‘Westworld’ And Our Constitutive Loneliness

The title sequence to HBO’s Westworld is visually and aurally beautiful, melancholic, and ultimately haunting: artifacts–whose artifice is clearly visible–take shape in front of us, manufactured and brought into being by sophisticated devices, presumably robotic ones just like them; their anatomies and shapes and forms and talents are human-like; and that is all we need to begin to empathize with them. Empathize with what? The emotions of these entities is ersatz; there is nothing and no one there. Or so we are told. But we don’t need those emotions and feelings to be ‘real’–whatever that means. We merely need a reminder–in any way, from any quarter–about the essential features of our existence, and we are off and running, sent off into that endless mope and funk that is our characteristic state of being.

The robot and the android–the ‘host’ in Westworld–is there to provide bodies to be raped, killed, and tortured by the park’s guests;  we, the spectators, are supposed to be ashamed of our species, at our endless capacity for entertainment at the expense of the easily exploited, a capacity which finds its summum malum with a demographic that is controlled by us in the most profound way possible–for we control their minds and bodies. 1984‘s schemers had nothing on this. And the right set-up, the right priming for this kind of reaction is provided by the title track–even more than the many scenes which show hosts crying, moaning with pleasure, flying into a rage–for it places squarely in front of us, our loneliness, our sense of being puppets at the beck and call of forces beyond our control. (The loneliness of the hosts being manufactured in the title sequence is enhanced by their placement in a black background; all around them, the darkness laps at the edges, held back only by the light emergent from the hosts’ bodies; we sense that their existence is fragile and provisional.)

We have known for long that humans need only the tiniest suggestion of similarity and analogy to switch on their full repertoire of empathetic reactions; we smile at faces drawn on footballs; we invent personal monikers for natural landmarks that resemble anatomic features; we deploy a language rich with psychological predicates for such interactions as soon as we possibly can, and only abandon it with reluctance when we notice that more efficient languages are available. We are desperate to make contact with anyone or anything, desperate to extend our community, to find reassurance that this terrible isolation we feel–even in, or perhaps especially in, the company of the ones we love, for they remind us, with their own unique and peculiar challenges, just how alone we actually are. We would not wish this situation on anyone else; not even on creatures whose ‘insides’ do not look like ours. The melancholia we feel when we listen to, and see, Westworld‘s title sequence tells us our silent warnings have gone unheeded; another being is among us, inaccessible to us, and to itself. And we have made it so; our greatest revenge was to visit the horrors of existence on another being.

‘Don’t Call Me A Philosopher’

I cringe, I wince, when I hear someone refer to me as a ‘philosopher.’ I never use that description for myself. Instead, I prefer locutions like, “I teach philosophy at the City University of New York”, or “I am a professor of philosophy.” This is especially the case if someone asks me, “Are you a philosopher?”. In that case, my reply begins, “Well, I am a professor of philosophy…”. Once, one of my undergraduate students asked me, “Professor, what made you become a philosopher?” And I replied, “Well, I don’t know if I would go so far as to call myself a philosopher, though I did get a Ph.D in it, and…”. You get the picture.

I’m not sure why this is the case. I think folks that have Ph.Ds in mathematics or physics or economics and who teach those subjects and produce academic works in those domains have no hesitation in calling themselves mathematicians or physicists or economists.

Part of the problem, of course, is that in our day and age, in our culture, ‘philosopher’ has come to stand for some kind of willful pedant, a non-productive member of society, content to not contribute to the Gross Domestic Product but to merely stand on the sidelines and take potshots at those who actually produce value. The hair-splitter, the boringly didactic drone. (Once, shortly after a friend and I had finished watching Once Were Warriors, we began a discussion of its merits. As I began pointing out that the director’s explicit depiction of violence toward women might have been necessary to drive home a broader point about the degradation of Maori culture, my friend interrupted, “There you go, being philosophical again! Can’t you just keep things simple?”).

But this modern disdain for the ‘philosopher’, this assessment of her uselessness, her unemployability, is not the only reason that I shrink from being termed one. There is another pole of opinion that I tend toward: ‘philosopher’ sounds a little too exalted, a little too lofty; it sounds insufferably pompous. It comes packaged with too many pretensions, too many claims to intellectual rectitude and hygiene. Far too often, that title has served as cover for too many sorts of intellectual prejudice. To describe myself thus or allow someone else to do would be to permit a placement on a pedestal of sorts, one I’m not comfortable occupying. (This situation has not been helped by the fact that when someone has described me thus in company, others have giggled and said “Oh, you’re a philosopher now?” – as if I had rather grandiosely allowed such a title to be assigned to me.)

This discomfort arises in part from my self-assessment of intellectual worth, of course. I do not think I am sufficiently well-read in the philosophical literature; there are huge, gaping, gaps in my education. I remain blithely unaware of the contours of many philosophical debates and traditions; the number of classics that I keep reminding myself I have to stop merely quoting and citing and actually read just keeps on growing. I do not write clearly or prolifically enough.  And so on. (Some of these feelings should be familiar to many of my colleagues in the academic world.)

For the time being, I’m happy enough to make do with the opportunity that I’ve been offered to be able to read, write, and teach philosophy. The titles can wait.