Synopsis from IMDB:
Sleazy lowlife cable TV operator Max Renn discovers a snuff broadcast called “Videodrome.” But it is more than a TV show–it’s an experiment that uses regular TV transmissions to permanently alter the viewer’s perceptions by giving them brain damage. Max is caught in the middle of the forces that created “Videodrome” and the forces that want to control it, his body itself turning into the ultimate weapon to fight this global conspiracy
The opening line of the film is:
Civic TV, the one you take to bed with you
This line encapsulates the media’s tone of permissive intimacy and its pervasive presence in the lives of the public. The station is modelled on the cable TV companies that developed in Canada during the 1980’s. They operated under the conflicting motives of profit and civic service. In the free market ‘libertarian’ model the desires of the customer ideally drive the product with the operative assumption that man is a rational creature making informed choices. This political anthropology derives from the nineteenth century and has always excluded the reality that, if unchecked, the baser instincts will prevail, resulting in the dumbed-down, sensationalist and pornographic programming such as Max Renn deals in. Even today the shallow rhetoric of ‘supply and demand’ and ‘catharsis’ is regularly employed by the media apologists to rationalise the capitulation to the free market ideology and disavow its destructive social and psychological effects.
One aspect of the problematic nature of our daily interaction with the media (newspapers, TV, radio, cinema, advertising, brand names etc.) derives from the overwhelming exposure to artificial domains offering an endless stream of impressions, provoking reaction or inducing passivity, which have the cumulative effect of embedding us in an environment of instrumentality. In The Consumer Society Jean Baudrillard writes:
Just as the wolf-child became a wolf by living among wolves, so we too are slowly becoming functional. We live by object time: by this I mean that we live at the pace of objects, live to the rhythm of their ceaseless succession. Today, it is we who watch them as they are born, grow to maturity and die, whereas in all previous civilisations it was timeless objects, instruments or monuments which outlived the generations of human beings.
This is a striking observation when we consider the effect on human identity. The Gothic cathedrals of the West, for example, were built over generations and existed as the central focus for a community in terms of activity and identity. The built-in obsolescence of our environs can translate into an identity regarded as equally temporary, functional, and disposable.
What marks our era as unique amongst others is the recent emergence of a sophisticated technological means of representation which threatens to substitute itself in the mind of the populace for reality. The vicarious existence within an alternate reality is the problematic area explored in the film. Its self-reflective nature raises questions about reality and representation which are not new but which, in our era of media saturation, are ever more relevant. We are witnesses to the magnification on a global scale of the issues disputed by philosophers such as sophistry, ontology and epistemology among others. The media conglomerates constitute a socio-economic power with an influence far beyond the scope of anything conceived by political theorists of the past. The exact nature of the media is yet to be articulated because it is at present the predominant frame within which the terms and parameters of political and cultural discourse are determined.
THE REVOLUTION HAS BEEN TELEVISED
The character of Brian O’Blivion, a media analyst, outlines his thesis:
The battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena, the videodrome. The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye. Therefore the screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore television is reality and reality is less than television.
The videodrome project is his brainchild in a literal sense:
I had a brain tumour. And I had visions. I believe the visions caused the tumour, and not the reverse. I could feel the visions coalesce and become flesh, uncontrollable flesh. But when they removed the tumour it was called videodrome… I think massive doses of the videodrome signal will ultimately create a new outgrowth of the human brain, which will produce and control hallucination to the point that it will change human reality. After all there is nothing real outside our perception of reality, is there?
The Professor believes the signal can function as an enhancement of perception and the stimulus for the evolution of a new organ in the ‘technological animal‘. His philosophy is a benign trans-humanism which evangelises through the ‘Cathode Ray Mission’, a charity organisation which employs the signal on down and outs ‘to patch them back in to the world’s mixing board‘. Professor O’Blivion is modelled on Professor Marshall McLuhan and there are similarities in his vision to McLuhan’s idea of a ‘global village’. But an additional and significant influence is the counterculture figure of Professor Timothy Leary who advocated the use of LSD as a tool for raising consciousness.
