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  • Monty Wolfe

How Love Will Save Us All


Post-humanism

or How Love Will Save Us All

In the 1990’s, when the first stirrings of the gay marriage debate started, the argument against same-sex unions often revolved around the possibility that they would undermine and ultimately destroy traditional marriage. Same-sex marriage was legalized in 2015, and only a few years later, in a somewhat post-gay marriage debate world, heterosexual marriage is still alive and thriving, even though the marriage halls have opened up to allow more types of couples the ability to give legal legitimacy to their emotional bonds. While there are still opponents to marriage equality, the only lasting change has been in expanding western ideas about who can love whom and how they can love them.

(Sorry - I'm obsessed with God's Own Country - and it applies...)

While homosexuals and heterosexuals are all human beings, I would argue that looking at the same-sex marriage debate and its societal consequences is a way of understanding posthumanism. It gives us an example and some precedent on the criteria for why and how we would ever expand the boundaries of rights. From this example, we can see that critical thinking and humanistic rationality do not always play a significant role in this sort of procedure. On the contrary, the logical notion that two people, regardless of gender, wanted to share bank accounts and taxes was less impactful in the debate than was empathy, compassion, and an understanding that all people want to express and experience love on their own terms.

(Seriously... this was the best love story in decades!)

Just as we are now living in a post-traditional marriage world, we are also entering a posthumanist world. In a sense, posthumanism is about allowing more entities the legitimacy to live and thrive in the world, and possibly love; in fact, it is my theory that love is the essential ethic of posthumanism that allows it to transcend the cold and stiff rationality of humanism. I would argue that when the dogma of religion and the rigidity of humanistic rationalism are stripped away, love is essentially what is left, that film is the perfect medium to exemplify this, and that the message from post humanist films is one of hope, so long as we embrace its one true ethic; love.

I will attempt to present and prove my belief that love is the essential one true ethic of posthumanism by comparing and contrasting it with its predecessor, humanism, by providing evidence from academic literature, particularly Cary Wolfe’s What is Posthumanism, The Palgrave Handbook of Posthumanism in Film & Television, and Donald Levy’s The Definition of Love in Plato’s Symposium, and by examining three mainstream Hollywood films; Bladerunner, Wall-e, and Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, through a post humanist lens.

In the grand scheme of things, posthumanism is a recent revelation; so recent, in fact, that the great minds of philosophy disagree over what it means to be truly posthumanist. Cary Wolfe in What is Posthumanism makes this point succinctly by beginning his book with the results of a Google search (of itself, a very posthumanist thing to do).

At the time (2008), he found over three million articles on humanism, but only sixty thousand on the enigma that is posthumanism. He laments that posthumanism “generates different and even irreconcilable definition” (Wolfe xi). What those thinkers and writers can agree on is what post-humanism is not; by that, I am referring to humanism. According to Dictionary.com, humanism is “any system or mode of thought or action in which human interests, values, and dignity predominate.” That seems like a successful mindset; however, as a philosophy, humanism, more often than not, has failed entities outside the parameters of homo sapien. Humanism emphasizes reason and science, it is devoid of religion, and it places humankind as the center to the universe, the top of the importance pyramid. It weighs everything against human ethics and values — and that selfishness and self-centeredness is precisely where humanism fails.

Wolfe paraphrases Michele Foucault by saying that “humanism is, in so many words, it’s own dogma, replete with its own prejudices and assumptions” (Wolfe xiv). He goes on to say that “enlightenment rationality is not, as it were, rational enough, because it stops short of applying its own protocols and commitments to itself” (Wolfe xx). Michael Hauskeller, Thomas D. Philbeck, and Curtis D. Carbonell describe post-humanism in The Palgrave Handbook of Posthumanism in Film and Television as a way of thinking that “reframes the human as just one among many players” (Hauskeller 6). In effect, human beings are taken from the top of the pyramid and scattered out amongst any and all other entities; like a Tower of Babel for all life, not just different languages. As Eckhart Tolle said, “You are not in the universe, you are the universe,” or for these purposes, of the universe. Hauskeller, Philbeck, and Carbonell go on to say that, “the human condition is no longer a given… it is more fluid than we once thought, and that we are free (or will soon be free, or are becoming increasingly freer) to remold our identities” (Hauskeller 6). Just as we, in our post-gay marriage debate world, are beginning to realize that gender and sexuality are far more complicated, fluid, and diverse than we once surmised, in a post-humanist world, we will likely realize that we have to similarly rethink our relation to all the living entities with which we currently share the world.

