I have sold more books on physics than Madonna has on sex.
"There's no rush for Isaac Newton. We were quite happy with Aristotle's cosmos. Personally, I preferred it. Fifty-five crystal spheres geared to God's crankshaft is my idea of a satisfying universe. I can't think of anything more trivial than the speed of light. Quarks, quasars--big bangs, black holes--who gives a shit? How did you people con us out of all that status? All that money? And why are you so pleased with yourselves? . . . I'd push the lot of you over a cliff myself. Except the one in the wheelchair, I think I'd lose the sympathy vote before people had time to think it through." 1
"The one in the wheelchair" is of course Stephen Hawking, the British theoretical physicist stricken with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, better known in the U.S. as Lou Gehrig's disease) and author of the best-selling A Brief History of Time (1988). That Hawking can be identified without being named is a tribute to his extraordinary cultural status and iconic power. But this passage also hints at the largely unexamined nature of that status and power and, perhaps more ominously, at the danger of embarking on such a critique. Hawking, arguably the most visible and popular scientist during the last decade, has remained aloof from the "science wars" that have raged in the academy and the wider culture over the same period. Yet that silence is itself telling, a reflection of a desire for unambiguous scientific heroes exemplifying moral and intellectual authority, fearlessly providing us with truth, however unpleasant, about ourselves and the universe. The subject of Alan Sokal's Social Text hoax, it is worth noting, was quantum gravity, the marriage of quantum mechanics and general relativity with which Hawking has been so closely associated. 2
The purpose of this essay, however, is not to drag Hawking into the science wars but to map the development of his iconic status and to sketch its cultural resonances. I present A Brief History of Time in the context of contemporary studies of celebrity and celebrity-marketing, arguing that Hawking's book participates in a carefully crafted plan to sell his life and his science, a plan in which the story of modern cosmology is modified in subtle but crucial ways to make Stephen Hawking its star. But the storylines of Stephen Hawking, disabled physicist, and Stephen Hawking, the greatest physicist since Einstein, often contradict, and Hawking's efforts to suppress those contradictions merely enmesh him further in his own and his culture's ambivalence toward disability and technology in postmodernity. Although cultural theorists have prepared us to see the disabled body and the cyborg body as repositories of cultural anxieties as well as sites for their display, Stephen Hawking provides the opportunity to observe these anxieties from the position of a disabled/cyborg subject deeply embedded in the traditions of Enlightenment science and cosmology. In its extended visual treatment of Hawking, Errol Morris's film version of A Brief History of Time (1991), while in many respects implicated in the construction and maintenance of Hawking's celebrity, is also, by virtue of Morris's partial independence from Hawking's control, the ideal venue in which to see the submerged tensions and contradictions of Hawking's storylines brought to the surface.
Signs of Hawking's status as a pop culture icon are everywhere. He played himself in a guest appearance on the 1992-93 season finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation, while in Addams Family Values (1993) the nerdy friend of Wednesday Addams clutched a copy of A Brief History of Time at summer camp. But Hawking is also hip. People magazine named him one of 1988's twenty-five most intriguing people. 3 He was mentioned as an interview subject of sitcom TV journalist Murphy Brown in 1995 and provided Jerry Seinfeld with a punchline in 1997. 4 A Chicago cabaret bar formed a Stephen Hawking fan club, printed T-shirts, and was inundated with requests for shirts from around the world. Profiled in People, one of the bar's owners explained, "if a club's good enough for Spuds MacKenzie [then the canine star of Budweiser's marketing campaign], it's good enough for Hawking." 5 Hawking subsequently became a celebrity pitchman himself, appearing in advertisements for British Telecommunications and later for U.S. Robotics, the modem manufacturer. 6 Michael White and John Gribbin's biography of Hawking aptly compares his celebrity status--tarmac VIP receptions, sold-out public lectures, and groupies--to that of a rock star; Hawking subsequently supplied a voice track for the 1994 Pink Floyd single, "Keep Talking." 7 The publishing war over the rights to A Brief History provided Hawking with a $250,000 advance from Bantam, whose publicity vice-president declared "the Hawking story" a major market "for both the upmarket press and the mainstream media." 8 Suiting the action to the word, Bantam placed a half-page ad in the New York Times Book Review for Hawking's next book, Black Holes and Baby Universes (1993), proclaiming it "the astounding new work from the man who brought an entire generation to new frontiers." 9 The film version of A Brief History was funded by NBC, Britain's Channel 4, and Tokyo Broadcasting; Steven Spielberg was instrumental in obtaining NBC's support for the film and suggested Errol Morris as its director, and George Lucas's Skywalker Sound provided the film's sound effects. 10 Shirley MacLaine, who once made a pilgrimmage to Cambridge to talk about the universe with Hawking, was one of the most prominant guests at the Los Angeles party that celebrated the film's opening night. 11
Hawking is clearly a celebrity. More, he is hero, a figure of moral authority whose celebrity rests on his intellectual achievements and ability to overcome adversity. He is, as the titles of so many articles about him proclaim, the "master of the universe," living proof of the power of "mind over matter." A Hawking press conference has been likened to "being granted an audience with the Dalai Lama," rapt reporters "hanging on Hawking's every word, hoping to learn the secrets of the universe." 12 So inspiring is his example that at least five biographies have been written of him expressly for children. 13 The Chicago bar owners, asked why they launched the Hawking fan club, explained that in our media-saturated age, the world needs "real" heroes rather than those produced by the sports/entertainment industry. 14 This view reflects the position, adopted by most commentators on celebrity and the media since Daniel Boorstin, that modern celebrities are people known not for their merits but simply for being well known. 15 Hawking is thus a refreshing antidote, a throwback to a time when the famous served as worthy role models.
