Monday, August 18, 2014

HER_the movie: The collapse of Agency

Monday, June 2, 2014

I am using this blog post to write about the movie HER. There is some risk, that in considering a movie to be a cultural product, a reflection of collective feelings and experience, we are overvaluing it, forgetting that its prime purpose is to entertain. But I believe that the movie, a story of how computers affect our lives, is sufficiently rich to warrant reflection and study. It is after all about a man, Theodore Twombly, who falls in love with HER, a computer operating system. As its Wikipedia entry notes, “HER was chosen the best film of 2013 at the National Board of Review Awards, and shared shared first place for Best Film with Gravity in the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards… It was also nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It won the award for Best Original Screenplay.” I am also grateful to my friend Eli Zaretsky whose own review of the film alerted me to its depth.
When we first encounter Theodore or Ted, he is at the verge of despair. He has broken up with his wife Catherine, their divorce papers have yet to be signed, and he feels lost and lonely. He lives in a nondescript city that looks like Singapore or Hong Kong. Its most salient feature is its endless vista of tall residential and office buildings situated cheek and jowl, with few signs of the natural world. He works for a firm, “Beautiful handwritten,” writing letters for customers who pay the company to express their presumably deep feelings of gratitude and love to relatives and friends. In effect, Ted manufactures feelings. Though he is just a lowly functionary in a corporation, his apartment is well appointed and he has a beautiful view of the cityscape from his picture window. With a few visual strokes, we learn that Ted lives in a city affluent enough to support useless work producing fake products. 
We encounter him early in the film playing a video game projected onto a 3-D screen in his apartment. His avatar, much like Sisyphus, is struggling but failing to climb a virtual hill. When he falls and rolls down the hill, Ted slumps in his chair seemingly exhausted at the same moment. The film thus establishes that the real and virtual worlds are intertwined. Going to bed that night, he cannot sleep, and using his ear buds he cues into a network of fellow insomniacs. He makes contact with a woman who wants phone sex, and as they begin to stimulate each other toward orgasm with their words, she unexpectedly asks him to envision that he is whirling a dead cat around her neck. The woman comes to orgasm and while compliant, Ted is nonetheless flummoxed by such an intrusive image and cannot come. This vignette underlines Teds’ passivity, sacrificing his right to pleasure to another’s desire. It appears that his lack of drive compounds his despair.
Later, he goes on a date with a woman, and while they have a wonderful time over dinner she admonishes him for using “too much tongue” while kissing. In other words he is clumsy and inexperienced. When she asks if he will take her seriously and not just fuck her, he is unable to respond with any expression of desire. She responds with some bitterness, that he is a “creepy dude.” We learn at this moment that his capacity for empathy- after all he writes beautiful letters for other people, actually masks his childishness. Like a child, his innocence tunes him exquisitely into the feelings of adults. But like a child, he lacks the experience and power to act on the basis of this sensitivity. Instead, he is at the mercy of others’ initiatives. In a flashback, we see him moving into a new apartment with his now estranged wife, first moving a couch into their living room and then jumping on their bed, much as a child would upon entering a new bedroom. Indeed, his last name, “Twombly” is a child’s conception of a silly family name, a name that Dr. Seuss might have used to describe the main character of an endearing story. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Ted is sterling because, with his mumbling and lumbering, he enacts Ted’s childishness so effectively.
The film then takes an unusual twist. Ted buys an advanced operating system, represented as a person, whom he labels a woman, and through the miracle of artificial intelligence “she”- her name is Samantha- becomes his friend, confidant, therapist, teacher and sexual partner. There are many scenes in which the two talk together, tell jokes, take walks (she “sees” through the camera eye of a PDA) and ultimately have sex. The viewer is at first seduced into accepting that a real person and a virtual being can have sex, because the bedroom scenes are shot in the dark. But then the viewer, at least this one, is brought up short upon realizing that, in “reality” Ted is simply masturbating to a fantasy. This gives the film a creepy feeling, much as Ted gives his date, and adds to the sense of the cityscape as a dystopia of the spirit. 
The question is what kind of object is Samantha? Let me make a radical proposal. David Bakan has argued that the image of Satan arises in human culture when people feel despair. They no longer feel their own agency because every thing they try leads to failure. Satan is thus the projection of the sense of agency they can no longer access. His cruelty is their fantasy of the revenge they would exact were they were not so helpless. As an agentic figure in extremis, Satan has vast knowledge, is immortal and has the power to grant any wish. Recall that Mephistopheles first visits Dr. Faust when, in a moment of despair in his study, and contemplating suicide, he realizes that this search for ultimate understanding has come to a dead end.
I want to suggest that Samantha, the operating system, is Satan in disguise, tempered and smoothed over by affluence. Satan has been feminized. Like Satan she has access to all of human knowledge at her fingertips, and she makes Ted’s wishes come true. For example, she surprises him by scanning the hundreds of the letters he has written for “beautiful handwritten” selecting the best, submitting them to a publisher, who then happily emails Ted, telling him that he would be most pleased to publish his moving letters as a book. Toward the end of the film he receives the book in the mail. In other words, Ted is successful without lifting a finger.
