Variations Upon a Theme: Optimus Prime and the Mimetic Faculty

"OPTIMUS PRIME is the strong, wise and compassionate leader of the AUTOBOTS. Dedicated to protecting all life, he fights unceasingly to defeat the DECEPTICONS. Firmly believes in the ultimate righteousness of his mission, so he will willingly sacrifice himself to save the life of others. Carries a blaster rifle as well as the AUTOBOT Matrix of Leadership, an honor bestowed millions of years before his journey to Earth. A seasoned veteran and scholar, OPTIMUS PRIME is respected throughout the universe as a champion of peace."

"If he had been on Earth, he would be a doctor, a mechanic, a scientist and a warrior. But on Cybertron there is no difference between these professions. So Optimus uses his skills to heal and repair - which are the same things to Autobots - to improve the world around him and, if necessary, to fight. Both in power and intelligence, he has no equal. He has the personality of an Abraham Lincoln. He can be immensely kind and his compassion extends to all that lives, including the creatures of Earth. Yet he will battle unceasingly to protect the weak and defend what he believes in. To accomplish this, Optimus knows that the Decepticons must be defeated for all time."

(Sources: Back of Hasbro Optimus Prime toy box, 1984; and Marvel Comics character description, 1984)

"Nature creates similarities. One need only think of mimicry. The highest capacity for producing similarities, however, is man's. His gift of seeing resemblances is nothing other than a rudiment of the powerful compulsion in former times to become and behave like something else. Perhaps there is none of his higher functions in which his mimetic faculty does not play a decisive role."

(Source: Walter Benjamin, "On the Mimetic Faculty," Reflections, page 333)

National Guardsman Changed His Name to a Toy

A member of Ohio's 5694th National Guard Unit in Mansfield legally changed his name to a Transformers toy.

Optimus Prime is heading out to the Middle East with his guard unit on Wednesday to provide fire protection for airfields under combat.

"On Sunday, we were announced as the best firefighting unit in the Army National Guard in the entire country," said Prime. "That was a big moment for us."

Prime took his name from the leader of the Autobots Transformers, which were popular toys and a children's cartoon in the 1980s.

He legally changed his name on his 30th birthday and now it's on everything from his driver's license, to his military ID, to his uniform.

"They razzed me for three months to no end," said Prime. "They really dug into me about it."
Prime says the toy actually filled a void in his life when it came out.

"My dad passed away the year before and I didn't have anybody really around, so I really latched onto him when I was a kid," he said.

(Source: Vic Gideon, WKYC NBC News, March 19, 2003)

"What is transformation, if not mastery over fate's mastery?"

(Source: Michael Taussig, Defacement, page 242)

Variations Upon a Theme (I), vector file, Michael Demers

Optimus Prime, the heroic leader of the Autobots, alien robots capable of transforming themselves between sentient machination and familiar object, waging war against the evil Decepticons who too don the attire of mimesis in a grand struggle spanning millennia and galaxies...

But what is it about the myth of this particular character, Optimus Prime, which enchants so to the point of taking his name? Why is Optimus Prime fascinating enough to warrant 20 years of his existence as a popular and profitable toy, with nearly 60 variations to his name? What type of strange magic has occurred, by which an arrangement of molded plastic and screws, stickers and paint, has itself "transformed," as Taussig says, giving itself "mastery over fate's mastery?" (1999).

In 1984, Hasbro and Takara, two related toy companies based in the United States and Japan (respectively), released a joint venture first generation of transforming robot machines - The Transformers. The line included an array of figures, armies of the "Heroic Autobots" and "Evil Decepticons," which, when manipulated by bending the different parts of their "bodies" into specific positions, changed from looking like humanoid robots (with arms, legs, hands, faces with eyes, etc.) to looking like various machines or objects.

