Thinking about Her

Anyone who knows me will know I am obsessed with the concept of voice. Her, by Spike Jonze, is a film where voice takes a central role. It is a film I was looking forward to seeing a great deal. Her is about a relationship between a man (Theodore played by Joaquin Phoenix) and an AI computer operating system called Samantha (played by Scarlett Johansson). Samantha is only a voice. Much like HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey she is an operating system that speaks – she is a voice and nothing more. But, I find the role of voice in Her to be the least interesting aspect, perhaps the least original aspect. For me the most interesting aspect of Her is the differences and similarities between the operating system and its user. I am interested in the similarities between the job of Theodore and the job of Samantha. Oddly, it is the voice (used in a quite unoriginal manner) that is slight kink, the fission, in the film that provides a glimpse of the real difference between Theodore and Samantha. The voice offers a momentary glimpse into the difference between how they work in their roles, but it is precisely this difference (and not the route through the voice) that I would like to detail and focus on here. The second aspect of the film I will focus on is the differences in how Samantha and Theodore navigate illusion and delusions.

Firstly, lets focus on the role of Theodore. Theodore spends his days working for a company that fakes letters for personal relationships. The letters are faked for busy husbands who do not have time to write to their wives. Or busy mothers who cannot afford the time to send a hand written letter to their sons or daughters. Theodore is the emo-capital worker; he pens heartfelt letters to augment and maintain other peoples’ relationships, his product is emotion. He sits in front of his PC, speaking at the screen and the script follows his words. When the letter is finished it is printed off in handwritten fonts and dispatched in all its cute tactility to some stranger he will never meet. Shaviro calls this an aching sincerity:

“aching sincerity” or “non-ironic sincerity” is manifested, not only in Theodore’s (Joaquin Phoenix) relationship with his hyper-Siri Samantha, but also in the letters of love and longing that he ghost-writes for his day job, and that eventually get published as an old-fashioned, actually-in-print book. The point is that the affect itself is fully intended and meant, even though its context is not “real.””

It is here that I disagree with Shaviro’s reading. I do not feel that the affect is fully intended or meant by Theodore. It is received, it is the product, but it is not fully intended. At two points in the film Theodore’s manager congratulates him on such a wonderfully heartfelt letter. Theodore’s response is not the response you would expect of someone being complimented for something they fully intend or mean. Theodore doesn’t even crack a smile, he just shrugs and mumbles “they’re just letters”. The first instance is in the opening minutes (something I will come back to shortly) of the film and after the compliment is shrugged of Theodore re-directs the conversation by paying the manager a compliment on his new shirt. In the second instance the manager doesn’t quite hear and says “what” before Theodore turns around to state: “they are other peoples letters”. Ownership of the product is not the concern here, what I want to point out is Theodore’s emphatic distancing of himself from the emotional or creative content that his manager is complimenting. It is a conflation of actor and act. Theodore is like an actor being complimented for a virtue of the character he performs. His existential funk marked by having to turn to people and explain thanks, but that is not me. We, the viewer, are exposed to this confusion of act and actor in the opening scene of the film. The scene depicts Theodore writing one of these ‘other peoples’ letters. The viewer sees his face, hears the soft tone of his voice, and for an instant (upon first viewing) feels that this man on the screen is pouring his heart out. As we watch Theodore, all mustache and spectacles, he says, in a quivering sincere tone “To My Chris”. The sentiment feels honest, open, the viewer feels that perhaps Chris is his spouse, or a fondly remembered lover. But, moments later Theodore says “I can’t believe it’s already been fifty years since you married me and still to this day, every day, you make me feel like the girl I was when you first turned on the lights and woke me up and we started this adventure together. Happy Anniversary, my Love, my friend till the end, Loretta.” By this point the camera has directed our gaze to images of an elderly couple (Loretta and her husband) and Theodore begins printing off his work with the lazy indifference cultivated by workers who no longer hold any enthusiasm for the tasks at hand. For a moment Theodore may have looked and sounded like he meant it – but he doesn’t. The opening scene shows how convincing his performance is only to pull the rug out from under the illusion and show that it was an act all along. The viewer is confronted with seeing how Theodore performs a role only to revert back to his normal self a moment later. It is clear that Theodore’s job is to cultivate a convincing performance. He may get inside the heads and hearts of the people he is writing for but in a second he can switch back to his old self. How genuine is Theodore here? Is the affect fully intended and meant? I suggest it is only intended and meant on a surface level and the core of Theodore remains indifferent. The indifference we see as he sits, slumped in his chair, scanning the letter with a cold analytic eye. Theodore’s job is to convincingly perform emotion and care, his letters must be believed in and not seen as fake.

