[Ryan] What Makes A Person? – Reflections On Kafka’s ‘The Trial’ and ‘Blade Runner 2049’

This article contains spoilers for Blade Runner 2049, which you should see if you haven’t already. It also includes spoilers for Franz Kafka’s The Trial, which you should read if you haven’t already. Readers beware.


Perhaps the world really is like the world the Bible portrays. We wouldn’t know. A brief walk to the park yields nothing of yesteryear’s enchantments. There are no fairies at the bottom of our gardens. And there are no gardens. We turned them into parking lots, or worse. And why wouldn’t we? No angels haunt our city blocks, so far as we know, and alchemy is dead. We are, to dredge up that tired anti-modernist trope, a disenchanted generation.

And more: The cosmos is mechanical, we are told, arithmetic. We can explain, with relative accuracy, the processes by which the human experience unfolds. ‘I think, therefore I am’ seems passé. Daniel Dennett has written a tome explaining – with some success – the ‘mechanics’ of human consciousness. Old philosophical defenses of ‘libertarian free will’ no longer hold much weight. Magisterial though they are, the bottom has dropped out from beneath them, we are told: The very notion of will presumes that there is such thing as a ‘self’ – an ‘I’ that might will things independently of coercive processes that determine the trajectory of the ‘conscious’ ‘creature’. Our every thought and inkling is determined wholly apart from ourselves by some process whereby biology and circumstance converge to usher us along to futures prewritten by the nonconscious universe. There are no selves, we are told, because there can’t be.

Well, next to no one believes this, even if it is the loose consensus of the loudest voices in Western pop science. I indulge this caricature of a caricature because it seems self-evidently false. It is held, quite tenaciously, by some gatekeepers of the new ‘materialist’ orthodoxy and a horde of online devotees. Your next door neighbors are probably not hard determinists. But their imaginations have been penetrated by this line of thinking. As has your own, and mine. We may not envision ourselves as cogs in a heady, half-conscious machine, but we have met Dennett and friends in the middle, conceded that the ‘natural order’ of things leaves little room for the supernatural, that the universe (multiverse?) is basically self-contained, that ‘metaphysical’ questions are antiquated, or basically irrelevant.


Speaking of ‘metaphysical’ questions: Who shouldn’t we kill? Also: Why? Hopefully, your answer to the first question was “Anyone who isn’t trying to kill you,” or some pious variation thereof. And presumably your answer to the latter was “Because of basic human decency, that’s why.” Which is an interesting answer. We generally shouldn’t kill people, and it ought to be obvious because basic human decency would dictate as much. But what, exactly, is ‘basic human decency’? What does it consist of? That we shouldn’t kill people, of course. Something about sexual consent, probably. Some general pattern of “honesty” should characterize the basically decent human. Insofar as it is possible, we should not put “bodies” in danger, and we should be very cautious about the extent that we should tolerate people or ideas that do.

This should be an agreeable enough collection of maxims to run on. I certainly don’t know anyone who would seriously dispute the above suggestions. And there shouldn’t be anyone, because these are maxims that constitute basic human decency; These are not sectarian rules, like Thou Shalt Not Have Any Graven Image, etc. They are, one assumes, a kind of baseline, irreducible set of moral guidelines that ought to be as normative for me (a rather uncontroversial White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant male who drinks Coca-Cola and watches Seinfeld) as for my friend Ronald (a native Ugandan whose name is only “Ronald” in the small, Oklahoman suburb in which he is a grad-student, and in which none of his friends – myself included – have the verbal dexterity to pronounce his actual name. He also drinks Coca-Cola but prefers It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia to Seinfeld).

If these maxims constitute “basic human decency,” then the irreligious and religious ought to share these particular values, and there should be relatively little dissent from one religion to the next in the affirmation thereof. And we do share them, as religious philosopher John Hick has demonstrated over the course of his career, and as C.S. Lewis demonstrated in the epilogue to his small tome, The Abolition of Man. There are empathetic Christians like there are empathetic Muslims like there are empathetic witches like there are empathetic Dawkinsians. So-called “basic human decency” has a life of its own; It is not contingent upon our acknowledging or obeying it. You are either committed to decency or not. You can’t annihilate it by ignoring it, but you can become a scumbag. But what, exactly, is “basic” about basic human decency? And, for that matter, what makes any given act ‘decent’ rather than ‘indecent’?


