MECHANICAL CHAIRS BEFORE THE MATRIX (1999)
There’s this 1996 film called Darkdrive. This very, very bad 1996 film called Darkdrive.
It’s one of those straight-to-video science fiction slop buckets that are born for early-hours TV scheduling; indeed, so perfectly-deserved is this banishment to televisual no-man’s-land that, regardless of when you see the thing, Darkdrive is so incoherent, so gruelling a watch that you invariably feel like you’re staying up late.
What semblance of plot that does manage to rouse its fat head from gibberish concerns a special agent who—after his wife is blown up by a seemingly innocuous picnic basket (yes, it’s as funny as it sounds)—journeys into another reality called ‘The Matrix’ by plugging into a chair-like device that imprisons the mind.
Sound familiar? That’s right, it’s the plot of cyber blockbuster The Matrix. Only Darkdrive predates the Wachowski Brothers’ hit by about three years.
The strength of The Matrix was never originality; as the writer-directors are first to admit, its influences are right there on its sleeves. Ghost in the Shell, Akira, Alice in Wonderland to name but a few—and the eponymous virtual reality owes its name to William Gibson’s Neuromancer.
Gibson’s landmark novel also coined the word ‘cyberspace’—that
“CONSENSUAL HALLUCINATION EXPERIENCED DAILY BY BILLIONS OF LEGITIMATE OPERATORS…A GRAPHIC REPRESENTATION OF DATA ABSTRACTED FROM THE BANKS OF EVERY COMPUTER IN THE HUMAN SYSTEM.”
The 1984 book kicked off the nascent cyberpunk genre, but wasn’t the first of its kind: three years earlier, for example, in True Names, author Vernor Vinge imagined a virtual meeting-place where the avatars of disparate computer nerds hung out. And in John Brunner’s 1975 The Shockwave Rider—inspired by Alvin Toffler’s nonfiction Future Shock—a fugitive hops identities with his ability to, amongst other things, “punch a whole new identity into the net from a domestic phone”.
There are all kinds of pluggings-in—of users wiring themselves up and going inside machine worlds—but whence this image of a mechanical chair to aid them? It’s easily overlooked as a natural part of the apparatus (we all like to sit down) but that’s not to say there isn’t a heady backlog of referents and implications channelled by its every instance.
Perhaps the most forthright of progenitors latent in the image is the electric chair. First used in 1890, the origination of this state-sponsored form of execution was a by-product of the industrial rivalry between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. With each espousing his own patented form of power supply, Edison (direct current) sought to besmirch the latter (alternating current) by demonstrating the lethality of AC—to a bevy of stray animals, at first, and then, with the keen cooperation of the New York State, to a condemned murderer.
Not exactly an icon of hope, however, the finality of the electric chair seems at odds with the transcendent projection (or at least the general back-and-forth) of cyberpunk seating. And yet, in channelling electricity, this instrument of execution too conducts various notions of mystery, of powers from a realm beyond the everyday.
The capacity electricity has for animating our motor functions—expressed in the twitching, shuddering victim of electrocution—reminds us of the rationale behind the connection between man and machine; our nervous system, after all, is one of electrical impulses sent across our body. The unintended action or post-mortem twitch still strikes us as uncanny, but in the nineteenth century, as Craig Brandon points out in his history of The Electric Chair,
“TO THE GENERAL PUBLIC [ELECTRICITY] WAS STILL CLOSELY IDENTIFIED WITH MAGIC. MOST LAYPEOPLE, EVEN AT THE END OF THE CENTURY, DID NOT HAVE THE SLIGHTEST IDEA WHAT ELECTRICITY WAS, HOW IT WAS PRODUCED OR WHAT MADE IT PERFORM ITS MIRACLES.”
Represented in film, the electric chair is often mobilised as traumatically final, harsh in its irreversibility, be the victim denounced as evil or mistakenly convicted. Yet there exist too a host of films in which death is not the end, in which the electrocuted survives the chair, transformed, rendered ever more difficult to stop. Like Wes Craven’s 1989 Shocker, in which judicial electrocution transforms a convicted serial killer into pure electricity. Exponentially more lethal and exponentially harder to catch, the killer jumps between bodies like an arc of light, then transfers into the power grid for the city.
Similar to the image of the electric chair is that of electroconvulsive therapy, a real-world therapy and diegetic device which channels many of the same fears as the electric chair—of uncanny animism, as the treatment causes the patient to fit, of physical imprisonment, as the patient is bound and fettered to a bed, exacerbated by the fear of mistaken incarceration. While ECT is routinely practiced today, with the jury still very much out on the cost balance of its side effects, the image of the treatment in popular culture is staunchly negative. From Oscar fare like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to countless dingy haunted asylum horrors, cinema demonstrates electroshock as an historic tragedy almost on a par with lobotomy, belonging to the medieval early twentieth century of psychiatry.
Born morbid, ECT was developed by neurologist Ugo Cerletti after he purportedly stopped at an abattoir on his way home. Seeing the use of electricity to anaesthetise pigs prior to their execution, legend has it that Cerletti was inspired to pursue the feasibility of using low-level electric shock as an anaesthetic in human patients. Charming.