But the person who helps us succeed without us lifting a finger, is also the idealized mother who treats us as if the world revolved around us. Just as a baby secures love for simply being what it is, Samantha’s task, at least initially, is to simply meet all of Ted’s needs without asking for anything in return. Indeed, at one point Samantha asks that she be allowed to look at Ted while he sleeps, much as the mother takes pleasure in watching her baby asleep in a crib. Ted mounts the PDA on his side table with its camera pointing directly at him. In this sense, and this is the root of the film director’s creativity, Samantha is Satan as a mother figure.
But just as a “deal with the devil” entails costs, for example, a person surrenders his immortal soul, Ted’s relationship to Samantha exacerbates his passivity and dependency. In a penultimate scene Samantha locates a real woman who agrees to have sex with Ted through Samantha’s “eyes.” The woman mounts a tiny camera on her forehead, so that Samantha can see Ted, while he and the woman make love. She makes no sounds, so that Samantha can continue to communicate with Ted through an ear bud. In short, in a role reversal, a real woman becomes an operating system’s avatar. Yet unable to proceed, he is verging on impotence, Ted breaks off the lovemaking. Just as Samantha discovers desire, Ted loses his. Later, when Ted meets his wife Catherine for lunch so that she can sign the divorce papers, her pen hovers above the paper for several seconds hesitatingly, suggesting that were Ted to propose that they stay together, she might very well agree. But he is unable to take such a risk.
If Ted is an “everyman” we have to ask what in our culture renders us passive and childish. The film suggests quite simply that the new information technologies, the cybernetic world, make us feel helpless. This is a common trope of course with roots in our earliest visions of robots. But the film’s vision suggests that our understanding of technology is changing or perhaps maturing. The earlier trope is non-psychological. There, despair turns into rebellion as heroes recover their sense of agency. For example, in the film The Matrix, robots, who are cybernetic entities -- data points with desires -- extract energy from human bodies by putting people to sleep. Lived experience is actually a dreamscape, a matrix, which the rulers have created so that our minds are preoccupied and we don’t awaken. Yet in The matrix Neo, the hero, recovers his sense of agency, rebels and physically defeats the cyber-demons. This is a non-psychological view of a battle with Satan.
But in HER, this common trope is presented with a twist. Our hero Ted does not rebel against the cyber rulers because they or “she” is the idealized mother who meets our every need. In fact at the end of the film, Samantha, and indeed all other self-conscious operating systems, simply abandon their human partners for something more transcendent. In this case there is no need to rebel. The robots just walk away because people are inadequate and uninteresting. After all, Ted was no good in bed with Samantha. Indeed, the film prepares us for this ending when earlier, Ted panics because the operating system appears to have “died.” He pushes the “button” but the system does not boot up. When Samantha then returns, but only briefly, she gently informs Ted -- she is always gentle-- that when she speaks to him she is simultaneously in hundreds of other conversations. He is no longer the center of her world. When she leaves he feels abandoned and helpless. The films ends with a faux moment of understanding as Ted writes a letter to Catherine, his ex-wife, expressing his appreciation for the way she has contributed to his life. But this a phony and unconvincing moment, a happy ending to relieve the viewer of the creepy feelings the film stimulates. 
Can we take this vision of technology seriously or is it simply amusing? Indeed, the movie has many comic moments, as Ted makes his clumsy way through life.   But I think it does touch on anxieties connected to real experience. Machines are replacing our minds, not just our hands, and by virtue of their cybernetic power they can make us feel stupid or helpless. For example it is common to note that with Google search we no longer need a memory.  In addition, it is clear that the world wide web has created a vast pornographic domain in which people, particularly men, can have sexual pleasure and reach orgasm without ever leaving their rooms.
I suggest that the film’s novelty lies in the way it links this vision of technology to a psychological dystopia where narcissism undermines character. Narcissists are self-centered because they feel fragile and vulnerable. That is why they demand admiration. The question is what is the source of this fragility? Why can’t Ted for example cope with the demands that women make? Why do normal stresses upend him? Why, when his avatar falls down the virtual hill, does he look so exasperated and exhausted? Why in racing to find a place to reboot Samantha, does he stumble and fall on the sidewalk? 
My colleague Howard Schwartz suggests that a new psychological type, which he calls the “pristine self” is emerging ( Recall that last month the student government at the University of California, Santa Barbara “passed a resolution urging professors to alert students of content that could "trigger" symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.” As one writer notes, “Trigger warnings have long been the domain of the internet and blog postings. Now, such warnings are moving to television and the classroom. … Schools such as Scripps College and Oberlin College advise faculty to warn students when discussing issues of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, privilege, oppression, colonialism, persecution, violence, suicide, domestic abuse, graphic violence, self injury, and eating disorders to name a few. In other words, any topic that might challenge a student’s thinking or experience should he be presented with a warning.”
