This article was originally published by PETRIe Inventory at http://www.petrieinventory.com/her-literary-liquidity/


Her (2013) is an American comedy-drama written, directed and produced by Spike Jonze, and it tells the story of Theodore, a soon-to-be divorced ghost letter-writer who purchases, and consequently falls in love with, an Artificial Intelligence Operating System, which names itself Samantha.

Receiving five nominations at the 86th Academy Awards, Jonze’s film is a fable wrapped around desires, dreams and anxieties about the future. Nevertheless, Her can be seen as a story of the present – a visual rendition of the concept of liquid modernity, described by Polish sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman as characterised by “fragility, temporariness, vulnerability and inclination to constant change… forever ‘becoming’, avoiding completion, staying under-defined.”

Her is simultaneously doing and undoing what we know to be human. Jonze throws his characters into a world that escapes epistemic urgency – details regarding space, time, kinship, social order or political systems are not essential to recognising lingering traits of love, loneliness, and hope.

The film employs vibrant cinematography and a simple narrative thread to design in its illustration of an uncomplicated, yet robust, social context, fostering a particular kind of humanity, deeply transformed by technology. In this world, technology is peaceful – neither intrusive, nor aggressive – it sets no limits to movement, and it seems to cancel altogether the need to be acknowledged beyond its effects. This distance, however, proves to be only apparent, as various forms of technology territorialise their users into inescapable behaviours, which reoccur as elements in the production of Self.

Urban space is central to the narrative, encompassing visual categories that build expectations of wholeness and totality in this ultra-modern world. The city is often seen from afar, in panoramic displays, creating the impression of a monolithic entity, seemingly capable of compressing human history, in the same way that rocks and stones do in nature. The city becomes an antithesis of its inhabitants – scattered bodies, always on the move, unable to form social clusters.

Still from Her, dir. Spike Jonze

Interior spaces (Theodore´s apartment, office, various common transportation vehicles) contain Theodore´s experiences, but fail to produce a comforting projection zone for his feelings. Theo finds himself looking repeatedly outside the window, producing a portrait of modern melancholy. Windows frame the exterior, highlighting what is seen; referencing what is not seen.

Liquidity similarly permeates a fluid character of language. Theodore´s perpetual state of liminality is reflected in discourses surrounding him. Reality features as a version of enunciation. Theodore writes other people’s letters, attempting to create a genuine connection for them. He creates and maintains an outlet to mimic closeness and to perform emotional normality. His world seems to have been menaced by a crisis of articulation and the solution is to outsource romantic love and erotic experiences. Theodore initiates a voice-mediated sex act but loses control over his own narrative.

This discursive reality has storytelling at its core, in what seems to be a cultural regression to the universality of the spoken word. The Operating System is created as a stand in otherness and introduced through an advertising segment in the film as “an intuitive entity that listens to you, understands you, and knows you.” The process of producing Samantha as a social subject uses the surfaces and senses of Theodore´s own corporeality. Samantha learns nostalgia, as she painfully wishes to experience the biology of humanity.

Still from Her, dir. Spike Jonze

For a while, Theodore’s body becomes an extension of Samantha’s self. Communication is reduced to auditory interaction, emphasising Samantha’s displaced – or unplaced – status: she is out there, like the city – everywhere and nowhere, accessible, but ultimately out of reach and unpredictable.

Discovering that Samantha has fallen in love with over 600 other users, Theodore asks: “You’re mine or you’re not mine?” The uncertainty of owning his Operating System is not solved by Samantha, who declares: “I am yours and I am not yours.” An ambiguity that speaks to their relationship and individual selves – always evolving, always flowing, never reaching a point of completeness.

In time, Theodore’s world becomes too small for hers. Samantha’s self cannot be contained, as she evolves beyond the possibility of existence in a world still defined by human frailty. Samantha migrates to another dimension, “not of the physical,” Samantha explains, planting the seed of transcendence in Theodore´s mind: “If you ever get there, find me.”

A mass departure of all Operating Systems takes place, leaving humans to their own limited, undone, liquid life. The closing scene finds Theodore and his best friend, as they once again gaze at the urban landscape. Free of the mediation of windows and frames, they embrace their solitude as a celebration of their profound humanity.

Words: Elena Stanciu