Robocop and the Phenomenology of Corporate Totalitarianism

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The movies are peculiarly well suited to make manifest the union between mind and body, mind and world, and the expression of one in the other (Merleau-Ponty 1964: 58).

Because filmic texts appeal directly to the senses they reflect the immanence of our experience of reality. Both film and phenomenology take as their starting point the bodily experience of the subject in the world as an embodied mind, as well as an expression of their being in the world. Films depiction of different sensory qualities working in conjunction with each other helps us to recognise the nature of our own experience. In this way it shows us a “synaesthesia, the working together of different senses…the essence of perception as we actually live it…functioning as a whole in our active involvement with the world” (Matthews 2002: 137). We witness the inherence of the body-subject in the world by way of our own inherence, that is, the inherence of the audience as body-subjects in the world.

Film, Merleau-Ponty says, is also a “temporal gestalt” in that one part of it (whether it be a single component such as lighting, or a single scene within the narrative) is not sufficient for an explanation of the whole. The film can only be properly understood as it plays out, and in this way we grasp its “meaning” as a whole (Merleau-Ponty 1964: 54). Film thus reflects personal history in that meaning is constructed by the body-subject through a intra-subjective unity of the embodied mind and the world, and it is only by grasping all aspects of this unity that the body-subject can be fully understood. The Bazinian duree portraying the immanence of reality to a text seems to be a worthy bridge between the “temporal gestalt” and the history of the body-subject in the real world.

Concurrences between film and phenomenology arise from Merleau-Ponty’s conception of the relationship between the self and the world as unified in the body-subject. Mind and body are inseparable, as are embodied mind and world. As body-subjects we have intentions based on the specific perspective of our bodies in the world. This view embodies “not only our literal spatial position but our active purposes and emotions” (Matthews 2002: 68).  The world is experienced in relation to these perspective based purposes and emotions, and in that sense objects have meaning. This theory defies both Cartesian dualism and materialism, the clash between which reflects the differences between empirical and rational accounts of sense experience. The 19th century German philosopher F.W.J Schelling attempted to resolve these differences in his System of Transcendental Idealism (1800). Schelling wanted to unify theoretical and practical philosophy through a teleological examination of the concurrence between the conscious and the unconscious world. This concurrence, according to Schelling, is what produces “the ideal world of art and the real world of objects” (Schelling 1978: 12). Every work of art is a product of the confluence between nature and the self, the two working concurrently and as part of each other.

Schelling’s somewhat romantic theory is similar to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology in that it bridges a gap between the self and the world. Schelling does, however, posit a polarity (nature and self, conscious and unconscious world) before pointing to a “concurrence” between its two sides, rather than unifying them in the body-subject. These different ways of bringing together nature and the self are partly explicable by the different starting points of the two philosophers. While Schelling’s theory took a study of consciousness as its basis, Merleau-Ponty’s immediate concern was with a pre-reflective, pre-theorising experience of being in the world. This led to the notion of the “bodily schema” in which “we find that not only is the unity of the body described in a new way, but also, through this, the unity of the senses and of the object” (Merleau-Ponty 2001: 235).

This “unity of the senses”, as represented in film through the showing of different sensory qualities working in conjunction with each other, exists as a conceptual framework that always precedes a sensory perception. Contemporary philosopher John McDowell calls this a “spontaneity of the understanding” in which “conceptual capacities might already be operative in actualisations of sensibility” (McDowell 1996: 67). This conceptual framework develops through the body-subject’s (though McDowell never uses this term) inherence in, and interactions with, the world. A lasting understanding of the world is left by sensory impressions, which brings about a horizon of expectations. In a phenomenologist’s words, our mental and bodily states are an expression of our being in the world. This conceptual framework is a result of our experience as body-subjects in the world. When we perceive something we are making use of the conceptual framework in the form of a bodily synthesis. However:

 My act of perception does not bring about this synthesis; it takes advantage of work already done, of a general synthesis constituted once and for all, and this is what I mean when I say I perceive with my body or my senses, since my body and my senses are precisely that familiarity with the world born of habit, that implicit or sedimentary body of knowledge (Merleau-Ponty 2001: 238).

I want to focus here on two things: First, the bodily (and thus sensory) unity of the entity in Robocop in relation to what Vivian Sobchack calls “prosthesis” (Sobchack 2004: 207). Secondly, the way the film represents Capitalism and the body in such a way that there are degrees of bodily augmentation that are an expression of a state of being in the world, which is, to a large extent, based on the political-economic system of that world. We are thinking about bodies and specific environments, and the affect/s they have on each other. “Prosthesis”, Sobchack says, “attempts to describe the joining of materials, naturalisations, excorporations, and semiotic transfer that also go far beyond the medical definition of “replacement of a missing part”” (ibid). The body acquires a new unity through the joining of the prosthetic. The prosthetic becomes the subject through incorporation as the subject. Metaphorically, prosthesis is based on an already predicated bodily “wholeness”. So in the prosthetic sense Murphy, for example, becomes Robocop through a technological interface with the body that is an augmentation of his previous “wholeness”.