“The motion of the blood and animal spirits is not the essence of these affections, but the effect of them,” writes Jonathon Edwards, whose sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God you probably read in high school. For that, I am truly sorry. And so is Jonathon, probably (he would be horrified, I imagine, to learn that of the remarkable life that he lead, and splendiferous body of literature that he left, only his most jagged and masturbatory work is broadly known). “There is a sensation in the mind which loves and rejoices, antecedent to the effects of any of the fluids on the body.”

That quote requires some decoding; Edwards was an eighteenth century giant, and with good reason. Quite the progressive, he spent much of his time surveying scientific periodicals and acquainting himself with contemporary literature, mathematics, and philosophy. As a result, his work is rife with antiquated language and thought-models, but the brush can be cleared away easily enough. Perhaps his greatest modern expositor is Marilynne Robinson, a novelist and essayist from Iowa, who summarizes his point thusly: “For Edwards the existence of the emotions and their character are arbitrary phenomena, in the sense that they reflect the intent of God in creating mankind.” His approach to “emotions” (he calls them “affections”) carries over to morality – or, as we’re calling it, “basic human decency.”

“If His intent had been different we, like every other created thing, would be different as well,” Robinson continues. “But God made us in His image, that is, with attributes we share with Him. This is the anthropology of the soul,” which, she point out, bears serious “cultural and political importance – we are created equal, we are endowed by our creator,” for one. But even more noteworthy: “God so loved the world. God is love. Love one another as I have loved you,” she paraphrases. “These sentences are intelligible to us because we do, in however misdirected or dilute a form, participate in this attribute.”

Which is to say that “basic human decency” is whatever it is, at any point, that is consistent with the fact that God is love. Morality, “basic human decency” is not simply a list of Do’s and Don’ts that were commanded from the top-down by some ambiguous-but-divine-Law-Giver (although they are Do’s and Don’ts, and they are “commanded”); Morality emerges from the character of God. And we are “created in God’s image.” It is, in some sense, imprinted on us.

In other words, Dennett is wrong. We are selves. Persons. Creatures. We are not just a complex of drives that must be satiated or repressed, as some post-Freudian radicals have suggested, nor are we simply embodied clay, enslaved to our “subjectivity,” our futures and our pasts all but determined by the mechanisms of “civil society,” the “culture industry.” Each of these obfuscations have an element of truth to them, but they are obfuscations. We are people. We are “a little less than gods” (Ps. 8:5).


Denis Villeneuve’s long-overdue Blade Runner sequel opens with a bucket of grub worms. They are manufactured, harvested. Our protagonist, a blade runner, is working. His target is a protein farmer.

Derrida, and his less-cautious devotees, suggest that our language is euphemistic, always. Against his better judgement, our protagonist lets his guard down, and his target gets the drop on him. “New models are happy scraping the shit,” growls the replicant, played by Dave Bautista, “because you’ve never seen a miracle.” Our protagonist, played by Ryan Gosling, is manufactured, too. It’s 2049, and to be a blade runner, now, is to be a replicant. Our protagonist is property. And he doesn’t rebel. He’s never seen a miracle.

“I don’t retire my own kind,” he retorts. “New models don’t run.” There’s an existential difference between Bautista, who’s old enough to remember the tales of Roy Batty from the days when they were fresh, and Gosling. He knows as much, but his language is buried in euphemism. In the absence of something like ‘personhood’ to confer dignity prima facie upon the two replicants, Gosling will settle for the dignitious placeholder, that “New models don’t run.”

“We’ve lost our stomach for slaves, unless engineered,” declares villain Niander Wallace, whose chief purpose in the film is to ensure that Villeneuve’s subtext is consistently vocalized. A school of mechanical fish hover around him and disperse throughout the room; we realize that they are eyes, joined to his cerebrum by some wireless proxy. He has eyes everywhere – manufactured omniscience.

