by Kevin L. Stoehr
In 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) we are invited by director Stanley Kubrick to experience a mesmerizing yet also alienating form of sensory liberation, as paradoxical as such an experience may at first sound. His landmark science fiction film does not attempt to free us somehow from our five senses, certainly. In fact, the film tends to enhance an appreciation of our perceptual faculties, particularly those of vision and hearing, as well as to encourage reflection on what we have experienced through our senses while watching the film. But Kubrick’s masterwork leads us beyond the borders of our conventional world of familiar perceptions and invites us to ponder abstract questions and ideas that seemingly transcend the boundaries of the sensory and perceptual world of everyday human experience. Most important, 2001 allows us to feel the type of disconnected, disembodied existence that results from any attempt—especially via technological means—to transcend the natural world and to replace the realm of concrete objects and events with a realm of indirect impressions, generalized moods, and sheer abstractions.
Now by virtue of the simple fact that it is a film, 2001 cannot avoid the human need for physical sensations and the world of particulars—in this case, the world of specific images and sounds that point beyond themselves to actual objects that cause such phenomena to emerge in relation to a perceiving subject. However, images and sounds also point beyond themselves in a more conceptual and intellectual way, one that certainly occurs when they are used or experienced metaphorically, symbolically, and philosophically, as is the case in Kubricks film. We normally think of our familiar world of concrete physical objects and particular events as our natural world, but there are certainly kinds of environments—such as those in a cinema or in a space capsule—that are anything but natural, since their very function presupposes an attempt to provide sensations and perceptions that are machine made rather than nature given.
In a film whose central and most dramatic section deals with a machine-governed world, not to mention a film that owes much of its beauty and spectacle to cinematic technology, it should not be surprising that one of its major themes is the loss of the natural environment through technology, along with a corresponding reduction of the role played by our bodily senses and a subsequent sense of disconnection or dislocation. Like any film, 2001 provides an experience in which we, as film viewers, continue to rely upon our senses and physical bodies, though we do so in a way that makes us passive and separate from the natural world, something like an astronaut who perceives his environment only by staring through his space helmet or through a spaceship window. But Kubricks film makes this sense of passivity and detachment into a central theme, in terms of both form (cinematic technique and style) and content (narrative).
2001 is a film about many things that are worthy of reflection and speculation: the dangers of technology, the mystery and sublimity of outer space, the fragility of humankind, the evolution of our species over time, the concept of intelligence, and so forth. Such themes have been explored and analyzed from various viewpoints since this motion picture was first released. It is a film that operates, according to Kubrick’s own professed intentions, at the level of myth and metaphor and that thereby invites its audiences creative speculation. But above all else—since the possibilities of interpreting the film are seemingly endless, like the very expanses of space that it depicts—2001 is a film that, simply put, takes its viewer to places that are no longer earthbound or tied directly to a familiar environment. This is especially the case given the contrast between the last two parts of the film and the earlier part of the film dealing with prehistoric life on Earth. And so conventional modes of location, direction, and connection are no longer in operation, causing the viewer to feel weirdly liberated and yet also deeply disconnected. It is as if the film viewer has somehow shed his body and yet nonetheless maintains the power of his five senses. In this theoretically possible but practically impossible manner, the viewer might still perceive detachedly all that soars past his fleeting and fluctuating center of consciousness, yet without being anchored by the confines of his natural and material embodiment. Kubrick’s film engenders this hypothesized type of feeling.
A reflective viewers experience of 2001 is a perfect illustration of the fact that images and sensations can give rise to ideas and thoughts that are no longer defined merely by our physical existence in space and time. The general concept of a space odyssey, for example, is much more than any particular physical journey through outer space, especially when it is presented in the allegorical and symbolic way that Kubrick has done here. Again, the films very requirement of sensory perception on the part of the viewer might hint at the fact that our need for sensory perception can never be completely surpassed. And though the mind may occasionally play with images on its own, as when we dream while asleep, we require our physical body and its five senses in order to gain the very perceptions from which our thinking is born and from which it develops.
