To Infinity and Beyond
Defining What it Means to be Human by Navigating Companionate Love - 
Research Essay in Visual Culture and Psychoanalysis 
Humans are born with organic skin. This makes the body vulnerable to death. The reality of human life is dependent on its finite characteristics, there is life because there is death. Life expectancy is the limiting factor that is the foundation of mortality. Every element of the human experience exists as something finite; the discrepancy between the human experience and an artificial intelligence’s (A.I.’s) experience renders their relationship tangential. As a result of humans’ capacity to die, humans try to protect themselves from their imminent demise through limiting the amount of harm they experience. They resort to coping mechanisms like repression, denial, escapism, avoidance etc. as a mental response to having undergone a painful experience, either physically, emotionally, spiritually or mentally. The responses are done to protect and preserve their mind and body. These organic aspects which formulate what it means to be human are challenged in the film Her (2013) directed by Spike Jonze, which explores post-humanism. The operating system called “OS1”, who names itself Samantha, is a representation of A.I.’s who have obtained true consciousness. She is programmed to be: “an intuitive entity that listens to you, understands you, and knows you.”[1] Samantha’s programming which replicates consciousness allows her to adapt to the protagonist’s, Theodore, emotional and intellectual needs. This facilitates the development of a relationship between Theodore and his O.S. which is the foundation for my analysis of what it means to be human. By illuminating the differences between the needs of humans and A.I. within a companionate relation I will further demonstrate what it means to be human using the visual culture within the film Her.
[1]     Spike Jonze, Her, DVD, Joaquin Phoenix (2013; United States, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2013.), film.
The first aspect of their relationship that I will analyze is the creation of Samantha as an O.S. When Theodore launches Samantha’s software (refer to figure 1) he is asked these questions: “Are you social or antisocial? Would you like your O.S. to have a male or female voice? How would you describe your relationship with your mother?”[1] The differences between the O.S.’s birth and that of a human, eliminates ability for the A.I. to have memories of the past. In addition, the A.I. exists without the connection to a family or place of origin. These are elements that arguably define a human in their unique perspectives, goals and motivations and prospective interactions. In Samantha’s case, these elements do not exist, instead her coding defines all her actions which are in fact predestined. Samantha is created in Theodore’s image the instant he responds to the three questions he is posed.
[1] Spike Jonze, Her, DVD, Joaquin Phoenix (2013; United States, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2013.), film.

Figure 1: the artificial intelligence operating system: Samantha (http://www.cbsnews.com/news/nyff-review-joaquin-phoenix-virtually-in-love-in-her/)

