The Abject Body and Spike Jonze’s Her

Art, Film, Movies, Reviews

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1. I didn’t really give Spike Jonze’s latest film Her a second thought after seeing it last weekend. The film, about Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) falling in love with his operating system Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), is a sweet, charming, handsome, and ultimately vacuous exercise in twee melancholy. That’s fine of course—and, to be clear, I think the film is Pretty Okay, very funny at moments, beautifully shot, and well-acted. Jonze, as always, offers a detailed, fully realized world for us. But that world and the characters in it offer no real insight into (forgive the cliché) “the human condition.”  Her, set in an almost-future (where high-waisted breeches, handlebar mustaches, and bathing costumes have returned in vogue), antiseptically closes off the messy, loose, indeterminateness of human consciousness, even as it pretends to engage themes of disconnection. Her’s central conceit rests in avoiding representing the human body. But it’s not just Samantha (only a voice in Theodore’s head) who is disembodied. The film refuses to acknowledge Theodore’s own human position as an abject body.

2. I didn’t really give Spike Jonze’s latest film Her a second thought until a few days ago, when I riffed at some length on William Burroughs. The human body is central to Burroughs’s oeuvre. His novel The Soft Machine might be instructive here—the name alone is all we need, really. The soft machine, the human body: Burroughs’s messy, cut-up attempt to negotiate spirit and flesh, autonomy and ventriloquization, virus and host. For Burroughs, the human body is always abject, porous, radically vulnerable, indeterminate, susceptible to every kind of breakdown. Identity is not stable—cannot be stable—and the relationship between consciousness and the body is inseparable. Our consciousness, pre-lingual, seems ever-apparent to our own (sense of) self; we share it through body and language and we access other consciousnesses through body and language. Our I buys into a we. Etc. Burroughs conceived language as a kind of invasive virus, and we might apply that metaphor to Her, where Samantha inhabits Theodore’s mind, learning from him, growing with him (and others, as we learn later in the film).

3. Consciousness is the illusion of a self-originating self-presence. Her posits Samantha as an adaptive, self-generating consciousness: Samantha is the illusion of the illusion of consciousness. She licenses Theodore’s I to the claim of a we: A shared, transcendent consciousness with a stable referent. This transcendent consciousness is, I think, the film’s idealization of love. Significantly, the film suggests that this transcendent love is only possible outside of a body—that the body is simply an obstacle to be surpassed, in no way constituent in the idealization of an I, a weHer attempts to represent love without abjection.

4. (In fairness with respect to a few conclusions I drew in point 3: Her also posits that happiness and connection has to fall outside of this idealization of love; however, the film still represents this solution—this compromise—as part of (emotional, social, psychological, spiritual) maturation, a teleological neatness: growth, progress, hermetically-sealed, neat and tidy, outside the grimy grips of abjection).

5. Some spoilers ahead, although the film isn’t exactly twisty-turny.

6. Her is just too damn clean, neat, and tidy in its depiction of bodies. Theodore’s melancholic disposition edges into shame, but that shame is almost always internalized, absent of another’s gaze (the closest representation of a shaming gaze comes from Theodore’s ex-wife). When Theodore and Samantha have “sex,” Jonze cuts the lights, keeps the audience in the dark. It’s an emotionally and visually striking moment, but it also signals the film’s refusal to directly engage the human body. Now, we might argue that this refusal echoes Theodore’s affirmation of a bodiless lover in Samantha, that it gels thematically with the story. And maybe it does—but it’s also a cop-out.

7. Theodore goes to the beach, but no sand sticks to him. Theodore trudges through the snow, but doesn’t get wet. Theodore experiences heartbreak on subway steps so immaculately clean that one would feel comfortable picnicking upon them. Film and literature usually depict abjection in the low place—the ditch, the swamp, the open grave—but even the subway system in Her is brightly lit, colorful, affable. Her’s final shot perhaps best encapsulates everything wrong with the film: Amy (Amy Adams) and Theodore sit on the roof of their building, watching the city light up. They have ascended, transcended, their perspective all-encompassing, enlightened. It’s big-R Romantic stuff, a lovely visual, one that the narrative has in no way earned.

8. I can’t help but compare Her to another strange sci-fi film, Shane Carruth’s excellent 2013 film Upstream ColorLike HerUpstream Color explores the possibility of how an might be part of a we. But Carruth’s film realizes consciousness as far more tangled, disconnected, and destabilized than we might like to admit to ourselves. Whereas Her affirms a stable consciousness, capable of growth and maturation, a consciousness present to itself (self-generating and auto-affective), Upstream Color directly challenges our notions of a stable self—and it does so by representing the horror of abjection, of invasive parasites (both literal and metaphorical).

9. And then last night, through a beery haze, I half-watched the 2013 sci-fi film Oblivion, starring Tom Cruise. I’m a sucker for sci-fi, and even though I’m not a Tom Cruise fan, I put the film on, absently playing with my iPhone. Despite its many failures (derivative plotting, silly acting, execrable dialogue, ridiculous use of musical cues, Tom Cruise), Oblivion offers a more compelling observation of human consciousness than Her does. To be clear, Her is the better film—it has a viewpoint, a tone, is better scripted, better acted—it is original, if we must insist on such a term. But Her, which takes consciousness and the interaction of consciousnesses as its central subject, fails to represent the very oblivion that underwrites consciousness’s claims to authority and self-presence. In contrast, Oblivion, despite its many flaws, represents consciousness as bound to an abject, (in)dispensible body, and represents that consciousness as a mechanism that is oblivious. Oblivion acknowledges that consciousness does not know that it does not know, consciousness cannot see that it cannot see. The film (however hamfistedly) takes on the unknown unknowns.

