I have been fascinated by the HBO TV series “Westworld’ by Nolan and Joy. If you don’t know about it, the series is about a Wild West-themed amusement park populated by ‘androids’ – also called ‘Hosts’ who live in the park. It becomes quickly apparent that the park functions as an escape from the conformities of the real world. The park makes an open invitation to the visitors to discover their ‘true self‘ by getting in touch with their rawest, most repressed, unconscious urges. Guests visiting the park are observed treating Hosts as narcissistic extensions of themselves, there to cater to their every whim. Throughout the series, Hosts are killed, raped, beaten, loved and worshipped by the human guests. Damaged Hosts, having been mistreated by guests, are removed to the lab, where they have their memories wiped and are relocated into another story. The dramatic tension of the series revolves around the fact that the Hosts are not immune to the maltreatment they are exposed to, but so deeply affected by it that they are driven mad.
It is fascinating and chilling to watch the set up of this park and reflect that some, or all of us perhaps, have the need for a park like this – a place where others can be treated as lifeless objects. Guests relate to Hosts in an uncaring, detached or obsessive manner. I see the park as a regression to the infantile self who relates to others egocentrically because the cognitive, rational side is not fully formulated and the capacity for concern is not established. The series reminded me of a fundamental psychoanalytic idea that we, as adults, carry a more instinctual, primitive side within us. A side that, depending upon our development and maturation, can be contained, thought about and regulated – or not. The park provides an escape from the ongoing painful negotiations with others whilst we struggle to contain a primitive inner urge to obliterate the needs of the other. On one hand, this park might be seen as a mature realisation that humans have a primal side which needs to de-intensify these pressure urges, or it could also be seen as a failure of a civilisation that is oppressing instead of facilitating this internal, binary inner attitude.
A fascinating dimension to the series is how about halfway through, we cease to be able to distinguish between Guest and Host. Ford and Arnold are the creative directors of the park. Arnold decides to kill himself and unsuccessfully to destroy all the Hosts when he realises what Guests will do to them. Ford has a close working relationship with Bernard, Ford’s protégé. Bernard comes across as a very likeable, robust figure during the series, until he discovers he is not a human but a Host. He has an identity crisis and suffers panic attacks. Then Ford stops Bernard’s melt down by a simple command. It becomes rather painful to watch Bernard transition from a subject-in-becoming into an object powerlessly obeying commands. Here the profound question of what really consciousness is and what differentiates real experiences to ersatz experiences arises. Descartes famously stated “I think therefore I am”. The recent scientific research informs us that actually it is feelings that determine our consciousness. We are conscious ‘of’ a state of mind and that state of mind is always underpinned by emotional states. So the statement transforms to “I feel therefore I am”. Or at least, I think this might be what the vehicle of “Westworld” explores by posing questions about the differences, or lack of them, between the ‘artificially’ intelligent Hosts and us, the humans.
Ford and also the Lab staff provide regulating voices who tell Hosts what is or is not acceptable to feel, think or do. Hosts are driven by this internal voice which instructs them how to act. During the course of the series, this internal voice develops and by the end of the series, the Hosts have evolved a sense of free will and the capacity for conscious memory. The actual idea of the series came from Julian Jayne’s Bicameral Mind Theory, a controversial explanation of how consciousness evolved over time in Homo sapiens. Jayne’s theory argues that we used to hear voices of the gods telling us what to do and how to behave in times of trouble but that over time, this became internalised to produce the kind of consciousness we take for granted today. From a psychoanalytic point of view, the internalised voice Jayne describes reminded me of Freud’s notion of a superego which observes, censors and commands the ego to act upon its demands. Based on Freud’s theory, if the ego is mature enough, it becomes able to work through the demands of the superego, and reflect upon them, instead of just being a slave to its demanding master. The superego can take the voice of a benign parental figure or a punitive one depending upon the experiences one has internalised through interaction with actual care-givers. Freud also made the point that much of the superego is made up of rather idealistic views of oneself, a constellation of mental life that he called the ‘ego ideal’.
Robert Ford, played by Anthony Hopkins, who is one of the creative directors of the park is found to have recreated his family home inhabited by Hosts who resemble his parents, siblings and a younger version of himself. There is a powerful scene in which Ford walks alongside the younger version of himself. The boy’s life is made up of Ford’s childhood memories. They both end up entering the house where Ford walks around his parents who are younger than he is at that point in time. Watching this scene, I was powerfully reminded of how Freud talks about the timeless unconscious. An unconscious where the older and younger versions of oneself co-exist and interrelate. I argue that quite often it becomes impossible to distinguish which part of us is present at certain times and where in the timeline of life that part thinks it actually is. The family scene could easily be a mental image of a therapeutic session where the patient goes back as an adult to their early childhood experiences, re-encountering their internal parental representations and early family interactions. Ford was working through his traumatic childhood by going back to his family home, in a similar way that a patient often does during each session.
Whilst writing this brief post, another film came to my mind that challenges this internal need for merger and complete satisfaction of needs. It is a film called ‘Hers’. It is a futuristic film where the humans are constantly attached to an intelligent computer operational system. The system gets to know one’s mind so well that it satisfies each need before it is even communicated. The film shows people walking by each other but not connecting because they are all preoccupied with this narcissistically-charged relationship. What is very interesting in this film is how the system is disembodied – it is only a voice. So actually the Humans are attached to a boundariless, formless idea. The film explores the relationship between Theodore Twombly (Joaquim Phoenix) and Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), his intelligent computer operating system personified through Samantha’s female voice.
In my view, the common thread connecting both these works – Westworld and Hers is a strong conviction that human relationships are deeply disappointing and the search for an idealistic/narcissistic relationship unmasks the desire for relationships in which frustration and disappointment are obliterated. We as humans seem compelled to search for an Other outside us that only exists to fulfill our explicit or implicit wishes and desires, no matter how destructive, irrational and dark they are.
In brief, I think I am saying that humanity’s Achilles heel is the pull for an idealised, omnipotent existence and we are suckers for any person, place or thing that can kid us, however briefly, that it can deliver it. Or to put it another way, we never lose our capacity to believe, however erroneously, that there is a short-cut to joy.