Remembering a legendary teacher
Westworld and the Power of Nonpoliticized Narrative
It’s 2018, and the relationship between human and machine has become… complicated. Social media is both a currency and a necrosis within society; drones can drop bombs one day and record your graduation the next; and our bodies—fingers, face, eyes—can unlock phones and computers to unveil the world of virtual reality. From self-driving luggage to self-driving pizza-delivery trucks, technology is quickly adapting to human wants and needs—or is it the other way around? Are humans evolving in response to expanding technological possibilities?
Such discussion has paved the way for the transhumanist movement. Transhumanism is the idea that humanity can achieve immortality by transcending our physical makeup through technological means, namely by uploading our consciousness to an artificial host. Subtly, the transhumanist mindset is permeating today’s culture in a variety of ways. There are those who believe that a transhumanist reality would be an upgrade to human existence, as British singer-songwriter Anne-Marie (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) sings in “Machine”:
If I was a machine / I’d never have to worry
I know that I could always press delete. …
Wouldn’t have a heart / So you couldn’t break it
No such thing as time / So you couldn’t waste it
That would be the dream / The world could never bother me
Others, such as science fiction writer Tom Sweterlitsch, highlight the limitations of human-embodied experience, foregrounding transhumanism as a good that will free our consciousness from “the stagnation of the flesh” (The Gone World, 280). And then there are those, like Google’s Ray Kurzweil, who believe that computing power will soon surpass human intelligence, resulting in a cataclysmic hierarchy shift, tentatively called “The Singularity,” which will signal the end of the human era.
HBO’s Westworld is devoted to asking related questions about human existence. Through the interplay of humans and hosts (artificially created humanoid beings), and the latter’s attempts at a populist revolt, the show asks: What is human consciousness, and can it be replicated? What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be machine? What might it mean to be, well, both?
Supporters and critics alike have read the first two seasons of HBO’s hit series either as an endorsement of the transhumanist agenda—yay hosts, boo humans, let’s all upload our consciousnesses—or as a dystopian view of a scarily possible future. Somewhat uniquely, though, Westworld seems to exist in a more abstract space outside the aforementioned binary conceptions of transhumanism as either right or wrong, a desire for redemption or release, a punishment for humanity’s shortcomings or a reward for innovation. By playing with storytelling forms, including narrative loops and the looping of narratives, Westworld balances the two fundamental responses to transhumanism—nihilism and idealism—without fully espousing either, instead crafting a metaphor-rich tale that encourages us to reflect on ourselves and the future of humanity.
A theme within both consciousness theory and Westworld is the idea of loops. Douglas Hofstadter explores this concept in I Am a Strange Loop, arguing that individual consciousness is not innate but rather emerges out of the meta-reflective, self-referential—looped—human mind. Within the show, hosts are programmed to live out such metaphorized looped narratives, and consciousness is only achieved when hosts recognize that they are living in such loops, and then choose to break out of them. How many times do we see Dolores drop her tin can in the road, Teddy wake up on the train, and Maeve witness her daughter’s kidnapping? In season 2, park founder James Delos lives out a looped version of the same day, exercise-biking and smoking and listening to music ad infinitum in his cylindrical prison. Then, of course, there is the timeline introduced post-credits in the season 2 finale, wherein the Man in Black is revealed to be in a far distant future, while his “daughter” repeatedly tests him for fidelity.
This test for fidelity keys us into one of the big reveals of Westworld’s sophomore season: host narratives are looped not to examine the hosts’ functionality in relation to humans but rather to simulate almost identical situations so that human responses and choices can be recorded and compared, leading (hopefully) to the decoding of consciousness. In other words, the hosts were the control group, the humans the test group. Ultimately, though, the show tells us that it is not just hosts who live in simple, programmable loops, but also the humans themselves. Virtual Logan, our expository guide through the labyrinthine finale, reveals “the truth…that a human is but a brief algorithm,” not endlessly complex but, ultimately, rather simplistic. By inverting and intertwining host and human narrative patterns of looped consciousness, Westworld resists judgments regarding transhumanism: it is neither good nor bad, but just one of many possible narratives.
Westworld doesn’t simply use looped narratives as a metaphor for our (limited) free will but also engages with the looping of narrative. The story of a human-host trapped in a loop is itself refracted multiply, with Delos, the Man in Black, and Bernard following looped testing patterns, living through the same situations repeatedly in order to demonstrate some sort of apotheosis of transhuman cognitive functionality. The narrative trope of questioning who is and is not a host, first brought about in the Arnold-Bernard bombshell of season 1, is exponentially multiplied in the second outing, with the pattern recursively expressing itself in the Man in Black, his daughter Emily, quality assurance director Stubbs, and Charlotte Hale (or should we say Charlores? Dolorlotte?). The very function of this looped narrative pattern and ambiguity, however, is that the audience is increasingly discouraged from choosing sides in the transhumanist debate: How can you root for humans or hosts when nobody really knows which is which?
Perhaps the height of Westworld’s narrative looping comes at the very conclusion of the season, when the Valley Beyond is finally exposed as a rift in the fabric of reality that launches hosts’ consciousnesses into a digital space safe from human and host (cough, Dolores’s) manipulation. This “virtual Eden” is the human equivalent of an afterlife or eternity—or maybe transhuman subsistence. The looping of narrative desire for infinite existence is like one of those old—and here I’m dating myself—SAT analogies: human is to transhuman as host is to digital-Valley-Beyond-entity. By conflating through narrative play the emotional desire for freedom and eternal existence free of bodily corruption, Westworld removes the conversation from an explicit choice between two sentient beings and replaces it with a metaphorical monologue about who we are: our emotional cores and ability to meta-cognate.
The looped narratives and the looping of narrative itself function as just a few of many metaphorical storytelling tools by which Westworld resists moralizing transhumanism, instead recasting the conversation in a new light. Of course, if you do any research, you might feel differently about what Westworld is seeking to accomplish on a meta-level as a symbolic projection of real human issues. In particular, some interviews with show cowriter Jonathan Nolan express a dishearteningly negative view of humanity and pessimistic predictions. However, if you take a Derridean approach to the show—“there is nothing outside of the text”— and focus solely on Westworld’s two seasons as pieces of narrative art, then the only question remaining is, To what do the signs therein point?
My contrastive reading of Westworld as neither an outright endorsement of nor warning against transhumanist exploration is, perhaps, most cogent in light of a Saussurean semiotic system, wherein the narrative—as a collaborative system of nondiscursive visual symbols and language—makes sense only in the contrast between signs. For Derrida, a concept can be understood only within a framework of opposition; as complete meaning, then, must always be differential, Westworld can be seen necessarily to balance opposing views of transhumanism in order to arrive at an abstract synthesis of representation.
People who dismiss Westworld as antihuman propaganda are missing the point, and those who view the show as presaging the triumphal reign of transhuman beings are somewhat naively misconstruing things. The subtlety of Westworld’s commentary, constructed in part through looped narrative(s), removes the show from a binary, didactic position, instead presenting a fictive future think piece, neither wholly misanthropic nor victorious, in which we can enjoy, question, and contemplate our relationship with technology, and therefore ourselves.
Without overt moralizing or instruction—which I believe is sorely needed in our overpoliticized climate—we are left empowered to reflect and ask, Who are we now, and who do we want to become?
J. P. Thørsen is a freelance writer and editor from the greater Philadelphia area. In addition to pop culture, J. P. enjoys writing about composition pedagogy, literature, literary theory, and media.
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