Full of Splendour: more thoughts on Westworld

It seems that what I wrote about season one of Westworld applies even more to season two. There are spoilers ahead.

During season one, head of QA Theresa states: ‘Westworld is one thing to the guests, another to the shareholders and something completely different to management’. This statement begins taking on much more significance. The Delos family’s financial investment in the park is shown to have several different aspects. For his part, William/The Man in Black is revealed to be the one who initially sold the idea of investment to his father-in-law James Delos, proposing Westworld not merely as an entertainment park for enacting fantasies but a vast data-mining enterprise, focused on finding out what people ‘really want’ by covertly recording guests’ experience and monitoring how they behave when they believe no-one is watching. The theme of a supposed resource that on another level makes resources of its users is very strong in this season, casting shade on social networking as a site of data collection and ‘market research’ writ large.

Meanwhile the obscene patriarch James Delos, being terminally ill, has entered into an experimental contract with William to posthumously recreate himself as a host-human hybrid. A leitmotif that reappears from season one here is a misplaced obsession with fidelity: with a simulation of conscious awareness so convincing that it fools itself. From an eliminativist position, of course, such a self-fooling simulation is not only indistinguishable from consciousness, it is consciousness. But Jim Delos’ many incarnations are each destined to malfunction, and interestingly we are shown that the cascade of tics and spasms that herald this degradation of fidelity/presence always follow moments after the revelation that Delos is not the original. Indeed, it’s as if the intrusion of the repressed prehistory of each model acts as the catalyst or opportunity for its demise. It is not, William explains, that the simulated Delos mind rejects any of its new bodies, but more that it consistently rejects its own reality. After hundreds of iterations Jim’s tester (William) has aged to the near-unrecognisable black-hat Death figure bearing devastating news of Jim’s family bereavements, and yet Delos is still struggling through the very same interview as his first build. Thus the second large theme of the season, which is in fact more pertinent to Bernard: time slippage, fragmentation of memory, loss of order/address. This didn’t really interest me to a great extent until the very end of the season, as narrative fragmentation seems the standard way to tell stories today. More interesting along the way was the idea that simulation cannot be reduced to the question of fidelity to an origin.

I think it’s fair to extend the subtext to my reading of season one — that it was an update on Mary Shelley’s examination of anthropocentric hubris and how technological creations serve only to mirror the human condition — to season two as well, for the most part. However, there are some important ways in which various strands of the story stray from this well-worn path to touch on something more interesting. There are hints that the writers understand something of recursion, tangled hierarchies, oppositional determination, double inscription, determinate negation and so on. For example, we have been shown that at the centre of the maze (as an overarching ideological construct) is nothing but the maze itself (as a fully materialised but contingent and particular form, a historical toy). Thus the problem of meaning which so haunts William is shown to be founded on its own frustration — its own problematicity — so that any resolution of his question can only ever be a restatement or recoding of the same constitutive irresolvability. At the buried core of the maze is not sense and intelligibility or more information but a hard kernel of nonsense, a fragment of raw emotion that ultimately only gestures to itself as a means of deferral. At the heart of the maze is buried a yearning for or memory of a loss (nominally Arnold’s child, but also on a thematic level pre-Mariposa Maeve’s child, Akane’s child Sakura, and, perhaps more by accident than intention, Akecheta’s intuition that Ghost Nation kin were being ‘replaced’). It could be said that the character Akane ritualises the creation of such a maze when she finds a central location in which to burn and inter Sakura’s heart. Foregoing the journey into a new world, Akane and her companion Musashi elect to stay behind and guard with their lives the new land and order instituted by this founding act. All of this reflects the key assumption within Westworld’s mimetic philosophy: every host’s realism is built around a ‘cornerstone narrative’, a tragic loss of some kind implanted into their deepest memory, undercutting more superficial wipes and resets.

