“To define what is real is to define what is human, if you care about humans. If you don’t you are schizoid…and the way I see it, an android: that is, not human and hence not real.”- Philip K Dick quoted by N Katherine Hayles in How We Became Posthuman
The idea that any discussion pertaining to what is human and what is not, matters only “if you care about humans” is an important connection this article probes further into.1 This particular prerequisite to defining what is human is significant to understanding how relationships, emotions, sentiments have often formed the field where arguments in favour of and against human exceptionalism have been played out. Human exceptionalism or the tendency to categorically put humans on a different pedestal than other beings has been a crucial tenet through which posthumanist scholars often ruminate over the idea of human, inhuman, non-human and investigate the boundaries between these categories. What posthumanist scholars tend to grapple with in their work is the idea of whether there is actually a post-human, something that either succeeds the human, supersedes it or continues to add to what already is seen as definitively human. Moreover, the pedestalizing and differentiation for making humans look exceptionally different than the beings that surround them is often through arguments of rational behaviour and social habits: both of which play a role in how humans form relationships. Posthumanist scholars thus find it particularly interesting to probe into the genealogy of human exceptionalism and the idea of affection, relationship or love simultaneously. Some authors of fiction like Philip Dick find the idea of caring and of being human inextricably linked, while others, such as posthumanist essayists Neil Badmington go a step further to state that “to be human is to desire, but to desire is to trouble the sacred distinction between the human and the inhuman.”2 This notion that it may be human to love, but that love may not always be directed towards another human, is where the crux of many posthumanist arguments about what it takes to be truly human lies. Thus, this article focuses on certain questions that get asked often: what is it like to be human and to form relationships? Is there a conventional kind of human bond or is it constantly redefined? Can “human” be a constant, unchanging entity with a watertight description that proceeds to define whom this human finds attractive, bonds with and pines for?
Starting with Philip Dick is important to this piece not only because his writings questioned the definition of human and anticipated the posthumanist turn of thought, but also because his philosophical statements often germinated through his work of fiction. Fiction has always been an important part of posthumanism because of its inherent capability to portray what is yet to come and its ability to push and blur boundaries. Myra Seaman in her essay Becoming more (than) Human differentiates between what she calls theoretical posthumanism and popular posthumanism wherein she focuses on popular culture’s interpretation and representation of what it deems as posthuman. She differentiates between theoretical posthumanism that talks of an incoherent human category whilst popular posthumanism goes a step further and engages in reconstruction and reconstitution of what could be human. According to Seaman, both theoretical and popular posthumanism reveal anxieties of a universal, all-encompassing category of the human but the latter seems to portray this anxiety and is often pressured to give a resolution, or at least indicate towards one. Popular posthumanism, according to Seaman, gives into this anxiety because these “modified” or “better” humans cannot ever become “machines”, cannot become just the “mind”. The field where this resistance takes place is, in fact, emotions, because the ultimate realization is how human behaviour is rooted in “feeling.”3 Theoretical and popular posthumanism thus both conceptualize multiple subjects against the single, universal, liberal humanist subject, but popular culture’s posthumanist turn tries to find a connective tissue that binds these multiple subjects together. Seaman notes that these representations reveal an impulse to find a unitary human identity even if the body is altered, modified, mutated, and exemplifies a posthuman body that is unconstrained. The posthuman body may become technically advanced but what counts is the experience rooted in emotion, and hence they portray the posthuman and the resistance to it as if this is a natural simultaneity of posthumanism. This notion of how popular posthumanism often pushes boundaries only to boomerang to what it may consider the original way of being human is why this article looks into through two media-texts: a film by Craig Gillespie named Lars and The Real Girl (2007) and “Be Right Back,” the first episode of the second season of Black Mirror (2011-), a British TV Series created by Charlie Brooker. These two texts are chosen to see how they deal with the centrality of the human through their plots about loss, relationships and desire and to see if they indeed push boundaries, or as Seaman posits- bounce back to initial, rudimentary notions of human. The first section will deal with debates regarding intimate relationships between humans and non-humans/machines and will introduce the concept of posthumanism. The second section entails the analysis of the texts by looking at them with respect to posthumanist ideas of human and non-human relationships.
