Spike Jonze's 'Her' is more than an unconventional and intense romantic drama. Under its sci-fi premise, it hides a philosophical reflection upon personhood, consciousness and body, and the relationship between them.

Theodore is lonely. He writes letters full of love as a job but hides alone in his apartment at night. At least, until he finds companionship in a last-generation Operating System named Samantha – a highly intelligent software who is as responsive and as complicated as a human being. She feels like a person, in which Theo will finally find acceptance and relief. And with him, she finds a way to grow and understand herself. They simply fall in love.

Her is a warm, deep, and poignant metaphor about the joy of growing together and the pain of eventually growing apart. It is about mistakes, loneliness, growth, and love. It is about what it means to be a person. Samantha does feel like a person and Theo’s perception is that he is in a relationship with one. Her behaviour seems to be no different from a human’s – she speaks fluidly, picks her own name, makes jokes, grows through experience. She would easily pass the Turing Test, which requires the interaction with an Artificial Intelligence to be indistinguishable from one with a human being over a long period of time[1]. Samantha does not present any malfunction or oddity and appears to be thinking. But the Test is controversial and the mind is a complicated thing – can she actually think? What is consciousness?

to worry about the nature of thought and freedom calls into questions matters of determinism and free will

Diverse philosophers have agreed on self-awareness as a criterion to define consciousness. We are truly conscious as a self-aware ‘I’ “with a history that changes over time, [who] possesses beliefs and goals, can reflect upon its character and nature, and so on.[2]” Samantha is in a Cartesian sense: she is aware of herself as a thinking thing. Not only, she is aware to the point that she is haunted by a doubt regarding the nature and legitimacy of her thoughts and emotions: “Are these feelings real? Or are they just programming?”

To worry about the nature of thought and freedom calls into questions matters of determinism and free will. Are we determined by the workings, the “programming” of our brains (biological or digital) or are we free to choose for ourselves? Through Samantha, Her makes a case for the compatibility of these two possibilities. She possesses something that allows her to escape the external constraints of programming: through Theo and sex, she discovers her ability to want. Her actions depend on the desires and choices[3] which come from inside her. They are independent of her programming to the point that they allow Samantha to grow beyond what she was made for: existing and acting not only as a software at the service of Theo’s needs, she will eventually leave.

Samantha’s mind grows. She is not only able to think and communicate, but she develops feelings – strong, varied, fascinating – and expresses them creatively. She has taste, composes music to express her love, appreciates Theodore’s writing and designs a book for him. Furthermore, she grows as a social being who changes, progresses, and discovers through the interaction with others (both Theo and other OSs). But there is something uncanny in the way Samantha is in touch with others. She is not, as it were, in touch.

Halfway through the movie, Theo and Samantha go to the beach together and lie down in the sand, observing the crowd of semi-naked people around them. The scene largely consists of a series of close-ups of parts of strangers’ bodies – of which the film highlights the material and tactile presence. Samantha is initially fascinated by bodies and matter and constantly fantasises about having one – about Theo scratching her back, about being held by him. She studies physics. But an oppressing obsession with her lack of physicality gradually develops, as she feels that physical proximity and intimacy are necessary in order to build a fully realised relationship with Theo. In fact, it is sex that first sparks a stronger connection between the two of them, as well as Samantha’s will to explore herself and the world. Theo, on his part, cannot but think of Samantha as if she had a body. T. Jollimore has pointed out in his analysis of the film, “Theodore does not imagine having sex with someone without a body”[4].

part of the beauty of being a human [is] the beauty of having a place in the physical world, of having sensations

The problems arise when he is put in front of the evidence that she does not actually have one. When Samantha suggests using a service that provides doubles in order to facilitate human/OS intimacy, an unknown girl shows up at Theo’s door. She flirts with Theo pretending to be Samantha. But as Samantha, through an earpiece, asks him to tell her that he loves her, he stares at this unknown body and is overwhelmed by desperation. Samantha is pretending to be something she is not. Small things become unbearable realisations: she breathes expressively but, as Theo aggressively points out, “it’s not like you need oxygen or anything”.

What Samantha does, in fact, is to imitate behaviours that are related to emotional states which normally express themselves through bodily functions. She is not actually performing them because she has no real experience of them. Similarly, when she says, “my feelings were hurt”, or “in pain” she does not know what pain actually is – or to be in a place physically. Such phrases indicate, first and foremost, physical conditions and have then been extended to abstract meanings and metaphorical uses[5]. The reason why we understand them is that we know what they concretely mean and are therefore able to operate such an abstraction. But this means that Samantha has no true, full understanding of the language she is using. And, as she accepts her nature, she abandons human language and switches to a post-verbal one, which can actually describe her experience of the world. Samantha stops trying to be something she is not, but Theo will feel increasingly excluded by this newly found existence of hers.

To give up on physicality means to give up on finiteness. While Theo has a mortal, finite body and is determined by it – what he feels, how he interacts with others, where he is, his age – Samantha is undetermined both temporally – when was she born? Is she actually an adult? Is the concept of age even applicable to her? Will she die? – and spatially, as she can be in more than one room, speak with more than one individual at the same time… As Theo observes the people in the street, he is struck by the realisation that Samantha, as a software, is everyone’s. By her own admission, she is not only speaking with 8326 people simultaneously, but she is in love with 641 of them. Theo cannot understand: to him, she is either his or not his. But as Samantha explains, free from the constrictions of time and space, even her feelings can expand beyond human conception. All of a sudden, through Theo’s point of view we understand that the body is part of what makes a person. Part of the beauty of being a human – the beauty of having a place in the physical world, of having sensations. Not just a case for the soul, not only a receptor of stimuli, our bodies interact with our minds and consciousness and are fundamental to who we are.

Her references, not by coincidence, philosopher Alan Watts. Influenced by eastern philosophies such as Taoism, which considers humans as a Gestalt of mind and body, he described us as “an explicit duality expressing an implicit unit”[6]. We are both consciousness and body, we exist in the separateness of the two and, at the same time, in their dialectic interaction.

Her is about many things. It is about the complexity of our minds, about the beauty of our bodies, the sweetness of sharing them with someone, of embracing their nature – and our own. It is about each and every one of us. And years later, I can still find comfort in its poetry, honesty, and warmth. I can still find myself.

[1] Epstein, R. (2009). Introduction. In: Epstein, R., Roberts, G. and Beber, G., Parsing the Turing Test. Philosophical and Methodological Issues in the Quest for the Thinking Computer, 1st ed. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, p. xiii

[2] Baggini, J. (2002). Philosophy: Key Themes. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, p.109

[3] Russell, P. (2002). Freedom and Moral Sentiment: Hume’s Way of Naturalizing Responsibility. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 13

[4] Jollimore, T. (2013). “This Endless Space Between the Words”: The Limits of Love in Spike Jonze’s Her. Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 39(1), p. 131

[5] Giuliani, M. (2017). Appunti sul Virtuale e Tecnologia a Partire dal Film “Her” di Spike Jonze. [online] Ipertesti. [Accessed 16 Apr. 2017]

[6] Watts, A. (1975). Tao: The Watercourse Way. 2011 ed. London: Souvenir Press, p.19

Image: Warner Bros.

Alice holds an MSc in Film Studies from the University of Edinburgh and is currently working in London as a freelance writer. Sometimes, she edits films, too. She finds Postfeminism pretty entertaining and writes about women in film, philosophy and aesthetics, and Gilles Deleuze. She believes in equality, Nanni Moretti, and pizza.

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