This distinction between heroes and mere celebrities implies that heroes are worthy of their celebrity and do not need to court it. This is precisely the claim frequently made about Hawking, that he has been drawn reluctantly into the limelight. Four years prior to the publication of A Brief History, Timothy Ferris complained that media interest in Hawking's life "promises--or threatens--to make him a celebrity" by "offering up a Hawking sans physics." 16 Since the materialization of that threat, writers on Hawking have almost invariably included a caveat like Kitty Ferguson's: "Stephen Hawking . . . doesn't want anyone to write a biography of him . . . . [The] science is what he would like you to know about him." 17
Hawking has stated that A Brief History "was intended as a history of the universe, not of me." 18 The series of questions about the history of the universe and the nature of time with which the book opens seems to confirm this, and many of the book's reviewers expressed regret that it contained so little insight into Hawking's persona. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Marcia Bartusiak longed for more of the "personal admissions" that would enable Hawking's readers to see the human side of science: "Although this book clearly was not intended to be an autobiography, it is still disappointing that Mr. Hawking keeps such revelations to a minimum." 19
Yet A Brief History of Time is also A Brief History of Hawking. It may not be a personal autobiography, but it is very much the intellectual autobiography of a man whose life and science take place extensively in his mind. 20 The book's organizing principle is its author's career, and its subtitle, "From the Big Bang to Black Holes," charts the path of Hawking's research interests as much as it does the history of the universe. The first five chapters sketch the development of cosmological theories up to the start of Hawking's career in the mid-1960s, with special attention to general relativity and quantum mechanics. The second half of the book then presents recent cosmology by following the trajectory of Hawking's own work. We move from Hawking's early collaboration with Roger Penrose between 1965 and 1970, which established that if general relativity is correct, there must have been a big bang singularity at the beginning of time; to his research on black holes in the 1970s; to his effort, beginning in 1974 but especially after 1981, to unify relativity and quantum mechanics in a quantum theory of gravity. The centrality of Hawking to A Brief History can be gauged by the similar title he gave to an unpublished sketch of his life: "A Short History." 21
The conflation of Hawking's own research with the history of modern cosmology makes A Brief History a rather self-promoting work. Other contemporary cosmologists rarely receive more than passing mention. They are at best Hawking's collaborators; more often, they have ideas whose importance only Hawking can see, or they prove something crudely that only Hawking can prove with thoroughness and elegance. Even when they are right they are right for the wrong reasons. And when Hawking is wrong it is merely because his model is too simple, with the admission of error presented as an example of scientific virtue in such a way that humility becomes self-celebration. Examples of these rhetorical strategies can be seen in Hawking's presentation of his debate with Jacob Bekenstein over black hole entropy and his discussion of the arrow of time.
One of Hawking's greatest discoveries is that black holes emit radiation or, as he puts it, that "black holes ain't so black." 22 The discovery of this "Hawking radiation," as it is now called, overturned the very definition of black holes, but more important, it showed that the application of quantum mechanics to cosmology might provide a way of dealing with singularities, the points of infinite density and space-time curvature that general relativity predicts but cannot manipulate mathematically. The path to this discovery began in late 1970, when Hawking realized that the area of a black hole's event horizon (i.e. its boundary, from within which nothing can escape) cannot decrease when matter falls into the black hole. This looked strikingly analogous to the second law of thermodynamics, which says that in a closed system, entropy (the measure of the system's disorder) cannot decrease. But it was a Princeton postdoctoral researcher, Jacob Bekenstein, who argued that this was not merely an analogy, that the area of the event horizon is the measure of the black hole's entropy. Hawking, "motivated partly by irritation with Bekenstein, who, I felt, had misused my discovery," quickly co-authored a paper arguing that Bekenstein's proposal had a "fatal flaw" (104): if a black hole has entropy, it must also have a temperature, and if it has a temperature it must emit radiation, but by definition a black hole can't emit anything. Yet when Hawking began to explore this issue further, his calculations revealed that black holes should emit radiation at a steady rate. At first he was sure he had made an error and labored to keep his work a secret: "I was afraid if Bekenstein found out about it, he would use it as a further argument to support his ideas" (105). When Hawking finally convinced himself that his results were accurate, he was able to employ quantum mechanics to account for the mechanism by which this radiation could be emitted. Thus, while Bekenstein turned out to be "basically correct," it was "in a manner he had certainly not expected" (104).
