Disability as a Generative Narrative in Blade Runner

Tuesday, 12 April 2016 16:10

Last month I presented a paper on disability in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner at ICFA. If you know me, then you know that ICFA is my favourite conference (and the only one I faithfully attend). Instead of letting my paper sit forgotten on my computer, I am posting it here to share with anyone interested. Since I wrote this as a conference paper, it is not as polished as a formal article for publication. To help with readability, I've included a few notes to help clarify any "off-script" moments and have cited the dialogue of the two clips I showed.



"I want more life”—Disability as a Generative Narrative in Blade Runner

Previously, in the few instances when disability studies scholars have taken up Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, they have read it as a film about cure (Johnson Cheu) or about the consequences of genetic engineering (Michael Bérubé), arguing that it recuperates ableist narratives of disability. Indeed, the dominant narrative of most SF films (and other SF texts) cast disability as an unwanted fate of the other, as something to be cured and eliminated from an idealized human future. As Alison Kafer, in Feminist, Queer, Crip, asks: “What is it about disability that makes it a defining element of our imagined futures, such that a “good” future is one without disability, while a “bad” future is overrun by it?” (10). One of the earliest disability studies readings of Blade Runner comes from Jason Cheu. In his essay, “De-gene-erates, Replicants and Other Aliens: (Re)defining Disability in Futuristic Film,” Cheu argues that:

The replicants can be considered “disabled” from several standpoints. At its base, such a storyline reaffirms some common stereotypes of disability. First, disabled people are overcompensated in one sense when another is deficient…The replicants make up in superior strength and agility what they lack in emotional depth and lifespan. Second, disabled people are bitter about being disabled, causing them either to be depressed or angry, and are consumed by the desire to be “normal.” After all, what threat do the replicants pose? The replicants are only a problem when they desire to escape the boundaries of their fate, their enslavement, their bodies and be more human, more “normal.” […] Third, if one cannot be “cured,” it would be better to die. Death is preferable to being disabled. It is not that the replicants want to die, rather that this idea is imposed by humans whose response to the replicants’ desire to be more human is to use Blade Runners to kill them. […] In this Utopia, replicants are considered second- class citizenry and stigmatized as much. (Cheu, 204)

Cheu’s reading of the replicants in Blade Runner is compelling but I found that it never sat well with me (especially his classification of the film as a utopia). I have always thought of Blade Runner, perhaps not as a hopeful film about disability, but as one that expanded the possibilities of what it means to be disabled in the future. In her book, Disability and Popular Culture, Ellis addresses the concept of the “producerly text,” which is a popular text (like a movie or comic book) that “offers itself up to popular production,” and that can be considered “simultaneously disabling and enabling” (10-11). A producerly text, then, is one that encourages its readers and consumers to “rewrite” it and “make sense of it” on their own terms (10), to create counternarratives. Producerly texts both recreate and subvert ableist narratives. For example, Ellis notes that while James Cameron’s Avatar has been rightfully criticized for its stereotypical depiction of a wheelchair user, at the same time, it has also introduced “optimism around technology while critiquing the disabling impact of corporate values” and militarization (78).

I believe that Blade Runner [note: I am discussing the 2007 “Final Cut”] is an excellent example of a producerly text, one which is open to multiple counternarratives that go well beyond the dominant readings previously put forward in disability studies literature. While I agree with Cheu’s conclusion that the replicants in Blade Runner (like the disabled today) “are considered second-class citizenry” (204), I want to problematize this straightforward interpretation by reading the relationships between the replicants as generative of a more diverse disability narrative. While it is true that many popular SF narratives focus on the cure or elimination of disability, Blade Runner places emphasis on the inhumanity of removing individual agency in the process of urbanization, commodification, and medicalization (all process which rely on an unequal and hierarchal distribution of power). I propose that the audience is forced to confront the experience of disability as more than impairment, as a social construction when we read for the counternarrative of reciprocity. By recognizing the replicants investment in developing relationships based on reciprocity and the recognition of autonomy, it becomes clear that each individual is worthy of “more life.” By moving the normate/able body out of the centre in favour of the replicant, and by reading for the counternarrative of reciprocity, the ideal but unrealized outcome in the film is in the proliferation of disability, not in its eradication.

