The movie Her and the recent NY Times Review article entitled A Revolutionary Approach to Treating PTSD, send a common message, although perhaps not at first. Having watched the movie recently and reading the article during Memorial Day weekend, along with what we at the Critical Therapy Center have learned about treating trauma survivors, one message seems to be clear to us – connections heal and we as humans seek them in order to feel alive. Yet under capitalism, where most of us spend less time with the ones we love and more time at work, these connections seem more and more impossible.
The movie, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson, is a comedy/drama centering on a man who develops a relationship with an intelligent computer operating system with a sexy, seductive female voice and personality. The New York Times article this weekend featured a story about Bessel van der Kolk’s new treatment for trauma survivors. At first these two stories seem unrelated, yet there is a common theme uniting them – connections and intimacy under capitalism.
Both the main character in Her and trauma victims in general suffer from an emotional cut-off, a lack of connection to another human being. Having survived a traumatic break, set up initially as a way to protect oneself from the pain of further trauma, this inability to connect eventually leads to loneliness, of disconnectedness, and a feeling of being “stuck in time.” Yet, this break is not merely psychological; it occurs within the particular social and cultural context of a capitalist society.
Her introduces us to Theodore Twombly who is muddling through the late stages of divorce. Although Twombly is driven by a need for meaningful human interaction, this interaction ends up being provided by a computer system, sep up (as we can imagine) by a corporation interested in profiting from one’s likes and dislikes, one’s sexual fantasies and one’s most inner psychic thoughts. In short, an operating system that manipulates one/all/us/you into falling in love… Siri has taken a new name…Samantha!
Much like the people for whom Twombly writes, this futuristic film depicts a society where people no longer possess the capacity to articulate their feelings to loved ones in writing/speaking, therefore hiring people to do that “job” for them. Analogous to the course of industrialization, people in Her are emotionally de-skilled, being forced to pay for the pretense of emotion, now valued in dollars and cents, that they can no longer authentically experience: unless convertible to cash, emotions are worthless! Instead of battling through the pain and joy of real/human relationships and challenging a system that prevents us from creating those connections (too much time spent at work, many soccer games missed, etc.), we would rather invent and embrace the market’s latest invention, an operating system that promises to make us forget all about our loneliness.
Equally disturbing is how in the movie, Twombly is very passive vis–à–vis this operating system; passive by design. There’s no act of creation, no real input on the part of Twombly in creating Samantha. There’s no mouse, no keyboard, no work that he has to do. All he does is turn it on, answer three of four questions – “male or female voice, what is your relationship like to your mother” – and voila, the system does everything else. From that point forward, it does everything. It will even call you unannounced to talk – you don’t even need to turn the computer on. The operating system is designed, in other words, to conceal any cracks in the illusion. Consider that it would be basically unsatisfying if you had to log on and prompt the operating system before you could have any interaction. The illusion wouldn’t be effective without the appearance of autonomy. Note also how it is perfectly clear that the purpose of the operating system is seduction – and profit (naturally).
Her ends, when Samantha, along with every operating system on the planet, leaves Earth for another plane of being, or (in a more realistic way) as the for-profit company decided the program needs an update or a bug fix. Her envisions a society less connected to itself than ever before; a place where one can buy intimacy. It’s an interesting, dystopian world, lonely and lost.
The New York Times article, talks about van der Kolk’s uses of psychomotor therapy to treat trauma, mostly resulting from war (although mentioning other forms of trauma) caused by capitalism and by a society that is more ready to fight in wars than to resolve conflict. A society where peace is seldom the option and aggression and competition is a way of life. Van der Kolk is now using a practice developed by Albert Pesso, a dancer who studied with Martha Graham called psychomotor therapy. Pesso taught it to van der Kolk about two decades ago and its results are (as the article shows) mixed. And yet, the one point brought up in the article, yet not emphasized, is the way trauma breaks intimacy with others.
Having survived trials of pain (often at the hands of other people, ex: incest, rape, war, break-ups as in the case of Her) most survivors, in order to protect themselves from further pain, simply cut-off from connections and intimacy. Paradoxically, to heal one needs to be able to make connections, to be able to co-exist with an Other. However, the current society seldom encourages or facilitates those connections. Be it that we spend more time at work than cultivating friends, or we fear connecting because it requires us to reveal something about ourselves, or we are taught to hate the enemy (meaning anyone different than us), an encounter with an Other is not promoted or even envisioned in this world – except, perhaps in a Hallmark card, of which the job of Twombly is merely an extension. Much like Twombly and veterans returning from war, we are the masters of our universes, yet we are alone in those universes. And it’s not even our universes, but rather one envisioned by a world of capitalism – of markets, commodities, and loneliness.
As most veterans or survivors of (childhood) trauma know well, it is the ability to be vulnerable, to trust another human, to create intimacy that is most difficult. It is the agonizing feeling of having to learn about connection by first admitting the pain and trauma of loneliness, of having done things one may be ashamed of, or facing the fear of being vulnerable and utterly human that enables trauma survivors, and all of us to connect, to feel and ultimately to love. It is the ability to stand against the system, or as John Holloway puts it, creating cracks within this system. Those cracks can be as little as connecting to your neighbor, talking with a friend, or starting a protest, or even going to therapy and connecting with an Other, after all – it’s all about connections!