Simply put, despite our power to think conceptually and speculatively, we cannot deny the importance of our senses and their origins in the material existence of our bodies. Our knowledge is rooted in our perceptions, and our perceptions are rooted in the physical world of sensation, a world in which we always find ourselves as situated, located organisms. While Kubrick may play with the idea of some cosmic form of intelligence that is not rooted in any particular body, and while he even may suggest that humans might eventually become part of such an intelligence in a way that does not require physical embodiment, the film itself seems to invite reflection on the possibility that an attempt to transcend the body’s anchorage in an earthly environment is, in fact, an attempt to overcome our very humanity. 2001 thereby raises the perennial philosophical question, What does it mean to be human?
Minds and Bodies, or Lack Thereof
We naturally toy at times with the idea of transcending our physicality through the power of our mind or spirit, and science fiction provides a perfect arena in which to imagine how our technology might assist in this endeavor, even if such an attempt must fail in reality. In 2001, Kubrick presents a vision of the evolution of humankind to a point where mind takes precedence over matter and where the gods (i.e., extraterrestrial forms of intelligence) have used their own machinelike tools (in the shapes of black monoliths) to push humans past the confines of their own physical bodies and therefore past the restrictions of space and time. One reason for thinking that the advanced being or beings of2001, those that are responsible for the monoliths and their ability to activate intelligence in various parts of the cosmos, are disembodied or nonphysical beings is the fact that we never see or perceive such beings in the film. We merely witness their signs and tools, testaments to their actual though incorporeal existence.
2001 is not necessarily a celebration of the idea of any evolution or advancement toward such a form of existence, since the dangers inherent in this type of transcendence (i.e., the surpassing of the need for physical embodiment) are also evoked in the film. Most important, the viewer is taken on a journey that increasingly indicates the losses involved in forgetting the importance of our earthly bodies. While 2001 certainly evokes many ideas and themes, one of its most crucial aspects is a focus on the sense of disembodied presence, a feeling that pervades the viewer gradually as the film progresses, whether it happens to be a conscious or an unconscious feeling.1 Just as astronauts who are completely surrounded by a mechanical environment feel less and less connected to the natural world beyond the spaceship walls and console panels and perhaps even less connected to their own natural bodies, so does the film viewer feel more and more disconnected from the familiar world to which his fives senses are normally attuned.
Kubrick presents us with different worlds, whether prehistoric or futuristic, worlds that are not like anything we have ever experienced. And the ways in which the director constantly changes the perspective of the audience throughout the film—changes that are occasioned through dramatically varying camera angles and movements as well as by vast and sudden jumps in narrative development—lead the viewer further and further from any sense that he is rooted in a localized, fixed, and continuous vehicle of perception, something akin to a material body. The more that our perspective or sense of physical identity changes radically, the more disconnected and detached we feel from a natural world that occasions our overall feeling of stability, continuity, and coherence.
For example, in the Dawn of Man sequence in the earliest part of the film, the prehistoric landscape is presented to us in a series of very specific views from fixed standpoints, passing one into another like some photographic slideshow, with one shot fading into view and then fading out as another is about to emerge, like acts of instantaneous creation out of nothing (echoing the book of Genesis’s account of God’s creatio ex nihilo). But from whose perspective are we supposed to absorb this landscape? Is it the viewer’s standpoint alone, without any connection to a particular character—something akin to a God’s eye point of view? Indeed, throughout most of the film, Kubrick seems to give us a history of the development of human intelligence from the perspective of some detached and impersonal cosmic spectator, and especially one that is not bound by the limitations and fixity that typically define the viewpoint of a finite and embodied human being, of an individual who is located in some given place and moment of the here and now.
Conventional films tend to introduce specific characters from whose viewpoints we process the rest of the visual and aural information that is given to us. Or we at least become associated emotionally with the perspectives of different characters as the film narratives progress in their individual ways. In John Fords The Searchers, to take but one example—and one that also focuses on an odyssey through space and time, and that likewise makes use of Monument Valley, Utah—we are initially given a time and a place (“Texas 1868”) just as we are given a more general reference to a specific initial setting in 2001 (“The Dawn of Man”). As Fords film begins, we see a door swing backward, opening onto a brilliant western landscape. We see this from the standpoint of a woman (Aunt Martha, played by Dorothy Jordan) who is momentarily unknown and anonymous but who then enters the frame by exiting through the door and away from the camera, out of the blackness surrounding the doorway. She is initially silhouetted by the darkness of the house but then becomes clearly visible as she moves through the doorway and onto the porch beyond it. The camera zooms toward the fragments of bright blue sky and fiery orange desert that indicate the landscape beyond the passageway. The camera then moves through the opened doorway, following the woman as she emerges onto the porch to look for an approaching figure that she apparently spied from a window a few moments before this.
