Hardware / Guest Review by Jonathan de Haan

Jonathan de Haan has been involved as a filmmaker in numerous festival film productions, and has a masters degree in philosophy of science and Technology from the University of Twente, for which he wrote a thesis on Gilles Deleuze and the Quantified Self. He has had an interest in science fiction (books and film) and weird cinema from a young age.

Hardware (1990, Richard Stanley) – Hauntology, and the Slow Cancellation of the Future.

Richard Stanley’s 1990 film Hardware (Mark-13) presents a bleak dystopian future, in which a post-apocalyptic, human civilization, ravaged by nuclear war, is at the edge of fading into oblivion. 

Although its main elements of a rogue killer A.I./robot and a post nuclear society are familiar cornerstones of a whole wave of 80’s and 90’s sci fi films, Richard Stanley uses these elements to address larger themes in a manner that is ambiguous enough to leave room for further interpretation. In this review, I want to focus on two themes specifically. First, the way in which cyberpunk and post-apocalyptic (science) fiction has changed over the decades, and the place such fiction holds within the culture psyche. And second, the role of art plays in creating in such fiction. Placing the film within the larger cultural discourse of post-apocalyptic fiction reveals that the creation of a final terminus of society is a symptom of the cultural malaise that constitutes what Frederic Jameson has termed the “cultural logic of postmodernism.” This concept embodies the idea that all possible futures have been captured by capitalism and that (neoliberal) capitalism, while far from perfect, is the only remaining viable option. However, this idea is rooted in the false assumption that capitalism constitutes the only viable reality. This however obfuscates the fact that capitalism is itself an abstract construct. The film Hardware perfectly represents a whole range of elements typically found in 80’s and 90’s films filled with angst over the world ending, but these themes remain as relevant as ever. 

    Cyberpunk

Hardware is a post-apocalyptic film with a cyberpunk aesthetic. Cyberpunk, as a genre, developed in the 1980’s, continuing a trend in science fiction which started in the 1960’s and 1970’s. At that earlier time, writers such a Philip K. Dick and J.G.Ballard, amongst others, started writing about more dystopian futures, focusing on drug culture, technology, and sexual revolution, as opposed to the usually more hopeful works of earlier science fiction authors such as Arthur C. Clark and Isaac Asimov. William Gibson’s seminal work Neuromancer from 1984 further solidified the genre, as did Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), itself based on a Philip K. Dick novel. Cyberpunk’s focus on “low life, high Technology” perfectly exemplifies Mark Fisher’s phrase “the slow cancellation of the future”, that only the elite gets the true benefits of new technology, while for most of the population the systems that keep them in a struggle for existence is kept in place. While the (pre 1960’s) “golden age of Sci fi” authors often focused on the glorious possibilities of space travel, cyberpunk authors saw a world where technologically-enabled possibilities, such as AI or cybernetic body modifications, cyborgs and technogenesis, were often reserved for the wealthy few. In Neuromancer, the family Tessier Ashpool, the heads of one of the mega corporations controlling global commerce, are safely tucked away in a space station that orbits the Earth, while in the metropolises down on the surface, body modified upgrades are mostly used as weapon upgrades in a Hobbesian struggle of all against all. 

In fact, the term cyberpunk has been so influential that the adjective punk is now being used for wildly varying genres. Steampunk, Atompunk and Solarpunk are some of the most prevalent. The retroactively renaming of pre 60s pre-cyberpunk scifi into atompunk is especially interesting, since where in cyberpunk, the term punk, in both an aesthetic and a political sense, has a definite meaning. It points to the struggle of the minor against the dominance of an elite. But applying it to the more hopeful sci-fi of the past, the term punk loses this meaning. Genres such as Steampunk do away with any pretenses of imaging another future, and like most genre fantasy, retreat in the conservative nostalgia of a different past. The recent genre of Solarpunk is an exception, in that it uses the term self-reflexively as a political statement, trying to imagine better futures against the onslaught of dystopian narratives. Solarpunk is aware of the hauntological influence of pop culture, and it is specifically trying to break the influence dystopian imagination has by creating more hopeful ways of engaging with both contemporary and future problems.