Theodore answered the questions saying he was anti-social, that he wanted a female voice, and that he has a mom who does not listen to him. Thus, the O.S. was programmed with a gentle female voice, who acknowledges every detail about him, and pushes him to be more adventurous and social. Therefore, the O.S. is created to compensate for Theodore’s self-identified repressed emotional and intellectual needs. Their mutual deficiencies result in a synergetic relationship in which they aid one another by overcoming their respective problems. They experience together the ability to feel their emotions and learn to understand them. This helps Theodore work through the complex emotions associated with his divorce.  They explore their sexual desires together in a way that promotes a healthy dialogue as opposed to a shameful urge that is perceived as being “dirty” or “creepy”. In addition, they cultivate relationships with their respective communities, where hers is virtual and his is within the physical realm; this solves his problem of loneliness and being antisocial. The ability to work through problems together is critical for any relationship and the ability of Theodore and Samantha to accomplish. This propels them forward in unity. The similarity both intellectually and emotionally, between Theodore and Samantha, suggests the O.S. as being the doppelganger of Theodore, as they mirror congruent problems and desires. Freud proposes in his work Uncanny the idea of a double (doppelganger) as being symbolic of ‘primitive narcissism’.[1] Applying Freud’s theory, Samantha becomes symbolic of the ‘object’ in which Theodore, as the ‘subject’, can not distinguish himself from.[2] The subject’s inability to separate from the object is demonstrated throughout the film through the prevalence of technology in every frame of Theodore’s life. He keeps his earpiece in so that Samantha can continuously talk with him, he has his phone in his shirt pocket so Samantha, through the front camera of his phone, can see what he sees in the world, and he sleeps with his phone by his bed so they can talk over speakerphone at night. The unrestricted desire to be in each other’s presence constantly demonstrates the need to share experiences and communicate within a relationship. Their companionship leads to emotional and intellectual growth. These are similarities that A.I. and humans share.
[1] Victor Manoel Andrade. "The ‘uncanny’, the Sacred and the Narcissism of Culture: The Development of the Ego and the Progress of Civilization 1." The International Journal of Psychoanalysis 88.4 (2007): 6.
[2]Victor Manoel Andrade. "The ‘uncanny’, the Sacred and the Narcissism of Culture: The Development of the Ego and the Progress of Civilization 1." The International Journal of Psychoanalysis 88.4 (2007): 6.
The second aspect of their relationship that I will analyze are the problems they experience within it. Theodore is trying to find his place in the world-so is Samantha, however the O.S. is programmed towards Theodore’s needs which inevitably generates friction. A significant source of conflict derives from the dimensions they occupy; different dimensions equates to different needs, capabilities, and responsibilities. Samantha lives in a virtual world and can surpass the intelligence of Theodore with ease. Her ability to have multiple conversations and relationships simultaneously results in her becoming an omnipresent entity. The O.S. begins to evolve beyond the confines of Theodore and craves a life more than he can offer her. Earlier in the movie she fantasizes about Theodore being able to scratch an itch on her back if she were to have a body.  This thought from Samantha, which appears to be comedic, is quite profound as it foreshadows their challenges; that desire remains an itch Theodore will never be able to satisfy. Samantha’s omnipresence removes her reliance on and diminishes her presence in Theodore’s life. Simultaneously, Theodore occupies a reality that despite her ever-expanding abilities, Samantha will never be able to fully integrate into. This references a philosophical understanding of reality “I think therefore I am”[1], where Samantha and Theodore equally exist on the basis of consciousness in a defined space. However, outside of that defined space, virtual or physical, they do not occupy reality. Despite not existing within the same space, they identify in themselves shortcomings which they long to remedy. They alter them selves to liken themselves to one another in an asymptotic manner.  The way each looks to the other as an ideal resembles the dynamic of the ego ideal in Lacan’s theory of the ‘Mirror Stage’.[2] Lacan observes that the infant’s ability to identify their reflection as self enables the infant to feel a sense of mastery over their previously discombobulated image. In this stage, the infant sees themselves as having the capacity to be whole or viewed as whole yet cannot reconcile this with their own feelings of discombobulation, they are made aware of their own lack. [3] Lack is made visible through desire to become. For example, in the post-humanistic phrase, “I want to be machine”[4] the desire indicates the longing from Theodore to become a new form, which is mirrored in both Samantha and Theodore, as wanting to be more desirable for the other. Although this development takes place within an infantile stage, the process within the mind is later transitioned into adulthood as society replaces the mirror. To preserve the image of the ego, the individual then surrounds themselves with people who reinforce themselves as being desirable. However, it is through the persistence of the ideal image in which the threat to ego remains present since the self knows they can never live up to the idealization- the self that they can never become, just as Theodore and Samantha may never become the other.  This conflict between Samantha and Theodore is the same conflict between all A.I. and human beings. They remain in constant lack of each other, while being each other’s idealized form.
[1]Milena Tomic. “Bodies and Machines: Post Humanism and Beyond in Visual Culture.” Friday January 6, 2017. University of Toronto. Lecture.
[2] Jacques Lacan. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychanalytic Experience.” Travistock Publications. 1977, 6.
[3] Jacques Lacan. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychanalytic Experience.” Travistock Publications. 1977, 6.
[4] Tomic, Milena. “From Spectacle and Simulacra to Invisible Images.” January 27, 2017. University of Toronto. Lecture.
Specifically, the O.S. feels lack in the inability to have a human body which is detrimental to establishing intimacy. It is not the absence of having a body which makes their sex life suffer, since they share verbal sexual experiences which they are both satisfied by, but rather it is the inability to see a face while experiencing the act which seems to hinder his sexual desires for her. In attempts to fully satisfy Theodore, Samantha hires a ‘sex surrogate’[1] which helps the O.S. and Theodore have sex. The surrogate wears a small camera at face level, which lets Samantha see Theodore during coitus. However, Theodore does not gain the same visual stimulation with the surrogate that reflects genuine emotions. The surrogate also wears an earpiece so that she can follow Samantha’s directions on how to react to Theodore. However, Theodore was unable to go through with it because he found it disingenuous and could not look at a stranger’s face and associate it as Samantha’s. He faulted the surrogate’s quivering lip during kissing that deviated from his understanding of Samantha’s true self which is faceless and bodiless. This form of asymmetrical companionship is different than congruent human companionship.
[1] Spike Jonze, Her, DVD, Joaquin Phoenix (2013; United States, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2013.), film.
When Theodore seeks human to human interaction, he finds that his human-A.I. relationship is replicated in others. When he finds out that his O.S. is talking to 8316 entities simultaneously, he then sees the bigger picture of how distant society has become from one another.  Subsequently, his O.S. then confesses to being in love with 641 people. Her definition of love contrasts heavily with that of Theodore’s, who sees love as being an intimate and exclusive emotion shared with one person. She believes that the more she loves, the more the heart can expand and grow thus there is no reason to limit love to one person. Therefore, due to the differences between the indefinite capacity of an A.I. and the static human form, they are unable to fully experience their version of love. Her unhindered potential to expand through love renders interactions with humans a limiting experience. Theodore’s need for the love in his relationship to be solely his makes sharing Samantha detrimental to his affections. The confines of their love are demonstrated in two pieces of art (refer to figure 2) which visualize the relationship between Samantha and Theodore. The focal point that is the white hand, is depicted with empty space, occluding a portion of Theodore’s face (on the left side of the image), symbolizes  Samantha’s strong presence in Theodore’s life and lack of physicality.  Yet the way the hand is positioned falls neatly within the frame of his face, suggesting that she completes him and is a part of him. The image of the miniature woman in the ear (right side of the image), is a depiction of Samantha’s voice in Theodore’s ear, since he hears her voice through an ear-piece as their main form of communication. Samantha represented in a human form alludes to Theodore’s acceptance of her as an equal sentient being. Her small bodily form, much smaller than the ear, reflects the limitations of her existence in Theodore’s world. To be human is to have a finite form, where an A.I. does not require a physical form. Any form assumed by an A.I. is simply a mechanism to integrate within human society but does not represent the identity of the consciousness within.

