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Afterthoughts and Postscripts, 57.1: Matthew Flisfeder and Clint Burnham
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End of Sex? End of Cinema?: Afterthoughts on Her

Matthew Flisfeder
Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Communications, University of Winnipeg

Clint Burnham
Professor of English, Simon Fraser University


It’s very difficult in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal – the revelations and accusations against him, claiming a history of sexual assault and harassment – to ignore the embedded sexism in the Hollywood culture industry. It would seem that, however critical, popular representations of gender and sexual difference still work to reproduce the male gaze that Laura Mulvey theorized more than four decades ago.[1] It’s in this context that we were delighted to read our fellow Cinema Journal contributor Donna Kornhaber’s article, “From Posthuman to Postcinema: Crisis of Subjecthood and Representation in Her,” in the previous (Summer 2017) issue of the journal.

In her article, Kornhaber addresses the gendered depiction of Samantha, the artificial lifeform – a computer Operating System (OS) – and the love interest to Theodore, the film’s protagonist. Kornhaber discusses the gendered depiction of AI in the context of Posthumanist discourse. But how to think the category of the Posthuman? That is a question we try to address in our article, “Love and Sex in the Age of Capitalist Realism: On Spike Jonze’s Her.” As Kornhaber has it, “Posthuman” seems to refer to the technologized subjects that emerge out of but which proceed human subjecthood. In this sense, we wonder if she is referring to artificial lifeforms (AI), like Samantha, as our “posthuman inheritors,”[2] or if she means – and as we understand the concept – the human subject as it is has been radically transformed and rethought as a result of our changing relationships with new media and digital technology.

One of the things that we take to be significant about N. Katherine Hayles’ conception of the Posthuman is that it speaks to the way in which new media and technology troubles established, liberal conceptions of the human subject, both in terms of mind and body.[3] It’s a concept, in other words, that challenges essentialist notions of subjectivity, which have often emerged in Western society as representative of a particularly masculine, Eurocentric, and heterosexist worldview. The integration of the human and the non-human interrogates such naturalistic depictions of subjectivity and so, as with Donna Harraway’s cyborg ontology, we can somehow now see human subjectivity as always already Posthuman.[4]

As we develop in our interpretation of Her, it is in the context of what the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher referred to as “capitalist realism” that such depictions of the Posthuman (as we might now, in hindsight, reflect upon it) might allow us to more deeply question the historicity of our changing relationship to social and cultural life in the present.[5] Her, along with other recent texts in popular culture, such as Black Mirror (Channel 4/Netflix, 2011-), Westworld (HBO, 2016-) and Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017), treat our changing conceptions of personhood as we become much more closely connected with digital new media. Through ongoing developments of artificial intelligence (AI) technology, as well as automation in the workforce – i.e., labour saving technology – and as well with our deepening ties to our little “black mirrors” – our smart phones and devices that have, indeed, transformed us all into cyborgs – texts like Her posit, in fact, the question of what it still means to be human, in the sense that all humans are now homo sacer. This is where our piece seeks to contribute by looking at these questions via sexual difference as a psychical matter, and fantasy, desire, and enjoyment between human subjectivity and that of smart machines. Of course, for our part, there is an added political dimension to these questions as they pertain to the overlap between the impossible sexual relationship and the impossible economic (or class) relationship.

Indeed, this “non-relation” is the crux of the matter for our analysis, and that can be a way of thinking with Kornhaber about Her. For if the non-relation means, in Lacanian analysis, that the two sexes merely signify a split within the subject (there is no relation between male and female because each sex is itself antagonistic to itself – and we argue this works for other relations such as class relations), then perhaps there can be no Posthuman because the human is always-already not present to itself, is always in some ways “ex-timate” to itself, in ways both spatial (topological) and temporal/historical (retroactive or anticipatory). And we do not mean this in a pat “let’s apply Lacan to everything” fashion. But the fundamental split or unconscious in the subject forbids or perhaps just forecloses other identities (especially if we think about this mathematically).