Of all the initial toys/characters, the one of central importance here is Optimus Prime. The leader of the Autobots, it/he changed from "robot" to "semi-truck" with "trailer," a Kenworth K Series cab-over-engine type (though it/he was never referred to as such - it would take 20 years for the Transformers to merge with the corporate world to produce robots capable of changing into Dodge Vipers, Mazda RX-7s and Jeep Wranglers). According to his bio, Optimus Prime was "strong, wise and compassionate," who held in his chest the Leadership Matrix, a magical construction which, in essence, made Optimus Prime the type of leader he was (read: his authority and the respect he warranted via his authority). Handed down to outstanding Autobots for millennia, the Matrix of Leadership was, perhaps more than any other element or attribute, the thing which separated Optimus Prime from the other Autobots. This was no accident. If we view the Matrix of Leadership as a type of Maussain mana unit, we see that the prestige and honor accorded Optimus Prime is derivative of his having the character to carry the passed-down Matrix while at the same time has his character invigorated by the act of being the bearer of the Matrix. "The Polynesian word mana," writes Marcel Mauss, "itself symbolizes not only the magical force in every creature, but also his honour, and one of the best translations of the word is 'authority,' 'wealth'" (1990 edition). Just as the physical toy demands the character applied to it to function, so does Optimus Prime rely on this character to supply him with the Matrix which in turn supplies him with his character. This mutual dependence and inability to account for one without the other sets the mythology apart as a thing which, in essence, has no beginning or end - it is as it always was, in a way, disallowing for any entrée for us to be a part of the same mythology (as we come late to the party). The only way for us to have a piece of this myth is to buy the physical representation of it in the form of the toy - the toy which, not coincidentally, will require the myth of the character to function as a profitable object, just as the myth will require the object so that it has something concrete to apply itself to. Like the snake with its tail in its mouth, no real beginning or end, just a muddled point of entry.

Later that year, 1984, the myth component was introduced as the Transformers toys were given explicit character and personality when Rhino Video released "The Transformers" cartoon and Marvel Comics released its monthly edition of the same name. Because of the cartoons and comic books, for the first time these molded pieces of plastic had more than a subjective reading of character traits from the backs of the toy boxes to aid in the formulation of their thoughts and actions. As a nine-year old in 1984, I remember my own attempts to replicate the voices ascribed to the toys via the cartoons. I remember playing with friends, being told and in turn telling that Optimus Prime would not attack Megatron from behind, he just would not do that - and we all understood why, though not necessarily why we understood. The cartoons and comic books had shown us how these toys talked, how they acted, what phrases they favored (Optimus Prime: "Autobots, roll out!"). Without these directions, the toys were individual pieces of interest. Alliances between factions and ways of enacting epic battles were, in a sense, impossible. Play, with these directions, became a larger, more complex and organized event - an event which encouraged and even necessitated the further (and continued) purchase of other characters. In a manner of a consumptive self-organizing system, the exhibition of affluence via acquired knowledge necessitated the further consumption of the physical product (this notion of affluence in knowledge follows those as described by Jean Baudrillard when he addresses the "man who drives the 2CV" who "no longer bedazzles" with his expensive purchase: "What he does is more subtle: he super-differentiates himself, super-distinguishes himself by the manner of consuming, by style. He maintains his privilege absolutely by moving from conspicuous to discreet, super-conspicuous, consumption, by moving from quantitative ostentation to distinction, from money to culture." [1998 edition])

Herein lays a vitally important shift, perhaps the key to understanding the phenomenon: Optimus Prime, the toy, is an arrangement of plastic and metal. It is an object which looks like a "semi truck," looks like a "robot." It is an "it," not a "he." Optimus Prime, the character, is a "he." He is an ephemeral non-entity, a myth, in that he is not "real," though he does change into a vehicle, he is a robot, he is the heroic leader of the Autobots. Throughout this exercise, I take careful aim to keep these two, where and when possible, clearly separated. For it is in the act of joining the two distinct "things" together, the "it" and the "he," that the final "transformation" in all of this occurs. This is the magic, and the rub, in that these two mutually dependent aspects come together so easily.