That re-evaluation is where, I believe, the abstract concept of love becomes crucial. To understand love, I looked back to the cradle of Western Civilization, to the Greeks. Donald Levy in The Definition of Love in Plato’s Symposium, while critical of the ancient Greek mindset, saying “for them, love (eros) is a god whose beauty and goodness they compete with one another in praising” (Levy 285), he also weaves a web of competing philosophies on love from those great Greek thinkers.

Philosopher Plato talked about love as an attainment of or a hunt for beauty. In his Symposium, written as a conversation during a dinner party, he espoused that love is “neither beautiful nor good” (Levy 285), ambiguously placing love in a negative or possibly amoral position; perhaps saying that in reference to love, it is what it is and let the chips fall where they may. Levy clarifies a bit by stating, “Love cannot be beautiful because it is the desire to possess what is beautiful” (Levy 285). It is a means to an end.

Similarly, Aristotle, who was a student of Plato, took this idea of love “as a means to an end” to the next level. He believed in a “self-love” that brought benefit to others. For me, it brings to mind the catchphrase of American drag queen/entertainer Ru Paul which goes, “If you don't love yourself, how in the hell [are] you gonna love somebody else?” The idea behind Aristotle’s concept is that a love for the self spills over into a love for others, that by taking care of one’s self, one must also take care of those around them.

It would seem that one character in Symposium might have other ideas. Levy quotes Diotima of Mantinea, a philosopher and priestess who is considered the ancient Greek authority on plutonic love, as saying, “human nature can find no better helper than love” (Levy 285). It is unfortunate that humanism, born in the Enlightenment period from a resurgence of interest in ancient Greek philosophy, would place no worth in the love that Diotima described, and instead, would favor rationalism and logic.

Levy also looks to more contemporary scholars to help define love. One scholar, Gregory Vlastos, who in his paper, The Individual as Object of Love in Plato (Princeton 1973), objects to Plato’s definition of love and sides more with Plato’s student, Aristotle. Although Levy finds Vlastos’ theory to be flawed, he tries to reconcile the idea that a self-love can benefit others, even when a personal love it absent. Levy uses the example of “nurses, firemen, and teachers” who often do not have a personal connection or love for the people they help. Levy suggests it may be “as Diotima argues, that love motivates us whenever we achieve anything good; the nurse, firemen, teacher might love the science, art, skill to which each is devoted” (Levy 287). The idea sees love as an indirect thing, an approach for benevolent and beneficial results.

Lastly, Levy quotes Vlastos with, “Love is wishing good things for someone for that person’s sake” (Levy286). That, in effect, echoes empathy to me; being kind to someone or something merely for benefit of that person or creature or entity, which brings us back to posthumanism and how it differs from humanism. Restating the definition from earlier in this paper, humanism is “any system or mode of thought or action in which human interests, values, and dignity predominate,” the emphasis being placed on human interests and values. Humanism relies almost entirely on human reason and cold logic, and benefits human interests almost exclusively. Love and empathy play very little, if any, part in humanism. The issue is that human reason, the key word being human, often results in other creatures or entities serving some sort of purpose for humans. It creates an unbalanced situation where the human component is weighed heavier than all others. Until we have a better, more encompassing, version of reason or logic beyond human reason or human logic, posthumanism will need to rely on other components for assessment of situations. If not religion and dogma, if not rationalism, love and empathy must be the answer.