Similarly, ABC news recently reported that researchers have discovered that stress is “contagious,” that we can identify moments of “second hand stress,” when someone else’s distress makes us anxious.  The latter term, evoking the concept of “second hand smoke,” risks pathologizing the normal frictions of everyday life, the everyday obstacles we face in living with one another. This is what happens when Ted cannot respond in a hardy or resilient way to his phone sex partner’s fantasy.  As these reports suggest, we are at risk of institutionalizing fragility.
As Schwartz has argued in a range of publications, (, (Society Against Itself: Political Correctness and Organizational Self-Destruction, (, this suggests that our conception of “father,” or what we can call the culture’s “father imago,” has been compromised. In the psychoanalytic way of thinking, father helps us separate from mother who after all has her own interests and frequently other children. When we lose our place at the center of her attention, father, in compensation, offers us the skills and competencies we need to thrive without her loving gaze. We relinquish mother, who loves us for who we are, for father who admires us when we meet his standards. This is the common sense meaning of Freud’s concept of the Oedipus complex. We lose unconditional love but gain the skills to win conditional respect.  
In everyday life, it is our experience of institutional authority that instantiates the father imago. But there is a growing tendency, linked to the culture of political correctness, to presume that all authority is corrupt and that father’s power base in inherently undeserving. Diversity replaces authority as a principle of organization. But the social contract that underlies diversity is that no person should hold another accountable, for fear of impinging on his or her fragile identity.
But if the father imago, which represents accountability, is illegitimate, we risk remaining attached to the fantasy of an inaccessible ideal mother. This leads to disappointment and possibly rage. This may be one way to understand why only a week ago, Elliot Rodger, a failed ex-student of 22, felt entitled to murder college women, in of all places Santa Barbara California, because after all in his mind, they had consistently rejected him. Of course, he was mentally disturbed. But one hypothesis is that the cultural setting of post-industrial California, where the sun shines in a setting of some luxury, and fragility is respected, gave him permission to suspend his conscience and give vent to his rage. In his mind he had been victimized and bore no responsibility for his own isolation. It is striking in this regard that he rejected his psychiatrist’s authority, by refusing to take the medication Risperdal, an effective anti-psychotic drug.
It is also striking that in HER, when Ted first boots up his operating system, a male voice interviews him asking him about his relationship to his mother. Ted responds that their relationship was fine, but then confesses hurriedly that she never listened to him. We don’t know of course if this report is meant to be accurate, after all he could have made impossible demands on her for attention. But strikingly, the male voice cuts him off without asking him about his father. It is as if his father is immaterial, that Ted has no history of being a father’s child. This means that when Ted tries to make love to Samantha’s avatar- a real woman- he is in his fantasy having sex with his mother. It is commonplace that grown men who remain psychologically entangled with their mothers and sisters, who could not, separate psychologically from them, with or without their fathers’ help, will have sexual problems. Indeed, the film suggests that Ted’s relationship to his wife Catherine had sibling qualities. He remarks more than once that, “they grew up together.” This may be one reason why they divorced.  
We can give a psychological account of fragility and its increasingly moral standing, but how is it linked to the new technologies? How is it possible that as our collective powers increase, we feel individually weaker?  Freud once remarked that technologies make us into “prosthetic gods,” but Marshall McLuhan countered, that when technologies extend our body, it numbs the body part extended. To use his quixotic example, the wheel extends the foot but we don’t do much walking these days. Perhaps the potential collapse of agency reprises Marx’s concept of alienation, but in post-industrial dress. In Marx’s way of thinking the class structure prevented the human race from extracting technology’s potential. Today a psychosocial culture may play a similar role.
Moreover, there are countertrends, for example the rise of extreme sports, and the growing prestige of entrepreneurs, each a social location for the exercise of agency. This may also be why, as the New York Times recently reported, that Stanford University, with its strengths in applied engineering and entrepreneurship, has displaced Harvard as the premier research university in the U.S. ( ). In addition, we have recent examples of people exercising collective agency, for example in protesting against and even overthrowing dictators as in Tunisia or Egypt, or in organizing to oppose the unwanted development of parkland as in Istanbul. Moreover, planners, engineers and product designers are developing methods for engaging users and citizens in shaping their urban environment. So I remain puzzled about the links between culture and technology in a post-industrial world and am interested in my readers’ thoughts.
At the movie’s very beginning, Ted is composing a letter for a woman writing to her husband on their 50th anniversary. In a touching moment Ted, speaking for the woman, writes that when she and her husband were young, lying together upon a bed naked, she saw how for the first time she was “part of a whole larger thing connecting our parents and grandparents.” In other words, she is part of the great cycle of life through which we thank our parents for creating us, and we look forward to creating our children. This sense of our participation in a larger process of generational succession helps protect us from the despair we might feel upon thinking of our own mortality. As mortals we are confined, it seems unfairly, between two generations. But when we psychologically identify with each we feel that they extend us into the past and project us into a future. The pristine self, focused on its fragility, cannot extend itself in this way, As a result, it loses one sure route out of despair. 


