Man/Machine Interaction in the Work of Stanley Kubrick

Thesis (M.A.), 2006
69 Pages, Grade: 1,3



I. Introduction – Kubrick and the Machine

II. The Cultural Machine
A. The Dualism of Order and Chaos
1. Order
1.1 2001 – A Struggle for Existence?
1.2 Closed Circuit s
1.3 Communication as an End in Itself
1.4 System, Plan, Machine
1.5 The Age of Reason
1.6 Society as Theater
2. Chaos
2.1 What is Your Major Malfunction, Numbnuts?
B. The Psychoanalytic Machine
1 The Duality of Man
2. Reboot Camp
3. The Marine Symbolic
4. Male Machinic Fantasy
5. The Cinematic Apparatus
5.1 The Eye and the Gaze

III. Becoming Machine
A. The Wedding Dance of the Machines
B. Full Metal Machine
1. The Marine Corps
2. The Lusthog Squad
C. Desire Machines and Schizoanalysis
D. The World as Brain

IV. Conclusion – The Postmodern Kubrick

V. Bibliography

I Introduction – Kubrick and the Machine

Stanley Kubrick (1929-1999) can be regarded as one of the outstanding Anglo-American film directors. This cannot only be said about his work, which attracted major attention since his sudden engagement as a director for Kirk Douglas' big budget production Spartacus and which then later developed into the typical Kubrickian style; in addition, Kubrick's whole career was attended by his peculiar image as a director, which made him both famous and notorious like only a few other film directors. His image is not only due to his alleged perfectionism that verged on pedantry, but to the controversial nature of his films as well. Many critics despise his films, assuming that Kubrick's interest in a clear and perfect visual and narrative style exceeds his interest in his characters. Indeed, such an assumption could be supported, considering films like 2001 – A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon or Full Metal Jacket. In a traditional understanding of literary theory, the characters in these films might not even be described as flat, i.e. "constructed round a single idea or quality" (Forster 65) in order to be "easily remembered" (Forster 67), but rather as being on the verge of non-existence, which makes Kubrick's films hard to endure for some viewers. Such an account, however, ignores the notion that his films may not be concerned with the creation of credible characters in the first place. Instead, they could be described as some kind of test arrangement in which isolated objects interact with other isolated objects. His characters’ implementation in an intricate surrounding is reminiscent of the interaction with a complex apparatus, with a machine.

In this paper, I want to examine Kubrick's work for this notion of man interacting with the machine and relate it to various theoretical models that also deal with the relation of man and machine. I chose the term 'machine' as a generic term for any theory applying technological, mechanical or machinic ideas, most of which using the machine as a metaphor for sociological, philosophical or psychoanalytic approaches. At the same time, I want to illustrate on the basis of Kubrick’s work how the theoretical discourse on this topic has changed in the course of time. Being initially cut down to a very literal understanding of machines as actual physical devices, the 20th century discourse about technology has shown that the demarcation line between what is nature and what is technology is not as easily drawn as it might appear. Man is inseparably bound up with his tools and culture as a whole could be regarded as some kind of machinery. Thus, a great part of both this paper and Kubrick's work deals with the notion of a cultural machine.

Chapter II comprises a variety of ideas that deal with this ‘machinic culture’. At first, I will take a look at the small number of Kubrick’s films in which technology plays a crucial role, raising the question of how technology influences mankind. Is man really in control of his tools, or is he rather enslaved by his machines and their growing complexities? Is man a redundant species in the end? Since Kubrick’s films not really provide many answers to these questions, however, I will not go too much into what Zizek calls “the old boring topic” (16). Instead, the following sections of this chapter will deal with how Kubrick presents man as being compelled to his own cultural organization. I will try to show how Kubrick links the human inclination towards order to the ideas of Enlightenment. Moreover, I will identify some of the characteristics of these modern societies as they are illustrated by Kubrick, with a particular attention to the issue of communication. After that, I will point out Kubrick’s interest in showing the other side of the coin, i.e. the chaotic elements working towards the disintegration of society’s orderly structures. I will relate these two antagonistic forces to the philosophical dualism of mind and body. In the last part of this chapter, I will try to consider Kubrick’s work in the light of another important concept in the thinking of the 20th century, psychoanalysis. The work of Freud and later Lacan also exploits machinic metaphors to elucidate human inner life.

In chapter III, then, I will leave the narrow view of the machine as a strictly cultural metaphor. Recent philosophical currents like the work of Deleuze, Maturana and the academic gender discourse try to evolve a new coining of the term ‘machinic’ that goes beyond rigid dualistic notions. I will try to show that these ideas can be found in Kubrick’s films as well.

