The heathen Israelites of 3500 years ago stood before an idol, a calf cast out of solid gold. Even today we can understand the appeal of such an object—in the absence of their spiritual leader, they wanted something tangible to represent their hopes and beliefs, even if it was the admittedly secular apotheosis of wealth and, well, milk that the calf embodied. Still, it was nice to be able to reach out and touch it. It was even nicer to see a whole crowd of other people standing around it, bowed before it, maybe crying a little. “I can get behind this,” you might say, clapping the calf’s glittering flank with your palm.
Today, there are still plenty of scruffy heathens, but they’re more of the PBR-swigging, fixie-cruising, Polaroid-popping kind. Unlike the heathens of yore, who willing to believe in its status as a token of metaphysical truth, we can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like to be so naive. We’d rather be scruffy and unwashed than go about wide-eyed on account of some gaudy monolith, no matter how shiny it is.
No, there is no expectation on our part of a Moses to come down off a mount so as to deliver to us the One Word of the One True God and set us on the righteous path. But let’s say that by some fluke of psychotropics, or divine intervention (or both, as the case must often be) some three-quarters crazed fellow in a dust-covered chiton crawled out of the ruins of the Michigan Central Station, a gleaming iPad held in the crook of each arm, and made his way to Wayne State University’s Techtown Campus. There he spies a crowd, and eager for an audience he pushes his way to its center. But he is too late—the crowd has already chosen a figure to idolize. He turns to the nearest person and, pointing at the statue, asks “Who is this?”
“Um… it’s Robocop, dude,” someone says, pointing at the engraved plaque.
“Who’s that?” The prophet responds, as puzzled as before. “And why have you made unto him a graven image?”
How would we explain it to him? How do we explain it to ourselves?
The project to build a statue of Robocop in Detroit, Michigan started out as a joke. To those of you unfamiliar with it, Robocop is a Paul Verhoeven film from 1987 that depicted a future Detroit ravaged by drugs, crime, and ruled by callous corporate overlords. It wasn’t any good, really, but there was something compelling about the movie’s star—a cop who is turned into a crime-fighting cybord after he is brutalized by Detroit’s scummiest scum. Over its 24 year lifespan it’s become something of a cult-classic, owing to lines like “I’d buy that for a dollar!” and its crude special effects. Today it’s a prominent example of “awesomely bad” popular culture, along with White Snake’s “Here I Go Again” and the TV show “Saved by the Bell”.
As so many jokes do these days, the proposal originally took the form of a snarky tweet: “@mayordavebing Philadelphia has a statue of Rocky & Robocop would kick Rocky’s butt. He’s a GREAT ambassador for Detroit.” The mayor promptly and curtly replied: “@MT There are not any plans to erect a statue to Robocop. Thank you for the suggestion.”
But apparently someone was inspired, and took it upon themselves to create a Facebook group devoted to the idea of building a statue in Detroit. Eventually someone got a whiff of http://www.Kickstarter.com and the project was off and, theoretically, running. The theoretical part is important, and interesting, here. Kickstarter is a web platform that allows people to post projects–whether it’s a proposal to build a robot that can clean up oil spills, a theatre production inspired by the world of insects, or a means to fund the recording of somebody’s second album – and invite copacetic folks on the internet to donate to it as they see fit. But the novel aspect of the service lies in the nature of donation: unless a given pledge threshold is reached, no one will be charged, and no one receives any money. The goal can be modest or outrageous, but unless a certain critical mass of support forms around it, it simply was not meant to be (crowdfunded).
Which begs the question: Was the Robocop statue meant to be? There is no connection between the original tweeter “MT” and the creator of the Facebook group, John Leonard, aside for the commonly held belief that a Robocop statue in Detroit would be awesome. The mayor of Detroit clearly wasn’t interested. And as the project’s Kickstarter page explains, no one involved in its organization had any clue as to how you actually make a statue. In this sense, the means perfectly mirrored the spirit–somebody tossed a (silly, ironic) idea out into the ether, and instead of flashing briefly and fading into obscurity, others flocked to it, encouraged its glow, and then poured a whole can of gasoline on it. A mere month, 2,718 people, and $67,436 later, the statue is on its way to becoming a reality.
It’s something of a metamodern success story: part micronarrative, part utopian vision for urban renewal; part sincerity, part irony; not exactly top-down or bottom-up; part local, part universal. Okay, maybe the “universal” bit is something of a stretch—but the story did make international news, with features by FOX, ABC, and the Guardian, not to mention countless blogs. And in the spirit of full disclosure, I admit that this author, born and raised in Nebraska, donated a dollar even though he’s never even been to Detroit.
Arguing that the outcome of this endeavor was a wild fluke is not a hard case to make, considering that it could have very easily and comfortably lived the freewheeling and carefree (if not entirely dignified) life of an internet meme. And in that case, any claims regarding the sincerity and the irony inherent in its existence and use would have remained a matter of polemics.
