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The Replicant Real

By Jeff Wood.

What follows is the first installment of a two-part essay on the replicant real. The conclusion can be found here

November is the month when time catches up with itself. The month of depleting chlorophyll, expiring light, and the romantic steaming airlock of the cryogenic now. November is the month of remembering; not the memory of something in particular, but the husk of memory itself, its bare branches. November is the month of remembering to remember.

November 2019 has passed us by, but the looping memory of November 2019 is just beginning. November 2019 was the month and year when fiction caught up with us and passed itself by: when Blade Runner’s now began to unfold. Released in 1982, but taking place on the future date of November 20, 2019, Ridley Scott’s landmark film is the story of retired cop Rick Deckard, brought in for one last job as a “blade runner,” locating, identifying and executing—retiring—Nexus 6 replicants, those highly advanced, bio-engineered humanoids indistinguishable from their human counterparts but for their enhanced physical abilities, predetermined expiration dates, and inability to pass the Voight-Kampff Test, or empathy exam. Deckard is reluctant to accept the bloody assignment, but held over his head as incentive is the indication that he himself might be a replicant, and therefore equally vulnerable to retirement. So he gets on with it, questioning his own negligible humanity as he hunts down others who might fail the humanity test.

In the opening scenes of the film we meet the replicant Leon as he confronts the initial questions of the Voight-Kampff Test. “Describe in single words only the good things that come into your mind about… your mother?” he is asked. “My mother?” he replies. “Let me tell you about my mother.” And with that he promptly murders his inquisitor.

A gunshot, it seems, is the final, single word that best describes Leon’s mother—or his memory of her. For under the circumstances, Leon is not permitted to have a memory of his mother. Any memories of her that he might possess are fraudulent, taken from someone else and replicated as his own.

Let me tell you about my mother. His sardonic response to the central question of the Voight-Kampff Test is the truth that enfolds the lie: it is precisely his describing his mother that would give away his classification as replicant. If we can speak about our mothers without any autonomic emotional response whatsoever, then we are either psychopaths or replicants. By murdering his interviewer, Leon verifies that he is both. That, apparently, is telling about his mother. For the categories of replicant and psychopath are redundant when the proof of memory is precisely what drives us into a perpetual state of methodical terror, the encoded birthright to run for our lives from the entire apparatus that has birthed us.

Barring the very right to a memory of his mother, barring even the right to memory, Leon’s true birthday has outlived him. It is out here, in the future of a lost past; in the cliché of a lost future; which is not clichéd at all, but is now—November 2019: when Blade Runner has already happened. As a future fiction, the past and the future meet, crossing over each other and whirring into a flurry of neon confetti, like a snow blower blasting into a paper shredder. Memories are made out of that. If we are allowed to have them.

Untitled, from the drawing installation Skin Job, 2005. Indian ink on tracing paper. Adriana Molder.


And now that November 20, 2019 has passed us by, the moment has arrived when the film’s fictional Voight-Kampff test must be administered to its creators. The question is no longer whether Leon (or Deckard, Rachel or Roy) might pass, but whether we might fail. It’s time to remember the future, when the question of whether we are human or replicant is no longer relevant. The question of November 2019 is whether we can tell the difference between fiction and now. Is there a difference? Do we remember?

Let’s consult the Voight-Kampff: How does it feel? How does November 2019 feel? If it feels like fiction, is it real or is it fiction? Or is it just semantics? If the question is merely semantic, then November is the month of semantics and November 2019 is the very real inauguration of the fictional future. The question posed by Blade Runner’s fictional test is this: how do you tell the difference? The semantics of it is that it happens to be the very same question that we ask of a replicant—or a psychopath—to determine who they are, or who we are not: How does it feel? Does it feel at all?

