Spirit is an exoskeleton: the objectivity of RoboCop and the subjectivity of ED 209 — Marie Bendtsen

This one takes us back to 1987 and the cult classic RoboCop, in a theoretical exploration of the uncanny intimacy of the categories of “dead” and “alive”. This concludes in a demonstration of Hegel’s concept of Spirit, which he famously declared ‘a bone’. In RoboCop, as we’ll see, “Spirit is an exoskeleton:”

“The” RoboCop, played by Peter Weller, is neither the only nor the first robotic law enforcer we meet in this 1987 action sci-fi classic. The first scene I want to talk about takes place before RoboCop’s material fabrication, while he is still an Idea and just one “contender” among others.

As a part of the plans for a new Detroit, ‘Delta City’, radical changes must be made in the city’s police force, and, at a conference we meet the huge, tank-like robot codenamed ‘ED 209’. After this, first robotic law enforcer model tragically malfunctions and totally riddles and kills a man during its demonstration, the proper RoboCop is soon introduced – as an alternative to this inhuman, ‘cold machine’. This is the robo-animated corpse of the good officer Murphy, and it contains something that ED 209 does not, which is, of course, a—quite literal—piece of humanity. Stripped of all the weaknesses of mankind, memory included, what is left there in him is simply his formal status of non-machinery; one of us while, of course, simultaneously being infinitely more; the ‘ultimate weapon’.

By his creator RoboCop is paradoxically regarded as 100% machine supplemented with 1% man. This isn’t overtly addressed, but the ‘spiritual’, meat-component seems to function as an objective part of his machinery; a positive feature of non-mechanical bug prevention “firmware”. It is, again, but a formal partiality of this piece of military equipment, and as such cannot but seem uncannily excessive – especially to our contemporary eyes and knowledge about the possibilities of AI without this “supplement” of literal piece of human. Yet it nonetheless, of course, has a tremendous role in this tragic but very interesting story; i.e. RoboCop’s trajectory as a site of a gradual “resubjectivation” of a traumatized man-machine ‘commodity’. As Žižek writes,

[This hero, who] finds himself literally “between two deaths”—clinically dead and at the same time provided with a new, mechanical body—starts to remember fragments of his previous, “human” life and thus undergoes a process of resubjectivation, changing gradually back from pure incarnated drive to a being of desire. (Žižek, 2019)

There is nonetheless, I claim, a more nuanced move going on. As Žižek and his colleagues develop it multiple times throughout their works, the ‘core’ in the ‘desiring’ human, the ‘indivisible remainder that resists interpellation’ (Dolar, 1993), is itself inhuman and, as we say, ‘undead’ – the being of desire is on the bottom the being of an “object”, objet petit a, which has as its formal objectivity the objectivity of non-being, failure, lack. What seems to be humanity in the machine, the decisive bug-preventing “firmware” and the little bit to which we can attribute the machine a ‘good, trusty cop’, is simultaneously, as the movie quickly portrays, his primary bug; his mechanical and ‘driven’ in-humanity and a site of proper trauma.

In a most primary sense, ED 209 must, as such, be situated not as his inverse but his obverse, his formal mirror image. In what sense? Not because of their shared dead-ness or mechanical functioning, but their all-too-much aliveness and very-much human component.

What prevents ED 209 from being ‘just dead machinery’ is, similarly to RoboCop, precisely its bugs, the basic traces of life, in the form of a) human errors, and b) human objectives. And, through formal connections, not just any human: through both a and b, ED is a subject – of its creator. It is inseparable from him, Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), the film’s primary villain and—importantly—his castration, as the basic trauma of his subjectivity that marks him as a monster. Being humiliated, his castration cannot be repressed, and this open wound becomes absolutely central in the magnitude of violence that himself and his robotic extension spreads throughout the movie. In the beginning of the movie his rival, RoboCop’s creator, literally waves in his face a bigger “piece of meat”, in the presence of his own dead, ‘castrated’ (in the literal sense of ‘violently unplugged’) failure of a robot. While materially being 100% machine (and nothing else), ED 209 does not cease to be part of a subject, in the exact same way that the body of RoboCop is a part of the animated remains of officer Murphy. Although ED 209 is its own figure, one could say that it acts precisely as a part of Jones’ body, performing the violence demanded by his impotence.

This is, most uncannily, not dissimilar to what’s at stake with the undead Murphy and his robotic extension. One could spell out the film’s tragedy like this: The humanity in the machine totally coincides with the inhumanity in the non-machine.

What RoboCop’s resubjectivation involves is first and foremost the violent and pathological mode of the Death Drive – as precisely this blind, mechanical motor of an ‘egotistic’ enjoyment of his own trauma – i.e. totally regardless and ignorant of his official, “dead” (abstract, written-down) duties and ‘good, trusty cop-ness’. As such, as we see it unfolding, and this is absolutely crucial, it is not simply the indivisible remainder of the “human Murphy”, but this Other, dead and abstract feature of ‘being a cop’ that, paradoxically, humanizes him and actually opens up a space for resolution of his trauma. This is what incidentally supplements his subjectivation to work, not merely by adding ‘something human’, but a formal point de capiton that anchors him and interrupts his destructive drive – and which had to be contingently asserted from outside of him, ( – incidentally by the most heartless of villains).

This point, however, doesn’t even seem too accidental. Throughout the movie, ‘normal’ humanity is portrayed not as authentic at all, but as themselves mostly caught in dumb repetition, as symbolised by the recurring repetition of the same dumb “punchline” from some sitcom, “I’d buy that for a dollar!”. In the end it was a “bit”, not of “authentic” or living ‘humanity’, but of Hegelian bone—this dead, ‘cold’ bit of programming in his exoskeleton; a recursion to a robotic performativity of “YES, I AM A COP”—that allows our hero to spare the life of the man who mortally maimed him. Only here, through a totally contingent element, radically external to his ‘proponent of humanity’, did he regain what was most vital to his Spirit; his immortal legacy “beyond the pleasure principle” of revenge and blind jouissance.

Marie Boesgaard Bendtsen is a psychology student from Aalborg, Denmark. Self-taught in theoretical psychoanalysis through primarily Žižek and Zupančič.


Dolar, M. (1993). ”Beyond Interpellation”. Qui Parle, 6(2), 75–96.

Žižek, S. (2019) Return of the Living Dead. iai.tv: https://iai.tv/articles/return-of-the-living-dead-slavoj-zizek-auid-1261

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