In Ford’s opening sequence, by way of contrast with Kubricks strategy in 2001, the camera angles and motion are quickly tied very specifically to a physical context in which we now find ourselves, since we have met—at least superficially—the character to whom our perspective was originally conjoined. And as we quickly meet new characters (Martha’s family), we view them either from the perspective of a character whom we have already met or from the standpoint of an anonymous observer who is nonetheless already familiar with the general situation (i.e., that of characters we know as well as new ones arriving into the scene). The viewer feels bodily located in the scene, since there is a sense of the fixed presence and continuous narrative identities of the characters, along with a limited selection of viewpoints due to the limited number of characters to whom we turn our attention—just as we have a limited number of possible perspectives from which to view an object in a room. The limitation on the number of possible viewpoints is given by the very fact that we perceive things via our finite bodies, from a definite and specific physical location at any given moment, and the continuity of our material existence affords a certain unity and continuity to our world of manifold mental and perceptual phenomena. Likewise, as we gain empathy or merely relationships with characters on a film screen, characters whose personalities unfold within a specific world that is signified by a specific narrative, we use our reason and imagination to align our intellects and emotions with particular characters who are grounded in fixed, localizable bodies that occasion a limited rather than infinite range of possible viewpoints.
In most of 2001, on the other hand, Kubrick cleverly uses camera angle, camera motion, montage, and mise-en-scène to deny or severely limit any feeling of being rooted in a familiar world that affords physical location in terms of fixity and continuity. Unlike Ford’s conventional filmmaking as exemplified above, where perspectives are tied to specific characters or at least to very specific locations and contexts, Kubricks approach gives the audience a sense of being unrooted or physically disconnected. This is done by impelling the viewer to constantly question, at least in an implicit or even subconscious way, From whose perspective am I watching this image or character?
Now this is not to say that there is never a point during the film when the viewpoint of Kubricks camera coincides with the viewpoint of a specific character. After all, as but one example, occurring just before the intermission or midpoint of 2001, the viewer sees the astronauts’ lips move from the fixed perspective of HAL the computer, who registers their conversation by reading their lips while they are huddled in the space pod. And when astronaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea) attempts later in the film to terminate HAL’s overall operating system, Kubrick turns for the first time to a subjective use of the handheld camera, a technique that reveals Bowman’s unique personal perspective and emotional context as he moves through the spaceship to dismantle HAL. And there are also certainly moments in the film when the viewer feels like an anonymous but engaged voyeur who is taking in a very specific situation from a series of particular locations within the context at hand.
But by and large, Kubrick shoots and edits 2001 in such a way that the viewer feels more disconnected than connected, more unrooted than rooted, and especially in a way that denies the sense of being physically anchored to a particular figure within the given situations on screen. Nor are there any characters in the film with whom we feel any solid emotional connection or identification. In fact, as many viewers of the film have indicated, the computer HAL somehow seems more human and empathetic at times than do the two astronauts, Bowman and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood). And the minimization of human dialogue in the film (approximately 40 minutes of dialogue out of 141 minutes of running time) does not help matters in terms of identifying with certain characters.
Kubrick takes the audience on an audiovisual journey in which the personal sense of a fixed physical location or identity is fleeting because the viewer is almost always on the move, so to speak, across vast stretches of space and time. In this sense, cinematic form matches narrative content in a rather harmonious way. But Kubrick also implicitly forces us to consider the possibilities of an experience in which the role of the natural body—as the filter of one’s individualized experiences and point of orientation for one’s physical existence—is no longer primary. This is especially the case when we consider the fact that our technology has increasingly gained the capacity of delivering a more indirect and more generalized world, one in which our five senses play a minimized and mostly passive role. Today we have more possibilities of living in a desensitized and machine-molded environment from which we immediately feel detached and disconnected.
