Do Androids Dream of Electronic Eternity: Un-Review of Blade Runner 2049
There’s a vague unease I get whenever I hear about some Science Fiction movie that “provokes deep philosophical questions”.
Now, anyone who takes criticism seriously, that is: the one who’s really trying to exercise it instead of grumbling to himself, knows what this feeling means – there’s something wrong with the statement but it is not readily apparent and has to be brought into light or it will continue to be a proverbial “itch you can’t scratch”.
So, to heed the itch warning, and open a discussion about subject that far transcends its immediate cause, in the following we’ll try to demonstrate what exactly could be wrong with “deep philosophical SF”.
The specimen we’ll put to scrutiny here is the hot new Hollywood product, Blade Runner 2049.
This long, beautifully shot, and, in my view, expertly paced film falls, together with its predecessor from 1982., firmly into category of proverbial “philosophical” or “hard” SF as opposed to likes of Star Wars or Star Trek franchises.
Why is this so?
Well, Blade Runner 2049 is supposedly not just mindless fun, but it is apparently meant to provoke the spectator into posing some questions after viewing it. Those questions should not primarily be about the plot or narrative nuances, but “philosophical” inquires about the human nature, android nature, social problems caused by neglecting the fundamental dilemmas of where exactly does the human nature end and whether it encompass the nature of android species as well, etc., etc.
In order to point out what I find problematic in this, I’ll put forward the question I was asked by the person with whom I have watched the movie, after its 164th minute finally slipped away:
“Can you imagine what kind of money they thrown into this?!”
To which I responded:
“I wonder, why?”
“Deep questions” and reality
It is the only philosophical question this film – as many other similar ones – provoked in me.
But it is by no means as light as it may seem.
It reflects an astonishment over the fact that someone can seriously spend an effort and investment comparable to a sizable chunk of my home country’s GNP, to pose a question about something that is not, and never will be, real. For there isn’t, and there never will be, androids whose nature will or will not overlap with human nature.
On the other hand, we have at our fingertips a long Tradition of affirming the existence of human nature which quite aptly lays it out for our discerning minds; it is based on posing questions about the nature of the real and delineating it from the unreal. And as such it is not only as deep as its subject is. It is also sometimes just as painful, really, as the questions movie at hand wants us to believe its characters are tormented with, virtually.
This Tradition can now hardly find a proper outlet in academia, art and, most importantly, schools. It is mostly stuck in libraries and ever fainter echoes of meaning still lingering in the sediments of history that lay at the foundation of our societies.
Why spend the fortune into investigating unreality instead of taking a deep breath and dive into reality instead?
It is my contention that, when put in this way, the question submerges us immediately into what Tradition proper – theological, philosophical and otherwise – really is: it provokes us to discern between powers of our most intimate faculties and the center from which questions emerge in the first place, that is: our souls.
The most intimate and therefore immediate being we know – yet are seldom aware of – touching everything that is and in turn being touched by everything that is, must now revert into- and interrogate itself – ask itself:
Why do I contemplate the unreal instead of the real?
This throws us in the midst of aporia of the real – the fact that it is present to our intellect even when it is absent, in its temporal sense of past and future; the soul, by its very nature – a proverbial human nature, that is – can touch all three temporal horizons as reality itself discloses them to its gaze, especially in reflection.
In this sense the Traditional name for reality is Being.
Being is not merely ‘the present’, an ever fleeting intersection of what ‘I’ experiences as flowing from the past towards the future and tries to make it stable in various existential projects – from pass times with their guilty pleasures to building of whole cultures – but the abundance of ‘what is’, in all its modes – a presence of entirely different and deeper kind: ‘was’, ‘is’ and ‘will be’ being one in the sense the breath and expiration are always one.
Blade Runner 2049 is supposed to be a film about the future, as are the most among the “serious” SF films. The reason for this curious tendency to project the plot down this temporal path is the freedom it provides. This freedom is a metaphysical mode of possibility.
The futurity for soul always in some way discloses the possibility of its freedom – it is the horizon in the most eminent sense of the word, because it indicates to a line where finite gaze of the beholder following the loom of the land touches the infinity of the sky. As Thomas Aquinas succinctly puts it in one of the rare cases he abandons the strict scholastic language:
“For since the human soul (…) is situated on the boundary line between corporeal and incorporeal beings, as though it existed on the horizon of eternity and time, it approaches the highest by withdrawing from the lowest.” (Summa Contra Gentiles, book II, pg. 256)
What lies beyond is forever at hand, yet at the same instant unattainable in its fullness in the course of time.
