JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Schindler’s List relies not only on sentiment and melodrama but also on mobilizing near-compulsive mimetic emotions.

In A.I. director Spielberg
“digs in with his sweet little
doll, all self-sufficient in plaything-paradise.”
(Merten Worthmann)



This is the womb to A.I.’s
robot-boy born from a cyber-technological entertainment industry, which has now extended its reach from targeting families to materially producing them.

Think about things

With their criticism of A.I., some reviewers take part in a discourse which objects to the confusion of categories between human and thing; they reassert an ontology of the genuinely human. For instance, Worthmann writes,

In a peculiar way, the devotion to the sensing piece of progress is at odds with the current debate on evolutionary post-humanism. Without much ado, Spielberg sides with the Things to Come; what he celebrates about his favored object is, however, just something genuinely human: the capability to desire, far beyond reality.[13]

Worthmann seemingly objects to the lack of a reference point from which to judge the robot’s non-identity:

Instead of holding the mirror of a machine run hot up to the cold [humans] for the purpose of self-recognition, [Spielberg] digs in with his sweet little doll, all self-sufficient in plaything-paradise.[14]

To Roger Ebert, things are more simple:

[b]ecause the robot does not genuinely love. It genuinely only seems to love. We are expert at projecting human emotions into non-human subjects, from animals to clouds to computer games, but the emotions reside only in our minds.[15]

This criticism manifests a near-platonic insistence on essential, indivisible human properties similar to Searle’s argument: intelligence, love, emotions are all “ours.” To reject the robot’s subjectivity as an illegitimate pretension (“projection”) is to reassure oneself about self-identity, including melancholic self-recognition. To denounce the copy reinforces the model’s (humanity’s) power and self-sufficiency. As Ebert puts it:

'What responsibility does a human have to a robot that genuinely loves?’ the film asks, and the answer is: none.[16]

These critiques mirror Vivian Sobchack’s argument about two earlier Spielberg films, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T.—The Extraterrestrial (1982). To her these films exemplify a “conservative humanism” in postmodern science fiction, holding up a human model for alien resemblance and making non-adversary aliens appear “like us, only more so.”[17] In writing on A.I., Worthmann sees David as “the better human being” who “finally re-discovers what [the humans] have lost” and takes this presupposed humanism into his conclusion on the film’s Flesh Fair-sequence:

It would have been interesting in reversed terms: if the execution of machines had actually looked like a humane act, a beacon against the mechanization of all spheres of life.[18]

However, Spielberg’s attitude towards subjectivized things is far from such Luddism. His empathy with the robot is closer to an idea promoted among others by Robert Trappl, director of the Austrian Research Institute for Artificial Intelligence:

I could imagine at some point in time the existence of a movement that demands certain rights for robots and that one cannot just at will take out their batteries.[19]

A fixation on childhood makes any indignation about reification impossible. This may sound like Worthmann on Spielberg, but it is actually Adorno on Kracauer. Adorno’s conclusion is worth quoting since it offers a revealing portrait of Kracauer’s thought:

In Kracauer the fixation on childhood, as a fixation on play, takes the form of a fixation on the benignness of things; … one looks in vain in the storehouse of Kracauer’s intellectual motifs for indignation about reification. To a consciousness that suspects it has been abandoned by human beings, objects are superior. In them thought makes reparations for what human beings have done to the living. The state of innocence would be the condition of needy objects, shabby, despised objects alienated from their purposes. For Kracauer they alone embody something that would be other than the universal functional complex, and his idea of philosophy would be to lure their indiscernible life from them.[20]

What Adorno refers to negatively is a current in Kracauer that sets the latter apart from the negative views of reification as commodification that were promoted in Frankfurt School cultural theories. To Kracauer, reification is a precondition for redemption. His early, Marxist-theological writings see as ambivalent the reified aesthetics of physical abstraction in rationalized mass culture. To Kracauer, reification reflects taylorized work processes, but it also contributes to liberating the modern subject from organicist and individualist definitions of being human.[21] With Theory of Film, Kracauer’s perspective on redemption shifts from advocating a revolutionary break with modernity to taking up post-war and post-holocaust questions of survival. Now, a mass audience is seen as having sensual intimacy with the cinematic image-thing that treats the actor as “object among objects” and “explore[s] all of physical existence, human or nonhuman.” Such a cinematic experience provides viewers with possibilities for experiencing an indeterminate, fragmentized material world.[22]

