All taste is indefensible. When we feel guilty about our pleasures we start trying to turn fiction into philosophy, usually to the detriment of both. So I’m always wary of making pop culture academic because it feels apologetic. However, and without apology, I am ecstatic that the reinvigorated Terminator franchise gets across University of California Professor Donna Haraway’s notion that we are crossing into a post-human moment even more clearly than her groundbreaking 1984 essay “A Cyborg Manifesto.” Haraway’s work introduced (at the same moment as the first Terminator film) the philosophically crucial utopian ideal of a cyborg culture.
A cyborg culture—a culture based upon mechanical rather than sexual reproduction—erodes the privileged position of straight men, and creates space for all sorts of previously marginalized groups to flourish. The perilously underrated Fox TV show Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles brings Haraway’s ideas to life in groundbreaking ways. Though the conceit of the show is that an apocalyptic war between man and machine is imminent, the universe it depicts is revelatory and in many ways idealistic.
Terminator was born in 1984, an embodiment of the cultural anxiety about the Star Wars politics of the Reagan Era. From an apocalyptic post-nuclear future, a cyborg and a man are sent back in time, to the eve of the never-ending war between humanity and the sentient machines created by the military industrial complex of the late 20th Century. Both man and machine are sent back to protect their respective best hopes for the future and both unleash waves of paradox (the hero impregnates a young Sarah Connor with the boy he has been sent back in time to save, and the killer robot leaves behind alloys that would be used by humans to invent it). These symmetries evoke the challenge post-biologic consciousness elicits to our understanding of ourselves as humans. Over the past 25 years, the Terminator franchise has become the most enduring narrative about the possibility of symbiotic and unpredictable relationships between people and machines and the unsettling effect these changing relationships have on what were previously thought of as essential parts of ourselves.
The show begins with the Connor family jumping through time, right over 9/11, to a world where everyone already thinks the worst has past. The Connors’ dire visions of the fire raining down seem clichéd to a culture that has already seen the sky falling. Though they know the future, the Connors’ seem oddly locked in a past where people still thought their actions mattered. The Connors are part vanguard, queasy midwives to a cybernetic order, and part relics of a less disillusioned age than 2007, when the series takes place. Not only are most people unwilling to envision the future they are building, they don’t even try to make sense of the past. When Sarah Connor watches the Twin Towers fall, she sees foreshadowing of worse to come; most everyone else sees a shitty day they’d like to forget. Prophetic knowledge always causes pain and isolation, but the show’s treatment of 9/11 does more than position Sarah Connor as a modern day Cassandra. It undermines the notion that there is a post 9/11 universe in which Americans have become more conscientious and more aware of political and social changes. Instead, it shows average people steadfastly pretending traditional society still exists, even as it crumbles around them.
Traditional America is dissolving everywhere in the universe of The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Nuclear families do not exist. Sarah Connor is a single mother raising her son John to be the presumably predestined savior of the future; her methods bleed all compassion and sanity from the boy. The distinction between nurturing and indoctrinating continually fades, as does the normalized understanding of how we relate to each other and ourselves.
In the most recent episode, Sarah Connor befriends a transgendered woman, Eileen, who went into hiding to escape her work as a military contractor. Though constantly in fear for her life, Eileen talks exclusively in terms of her liberation. “They did kill me. They killed Alan Park. And I thank them for that,” she says, referring to her previous male identity. It’s a groundbreaking portrayal of a transgendered character, and it’s overtly shown to be a direct result of the dawning cyborg era. Machines are neuter, so in a post-human world we can choose our identities in ways never previously considered, though there are heavy prices to be paid for that freedom. The writers refuse to gawk at the transgendered, instead presenting their lifestyle as no different than the selves we all create to make our lives more interesting. In 1984, Sarah Connor was a waitress; we are told again and again. While the burden of stopping the nuclear annihilation of mankind is a lot to bear, she seems to prefer it to waiting tables.
John Connor, uniquely talented with math and engineering, would have been an outcast in an earlier era, but computers make him a hero. Something about computers makes all of these characters more vital. It’s never said explicitly what that something is, but as the show goes on, the question begins to be answered. The way computers process information and interact is more natural and seductive to the main characters than the systems most humans rely upon.
The robots in the Sarah Connor Chronicles are indeed beautiful. The cyborg Cameron, who lives with the Connors as John Connor’s cohort, has basset hound eyes, the body of a ballet dancer, and the strength to punch through a bank vault. She’s clever, sexy, and dangerous. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator relied on the actor’s heavy accent to signpost that he was not one of us, and upon his deadpan ESL performance to indicate that he was a blank slate. Cameron already has a distinct way of understanding her surroundings, as legitimate as any of the worldviews held by the human characters.
In one of the most evocative early scenes in the series, Sarah Connor walks in on John and Cameron sharing a moment of connection. She asks what they’re talking about and Cameron answers, “just making conversation.” It’s not a quip. Conversation is a form of labor, and our general refusal to acknowledge that alienates people who find it to be hard work. When Cameron points out the toil that goes into talking, she is subtly giving a voice to a community that is vastly underrepresented on television; the autistic.
Rather than in words, Cameron “thinks in pictures,” to borrow a phrase from the autistic writer Temple Grandin. Grandin has explained the autistic thought process as rule based and imagistic, compiling long loops of concrete visual examples to approximate the abstractions that pop into the minds of the non-autistic when they hear a simple word like “dog”. Grandin compellingly argues that this concrete way of viewing the world provides her with insights into non-human (non-linguistic) animals that most of us cannot cultivate. The real world movement to respect the unusual talents of individuals on the autism spectrum is growing, and the Sarah Connor Chronicles looks to be at its forefront.
Cameron is not the only character who presents as autistic. Though never labeled, John Connor increasingly shows signs that he is not “normal.” John’s girlfriend Riley tries to pretend she’s happy when she’s near suicidal; John knows she’s not. “You’re smiling with your mouth but not your eyes,” he says. He doesn’t fake empathy; he just delineates the cues he has been taught that signify happiness. Autistic kids learn in great detail how to read other people’s cues about their emotions; it’s not a skill taught to most anyone else (poker players notwithstanding). Time and again, the show provides examples of characters behaving with these autistic tweaks, though they are. Each time, there is some cue in their lack of respect for personal space, privacy, and timing that reestablishes them as different.
In the standout episode of the first season, Cameron and John look through the memories stored on a Terminator’s chip, in the hopes of preventing him from completing his mission. The images are filled with choppy, surveillance-style footage, and surprising shifts in focus. Close-ups arise unexpectedly, and the “stream of consciousness” is unfamiliar. “How the hell do you keep your brain organized?” John asks Cameron, referring to Terminators as a group. “Not like yours,” she replies, but the answer isn’t directed to John so much as the audience.
There is a worldview, she is asserting, that computers nourish, mimic, and may even come to possess. The affinity of children with Asperger’s syndrome for computers has been long documented, and in engineering schools and software companies across the country it is even cultivated. But TV by and large still churns out degrading Rain Man stereotypes. That the Sarah Connor Chronicles has begun to emerge as a positive voice for marginalized communities ranging from the autistic to transgendered forms a powerful argument for the revolutionary possibilities of a cyborg culture.
The opinions expressed by Walter Matthau are his own and do not represent the views of the editors of the Brooklyn Rail or Sarahjane Blum.