electronic system instead of the interpretations of the time that suggested that technology was an extension of the self. The cyberpunk novel is thus part of an already existing cybernetic system that had been revisioning the body for quite some time:

The cybernetic automaton's mirroring of the human body was not established on the basis of conventional mimicry, as in the case of androids and their internal parts, so much as on a common understanding of the similarities that existed between the control mechanisms and communicational organizations of machine systems and living organisms. (Tomas 27)

It's not so much that the machines became us as that we became they. William Gibson's seminal cyberpunk work, Neuromancer, was being created in 1985, would debut in 1986 and, "[u]nbeknown to its author, at the time [the book] was written, research was advancing in the field of fully immersive three-dimensional computer graphics - later to be termed 'virtual reality,'" in other words, the recursive interface of man and machine that man had already become (Clark 121). Furthermore, "Gibson's fictive notion of 'cyberspace' comprised a kind of felicitous fusion of the discrete and bounded virtual spaces that were already in existence" (Clark 121). The cyberpunk of the mid-eighties, then, was a description of an already envisioned self.

The m(0)thering of the body through the lens cybernetic is put famously into theory by Donna Haraway, where she postulates the cyborg as feminist signifier, anti-hegemonic and free of traditionalist constraints of gender by virtue of the cyborg's being free from a traditional body. This ignores the fact that the cyborg itself in nearly every film and novel dealing with the subject is a product, either directly or indirectly, of patriarcho-traditionalist industry, and, indeed, tends to reinforce gender roles by being characterized as hyper-gendered. Samantha Holland writes:

It is difficult to argue against reading the cyborg film as upholding often stereotypical and exaggerated gender differences at both a narrative and visual level. The representation of cyborg (and other) males in the cyborg film clearly fits with Steve Neal's theory that violence displaces male sexuality (in our homophobic culture) by undermining any notion of the male body as passive spectacle through narrative intervention that justifies the camera's objectifying gaze by making him the object or operator of violent action. In light of this, with characters such as the Terminator and RoboCop epitomizing filmic images of near-invincible soldiers, Springer claims that the cyborg film reveals "an intense crisis in the construction of masculinity." That is, integrating men (sic) with technology in the image of the hyper-masculine cyborg operates to "shore up the masculine subject against the onslaught of a femininity feared by patriarchy[.]" (165)

So the cyborg is, in fact, a product of the very rules of production of the early postmodern age, the 1980s. This is reflected in the great corporate success of both Apple and Microsoft and in the tremendous appeal of such virtual presidencies as that of Ronald Reagan, whose role as "The Great (White) Communicator" was facilitated by the television, itself an early cybernetic medium incorporating the viewer as a mass-produced downlink, the viewer, in turn, being able to "interact" with the medium by channel selection. Reagan appealed to viewers because of his photogeneity and relative lack of content. He became an empty being, an avatar, into which the average viewer could enter, existing within the primal, yet virtual space in an i(Ron)ically masculine-idealized body onscreen. Reagan brought the tremendous cybernetic power of television that advertisers had been exploiting for decades previously into the political arena on a day-to-day basis, creating, in effect, a politically-brand-identified-virtual-megacorp out of the White House. From that era on, control of the media through greater and greater advertising spending and greater and greater fund raising would be the single most important factor in how elections were won and lost. In effect, each campaign committee would have to create its own ad hoc virtual reality megacorp. The body politic becomes the body cybernetic.

We see the body as cybernetic system reflected in an almost perfect mirror-image rendering in a single episode of the popular British animated series Dangermouse titled "The Invasion of Colonel 'K.'" In this particular episode, Dangermouse and his trusty sidekick Penfold are shrunk to microscopic size to chase their previously shrunken arch nemesis Baron Greenback into the body of Colonel K in order to prevent Greenback from stealing all the secrets hidden away inside the Colonel's brain. What is startling about this episode is not the plot; similar themes were explored decades earlier in the film Fantastic Voyage. What is surprising about this episode of Dangermouse is its depiction of the interior of Colonel K's body. While Fantastic Voyage used alien but still naturalistic imagery (imagery of an alien world versus imagery of alien technology), Penfold and Dangermouse race through a nearly entirely technologized interior-scape. The walls of Colonel K's arterial structures depict gleaming metal; his brain itself is rendered as a computer control room sunk deep inside mechanically rendered "memory banks," rooms designed to look like modern bank vaults. The "body defenses" that hinder Dangermouse and Penfold as they chase Baron Greenback through Colonel K's body appear as both organic, spherical green army men, and as purely mechanical, a tracked frontloader with mean, metallic teeth that somewhat resembles ED-209 from the RoboCop series. These defenses further reinforce the blending of the biological and technological that characterizes a cybernetic system.