So what do I mean here by reciprocity? I am drawing inspiration from last year’s ICFA SF theory roundtable (chaired by Dr. Grace Dillon). We were reading Colin Scott’s “Science for the West, Myth for the Rest? The Case of James Bay Cree Knowledge Construction,” which addresses the indigenous concept of knowledge as reciprocal in nature (i.e., both entities in a relationship observe and share/develop knowledge with the other) [note: I have a lot more to say about the productive relationship between Indigenous Nations Studies and Disability Studies, but that is a conversation for another paper. My apologies for not doing Scott’s excellent article full justice here]. This discussion of reciprocity made me wonder: What if I was to approach the relationship between the observer and the observed, or the self and the other, or the Blade Runner and the replicant, with the question: “What knowledge is shared?” By reading for a relationship of shared disability knowledge, of reciprocity, I found that I could explode the dynamic of exploitative human and impaired replicant. This kind of reciprocity places emphasis on shared knowledge between replicants and humans, and ideally, shared care. It involves the radical project of mutual respect for mutual survival. When approaching Blade Runner with the counternarrative of reciprocity in mind, the replicants become an inexhaustible resource of more possibilities about disability, of more disabled futurities.

In my most recent viewing of the film, I was deeply struck by the immensity of the built physical spaces of the city. The minutes-long sequence of Deckard’s approach to the Tyrell Corporation is particularly notable, the blazing cityscape juxtaposed with its reflection in an eye. Scott’s expanded cityscape scenes emphasize the dehumanization of its citizens and the near impossibility of relationships built on reciprocity and mutual recognition. For example: Leroy is interviewed across a huge table in room without distinct boundaries in the massive towering buildings of the Tyrell Corporation. When Deckard kills Zora, he chases her through streets crowded with people. Zora is dressed in a plastic coat as she crashes through store displays—the obvious message that she is a commodified, disposable body. While this scene can be read a signalling out of Zora as the expendable other, when considering it alongside the other scenes of the city that Scott presents us, Zora becomes like all of the other citizens (both human and replicant): completely consumed by the massiveness of the city’s buildings, numerous barriers, and its unrelenting pace of expansion and ultimate decline. Even the favoured replicant, Rachel—designed to not know or feel herself to be a replicant—tells Deckard: “I’m not in the business. I am the business.” In the scale of the city overshadowed by the Tyrell Corporation, all bodies are made small and expendable—it is against this background of oppressive urbanization and commodification that the replicants, in particular Roy, Rachel, and Deckard, become catalysts for renewal and an alternative future as they seek out new ways of belonging and mutually beneficial relationships.

The most dominant narrative in Blade Runner that I am reading against is that of medicalization. Cheu (and others) specifically refer to the use of the Voigt-Kampf test, noting that the replicants are objects of and subjects to the medical gaze. Early on in the film, the audience learns about how Blade Runners are able to identify replicants—who, we should remember the Tyrell Corporation markets as “more human than human”— through the application of the Voigt-Kampf test. The test is designed to determine emotional response, as most replicants used in service in the outer colonies are, by design, limited in their emotional development. Throughout the film, however, Deckard is challenged by the replicant Rachel on the appropriateness and reliability of the Voigt-Kampf test, asking him: “Have you ever retired a human by mistake?” and if he has ever taken the test himself. Even Leon upsets the straightforward “proof” of difference that the Voigt-Kampf test is supposed to identify. As he fights with Deckard, Leon clearly expresses a range of emotions borne out of his unique experiences. He tells Deckard, “Nothing is more painful than living in fear.” Additionally, throughout the film, the replicants are also shown grieving for the loss of personal items and the deaths of their friends. Although the dominate narrative of the film demonstrates that the replicants are medicalized bodies who have little control over their well-being, the counternarrative of reciprocity—focusing on what the replicants are actually saying about their lives—illuminates the many challenges they raise to their medical classifications and reveals the depth of their legitimate emotional beings.

Further deepening the importance of having relationships built on reciprocity, J. F. Sebastian uniquely bridges together the experience of the replicant and the experience of the human. After meeting Pris, Sebastian explains that he has a medical condition, "Methuselah Syndrome," which causes rapid aging and marks him as unsuitable for off-world colonization. It isn’t until Roy joins them that Sebastian identifies Pris and Roy as replicants, and tells them that he helped design them and that’s “there’s some of me in you.” Roy later agrees that they do share embodied experience, that, “We got a lot in common: cellular decrepitude.” Although it is possible to simply read these declarations as underscoring the undesirability of the replicants’ disabled status (as Sebastian is undeniably a disabled human in his world), I prefer to read these statements as indicative of a diverse disability identity. Being disabled in Blade Runner is not a reductive state, characterized by a specific set of limitations: like Sebastian, each replicant has a distinct personality and set of skills. They are all more than their impairments. When he denies Sebastian’s request that the replicants “show him something,” Roy reaffirms his equal right to an autonomous life by saying: “We are not computers Sebastian, we’re physical.” In other words, “We are not less than, we are equal.”

