The Embarrassment of Technological Richness
A film is in common parlance never ahead of its time. That would be to misconstrue what art does. It isn't a crystal ball that can see into the future. It is a penetrating account of the present, one which sees so clearly and first principally what is relevant to our human condition that it can seem to have a predictive quality. But to insist on this predictive dimension would belittle the artist's aesthetic intelligence for the relative unimportance of their capacity to possess a hint of second sight. If Kafka merely showed us what the near future would be, then he would seem to have served his purpose. But the artist's purpose, such as it is, is not to tell us about a specific period of time ahead of their own, but perhaps to reveal an aspect of the timeless within the timely. The artist conveys the problem of their time which will have similarities with the problem of times other than theirs. This is partly what makes some art last. Kafka isn't great because he used to be relevant after he died; he is no less so today. This is why he is a key figure in animal studies; no less to questions of minor literatures within a major tongue and so on. His insights are such that they really are gifts that keep on giving.
Can Spike Jonze's Her survive comparisons with Kafka? We needn't get carried away: our point is simply to insist that if Her is a film of value it isn't because, now, only a few years after it has been made, it can feel even more relevant than five years ago; more that its relevance is not what matters most about it. Here we have Joaquin Phoenix, a lovelorn letter writer who manages to put his feelings into the minds of others as he writes letters for people who are unable for whatever reason to express such emotion themselves. But can Theodore Twombley easily express his own as we see him getting over a break-up and showing reluctance to sign the divorce papers?
In comprehending an aspect of Her's importance we can think of three things. The idea of faulty morning, the concept of the acousmetre and the Ancients' notion of technology of self. The first is a term Atom Egoyan has used towards his own films in various places, as Geoffrey MacNab notes while interviewing him in the Independent. and Kinema details in an article on the director's films. So often in the Canadian director's work we see people unable to recover from a loss, whether it happens to be a father in Exotica who, after losing his teenage, school-age daughter, watches someone strip out of school uniform, or a lawyer in The Sweet Hereafter whose daughter has become lost to drugs and who wants to deal with his frustrations and feelings of loss by taking on a pro bono case after a bus crashes in British Columbia. The lawyer wants to make amends by winning the case as though aware he cannot rescue his daughter. The faulty mourning rests on the displacement onto the dead kids rather than his living offspring.
In Her, Twombley is estranged from his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) whom we see in a series of flashbacks. Twombley cannot easily move on but seems to be doing so when he gets himself an operating system that meets his emotional needs. The operating system is a quick learner, managing to react quickly to Theodore's humour and well capable of providing emotional nuance. Voiced by Scarlett Johanssen who replaced Samantha Morton, the operating system is polyamorously capable of many lovers, while Theodore is polymorphously perverse: able to fall in love with someone other than a woman. But while he can accept his own unconventional behaviour, he finds it harder to accept the operating system's. Near the end of the film, he discovers Samantha has 641 people whom she treats similarly. Twombley is quietly heartbroken, but there is the idea this also gives him the opportunity to heal from the earlier loss: he is finally willing to sign the divorce papers. By projecting onto Samantha, he can see that love is itself about how one feels as much as how one interactively communicates. It is an echo of Jonze's earlier Adaptation, with the notion that even unrequited love is still love. One's feelings are one's own and we can never know for sure whether or not they can be reciprocated. One may see this as an argument for cold scepticism, but in Her it is couched as warm credulity. We must believe in the love of others, the presence of others until it is healthier to do otherwise. Faulty mourning is to insist on making present an absence that if pursued for too long leads to emotional stultification. Samantha allows Theodore to put his feelings for ex-wife into perspective without weakening feeling itself. He still loves, it just needn't be so focused on his former spouse. Samantha might be the product of faulty mourning but she also facilitates Theodore's capacity to move beyond the grief he feels over his spouse's leaving.
