Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Symbolic Economies in the Virtual Classroom: Dead Poets and the Lawnmower Man

Posted on | November 4, 2021 | No Comments

The stark contrasts between the closed moral community of the preparatory Welton Academy in the Dead Poets Society (1989} and the emotional and intellectual capers of its new teacher Johnald “John” Charles Keating afford the opportunity to query the processes of energetic investments and signification in modernity’s educational spaces.

Likewise, the representation of educational subjectivity in The Lawnmower Man (1992 provides an ancillary contrast for exploring the technicalization of educational space. Particularly an interrogation of its operations on the body and its intellects could prove helpful in an analysis of the symbolic dynamics that operate in the “virtual classrooms.”[1] These are emerging through new multimedia communications technology and telecinematic simulation equipment.

This post examines two films that address the production of modern educational spaces and subjectivities. Through them we can begin to figure the symbolic and energetic configurations in the “virtual classroom” and other technological environments for learning and training. Note that this is from my PhD dissertation Symbolic Economies and the Politics of Global Cyberspaces (1993).

The boarding school’s repressed libidinous and spiritual “economies” invite a reading of The Dead Poets Society that focuses on socio-signifying practices. Notably, it figures the role of the teacher as what Goux termed a symbolic third. Drawing on his quest for a general economics based on symbolic energies, we can not only figure the teacher as representative of patriarchal but also logocentric significance. Like money, a condensation of value occurs that raises his position to the privileged subject and evaluator. Also, the chosen text rises to the select mode of signifying. Their role becomes the mediator and arbitrator of intellectual values and texts. Consequently, they develop a monopoly on the construction of facticity and truth.

The teacher, played by Robin Williams, is a “media event” in the sense that, by elaborating a series of emotionally and intellectually rich forms of signification, he disrupts the school’s anti-erotic sovereignties and traditional forms of educational worship. John Keating is a carefully constructed teacher-character who maintains a credible front to his peers while engaging his students in a series of revaluing exercises. His invoking the philosophy of “carpe diem,” for example, disrupts the ascetic delays of pleasure and self-gratification. Instead, these serve to channel emotional and intellectual investments into the subjectivities prescribed by the school’s bourgeois govern-mentality.

His unusual behavior and pedagogy invoke a curiosity in his students that addresses their subjugated desires and self-construction. His former pact with a secret society of self-proclaimed poets awakens their dormant dreams of social adventure and expressive identities. This secret knowledge, time-tested by the ancients of their alma mater, promises sexual conquest and alternative forms of imagination. “Spirits soared, women swooned, and gods were created.” By re-presenting literary classics of Shakespeare and Milton, but with the voice of macho film star and arch-American John Wayne, he distorts the distinctions between “high” and “low” cultures and encourages the dissolution of aesthetic boundaries that work to solidify not only class distinctions but the socio-symbolic rigidifications of emotional affect.

The reincarnated “Dead Poets Society” organize their meetings in a cave located off the campus in a nearby forest. There they read unauthorized poetry, smoke cigarettes, and mix with women – all the activities that are forbidden at the school. As Gebauer points out, the symbology of the cave has never been about the outside world, but about the inside one. “Our imagination remains captive in the cave. We do, in fact, repeatably seek out the cave in a different form.” Our ontology has its commencement in the topography of the cave and he points out: “In one way or another, all our notions of paradise are linked with situations of the cave.”[2] This is also the encapsulating trajectory of Virillio’s last vehicle.

However, Keating’s enthusiastic ideations soon conflict with other domains of symbolic controls, including the potent Oedipal dynamics that have proved to rein too tight a grip on one of his students. In his quest to act in a community play, the student goes against his father’s demands to cut down on his extracurricular activities, forges a permission slip, and performs the leading role of Buck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The father inadvertently discovers the disobedience and shows up at the play to observe. Despite the acclaim and evident success, he fiercely pulls his son away from the backstage party. After a confrontation at home, where among other things, the mother’s disappointment is invoked to punish the son, the son is forbidden to act again or at least until he goes on and finishes medical school. Faced with this paternal injunction, he takes his own life.

