The City of Absurdity Papers & Essayes
Revolting Yet Conserved: Family "Noir" in Blue Velvet


[18]      Things are somewhat different in this past summer's
     blockbuster sci-fi hit "Terminator 2: Judgement Day", if
     only because it is not likely investors will put up $90
     million for a project whose meanings, pleasures, and rules
     of motion derive from the principle of semiotic erosion of
     narrative conventions, irresolution as an aesthetic way of
     life.  The overall regime of pleasure in the blockbuster
     film is, rather, a paradigm of late capitalist consumer
     production: it must keep us constantly (though *not*
     continuously) engaged without demanding much attention;
     knock us out with all the trouble it's gone to just to give
     us an instant's satisfaction; and not only offer us options
     but affirm and even flatter us for whichever ones we pick.
[19]      To define blockbusters in terms of such hard-wired
     business requirements is, however, not to mark the point
     where analysis of their significance ends, but rather to
     suggest where it has to begin.  For if the blockbuster
     typically invites us to "have it either and/or both ways,"
     then both the character of the particular contradictory
     options offered and the name and the definition of the "it"
     can be read as complex signposts showing the way to the
     mainstream national culture's ideological "points de
     capiton," the places where collective social desire–for
     transformation and salvage, revolution and restoration,
     anarchy and obedience–is simultaneously fastened and
[20]      Thus, to take up one early example, the interest of
     those opening scenes of "T2" in which the two synthetic
     creatures from the future first appear in present-day L.A.
     bent on their opposed missions, to protect or kill the boy
     John Connor, and to this end outfit themselves in the garbs
     and roles of ordinary mortal men.  The T-800, a.k.a. Arnold
     Schwarzenegger, cyborg-simulacrum of Sarah Connor's would-be
     killer in the first "Terminator" film, arrives in the blue
     burnished glory of his hypermuscled nakedness in front of an
     equally gleaming semi-truck parked across from a biker bar
     he will soon scope out, bust up, and leave in full regalia,
     in shades and leathers, and astride a Harley hog, to the
     heavy-metal strains of George Thorogood and the Destroyers
     stuttering "B-b-b-born to be bad."  In the following
     sequence, however, in which we meet the protean, programmed-
     to-kill *all*-robot T-1000, we are taken to a desolate patch
     of no-man's land underneath a curving span of L.A. overpass
     to which a city cop has been called to investigate the
     strange electrical goings-on accompanying this unit's
     passage through time and space: whereupon the T-1000,
     assuming for the moment a proto-hominoid silver shape sneaks
     up on the cop from behind, kills him, and takes on his
     steely-eyed Aryan form, complete with uniform, as his
     central "identity" for the rest of the film.
[21]      In the span of these two brief scenes, entertainment
     professionals James Cameron et al. have already provided us
     with a wide range and satisfying oscillation of
     identifications and exclusions, pleasures and disavowals.
     For starters, there's the linkage and differentiation of
     Arnold in his %ab ovum% muscle-builder's pose and the parked
     semi behind him, suggesting as this composite image does
     both Arnold himself as gleaming machine, icon of burly
     masculinist culture at its most spectacularly developed
     pitch, and Arnold as a display item quite out of this dingy
     quotidian work-world altogether.  Such ambivalence, together
     with its options for enjoyment, is then carried right into
     and through the mayhem at the biker bar that ensues, in
     which those menacing scumbags are first literally summed up
     by the T-800's hi-tech apparatus then disarmed and disrobed,
     resulting in a new version of the composite Arnold-image,
     both "badder" and "higher" than the bikers, at one and the
     same time pure realization of their outlaw nature and
     antithesis of their downwardly-mobile sleaze.  And the
     ambivalence of this newly sublated figure will then be
     further marked and played out against that constructed in
     the next sequence around the evil T-1000, which begins in
     turn by cueing off our conventional identification with the
     figure of law and order poking around in the dark shadows at
     the margins of the normatively social, but ends by
     conflating these two figures into one, a white male L.A. cop
     *as* formless evil (a particularly pungent if fortuitous
     maneuver, we may note, given national exposure of the racist
     brutality of Police Chief Gates' L.A.P.D. a scant few months
     before this film's release).
