May 26, 2012

Human exceptionalism in "Gattaca"

I say "more" thoughts because I have been thinking about and discussing Gattaca for years now, and it's certainly one of my favorite films. The persecuted underdog story, coupled with Michael Nyman's beautiful score, always gets to me. I have, of course, also detected in it the Romantic notion that being sick in a sick society is actually being healthy. As such, Gattaca is also a powerful defense of the Romantic idea of the visionary individual who, swimming against the tide - as it were -, is somehow above the law. That, together with the "no gene for the human spirit" BS seems to make for a deeply humanist film (and I use that adjective as an insult). But right now I'm interested in the cues the film presents to warrant a post-humanist reading.

Firstly, it's important to understand the problems with the discourse on "human spirit". As it is, it's simply the same ancient belief that humanness is somehow untethered to materiality, the body, and wordliness. This is elegantly summarized by the teaser posters of the film [see below], which depict a cell as a real "cell" to their owners. I guess St. Augustine wouldn't be able to put it better and would agree completely: the human is a beautiful, precious, divine snowflake and our bodies are nothing but the cages that keep us chained to a wordly existence; real humanity will only be achieved when we have upgraded to sheer spirit, once we have transcended embodiment. It is exactly the same theological idea the film seems to espouse. While discussion regarding the ethics of the Genome Project and DNA manipulation is welcome, simply claiming that it's outrageous to link humanity to something as mundane as genes is simple metaphysical hysteria and human exceptionalism. In the end, all this is condensed into words in the tagline of the film: "There is no gene for the human spirit". That's a big thing to say, and I'm not sure what it means. If by "spirit" they mean soul, I would agree, since I don't believe there is a soul and it's absurd to expect employers to take your "soul" into account when hiring you. If they man simply "human nature" or just that "thing" that makes humans human, it doesn't help much. What is it, after all? Does anyone know? Isn't humanity determined by genes, then? So now that we know that we share 98% of our genes with apes, we have to come up with such unsupported claims and say our life is the product of something which is not genes?

Depicted: Platonism, and Christian theology 101
Please don't think I'm for biological determinism: I understand its dangers and I think the film is right in attacking it. But it doesn't make a good point against it. The thing is that it doesn't decide what exactly the human "thing" would be: if animals can be perfectly explained by their DNAs, why can't humans? The only reason would be if humans had souls which are totally independent from embodiment, but this is nothing but a fairy-tale Plato invented to sleep better (the body/soul distinction is the same as the Ideas/phenomena one). As it is, human expectionality is nothing but wishful thinking and dreams of cosmic transcendence.

Of course it could also be said that it's not clear at all if the film defends those stances - they are just the way the film is (badly) summarized to be sold. I think I agree with that: the film is more nuanced. It develops a good criticism of the irreducible ineffectiveness of scientific discourse to understand everything (it's perfectly possible that Vincent would agree that animals can also prove to be more capable than science believes them to be). It is a rather Kantian outlook: since humans are supposed to be ends to themselves, they cannot be seen as neither good or bad cogs of something larger (like Gattaca) - even if science proves a person is uncapable of doing something, we as a society must allow him or her to try it because the whole point of society is to serve human desires. Of course, I would be the first to point out that the very concept of "being and end to itself" is only possible in relation to animals, who are conceived as being the opposite - mere means. The film seems to believe it is a sin to treat human as mere means, because that's how we treat animals. That is only the appearance, though: it is perfectly possible to make the same point about animals as well and it's never clear if Vincent (or other anti-genoist characters) would oppose it. Actually, I don't remember seeing any animal in this film...

The humanist anxiety triggered by genetic determinism can perfectly function to help us embrace human animality and embodiment, and the unacceptability of determining animal lives by their biology as well. I believe the film actually makes this reading possible in two ways. One of them is simple: if Vincent's biology is not a condition to what he is and can do, why would an animal's be? After all, the entire truth about animal essence and capacities in grounded on biology, and if it is shown that biology is not fail-proof, then the status of animals is compromised.

Body and soul
The second point is more interesting and relates to Vincent's astronaut aspirations. If going to space stands for transcending the body and the mundane, we should take a look at how it's coded in the film. It does stress at the last minute the utter incapacity of embodiment to chain Vincent to his biological contigency - his real in-Valid identity as revealed by his urine sample is brushed aside - but it's not really clear if he's really transcending anything. This is because we are treated to a series of paralellisms between Vincent's launch and Jerome's suicide.

Jerome goes through an oppression which is symmetrical to Vincent's. Because he is "perfect" and did not succeed, he is not seen by "what he is", but "solely" by his genes and body: an empty shell, as it were, since his bodily superiority didn't amout to anything. This is reinforced by the relationship he establishes with Vincent. If Vincent must take Jerome's identity, Jerome will become the disavowed animal body Vincent must transcend in order to be truly human and reach real, spiritual humanity. And Jerome does show signs of feeling he - as himself - must constantly be erased (which is, after all, the same feeling Vincent has in relation to his own body matter) in order for Vincent to be human. The last scenes of the film are particular heart-breaking in that aspect: if he leaves behind heaps of body waste for Vincent to use, he is as good as a used-up lab animal who can be disposed of. And it's especially important that he kills himself inside an incinerator, so as to get rid of any evidence he as an individual (and not just waste) ever existed (it is the opposite of the function of the incinerator for Vincent, who uses it to delete his body from existence so he can present his individuality).

Would climbing the DNA stair amount
to spiritual transcendence?
But it is precisely because this (self-)sacrifice is coded along Vincent's achievements, that the journey to Saturn acquires different meanings. To quote Jerome, "I've only lent you my body. You've lent me your dream." Although this seems to reinforce the body/soul (animal/human) dichotomy at play in Jerome/Vincent, there are powerful cross-identifications going on here: if Vincent lent Jerome his dream, it means the latter's suicide is not simply sacrifice and the disposing of a useless animal - it is just as honorable, human, and divine as Vincent's journey. Or rather, Vincent's journey is just as coward as Jerome's suicide, and points to the same inability to deal with the truth of human embodiment.

I don't wish to enter in a discussion of whether suicide is coward or brave, but Jerome's suicidal tendencies had already been coded as cowardly earlier in the film. Vincent's "going home" monologue at the end suggests a cosmical reunion with his true creator (who is not DNA; take that, science!), but by being side-to-side to Jerome's suicide, the "star dust" part of the his speech seems to gain more prominence. Just as Jerome boils down to being body waste, so Vincent is also nothing but space waste - and this is indeed the fate of all life. "Going home" sounds much more like "to dust you shall return" than going to Heaven.

As it is, the last scenes of the film invalidate, in my opinion, a strong humanist reading: the paralellism between Vincent-the-demigod and Jerome-the-disposable-body actually blurs the line between animal-being and human-being and the supposedly different ways in which they should relate to DNA.

PS. This also allows for a reading of the famous counterpoint of micro and macro in the film's posters (the cell, as opposed to Saturn). This dualistic imagetic convention could be another instance of the body/soul dichotomy, but by the end of the film, the image only works to depict the elusiveness of the very border it contains.

PS 2: It would be interesting to look more closely at how Vincent's cross-identification with Jerome is an echo of his relationship to his own brother. I always thought this brother rivalry framed the film in a kind of Greek tragedy mood, especially after Vincent and his brother are depicted under water as silhouettes resembling Greek vase figures.

cross-posted to La Grammè

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