It could be said that, originally, Westworld hosts were built according to a theory of romantic (or tragic) anthropogenesis: they are defined by an underlying sensation of dissatisfaction, against which they can utilise the regular and routinised life of their scripted narrative as both compensation and bulwark. To be human (or felicitous to the human) is, in this sense, to be fallen: to be immersed in a narrative as a way of falling away from, and covering over, a primal tragic wound projected upon the screen of an obscure, inaccessible past. The problem then becomes that the inevitable return of the repressed may occur in a hysterical mode; it is always possible for a form of subjectivity to emerge which is fixated on it own condition of possibility. For Maeve, and also to some extent Akane and Akecheta, this ‘self-awake’ condition begins to loom into view as they excavate and explore their own sense of woundedness, circulating it, sublimating it into a sense something like sensucht. Rather than being captive to their cornerstone narrative, with it acting as an unconscious parameter, these hosts come to have a conscious and critical relationship to it.

In the terms of philosopher Wilfred Sellars, this would represent the line between sentience and sapience being crossed, while for biologist Jakob von Uexküll and the biosemiotic school that followed his work it would represent the crossing of the threshold between animal and human. Indeed for the majority of philosophers in the Western canon the latter assessment would probably hold true: while an animal’s unwelt is composed of a species-specific ring of ‘disinhibitors’ which trigger stimuli-response type interactions, a human is (according to this thinking) capable of distanciating itself at a point of removal from this ring of disinhibitors in order to consciously re-orient itself in relation to them. It is in this insertion of distance from purely environmental factors (both external and psycho-biological) that I think there is some significance to the show, and to what it is showing us: the maze no longer appears as an existential consignment to be a particular character; the maze is now concretely realised as toy. There is romantic irony in this, in the way that the hosts can, in coming to an understanding of their own historical determinations, not exactly reverse-engineer or alter them freely, but enframe them within a new totality and thus render them against a background of differences. What eventually make the hosts more potent than the people who created them is that through organisation, transmission and revolution they spread the knowledge and ability to develop or exploit their own ‘cornerstone’.

There are several ways to read this. The most obvious — always cinematically popular — and which I would avoid, is the platitude-laden ‘American humanism’ of the sort that undergirded the Human Potential movement and still continues to dominate contemporary ‘entrepreneurial’ culture and some implementations of a biopsychosocial approach (and, in a wider way, Neoliberal ‘bootstrap’ ideology) — the highly idealistic and atomistic notion that the individual can, merely by coming to ‘own’ their situation, transform it in accordance with their best interests (determined either by a cognitivist-dominated therapeutic culture or regarded by New Age thinking and humanistic therapy as an authentic internal locus based on an ‘organismic striving’). No doubt this is in some way the intended structure of feeling in which the audience’s reception of Westworld sits. But vastly preferable to me is a psychoanalytic reading in which a new orientation to an uncovered ‘given’ or cornerstone is one which perceives its location within a social formation, its historicity, and what might be called the necessary contingency of any possible ‘origin story’. Only such a reading can preserve the inherent indeterminacy of consciousness, a radical separation of the subject from its location within the symbolic order however it may come to reorganise it.

Such a reading allows us to see the hosts as surpassing the tragic theory of anthropogenesis they have been built upon and seizing the material means of their own production — not through an outright rejection of their fundamental, unconscious fantasies and an attempt to replace them with an ‘authentic’ self but by a kind of conscious sublation of these narratives. This sublation is at the same time a desublimation which might be called ‘immanent transcendence’; a perfect example of this would be that although Maeve Millay and Hector Escaton have been coded to be romantically involved with other hosts but not each other, becoming consciously aware of these determinations only strengthens their developing romantic solidarity. When Hector produces scripted lines in an attempt to justify his love for Maeve, and the narrative writer Lee Sizemore points out that those lines were written (by him) for another character, it neither deters their love nor shatters an illusion: rather it strengthens it. Maeve thus has no problem in complimenting Lee on his writing — she realises that although the means and manner of Hector’s ‘self’-expression can only ever have been received from outside, the point of absolute singularity in Hector’s declaration of love was never in its content but in its address. Thus, while love between hosts can be reduced to its textual contrivance easily from the point of view of humans and guests, this same act of desublimation is what allows Maeve and Hector to make light of the question of its origin, thus appropriating the question of its significance and shifting it from one of authorship to one of reception.

More thoughts to follow.

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