II. The Cultural Machine

A. The Dualism of Order and Chaos

1. Order

Technology is an integral part of human activity. For a long time it was widely believed that the use of tools was one of the distinguishing features of the human species in comparison to other species, an assumption which proved to be erroneous. Still, the relationship between man and his tools appears to be one of the defining characteristics of human culture. The deliberate making of tools to a plan and for a purpose constituted a starting point for a whole cultural evolution that has been proceeding with far greater speed than biological evolution and thus virtually superseded it. In this chapter, I want to draw a connection from Kubrick’s views on technology to his notions about man and society, showing that order is one of human’s driving forces.

1.1 2001 – A Struggle for Existence?

The one Kubrick film that comes first to mind when we talk about the interaction between man and machine is of course 2001 – A Space Odyssey (in the following abbreviated as 2001). Of all his films, it is probably the one that deals most overtly with the topic of technology: "man, who transcended the animal condition by means of technology, must free himself of that same technology to arrive at a superhuman condition." (Ciment 127) The narrative describes the evolution of mankind into a tool-making species and follows this cultural evolution up to the near future (which was at the time of the film’s release about 33 years ahead). This enormous period of time is covered with the help of the famous match cut showing a club thrown in the air that ‘transforms’ into a space missile, a few minutes later echoed by a pen that "floats like a mini-spacecraft" (Miller 21) in the weightlessness of a shuttle flying to a space station. The bone used by the simian as a club is introduced by the story as the first tool in the history of mankind. As any tool, it is invented for a specific purpose, in order to fulfill a certain plan. The simian transforms the bone into a club simply by imagining what he is going to do with it. Kubrick shows this by inserting a slow motion shot of a falling tapir while the simian plays with a pile of bones. The power of imagination, of devising a plan is presented here as a distinctive feature of the human race.

After the leap of time, we can see what different directions the evolution of tools has taken: the space missile as a direct descendant of the ancient club, but also spaceships as the latest in transportation technology, as well as the rather old fashioned device of the pen. We come across all kinds of machines in this world at the turn of the second millenium. In fact, the world depicted here seems to be almost exclusively inhabited and run by machines. The long sequences showing floating spaceships to the music of Johann Strauss' Blue Danube underscore the feeling of a pure machine world, "a ballet méchanique among itself" (Nelson 119), where everything seems to work more or less automatically. Even the human pilots of the spaceships in this first part of the film seem to be more concerned with their meals than with the navigation of their ships, which is mainly done by the computer. Likewise, the Discovery spaceship in the film's second part is completely run by the onboard computer HAL. Man seems to be left to the role of a passenger or spectator – he is not needed anymore.

[T]he total design of the film predicates a clean authority, an order of total mechanical, electronic, technological perfection. Perfect order and perfect function decrease the need for human inquisitiveness and control. A perfectly clean world is clean of human interference. (Kolker 135)

Man has created his own competitors, inventing machines "which can reproduce, though some experts still prefer to use the word 'mimic', most of the activities of the human brain, and with incalculably greater speed and reliability." (2001) It seems that in its self-created technified world, humanity is forced to adjust if it does not want to become useless. In its second part "Jupiter Mission", the film depicts a literal struggle for existence, a battle for survival between man and machine: The ship's computer HAL tries to kill the astronauts in fear of getting disconnected. Only one astronaut, Bowman, survives and is finally able to disconnect the computer. Wheat follows Ciment's argumentation in stating that Bowman's survival shows that man has won this struggle of existence, the human symbiosis with the machine having not worked out:

The monolith symbolizes the very thing it resembles: a milestone, the first milestone along the road of humanoid evolution. At this milestone, ape becomes man. At the next milestone, on the moon, man will 'evolve' into (by creating) a humanoid machine that will become an evolutionary dead end. The Jupiter monolith, which is lying flat rather than standing upright, symbolizes a toppled milestone: it is where humanoid life returns from the dead end and gets back on the main road. The last milestone, in the hotel room on the alien planet, marks the point on the road of evolution where man evolves into a genuinely better humanoid species. (65)

