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"Being Human is aspiring to be human. Since it is not aspiring to be the only human, it is an aspiration on the parts of others as well. Then we might say that being human is aspiring to be seen. This is a positive interpretation of [the stories] Frankenstein and Pygmalion. Their shared limitation is then that they could accept being seen only by their own creation."

Stanley Cavell, The Claim Of Reason

The Very Near Future

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Blade Runner theatrical poster

The more we debate the potential merits of artificial intelligence and advanced robotics, a topic inundating the zeitgeist with weekly leaps in smart technology, the more relevant the 1982 film Blade Runner becomes. Add our addiction to social networking, first-person role-playing games, and every other facet of life involving a "simulated" self, and the film appears to be nothing short of prescient. The movie was based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick. Though somewhat different in plot, both narratives pose the same fundamental question: what does it mean to be human? The answer in the dystopia of 2019 Los Angeles is that humanness has become a matter of degree.

In a text scroll preceding the opening frame, we learn that the Tyrell Corporation has advanced their "replicants" to the Nexus 6 stage. Nexus: a crucial intersection of elements; in this case, between humanity and technology. The question becomes: how does one tell a replicant apart from a human other than cutting it open to search for clockwork? Is it ethical to question, much less cut? And what happens if all you find is flesh? These issues seem like anything but science fiction in the trajectory of today's nearly unconscious integration with technology.

Blade Runner teeters between answers, expertly blurring the lines between human and automaton, and culminating in questions more thought provoking than the last: what happens when machines behave more authentically than their creators? Where are we when androids learn to feel alienated or write poetry or fall in love?

Realer Than Real

In the film's maiden sequence, fire plumes from industrial towers set against a jet black cityscape. The relentless pursuit of commerce may have advanced robotics to its highest pinnacle, but not without a cost. This future is distinctly nature-less, and more often than not, glistening with acid rain. Like so many dystopias, Los Angeles has become a metaphorical hell.

An establishing shot reveals the futuristic architecture of the Tyrell Corporation. The building, a decapitated pyramid, is the symbol of the Mason's Guild found on the back of every dollar between the Latin sentences "New Order Of The Ages" and "God Has Favored Our Undertaking." The image is preceded by a screen-sized eyeball which introduces a visual system that runs throughout the narrative. In this instance, the eye above the pyramid (and apart from it) represents the all-seeing eye of God. The gap between manmade structure and eye is one that humankind cannot surpass—without a nexus.

Tyrell, the "God" behind the replicants' design, lives at the top of the pyramid as the creator of this undertaking, but he is neither omniscient nor omnipotent. His Aryan-looking replicant, Roy, will eventually overthrow him: a manifestation of the Übermensch at the vanguard of a new order.

The corporation's motto, "More human than human," foreshadows our current poststructuralist understanding of simulation: in the future, originals will cease to exist, and few will know the difference. In the post-human world order, imitations are as authentic, if not more so, than the things they have copied. One aspect has become troublingly clear: our senses can no longer tell the difference. Technology's relentless forward march has pushed us so far from an empirical experience of the organic that empathy, even if simulated, has become a highly coveted experience.

Man Vs. Machination

Dehumanization has been a predicament since long before the industrial age. But the further we move into post-modernization the more the problem gains in momentum and complexity. Leaps in AI are making machines more and more human-like, while dependencies on automation are bending human behavior more and more toward the robotic.

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, humans enhance the drudgery of their noxious worlds by dialing into a device called the "Penfield Mood Organ." They have reached the point where they can't experience their own emotions without the aid of an interface. When Deckard's wife awakes in the morning, she feels nothing whatsoever but she has a vague sense of depression, so she punches a number into the mood organ, like a jukebox, and the organ channels the emotion into her. That she chooses a negative emotion attests to how detached humans have become from their feelings. Feeling depressed is almost a novelty. Deckard admits to dialing into the mood organ more often than he'd like. His number is 481 and it projects "an awareness of the manifold possibilities open to me in the future." Or hope . . .  albeit through a surrogate.