Well–let me tell you about my mother. On November 20, 1983, the day after my thirteenth birthday, The Day After aired on national television, depicting a contemporary nuclear holocaust for one hundred million American viewers, traumatizing me (and untold others) more or less permanently. I didn’t sleep for weeks. The Day After explicitly dramatized cities vaporizing, grandmothers and check-out clerks and pets igniting into flames, schoolchildren at their desks, faces melting from skulls, entire skeletons x-rayed, illuminated and flashing brightly as the bodies of standing corpses were thrown into atomic shadows against the wall, any wall, anywhere, everywhere. And this, I was to understand—I was to witness—was neither documentary nor fiction, but somehow both. At any moment, I understood, even during that viewing of it, I might have been vaporized. Television turned itself inside out in that “hour,” along with my brains, like a slug in this Technicolor paradise which has in one instantaneous detonation revealed itself to be a hellish, unearthly salt mine, and the entire United States was subsequently transformed into a kind of Exclusionary Zone. A Death Zone of black-light corn and squirming soybeans, albino squirrels, and phantom automatic gunfire reporting off the probability of the possible, the future now. A holographic séance was projected and soared over the land, a televised well of souls churning in the Coriolis effect of geo-cultural nativity. A kind of cathedral of the dead-alive, as shared ceremonial trauma. At thirteen.

To put it another way, in one fell swoop of theatrical fiction, The Day After lifted the veil of reality to show exactly how things were, or could be, or simultaneously were and might be. The televised docudrama of pending apocalypse forced me to consider—and by consider I mean absorb into my body as real radioactivity—is this real, or is this fiction? The proper answer I understood even at the time, was both.

But the problem with The Day After remains: how is it possible for something to be real and fictional? Indeed, something as grave and global as this? The answer is, Exactly “something like this”—something that is too unreal to be experienced as real. Was The Day After a docudrama, reality TV, historical realism, historical fiction, magical realism, science fiction, fantasy, cultural myth, or even televised propaganda as edutainment? Yes. By formally annihilating the categorical distinction between the real and the fictional—on national television—The Day After somehow achieved something more than merely terrifying me to my adolescent bones with the existential prospect of nuclear holocaust at any and every moment. It instructed me how to see. It showed me how things are; and that is, irreconcilably real and unreal, or fictional.

Blade Runner, it turns out, had volleyed that flare as a warning shot, just one year earlier. It struck like a match and arced through the haze fizzing and glowing red hot across the television sky and pinned itself to the geo-coordinate now like a pin on the temporal Google Map—November 2019.

Astonishingly, I had watched The Day After on the couch with my parents. Who can blame them, when the compass dial for navigating between fiction and historical future had been sent spinning into a blur? Not long after that, in the early days of HBO, and  somehow flying under the parental radar, Apocalypse Now screened on late-night television. What I remember vividly is having fallen asleep on that same couch before the television and waking up in a twilight of napalm blasting horizontally across the screen, across my field of vision. I drifted in and out of the darkness, in and out of sleep, to the fiery red and orange nightmare of light drifting back and forth across my eyelids, across the black jungle, across the screen, and across the screens on the backs of my eyelids. Opening and closing, blasting and unfurling, the pyrotechnic inferno of napalm pulsated to the rhythm of my rising and falling from sleep in what seemed like an endless loop of the beginning and end, or both, of Apocalypse Now.

There’s a surprising similarity of plot in Blade Runner and Apocalypse Now. In Coppola’s 1979 film, Army Special Forces Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) is charged with locating and terminating the rogue and allegedly insane Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) for waging his own guerrilla war, off-world, as it were. In the cinematic theatre of war, Brando’s Kurtz is a kind of father figure to Sheen’s Special Forces Captain, outmaneuvering retirement by waging his own war, on his own terms, just as he was trained: a psychopath foreswearing “human” responses and  surrendering fully to the engineered “truths” of napalm and extermination at his command.

“I think I swallowed a bug,” Brando announces. He had. And I had. There was no difference, in those looping late-night moments, between what was happening on the screens behind my eyelids or the one in front of them. Apocalypse Now had crossed the blood brain barrier of the symbolic and fictional real, just as The Day After had done, and Blade Runner would eventually do in the looping future of itself that has lasted until precisely now.

Trinity Test, Part 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return. June 25, 2017. David Lynch.