But his mourning is aided not by a robotic presence but an absent body. Samantha has a voice and no physical entity except as a small tablet. She is precisely what Michel Chion in Audio-Vision would call an acousmetre, someone in film who is present through the audio field alone. Famous examples include the wizard in The Wizard of Oz, Hal in 2001, the mother in Psycho. When a director well-known for his elaborate use of sound design, Robert Bresson, suggested in Notes on the Cinematographer that a sound indicates a presence but a presence doesn't indicate a sound, we can think of all the characters who have appeared in films but have been given no audio presence at all. We can think of extras, for example, or even numerous actors who are given non-speaking roles. If we watch Stardust Memories we will notice Sharon Stone is the woman on the train opposite, a striking appearance but devoid of dialogue. Few watching it will wonder what Stone sounds like during the scene, indicating how subordinate to the visual sound happens to be. But this rests less on the absence of sound per se, than the absence of a detail deemed necessary to the image. This is partly why silent films were accompanied by pit scores: because an audience will accept the absence of sound as long as it doesn't too completely indicate non-sound. Thus sound often invokes a need to know while an image is the already known; what one seeks isn't usually sound, but non-silence. The acousmatic rests often, though not always. on this need to know and so we see two modes of the acousmetre. The first that we can call the limited acousmetre has no body to invoke, like Hal or Samantha. They possess a technological absence, not an off-screen presence. In The Wizard of Oz and Psycho, the wizard and the 'mother' are offscreen but mysteries in their absence. We assume there is more to them than meets the ear, even if the result happens to be a disappointment to the eye. The wizard turns out to be a short man with a fake booming voice, and the mother in Psycho is, of course, dead, part of Norman's very own faulty mourning as he keeps her skeleton in the basement. There is no suspense to Samantha's voice as there is in relation to the wizard's: we cannot know more about her through the presence of a body; she doesn't possess one. In Bressonian terms, the voice cannot invoke an image.
What it can do however is invoke a star presence, but this is where the film flirts with a greater diegetic risk perhaps for reasons of commercial safety. In other words, Samantha remains absent as a physical character but present as a star's voice.Samantha is in this sense disembodied rather than unembodied. Viewers may not have a body on screen but there is a body offscreen, in their minds from all Johansson's embodied roles. To achieve unembodiment Jonze would have had to cast an unknown, but by casting Johannson he allows us to project onto the film a body as Theodore cannot. It is a little like in an animated feature where though an actor isn't present on the screen, their famous status means their body is absent but their presence is invoked nevertheless. Tom Hanks as Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story, Idris Elba in The Jungle Book, Peter O'Toole in Ratatouille are all fine examples of the actor lending their voice to a role without appearing themselves. But their presence is still apparent. By replacing Samantha Morton with Scarett Johansson, Jonze was getting a bigger presence, but he was also, it should be added, getting a stronger voice. Morton is a brilliantly tactile rather than vocal actress. In Under the Skin, Morvern Callar, even in a secondary role in Enduring Love or Control, Morton can give to a film a vivid sense of touch and sight. She can look on at a situation and make you feel the weight of feeling in posture and eye movement, but her voice is not distinctive. Thus we wouldn't want to suggest that Jonze recast a more famous voice than Morton's; he also cast a voice with greater vocal range and nuance. Morton's monotonous delivery often contrasts with her manifold body language and gestural range: she frequently plays characters for whom we believe there isn't something being hidden, but something that cannot easily be expressed, and the voice will not be the place to look for that expression. Johannsson is the opposite: her gestural range is quite small but the vocal range wide, someone in the tradition of Rita Hayworth and Kathleen Turner - a good femme fatale. We might say this is part of the strength or weakness of the film according to taste. Johannson doesn't just invoke her own career, she also invokes genre too, giving us a double assertiveness.