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern. (William Blake The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)
Just as LSD originated from within the military before it entered the counterculture of the sixties, so too the Videodrome project is partly financed by a faction whose intentions are not benign. Barry Convex is the sales representative who approaches Max once his curiosity has been aroused by an apparent ‘pirate’ transmission of the signal featuring scenes of violence stripped of all political and social context. Max is keen to find the next big thing, a breakthrough concept, of which videodrome may be a forerunner and he wants in on it. Spectacular Optical is the company which Barry Convex represents and who describes it thus:
We make inexpensive glasses for the Third World and missile guidance systems for NATO. We also make videodrome, Max. As you know, when its ready for the marketplace, things will never be the same again. It can be a giant hallucination machine and much, much more
This is an oblique reference to the alliance of military power and humanitarian aid which constitutes an ideological extension of power. The media is deeply embedded within the structure of power and plays a vital role in the ‘battle for the mind.’
BEHOLD THE MAN
The helmet used to record and analyse Max’s hallucinations is a creative foreshadowing of Google Glass which is in development but encountering problems relating to the social effects of the technology. As Nora Dunne writes in Digitalethics.org:
CNET senior editor Scott Stein explained how it felt wearing Glass on a train in New Jersey. “People stared, but cautiously. I didn’t want to look at them. I didn’t want to make them feel uncomfortable. But there’s no way for a camera conspicuously hovering on your glasses to not generate some level of social discomfort, no matter how elegantly designed.”
The device’s camera and video capabilities are so subtle that privacy concerns are inevitable. While it’s possible to take photos and record audio or video on the sly with a smartphone, it’s even easier with Glass, so much so that many businesses, from bars to hospitals, banned the product before it was even released. (Google Glass: Flawed Technology or Flawed Ethics?)
Data mining, digitization of archives, targeted advertising, the human-computer symbiosis appearing on the horizon, virtual reality and so forth, are developments raising ethical issues which are difficult to address in a liberal orthodoxy which embraces the free market ideology. The media often presents itself as a tool for enlightenment, education and the dispensing of civic virtues. The avowed aim of promoting truth, equality and inclusiveness, conflicts with the market driven aims of competition for audience share, exclusive rights, and monopolisation. There is an increasingly blurred line between public and private capital and the employment of the media to promote financial and/or State interests creates a situation where the ‘Corporate State Media’, a subject of much dystopian fiction, is in a very real sense implicit in the background of information technology.
The transmission of a signal in videodrome is analogous to the transmission of a worldview, an ideology. The media has become a 24 hour cycle of alternate reality, an artificial environment which is isolated from, but also parasitical upon, reality. The stylised representation of the real, the eclectic mix of multiple genres and the sheer volume of images and sounds is more or less the ‘hallucination machine‘ of Spectacular Optical. There is still a need for the real to exist as the base upon which the fantasies and distortions operate but when the mercantile imperative is dominant there occurs the commodification of cultural heritage and the monetisation of moral and spiritual values. The bankrupt Western legacy is handed over to the marketplace of the media in a clearance sale, to be cashed in for the generation of profit. When what appears on the screen is inserted into a mercantile network it ceases to be a representation of the culture and becomes an advert, a form of product placement, for the liberal orthodoxy. There is always a sense of debasement associated with the television medium due to the commercial element inherent in the medium and the subsequent incentive to appeal to the largest demographic. The material and spiritual crossover occurring within the medium of ‘The Shopping Channel’ and ‘God TV’ is indicative of a subversive intertwining of antagonistic principles inherent within the egalitarian ethos of liberalism.
A character in the film tells Max to stay away from Videodrome:
Because it has something that you don’t have, Max. It has a philosophy and that is what makes it dangerous.
Barry Convex explains to Max why Videodrome is so compelling:
It’s the effect of exposure to violence on the nervous system. It opens receptors in the brain and they allow the signal to sink in.