    Hardware, then, is definitely cyberpunk. Humanity is made to live with the consequences of its collective past actions, in such a manner that no hope of a way out seems imaginable. The government is nothing more than an authoritarian regime, and the AI that will be the centre of the plot is accompanied by a (digital) bright audiovisual corporate brochure, exalting its perfectly designed killer capabilities. The capitalist PR machine at its worst.

Hardware

The film opens on a desert landscape, where a Nomad (Fields of Nephilim’s front man, Carl McCoy) scavenges for parts left behind after, presumably, a battle, or what could be the debris of a crumbled city. After returning to a garbage and smoke choked city, he tries to sell the metal skull and robot parts he found to a junk dealer, but Moses “Hard Mo” Baxter (Mo) and his friend Shades take it off his hands cheaply to present it as a gift for Mo’s girlfriend Jill. Shades remarks to Mo, who is involved in Zone scavenging himself, that those out on the radiation wasteland lose all perspective. The experience is described as a drug. This is reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979)— although the spiritual element of retreating to the zone is missing. This wasteland holds only inevitable oblivion for those who stay there too long.

Most of the rest of the film centres on the apartment of Jill, in the decaying metropolis (shot in London). Jill never leave her apartment, but she spends her days constructing elaborate mechanical gothic art pieces. We will return to this later. The metal skull perfectly fits an art piece she wasn’t able to finish because she felt an important element was missing. The rest of the film involves the skull “waking up”, reassembling itself, and resuming its duty as a killer machine, trying to terminate all those who enter the domicile. Richard Stanley has stated later that the robot does not know it’s committing evil; it is merely following its programming.

Capitalist Realism

The popularity of disaster and post-apocalyptic movies has been steady over the recent decades. The post-apocalyptic movie is, in a sense, a disaster film. Only, the disaster is in the past, and the viewer is treated to a world in which survivors are left to fend for themselves, a world that does not seem to be able anymore to permanently resolve the predicament they find themselves in. When viewed from the perspective of Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, or “the slow cancellation of the future”, post-apocalyptic fiction is a way of dealing with humanities seeming inevitable end, brought about by systems created by humans but by now totally out of their control. Seen this way, post apocalyptic fiction is often imbued with a nihilistic resignation. However, when viewed as a mode of critique vis a vis contemporary problems it can become a tool for renewal. It is not surprising then that in the modern world, plagued by problems that seem either unresolvable, or for which humanity seems to lack the resolve, to actually address these problems, post-apocalyptic fiction is more popular than ever. The overall feeling of lack of control, is of course further exacerbated by that fact, that the current system not only favours the ruling elite, but that large groups of billionaires only use their money to seed further epistemic ignorance by using their power to finance studies that for instance deny of human action in climate change. Ecological collapse, planet wide extinction, the fourth industrial (digital and cognitive) revolution, an increasingly financially unbalanced world, and at the time of writing this article, a global pandemic (covid-19) all threaten the foundations of civilization and life on this planet. 

The feeling of having no control is only strengthened by the fact that these looming crises are interconnected, yet in a way that seems to be removed from any individual or even collective agency. The banking crisis and its solutions only furthered dissolution in neoliberal capitalist realism, by bailing out the banks that caused the crisis, while the rest of the population was asked to fend for themselves. The fourth (cognitive) industrial revolution places humans against bots and smartphones, feeding us with an overload of information and quick hedonistic release, while at the same time keeping us busy, distracted, and bored enough to lack the resolve to do anything about it. All these problems are (indirectly) visible, yet require solutions that seem to be out of grasp of the systems we have put in place to make sure society keeps running. This is captured by a phrase attributed both to Slavoj Zizek and Fredric Jameson, “It seems easier to imagine the end of the world, then to imagine the end of capitalism”. It is then perhaps not that strange that end of the world scenario’s feature heavily in popular fiction.  Mark Fisher dubbed this concept, the ever-pervading specter that reduces everything to money and exchange value, Capitalist Realism. Capitalist Realism is the sense that although the system we have is far from perfect, perhaps even destructive, there is no alternative. Capitalism seems not just resistant to critique, it is able, time and again, to absorb critique, and turn it into another way of making money, and thereby upholding and even strengthening the system, while at the same time furthering a sense of disillusionment. 