The notion of prosthesis (the way it augments the previous wholeness through incorporation as the subject) has ramifications for the conceptual framework and Merleau-Ponty’s synaesthesia or unity of the senses. It does not follow, however, that through prosthesis an entirely “new entity” is created, one in which “the human and technology are merged…rather than interrelated” (Verbeek 2008: 390). Peter-Paul Verbeek’s theory of hybrid intentionality posits just such a being. The augmentation of humans with technology creates something new, as opposed to merely changing the existing wholeness of the body-subject. Verbeek thinks of this new entity as moving “beyond human” in a “transhumanist approach” (Verbeek 2008: 391). He distinguishes two ways of utilising technology, which constitute two different beings: Technology used (mobile phones, microscopes, for example) “constitute us as different human beings, whereas technologies incorporated constitute a new, hybrid being” (ibid).

Verbeek fails to recognise the notion of prosthesis as showing how technology incorporated does not create an entirely new being, but rather, a being experiencing something entirely new, such as a change or diminishment of the unity of the senses, due, perhaps, to the body being damaged, as in The Diving Bell and Butterfly (2007), or the body being augmented, as in Robocop. Both of these are bodily expressions of a state of being in the world, an alteration to the perceptual capacities of the body-subject. The question, then, is “to what extent does augmentation have to occur before we do have a new entity? At what stage does the addition of technology constitute an entirely new body-subject”? This question, with its background in the theory of prosthesis, implies that certain areas of the body provide a more potent definition of the self – the brain, for example. Am “I”, then, a machine if my brain is placed within some new, completely mechanised body? The answer must be no. The self, according to Merleau-Ponty, is a unity of the brain and the body, and all the perceptions that arise from the way/s they are unified.

My analysis of Robocop has at its heart the notion that the embodiment of a person is as much an expression of where they are as it is who they are. This analysis also highlights how the film shows us the disintegration of the unity of embodied mind and world. While film is “peculiarly well suited to make manifest this union” the depiction of capitalism in Robocop points to the incompatibility between notions of humanity and the neo-liberal political-economic system. It is thus a phenomenological analysis inasmuch as it takes into account the impact of the world on the body-subject.

The medium of a news program is used to introduce the audience into the diegetic world. This appeals to the immanence of reality through the audience’s experience of actual news programs, which exist as part of our phenomenological field. In this way the film reveals our inherence in the world by showing us the way a news program inheres in the world. The Bazinian immanence of this sequence lies not only in its recognisable format as a standard news program, but also in the contextual relativity of its content to events in the real world. The first sequence (indeed, the whole film) shows the audience a “not too distant future”. The two phenomenological fields (that of the reel and real world) are overlaid and assessed for their compatibility, resulting either in humor, or a feeling of worry in recognition of the feasibility of the reel world becoming the real world. The film plays with this dialectic (humor contained within, and transformed into worry, and vice-versa) throughout, sometimes with a flagrant disregard for the body, at other times in order to show the incompatibility of the lived environment and the body-subject. The advert for pacemakers that breaks up the news program depicts a completely privatised health service appealing to a consumer, ending with the sarcastic line “and remember, we care”. Another sequence in the film is an advert for the game “nukem”, where family members learn the basic tactics of modern nuclear warfare by playing against each other. In both cases what we see is an adoption of the hegemonic ideals of neo-liberalism into local and familial spheres. The clumsy catchphrasing of the pacemaker advert may be offensively sarcastic to our ears, but the not too distant future is a place where rampant consumersim has made the sellers job a pitifully easy task. Meanwhile, the worst kind of alienating militarism is sown into the family unit under the guise of entertainment.

Such a displacement of the unity between the embodied mind and world is shown to have true consequences in the bodily expression of the characters and their actions. When ED-209 is first introduced to a boardroom of corporate executives as the answer to crime in Detroit, it malfunctions and kills one of them. After a dramatic and bloody murder the head of OCP addresses Dick in a way reminiscent of an angry parent to a child: “Dick, I’m very dissapointed”. Here we see the connection between the actions of the body-subject and a world where games like “nukem” exist. While the death indicates a logical consequence of an illogical world (emphasised further by the body-subject strewn bloodily across the model of the planned Delta City) the audience laughs at the line through recognition of the phrase and tone of voice as associated with the trivial telling off of a child. The film makes use of the audience’s inherence in the world to portray corporate executives as childish. Thus the world they create and control is one of lunacy, contrasting child like inconsideration with real, horrific consequences.

This characteristic of the corporate body-subject is shown as part of a larger system of corporate totalitarianism. In a real world where corporations are gaining increasing control, this reel world shows an attempted capitalist takeover of an entire city. Detroit becomes the phonetic Delta, providing the basis for its assimilation into an alphabetised, top-down structure. The law is to be enforced by machines such as ED-209, thus taking humans out of the equation of governance at all except the very highest levels of the corporation that controls the machines. This poses the question “to what extent are body-subjects compatible with machines in both a mental and physical sense, in terms of co-existence and prosthesis”? In other words “what is the nature of the relationship between embodied mind and world in light of these new ways of experiencing”? In attempting to answer such questions the film places body and experience at the forefront of its critique of lunatic Capitalism.

