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Le savant fou

Hélène Machinal

Septième partie. Résilience du mythe

David Cronenberg’s Mad Scientist in The Fly: allegories of the “Lab”

Christopher Damien Auretta

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“Since I see technology as being an extension of the human body, it’s inevitable that it should come home to roost.” David Cronenberg

“Technology is a mode of revealing. Technology comes to presence in the realm where revealing and unconcealment takes place, where aletheia, truth, happens.”
Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology”

“Socrates – Glaucon: And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: – Behold! Human beings living in an underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.” Plato, The Republic, Book VII

Allegory (1): On Heidegger’s Question Concerning Technology and Cronenberg’s Sublime Darkness

1Allegory opens language up to a multi-dimensional form of representational thinking. Through the trope of allegory the inwardness of thought and the transitory nature of sense-borne language increase their interpretative and self-reflexive momentum: sign, image, and word enrich their ability to (re)present the world as encoded structure and ongoing discovery. Furthermore, it reminds us that an augmented perception of being is both possible and encrypted within language: allegory promotes the hermeneutical unfolding of the real. We understand allegorical language, then, as an attempt to unveil the world anew by introducing new narrative discourse within the lexicon of long-established norms of cultural feeling and perception. Consequently, communicating through allegory permits a speaking-other, which in turn promotes a thinking-other, and ultimately (significantly with respect to our examination of David Cronenberg’s film allegory The Fly, 1986), a being-other. Owing to the tropological presentation of reality inherent in human discourse (and made visible in allegorical narrative) the empirical apprehension of the real can precede a more mature discernment, the literal can suggest hitherto unsuspected sources of enigma, and the metaphorical prefigure truth. Thus, symbol becomes not only representational and/or exegetical in allegory: it becomes paradigmatic and exploratory. Through the artistic wielding of allegory, the act of deliberation opens the world up not only to causal explication but equally to philosophical revelation. If we accept the premise that in artistic discourse the epistemological distance between truth and falsehood is, or tends to become, nil, then the imaginative worlds of artistic discourse bring language to the breaking-point of communicability in a culturally relevant way. Allegory as rhetorical figure creates, therefore, a significant conceptual space.

  • 1 Heidegger M., Basic Writings, From Being and Time (1927) to The Task of Thinking (1964), Krell D. (...)

2It is at this breaking-point that, according to Heidegger vis-à-vis artistic production, poiesis, occurs, i.e., that which “lets what presences come forth into unconcealment1.” In accord with his seminal essay “The Question Concerning Technology” (1953), art was once experienced in its essential and primal meaning when it represented “a single, manifold revealing. It was pious, promos, i.e., yielding to the holding sway and the safekeeping of truth”. (H, p. 339.) He thus dissociates the essence of art from a merely instrumental, anthropological and, to an even less degree, merely “aesthetic” approach: “[t] he poetical brings the true into the splendour of what Plato in the Phaedrus calls to ekphanestaton, that which shines forth most purely. The poetical thoroughly pervades every art, every revealing of essential unfolding into the beautiful.” (H, p. 340) Heidegger reminds us that the shining-forth referred to here underlies both technê and épistémé which together once meant knowledge: “From earliest times until Plato the word technê is linked with the word épistémé. Both words are terms for knowing in the widest sense.” (H, p. 318) This is an important point in light of Cronenberg’s own questioning of technology in The Fly. Although this film is a horror film, as Cronenberg himself affirms, the diegetical complexity of the film suggests a far more pondered reflection on the relationship between humankind and modern technology, or, in terms closer to Heidegger’s understanding of the latter, on the relationship between the essence of (human) being and the essence of modern technology. Thus, in what ways does the film in question contribute to a more essential perception of the essence of modern technology in the Heideggerian sense of an “unconcealment” of being? In what ways does the science and technology depicted in this film reveal themselves in terms of a “shining-forth” that speaks a truth concerning being? We recall that Heidegger’s seminal essay concerning technology possesses a tripartite structure, namely, 1) a questioning concerning the nature of causality as understood by the Greeks and by modern metaphysical reasoning; 2) a questioning concerning the essential nature of modern technology beyond a merely instrumental approach; and 3) a questioning concerning the essential nature of the “unconcealment” occurring within and through human being. With regard to each one of these questions much is at stake: thought is, Heidegger suggests, always both an inquiry into, and a response to, danger. Thus, ultimately, the questioning concerning technology responds to an omnipresent threat: the radical forgetting of being. Thought must prevail, then, in its quest for a correct figuration of being’s essential nature. The essay concerning technology can in truth be nothing other than a response to this danger that threatens being itself. The film, which at a diegetic level, relates the catastrophic impact of technological invention on its inventor, contributes, on a self-reflexive level, to a deeper understanding of technology both as a form of “shining-forth” of essential being as well as being’s ever possible shadowy oblivion.

