BLADE RUNNER 2049 (4): the strange void of subjectivity

“There is no subject without an incomplete Big Other” Slavoj Zizek

The original version of BLADE RUNNER had neither the voice over by Harrison Ford nor the happy end showing the escape in the car. Supposedly this was felt to be too confusing for the ordinary viewer and the contextualising narration was added, along with the traditional Hollywood happy end, to give coherence to the montage. A visual summary of the different versions can be found here. Ambiguity and incompleteness are an essential part of the mode of enunciation of Ridley Scott’s film.

Denis Villeneuve’s sequel re-inscribes this ambiguity and incompleteness at the level of content. The replicants’ inserted memories are incomplete fragments, ambiguous and unreliable, yet, as we have seen, this messy aspect makes them real even though they are not authentic.

K’s inquiry-cum-quest for closure reveals him to be even emptier than he thought. He is not only officially programmed for obedience and equipped with false memories, but his entire “secret”, unofficial history that he uncovers is itself a fabrication

The revelation that his previous “revelation” (he was the first replicant born, not made) was false leaves him in a state of subjective destitution even more thoroughgoing than that of Rachael in the first film.This subjectivity as unprogrammed void is what there is in replicants that is “more human than human”.

Deckard declares, to justify his abandoment of his and Rachael’s child “Sometimes to love someone, you gotta be a stranger”. This statement has more far-reaching import than he realises, as behind our familiar roles and cherished memories there is the strange void of our subjectivity. To be human is to be a stranger.

The true anamnesis is not the recollection of facts and anecdotes about one’s past life, but the discovery of this pure subjectivity void of content and the retroactive perception that it was present all along.

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BLADE RUNNER 2049 (3): a faithful sequel does not replicate

Those who know my work on my philosophy blog AGENT SWARM will be aware that I have been giving a Badiousian reading of this sequel to BLADE RUNNER, taking my guide from the statement at the beginning by the replicant Sapper Morton that a replicant can become human by being faithful to a “miracle”.

I concluded my last post on BLADE RUNNER 2049 by calling it a story of soul-making or of becoming-subject, the transformation of K into Joe.There is a greater sense of process in the film, as compared to the original.

This process is envisioned by the main characters in diverse ways, each according to one of the four truth procedures that Badiou describes as necessary conditions to philosophy and to true life: science, politics, art, and love.

Wallace sees the birth of a replicant baby as a scientific miracle whose secret he urgently searches, Fraysa welcomes it as a catalyst to political revolution, Stelline draws on it as a source of inspiration for her artistry, and K hopes that it will be an opening to love. Each of these conditions developed apart from the others can lead to a reductive world view: scientism, politicism, aestheticism, romanticism.

The film is “thoughtful” in that it attempts to maintain a balance between all four ways of seeing and acting.

BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2): a pedagogical sequel

As explained in my last post, I greatly enjoyed BLADE RUNNER 2049 but I do not share the opinion that it is somehow “surpasses” the original film. My impression is that the new film is much more explicit about some of the issues raised by the first film, and even about its enigmas, which are no longer simply suggested but explicitly discussed.

ATTENTION SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT

Unlike some commentators I do not wish to see a sequel recounting the ascension of the replicant “messiah” to the head of an uprise, in the disastrous manner of the planet of the apes franchise. THE RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE REPLICANTS would be a soulless film indeed.

The film poses the question of whether an artificial intelligence can have a soul, and of how this could come about. The film gives several answers to this.

The protagonist, K, gives one answer near the beginning of the film, endorsing the thesis that to have a soul one must be born, not made. This is the official doxa and forms part of the ideology that justifies the world order. It contains the presupposition that replicants cannot reproduce, but must always be made. This implicit hypothesis will be falsified by the discovery that the replicant Rachael from the original BLADE RUNNER gave birth to a child, presumably by that fact both replicant and ensouled.

This discovery threatens to “break the world”, as Robin Wright’s character Joshi phrases it, as the world in place is based on a Cartesian (and Christian) dualism separating made replicants from born humans. This ruling ideology is spelled out again and again in the film, with its pedagogy of explicitation and repetition.

Another response is suggested even before this ideological doctrine is stated, by Sapper Morton, the replicant that K “retires” in the incipit to the film. He declares that K and his line, the re-asimoved obedient nexus-9 series, have no compunction about killing their own kind because they “have never witnessed a miracle”. It takes a miracle to break the world, but it also requires a subject who is faithful to that miracle.

Antagonists like Joshi and Wallace (the mad hubristic creator of the nexus-9s) do not see the possibility of a miracle, but see the potentially world-changing event reductively in terms of political management or technological innovation.

Political uprising is another mode of becoming ensouled, and Freysa’s army of replicants waiting for their miracle-born messiah are already revolting against their programming (unlike her, who is presumably one of the free nexus-8s). K obeys, until he understands that disobedience is an option.