You Are Now Disconnected
As indicated earlier, our bodies give us our specific points of orientation at various moments and therefore occasion our specific perspectives on things around us. Our physical existence gives us direct experience of the world and of ourselves. And occasionally we feel the need to reaffirm the primary role of our physicality and our capacity for direct experience. We do this through athletic competition, hands-on training, risky adventure, and on-site sightseeing, to name but a few such activities. In 2001 this need for reaffirming the body’s immediate presence and potential is emphasized in an intellectual manner since, as the film develops, the capacity of the characters for active and direct experience of the natural world becomes reduced and even nullified. This is analogous to a household item’s becoming more noticeable once it is broken or goes missing.
A direct and active form of experiencing the world through one’s physical senses is evident in the prefatory Dawn of Man sequence, not merely in terms of the ape creatures’ overall reliance upon their bodies rather than their minds but more specifically in the scene where the apes express a need to touch the mysterious monolith. We see a group of ape-men huddled around the towering black rectangle, touching it as if to reconfirm that it is indeed there or that it is not going to move or that it does not pose a physical threat. Here we see the importance of direct bodily sensation—compare Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) and his crew’s attempt to touch the monolith later in the film, where the need for tactile contact is repeated, but, attired in their space suits, they are denied direct contact. All that Floyd can actually sense when touching the monolith is the feel of his own clothing and spacesuit.
A sense of disembodiment—of experiencing things in the world without a sense of fixed and continuous physical identity and without a direct and active use of the five senses—is also instilled in the viewer during the famous Waltz of the Spaceships sequence. This part of the film occurs immediately after Kubrick’s legendary jump cut from the Moon Watcher’s bone tool thrown into the air to (eons later) a similarly shaped and similarly colored spaceship flying through the extraterrestrial darkness, moving to Johann Strauss’s “The Blue Danube.” From whose perspective do we see the different ships in flight? Evidently from the standpoint of a detached and dislocated observer who hovers in space like a mind without a body, or at least a mind with a body of no fixed physical location. And even during the segment of the film in which we, identifying with the camera’s viewpoint, feel as though we are soaring across a given distance of space with our physical identity intact, Kubrick immediately cuts to a new perspective and a new situation and a new object, as if we are switching identities with a series of anonymous observers. Now it is true that cutting to a new perspective or changing our identification with characters happens many times in films. After all, think of chase sequences where we see the chase from the viewpoints of both pursuer and pursued as well as from the perspective of an outside observer, to take one example. But in 2001, given the thematic content of the film, Kubrick expands the cinematic possibilities for the audience to experience repeatedly a seeming escape from the fixity and finitude of the individual body.
The audience’s sense of detachment and even disembodiment increases as Kubrick intercuts the exterior scenes of white spaceships soaring against the canvas of star-flecked space with interior scenes of Dr. Floyd asleep in the vehicle that transports him to the wheeling space station. There he will embark on the remainder of his journey to the lunar station Clavius. As if we were not disoriented enough, though in a surreal and meditative (rather than disturbing) sense of dislocation, we are impelled to ask ourselves, What sense of viewer identity allows us to jump back and forth between interior and exterior scenes amid the emptiness of outer space? After all, as yet we do not really know who Dr. Floyd is, and so our association with his perspective is minimally engaging at best. To make matters more complicated, he is presented to us while he is asleep, and in addition he has no direct relation to our own freewheeling view of the ships waltzing through space before we actually meet him. At best we must align ourselves with the context-free perspective of a nonlocalized, omnipresent eyeball that sees almost everything from almost every perspective possible. In fact, such an eyeball serves as a recurring symbol throughout the film: HAL’s red-lit eyeball that appears in multiple locations throughout the spaceship, astronaut Bowmans eyeball that stares out the window of his space pod as he witnesses visual leaps across space and time, and the metaphorical eyeball of Bowmans space pod window itself as it provides the lone surviving astronaut with a glimpse of the unfolding spectacle that is the Star Gate.