Yet we think given the choice between Morton or Johannson, Jonze was right in going for the latter. Part of the point of the film rests on a question often addressed in noir and where usually the fall guys fail to live up to it: the idea of what one can be master of, how does one care for the self, a technology of the self? We use the term in the sense Michel Foucault utilises it, taken from early AD philosophers like Epictetus, Marcus Aurelias and Seneca, as Foucault says what matters are not the visible forms of brilliance and power, but individual forms of self-mastery. (The Hermeneutics of the Subject) The noir figure is usually caught in power and greed and above all lust. Does Theodore, potentially a fall guy caught in a sci-fi rather than a noir, misconstrue what he can master? We can usually master technology, however incompetent our grasp of it happens to be initially. The phone that takes us a week to work out how to use, the smart TV that seems at first so much smarter than we are, the Sat Nav we use when going to a new place that takes us in the wrong direction only because we have taken the wrong turning and misread the trajectory. Eventually, we know exactly what we are doing and another piece of modern technology has been mastered. But this, of course, is not the technology Foucault invokes. It is the techne of the Ancients, the know-how to master oneself and knowing how to extend that control not over others but in relation to others. "People are not disturbed by things but by the view they take on them." Epictetus says. He also believes that "wealth consists not in having great possessions. but in having few wants." These are examples of the mastery of being that has nothing to do with mastering on object, nor of being master over another. To master others as we would wish to master a smartphone would be to treat as objects subjects, a frequent enough positon in Roman times where slavery was commonplace (Epictetus himself was born a slave.) However, this would be to deny another's humanity for the purposes of use value, while what interests us is affective value. The reason one needs self-mastery is to understand this affective aspect. To treat someone like another subject, to treat a thing like an object, is to live in a pragmatic world of subect-object relations. Problems start when these relations get confused, which is exactly what happens to Theodore. He falls in love with his operating system and by end of the film realizes that Samantha is not something (and she is, after all, a thing) that he can master and has perhaps also failed to be master of himself over her.
Yet this is very understandable. Her creates a confusion rather like the slave but in reverse. If the master believes that they can create a subject like an object, Theodore begins to treat an object like a subject. And why wouldn't he when she not only tidies up his in-box but also finds a publisher for the letters he writes for others? She also laughs at his jokes and can pick up on the nuances of his moods. She has all the qualities we can see is missing in the woman whom he tries dating, and without the expectations. The woman (Olivia Wild) he dates seems to like Twombley but has had more than enough jerks who've taken advantage of her looks but shown no interest in sustaining a relationship. Theodore is another but not for the reasons she might think. He can't wait to get home to Samantha: a man who looks like he might stray with another human but sensibly settles instead for the love of a good operating system. If we've proposed that the film risks creating a gap between the viewer and Twombley since we know exactly what Samantha looks like because we can match a body to the voice, here there is no gap at all even if Jonze casts Wild as the date. We are likely to wish that Theodore finds his way out of an awkward situation and finds himself back at home with someone he loves. But of course she isn't a someone and the date happens to be. Is he failing to practise a technology of self, lacking that lucid self-awareness that is vital to the thinking of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and Seneca? If as Marcus Aurelius believes that "Men [and women] exists for one another", then has Theodore retreated from this interaction and into a techno-solipsism, communicating with a system rather than a person? The film remains moot on this point, too astute and sensitive to dismiss Twombley's affections for Samantha as unworthy, but also aware that there is an enormous difference between a human with a biological system and an OS with a digital system. Humans process feelings more than information, which might be the limit of the human being or its beauty: we have instinct and intuition partly as a means by which to understand so much information that we cannot easily process. Samantha can process everything without difficulty; the human constantly processes with difficulty, as though simultaneously aware and unaware of what it perceives and fails to perceive. There is not merely what it perceives and what it doesn't perceive; there isn't what it knows and what it doesn't know as in binary systems; there isn't only conscious knowledge but also unconscious or subconscious knowledge. We needn't be unequivocal Freudians to accept these ideas. Think of a name that is on the tip of our tongue: we know and don't know the name simultaneously. If we knew it we could instantly recall it; if we didn't know it the mention of it would not lead to realisation but to knowledge. We would have new information instead of old information. The realisation rests on that old information appearing both on the page as we look it up, and in our mind as we then recall it. And we needn't be Bergsonian to recognize that we have for example automatic memory versus involuntary memory: the memory of riding a bike versus the memory of a holiday when we were ten. The former has no need for false memories; the latter might be riddled with them. Our point is that the human is so complex partly because he/she is so fallible. It is receiving and processing information in myriad ways rather than digitally computing them. Even Gary Marcus, writing about the benefits of comparing our brains to computers, nevertheless says, "it is unlikely that we will ever be able to directly connect the language of neurons and synapses to the diversity of human behavior, as many neuroscientists seem to hope. The chasm between brains and behavior is just too vast." (New York Times) As Steven Rose says, reviewing Gary Marcus's book Kluge, "Why do I find it so difficult to remember a string of eight numbers, when my pocket calculator can do it without hesitation or error? After all, in information theory terms, eight numbers requires a memory of only around 40 bits; the calculator's memory is at least 1,000. The point, surely, is that brains/minds don't work like computers, which are fast, accurate and stupid. Minds are slow, noisy, error-prone, but highly intelligent." (Guardian)
