Avoiding this set of questions leaves only the option of a nostalgic feeling of threat (the threatened “private” sphere of sexual reproduction), and this falsity is inscribed into the very visual and narrative form of the film. Here, the repressed of its content returns, not in the sense that the form is more progressive, but in the sense that the form serves to obfuscate the progressive anti-capitalist potential of the story. The slow rhythm with aestheticized imagery directly expresses the social stance of not-taking-sides, of passive drifting.
So what would have been an authentic contact between a human and a replicant? Let’s take a (perhaps) surprising example: Wind River (Taylor Sheridan, 2017), a movie which tells the story of Natalie Hanson, a native American girl found raped and frozen in mid-winter on a desolate Wyoming reservation. Cory, a hunter whose girl also disappeared three years ago, and Jane, a young FBI agent, try to unravel the mystery. In the final scene, Cory goes to Hanson’s house where he finds a desperate Martin, Natalie’s father, sitting outside with a “death face” (a mix of blue and white) paint on his face. Cory asks him how did he learn to do it, to which Martin replies: “I don’t. I’ve just made it up. There’s no one left to teach it.” He informs Cory that he just wanted to let it all go and die when the phone rang. His (delinquent) son Chip called him, released from prison, asking him to pick him up at the bus station. Martin says he will do it “as soon as I wash this shit off my face”: “I should go and get him, eventually. Just sit here for a minute. Got time to seat with me?” Cory says “yes”; they seat there silently, and a title screen comes up saying that statistics are kept for every group of missing people except native American women. Nobody knows how many are missing.
The terse beauty of this ending is slightly damaged only by these final words on the screen (they state the obvious and thus introduce an element of fake objectivity into an extreme existential drama.) The underlying problem is that of a ritual of mourning which enables us to survive an unbearably traumatic loss, and the glimmer of hope provided by the ending is that Martin and Cory will be able to survive through such a minimal ritual of just sitting silently. We should not dismiss lightly Martin’s “as soon as I wash this shit off my face” as grounded in the fact that his death face is not there in the old authentic way but just improvised by him: it would remain “shit” even if it were to be done authentically. Martin has already irretrievably lost his ancient ethnic substance; he is already a modern subject unable to practice “death face” with full immersion. However, the miracle is that, although he knows and assumes all this, improvising a death face and just sitting there with it works as authentic in its very artificial improvisation. It may be shit, but shit works in its very minimal gesture of withdrawal from life’s engagements. We should bear in mind here that Cory is a white man living on a reservation, and what Martin asks him to do is not to show solidarity with a grieving native American and participate in a ritual which is meaningless to him: such patronizing respect for a primitive culture is one of the most disgusting versions of racism. The message of Martin’s request is that he shares with Cory the distance the latter feels towards the native American ritual. Cory’s – white man’s – distance is already Martin’s, and it is this distance that makes the ritual authentic, not part of some ridiculous “immersion into a native culture.” Do we not encounter here yet another example of a twist that characterizes the Moebius strip? When we progress from the naïve immersion in a ritual to its utter dismissal as something ridiculous, we all of a sudden find ourselves back in the same ritual, and the fact that we know it is all rubbish in no way diminishes its efficacy.
Can we imagine something homologous taking place between a human and a replicant? A situation in which the two invent and participate in a similar empty ritual? A ritual which is in itself totally meaningless – we search in vain for a deeper message hidden in it – since its function is purely tautological, or as Jakobson called it phatic?
When the question “are androids to be treated like humans?” is debated, the focus is usually on awareness or consciousness: do they have an inner life? (Even if their memories are programmed and implanted, they can still be experienced as authentic.) Perhaps, however, we should change the focus from consciousness or awareness to the unconscious: do they have an unconscious in the precise Freudian sense? The unconscious is not some deeper irrational dimension but what Lacan would have called a virtual “another scene” which accompanies the subject’s conscious content. Let’s take a somewhat unexpected example. Recall the famous joke from Lubitsch’s Ninotchka: “‘Waiter! A cup of coffee without cream, please!’ ‘I’m sorry, sir, we have no cream, only milk, so can it be a coffee without milk?’” At the factual level, coffee remains the same coffee, but what we can change is to make the coffee without cream into a coffee without milk — or, more simply even, to add the implied negation and to make the plain coffee into a coffee without milk. The difference between “plain coffee” and “coffee without milk” is purely virtual; there is no difference in the real cup of coffee. And exactly the same goes for the Freudian unconscious: its status is also purely virtual. It is not a “deeper” psychic reality, and, in short, unconscious is like “milk” in “coffee without milk.” And therein resides the catch. Can the digital big Other which knows us better than we know ourselves also discern the difference between “plain coffee” and “coffee without milk”? Or does the counterfactual sphere lie outside the scope of the digital big Other which is constrained to facts in our brain and social environs that we are unaware of? The difference we are dealing with here is the difference between the “unconscious” (neuronal, social…) facts that determine us and the Freudian “unconscious” whose status is purely counterfactual. This domain of counterfactuals can only be operative if subjectivity is there. In order to register the difference between “plain coffee” and “coffee without milk,” a subject has to be operative. And, back to Blade Runner 49, can replicants register this difference?
- 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.
- Matthew Flisfeder, “Beyond Heaven and Hell, This World is All We’ve Got: Blade Runner 2049 in Perspective,” Red Wedge. October 25, 2017.
- Flisfeder, op.cit.
- Todd MacGowan, personal communication.
- I owe this point to Peter Strokin, Moscow.