3It is both exemplary and paradoxical that in Cronenberg’s film The Fly, the film’s protagonist, the scientist Dr. Seth Brundle, inventor of teleportation (which permits travel by way of now womb-like, now prison-like metallic structures called telepods), lives, carries out research and invents his revolutionary means of locomotion within a single space. Significantly, the scientist’s “lab” and home will be lit in semi-darkness, or illuminated by means of artificial lighting, or completely enveloped by night throughout the film. This darkness gradually pervades Brundle’s home and “lab” as well as his inward, subjective universe until, by the end of the film, darkness is no longer simply an expression of clock time but more profoundly a state of being at the breaking-point of utterability. The recurrent use of night and shadow in The Fly is no longer simply an expression of the earth’s solar and lunar cycles but, more troublingly, the harbinger of the radical erasure of a human being. Darkness is therefore negatively premonitory in this film rather than embryonic and hopeful: here, literally, no one sleeps. What emerges from these shadows is an increasingly foreboding and ultimately lethal manifestation of the destruction of Brundle’s humanity. Night time, in The Fly, does not only relate to the circadian and the periodic: it is pathogenic. Nonetheless, in this paper we will attempt to delineate a path of reflection capable of associating Heidegger’s reference to the poetical to ekphanestaton with this pathogenic darkness and destruction of Brundle’s essential being. Heidegger himself gives us the appropriate conceptual tools to effect such an association of pathogenic night and “shining-forth” of essential truth. His aforementioned essay on the essence of modern technology (of which Seth Brundle’s transportation devices can be seen as fictional examples) approaches technology not as an assemblage of such fictional and/or real devices and apparatus but more fundamentally as a mode of unconcealment, i.e., aletheuin, truth:

“Wherever man opens his eyes and ears, unlocks his heart, and gives himself over to meditation and striving, shaping and working, entreating and thanking, he finds himself everywhere already brought into the unconcealed. The unconcealment of the unconcealed has already propriated whenever it calls man forth in to the mode of revealing allotted to him. When man, in his way, from within unconcealment, reveals that which presences, he merely responds to the call of unconcealment, even when he contradicts it. Thus when man, investigating, observing, pursues nature as an area of his own conceiving, he has already been claimed by a way of revealing that challenges him to approach nature as an object of research, until even the object disappears into the objectlessness of standing-reserve.” (H, p. 324)

4Heidegger’s philosophical hermeneutics is problematic due to its complexly grounded style of thinking combining expository exactitude with cogitative cadence. Nonetheless, he is attempting to effect a mimetic capture of being’s ineffability through and in language. By so doing, he is attempting to undo millennia of Western metaphysical conceptualizations, a philosophical tradition which, according to him, has in fact suppressed an authentic questioning of being. Heidegger creates consequently a non-instrumental and non-anthropological ideational field of reflection with which to approach the question of being as it appears to us in our modern technological age. It is a question which must in turn eschew what he considers to be a superficial, i.e., inauthentic understanding of the essence of technology as “rods, pistons, and chassis.” (H, p. 325) Implicit in his approach to modern technology, then, is his belief that a non-essential understanding of modern technology serves only to strengthen the predatory nature of humanity’s Promethean, self-willed lordship over being and the fateful “inevitableness of an inalterable course” (H, p. 330) that such lordship seems to promise. Such inauthentic questioning concerning the essence of technology condemns thought to inauthenticity and unfreedom and exposes the essence of human being to the gravest danger:

“The threat to man does not come in the first instance from the potentially lethal machines and apparatus of technology. The actual threat has already afflicted man in his essence. The rule of enframing threatens man with the possibility that it could be denied to him to enter into a more original revealing and hence to experience the call of a more primal truth.” (H, p. 333)

