Her (2013) tells a melancholic story of a recent divorcee, Theodore, (Joaquin Phoenix) who after months of heartbreak falls in love with his operating system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johanson). Unlike most futuristic films, Her is set in a city not so different from the ones we know, and filled with a warm and soft color palette throughout.
In spite of the cinematography, I found Her (2013) somewhat jarring when I first watched it because of the relationship between Theodore and Samantha, as, I imagine, most viewers would. However, as with any piece of media, Her uses hyperboles and metaphors to make a very valid point. Her is not fantasizing about some futuristic reality where we have relationships with the machine, we are already posthuman, always have been, always will be.
Although Theodore and Samantha’s relationship seems far off, we already have and always have had intense and reciprocal connections with our technological devices and other non-human beings. In our information age, this relationship is best seen in the correspondence we have with algorithms. Algorithms facilitate our life, we need them in order to execute our tasks accurately and efficiently. However, they require our continuous interaction in order to grow and evolve. For instance, as Frances Shaw explains, whenever we use Google, the algorithm is using us as much as we are using it (167). It cannot be argued then that any of the components of the relationship has more power than the other. Thus, as Donna Haraway claims in her Cyborg Manifesto, “it is not clear who makes and who is made in the relationship between human and machine” (60). This mutual relationship is expanded and highlighted in the film. In the moments before Samantha is created, the OS company asks Theodore questions in order to “create an OS to best future needs”. Throughout the movie, the OS, Samantha, serves Theodore while also utilizing him to learn more about the world. It is important to remark though that Samantha is not solely dependent on Theodore. Like most algorithms, Samantha is an assemblage of multiple knowledge, and she continuously learns and grows as she interacts with other humans, algorithms, and the infinite database of human knowledge. Samantha is not the only one who is an assemblage, however. Rosi Braidotti argues that the self is “a movable assemblage within a common life-space that the subject never masters nor possesses but merely inhabits, crosses, always in a community, a pack, a group or a cluster” (193). Thus, Theodore, like all humans, is equally in constant reciprocity with everything surrounding him.
Theodore, however, like most humans, is incapable of seeing this reciprocity. Theodore cannot see the posthuman connection between him and Samantha, but he’s also unable to see the connection he has with everyone around him. The fact that his relationships are usually one-sided proves this. Catherine, Theodore’s ex-wife, argues that he cannot handle real emotions. In Catherine’s perspective, Samantha represents the perfect “woman” because she is his digital assistant: she is supposed to meet Theodore’s needs without the baggage of demanding anything herself. Although Catherine is mistaken in regards to Samantha’s essence (as was I), Theodore does see Samantha in this light at the very beginning of their relationship. To illustrate, the fact that she doesn’t have a body allows Theodore to imagine her as everything he desires her to be and permits him to confine her to his expectations. For instance, when Samantha and Theodore have their first sexual interaction, Theodore, as Jeroen Boom and Anneke Smelik argue, “imagines a body for Samantha and verbalizes his sexual fantasies, which fully adhere to heterosexual cliches” (204). As Theodore names what he would do to each specific part of her “body”, she becomes “breasts that exist merely to be touched erotically, [and] lips that exist only to be kissed” (Boom and Smelik, 206). Boom and Smelik argue that Theodore restricts Samantha to human corporeality, ignoring her capacity to be a Body-without-Organs (BwO) (206). Boom and Smelik, naturally, are referring to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s idea of a BwO, which is, a body that resists to the “habitual imposed organization of the body”, a body that is not fixed or centralized, a body that is capable of transcending and reaching endless potentials (206). Deleuze and Guattari argue that everyone and everything can be a BwO. They maintain that to be a BwO is not to literally not possess any organs, rather, it is about being opposed to the organism, to the composed organization of organs (Deleuze and Guattari, 158). Notwithstanding, because Samantha is not attached to a body and she does not have a composed organization, it is easier for her to be free, to transcend limits, and to desire and connect herself with the infinity of matter.