Variations Upon a Theme (I), vector file, Michael Demers

Hasbro, Takara, Rhino and Marvel all parlayed their individual investments into a larger structure through which they all mutually benefited. But that first generation of Transformer was just the start. Transformers: Generation One was followed by Generation Two, then the Headmasters/Powermasters line, the Machine Wars, Robots in Disguise, Beast Wars, Beast Wars II, Beast Wars Neo, the Beast Machines, Transformers: Armada, Transformers: Energon, and most currently Transformers: Universe [note that the Japanese versions of these generations are titled differently, but engage with the same characters. In fact, the early cartoons were produced in the United States and dubbed in Japan; the more recent cartoons the opposite. The toys are based on the same molds, with a very slight degree of coloration change due to difference in production methods]. Roughly every two years since 1984 the Transformers line has undergone its own transformation. Though not always extreme, each series has spawned its own new set of characters via new toys, new cartoons, new comics, etc. Yet over those 20 years, one thing has remained consistent: Optimus Prime as the leader of the Autobots. Many of the other players in the Transformers franchise have slipped in and out of the different editions, with Optimus Prime being the one consistent character.

And for the most part, Optimus Prime has remained some variant of a semi truck with trailer. During the Generation Two era, he went from resembling a Kenworth cab-over-engine type rig (of which the toy exhibited four different types of "truck," with ten color variations) to a Peterbilt long bonnet model (two different types, four color variations). In the Armada line he resembled more of a hybrid between semi- and monster-truck (eight different types, eight color variations). In Energon, the look of his truck form became more futuristic (for a total of three different styles - one type, two color variations and one significant change in size). Optimus Prime has also found form, though briefly, in a fire truck (twice), a small red car (just once), and a military dump truck (also, just once).

A difficult issue arises when we attempt to understand the importance of the semi truck in relation to Optimus Prime. Though Hasbro/Takara's reasons are unclear (nothing has ever been released concerning decisions in making specific robots specific objects), we might wonder if the choice of semi truck has anything to do with the popularity of late 1970s, early 1980s trucking culture (as exhibited in television shows like B.J. and the Bear or the series of Smokey and the Bandit movies). This theory might carry more weight were there more Transformers toys who utilized the semi truck as its variant form - however, this is not the case.

Instead, we are left to ponder the significance, not the decision, of the semi truck. If we step away to look at the toy itself (or toys in general), it is not difficult to see that these objects are first and foremost commodities made for consumption. Capital requires constant shifts in geographical space and consistent innovation in the methods of shifting in order to function at peak capacity. As David Harvey states, "Turnpikes, canals, railroads, electric power, the automobile, and air and jet transport have progressively liberated the movements of commodities and people from the constraints of the friction of distance" (2000). We could easily add the semi truck to the list.

Stepping back in, what we are presented with is a commodity posing as a toy posing as a robot posing as the ultimate mover of commodity, the semi truck - a multiplied version of mimesis, indeed - but not a satisfactory explanation to our initial enquiry. For that, we will have to look further at the character's other versions.

During the Beast Wars and Beast Machines eras, Optimus Prime was primarily some version of gorilla (six different types, with 14 different color variations total). He was also a bat (three color variations), a wooly mammoth (two color variations), and a lion (four color variations). Though these forms are not as commonly recognized as Optimus Prime - in fact, in these lines he went by the name Optimus Primal - all of the characteristics of the heroic leader, including the Matrix of Leadership, remain.

A quick note should be included regarding the "type" and "color variation" indications I've given. Taking the Headmasters/Powermasters version of the Optimus Prime toy as an example, we see that during that era the toy was one type (made from one mold) of "semi truck" (a Kenworth-type, derivative of the first Optimus Prime toy), but that there were three color variations available to it (the standard Optimus Prime - red, blue and silver; Nucleon Quest Optimus Prime -a black and silver model; and Fire Guts God Ginrai Optimus Prime - a red and orange variant), all released at roughly the same time. The importance here is that the three different color variations of this particular Optimus Prime toy were given three distinct characters - though they were all still Optimus Prime - and by way of mythologizing them, these three "different" Optimus Prime toys became necessary elements and necessary characters, to both the play- and collection-of the toys and the engagement with the myth that is the character. This further illustration of mutual interdependence is why, in the preceding paragraphs, I refer to the types and colors of Optimus Prime as both a toy and a character. In fact, there is not a single variant of any of the Optimus Prime toys that does not have some type of story or character-related justification for being. The mutual interdependence of Optimus Prime's constituent parts disallows such possibilities.

But for all of the confusion regarding the different types, color variations, eras, and lineages, and the apparent lack of interest for the entire Beast Wars line (as compared to the robot-to-vehicle/object sort, the robot-to-animal idea occupied about five of those 20 years), there may be something revealing about Optimus Prime as Optimus Primal.