Hawking's version of this debate is more confessional in A Brief History than it is in the contemporary account he wrote for Scientific American in 1977. 23 Yet the more confessional account in A Brief History manages both to underplay Hawking's hostility to Bekenstein's ideas and to elevate Hawking's own achievement. Dennis Overbye's depiction of Hawking's reaction to Bekenstein speaks of "derision," "outrage," "nonsense," and "bosh," with even Dennis Sciama, Hawking's thesis advisor, referring to Hawking's "sneer[s]" at Bekenstein's work. 24 Hawking's earlier account suppresses this debate entirely, but Bekenstein is at least credited there with providing the "crucial suggestion" rather than being, as he is in A Brief History, "basically correct." 25 In all these renderings, Bekenstein simply disappears as if into a black hole, while Hawking emerges, like Hawking radiation itself, surprising and resplendent.
The case of the arrow of time is one of the few instances in A Brief History where Hawking admits error. Using his no-boundary model, the controversial proposal developed in the early 1980s that the universe is self-contained and hence had no starting-point, Hawking asks what would happen if the universe stopped expanding and began to contract. At first he believed that entropy would decrease and that time would run backwards. But when calculations by other cosmologists challenged this conclusion, Hawking says that "I realized . . . I had made a mistake." His "mistake," however, is presented in curiously passive terms: he "was misled" partly be an analogy he had employed and partly by relying on a model of the universe that was too simple--misled, in other words, by analogies and models of his own making. Moreover, Hawking uses the admission of his "mistake" as an example of scientific virtue on a par with Einstein's famous repudiation of the cosmological constant:
"What should you do when you find you have made a mistake like that? Some people never admit that they are wrong and continue to find new, and often mutually inconsistent, arguments to support their case . . . . Others claim to have never really supported the incorrect view in the first place . . . . It seems to me much better and less confusing if you admit in print that you were wrong. A good example of this was Einstein, who called the cosmological constant, which he introduced when he was trying to make a static model of the universe, the biggest mistake of his life" (150-51).
A Brief History thus differs from works about Hawking only in degree. Like every other modern celebrity, Hawking's persona has been constructed and marketed, his story manipulated and controlled, for the purpose of selling, and this has occurred, as it can only occur, with his cooperation or at least acquiescence. As Rein, Kotler, and Stoller note in High Visibility, the star who seems to resist celebrity and professes himself "a 'real,' just-plain-folks person" is adopting a common marketing approach. 26
Rein, Kotler, and Stoller argue that the extension of the entertainment sector's celebrity-making and celebrity-marketing techniques into sectors traditionally less associated with them led in the 1970s to the emergence of high-visibility figures in professions like business, law, medicine--and science. Central to these techniques, what they regard as the celebrity industry's major innovation in the 1970s and 1980s, is "dramatic reality": "The conscious design, manipulation, and promotion of storylines in celebrities' lives--up to the point of creating realities more dramatic than real life." 27 Each storyline should be cast in a clear narrative form, with the celebrity, by virtue of his unrelenting talent, ultimately triumphing over adversity and achieving some form of reward or recognition. The narrative must be tailored for its target audience, tested to gauge its success, and repeated to insure that it becomes well-established. The key is story control--celebrity storylines must be created and managed with care.
Hawking's condition gives him special advantages in the control of his story and especially in its repetition. Virtually unintelligable by the late 1970s, he lost his speech entirely after a tracheostomy in 1985. He now speaks through a voice synthesizer attached to his wheelchair-mounted computer, a system that also enables him to store his answers to frequently asked questions. Thus, in addition to what his biographers Michael White and John Gribbin call "a veritable folk tradition of anecdotes" about Hawking's university days, anything written by or about Hawking contains the same responses and illustrations and stories, repeated literally verbatim. 28 As a BBC interviewer noted to him, the difficulty with which he can formulate a response to a question "means you can demand good notice of any interviewer's questions and need only answer when you're good and ready." 29
The outline of Hawking's story as it was disseminated beyond the physics community fits the basic criteria of dramatic reality: brilliant young physicist, stricken with fatal disease, is given will to live by his love for the woman he will marry, carries on in the face of his disease, and emerges as one of his generation's leading cosmologists, explaining the fundamental mysteries of the universe. 30 Hawking's story depended from the start on this combination of his science and his disability for the broad human interest that resonated with various sectors of the mainstream audience when profiles of him began to appear. Between the late 1970s and 1988, stories about Hawking in print and on TV appeared with increasing frequency and in increasing depth, but even the earliest profiles discussed Hawking's disease and showed him in his wheelchair. 31 A Brief History merely exploited and expanded this interest rather than creating it.
Hawking's story having been, in effect, test marketed through these profiles, it is no wonder that Bantam, with little experience in publishing popular science books, was willing to pay an author with no experience in writing them a six-figure advance. Moreover, with the basic "dramatic reality" already in place, Bantam had only to heighten and refine the Hawking storylines, which it did in two ways. First, although Hawking's disability figures only minimally and incidentally in the book, Bantam made it a prominent marketing feature. The cover of the book contains a large photograph of Hawking in his wheelchair--as David Blum noted at the time, an almost unprecedented feature for any nonfiction work other than biography or autobiography, and virtually unique for a work of popular science--while the dust jacket declares that "[f]rom the vantage point of his wheelchair where he has spent the last twenty years trapped by Lou Gehrig's disease, Professor Hawking himself has transformed our view of the universe." 32 Second, on the physics side, Bantam elevated Hawking's status. Whereas in earlier profiles he is identified by some variation on the phrase, "one of world's leading theoretical physicists," the dust jacket of A Brief History proclaims him "one of the great minds of the twentieth century." While earlier writers often discuss Hawking's work in the historical context of problems also investigated by Newton, Galileo, and Einstein, and note that he is "perhaps" or "sometimes" regarded as the equal of Einstein, the dust jacket's biographical blurb on Hawking leaves no doubt about his stature: "He was born on the anniversary of Galileo's death, holds Newton's chair as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University and is widely regarded as the most brilliant theoretical physicist since Einstein."
