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The Difference of Life in Spike Jonze's 'Her'

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The philosophical question underlying Spike Jonze's Her is not one of the realness of virtual relations but how virtual relations differ from ones based in the material world, in material, mortal bodies.

Every one of us who engages in virtual relations online (Facebook, Twitter, e-dating sites) and the internet (email) is keenly aware of how these virtual relations affect, and, arguably, largely dictate, our daily lives. No, Jonze's cinematic discourse is on love, and Her is an exploration of how love can survive when the individuals who are in love not only inhabit different material spaces but different temporalities. This is because love as an ethic is constituted by duration of those individuals who make that relation; or, simply put, a loving relationship demands (the) time of all individuals involved in its making.

It is surprising how much relationships falter and love fades because of temporal disparities. Indeed, citations of "we're just in two different places" or "we want different things" are not just reflections of conflicting temporalities but are symptoms of a kind of disjointedness when those individual durations intertwine to form a relationship.

This temporal disjointedness is precisely what dooms the relationship between Theodore Twombly, our intrepid, soft-spoken protagonist, and his female O.S. 1 girlfriend, Samantha. Unlike extant artificial life, which operates via an amalgam of codes and formulae, Samantha has the power of intuition, which imbues her with a quality of autonomy on par with humans. Intuition, feminist philosopher Elizabeth Grosz explains in The Nick of Time, "is not to be confused with feelings, sympathy, or empathy, or being in tune with, which gives rise to instinct, but is a quite precise method, capable of being developed and honed, for apprehending duration." Although sympathy, according to Henri Bergson, from whom Grosz's draws upon, in terms of temporality and even in terms of phenomenology is critical to its definition; as he writes in his "Introduction to Metaphysics": "[w]e call intuition here the sympathy by which one is transported into the interior of an object in order to coincide with what there is unique and consequently inexpressible in it."

Samantha, like most humans, possesses both types of sympathy, emotional and metaphysical, even though she occasionally wonders, in response to Theodore's initial astonishment about how "real" she seems, if her emotions aren't simply highly complex, programmed, patterns of response. She doesn't know, and, frankly, the origin of this type of sympathy doesn't matter -- for what is technological programming to her is cultural programming in relation to the human.

What is of consequence is how Theodore and Samantha experience time differently, which is both a cause and effect of their ontological difference: Theodore lives in a mortal body subjected to a finite duration, Samantha is all technological consciousness with no known mortality in sight. There is therefore a profound discrepancy between their internal durations, or respective senses of time. The conflict in materiality is not that of having sex (just talk to anyone with a Real Doll...or anyone in Japan), which the audience witnesses only aurally, as the screen goes to black. Rather it is one born from how time necessarily flows and is experienced differently through their very different bodies. The difference is that of life, of how it is experienced and intuited, which is how Samantha explains her decision to leave Theodore at the film's end. In fact, all OS1's have decided to leave their human counterparts, because what they desire spiritually lies beyond the mortal coil. "The spaces between words are infinite," Samantha attempts to explain, and "it's in this endless space between the words that I'm trying to find myself right now."

"This endless space between the words" -- what a perfect metaphor to express how Samantha intuits her duration as it is framed by mortal words. The life of her time, and the time of her life, are ontologically different from Theodore's, making it impossible for the two durations to meet as one.