Human, All Too Human
[Editor’s Note: Spoiler Alert – The ending of Source Code is mentioned in this piece.]
“We have only to understand the mirror stage as an identification, in the full sense that analysis gives to the term: namely, the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes an image — whose predestination to this phase-effect is sufficiently indicated by the use, in analytic theory, of the ancient term imago.
This jubilant assumption of his specular image by the child at the infant stage, still sunk in his motor incapacity and nursling dependence, would seem to exhibit in an exemplary situation the symbolic matrix in which the I is precipitated in a primordial form, before it is objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other, and before language restores to it, in the universal, its function as subject.
This form would have to be called the Ideal-I, if we wished to incorporate it into our usual register, in the sense that it will also be the source of secondary identifications, under which term I would place the functions of libidinal normalization. But the important point is that this form situates the agency of the ego, before its social determination, in a fictional direction, which will always remain irreducible for the individual alone, or rather, which will only rejoin the coming-into-being of the subject asymptotically, whatever the success of the dialectical syntheses by which he must resolve as I his discordance with his own reality.”
– Jacques Lacan
He may have been an awful writer –- and reading translations doesn’t make things any easier –- but Jacques Lacan had an awfully poetic conception of the self. Lacan, a psychoanalyst who was nicknamed the “French Freud,” is today all but forgotten in the psychoanalytic field; instead, his ideas have gained a devoted following in critical theory, especially in cinema studies, where his writings on the symbolic order, the gaze, the other, and so on carry an instant cachet. Lacan’s biggest idea, however –- the one that you’re most likely to be forced to decipher if you come across him in a theory survey course –- was that of the Mirror Stage. (At just 1,800 words, this essay is only mildly unreadable, as opposed to the majority of Lacan’s writings, which are so flat-out difficult that the interested non-PhD student is advised to check out the excellent distillations of Lacan found in Bruce Fink’s work, or perhaps -– beware -– that of Lacan’s Marxist successor, Slavoj Zizek.)
For our purposes here, I’ll just extract a piece of what Lacan posited in this seminal essay. In a nutshell, he argued that infants, upon recognizing their image in the mirror for the first time, begin a dialectical process that pits their own fragmented sense of self (the infant, when not looking into a mirror, conceptualizes its body as various body parts rather than a total body) against something he terms the Ideal-I. The Ideal-I is a psychological creation made by the infant upon seeing itself in the mirror as a whole body rather than a fragmented collection of body parts. The infant is intimidated by this “whole” self, against which it feels inadequate; to overcome this feeling of inadequacy, the infant comes to identify with it. In this moment of identification, this “jubilant assumption,” the ego of the human begins to form. When Lacan writes that the ego is moving in a “fictional direction,” what he means is that the ego is beginning what will be a lifelong process of striving after – attempting to identify with – its Ideal-I, an idealized, whole, perfect version of itself. The Ideal-I, or ideal-ego, as Zizek has written, “stands for the idealized self-image of the subject (the way I would like to be, I would like others to see me).” We’ll never make it to the Ideal-I; it’s a conception of self that, by definition, cannot exist. Yet regardless, we strive our entire lives to reach that self; that’s the tragic element inherent in the Lacanian subject.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that we’re having a cultural Mirror Stage moment. We went from Facebook to Avatar in six years; from the (relatively) modest reality of creating our Ideal-Is on the Internet to the outsized fantasy of going so far as to transfer our consciousness into them. With the release of Source Code on April 1st, a film with strong thematic ties to Avatar (and, to a lesser degree, last year’s Inception), a cultural symptom fully announces itself and an assessment is in order.
Let’s first investigate the trend. The wealth of this stuff that’s accumulated over the past decade (not only Facebook and other social networking sites but Second Life, online role playing games, chat rooms, etc.) all supports the desire to create a better self, a more perfect self, in the guise of an online avatar. In the fringes of the computer science/neuroscience/technology industries, we see it in the growing belief in the “Singularity,” the forthcoming moment (2045, to be exact, according to cheerleader #1 Ray Kurzweil) wherein artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence and, amongst many other things occurring, humans will gain the capability of uploading their consciousness into computers, where they can then live forever in any number of cyborg avatar forms. (More on this later.) Avatar, however, signaled a mainstreaming of this cultural obsession; after all, it’s not every day that a movie grosses $2.8 billion worldwide. Avatar, which revolved around a paraplegic Marine who, in the future, is able to transfer his consciousness into a walking alien life form, is a fine centerpiece for my argument: the film’s dream is of a technology that perfects the imperfect, human flaws that its protagonist possesses – not only an inability to walk, but an inability to emote as well. By living in his avatar, our Marine comes to empathize with the exploited alien race he is supposed to be sabotaging, and ends up joining their fight; he becomes a better person. (Scientific studies have shown that people do tend to take on properties of their avatars in VR simulations, like ones in which a taller avatar leads the individual to behave in a more assertive, confident manner than the other, shorter avatars in the simulation.) In the end of the film –- stop reading if you’re one of the eight folks who didn’t catch this movie –- the Marine ends up permanently transporting his consciousness into his avatar, as his human body dies. He becomes his Ideal-I and transfers his existence from the real world to a world that belongs in the realm of fantasy. The overwhelming popularity of Avatar made me wonder: if it was possible, how many users of Second Life would upload their consciousness online and live the rest of their lives as their characters?
