The first question to ask is: Why is the fact that two replicants (Deckard and Rachael) formed a sexual couple and created a human being in a human way, experienced as such a traumatic event, celebrated by some as a miracle and castigated by others as a threat? Is it about reproduction or about sex, i.e., about sexuality in its specific human form? The movie focuses exclusively on reproduction, again neglecting the big question: Can sexuality, deprived of its reproductive function, survive into the post-human era? The image of sexuality remains the standard one. The sexual act is shown from the male perspective, so that the flesh-and-blood android woman is reduced to the material support of the hologram fantasy-woman Joi created to serve the man: “she must overlap with an actual person’s body, so she is constantly slipping between the two identities, showing that the woman is the real divided subject, and the flesh and blood other just serves as a vehicle for the fantasy.“1 The sex scene in the film is thus almost too directly “Lacanian” (in line with films like Her), ignoring authentic hetero-sexuality where the partner is not just a support for me to enact my fantasies but a real Other.2 The movie also fails to explore the potentially antagonistic difference among androids themselves, that is, between the “real flesh” androids and an android whose body is just a 3D hologram projection. How does, in the sex scene, the flesh-and-blood android woman relate to being reduced to the material support of the male fantasy? Why doesn’t she resist and sabotage it?
The movie provides a whole panoply of modes of exploitation, including a half-illegal entrepreneur using the child labor of hundreds of human orphans to scavenge old digital machinery. From a traditional Marxist standpoint, strange questions arise here. If fabricated androids work, is exploitation still operative here? Does their work produce value which is in excess of their own value as commodities, so that it can be appropriated by their owners as surplus-value?
One should note that the idea of enhancing human capacities in order to create perfect post-human workers or soldiers has a long history in the twentieth century. In the late 1920s, none other than Stalin for some time financially supported the “human-ape” project proposed by the biologist Ilya Ivanov (a follower of Bogdanov, the target of Lenin’s critique in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism). The idea was that by way of coupling humans and orangutans, one would create a perfect worker and soldier impervious to pain, tiredness and bad food. (In his spontaneous racism and sexism, Ivanov, of course, tried to couple male humans and female apes. Plus, the humans he used were black males from Congo since they were supposed to be genetically closer to apes, and the Soviet state financed an expensive expedition to Congo.) When his experiments failed, Ivanov was liquidated. Furthermore, the Nazis also regularly used drugs to enhance the fitness of their elite soldiers, while, now, the US army is experimenting with genetic changes and drugs to make soldiers super-resilient (they already have pilots ready to fly and fight for 72 hours on end).
In the domain of fiction, one should include zombies into this list. Horror movies register class difference in the guise of the difference between vampires and zombies. Vampires are well-mannered, exquisite, aristocratic. They live among normal people, while zombies are clumsy, inert, dirty, and attack from the outside, like a primitive revolt of the excluded. The equation between zombies and the working class was directly made in White Zombie (1932, Victor Halperin), the pre-Hays-Code first full-length zombie film. There are no vampires in this film. But, significantly, the main villain who controls the zombies is played by Bela Lugosi, who became famous as Dracula. White Zombie takes place on a plantation in Haiti, the site of the most famous slave revolt. Lugosi receives another plantation owner and shows him his sugar factory where workers are zombies who, as Lugosi is quick to explain, don’t complain about long working hours, demand no trade unions, never strike, but just go on and on working… Such a film was possible only before the imposition of the Hays Code.
In a standard cinematic formula, the hero, living as (and thinking he is) just an ordinary guy, discovers he is an exceptional figure with a special mission. In Blade Runner 2049, K conversely thinks he is the special figure everybody is looking for (the child of Deckard and Rachael), but gradually realizes that (as many other replicants) he is just an ordinary replicant obsessed with an illusion of greatness. So, he ends up sacrificing himself for Stelline, the true exceptional figure everyone is looking for. The enigmatic figure of Stelline is crucial here: she is the “real” (human) daughter of Deckard and Rachael (the result of their copulation), which means a human daughter of replicants, turning around the process of man-made replicants. Living in her isolated world, unable to survive in the open space filled with real plants and animal life, kept in utter sterility (a white dress in an empty room with white walls), her contact with life limited to the virtual universe generated by digital machines, she is ideally positioned as a creator of dreams: she works as an independent contractor, programming false memories to be implanted into replicants. As such, Stelline exemplifies the absence (or, rather, the impossibility) of a sexual relationship, which she supplants with a rich fantasmatic tapestry. No wonder that the couple created at the film’s end is not the standard sexual couple but the asexual couple of a father and a daughter. This is why the final shots of the film are so familiar and weird at the same time: K sacrifices himself in a Christ-like gesture on snow to create the… father-daughter couple.
- Todd MacGowan, personal communication.
- The film just extrapolates the tendency, which is already booming, of more and more perfect silicon dolls. See Bryan Appleyard, “Falling In Love With Sexbots,” The Sunday Times, October 22 2017, p. 24-25: “Sex robots may soon be here and up to 40% of men are interested in buying one. One-way love may be the only romance of the future.” The reason for the power of this tendency is that it really brings nothing new: it merely actualizes the typical male procedure of reducing the real partner to a support of his fantasy.