Is first person point-of-view today’s virtual subject?: Cronenberg’s Bodily Intervention

Curator's Note

One of my favorite films about video games is Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999). I know it’s already outdated, but I still think there is something truly insightful about that film. What I like about it is its complete embrace of the body. The video or virtual game in the film is played on a device that is partly organic and that looks something like a uterus. And for it to work, it has to plug into your spine with a cord that looks distinctly like an umbilical cord and whose insertion brings up clear sexual connotations. The importance of the body and all things organic does not end there. Most of the props have some sort of tactile organic role in the plot. I think what this film envisions is an embodied virtual subject.

It’s true that the idea of an avatar—used in video games, chat rooms, and so on—suggests something like an embodied virtual subject but it in fact lacks the attributes of the body. Cronenberg has always understood that the body is both known and unknown; it is both a comfort and a horror to the subject. It creates the contours of the subject and yet we are more than just our body. His films acknowledge this through their fascination with the tactile, porous, uncontrollable body.

In many ways, subjectivity itself can be defined as virtual. Freud’s point about the unconscious was that though our subjectivity is defined by it we don’t really have access to it. In this way, we are desperately trying to control what we can’t ever encounter. Maybe this is what eXistenZ gets right: that the organic is both the most pleasurable and the most horrible aspect of subjectivity. The game itself in eXistenZ is an embodied virtual subject whose encounters with the unconscious are always in the form of the oozing unpredictable expansions and limitations of the body. Perhaps what video games today miss—in trying so desperately to create subjectivity through the first person point-of-view—is a broader more embodied way of thinking of subjectivity, a subjectivity that can’t be so readily defined or so easily satisfied.


Hilary, You picked an excellent film clip to demonstrate your really great points about Cronenberg's depictions of the horrific yet pleasurable body. I love the way he shifts erogenous zones to different places on the body, and even detaches them into "babies" portlets, etc. Cronenberg certainly has a "thing" for what he calls "emergent biology," the sense that anything can go wrong with our material bodies in an instant (particularly seen in the latter part of the film at the "fish farm," and the two-headed lizard at the gas station. I also love what he does with language in this film, it can go into a loop where sense is detached from its "sense/meaning," and most of all, I love that in the end we cannot grasp or separate the virtual from the real - I'm totally with you on this; that our real world, even in its material sense is virtual. Thanks for sharing this fascinating post.

Hilary, thank you for your post on what I think is an often neglected film. Your take on an embodied virtual subject, as Cronenberg conceives it, rightly takes on the limitations and shortcomings of the POV subject so many games today offer. For me, the game presented in eXistenZ makes available a larger cognitive shift that is mediated by the body: a shift from serialism to parallelism. The “broader more embodied way of thinking of subjectivity” on display here seems to speak to the immersive quality of life that is made possible by the “unpredictable expansions and limitations of the body” you mention. Part of the unpredictable and limiting nature of this game speaks to how each avatar or player must negotiate how its body is reliant, impacted, and compromised by other bodies. In this way, not only is thinking and performing subjectivity always social, situated culturally, and mediated by technology, but individual cognition and action demands symbiosis with cognitive collectivities and disembodied memory systems to happen in the first place, or at least function properly within the gaming environment. The parallelist behavior on display in the game gets at a certain form of subjectivity that advocates a greater awareness for distributed bio-social phenomena, such as other players and the bodily interactions they engage in.

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