Subproject 4: "Risk and the Dystopian Body: Future Technologies and Contemporary American Popular Film"
Researcher: Jeanne Cortiel
The desire for a systematic prediction of the technological future has captivated the American cultural imagination for two centuries, finding expression in the creation of “futures studies” in the early 20th century (Bell 7). Popular film has been an active participant in mapping these discursive conflicts and modes of “being in the world” (Sobchack 224-225). Towards the end of the 20th century, the genres of post-apocalyptic disaster, future war, Zombie apocalypse and Superhero film incorporated science fiction elements to play out cultural anxieties around the tension between scientific/technological knowledge and the inability to know. Although unintended consequences and hostile deployment of risk technologies are central factors in these films, risk has not been an analytical category in scholarship on science fiction film. This subproject will address this gap in research.
In defining the relevant body of texts, this subproject will first of all contribute to the expansion of the primary text corpus for the project as a whole and for related follow-up projects. Its research will particularly focus on the following recurring risk scenarios: machine or alien takeover (Robotics/AI), viral pandemic (Biotechnology/Genetic engineering), catastrophic human enhancement (NBIC-convergence), and nuclear
apocalypse (nuclear technology), including intersections with environmental risk fiction. The aim is to develop paradigmatic close analyses of 30–40 popular American films that came out between the 1980s and the 2010 to contribute to the definition of risk fiction as intermedial genre, which is the object of the project as a whole.
Based on initial studies of risk in superhero fiction (Cortiel and Oehme), the task here is to further investigate the formal aesthetic and generic characteristics developed in filmic risk fiction to explore the human body and individual agency in a framework of global risk. These films place the human body in a number of conflicting frames of reference: transnational catastrophe, scientific exploration, and biblical narratives of redemption. In all of them, the ambivalent presence of science and technology creates a pervasive sense of uncertainty and bodily anxiety particularly around the male body. The study will trace the ways in which filmic risk fiction crosses genre lines from science fiction, utopia/dystopia, post-apocalyptic fiction to body horror, romance and autobiography to structure its narrative around risk. The conceptual angle of global catastrophic risk and the cooperation with ecocriticism enables an analysis of the correlation between the aesthetics and ethics of risks in these films. How does the narrative exploration of character choices and agency relate to the transition of risk scenarios into disaster scenarios? How does individual risk taking behavior converge with or diverge from global risk? In answering these questions, this subproject defines the specific forms, contents, and aesthetic principles of filmic risk fiction, and its complex cultural functions in terms of contemporary risk communication.
Methodolically, this analysis not only combines filmic close reading methods with cultural narratology, but also develops specific methods of risk scenario analysis for the study of fiction. These methods will serve as a basis for further research into the intermedial reception of these films and a more extensive reading of a larger body of texts. Its major results will be published as a journal article, which will serve as one of
the starting points for a comprehensive monograph on risk fiction coauthored by Jeanne Cortiel and Sylvia Mayer in a follow-up project.