Apocalyptic visions then, despite all their grisly bleakness, seem to offer a line of flight, albeit usually a nihilistic one. A way out that is based on resignation, an acceptance that things cannot and will not change, and a resulting passive nihilism. Disney/Marvel’s recent blockbuster series, The Avengers, is a perfect example of this. Thanos (from Freud’s Thanatos, or death drive, the way in which, according to Freud, all things merely live to die), although ostensibly the villain of the film, rids the universe of its overpopulation, providing in his twisted view, room for life to be lived again. There is a conservatism and upholding of the status quo in this perspective that becomes clear when set against the idea of Malthusian limits. Thomas Robert Malthus, in 1798, calculated that the speed at which humanity reproduced would soon be beyond what the earth could provide for. While his calculations proved to be inaccurate, the term Malthussian limits conceptually helpful to understanding resource constraints. One of the problems of this perspective though, when uncritically applied, is that it does not take into account the existing power relations and the way they serve the interests of the ruling elite. It assumes, in perfect step with capitalist realism, that life is a Hobbesian dog-eat-dog world in which money and power will always float up. This “survival of the fittest” social Darwinist view of society (or the universe as Thanos conceives of it) sidesteps the fact that worldly consumption in itself is not eating the planet, but that the overconsumption by the few is. For instance, 80% of the world’s population has never flown in an airplane. It’s not overpopulation that is the problem but a system keeping everyone chained to their dead end jobs, while being kept passive by over consuming. The idea of Malthusian limits can be applied successfully, but when it does not take in consideration that the current system is untenable, it merely feeds the capitalist realist class system and contributes to the sense of a lost future. 

For instance, in the 1930’s, theorists such as Bertrand Russel, tried to work out the problem of what people in the future would do with all their free time, given that automation would make most jobs obsolete. We have not seen this happen though. While production and overall wealth has increased, working hours have not decreased. The money has just concentrated more to the top. Time and again, moments that seemed to break open the existing structure, for instance the revolutionary ideas of the 60’s, the fall of the Berlin wall, and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union (heralded by Fukuyama as “the end of history” (and much derided and eventually even distanced from even by Fukuyama himself), have all seemed to add up in the cultural psyche that (neoliberal/post-fordist) capitalism truly is the only way of perceiving reality.

Hauntology then, is the process by which the unfulfilled promises of different futures have all contributed to a lack of belief in a different way of life. It is “the slow cancellation of the future” in that all alternatives to neoliberal capitalism have been absorbed by capitalism itself and there is no alternatives left. What it obfuscates though, is the fact the Capitalism itself is an abstraction. Not that it is not real, but that the real and abstract are much more intimately connected then as it is presented in this manner. The concept of The Big Other, as used by Zizek, by way of Lacan, is one way of explaining this process. The Big Other is the system itself, always just out of reach. It’s not your boss, or the brokers and bankers, not even corporations itself that are actively destroying all options; it’s the “Big Other”, always lurking behind the symbolic, semiotic order that constitutes people’s daily lives. 