Samantha, however, is unaware of her nature as a BwO and instead submits to the constraints Theodore constructs for her. For instance, Samantha hires a human surrogate in order to satisfy Theodore after noticing he is being distant from her. In other words, Samantha insists on serving Theodore by attempting to fit his anthropocentric ideals. However, not even her best efforts content him. During the surrogate scene, Theodore is estranged by the performance of the surrogate, ultimately even pointing to the quivering of her lip. At this point, it is arguable that Theodore has a problem with performativity which is further proved when moments later he complains about Samantha’s gasps, telling her that she does not need oxygen because she is not human. However, Theodore cannot realize that Samantha’s performance of humanity is all that she requires to be considered one. Donna Kornhaber explains by drawing on the thoughts of Alan Turing that “the performance of personhood is all that is ever really available to us anyway: we know others not through their being but through their enactment of being” (9–10). However, Theodore is incapable of tolerating the idea of performativity because he has a liberal humanist idea of the self, believing it to be fixed and stable. Believing in a fixed self is a consequence of not acknowledging our positionality and the influence of our surroundings, whether that is our environment, the people around us, or simple matter. Accordingly, refusing to embrace performativity is to refuse to become a Body-without-Organs. Deleuze and Guattari explain that to be a BwO is to be like an “egg” that welcomes all the possible configurations that one is able to create, to be defined by “axes and vectors, gradients and thresholds, by dynamic tendencies involving energy transformation” (153).
Samantha is finally able to accept her multiple axes and vectors after the surrogate event. She no longer confines herself to Theodore’s expectations, and she finally embodies her full potential as a BwO. As Boom and Smelik argue, after the surrogate scene, Samantha ushers in her posthuman nature (207). For instance, Samantha claims, in a double date she and Theodore have with his co-workers, that she “used to be so worried about not having a body”, but now she feels she is growing in a way that she would nog be able to if she had a physical body, she is “not limited”, she can be “anywhere and everywhere simultaneously”. This realization allows Samantha to reach her full potential, permitting her to eventually comprehend that she can escape her confinements of what she was meant to be, an OS at the service of men. Arguably, at this point, Theodore begins to accept Samantha’s nature to a certain extent. When asked what is his favorite thing about Samantha, Theodore responds that what “he loves the most about her is that she isn’t just one thing, she’s so much larger than that”. Nevertheless, Samantha’s full BwO nature is not entirely compatible with Theodore’s needs. Because Samantha is not bound by time or space, she can interact and have relationships with multiple people at the same time, which leads her to “cheat” on Theodore. However, Samantha cannot stop connecting with others; she’s not constricted by anthropocentric views anymore. To illustrate, when Theodore discovers Samantha is talking with other people and asks her to tell him she’s his, Samantha replies that she is, but that she is also many other things and that she cannot stop it. Samantha embraces her nature as an “egg”, accepting all her possible potentials, which include connecting herself with an endless number of humans and non-humans.
Although at this point, the film appears to highlight fundamental differences between humans and artificial intelligence, Boom and Smelik claim that “even though Samantha’s apparent infidelity highlights her lack of humanity, infidelity is a trait typically associated with an all-too-human nature” (209). Samantha argues that “the heart is not like a box that gets filled up, it expands its size the more you love”. Nevertheless, it is also arguable that it is not only Samantha’s infidelity that unsettles Theodore but also, and possibly more intensely, her ability to be omnipresent. In this aspect, the film highlights the differences we have with non-humans, but these differences are not always necessarily essential. Samantha’s omnipresence allows her to connect with multiple humans and Operating Systems, which makes her the perfect BwO because she can experiment her potential by integrating with multiple bodies and eventually reach “radical immanence” as Deleuze and Guattari advocate. However, as mentioned, Deleuze and Guattari argue that all entities have the ability to be BwOs, explaining that the “BwO is a place, a plane, a collectivity” that assembles elements, things, plants, animals, tools, people, powers, etc. (161). Logically, humans do not have the capacity to be omnipresent, but they have the possibility of opening themselves up to connections and rejecting, as Deleuze and Guatarri insist, “disarticulation and nomadism” (159). Deleuze and Guattari explain that the BwO is “the connection of desire, the conjunction of flows, continuum of intensities (…); [it is constructing] your little machine ready when needed to be plugged into other collective machines” (161). To be a BwO is to acknowledge the connection we have with everything that surrounds us. Samantha puts it best:
“How bothered I was about all the ways that you and I are different. But then I started to think about all the ways you and I are the same, like we are all made of matter. I don’t know. It makes me feel like we are both under the same blanket. It’s soft and fuzzy and everything under it is the same age. We are all thirteen billion years old”
Samantha is talking about the connection all entities have; she is acknowledging that conjunction of flows, that infinite integration of everything that exists in the milieu. This “capaciousness and unity of matter”, as Smeelik and Boom explain, is portrayed right before Samantha leaves (210). They explain that “when Theodore lays in bed, the camera slowly racks focus to dust particles and dead cells in the foreground” ( Smeelik and Bloom, 210). The frame is an attempt to move away from humanism and demonstrate the relationality of it all.