[22]      We'll soon return to consider further the exact nature
     and significance of the agon between this bad-guy-as-good-
     guy and the good-guy-as-bad.  For now, though, let this
     opening example serve as a demonstration of the play of
     opposition and symbiosis essential to "T2": i.e., of a play
     which combines a fair amount of mobility granted to our
     various social and libidinal desires and fears with a lack
     of ambiguity at any given moment as to what we ought to
     think and feel.  One minute the bikers are low-life scum,
     then Arnold's a biker; one minute the L.A. cop is bravely
     doing his duty, the next minute he's a remorseless assassin;
     yet throughout all these inclusions and exclusions we are
     never in doubt about which side to be on.  The punctual
     clarity of such a "preferred investment" strategy, as we
     might call it, thus stands in marked contrast to the real
     ambiguities of judgement and feeling that are the warp and
     woof of classic noir, in the figures of, for example, the
     morally shady detective and the smart, alluring %femme
     fatale%, not to mention as far or even farther away from the
     constant sliding and seepage inside Lynch's film.  In fact,
     the first thing to observe about most of those features of
     noir taken up by "Terminator 2" is the degree to which
     they are, as in "Blue Velvet", both untrustworthy as
     straightforward quotation or appropriation, yet
     paradoxically, all the more significant for that.
[23]      Take "T2"'s narrational strategy, to choose one of the
     film's several noirish qualities.  In "classic" noir, as
     we know, the question of who is in control of the film's
     narration is often central to noir's meanings and
     effects.9  In noirs like "Gilda" or "Out of the
     Past", that question is posed by the disjunction between the
     male protagonist-narrator's tightlipped voice-over and the
     sinister twists of the enacted plot in whose devious
     turnings the figure of the %femme fatale% seems to exert a
     powerful hand.  And at first it seems that something of the
     same, but with a post-modern, post-feminist difference, is
     true of "Terminator 2" as well.  Here too the laconic
     decisiveness of the voice-over contrasts with the
     comparative lack of power of the narrator to take control
     over the film's action; only here the destination towards
     which the plot careens is enlarged from individual
     catastrophe all the way to planetary nuclear holocaust as a
     result of the entropic drift of masculinist techno-
     rationality, and the tough-guy narrator is a woman.
[24]      On this level, then, "Terminator 2" like its
     predecessor appears to be a sci-fi "feminist noir" pitting
     its female heroine Sarah Connor against various individual
     and collective "males %fatales%" in a simple yet effective
     inversion of the old device.  Yet while such a conclusion
     is, I think, not entirely false, even less could it be
     declared simply true.  For one thing, it is obviously *not*
     Linda Hamilton who is the big star of "Terminator 2", but
     Arnold Schwarzenegger; nor is it Sarah Connor who, for all
     her stirring efforts, is finally able to save the world, if
     indeed it has been saved, but the proto/semi-male T-800 who
     supplies the vital edge.  For another, and for all the
     noirish haze and green/blue/black suffused throughout the
     film, on the level of narrative structure and plot the
     amount of confusion we are plunged into as to what is going
     on, and how to feel about it, how the action is hooked to
     whatever else has been happening and how it is all going to
     come out, is virtually nil.  Just as clearly as we know from
     moment to moment who's good and who's bad, we know Arnold
     the T-800 protector will rescue boy John from the clutches
     of the wicked T-1000; and when boy John insists they break
     into the state hospital for the criminally insane and rescue
     his mother Sarah, we know they will be able to pull that off
     as well.  When the three of them, plus Dyson the computer
     scientist, are on their way to the headquarters of Cyberdyne
     Corporation to destroy those fragments of the first
     Terminator from the first "Terminator" film, which, when
     analyzed and understood, will result in the construction of
     the SkyNet system of "defense" that will in turn trigger off
     the holocaust, Sarah's voiceover, atop a night-for-night
     shot of a dark highway rushing into the headlights and past,
     intones the noirish message that "The future, always so
     clear to me, had been like a dark highway at night.  We were
     in uncharted territory now, making up history as we went
     along."  By this time, though, such a message comes across
     as mere atmosphere, the verbal equivalent of the
     aforementioned laid-on haze, rather than as any real
     entrance into "uncharted" territory on the part of a plot in
     which we know where we are, and where we are headed, each
     step of the way.