Straddling that mysterious hinterland between matter and energy, we see how electricity has been used to depict the transcendence of the physical—typically post-mortem, as criminals or victims are transfigured into phenomena, apparitions, spirits, revenging or haunting their last bodily whereabouts. Their newfound incorporeal agility contrasts with the fetters of their exorcised form, just as the virtual or impulsive adventure of cyberpunk contrasts with the static, reclined form of its participant.
At one end of the extreme here is a yet earlier ancestor of our subject: the torture (or ‘interrogation’) chair. Whether punitative or interrogative, torture and, more broadly, corporal punishment have been mainstays of the judicial system throughout the world since its very inception—inspiring over the years numerous ingenious contraptions for inflicting pain on others. But perhaps the most iconic is the medieval Iron Chair—a metal seat, typically covered in spikes, into which the victim was strapped as a flame was lit beneath them.
The Iron Chair has, over time, been stripped down to sleeker contemporary incarnations—less fanciful, but by no means less tortuous. Like the lone chair in espionage thrillers, in the centre of an abandoned warehouse, perhaps, to which an informant might find themselves roped while various creative methods of extracting information are practised upon them. Or the doctor’s or dentist’s chair, commandeered for malpractical use by the more exacting torturer—like in Brian Yuzna’s 1996 horror flick The Dentist, playing as it does with our oft-felt dread of attending said puller-of-teeth. Tellingly, as Craig Brandon narrates, nineteenth century US dentist Alfred Porter Southwick was one of the key proponents of the use of the electric chair as a form of capital punishment; as well as experimenting with the application of current as anaesthetic and executioner, it was Southwick’s advocacy that directly led to the involvement of Edison and Westinghouse, and the very nature of the device as chair may well stem directly from the furniture at the heart of Southwick’s day job.
Again and again we see the horror of being seated as the horror of being strapped down, held against your will, incapacitated and unable to move. Like the author character in Misery, whose purported biggest fan keeps him bedridden, or the spate of vintage ‘psycho-biddy’ films that see an elderly and/or infirm woman menaced in her incapacity—like Lady in a Cage (1964), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) in which Joan Crawford finds herself limited to that other mechanical seat, the wheelchair.
But the wheelchair is a double-edged sword, dependent on perspective; as much as it can be considered a restriction, and as such the base ingredient in many a thriller, so too it is an enabler, a mechanical chair (of varying complexity) that aids accessibility and movement.
Indeed, technological seating in the everyday contemporary world is typically transportive, in a more literal sense than that of plugging into a computer system. Our cars, buses, trains and planes—all are progenitors of the cyber-chair, cradling the participant as it whisks them to another place. We can be passengers or pilots of these real seats of transportation. Fighter planes, rockets, jet packs: these are the last seats on earth and the first in science fiction; they take us to other worlds in both senses, the physical and the imaginary.
The notion of travelling without moving can take many forms: astral projection, remote viewing, lucid dreaming—irregardless of how valid a phenomenon each may or may not be, they are nonetheless images in our cultural canon. But perhaps a more (ahem) tangible definition, however, is the psychogeographical one.
As Merlin Coverley explains in his book on the subject, the history of psychogeography stems much from the ‘visionary travel’ of William Blake. Traversing the centuries, Coverley narrates the decline of the flaneur in the face of a changing city—who
“AS HE BECAME INCREASINGLY HEDGED IN AND BARRED FROM THE STREETS…DEVISED NEW METHODS OF TRAVEL THAT COULD BE CONDUCTED FROM THE SAFETY OF ONE’S OWN ARMCHAIR.”
Coverley discusses the motionless travel of Xavier de Maistre, who “anticipates the fate of the flaneur…the hostility of the modern city forcibly replacing the street with his armchair and thereby internalising his wandering.”
Confined to his rooms in 1790 for his participation in a duel, de Maistre penned the essay A Journey around My Room. A pioneering account of travel across near distance, de Maistre demonstrates, with epic flippancy, how memory, imagination and speculation render infinite the space between table and chair, between door and wall.
The eminently quotable de Maistre writes of the transportative power of domestic furniture; of the bed—“in which the human race acts out, successively, captivating dramas, laughable farces and dreadful tragedies”—he asks whether there is “any theatre which arouses the imagination more, or awakens more tender ideas, than this piece of furniture in which I sometimes lose myself?” Moreover, for our immediate purposes, de Maistre points out that
“IT’S AN EXCELLENT PIECE OF FURNITURE, AN ARMCHAIR; ABOVE ALL, IT’S HIGHLY USEFUL FOR EVERY MAN INCLINED TO MEDITATION.”
This is perhaps the ultimate archetype behind the image of the cyberchair: that mechanical apparatus which enables its operator to transmute themselves into boundless energy represents the physical apparatus—the humble chair—which facilitates daily our transfiguration into detached mind, into thought, contemplation, imagination.
We are passengers of motionless travel as we project ourselves into narrative. Our cinema seats, our computer chairs, our reading chaise, our church pews and our living room sofa—in all instances we temporarily abandon our physical selves, in cradled form, as we journey into another reality.
So, as you finish up this article and find yourself back in your chair, so too you turn your head from the cinema screen, from the altar; the rocket lands, the car stops, and you get up from the wheelchair, are released from the rack, survive the electric chair, unplug from cyberspace.