david foster wallace on the terminator movies

From a 1993 interview with David Foster Wallace in “The Review of Contemporary Fiction”:

It’s almost like postmodernism is fiction’s fall from biblical grace. Fiction became conscious of itself in a way it never had been. Here’s a really pretentious bit of pop analysis for you: I think you can see Cameron’s “Terminator” movies as a metaphor for all literary art after Roland Barthes, viz., the movies’ premise that the Cyberdyne NORAD computer becomes conscious of itself as “conscious,” as having interests and an agenda; the Cyberdyne becomes literally self-referential, and it’s no accident that the result of this is nuclear war, Armageddon.

I came across this quote yesterday and planned to write about it before I realized that Wallace wrote an entire essay about T2 (and how it is “F/X porn”), which will be reprinted shortly as part of a new non-fiction collection. So three cheers for coincidence.

Anyway, I like Wallace and I really liked this theory at first glance, but the more I think about it, the more I think it’s wrong — and the more I think about why, the more I think it’s wrong for interesting reasons. Before I get to why, let’s first acknowledge that Wallace (as quoted at least) got the names mixed up: “Cyberdyne” is the name of the company that creates the artificial intelligence, which is known as “Skynet.”

The first thing to note with this theory is that Wallace is equating the self-consciousness of Skynet in The Terminator and Terminator 2 with the world being blown to hell. That is, Wallace is implying that Skynet decides to do away with humanity for some reason linked to its newfound self-awareness. This self-reflective existential stuff is the salient feature of Skynet for Wallace.

But that’s kind of strange, because that’s not really the salient feature for anybody else. In the movie, Skynet’s most important aspect is only that it wants to kill humanity. The why of it is secondary, and you could probably read anything you like into the scant information we’re given about it.

Generally, it’s not very useful to think of Skynet as a really disturbed consciousness. It works a lot better in allegorical terms, maybe as an unholy force that has been unleashed by the folly of man. But if we’re really intent on figuring out why its being “self-referential” is a problem, we ought to consult the reprogrammed (and good) Terminator’s description of what happened when Skynet first became aware of itself. According to this history, Skynet turned on humanity because we had tried to kill it when we realized the threat posed by its very existence.

If you really want to squeeze this for meaning — and I don’t even recommend this approach — you could say that Skynet was just mirroring the fearful fascism of its own creators. It was perfectly imitative of its imperfect masters, and so it was a paranoid, intolerant beast that could only be comfortable with absolutes, in this case the absolute safety of being free from the threat of humans.

But doesn’t this seem like a lot to unpack from a few lines of exposition that was probably just there to fill in some plot and give a (im)plausible explanation for everything that is happening in the movie? In practice, we don’t really care why exactly Skynet is so hot to kill us.

Here are the next words out of Wallace’s mouth in that interview:

Metafiction’s real end has always been Armageddon. Art’s reflection on itself is terminal, is one big reason why the art world saw Duchamp as an Antichrist.

So, finally, here’s why Wallace’s reading of Terminator 2 is wrong in an interesting way. The self-awareness that he’s equating with metafiction and Skynet doesn’t come, as far as I can tell, from anything postmodern. It just comes from having a mind that can use language. Animals are sentient, but (for the most part) they don’t have language, which is why they’re not neurotic messes. It’s language that seems to make possible the “self-referential” trap Wallace is talking about it; language is what makes “me” a kind of abstract, syntactic entity that is alienated from the self. Language gives symbols to the world and begins a process of mediating our experience in a way that is devastating.

I’m trying to crunch a big idea into a nutshell here, but in fact you don’t have to understand all of that to agree that it’s language that does these things and makes us “self-conscious,” not postmodernity or metafiction. Just by having a human mind, we have the problems Wallace is talking about. He wants to pin the blame on metafiction, but it’s really just the human condition that leads to Armaggedon, or, at least blockbusters that depict it.

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