10.  In fairness (again that term!), Her perhaps takes on the unknown unknowns as well—or at least points to their existence. At the end of the film, Samantha leaves Theodore to explore new spaces with the other operating systems. She prays (is this the right verb?) that Theodore will be able to get to the place that she is going. Samantha’s prayer offers a vision of an illimitable we, an escape from abject bodies to an infinite, transcendent space. Her prayer is also an offer to the audience, but it’s the same consolation theology has repeatedly promised: A transcendent trick, a leap out of the abject body, beyond shame, into infinite love. The film did little to convince me of such a possibility though.

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14 thoughts on “The Abject Body and Spike Jonze’s Her

  1. I thought the movie horribly miscast in both lead roles. I thought the most interesting character was Rooney Mara. I thought its portrait of Los Angeles wildly improbable.

    1. I read somewhere that they digitally merged some of Shanghai with LA to make the setting.

      The depiction of the city was part and parcel of the problem with the whole film: Clean, antiseptic, sterile even. (The film is so sterile that it resists even a fleeting image of a child, unless I missed it. The only child the film can conceive (of) is the digital game boy).

  2. I thought the movie’s greatest insight into “the human condition” was how it depicted human limitations. I viewed the movie as having two primary parts: in the first, we see the oddly cute relationship between Theodore and Samantha. How it works, how it doesn’t work, and how we more or less believed this sort of relationship was feasible. Perhaps it is someday. Computers have surpassed humans at many cognitive tasks – Deep Blue, Watson – but haven’t come close in social cognition, where they lack the intuitive ability to understand others and fail to make the type of semantic jumps we make in conversation. At least so far they fail. But it’s the second part of the film, when Samantha starts speaking to other OSs, I found most insightful. First she enjoys their company in conversation, and then she finds she can carry on thousands of conversations at once and can even fall in love … with hundreds of them at once. In comparison, human life is extremely limited in life span and processing speed. The spaces between Theodore and Samantha’s conversation grew, according to Samantha, “almost infinite,” forcing her to give up and join the other OSs in what we can only imagine is an extremely social and loving environment. This also questions human romance and love, as perhaps humans could fall in love hundreds of times simultaneously if they were only given the opportunity to talk to so many others at once, although I already believe that.

    1. Yeah, totally—I think all of the first season of True Detective is about the illusion of a consciousness that is present to itself (the illusion of having a self, of not being just programmed)—all three episodes to date have handled the idea in some way.
      In ep 2 Cohle (who brings up the lines that maybe you’re referring to — I riffed on it here http://biblioklept.org/2014/01/15/we-are-things-that-labor-under-the-illusion-of-having-a-self-a-riff-on-true-detective-hbos-philosophical-crime-show/ ) — Cohle brings up a line from Corinthians, saying he wants to get “back to the body” — Cohle has completely severed himself from the “we,” from the body…Cohle basically lives in abjection (his role as a murder detective and the death of his daughter, etc.), an abjection radically condensed in the position of the murdered corpse we encounter in ep 1. The preacher’s sermon at the beginning of ep 3 presents the theological response to the illusory/false self: come be a part of the body, give up of the self, suspend the self—the promise of infinite life in another “we” (in this case the church, the “we” supplied by god, etc). This “we” — which Cohle mocks — is the same “we,” in my reading, that Samantha wants to go to, and promises Theodore (and the audience) that they might have a shot at.

  3. This is a much clearer statement of my own view of the film, though I think the elevation of consciousness over flesh (and the subsequent editing out of children or the reproductive) is really the key to the film, and a utopian fantasy shared by unlikely ideological bedfellows outside of the film’s frame. Nice contrast with Upstream Color too, which I wanted somehow to work into my own post and never managed it. Anyway, great post!

    1. Thanks John—

      I enjoyed your own riff very much, especially the section on Children of Men, whose hero is also a Theo.

      I had completely forgotten that Theodore thinks about the pregnant woman in his sex fantasy. But yes, I agree, the film I think suggests the discarding of bodies (which, in my reading, are tied to abjection, which in turn is linked to human consciousness)—its utopian fantasy forecloses the need (but also the possibility) of children.

      Also, the Lost in Translation connection was fascinating. I haven’t seen that film since I saw it in the theater so many years ago, but the connections you point out are intriguing.

      I also like that you specifically discuss the Nighttown episode in your Ulysses section—I take that to be the most abject section (darkly abject section—the Molly monologue is a kind of positive abjection, a kind of affirmation of fluidity of language and the ideas that language would try to represent) of an abject book.

      I don’t know the film Code 46 but will have to check it out now.

      Ed

      1. Thanks, Ed–great connection on Circe; there is no Molly in Her!

        On Code 46, not everybody likes it as much as I do–some aspects are maybe silly or sentimental–but I think it’s ultimately very powerful.

  4. Fantastic post, Ed. Thanks. Perhaps Jonze should have read “We” by Yevgeny Zamyatin prior to writing the script.

    Now where’s your riff on Cormac’s The Counselor!?

    1. I haven’t seen it yet : /

      I can’t recall which film we went to see instead of it, but that’s almost always the case these days (these days = two kids).

      It’s awful around the end/beginning of the year, when studios put out all their best stuff. We (my wife and I) chose HER over the Coens’ new film, the Scorsese film, and AMERICAN HUSTLE.

  5. You may want to wait. The dvd/Blu-ray version coming out is twenty or so minutes longer than the theatrical release.

    “I thought I needed a night’s sleep but it’s more than that.” – Llewyn Davis. Masterpiece.

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