The death of the student presents a moral catastrophe that overpowers Keating’s privileged text of spontaneity and impunity. These are now recoded as degenerate improprieties and their “unproductive” forms of expenditure are tallied against the teacher as infractions within the Calvinistic ledgers of the schoolmasters. The conflicting father is able to easily organize the dismissal of the teacher.

As Keating collects his things from the classroom, the students respond by pledging their allegiance to the teacher and the teachings of the Dead Poets Society. They stand on top of their class desks and recite, “My captain, my captain,” from Walt Whitman’s 1865 tribute to the recently assassinated U.S. president Abraham Lincoln. With this they honor Keating’s role as their navigator through the uncharted course of adolescent squanderings and discoveries.

The Dead Poets Society reflects the profound symbolic and historic investments structuring traditional education and how the currency of the teacher can facilitate new types of energetic and intellective exchanges. What will occur in new virtual environments of the Metaverse? If educational space is to become cyberspace in a socially and politically responsive way, than it behooves us to mark its inception with at least one strategy that is sensitive to the “economies” which mediate and control its symbolic investments.

Suppose we view education as the inscription of subject sovereignties and the socialization of new moral and administrative subjectivities required by the post-industrial information society (“proto-sovereignties”). In that case, the virtual classroom presents an alluring new vehicle for liberating expressive capabilities, massaging sensory intelligences, and prescribing new competencies in terms of workplace requirements or prevailing art and intellectual practices.

The Dead Poets Society reflects the profound symbolic and historic investments structuring traditional education and how the currency of the teacher can facilitate new types of energetic and intellective exchanges.

An instructive approach has been taken up by writers developing a history of computer technology around the theme of the “military information society.”[4] They rightly point to the military’s significant influence on the development of computer-generated simulation environments and information technology in general. Noble, for example, writes about the militarization of learning and the production of what he calls “mental materiel.”[5]

The merging of educational technology and the cognitive sciences received its impetus from recognizing that behaviorist theory had reached diminishing returns. Technical advances in cognitive/instructional technology would be more fruitful.[5] This combination emerged metaphorically in popular culture as the ‘cyborg’ imagery. Machinery is directly implanted into the corporeality of the docile body or, in most cases, designed to interface effectively. Cognitive science since its beginnings has been the “science of the artificial,” with the production of prescribed mental processes modeled on computer procedures and systems foremost on its laboratorial agenda.[6]

The film Lawnmower Man presented a “cyberpunk” vision of the new technology. While the film has been criticized for its overbearing Frankensteinish narrative, its visual and technological settings drew from industry leaders and became a showcase for the potential of virtual reality VR technology. Its poster subheading, “Nature made him an idiot, science made him a god” allows us a foray into the disciplining aspect of the new technology.

Virtual reality uses computer-controlled 3-D graphics and an interactive environment which is oriented from a learner or viewer perspective and which tends to suspend the viewer’s belief that the environment is produced. In virtual reality, the body is encased in a computer-mediated and what Zuboff called an informated environment that continuously records performative data. The user wears a sensor-laden set of goggles and often gloves tied to a megacomputing system capable of tracking and responding to the movements and commands of the user. This system is still in the process of transformation and it is likely that the variety of user interfaces will be marketed and brought into use.

In this story, Dr. Angelo of Virtual Space Industries has major contracts with the US government to experiment with VR to produce better fighting and technology-competent soldiers. His initial work is with chimpanzees, who are fitted into a sensory bodysuit and helmet and hang suspended in a gyroscopic device that allows the body to turn 360 degrees in any direction. In combination with constant injections of vitamins and neurotropic drugs, the chimp is subjected to long training hours of fighting within various electronically simulated environments.

When Dr. Angelo’s chimp escapes and kills a guard, it is hunted down and killed. The investigator then turns to a human subject to continue his work “on the evolution of the human mind.” Jobe is a dim-witted ward of St. Anthony’s Church who makes his living caring for the church and mowing lawns, one of which belongs to Dr. Angelo. Cajoled by the doctor’s argument that he could become smarter and thus avoid “people taking advantage of him,” Jobe agrees to undergo some tests and participate in the VR training.