[25]      Yet if the relation between narration and enactment in
     "T2" is thus less an innovative extension of noir than
     first appeared, it is not hard to locate more genuine
     expressions of a noir sensibility in its sense of space
     and time, or chronotope.  In terms of space, "Terminator 2"
     early on takes its leave of the sunstruck residential
     neighborhood where John Connor lives with his ineffectual
     foster parents, and spends the rest of its running time
     either keeping its distance from or destroying any and all
     traditional domestic space.  And its noir-classical
     preference for the bleak sprawl of Southern Californian
     freeways, state institutions, research centers, malls, and
     plants over any closed familial enclaves is matched by its
     implicit flattening of time even across the gap of nuclear
     apocalypse.  The premise motivating "T2"–that in the wake
     of nuclear apocalypse a resistance led by the adult John
     Connor continues to struggle against the inhuman power of
     the machine, so that both sides, Resistance and Power
     Network, send their mechanical minions back in time, one to
     protect John-the-boy and the other to "terminate" him–
     insists on a difference between present and future that the
     film's depictions erode.  Here in the present official
     power, whether in the form of the sadistically panoptical
     mental hospital, the gleaming surfaces and security systems
     of the soulless corporation, or the massively armed and
     equipped, anonymous police, already runs rampant; here
     already, before the Bomb falls, the hardy band of guerrilla-
     terrorists resists, the fireballs blossom and the bodies
     pile up in the perpetual dark night of Hobbesian
     confrontation between bad anarchy and good.
[26]      "Terminator 2" thus not only reconstructs the fallen
     public world and queasy temporality of classic noir but
     constructs them together in the form of an apocalypse that
     has, in effect, already occurred.  Like Benjamin's once-
     scandalous Angel of History, its chronotope offers us a
     perspective from which modernity appears less "a chain of
     events" than "one single catastrophe which keeps piling
     wreckage upon wreckage, and hurls it in front of [our]
     feet," a "storm" that is "what we call progress" (Benjamin
     257, 258).  Yet the very incongruity of such a rhyme between
     the ruminations of a Marxist-modernist intellectual in
     Europe at the end of the 1930s and a contemporary Hollywood
     blockbuster film raises its own set of questions concerning
     what "conditions of possibility" must have been met before
     such a view could become mainstream.  What preconditions
     must be met before a mass audience can find such an anti-
     progressive perspective pleasurable, can "want to believe
     this," as Leo Braudy says of the rise and fall of generic
     perspectives in general10; and what consequences
     follow from "Terminator 2"'s particular channelings of that
[27]      Fredric Jameson suggests that the predominance of
     dystopic visions in contemporary science-fiction signals the
     general loss of our ability even to conceive of, much less
     struggle to enact, a utopian social vision, trapped as we
     are within both an imperialist nation in decline and the
     overheated "perpetual present" of postmodernist culture
     (Jameson, "Progress").  And much of "Terminator 2", with its
     timed bursts of violence merged with state-of-the-art
     special effects, offers itself up to such an interpretive
     hypothesis as Exhibit A.  (Call to reception theorists: how
     many in the American audience recognized in the evil
     cybernetic techno-war depicted in "T2"'s opening post-
     apocalyptic sequence an image of a hysterically celebrated
     Gulf War just past, in which "our" machines mowed down their
     human bodies, as the saying goes, "like fish in a barrel"?
     And what were the effects of this surely unintentional
     echo?)  Yet here again, like a good blockbuster, "T2" also
     invites us to critique the violence it presents, and quite
     explicitly, in Sarah's diatribe to scientist Dyson.  "Men
     like you built the hydrogen bomb," she roars.  "Men like you
     thought it up . . . You don't know what it's like to
     *create* something."  It is a speech that might have been
     drawn from, or at least inspired by, the works of such
     essentialist critics of male instrumental rationality as
     Susan Griffin, or such proponents of a maternalist-based
     women's peace movement as Sarah Ruddick or Helen Caldecott;
     and it is there for the taking, not instead of but right
     along with, the violence it decries.
