‘I could tell you what’s happening. But I don’t know if that would really tell you what’s happening.’
——Solaris (dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2002)
There is a whole torrent of popular cinematographic production, which is marked by a common denominator of ‘post-human.’ Following the psychoanalytic line of thought and regarding popular cinema as a ‘desire-making machine,’ we might say that during the last couple of decades we have been tought—rather successfully—to adopt the desire to leave our human ‘self.’ Of course, the idea of transcending our human nature is not new, but given the speed at which—paraphrasing the ‘superstar professor’ Michio Kaku—the ‘sci-fi tends to transform into scientiffic fact,’ we should pay close attention to the way this idea is being treated in a contemporary culture. There are many case in point movies, which quite tellingly mark the trajectory of the post-human concept over the last decade.
Surrogates (dir. Jonathan Mostow, 2009), for example, employs the technophobic ‘return to the Real’ scenario: due to the surge of technological progress, people find themselves living in the near-future world with their physical cybernetic doubles—surrogates—as the mediators in their public and even private lives; but eventually (thanks to the heroic act of a macho male, of course) they get rid of their robotic mannikins and thus are forced to face their socially, psychologically and physically atrophied selves. The concept of surrogates doesn’t deal with the issue of an autonomous existence and remains in the terrain of virtuality proper—the double in Surrogates is merely a puppet controlled by the real, but physically immobilized person. Surrogate reality here follows the principle of a fetishist disavowal: people accept the reality as it is without being traumatized, but only as long as their virtual fetishist practices are maintained. Ironically, though, at the end of the movie people survive by breaking up with the virtual fetish and facing the ‘good-old Real’ and their traumatized selves.
In Avatar (dir. James Cameron, 2009), though, the protagonist male transcends the constraints of virtuality and goes further by getting rid of his physical self: the old body is abandoned and the ‘self’ is transferred into a new body during a tribalistic ritual in a distant alien world of Pandora. The new body has new properties which are those of a bionic cyborg humanoid-alien, i.e. quite far from an earthly homo sapiens. Moreover, the ‘self’ of a human subject eventually finds himself extremely comfortable and proficiently integral within the new body (except for the small identity crisis before making the decision to leave his ‘spoiled’ earthly breed).
Avatar‘s Pandora is an ecological, ethnological and ideological heaven, where the protagonist, reincarnated as one of the indigenous Navi, gets a miraculous second chance: to live a harmonious and meaningful life with a Navi female—a true Western macho fairytale classics. There is no inner conflict between the old and new self: the new one prevails and the hero adopts his Pandorian identity (or, rather, flees into it) as if it was the most natural way for a human, who simply stayed ‘true to his feelings.’
Meanwhile, Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris (2002) might be the most interesting example not only from a cinematographic, but also from a psychoanalytic point of view. Rejected by the American audience as too ‘deep’ and abhorred by Europeans as too shallow and non-authentic (i.e., at odds with ‘authentic’ Tarkovsky’s version), the movie surprisingly hits the right button in approaching this extremely popular motif of leaving the body and transfering the ‘self’ to another physical entity (vehicle, form, etc.) like almost no other movie. Ironically, it has all the necessary indications that it’s worth seeing: it deals with a symptomatic issue; the script is based on a trully remarkable book—Stanisław Lem’s Solaris (1961); the movie was disregarded by the mainstream; and financially, as a Hollywood production, it was a total box office failure.
In Solaris, humans (with the help of the mysterious alien force—planet Solaris) ‘got rid’ of themselves in a more mysterious and thus more uncanny way. They were left with the perfect biological doubles, who had the personalites and all the memories of their ‘originals,’ but at the same time they were unable to relate these ‘memorized’ personas to their present physical selves. Immortal, deprived of the sense of integrity, doubles nonetheless were able to become conscious about their own existence. They began to be aware of the lack of something, something that would make their existence meaningful. (Well, maybe ‘meaningful’ is not the best term to be used here, since the ‘originals’—humans themselves—still are unable to define it as a universal category.) The anxiety of a double had its origins in the essential incongruity between the sense of self and the memories of the self, i.e. in the broken link between the Real and Symbolic. We might unveil Stanisłav Lem’s question here: isn’t there some particularity in this link, which defines us as (still) humans? And this estrangement from your own memories (and from the person you remember as yourself)—isn’t it something we might expect to be the inevitable side effect if (or, rather, when) humans will eventually be reborn as avatars (e.g., the collections of personal data and personalized algorithms) in artificial bodies?
The movie ends with the message that now, since both protagonist and his wife are Solaris-made doubles of their original selves, they can finally really enjoy each other and, presumably, enjoy life back on Earth. But what kind of enjoyment would that be? The protagonist at first doesn’t want to be desired by the double (a Solarian copy of his deceased wife). Later he accepts the double by ignoring the fact of its origin and perceiving in it only as the ‘original.’ But the suppressed knowledge returns as the traumatic event and at the end he finds out that he himself (posthumously) became his own double, who managed to return to Earth. “Everything we’ve done”, says Rheya-the-double, whom he meets there again, “is forgiven.” Deprived of guilt of being a non-human, they accept each other the way they are. But the movie ends with a question mark.
We are confronted with quite realistic post-human condition: we don’t have a clue, what will happen next, how will they live now as a couple and what does it mean to be a non-human with a human appearance, personalized memories and a completely new form of personal integrity. Is it a bad, or a good ending? How can we tell?
After witnessing such systematic exploitation of an idea of a double (clone, copy, doppelganger) in the contemporary representational culture, we inevitably are forced to rethink the structure of ‘self’ and make a paradigmatic shift from ‘I identify my image outside myself’ to ‘I identify my self outside myself.’ In such continuation (or an upgrading, if you will) of the Lacanian ‘mirror stage,’ the double not only takes over the role of the reflection in the mirror, but it maintains the autonomous material existence even when the mirror is taken away. It is almost as if the ultimate nightmare of Jorge Louis Borges suddenly becomes real: we look into our own reflection, break the mirror and realize in horror, that our reflection is still there as our autonomous physical Other.
Speaking in Lacanian terms, desire is the question of projecting onto the Other the unfathomable abyss, the petit a, which transforms appearance into presence in humans. The Other must be able to recognize the desire, but what about the doppelganger, who is, basically, our own projection?
Seeing doubles embracing each other (and keeping in mind that techno-human merger is already well underway) should make us aware about yet another stage of post-human acceptance in popular culture (i.e., in our lives).