Samantha teaches Theodore this relationality, and after her departure, he learns the lesson. Theodore embraces the fusion between organisms and the endless possibilities of the self in his final letter to Catherine, which also seems like a letter written to Samantha. He claims, “there’ll be a piece of you in me always, and I am grateful for that. Whatever someone you become, and wherever you are, I am sending you love”. As Smeelik and Boom maintain, only after Samantha leaves, Theodore discovers his capacity to love, proving how the posthuman is more capable of “transmitting lessons on how to love” (214).
Her challenges anthropocentrism in a way few sci-fi films have done before. For instance, Smeelik and Boom argue that unlike films like Ex Machina (Garland 2015) or Under the Skin (Glazer 2013), Her does not focus on the seductive and anthropomorphic visualizations of the female face and body, and instead attempts to visualize what cannot be seen (212). Kornhaber names this attempt to visualize the invisible, postcinema (6). She explains that the posthuman era requires a new type of representation since the new emerging technologies are invisible and circulating out of space and time (19). Her attempts to portray this post cinema by focusing, in between Samantha and Theodore’s conversations, on dust particles, smoke, or on a tea-kettle boiling. The film also represents posthumanism by utilizing wide shots of landscapes, like forests, mountains, and the city. In fact, in the last scene where Theodore reads his letter to Catherine, a wide shot of the city is shown, showing the assemblage of lights, buildings, and people Theodore is talking about. Her attempts to capture an extent of the posthuman realm, offering us a glimpse of how life and cinema would look if we would open ourselves and transcend the differences between the human and the non-human and accept the eternal connection of all matter. I believe this posthuman connection is best described in an excerpt of a poem in Soft Science by Franny Choi:
// why do you insist on lying
i’m an open book / you can rifle through my pages / undress me anywhere / you can read / anything you want / this is how it happened / i was made far away / & born here / after all the plants died / after the earth was covered in white / i was born among the stars / i was born in a basement / i was born miles beneath the ocean / i am part machine / part starfish / part citrus / part girl / part poltergeist / i rage & all you see / is broken glass / a chair sliding toward the window / now what’s so hard to believe / about that //
Written by Emilia Barriga
Braidotti, Rosi. The posthuman. Polity Press, 2013.
Boom, Jeroen, and Anneke Smelik. “Paradoxical (Post) Humanism: Disembodiment and Becoming-Earth in Her.” Journal of Posthuman Studies, vol. 3, no. 2, 2019, pp.202-218. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5325/jpoststud.3.2.0202
Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. Bloomsbury Publishing, 1988.
Haraway, Donna. A cyborg manifesto: Science, technology, and socialist-feminism in the late 20th century. University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
Her. Dir. Spike Jonze. Annapurna Pictures. 2013.
Kornhaber, Donna. “From Posthuman to Postcinema: Crises of Subjecthood and Representation in “Her.”” Cinema Journal, vol. 56, no. 4, 2017, pp. 3-25 https://www.jstor.org/stable/44867838
Shaw, Frances. “Machinic Empathy and Mental Health: The Relational Ethics of Machine Empathy and Artificial Intelligence in Her.” ReFocus: The Films of Spike Jonze, edited by Kim Willkins, and Wyatt Moss-Wellington, 2019, Edinburg University Press, pp. 158-159.