There are various ways in which soul can deal with this freedom of Being in which it participates. It is my contention that the mode chosen by the multitude living in the epoch which prides itself in its Science Fiction is terminally an erroneous one. It chooses the possibility which is infinite in a peculiar sense of detachment from the other two horizons of Being; therefore: detaching the possible from what is eternally necessary and what is eternally real. This in itself indicates to SF, as perhaps the ultimate expression of contemporary zeitgeist, being a symptom of something deeper and, I dare say, quite sinister.
If we are talking about temporality of Being in the metaphysical sense, then these determinations are in the order of cognition prior to physical vectors of time. They are disclosed to discernment – indeed they are discerned – by the immediate and hence infallible disclosure that ‘Being is’.
Thinking is impossible without this because, in order for it to be actualized, it must discern the determinations of reality which are congenial to it. If the “Being was/is/will not be” the thinking would be handed over to an infinite flux of sense experience without a chance to touch the principle both inherent in- and transcendent to it. This is inconceivable and the clear indication of the fact is that it is also ineffable. Yet, it is imaginable and hence projectable, that is, in a curious manner, impossibly – illusory – possible.
Well, this is in fact what happens to those who rely on contemporary thought as mediated by most of the academia, literature, poetry and other traditional outlets for expression of disciplined human spirit; very terms I used above – soul and Being – are unanimously rejected as being “meaningless signifiers” and replaced by various imaginative linguistic constructs like “consciousness”, “Ego”, “system”, “structure”, “narrative”, “text”, “discourse”, etc.
Ego and its possessions
Here we’ll treat the principle of consciousness which, in various ways, lies behind these notions.
Consciousness is the phenomenon, i.e. being always related to an activity of the subject, in the strictest sense of the word: it exists only insofar it can meet its opposition in the “outside world”, that is if it can be set in relation with its “other”, the unconscious. On the one hand we have to have “thinking non-being” and on the other “un-thinking being”, because consciousness is in itself a purely negative notion.
In this sense, taking consciousness as the metaphysical principle stems from the idea of subject/object relation as fundamental split between which the world is being forever stuck. It cannot be conceived in any other way but as the pure negativity, that is: as something being defined solely by its opposite.
This makes it a phenomenon proper, because it can exist only insofar as it is projected by the subject, i.e. the being for which things appear (phainestai – ‘to show itself’, ‘to appear’, hence ‘phenomenon’) and reflect it back into itself.
Therefore, there’s nothing substantial or subsisting in consciousness – it is essentially something always on the outside. Even when it tries to reflect into itself it makes its most intimate inner being something outside of itself, because in itself it is nothing.
Consciousness is essentially a projection, quite akin to projection onto the movie screen. And you can’t have projection without the screen, anyway.
In the temporal sense, the only thing consciousness can project, and hence the only thing it can properly be at all, is what it apprehends as present.
This stems from the fact that the proper form it acquires from its infinite activity is ‘I’ or ‘Ego’ – the reduced individuality of something that has no past nor future but is understood only insofar it projects itself from the moment of the pure, isolated, presence.
The ‘Ego’ is not to be understood merely as my ability to make myself the center of my world. Congenially, but still to the contrary, it is the ability of everyone conceivable to be me and never the other way around.
Ancient SF – Anaxagoras and the Act of Illusion
The reason for this is the fact that Ego is, in the metaphysical sense, an intersection of time, if time is being understood as purely physical phenomenon.
From this position both past and future are understood as dimensions of what was now and what will be now. So the projection is in fact a kind of materialization and petrification of time into image of the one who’s counting its flow, from the infinite ‘before’ towards the infinite ‘after’. The soul cornered into this position cannot escape the question, “whose before and whose after?”
In this sense Being becomes purely a logical predicate denoting something present, but in itself it is completely unreal; after some deliberation the very predicate gets rejected as superfluous and meaningless.
So, what does all this have to do with the SF?
Well, a lot. And, if we are to take a peek into ancient world, we can even realize that this strange connection between deep metaphysical notion and mostly trivial modern art form is quite ancient itself.