5Fundamental to Heidegger’s hermeneutics of the essence of modern technology – its specific mode of revealing as well as the nature of its threat to the full revealing of being – is his concept of enframing. In order to attain an essential perception of the essence of being, it is necessary to exert pressure on the established canons of meaning. The language of philosophy structures its vision through language; consequently, the ideas underlying the concept of enframing undergo a radical revision and must equally reflect an abrogation of established concepts and semantic territories. For Heidegger, the act of thinking allows the philosophical inquirer to re-discover, or unveil, the essence of being outside established metaphysical categories. Consequently, modern technology must be understood in terms of a radically renewed philosophical hermeneutics. The quasi-ritualistic unfolding of Heidegger’s philosophical language fully emerges when he presents his ideas concerning the essence of modern technology as a “challenging-forth”, a “setting-upon”, an “ordering”, a “standing-reserve” (conceptual figurations which define the way modern man understands nature as a complex of calculable, manipulable, and coherent forces in order then to transform these forces into energy which can subsequently be made to stand ready in reserve for use. These are key elements pertaining to his concept of enframing.

6Both the essence of technology and the essence of that “more primally granted revealing [of essential being] that could bring the saving power into its shining-forth in the midst of the danger that in the technological age rather conceals than shows itself” (H, p. 339) are, in their essential natures, “fundamentally different and yet […] related in their essence.” (H, p. 326) How could it be otherwise? It should be remembered that modern technology as well as that earlier, more primal poetical bringing-forth into presence of the real, of which poets such as Hölderlin are modern-day witnesses, are both of them essential modes of “revealing”. These modes of revealing respond in turn to a more originary “destining”. What is a “destining”? Heidegger attributes the following meaning to this term:

“The essence of modern technology starts man upon the way of that revealing through which the actual everywhere, more or less distinctly, becomes standing-reserve. ‘To start upon a way’ means ‘to send’ in our ordinary language. We shall call the sending that gathers [versammelnde Schicken], that first starts man upon a way of revealing, destining [Geschick]. It is from this destining that the essence of all history [Geschichte] is determined. History is neither simply the object of written chronicle nor merely the process of human activity. That activity first becomes history as something destined.” (H, p. 329)

7Inauthentic questioning, therefore, literally misleads: it is not a way but rather a dead-end. Authentic questioning, however, recalls that

“there was a time when it was not technology alone that bore the name technê. Once the revealing that brings forth truth into the splendour of radiant appearance was also called technê. There was a time when the bringing-forth of the true into the beautiful was called technê. The poiesis of the fine arts was also called technê”. (H, p. 339)

8This original kindredness of technê and poiesis, art and technical making, permits us to question in turn the essential nature of Brundle’s metamorphosis from human being to monster, from rationalist scientist to crazed insect (“who dreamed he was a man”), from technological pioneer to technological martyr. Indeed, what is at stake in the life and death of Dr. Seth Brundle? Heidegger’s questioning, we recall, permits us to reach the essence of being by way of a questioning concerning the essence of technology, for both essences pertain to a revealing and a destining, both ways unfold essentially within the same “constellation of truth.” (H, p. 340) Cronenberg’s film permits us in turn to understand Brundle’s fate as the visual allegory of these two fundamental revealings (technê and poiesis) in fatal and fateful collision, and their agon takes place within the telepod. Thus, in light of Heidegger’s philosophical questioning concerning technology, the telepod can be seen to represent not only a fictional mode of technological invention but also, more significantly, the filmic embodiment of modern technology’s mode of enframing. The telepod occupies therefore both a physical and a conceptual space. It provides the metallic and cyber-optic involucrum where technê and poiesis reveal themselves to each other. The telepod is at the crossroads of this mutual revelation. Brundle discovers that the artificial intelligence he has programmed in the “lab” to codify and teleport inorganic as well as inorganic entities has fused him with a fly which had, unbeknownst to Brundle, entered the telepod at the time of his inaugural self-teleportation. Throughout the film he will desperately strive to recover and safeguard his radically altered human identity. Unfortunately, this fusion occurs on a “cellular and molecular” level and is therefore irreversible. Brundle’s subsequently grotesque metamorphosis (as this fusion begins to show its increasingly devastating effects) comprises the dramatic center of the film. Nonetheless, on the level of philosophical reflection, Brundle’s physical transformation is the embodiment of a metaphysical pilgrimage to a more essential questioning concerning technology itself: the telepod can thus be seen as a destining inaugurating a novel mode of revealing. At the cathartic center of the film, Brundle, now metamorphosed into Brundle-Fly (a genomic hybrid combining human and fly DNA), has unwittingly become a post-human mutant struggling to recapture his own lost humanity. What is at stake, then, in the “question concerning technology”? Heidegger responds:

