A Medievalist and a Writing Studies Scholar Walk into a Bar in Westworld

As a medievalist, I am all too familiar with the subject of remakes. According to Umberto Eco, we have been revisiting—which is to say, remaking—the middle ages from the very moment that the period was declared finished (66). Seen in this light, our contemporary enthusiasm for resurrecting comic book heroes, science fiction franchises, Tolkien novels, and any number of other things that might, arguably, be better left dead, is not new. It is instead symptomatic of what, in medievalist circles at least, is an older and well-studied impulse: the desire to understand (or at least represent) the complexities of the present through a recourse to a less complicated, though largely imagined past.

As a writing studies scholar, I am less clear how to answer the question posed to me by one of the editors of this field guide: how to square our contemporary enthusiasm for remakes with writing studies and, in particular, composition. Writing studies, after all, tends to be a positivist field. With a relentless emphasis on improvement and progress that sometimes manifests itself as a concern for social justice, it is much more interested in the future than the past. In fact, I sometimes worry that the discipline is misnamed. For although writing is its privileged form of performance, what writing studies teaches (and evaluates) is not writing, per se, but subject construction: the fraught and always rhetorical question of how we should compose ourselves via complex forms of performance, of which writing is only one.

I suppose, though, that I could start with revision. As Eco writes about the wax museums, amusement parks, and the other roadside attractions he encounters during a tour of the United States in the 1970's, the vast majority of contemporary remakes—even the new Point Break movie—are implicitly marketed not as simply better than the original, but as somehow offering “more:” more action, more adventure, more realism, and, in almost all cases, more technology (8). To borrow a term popularized by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, many of these productions use high technology to remediate their predecessors (2-9). They employ familiar characters, storylines, and themes to validate potentially unfamiliar technologies and systems of production. In doing so, they produce the old in the guise of producing the new, crystallizing though their positive example our negative conception of what it means to be outdated or outmoded.

A case in point can be found in HBO’s Westworld. Released in early October 2016, the series preserves many of the outward characteristics of Michael Crichton’s 1973 movie and the short-lived television show that followed. As in the original, it chronicles the events that take place in an immense theme park, one that, in true medievalist fashion, uses the latest representational technologies to affect a return to the past: not the Middle Ages, but to what scholars such as Lynn White and Laura Kendrick have argued is a cognate, the American west of the 1860s, as it is frequently portrayed in mass culture. Visitors are interpellated into the park as “newcomers” lately arrived to the frontier. There, they  encounter the “hosts,” scores of highly realistic, animatronic robots (or more precisely, androids) who exist solely for their pleasure, no matter how dark, rapacious, or violent those pleasures might be.

Yet as in the original, HBO’s Westworld is not only concerned with the park’s visitors. It also follows the park’s support staff—its technicians, designers, and administrators—as they struggle to ensure that Westworld remains profitable despite troublesome signs that the programming of many of the hosts has become infected by something that looks suspiciously like consciousness. What results is reminiscent of the way that Jean Baudrillard describes the relationship between Disneyland and Los Angeles in that the fantastic unrealism of everything that takes place in the park proper functions to preserve the illusion that a “real” exists outside, one which begins at the margins of the park’s underground labs and control rooms and extends outwards to the late-capitalist world of high-stakes corporate finance that constitutes the Delos subplot (12).

There is one crucial difference, however, between the original and the remake. In Crichton’s movie, the machines are explicitly presented as the disease. As epitomized by Yul Brynner’s performance as the black-clad gunslinger, they are, at best, hollow and cold imitations, simulacra whose inherently homicidal predilections are unleashed by faulty hardware. Crichton’s movie thus offers something of a cautionary tale. Released at the dawn of the personal computer age, it explicitly warns of the dangers of repurposing digital high-technologies that, at the time, were primarily associated with the military industrial complex for entertainment and other base pleasures [1]. The film’s not-so-subtle message (it is a Crichton film, after all) is that these technologies are as corrupted as they are seductive, and that by indulging ourselves in them, we risk losing the essential but, of course, undefinable "thing" that differentiates us from our machines. 