Film, as a visual medium, as a speculative and creative art form, and as a tool for near-objectivity, is a perfect medium for investigating posthumanism. The Palgrave Handbook says that “the medium of motion pictures is particularly well suited to reflect [posthumanist ideas] not only by providing thought experiments… but also by creating concrete, visual representations” (Hauskeller 3, 4).

One might look to futuristic science-fiction films that deal with aliens or artificial intelligence to find examples of post-humanism, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), with its HAL 9000, a seemingly sentient artificial intelligence who attempts to sabotage the extraordinary space mission to Jupiter...

...or Enemy Mine (1985), where two members of warring factions, one human and one alien, are marooned on a planet and must learn to trust each other to survive.

While the philosophy can most definitely be applied to those types of films, one need not stray far from one’s own time period or galactic coordinates to find more examples. In Leviathon (2012), an experimental documentary about the North American fishing industry, the camera acts as an omniscient, unbiased, and nearly-objective eye that captures the plights of man and fish, birds and the sea all as equals.

Any film that places animals such as dogs, cats, bears, or birds on the same level with humans can be seen as post-humanist. Even a film that showcases the environment with the same weight as human beings can be considered posthumanist.

In Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner (1982), we see emotion, desire, and love used to blur the lines between the human and the other; the other, in this case, being artificial humans called replicants, created for difficult and dangerous slave labor on colonized planets.

In the futuristic world portrayed in the film, the replicants are designed to look and perfectly mimic human beings. While they are stronger and more resilient, they lack emotions, although, it is diegetically theorized that they might develop human-like emotions over time. For this reason, the creators design them with a 4-year lifespan to keep their emotional development to a minimum; however, some replicants do develop emotions and become aware of their second-class situation. They revolt and return to Earth in the hopes of gaining existential answers, and perhaps more life, from their creator. Rick Deckard, a bladerunner, is called upon to hunt down the rogue replicants and retire (kill) them...

...but during his investigation, he falls in love with a beautiful replicant named Rachael.

Rachael is unaware that she is not human, and when Deckard reveals this to her and that all her memories are contrivances, she is devastated. Her worldview is destroyed. Deckard consoles her by affirming that her memories do not make her human, but in fact, it is her emotions and desires that make her human and worthy of life.

Just as the real world definition of marriage was widened and redefined to include same sex couples, in the fictional world of Bladerunner, Deckard’s definition of human is expanded to not discriminate based on genetics, birthing method, lifespan, or past. A human is someone who feels and loves.

In Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993) the story revolves around three pets, two dogs and a cat, who go on an epic quest to find their human family.

Their love for each other and their love for the members of their human family keeps them together, on the path, and ultimately helps them reunite with their humans.

Not unlike the movie, from time to time, a feel-good news story is reported about a lost pet trekking across vast distances to find his or her human companion. There is even the occasional story of dogs refusing to leave the graves of departed loved-ones. It’s not a giant leap to say that these animals have an emotional connection to their humans. We may never know if those emotions feel the same as our human emotions do, but for that matter, aside from someone verbally explaining their emotions, we have no way of knowing if other human beings feel just as we do. Perhaps loving someone or something has less to do with knowing how it feels for us, but how we feel for it.

In Disney/Pixar’s Wall-e (2008), it is love that sets the plot in motion, and ultimately, love that saves the day for Wall-e and Eve, the robot protagonists, and for humanity.

Similarly to Bladerunner, the film seems to argue that an entity is not defined by its blueprint and parts. Just as human beings are not defined by race or caste or social class, Wall-e is not defined by his blueprint, or as Greek philosopher Aristotle put it, his “formal cause.”

Once again, I refer to Aristotle, only this time by way of Ben Carlin in his web video analysis “Is Wall-E Alive? - Ship of Theseus Paradox.” In the video, Carlin describes Aristotle's theories on existence and purpose, and how it all breaks down into “four causes:” a material cause (the materials and parts), a formal cause (the blueprint or arrangement of those parts and materials), an efficient cause (how something comes to exist or a creator), and a final cause (its purpose).