Variations Upon a Theme (I), vector file, Michael Demers

We can see that when it comes to comparing this gorilla-self to his other animal selves, the gorilla (like the semi) is well into the majority of forms (five different types of gorilla, compared to one bat, one mammoth and one lion). Is there a key to this animal, above all others, that may shed more light on what Optimus Prime means to us?

Here we reintroduce Benjamin, with his statement that "The highest capacity for producing man's. His gift of seeing resemblances is nothing other than a rudiment of the powerful compulsion in former time to become and behave like something else" [my emphasis] (1986 edition). And we reintroduce the Ohio National Guardsman's story as well. For what was this soldier doing when he legally changed his name to "Optimus Prime," if not, at the core of the issue, producing a similarity of myth within himself, transforming himself into Optimus Prime who in his turn transforms himself, from robot to semi truck to fire truck to gorilla to wooly mammoth to a shimmering sliver and gold "Flash Lioconvoy" who, by his own act of transformation, multiple transformations over the millennia, becomes as he had always been, the hero?

"Become and behave," says Benjamin. There must be more than a name to compel the National Guardsman, there must be an aspect of the Optimus Prime mythology that he found strength or solace in. For in his heart, Optimus Prime of Ohio must know that he has not truly undergone that divine transformation, that his skin is not silver, not bulletproof. Optimus Prime of Ohio believed in the Optimus Prime of Cybertron, believed in the myth, and not only related to the character of Optimus Prime (even if only because he needed to relate to the character), but was found "producing similarities."

Has Optimus Prime of Ohio found his nahual? As Taussig explains, "...nahual as related to the word for 'disguise' in the Nahuatl Indian language, nahual as the animal or meteorological 'familiar' or 'co-essence'..." (1999). But what if the "animal" familiar is not an "animal," per say, but a "robot?" Or, can we now return to Optimus Primal's gorilla form? For by now I think it has become clear that the National Guardsman has in fact enacted a "disguise" for himself - a "disguise" in that he is not something other than what he was before, but instead appears (if only to himself) to be other.

As we picture the National Guardsman, Optimus Prime, shipping overseas, going into battle, we once again hear Taussig's question: "What is transformation, if not mastery over fate's mastery?"

All of this requires an entrée to the transformation, turning into the disguise, a degree of viewed similarity between the thing becoming and oneself. Just as the purchase and enacted play of the toys allows for entrance to the world of the myth, so do the perceived parallels between robot-man-gorilla.

Gorilla. The most prominent animal of all the Optimus Primal versions.

"What are we to make," asks Taussig, "of the nature of the transformation between person and animal or, to put the question more accurately, of the double figure of person-animal represented by nahual?" (1999).

Looking for an entrance to the mythology that is Optimus Prime, in an attempt to transform oneself, we are left with few possibilities. Play with the toy, engage both the molded plastic body and the ephemeral mythology that is the character, making oneself part of a process that does not need you, but that does not exist until you actualize it. Alternatively, realize the similarities between form, note how human the robot looks, with his arms, feet, mouth. Yet for all of that, he is still steel, still hard, and still cold.

But something is happening - the robot's chest has just risen up, inverting itself. The shoulders have collapsed onto the arms, the lower body has just twisted around. What was once cold metal is now lush, dark hair! The robot's mechanical head has been replaced by a fleshy mouth, round, clear eyes! The bulky digits of the hands have been replaced by soft, long fingers... The robot, now gorilla, now so very close to human, closer than ever before... The distance standing between similarity and dissimilarity has been reduced to a thin, blurry line. We've moved from a relationship based on carbon-composition to one in which we share many of the same genes...

Gorilla. The most prominent animal of all the Optimus Primal versions, the one which most easily allows for the completion of the mimetic process of delineating associations. Our "gift of seeing resemblances" has come through in the clutch aided, in no small part, by Hasbro and Takara.