“The essential unfolding of technology threatens revealing, threatens it with the possibility that all revealing will be consumed in ordering and that everything will present itself only in the unconcealment of standing-reserve. Human activity can never directly counter this danger. Human achievement alone can never banish it. But human reflection can ponder the fact that all saving power must be of a higher essence than what is endangered, through at the same time kindred to it. But might there not perhaps be a more primally granted revealing that could bring the saving power into its first shining-forth in the midst of the danger that in the technological age rather conceals than shows itself?” (H, p. 339)

9Technology, then, must always be questioned in its essence. Yet to inquire after the essence of being, or the essence of technology, is always also to inquire after the very essence of freedom as it unfolds in the various modes of revealing that are allotted to human beings as being:

“The freedom of the free consists neither in unfettered arbitrariness nor in the constraint of mere laws. Freedom is that which conceals in a way that opens to light, in whose clearing shimmers the veil that hides the essential occurrence of all truth and lets the veil appear as what veils. Freedom is the realm of the destining that at any given time starts a revealing on its way.” (H, p. 330)

10What is at stake for Brundle? He is in danger: the teleportation technology has held sway over his human identity and transformed him into Brundle-Fly. Soon the same teleportation technology, guided by the scientist’s computer (programmed by Brundle, we recall, to code and decode all teleported passengers), will transform him yet again, this time into a grotesque fusion of human and fly genomic material along with the metal and fiber-optic cables of the telepod terminus itself. This is not a recapturing of his lost humanity but instead his horrific rebirth as monstrous exception. As a result of the scientist’s grotesque genomic drift between being and non-being, identity and non-identity, Brundle’s humanity is ever more concealed. The scientist’s fate we discover to be ever more profoundly in subservience to the cybernetic brain at the center of his “lab”. Its disembodied intelligence cannot safeguard the “shining-forth” of Brundle’s humanity but rather imposes upon him an ever more irrevocable and radical disappearance. The Fly, then, confronts two modes of revealings, the “challenging-forth” of technê and the “bringing-forth” into appearance belonging to that mode of revealing known as poiesis. Human protagonist and inhuman cybernetic antagonist speak in a digital tongue; however, they do not share a common horizon of discovery. Code is after all incommensurate with the hermeneutical unfolding of being. Brundle’s fate in the film functions as the allegorical incarnation of their irreducible difference.

11Although Heidegger does present the essence of technology as a mode of “revealing” (and therefore a possible way to essential freedom), he gives ultimate priority to the poetic revealing of being’s truth. Why? Because the mode of revealing known as enframing, in its increasingly world-enveloping univocity and apparently omnipresent historical inalterability, is ultimately delusory:

“Meanwhile, man, precisely as the one so threatened [by the seemingly inalterable course of enframing], exalts himself and postures as lord of the earth. In this way, the illusion comes to prevail that everything man encounters exists only insofar as it is his construct. This illusion gives rise in turn to one final delusion: it seems as though man everywhere and always encounters only himself. […] In truth, however, precisely nowhere does man today any longer encounter himself, i.e., his essence. Man stands so decisively in subservience to on the challenging-forth of enframing that he does not grasp enframing as a claim that he fails to see himself as the one spoken to, and hence also fails in every way to hear in what respect he ek-sists, in terms of his essence, in a realm where he is addressed, so that he can never encounter only himself.” (H, p. 332)

12Thus, at the moment of Brundle’s scientific breakthrough – the success of his revolutionary mode of transportation by teleportation – Brundle, in an essential way, no longer “encounter[s] himself”. The telepod, which we have described above as now womb-like, now prison-like, is in fact the place where being seems to be ultimately banished. The telepod is, in its metallic enclosure, a visual metaphor for the enframing of which Heidegger speaks. Consequently, the telepod represents in the film much more than its mechanical and cyber-optic components. Poiesis, once denied, gives way to the eclipse of being, its fateful concealment, and radical disappearance. There where technê is the sole mode of revealing, no being can fully dwell. Brundle’s desperate attempt to return to his earlier identity, i.e., to recover what he perceives to be his essential biography and primal humanity (as well as his original genomic purity) will fail in this quest. What remains of him is his poetic epitaph. At his death, we see the full “presencing” of the relationship between technê and poiesis. His death can be understood, therefore, both as radical alienation from life or, alternatively, as apocalyptic culmination of life where technê and poiesis reveal each other at the moment of greatest tension. What does this apocalyptic (a word to which inheres the sense of revelation) culmination proclaim if not that death can be both a final dissolution (which of course it is, and most dramatically for Brundle) but also, on a philosophically reflexive level, a revelation? This revelation discloses the agonic proximity of technê and poiesis occurring within Brundle’s body. The inventor of teleportation is the embodiment of this agon. His radical disappearance as a human being is also the moment when what is at stake in this questioning concerning the essence of being and the essence of technology becomes most dramatically manifest. Brundle disappears, yet who or what remains as Brundle is a figuration not only of death but also of an artistic truth. The film in question, which we approach as an example of the Platonic “to ekphanestaton”, narrates the shining-forth of being at the very moment of its destruction. To die at the breaking-point of visibility, or to speak at the edge of the effable, is an emblematic image of modern transcendence. To die like Brundle does, is both horrific ascent and rapturous descent into nothingness; it ushers in a sublime darkness, a terminal refulgency. The Fly is, paradoxically, an allegorical representation of beauty.