Unfortunately, the government liaison tampers with the serums and computer learning programs. He installs “Project Five” formulas that were designed to produce extreme forms of aggression for warfare. The continuous work on Jobe had originally transformed him into an attractive, socially graceful, and intelligent subject, but the new program transforms him into a symbolic authority figure and a despotic shaman. Through his electronically enhanced and meticulous training, Jobe becomes a “cyberchrist” and enters the world’s telecommunications networks with the promise that he will give us what we yearn for — a figurehead to lead us.

The Lawnmower Man counters the mythic tendency that VR is becoming a liberation technology, that it will soothe our souls and free our consciousness. Instead, it suggests VR’s trajectory is one of efficiency and training that presents its own positivities and productions. The movie lacks the moral subtlety that might have made it more successful. Still, it serves to pick up on some of the discourse that VR has fit into and exposes a large audience to questions regarding VR technology.

Educational “visionaries” are “tripping over themselves to transform the schools, unwittingly, into a staging ground for playing out militarized scenarios.”[7] Combined with the new imperatives of international capital, which has become totally dependent on the new information technologies, mechanized learning “becomes a site for the actual production of ‘mental materiel’ – for the design and manufacture of ‘intellectual capital.” Public education is implicated as both a laboratory and a site of legitimization for the new technical learning. A new “cognitivist agenda” was responding to the demands of corporations with “problem-solving” skills and the ability to interpret and construct “abstract symbolizations.”

The lessons of film analyses textualize both the romantic and disciplinary notions of education to inform contemporary circulations and ideations of educational policy and practice. A long tradition of involving the viewer in a cinematic experience of suspended belief has resulted in a rich body of textual interpretation that may be helpful for the analysis of virtual reality applications in educational spaces.


The Covid-19 era is giving VR new life due to the urgency of social distancing and the possibilities of technology. In Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games (2005), author Edward Castronova pointed to three trends transforming the gaming version of VR that are relevant to education. Most people associated VR with hardware: goggles, gloves, and other haptic devices. But the advancements in software and network protocols have given confidence to its developments; particularly, software engines like Unreal have accelerated speeds and increased resolution for both augmented and virtual reality. The other development was the enhancement of communities and collaboration. It’s not just about individuals, but individuals working together. Another is the development of commercial markets for virtual environments, items, and even avatars. Particularly with the Metaverse now the focus of corporations like Facebook and Nvidia, we are entering a wild west of virtual life.

Citation APA (7th Edition)

Pennings, A.J. (2021, Nov 04) Symbolic Economies in the Virtual Classroom: Dead Poets and the Lawnmower Man.



[1] Hiltz, R.S. (1986) “The Virtual Classroom,” Journal of Communication. Spring.
[2] Gebauer, G. (1989) “The Place of Beginning and End: Caves and Their Systems of Symbols,” In Kamper & Wulf (eds.) Looking Back on the End of the World. (NY: Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents Series). p. 28.
[3] See Chapter 5.
[4] Levidow, L. and Robins, K. (1989) Cyborg Worlds: The Military Information Society. (London: Free Association Books).
[5] Noble, D. D. (1989) “Mental Materiel: The Militarization of Learning and Intelligence in US Education,” in Levidow, L. and Robins, K. Cyborg Worlds: The Military Information Society. (London: Free Association Books). p. 22.
[6] Quote from H.A. Simon (1981) “Cognitive science: the newest science of the artificial,” in D.A. Norman, ed. Perspectives on Cognitive Science. (Hillsdale, NJ: Ablex/Erlbaum). pp. 13-25.
[7] Noble, D. D. (1989) “Mental Materiel: The Militarization of Learning and Intelligence in US Education,” in Levidow, L. and Robins, K. Cyborg Worlds: The Military Information Society. (London: Free Association Books). p. 35.
ibid, p, 34.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor at the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught in the Digital MBA program at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas. Most of his career was in New York at Marist College in New York for three years, and New York University for 10 years. His first academic position was at Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.


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