Being with Her: Sex Without Bodies

Curator's Note

Posthumanism is intimately tied to a history of cybernetics (Hayles, 1999); the organic body is no longer the sole possible site of life, but instead life itself is dematerialized and reimagined as a process. The essence of what makes us human is no longer determined by the very stuff of our being, as life is reconfigured as a series of mediations.

Spike Jonze’s film Her envisions a future where sentient operating systems forge emotional bonds with humans. Protagonist Theo Twombly makes his living as a love-letter-writer for hire, but finds himself alone. Theo purchases a companion OS he names Samantha who soon reciprocates his affection, and the film chronicles their evolving relationship within a world where human-computer intimacies are increasingly common. However, as the two navigate an emotional and sexual coupling that is deeply felt but largely divorced from the body, the film foregrounds the question of affect’s relationship to embodiment in a world where the lines between man and machine are blurred.

While on the surface Her operates as posthumanist text, a key moment reveals it is set in a universe that, like our own, remains attached to the importance of embodiment. This insurmountable difference between man and machine is evident when Samantha arranges for a “surrogate,” Isabella, to stand in as her body and make love to Theo. With Samantha present through a camera that allows her to see (and voice) the encounter, Isabella provides a mode of intimacy otherwise unavailable to the lovers. Yet Theo’s inability sleep with Isabella despite Samantha’s pleading shows that ideals of romantic love grounded in physical intimacy continue to reign; intimacy is thwarted because Samantha’s “body” and mind are irreparably disconnected. In examining how Her imagines the affective interplay between man and machine, what does the absent body within a framework of technological mediation tell us about the constraints and contingencies of our visions of intimate futurity?

References:

Hayles, N. K.(1999). How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Comments

Edmond Y. Chang's picture

Seat of the Soul

I have not (yet) seen Her, but I think the questions and problems you raise echo what I thought when I first saw the trailers. I wonder, though, given my limited knowledge of the film whether or not it is actually trying to divorce the mind from the body or the mind from the *right* body. I wonder too if Samantha’s surrogate were designed by Theo or by Samantha herself (or virtual a la a holodeck) if there would be said failure of intimacy. The surrogate body is clearly not the right body for Theo (and do you even need a body to have “sex”). Just thinking along here. It reminds me of Julian Dibbell’s “A Rape in Cyberspace” and of the fraught relationship between our conceptions of mind/body.

Alexandra Sastre's picture

Edmond you raised really

Edmond you raised really salient, critical questions, and think you’re spot on in your reference to the central polemic Dibbell brings up in his ethnography. I think too it is important to parse out how, within the universe of Her, bodies are related not only to sex (because certainly, you can have sex without bodies and the couple is shown doing so) but to a level of intimacy that is sexual and something more. This is the vector (call it romance perhaps?) that for me the film seems to render familiar, and depict in ways that are accessible to a contemporary audience, namely that love necessitates a certain cohesion of mind and body. Good food for thought!

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