Agency and Interiority Construction
The conflict of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner revolves around the morality of its created world; namely, the film focuses on the moral question of whether the humans in the movie should enslave beings that are, in nearly every way, identical to them. Since, in my analysis, I will argue we decide whether the Replicants should be enslaved based on our ability to construct their interiority, a movie about morality becomes a movie about interiority even as we do not realize the transition as we watch. If we perform a theory of mind on these characters, or ‘get in their head’ so to speak to perform this job as I will claim, we must also consider what set of characters are available for us to construct interiors for. This is why an analysis of Blade Runner must take into account both philosophy of mind and character theory – philosophy of mind determines which characters we connect to through theory of mind, and literary theory chooses what characters we even can perform theory of mind on within the narrative structure. In this essay, we will mix theory of character with philosophy of mind to suggest characters must exhibit willful characteristics to obtain empathy from the viewer due to the nature of narrative structure. Blade Runner will be a case study to support this theory.
Liza Zunshine’s “Cognitive alternatives to interiority” gives us a good theoretical basis to assume we construct interiors of characters in the same way we do people. This two-part theory – that interiority is a “cognitive-historical construct” – tells us that while interiority is generated from a projection of mental states onto an object we believe can have agency (‘theory of mind’), it cannot exist without a gap that Zunshine suggests comes from historical and cultural differences between the interpreter and interpreted. One such example Zunshine gives is of a character snuffing a candle – “We make sense of his behavior by exercising our theory of mind, that is, by attributing to Trim a certain intention: he wants to make the flame brighter so that Walter Shandy can see the pages” (Zunshine, 148). The reader (the interpreter) generates an interior that could cause those exterior actions and projects that character onto the object, in this case Trim. The cognitive historical gap in this example comes from us not understanding that “snuff” has the opposite meaning in this text, leading to the creation of a false interior. We can accept Zunshine’s theory, using it as evidence for ‘theory of mind’, which will give us justification to use philosophy of mind in our analysis of character – we are imagining mental states in characters as if they had the minds of people so we can use philosophy about the minds of people on characters – but to do so we must first claim Zunshine’s historical-cultural gap between the world of Blade Runner and our world is small enough that we can do so.
The introductory sequence of the film serves this very purpose. Before introducing us to the world, the film provides rolling text which communicates narrative background interspersed with emotionally charged tidbits; most notably the last two lines which describe the killing of escaped Replicants: “This was not called execution\ It was called retirement”. (2:48) By acknowledging the differences of attitude between the characters in the film toward the Nexus-6’s and what the film predicts our emotional instinct will be toward them, the film tells us it anticipates whatever ‘cultural’ differences may lie between us and the characters in the text. The film itself bridges the expectations of the world of the film and what we are morally inclined to feel. In this way, the film lets us know we can perform theory of mind on its characters by bridging whatever misunderstandings may lie in a cultural gap for us.
We have claimed that we attempt to construct the interiorities of the Nexus-6 Replicants to decide whether we empathize with them. Because theory of mind is independent of whatever object is being analyzed, we can perform this on a character in the same way we could perform this process on a human; if we take this to be true, we accept that we can use philosophy of mind to construct interiority of character in the same way we use it to construct interiority of living creatures. Philosopher Thomas Nagel, in his essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” elaborates on what beings it is possible to get ‘in the head’ of, and what it looks like to construct an interiority for another being.
Nagel claims that we can conceptualize that an organism has conscious mental states “if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism.” (Nagel, 436) This is why the actions or appeared intentions of the Nexus-6 robots are insufficient to convince us we can perform this interior construction. Nagel writes, “it is not analyzable in terms of any explanatory system of functional states, or intentional states, since these could be ascribed to robots or automata that behaved like people though they experienced nothing. It is not analyzable in terms of the causal role of experiences in relation to typical human behavior.” (Nagel, 436)
At first, this may seem obviously untrue – we know from empirical experience that how ‘human’ our subject seems is a factor in how much we construct that thing as having interiority. Nagel clarifies that it is not that intentional states do not affect how much we can associate interiority with an individual – it is that we do not associate the interiority because it has intentional states. The argument is that rather, we have intentional states, and therefore find it easier to ascribe an interior to an object with intentional states. We ascribe interiority to things that are the same ‘type’ as us – things similar enough that we can put ourselves in their shoes.
On when he tries to construct interiority for a being and fails, Nagel writes, “I cannot perform it either by imagining additions to my present experience, or by imagining segments gradually subtracted from it, or by imagining some combination of additions, subtractions, and modifications.” (Nagel, 439) When we fait to construct interiority, it is because there are differences from our own interiority that are impossible to account for. This seems almost trivial at first, but the results of this specification tells us much about how we construct interiors for beings that are in some way fundamentally different than us. In our Nagel model, the interiority is necessarily incoherent just from us creating a projection onto an object foreign enough that our conception of what interior causes what exterior is no longer useful.