The line between simulation and real is further blurred in Deckard's professional life when he learns he must use the Voight Kampf Test to determine a replicant's "humanness." If cops are famous for one thing it's hunches. But in this future, instincts are attenuated by technology. Voight is German for manager, usually of a household or farm. Kampf means struggle. That a machine has become the "manager" of this "struggle" further displaces humanity from its only distinguishing trait: the ability to feel. The Teutonic etymology is no accident either. An inquisition is taking place in the world of Blade Runner, and the final solution is nothing short of the termination of a species.

But on what grounds? What are the algorithms for determining humanness?

The All-Too-Human Condition

In the world of Blade Runner, replicants and humans suffer from the same existential crisis. Both seek answers to same elemental questions. Where do I come from? Where am I going? How much time do I have left?

Mid-century language philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein would answer that our ability to formulate questions like these doesn't necessarily mean intelligible answers exist. Language isn't a tool for unearthing deeper meaning. It's a tool for connecting on the surface. That we endeavor to ask the big questions is far more useful than endlessly confabulating over some metaphysical conundrum. If we're able to find meaning or get relief from an insightful exchange with another being, does it matter if their insides are circuitry? Once an android masters empathy, once it develops an independent "will to power," all previous distinctions are moot.

The opposite is true for humans. The more we taper our instincts and emotions, the more we regress to mechanical status. Empathizing through language is how we assimilate ourselves into the human community. Harvard philosopher Stanley Cavell advances Wittgenstein's claim by agreeing that language is limited, and adds the point that it is in struggling with this very deficiency that makes us most human.

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The Voight Kampf test is nothing more than a language game employed by humans to determine what has fast become an irrelevant distinction. By posing a series of questions intended to provoke an emotional response, the machine probes the depths of feeling by monitoring the eye, the so-called window of the soul. An involuntary fluctuation of the iris reveals the subject to be an android. Cavell would tend to say, so what? It's not a forgone conclusion that replicants are soulless because the machine says so. Cognitive neuroscience, with its formidable computational modeling, still can't fathom a satisfactory answer to where the soul actually resides. In Philip K. Dick's world, a being's internal constitution, their morphology, is not a measure of the authenticity of their emotions.

Blade Runner is ultimately a story of the struggle for acceptance. Its characters are manifestations of varying degrees of empathy, and the determination to create a new order where natural biology is second to bona fide social interaction, grounded in a publicly accessible language.

The Vocal Opposition

Captain Bryant, Deckard's boss, is the embodiment of the privatization of language. Bryant refers to replicants as "skinjobs," a pejorative meant to dehumanize and exclude. As is the case with most slang, "skinjob" is outside the formalized lexicon. It has no place in a dictionary, just as replicants have no place in the community. Prejudice almost always relies on rhetoric that denies its subjects access to the public sphere.

The same motivation belies his use of the word "retire." By not saying "kill," Bryant intends to neutralize the implications associated with murdering something that thinks and feels and engenders a will to life. It's a tactical language choice that regards the replicant as object instead of subject. After Deckard retires Zora, a conflicted inner monologue is heard in voice over. "The report would read, routine retirement of a replicant, which didn't make me feel any better about shooting a woman in the back." Deckard does his best to quell the emotion, his job requires it, but an ember of empathy still burns in our hero, and it's our hope he can turn it into a blaze.

Seeing as Believing

Chew recognizes Roy as a Nexus 6 the moment he enters his lab. "You Nexus, right? I design your eyes." And yet, Chew is unable to help Roy see the bigger picture. Not unlike his nemesis, Chew is merely a cog in Tyrell's machine.

"Chew," Roy says through a simper. "If only you could see what I've seen with your eyes." The paradox reinforces the postmodern theme: the simulation (Roy) has experienced more than the creator of its parts (Chew). It's also a veiled Marxist critique of the debilitating results of the division of labor. The parts don't add up to the whole until the master designer brings them together. Chew's eyeballs are thus reduced to meaningless simulacra. Roy demands information regarding Tyrell's whereabouts but Chew has no answers. "I only do eyes . . . " Roy exits unfulfilled, leaving Chew exposed to the freezing elements of the very lab that gave him sight.

