== zed tan ==

Speak Simply: HER by Spike Jonze

AI Artificial Intelligence Cinema Her Her Film Op-Ed Plato's Cave Speak Simply Spike Jonze


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When I left the theatre, I heard the people next to me telling each other that they had “mixed feelings” about her. Granted, we’re probably not used to omniscient AI being portrayed in films as benevolent (and when they are, they’re given very human bodies 1), much less loving and capable of being loved.

Boy meets Boy, in Space.

But I won’t full-throttle into Wot-I-Think about her here. That will come perhaps at some other time. Instead, here’s a piece — rather quickly thrown together — about considering a few questions that perhaps were a little difficult to pin down while you were watching it:

1. What are feelings?

This one is perhaps a little obvious (and might seem like a stupid question to some of you, but stick around, I promise it’ll be good), given that her is practically an essay about what it means to have “real” feelings.

But first off: we have to toss the question of what “real” things are. It is a question that we have never been able to answer, a problem articulated and left unsolved since cogito ergo sum. I would like to venture that we will never be able to answer that question, and that even if we do, the answer won’t matter. But that’s another argument for another time.

So how would we even begin thinking about what are feelings?

One answer could be that they’re chemically triggered neural responses to environmental stimuli. Which means that they can be manipulated, manufactured, and technically bottled. Consider antidepressants, alcohol, oysters even. Are the feelings produced by consuming these any less significant? Does having to take a pill to be happy make that happiness any less valid?

Another answer could be that feelings are how we process the world (note that it’s not an answer that is mutually exclusive with the above answer). There are some things that we experience viscerally, some things that come to us before words and beyond words. As “Samantha” puts it, some of this stuff is “post-verbal”, and throughout the film you have Theodore and Samantha constantly having to “think about things”, about having to have time to themselves to “think” about their feelings. But perhaps it’s not so much of “thinking” about their feelings that they’re doing, but letting their minds process environmental stimuli through feelings. That is to say, feelings are not only ends in themselves, but also mechanisms through which we process “post-verbal” data. Only when the feelings have run their course can Theodore and Samantha bring whatever has come out of these processes and talk about them.

These are only a few of the things about feelings to get you started. Feelings are so many more things, and there are many questions we could explore (such as what is the feeling “happiness”, or “love”?), but we’ll leave it at that for the moment. It is unfairly reductive to keep our conception of “meaning” to just the two points above, but this is something that I’d rather leave to the reader to figure out for themselves, because one more other thing about feelings is that they are personal — Samantha can empathise with how Theodore is feeling, but she will never be privy to them. Sharing feelings only exists in metaphor.

2. What does feeling something mean? What does not feeling something mean?

This is quite a different question from “what is?” Consider the difference between “what is happiness” and “what does it mean to feel happy”. Both are fundamentally different questions: when we ask what it “means” to have something, we are asking questions not about the property of the “something”, but what the property of the “something” has come to, at the risk of oversimplifying things, characterise in a person or thing. In Samantha’s case, what does it mean for an AI to “feel” sadness, pain, or love?

It is hard to get past what it means for something other than a human to “feel”. For a very long time, animals were considered non-sentient, incapable of feelings or cognition of any sort. The cartesian conception of animals was that they were literal machines, with many tiny moving parts. Which is a curious metaphor, considering that we are dealing with the same questions when it comes to machines now2.

So again — to bring this back to the film — what does feeling something mean? When you feel something, you understand that it’s a certain response that you have to the stimuli you are confronted with. So you’ll assume that it’s the same for the next human, because we suppose all humans “feel” the same way. So you have feelings, and you’re human. The next person says he or she has feelings, and that person is human as well. Therefore, all humans have feelings. Right? Sounds right. So if animals have feelings, eg they can feel pain, hostility (or what we interpret as hostility) etc, does that mean they’re human in some way or another (I don’t mean this as a debate on creationism. But also, consider that the human’s DNA is 50% identical to that of a banana’s (not that DNA=feelings, but you get what I mean))? Which brings me to:

3. What does it mean to be human?

I think this is the question that her — and in fact most other sci-fi films — most saliently asks. Whenever we are presented with a machine that can mimic any human behaviour, one of the first questions we ask is that if that ability to mimic a human will eventually come to replace a human role in performing it. For instance, consider the machines that we use daily. The mobile phone have mimicked, and arguably have replaced, our capacity to remember telephone numbers. That is not to say that we can no longer remember telephone numbers if we want to, but that now machines are capable of doing that for us (Bernard Stiegler makes this argument in his work. Chapter here if you have the stomach for it). If we are able to delegate a task such as remembering telephone numbers to a machine, or to anything else even, then can we say that remembering telephone numbers is a uniquely human thing? Further, (Stiegler argues) does that mean that the human has formed a symbiotic relation with the mobile phone, since the human relies on it for memory, and the mobile phone relies on the human for power? If — in the world of her — feelings can be formed by a non-human, then is “feeling” a uniquely human trait?