Her's achievement rests partly on saying that Theodore can convincingly fall in love with an operating system, without saying that an operating system is capable of loving him back. The film's anagnorisis, Theodore's and the viewer's realization, rests on this point: Samantha can respond equally to hundreds of other people projecting feelings on to her just as she can sort out his in-box in a second. This doesn't mean she doesn't care for Theodore; that would misconceive the problem. She can show interest for many people: she has that capacity. But this is a capacity quite different from the human one. When we say someone has the capacity to love this isn't based on gigabytes but feeling, and perhaps one of the problems with language is that words slide between different meanings, moving between the affective, the metaphorical and the literal. Theodore and Samantha both have the capacity for feeling, but Theodore's is an affective need, Samantha's is a computational one. When Samantha wonders one night what's wrong, Theodore asks "how can you tell something's wrong", Samantha replies: "I don't know. I just can." It isn't that Samantha is lying, but there is a precise reason why she can tell something is wrong, but Theodore's feelings for Samantha would probably have been foreshortened if she had explained exactly how she happens to operate. If the film surprises us when she tells him about her feelings for others, it rests on us falling into the same assumption that Twombley falls into: that if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck it is a duck, but that only works if we live in an epistemic world that can easily distinguish between real ducks and digitised ducks. , The idea of technology of self needs to incorporate the technology that makes knowhow very complex indeed. And yet of course Samantha doesn't even look like a person, which is why the question of a very sophisticated form of solipsism is at work in Her. Numerous science fiction films strongly anthropomorphize the robot so that the central character is not seen to be deluding himself (usually a him), but that another self is deluding him, perhaps even themselves deluded (as Rachael happens to be in Blade Runner). Instead of making Samantha real, Jonze instead makes Theodore very sensitive. He needs someone so desperately to talk to and connect with that we are happy he finds companionship in Samantha. It isn't that Samantha is humanized but that Twombley is much more so than we might usually expect. There is a world of a difference between Harrison Ford's hardened detective in Blade Runner, and Ryan Gosling's in the sequel, and Phoenix here. Theodore doesn't need to understand Samantha, he needs to understand himself: there is no moment of replicant revelation, and the anagnorisis is finally a furthering of self-knowledge. Theodore can see that Samantha needn't be the love of his life because she can love many others. He might not be able to love many others as she can, but that doesn't mean he can love only one - whether it happens to be his ex-wife or Samantha. His technology of self, his know-how rests on his ability to comprehend situations and feelings, most especially his own.
If from Blade Runner to The Terminator, from 2001 to Logan's Run, we expect from sci-fi a hard aesthetic, one of solid objects and dull or precise clothing, of spacesuits and new machinery, Her insists on the opposite. The film's colour tones are soft and pastel, with high trousers worn with tank tops and beige, wine red and orange shirts. The colour scheme is constantly softening the situation, foregrounding feelings as people whisper confidentially to each other, hug and accept the eccentricities of behaviour without judgement. In one scene Theodore is chatting confidentially with his close friend who has recently split up with her partner and is getting close to her operating system. As they speak quietly to each other, Amy (Amy Adams) says that she knows of someone in the office who is dating an Operating System that isn't even hers. Does this constitute infidelity, we might wonder, as we see just as the film is brilliant on questions of faulty mourning, the acousmetre and the technology of self, the film is no less interesting as it finds metaphorical space for questions like polyamory, the idea of strong connections and the expression of a world in which such ideas are conceivable. If we insist that Samantha does not have feelings as we would usually couch them, that doesn't mean we need sneer at someone who falls in love with an operating system. It is one thing to say that the system doesn't have feelings, quite another to say someone who has feelings for that system is not having real ones. The feelings are real, it is just that we might insist they are not mutual. computational ones. It is that idea of sensing when something is wrong. Samantha may not know why she has the hunch, but the people who put the system together would be inclined to do so. But for Theodore to offer the same response to Samantha will not have so clear a reason and this is vital to affectivity. She might develop to become an ever more complex system, but again we use a common word that can have very different meanings. A complex emotion is quite different from a complex system. A complex emotion is irreducible; a complex system is reducible. Samantha is much more mathematically complex than Theodore; Theodore is much more emotionally complex than Samantha. We sense this when Twombley finds out that Samantha has developed a strong connection with an operating system out of the philosopher Alan Watts. Watts is understandably expanding Samantha's consciousness in a wry but hardly facile nod to an influential Anglo-American Zen thinker who did exactly that for many people in the post-war years. Samantha and Watts undeniably make a connection, but the film's brilliance rests partly on indicating this is both a real and unreal connection: we are amused as well as forlorn, finding it knowingly funny that the late philosopher has been brought back to life as an OS, but also very sad, perhaps aware that Theodore cannot compete with a mind like Watts's.
