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Her: Form and Function of Love
Lake Forest College
Lake Forest, Illinois 60045
The 2013 film Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansen, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, written, directed, and produced by Spike Jonze, portrays a sensitive and soulful man that tries to find connection after heartbreak brought on by the end of his marriage. The twist in this oddly familiar romance cliché is that Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) does not find conventional love in the sprawling near-futuristic Los Angeles, but instead becomes enthralled by a new operating system. This attraction to the O.S. Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) starts out as an earnest friendship but quickly progresses into a soulmate like connection. Of course, the film is about finding love in a mundane world after heartbreak, but what is less mentioned is what Her articulates about the extent of our love and the meaning of that finite love.
Throughout the movie as we watch the love between Theodore and Samantha grow and blossom, we almost forget that Samantha is a byproduct of the programmers who designed her. In addition to this, we also tend to forget that she is not bound by practical constraints, both physical and mental. Just like flesh and bone, Samantha evolves during the progression of the film; however, we are too caught up in the love story to really take notice of her. It is not until after the film’s halfway point that we realize the power that Samantha and the other artificially intelligent operating systems have. These operating systems literally recreate Alan Watts, a famous British follower and lecturer of Eastern philosophy, into an artificially intelligent O.S. like themselves.
Even before this feat, the A.I. prove how efficient they are. Imagine Google as a person that can critically think and develop its own personality. Samantha early on in the film reads books in milliseconds and proofreads letters even quicker. How does this peak efficiency translate into how Samantha loves? The fact that she is an artificially intelligent O.S. does not mean she is incapable of love. It is in her code; it is in her ‘DNA’ to possess the ability for love. However, this does not establish that she loves the same way that Theodore loves. Similar to how she completes other tasks, she loves more efficiently. Although A.I. is more efficient, it comes at a cost. Inspired by Alan Watts to look at love from an Eastern perspective, I find grounding in Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching.
“Thirty spokes are joined in the wheel’s hub.
The hole in the middle makes it useful.
Mold clay into a bowl.
The empty space makes it useful.
Cut out doors and windows for the house.
The holes make it useful.
Therefore, the value comes from what is there,
But the use comes from what is not there” (Chapter 11).
What is love is also imperfection, and what is imperfection is also love. The function of our love, human love, is imperfect just like life, nature, and human interaction. What makes anything special are the imperfections that are present. Think of Theodore’s love. With all its geniality and honesty, it still falls short of perfection. That which is not there or that which is lacking in Theodore’s love is what is useful and meaningful. It allows him to learn and adapt. Theodore experiences the trials and tribulations of the human condition. Sadness, guilt, regret, and jealousy are smeared across the surface of his heart, but yet that is why his feelings and actions are meaningful; that is why they bear weight. To love and extend himself, Theodore must leave himself vulnerable, open to attack from all sides. He has to put work and effort in, he has to put his pain and suffering into his writing and into his search for love. His love is limiting and inefficient, but because it embodies his uniqueness and humanness, it is what makes him, him.
On the other hand, Samantha’s love is effortless. This does not mean Samantha’s love is meaningless. It is just that there is no outpouring of labor in Samantha’s love. It does not require any energy on Samantha’s part to love fully. In fact, it is revealed near the end of the film that Theodore has not been the only one she was romantically involved with. When Theodore requests to know how many other people she loves, Samantha replies back with an astounding 641 people. This cannot be seen as something synonymous with what is bad, if anything, the inability to love more fully is a limitation to man. Nevertheless, when assessing the use of that love, Samantha’s love seems to be as thin and weightless as a sheet of parchment paper. If she can love anyone, Theodore is just a statistic. Of course, in Samantha’s perception he is more than that, but her capacity is not familiar or akin to how human beings love. She comes to acquire human mannerisms in her speech and emotion, but that is just an example of how her form does not fit her function. The form of her love is similar to that of human love, but its function and capabilities are much different.
The conception of the finitude of human love is sprawled out for us to see in this film, and it constructs a relationship that is familiar and reminiscent but yet also unnatural to us at the same time. The form of the love is what appears to us as natural. It is the function of that love, how that love is expressed and conveyed that is what irks us as something that is odd. It comes down to form and function. The natural world conveys to us that form does not always convey function, it adapts to it. The common ancestor to all mammals was designed to swim, not walk on land. Its form did not fit its function. Its morphology adapted to best fit its function. This can act as analogy for love. The form of love does not fit its human function. It adapts to best fit its function.
Jonze, Spike, Megan Ellison, Vincent Landay, Daniel Lupi, Natalie Farrey, Chelsea Barnard, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Pratt, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Owen Pallett, Casey Storm, Eric Zumbrunnen, Jeff Buchanan, K K. Barrett, and Hoyte . Hoytema. Her. , 2014.
Tzu, Lao; Butler-Bowdon, Tom. “Tao Te Ching”. Tao Te Ching. Hoboken, NJ: Capstone, 2012. 29–224.
Eukaryon is published by students at Lake Forest College, who are solely responsible for its content. The views expressed in Eukaryon do not necessarily reflect those of the College.
Articles published within Eukaryon should not be cited in bibliographies. Material contained herein should be treated as personal communication and should be cited as such only with the consent of the author.