Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Social Theory at the Barrel of an Auto-9

The moment I really got into social theory was when I realized it could kill people, at least in action movies.

In college I took classes on Greek Heroes and Oral Literature with Greg Nagy, the person who showed me that social theory could play together with ancient texts. He didn't impose theory on Classics to show he was more sophisticated than Homer, but to bring out Homer's distinctiveness and, if I can say this, blood—the disturbing, rooted vitality of an ancient document that our careful, pristine treatment can bleed dry.

For me the definitive Nagy moment was when he'd explained Performative Utterances in class, those sentences that do something precisely by talking about it, like “I now pronounce you man and wife.” He was showing Robocop, of all things, to illustrate concepts of the hero.

The background: "In a dystopian future, the city of Detroit, Michigan is on the verge of collapse due to financial ruin and unchecked crime" (you can't make this stuff up) The city has outsourced its police force to Omni Consumer Products and its corrupt president, Dick Jones, who is also on the city council. Robocop is a veteran cop killed in a drug raid and resurrected by OCP into a man-machine hybrid with a big gun. Instead of a conscience he has four rules programmed in. The first three are to serve the public trust, protect the innocent and uphold the law. And there's a classified fourth directive: he can't harm any member of OCP. But we find out that the big problems in the city are actually being caused by Jones himself, who has sent his evil all-machine robots to kill Robocop, and played him a video death sentence.

Robocop survives, and with the death sentence still implanted in his flash memory, fights his way to the top of the city council's skyscraper and plugs himself into their meeting room computer's USB to unmask Jones in wide-screen before the whole council. Jones puts a gun to the mayor's head and demands ransom and an escape route. Robocop, despite his massive artillery, is paralyzed by the fourth directive. But then he gets an idea. Turning to the mayor, he asks, “don't you have something to say to him?” The mayor turns to his captor: “Dick, you're fired!” Robocop is freed to pull the trigger, and the impact propels the villain through a huge window and 100 stories down to earth in a blizzard of glass.

And that was my first experience of blown away by a linguistic concept.

--this discussion of violent action movies and philology is an outtake from a great interview Doug Mangrum did with me; check it out!