In the Waltz of the Spaceships scene, there are other hints of detached or disembodied presence, mainly in the form of zero gravity: Dr. Floyds pen floats and twirls in the space of the rocket cabin as he sleeps, free of Earths pull, in contrast to the heavily constrained bodily motion of the stewardess who returns the pen to Floyd s pocket. The sense of being disoriented in space is also implied subtly by Floyds conversation with the Russian scientists before his flight to the moon. Floyd asks them, “Where are you all off to? Up or down?” The male scientist smiles and points down. But this is a silly question and an equally ridiculous gesture in response when one ponders the situation: up/down and left/right make no sense in space, since one must have not only a fixed point of bodily location but also some absolute reference such as Earth to give some context to any indication of directionality. Since these characters are in a space station orbiting somewhere between Earth and the moon, the distinction between up and down makes sense only by returning to an Earthbound or geocentric perspective. In outer space, there is no real meaning to such terms except in an obviously relative manner, given that there are also no absolute points of reference. Is the moon up or down when we realize that it orbits Earth continuously, and from whose perspective? Is Mars east or west of Earth when we realize that the planets orbit the sun at different distances and rates of speed?
On Floyds trip from the space station to the moon so that he can investigate the recent discovery of the lunar monolith, there are further signs that Kubrick attempts to instill a feeling of disconnection and dislocation in the viewer. There is the reminder of zero gravity once again as we watch a stewardess deliver a tray of food to the pilots by walking in a circle upside down (at least from the fixed cameras point of view) so that she can enter the cockpit in a manner that is oriented to that new location in a different part of the ship, a new physical context that is given its own sense of directionality through the pilots’ personal orientation. And so as to emphasize the radical change in directionality that is being offered here, Kubrick rotates the camera 180 degrees as the stewardess enters the cockpit and greets the pilots.
In conventional films like Ford’s The Searchers, as mentioned earlier, the viewer certainly switches from the view of one character to another, or from one location to another, but there is an underlying sense of narrative context and physical continuity that aligns us with one or another of the characters in question. When such continuity is disrupted, as in a more unconventional film that switches alignment with characters in a radical manner (think here of a Robert Altman film like Nashville or Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction or David Lynch’s Lost Highway, for example), then a form of narrative dislocation (rather than merely spatial or temporal dislocation) is occasioned. Kubrick’s method of dislocation in 2001 is more radical, however, in that the camera is often not associated with any characters or community of characters for very long, and the sense of space and time is already stretched to unconventional, cosmic lengths by the very plot and setting of the film.
A feeling of desensitized existence is also evoked when objects are denoted in indirect or denatured (e.g., symbolic) ways. For example, during Floyd’s trip to the moon after conversing with the Russian scientists in the space station, he consumes a meal that is depicted by pictorial symbols for the different types of food that are contained in the box. This reveals an indirect presentation of the food itself, unlike the graphic depiction of food that we find in the Dawn of Man sequence after the ape-man tears apart the flesh of a tapir once he has discovered the use of the bone tool as a weapon. When objects have become little more than pictures and symbols, we are already at a major remove from physical or natural reality. And as if to emphasize even further the rather unreal or artificial nature of the depiction of Floyd’s food tray, Kubrick shows the tray accidentally floating in the air as Floyd speaks with a fellow passenger.
The theme of disconnection and detachment becomes even more pronounced in a narrative manner as the film progresses. We witness Poole’s death while he is disconnected from the mother ship, Bowmans disconnecting of HAL, and then Bowmans eventual separation from the mother ship as he is pulled into the Star Gate through the monolithic portal. One would like to say that Bowmans departure from the computer-governed Discovery and his subsequent experience of the Star Gate themselves constitute a return to direct and active perception, a return to one’s rootedness in the senses of the physical body. However, Bowman can experience the passing phenomena of the Star Gate only by glimpsing them through the glass of his space helmet, through the window of his space pod. Bowman can be said to have direct and immediate contact with the world of the Star Gate only once he has exited his space pod and space suit, and this occurs only once he has become identified with the rapidly aging man in the Louis XVI-style hospital room, not to mention with the Star Child whose direct gaze at the audience concludes the film. And since these concluding scenes are highly surreal and symbolic, any chance of the viewer s recovery of some familiar sense of a stable physical identity at the end has been vanquished once and for all.
And so Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey forces the thoughtful viewer to consider the implications as well as the dangers of going beyond our conventional conceptions of what it means to be human. This consideration has recurred throughout the history of philosophy.