Allegory (2): the Monster in the Mirror

13The conceptual space of allegory is dynamic: it presages a greater (self-) knowledge beyond unquestioned appearance, an unbound perception freed from the habitual enchainment of reason, and a more elevated seeing (reminiscent of Plato’s description of cave [or den] dwellers being “dragged up a steep and rugged ascent” into the fresh light of truth). Plato’s allegory of the cave expresses the conversion of the immediacy of the senses into the arduous epistemological apprehension of truth. It is true that Seth Brundle’s ultimately doomed attempts to take control of his own fate in The Fly can be seen as the allegorical representation of thought’s failed “rugged ascent” from cursory forms of questioning to a more conceptually coherent inquiry. Nonetheless, this ascent does occur within the film, and it is conditional upon the scientist’s own monstrous or mad unfolding. As Brundle, now Brundle-fly, seeks to understand the cause of his own transformed condition, the boldness of his conjectures and visionary theorization prove to be theoretically sluggish vis-à-vis the unscripted and accelerated creativity of his “flesh”. Because his mind and body appear to progress at different and ever more divergent velocities, the scientist’s capacity to explain rationally his physical transformations proves to be obsolete and inadequate. Brundle’s molecular metamorphosis occurs outside the familiar. Analogously, Cronenberg demonstrates how rebirth in turn will occur outside collectively held definitions of human specificity. In fact, Cronenberg’s concept of rebirth is that of identity set radically and creatively adrift. We recognize a fundamental Cronenbergian irony at work in The Fly: thought, by virtue of which Plato’s earlier allegorical den dwellers had been given the opportunity to abandon their long-enchained condition (i. e., their cognitive enslavement, their intellectual immaturity) due to thought’s theoretical inadequacy, now represents the imprisoning cave, body – which in the Platonic allegory had been chained to the walls of a poorly illumined den – has now become the source of an unfamiliar albeit prodigious light. Cronenberg states:

  • 2 Cronenberg D., “The Beginning of Recognition, The Fly”, in David Cronenberg, Interviews with Serge (...)

“How physical is thought? Because it seems on the surface to be very disembodied. You can’t have thought without a body, which is why I always return to the idea of the body being the primary fact. The first fact of human existence is the body. So when I think of imagery and metaphor and thought, it seems a very sensual thing to me. It needs to be embodied physically somehow2.”

14The director attributes to the body, therefore, a cognitive and perceptual potency that belies the Cartesian duality of thinking subject and merely extensive matter. This post-Cartesian approach to the body requires the artist to imagine the monstrous not as the antithesis of normalcy (and consequently to be banished by a legitimizing absolute value or by a stable and/or transcendent natural or human law) but as the locus of union between cultural evolution and the body’s own capacity for evolutionary change. The body is not a passive receptacle for human thought: it is instead its primary interlocutor and manifestation. Therefore, the image of the body emerges in The Fly as being not only contemporaneous with humanity’s cognitive evolution but also as its active molecular archive. Consequently, the body does not merely follow cultural change but rather emerges in this film as the matrix of human consciousness itself. Sentience blooms in cognition; cognition operates through, and is consummated within, the body. Together body and consciousness form the dynamic nucleus of a contemporary techno-hermeneutical science, a science capable of detecting and developing the vital allegories of our technology-embodied culture: “[I] think that monstrosity is a relative thing. And times have changed since Goya in ways that would astonish him. What might be considered monstrous in one era becomes the normality of the next era. It happens even physically. Humans, physically, would have been monstrosities put amongst the original hominians.” (C, p. 90-91) The monstrous, then, represents an extraterritoriality, an in-humanness which in fact is coincident with “the creative fact of human rebirth.” (C, p. 90) The manifestations of the monstrous and process of techno-scientific discovery carried out by Seth Brundle in The Fly are ultimately both commensurate and cognate. On the one hand, the powers of reason and the prodigious powers of the monstrous underlie Cronenberg’s process of artistic inquiry; on the other, reason and the monstrous incarnate the twin origin as well as the twin destiny of human culture.