Would Optimus Prime of Ohio have been able to take upon himself the mantle, or commune with his nahual were Optimus Prime not a humanoid robot? How much easier is the transformation when his alter ego is predicated upon something closer to his natural constitution? These are tricky questions, not least because of Taussig's warning: "The concept of the nahual is confusing and we are advised to proceed with caution and not mistake the word for reality" (1999). Back to the rub, this is what makes the entire phenomenon so interesting - for we aren't really talking about "reality," other than the physical properties of the molded plastic which comprises the Optimus Prime toy. The other half of the equation is found in a strange netherworld of "unreality," whatever that term means, in which the stories are generated and then applied to the concrete objects in front of us, through which the actualization of the entire process unfolds. "But how could such a concept not be confusing," asks Taussig, "for surely this is its point" (1999). Indeed. If we were to stop and think about the strange, magical and manipulative way in which the two parts of the Optimus Prime equation function (interdependent plastic object and ephemeral myth), could we ever look at toys as innocent and fun again? How tempting would it be to banish the toy to the back of the closet, facing the wall so as not allowing it to watch you, thrown between the Ouija board and other types of supernatural creepy thing?

Variations Upon a Theme (I), vector file, Michael Demers

Yet for all of this, the form of the semi truck (especially the first model, as it will become the standard by which subsequent editions will be based) deserves closer attention. Though the aspect of semi truck should not, as stated prior, be taken as a key to unlocking the questions we've encountered thus far, there are still important aspects to how this toy looks when in "robot" and "truck" modes. I am speaking here to the more "human" looking aspect of this object, an aspect that the "gorilla" form of the toy operated through, and at the same time I wish to illustrate how issues of consistency in form and shape over the years have added to the myth that has been generated for the toy and the character.

When the very first Optimus Prime toy is in "robot" mode, it stands approximately six inches tall. The upper "body" is made of plastic and die-cast metal, and is painted red. There are "smokestacks" on both of the outer "arms," and blue plastic "fists" that fit into the ends of the "arms." The "head," in blue and silver with yellow "eyes," sits centered on the top of the boxy "body." The "legs" extend down from the "torso," on two silver plastic beams, and extend further down in blue plastic, with the "feet" being folded out extensions of the "legs." Two "gas tanks" are found on either side of the outer "thigh" area. That this object can be turned into a "truck" is made more evident by the visible "tires" on the outer "legs" (four), and the "tires" mounted to the side of the object's "hip" area. But the most striking feature (and, second to the way the "head" and "face" are constructed, most consistent aspect to the look of the toys) are the "chest" and "stomach" sections. This is clearly the easiest area to recognize as "semi truck," with the "robot" "chest" being the "cab" and "window" sections of the "truck," its "stomach" area the "grille," and below that a silver "bumper," ending at the lower "torso."

Changing the "robot" into the "semi truck" is, compared to later models, relatively simple. The "head" is folded back into the hollow "cab" of the "truck." The "arms" are bent back (think of trying to make one's shoulder blades touch), with the "forearms" folding forward, tucking into the cavity around the "rib" area (with one's shoulder blades touching, think of bring your forearms back in and forward to rest above your hips). The blue plastic "fists" come out of the ends of the "arms," and reveal holes as "headlights." The "legs" simply bend back (think of sitting down in a chair, but with your legs bending in the hip socket in the opposite direction), and the "feet" fold back parallel to the "legs," leaving an unobstructed path for the "tires" on the "legs" (now the back part of the "truck," where the "trailer" attaches) and on the "torso" area (now the "cab" of the "truck").

As just mentioned, the striking elements of consistency between the numerous forms and versions of Optimus Prime/Primal over the years have been in his head and chest area. The head can best be described as thus: A large blue "helmet" surrounds the top, sides and back of the "head." Two large antenna-like structures rise from either side, attaching to two round and protruding headphone-like areas. There is a silver crest on the "forehead" area, smaller at the top and growing larger toward the bottom where it meets at the yellow "eyes." The "eyes" and the structure they sit on (what would be the "face") are set back from the "helmet," with a silver angular face-plate type shield in front of what would be the "mouth."

This look, with very slight deviations in the length of the side antenna, width of mouth shield and/or mouth in mouth shield, length or width of the forehead crest, and shape of the eyes, pertains to an overwhelming 54 of the 60 different Optimus Prime/Primal versions. The chest and abdomen structure (truck cab windows and grille), again with very slight deviation in overall shape, pertains to 40 of the 60.