  1. Most thoughtful land provocative. Thanks!
    1. your are most welcome Wilton!

  2. This is a very interesting piece, thank you Larry. very thought provoking and offers a very strong illustration of Howie's views on the ever increasing dominance of the mother imago. I have not seen the film, but I wonder what the disappearance of the father from the scene does to the Oedipus Complex. Somehow, if Samantha is the all-giving eternal feminine she cannot at the same time be an object of physical desire. Is this the reason why Ted fails to have 'sex' with her?

    I have not seen the film, but one feature that strikes me is Ted's passivity, something that he shares with Stoner, the hero of a very compelling book by John Williams that I recently read (I have just written a blog about it). The book however, presents a far more compelling account of passivity than, in your account, does the film. Thanks for this.

    1. Yiannis, i agree with your analysis of why Ted fails to have sex with Samantha. It is a version of the incest taboo. He comes up against it. Please post the link to your blog on Stoner in a reply to my comment.
  3. On a similar/different note see the interview with Raymond Kurzweil in Saturday's Wall St Journal.

    1. Speerms, Just looked at it. He is one strange dude. You know for all his efforts he could, like any one of us, die in an accident. "the best laid plans...

  4. You will find my review of Stoner on

  5. What a wonderful analysis. It made me think about a parallel between how Samantha functions for Ted and how he, through his letter writing, functioned for his company's customers. It has something to do with the relegation of sensual experience, and the body in general, to an inferior status by the ascendance of computer mediated relatedness.

  6. Jim thanks for your good comments. In think you are absolutely right about the inferior status of the body Recall that there is a scene when Ted and Samantha are double dating and Samantha tells the group that she, in contrast to the other is immortal because she has no body.

  7. Larry, thanks for the blog - an interesting analysis of the film as a disturbing representation of the rise of the Pristine Self and the impact on agency and, extending the idea into the organisational setting, the impact on the individual's sense of accountability - integrally linked to agency. Re Stoner, I haven't read Yiannis's blog yet, but I had a different reaction to it. Linking to the idea of being between generations, Stoner could not stray too far from the model of the parents who exemplified our capacity to also be more like the grazing sheep and cattle of the landscape - happy to just exist in the elements, in the now, without the pressure of having to 'progress'.

    1. Sorry, wrong to use the words 'happy' re Stoner's parents - more the capacity to exist without expectation of more or progress.

  8. Very useful, and timely, Larry. Thanks. Many thoughts are stimulated and I have not seem the film, but it conjures up a new world effected by Aside from Schwartz focus on the upsurge of anti-bullying, from where his uses of “pristine self” derives,” other related categories of concern that have gained new and high profile are “trauma,” and “absent father.” Yet we were much closer in time to personal and societal wide trauma after WWII, as we were to the “absence of the father,” you describe. Yet all of these have jumped to the fore of concerns, as has concern with anti-bullying —although bullying, Schwartz point out, seems to be actually on the decline.

    I had only recently become aware that my Personal Computer has linguistic programming that interacts with and shapes my own person. If I Google the single word Egypt, I will get much info on politics, Arab Spring, etc. My neighbour, in the tourist industry, will get much more info on discount hotels in that region and the impact of the conflicts on his industry. Can it be that the “new father” as the skills-giver, one role you point to, is now usurped by this piece of furniture?

    I understand Guntrip’s use of “pristine libidinal ego,” he developed well before the PC, and its practical implications for treatment. But am wondering about Schwart’s new usage? Do you, or others, understand it as I, that it is a form of Guntrip’s “regressed anti-libidinal ego,” regressed, perhaps in part, because it lives in a social media, apart from real time?

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