What he hasn't fathomed yet is that by engaging with Chew, by questioning and demanding and remonstrating, he's already as human as his creator. The articulation of the desire to know, and the aspiration to ask, is the most authentic drive any living being can possess.

Making Friends

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Sebastian is the most accepting human in the story, a lonely soul happy to care for anyone, be they flesh or faux. He suffers from an affliction known as Methuselah syndrome, a disease that causes his glands "to grow old too fast," the very problem endemic in replicants. As a genetic designer, he's made toys that allow him a degree of normative linguistic interplay. The personalized greeting given by the Toy Soldier—"Home again, home again, jiggety jig"—establishes the call and response dialogue of mundane domesticity, the simple human banalities Roy, and his replicant girlfriend Pris, long for.

It's in Sebastian's safe haven where the only romantic scene between replicants occurs. When Roy and Pris kiss, it looks like two adolescents intoxicated by how good it feels. Emotional intimacy is an overwhelming experience for all of these characters; a point that's driven home when Roy struggles to articulate himself about Zora and Leon's death.

"There's only two of us now," he says with a juvenile frown. Pris's response is equally impetuous. "Then we're stupid and we'll die." Their immaturity is not lost on Sebastian, but he withholds his judgment: that they're androids doesn't detract from his desire to be a part of their raw emotional interplay.

"There's some of me in you," he rejoins. "Show me something . . . "

"We're not computers, Sebastian," rebuts Roy. "We're physical."

"I think, Sebastian, therefore I am," adds Pris, quoting Descartes.

"Very good, Pris," says Roy. "Now show him why."

Pris not only recites the cogito ergo sum, she manifests it physically by scooping her hand into a tube of boiling water and tossing Sebastian an egg. Replicants are more human than human. Their paraphysical capabilities allow them to enact whatever they say. The egg, a symbol for the birth of the New Order, is bobbled and dropped by Sebastian. Though his biology is organic, his disease will preclude him from being a part of the future he has participated in designing. Sebastian is not human enough, unfortunately, a deficiency Roy will gerrymander in order to reach Tyrell at the top of the pyramid.

Role Playing

Prior to Rachel's entrance in the film, an owl swoops through Tyrell's amber lit lobby. The owl is the dedicated animal of Athena, goddess of wisdom and poetry. As a predator, it's infamous for its penetrating sight. Rachel, we soon learn, is Tyrell's special creation, meaning she doesn't have a four-year expiration date like other replicants.

"Do you like our owl?" she asks. "Of course, it's not real." Real animals are prohibitively expensive, and require a care humans are no longer capable of giving. But Deckard would never have known the difference, just as he can't tell whether Rachel is real or replicant without the Voight Kampf test.

Deckard plays the role of detached interrogator during questioning. Rachel, meanwhile, is experiencing a myriad of emotions from the ordeal. The role reversal between human and android is another successful parry in obfuscating the difference between the simulated and organic. One hundred and some odd questions later, Rachel learns the truth that she is in fact a replicant, and is asked to leave.

"How can it not know what it is?" Deckard asks Tyrell. But the inquiry applies as much to him as to anyone struggling with identity. It begs the question Rachel boldly asks a few scenes later. "Have you ever taken that test yourself?" One can safely assume that in a future where the line between man and machine is fast fading, there would be any number of humans who would fail. And yet, when Rachel seeks out Deckard, their exchange yields anything but the desired results. Instead of proving herself real, she receives proof that her most intimate memories are nothing more than implants.

"Those aren't your memories," Deckard states bluntly. "They're Tyrell's niece's."

The revelation is nothing short of seismic for Rachel and her reaction is anything but programmed. She breaks down and bolts from the room. It's not until Rachel saves Deckard's life by killing fellow replicant Leon that Deckard fully recognizes her simulated life as equally worthy. This is the reciprocity held sacred by Cavell, who asks, what are we willing to do for the "automaton" when the doctor draws a scalpel to cut it open? If we leap to its defense, we have recognized the possibility of its being: we are defending its right to live.

It's after this turning point when an erotic language game between human and replicant unfolds. Against noir shadows cast by venetian blinds, Deckard attempts to kiss Rachel, who denies him and runs off. Deckard stops her, and then linguistically "reprograms" her by giving her the dialogue she can't create for herself.

