Welcome to the DOLLHOUSE: Transhumanism in Popular Culture (Part 2)

It has been quite some time dear friends of The ComicBook Imperative! It’s me, your friendly neighbour, the ComicBook Imperative Guy! This time round, I want to share with you a thrilling show, that I only just had the chance to watch properly. That series is Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse, starring Eliza Dushku. Bit late to the party, I guess! But better late than never, right?

I heard about Dollhouse a few years ago, but I did not have to chance to properly watch and appreciate it. But now, having a background in Ethical Philosophy and Bioethics, I would say it was a thrilling TV experience that I cherish. Joss Whedon and Eliza Dushku had previously (and gloriously) worked together during the run of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where Dushku portrayed Faith, a rogue Vampireslayer against Buffy’s (Sarah Michelle Gellar) proper slayer. Their artistic chemistry translated well and the audience loved Faith so much that she ended up having a season-long arc and pop-up during the series’ finale and the spin-off series, Angel.

Many years later, Joss and Eliza met up again for a new sci-fi project. That project was Dollhouse. For those of you that you are not familiar with the premise of the show, here’s what you need to know: A major (and shady) corporation offers to young, attractive people the chance to put their lives on hold in exchange for help and money. They assign to them various tasks that they have to complete. But things are not as simple as they may seem. In order to do that, they have to erase every single aspect of their mind and character, to become a blank canvas, and then upload a new personality according to the needs of every customer or task. After the completion of the task, their minds are getting erased again until their next assignment. Every contract lasts for five years, after which they are able to leave the Dollhouse and move on with their lives. The story begins with a young woman being forced to sign that contract and become a doll herself. But what happens when the mind seems to be stronger than the technology used? Well, you gotta watch the series in order to find out! (Beware! Spoilers ahead!)

Eliza Dushku as Echo!

So, as you probably understand already, such a premise full of science and fiction was a delight for me. In a previous post, we discussed about the philosophical and scientific movement of Transhumanism and how its core ideas may become an inspiration for certain genres in popular culture. When it comes to Dollhouse there is a wide range of themes and issues that could potentially ignite a very intriguing conversation about emerging and speculative technologies as well as a new prospect of being for humanity. My main focus here is on the issue of mind uploading and the manipulation of mind/body as depicted in the series, the issue of freedom and the emergence of a new kind of technological slavery.

I would like to start with the issue of mind uploading. Mind uploading has been one of the most controversial speculative technologies that have surfaced over the last few years. The basis of this biotechnological operation is that by creating an extremely detailed map of the human brain by scanning it and uploading it in a mega-computer, one can emulate the original brain and create a conscious mind. This is a theoretical technology that could potentially enable a new form of being, a life that is not confined to the human body. Humanity truly then will achieve everlasting life. This is, of course, a highly controversial subject with many philosophers and scientists suggesting that such a brutal operation like this one (we cannot be sure that the original mind/body could possibly survive this process) might end up harming humanity, instead of actually helping anyone. Our existence is closely (and quite possibly irrevocably) tied with our physical body. Our whole experience of being is filtered by our physicality to a certain extent. An operation that suggests such a drastic alteration of the core of our existence is not only endangering our sense of identity (can we be the same after that operation?), but it is also actively risking our physical life. And while this is a speculative technology that seems to create more issues than those it solves, it is interesting to have a closer look in JossWhedon’s version of it.

“She can be anyone, except herself.”

In the Whedon-verse, the Dollhouse became possible after the invention of a technology that could have a detailed scan of a human brain and that this scan could be saved in hard drives. After this process, the person tied to the contract is being left in a blank and childlike state, until someone installs an artificially created personality (complete with memories, ideas and feelings) in order to be used for various engagements (sexual encounters, heists, negotiations etc). As I noted before, after the completion of the engagement the mind of the “Active” is being wiped until his/hers next engagement. The series focuses on Echo (Eliza Dushku’s character) that starts to retain certain information and memories from every different personality that she had been installed with over her time in the Dollhouse. Over the series, Echo gradually is becoming self-aware and she is able to use all the different capabilities that she artificially gained in order to set everyone free.

Whedon’s idea behind the “Actives” assuming different roles and personalities for every engagement derived from everyday experience in our cybernetic culture. We are standing behind different avatars in social media that enable us to go back and forth between different personalities. But his idea is also a revolutionary (and rather scary) way of looking at the mind uploading technology that some Transhumanist thinkers suggest that we should endorse. In his world, this technology is being used for all sorts of things and this creates a whole new wave of human enslavement thanks to the biotechnological progress. Provided, that you have enough money, you can rent a person that will not pretend to like what you like and be into what you are into, but will be tailored to fulfil and cater to your every desire. As cruel and deranged as it can be, the “Active” will not have a choice but to obey to whatever the installed personality dictates and once everything is done they will go back to the blank state they were before without remembering not even a thing.

The sleeping chambers of the Dollhouse.

In Whedon’s world the concept of freedom is becoming obscure from the moment people are brought in the different Dollhouses all over the world with promises of providing help in times of distress or financial retribution or even blackmail. Even though they willingly consent and sign the contract, we still have to ask whether this is something ethical and if this was actually a truly free choice. Also, for what things are they responsible during the five years that they are dolls? Being responsible for a certain action implies that you have freely acted. But what does freedom even mean in that world? Echo’s gradual self-awareness is a way of understanding what freedom is in their world and why it is important for her to help the other “Actives” to be free. Whedon boldly showcased that some version of this technology could create a new world, where people can be sold as intricate dolls for other people to play with. This is the ultimate objectification of human kind. A person-no longer being the master of him- or her- self-is manufactured in a way that fulfils someone else’s needs and is destroyed the moment that is no longer needed.

And while this is a rather dark, obviously sensationalist, and sci-fi approach to this kind of biotechnological operation, we still have to consider whether there is any truth to that. Finally, I would like to end this post with one of the most intriguing aspects of Whedon’s story: the fact that Echo (and other characters in minor ways) was able to overcome her conditioning and become self-aware. Apart from the “specialness” of the character, it also shows us that our mind and our body are intertwined in ways that we cannot truly grasp yet and we are not a disconnected body and mind, as Descartes and others suggested in the past. So, before rushing to scan our brains and start living as computers, we need to research and understand the complicate relationship between our minds and our bodies.

I would love to read your thoughts on this subject!

The ComicBook Imperative Guy


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