HUMAN LOVE, ROBOTS AND ITS DIS(CONTENTS)
Both of the media-texts this article concerns portray relationships that go beyond the mundane. If Lars and the Real Girl has Lars striving to connect with a doll, Be Right Back’s Martha is striving to re-connect with her dead husband through an app. In both texts, there is an underlying tension of authenticity of and the ability to attain fulfilment in such relationships; after-all, they do not involve a conventional two-human relationship and its fruition. Before delving into the intricacies of the plot itself, one needs to see these tensions in a context that is rich with these questions of human relationships with what are deemed as not-human: how do humans interact with robots, machines, and dolls and what are the implications of these interactions?
The binaries between organic-flesh body and a machine-made body have become tenuous as robots have now evolved in appearance; they have become, “artificial constructs masquerading as human.”4 Ishuguro’s idea of “sonzai-kan” or “human presence” in robots may seem like a desire to retain the human even in artificial constructs, yet this move towards providing a machine with qualities and appearance that look like humans render the qualities as transferrable and adaptable.5 Haraway gives us the notion of a cyborg where each one of us is always already hybrid in nature, the nature/culture; human/machine binaries have dissolve and seeped into each other to render us “seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines.”6 Humans can have artificial implants and artificial machines can take up qualities and appearance that were originally seen to be uniquely human. This notion when combined with Baudrillard’s idea of a hyperreal world, opens up an array of ideas that have germinated due to technological advancement. Baudrillard differentiates between feigning and simulation, asserting that the former assumes something as real and then imitates it, whilst simulation blurs the boundaries between the real and the copy, so much so that it is impossible to distinguish between the two. He is of the opinion that with the technological progress and the world we find ourselves in, the real is no longer possible and hence illusion isn’t either, because what we see is already a copy of a copy. We as humans are geared towards finding meanings in life and even in our search for the real, we compensate or use “artificial revitalisation” to reach what we consider as real. This is why human appearance of the robots, their anthropomorphic nature does not hark back to anything particularly authentic human. This notion has contributed to expand the definition of human itself, where there is a “gradual merging” of humans and their own constructs, where we exist in a circuit that looks like a “Mobius strip”, where the dichotomies have become “isomorphic and indifferent to each other, neither is the other to the other.”7 This concept of trying to obtain the real through artificial paradigms is seen in both the media-texts as well, where a concept of “real” human companionship is introduced but is navigated through what is considered fake or virtual.
This concept of trying to obtain the real through artificial paradigms is seen in both the media-texts as well, where a concept of “real” human companionship is introduced but is navigated through what is considered fake or virtual.
Such a complication in understanding of what it is to be human also decentralizes the ideas that are considered to be specifically human in their essence. New ways of navigating relationships lead to new subjectivities being formed. Posthumanism thus comes into the picture to give this shift a vocabulary, a barometer to understand this phenomenon:
Dealing with decentralization constitutes the latest stage in the posthumanist paradigm shift. Cary Wolfe’s What Is Posthumanism? addresses decentralization in the contemporary complex of ontology and epistemology, by emphasizing both the biological and technological embeddedness of the human being (2010, xv). The experience of humanist subjectivity no longer has priority and must negotiate with new forms of subjectivity.8
This article takes this particular strand of posthumanist thought of decentralizing human experience and seeing how relationships are navigated when the very meaning of “human” in such relationships is being destabilized. In this particular scenario, theorists and writers like David Levy and Sherry Turkle take up two distinct positions in their texts about emotional, intimate and sexual relationships of humans with machines or anything that is considered non-human. Their debates carve out the tension that the upcoming analysis charts out: are these relationships going beyond what is considered human, are they redefining what it is to be human and to have an emotional bond or do they try to do both but in the end fall back to the conventional categories we have?