15Both in the aforementioned interview and in The Fly, the body is represented by the artist as being more process than substance. It is, in fact, the harbinger of fundamental change as well as the vector of significant and dynamic cultural perception. If identity is not a given, then it can maintain only a provisional stasis or the short-lived illusion of permanence: “So I think we would love to have stability and we would love to have absolutes, but we have to invent them because they don’t really exist. There are no absolutes. So I think I’m fascinated by the creativity of what it is to be human.” (C, p. 91) The body has here become the signifier whereas culture functions as the mutable signified. For Cronenberg, then, the body constitutes a fundamental metaphor for portentous self-discovery. Furthermore, the monstrous, which is the body gone “mad”, represents human fate astonished by its essential self-inventive capacity. Ultimately, change, perhaps especially horrific change, occurring within the body, provides a visual metaphor for the evolution of human culture itself. The filmic art of Cronenberg discloses the unexpected proximity of the monstrous and the cultural: The Fly registers the moment when the monstrous returns portentously to its metaphorical home. In the film this so-called home is, clearly, the sentient, physically and conceptually dynamic body itself. Although the manifestation of the monstrous has traditionally appeared as the uninvited guest in the house of the self, the monstrous is a repressed aspect of the self that has at last come home to claim its rightful place within the subject. This recalls Freud’s own research into the “unheimlich”, (i.e., the unfamiliar) which, according to the author of “The Uncanny”, should in truth more correctly be called the “Heimlich”, (i.e., the familiar, that which pertains to the home and always recurs) its apparent antonym. Madness, then, would be the moment of visionary uncanniness, dramatic defamiliarization, the moment when the self opens itself up to hitherto undisclosed albeit intimate layers of awareness. The monstrous is always, Cronenberg suggests, our closest of kin. The extraterritorial looks back at us in the mirror. Thus, the film ultimately defamiliarizes difference. The experience of madness, as witnessed in the body formerly called Seth Brundle, is the moment when the monstrous comes home at last and shines. This homecoming in turn perpetually invents and illuminates the hitherto undisclosed allegories of the real. Cronenberg states:

“[The Fly]’s about transformation. And maybe it’s [about] transcendence. Birth is an important event for many reasons, and most of them obvious. But maybe it’s really rebirth we’re talking about, and transformation. Change that is so substantial that it’s almost equivalent to being reborn. I think really that’s what I’m more interested in than just birth itself, as a start. Of course birth is the beginning of everything, but a rebirth is a more complex thing. […] But if it’s rebirth, a transformation, a rebirth is not the same thing. So much of what was there before is still there, and that’s a fascinating thing to me because we’re constantly regenerating ourselves. Reinventing ourselves. […] So I’m almost more interested in not just the biological fact of birth, but the creative fact of human rebirth. The idea that we are reinventing ourselves, or reinventing something, reinventing the world.” (C, p. 90)

16Equidistant between myth and conceptually grounded argument, Cronenberg’s filmic allegory in The Fly reflects our hybrid condition as beings who dwell in matter but who are also born in veiled truth(s). It is not only the world that can be told in a twofold manner. It is being itself that bears a manifold condition and a potentially unlimited fate: we never swim in the same epistemological river twice. Cronenberg expresses his own version of the Heraclitean credo through the medium of film, i.e., his essential perception that “birth” symbolizes the reproduction of the real whereas “rebirth” is more essentially and more unpredictably both production and transformation of the real. Birth is reproduction; rebirth is transformation. Consequently, we must question, along with Cronenberg, the nature of success and/or failure of Seth Brundle’s teleportation experiments, which will so profoundly determine his fate throughout the film. The director concludes:

“I think [the Brundle’s experiments are] both failures and successes. I don’t think of them as failures. […] How bad is it really? To me, I suppose that’s the ultimate end to all human experimentation. Or the human experiment. That we’re doomed to failure by our own very strange standard, but is it really a failure? I’m not really sure that it is. And I think of that as our reality experiment. That we create our own understanding of reality. That what we see is creation. And it can be constantly transformed. It is being constantly transformed and changed.” (C, p. 92)