This heightening of Hawking's status is more than marketing hype, for it is woven into the text of A Brief History itself. Several commentators have noted that the capsule biographies of Newton, Galileo, and Einstein with which the book concludes seem to imply that Hawking regards himself as "next in line in any future A Brief History of Time." 33 We needn't wait until the future, for A Brief History is itself the biography that precedes the others, and one that even suggests Hawking has eclipsed his illustrious predecessors in various ways. Hawking tells his readers, parenthetically, that he holds the Lucasian Professorship at Cambridge (68). He also mentions the "coincidence" of being born on the anniversary of Galileo's death and declares his "strong sense of identity" with Galileo at the moment when he is explaining his no-boundary proposal and its theological implications (116). He initially presented this proposal at a conference on cosmology sponsored by the Vatican in 1981, and thus he quips that he was glad that the Pope, who later addressed the conference, was not aware of the content of his talk. Recalling Galileo's troubles with the Catholic Church, Hawking manages both to identify himself with Galileo, "coincidence" notwithstanding, and to one-up him: whereas Galileo was forced to recant his views, Hawking receives prizes from the Vatican and presents his proposals under the Pope's nose. 34
Hawking also subtly portrays himself as both the successor and by implication the better of Einstein. While Hawking, like Einstein, searches for a complete unified theory of the universe, Einstein, unlike Hawking, "refused to believe in the reality of quantum mechanics," which is precisely what will make the development of such a theory possible (155). Whereas Einstein contended, in his famous expression of aversion for the uncertainties of quantum mechanics, that "God does not play dice with the universe," Hawking contends that black hole radiation proves Einstein "doubly wrong"--"God not only plays dice but also sometimes throws them where they cannot be seen." 35 If Hawking's no-boundary model of the universe is correct, then the answer to another of Einstein's questions, "How much choice did God have in constructing the universe?" is that God had "no freedom at all to choose initial conditions" and very limited freedom to choose the laws that the universe obeyed (174).
Hawking's frequent excursions into religion and metaphysics are another component of his celebrity. The two best-known passages from A Brief History involve the implications of Hawking's cosmology for religion. The book's famous concluding sentence declares that a complete theory of the universe would be "the ultimate triumph of human reason--for then we would know the mind of God" (175). Although this seems to accept the existence of God even as it celebrates human reason, it is undermined by Hawking's equally famous and even more controversial claim that if his no-boundary proposal is correct, then the universe is self-contained, with no beginning or end, and "What place, then, for a creator?" (140-41). As the answer to this rhetorical question is of course no place, most readers have had no trouble discerning its implications: since Hawking's work aims to provide a complete theory of the universe, the triumph we will celebrate, and the mind we will come to know, will be his. Hawking understands God better than Einstein because Hawking is the ultimate celebrity: God himself.
Such a move is the logical extension of the strand of Enlightenment science that sought to replace the authority of religion with the authority of science. By aligning himself so overtly with Galileo against Catholic dogma and with quantum theorists against Einstein's theism, Hawking positions his work in a meta-narrative about cosmology that protects it from enemies both without and within. If this exposes him to charges of hubris in the popular press and criticism from philosophers and theologians, it's nonetheless good for sales--which Hawking has said would have been halved had he cut the book's final sentence, as he at one point contemplated. 36 Instead, Hawking has minimized the potential for damaging fallout by denying he strays onto the religion side of the science/religion divide and by qualifying the theological implications of his cosmology. 37 Yet he does so even as he continues to promote the no-boundary proposal, asserting recently that in offering testable predictions the proposal wrenches cosmology out of the hands of theologians and "makes cosmology into a science." 38
Hawking similarly distances himself from the dramatic storylines used to promote A Brief History. The notion that he is a hero or a second Einstein he has on some occasions bluntly dismissed as "rubbish" and "mere media hype," while on others he has been more ambiguous, coyly commenting that people shouldn't believe everything they read. 39 He has also consistently expressed discomfort with attention given to his personal life and his disease, at one point even stating that "neither I nor my family would have any self-respect left" if he allowed a film to be made of his life or cooperated in the production of a biography. 40 But as Rein, Kotler, and Stoller note, a celebrity's exposure can only be maintained and expanded by communicating the storylines of dramatic reality to new sectors, promoting them through different channels, or adding details to them, all of which have certainly been the case with Hawking. 41 He has in fact cooperated with virtually every published work about his life and science, and he willingly participated in Morris's film. Each book, article, and television profile contains the same elements, the same stories, even the same words. A Brief History itself has been repackaged, sometimes with biographical material, in a variety of forms, most of them far more exotic, elaborate, and expensive than the original, from the 1992 Reader's Companion to Morris's film, to the interactive CD-ROM version, to The Illustrated Brief History in 1997. A recent BBC/PBS series, Stephen Hawking's Universe, with its accompanying book and CD-ROM, attempts to translate the everyday language of A Brief History into everyday language. Hawking's 1993 essay collection, Black Holes and Baby Universes, contains several autobiographical pieces, while his Cambridge Lectures--also available in audio, print, or CD-ROM--recycles much of its material from A Brief History and Black Holes and Baby Universes. The Hawking storylines thus have been not only reinforced for his target audience but also distributed to new audience sectors in a range of formats encompassing almost all contemporary media.