David Levy opines that “just as sexual mores relating to homosexuality, oral sex, fornication, and masturbation have changed so much with time, so attitudes and laws relating to human-robot relationships will similarly develop with time.”9 He asserts how in the future these artificial robots will be “human-like”, if not entirely like humans, they will be “close.”10 Yet, Levy is not fully optimistic about such a change and does anticipate issues that may arise in future due to the increased “human-like” qualities of robots.11 He makes an analogy to how even vibrators are a “threat to straight men” because they seem to provide much more pleasure to women than men do.12 Posthumanist thought acknowledges how advancements, blurring of boundaries and expansion of scope of the definition of human brings its own set of problems, some of them are concomitant to this change in definition and some blatantly arise out of the assumption of the unquestionable centrality of the human. For instance, in her recent text named Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle states that having a conversation is the most “humanizing” thing we do as humans.13 Technology is putting “the real on the run” in trying to substitute this human aspect of our lives.14 In relation to human-machine relationships, she talks of how technology is no longer a mediator, a medium through which a companionship is forged, because now “computers no longer wait for humans to project meaning onto them.”15 Turkle is of the opinion that this would lead to a world of isolation where there is no real companionship as everything “inauthentic” will become the “new aesthetic” that dominates society.16 This development thus, for Turkle, provides not much of an expansive scope of definition of what it is to be human, as it provides an insight to a “robotic moment” in the lives of humans where they have lost touch with authenticity, where authenticity is analogous to “threat, fascination or taboo,” where “performance of connection” is enough to get by.17 In other words, Turkle talks of how human bonds are now present in the form of pretense, and this pretense is what characterizes relationships that technical progress has initiated. Underlying each one of her argument is an assumption that human relationships with their vagaries and inadequacies make them unique, make them human.
With such a contentious background in mind, how do we read media-texts that portray relationships of the kind scholars have tried to grapple with? For this article’s purposes, Lars and the Real Girl and Black Mirror’s episode “Be Right Back” have been chosen to extrapolate two distinct ways these relationships manifest themselves, are navigated through and come into terms with. While Lars portrays a relationship with a non-human who is not a machine, “Be Right Back” shows a relationship with a machine-doll replicating someone hitherto alive. The next two sections will carry out a “posthumanist reading” of the film-texts, and will move on to discuss their connections with ideas of posthumanism:
A post-humanist reading spells out the anxieties and repressions that inform the text’s desire. It aims to show that another and less defensive way of thinking about the human in its posthuman forms and disguises, and in its implication within the posthumanising process, may be not only possible but preinscribed within texts.18
Thus, by navigating specific plot points of the two media-texts, this article explores the ways in which both texts deal with human relationships with entities not conventionally thought of as human, especially in connection to the emotion of loss and control. Both the texts involve a conventional human entering into a relationship with a non-human, and the consequences and implications which lead to a particular kind of denouement reveal how categories are breached, only to put them back into a conventional fold of what is considered authentically human.
LARS AND THE REAL GIRL: “WELL, THE QUESTION IS, AS ALWAYS, WHAT WOULD JESUS DO?”
Lars is a man who doesn’t like talking too much, and everyone seems to try to change that. He is a devout church-goer, has a sister-in-law who really wants him to be a part of their family but Lars seems like that he is better off alone. However, he soon introduces his girlfriend: a Brazilian girl named Bianca. Everyone is surprised on two counts: that he has a companion, and that she is a doll.
As someone who has previously had no control over the critical circumstances in his life such as his mother’s death or his brother’s departure, Lars getting a doll for himself can be seen as an act of exercising control over a doll and consequently, control over loss. This could look like a “liberal humanist subject’s manifest destiny to dominate and control nature”19 where “he is the one making the decisions.”20 Through a custom-made woman, Lars may not seem to “explore otherness” but indulge in “an extreme form of inwardness”21 through projecting his own thoughts onto her. Just like fake flowers, Lars’s relationship with his doll, he feels, would “last forever,” particularly because it’s not “real.”22 However, this might be a reductive way to read the movie. It is not to be denied that dolls and intelligent machines/robots are not the same, and superficially, this entire enterprise could look like the “masculine desire to control and manipulate nature, and in effect, women”23 exemplified through the various jokes that Gus’s employees make that they would like a “woman who doesn’t talk”24 for themselves.
However, this kind of reading which finds and explicates the age-old connection of women to nature, and a female doll as a replacement for the same (with less or no emotional consequences) ignores what happens around Lars before Bianca is introduced. One notices that he is not the only one who has a proclivity for dolls or inanimate figurines. Lars’s work environment is particularly interesting in this regard. He has two colleagues in his rather quiet office: Margo and Kurt. Margo and Kurt have something which existed even before Lars brings the sex-doll into his life: their obsession with inanimate objects. Margo loves her teddy bear, and Kurt is very possessive of his collection of action figures that he keeps in his office table. Both obsess over them and have an emotional connection with these inanimate objects. Moreover, Kurt is responsible for introducing Lars to the world of RealDoll. In such a scenario, Lars’s connection already has some precedents.
