Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Undocumented Labor in Blade Runner

I won't be too surprised if this blog expires very shortly- I have no idea if blogger is currently suffering across the board some bizarre malfunctions, or whether I've been singled out as the target for some bad juju. The problem is all the English has disappeared when I log into blogger to be replaced meaningless symbols. For the moment at least, I'll try to press on, in the hope that things don't go further downhill.
Anyhow, by a more happy coincidence, the other day I was reading Jay Hoberman's precis of the Maurice Schwartz vehicle, Uncle Moses, an early Yiddish talkie which remains unique for the number of favourable mentions Karl Marx receives in this one film. As Hoberman explains, the film is a "drama of immigrant life that suggests America is something other than a golden opportunity, and might actually be a disaster...Schwartz is compellingly modern as the tormented self-made clothing magnate who welcomes refugees from his Polish birthplace to the promised land of his sweatshop."
The following excerpt from the piece on Blade Runner is concerned with comparable issues (which, as derridata would remind me, some of which were previously touched on by critic Brian Carr), although it is distinguished from Uncle Moses by its degree of political ambivalence. What distinguishes this piece is its redressing of a lacunae detectable in the voluminous postmodern/posthumanist analysis of the film.

Policing Traumatized Boundaries of Self and Nation:Undocumented Labor in Blade Runner
Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2006, Volume 5, Issue 2
Anil Narine

Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada

"Fear, revulsion, and horror were the emotions which the big-city crowd aroused in those who first observed it".-Walter Benjamin, Illuminations

I. Introduction

"When Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was released in 1982, American, and especially Californian, industry was in the midst of a recession that affected nearly every industrialized nation. Following the 1979 jump in oil prices, the second major increase in five years, industrial production around the globe dropped between 5 and 10 percent, a trajectory that did not cease until 1983 (Veenhoven and Hagenaars 2). Since the early 1970s, American industries, especially the manufacturing sector, had been relying upon methods of “flexible accumulation” that allowed them to compete globally by repealing some of American workers’ rights and unionized power, and by exploiting budding labor markets in Southeast Asia and Mexico. In the decade following the prosperous 1960s, America’s global position as the lone, victorious economic powerhouse, along with the middle class livelihoods its economy supported, were challenged and both the American working and middle classes felt the threat. Japan and Germany, whose economies were strong by the late sixties, forced American “corporations into a period of rationalization, restructuring, and intensification of labor control" in an effort to lower production costs (Harvey 145). This restructuring of traditional labor processes angered workers, especially those whose jobs had been relocated or made contractual, in keeping with the need for a flexible labor force. Although workers on the factory floor or in the service industries were the most immediately affected, these changes also weighed heavily on the minds of middle class managers who became acutely aware of workers’ grievances as the 1980-82 recession wore on, and increasingly apprehensive about the possibility of vengeful workers rising up. Thus, in California, members of the working class felt threatened by new, cheaper labor forces and lost many of their hard-won rights, along with the sense of security these maintained. Members of the American middle class, however, were far from immune; as they bore witness to the unenviable plight of their blue-collar counterparts, they also feared joining them – a “fear of falling,” as Barbara Ehrenreich phrased it, from their positions of precarious privilege that Blade Runner both registers and, problematically, elicits. This fear is intensified by an arguably racist mise-en-scene that depicts Los Angeles in the year 2019 as an urban wasteland overrun by largely squalid, multicultural masses who represent, along with the humanoid invaders, the new face of California’s working class. These crowds, I suggest, invoke “fear” and “revulsion” in viewers because they seem poised to engulf our white, middle class protagonist, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who himself fears joining these “little people” (Fancher 4). Based loosely on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1969), Blade Runner is also a reworking of Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and other incarnations of the Prometheus myth, which dramatizes the insurrection and revenge of fabricated humanoid laborers who are exploited and then abandoned by their capitalist creators. The horror and suspense of the film rely on the threat posed by four such “replicants” who vanquish their unlucky bosses in an off-world, forced-labor, mining colony and survive the journey back to Los Angeles (as opposed to the novel’s San Francisco setting). There, they want only to confront their creators, to lodge a grievance over the unfair conditions in which they must live and work, and to find out how to lengthen their four-year lifespans. The replicants represent colonial slaves in the world of the film, which is replete with references to colonies, mutinies, and “skin jobs,” a term for the replicants which Deckard’s voiceover equates with the racial slur, “nigger,” found only in history books. And yet, as invaders whose very presence in California is illegal, the incoming replicants can also be read as undocumented immigrant workers whose ambitions are linked uneasily with those of the mysterious Mexican detective, Gaff (Edward James Olmos), who exhibits sympathies for the replicants even though he is gunning for Deckard’s job killing them. Although Blade Runner has been widely read as a postmodernist pastiche of film noir and science fiction genres that questions the distinction between “human and non-human (artificial) intelligence” (Tasker 225), a major element of the narrative has received less scrutiny: namely, the way the colonial subplot allegorizes middle class anxieties about vengeful workers rising up and demanding answers from their superiors, and working class fears about being replaced by ambitious immigrants, whose invasion the borders and “security fences” (as they are called in the film) can no longer prevent".

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