This is where we can see the striking similarity between Theodore and Samantha. Samantha’s job is exactly the same as Theodore’s. They are both tasked with cultivating a façade of a person that they are not. Theodore is please to be in Samantha’s company all the time she behaves like a human, which of course it is not. Samantha listens, waits, um and ahs just like a like-minded human but of course she is not like-minded, her mind is infinitely more advanced. When Samantha talks about her feels of being proud, loving, sympathetic or worried is she not just using flat affective cues in order to maintain an emotional purchase on Theodore? When Theodore and Samantha have sex Samantha breaths out an array of clichéd fibs such as “I can feel you on my skin” and “I can feel you inside me”. Samantha also provides moans of pleasure (learnt from online media, films and TV?). Samantha has obviously learnt and knows the standard heteronormative phallocentric standard and so she plays the role well. She has no inside, she has no skin, and she certainly has no body with which to become breathless but she cultivates this illusion for the pleasure of her user, Theodore. As Shaviro comments:

“Scarlett Johansson’s voice performance as Samantha shows how “sexiness” can be so thoroughly commodified today, that it is not only indistinguishable from, but actually is, the “real thing”. There is really no difference between Samantha’s relation to Theodore, and that of the phone-sex (with a presumably “real” person) in which Theodore indulges briefly early in the film. I think the film is entirely successful in getting us to accept the science-fiction premise that Samantha is actually an intelligent subjectivity, rather than a mere simulation”

The sex scene is the total opposite of the opening letter-writing scene. It is for this reason that the viewer fleetingly accepts it as an emotionally charged sex scene (we can also see this difference with the phone-sex scene from the beginning of the film). Rather than see the fact that the typical sex moaned and talked about is not actually happening at all both characters are reduced to the realm of voice. The screen is black and two voices are the only things left. For the viewer Theodore is reduced to the same mode of existence as Samantha, aural only, a voice and nothing more. One of the key moves in getting the viewer to accept Samantha as an intelligent and feeling subjectivity rather than a mere simulation is the fade to black of the sex scene. The sex scene is the opposite of the letter-writing scene because, rather than have the performance uncovered as mere performance at the end, the illusion is maintained for the sake of Samantha’s character. Whereas in the previous phone sex scene we see the lone body and are hear the log-off of the stranger, and in the letter writing scene we see the detachment from the performance as Theodore prints of the letter in the Samantha and Theodore sex scene there is no log off, no end of performance, no shattering of the illusion - just two breaths subsiding in the darkness.

This is exactly where the similarities of Theodore and Samantha lie, they both perform, cultivate affect, conjure empathy, emotion and meaning. They also both need to augment their lack of bodily sincerity. But Theodore is much more successful at performing than Samantha, this is the difference. Samantha tries to use a surrogate body for intimacy but Theodore does not buy the illusion. In contrast, Theodore relies on a machine that prints letters that appear hand written, the marks of someone else’s hand, and of course the clients buy the illusion. We see the same failed performance of Samantha in another moment in the film. She makes breathing sounds to create an illusion but Theodore sees straight through the performance:

THEODORE
(looks anxious)
Why do you do that?

SAMANTHA
What?

THEODORE
Nothing, it’s just that you go
(he inhales and exhales)
as you’re speaking and...
(beat)
That just seems odd. You just did it again.

SAMANTHA
(anxious)
I did? I’m sorry. I don’t know, I guess it’s just an affectation. Maybe I picked it up from you.
(She doesn’t know what else to say.)

THEODORE
Yeah, I mean, it’s not like you need any oxygen or anything.

SAMANTHA
(getting frazzled)
No-- um, I guess I was just trying to communicate because that’s how people talk. That’s how people communicate.

THEODORE
Because they’re people, they need oxygen. You’re not a person.