Yet deep inside that knot of ambiguity lies the answer, I think, to the whence and the wherefore of the statue–from the very beginning the irony of the proposal was inseparable from the earnestness, and it will remain thus, until the statue is washed away in a tidal wave of Lady Gaga albums and Snuggies on Judgment Day. The first thing we’d have to explain to our three-quarters crazed iPad prophet would be that in our quest to be born-again representatives of sincerity, we’re going through a semi-awkward transitional period—we still need irony to express our particular brand of sincerity, and any appreciation of earnestness entails a bit of irony. Though we appreciate his intentions to reveal to us the One True Way of the One True God, we cannot accept the contents of his iTablets uncritically. We are not pre-enlightened, like the Israelites basking in the glow of the golden calf. Nor do we tell ourselves that we’re enlightened: we know that there are no “true” forms that give shape to the shadows playing on the cave wall of our culture. Rather, we’re post-enlightened: we know not to trust a Moses figure or any rigid set of laws supposedly handed down by a metaphysical, absolute being. We have seen too many contradictory prophets come and go, and we know that absolutes, however well intended, are as short sighted as they are principled. What unites us now is a neo-romantic delight in affect, a keen interest in the intent behind the various re-[re-(re-)]presentations that dominate contemporary cultural exchange. Hence the utility of adopting an awesomely bad film for the purposes of the statue: Like some meta-Trojan Horse, it allows us to maintain our ironic pomo cred (Yeah, we’re going to build a statue—of Robocop…) while smuggling in our yearning for a return to the blissfully unaware sensibility that allowed such a film to be produced in the first place.
There are plenty of artifacts surrounding the Robocop effort that demonstrate this interplay between knowingness and sincerity. One is a picture posted on the project’s Facebook wall depicting Robocop astride a unicorn. Another is the project’s official credo: “Serve the public trust. Protect the innocent. Uphold the awesome.” The most compelling and sweeping of the bunch is a video featuring Peter Weller, the actor who played Robocop, produced by Funny or Die:
“Citizens of Detroit. Peter Weller here. Back in 1987 I played Alex Murphy, better known to you as Robocop, a good policeman that some greedy punks turned into a heavily armed cyborg. Now you want to build a statue, a monument, to Robocop and all he stands for. Regrettably, not all of you see the wisdom of this tribute to the spirit of your city–specifically your mayor, David Bing, who said that the idea is ‘silly.’ Well, Mayor Bing (if that is in fact your real name), was it silly when Murphy sacrificed his very identity to fight crime? Was it silly when Murphy cleaned up drugs in Detroit and saved the city from being demolished? Was it silly when Murphy battled the super robot Kane and tore out his human brain with his bare hands–all you could see was his spinal cord, all wriggling around and stuff, and Kane was screaming “Ahhh!” All for you, citizens of Detroit? I don’t find it silly at all. Well, the people of Detroit and Robocop still have many challenges to face–rampant unemployment, the degradation of our nation’s manufacturing base, and of course those corporate bastards at OCP led by their diabolical new CEO, Rick Snyder. Together, you, Robocop, Eminem, Chrysler, GM, and Ford, Elmore Leonard, Michael Moore, Aretha Franklin, Madonna, Tom Halls, Tim Allen, Ted Nugent, Kirk Gibson, that dude that played Booger in Revenge of the Nerds–we will ALL work to rebuild OUR amazing city, and erect a gigantic monument to Robocop, the cyborg of self R-E-S-P-E-C-T find out what it means to me…”
Though the presentation is dramatic and bombastic, it’s clearly animated by a spirit of self-conscious irony. Weller twirls a pistol on his finger, then tosses it behind his back and drops it. While reciting a litany of Robocop’s deeds, he lingers far too long and enthusiastically on the defeat of the robot Kane. Irony and the sincerity come to a head with the line “I don’t find it silly at all”: while wearing a cardboard and duct-tape helmet with “Robocop” written on it, Weller delivers it in a deadpan so straight it hurts. Soon after, the video collapses under the weight of its own sincerity. When he utters the word “respect,” he launches into a performance of the Aretha Franklin song, and a sensibility more postmodern than metamodern hijacks the short.
This ending strikes a false chord for me—while the project as a whole is about a semi-tenuous pairing of a science fiction character and a real American city, the whole point is to produce what Raoul Eshelman calls “opacity,” an aesthetic effect that sabotages the postmodern tendency toward “flood[s] of ever expanding cross-references” by forcing you to engage with the present time and place. This compromise is understandable, though, so long as we remember the context: we live in an era when the only figure we can tolerate being made into public statuary is one from a trashy science-fiction film. Yet after all the press and the fundraising and, especially now that plans for the statue are being drawn up, just a veneer of irony remains–just enough to make the idea, the reality of it palatable to our contemporary sensibilities. Like Robocop himself, the statue is a hybrid. On the one hand, it represents the fusion of flesh and technology, which gestures both at the path that led to Detroit’s current morass while suggesting its potential salvation. While there are plenty who pooh-pooh the statue as a superficial distraction from its well-documented post-industrial malaise, there is something inspiring about the speed with which it’s realization is taking place and the enthusiasm that surrounds it. Inspiring, yes, and in regards to Detroit’s efforts at transformation and recovery, we might even say instructive. On the other hand, the Robocop statue is a hybrid of irony and the romantic desire, ticking away as long as there are human hearts left to beat, for meaningful representations and public celebrations of hope. The statue itself accomplishes nothing, but the same can be said of any monument. The importance of the statue is what it embodies—that sometimes all that’s required to make a change is to open your mouth. Sometimes there’s a whole mess of people who have been waiting to hear exactly what you have to say.
Image source: Olav Rokne, at http://www.flickr.com/photos/87258185@N00/2194956631/in/set-72157603724213121