Long Live the New Flesh: David Cronenberg's Somatic Dialectic From Shivers to eXistenZ
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In the last quarter of the twentieth century, David Cronenberg was one of the three or four greatest horror film directors in the world, and a leading light of Canadian cinema. At the same time he was the most cerebral horror film maker in North America, bringing in existentialism, Freudian psychology and Marshall McLuhan’s theory of media as extensions of the human body into his work.
LONG LIVE THE NEW FLESH argues that Cronenberg’s films from 1975 to 1999 show a remarkable consistency of vision, a “somatic dialectic” that explores the monstrous side of our Cartesian mind/body dualism when it is disrupted by a misguided science to produce “creative cancers.” Cronenberg’s focus on how the human body can become infected by perverse viruses and technologies is repeated in almost every film he made from his student days in the 1960s until the end of the century. Yet his picture of the human body is a complex one that requires four interlocking theoretical pictures, outlined in detail in each of the four chapters of the book.
The dialectical side of the somatic dialectic comes from the fact that Cronenberg is a self-confessed theoretical bricoleur, using bits and pieces of philosophy, psychology and cultural theory from diverse sources in his films. There’s some traditional Gothic horror in them, along with some Freudian psychopathology, a McLuhanesque understanding of media, and finally some Baudrillard-style postmodernism. Yet these four theoretical pictures are dialectically interwoven in his cinematic corpus, with his earlier films emphasizing Gothic and Freudian themes, his later ones a McLuhanesque view of technology and the desert of the real in which most of us now live.
In addition to the four main chapters of the book, which carefully chart the ebb and flow of this dialectic of the body in his work, there is a postscript on how a more subtle version of the New Flesh can be found in his later films A Dangerous Method and Cosmopolis. There is also a detailed filmography of all his feature films up to 2014, including synopses and production staff and cast lists, along with a bibliography of books, articles and interviews on the director.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Chapter 1. Monsters Unchained: Cronenberg's Gothic Horror Stories
Chapter 2. The Id Unchained: The New Gothicism of the Body as a Site of Psychopathological Rebellion
Chapter 3. Technological Transformations: Cronenberg's Science Fictional Impulse
Chapter 4. Postmodern Simulations: The Body Vanishes (And Then Returns)
Postscript on the New Flesh in A Dangerous Method and Cosmopolis
Appendix: Cronenberg's Films as Embodiments of the Somatic Dialectic
A David Cronenberg Filmography
Douglas Mann has been teaching courses in philosophy, sociology, cultural studies, and popular culture since the 1990s at a variety of Canadian universities and colleges. He is the author of Structural Idealism, Understanding Society: A Survey of Modern Social Theory and Great Power and Great Responsibility: The Philosophical Politics of Comics. He is also the co-author of Philosophy: A New Introduction, and has published over a hundred articles on philosophy, social and political issues, technology and popular culture.
"Man is an animal that thinks too much, an over-rational animal that's lost touch with its body and its instincts." - Dr. Hobbes in Shivers
"Long Live the New Flesh!" - Max Renn in Videodrome
ephemerality of the human race in the present age, an ephemerality that is fairly rigorously explored by Cronenberg’s somatic dialectic. This dialectic is built on a pragmatist view of the value of theory. As Cronenberg himself said in a 1980 interview: “All the phenomena explained by Freud in terms of sex someone like, say, Marshall McLuhan could see as problems of communication. My feeling is that every theory - Freudian, Marxist, feminist, what have you - gives you part of the truth, yes,
his throat thanks to Raglan’s Psychoplamics therapy that are spreading to the rest of his body. He tells Frank “I have a small revolution on my hands, and I’m not putting it down very successfully.” As we’ve already seen, the parasites in Shivers act as agents provocateurs in fomenting a rebellion in the bodies of the residents of the Starliners Towers; Rose’s deadly embrace in Rabid brings with it a viral infection that turns her victims into ravenous animals; while the Videodrome signal causes
torturer in a hood enters and begins to strap O’Blivion down]. I had a brain tumour. And I had visions. I believed 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 was the [as he is being strangled by the torturer]... I... I was Videodrome’s first victim!” Here Cronenberg is shifting from a Cartesian mind/body dualism to the McLuhanesque metaphor of media
creating a postindustrial body of pleasures heavily mutated by tides of simulacra (221), while the leftist British critic Terry Eagleton bemoans the loss of the “bourgeois-humanist subject” to these tides and to consumer capitalism: “As postmodernist culture attests, the contemporary subject may be less the strenuous monadic agent of an earlier phase of capitalist ideology than a dispersed, decentred network of libidinal attachments, emptied of ethical substance and psychical interiority, the
Eros down into his body and its drives. He is infected by his own brand of parasite. Later, he curses this lust as tied to an inner treachery: “Curses on the fatal curiosity that is ever prompting man to draw the veil from woman, and curses on the natural impulse which begets it! It is the cause of half - ay, and more than half - of our misfortunes. Why cannot man rest content to live alone and be happy, and let the women live alone and be happy also?” (167) This is the same inner treachery