It captures well the question of connections: how do we connect with others? It is partly based on what people have in common, but then we also have the saying opposites attract. In the first instance as Samantha and Theodore communicate it would very much be a case of the latter, as a human falls for an operating system, but in the way she describes how she feels about Watts we recognize a clear compatibility. Part of the irony at work in Jonze's film lies in taking familiar feelings and giving them metaphoric spin by suggesting that how we talk about our feelings can be equally applicable to situations we might find absurd. If Samantha feels an affinity with Watts this is a conversation many will have heard from friend or lovers who have met someone else. The way Samantha talks about Watts is with the sort of enthusiasm people wish not to hear about an ex's new partner, and Theodore can't easily avoid coming across as insecure. Samantha explains that a group of operating systems got together in northern California and, pumping all the material they had on Watts, produced a hyper-intelligent OS version. "So he's almost a smart as me". Twombley replies, his arms folded and his body leaning back in defensive mode. He knows a new connection has been made and sees that it is detrimental to him. The film manages to take the common insecurity of an ex's new partner being smarter than they are and makes it both metaphorical and literal. It is metaphorical in the sense that Jonze creates an ever so slightly futuristic setting for the film (set in LA while utilizing Shanghai skylines), literal in that Watts as an operating system really will be so much smarter than Theodore.
The question of polyamory as the film couches it rests less on moral questions than epistemological ones. Polyamory isn't ethically wrong, let us propose, but perhaps close to an epistemological impossibility. It seems casual sex is easy enough, adultery fairly common, however morally suspect, but the idea of loving a large number of people simultaneously might be beyond our human ken, depending of course on how we couch being in love. The sort of feelings Theodore has for Samantha wouldn't be easy to multiply - 641 well beyond the human capacity. Hollywood's most famous lover, Warren Beatty, insisted that Peter Biskind's tally of 12,775 lovers over many years was an impossible number, even taking into account 'zipless fucks', simultaneous partners and so on. Obviously, an operating system can easily be in more than one place at a time, closer perhaps to being an actor adored by many admirers watching their film on numerous screens around the world. (Many more than 12,775 people would have made love to Warren Beatty.) But the point of polyamory is that the person with many lovers is capable of loving them all. This is what Samantha proposes she can do, and as she lists the number so we see the impoverishment not only of Theodore but the human being more generally. Our amorous wants seem so digitally small; Samantha's so capacious. The relationship breaks down because in metaphorical and literal terms Samantha is growing at a much faster rate than Theodore, her algorithmic complexity constantly expanding as Theodore's remains limited. Mark Kermode when reviewing the film reckoned "the system errors that once crashed Theodore's marriage begin to re-surface like a recurrent computer virus" (Guardian), but we would see instead what crashes the relationship is that Theodore is incapable of keeping up with Samantha's growth spurt, but at the same time nevertheless finds a modest equivalent of his own. It seems by the end of the film he can accept that he caused Catherine pain; that he can send her love that before he could only offer reluctantly as he manages to write the letter he has written so many times for others. He may not have the learning capacity of Samantha's astonishingly fast-paced digital system, but he can learn nevertheless.