17There are no absolute failures. Our collective “reality experiment” is an act of creative will taking place within our contemporary technological culture: “We’ve interfered with all of the normal, natural mechanisms that used to determine what would happen to an animal species. How it would mutate. How it would change. So we are causing our own mutations without being aware of it. And we are evolving and we are changing.” (C, p. 94) Seth Brundle, then, is the protagonist of his own reality experiment. His self-destruction is also a manifestation of brilliant rebirth and perceptual regeneration. The Fly is not exclusively a horror film: it is more profoundly (though not solely) a veiled tragedy for the technological age. We respond to Brundle’s plight with cathartic fear and pity but also with a sense of what Heidegger refers to as philosophical piety, i.e., an elevated state of awe before our evolutionary destiny as vectors of mystery and revelation.

18In the film, death itself has been metamorphosed into something else, something new; it has become the embodied metaphor of the nightmarish as well as the innovatory. Thus, death, like human nature and human culture in Cronenberg’s view, must also be reinvented within the grand evolutionary scheme of our techno-poetic history. In Cronenberg’s evolutionary view of humanity’s ongoing rebirth(s), cultural perception will always become obsolete. Even death must face its own demise as biological limit. Between inventive fever and existential agony, between techno-scientific insight and the implacable pathogen of darkness gradually enveloping Brundle, life, like death itself, becomes an almost unbearably ancient habit as well as a prodigious sign of technology-driven rebirth. Death, like life, is born anew as literally something else. The Fly is also therefore an allegorical expression of a “dying-other”. Seth Brundle, as the scientist-mother of this new species of death, is also, Cronenberg reveals, its epistemological martyr. The now womb-like, now prison-like telepods permit travel through space, but, more significantly, they represent a journey within and beyond given conceptual and cultural spaces. The scientist, as an evolution-accelerator, effects fundamental perceptual and cognitive change in human history. The element of madness at work in the mad scientist stems from the latter’s ability to introduce heterodoxy into the available scripts of living.

An Ambiguous Conclusion: Catastrophic (Re-)birth

19In order to address its manifold questioning of human identity, The Fly sets the flesh and the word into physical and conceptual tumult. The question of physical motion barely conceals the deeper (allegorical) level of interpretation: identity has always existed, according to Cronenberg’s artistic vision, in a state of semantic and perceptual flux. Seth Brundle, the scientist gone mad, ostensibly represents the erosion or erasure of a human being as a result of an experiment gone terribly wrong. As a consequence of the experiments he carries out, the monstrous body he comes to incarnate reveals thought become hysterical, the flesh become physically grotesque, and fate become conceptually indecipherable. Thus, a state of sublime danger emerges from the larger-than-life plot of The Fly. The film represents the nearly unspeakable drama of our existential path in a tragico-technical age where being can be banished by the electronic utopia of silent machines.

20However, if the essence of technology is nothing technological according to Heidegger, and if he is right to affirm that the Western metaphysical tradition after Plato has concealed the essence of being, then, analogously, Cronenberg’s The Fly suggests that the sources of human thought exist essentially outside stable categories of perception, i.e., outside the laws and customs as well as the normative symbolic exchanges occurring within the human community. The origin of human thought is ultimately and always inhuman (i.e., not essentially anthropocentric) and (therefore) extraterritorial. Moreover, The Fly suggests that the locus of human culture is firmly embedded within the monstrous sublime. As an avatar of human culture, the manifestation of the monstrous in The Fly can thus be seen as the extraterritorial promise of redemptive possibility: humanity’s sublime, self-creative destiny. Cronenberg’s filmography in general and The Fly in particular suggest that a passionate, mad radiancy underlies and drives the mental archive of human culture. As his spectators, we become witnesses to the monstrous and the madness that is born of the body’s growing self-experience as a vector of change and rebirth. We participate in this monstrous sublime. To watch Brundle’s fate unfold, we ourselves are invited to think monstrously and to understand madly.

21To think monstrously and to understand madly augur in turn the bringing-forth of a complex state of grace: human culture emerges at the breaking-point of cathartic terror and pity, where fresh understanding emerges. It is not surprising that Brundle’s final fate elicits from the spectator a response of both frenzied pity and self-annihilative excitement at the very limits of representability. If, on the one hand, Brundle incarnates a state of molecular inviability and inhabits a mimetic netherworld which not even the “lab” can house, the horror genre emerges in The Fly as the medium by which the limits of the humanly bearable and the laboratory as symbol of the limits of the culturally discernible are irreversibly sundered as well as imaginatively reinvented. When what is left of Seth Brundle implores – albeit outside human language – his former lover Veronica to shoot him dead, it is the entire universe of eros consummating itself in death. Brundle is riven from verbal communication, erotic communion, and human community itself. His final self-sacrifice takes place outside the scope of a mere gore-fest: the final moments of the film, which include Brundle’s apocalyptic howl uttered beyond the limits of cultural norm and life itself, seem to symbolize the tragedy of humanity’s contemporary loss of a stable identity.