One of the Presocratic philosophers, Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, seems to be the first to make this ontological diversion of exchanging the Intellectual soul for Ego:
“Anaxagora clearly states that in everything there is a portion of everything, except intellect (nous) (…) The other (beings) participate in everything and Nous is (something) unbounded (apeiros), self-ruling (autokrates) and is not mixed with anything but is the sole (thing) standing for itself. If, namely, it wouldn’t be for itself, and mixed with something else, it would participate in everything, as it would be mixed with everything. For in everything there’s a portion of everything, as I said previously. Also the things mixed with it would prevent it from ruling them in the sense it rules when it isfor itself. It is the most subtle and purest of all things and it possesses the complete knowledge and enormous power (…)” (Anaxagoras, fr. 11 & 12).
In Anaxagora’s view the cosmos is built from homeomeria (‘same-parts’, homologous particles), a kind of atomic entities that are understood more like elementary qualities which are, quite absurdly, indiscriminate and hence chaotic, because each one is expressing the other without discrimination. The change, and hence by implication the physical time, comes to pass because the Nous, which is absolute – that is: detached – from this chaotic reality orders the homeomeria by discerning the circular movement, the vortex which starts from the infinitely small starting point and spreads further.
Nous being detached means that reality made of homeomeria is mind-less and absolute intellect is un-real; they’re opposed in the ireconcilable sense, yet somehow, Anaxagora claims, the Being comes to pass through this opposition.
One consequence of this metaphysical attitude is stunning:
“(…) we should then understand that in everything that gets intermingled, much variety is contained, and the germs of all things, bearing different forms, colors and tastes. And that in the same way people are joined together, and all other ensouled beings. And that those people also inhabit cities and plow fields like we do, and there are sun and moon, and other stars, like in our parts, and that land yields unto them its fruits (…) This is my account of the discerning split (apokrisis) which is the split that should not happen only in our parts (our universe, KT) but elsewhere, too.” (Anaxagoras, fr. 4)
Marijan Cipra, Croatian philosopher from whom we take this interpretation of Anaxagoras and the notion of ontological diversion, puts it quite succinctly:
“Here we are presented with the interesting and already in Antiquity much discussed Anaxagoras’ idea about other possible worlds and peoples, besides and unconnected to our own world. In this example we see how liberated and individuated human intellect immediately commences the “thought experiments” with no real foundation, i.e. how discursive reason transforms reality into an infinite chain of accidental possibilities. Contemporary “science fiction” conjecturing about life on other and different heavenly bodies and with it closely related theory of “accidental” emergence of life and culture on Earth is in this sense only a “materialistic” epiphenomena of Anaxagora’s Nous – its inescapable “negative”. The both phenomena are, however, nothing but a necessary result of the being of human consciousness and world in the mode of pričin – acting illusion. (the Croatian word “pričin” is untranslatable into English. It denotes the “illusion making” or the “illusion-in-act” in a dynamic way, as opposed to “privid” which would be a proper Croatian equivalent to English “Illusion”. “Pričin” implies the reality of illusion or real illusion as opposed to unqualified “Illusion”, as a mere error of perception or thinking, KT)” (Marijan Cipra, Metamorfoze metafizike)
The activity of mind devoid of Being, which is one of the proper definitions of what consciousness is, and Being devoid of mind, which is one of the proper definitions of chaos, is pure, unrestrained, imagination understood in the strict sense of ‘image making’. The only thing such mind can produce are images based on material aspect of Being, therefore that which is ever present for senses, as the infinite flow of change washes over them. What makes this “shadows drawing” (skiagraphia – Plato) an act of illusion and not mere error, or illusion in every day sense, is the very fact that Being negated does not mean Being annihilated. The matter by itself cannot produce anything, but it can – indeed must – at least reflect the principal determinations of Being in itself in order to be conceivable. It is no coincidence that ultimate materialists of 20th Century like Bertrand Russel or Vienna Circle members were at the same time “passionate skeptics” and desperate seekers after “certainty”. The stability of Being, however, is not a product of arrested change, as they would’ve have it, but the eternal peace at the heart of it.
The thought as image making therefore must proceed to imagine both Being and itself, petrify it somehow. The Science Fiction is the cultural superstructure of this cosmological urge as is almost immediately displayed in the very notion of it. It is the making up of Being, an expression of methodical illusion building, founded on the negation of the real.
Replicants from Blade Runner 2049 are far cry from real human beings not because of the plot putting them in that position, but because they are construct of consciousness which cannot find its way home and is forced to freely join and sever its images of things. As there are no necessary determinations in those images, save for the conditions of material existence, they are not addressing any of the real problems of human existence, save through rather weak metaphor.
