Conscious vs Unconscious

Forbidden Planet [1956] extrapolates a contest between homeostasis and reflexivity, projected into a future defined by the ascendance of virtuality. The feedback loops expressed within the film, whether operating reliably within stable parameters like Robby the Robot, or spiralling out of control in the case of the Id monster, are equally premised upon what Hayles defines as virtuality: ‘the cultural perception that all material objects are interpenetrated by information patterns’. For example, Robby’s ability to ‘sample’ any material object,reduce it to its essential molecular code and reproduce it in any quantity is an expression of virtuality. Alternatively, the Krell plastic educator extracts information from the brain and reproduces it in a technological medium. In the first case, it measures intelligence quotient and registers it on a visible scale. In the second case, it translates the contents of the imagination and reproduces them mimetically as a miniature, three-dimensional representation inside its glass chamber. As we later learn, and as Morbius learns too late, this second purpose is really the ‘primary function’ of the plastic educator and a warm-up exercise for the Krell supercomputer that translates one’s unconscious desires into information and materialises them anywhere on the planet.


“Although the term ‘information’ never occurs in the dialogue, the key components of its technical definition, formulated in the 1940s, are implicit in the film’s fictional technologies. To begin with, information is defined as immaterial and without dimension. Morbius describes Robby’s processes as ‘sub-electronic’,operating in a realm beyond and beneath the smallest known particles of matter. The dimensionless nature of information is graphically simulated in the special effects that reproduce Morbius’ mental image of Altaira within the plastic educator. A closer look at the formation of the image reveals an early attempt at an information-based aesthetic through pre-digital animation decades before the advent of CGI. Specifically, the process attempts to demonstrate the composition of a three-dimensional image from dimensionless points of information. When Morbius first initiates the primary function of the plastic educator, dots of light swarm upwards from the centre of the plate at the base of the glass pyramid. However, these no-dimensional points of information soon begin to move rapidly up and down describing a one-dimensional,vertical line. This line in turn begins to vibrate and multiply, generating a plane of two dimensions, which forms the rough outline of a female figure. This two-dimensional image composed of one-dimensional lines (each swarming vertically with units of information) then starts to rotate around its central axis and spin itself into a three-dimensional volume. Clouds and lightning within the chamber obscure the final substitution of this precursor of a digital wireframe with the perfectly mimetic three-dimensional image of Altaira.

“The ability of the Krell supercomputer to read and transmit unconscious thoughts telepathically, ‘without instrumentation’, also presupposes the immaterial and dimensionless nature of information, enabling it to travel wirelessly like a television broadcast. The immateriality of information underlies a broader theme of remoteness within the film: the different technologies within the Krell laboratory transmit information to one another despite the absence of any external wiring. Information is governed by formal rules, which are implicit in the immaterial pattern of information that defines the molecular structure of any material sampled by Robby, and in the set of schematic relations that governs the mental images translated by the plastic educator. And even if the unconscious mind is ruled by irrationality, the imagery of its manifest content (as in dreams) can still be decoded by the Krell supercomputer. Furthermore, information has no necessary attachment to meaning. In itself, the information that flows through and among all the technologies in the film exists in a state of pure potentiality, and the patterns that it takes are not fixed to the physical or mental objects that they translate and transmit. This has particular consequences for the Krell supercomputer, which does not discriminate in its production of conscious versus unconscious thoughts or between rational and irrational desires.”

Text: Kevin Fisher, “Information feedback loops and two tales of the posthuman in Forbidden Planet”.
Science Fiction Film and Television, Volume 3, Issue 1, Spring 2010.

Image: Salvador Dali, Galatea of the Spheres, 1952. Oil on canvas, 65x54cms.

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