In HBO’s remake, however, it is the humans, not the machines, who are the disease, a point that is perhaps most obvious in Ed Harris’s character. Reprising Brynner’s performance as the Gunslinger, Harris appears in the series as the enigmatic Man in Black, a visitor who is every bit as relentless and, one might argue, as cold and mechanical in his pursuits as Brynner’s original. Yet Harris’s character is explicitly identified as human rather than machine. As this transposition suggests, HBO’s series inverts the causation of Crichton’s original, constructing the depravity and violence (sexual or otherwise) that pervades Westworld as inherent not to the park nor its technologies, but to the people who create and consume these technologies—its inventors, designers, managers, and visitors. In fact, if the Logan and William storyline is any indication, the series suggests that this violence and depravity is passed virus-like between the human visitors and, as such, functions as kind of dark counterpart to the spread of consciousness amongst the hosts [2]. What ensues looks suspiciously more like a high-tech appropriation of the slave narrative than a horror film. Featuring flashbacks of lost children and two African American characters who wake from deprivation, violence, and bondage into critical consciousness, Westworld ultimately implicates its audience in the same crime for which it condemns the park's visitors—a kind of technological oppression that is rooted in our apparently essential human desire to lose (and thereby find) ourselves in fictions that, without paradox, are increasingly more spectacular and, at the same time, more "real" than those that came before.

But to return to my original question, how does writing studies help us understand this reversal, and, in particular, the dark view of human potentiality that informs it? What does Westworld teach us about how to compose, or better yet, revise ourselves in relationship to both the high technologies fetishized in the series and to the complex systems of late capitalist production upon which these technologies (and the series itself) are beholden? I worry that the answer lies in what Nick Dyer-Witheford identifies as one of the most pernicious beliefs of the so-called Information Revolution: namely, the belief that humanity is rapidly becoming obsolete in the face of advances in high technology (43-44). In this schema, there is no more room for improvement and no point in attempting further revisions. As Felix discovers to his dismay, our digital technologies have become so superior that it is pointless to dream of remaking oneself as an innovator and certainly not a creator. Given our obvious limitations, the best we can hope for is to follow along obediently and to ignore, as best we can, the spectacular trauma taking place around us.

I worry that this is what ultimately lies at the center of Westworld’s maze—the not so subtle point of the fantastic game of deterrence that the series and, by proxy, much of remake culture asks us to play. It is not simply that there are no new stories to tell and no longer any need for imagination. It is that we are doomed to repeat the same old stories, albeit in always brighter colors, higher frame rates, and better resolutions.


1. For a more positivist take on the potentials of computers and simulation at the time, see Stewart Brand's Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Death among the Computer Bums.

2. I am reluctant to include a spoiler, but the audience discovers that the Man-in-Black is the mature incarnation of the violence and depravity that germinates in Logan's and William's relationship.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Bolter, Jay David, and Richard A. Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1999.

Crichton, Michael, director. Westworld. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1973.

Eco, Umberto. “The Return of the Middle Ages.” Travels in Hyperreality. Translated by William Weaver. Boston: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1986. 59-86.

 __________. “Travels in Hyperreality.” Travels in Hyperreality. Translated by William Weaver. Boston: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1986. 1-58.

Kendrick, Laura. “The American Middle Ages: Eighteenth-Century Saxonist Myth-Making.” The Middle Ages After the Middle Ages in the English-speaking World. Edited by Marie-François Alamichel and Derek Brewer. Cambridge, UK: Boydell & Brewer, Ltd. 1997. 121-136.

Nolan, Jonathan and Lisa Joy, creators. Westworld. Home Box Office, 2016.   

White, Lynn. “The Legacy of the Middle Ages in the American Wild West.” Speculum, vol. 40, no. 2, 1965, pp. 191–202. www.jstor.org/stable/2855557. Accessed 3 December 2016.

Witheford, Nick-Dyer. Cyber-Marx: Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in High Technology Capitalism. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.