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[edit] Introduction

24's split-screen aesthetic
24's split-screen aesthetic

Jack Bauer, the central character of Fox series 24 (2001 – present) played by Kiefer Sutherland, offers a particularly interesting popular culture icon to consider within the framework of posthuman discourses. Because 24 centers around the Los Angeles branch of a fictional government agency, CTU (Central Terrorism Unit), and their struggles against terrorism, it has dealt with a range of issues pertaining to the socio-political climate of post-9/11 America. Bauer has become an iconic character in the contemporary context who symbolizes white masculine American power. The title of 24 stems from its time-accurate structure; each episode represents one hour in a long day where Bauer and CTU must race against the clock to prevent impending disaster. The narrative of 24 has featured a wide range of technologies utilized by Bauer and the CTU communications team. Specifically, CTU employs satellites for reconnaissance, tracking vehicles, and planning the best route of attack. Maps of buildings are sent to Jack’s PDA to help him plan an escape or daring rescue. Databases are vital to researching suspects and making connections between people. All of these technologies are within the realm of current capabilities. As Paul Delany points out, “24 is rigorously contemporary in its technologies: the show stays away from science fiction speculations about things not yet invented.”[1] Yet technology is often central to the storylines, both as a tool and a target of terrorism. In season three, Nina Myers (Sarah Clarke) manipulates Jack into accidentally activating a worm virus in the CTU mainframe which attacks their system and renders CTU vulnerable. Cell phone reception sometimes fails and computers do not always work fast enough. Furthermore, the visual style adopts a technological aesthetic with its use of multiple screens and digital count-downs. Indeed, 24 represents a world where nerds such as Chloe O’Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub) and their technologies are of central importance to the American struggle against terrorism.

[edit] Jack Bauer: A Cyborg?

Chloe O'Brian at her workstation
Chloe O'Brian at her workstation

Jennifer Daryl Slack and J. Macgregor Wise explain, “The idea of the cyborg is often used to highlight the new ways we are becoming cyborg through advanced and evermore-intrusive technologies.”[2] Just as Alison Landsburg suggested that media technologies extend human consciousness to include prosthetic memory, satellite technologies extend Bauer’s field of knowing beyond the location of his physical body. In a sense, the technological backup he receives from CTU provides him with a different kind of prosthetic consciousness that occasionally provides invaluable help. He is provided with valuable information that he would not be privy to otherwise. Bauer’s mind and body are augmented by his access to and use of these technologies, thus strongly resonating with the notion of the cyborg. As Elaine Graham explains, “In the highly technologized societies of the twenty-first century we are increasingly engaging with technologies that actually reshape the very boundaries of the human body itself.”[3] While technology is often helpful to Bauer, 24 does not exactly promote entirely pro-technology themes.

[edit] 24 as Critique of Technology

Despite the centrality of technology to 24’s narrative, a deeper examination can reveal possible cracks in these representations. Tara McPherson states, “There is a disjuncture in the show between its formal strategies (that largely celebrate the digital and the language of screens) and a recurring narrative troubling of the value of new technologies, technologies that are as likely to advance the goals of the villains as those of Bauer and the good guys. Technology is treated with a high degree of uncertainty and ambivalence in the many plot strands.”[4] Indeed, technologies often prove to be CTU’s weakness, such as with the aforementioned activation of a worm by Nina in the thirteenth episode of season three, which nearly cripples their system. In season six, CTU’s system is compromised from the inside by a mole. Both CTU and the terrorists have their nerds working to hack into systems, observe surveillance, arm and disarm explosives. In season six, CTU employee Miles O’Brian, under threat of murder, uses his programming skills to arm a nuclear device. There are a multitude of other examples from 24’s six seasons which emphasize the problematic nature of technology; as useful as it can be for fighting terrorism, the power that it has can always be used for the other side. When technologies fail for Bauer, he uses his wits to escape tense situations. In the eighth episode of season three when his watch transponder is broken in a fight and he is left unable to contact CTU to deliver valuable information, he manages to acquire a cell phone from a secret ally. While CTU technologies are useful, there is no question that Bauer does not need them. In any situation, no matter what is restricting him, Bauer goes as far as he has to in order to prevail.

[edit] The High Cost of Homeland Security?

Jack Bauer in action
Jack Bauer in action

While the narrative of 24 may be interpreted as a subtle critique of technology, within the context of ideas of the posthuman, there may be more meanings transpiring beneath the surface. Indeed, technology is frequently a vulnerability and Bauer’s ingenuity negates the need to be entirely dependent on technology. This certainly can produce a reading that suggests the increasing prevalence and power of technologies, which constantly mediate existence, is safely subsumed by a resolute straightforward definition of “human.” 24 is a text which, in particular with its often shocking representations of situational morality in the War on Terror, is an extremely polysemic text. As I have mentioned, Bauer has become an iconic character. His name is synonymous with the individualism and masculinity of the action genre; people now tell Jack Bauer jokes instead of Chuck Norris jokes. He is the current ultimate alpha male icon. Yet, Bauer is problematic as such a figure, in part because of the post 9/11 context. Christopher Gair argues, “American television’s traditional desire for isolation – or else simplistic narratives of American supremacy – has been overwhelmed by the post-9/11 realisation of the impossibility of avoiding the negative as well as the po'sitive (in hegemonic US terms) ramifications of the post-cold war world order.” [5] 24 does not offer black and white solutions for terrorism. Victory is often won at great cost of lives, and Bauer internalizes this struggle. At the end of the first season, Bauer loses his wife. In the third season, in what is quite possibly one of the most intense scenes of the entire series, he is forced to kill his boss Ryan Chapelle (Paul Schulze) by a terrorist threatening to release a deadly virus into the populace. Bauer is mentally and emotionally disturbed by his job, and it nearly destroys his marriage. In the very last scene of the third season, in his final reaction to the day’s events, Bauer sits in his vehicle and cries. Bauer is a character who struggles with the sacrifices of his own humanity that he is forced to make. These struggles are always subverted his resolute drive to save the day, yet that does not discount them as fissures of meaning nonetheless. I am not suggesting that his potential for cyborg identity is the only reason for the erosion of humanity in Bauer, but it may be another factor contributing to the ambiguity of meanings which permeate the narrative. In a sense, becoming posthuman and relying on these technologies to extend his physical self whenever possible is another sacrifice Bauer makes in order to do his job.

[edit] See also

[edit] External Links

[edit] References

  1. Paul Delany, “`She May be a Little Weird:’ Chloe O’Brian,” Reading 24: TV Against the Clock, ed. Steven Peaco*k, (London and New York: I.B. Taurus, 2007), 192.
  2. Jennifer Daryl Slack and J. McGregor Wise, Culture and Technology: A Primer, (New York: Peter Lang ), 169.
  3. Elaine Graham, “Post/Human Conditions,” Theology and Sexuality, Volume 10, Issue 2, 15.
  4. Tara McPhereson, “Technosoap: 24, Masculinity and Hybrid Form,” Reading 24: TV Against the Clock, ed. Steven Peac*ck, (London and New York: I.B. Taurus, 2007), 177.
  5. Christopher Gair, “24 and Post-National American Identities,” Reading 24: TV Against the Clock, ed. Steven Peac*ck, (London and New York: I.B. Taurus, 2007), 201.
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