Rather, what Her argues convincingly is that the filmic subject is already an AI, already cybernetic or algorithmic; and this is how, crucially, the film begins with the fantasy of a pre-digital human subject. That fantasy must be maintained, for Theo (Joaquin Phoenix) is not, at the film’s outset, a subject divorced from digital or cybernetic technologies any more than is the film’s viewer. Just as the cinema goer has been told to turn off her phone (but only after, in many cinemas, playing a game with the cinema screen to accumulate points for … more movies) – that is, just as the cinema-goer has already relinquished her handheld digital device the better to immerse herself in a large-format digital projection, so too the film begins with Theo telling/narrating the story of a couple meeting each other. And here we would amend our analysis, in which we focus on Theo talking to the OS as it boots up in a clichéd psychoanalytic fashion (“How would you describe your relationship with your mother?”), moving back retroactively to Theo, at the start of the film. (Here it is worth noting that the film’s opening credits, to the mildly discordant sounds of Owen Pallett’s soundtrack, remind us of the glitch opening to the more recent Blade Runner 2049: flickering image of Annapurna Picture’s logo). In the film’s opening, Theo’s eyes flicker around the screen as he looks at/doesn’t look at the camera (in a tight close-up). Theo, for all his obscene creative-class enjoyment of “composing” a love letter (he is the “subject supposed to write love letters”), is merely the “bare life” supplement to his corporate letter-writing program; just like the surrogate lover hired later in the film maintains the illusion, the prop for Theo and Samantha, that they merely cannot get it on because there is no digital relation. No, they cannot get it on because there is a digital non-relation: both Theo and Samantha are Posthuman. Neither is “essentially” human. So, too, is the movie-goer – for who’s to say there will not, in the future, be movie attendees who will see the latest film for us, in our stead? Not just a laugh track to relieve us of having to laugh at a stupid sitcom after a hard day’s work, but an android filmgoer to watch movies for us, so we don’t have to bother – an android to keep up on all the streaming TV series.[6]

This is all to say, then, that in viewing Her precisely in terms of the digital ontology of cinema that Kornhaber proposes at the close of her essay, we can only see how the boundary between the human and the virtual, or digital, or AI has already been challenged/crossed. Like Muslims in Europe – who have always been in Europe but must continually be constructed as a threat, so our notions of the digital or AI and its challenges for the human indicates a misrecognition of the human, its fantasy, insofar as human or Posthuman are conceived of as not lacking, not split. One way in which to locate lack or castration in the Posthuman is if we think about the question – and here we return to the timely (alas) instance of Harvey Weinstein: what if, when, in the future, AI are film company executives – and or actors? Can an AI sexually harass or be sexually harassed?[7] Who should be sued in this case – the android, the corporation, the programmer?[8] Perhaps this is how the Posthuman and the “end of sex” is also bound up with the end of – or post-cinema.

[1] Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 (1975): 6-18.

[2] Donna Kornhaber, “From Posthuman to Postcinema: Crisis of Subjecthood and Representation in Her.” Cinema Journal 56 no. 4 (2017): 6.

[3] N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

[4] Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in The Cybercultures Reader, ed. David Bell and Barbara M. Kennedy (New York: Routledge, 2000).

[5] As Slavoj Žižek has also recently put it, we might now be experiencing the possible emergence of a “posthuman capitalism.” Žižek, “Blade Runner 2049: A View of Post-Human Capitalism.The Philosophical Salon. October 30th, 2017.

[6] Fredric Jameson once quipped that there’s no longer any need to see an entire film because the trailer reveals all of the key plot points; the only reason to see the full film, he says, is to kill time. Perhaps, today, all one has to do is follow the hot takes on the social media newsfeed instead of seeing the actual film. Jameson, “Culture and Finance Capital,” in The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-1998 (New York: Verso, 1998), 155.

[7] Žižek articulates a similar point when he wonders if androids can be exploited in the classic Marxist fashion. Op cit.

[8] See, for a discussion of the ethics of sexual assault fantasies involving ‘sexbots’


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