Social Cybernetics: Stereo (1969)

This is the first part of a series of posts where I watch and write about all the films of David Cronenberg. If you enjoy this post, consider supporting this blog on Patreon.


There is a point in Stereo where a reader calmly explains to us that the subjects of the experiment we are watching consented to various surgical procedures in order to become part of the experiment. None of it is true, of course, but it doesn’t make any of the tonally flat descriptions any easier to stomach. Some had the verbal centers of their brains obliterated. Others allowed for their laryxs to be surgically severed. We’re told this. so smoothly, by a very academic voice speaking in a very academic way, and it is in that moment that I experienced aural body horror.

I’ve read things that have turned my stomach (and there’s a hefty trigger warning on both of those things for general body horror). This was the first time that someone had ever read something to me that pushed me to the edge, filled me with bad affect, not dread or disgust, but something totally unrefined and raw.

Of course, that is the core of Stereo. The story is composed of narratives, read to us by mostly disinterested people, concerning a series of experiments undergone under the auspices of the Canadian Academy for Erotic Inquiry, an institute that wants to understand the new modes of sociality that the future will demand of the human; their solution is the induction of telepathy in people in order to create a pansexual human who is in deep connection with everything around her. It is only in this mode, the texts tell us, that the traditional family structure can be replaced, which will allow humans to move onto the next stage of their collective history.

So it is a strange and amazing moment when content and expression meet in such a way that I feel like I’m being communicated to in the same way that everyone in the film is — telepathically, without a mediator, just pure affect flowing into me. While the film is silent except for narration, the first half has many scenes of people talking to one another; as time goes on, these drop out completely. We’re in the realm of abstract concepts communicated from mind to mind, an extended network of the brain.


I had a trick played on me, though, in a strange moment of form. We’re trained to think of voiceover narration as a direct and intimate linkage from our mind to that of the character we’re seeing. Voiceover gives us direct access to truth in a film, whether that is through narrative about what we’re seeing or in the difference between the two. I was lulled into thinking that I was getting something “true,” but instead I was getting what might be the furthest from the truth — an academic explanation. This trick of the medium, of comfort, is an inherent critique of the cybernetic connections that the characters of the film are experiencing. They feel connected, but as some of the narration explains, they are actually in a process of dominating one another psychically, replicated in the screen/body relationship when I’m watching it; I feel like I am in control, but I’m hooked, caught up, not feeding forward as much as living in a feedback loop.

And there’s no resistance for me. I could turn it off, sure, but I don’t want to. I’m creeped out, I have this awful feeling, I feel ethically disgusted, and yet I sit through the whole thing.

At one point we’re shown a scene of playful exchange between a young man and a woman. They chase and play, eventually giving into erotic impulses (as everyone in the film does, eventually), but over this long scene we’re presented with an act of resistance via voiceover. It is explained to us that she has created a dual psychic self, a dummy mind that is accessed by the other telepaths. Her physical self changes to match, becoming playful, silly, totally unlike her “real” self, which becomes suppressed yet still psychically alive. Eventually her “real” self starts expressing itself, sending telepathic messages of death, decay, and necrophilia into the collective mind of the group, depressing everyone, altering them in ways that they cannot fully understand. Her abject asserts itself and violently effects everyone around her. It is a truly amazing piece of science fiction storytelling, and I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anything quite like it. I’ve pulled a transcript of the explanation from William Beard’s The Artist as Monster to give you the full effect:



Of course, with that high note, there is also the low. Cronenberg is often charged with a latent misogyny, and we see it here — of the many things in the film that happen with no explanation, more than one is of a woman being slapped or otherwise dominated by a man. Shots linger on their bodies, on violence against them, and there’s no way to read them — we can say that they merely happen, and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth, but I can’t intellectualize it into pleasure the same way that I can with the body horror.

There’s so much in Stereo that I can’t talk about, not because I lack the words, but because I can’t make it all fit together. The characters walk around in medieval clothing, cloaks, sleep in monk’s cells, and read tarot. I have no idea what to do with it. One person cuts himself off, fixates on knives, clearly wants self-annihilation. Everyone has a baby pacifier as an item they constantly touch, suck, hold. Why? The film proliferates questions that we can’t help but want to solve. They’re unsolvable. And that’s the best trick that it pulls, the academic one. Stereo presents itself as a set of empirical facts, but as we’re told straight-up, there’s no repeatability with these sorts of social experiments. There’s no ground from which to speak. Instead, we can relate what we see, give the facts as we saw them, because there is nothing else.

Posted in Watching Cronenberg | Tagged , ,

Pausing in Blogging

Hello everyone.

I’m writing this post to let readers of the blog know that I’m taking a little break from writing here. It isn’t that I’m stopping for good or anything, but that I’m right in the middle of deep thesis writing, which means that I’m spending hours every day reading and researching so I can add a few words to a document. I’ve been struggling with trying to keep up here as well as there, but I just don’t think that I can manage both things at once.

That said, I have a hard deadline for the thesis: March 23. After that, things will return to normal here. Games, essays, and thoughts in general have been stacking up over here, and I can’t wait to get back to writing every day and sharing that stuff with all of you. If this blog post seems super personal, well, it is. I’ve been writing every week day for two years, and I know for a fact that there’s a group of people who come here every day to read what I write, which is a profoundly humbling experience. I really appreciate all of you.

Here’s a little sample of what I am writing on this week:


Posted in General Features | Tagged ,

Support Critical Distance on Patreon

Kris Ligman has recently put up a Patreon page for Critical Distance, and suggest you support it if you like the world of videogame criticism.