In Hardware we find these ideas presented in an Owellian manner, in that the viewer never gets the full picture. There was a war that left the earth ravished, and there is still a war going on. There is an army, and it’s (partially) in space. Whether the battles are fought in space is never confirmed, and it only adds to the eerie feeling that all might not be as it’s presented. We never are presented with the mechanics of this world. Even after the end of the world, the Big Other, commerce, and the industrial war complex, are still present, but just as out of reach and unstoppable as they were before the nuclear disaster. For instance, the current battles are being reported on by a radio announcer “Angry Bob” (voiced by Iggy Pop), and he rattles off death tolls in the hundreds. This clearly implies hand-to-hand combat. There is no mention of the location of these battles, or of the nation states (if any still exist) involved in these skirmishes. War simply continues as the government rolls out plans of population control. And while Jill argues how unethical this is, Mo replies with total resignation to the hopelessness of the system and the world, that you should not bring a child into this world. Jill, as an artist, still sees hope in creation; Mo is resigned. Anxious to return to the wastelands, a place he knows will make him sterile, but also make him just as blissfully mad as the Nomad. Mo is a person caught within the contemporary logic of postmodernism. He sees only two options, either work for the army or bliss away into forgetfulness, slowly being radiation poisoned by the zone. He sees Jill’s art as frivolous. When he and Shades first enter Jill’s apartment building, the voyeur has been invaded by people from the street. They live there now and have set up markets, cutting up huge chunks of meat. He remarks to Shades that someone should put these people out of their misery. He espouses here the paradoxical apathetic reality of our own contemporary culture. While these people are involved in the praxis of surviving, he is caught up in an escape without a goal. Hitched to either the government by way of returning to the army or shifting through the debris of the pre-war civilization. Because Jill is not resigned to the fate of the world, she is also able to see other dangers. It is Jill that realises that the Mark-13 was designed for the specific purpose of population control

Art and creation

A second theme that runs through the movie is that of the creation of art and the relationship between art and utility. In a world poisoned by radiation so thoroughly that the government can enforce sterilization programs to prevent the birthing of mutated children, who has the time and energy for art? Yet, Jill is an artist, and when put on the spot by her boyfriend Mo exclaiming that it would be nice if, every once in a while, she would sell a piece, she replies that she makes them for herself. She is not looking for an audience or money. The skull of the Mark-13 robot she uses to finish her latest piece, which would end up trying to kill her, opens further questions concerning design, art, and utility. The Mark-13 robot was designed, and not only that, it has a mind that was designed. As mentioned, Richard Stanley explains in an interview, that the robot is not killing out of evil but because it was programmed this way. We can find examples of the inherent dangers of creating AI in a lot of scifi. But by contrasting the creation of a perfect killer bot, beautiful in its creative utility, with art, which does not need a function, the idea of the money machine comes up again. Capitalist realism has the uncanny ability to melt down everything and make it fit its own “bigger picture”. Art that is not sold, art that is not useful, can have no value. Mo, once again, shows a weary apathy that resistance is useless, and that the only two options are either hitching yourself to the system, and forgetting that escape is impossible. The futility of resistance is emphasized in the film by showing that trying to appropriate objects from the clutches of the war machine, for “mere art”, might even end up killing you.

Towards the end of the film Mo is transformed. The moment Jill is in danger he is awakened from his apathy and tries to save her. The end of the film (spoiler) even sees Mo laying down his life to save Jill from the Mark13. The film ends with Angry Bob announcing over the radio that the Mark-13 has been approved by the government for further production. 

What could be considered a further wry commentary on the state of capitalist realism today is that this review was written in lieu of a small public showing of the film. This turned out to be difficult since the rights of the film were not in the hands of the director but belong to a distribution company. Yes, you are allowed to make a film critiquing the capitalist money machine but since you used our money, showing this film is only possible within the channels we provide. The absorption of capital by any critique is now a standard of everyday life.

It is especially in this context that the characters can be seen as dealing with the existential crisis they face in very different ways. It colours their perception of events. While for Mo the culling of the population is merely seen as preventing future misery in a broken world, Jill is still concerned about the morality of forced sterilization. While never spoken out loud, it is clear that Jill, in Mo’s absence, is having either an affair with Shaded or, at the very least, a blossoming courtship. Mo’s existential despair debilitates him from any further action, whereas Jill still sees value in art. Shades is seen meditating (while on drugs) and is thereby (marginally) involved in a certain praxis that sustains him in this world.

The post-apocalyptic genre can be viewed through a similar lens. While on the one end it seems like a last resort for hope in a world that is rapidly unraveling, it can also be viewed as a way of critiquing this contemporary world. If capitalist realism is so pervasive that even a nuclear war can’t destroy it, then why wait for the bombs to change it?