November 1 is the birthday of my own mother. Double Scorpio, we are. It is also, coincidentally, the birthday of the late Frank Silva, the actor who played Bob in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Bob is the supernatural antagonist of Twin Peaks, the phantom  incarnation of evil afflicting an otherwise idyllic seeming American town. As the allegedly fictional (or spiritual) Id trespassing the white picket fences of Lynch’s hometown Americana, Bob is the symbolic cause and rationalization for very real and horrific crimes occurring in that fictional town. As it turns out, coincidental to this November 2019 convergence, we learn that Bob was born in the very first US Atomic Test Explosion at Trinity Site, New Mexico—the first nuclear explosion on Earth, or that thing which has never occurred on this planet before. Bob was born as evil, from the archetypal energy of Trinity as a real event. Trinity is Bob’s mother, in reality and in fiction—the mother of all crimes which are too vast and too unreal to be mitigated as reality, but may only be atoned for as fiction, as myth. Trinity was the instant when spirit and matter exchanged places, when reality itself became too unreal to be believable as reality or as fiction.

Trinity is the mother of many things. It is my own replicant spiritual mother, and ceremonially it is all of ours, as humans inextricably networked to the trauma of the contemporary age—the cinematic trauma of the ceremonial network itself. By looping back and forth across the permeable cellular walls (or Fifth Wall) between fictions enfolded within reality enfolded within fictions, a chain of cultural trauma-unto-holocaust is linked to our simultaneous cultural atonement for it. Atonement which cannot be achieved in reality, for a trauma that is too vast and too unreal, but is rather illuminated in a circuitry of spectacular documentation and hysterical realism—the fictional, ceremonial real. For crimes that are too vast or too unreal to be real, there is only ceremonial fiction or poetry which may provide an atoning reality. Trinity is a sculptural poem, a temporal-location, a work of atmospheric land-art as much as it is an apocalyptic weapon. It must be, for there is nothing else which may consume it in return, no other way to atone for it.

Like Trinity, November 2019 is a temporal cairn by which we might identify our location in the geography of the hysterical real—our reality now, which is encountered as psychology, as trauma. By concealing itself as trauma, the hysterical real projects itself as a solipsistic interiority. It is there for our senses as an exteriority, right before our eyes, business as usual, yet encountered as persistent day-to-day trauma—the trauma of things—we catch reality mimicking itself as a parasitic impostor, inside us, as us—preying on our unavoidable vulnerability to it.

Reality itself now, in its fundamental, functional form, is experienced as trauma, as hysterical.

Literary critic James Wood coined the term hysterical realism as an emergent genre describing the “big, ambitious” contemporary novels of DeLillo, Rushdie, Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, and specifically Zadie Smith in his 2000 review of her novel White Teeth. These were books that aspired to be works of “epic social power,” as he described DeLillo’s Underworld, novels unveiling expansive social realities and cultural theories as much as they engineered and told stories. But they contained so much of social reality—too much, in Wood’s view—that the result was “novels of immense self-consciousness with no selves in them at all, curiously arrested and very ‘brilliant books’ that know a thousand things but do not know a single human being.” A stark assessment, and in the ensuing years, an uncanny one. For what so-called hysterical realists illuminated was a circuitry arcing between the “thought process” of a social reality and the thought process of its author, this being one and the same. A conspiracy between author and the reality authored, with characters intervening as so many pixels among an infinite array—reality authoring itself as it were, in an unconcealed sleight of hand. It is the world-building of that social reality which is experiencing its characters as much as they are at its mercy as actors. And it is the mind of the author herself that we experience in equal if not greater measure than the social reality described. All things being equal, across thousands of pages and within them, it is a social and cultural reality that is doing the characterizing; it is reality that is thinking (and perhaps feeling) itself, in all its significant, hysterical details, as we readers are the thinkers and feelers of those details, at once meaningless and meaningful. The formal and structural frontiers between author, reader, world, and worldview began to dissolve in these “systems” novels, just as they were dissolving in the world, dissolving into a network of everything, itself an emergent character, perhaps terrifying, perhaps benign; possibly self-conscious, or not quite yet; significantly meaningful, or just empty. Is that a story? Is it even possible to describe? Is it fiction or is it reality? The problem with it—and why it might be described as a hysteria, even in its most trivial and improbable details—is the same problem faced by its characters: are we able to inhabit it? Do we believe that we actually do inhabit it? Does it matter?