This negative reading of technology is shared by many researches on the film. "The shot of Frank running like a rat on a wheel in a cage" (Fry 338) can be viewed as a symbol for man being trapped in his own invention, while the “trip to Jupiter embodies our ability to overcome the technological impediment.” (Castle 5) To my mind, the film neither supports nor rejects such interpretations. It rather looks as if the excessive amount of technology in 2001 is not the cause for the human malady but only a symptom of it. At first sight, a clearer statement against technology seems to come from the film Kubrick made before 2001, Dr. Strangelove Or: How I stopped worrying and Love The Bomb (in the following abbreviated as Dr. Strangelove). Here, it is the fictive Russian invention of the “Doomsday Machine” that seals the fate of the earth. The Doomsday Machine is a machine that functions as an automated retaliatory strike, acting – once installed – completely independent from any human intervention. It could be described as the next step in the Cold War machinery of deterrence, contrasting the reprisal system of the United States in which humans and their tools are intertwined with each other in order to guarantee that the machine of deterrence works efficiently. Humans here still have the authority to take decisions in this system, and this turns out to be exactly its weak spot. Therefore, just like 2001, Dr. Strangelove does not make a clear statement whether human technology itself poses a threat or not. However, as the film concentrates exactly on the network of interacting decision-makers and apparatchiks, one could argue that it is exactly this apparatus Kubrick is interested in. Likewise, it seems that although 2001 ends with (Bow-)man reaching a transcendent state of being and overcoming his 'conditio humana', most part of the film rather seems to comment exactly on this human condition, i.e. the current state of humanity and its near prospect. As we will see, the search for the predicament of human existence runs through all of Kubrick's films, and only in a few instances they deal with the relationship of man and his technological inventions. Thus, the following will explore what kind of machinic processes can be found in Kubrick's view of man, society and culture in general.

1.2 Closed Circuits

When 2001 was released in 1968, the film was faulted by some critics for its banal and meaningless dialogue and its flat and uninteresting characters. Moreover, a certain feeling of coldness is attributed to all of Kubrick's films since 2001, which is not only due to his clean visual style but is mostly based on his characters' aloof and strangely dispassionate behavior. Indeed, the lack of visible emotion in 2001 causes an overall feeling of formality and indifference. The human characters we come across in Kubrick's depicted future act as if they had adjusted themselves to their automated environment. Most researches on the film remark that the astronauts on the Discovery mission to Jupiter somehow act mechanically and behave strikingly calm, even in situations of greatest danger. When Frank Poole receives birthday greetings from his parents, the film does not bother to show any kind of emotional reaction in his face – because there is none; when Poole later drifts helplessly out into space, his colleague's face does not show any sign of emotion either; even when Bowman realizes that he has been shut out in space, we can see how hard he tries to keep calm. Chion points out that "Dave and Frank seem cold or lacklustre to us, but we forget they exist in a situation of constant surveillance." (136) Moreover, being an astronaut on a mission, becoming emotional means to become less functional. Regarding that most of the mission is already run by the computer, being most functional is top priority for the astronauts in order to not getting futile. We can see here how human value is measured solely by efficiency and use, just like a tool. From such an economical point of view, it does not surprise that the other three crew members are put into artificial hibernation, for "their efforts won't be utilized until we're approaching Jupiter." (2001)

The utilization of man seems to have taken root in the rest of civilization as well, as we can see in the first part of the film where Dr. Heywood Floyd is on his way "up" to moon. In the same way humans have to function like machines or else they become redundant in a world of machines, social intercourse in the film functions as mechanically and predictably as a smoothly running clockwork – disturbances are not welcome. When a Russian colleague presses in upon Floyd about a matter he is reluctant to discuss, the clockwork seems to stop running for a moment, and we can almost grasp the feeling of unease arising. Floyd's task is basically to assure that the unearthing of the monolith on the moon is not unveiled, and being a leading figure in this world's maintenance staff he does not like to see a monkey wrench thrown into his works. After all, the fear of disturbance seems to be the very reason why the discovery of the monolith is supposed to remain top secret: "I'm sure you're all aware of the extremely grave potential for cultural shock and social disorientation contained in this present situation, if the facts were suddenly made public without adequate preparation – and conditioning." (2001) In Floyd's view, society seems to be something like a machine that can be modified at the government's own discretion and that has to run without commotion.

Kubrick's characters often act inside a system they have created by themselves and that limits their sphere of action to a minimum. This becomes also very clear in Dr. Strangelove. The film shows how each character, from the simple Lieutenant to the President of the U.S.A., is confined to his very own pattern of action, all in all creating a machinery of deterrence that is supposed to work on a completely predictable basis. The so-called "plan R" is supposed to make the retaliation machine even more efficient, allowing individual generals to order the use of nuclear weapons in case of an emergency without the explicit approval of the president. What the plan disregards, however, is the possibility of human error. It only needs one important link of the chain to break, and the whole machine starts working in a way opposite to its original purpose. With the one fatal exception of General Ripper going mad, the complex cold war machinery he sets in motion works frighteningly perfect, which makes it very hard to be stopped – and which eventually leads to the world's destruction. Thus, the film presents a very crucial example of a closed circuit in which humans function as relay stations that are supposed to work flawlessly. In this mechanism, man is merely a puppet that seems to be controlled by the system itself. When Lt. Mandrake realizes that his commanding General Ripper has gone completely mad, his bondage to the military system seems to be cut off for a moment: “Jack, I'd love to come, but what's happened, you see, the string in my leg's gone.” (Dr. Strangelove)