All of these events lead up to the moment when Roy (Batty) finally faces Dr. Eldon Tyrell, telling his creator (who he notably calls “father” in the final cut version [he calls him “fucker” in the original theatrical release]) that he wants more life. As you view this scene, keep the idea of reciprocity in mind [here are the lines of the scene I showed]:

Batty: I want more life…father.

Tyrell: [Tyrell explains to Roy why he can't extend his lifespan] The facts of life... to make an alteration in the evolvement of an organic life system is fatal. A coding sequence cannot be revised once it's been established.

Batty: Why not?

Tyrell: Because by the second day of incubation, any cells that have undergone reversion mutation give rise to revertant colonies, like rats leaving a sinking ship; then the ship... sinks.

Batty: What about EMS-3 recombination?

Tyrell: We've already tried it--ethyl, methane, sulfinate as an alkylating agent and potent mutagen; it created a virus so lethal the subject was dead before it even left the table.

Batty: Then a repressor protein, that would block the operating cells.

Tyrell: Wouldn't obstruct replication; but it does give rise to an error in replication, so that the newly formed DNA strand carries with it a mutation - and you've got a virus again... but this, all of this is academic. You were made as well as we could make you.

Batty: But not to last.

Tyrell: The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long - and you have burned so very, very brightly, Roy. Look at you: you're the Prodigal Son; you're quite a prize!

Batty: I've done... questionable things.

Tyrell: Also extraordinary things; revel in your time.

Batty: Nothing the God of biomechanics wouldn't let you into heaven for.

In the face of Tyrell’s dismissal, Roy’s desperate violence becomes understandable. Despite Roy’s willingness to work with Tyrell towards a way to extend his life (and that of the other replicants), Tyrell shuts down any possibility of reciprocity, positioning science/medicine as the only possible way to view the replicants’ experience. Tyrell relies on medicalized language and the positioning of Roy as “a prize” (one that is supposedly to be used and discarded) to defend his inability (or disinclination) to help. Bereft, Roy kills Tyrell and, most likely, Sebastian, seemingly being the one-dimensional villain the dominate narrative of the film sets up.

But, like the other characters, Roy’s trajectory is neither flat nor certain. He too is capable of change and growth, which is no more powerfully demonstrated then during his last fight with Deckard. “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is like to be a slave,” Roy says, as Deckard dangles from a building top. After choosing to save Deckard’s life, Roy sits down in the pouring rain, dove in hand, and says: “I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time... like tears in rain... Time to die.” Roy then dies, the dove flies away. While he could have easily let Deckard fall to his death, Roy chooses, not only to save him, but to pass on his awareness of what it means to live fully. Roy emphasizes the importance of his learned experience; his memories are real memories (not implants), and their loss matters. Despite his Christ-like stigmata, Roy’s death is not in sacrifice for others—rather, it represents the final passing on of his knowledge, his last attempt to seek a relationship based on reciprocity, of mutual recognition that all deserve more life. The (likely mechanical) white dove flying into the perpetually dark, rainy sky is an obvious sign of hope that other futures are possible.

In the final scenes as Deckard returns home, he encounters Gaff, who tells him: “You've done a man's job, sir. I guess you're through, huh?” to which Deckard responds, “Finished.” Then Gaff says, lines of which are repeated at the film’s end, “It’s too bad she won’t live! But then again, who does?” This ambiguity has fuelled many interpretations of Blade Runner and of the fate of Deckard and Rachel. In Feminist, Queer, Crip, Kafer asks: “How is the category of disability used to justify the classification, supervision, segregation, and oppression of certain people, bodies, and practices? Addressing these questions requires a recognition of the central role that ideas about disability and ability play in contemporary culture, particularly in imagined and projected futures” (10). If we only read disabled bodies in the dominant narratives presented by cultural texts, it becomes difficult to move beyond disability as impairment and disabled bodies as exploitable bodies. If we instead read these cultural texts with reciprocity in mind, with the understanding that the disabled body and the normate body are in reciprocal relationship to one another, then it becomes possible to move away from evaluating disabled people as productive (or not productive) or as threats to able-bodied normativity, and instead frames disability as an equal, unlimited resource of knowledge and understanding.

An insistence on reciprocity, then, creates a future of mutual survival for all bodies, for all peoples. By removing the stress of unequal comparison—who gets more life— and instead pursuing an inherent, inexhaustible relationship of sharing, we can create a truly inclusive society. The ending line of Blade Runner— “It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?”—becomes not simply a big hint that Deckard is a replicant as well, but it becomes an acknowledgement of, perhaps not sameness (as Rachel and other uncontrolled replicants are still marked for an intentionally early death), but of a shared sense of communal belonging. By leaving the film’s ending ambiguous, Scott opens up the possibility for multiple counternarratives, ones in which the proliferation of disability offers the most hopeful of human futures.

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