This is no different from the pleasure principle operating in the media surrounding us. The subtle conditioning operates below the level of conscious awareness and invokes the residual power of myth and cultural iconography along with a myriad of psychological techniques:
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society… In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind. (Edward Bernays Propaganda 1928)
Bernay’s vision is one that derives from the conception of human beings as complex, mechanistic entities which can and must be controlled and directed by a technocratic elite. This shallow and reductive conception is inherent in the general pragmatism of the American heritage: a heritage built partly on the Enlightenment ideals of rational order and mechanistic functionality but partly on the Puritanism of the Pilgrim Fathers. Science and its instrument of technology becomes the authoritative center, replacing traditions and religions and charting the course toward the future harmony:
Liberalism freed men from superstitions like belief in God. Yet, once there was no God, once the moral law had been discredited as equally superstitious, then social control becomes a necessity because the object of self-control, the passions, now had nothing to give them direction or keep them under control. Just as social chaos was the natural result of liberalism’s philosophy so social control was the natural result of its politics: the one flowed inexorably from the other. (E Michael Jones: Libido Dominandi)
Barry Convex and Harlan, who exposed Max to the signal, represent the Puritan heritage of America struggling with the Enlightenment heritage. They intend to use Max’s Channel 83 as a conduit for the signal to reshape society to their own ends:
North America is getting soft, patron, and the rest of the world is getting tough, very, very tough. We’re entering savage new times and we’re going to have to be pure and direct and strong if we’re going to survive them. Now, you and this cesspool you call a television station, and your people who wallow around in it, and your viewers who watch you do it, you’re rotting us away from the inside. We intend to stop that rot. We’re going to start with Channel 83. We’ll use it for our first transmission of Videodrome. I have a hunch it’s going to be very popular… for a while.
Spectacular Optical intend to control his hallucinations and render him subject to their will, symbolised by his physical absorption of the video cassette. He becomes an updated version of The Manchurian Candidate and is directed to kill his his partners at the TV station. In the Director’s Commentary Cronenberg talks of a moral majority creating an opposing ‘immoral minority’ in order to mobilise and control the society politically. The reverse scenario is in fact far more prevalent. The rhetorical creation of a mythical right-wing minority lurking in the shadows is continually operative in the structure of liberal politics. Liberalism disavows its own will-to-power even as it uses the state to marginalise and exile ideas which threaten to impede the progressive advance. The cordon sanitaire it has placed around dissenting conceptions has resulted in the severe disconnection between the orthodoxy of media and politics and the historical context from which it emerged. This schism between traditional values and progressive ideologies carries with it the dread of a ‘populist backlash’ or a ‘resurgent nationalism’ or indeed a ‘moral majority,’ in other words a counter-revolution. Liberalism is essentially a revolutionary movement, inherently transgressive of the moral and natural law. The diffusion of erotic imagery throughout the media, just like Videodrome, has a philosophy behind it:
Self-control, especially modesty, chastity and fidelity in the sexual area is regarded as ‘repression,’ an emotional disorder from which the public and school-children need to be ‘liberated.’ One of the principal tools proposed to bring about this ‘liberation’ is exposure to transgressive imagery which invites the participant to suspend or bypass the form of rational self-control proposed by Judeo-Christian and philosophical traditional moral knowledge and virtues (Joseph McCarroll :Transgressive Imagery)
Once the citizen has been ‘liberated’ from self-control and responsibility they can be handed over as a ‘client’ to the small army of psychologists, behavioural therapists, social services, marriage guidance counselers, lifestyle coaches and agony aunts. The citizen is thrown into the vortex of an inverted moral framework to be reprogrammed in line with the will of the liberators.
THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY
Max’s girlfriend is television ‘agony aunt’ Niki Brand. Her name is a punning reference to the sado-masochistic element connected with the Videodrome signal. Nick as in ‘cut’ and Brand as in ‘burning’. The media industry relies on seduction and excitement, the viewer is held in a state of emotional stimulation through game shows, sports, movies and even news reports. With the choices available the consumer can fashion their own virtual reality responsive to their desires and dreams. The darker side of the fantasy world is the reality that the desires of the individual deliver them over to the manipulation of advertisers and social engineers who prey upon the primal forces of sexuality and desire. When desire is unleashed within a person severed from the traditional taboos and restraints of the past the unrestrained appetite becomes complicit in a form of destructive bondage, addiction, to that which serves it. This is the moral aspect which the liberal ideology refuses to countenance even as the cabaret begins to resemble an abattoir.