His assistant, Luv (a replicant, naturally), escorts Gosling to Wallace’s database. ‘How do you like JOI?” she asks, referring to his hologram wife (manufactured, of course, by Wallace Corporation). “She’s very realistic,” he replies. JOI is not a real girl, and Gosling is not a real boy. Luv makes a pass at him. ‘Monogamy’ is a meaningless concept in reference to a hologram, apparently. “Honey,” “Wife,” are euphemisms. (But so is “Realistic”). For that matter, Luv presumes, it’s meaningless in reference to a replicant. They’re property, without rights, or goals, or names. “Luv” is an abbreviation for her model number. As is “K,” by which Gosling is referred.

JOI does not share these sentiments. Gosling finds the bones of an old-model replicant. She was pregnant, which is impossible – except, now, “Impossible” is the euphemism, and “Pregnant” is not. For a number of reasons, JOI has a good idea who the baby was. “You’re special,” she caresses his face. “Born, not made.”

The “manufactured” have product numbers, the “born” have names. “I will call you Joe,” she smiles. He rebukes her. “It’s okay to dream a little,” she stands her ground.

“Not if you’re us,” he pushes back.

He is not miracle baby. The one he is looking for is hiding away, crafting memories for the replicant work force, and the memories that led Joe K. and JOI to suspect that he was the “miracle baby” were placed in him by design. He is, it turns out, a pawn, co-opted by the “miracle baby,” Ana, who crafted his memories: She furnished his recollection with her own past, in the hopes that he would piece together his manufactured memories, track down her father – Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) – and bring him back to meet her.

In this sense, he is like another “Joe K,” which shouldn’t be surprising. Nearly every Villeneuve film to date has been a riff on Kafka, and Blade Runner 2049 is no exception. Kafka’s The Trial follows a man named Joseph K., who awakes one morning to discover that he’s been charged with a capital offense. Capital offenses are very serious, of course, and he’s committed no such crime, so far as he knows, so he endeavors to get a hearing with the magistrate, learn the precise nature of his charges, and defend himself in court.

The rest of the novel consists in a series of ill-fated attempts to clear himself. Unfortunately, the impenetrable bureaucracy is indeed impenetrable, and he is denied the privilege of learning what he is charged with, testifying in his own defense, speaking with the powers that be, or even appearing at his trial. By the end, it becomes clear that his fate has been a foregone conclusion, orchestrated behind his back for someone else’s ends.

The miraculously-born woman is a “creator,” too, in ways that Niander Wallace can only hope to be. Wallace creates in order to have created, to be divine. He is manufactured divinity, by merit of having manufactured chattel; Ana creates the future by creating the past.

All that Joe K. has done throughout the film is according to the will of Ana, the “memory-maker.” He is given the past that he is given in order to create a future in which Ana is reunited with her father and the replicants are liberated. Like Kafka’s Joe K., his fate is a foregone conclusion. Unlike Kafka’s Joe K., that’s a good thing.

The musical cue that plays over his death further drives this home: As K. dies, Roy Batty’s theme swells. He isn’t the “miracle child,” but he will die for the world. He was not born. Like JOI, he was manufactured. But he understands JOI’s perspective now. His name is not K., or his model number. He is Joe. He is a person, and so is JOI. He still won’t run, but not because he is compliant. He’ll die, like Roy Batty, as real, or realer, than Niander Wallace, as human as Deckard(?) or Gaffe. Or, he won’t. He’ll die inhuman. He isn’t human. He doesn’t need be. He is a replicant, which is to say, a person. And that is enough.

Wallace could never grasp as much. Personhood is conferred, it is not a given. The born are conferred personhood, nearly by right, but chiefly by merit. There is, as is always the case in postindustrial life, a distinction between the useful-born and dead weight. Hence, Luv shows no regard for human life either, insofar as it stands between her master and his brass ring. Every thing is subordinate to the summum bonum as defined by Leto’s corporate sovereign. “You don’t have children, do you?” Deckard scoffs at Wallace. “I have millions,” he replies, motioning to the chambers-full of newly minted chattel, hanging in the darkness. He does not understand the question. Demiurges never do.