So is it useless to project interiority onto any character because there are always differences between you and the thing you are projecting onto? Nagel writes, “I am not adverting here to the alleged privacy of experience to its possessor. The point of view in question is not one accessible only to a single individual. Rather it is a type” (Nagel, 441). This ‘type’ is what is so crucial; in detective stories the investigator with the rough background understands the rough childhood the killer came from, in Fun Home Allison uses her homosexuality to reason an interiority that justifies her father’s actions.
We now understand that we can perform theory of mind only on characters for which we determine are similar enough to us. Blade Runner’s premise revolves around finding what small amount that ‘type’ difference must shrink for us to perform philosophy of mind, therefore construct their interiority, therefore empathize.
Ridley Scott is hyper aware of how thoroughly we concern ourselves with ‘type ‘in Blade Runner and constantly plays with character types that can distinguish Replicants from humans, shrinking things like differences in physicality and reasoning and emotional reaction until the viewer is left grasping for straws. Eventually the viewer is left analyzing minute differences; a great example of this is Ridley Scott’s trend of eye reflection, first spotted during Rachael’s Voight-Kampff test (20:02). Once we learn Rachael is a Replicant and we must determine if she has interiority, we look for any characteristic breaking her from the ‘type’ of character we empathize with. When the trend of red eye reflection proves it is not a one-time occurrence with Rachael by making an appearance during the piano scene (1:06:43), the film uses it to create a common trait between biologically compromised creatures with Kris’ eyes turning red in her confrontation with Sebastian (1:13:55) and her discussions with Roy (1:15:57), while Roy’s eyes turn red when talking to Tyrell (1:23:47) and later killing him (1:26:02). The artificial owl shows the same trait both times we see it in Tyrell’s office before (1:22:36) and after (1:26:43) Tyrell’s death. Because we’ve been left no real way to distinguish ‘type’, we are left looking for the smallest differences in portrayal – even when we know those character traits we’re distinguishing replicants from humans by aren’t real – they are just different ways the camera, the viewer, is seeing those characters. The only hints we get for who is our ‘type’ are known by the viewer to be entirely subjective – and yet we still grasp for them.
We have now dealt with ‘type’ distinction and the philosophy behind our putting ourselves in other characters shoes, and how we do this in the same way we empathize in real life. In literature however, the structure gets to determine which characters we put ourselves into the shoes of, and therefore can empathize with. We know this to be true because literature has the ability to control point of view and other structural elements like positionality that influence our relationship with characters within a text.
This leads us at first to believe what subset of characters we can attempt to create an interior for is just a byproduct of narrative structure – through whatever means, how much time a character gets on screen etc, we’ll empathize with that character more. This must be true in some regard. What I will argue is that for characters to even exist prominently on screen, those characters must be written with certain attributes that make them conducive to be featured within the structure.
We can examine Wolosh’s “The One vs. The Many” to investigate the effects of narrative structure on our perception of character. Although he concerns himself with “character-space” and other concepts to record the amount of impact characters make on the narrative, we can use Wolosh’s argument to prove there are inherent aspects of character that require narrative structure to place certain characters in positions where we can see them (and therefore construct their interiority) before we even mangle with what ways characters take up space in the narrative structure. Wolosh writes, “the discrete representation of any specific individual is intertwined with the narrative’s continual apportioning of attention to different characters who jostle for limited space within the same fictive universe.” (Wolosh, 13) We know this to be true, but for a narrative to apportion time, it must do so in such a way that it allows the piece to remain a narrative. Although, in theory, the literary piece represents a certain defined amount of time and space to feature character, by the nature of the medium only certain characters can be featured at certain times throughout that space; we do not consider a text describing a man repairing a car a narrative, or two friends discussing where they’ll eat for dinner – unless aspects of those characters are conducive to cause tension or conflict that turns literature into a narrative, those examples do not qualify. For certain texts to be considered a narrative, they must have characters with certain character traits featured prominently in that space.
Wolosh does acknowledge that the narrative structure performs this; he writes, “the ‘human aspect’ of a character is often dynamically integrated into, and sometimes absorbed by, the narrative structure as a whole.” (Wolosh, 15) Because our structure of storytelling alters how much we can make certain characters visible, and therefore reveal some ‘humanity’ about them, we are forced to only construct interiors for certain types of characters. Sara Ahmed determines this conducive character trait to be will.
Looking at “Willful Parts: Problem Characters or the Problem of Character”, we will demonstrate that Ahmed’s ‘willful character’ necessitates the type of character that takes up character space in Wolosh’s theory. Ahmed describes a willful character as “the one who poses a problem for a community of characters, such that willfulness becomes that which must be resolved and even eliminated.” (Ahmed, 233) If we understand the center point of narrative to be necessarily built around conflict, interactions with willful characters are already immediately brought to the reader’s attention. She continues, “we might learn more from or about character when a character poses a problem. Put simply: when someone becomes a problem, we tend to question their character.” (Ahmed, 233) This is the key here – the premise of Blade Runner is to measure the morality of a social structure through constructing the interiorities of characters, but we only are put in a place where it is conducive to analyze those characters when they are willful – and willful characters are exactly what the social structures in Blade Runner try to demolish.