Kris does an immense amount of work on Critical Distance, and I’m glad that there’s a way to assure that they are properly compensated for the amount of work that is required every single week on the site. As you may know, I am on the “staff” of CD in the sense that I, every now and again, pitch in to do the weekly roundup. It is always difficult and time consuming, and I literally cannot imagine doing that every single week, and I definitely couldn’t imagine doing it for free. Kris has been doing it for years now, and the opportunity to pay for that labor is one that we should all be taking advantage of.

Critical Distance is the contemporary heart of online games criticism. Kris is the critical valve that keeps that heart beating.


Posted in Video Games | Tagged ,

Review of South Park: The Stick of Truth at Paste

You can read my review of South Park: The Stick of Truth over at Paste today.

I came away pretty ambivalent about the game itself, but in awe of what Obsidian did with the material. So much of the gameplay elements are wonderful and unique, and I would love to see them developed and iterated upon divorced from the South Park world.

Also this:

2014-02-25_00028 2014-02-25_00029

Posted in Video Games | Tagged , , ,

Game Criticism Time Machine: Seanbeanland on WoW

Game Criticism Time Machine is a weekly series where I find game criticism from more than a year ago, post an excerpt, and encourage you to read the piece.

As far as RPG quests go, this was about as stereotypical as you could get. Bring back seven feathers and seven of something else from the creatures wandering the nearby plain. I don’t remember what they were called, but it doesn’t really matter. The first thing I think is “Why seven?” Is that a special number? Why not ten? Or fifteen? It seemed somewhat arbitrary. So I go forth from the village, ready to pillage the countryside. I encounter my first creature and attack. My first encounter with combat in the game was less than satisfying. The animations were relatively simple, and there was no sense of weight or impact when you hit your foe. It seemed to be somewhat turn based since I would attack, then the creature, then me again, and so on. He fell beneath the blows of my hammer nonetheless and I searched its corpse for the items I needed. Yay, a feather! But not the other item I needed (I can’t remember what else I was supposed to find). But I did get a couple cracked eggs! So I needed to kill more than just seven. I understood right away that this was a grind. Keep killing hapless monsters until I get what I need and, hopefully, level up in the process.

Eventually I killed enough creatures to get what I needed and headed back to the village. The guy was pleased and let me choose a piece of armor for myself. It seemed like a pretty good upgrade, and he had another quest for me. Kill ten cougars and bring back their furs! Ugh. Ok. So I went and did that. At one point my health was somewhat low, and a person with a higher level druid character wandered by and healed me. I thought that was nice of him. He had nothing to gain by it as far as I knew. I brought back the required number of furs and got another piece of armor. I was given a new quest to go find a missing woman who had wandered from the village.

- “An Hour With World of Warcraft

This is a pretty run of the mill criticism of World of Warcraft, but the shocking part is that this critique written in 2008 lands just as hard today as it did six years ago. It is amazing to me that WoW hasn’t changed in any real way since then.

Posted in Game Criticism Time Machine, Video Games | Tagged , ,

“Like a sack with an animal trapped inside”: on the quizzle


I just finished Jonathan Fast’s The Secrets of Synchronicity, and while the book on the whole isn’t so great, there’s a section later in the book that has to do with quizzles.

“Quizzles? What’s a quizzle?”

“It’s a lump of rock,” Ar-Nett explained, “that thinks it’s an animal. They wander between the stars looking for energy, any kind of energy at all. Nuclear fuel, pulsar radiation, even prana – human energy. That’s a special delicacy. Strange kind of creature. Some scientists say it’s them unfold the warproutes, but nobody’s proved it. ” [114]

I think the animated inanimate matter of the quizzle being a lump of rock is super interesting, but what I think is really brilliant is the bit about the warproute. Earlier in the novel, we learn that warproutes, which are the interstellar routes that ships travel in the book’s universe, can appear and disappear at random. They are purely contingent, existing for a finite amount of time before disintegrating into nothing and leaving whole corners of the galaxy (universe? the book is unclear) as abandoned backwater planets.

The idea that these crucial pathways could be crafted by these nonhuman, semi-living beings is just wonderful characterization of how the world exists already. Human lives are built on layers and layers of nonhuman sediment, whether that is literal in the case of things that live on and in the earth, or symbolically in the case of animals on which we have built the category of “the human.”

Even more amazing is the following quotation in which we actually see a quizzle, and the nonhuman is rendered in a kind of “greatest hits” of inhuman things — an anus, a molten core, an animal trapped in a bloated bag. Its body is a confrontation with everything we need to disavow in order to assert human mastery and uniqueness in the universe.

I didn’t want to take my eyes off my work, but something in Alan’s voice made me. I looked along the cable I was trying to cut, toward the end of it, which vanished into darkness. And out of the darkness I saw something creeping, some crude shapeless thing of black which swelled and shrank rhythmically as though respirating. And along the gray cable it crept toward us, slowly, silently, with what seemed like a conscious purposefulness.

“I think,” I said, “it’s a quizzle.”

I could see it better now, smooth and black as pitch, slowly twisting and jerking like a sack with an animal trapped inside. I went back to work on the cable, but it had to take another ten minutes, and the quizzle was gaining speed. Fifteen feet away now and a hole opening in it, a sphincter mouth, the light from the blazing furnace inside turning everything scarlet, and Alan screaming, “It’s coming to drink my life force, don’t let it get me, Stefin, kill me please, kill me with the laser…” [117]

Posted in Theory | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Kilmercast Episode 3 and a New Website!


First thing is that Kilmercast has a new home on its own website!

Second this is that we have a new episode on the Val Kilmer cornerstone film Top Gun. This is our best episode yet, and I think we’ve really started to hit our stride. Laurel has a new microphone and we’ve added some different segments to the show.

Third is that you can now subscribe to the show on iTunes! Please subscribe to it and rate it so that we can become Very Famous[TM]

Posted in General Features | Tagged , ,