Film allows for confrontations, unmediated by narrative teleology, with the horrors and senseless ruins of reality. Thus it can make us sensitive to the measureless inexhaustibility of life. This view of Kracauer´s could be called his “post-apocalyptic vitalism.” In it body and image meet in mimetic affinity, the distinction between living people and dead objects in the image is incidental, and death becomes part of the “flow of life.”[23] This is what Gertrud Koch, in her interpretation of Kracauer, labels “redemption via reification.”[24]

In Spielberg, it is vital that “life finds a way,” as a character in Jurassic Park (1993) puts it. Life will find its way through non-human forms if necessary. The task of film’s loving memory is to save what remains from mankind; it affirms post-human forms of survival. In Spielberg, those who survive are re-born not from organic reproduction but from the same history and reifying technology that they are miraculously saved from. His ambivalent stance towards modernity echoes Donna Haraway’s ambivalent concept of the cyborg. To her, the cyborg, “a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction,” designates forced adaptations of lives to globalized capitalism but also a way to “dissolv[e] Western selves in the interests of survival” and make new forms of subjectivity suited for mass-empowerment conceivable.

The machine is us, our processes, an aspect of our embodiment. We can be responsible for machines; they do not dominate or threaten us.[25]

In both Spielberg and Haraway, the pervasive reification-as-technologization of life has destructive effects on those without power, but it also leads to the frailness of distinctions between humans and things. However, Spielberg and Haraway crucially differ in their respective affirmations of hybrid life. Spielberg’s ethics of responsibility and survival remain ideologically attached to the nation.[26] His concept of reproduction is non-heterosexual; but in a manner highly distinct from Haraway’s Marxist cyber-feminism, it is focused on redeeming surrogate fathers and families formed through male bonding. If at the end of Kracauer’s Theory of Film, the pathetic image of a “family of man” revealed by film “stands for the moment in which the fragments might find a new cohesion,”[27] Spielberg’s paradigmatic community of survivors of history frequently forms a Band of Brothers.[28]

However, more than reassert the importance of the family, as does much of Hollywood film, Spielberg shifts the task of reproducing/continuing the “flow of life” from organic biology to cinematic memory. Therefore, A.I.’s final sequence does not so much exemplify regression into oedipal fantasy as it does an apotheosis of film’s usefulness for surviving history. In that sequence, super-intelligent post-humans who mourn the disappearance of mankind revive for one day, from images stored in David’s memory, the robot boy’s adoptive mother. What counts is not the “obliterating solipsism” of the “mother-and-child reunion” lamented by Hoberman. Rather, as Hoberman himself notes, this “back-to-the-womb climax” is “a simulation, which is to say, it’s a movie.”[29] After all, at the end of his day with the simulated mother, with happiness displayed in TV-commercial-like perfection, David does not go back to the womb. Rather he finally goes “to the place where dreams are born,” as it is said by A.I.’s voice-over narrator Ben Kingsley, who earlier personified witnessing and remembrance in Schindler’s List. The place where dreams are born is Hollywood. This is the womb to a robot-boy born from a cyber-technological entertainment industry, which now has extended its reach from targeting families to materially producing them.

A.I.’s post-human anthropologists, reminiscent of Spielberg’s aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, base their hermeneutics of a dead, yet unforgettable mankind on the storage of audiovisual memory-fragments. Hoberman reads this as an allegory of Spielberg’s memorial/revival relation to Kubrick:

In somewhat the same fashion, Spielberg imagines himself to be keeping the idea of Kubrick alive. A.I. is artificial intelligence.[30]

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