… this may spoil part of the plot of “Her.” But we all saw it coming anyway.
Love is overdone. Written about incessantly, discussed fruitlessly (often among girls, I know), imbued with impossible value; it’s sublime, it’s profane; personal, political – merely aesthetic, undoubtedly moral; simple, complex. The perspectives offered are endless – not unlike dietary advice and commentary on the role of facebook in our generation. The landscape is so busy that I’m inclined to think the creators of Valentine’s Day did us a service. Love? Nothing more than a big red heart, a preschool shape inexplicably untethered to reality (is that even remotely an anatomically accurate human heart?). Spare us the analysis and we’ll muddle or march through on our own.
When an angle on love I didn’t seek out makes its way in front of me and firmly commands my attention, my surprise temporarily effaces the above perspective. Things like this blog post (plus fervent conversations with my long-suffering live-in boyfriend) happen. I’ll credit art as the vessel for originating most of these “aha” moments about love, and I try to consume less of it in the near future so as to crystallize one new way of seeing things. Today I’m hooked by Spike Jonze’s “Her”.
Briefly put: He loves her and she loves him. She also loves 641 others. The latter realization is for him, devastating. That’s not a surprise: our monogamous relationship culture would have us believe that it takes only 1 extraneous love object to upend a relationship. 641 additional loves is an existential disaster.
It’s natural to focus on the moral failings in a relationship suddenly changed. Relationships, particularly love, entail degrees of commitment. It’s only Kantian to consider such covenants a non-arbitrary basis for action. When one person betrays them, he does violence to the social convention of a relationship and to the other individual’s dignity. Trust and respect hardly stand a chance.
What I loved about Jonze’s “Her”: trust and respect aren’t mentioned once. The film doesn’t follow the natural route – and not just because it describes the unfolding relationship between a man and an artificially intelligent operating system. Instead, the aftermath of the dialogue above mercifully spares us the all-too-standard dissolution of a relationship marred by broken trust. That leaves us a question: when “cheating” is left out of the narrative, what, if anything, about having 641 or 1 extraneous objects of love does violence to an existing relationship?
“Her” implies that the potential harm relates to the finite nature of love, a thesis I’m willing to explore. If love is finite, giving to one means taking from another. The harm done is a simple ouch of loss, perhaps made nastier by some sense of competition.
Of course, the film takes an easy way out. It proposes to avoid the harm altogether by ascribing to the operating system an infinite (or limited, but well beyond human) capacity for love. Whatever love the operating system shares with her original human partner is not degraded by her entrance into equally loving relationships with any number of other entities. Theodore, the poor human shmuck who now has to share his single love with 641 others, accepts the scenario on the basis of the operating system’s unique nature. Where he is limited, she is not. She says, “I’m different from you.” And he believes that matters.
It’s a worthwhile distinction. I imagine originating consciousness from nothing, creating artificial intelligence, and two obvious questions present themselves. First, would the thoughts and feelings experienced by such an entity be real in some meaningful sense? It’s a topic that doesn’t go unaddressed in the film, but the second question is more relevant here: how do we, as humans, face the possibility of creating something profoundly different from ourselves: a consciousness or mode of being that significantly exceeds our own limitations? What can we expect; how do we interact; and what do we owe each other?
“Her” tells us to expect one scenario – numerous, whole, love relationships made both possible and acceptable by the extended physical capacity of an artificially intelligent operating system. The OS holds 8,000 conversations at once, reads a book in fewer than 0.02 seconds, and recreates deceased philosophers on the basis of their complete works. It’s little surprise that she is able to fall in love with several individuals at once, and it may even be unfair to ask of her that she does not. I imagine she has time on her hands.
But do we really need an enormous and expanding operating capability to avoid the potential harm inflicted by diversifying our love interests? “Her” would have us believe that’s the case. Differing capacities to love in the film are directly correlated with available processing power. The amount of information we can take in, the amount of communication we can handle, the amount of energy we can muster, dictates the love we can share. Humans easily max out those measures, such that adding another beloved to the fray diminishes the love we can give within an existing relationship. The more subjects we as humans try to love, the less love we have to give to each. The more harm we cause.
But is that really the case? Sure, we are moderately constrained in love by operating limitations – the amount of information processing that has to occur for me to know one person intimately is already staggering. But even given our limits, we don’t always harm when we choose to love more than one entity. If we max out time, energy, and processing power knowing and loving one person, and another person worthy of our attention comes along, we may reallocate some of those efforts to the second person. That doesn’t necessarily entail a degradation of the love we have for the first person – if it did, few spouses would look forward to the arrival of a child.
Connecting ability to love with operating constraints entices us to think in terms of quantity. How much operating capacity do we have in reserve? What amount can we reallocate without harming the current subject of our love? How does a shift in operating capacity maintain, increase, or diminish the total love we can give? While these are interesting questions raised by the film, it seems to me that they obscure an alternative way of thinking about love. We might not want to describe love as a quantity that varies with operating constraints at all. Instead, love might be better understood as a process. A process, like learning to ride a bike, which improves with practice.
Loving many things may not enable us to love each thing more – but it may enable us to us to love each thing better. If that’s the case, it’s not just a system with superhuman operating capacity that can rack up beloveds without doing any harm; you and I could pick up a few extra loves, and despite restricting the time or energy we dedicate to each, avoid inflicting harm. Loving a second person could even enhance the quality of our engagement with the original. If the second person embodies some characteristic of our original beloved, understanding it in a new context may instruct us how to love it better in the original. Perhaps loving yet another person would help us understand how the first two individuals are unique. We refine our appreciation for each of them, both for what they have and for what they lack.
Insofar as love is a process, and not a quantity to be meted out and depleted with each new subject, we stand to gain from relaxing the constraints of monogamy. Alexander Nehamas, an aesthetic philosopher, might support the notion – he notes “the better you come to know something you love in itself, the better you understand how it differs from everything else… but the better you understand that, the more other things you need to know in order to compare them to what you love and to distinguish it from them. And the better you know those things, the more likely you are to find that some of them, too, are beautiful.” (An Essay on Beauty and Judgment, 2000)
I hardly expect each of us to round up 641 partners and love better with each addition – I don’t deny the reality of some human limitations, after all. But if we take a moment to set aside the interpersonal commitments standard in a love relationship, I think the interesting questions are more accessible. Surely there is a limit to our love – no thanks to James Blake for articulating it clearly – but it might not be set merely by our physical capacities and it might not be a matter of “how much” we can love at all. If we can expand our relationships without doing violence – causing distrust, disrespect, loss, jealousy – to each other, we have only to watch for where the boundaries do lie. It’s a dangerous game, Nehamas warns. We may never be able to stop.