22In addition, The Fly continues to pose complex questions concerning the nature of identity well beyond the image of Brundle’s mutilated, death-bound body. Throughout the film Brundle obsessively returns to the fundamental existential dilemma: Who am I?, and, more terrifyingly, What am I? The scientist Seth Brundle, a modern-day experimenter who becomes the unsuspecting object of his own experimentation, portrays the state of radical doubt enveloping the human subject whenever the revealing of technê and the revealing of poiesis agonically meet. We point out several loci of this radical doubt whereby fundamental aspects of Brundle’s identity become disconcertingly indeterminate: 1) bipedal and/or mechanical locomotion is presented as a primitive hominid limitation in the film. Are we earthbound creatures, then, or instead fundamentally cognitive travellers who short-circuit natural evolution and technologically “jump” over evolutionary time?; 2) Brundle’s computer is programmed to “think” in terms of genetic code rather than to “read” the body’s embeddedness in existential pathos, historical circumstance, and myth-resonant narrative. Is it possible, then, to express or entrust understanding of our human specificity to a cybernetic intelligence? Does the digital-based language of cybernetics (technê) and the languages of eros and creativity ultimately speak a common idiom of being?; 3) Brundle transgresses genomic boundaries: he moves from species (human) to species (fly) and from species (human-fly) to non-species (human-fly-telepod), in now astonishing, now terrifying molecular fusions crafted by the Sphinx-like cybernetic intelligence that carries out, in fateful electronic silence, the techno-scientific reconfiguration of this mad scientist. Must we define our identity by the genealogical maps we lay claim to, or, instead, is our species’ genealogical tree essentially extraterritorial and our truths ultimately nomadic? and, finally, 4) the cultural and historical refashioning of the self and its normative horizons is an ongoing act of human creativity. Consequently, does our identity depend more on the “rebirths” we embrace than on the birth that chronologically founds us?

23The Fly represents, then, what is not only almost unbearable to watch but what is conceptually almost impossible to comprehend, thereby threatening the mimetic capacity of film itself. In a way Heidegger could not have foreseen, Cronenberg’s film discloses the “to ekphanestaton” of a scientific experiment gone terribly awry: it is a contemporary fable that places human history within the “laboratory” of catastrophic birth. Ultimately, however, this catastrophic birth reveals the “splendour” of creative rebirth. The Fly effects a paradox: the filmic medium, which makes visible the actor’s body as embodied metaphor and conveys the actor’s psyche by way of a hyper-transparency of mind, risks undermining the language of the visible itself. In this sense, the film’s allegorical content can be more accurately considered to express the artist’s exploration of a complex conceptual maelstrom rather than a unilaterally horrific gore-fest. The Fly is in truth a luminous allegory of post-Enlightenment techno-poetic being.

Sarah Polley dans Splice de Vincenzo Natali, Gaumont, 2009.



Cronenberg D., “The Beginning of Recognition, The Fly”, in David Cronenberg, Interviews with Serge Grünberg, Plexus Publishing Limited, London, Plexus, 2006.

Heidegger M., Basic Writings, From Being and Time (1927) to The Task of Thinking (1964), David Farrell Krell (ed.), London, Routledge, 2000.

Plato, The Republic, Book VII, Benjamin Jowett, 22 déc 2010. URL: [].


1 Heidegger M., Basic Writings, From Being and Time (1927) to The Task of Thinking (1964), Krell D. F. (ed.), London, Routledge, 2000, p. 326. From now on, the reference to this text will be indicated in parenthesis, following the mention H.

2 Cronenberg D., “The Beginning of Recognition, The Fly”, in David Cronenberg, Interviews with Serge Grünberg, Plexus Publishing Limited (trans.), London, Plexus, 2006, p. 95. From now on, the reference to this text will be indicated in parenthesis, following the mention C.

Table des illustrations

Légende Sarah Polley dans Splice de Vincenzo Natali, Gaumont, 2009.
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Maître de conférences, université de Lisbonne

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