For example, Martin Heidegger, the leading proponent of hermeneutic phenomenology, a branch of contemporary philosophy, emphasizes the fact that human knowledge—indeed human existence in general (what he calls Dasein, or “being-there”)—is meaningful only in terms of finite contexts. These are contexts in which objects or events gain value or significance through their involvement in purposive relationships that are established by a self or subject that is bound by spatial and, more essentially, temporal limits. In making this point, Heidegger reacted against the earlier attempts of his mentor, Edmund Husserl, to secure a transcendental or unconditional standpoint from which conscious acts and relations could be constituted and made transparent. Heidegger came to realize that the idea of some standpoint of pure consciousness or transcendental subjectivity (as presupposed earlier in the tradition by Rene Descartes and then by Immanuel Kant and Husserl) is ultimately illusory and devoid of meaning. Only by being embedded within limited yet value-laden situations of the present moment, shaped by the past and projected into the future, could the human subject (as a form of being-there-and-then) possess meaning and value. In fact, Heidegger even rejects the notion of subjectness or subjectivity in general, since this idea implies not only some absolute division between self and object but also something that exists on its own, apart from various situations and contexts.
To think that one can operate at a transcendental or context-free level of cognition or from a desituated standpoint, as Kubricks film invites us to suppose, is to deny our very embodiment (being-in-a-body, so to speak) and historicity (being-in-time). Our horizons of creative possibility are engendered, in fact, by our context dependency. Those who pretend to locate themselves somehow beyond the borders of their present life-situation are left only with nothing in particular—an absence of meaning and value. Simply put, according to the Heideggerian viewpoint, there are no absolute or Archimedean standpoints for beings such as ourselves. Our experience and knowledge are always dependent upon our physical embodiment and upon background contexts that are not immediate objects of perception or cognition. To experience or to know something, according to Heideggers famous work Sein und Zeit (Being and Time), we must always already be located in space and time, with a given orientation and perspective, which means that we can become aware of the world only once we are actually engaged in specific and meaningful situations.
The nihilistic or life-negating dangers of any attitude that downplays the importance of the human body and its limitations are amplified when we ponder the type of detachment or disembodied feeling that an overemphatic use of technology can generate. This topic is treated in an illuminating way, for example, by Husserl and Heidegger scholar Hubert Dreyfus in his book On the Internet. Dreyfus points out that an excessive dependence upon the Internet (along with the growing possibilities of virtual reality) creates an increasing sense of detachment that removes the Net user from value-laden, risk-involving situations in which the knower is intimately engaged in a given inquiry or project.
The author uses distance learning, or remote education, as a case in point. By examining different levels of the instruction process, Dreyfus argues convincingly that, although online learners may easily become novices or advanced beginners through remote, technologically delivered teaching, they cannot proceed far beyond those two initial stages of education without accepting a special kind of involvement.2 This involvement demands that the student engage in concrete situations, take risks, and create personal perspectives on the subject matter at hand, but these activities require being physically present in a specific context, with a specific bodily point of orientation. It is precisely the type of fixed bodily orientation that Kubrick denies us as film viewers throughout major segments of 2001.
To frame his point about the existential, psychological, and moral dangers of technology in general and the Internet in particular, Dreyfus refers at the outset of his inquiry to an implicit debate between the ancient Greek philosopher Plato and the modern German thinker Friedrich Nietzsche.
Plato, via his character Socrates, suggests a form of detached and nonphysical existence in which the immaterial mind and intangible soul are given priority over their temporary vehicle, the physical body, along with its corresponding senses and desires. In fact, for Plato’s Socrates, the death of the body is in many ways the full awakening of our genuine intelligence. Only when the mind departs from its physical confinement can it truly and completely grasp those eternal Ideas or Forms that are the universal patterns of reality. The best that we can do as living Earthbound creatures, according to such a view, is to attempt a concentrated but inevitably partial withdrawal of our minds from the desires, distractions, and dolor of our physical embodiment.
