When I listen to podcasts, I always have to remind myself of something. Their purpose is not to be intellectually rigorous, but to entertain. Cultural criticism podcasts, especially ones with a focus on film, are amusements. Their endeavor is to keep people listening and drive “engagement,” and those things happen when a host does something to elicit a reaction among an audience rather than produce the most groundbreaking or unimpeachable analysis.
This is why I hate movie podcasts. And I especially hate reading shit like this:
Don’t get me wrong. I am a huge supporter and frequent patron of the Brattle Theater. I’ve seen four movies there in the last eight days. I don’t listen to their podcast, so I am just reacting to this quotation completely devoid of the context that might make it clear that it’s neither inane nor facile. But I’m sure if you are someone who likes listening to reasonably articulate people talk about movies, my guess is you could do a lot worse than the Brattle Film Podcast.
To continue my equivocation, keeping in mind the podcast’s function as entertainment, I understand why one of the hosts would make a statement like this. After all, it’s certainly provocative. It might generate a very strong reaction. It’s contrarian, because there are many works of fiction that “try to make” the viewer or reader “care about how robots are treated.” And it’s even more counterintuitive as praise of a film, Ex Machina (2014), that does exactly that. The difference between Ex Machina and other films, according to this host, is that it says something about “certain people” that are treated “as if they were objects.”
Fundamentally, however, this is not sophisticated commentary. “They’re robots” is not an explanation or premise for the conclusion “I don’t love movies that try to make me care about how robots are treated.” The obvious tautology reveals that rather than commentary, this is something else. A form of utterance that has proliferated and re-defined itself in the advent of social media and online communication. It is something with little intellectual value but a great deal of “engagement” value. It’s bait.
And I’ve been baited.
Let’s continue the specious exercise of attacking an out of context quote clearly achieving what it’s meant to. The podcast host begins with a tautology, but then goes on to suggest that Ex Machina is unique because it’s a “first rate allegory,” aside from the obvious point that all stories about artificial lifeforms are allegorical. Though, not all are first rate — and it’s probably no accident I found Ex Machina to be a pretty uninspired one when I first saw it. But the entire motif of artificial humans, androids, AI, synthetic beings, and robots serves to dramatize the human condition, social exclusion, and prejudice. All the fictional inventions that fit within this group are allegorical.
By reinventing subjectivity from the first principles of its conception, one might better understand the constitutive elements that contribute to the non-uniform totality of the so-called human subject. By putting a self-evidently sentient something in a society that treats that something as a tool, one might better understand the dynamics that lead to forms of social exclusion wherein two very similar persons might occupy two very disparate social positions. Namely, one provided the rights and privileges of citizenship, moral status, and ontological substance and one divested or never afforded those things.
The way one watches and understands film is a horrendous measure of one’s morality. There is very little correlation. And a strong opinion about a work of fiction does not necessarily correspond to one’s opinion about the social situation it dramatizes. Once again, though, baited as I am, I can hear the substitution of “they’re robots” with any one among many socially excluded, disadvantaged, and harmed groups. This is not a moral condemnation, but an intellectual one. This is just not smart analysis, whether it is meant to be or not.
The animatronic elephant in the room is obvious: I have been writing about Pluto for five weeks and am about to do so again. It’s a show about all this stuff, so I am deep in it. And, personally, I love movies that “try to make me care about how robots are treated.” They usually succeed.
Pluto “Episode 6”’s Beginning of the End
A Tulip that Kills Everything Around It
When I’m talking about the death drive, I’m usually doing so from a Lacanian perspective. The Lacanian formulation of the death drive is a little different, to the point that one might refer to the singular “drive” in the Lacanian context. But that difference is qualified, marked by an asterisk, the sign that indicates the distance between Lacan and Freud is temporal, though Lacan himself would argue that all he posits is elaborated from and consistent with the Freudian view.
Still, when Freud conceptualizes the death drive in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), there’s a certain optimism to it. Freud seems to be giving an account of an organism’s natural progression, citing examples of plants and animals as the basis for how he applies the idea to the human’s psychic life. He writes:
It would contradict the conservative nature of drives if it were the goal of life to achieve a state never previously attained to. Rather, it must aspire to an old state, a primordial state from which it once departed, and to which via all the circuitous byways of development it strives to return. If we may reasonably suppose, on the basis of all our experience without exception, that every living thing dies – reverts to the inorganic – for intrinsic reasons, then we can only say that the goal of all life is death, or to express it retrospectively: the inanimate existed before the animate.