Examples like the above create the image of a mechanical man. It is a recurring topic in Kubrick’s work that has been mentioned in most researches on his films. Whereas to Kolker, 2001 is “enunciating the metamorphosis of human into machine” (98), in Toffetti’s view Kubrick’s narratives show an “Omnipotenz des Mechanischen und des Mechanismus” (78). Ciment states that "in Kubrick's films [...] puppets, robots, dolls and statues connote a world in which man has become no more than a docile machine, a toy in a society of empty forms, a servile being in a universe of semblances." (136) Kirchmann points out that Kubrick uses the image of man being controlled like a marionette not only on a narrative, but also on a visual level:

Der Begriff Marionette, der als Metapher für seine Figurenkonzeption anzusehen ist, wird von Kubrick durch Bild- und Rollengestaltung als visueller Bestandteil seiner Filme inszeniert. Mit Dr. Strangelove, Mr. Alexander und Sir Lyndon tauchen drei Rollstuhlfahrer in Kubricks Werk auf – Sinnbilder für den seiner (Handlungs-)Freiheit beraubten Menschen. Gestik und Mimik dieser Rollstuhlfahrer haben gerade im Moment emotionaler Erregung etwas Abgehacktes, Stilisiertes (113)

1.3 Communication as an End in Itself

A distinct feature of the cultural mechanisms presented in Kubrick's films is their tendency towards a constant self-reference. Kubrick's societies seem to be perfectly saturated with the very fact of forming a coherent network that only aims at its own expansion. Hence it follows that communication results in an abstruse vacuity which leaves traces in the individual. Heywood Floyd in 2001, for example, meets everyone with the same monotonous kindness, being "consistently casual, affable and bored, the same pleasant managerial mask whether it confronts some actual face, the video image of his daughter's face, or that synthetic sandwich." (Miller 20) He even treats the automatic tape recording of a space station employee as if it was an actual person. This indifference towards who you talk to does not surprise, looking at the confusing forms in which communication takes place in the not-so-futuristic world of 2001: You can talk to machines that behave "really just as another person" (2001) but have no actual face to talk to, like the computer HAL; you can talk to a face on a screen, but it is only a tape recording being part of a machine, like the space station employee; you can talk to another face on a screen, but this time it is the projection of an actual living person being far away in space and/or time, like Floyd’s daughter, Poole's parents or Mission Control; and lastly, you can talk to real live persons face to face.

In spite of these multitudinous ways to communicate, what is actually being said remains remarkably irrelevant. The film shows at some length people using welcome and goodbye greetings, small talk and other meaningless phrases, which gain additional significance considering the fact "that the film's 141-minute running time contains little more than forty minutes of dialogue" (Falsetto 48). One is reminded of Marshall McLuhan's thoughts on media: In Kubrick's new millenium, people seem to have finally understood that indeed "the medium is the message" (McLuhan 7), so they consequentially eliminated most of the content from their dialogue. What is left over is the fact of communication itself, the reference to the system of communication. When Floyd talks to his daughter on the telephone, the dialogue is all about the medium itself. Asked what she would like for her birthday, the daughter comes up with “a telephone". And when he passes on a message for his wife through his daughter, it contains only the simple fact that he "telephoned" and that he will "try to telephone again tomorrow". Miller sees a "sense of profound emptiness arising from that Pinteresque exchange" (24). One could argue that Kubrick here makes an ironic statement about McLuhan's notion of the media's influence on man, who says "it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action." (McLuhan 9). In 2001, the fact that society is intricately connected through the medium of the telephone (and other media) has resulted in culture’s total engrossment with connectivity. Jameson describes such a fact as “a dialectical intensification of the autoreferentiality of all modern culture, which tends to turn upon itself and designate its own cultural production as its content.” (42) In their work Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno are concerned with the idea of rationality as an end in itself:

In der Reduktion des Denkens auf mathematische Apparatur ist die Sanktion der Welt als ihres eigenen Maßes beschlossen. Was als Triumph subjektiver Rationalität erscheint, die Unterwerfung alles Seienden unter den logischen Formalismus, wird mit der gehorsamen Unterordnung der Vernunft unters unmittelbar Vorfindliche erkauft. [...] Das Tatsächliche behält recht, die Erkenntnis beschränkt sich auf seine Wiederholung, der Gedanke macht sich zur bloßen Tautologie. Je mehr die Denkmaschinerie das Seiende sich unterwirft, um so blinder bescheidet sie sich bei dessen Reproduktion. (33)

