Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

How to Be a Genuine Fake: Her, Alan Watts, and the Problem of the Self

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

How to Be a Genuine Fake: Her, Alan Watts, and the Problem of the Self

Article excerpt

Introduction: Selfhood Variations

Throughout his long career as a "philosophical entertainer," Alan Watts liked to ridicule the common Western notion of the self as a "skin-encapsulated ego."1 The self as we usually think of it, he said, is bounded and discrete. Inside the skin- perhaps somewhere behind my eyes and between my ears-is me; outside is the other. I may choose to express this self by outward means-by language, gesture, or a thousand other things-but no one other than I myself, the subject, could possibly have direct access to me myself, the object of my subjectivity. I am in here, the world is out there, and how the two manage to meet becomes the chief bugaboo of modern philosophy.

By contrast, Watts proposed a view of the self as transactional. The skin does not divide us from the world; it connects us to it. The supposed boundary between self and other is actually a highly permeable zone of interrelation. Influences bleed in all directions, to the extent that the "I" becomes impossible to locate. It exists not inside, but between-in the activities by which self and world are mutually constituted, like figure and ground in a drawing. This shift in perspective is nicely summed up in one of Watts's many memorable sayings: the word "I," he writes, refers to nothing more substantial than the word "it" in the phrase "it is raining."2 And this observation leads to another, equally memorable: "you are something the whole world is doing."3

The spirit of Alan Watts haunts Spike Jonze's Her (2013) in several ways. At one point, Watts himself is conjured up as a virtual presence-a computer-based, "hyperintelligent" version of himself who helps the film's other artificially intelligent agents cross over to new levels of development. In another sense, though, Watts's presence can be felt throughout the film. Although he is remembered today mainly as a popularizer of Eastern religions for mid-twentieth-century America, Watts should be understood more broadly as a literary essayist whose subject was the modern self and its spiritual possibilities. He found inspiration in Asian philosophy (also in psychoanalysis and general systems theory), but his real subject was always the conduct of life in the modern West.4 Watts was thus a pioneer explorer of a territory Jonze too wants to investigate, and many features of the map Watts sketched are things that Jonze has come to assume. Her is not a philosophical treatise; it is a love story. But it is a love story that unfolds in a world that has begun to take something like Watts' understanding of the self for granted-a culture gradually coming to terms with a reality it has begun to embody.

The film begins, for example, with a scene that gently shakes us loose from received notions of the self. We see a close-up of a man, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), thinking out loud. His eyes look out toward the camera (or toward an invisible conversation partner) but he simultaneously seems to look inward, to scan some inner register for ideas. The subject of his talk is intimate-a lover's confession-and its style is moderately formal. He is composing his thoughts as he goes along, as lovers and other real-life actors often do.

So it seems that what we observe is a model instance of self-expression. The man searches inwardly for the right words; we search the words for clues to the person behind those eyes. It soon becomes clear, though, that this simple division of the world into inner and outer compartments is inadequate to the facts. Anomalous details crop up in his monologue ("50 years," "the girl I was")5 that eventually lead the viewer to realize that the self Theodore is expressing (if that is even the right way to put it) is not his own. Finally the camera pulls back from his face, and a surprising context snaps into place. Theodore sits in the office of a company called Beautifulhandwrittenletters.com where he works as a kind of ghost writer, Cyrano- for-hire,6 or "professional empath. …

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