Note: Very minor spoilers appear once or twice.
Love and Other Technologies
Love is a story like Santa Clause or the Easter Bunny. Love: that deep sense that “the one” is out there for you, that when you met your significant other it was meant to be, that you’re destined to be together since birth. Yeah, that Love. No, I’m not currently brokenhearted listening to Drake in a candlelit room. Spike Jonze’s excellent, powerful, and thought provoking film Her recently brought the notion of Love as a narrative, as discourse, back to my attention. “Love as narrative, you say?” Yes, but first I need some backup. Dominic Pettman’s genius book Love and Other Technologies will be our guiding text in unpacking the claim you’re currently rolling your eyes at. Her accentuates how the modern intimate relationship emulates and is founded upon an ancient western love story.
Her, as is well known, deals with the seemingly ludicrous story of a man (Theodore), falling in love with an operating system (Samantha) you know, like Windows or iOS 7. This isn’t as stupid as it sounds. There are very good reasons for this relationship to exist, which are mostly outside of the scope of this article. Pettman argues that “Language is a technique of interaction and thus qualifies as a form of technics. As such, love is a technology (17).” Love is a technology because it’s a fundamental conversation that promotes and perpetuates society through an idea of goodwill that grows and maintains communities. In other words, Love is a vital human technology, one that keeps the gears running smoothly. Love is an operating system that moves us to connect with others. Furthermore, its status as technology implies a sense of artifice, a cultural or human production. So how does this make Love a story?
lie Story Ever Told
Story is another form of language/technology, an important form of conversation and human artifact that has been utilized since cave paintings to communicate whatever values are important to a society. Recall the stories that we’re told as children: Santa Clause, the bogeyman, Biblical tales. Regardless of your stance on these narratives, the point is that these stories instill deep within the human psyche guidelines and values that in many cases we carry with us into adulthood. I, for one, am not religious, but the “golden rule” is a story I was told early in my existence and has stuck with me as something I should at least strive for in my relationships. But back to the Love story.
The Love story, in particular, goes back to Plato. I’ve mentioned this idea in my Frozen review, but it bears repeating: The story goes and has for thousands of years that there’s one person you’re meant to be with. It starts with some hermaphrodites pissing off Zeus with all their 8 legged tumbling. Zeus splits up all the man-women in half and that’s how we were all created, boys and girls. Most importantly, we’re all now looking for our other half because Zeus got jelly or something. From there, the story was reworked into less ridiculous forms with some teens that just met, killing themselves for one another, to bookish beauties falling in love with dog men, and finally commodified into an interspecies monster novel with Twilight. I’m sure that this narrative has existed in other forms even before Plato, but the point is that Plato’s account is the most renowned of the classical tales that had a deep effect on western culture.
Hollywood and Disney, especially, have monetized on this narrative archetype, what Pettman refers to as a “code.” When boy meets girl, it’s meant to be and the universe is working in accordance to this couples’ desires. The modern relationship works on very similar assumptions. Think about polygamy, not in the creepy Waco, Texas way, but as the custom of having multiple partners. There’s nothing inherently wrong with loving and being in love with multiple people. The taboo arises from a preconception, the “code” that says this is the way it should be, that two people are and must be solely committed to one another. In others words, these two people own each other, an objectification of sorts. Pettman points out that “the conventional love lexicon denotes an economy, a system of exchange (25).” Think of the possessive words and phrases used in association with love, “be mine,” “my other half,” “my boyfriend/girlfriend,” “to have and to hold,” etc. Many of the internal conflicts like insecurities surrounding fidelity that arise within one or both individuals in a relationship can be attributed to an incongruity with the Love narrative that has been taken as truth. Any deviation from monogamy undermines the rule of the other as one’s property. I’m not saying that we should all get naked, move to the forest, and start free love communes. I am saying that this story has a powerful effect on our conception of what Love is supposed to be. The suspicion here is that we’re actually falling in love with the idea of Love. We’re fulfilling a fantasy we’ve been sold. The fantasy being that Fate pins lovers together like horses on a carriage, spurring them forward to some illusory destiny before finding out that carriage is just a pumpkin.
La Rouchefoucauld: People would never fall in love, if they had not been told about it (20).
Her plays with this notion of ownership and polygamy when Theodore finds out that Samantha is in 600 other intimate relationships. Theodore is, of course, devastated. Obviously, the narrative of what Love is supposed to be has been violated, but Theodore’s sense of being special has been undermined as well. This is because not only is there “one” out there for us, but you’re also the irreplaceable “one” for another. The love narrative of “the one” forces us to consider that love may be more about the ego, about reaffirming ourselves, than it is about another person. Note how we project ourselves onto and use as reference points the great romances: Romeo and Juliet, those idiots from the Notebook, Batman and Robin.
Herein lies the tension of contemporary intimacy, the tension between this radical interchangeability and the simultaneous awareness of our/their profound unsubstitutability on the level of personal narrative. It could be anyone, and yet it is irredeemably (th)us (40).
Although we all love the idea of “the one” being out there or maybe lying next to you right now, we all know in reality that’s not exactly how it works. If you’re lucky, you’re able to love many people throughout your life and if you’re mature enough and the relationship wasn’t a harmful one you’re able to love those people even after you’ve parted ways. How many times do most of us move on to “other fish in the sea” (one of the few sayings that undermines this idea of the one but we never acknowledge as such)? Pettman asks, “What if many women have the same shoe size as Cinderella?” Or to rework the question: How many others, because we know there are many, have the same shoe size (29)?
Everyone’s in the same Relationship
A few laughs at the relationship that was unfolding filled the theater when watching Her. Proverbial wisdom tells us that we laugh to ease tension and deal with uncomfortable situations. Her is 2 hours of an uncomfortable situation, as the film has an unnerving undercurrent running through it: We’re watching every one of our past, present, and future intimate relationships happen right in front of us. Jonze effectively presents familiar modern intimacy in an unfamiliar fashion that shows that the relationship we hold so dear isn’t unique. Her follows every beat to falling in love, suggesting that falling in love is falling into a narrative rhythm. Even a relationship based solely on technological interaction isn’t so far removed from the usual daily communication of texts and PMs with our significant other. The development of Her’s Love story uncannily emulates the contemporary western Love arc, showcasing how we’ve all been dancing to the same song on repeat.
The good news is Love’s status as story isn’t a bad thing. Just because stories have a connotation of not being “real” doesn’t devalue their significance. Her brings us to this conclusion multiple times throughout the film. Theodore’s feelings for a seemingly unreal representation of woman are just as valid as the feelings we feel for our real life loved ones. Why? Because the feelings to him are just as real as they are for us. Feelings are a subjective experience after all. Moreover, we love or care for things that aren’t real all the time. Theodore is a perfect example. The audience, or at least most of us, feels some sort of empathy for him even though he doesn’t actually exist. This extends beyond our emotions for fictional characters to our quotidian experience. Samantha tells Theodore, “The past is just a story we tell ourselves.” The great memories of our past lovers or loved ones that passed on are merely stories in our head and in conversation. This fact elevates the worth of stories and highlights the need to thoughtfully consider the type of narratives we tell. Unlike our desire to rewrite the Twilight novels, we actually can change the Love narrative into something more honest, maybe more in line with human nature (whatever that is). Yes, we are characters in the Love narrative, but we’re also authors and as such can rewrite the plot into whatever story we see fit.