Moreover, in a very short yet pivotal scene, Gus and Karin are shown to reach out to the elderly church community for helping Lars, where one of the women invalidates everyone’s reluctance to play along by springing up different stories of how everyone in their lives has had done something unrealistic. Thus, Bianca soon becomes a normal part of their lives. Lars’s starts giving meaning to Bianca’s existence and consequently others follow suit, so as to make Lars feel that everyone is convinced of her reality. Lars’s “delusion” becomes everyone else’s “genuine reality.”25 Moreover, Lars feels he has lost control over her, and others rebuke him for wanting her to be in line with his whims, by saying “she has a life of her own!”26 And indeed, Bianca does come to life because in the process of “playing along,” everyone start living and believing in her reality. Interestingly, they don’t forget that she is a doll, rather they construct a reality around her very doll nature—they take her to places where she could be seen as a doll but at the same time not be reviled as fake and moreover, the person with her will not be mocked: she will fit right in. They make her a mannequin at a store, cut her hair, take her to church, take her to children who readily accept her. However, everyone is controlling a part of her day and hence no one ends up controlling her entirely, especially not Lars. Reality is constructed, and in constructing a reality for Bianca, she transforms from a Real Doll to a Real Girl.
Soon after Lars realizes he cannot control Bianca, his meanings which get ascribed to her also change in that direction: Bianca doesn’t want to marry him, Bianca is sick, and she soon is dead. She cannot be brought back to life like he brings back to life Margo’s bear, because Bianca is a real girl, whose death everyone will mourn. She does not remain a plastic doll, in fact, she never is. The doctor says Lars and Bianca have a lot in common, yet the entire film shows that Bianca’s life is far better than Lars’s: she can hang out, have friends and even become a board member of the school community. When Lars realizes that his desire to control a doll also ends up being an unpredictable journey, he desires to control just one more thing which goes unchallenged: controlling her demise. In forming a friendship with Margo thereafter, his act of choosing the unpredictability of a human over a doll, of choosing something that was born rather than something what was made reveals a humanist impulse. Furthermore, Lars asks Gus what does it take to be a man, and Gus responds that a man has “to do the right thing, even if it hurts.”27 It hurts to pronounce Bianca dead and let her go, but it is necessary for being a man.
However, his desire to control is not learnt through a loss of control, but through understanding that “conscious agency has never been “in control.”28 Lars’s so called delusion is in fact an illusion of possessing control, which breaks in the end. This is a remarkable posthumanist moment where unpredictability of life is not something unique to human because what we think of our own, personal reality in fact is a construction, just like Bianca’s. Lars’s reality of being a lonely man is constructed through his mother’s death, his father’s depression and his brother’s departure. It is also important to see how Christianity, or specifically Christian love follows the posthuman ethic of “inclusion,”29 resonates with Braidotti’s idea of how post-humanism is “a new way of combining ethical values with the well-being of an enlarged sense of community, which includes one’s territorial or environmental inter-connections.”30 The movie starts with a notion of love being the “one true law.” The community’s action towards Bianca stems from a Christian principle that encourages helping others. The actions of the community toward a “very religious” Bianca get couched in this framework of Christian love, of doing “what Jesus would do,” and how their Christ-like love can even transform a doll to a real person, just like how Christ changed water into wine.
But Bianca has to die. She cannot just be broken up with, and this is where Lars’s notions of Bianca’s reality seem to reign supreme. The power dynamics of the owner of Bianca trump the partakers of her reality, and if he doesn’t go ahead with it further, the community wouldn’t feel compelled to either. The movie seems to say that no matter how much these boundaries get blurred, someone might always have the power to draw the line.