“The goal of all life is death” is hardly a morbid expression in this case. Just as salmon return to the place of their birth to give birth, an animal carcass might fertilize new growth, and flowers spread their seeds and wither to birth new flowers, Freud’s position in Beyond the Pleasure Principle is that the death drive has a productive imperative as part of its driving force. This is one of the biggest divergences between this version of the death drive and the Lacanian one: a productive drive is set against an absolutely negative one. But as much as Pluto deals with negativity as a constitutive element for subjectivity, its exploration of the death drive in the case of Sahad’s (Toshihiko Seki/Sean Rohani) tulips returns to that initial Freudian notion of productivity.
The string that Lacan tugs for his notion of the death drive is evident in Pluto’s symbolic expression of the more Freudian version. While Sahad sounds like a sensible botanist, the balance between life and death (and the dialectic between winning and losing, wisdom and foolishness) is thrown into disarray by the deviation of Pluto, both the machine who can explosively grow plant life and the mysterious, murdering tulip confined to the observation chamber.
Pluto’s Zeronium Narrative Structure
When I think about “Episode 6” and the ideas it brings to the table, the biggest are this reexamination of the death drive and something that comes up only in the episode’s final minutes — the idea of imitation. This is a really important episode for the series, but it might be my least favorite. As moving as I have found the show, the incident of Gesicht’s death didn’t hit me like Gesicht asking Adolf about hatred or Tenma talking to Atom about how Tobio hated him or Uran contemplating if the depth of her anguish would make a human want to kill themselves. I did find that moment between Tenma and Helena to be profound, but it didn’t move me to tears (the other three incidents from “Episode 5” did). Part of the reason for this feeling, I think, is that this episode is structured so perfectly. Things are foreshadowed, anticipated, framed, revisited. Nothing is really resolved, and some insight dies with Gesicht.
I knew it was coming, partially because of the abstract recollection I had of the manga that he dies, but mostly because the beginning of the episode makes it so obvious. Gesicht’s death dramatizes something about the episode itself. While he is lacking in structural integrity, that enduring harm is part of the show’s unimpeachable structural integrity. The potential lasting damage to his zeronium frame is mentioned at the episode’s outset, and his reunion with Ali is also foreshadowed as Gesicht tells him “I’m sure we’ll meet again.”
This episode also escalates the speed of things. Nearly everything serves to move the plot forward. There are few loose threads and fewer digressions. One gets the sense that, in writing the original manga, Urasawa was beginning to feel the pressure of tying everything up neatly. This isn’t unique to Pluto, plenty thrillers and mysteries, cinematic or televised, adjust their pace moving to the conclusion.
In the end, for all the attention spent on the plot, Pluto must also reckon with the imbalance endemic to the philosophically sophisticated thriller. As much effort is put into the plot, it doesn’t really matter. What unfolds may be satisfying or intriguing in its own right, but Urasawa is intent on drawing something out other than a complex plot. This episode’s concluding moments make that clear. He didn’t put half as much effort into anything in this episode as he did that conversation between Helena and Tenma.
The Execution of All Things
The word “execution,” of some importance during this episode, has a double meaning that might refer back to the tight structuring principles of Pluto. It is well executed. But execution also has a meaning that redefines the act of killing, changes its moral valuation.
When Abullah confronts Professor Hoffman, he brings up Brau and his killing, reminding Hoffman that Brau called it an “execution.” Word choice is important. In this case, it brings us back to the idea of the signifier even as the show has more or less dealt with the idea of killing as an absolute moral transgression no matter what the conditions or incentives. Abullah in particular gets to be a mouthpiece for this view, when he calls the abstract possibility of Gesicht killing a “vile act” and when he makes the connection between the idea of “execution” and warfare.
For Abullah, the impossibility of a just war is because people die. Killing, as an irrevocable transgression for which one must atone, makes up the primary activity of war. However, Abullah seems unconcerned with his own culpability in the spate of murders that set the narrative of Pluto into action. This seems to have at least something to do with the ambiguous status of Abullah: is he human or robot? If he is, as most robots, absolutely incapable of killing, that calls his moral responsibility into question.
“According to my analytics, that statement was a lie.”
Whether Abullah can or can’t kill, one thing that is clear is that he can lie. This moment had the ideas of false tracks and laying false tracks falsely flying around in my head. Once again, it seems that Pluto is insisting upon the idea that the foibles and flaws of supposedly human nature are the things that are definitive. A human is human because they can lie, a guileless robot will forever be separate from humans because of this gulf.