A definitive example of Hawking's active participation in the marketing of his celebrity is the appearance he initiated on Star Trek: The Next Generation. 42 Hawking plays himself in the opening scene, in which Lieutenant Commander Data, an android, has conjured up a holographic poker game featuring himself, Newton, Einstein, and Hawking. Newton is portrayed as insufferably arrogant, Einstein as genially fallible (he cannot keep track of the bet), Hawking as slightly aloof but very much in control. In the process of the hand and its accompanying banter, Hawking snubs Newton by sharing an inside joke with Einstein and Data about relativity and by complaining sarcastically about Newton's self-absorption--"not the apple story again," groans Hawking. Ultimately, Hawking forces Newton to fold. Einstein is vanquished with equal panache when, certain that Hawking is bluffing, he calls the bet, predicting that Hawking will lose. "Wrong again, Albert," says Hawking's voice synthesizer, as his electronic card-holder lays down four of a kind.
Why does Hawking distance himself from the storylines he has worked so hard to create and promote? Most celebrities keep the processes of their image-building hidden as much as possible, Rein, Kotler, and Stoller argue, because the exposure of these processes can undermine the audience's sense of the celebrity's authenticity. 43 But in Hawking's case the situation is especially fraught, for the two storylines are potentially at odds with each other and with the human requirements of celebrity. As a scientist, Hawking works in a field celebrated for its objectivity. The truth of his ideas and his status as a cosmologist should thus be judged without reference to his his disability. So Hawking must deny the relevance of his biography even as he feeds the public fascination with it, for it is, after all, the biography that makes him unique rather than just one among many fine cosmologists. But this uniqueness poses problems of its own. If Hawking is the greatest physicist of our century, then he is deeply unlike the rest of us. To facilitate our identification with him, he and his handlers provide us with information about his life. But in this area, too, Hawking is deeply unlike the rest of us. And because his disease has forced him to live a life almost totally cerebral, he risks becoming something other than fully human. To display his personal life and physical body is to display the extent to which Hawking has become a cyborg, part organism, part machine, dependent for his existence on various prostheses--wheelchair, specially-rigged computer, voice synthesizer. Counteracting the image of Hawking as purely cerebral, a sort of human computer, requires the release of additional biographical details. Yet the details that perhaps make him most human--the breakdown of his twenty five-year marriage over his affair with (and subsequent marriage to) Elaine Mason, one of his nurses and the wife of the man who designed his voice synthesizer--have had to be minimized and suppressed because of the threat such a scandal poses to his heroic persona.
Hawking's discomfort with the display of his disability and its accompanying prostheses can also be located in a wider cultural context. In their respective studies of the representation of the disabled body and the cyborg body, Rosemarie Thomson and Jennifer Gonzalez both argue that these representations reflect the social anxieties, the fears and desires, of what Thomson dubs the dominant "normate" subject position. 44 Invoking and extending Donna Haraway's work on the cyborg, Thomson associates the disabled with the cyborg, for "[a]ll persons with physical disabilities . . . embody the 'illegitimate fusion' of the cultural categories 'normal,' which qualifies people for human status, and 'abnormal,' which disqualifies them." 45 In Hawking's case, however, we have the opportunity to observe the disabled person/cyborg representing him/itself. What we find is that Hawking, while resisting the traditional associations of normate representations of disability and the cyborg, also participates in them, thus displaying in his self-representation the very same anxieties.
As Martin Norden and Thomson have demonstrated in their respective studies of disability in film and literature, the disabled character is almost invariably isolated, seen from the perspective of the able-bodied, and, whether a villian or a saint, a static figure denied full subjectivity. 46 Robert Bogden, while noting in his history of the freak show that some aspects of these shows presented disability in a positive light, argues that the display of the disabled as a curiosity nonetheless fundamentally reinforced the notion that most disabled people were abnormal and incapable of functioning like others. 47 Cyborgs in fiction and film have tended to be represented in similar terms. 48 When they are not presented as outright villains who threaten human existence, cyborgs are depicted, like the disabled, as lacking or having lost some basic component of humanity.