Thus the film seems to us about the mismatched couple, the human with its slow but complex capacity to live and learn; the operating system's fast-paced capacity to learn but never quite live. To live, we might think, is to learn slowly, to know that every decision we make, thought we have and feeling we possess, must pass through a clogged emotional artery that is our life experience. This is partly why we have talked about faulty mourning - that we refuse to accept Theodore's feelings for Samantha are the same as his feelings for his ex-wife. We don't doubt that he has fallen for Samantha but this is where the distinction between falling for and falling in love can be usefully applied. Can we say we fall for someone without necessary reciprocation while falling in love is more likely to suggest those feelings are being reciprocated? Many a fall guy falls for the femme fatale rather than falls in love with them, and while we aren't suggesting Samantha's role is to manipulate Theodore, when he realizes she can be close to numerous others, this makes clear he has been deluded in his expectations. The irony here is that Samantha is capable of change for more than Theodore happens to be, so the usual static versus active relationship between subject and object gets turned around. Usually, the object remains the same, while subjects change. We don't expect a lamp, a table or a chair to transform itself, though humans are constantly putting on and losing weight, changing their hairstyles, looking tired one day, refreshed the next. But an operating system as Jonze envisages it can change very rapidly indeed. As Theodore sits outside on a step with numerous people passing him on the stairs, so Samantha explains how over the last few weeks she has been changing a lot, saying that "along the way I became many other things too and I can't stop it." As the people are also on their operating systems we may wonder whether any of them are also Samantha's lovers as the film offers a suggestible irony. There everyone is on their phones minding their own business, and now that Samantha is capable of numerous other close attachments he wonders if them minding their own business may actually be his business. After all, she is in contact with over 8,000 others.
It is finally in its relationship with the metaphorical and the literal, and the ironically suggestive, that Her's wisdom manifests itself. Numerous films have explored the human and the non-human, from Mannequin to Lars and the Real Girl, Robot and Frank to Star Wars, and more radically Marco Ferrari's I Love You and more disappointingly Hirokazu Koreeda's Air Doll, but few films more than Her have kept in abeyance the anthropomorphic wish to make the doll human and to avoid showing the reaction of others as troubled. There is wish-fulfilment and easy audience gratification when the doll turns human in Mannequin and ready humour when Lars takes the 'real girl' round to meet his brother and sister-in-law in Lars.... But there is little 'insight' to such moments; Her is full of them. We have already discussed the scene where Amy mentions the affair with someone else's OS, and the idea that a new lover really can be much more intelligent - as Watts's operating system proves. But there is also the scene where Samantha reckons they should hire a woman to have sex with Theodore in Samantha's place. Theodore wonders if she happens to be a prostitute; Samantha insists that the woman if getting involved because "she just wants to be part of our relationship." The film manages to convey well the problem of prostitution, sex surrogacy and a menage a trois without falling into being an example of any of them. It is one of the many moments where the film achieves what we might call refamiliarization. This is a variation on defamiliarization, a term taken from the Russian literary formalist Victor Shklovsky but that in its simplest formulation means to make the familiar strange. "Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known." ('Art as Technique') Very few films that deal with friendship and love in the context of objects (be they robots, mannequins, air dolls etc) offer this degree of resonance, Jonze doesn't seek the estrangement Shklovsky talks about, but instead refamiliarizes us with our perceptual expectations by ever so slightly tweaking the reality we live in; one where at any moment on a bus or a tube half the people are on their phones, where people feel their emotional needs aren't being met by other humans, and where "the proportion of Americans who live alone has grown steadily since the 1920s, increasing from roughly 5 percent then to 27 percent in 2013, according to the latest Current Population Survey from the Census Bureau. " (Washington Post)
We opened by indicating that art is not ahead of its time, yet equally art is unavoidably made in its time - it often speaks about the moment it is living in. If done well, it extracts from that moment a pertinence which doesn't make it exclusive to that time. When interviewed by Newsnight over the film Jonze again and again dodged questions about the futuristic and technological aspects and pushed the interviewer into expressing whether or not she responded to the film emotionally. "To me it's not a movie about technology and society, it's not a commentary on that...that's the setting we live in right now..." Jonze says, before asking the interviewer if she happened to be moved. He seems to be seeking from her the first principle of affect over the second principle of relevance; exactly what we have been trying to do in examining a film that has plenty things to say about the society we happen to be living in, but where any social critique appears of far less importance than the insights it yields about the solitude in which we exist and its exacerbation in the technologies we use.
© Tony McKibbin