More human than human

Image of Blade Runner DVD
The book and the film

Last night I watched Blade Runner for the first time in about 15 years, and I’ve recently read the book it’s based on – Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968). There has been a lot of research into the posthuman, postmodern side of of Blade Runner and into the epistemological questions that emerge as a result of it. But, informed by informed by the first of our core readings – Miller’s ‘The Body and Information Technology’, but I wanted to focus on what Blade Runner tells us (or doesn’t tell us) about what it means to be human.this contains spoilers

Blade Runner (1982), directed by Ridley Scott, is set in a post-war, post-industrial city, decaying and toxic, inhabited by humans and replicants (bio-robotic androids). The replicants are incredibly sophisticated; it’s impossible to tell them apart on sight. And so we have this question of what makes humans human? What is it to be human? Rachel, the replicant with whom Deckard, the eponymous blade runner, falls in love, can’t tell herself whether she is human or android: this is seen as the victory of the project.

The Nexus-6 android types, Rick reflected, surpassed several classes of human specials in terms of intelligence.

The way that the hunters tell humans and androids apart is using the Voight-Kampff test, which assesses empathy:

Empathy, evidently, existed only within the human community, whereas intelligence to some degree could be found throughout every phylum and order including the arachnida.

But within Blade Runner there’s even a question mark over whether this works. The test looks for physical signs of empathy – pupil dilation, etc., rather than feelings. It’s just performance, ultimately, one which technology is perfectly capable of recreating. It’s not necessarily anything to do with feeling. And replicants are seen to show emotion truer – on sight – than the alleged human Deckard: he is conspicuously emotionally distant while some of the replicants show emotion – Roy and Pris particularly.

Bertek links this ultimately inability to tell humans and replicants apart to Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto. There’s been a reversal, Haraway says, and the technology is lively while the humans are inert (p. 194). This appears to be the case in Blade Runner – Kellner et al. provide several examples: Roy, the replicant, longs to be human, while Deckard increasingly sympathises with replicants; the replicant revolt is identified positively as a slave revolt.

So is Blade Runner posthumanist? Humans and machines are intricately connected in this post-industrial city, and there are few essential differences between them. For Lacey, it can’t ever be posthumanist because it’s mainstream cinema, and too connected to the bourgeoisie and consumerism and capitalism:

Science fiction remains the genre most able to deal with the posthuman, but whether it does so depends upon the institutional context in which films are produced (p. 198).

But it’s empathy which is foregrounded as the thing that make us human, solidarity with others to be at the core of humanity. After a day of marching in London with the Women’s March, this is ringing so true with me right now. I would be so interested to hear what the rest of you think.

Women's March, London
20th January 2017


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