Hawking attempts to avoid implication in normate representations of disability by stressing his normalcy on the one hand, his achievements on the other, but this simply enmeshes him in them more deeply. Nineteenth-century freak shows transformed their freaks into celebrities through aggressive promotion that relied heavily on portrait photographs and fabricated biographies. In what Bogdan calls the "low aggrandized mode" of freak presentation, emphasis was placed on the respectability and normalcy of the freak and his family, the ability of the freak to compensate for his disabilities, and the moral superiority of the freak. In the "high aggrandized mode," the freak's status was the focus. 49 While the dramatic reality of Hawking's storylines is not pitched through the sort of staged display and bogus titles of the freak show, the characteristics of the low aggrandized mode correspond closely to the strategies employed in selling the personal side of Hawking's story (his family life, how he compensates for his disability, his courage in the face of his disease), those of the high aggrandized mode with the selling of the professional side (his links to Newton, Galileo, and Einstein and his many honors and awards, especially non-scientific ones).
Hawking's relationship to the current disability movement is ambiguous. He has been outspoken, especially against the town and the University in Cambridge, about the need to accommodate those with disabilities, condemning the isolation of the disabled and resisting any effort to identify himself in those terms. For his efforts, he was named Man of the Year by the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation in 1979. 50 At the same time, Hawking is reluctant to think or talk about his condition and consistently stresses how "normal" his life is, that his wheelchair and voice synthesizer are merely "aids" that help him in "overcoming physical deficiencies." 51 Such attitudes nonetheless identify him with the message that disabled people and their advocates have increasingly denounced as part of the charity industry's paternalistic focus on disability as impairment, an affliction that must be overcome if the disabled person is to approach full humanity. 52 Hawking would clearly be uncomfortable with Thomson's proclamation that a celebration of the postmodern body involves the recognition that "a wheelchair is a part of the self." 53
Yet Hawking's wheelchair and voice synthesizer are integral to his existence and identity. As Sandy Stone has noted, "Hawking doesn't stop being Hawking at the edge of his visible body." 54 Without his prostheses, there would be no Stephen Hawking. Yet Hawking is at best ambivalent about his cyborg identity. At times he revels in being a high-tech marvel--as his TV appearances with androids and his role as pitchman for the latest technology of U.S. Robotics attest. And he clearly delights in the notion that he has transcended his physical limitations, living a life truly of and in the mind. However, Hawking is ultimately as uncomfortable embracing his cyborgism as he is embracing his disability. His insistence that he be seen as fully human resonates in relation to both of these categories.
This insistence takes two forms. In the first, Hawking adopts a Cartesian stance, admitting that his life is almost exclusively a mental one but asserting that this is what makes him human. As White and Gribbin put it, Hawking's mind is "the essence of his being" and his reliance on technology is "irrelevant" to his humanity. 55 In the second, Hawking contends that his life is physical. His humanity is expressed through his technologies, as when he runs his wheelchair over the toes of those who bore or annoy him. And, although it is never explicitly acknowledged, he is sexually potent: he has married, fathered three children, had an affair, and married again. One of the few direct references to his life in A Brief History overtly juxtaposes his disability and his virility: "[S]hortly after the birth of my daughter, Lucy, I started to think about black holes as I was getting into bed. My disability makes this a rather slow process, so I had plenty of time" (99). Hawking's claim that he has sold more books on physics than Madonna has on sex combines these strategies by simultaneously identifying him with the public display of sexuality and then trumping it. Physics is better than sex.
Whether insisting on his physicality of his body or his transcendence of it, Hawking expresses anxiety about gender identifications. The disabled, as Thomson has shown, have traditionally been feminized and de-eroticized--the disabled man is not a real man. 56 To the extent that Hawking's disability is employed in his storylines and their marketing, its feminizing associations are countered by evidence of his masculinity. Theoretical physics is a field dominated by men. But if Anne Balsamo is right, Hawking's rejection of the body is also an assertion of masculinism. Balsamo argues that the cultures of cyberspace and virtual reality, with their disdain for the body as a limiting piece of "meat," have been constructed largely along masculinist lines. This desire to transcend the body represents an attempt to neutralize its social meanings, especially for gender, race, ethnicity, and ability, in an era when women, gays and lesbians, ethnic and racial minorities, and the disabled are asserting their social presence. 57 Whereas women have been able to challenge the normate vision of the cyborg, especially in cybernetic fiction, by envisioning a continuum between the machine and the human, Hawking seems committed to the more traditional oppositional position in which cyborgs are either rejected as unhuman or reinscribed with the very marks of masculinism they ostensibly transcend. Hawking's efforts to control his identification with the cyborg are thus disrupted by those feminists since Donna Haraway who have called for the embrace of the cyborg as a quintessentially postmodern, posthuman figure that offers a potentially liberating model, especially for women.
Errol Morris's film version of A Brief History is the best venue in which to see the dramatic reality of Hawking's life, complete with the anxieties and desires it engenders, put on display. Because the film was not as fully under Hawking's control as other representations of him have been, it both participates in the celebration of Hawking and calls that celebration into question, highlighting the tensions that are elsewhere submerged.
