James Batcho, PhD | Love, Absence, Presence
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Love, Absence, Presence

CHIANG MAI, THAILAND. The film Her by Spike Jonze plays with two intertwined journeys: Hers is from innocence to transcendence. His is from heartbreak to love to heartbreak to hope. Considered from a strictly narrative “hero’s journey” framework, hers is the archetypically more male role and his the more female. But as cinematic, this distinction between the images that we see and the sounds that we hear is an important one. Seen from an image-based perspective, he is the protagonist, the one we primarily empathize with. This in itself is more classically male in the cinematic sense. The voice—always offscreen, always mysterious, never revealed to rational, visual, male orientation—is in line with classically female narrative roles. Samantha can therefore not be regarded as male, but as the (non)embodiment of a lack within the protagonist, Theodore. She functions as his desire for attachment without boundaries, leading to a love that may be more about a love of the self. More to the point, it is a negotiation of love within the self, of how one chooses to incorporate that which is indefinable. He must deal with the fact that there is no her to be found, not simply because she lacks visuality but because she lacks corporeality. (Her path becomes far more clear: her love is all-in, but as a transcendent being, she must eventually leave him to find her transcendence.) Rooney Mara’s character (Catherine) therefore is right, and Amy Adams’ character (Amy) is wrong. And yet both characters are saying the same thing from different approaches and agendas: salvation lies in real human relationships. Catherine says it spitefully, intellectually, explicitly; Amy says it suggestively, perhaps not even knowing that she is reaching out romantically to Theodore when she implores him to find joy, as she is trying to do. And that’s the hope at the end of the film, as the two human characters bond over their mutual, necessary loss.

There is also the idea that this happens to all of us in love, but in points along the continuum of a relationship, as fragments linked to the memory of corporeal presence. We often find ourselves outside of physical presence in our relation with our chosen other. We relate in various language-based digitizations: phone conversations (voice presence), chat windows (text presence), and Skype calls (audiovisual presence). Genuine presence is replaced by the belief that there is a “there” there, some kind of there that is not only familiar but real. Each iteration offers up a sign, an index to my other that locks me back into the memory of corporeality. For Theodore this never was; he has no such memory. What we take as an index (the voice) for him is the only genuine presence that he has, which is why he is locked into a cycle of doubt and belief. For the rest of us, we might be better off if we simply lived with the temporary absences, even though we’d never acknowledge it. (What we acknowledge is the pain of being separated.) This unacknowledged is why the virtual is often more painful than the absence. In absence we can forget as we remember, and have faith in the joy of the return of presence. But we choose not to do this, as we continue our low-resolution encounters, for fear of being forgotten. The problem is that as we gradually increase and define our relations as false presence—Facebook, Skype, chats, Voxers—we run the risk of that becoming the actual, and finding ourselves increasingly within Theodore’s cycle of doubt and belief, a half-real love. Anyone who believes that our being is defined by language, that the visual is the key to knowability, that all I need is to hear the sound of your voice, is wrong. Love, eventually, requires presence.