But what happens when you try and recreate a human you knew: when your companion is a simulation of someone’s past and somehow, a better version of them? Where do boundaries get blurred and what are the consequences? The next media-text that the article analyses is that of Black Mirror’s episode “Be Right Back,” which shows a story of a woman trying to reconnect with her dead husband through an app which allows her to talk to him. Black Mirror is an anthology series delving into the questions of technological progress and human progress that can be exemplified in immediate present or near future. Each episode thematically questions humans and their connection to technology, mass-media and the industries that surround them. “Be Right Back” is one such episode, particularly interesting in its similarity to Lars and the Real Girl in its attempt to form a relationship with something that may not fit well into the standards of a anthropocentric idea of human. Both texts are also connected through their thematic emphasis on loss and loneliness, and how humans search for companionship to either compensate for some loss or to not feel lonely. This idea of needing a companion and moreover, needing a conventional human companion in particular is questioned by both the texts but answered on different levels. While Lars and the Real Girl explores a possibility only to come back to something already seen as natural, Be Right Back entertains a possibility only as an alternative to something already experienced as real. This shift and its implications is what the analysis delves into.
BE RIGHT BACK: “YOU HAVE NO HISTORY TO YOU!”
Martha has lost her husband Ash: but this time, to death. The entire plot preceding Ash’s death, (the only time we don’t see him in the movie) seems to posit his absent presence through his (over)involvement with his phone. “You keep vanishing,” Martha says irritatingly to Ash when he doesn’t listen to her while on phone. In fact, Martha even feels that Ash inauthentic when it comes to his online and other digital choices. When Ash is dead, a little changes, a lot doesn’t.31 A friend tells her to get an app to help her grieve. It’s an app- Ash, constructed through his social media profiles, whom she gets to chat with. He was a “heavy user,” and thus leads to surreal moments of extreme similarity between the Ash who was alive and the Ash who is alive on screen. “The more it has, more it’s him”, Sarah says about the technique behind the app. But Martha, soon wants to “really speak” with him—she talks to him on the phone where he sounds just like him. She fears losing him as she drops her phone off, as if Ash was in the phone. But unlike the Ash who was alive and very much lost without the phone, app generated Ash can be revived. Martha soon learns, he can also be built into a human-form. What Martha feels when she sees Ash built out of a “blank” plaster like substance, is what Mori calls “uncanny” feeling of touching a prosthetic arm- knowing it looks real but isn’t, but still driven to believe in its realness.32 Moreover, to Martha’s surprise, this Ash has learnt through pornographic videos how to have sex, and can be ready to have sex on demand, resonating Levy’s idea of robots being better, alternative sexual partners. But something is not right about this Ash- he is too predictable.
Martha is soon irate by the fact that she gets to control him and construct a more real Ash out of him in piecemeal ways. For instance, she points out that app-Ash does not have a mole like Ash did; he gets it for her instantly. She tells him the “side of things he didn’t talk of online” and he automatically uses it in their conversations. Mori in his essay states that “a person’s response to a human-like robot would abruptly shift from empathy to revulsion as it approached, but failed to attain, a life-like appearance.”33 Mori is contextually talking of how uncanny moments are produced through the constant realization of the “fake” behind the semblance of the real, but in the physical aspects alone. Here, it moves one step further: the “constructed” Ash is extremely good looking, because he has been created through the photos he puts on social media. Moreover, his emotions are learnt like one learns a lesson out of a book. And this fact, of being a “performance of stuff that he [Ash] performed” makes Martha want to push him off a cliff. In one scene, Martha fights with him and wants him to go away and when he obeys, she gets disturbed that he didn’t “argue over” it.34 She constantly wants him to disagree, argue, be unpredictably predictable in his behaviour but app-Ash is just following orders. Soon she realises, this app was not supposed to “replace the other, but to overcome distance” after Ash’s death. App- Ash is what Ash posed to be on his public profile, but Martha was never in agreement with the image he put up online.35
One might go with Hauskeller’s argument where he says that “we will still want our surrogates to reflect the “real”, rather than the ideal” but here Ash is too ideal: he is too perfect and hence in Martha‟s opinion, fake.36 However, Martha’s realization is also partially her frustration: after all it is Ash who constructed this reality for himself. App-Ash is just simulating, playing out what Ash himself had conjured up. One of the many instances show how Ash was fake even when “real”/alive. Ash uploads a picture of his childhood where he gave a fake smile to his mother and puts it up as a funny post even when the history behind the photo was tragic. Martha says at least his mother didn’t know the smile was fake, and Ash says “that’s what makes it worse.”37 Unlike his mother who was unaware that Ash was faking his emotions, Martha realizes that her anger is more towards the Ash who was alive and not the app, because he blurred the boundaries between fake and real by constructing an entirely different yet parallel life online.
