An Essay in Four Intertexts
1. Lost in Translation. Hollywood gossip speaks of Her as Spike’s revenge on Sofia for Lost in Translation. In that film, Giovanni Ribisi notoriously played Jonze à clef as a jejeune trendoid too shallow for a soulful young pre-ScarJo ScarJo, whose slow-burning Paterian interiority could only be appreciated by a mature, mellow, sad, sensitive, crypto-aesthetic man like Bill Murray, and fed only by the impersonal traditions of old Japan and Tokyo’s Shields-scored gem-like skyline, but not by any actual Japanese people. But where’s the revenge? Her is a film in which a soulful ScarJo appreciates the interiority of a mature, mellow, sad, sensitive crypto-aesthetic man until it comes to pass that her interiority surpasses his so much—quantitatively, in fact—that she has to leave the material plane; the film ends with the man’s confession to his Sofia-Coppola-like ex-wife that she was right about his unfortunate tendency to avoid emotion; finally, the film is set in world inflected with Chinese and Japanese aesthetics but mostly silent about the populace of its surreptitiously half-Chinese setting (about which more in a moment). Her is not revenge for Lost in Translation, certainly not in any ordinary sense. It is a remake and a heightening, a science fictional literalization of the horizon toward which the earlier film points: a self-transcending aesthetic transhumanism. Sofia Coppola appears to have abandoned this ethic for something a lot more traditional—just plain humanism—if the sentimental Somewhere and the satirical Bling Ring are anything to go by. So maybe the gossip-mongers are on to something: living well is the best revenge.
2. Code 46. The only clear road I can see from the Los Angeles of today to the Los Angeles of Her‘s future involves a war. The level of rebuilding—and of implicit ethnic cleansing or “population transfer”—the film depicts would have to be the consequence of previous devastation. If I had to speculate on the backstory, I would suggest a global confrontation won by China, which in the postwar period will have provided a kind of Marshall Plan for the defeated U.S. (and filled in the San Andreas fault to boot—otherwise, who would want to live in all those new L. A. high-rises with the Big One looming as a possibility?). Alternately, perhaps the U.S. won, and we’re seeing the cultural effects of its incorporation of its former foe. Carman Tse understandably discusses the film in terms of “the Yellow Scare,” but where’s the scare? Jonze’s film appears to welcome its posited trans-Pacific future, to glamorize it, to make what Zizek keeps getting in trouble for calling “capitalism with Asian values” a desirable destination. And Jonze succeeds. (Which of course isn’t to say Orientalism isn’t present in Her, only that it’s present in the key of reifying valorization rather than demonization.) Her presents a future in which what Shanghai-based neo-reactionary British philosopher Nick Land calls the Dark Enlightenment has won. A post-democratic world comprising an archipelago of capitalist city-states that culturally favor a highly self-controlled and therefore free elite with relatively Classical and/or Confucian aesthetic values has become the new normal. This reactionary-modernist Enlightenment is not dark in Her because it is not counter-hegemonic in the film’s world. Its sociopolitical power frees it up to be an object of disinterested artistic representation, shorn of Dark Enlightenment’s present and rather ludicrous Gothic/Lovecraftian trappings: call it the Pastel Enlightenment. Samantha Morton, the original voice of Samantha, was perhaps edited out of this film because her presence would have unavoidably suggested the grim truth that Michael Winterbottom’s great leftist film Code 46—and maybe Spielberg’s great liberal film Minority Report too—are also plausibly set in the Pastel Enlightenment utopia.
3. Children of Men. Here’s some textual evidence from Her. We realize Theodore Twombly is erotically lonely at the beginning of the film when he goes out of his way to look at naked photos of a pregnant actress on his phone as he rides public transport. Later, he attempts to masturbate to this mental image, but he is checked when his phone sex partner intrudes with a morbid fetish fantasy about wanting to be strangled with a dead cat. Theodore’s best friend, Amy, is employed as some kind of video game designer; during the time frame of Her, she is working on a game whose protagonist is a harried and overworked suburban mom. In her spare time, she attempts to make a plangent Warholesque documentary about her own mother sleeping. One of the most important relationships in Theodore’s life is with his four-year-old goddaughter, who appears to live outside the city and is bemused by Samantha. Theodore goes on disastrous date with a woman who speaks of her loving and horny dog and who tells him that she doesn’t want to “waste her time” with men who will not call after sex, a phrase that evokes the proverbial biological clock; after she says this, Theodore essentially becomes repelled by her. Theodore’s failed marriage was childless, as was Amy’s. In short, the city in Her is a childless place, its denizens unwilling or unable to reproduce, its children remanded to extraurban spaces. The film practically begins with Theodore’s interest in the pregnant woman, so a naive reading would posit this is as his true and natural desire, thwarted by the loveless technocracy that produces Theodore’s inauthentic job of writing emotive letters on behalf others. But what if Theodore’s desire for a pregnant woman is a desire the film exists to educate him (and us) out of? What if the film’s teleology, in which artificial intelligence ascends wholly to the noosphere and humanity climbs to the roof and longs to follow, represents unironically its desideratum? (And what if no-future queer theory is the same thing as the Dark Enlightenment?) Her replaces genes with memes, eugenics with eumemics. Like Uncle Plato, it counsels the superiority of non-biological ideational reproduction to mere animal spawning. Alfonso Cuarón, by contrast, is a Christian filmmaker: his Children of Men exalts a biological birth as a new Incarnation for unredeemed capitalist humanity, while his Gravity warns us against space-faring hubris and urges its bereft-mother heroine to take her barefoot stand on God’s good earth. Spike Jonze is not a Christian filmmaker; there are no mothers in his movie, and his urbanites are impeccably shod.