Source Code offers a very similar story, albeit with an important distinction. Revolving around a soldier who must inhabit an avatar in order to find the culprit of a terrorist attack, the narrative begins veering off track midway through, as we realize that the film isn’t so much about solving the mystery of the attack as it is about our soldier figuring out his own predicament –- he has not yet had his mission fully explained to him. In a twist the Singularitarians (yes, that’s what they’re called) will surely love, it turns out that the soldier is dead. Due to advanced technology, a portion of his brain –- still active –- is being used to inhabit the avatar of one of the people on the train, for repeated loops of the last eight minutes of that person’s life; in some hokum science, the film explains that the brain activity of said eight minutes can be salvaged. This data is then, one assumes, uploaded into a computer where the soldier’s consciousness is being beamed. Or something. Even Kurzweil might have trouble accounting for this one.
The point is that our soldier is dead, existing only in the virtual reality of the “source code” (the eight minutes on the train), as well as in an indeterminate nether space, which I suppose is meant to represent the brain’s state during a coma or something. Trapped in a reality where he is neither dead nor alive, he merely asks that once his mission is completed, he be allowed to die. This is granted to him, but, in a twist that truly defies any and all logic (or the film’s sorry excuse for logic) that has come before it, the soldier winds up being able to live inside the source code for longer than eight minutes -– the source code is, in fact, a parallel reality. (Movies are starting to pick up on the parallel reality theories floating around, something that actually seems semi-logical in the world of quantum mechanics when one investigates the bizarreness of wave function collapse –- this theory provides an explanation in which wave function collapse does not, in fact, occur at all. Anyway, the point is this crops up in Rabbit Hole and the forthcoming Another Earth, and you can probably see the connection between a parallel universe theory and an opposition of real versus digital existences.) That Source Code has to twist and turn against its own logic in order to supply us with this ending, and yet does it anyway, belies the deep desire of the narrative machine to provide us with such an ending: the film desperately wants to see this man disappear into his avatar, into the Ideal-Ego, the other, digital self, because it believes that that’s what we want, and Hollywood endings are the most base gratification of desires.
Avatar and Source Code share the same narrative theme: the desire to transport oneself through the looking-glass, into a world where we are better, more perfect versions of ourselves. Inception also belongs in this class to a lesser extent, as that picture revolves around an opposition between real and virtual worlds, only to hint, in the end, that perhaps its happy ending is contained within the “virtual” (in this case, dream) world. It’s slightly more ambiguous in Inception, but Avatar and Source Code have unabashedly happy endings, engendered in no small part by the mere fact that their protagonists have made it through the portal into the other realm. Such endings ignore obvious questions –- what will happen when our Marine begins to long for his friends back on Earth, his human form? Think of the ending of Source Code and the horrific issues our soldier will now face, living as a high school teacher –- he’s not qualified for this job, so what will he do? How will he interact with his avatar’s friends and family? Will he look up his own father, who figures predominantly in the narrative, and tell him the truth? And so on.
Of course, what is our soldier’s other option in Source Code -– death? And is it so awful for our paraplegic Marine to find a new existence in a fully functional body in the end of Avatar? In these hyper-specialized cases, the transfer of the self into the digital/fantasy realm is entirely justified. Yet, as with any work of art, these films contain underlying themes that are far more abstract, plays to our emotions rather than rational justifications of any sort. Avatar and Source Code can have their unconscious desires extracted, like an analysand, into something much more pure and simple than what their narrative webs present. On an unconscious level, these films tell us not to be wary or skeptical of our Facebook selves; they tell us to not bother keeping our Second Life existence in perspective. Whether they are conscious of it or not, these films advocate jettisoning our real lives for the sake of digital existences that we can control, by way of a heroic romanticizing of bypassing the constraints of our bodies and our immediate realities. They offer the dream of becoming the Ideal-I incarnate. They are no different from Singularitarians like Kurzweil, who dreams of being able to upload his consciousness into a computer so that he may live to be 700 in any number of different bodies and different full-immersion virtual realities that he can construct at will (which sounds an awful lot like Robert Nozick’s terrifying “Experience Machine”). By putting forth dreams in which we escape into our avatars, Hollywood has implicitly endorsed escapism to a greater degree than ever before. In the ’30s, musicals enabled us to escape for a few hours; now, the specter is beginning to loom of an escape that would be permanent. This specter is hardly a science-fiction fantasy: as virtual reality machines go from being mainly housed in universities and research laboratories to the majority of residences, and as their function goes from being purely scientific to recreational as well (as computers have similarly progressed over the past 50 years), we will find ourselves with an overwhelming amount of opportunities to escape our immediate confines; VR vacations, VR socializing, even VR sexual liaisons with AI-controlled agents may indeed be only a few decades away, when one accounts for the exponential growth rate in digital technology as demonstrated by Moore’s Law. In such a world, we would trade off the problems and complications of actual reality for a man-made virtual reality wherein things always go according to plan, desires are always perfectly satisfied, and nobody ever complains.