But what about the lost 9.9 billion personality robot of the mysterious Goji and Tenma?
In a conversation with Gesicht, Brau suggests such a robot would lie unintentionally, engaging in self-deception to cover over the strong emotions like “hatred… anger… and sorrow” that would be required to bring it to life. Strong negative emotion, infinite possibility, and the ability to deceive are set against limited emotional expression, possibility constrained by programming, and unimpeachable earnestness.
Hard Evidence and Hunches
There’s telling the truth, and then there’s uncovering it. Much is made of Gesicht’s investigative capacity in this episode and he seems to live up to his billing as the world’s greatest detective. His unconscious is firing on all cylinders with hunches and resolution of traumatic memories. But the moment that made me laugh most in this episode is Brau telling Gesicht “you’ve always been a rule-breaker.”
Savvy readers can see the double meaning here. On the one hand, Gesicht has “always been a rule-breaker” because he broke the only rule, that robots can’t kill. But this is ironic, too. Gesicht, for half the series, has dutifully followed instruction and upheld the law as his superiors see it. Though Gesicht has grown into one, he’s always been a rule-follower. In a sense, one might even think of his killing as following the (nearly) oldest rule: the Code of Hammurabi.
The Sins of the Father
Gesicht has also been caught in a triad among Abullah and Tenma, as three different visions of fatherhood. While audiences don’t really know how Gesicht parented his child, clearly the depth of feeling toward that child drove him passed the limitations imposed on AI. All three men are flawed, but Gesicht is the voice of reason as a parent as he encourages Sahad to extricate himself from the strictures of his father’s expectations and stop acting as Pluto.
Gesicht’s tender attitude to flower sellers Ali and Anton, and even Sahad, may also have something to do with the sin he bears. For Sahad, the weight of his wrongdoing is exerted by a paternal force. For Gesicht, the harm he caused is of his own agency.
The mystery that Gesicht solves in “Episode 6” is not the mystery of Pluto but the mystery of his own stolen memories. The resolution of this plot also marks the potential conclusion to Gesicht’s traumatic nightmares and — of course — his life. Homeostasis isn’t good for fiction, after all. Gesicht’s arc running its course is inextricably connected to the notion of a robotic unconscious.
The resolution within the unconscious, however, eliminates the antagonism and contradiction that fueled Gesicht, hence his request to resign from Europol. Happy endings aren’t common in work like this, which leads me to that final moment.
“It’ll become the real thing”
The conversation between Tenma and Helena in the wake of Gesicht’s death resurfaces some of Atom’s earlier comments about eating and using the restroom. The more one does something, even if they don’t understand it, the more they’re able to make sense of it. People are advised to smile and said to become happy after the fact, a reversal of the common sense understanding of cause and effect.
But Tenma’s instructions to Helena, telling her to cry, aren’t quite the same as smiling to feel happy. Helena already feels the sadness, but she needs an outlet, one denied her as it was to the robot parents who lost their children Gesicht had to console in “Episode 5.” An outlet like this is what Helena requires to process these complex emotions.
There seems to be a slightly more radical point bound up in what Tenma suggests. Robots are programmed and execute their limited personalities based on that programming. Gesicht behaves generally the way Hoffman expects him to, until he doesn’t. Couldn’t the same be said for a child, behaving how the parents expect? Beyond that, human beings also learn behavior in the same imitative way Tenma describes to Helena. He himself admits to it, “these are my real tears,” his stoicism preventing him from crying until after he practiced.
Human programming is part of the social order that transmits behaviors and causes them to repeat. Along side that idea, there’s also considerations about authenticity to be had here. Duplication and repetition, according to Walter Benjamin, diminish an “original” rather than reproduce it. But in this case, the opposite is true. Robots become human through practice.
Despite the tender moment between Helena and Tenma, he clearly has his own plans. He promises Helena that Gesicht’s memory chip will help find the one responsible for his murder, but more likely he plans to use the strong emotions from Gesicht’s memories to awaken his lost son — Atom.
Weekly Reading List
Got a couple good ones today.
Mbembe, lecturing on an as-yet unreleased book project, offers some formulations of what constitutes “Earth” and how entities interact within it. “If we are looking for an oasis,” he says, “we don’t really need to look far away.”
Wild to think these guys have acted, together, in one of the best movies of all time: Zodiac (2007), and a bunch of other ones.
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Until next time.