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"Say, kiss me." He instructs. But Rachel resists. "Say, kiss me." When Rachel finally does, empathy overtakes her. Deckard's emotional reciprocity, coupled with his linguistic authorship, results in Rachel's newly found identity: an identity that has the ability to author language of its own. "Put your hands on me," she says without direction, and Deckard complies. It's a colossal moment that establishes Rachel as an equal in a romantic relationship. We can assume from the last scene in the theatrical cut, the first time we see blue skies and green grass in the entire film, that a fruitful future awaits them.

The Brain Behind The Avatar

In 1997, IBM's Deep Blue chess computer played a series of games against then world champion Gary Kasparov. The computer was programmed with over 700,000 previously played grandmaster games and was capable of evaluating 200 million positions per second. After defeating Kasparov, accusations were made that the computer had employed a level of creativity beyond the heuristics any microprocessor was capable of, the implication being that the human minds behind it had intervened with moves of their own. IBM denied the accusations and the debate still simmers.

Similar accusations are made in the climax of Blade Runner, but this time it's the machine pointing the finger. By championing Tyrell in chess, Roy successfully gains access to the top of the pyramid. He wears all black, Tyrell in solid white. Roy cuts to the linguistic chase by using the strongest language possible: profanity. "I want more life, fucker." A verbal chess match ensues where Roy provides scientific alternatives for extending his life span. What he hasn't accounted for is Tyrell's "teleological deism": he may have created Roy, but he can't interfere once the creation has taken on a life of its own. The DNA dice and subsequent biological processes have been cast.

"You were made as well as we could make you," consoles Tyrell. " . . . Revel in your time." But Roy is not mature enough to heed the advice. To free himself he must kill the master, which he does by Oedipally mashing in Tyrell's eyes. Extinguishing the all-seeing eye is the beginning of a transvaluation of values for Roy. He's free from his maker's tyranny, but a new void engulfs him: with his creator gone, who will see him for what he aspires to be?

The Power Of The Word

The film culminates with a dramatic chase. After leading the hunt, Deckard is now pursued and must rely on his most basic animal instincts to survive as Roy traps him on a rooftop, supplanting Tyrell.

In an effort to relieve the excruciating pain in his right hand, Roy forces a rusted spike through his palm. The "son" of the film's God, nexus between man and machine, has usurped the role of crucified savior. He will die not only for his own sins, but for all of humankind's as well. It's in these last moments that Roy transcends his biomechanical interior and becomes more human than human in the spiritual sense.

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Deckard, meanwhile, has regressed to desperate survival mode. He leaps from one rooftop to another and slips, hanging by a fingertip. As he falls, Roy catches him with the nail-punctured right hand and raises him dramatically to safety. Perhaps his own irreversible circumstances have allowed him newfound empathy for the value of Deckard's life. Or perhaps it's less altruistic. Roy killed Tyrell to be free from the relationship that defined him as non-human. By saving Deckard, he preserves the only witness to the potential of his being more than an android. His apotheosis occurs in a self-authored elegy which he gives in the highest form of human expression: poetry.

"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near Tanhauser Gate . . . All those moments . . . will be lost in time . . . like tears . . . in rain. Time to die."

Computers don't communicate in metaphor and simile, people do. With Deckard as his witness, Roy definitively expands the definition of what it means to be human. The final close-up of Roy closing his eyes and releasing a dove completes the film's optical image system with chilling finality. Rain falls on both figures, cleansing, absolving, baptizing. A new order of the ages has begun.

The question remains: do androids dream of electric sheep? The answer from a postmodern language perspective is irrelevant. That they dream at all is what matters most. According to Philip K. Dick, in the future, dreaming is an act even most humans won't do.


Alex Lyras


Alex Lyras writes for theater, film and television. His most recent play, The Common Air, linked six characters during an airport delay. (www.thecommonair.com) His screenplay, ALVA, explores the controversy over Thomas Edison's knack for stealing his competitors' ideas. It won the Tribeca Film Institute Sloan Foundation award. He lives in Los Angeles and New York.
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