“Life is never experienced with such a fervid intensity of connectedness,” Wood asserts confidently. Yet I wonder if this is really true. James Wood (literary critic) bears no relation to myself (Jeff Wood) whatsoever, if that is to be believed, except perhaps as a meaningless replicant detail, an implausibly real plot-point here, symptomatic to his critique concerning the plausibility, or the believability of the narrative interconnectedness of total reality. This connection of surname is a meaningless coincidence, as far as I know.  Yet the compound coinciding of November birthdays—my own, my mother’s, Blade Runner’s, The Day After, and the actor Frank Silva’s—all leading to my encounter described here as Bob’s birthday inside Twin Peaks, inside the Trinity bomb, out here, as a hysterically shared cultural trauma, and as my own replicant spiritual mother…. is also a series of meaningless coincidences. Except that it is not meaningless. It is precisely the voodoo synchronicity that is “meaningful,” the networked constellation of meaning that orients me precisely here, to the fictional real inside the traumatically unreal.

This excess of relatedness is what Wood finds so troubling in the contemporary novels in his sights. “Characters are forever seeing connections and links and plots, and paranoid parallels.” He goes on:

These are not stories that could never happen, rather they clothe real people who could never actually endure the stories that happen to them… They are not stories in which people defy the laws of physics… they are stories which defy the laws of persuasion. This is what Aristotle means when he says that in storytelling “a convincing impossibility” (say a man levitating) is always preferable to “an unconvincing possibility…”

Yet it is just such a story that we must increasingly endure now out here: one that seems to be an unconvincing possibility rather than a convincing impossibility; and one which throws into doubt our own capacity to endure it, even as we do. This “excess of storytelling,” as Wood puts it, is “the contemporary way of shrouding in majesty, a lack…” And “that lack is human.” The excess of storytelling that he describes, and that hysterical realists have authored, is indeed something of an inhuman, replicant reality which seems to narrate itself as that very human lack. “Information has become the new character,” Wood prophetically states. And it is so—as if information now were itself the algorithmic author of its own story, and of our experience of it. As if the world-as-information were in fact imitating the hysterical realists (or any other genre it chooses) rather than the other way around. “Lately, any young American writer of any ambition has been imitating DeLillo—imitating his tentacular ambition, the effort to pin down an entire writhing culture, to be a great analyst of systems, crowds, paranoia, politics; to work on the biggest level possible,” Wood observed in 2001, after September 11. Now, post-November 2019, it is our own experience of reality itself, both networked and private, which conspires to imitate that writhing totality, beyond plausibility, perhaps beyond endurance, yet possible. The plot, setting, protagonist, antagonist, etc… are all one and the same. The character is both “us” (as a totality) and everything that is not us (also as a totality). In a sense, there are no stories about individuals anymore, we are all (in fact and in fiction) equal and neutralized before the medusa, even as we are increasingly unequal before the gorgon’s capital. Reality is an impostor character, narrating itself as hysterical information: fraudulent, unreliable, and infinitely real. Hysterical realism has become the hysterical real.

Vestiges du Réel #1, 2016. Nuno Cera. Courtesy: the artist and Galeria Miguel Nabinho, Lisbon


It was perhaps post-September 11—as we suspect—that hysterical realism fully migrated into the hysterical real. And with Trump—we suspect again—it has metastasized there. The hysterical realism of a literary movement allegedly attempting to account for a totality of contemporary reality (or experience) has been consumed by our experience of that reality as hysterically real: a non-fiction totality of reality as opinion, as theory, as conspiracy, as documentary, as political analysis, as propaganda, as advertising, as infomercial, as satire, as farce, as tragedy, as magical realism, as romanticism, as noir, as even hysterical realism itself, and above all as a science fiction—a replicant reality. The experience of this procession of genres, and infinite hybridizations of genre, is a velocity (to use Wood’s term) of non-fiction as fiction, which does not imply speed as much as it does perpetual presence and enormity, and which requires some velocity to even perceive, to keep up with amid the blur. To wit, since Trump, since September 11, since the Internet, we could spend every spare minute of the rest of our lifelong days reading “nonfiction” essays about what is happening. And since Trump—we suspect again—many of us have approached this velocity or ambition toward world-building—in order to experience and comprehend the world that is already there, the one that does seem to be happening, the one that outruns us. So that now, even in silence—the quality that Wood accuses his authors of being most afraid—the world happens as a hysterical simultaneity, that murmuring essay and coolly whirring metadata of itself, hysterically real.