K later seems to get indoctrinated into acting on the Freysa’s that giving one’s life for a good cause is the most human thing they can do. However, the risk is that this simple inversion of the dominant political ideology maintains its dualism without subverting it. Something more is needed.

The political miracle may already have taken place. Freysa tells K that many others took themselves for the chosen one. This implies that they had memories that were emotional and messy. The nexus-9s were re-asimoved into obedience and into inability to harm a human being (see this short prequel to the sequel) but they were also equipped with real, messy memories. They thus contained an inherent flaw, an inner tension or dialectical contradiction, permitting re-subjectivation under the right circumstances.

These memories may need to be dwelled on, not just alone in solipsistic isolation or in “interlinked” subservience, but in loving exchange. Love is another mode of ensouling or of subjectivation proposed by the film. K  has only de-humanising relations with humans, his police colleagues insult him or shun him as a “skinjob”, his superior manipulates him. It is only with his AI companion JOI that he divulges his memories and aspirations.

For me the most striking comparison is not so much with Pinnochio wanting to be a real boy as with the Tin Man in THE WIZARD OF OZ, who wants a heart, little realising that he already had one. Joi glistens, gives him a name, borrows a body to make love to him, accepts mortality to accompany him, tells him in her last words she loves him. All this seems to confirm that by sharing feelings each has come to subjectivise the other.

A counterpoint to this “miracle of love” hypothesis is foreshadowed in the buggy Elvis hologram, when he sings “I can’t help falling in love with you”. Later, in the creepy dialogue between Deckard and Wallace, this idea of programmed love comes up again. Wallace tells Deckard that he may have been designed to fall in love with Rachael and to run off and procreate with her. This is a heavy-handed moment when the possibility that Deckard himself is a replicant is not only suggested, as in the original film, but explicitly discussed.

Memory and anamnesis are not enough to induce soul, the memories have to be worked on and their sense extracted and incarnated in actions. Joe, at this stage he is no longer simply K, declares that all the good memories belong to Stelline. However, his memory of hiding the wooden horse from the older children who ganged up on him to take it is not a particularly happy memory. Initially K thinks that the date carved on it is his birth date and that his memory is proof that he was born, and thus has a soul.

The transition from K to Joe is accomplished when he understands that this meaning is not only false, but too superficial. The deeper meaning comes from owning the memory and appropriating its sense of battling the bullies and hiding the treasure, which is what he does at the end in saving Deckard and faking his death. This act steps out of the little Oedipal drama he had concocted with Rachael and Deckard as his lost parents. He can now live his subjectivity as both separate and interlinked, and abandon Deckard to his daughter. This deed echoes Deckard actions, who to justify his abandonment of his and Rachael’s child, tells Joe:

“Sometimes, in order to love someone, you have to be a stranger”

There is no real reason why the mystery of the replicant baby should be tied to Rachael and Deckard from the original BLADE RUNNER. The pat Oedipal conclusion could have been avoided while still giving closure. Stelline, the replicant Messiah, despite all her work on memory and attention to detail (getting the beetles movements just right) seems rather insipid. Yet she is a fitting counter-power to the creepy Wallace, demiurge and Antichrist. Wallace is a memory of the creepy, and crappy, mad hubristic creators that Ridley Scott is so fond of in his Alien franchise. Perhaps we shall not be spared a sequel PANDORA, on the analogy with PROMETHEUS, where it is made even more explicit that it was “hope” that emerged from the box of bones at the beginning of the film.

This film “remembers” its original in almost every shot and plot point. It is not so much an action film, the story of the origins of a robot rebellion, but of one person’s struggle with soul-making in a de-humanising world. It is a thoughtful sequel that comprehends and transforms its original, extracting its sense from a memory of someone else’s film, just as Joe does from his memory. The new film creativelyexplicates and re-expresses the old, giving one possible interpretation and prolongation amongst many.

BLADE RUNNER 2049 (1): can a sequel have a soul?

I was looking forward to this film for a long time, with impatience and suspicion, eager to enter the Blade Runner universe and fearing that it would be ruined. To my delight, I found the sequel to be an engrossing story, visually impressive and thoughtfully told.

A quick search online revealed a repeatedly expressed view that the second film is even better than the first, just as the replicant is supposedly “better” than the original baseline human.

The question that resonates throughout both films, in different ways, is: can a fabricated sentient being have a soul, or is it merely a made object of heightened complexity, but as soulless as a zombie?

This is a question that comes up today with increasing force in discussions over genetic engineering. A designer baby or a clone may have no parents and may even be produced for a particular function (super soldier, organ farm). The “does AI have a soul?” question is both valid in itself, a useful metaphor for exploring the engineering approach to the reproduction and/or replication of human beings.

Can a copy be as good as, or even better than, the original? If not a copy, then a creative repetition? Can the successor species to humanity, or the sequel to a film, have a soul?