Which brings us back to the grub worms. Such barbarous ideologies as that of Niander Wallace have by and large co-opted professed vocation of the Western world. I doubt I have to illustrate our imperial proclivities. Foucault, with whom I rarely agree, outlines the issue well: We are, theoretically, an egalitarian society, bent on “progress,” however slow-moving and cautious our ascent to utopie may prove; But within these egalitarian societies that constitute the modern West, various (and numerous) “structures” obstruct our egalitarian impulses, rendering our “progressive” aspirations mostly null. Our loftier aspirations do not count for much, in other words, when our past and present are decidedly not egalitarian. And we should not expect our future to be different. To paraphrase one friend who agrees with Foucault more often than I do, we’re not innately geared toward acknowledging the personhood of those who aren’t like us, and we tend to treat so-called “non-people” accordingly, denying them as much as “basic human decency.”

Curiously enough, a rather influential minority(?) have opined that the solution is to echo Dennett by denying everyone the status of “Personhood.” Like Wallace, they posit that personhood is not a given. You are not born a person, per se. It is bestowed, not by “human right” or some “transcendent rite,” but by a kind of phantom tribunal that we call “culture.” We are born, the logic goes, like Gosling’s K., and Kafka’s K., into a world in which our status and fate are foregone conclusions. We may, by some invisible lottery, be born in an ostensibly egalitarian democracy, but even then we are, in fact, members of a diaphanous caste system whereby the “violent majority,” over generations and with no unified or perceptible intent, delineates who is an “us” instead of a “them,” a “person” instead of an “other.” Oklahomans are people, we might say, but grub worms are not.

This phantom tribunal is the measure of things, we are told. There is no Greater Tribunal, no Heavenly Court. However transient and ever-shifting, the unvoiced pronouncements of the “culture” are absolute. We do not, after all, seek after and then find the “truth,” and then, having found it, “acknowledge” truth together. We “constitute” truth, somehow, by echoing some “truth” that our communities hold dear, and echoing, and echoing until it is no longer simply “our” truth, but nearly everyone’s. Our very language creates a cavernous “echo chamber,” and through passing years and generations these “constituted” truths are assumed by our children, and their children, and theirs, until there is no distinction between reality itself and our assumptions.

This is, of course, the opposite of Edwards’ tack. And it probably won’t bear the results we intend. Edwards can be summed up by pointing out that everyone, simply by virtue of being created in God’s image, is bestowed personhood, irrevocably. You do not have to earn it, and you cannot lose it. And “God’s image” is broad, even vague. It defies explanation. Moses, writing Genesis, contents himself with pointing out that every time you see your neighbor’s face you see the face of God (Gen 33:10). But our post-Foucauldian pendulum-swing simply reduces us all to Demiurges.

Joseph K. meets a gruesome end at the hands of a German tribunal not unlike our “phantom court,” – “culture,” as we’ve named it. The powers that be, in his sordid tale, sealed his fate quietly, without clamor. And they could do so, even without harboring contempt toward their scapegoat, because they operated within a deeply embedded system that licensed calamity without rabble. A driverless car, the nightmare world that K. inhabited could tread upon bodies without consequence or catalyst. Like the “West” that Foucauldians endeavor to “unmask,” they did not need to hate their victims to bloody them. We live, in some sense, in Kafka’s world, and Niander Wallace’s, and Foucault’s.

Despite his thoroughgoing involvement in reform movements, Foucault never offered any semblance of hope that the world might change – at least, in his writings. Perhaps counterintuitively, if there is anything like hope to found, it will be in Edwards, in Ana’s vision for the future, not Foucault’s. Or, in other words, if the world really is like the world the Bible portrays, where we see God’s face in each other’s. There is hope to grab hold of – and, importantly, to act on, to demand reform, to insist upon the personhood, divinely bestowed, and irrevocable, of those consigned to the margins by our “phantom tribunals” – in what Robinson, a la Edwards, calls the “givenness of things.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s