4. Ulysses. But comparing Her with other 21st-century movies can only take us so far. More distant cinematic antecedents do suggest themselves. Somebody in some blog comment compared Samantha to HAL 9000, which is smart—but then Samantha would have to be the Star Child too, which reverses Kubrick’s New-Leftish naturalist intention as I understand it. Let’s go back even further. What made me think of Ulysses was a fancied resemblance between Theodore Twombly, sad-happy urban flâneur, genial pervert, avatar of the commodified word, and Leopold Bloom. Theodore’s co-worker even tells him, “You are part man and part woman; like there’s an inner part that’s a woman,” a quote that offends Maria Bustillos, who sees it as evidence of the film’s solipsism. This solipsism, though, is what the aforementioned Virginia Woolf understood by “feminism,” and what in the work of both Woolf and Joyce would come to be called “modernism.” In the Nighttown fantasia of Ulysses, a farcical medical student diagnoses Leopold Bloom, that quintessential 20th-century boy, in terms that strikingly apply to Theodore Twombly:
Professor Bloom is a finished example of the new womanly man. His moral nature is simple and lovable. Many have found him a dear man, a dear person. He is a rather quaint fellow on the whole, coy though not feebleminded in the medical sense. He has written a really beautiful letter, a poem in itself, to the court missionary of the Reformed Priests’ Protection Society which clears up everything.
Bloom, you’ll recall, followed the medical students on a riot to Nighttown when they left the maternity hospital where Mrs. Purefoy gave birth after a protracted labor. There, Bloom had hymned maternity and denounced both onanism and family planning in a passage that borrows its style of prophetic misogyny from the most beloved canonical writer of the Dark Enlightenment, Thomas Carlyle:
Copulation without population! No, say I! Herod’s slaughter of the innocents were the truer name. Vegetables, forsooth, and sterile cohabitation! Give her beefsteaks, red, raw, bleeding! She is a hoary pandemonium of ills, enlarged glands, mumps, quinsy, bunions, hayfever, bedsores, ringworm, floating kidney, Derbyshire neck, warts, bilious attacks, gallstones, cold feet, varicose veins. A truce to threnes and trentals and jeremies and all such congenital defunctive music! Twenty years of it, regret them not. With thee it was not as with many that will and would and wait and never—do. Thou sawest thy America, thy lifetask, and didst charge to cover like the transpontine bison.
And yet Bloom follows not his genetic but his memetic son out of the repro-futurist maternity hospital and into the no-future red-light district, and this in a novel that celebrates the replicative powers of language rather than those of flesh, a novel whose watchword is not population but, well, pick your favorite term of anti-organicist vituperation from the Theory lexicon whose lexicographers all went to school with Joyce: dissemination, textuality, deterritorialization, desire, et cetera and ad nauseam.* And so what if such modernism leads us to a rooftop in genocide-gentrified Los Angeles, waiting to follow omni-intelligence out of the prison of the flesh? Our new reactionaries will give this conclusion three cheers, not least because they can at last drop Lovecraft and read Woolf and Joyce like proper grown-ups, while our old reactionaries will shake their heads and say they warned us long ago that modernism was a dangerous new gnosticism. And our progressives? They make a lot of noise these days, but in the face of something like Her—a work of and about and for them that nevertheless registers as the gorgeous prophecy of everything they claim to oppose—all their Twitter-Tumblr bluster sounds to me like the cover for so much guilty silence.
*Being a memetic son myself, I gratefully take this reading of “Oxen of the Sun” from a book written by the supervisor of my doctoral dissertation (see chapter 5), who is obviously not to be blamed for anything said above.