[28]      The ease with which this moment's feminist critique of
     Enlightenment takes its place alongside brutal displays of
     techno-violence, though, should not blind us to its value as
     a clue to what is deeply and genuinely moving–in both the
     affective and narrative senses of the word–in "Terminator
     2".  After all, the film we have described so far is one in
     which a fundamentally uneventful frame (the apocalypse which
     has already occurred) is constructed as backdrop for a plot
     whose terms and ends (T-800 saves boy; saves Sarah; saves
     world; destroys evil twin, a.k.a. T-1000) are all pretty
     much known in advance.  If the cybernetic machine that is
     "Terminator 2" nonetheless appears at all alive and in
     motion, its assignment rather involves an extensive
     renegotiation and reconstruction of the hetero-sex/gender
     system itself, and that little engine of identity and desire
     called the nuclear family in particular.  And indeed, we
     have already hinted at one important aspect of that
     renegotiation in our discussion of the noirish space of
     action in "T2", which gives us the ranch-style home and
     residential neighborhood of traditional American domesticity
     as the place of the *phoney* family (the foster parents of
     which are promptly dispatched), and the new "mean streets"
     of mall and culvert, corporate research center, freeway, and
     desert, as site of the new true one.
[29]      This relocation of the family unit of Mommy/Daddy/Baby
     to the place where the noir hero used to be, out in public
     and on the run, is likewise braided in with a complex
     transfiguration of all three roles in the family romance,
     part transforming, and part regressive in each case.  Most
     prominently is of course ultra-buff Linda Hamilton's Sarah
     Connor as fully operational warrior-woman, like Sigourney
     Weaver's Ripley in Cameron's "Aliens" only more so, phallic
     mother with a complete set of soldier-of-fortune contacts,
     cache of weapons and survivalist skills.11
     Conversely, there is "the Arnold," fresh from "Kindergarten
     Cop" and therefore all the more available for refunctioning
     from killing machine to nurturant proto-father who, as
     Sarah's own voice-over puts it, "would always be there and
     would always protect him [i.e., John the son].  Of all the
     would-be fathers, this machine was the only one that
     measured up."  And finally, rounding out this new holy
     family is golden-boy John, who as grown-up rebel leader
     sends Arnold back to the past to protect his childhood self,
     but who as a kid must teach both Mom and Dad how and when to
     cool their jets.
[30]      If, as Constance Penley has shown us, the first
     "Terminator" film posits John Connor as "the child who
     orchestrates his own primal scene" to run the energy of
     "infantile sexual investigation" into the project of re-
     marking the difference between the sexes through
     remaking/displacing it as "the more remarkable difference
     between human and other" ("Time-Travel" 121, 123), then in
     "Terminator 2" he must be both father-to-the-Man and to-the-
     Mom.  Arnold must learn from him that "you can't kill
     people"; while Sarah must be domesticated away from the
     Mother-Wolf fury in which she is enmeshed.  That in this
     latter task, as unerringly right-on as young John is, it
     helps to have a Dad around is perfectly evident in the
     follow-up to the film's one overtly erotic moment, when
     having interrupted Mom's commando raid on the Dyson home,
     John confronts her, now collapsed in a heap, and moaning "I
     love you, John–I always have."  "I know," he answers
     hoarsely, and falls into her embrace.  A second later,
     though, we are all delivered from this hot-and-heavy scene
     before it goes any farther and shorts out the film, thanks
     to the presence of Arnold, whose stern let's-get-going
     glance to John literally pulls the boy out of Sarah's
     dangerous clutches and allows the action to roll ahead.
[31]      But for that matter, it is also abundantly clear by the
     end of the film that for all John's moral sense and Sarah's
     muscles, they both still need Dad–and a Dad who's not
     *that* different after all.  For in the course of
     "Terminator 2"'s movement from shopping mall to shop floor,
     both John and Sarah are demonstrated to be ultimately
     ineffectual in their struggle against T-1000 and the
     forthcoming holocaust alike.  For all her desire to change
     the dystopian course of history, and all the paramilitary
     training, Sarah is unable (i.e., too "womanish"?) to pull
     the trigger on Dyson: just as, despite the fortitude that
     enables her even to gun down her own T-1000 simulation when
     it appears,12 she is incapable of defeating this
     tireless, emotionless, yet endlessly mutable villain by
     herself.  Could this be because, as the film also shows us
     through Sarah's own recurrent and prophetic holocaust dream,
     she herself is after all a split subject only one of whose
     forms is warrior-like–and that one, compared to the apron-
     frocked housewife-mother on the other side of the fence,
     merely a secondary product of, and compensatory defense
     against, her terrible foreknowledge of the apocalyptic
     future as the history-that-already-hurts?