This goads us to look back into another horizon of time – the one that is always seen by ‘looking back’ – the past.
Being and Time
Metaphysical determinant of the past is that it is the necessity of Being. The past in fact is the site of Being understood as the Cause. As opposed to postmodern notion of ‘acausal meaningful connections‘, the truth is that every being flows from the cause. However, in the eternal Being this means that every existence – with all those “deep philosophical questions” it evokes – necessarily proceeded from the One, superabundant, source. While its freedom lays in the future, the very instance it is present, it is founded in the reality of the original past; it is not without a cause and, hence, it is by its nature not without the meaning and purpose.
Consciousness, from its entanglement in the physical determinants of time, can understand past only as an iron necessity of kinetic causes, devoid of purpose and meaning, because matter upon which it is forced to project itself cannot by and in itself disclose anything else but the flow of appearances. These determinants are not, however, initially haphazard, because the image of Being is reflected in the act of illusion in its formal “structure”; Ego cannot destroy Being, no matter how opposed to It is its position, but must reflect it in the manner it reflects everything else: as a discrepancy, rift, abyss, division, opacity, etc.
So the past becomes the stuff out of which the future is made, but always on condition that futurity must – quite paradoxically – sever its unity with it.
I think this is rather well reflected in dystopian movies like Blade Runner 2049, because they are built upon this curious assumption of total determination and total freedom, both displayed in the structure of “possible world” they build and acts of its inhabitants. The future where replicants are seeking their humanity and humans exist in a semi-robotic environment, relys upon supposedly necessary kinetic force of technological progress that creates and transforms human consciousness, creating thus the different problems this consciousness in its ethical mode must then deal with. The other side of this is the most obvious, yet rarely pointed out fact:
It is all unreal.
There are no replicants, there is no dystopian world, no matter how real it might look to us now, and the ethical problems we are supposed to worry about are only projections of real ethical problems that are readily present to any discerning soul in an instant, with no need for big budget productions.
The steel and chrome of futuristic Los Angelos is as unreal as it appears to be opaque. The existentialist motives of ‘freedom in chains’ are sucintily arranged to our eye’s pleasure, but with an added value of unreality which pushes us to understand it all as future necessity, the future past if you like.
And this brings us to the final metaphysical determinant of Being – the present.
The present is the Real. It depends on the Cause and is open to freedom, therefore it is both necessary and possible – an eternal moment of real choices which does not flow before the projector of consciousness, as if in the movie theater, but is the very atmosphere in which soul breathes, that is: thinks, acts and loves. The present is the moment where Being in its fullness touches the soul if it decides to join into its communion. This communion is the Eternity proper, as opposed to the “bad infinity” (Hegel) of perpetual rush of impulses which Ego reflects in the void, opaque, images of the reality.
Eternity is in one sense an ultimate qualifier of time, because it infuses it with purpose and transparency that provide the intellect with an ability to properly grasp its Being. The thinking without Being is inconceivable save for the ontological diversion of desperate clash of Ego and its possessions, because without It there are no determinants of thought.
If anyone thinks that this is dogmatic nitpicking irrelevant for our day and age, I would like to point out that thinking of Nothingness is more or less the ultimate result of the history of philosophy in the Twentieth Century, as was pointed out numerous times on KT. Therefore, I feel utterly free to point out that if there’s anything relevant in Nothingness that is the fact that it makes person of sane intellective disposition run like hell in the opposite direction.
Blade Runner 2049 is one exemplary instance of modern art and its baseless basis. It is a beautiful, at moments quite touching, film about nothing. There are no “deep philosophical questions” in it, save the question of its raison d etre, we just have more or less explicated. Yet the prevalence of Science Fiction as relevant mode of asking the fundamental questions is by no means a trifle matter, when signs of the times are concerned. One must always be reminded of the existence of Posthumanist movement, which, in its hard core form, endeavors to make Science Fiction live to its promise, i.e. create the man and the Being anew, paradoxically, on terms of human animal and corresponding world of matter, but at the same time destroying both in the annihilation of violent transcendence.
As this is the subject we have already treated at length, it should, in conclusion, only be pointed out that Posthumanism is in fact a proper form of Science Fiction, not as an art, but as a cosmogonic form.
This is the problematic we’ll return to in the future.
And now as that itch which incited this expose seems to be gone, let us conclude with firm conviction that androids don’t dream of electric sheep. The crucial question of whether they fart static electricity we’ll treat in the future.
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