The film does this primarily through the changing embodiment of Murphy, which is directly related to his position and perspective in the world. Murphy’s changing embodiment is one of degrees of prosthesis. He does, however, remain Murphy throughout the film. Robocop, rather than being an entirely new entity, is a massive prosthetic overhaul of Murphy’s original wholeness. The film is about Murphy getting a grip on his new, prosthetised way of experiencing the world and the new configuration of his unity of the senses. The fact that his vision has been reduced to a grid of Cartesian co-ordinates indicates a break in unity between mind-body. This way of seeing removes objects from their background and fractures the unity between world and object. It removes objects from the context of the world (perhaps a stab at the practice of the mainstream media). However, the fact that a “rudimentary paste sustains his organics” means that Murphy is far from being completely mechanised. Rather, the situation is more conducive to a “bolting on” of machinery onto an already existing body-subject.

Murphy as Robocop is a bodily expression of being in the world, based on who and where he is. However, this process began long before Murphy was gunned down by terrorists. Consider his commitment to muscle memory of the gunslinging moves of TJ Laser, the protagonist in his son’s favourite TV show. The fact that Murphy retains this memory even as Robocop is further proof of the prosthesis theory. What is more relevant from a phenomenological perspective, however, is the influence of the environment of the body-subject on their actions and gestures, which are just bodily expressions of their being in the world. In the “not too distant future” of lunatic Capitalism television is (even more so than now) responsible for influencing the perspective of the body-subject.

Here is where phenomenology and culmination theory intertwine. Because of the bodily expression of an environment dominated by television the line between the two is increasingly blurred. Murphy’s prosthesis thus begins with the influence of television (part of his phenomenological field, his environment) on his mind and body. Television, then, actually becomes reality through the expression of the body-subject of their being in the world. This notion is confirmed by a line from one of the news programs, which refers to Robocop in saying “kids now will be able to actually see what their parents could only read about in comic books”. If we substitute comic books for television, and shift the relationship to that between Murphy and his son, the connection becomes even more clear.

Robocop behaves in such a way as to show us the congruence between the reel world and real world through a direct appeal to our senses as part of a body that is inherent in the world. This is something film is “peculiarly well suited” to do. However, Robocop shows us not only the capability of film, but the way it can begin to overwhelm us and come to constitute reality. The first time we see Murphy as Robocop is in a television screen. Yet this is via his own, newly acquired, televisual perspective. What we see, then, is a televisual picture of reality as on television. Not only a use, but an incorporation as the body-subject. Television has become reality in the sense that it is extended not only as a passive, but an active object. This is expressed in the world through the actions of the body-subjects that inhabit it. The creation of both Robocop and the rival ED-209 is the logical end of an illogical political-economic system, which in this case proves the extent of its incompatibility with both the human body and the world surrounding it. While Murphy’s new mechanical body proves to be as much a trauma and hindrance as it is an advantage, the ED-209 is a malfunctioning psychopath that cannot physically maneuver in its surroundings. When chasing Robocop it is overwhelmed by a flight of stairs. Robocop ultimately destroys the machine using OCP’s newly developed laser cannon, a weapon which for its size indicates a parody of the modern rifle, and further adds to the lunacy portrayed in this “not too distant future”.

The fact that these three machines are used for destroying each other can be thought about in terms of the Marxist prediction that capitalism will destroy itself through its own inherent contradictions (Marx 1977: 21).

Like most films, the experience of watching Robocop changes over time. Whether it be the moods brought about during the film or the perception of it that changes as a result of not having seen it for years. As a child it was a cool action film about an invincible (and shiny, oh so shiny) bullet proof cop. As an adult I see a portrayal of a future which is at times humorous, at others worrying for its resemblance of, and immanence to, my current phenomenological field. It is arguable that the overlaying of one phenomenological field over another (the reel world over the real world) and the assessment of the compatibility of the two, is the cognitive action performed in determining a films “realness”. Conversely, it could be said that film is nothing more than a part of our existing phenomenological field. This, however, risks denying the active influence of film and television on our lives. My perception of Robocop may change again based on my perspective as a body-subject in the world. The increasing influence of film and television may be a factor in that change through their active extension into reality, perhaps through a form of mimesis on the part of the body-subject. This notion provides the basis for a phenomenological discussion on the degrees of prosthesis that have been touched upon here, but require much more elaboration.


Matthews, Eric (2002) The Philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, Chesham: Acumen

Marx, Karl (1977) A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Moscow: Progress Publishers

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (2001) Phenomenology of Perception, Suffolk: Routledge

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1964) Sense and Nonsense, Wisconsin: Northwestern University Press

Schelling, F.W.J (1978) System of Transcendental Idealism, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press

Sobchack, Vivian (2004) Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture, Berkeley: University of California Press

Verbeek, Peter-Paul (2008) “Cyborg Intentionality: Rethinking the Phenomenology of Human-Technology Relations” Springer Science and Business Media [online] 38 (2). [accessed: 14/02/2011]

Author: Anthony Killick

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