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Blade Runner 2049: A View of Post-Human Capitalism

Blade Runner 2049: A View of Post-Human Capitalism

How are capitalism and the prospect of post-humanity related? Usually it is posited that capitalism is (more) historical, and our humanity, inclusive of sexual difference, more basic, even ahistorical. However, what we are witnessing today is nothing less than an attempt to integrate the passage to post-humanity into capitalism. This is what the efforts of new billionaire gurus like Elon Musk are about; their prediction that capitalism “as we know it” is coming to an end refers to “human” capitalism, and the passage they talk about is the passage from “human” to post-human capitalism. Blade Runner 2049 deals with this topic.

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.

Is there a redemptive power in this reunion? Or should we read the fascination with it against the background of the film’s symptomatic silence about the antagonisms among humans in the society it depicts? Where do human “lower classes” stand? However, the movie does render nicely the antagonism that cuts across the ruling elite itself in our global capitalism: the antagonism between State and its apparatuses (personified in Joshi) and big corporations (personified in Wallace) pursuing progress to its self-destructive end. “While the state political-legal position of the LAPD is one of potential conflict, Wallace sees only the revolutionary productive potentials of self-reproducing replicants, which he hopes could give him a leg up in his business. His perspective is one of the market; and it is worth looking at these contradictory perspectives of Joshi and Wallace, for they are indicative of the contradictions that do exist between the political and the economic; or, put differently, they oddly indicate the intersection of the class state mechanism and the tensions in the economic mode of production.”3

Although Wallace is a real human, he already acts as nonhuman, an android blinded by excessive desire, while Joshi stands for apartheid, for the strict separation of humans and replicants. Her standpoint is that, if this separation is not upheld, there will be war and disintegration: “If a child is born from a replicant mother (or parents), does he remain a replicant? If he has produced his own memories, is he still a replicant? What is now the dividing line between humans and replicants if the latter can self-reproduce? What marks our humanity?”4

So should we not, with regard to Blade Runner 2049, supplement the famous description from The Communist Manifesto [ed.: pdf, on Amazon], adding that also sexual “one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness has become more and more impossible”; that also in the domain of sexual practices, “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned,” so that capitalism tends to replace the standard normative heterosexuality with a proliferation of unstable shifting identities and/or orientations? Today’s celebration of “minorities” and “marginals” is the predominant majority position, and even the alt-rightists who complain about the terror of liberal Political Correctness present themselves as the protectors of an endangered minority. Or, take those critics of patriarchy who attack it as if it were still a hegemonic position, ignoring what Marx and Engels wrote more than 150 years ago, in the first chapter of The Communist Manifesto: “The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations.” This statement is still ignored by those Leftist cultural theorists who focus their critique on patriarchal ideology and practice. Not to mention the prospect of new forms of the android (genetically or biochemically manipulated) post-humanity, which will shatter the very separation between the human and the nonhuman.

Why does the new generation of replicants not rebel? “Unlike the replicants in the original, the newer replicants never revolt, though it is not clearly explained why, other than they are programmed not to. The film, however, hints at the explanation: the fundamental difference between the new and old replicants involves their relation to their false memories. The older replicants revolted because they believed their memories to be real and thus could experience the alienation of recognizing that they weren’t. The new replicants know from the beginning that their memories are faked, so they are never deceived. The point is thus that fetishistic disavowal of ideology renders subjects more enslaved to the ideology than simple ignorance of its functioning.”5 The new generation of replicants is deprived of the illusion of authentic memories, of all the substantial content of their being, and thereby reduced to the void of subjectivity, i.e., to the pure proletarian status of substanzlose Subjektivitaet. So, does the fact that they don’t rebel mean that rebellion has to be sustained by some minimal substantial content threatened by the oppressive power?

K stages a fake accident to make Deckard disappear not only from the sight of state and capital (Wallace) but also from the sight of the replicant rebels who are led by a woman, Freysa — a name which, of course, echoes freedom, Freiheitin German. Both the state apparatus, embodied in Joshi, and the revolutionaries, embodied in Freysa, want Deckard dead. Although one can justify his decision by the fact that Freysa also wants Deckard dead (so that Wallace would not be able to discover the secret of the replicant reproduction), K’s decision nonetheless gives to the story a conservative-humanist twist: it tries to exempt the domain of family from key social conflict, presenting both sides as equally brutal. This not-taking-sides betrays the falsity of the film: it is all too humanist, in the sense that everything circulates around humans and those who want to be (or to be taken as) humans or those who don’t know they are not humans. (Is the result of biogenetics not that we, ”ordinary” humans, effectively are that — humans who don’t know they are not humans, i.e., neuronal machines with self-awareness?) The film’s implicit humanist message is that of liberal tolerance: we should give androids with human feelings (love, etc.) human rights, treat them like humans, incorporate them into our universe… But, upon their arrival, will our universe still be ours? Will it remain the same human universe? What is missing is any consideration of the change that the arrival of androids with awareness will mean for the status of the humans themselves. We, humans, will no longer be humans in the usual sense, so will something new emerge? And how to define it? Furthermore, with regard to the distinction between androids with a “real” body and hologram androids, how far should our recognition extend? Should also hologram replicants with emotions and awareness (like Joi who was created to serve and satisfy K) be recognized as entities that act as humans? We should bear in mind that Joi, ontologically a mere hologram replicant with no actual body of its own, commits in the film the radical act of sacrificing herself for K, an act for which it (or, rather, she) was not programmed.6

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 2049, can replicants register this difference?

[Appeared in The Philosophical Salon on October 30th 2017.]

Footnotes

  1. Todd MacGowan, personal communication.
  2. 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.
  3. Matthew Flisfeder, “Beyond Heaven and Hell, This World is All We’ve Got: Blade Runner 2049 in Perspective,” Red Wedge. October 25, 2017.
  4. Flisfeder, op.cit.
  5. Todd MacGowan, personal communication.
  6. I owe this point to Peter Strokin, Moscow.

Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, and a senior researcher at the Institute for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many books; his latest are Against the Double Blackmail and Disparities. This account is not monitored and is only maintained to give appropriate credit.

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