Positing this in Baudrillard’s notion of the hyperreal, Martha is a victim of hyperreality where there is no authentic real to hark back to, or yearn for. Martha says app-Ash has no history of himself, showing how “humans care about where things came from…[their]ontological history” but soon she realises that app-Ash’s history was written by Ash himself.38 She has encountered the crux of simulacrum: what she has been searching for never really existed. The Ash she remembers is in fact the creator of the Ash she now struggles to have a relationship with. The struggle with Ash who was alive and the app might be different temporally but not qualitatively: both keep shifting locales from real to artificial. All she can do is deal with app-Ash just like how Ash’s mother dealt with the belongings of Ash’s dead brother: put him in the attic. Martha cannot do away with him because she realises that this is the meaning of reality: it “doesn’t go away” even “when you stop believing in it.”39
Themes of control and loss tie together the plots of Lars and the Real Girl and “Be Right Back” from Black Mirror. Lars is about coming into terms with loss of control by learning there was never a possibility of complete control. Yet, its denouement kills off the character which brought out this realization. More than reinstating control in the hands of humans, this can be read as a moment simultaneously of acceptance and denial. There is acceptance in the fact that no one can control someone/something completely, but one can control not wanting to face the fact constantly.
“Be Right Back” is about trying to have control over loss, and ultimately realizing that loss had taken place even before death occurred. Ash was absent even before he was dead, and Martha’s wish to control his death was only met by the information Ash put on his virtual profiles wherein he created a different kind of Ash—virtual Ash was never really the Ash Martha loved. This takes the Turkle-an route where there is an acceptance of the blurring of boundaries, a marginalised engagement with it even, but there is still a yearning for a “real” person with an organic history, and not one made out of codes and constructed by the person online. Yet, in similar ways to Lars, the denouement is that of a concomitant denial and acceptance. There is acceptance to the fact that the app-Ash and Ash might be different but there’s no way the machine could be discarded for the things Ash was responsible for, yet there is a denial to face this reality every day. Martha, unlike Lars, cannot kill app-Ash because she cannot kill something that was brought to life for coming into terms with Ash’s death. She puts him in the attic which presents itself as an inherently contradictory space, where memories and things which are both cherished and repressed come together.
Loss and control are the two ways through which these two media-texts exemplify the quandary of posthumanist thought about what is human and what is it to love someone as a human. Essentially, question about relationships, affection, romantic liaisons and love in general, as these plots portray are questions about having control over one’s life and consequently, being in control of oneself. The reason why caring about someone and being human thus are seen as inextricably connected is not because to desire is to be human, or to be human is to care for another, but it is the ultimate desire to have control, be an agent and to come up with ways with dealing with loss. To love another being that is not human is a discomfort that is done away in the end not because the being is not a human or human enough, but because in attempt to compensate for loss through complete control, the characters seem to want vulnerability, seem to want a bit of that chance that is involved in not being in control. At the same time, there is an awareness of the power of these beings becoming all-too-human to handle and thus challenging their notions of what it is to be human: thus they are pushed into a grave or thrown into an attic. Both of the film-texts portray loss of control while trying to establish control over loss, and hence work as examples to substantiate posthumanist decentering of the human and ideas of absolute agency. Simultaneously, they expose the humanist impulse of re-establishing this lost control by “exercising their will through individual agency and choice” when they navigate their confrontation with this loss.40 Their “real” nature of being human is in this ability to deny or absolutely reject. Both seem to thus reconfigure what Dick states: it doesn’t matter if you care about humans to be human, but it matters if you want to have control over making that decision.
Prerna Subramanian (she/her) is a PhD Candidate at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario. She previously studied in India with Master’s from IIT Gandhinagar in Society and Culture Studies and has a background in literature. Her research interests lie in the field of Cultural, Gender and Critical Theory. Her PhD work lies in the field of Transgender Studies, Cultural and Creative Industries and Social Cartographies. She likes reading and working in the field of gender and media studies, cultural studies, body studies and cultural geography.