Before we are introduced to Eve, we see that Wall-e has spent 700 years toiling away, more specifically, tidying up) on a post-apocalyptic Earth.

He has learned and adapted over time, and we see that he has outlived other Wall-e units by cannibalizing their parts and pieces. Over 700 years, it is likely he has replaced all of his parts at least once. While the satirical Buy & Large Corporation was the original Wall-e efficient cause, the Wall-e we are introduced to in the film is its own efficient cause. He has literally recreated himself, piece by piece, to continue functioning and has, in effect, created a new final cause for himself; to continue functioning. The introduction of Eve gives Wall-e an even newer Final Cause different and elevated from his Buy & Large directive to clean up planet Earth and different and more inspired than the final cause he inadvertently gave himself (to continue functioning). His new final cause or purpose is to be Eve’s companion. In essence, he falls in love with Eve. We see this manifest like a classic love story, with Eve at first spurning Wall-e’s interest for her own directives, but eventually giving in to the pull of love.

The actual humans of the story are mere victims of circumstance in the film; the substance to be saved...

...and the robots are the heroes who have to save them. Because of their love of each other and an empathy for their fellow living beings, they defeat both the physical antagonist (a malicious artificial intelligence) and the general apathy of the futuristic humans and the malaise of their situation.

We are left with the conclusion that post-humanism isn’t merely about taking human beings from the center of the universe or from the top of some imaginary pyramid. Instead, as Cary Wolfe states in What is Posthumanism, “the point is not to reject humanism tout court — indeed, there are many values and aspirations to admire in humanism —but rather to show how those aspirations are undercut by the philosophical and ethical frameworks used to conceptualize them” (Wolfe xvi ).

While some human values are discriminatory, others, particularly love, bridge the humanist/post-humanist gap succinctly. When dealing with non-humans, Jeremy Bentham suggests that the question is not “can they talk?” or “can they reason?” but “can they suffer?”(Wolfe xxviii). I would suggest that that sort of empathy for other living creatures denotes a sort of love — a love that will allow humans and everyone else to live and thrive in a post-humanist world. Through a posthumanist lens, film offers us two paths that humans can take. One is marred by the subjugation of non-humans and an imbalance of power that could easily lean outside of human favor, leading to scenarios such as robot overlords or human annihilation. The landscapes often envisioned in those films are scorched or barren, the results of humankind placing themselves above the environment and all other creatures within it. The other path, the hopeful path, is one of peace and prosperity as humankind works side by side and in conjunction with the environment, the world, and all the entities, creatures, and computers that inhabit it with them. Through empathy like Jeremy Bentham and by practicing the self-love of Aristotle, humankind can balance the scales. Just like with the legalization of gay marriage, where it wasn’t cold logic alone that won the debate and passed the legislation, it was empathy and love that changed the world.

CITATIONS:

Carlin, Ben. “Is Wall-E Alive? - Ship of Theseus Paradox.” SuperCarlinBrothers. YouTube YouTube. 12 May, 2016. Web. 15 November, 2017.

Hauskeller, Michael, Thomas D. Philbeck, and Curtis D. Carbonell. (2015). "Posthumanism in Film and Television." The Palgrave Handbook of Posthumanism in Film and Television. London : Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Levy, Donald. “The Definition of Love in Plato's Symposium.” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 40, no. 2, 1979, pp. 285–291.

Wolfe, Cary. (2011). What Is Posthumanism? 3. Minneapolis, Minn: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2011.

FILMS:

2001: A Space Odyssey. Stanley Kubrick. MGM. 1968. Film.

Bladerunner. Ridley Scott. Warner Bros. 1982. Film.

Enemy Mine. Wolfgang Peterson. 20th Century Fox. 1985. Film.

Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey. Duwayne Dunham. Walt Disney Pictures. 1993. Film.

Leviathon. Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel. The Cinema Guild. 2012. Documentary.

Wall-e. Andrew Stanton. Walt Disney Pictures. 2008. Film.


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