[32]      At any rate, for whatever reason, deliverance can only
     come from a real man, i.e., another machine-guy like the T-
     1000, albeit one minus the mutable part, and plus a modicum
     of moral-sentimental sense.  "I know now why you cry,"
     Arnold the T-800 tells the John-boy in that touching final
     moment in between defeating the T-1000 and lowering himself
     down into the vat of molten steel that will terminate him
     too: "but it's something I can never do."  The moral
     equivalent of such affective male positioning in the film,
     is, of course, that grisly motif we are free to enjoy as
     sadistic joke and/or, god help us even more, take seriously
     as moral improvement: i.e., Arnold's oft-demonstrated
     commitment to maiming (usually by kneecapping) rather than
     killing his human opponents, as per the John-boy's moral
[33]      By such means "T2" gets it all in its renegotiation of
     paternal masculinity, offering us Arnold's stunted moral-
     affective capacities to us simultaneously as hard-wired
     limitation (push come to shove, he's still only a machine)
     and as virtuous necessity (what a man's gotta do).  And
     indeed we might as well have come at the same point from the
     opposite direction; for the converse of all I have just been
     saying is also true, and equally well demonstrated in the
     final victory over the T-1000, despite its technological
     superiority to our Arnold.  How is it, after all, that
     Arnold the protector is able to rise from the dead, as it
     were, even after the T-1000 has driven an iron crowbar
     straight through his back?  Or, perhaps more accurately, how
     is it that we find ourselves able to *believe* that he does?
[34]      Here, I think, is how.  Because, you will recall, at
     this very moment of greatest extremity, a small red light
     begins to shine far, far back in his eye–the sign, we are
     told, of his back-up power supply kicking in.  And what then
     encourages us to swallow such a manifestly inadequate
     explanation–after all, there is no sensibly consistent
     reason why a T-1000 would not know of, or would fail to
     notice, the existence of an earlier model's alternative
     energy source–is the primary distinction between 800 and
     1000 that has been there all the time, but is now most
     explicitly given us in the comparative representations of
     Arnold's near-death to the T-1000's dissolution.  For the T-
     1000, the liquid-metal prototype, there is no deep red light
     to resort to, no power backup to call on when all else
     fails; there is only an orgiastic extravaganza of special
     effects, recapitulating with oozy swiftness all the
     metamorphoses its liquid-metal shape-changing abilities have
     enabled it to undertake throughout the film.  By contrast,
     then, with this horrific (but spellbinding!) swoon through
     difference, is it not clear that compared with the T-1000
     Arnold, *our* new man, has a core-self–or, if you will,
     individual soul–and *just enough* of one, whereas T-1000 is
     the merely the embodiment of amorally evil dispersion
     itself, endless semiosis as the highest form of technocratic
[35]      If so, in its implication that the capacity to feel and
     make moral choices, *and just enough of it*, marks our new
     adult Daddy-man out from both the inhuman rationality (or is
     it semiosis?) on one side and the all-too-human (or is it
     fanaticism?) on the other, "T2" might plausibly be said to
     have thrown its family out on the street only to turn it
     every which way but loose, i.e., only to redirect us and it
     back to the fixed ambiguities of a masculinist humanism
     whose very vertiginousness is uncannily, and literally,
     *familiar*.  But then this reconstruction just at its most
     triumphantly synthetic moment too half-dwindles, half-
     mutates into one final set of ambiguous-available options
     for our attention, anxiety, and desire.  At the close of the
     film, does our pathos go to working-stiff Arnold lowering
     himself down into the soup, just another self-sacrificing
     husband and father off to shiftwork at the plant, "just
     another body doing a job"?  Or do we move our sympathies
     over to the figure of Sarah Connor fiercely holding on to
     John-boy, and see her instead as that arguably more up-to-
     date figure of the '80s and '90s: the victimized and
     abandoned single-mother head of a homeless family?

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