Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Joss' Dollhouse and the Seat of the Self

Joss Whedon wrapped up the first season (a 12 episode half season) of this latest small screen offering last week I gave some preliminary thoughts on Dollhouse in my last ‘Fragments’ post. But, in light of its likely impending cancelation[1], I thought I’d formulate some more comprehensive ideas while I still had the chance.

(Note: For this post, as with most of my thoughts on Joss’ work, I am indebted to my friend Tom. Some of the ideas are mine, many are his, most are born of the dialectic of our positions.)

Dollhouse follows the working of an underground organization that keeps attractive adults (‘actives’) in child like mental states, living a simple utopian existence, until a client pays a lot of money to ‘imprint’ one of these ‘blank slates’ with a computer generated personality and skill set (usually an advantagous amalgamation of the mental states downloaded from real people). The ‘active’ then springs into action to fulfill some sexual fantasy (which seems to constitute the majority of their work) or perform some highly specialized mission.[2]

The series started slowly. Some of the early episodes were unremarkable. Many of the early religious themes were uneven.[3] But even as the series slowly gained momentum, there were some characteristic Whedon dialogue. Here are my two favorites:

Ballard[4]: The technology exists.
Lubov: Somebody made a monkey tango, right? It doesn't mean it's being used on people.
Ballard: It does. It does mean that.
Lubov: How do you know?
Ballard: We split the atom, we make a bomb. We come up with anything new, the first thing we do is destroy, manipulate, control. It's human nature.
LUBOV: Yeah, people are mostly crap.


Topher[5]: Everyone wants to be righteous when they can afford to be

But the series picked up speed near the middle with a couple legitimately surprising plot twists and by episode 8 (“Needs[6]”) I eagerly anticipated each episode as the weekend began to draw near. But, while the story telling got better, it was the themes that matured to the point that it warranted water cooler discussion like no other show I have followed.[7]

Two major themes emerged that mainly motivated this post.

I. Cracks in the Edifice of Modernism

Early on cracks began to form in the great modern machine[8]. The unapologetic ‘company guys’ (Topher and Ms Dewit) have absolute confidence in the technology and seem to either be complete moral pragmatists or actually believe that a better world can be sculpted by technology. But, then the 'wiped' actives (presumably cleansed of all traces of personality or ‘self’) began to exhibit unexpected behavior. They formed social groupings. Victor developed a persistent attraction[9]. And the protagonist, Echo, felt a need to finish an engagement, volunteered to help fine a spy and (with Sierra, Millie and Victor) experienced unresolved psychological disturbance from their previous life.

I find this to be the first really interesting thematic arc. Enlightenment rationalism is the cornerstone of the modernist synthesis. Reason is king and is the seat of the self.[10] Dollhouse poses the question ‘If we are the sum of our decisions and predispositions, could a self (or an amalgamation of selves) simply be transferred between bodies interchangeably?’ The Dollhouse staff (Topher and Ms Dewitt) represent the modernist confidence in technology...the epistemic primacy of science and reason[11].

But the postmodern cracks in their obvious scientism start early and go deep, however. Parts of the individual turn out to not be accessible by resetting the brain. An intuitive, subjective self survives (though in some more than others). The physical body in the Dollhouse universe, is more than just a carbon based machine that chauffeurs the computer that encompasses our true selves. Which leads to the second theme.

II. The Body, The Self and Resurrection

In episode 10 (‘Resurrection[12],’ near the end of the first season) a close friend of the Dollhouse director dies. But the diseased fried predicted that her death would be the result of foul play and used her connections at the Dollhouse to upload her brain in order to return to her funeral and, possibly, solve the case of her own death.
So her consciousness (minus the last three months from the final scan) was uploaded to Echo. Boyd, who acts as the shows moral conscience[13], deeply objected:

Boyd: So we can give you life after death?
Topher: Only if we REALLY like you.
Boyd: Life after death, where does that end.
Topher: The same place it begins…death.

Boyd later objects that they are on the verge of peddling immortality. But are they really? If a facsimile of your consciousness lives on in another body (or even the same body), are you not still dead? This is the fantastic madness that kept me thinking about ‘The Prestige’ for months after seeing it.

It is at this point of the series, the implicit philosophical theme becomes explicit. Dollhouse poses the central question of the Philosophy of Mind: What is the seat and nature of ‘the self’? The Dollhouse program is based on a firmly held Physicalism. Our ‘selves’ are co-extensive with our minds. In other words, our brains[14] are who we really are. The conflict was articulated as clearly as it can be in the final episode of the first season:

Ballard: I know you are all invested in your vaunted technology and it is all very impressive. But I still don't believe you can't wipe away a person's soul
Topher: (scoffs): Their What? (scornfully)
Ballard: Their Soul, who they are, at their core, I don't think that goes away.
Topher: You'd be wrong about that.

But Joss seems to adjudicate contra physicalism. The show sides with Ballard and Boyd. At least in his narrative world, the souls seems to exist. Even if our brains are wiped clean or (in the case of the finale) are overloaded with multiple ‘imprints,’ a residue of the original self persists. Our neural activity is not, in fact, who we really are. There is no ‘blank state.’ I agree.

But there is a religious version of this error. Gnosticism (which has infected many modern forms of Christianity) makes the opposite error. While physicalism sees our bodies as who we fundamentally are, Gnosticism sees our souls as our true selves independent of our bodies. Christian theology, however, teaches a bifurcated but integrated existence. We are composed of body and soul which are distinct…but they are not independent. And resurrection will not be some upload of our consciousness into the cosmic ether.[15] Our bodies are not our selves…but neither are our souls. We are integrated selves…which is why Christianity insists on the doctrine of the bodily resurrection.