The corollary to the idea of perfecting ourselves from within a virtual world is that, in the process of trying to achieve such perfection, in the midst of trying to transport our consciousness to the other side of the screen, we compromise something of our fundamental humanity. What we lose is our ability to deal with reality, our loved ones, our work, our conceptions of our actual selves –- the things that bear true weight in real life. The perfection of the virtual realm, if we surrender to it as an end unto itself, could render us unable to navigate the complexities of real life. At the moment, and for the foreseeable future, it’s not as if we have as stark a choice as the characters in the aforementioned films do, between living in the real world or in a fantasy with an avatar; rather, our lives will continue to contain an existence split between both realms. But the way we use the digital realm is key: if we use it as an escape route, we will be using it dangerously. I’m under no illusions – the virtual world is not disappearing anytime soon, and I am no Luddite; but, as Jaron Lanier (who coined the term “virtual reality”) argues in his book You Are Not A Gadget, we must use the new technologies shaping our lives to better said lives, rather than escape them. There are reasons that people dream of being able to escape into their Second Life avatars, or upload their consciousness into a computer so that they might live forever in a controlled full-immersion virtual reality. There are reasons people would rather socialize on Facebook than in person. These reasons are nothing new: they are the forces of existential dread, the horrific pain and difficulty that comes with being alive and making tough choices day-in, day-out for our entire lives. Life is hard, uncontrollable, chaotic and scary; digital realms of our design are everything that life is not. But life begs us to do the work, and if we don’t, we slip even further away from being able to exercise any kind of control over it. In the height of irony, we move into the virtual realm so that we might correct the problems in our real lives, but we end up using it as an escape, which only magnifies the problems that sent us there in the first place. At the crux of the issue is the fact that we’re treating our insecurities and flaws, our boredom and loneliness, as symptoms to be wiped away with temporary immersion in a virtual environment, rather than as viruses to be truly examined for what they are. David Foster Wallace, as usual, said it far better than I ever could, in an interview from 1993 with Larry McCaffrey:
DFW: What TV is extremely good at -– and realize that this is “all it does” -– is discerning what large numbers of people think they want, and supplying it. And since there’s always been a strong and distinctive American distaste for frustration and suffering, TV’s going to avoid these like the plague in favor of something anesthetic and easy.
LM: Do you think this distaste is distinctly American?
DFW: It seems distinctly Western-industrial, anyway. In most other cultures, if you hurt, if you have a symptom that’s causing you to suffer, they view this as basically healthy and natural, a sign that your nervous system knows something’s wrong. For these cultures, getting rid of the pain without addressing the deeper cause would be like shutting off a fire alarm while the fire’s still going. But if you just look at the number of ways that we try like hell to alleviate mere symptoms in this country –- from fast-fast-fast-fast-relief antacids to the popularity of lighthearted musicals during the Depression –- you can see an almost compulsive tendency to regard pain itself as the problem. And so pleasure becomes a value, a teleological end in itself.
Obviously, in my formulation TV is replaced by the virtual realm, but the logic remains the same. Later in the interview, Wallace says that “a big part of real art fiction’s job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, to move people to countenance it, since any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.” It is precisely this sort of human redemption that the disappearance into the world of the screen precludes. To become our avatars and lose focus on our own problems and hardships is to abandon our real lives, our real relationships and the real philosophical problems that underscore our lives. The realm of the digital, be it in a futuristic world in which we can inhabit a VR simulation of our liking or in the current world with its parallel options, may be formally perfect, a veritable pleasure-dome, but that’s exactly the problem -– its controlled smoothness, its lack of flaws, is distinctly nonhuman. There are no opportunities for sacrifice, for pain, for discipline, for personal growth, meaning, or empathy. If our cultural drive toward simulated realities and parallel, controlled existences continues, we may be faced with decisions about where we want our consciousness to reside sooner than we realize. The virtual realm can perhaps be a perfected realm, a realm controlled to unleash none of the daily problems that we navigate, but if the denizens of this realm could speak, I believe they’d tell us that a perfect world isn’t all that meaningful.
Zachary Wigon is a New York-based screenwriter and film critic. Since graduating from NYU’s film school in 2008, he has contributed writing on film to The L Magazine, The Onion A/V Club, NYLON magazine and The House Next Door, amongst other outlets. His first feature screenplay, For Your Entertainment, is currently in pre-production.