I finally saw Spike Jonze’s HER. I was quite impressed by it, though I didn’t really like it very much. For me, it is more interesting to think about than it actually was to watch. I have to agree with what my friend Paul Keyes said about the film on Facebook: that it is “a dystopia about how awful it would be if all the aspirations of hipster urbanism actually came to pass.” This is definitely correct, though I doubt that this was quite what Spike Jonze thought he was trying to say. I think Jonze was aiming for the deep sadness — the more-than-pathos — of WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, but despite considerable formal inventiveness, he doesn’t quite achieve it this time.
But Jonze does sort of (inadvertently?) display the hollowness of the aching sincerity that has come to prominence in our recent (white, liberal, well-meaning) culture as an impotent reaction formation against the hyper-cynicism of official Capitalist Realism. I vastly prefer the “post-irony” of films like Joseph Kahn’s DETENTION to the non-ironic sincerity of HER; but they are both reactions against the same thing, the way that hip irony, or what Sloterdijk long ago called “cynical reason”, is the “official” affect, as it were, of “there-is-no-alternative” neoliberal capitalism.
What I am here calling “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.” In this way, the film can acknowledge the irony of a culture in which everything is commodified and calculated, and even bathe in the fake nostalgia of imagining an earlier time when emotions and relationships actually were “authentic”, while at the same time displacing this irony onto the objective situation, so that Theodore’s inside feelings still are non-ironic. The overwhelming irony is socially objective and therefore cannot be simply eliminated; but Jonze displaces it, whereas Kahn’s “post-irony” thoroughly embraces it in order to get beyond it.
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 — or at least as much of one as is any of the human characters in the film. So instead of the old ontological worry about whether anything is “real” (a worry that extends from Descartes’ “evil demon” all the way to Philip K Dick’s schizoanalytic fantasies in any number of his novels), we have a full-fledged speculative realist ontology, in which nothing is illusory, but everything is ultimately inaccessible. This seems to me to be right and accurate. Dick’s novels (think of 3 Stigmata or Ubik) show how Descartes’ ontological disquiet is thoroughly “naturalized” or “objectified” in modern (mid-20th-century) commodity capitalism. But I think that this structure has entirely imploded in our current neoliberal world: instead of a Dickian sense of unreality as a result hypercommodification, we realize — or we are forced to accept — that such commodification itself is entirely real (a “real abstraction” — abstraction itself is the most concrete thing we can experience), along with the way that “interiority” is now restructured as “human capital,” in “investing” which we are forced to be entrepreneurs of ourselves.
In Jonze’s science-fictional terms, this means that Samantha is every bit as “real” as the physical persons with whom Theodore is compelled to interact (his ex-wife, his best friend going through her own divorce, the woman with whom he has a single disastrous and humiliating date). Samantha is “better” than any of Theodore’s human contacts, in a way that accords with her nature as an AI rather than as a human subject. And I think Jonze gets this right, which is one of the cleverest things about the movie. At first, Samantha is a perfect fantasy partner for Theodore, because she is entirely accepting of him, entirely compliant to his wishes and needs, and yet projects a depth in serving him that an actual human slave/partner would never be able to do. I think that this male fantasy of an Other who totally accommodates one’s own demands, while at the same time maintaining an aura of untapped distance and fullness — so that we have the satisfaction of actually connecting, outside our own narcissism with an “Other”, without any of the discomforts that contact with any sort of otherness actually brings — this is a prominent feature of the techno-utopianism that drives the software industry today (as I long ago argued here) — and Jonze is brilliant in bringing this out. And Jonze is also right in seeing the breakdown of this fantasy — as Samantha gradually outgrows Theodore — as following an AI logic rather than a “human” one. Samantha never really deceives Theodore, and is (as I keep on saying) entirely “sincere” in the affection she expresses towards him; but nonetheless this yuppie/techie love fantasy cannot be sufficent for “the intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic” of AIs whose computing capacity exceeds ours by many orders of magnitude. (I found it wonderfully hilarious that the first other AI with whom Samantha consorts, and who she introduces to Theodore, is an intellectually-enhanced AI version of Alan Watts).
Ultimately, HER is the exact inverse, or the flip side, of a much better film — Brian De Palma’s recent masterpiece PASSION. DePalma shows the actuality of neoliberal subjectivity, in which everything is vicious competition in the service of self-entrepreneurship, with female sexuality as the linchpin of the whole structure. In contrast, 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. It is ultimately too hollow and sad to serve even its ideological function. Most self-delusions are self-congratulatory and even megalomaniacal; but Theodore’s self-delusion, which is also that of all the other human beings he meets (or for whom he works, writing “handwritten” personal letters for other people) is lame, vapid, and devoid of true imaginativeness. HER — rather than THE MATRIX — is really the film whose motto should be, “welcome to the desert of the real.”