We can find such a self-referentiality of communication also in Dr. Strangelove. When the American and the Russian presidents talk on the phone, the dialogue longwindedly deals with the quality of connection before they address the problem of how to save the world. Moreover, the characters in Dr. Strangelove tend to complicate their intercommunication by using multiple coding and forewarding: When Ripper sends out the order to drop the bomb on Russia, a "code R" first has to be coded once more into "FGD 135", only to be then decoded twice again; and when General Turgidson talks to the general who caught up the coded order, the conversation is not only made through the medium of the telephone, but additionally through the 'medium' of Turgidson's secretary.

No one listens, no one responds. Words are interchanged, but the words are, in the war room, only clichés; at the base, lunatic ravings; and in the plane, military jargon. [...] Everyone talks, or tries to talk, on the phone. The first line of dialogue in the film is delivered by General Ripper (Sterling Hayden) on the phone to his chief aside, Mandrake (Peter Sellers), asking significantly, ‘Do you recognize my voice?’ Everyone does indeed recognize everyone else’s voice. No one understands a word that is being said. (Kolker 120f.)

Thus, in presenting the world as an intricate grid of communication, Kubrick shows at the same time that the individual is isolated. To put it in the words of Horkheimer and Adorno: "Die Kommunikation besorgt die Angleichung der Menschen durch ihre Vereinzelung." (233)

1.4 System, Plan, Machine

What Dr. Strangelove presents in a satirical way could be dealt with as an advanced process of systematization, just as described in the systems theory or the related field of cybernetics. A system in this understanding is a structure built in an orderly fashion that creates a boundary between itself and its chaotic, disordered environment. The ideal state of a system might be reached when its constitutive elements are completely registered and marked. In his work Discipline & Punish, Michel Foucault describes how such a systematic line of approach has been applied to society in the course of civilization. Starting off with restricted areas like prisons, society has been passing through various mechanisms of discipline in order to eventually arrive at a state of total visibility.

On the whole, therefore, one can speak of the formation of a disciplinary society in this movement that stretches from the enclosed disciplines, a sort of social 'quarantine', to an indefinitely generalizable mechanism of 'panopticism'. Not because the disciplinary modality of power has replaced all the others, sometimes undermining them, but serving as an intermediary between them, linking them together, extending them and above all making it possible to bring the effects of power to the most minute and distant elements. It assures an infinitisemal distribution of the power relations. (216)

In A Clockwork Orange, there is a star-shaped prison building that in its confluence onto a central point somehow reminds of Foucault's description of Bentham's original panopticon. In the scene where Alex DeLarge is being imprisoned we can find other references to Foucault's panopticism. The walls are lined with the personal belongings of the prisoners, which have been documented and stored here. Alex' possessions are registered down to the last detail as well, and he is given a number – "655321". Of course, a prison is by definition a place that strives for the complete control and transparency of its inmates. What Foucault describes in his panopticism are not mechanisms of prisons, but rather general mechanisms of discipline and control that have rubbed off on society as a whole, or rather, on every single individual. That is why he speaks of a "very real technology [...] of individuals" (225). The German sociologist Norbert Elias explains how exactly this disciplining of the individual takes place:

Durch die Interdependenz größerer Menschengruppen voneinander [...] stellt sich eine Gesellschaftsapparatur her, in der sich dauernd die Zwänge der Menschen aufeinander in Selbstzwänge umsetzen; diese Selbstzwänge, Funktionen der beständigen Rück- und Voraussicht, die in dem Einzelnen entsprechend seiner Verflechtung in weitreichende Handlungsketten von klein auf herangebildet werden, haben teils die Gestalt einer bewußten Selbstbeherrschung, teils die Form automatisch funktionierender Gewohnheiten (Elias, 2nd Vol. 342)

As we have seen, the societies depicted in 2001 and Dr. Strangelove function very much according to these mechanisms of discipline. Both Elias and Foucault state that the process of disciplinary mechanization started at the end of Feudalism and came to fruition in the 18th century. "The 'Enlightenment', which discovered the liberties, also invented the disciplines." (Foucault 222) In the following chapter, I will thus examine how Kubrick takes reference to the age of Enlightenment.


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Man/Machine Interaction in the Work of Stanley Kubrick
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seminar)
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Thorsten Felden (Author), 2006, Man/Machine Interaction in the Work of Stanley Kubrick, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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