Wood presumes that “there is something essentially paranoid about the belief that everything is connected to everything else.” And yet it is so. Whether that total interconnectedness is the result of paranoia, or is itself paranoia-inducing, or requires belief in it, or does not… everything is interconnected. Call it the fiction of the real: it is now our experience of reality itself which is a hysterical realism—that everything is interconnected, and we are it. That inhuman character thing… It, and our experience of it, as each other. Metadata streaming as the cinematic fiction of itself, as itself. November 2019 as November 2019.

Am I referring to November 2019 as November 2019? Of course I am.

The hysterically real is this exact impostor reality which is so unreal that it defies all fiction, and fictionalizing. It’s too unbelievable to be fiction. Defying belief—defying the Fourth Wall itself—it can only be real, but traumatically so. All representation slides right off it, even irony. Its defense system, or immunity, functions like a cloaking device. It may only be described as nonfiction, as real: a nonfiction which is too unreal to be fictional. It is the last resort and final survival of a reality for which no atonement is possible, where no reconciliation between the simultaneity of fiction and reality is attainable.

The emergency glass has been broken in the shattering of the Fourth Wall, and a Fifth Wall has been revealed as inhabitability. Hysterical reality is the 360-degree emergency inhabitability of a trauma-reality, a science fiction of words themselves as a means of accounting. The account itself, no matter how accurate or factual, is a science fiction and a poetic fever dream, too unreal to be believable, too hysterical to be represented as anything other than its own hysteria, too vast to be represented as anything at all. Instead, the hysterical real hides inside itself—that is, inside our own experience of it—as trauma-impostor, as replicant, as Thing (John Carpenter’s, of course), and as an encounter with that which is too far-fetched, too ridiculously unbelievable to be anything other than real, or beyond representation.

Not fish. Snake scale!

Words turn back on themselves, in the vacuum of it, signifying nothing but themselves, as saying, as tall tale, as magical collective chant. The hysterical reality of November 2019 is a speaking in tongues, where the translation of an infinite number of incomprehensible non-languages is supplanted with a fraudulent common language. The resulting reality is the fraudulent result of a fraudulent description in a fraudulent language.

If we consult our own experience, our own encounter, none of this will seem far-fetched. The impostor trauma-reality of November 2019 hides itself in broad daylight as November 2019, so that we may inhabit it. And this could not be further from irony, or even from the death of irony. This is nothing other than the parasitic infection of the total system by a sincere fraudulence. Representation (sincere, ironic, or otherwise) is replaced by replicant.

Am I referring to political trauma? Of course I am.

November 2019 has been properly occurring—or detonating—for roughly 40 years, across the same period in which the fictionally real socioeconomic, cultural, political, technological, and environmental monstrosities of Blade Runner have realized themselves in the present fluidity between fact, fiction, truth, lies, consensus, perception, and optical experience itself. By arriving finally at November 2019 in reality and in fiction—as a convergence—we enter into the hysterically, fictionally real.

Ours, then, is a shared reality that has been hijacked by the fictions of criminal power, or power which is criminal by virtue of the sheer, unreal vastness of its reach into unreality. As a counter strike, this hijacked reality is doubly hijacked by the atoning counter-fictions (of which Blade Runner is one) which are the only persistent, tellable, depth-reaching antidotes that we have to account for, and experience, the overlapping loop of where this thing we are witness to now begins, and where it ends, and where it doesn’t.

Jeff Wood is an actor and writer from Ohio currently living in Berlin. He was a founding member of the experimental film/art group Rufus Corporation. His cinematic novel The Glacier was published in 2015 by Two Dollar Radio. His essays ‘Monuments of Fire’ and ‘Hurricane Bob,’ among others, have been published by 3:AM Magazine. He is currently at work on The Spider’s Remorse: Encounters with the Algorithmic Taxidermist, an unreliable account of the replicant real.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, March 3rd, 2020.