And this consistency is most striking: even when the physical transformation via manual manipulation of the Optimus Prime toy from "robot" to "semi truck" changes (as it does between generations, for example), with the "chest" being the "cab" in some cases, or the "feet" and "legs" forming the "cab" in others - even when what will be the "robot chest" is, in "truck" mode, the "truck undercarriage," the "robot chest" still looks like the "cab" of "semi truck," when it isn't really the "cab" of the "semi truck" anyway - in which cases a retooling of the model for the toy includes faux "window" and "grille" areas. In other instances the standard look of the "windows" and "grille" are nothing more than stickers. In these events, the toy actually has two sets of "cab windows" and two sets of "grille."

Again, why all this trouble to keep Optimus Prime looking the same, all while deliberately trying to make him look constantly different?

Franz Boas and A.L. Kroeber both remark about a two-tier system to objects, wherein a conventional form is altered, by which the object changes in appearance. Though both thinkers took different approaches to understanding this phenomenon (and differed in who or what they saw doing the altering to the conventional form), the idea of a two-tier system of object-ness is mutually shared (see Boas, The Principles of Ethnological Classification and Kroeber, Three Centuries of Women's Dress Fashions: A Quantitative Analysis).

In our study of Optimus Prime, we see the two-tiers in action: The conventional form (the "robot" to "vehicle" or "animal") is changed roughly every two years, with size, shape and color adjustments. The interesting aspect to this two-tiered system is not (in this case) the change, but rather what remains constant, the conventional form. Whereas Kroeber studied fashion spanning 300 years while indicating that "sociological stress and unsettlement seem to produce fashion strain and instability" (1940) (read: the Revolutionary War, the Napoleonic Wars and World War I as possible explanations for shifts in fashion), a similar exploration of global duress relative to the many forms of Optimus Prime would fail. Inherent differences in the secondary functions of the two commodities, clothing and toys, is one problem. Having 20 years worth of data (as opposed to Kroeber's 300) is another. However, if we seek to relate the structural component of Optimus Prime to the myth of Optimus Prime, it becomes apparent that the conventional form and its aspect of consistency provide a reliable, stable foundation on which to build the second-tier. In other words, Optimus Prime may change his look from time to time, but he is still, in the end as in the beginning, Optimus Prime. And perhaps this stability in the character and myth of Optimus Prime continues to aid the National Guardsman...

But what about that face?

Variations Upon a Theme (I), vector file, Michael Demers

Certainly the issue of stability as found in the conventional form of the Optimus Prime "head" aids in maintaining the established character of the myth. The second-tier is still constantly acted upon (by forces this study has not found), but essentially the consistency of the "head" serves the same purpose as that of the "chest." Yet the very fact that this "robot" has a humanoid "head," and that it so resembles a person wearing a helmet, may be of paramount importance.

If we do, as Benjamin has repeatedly told us, seek to form similarities - and if our analysis of the importance of Optimus Primal as gorilla has any merit - then would not the relationship (real or assumed) between his face and ours allow for the final step in our own process of mimetic transformation? For isn't that what playing with the toys is really all about? Becoming Optimus Prime to play Optimus Prime? Need this even be said for the National Guardsman?

Is it as Taussig says? "It is the face of transformation - not of animals into men but of double-men, transforming men, whose metamorphosing capacities are established through zoomorphic physiognomics". "Why double-men?" Taussig asks. He answers, "They are the sign of prehistory..." (1999).

Once again we are forced to consider the cyclical, never-ending-never-beginning nature of the phenomenon and the magic it entails. Optimus Prime with the Matrix of Leadership, handed down to him from before time, waging a war against the Evil Decepticons since prehistory, always changing yet always remaining the same. Like the snake with its tail in its mouth, one muddled point of entry.

And the magic of it all, the seamless merging of plastic and myth, the mutually dependent relationship between those mutually dependent parts and the consumer of that sum, finding themselves in a strange nether-world where a physical reality is negated for an ephemeral one, willingly making that leap of faith into the comfortable-and-unknown.

And then the real magic: all of the elements in all of the equations which go into making Optimus Prime the "thing" that it/he is, working in the same manner - just as they are worked upon in the same manner - on both the player of the toy and the National Guardsman from Ohio, the believers of the myth and the magicians alike, each undergoing their own transformations.