How is this the case? Ahmed says “an independence of character—to be less dependent on both circumstance and happenstance—requires the application of will” (Ahmed, 234) while the more character “is dependent on chance and circumstances” then “the less [they] have a determinate, cultivated-applied will.” (Ahmed, 234) When the social structure in the world attempts to control all circumstances around the creation, life and death of the Nexus-6’s, Replicants cannot escape their circumstance. Only when a group of them perform the willful action of returning to earth can they be placed in the narrative so that we can construct an interior for them, and then understand their plight as conscious beings.
Blade Runner is obviously aware of its use of will as a major structure of the plot because Replicants performing a willful act is its premise, but on a close reading level it constantly plays with willfulness. We see this in Deckard’s interactions with Rachael – he removes her agency, making her not willful, and therefore over the course of the film treats her more and more like the character he wants her to be because he need not worry about interpreting her interiority when she’s not willful.
We know Deckard must construct interiority for the replicants in order to do his job – when Deckard is receiving his briefing, he asks “well I don’t get it. What do they risk coming back to earth for? That’s unusual. Why–what do they want out of the Tyrell Corporation?” to which Bryant replies, “well you tell me pal, that’s what you’re here for.” (14:03) Off the bat we are told Deckard must ‘put himself in their shoes’ – and because he does, he is predicting their mental states, and also crafting interiority for the Replicants. As he analyzes this willful act of returning to earth as the starting point to hunt the other Replicants, when he discovers Rachael is a replicant, he resolves his conflicting feelings towards her by taking Rachael’s will away, and by doing so makes himself unable to get into her head, in that way not having to worry about whether she has interiority.
When Rachael displays emotional responses to the news she is not human, Deckard tells her “okay, bad joke. I made a bad joke. You’re not a replicant. Go home, okay? No really, I’m sorry. Go home.” (33:43) He commands her to perform an action – if she obeys it, she is no longer willful. But when Rachael doesn’t obey, Deckard changes his tone: “Want a drink?” Upon no reply, he crafts her response for her. “I’ll get you a drink. I’ll get a glass.” (34:00) Each time, Deckard controls the scene to predict, then try to cause Rachael’s response so that he need not consider her as willful. Rachael forces him to consider her as willful when she leaves after Deckard has decided from his constructed version of Rachael’s interiority that she would stay. In the piano scene, Deckard does the same thing, but more concretely. “Say ‘Kiss me’” (1:11:54) he tells her; only when she submits does Deckard not need to worry about what happens in her mind – he imagines her interiority just the way he wants it to seem, and tells her to perform those actions that would suggest that interiority. With no will, she becomes exactly who he wants her to be.
If we take this final statement and make it encompass all of the Replicants – with no will, they become exactly who we want them to be – we see that this is how Blade Runner is a perfect model for the link between character will and interiority construction; by creating an oppressed class that starts out defined as a ‘type’ different than any viewer, Ridley Scott maintains control of how every viewer initially sees that class. While other narratives around race and sex can never isolate every member of its audience from the oppressed character group, willful characters become the only way any member of the audience can become aware of the oppressed class, and therefore empathize with the oppressed.
This has serious repercussions outside of Blade Runner. If this analysis follows, unless a reader is predisposed to consider themselves the same type as an oppressed character, the reader can never construct an interiority for that character unless that character fights against that oppressive structure in that text, and therefore we can only perform the theory of mind necessary for us to relate to that character’s position when they’re willful enough to become the forefront of the narrative. This is profound – what characters need to justify their own interiority? Which characters do we just take for granted have them? If social structures in texts take a character not having interiority as a given, and we as readers begin with that as a default, these are the characters that will never get interiority if they are not willful. These do not need to be imagined oppressive structures like Blade Runner’s – when racist or sexist structures an audience takes as true proliferate into a text, those oppressed characters remain ‘subhuman’ until they are willful.
In conclusion, we can see that the link between willfulness as a character trait and interiority construction directs us to empathize with certain characters, but it has even greater implications when oppressive social structures are taken into account that aim to prevent characters from becoming willful. As long as we take narrative to focus around some conflict or problem and digest literature with that as its center point, we cannot escape this problem – literary structure has doomed us to accept that less willful characters will have to fight to receive construction.
Ahmed, Sara. “Willful Parts: Problem Characters or the Problem of Character.” New Literary History, vol. 42, no. 2, 2011, pp. 231–253., doi:10.1353/nlh.2011.0019.
Nagel, Thomas. “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” The Philosophical Review, vol. 83, no. 4, 1974, pp. 435–450. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2183914.
Scott, Ridley. “Blade Runner: The Final Cut”. Burbank, CA :Warner Home Video, 2007. Print.
Woloch, Alex. “Characterization and Distribution.” One vs. the Many, Princeton University Press, 2003.
Zunshine, Lisa “Cognitive Alternatives to Interiority.” Cambridge University Press, 2015.