In the deigetic relationships to the rest of the characters, Colonel K is considerably older, a gentleman moving rapidly out of middle-age, purported to be by the narrator "a former desert rat." That would place him, assuming a roughly contemporaneous narrative, since this episode of Dangermouse came out in 1985, at about the age of an aging WWII colonel. Weiner's realization of cybernetics is pegged at 1948 - immediately after the war that brought all of the high-tech developments of the last half of the twentieth century, from the computer to the atom bomb, into fruition. This was, therefore, the period at which the body of Colonel K was revisioned as a cybernetic system. The body of Colonel K, then, is shown to be what it always already was: a machine. Furthermore, The Colonel's body, as the setting for a Fantastic Voyage-type plot, is the stand-in for all bodies, as the self-space in which contemporary forms of communication and control are played out. Dangermouse here describes exactly the world those living in 1985 had come to, one in which, as Neuromancer a year later would also note, we were already living as cyber-beings, one in which we actually had been living that way since at least WWII.

It is no coincidence that Dangermouse's archenemy is Baron Greenback, the nickname, also for the American dollar. The increasing control of high-tech industry, an industry created in the great blossoming in trade control and technological advancement of WWII, is predicated entirely on the dollar's promulgation and increase. It is the driving force behind all commerce, all media, the creation and reification of cybernetic communications and control, commercial television. The cyber-body is the product, almost by afterthought, of the Greenback, and Dangermouse the quintessentially British animated hero, and Dangermouse the British television show, use the Greenback's own tool to threaten his hegemony, delving into the cyber-body created by the Greenback's invasion into otherwise organic space. Baron Greenback enters Colonel K's body to "steal his secrets" in an attempt to control, once and for all, the organic as the cybernetic, to confound the already co-opted body into the vassal (vessel) of the almighty dollar. Dangermouse and Penfold race over a contrasting landscape on their way to save the day, a land of bucolic shops and green fields. Penfold himself is a representative of the nation of shopkeepers, unassuming and plain, quintessentially domesticated. He is the opposite of the Baron whose ostentation is represented by his diamond tiepin and cane, his insatiable desire, like Ronald Reagan and Microsoft - products of the same era - , to take over the world. He is the amphibian face, for he is a toad after all, of the multinational megacorp, invasive and controlling, able to live in either of the two primary environments, the private-self and the public-corporate, with equal ease - the unnatural product of an all-too-productive evolution. He is a cyborg, neither here nor there, threatening the very nature of nature herself, the warm world of mice and gerbils and kindly old colonels, with a cold ambiguity.

1985 turned out to be the defining year, when cybernetic systems revealed themselves to our consciousness, so inundating it that it is expressed even through the apparently mundane medium of a children's cartoon. But cartoons are directed toward the future even more than science fiction is exactly since they are directed at children. The adults who read science fiction are already lost to a future in which the always already cybernetic body fights for its own control using the same devices as those that enslave it, the hegemonic cyber-systems of mega-corporate communication and command.

Works Cited

Clark, Nigel. "Rear-View Mirrorshades: The Recursive Generation of the Cyberbody." Featherstone and Burrows, 113-33.

"The Invasion of Colonel 'K'" Dangermouse. Written by Brian Trueman, Dir. Brian Cosgrove. Perf. Dangermouse and Penfold. 1985.

Featherstone, Mike and Roger Burrows eds. Cultures Cyberspace, Cyberbodies, Cyberpunk: of Technological Embodiment. London: SAGE, 1995.

Holland, Samantha. "Descartes Goes to Hollywood: Mind, Body and Gender in Contemporary Cyborg Cinema." Featherstone and Burrows, 156-74.

Tomas, David. "Feedback and Cybernetics: Reimaging the Body in the Age of the Cyborg." Featherstone and Burrows, 20-43.