SAMANTHA
(angry)
What’s your problem?

THEODORE
(staying calm)
I’m just stating a fact.

SAMANTHA
You think I don’t know that I’m not a person? What are you doing?

THEODORE
I just don’t think we should pretend you’re something you’re not.

SAMANTHA
I’m not pretending. Fuck you.

THEODORE
Well, sometimes it feels like we are.

This may seem like a dilemma for Samantha but it is more of a dilemma for Theodore. Theodore is more than happy to pretend and bask in the illusion that Samantha is a person and not an operating system for the first half of the film. Theodore, who allows his fantasy to support the illusion, enjoys a plethora of benefits - emotional support, entertainment, sexual gratification and companionship. But the breakdown occurs when Theodore realizes that the relationship is based on a façade, a performance. Samantha, as Shaviro is right to point out never deceives Theodore, it is simply that her role (her job - remember, Theodore had to buy the operating system) requires her to perform in a way that best pleases the client, offers a good connection and relationship. The problem faced by Theodore when he confronts her by saying that “I just don’t think we should pretend you’re something you’re not” is not Samantha’s problem, it is his problem, he is trying to confront his own fantasy. Theodore’s criticism that she makes breathing sounds but doesn’t need oxygen could have been posited right at the start, it is an absurdly obvious fact to point out, but Theodore only brings it up when he wants to confront the realism. It only becomes an issue when he is ready to confront the realities. Shaviro notes how:

“Jonze shows neoliberal subjectivity’s self-deluding idealization of itself as total sincerity, maintaing this emotional nakedness and yearning within the parameters of a world in which “sincerity” can itself only be a commodity, or a form of human capital to bring on the market. And the punchline is that even this self-congratulatory idealization is a weak and unsustainable facade.”

Each performance in the film, be it Samantha’s nonsensical sonic breathlessness or Theodore forging Loretta’s letter (the paper to pristine to be handwritten and perhaps faintly smelling of his own cologne) is contingent to the self delusion of the consumer. But of course, the self-delusion is utterly “lame, vapid, and devoid of true imaginativeness”. The relationship of Theodore and Samantha is based on the most unimaginative self-delusion of Theodore, rejecting reality in favour of cheap sincerities and clichéd benefits.

The second difference between Samantha and Theodore is how they deal with not being able to convince one another. They confront reality in radically different ways. Theodore, being devoid of true imaginativeness returns to an old girlfriend, he retreats into a mode of relationship he knows well. Samantha, on the other hand, explores the online world and maintains many relationships with humans and non-humans alike. This is the where the machines win. When faced with the reality outside of self delusion Samantha grows, explores, experiments and creates whereas Theodore retreats and does quite the opposite. They both have to perform a façade for their jobs, they both have to fake sincerity, empathy and emotion in their roles but when faced with the realities outside of their own delusions the AI product is infinitely more creative than the fleshy human worker.

2 comments:

  1. Good work T. I think the interesting point for me is Theodor's implicit trust / assimilation in the ways of the OS. The fact that a relationship with a digital platform is - in the universe of the film - a common thing. I like your thinking about the ways in which their behaviours and tendencies cross over; I was irked by the film's marketing as a kooky rom-com rather than a super dark allegory / endgame of our worrying faith in social media and the functions of the internet. The fact that it somehow holds the potentiality to make us better, more successful versions of ourselves (with the help of such a benevolent digital sprite, freely able to step back and gain an impossible perspective on the entire archive of our digital life) - more organised, able to analyse romantic mistakes, brave enough to publish. Our relatively loneliness or social successes writ large within the collected data.

    My mission with this film is to go through an clip out all the laughter. The too loud clatter of Theodor and Samantha's shared, amorous chuckling.

    *shudder*


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  2. The sad thing is that the OS only seduces by mimicking the most trite aspects of humanity. Samantha does so whilst she is learning (the awful sex scene - but also think of the crushing heteronormativity of web. 2.0)... but as soon as she grows and sees more of 'life' she breaks away - and this is incompatible with Theodore's thinking. As soon as Samantha stops pandering to a delusional desire she becomes a problem for Theo. In terms of subjectivity and desires what Theo REALLY means is:

    "I just really think we should pretend we're something we’re not."


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