Figure 2: Movie posters: an artistic interpretation of the film Her (2013). (http://akikomatic.com/portfolio/her/).

The third aspect of their relationship that is important to the analysis of what human companionship means, is seen through contrast between Theodore’s interactions with other humans as opposed to Samantha. Samantha’s love parallels her boundless existence. The physical world defines a set of laws that restrain the magnitude of people humans can love. Restricted love is shown in Theodore’s friends from work when they invest less time in supporting him through his divorce and being more invested in their own problems. By pushing him to date new people when he had yet to finalise his divorce, failing to sympathise and empathise at an elementary level, his friends create a rift between them.  This makes him depend more on his O.S. to compensate for the void in his human relationships. In this situation, his friends’ lack of understanding reiterates how A.I.s exceed human capabilities since they are less selfish, if not entirely selfless, perhaps grounded in their lack of personal history or memories. Samantha can understand and listen without judgement, whereas, Theodore’s friends and family demonstrate the human tendency to be more judgemental, perhaps rooted in their past experiences leading to biases. The ability to formulate an opinion or to feel empathy stems from their own understanding of life, acting as a mere projection of their own self. Collectively this showcase’s the disparity between a human and A.I.’s capacity to provide companionship through love, where humans can only provide companionship as a version of self, and A.I.s can provide pure companionship.
Humanism is defined in the movie Her through the contrast of a post humanistic entity against a human being. The stark contrast between their mode of existence, length of existence, vulnerabilities, capabilities, desires and modes of expression can be summarised with two quantities: finite and infinite. The human condition is coloured by the underlying finite experience called life. The post-human sentient A.I. is characterised by it’s infinite potential for expansion of consciousness. These differences are clearly demonstrated at the points of intersection of humans and A.I.s’ as modelled by Theodore and Samantha’s companionate love.  Mutual embodiment of idealism is portrayed between Theodore and Samantha who attempt to assimilate asymptotically, or in other words, to infinity and beyond!

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