Conversely, does “not feeling” make you non-human? Less than human? Amy’s character explores the idea of inappropriate feelings as making one person a “horrible” human being, whereas her husband Charles, ironically, is less capable of “intuitive” feeling than Samantha or the other AIs (presented offhand). Also, does feeling “too much”, as in the case of Catherine who has “volatile” feelings, make you more or less human?

4. What does it mean to have a body?

This question might be one of the harder ones to talk about, because it is so obvious how it is impossible to experience certain things without a flesh-and-bone body. And perhaps her, while a fictional account of bodies and non-bodies, presents one of the more lucid arguments that takes apart our existing assumptions about what bodies are in the first place.

Compare the two sex scenes between Theodore and Samantha in the film. The first is intimate and surreal because at the back of our minds, we know that Samantha is disembodied — she has a voice, but no body per se. The second is awkward and surreal — Samantha attempts to have sex with Theodore with Isabella as a “surrogate”. It is Isabella’s body that Theodore touches, but Samantha’s voice which he attempts to engage emotionally.

The first sex scene is the one we would expect to be the more awkward of the two (and by itself, it was quite awkward with the blank screen lasting for a tad long with pleasured moans echoing through the theatre. A friend would describe it as being locked out of a shared dorm with a bunch of your friends listening to the only two people inside have sex while waiting to get back in). You know Theodore is physically alone in his bed, but yet there is the physical connection implied by the cinematographic trope employed — the camera politely turns away or completely blanks out as characters carry out their deed. Was he masturbating? Did Samantha somehow stimulate certain neural pathways in Theodore’s head to make him “think” that she was there?

Then comes the second sex scene, where Isabella participates as a “surrogate”. Here, one familiar with the idea of the “uncanny valley” would have had several light-bulbs go off while Theodore was feeling up Isabella. The uncanny valley is a problem that usually occurs in attempts to simulate human behaviour and appearance in machines and robots. According to the theories surrounding the uncanny valley, as you approach human likeness, there will be a point where the resemblance would be “uncanny”. Read: It’s almost like a human would be, but something is off, something is sinister and dark about this machine trying to be human (for more examples, look no further than TVTropes.) But here, there is no machine attempting to mimic a human body. It is a human body attempting to — in the spirit of the point I’m trying to make — mimic the personality of a machine. It is Isabella following Samantha’s cues, Isabella who is the surrogate, the one who performs an assigned role, and not Samantha. But it is Samantha that is the machine, and Isabella that is the human. The simultaneous presence of Isabella and Samantha attempting to occupy the same space on screen and in Theodore’s life is uncanny and dissonant not only for Theodore, but for the audience as well.

And that’s what the two sex scenes do: they function as two sides of an exposition about what bodies mean. Does a physical body mean that you are able to experience the world better than if you didn’t have one? Or vice versa? Or does the body even have to be the same types of bodies that we are used to? What would it mean if we just have different bodies, with different places for rectums (as Samantha meaningfully and graphically illustrates in the film). Throughout the film you have the question repeatedly shoved in front of your face: Does even having a body matter at all?


These are a whole lot of questions that I’ve thrown out, which I have no answer for. Not that I expect anybody to have answers to them, but hopefully they sort of give a body to the jumble of floating thoughts you might have in your head as you leave the theatre. There are plenty of other ideas that the film explores, many more than the ones I’ve put up above. For instance, what does it mean to touch and be touched? Is Samantha _really_female? So many more. But these are to get you started. I wanted to throw these out because her is one of the most simplest films (but not a simplistic film) I’ve seen that brings up these questions, and one that perhaps would come some way in teaching us new ways to think about love, being human, and sexuality (just to name a few).

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bicentennial_Man_(film) ↩︎

  2. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20131127-would-you-murder-a-robot ↩︎