When a Man Loves a Robot: Blade Runner's Humanism

30 Pages Posted: 15 Aug 2013

See all articles by Joshua Foa Dienstag

Joshua Foa Dienstag

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)

Date Written: 2013


What are the powers and limits of representation, both aesthetic and political? Many have pointed to Blade Runner’s humanization of its ‘replicants’ as compelling statement against exploitation and domination. I argue, however, that the film has another kind of agenda: a Rousseauvian concern about the dangers of representation, about confusing the imitation with the real and confusing the consumption of images with political action.

This political danger is two-fold. On the one hand, our relation to a representation has the potential to dehumanize us insofar as it deprives us of the mutuality of experience that is the token of real political solidarity. Our emotional connection to a filmed representation (or an elected representative) is not wrong because it is unreal or because the object of our affection is celluloid or luminous. The fault is not cured by replacing the filmed image with a live politician. The problem is rather that, even with a person who breathes and feels, the relationship is not mutual in the sense of being reciprocal. Though the representative may genuinely respond to and care about the audience that is not the kind of reciprocity democratic politics requires.

The second part of the danger is therefore one of power – but not simply the ‘power of the image’ to seduce or fool us (which is real enough, but manageable). We should think of it more as the power of the representative institution that we believe we control (whether political or artistic) to hold us under surveillance even as we watch individual images on the screen. Just as we believe ourselves to be acting throughout our dreams, while in fact we are chemically inhibited from moving, so too, as we watch our representatives and replications are we held in place by the speculation that is, in the end, our own reflected observation.

To break the power of that institution, it is not enough to grant the audience more rights. Nor is it enough to remind them of the illusory character of what they witness. Rather, they must be protected, or must protect themselves, from the all-seeing eye. They must turn their mutual surveillance into mutual regard. Whether or not we shutter the theatres or simply leave them, we can only be fully human, as Blade Runner shows us in its final irony, by closing the eye of the camera and looking directly into eye of the other in an unmediated way.

Rather than humanizing the other, then, Blade Runner’s concern is to humanize our own social and political relationships, which are in danger of falling into the same trap Rousseau outlined in his Letter to D’Alembert.

Keywords: film, representation, humanism, politics, human, Blade Runner, equality, freedom, acknowledgement, reciprocity, Rousseau, surveillance, power, human

Suggested Citation

Dienstag, Joshua Foa, When a Man Loves a Robot: Blade Runner's Humanism (2013). APSA 2013 Annual Meeting Paper, American Political Science Association 2013 Annual Meeting, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2301258

Joshua Foa Dienstag (Contact Author)

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) ( email )

405 Hilgard Avenue
Box 951361
Los Angeles, CA 90095
United States

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