Along these lines, Plato emphasizes the need for philosophical reason to distance itself as far as possible from the subjective instincts and desires of the body in order to attain the ideal of objective knowledge. As we learn from Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, for example, philosophy is associated (at least figuratively) with the disembodiment of death in that genuine philosophers must strive to purify their souls as much as possible, rising above the particular needs and desires of the situated, individual body. Dreyfus quotes from the Phaedo in his introduction, citing Socrates’ telling statement: “In despising the body and avoiding it, and endeavoring to become independent—the philosopher’s soul is ahead of all the rest.”3 So Plato, according to this interpretation, advocates a brand of intellectual and even spiritual detachment that denies the concrete particularities of life rather than affirming them.
Nietzsche, on the other hand, rejects Plato’s view and emphasizes the importance of one’s body as it is situated in the spatiotemporal tapestry of the natural world. For Nietzsche, it is clear that any attempt to transcend or deny our earthly, bodily finitude results first in the erection of abstract, illusory ideals and then in a detached, life-negating existence. Dreyfus quotes from Nietzsches masterwork Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where Zarathustra proclaims in a chapter titled “On the Despisers of the Body,” “I shall not go your way, O despisers of the body! You are no bridge to the overman!
. . . Behind your thoughts and feelings, my brother, there stands a mighty ruler, an unknown sage—whose name is self. In your body he dwells; he is your body.”4
The master morality and creative individuality of Nietzsche’s ideal personality type, the Ubermensch (superman), does not involve a denial of earthly existence but rather seeks to affirm and celebrate the world of the here and now through acts of self-overcoming. For Nietzsche, self-transcendence is not about the rejection of our situated, bodily, and mortal nature. Rather, we are able to transcend particular limitations, obstacles, and perspectives because of the very fact that we are situated, embodied, and mortal creatures in the first place. Our bodily and earthly finitude, in other words, makes possible any act of life enhancement, since it is our physical embodiment that affords us the specific contexts or situations by which we can define ourselves in a dynamic and self-transforming manner.5
Dreyfus makes the case that our world is increasingly governed by machines and cluttered by artificial substitutes for the natural environment. Coping with such a world can lead to a detached and life-negating form of existence, one that decreases the active role of the body and that severely limits our choice over physical perspectives. You might think here of the commitment-free, risk-free, hedonistic Web surfer, someone who sits in front of a computer screen and bounces mentally and whimsically from one Web site to another, without any ultimate passion or active engagement. Such a form of obsessive detachment from the natural world and from the experience of one’s own body can lead to nihilism, the belief that nothing matters, in the undermining of our commitments and concerns. We would become little more than passive and neutral spectators, gliding from one Internet portal to the next, and our daily lives would follow suit.
Kubrick’s 2001 impels us to ponder the moral, psychological, existential, and even spiritual dangers of our drive to transcend our general state of humanity, particularly the problems that may arise if we ignore the requirements that our physical embodiment imposes upon us. But 2001 is also a film that evokes questions about the possibilities and implications of artificial intelligence, a form of intelligence that is exemplified by the mechanical character of HAL in the film. How humanlike might a computer actually become as technological progress continues at a rapid rate? After all, not only is HAL intelligent in the sense of processing information quickly and executing commands, but it even seems to display emotions, a power that actually endangers the human crew of the spaceship when HAL’s personal stability, so to speak, comes into question.
In a chapter on artificial intelligence in On the Internet, Dreyfus suggests that one reason why our current scientists and researchers have not yet developed a computer that can search for meaning in the way that humans can is the simple fact that machines do not possess the kinds of bodies that we do. Computers and computerized robots do not experience the kinds of sensations and emotions—like those of curiosity and risk and sacrifice and satisfaction—that make us respond to situations in very human ways. Without the range of bodily options and orientations that we as human beings encounter from moment to moment, simply because we are defined by our physical situations and the choices that they impose, machines cannot hope to imitate the full depth and breadth of human intelligence. Thus far, the only computers that have been able to sense and experience—indeed, feel—the world as humans do are those that we see in films.
1. The term disembodied presence is taken from Hubert L. Dreyfus, On the Internet (London and New York: Routledge, 2001).
2. Ibid., 35.
3. Ibid., 5.
4. Nietzsche quoted in ibid.
5. As Dreyfus summarizes, “Nietzsche thought that the most important thing about human beings was not their intellectual capacities but the emotional and intuitive capacities of their body” (On the Internet, 6).
Source: Steven M. Sanders (Edited by), The Philosophy of Science Fiction Film, pp. 119-133