So in the end, I suspect that it is Joss’s postmodern commitment to the intuitive self and the process of becoming in distinction to being that results in his narrative commitment to a ‘true self’ that is independent of the ‘rational self.’ But, regardless of motivation, it is a fruitful theme delivered with good story telling. I really am hoping for a second season.

This post was prepared while listening to Don’t You Fake It by The Red jumpsuit Apparatus _________________
[1] Most of the shows I really like get canceled (with the obvious exception of ‘The Office’). ‘Pushing Daisies’ got axed. ‘Dollhouse’ is teetering. And ‘Chuck’ is likely dead. The difference with ‘Chuck’ is that it probably should be done. It has been an entertaining show, but I feel like it has exhausted most of its natural obstacles. I wouldn’t have been opposed to them just wrapping it up after 1.5 seasons.
[2] This leads to one of the most interesting technical aspects of the show. Each week, half the actors are playing different roles. One time, at least three different actors end up playing the same role.
[3] Joss is an atheist, but seems pretty good natured about it and is usually extremely interested in exploring religious themes and characters. But the ‘True Believer’ episode was one of the poorest.
[4] I didn’t realize that Battle Star Galactica had finished shooting by the time Dollhouse began…so I was devastated to see Helo show up in the pilot and kept waiting for him to die in BSG.
[5] Most of the best dialog is written for Topher, and the actor was fantastic. Actually, this is one of the ways in which Firefly/Serenity was far superior to Dollhouse. Topher is the only character in Dollhouse that could have held his own on the ship Serenity. Character development is what Joss does best and the Dollhouse gimmick doesn’t really allow us to vest in the main characters from week to week. (Footnote to the footnote: just did a fantastic series about the cast of firefly starting here and going for 5 days. I highly recommend it)
[6] Though, the back story in ‘Needs’ might have been the series low point.
[7] Though, in fairness, since we do not keep a TV, and usually follow the small screen via Netflix DVD’s, my discovery of Hulu this year made it the first time that a water cooler discussion the actual, following Monday was possible.
[8] Literally. Every time we see Amy Acker’s lovely face we are reminded that this manufactured paradise is unraveling.
[9] In an episode that either had too many erection jokes, or too few…I can’t decide.
[10] Cogito ergo sum – our thoughts are the primary evidence of our very existence.
[11] There is something interesting here about how the triumph of reason makes reason itself modular and interchangeable.
[12] While the weighty themes really begin in this episode, the sub-plot is hysterical as Topher makes himself the ‘perfect girl’…and it sets up one of the most human moments of the series.
[13] Early on, we thought that he would form an alliance with Acker’s character. As they earned each others trust, they each earned ours. But then a rift began to develop as they realized they didn’t really know each other very well at all, affecting our confidence in them as well.
[14] Tom’s wife pointed out something pretty interesting here. The brain isn't the only thing that would need to be wiped and imprinted. The entire nervous system would require tampering to do the kind of thing the show proposes.
[15] In the chapter of City of God I read just last week, Augustine says: “And yet (paradise) was not merely spiritual – a paradise which man could enjoy through his inward senses, without being a material paradise, to satisfy man’s outward perceptions. It was clearly both, to satisfy both.” As I pitched this idea to Tom, he recalled an earlier conversation and asked "I thought you were a dualist.” I am. I believe (with orthodox Christian theology) that each person is composed of a distinct body and soul. I just believe that their ‘true self’ is not found in one or the other, but the inextricable melding of the two…putting Joss’ ‘Dollhouse’ universe closer to Christian theology than physicalism or Gnosticism. For more on this, see my talk on ‘Why the Body Matters.’ (text) (Mp3)


Dave Everson said...

If you get a chance, check out the April 20th podcast of Radio Lab, called "Where Am I," which explores the connection between the mind and body, and what happens to the "self" when that connection is altered or lost. (I have come to love this show almost as much as This American Life, both for its content and for its beautiful production.)

Also, I recently read an article about mind-body connection, which questioned the concept of a self that could exist separate from a body. The author pointed out several examples of how the self seems to change in response to changes in the body. If I can find it again, I'll send it along.

Between that article and the episode of Radio Lab, I have been thinking a lot about this lately. I haven't watched Dollhouse, but maybe it's something I can catch up on over the summer. The ads for the show didn't hook us, and frankly, we were watching more than enough television as it was!

stanford said...

Hey Dave,

Thanks for the thoughts. Very interesting. I'll try to check out your recommendations.


Bronwyn said...

we just finished watching season 1 of the dollhouse, so I'd been saving this post to read until after we'd watched it.

interestingly, the dvd series has an extra "final episode" (Epitaph 1). we felt at the end of "omega" that it might be the end of the season, but then another netflix disc arrived. Epitaph 1 is interesting: it's the only thing on disc 4 from netflix and probably worth viewing because it draws some definite moral conclusions. I wonder where season 2 would go given the conclusions they came to in epitaph 1. After epitaph 1 we felt like they'd closed the possibility of another season? (Jeremy thinks they made this episode as a "back up" finale in case the show got canceled)

secondly, i laughed out loud at the unintended mistype/misspell just after footnote 12. I take it by "diseased fried" you meant deceased friend? not quite the same, but the thought of those as synonyms had me laughing.

finally, we really enjoyed the season. interesting, interesting, interesting. and of course, you've just got to love topher. actually, he reminded me of you a little sometimes.

some of the earlier episodes' themes really freaked me out and I found I couldn't watch them late at night since the themes returned to me in nightmares hours after watching. But as the season went on, we got more hooked and I was less freaked.

holding thumbs for season 2...