Although Morris clearly admires Hawking, he is aware of his subject's failings and limitations. He sees Hawking both as "a very heroic character" and "a symbol of human frailty." 58 The film explores Hawking's identification with Newton, Galileo, and Einstein and relies on the same "folk tradition of anecdotes" that stocks the various profiles. Morris's decision to interview his subjects in a studio, in elaborate reconstructions of sites from Hawking's home and office, was intended to "create a world around Stephen Hawking," thereby making Hawking the center of this movie universe. 59 But by bringing the book's autobiographical elements to the surface--a strategy with which Hawking was originally uncomforable--Morris makes Hawking's self-presentation more evident. 60
Morris has described his film as part science lecture and part biography, but its organization is explicitly chronological, moving through the major periods of Hawking's life and work. The voices of family members and colleagues are not only prominent but more memorable than Hawking's computer-voice narration, and while many of their stories celebrate Hawking's genius, many others are double-edged. Unlike the book, the film contains the voices of other physicists, who are able to describe their own work and assess Hawking's. John Wheeler, Jacob Bekenstein's supervisor, provides part of the account of the dispute with Hawking about black hole entropy. Don Page, a former student and Evangelical Christian who has challenged Hawking's theological speculations, tells a story of Hawking toppling over backwards in his wheelchair, "the master of gravity overcome by the weak gravitational force of the earth."
In particular, Hawking's desire to play God comes across as a fundamental characteristic of his personality from early childhood. Like many other commentators, Morris regards Hawking's assertions of control and dominance, his mastery of black holes and of the universe as a whole, as a poignant response to the physical dilemma in which Hawking is himself a collapsing star who will one day be unable to communicate. 61 But Morris also makes clear that Hawking's need for dominance pre-dates his condition. A family friend recalls Hawking's organization of an evening of Scottish dancing at which Stephen assumed the role of "the master of the proceedings," forcing all the family members to dress formally. His sister and mother speak of "Dynasty," a childhood board game invented by Hawking. This "fearful," "terrible" game, which had such complicated rules that it took days to play, was, according to his mother, "a substitute for living"--"it was the complication of it that appealed to him," she says. One of his childhood friends, in an interview that was not included in the film, recalled that Hawking "loved the fact that he had created the world and then created the laws that governed it. And that he was causing us to obey those laws: he enjoyed that, too." 62 Such stories present a problematic aspect of Hawking's personality that control of his dramatic storylines usually manages either to marginalize or to gloss in happier terms. 63
Morris's film is silent about the breakup of Hawking's marriage. Both Jane Hawking and Elaine Mason declined to be interviewed, and Hawking refused to discuss the recent events in his personal life. Morris has said he would have used the interviews if he had them, and he argues that they would have made for a slightly but not significantly different film. 64 Morris is justified in saying this in part because he does present the story of his subject's life through 1991. In the film's final biographical moment, Hawking recounts an accident in which his wheelchair was struck by a car when he misjudged the time he had to cross a Cambridge road safely. Hawking has said that this is one of the two stories in the film that make him "squirm," despite the fact that in the film he emphasizes that he was back at work in a few days. 65 Morris thus leaves his audience with a highly ambiguous anecdote that can be read as a metaphor for Hawking's hubris, his overreaching, his belief that he is heroic or divine, but also as another sign of Hawking's triumph over adversity and his will to live.
It is in its visual depiction of Hawking, however, that Morris's film most fully explores the ambiguities of Hawking's disability and the meaning of his cyborg status. Norden stresses that the isolation of disabled characters in film has always been reinforced by visual conventions: disabled characters are rarely seen interacting with other characters, and when they are, framing, camera angles, and lighting are manipulated to emphasize the disabled figure's marginal status. 66 David Hevey makes similar claims about the representation of disabled subjects in photography. Symbols of isolation and otherness, objects of pity or fear, disabled subjects are posed in stiff, passive positions, gazed at rather than gazing back; at the mercy of the camera, they are depicted in individual frames rather than narrative sequence, their disability displayed as impairment. 67 Noting the emergence in the 1970s and 80s of films featuring wheelchair-bound computer whizzes as a more positive alternative to high-tech, prosthetically-equipped disabled villains like Darth Vader, Norden nonetheless argues that the affirmation of the whizzes' intelligence is ultimately diminished:
"The films' common-denominator image--a wheelchair-using man who at the request of some able-bodied superior expertly manipulates the computers and associated paraphernalia surrounding him--creates the notion that the characters are all brain and no body . . . . In addition, their wheelchairs start to take on a dehumanizing quality, in the sense that the vehicles and their users begin to mesh figuratively with the surrounding technology. The impression often left by these films is that the characters are . . . part machine themselves." 68
Morris clearly challenges several of these stereotypes and visual traditions. Hawking is central rather than marginal to the film, it is his story that is narrated, and much of that story is told in his words and in ways that are shaped and controlled by him, at least indirectly. He is neither villain nor saintly innocent, and although he is a wheelchair-bound computer whiz, he has a life of his own and is certainly not at the mercy of an able-bodied superior. Morris's use of montage reflects a common artistic strategy for the exploration of the cyborg, and he has compared his technique for connecting the pieces of film to the digitized processes of Hawking's own self-representation: "I edited in passages where the screen goes black to convey the feeling of information being parceled out in bits and pices, as they are with Stephen's computer." 69 At several points the camera looks up, rather than down, at Hawking. And Morris deliberately rejects the grainy, black-and-white naturalism of the journalistic documentary that Hevey associates with the social realism of paternalistic liberalism. 70