Denial of this state of impoverishment and servitude is assisted by the anesthetic effect of the technological wonder-world. The media complex creates a shadow reality sustained by the real but transforming it into a hallucinatory mechanism functioning as a prosthetic consciousness. The growth of the internet is acting as a solvent of the Western legacy; uploading the knowledge of millenia and reproducing it as an interconnected but disembodied, virtual presence. This spectral aspect of modernity bears within it a consciousness of the growing disconnection from the real, which continues to be elsewhere and otherwise.
The Postmodern Empire of the liberal west has been the most unstable and destructive of them all. Nations that have survived totalitarianism, genocide and dictatorship begin to buckle only when exposed to liberalism. Liberalism is a solvent because it is based on nominalism: the ontology of death. The moment no universal objects or meanings exist, not only is the created order without purpose, but this also means that the elite get to decide what meanings exist at all. When language is detached from objects, and, at the same time, if language creates reality, then those who create language create reality. Postmodern liberalism is created by major media who chaperone all communication and socially acceptable language. Over time, in conditions of unchallenged nihilism, these corporate elites decide what is real and what is not. (Matthew Raphael Johnson: Nominalism, Psychology and the Underground Man:The Revolt against the Mass)
THE NEW FLESH
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. ..And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. (The Gospel of St John)
Cronenberg’s visual language is distinctive by its obsessive depiction of flesh in various forms of mutation, infection and destruction. The psychological is intertwined viscerally with the physical realm just as in Videodrome the technological is merging with the organic. The horror/sci-fi genres are also merged in this film which draws upon the Christian concept of incarnation and the scientific conception of cybernetics. Max is re-programmed by Brian O’Blivion’s daughter, Bianca, to become a weapon against Spectacular Optical with the words ‘I am the video world made flesh.’ This echo of the incarnation of the Word (Logos) in Christ is a secular reframing of the metaphysical transfiguration of humanity as understood within Christian doctrine. The liberal ideology of the West attempts to harness the technological developments of modernity to its own form of messianic thought: the secular eschatology of egalitarianism.
In the text of St John above we witness the interplay and relation of opposing principles the reverberation of light and shadow as in a thunderstorm. The turbulent chiaroscuro of the religious vision is manifested here in the words and syntax to evoke the mystical dimension of existence. If the Logos can be conceived, in a strictly secular analogy, as a kind of supra-technology, a metaphysical order which in-forms the incarnated flesh, then the viewers in-formed by and embedded within the medium of technolgical media are undergoing a transformation with no moral language to orientate themselves in relation to this new environment. The disconcerting nature of flesh in Cronenberg’s films derives from the implicit fear of a corrosion of identity, the dissolution of the metaphysical ground of being and immersion within the flux of matter.
Unfortunately media analysts are more often than not apostles of cybernetic salvation and complicit in the installation of ideological software which attempts to invert the Logos hard-wired into the Western consciousness. It is often overlooked that Marshall McLuhan’s critique of the media was grounded in his Catholicism, his connection to the spiritual dimension, which provides a level of immunity to the allure of a technological paradise :
It is not brains or intelligence that is needed to cope with the problems which Plato and Aristotle and all of their successors to the present have failed to confront. What is needed is a readiness to undervalue the world altogether. This is only possible for a Christian… All technologies and all cultures, ancient and modern, are part of our immediate expanse. There is hope in this diversity since it creates vast new possibilities of detachment and amusement at human gullibility and self-deception. There is no harm in reminding ourselves from time to time that the “Prince of this World” is a great P.R. man, a great salesman of new hardware and software, a great electric engineer, and a great master of the media. It is his master stroke to be not only environmental but invisible for the environmental is invincibly persuasive when ignored.(Marshall McLuhan: