Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Willingly Playing the Role of Thing: The Hope of Persons as Transitional Objects

Figure 1. David and Monica, in the penultimate scene of abandonment by the side of the road, in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)


Respect and distance are certainly better than violence and appropriation, but is ethics only a form of restraint?
~Barbara Johnson, "Using People," Persons and Things

Study of this problem involves a statement of the positive value of destructiveness. The destructiveness, plus the object's survival of the destruction, places the object outside the area of objects set up by the subject's projective mental mechanisms. In this way a world of shared reality is created which the subject can use and which can feed back other-than-me substance into the subject.
~D.W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality

Blue Fairy? Please . . . please, please make me into a real live boy. Please . . . Blue Fairy? Please . . . please . . . make me real. Blue Fairy? Please, please make me real. Please make me a real boy. Please, Blue Fairy, make me into a real boy. Please . . . .
~David, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence

I have long been fascinated by the gorgeous [if imperfect] film by Steven Spielberg, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence [a kind of shared project with the late Stanley Kubrick, who died before he could make the film himself], and we devoted the next-to-last session of our M.A. seminar, "Objects, Actants, Networks," to this film, plus the section of Barbara Johnson's book Persons and Things on "The Thingliness of Persons," where, among other subjects, she raises the provocative question, by way of D.W. Winnicott's transitional object, "what if the capacity to become a subject were something that could best be learned from an object?" [p. 95], and even, from the ways in which the subject [as a child, especially] is willing to take on the risk of trusting, playing with, and experiencing "the reality of both the other and the self," both of which might be used as objects [which entails "destroying" those "objects" -- both loving and hating them -- without really destroying them]? Do you catch, already, the faint echoes, perhaps, of your own relationship with your parents, and theirs with you, where, to a certain extent, both you and also their "reality," or "real-ness," depends, to a certain extent, on the "survival," of both parties, in the face of the aggressive attachment to, but also "destruction" [in fantasy], of each other?

Let's back up for a minute and recall the plot of Spielberg's film. "David" is a special "child" version of a "mecha" [a robot], who has been designed to "perform" [and to also "feel" and even "mythologize"] love and affection for humans who are in need of [or desire] a child, and who have either lost a child or cannot produce one by other [more "normative," biological] means. As David's creator, Prof. Hobby, the scientist and head of Cybertronics [played by William Hurt], puts it, "I propose that we build a robot who can love." While the futurist world portrayed in A.I. already has robots, or mechas, who can mimic and "act out" the signs of love [i.e., prostitute, or "gigolo," or "companion" robots], Prof. Hobby is after something a bit more complex than that: he wants to build a "robot child who will genuinely love the parent or parents it imprints on, with a love that will never end." Further, he wants "a mecha with a mind, with neuronal feedback" [this actually calls to mind the pioneering work in behavioral neurology of V.S. Ramachandran]. As he puts it, "You see, what I'm suggesting is that love will be the key by which they acquire a kind of subconscious never before achieved. An inner world of metaphor, of intuition, of self-motivated reasoning. Of dreams." Never mind, for a moment, the sentimental tripe and squishy science here; after all, "love" itself may be entirely robotic/mechanical/mechanized/compulsively machine-like, or, metaphor and a rich "inner world" may be available and present in more life forms than we presently imagine ["sentience" may be a "lower" and not a "higher" component of evolution], in which case, the "human" does not have a special purchase on metaphoricity or interiority or "love," as defined, anyway, in this film.

To make a long and complex story, perhaps, more short [or not], David, one of these new "child" mechas [and of which there are many, many "copies"], played by the amazing Haley Joel Osment [who is simultaneously able to convey both "robotic" and more "human" affects, and of course both of these designations break down if pushed just a little bit, but still . . . . his performance is eerie and uncanny], is sent to the home of Monica and Henry, whose "real" son Martin has succumbed to a rare disease and is on life support, in a state of suspended abeyance. So, what happens? Monica "imprints" David, who is programmed to love her "unconditionally" [she is ambivalent about this "protocol," but as time goes on, she can't help but develop affection for this beautiful, eager to please "child"], and then, unexpectedly, Martin regains consciousness, gets better, and comes home, and thus begins a course of sibling [and even life-threatening -- although it is David's, and not really Martin's "life," that is in danger] rivalry, after which is it is decided that David should be returned to Cybertronics where he will be de-commissioned [destroyed]--an especially important point because, since David's programming directs him to love his "mother" unconditionally, he is not fit for any other task, and without his "mother"/Monica, he would be "dead," anyway, or would wish he were dead. Now, hold this thought for a moment: how is that different from how any of us might feel if we were suddenly and violently separated from our mothers? Never mind if some of us have so-called "bad" mothers; it is like, 1,000% irrelevant, and as the mother of an adopted daughter whose biological mother was, perhaps, as bad they get, I know whereof I speak: this point is not to be taken lightly. You may not get the mother you deserve or want -- your mother may even turn out to be pathologically destructive -- but perhaps perversely, you will want and need her, and you may find it difficult to "go on" without her, while also knowing: she is "no good" to, or for, you. One must pause, and absorb, however painfully, this fact of some children's lives.

Sidenote: my mother is perfectly exemplary, in my mind, of D.W. Winnicott's "good enough" mother; I am fortunate in my parents, who have always exemplified for me the "not perfect [who is?] but perfectly good enough" parents. When I speak of mothers who are "no good," I do not mean my mother, but then again, I do not presume to assume other's mothers are "worse" or "not good enough." For me, even so-called "bad" mothers are also still someone else's beloved mothers and also "children" who may not have received what they needed as children: I consider often the unmet wishes and needs of all children, young and old. I hurry and I strive to attend to these wishes and needs in the still there child in everyone I meet, while I am often too late, or turned away. I may be presumptuous, but I reflect often that what I see as "difficult" in others is partly a function of the unattended grammars and unfinished projects of others's childhoods. We would do well, I think, to grasp more particularly the unfinished child in ourselves, to extend the "projects" -- imaginative, ludic, and otherwise -- of our, and other's, childhoods.

To return to the film A.I., when Monica takes it upon herself to return David to Cybertronics but decides instead, impulsively, to drop him off in the woods, we have, finally, the actual beginning of the movie ["Hansel and Gretel," anyone?]. Monica is not exactly sanguine or calm about this decision. In other words, she is conflicted [because she obviously believes he is "real" enough to be given a "fighting chance" in the world, as it were, and yet at the same time, he is not "human" enough for Monica to believe she might be seriously guilty here of criminal parental neglect and abandonment]. The scene in the movie where she tells David she has to leave him in the forest is beyond heartbreaking -- one could go so far as to say it pushes beyond the limits of what is bearable for the audience of the movie, especially since we've been conditioned already to accept David as human, based on his semblance of one alone [and because he is a "child," if even a simulated one, he possesses a special vulnerability that commands our ethical attention in a particular way]. And we might recall here, also, Timothy Morton's comments, in The Ecological Thought, that "The trouble with pure appearance is that we can't reduce it to straightforward truth. How can I ever really know that there's a key in your neck or that I'm not a robot? Can I ever successfully tell the sentient sheep from the android goats?" [p. 78]. Moreover, "Both the surface and the depth of our being are ambiguous and illusory" and we're therefore "stuck with the paradoxes of pure appearance" and we "have to care for a world that presents itself in an illusion-like way that we can't ignore" [p. 79].

Reminiscent of the scene in Euripides's Medea, when Medea's children cry out against their own murder at their mother's hands, as Monica is leaving David in the woods, David fastens his whole body onto hers and screams, "No! No! Please mommy no!" To which Monica replies, "No! No, no, no . . . I have to go, stop it!" This scene is protracted and extended beyond tolerance, and most memorably tragic, for me, is Monica's parting statement, "I'm sorry I didn't tell you about the world!" One could say, however, that as a robot designed to serve as a surrogate child for persons ["parents"] who purchase and "activate" him as a "product," perhaps he already knows about the "world," which may have already been "too much" with him [if even unconsciously].

The rest of the film is taken up with David trying to find the Blue Fairy, who he believes will turn him into the "real boy" Monica might never have abandoned to begin with. Because Monica read the story of Pinocchio to him and Martin, he is familiar with the story of the wooden puppet-boy who desires, more than anything, to be turned into a real boy, and about the Blue Fairy, who can supposedly grant him this wish. What David ultimately journeys toward, however, much to his own horror, is his scientist-creator Prof. Hobby, and the multiple copies of himself, all of which have been modeled after Prof. Hobby's dead son [which means that Prof. Hobby is also a voracious narcissist]. Instead of embracing his long-lost "father" as a figure who might salvage and rescue and repair him, or greeting his "copies" as "family," David destroys one of his simulacra by decapitating it, and then declares, "My brain is falling out" [and who among us has not felt this -- this dropping away of everything that anchored us, we thought, to the world?]. David's despair, at this point in the film, is bottomless -- there is no consoling him. And we have to remember, too, that this black despair is enabled specifically because he has been programmed to love, to cathect with, another: Monica, who has abandoned him because he is not good enough [which is to say: not real enough]. We understand this plight, because we share it: we, too, are cathected to persons, who are also objects, that we have to lose and then re-find.

And then David attempts to commit suicide [although this "suicide" is dubious since he is not really "alive" to begin with -- but of course he is also "alive," so: hold that thought] by falling off the ledge of Cybertronics' Manhattan headquarters into the ocean that has submerged what used to be New York City. There are other plot complications, but what mainly matters for us here is that David does not die but ends up steering an amphibious helicopter to a submerged, underwater Coney Island where he finds a statue of the Blue Fairy, to which he prays, essentially, for eternity: "He prayed until all the sea anemones had shriveled and died. He prayed as the ocean froze and the ice encased the caged amphibicopter, and the Blue Fairy too, locking them together where he could still make her out -- a blue ghost in ice -- always there, always smiling, always awaiting him."

There is more to the movie than this [including a ridiculous and overly sentimental wish-fulfillment ending], but for the purposes of thinking about this film in relation to certain aspects of the post/human and object relations, my students and I reflected, first, on the "creepiness" of David's unconditional love for Monica, and especially on the fact that, because David is a "robot" who has been "programmed" to love whoever "imprints" him, without condition, and without any variation or alteration whatsoever in the intensity of that love, his love has an obsessional and compulsive and "stalker" quality that -- initially, anyway -- struck us as [appropriately enough, but still, disconcertingly] robot-like and mechanistic. And absolutely everything David does in the film is for one purpose and one purpose only: to return to Monica, which feels and is so thoroughly self-destructive [the idea here being that David, regardless of his status as robot, is a self, part of the "creaturely" life of this world, and possessed of a precious dignity that we, as audience members, do not want to see needlessly destroyed, and yet . . . programmed the way he is, David does not really have a choice in the matter and his "making," therefore, is also an act of cruelty].

But then we also had to ask ourselves: is the so-called "love" we ourselves experience any less mechanistic [or less self-destructively compulsive]? And this recalled me as well to Jonathan Gil Harris's essay for the inaugural issue of postmedevial on the post/human, "Mechanical Turks, Mammet Tricks, and Messianic Time," where Harris actually argues for the positive and "liberatory" valences of a transgressively mechanistic love that "explodes" the supposed ontological difference between "human" and "machine" and also might enable us to "refuse an old law of violent identitarian division." We might also sketch a more cautionary tale that reminds us of the long association, especially in the Western chivalric tradition, between love-as-compulsion and self-destruction, and if we were to follow Simon Gaunt's lead in his book Love and Death in Medieval French and Occitan Courtly Literature: Martyrs to Love, we might also see that the endless professions of self-sacrifice [of "dying for love"], in the long tradition of chivalric love poetry actually typically entail other persons' deaths [typically, women and queers]. Further, the entanglements between religious and poetic discourses, especially with regard to sacrificial desire, should give us some pause, when we consider the enduring potency of this tradition's images and declarations. As Aranye Fradenburg pointed out many years ago, by way of Derrida, "the logic of sacrifice structures the militant European Christian subject," and there must be something else, finally, she argued, some other "disavowed" alternative ethics that might get us beyond the "impoverished choices of passion versus order, private desire versus self-sacrifice on behalf of the community ["Sacrificial Desire in Chaucer's Knight's Tale," Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 27.1 (1997): 47].

For a long time now, especially in our imaginative arts, we have actually valorized the idea of compulsive, obsessional love: a love that won't let go of its objects, even while falling off a cliff or drinking poison with them. This kind of love is, in a sense, both exciting [Freudian death-drive, anyone?] and a menace to society [if one believes in any kind of community over individual heroics--although, yes, we know: communities can also be menacing to the individual], but we continue to believe in it -- especially in literature -- while perhaps being alarmed and frightened when we see it manifest itself at its most extreme limits, either in our own lives ["the stalker," as one of my students put it] or, as in A.I., with David's seeming inability to "let go" of a mother who has abandoned him, even if it means his own destruction. In one sense, he doesn't have a choice, since he was designed, as Prof. Hobby himself puts it, to be "a perfect child caught in a freeze-frame: always loving, never ill, never changing." Here, I really believe, is where both the perversity as well as the profound lesson of the film is to be located, as regards what it might mean to be a "real" or "good enough" person, which might also mean understanding how to make oneself available as an object that would somehow survive its destruction as an object [and thus become "more real"]. This can't be done alone, of course, and the world has to, in some sense, cooperate with you in this project--a cooperation that, in the film, David does not receive [except from other "mechas," such as Gigolo Joe, played by Jude Law, who aids David in his quest for the Blue Fairy].

What do I mean by this? First, just the idea of making a "perfect child caught in a freeze-frame" is an act of perversity, and then actually manufacturing and selling that child might even constitute cruelty [to the child--never mind that David is a mecha/robot; after all, in the fictional world of the film they gave him neuronal feedback capabilities, so guess what?: he's sentient, he's a "person," he can think and feel and conceptualize himself as a self, and yes, it matters, even though he's all microchips and pneumatic tubes inside, just like it matters if we're talking about a dog, or maybe even a honeybee, or anything that we might say is "alive" and capable of auto-sensing]. There is no such thing as a perfect child and therefore, David is the ultimate case of arrested development ever. This is where it starts to get interesting, because the real creepiness of David is not, as many assume, that he is such a human-like robot; rather, it's that he is such a robotic human [if, by robotic, we mean a machine that can never change its own programming]. Because he is human, after all, if by "human" we mean a sentient subject who desires to be "more human" than he already is, which is all of us all the time [humans, in other words, as the species mainly distinguished by its anxiety over what it means "to be human"]. In other words, all of us, just like David, are trying to figure out how to be "more real" or "more human" all the time, and this might also mean, in Judith Butler's words, that we might have to be willing to embrace and risk “the destruction and rearticulation of the human in the name of a more capacious, and . . . less violent world, not knowing in advance what precise forms our humanness does and will take” [Undoing Gender, p. 35].

Most important, for me, is seeing how David ultimately represents a kind of hyper-mechanicity that can never get "human enough" [which also describes very well, I think, an actual "human condition"], and the project of "becoming-real," for David, will only work when he can do what the rest of us have to do all the time: accept, or work through, loss, estrangement [from oneself, falsely perceived to be "whole" or "whole-becoming," and others], separation, and "being destroyed." Of course, many of us don't do a good job of any of this, either, and that's often the beginning of a lot of violence, both internally and externally directed. And part of getting "more human" then, may entail getting "more thing-like" and making ourselves more available, to others, as objects, which is in some ways reminiscent of Leo Bersani's idea that we need to develop modes of a more disseminated and aesthetic being-in-the-world "to which the concept of identity itself might be irrelevant" ["Against Monogamy," p. 5]. Or, as Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit put it in Forms of Being,
To lose our fascinating and crippling expressiveness might be the precondition for our moving within nature, moving as appearances registering, and responding to the call of, other appearances. No longer darkened by the demand of love, we might be ready to receive something like the splendour, the "dazzling radiance," that Homer's "blazing-eyed Athena" casts on the humans she protects. [p. 70]
Let's recall, too, that David is technically a "toy." In Winnicott's thinking on children's use of "transitional objects" -- which might be a favorite blanket, or a teddy bear, "affectionately cuddled as well as excitedly loved and mutilated," and which must "survive instinctual loving, and also hating" -- the object helps "the baby learn to tolerate frustration, loss of omnipotence, or frustration" [Johnson, Persons and Things, pp. 99, 98]. Most important is to realize that the baby "creates the object, but the object was there waiting to be created and to become a cathected object" [Winnicott, Playing and Reality, p. 89]. Ultimately, the "fate" of the object is to be "relegated to limbo" -- "not forgotten and not mourned," yet nevertheless, "gradually allowed to be decathected" [Johnson, Persons and Things, p. 100]. In the end, the object is a destroyed you [to which the child "makes address," as it were] and the object's "survival of destruction is what makes it real" [Johnson, p. 103]. What the child learns from all of this, is that the world is always a case of an ambivalently "shared reality." Even more importantly, it is shared.

In David's case, as the "transitional object" and play-thing of a "mother," Monica, who plays with him, loves him, fears him, and then violently casts him away, and because David, in a sense, feels all of this too deeply and can neither decathect himself from Monica nor allow himself to believe that he has been decathected, or that he could "survive" such decathection, this is all a tragedy. Likewise, Monica cannot function as David's "transitional object," because she has done the one thing the "good" [or "good enough"] transitional object never does: she disappears, thereby tearing a black hole in the fabric of David's reality, which can never again be "safe," although, in point of fact, it was never "safe" to begin with -- no one's "reality," actually, can ever be safe. We could be talking about real people here. This happens every day. Again: it is in the film's seeming depiction of David's shortcomings as a robot, that he is most human, while also -- through his suicide -- he opts out of the becoming-human project. As he himself puts it, "my brain is falling out."

So I supposed this is all a very digressive way of saying that my brain is falling out when I think about the impossible delineations and attendant implosions of human/nonhuman, subject/object realms and relations in the film A.I. and about the liberatory possibilities, in our family, love, and other relationships, suggested by Barbara Johnson, of "willingly playing the role of thing." This would be to suggest a world in which we would each make ourselves available as "good enough" persons, which is to say, as things [shiny or frayed] that can be loved and hated in equal measure, and who, by virtue of our dis-investment in ourselves as "precious" singularities [or perspectives] with specific demands upon the world and other persons, can be "destroyed" [in others' fantasies] and still survive. In this way, we would all become more real together, and this would also constitute a form of care as a new relational ethic that would move, in Bersani and Dutoit's words, towards the building of the world as a "vast reservoir of correspondences, of surfaces always ready to 'open' in order to acknowledge, to welcome, to receive that which is at once their outer and immanent being" [Forms of Being, p. 169]. The "being-togetherness" that might result would assume "the capacity of all objects to be less than what each one is."

In the conclusion to her book, Barbara Johnson admits that the more she thought about the topic of persons and things, "the more it seemed to me that people wanted other people to be things so that they could be dealt with. In other words, it is treating people as things that we normally do, and that reassures us. But that still leaves treating people as people in the realm of the unknown. Grammar is no help here, and may reinforce the problem: wherever the subject looks, he sees only objects" [pp. 231-32]. This is especially poignant if we consider Lacan's description of the human self as one that exists in the gap, or supposed noncoincidence, between its image of itself in the mirror [the ideal, most thingly self, or object] and its "trembling," more "flawed" body-in-pieces. Here, though, might be an opportunity for embracing non-resemblance, with ourselves and everything else, as a basis for new intimacies, intimacies which, in the words of Timothy Morton, would be "an allowing of and a coming to terms with the passivity and void of the strange stranger. And since the strange stranger is us, the void is us, too. This is very good news. We have a platform for compassion rather than condescending pity, and therefore, we have a basis for reimagining democracy. The inbuilt uncanniness of strange strangers is part of how we can be intimate with them," and our encounters with them would be "loving, risky, perverse" [The Ecological Thought, pp. 80, 81].

Another way to put this would be through the poetry of Ben Lerner, from his "Doppler Elegies":
When I say
love, I mean
and that's rare
enough, low beams exposed

Our permanent achievement

Unbeknownst to us, obscure

forces are at work
like a radio left on
On the outskirts of
identical cities


Eileen Joy said...


Thanks for this thought-provoking post, both for rehabilitating AI (which I could hardly stand) and for thinking through another stimulating avenue of the object-oriented turn. These issues are also very close to some things I've been struggling to articulate for myself, particularly how children are suspended between the obj/sub and active/passive split. So really my comments are probably more directed toward your 'Sidenote' about allowing the unfinished childhoods of others remain so.

I do find the idea of taking on the attributes of an object willingly to be an appealing and congenial one in that we do often have to absorb both the love and hatred of beloved others without allowing it to destroy us. Good enough parenting does exactly this, I'd wager. But how do your thoughts here apply to children themselves; that is to say, what is the difference between the mechachild in AI and a 'real' boy (as he himself grapples with)?

It seems there's real danger in putting the other in the place of an object when the other hasn't necessarily chosen that position, and the stakes are necessarily raised for children themselves who may not? do not (yet)? have the capacity to bear the weight of being transitional objects. (Although I do read Winnicott to say that the space of creating culture is a shared space between adult and child and so the adult is likewise shaped as the child is shaped and shaping).

I don't have any good answer, nor do I know if I've articulated a coherent point, but I do know that this is a tremendously stimulating line of inquiry, and I wish I wasn't 95% done with a major writing project so that I could go back and rethink it all from an object-oriented perspective!

Anonymous said...

if you get a chance check out eric santner's the psychotheology of everyday life and his on creaturely life.

Eileen Joy said...

Dan: these are some wonderful provocations to thought, and I have to think more about this myself, and of course Johnson's thoughts about the possibly ethical benefits of "using people" can only really work when the the project is a "shared" one--quite obviously, we cannot and should not "use" children as objects in ways that could bring them harm, especially because the power differential is so asymmetrical--although, as a parent, I know that part of being a "good enough" parent is making oneself available as a transitional object for the child, and the child could never be asked to reciprocate in a like manner, but I was also trying to think about the idea of "willingly playing the role of thing" in adult-adult relationships [and not just in the relationships sketched out by Winnicott: child-parent and patient-analyst].

As to the difference between the mecha-child in A.I. and a "real" boy, I guess I'm trying to argue here that David, in the film, is already, from day one, a "real boy," and his wish to be made into a "real boy" is somewhat misguided, He is already real. He is already a boy. He is already, therefore, also human. What he needs to be is "more human," to embrace his thingliness, his object-ness, and also the thingliness of others. But of course he can't do this--because in the end, he really is a child and his programming, in a sense, doesn't allow him to move forward with the project of "living." In this sense, he is also "too human." In some ways, the toys in Toy Story 3 are much more adept than David at coping and innovating in the face of disaster, and revising their "life plans" as they go along in the face of being "discarded" and losing their love objects.

My thoughts are still a bit jumbled on all of this.

To Dan Mellamphy: thanks for the .pdf link to your and Nandita's essay on Benjamin, materialism, and toys [thanks to Kathy Biddick, a historian at Temple, I actually spent part of this past winter reading Benjamin on toys and also Agamben on infancy, so I'm very interested in this]. And yes, I've read Santer's books: he's one of my favorite writers!

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Kids are sleeping late on a cold wet Cambridge day, and I'm typing this out on a mobile device so will be brief. Thought provoking post about a movie I detest: the worst of Kubrick's sadism grafted to the worst of Spielberg's schmaltz, resulting in a sentimental cruelty that I found difficult to endure. Maybe the problem is that for Kubrick all people (mech a or not) are objects, whereas for Spielberg they are human in only achingly emotional ways, resulting in a graft that can't quite take?

The larger question raised is one that haunted my own objects seminar: beneath the vibrant matrialism of say, catalog poems about refuse in Baltimore, what darker stories burgeon? What do they do to the aesthetic bent of OOO?