Nonetheless, A Brief History presents an isolated Hawking. Morris has said that his biggest challenge in making the film was how to construct a narrative around his subject. 71 Despite the obvious precedent of connecting Hawking's life and work, Morris's dilemma is not surprising. In her discussion of cyborg fiction, Katherine Hayles argues that cyborg narratives "can be understood as stories only by reference ot the very life cycle narratives that are no longer sufficient to explain them." As a result, the cyborg "life cycle" tends to be told through the interpenetration, sometimes symbiotic, sometimes conflictual, of two narrative patterns: the arc of human life from birth to sexual maturity to death and the machine processes of assembly and disassembly. 72 In Morris's film these narrative patterns are intertwined: as Hawking's human life cycle progresses, so too does his assembly as a machine. This is a narrative the film presents as loss--the disassembly of Hawking's body may not eliminate his humanity entirely, but it removes him the domain of the human in important ways. As Shawn Rosenheim has demonstrated, Morris relies heavily on "the narrative logic and emotional trajectory" of The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), whose protagonist similarly experiences "exile from human society and its meanings." 73
This isolation is communicated more forcefully in visual terms. Despite the stories of his social interactions, Hawking never appears with another person in live shots. While the other interviewees face the camera and engage with it, Hawking is uniformly gazed at from odd perspectives, often in extreme and sharply angled close-ups that only capture parts of his face. Frequently, we see him reflected in the screen of the computer mounted on his wheelchair; sometimes we see only his hand, clicking the mouse by which he controls the computer, or his shoe on the wheelchair's footrest, or--with increasing frequency as the film progresses--only parts of the wheelchair itself. The visual strategy, to use Hevey's terms, is on fragmenting Hawking's body to focus on his impairment and his efforts to overcome it. Already passive and without his own voice, Hawking is steadily de-humanized, turned into a machine. As a visual object, he is treated in the same way as IV bottles, ventilators, the gears of clocks, and his wheelchair. Hawking has said that Morris manipulated him during filming as if he were a sofa. 74 In fact, in an ironic commentary on the disposibility of the cyborg, Hawking was almost completely expendable physically. Morris used a mock-up of Hawking's wheelchair, employed a double for him, and programmed a duplicate of Hawking's voice synthesizer, thus doubly disembodying the man he has called the ultimate non-talking talking head. 75
This dehumanization is especially evident in the film's final scene. As Hawking's synthesizer reads the final paragraph of A Brief History, the camera pans from his face to his arm and wheelchair to one of his wheelchair wheels. Finally, we look at the Hawking's wheelchair from behind, beyond it the night sky. Reviewers of the film have seen this final image as celebratory: it is Hawking "riding his wheelchair into the limitless cosmos of unfettered human thought." 76 Timothy Ferris says we see Hawking here "in his glory": "he resembles one of those first-magnitude stars . . . : we can see him, all right, but everything around him seems plunged into darkness." 77 Ferris, however, is wrong: we do not see Hawking--he has been reduced to body pieces and wheelchair parts, and has disappeared almost entirely, the top of his head barely visible above his wheelchair. As Rosenheim puts it, "[b]y the films's end, Hawking has completely disappeared into his technologies." 78 The film's last spoken word is "God," and its last textual word is "Stephen," the license plate that hangs on the back of the wheelchair, but the equation of these two words, which the book works so subtly to construct, is here problematized by Morris's ambiguous and ironic vision.
It is possible to dismiss Morris's film as yet another ableist portrait of the disabled body, another example of modernism's refusal to embrace the postmodern and posthuman. But what Morris is capturing is Hawking's own ambivalence, and ultimately discomfort, with these subject positions. "Cyborgs," says Donna Haraway, "do not re-member the cosmos," but Stephen Hawking has devoted his adult life to doing just that. 79 Indeed, Hawking has said that his research, which he calls playing "the game of the Universe," distracts him from thinking about his health. 80 Bringing to life the history of the universe and speculating about its fate is a way to avoid confronting the fate of his body. To celebrate fully his disabled, cybernetic identity would be, for Hawking, a surrender to the forces that his life and science have always regarded as other and have been dedicated to overcoming.
Stephen Hawking wrote A Brief History of Time because he wanted to communicate his excitement about modern cosmology and to make some money to pay for his children's schooling and his own nursing care. But making money meant selling books, and selling books meant becoming a participant in the world of modern celebrity-making and celebrity-marketing. That Hawking was disabled made his book easier to market than the many other books, before and since, on physics and cosmology, but its continuing success has surely more to do with the various and often competing cultural meanings into which "the Hawking story" taps and of which it has become iconic. For Stephen Hawking's ambivalences are, ultimately, his culture's as well. He offers up our own anxieties about technology's liberating possibilities and dehumanizing threats, about diversity's simultaneously communal and disruptive potential, about science's triumphant rationalism and bleak nihilism, about the media's role in the creation of a reality which we devour insatiably but of which we are suspicious--and perhaps most of all, about our confrontation with the postmodern call to cease seeing such things in terms of opposites and to revel instead in their complexities, contradictions, and indeterminancies. Embodying modernity's encounter with postmodernity, Hawking enacts both the fascination and the discomfort of modernity's reaction.