Issue 8 2021 (2)

Spike Jonze’s Her (2013): Buddhist Stories for a Postmodern World

Jesse Barker (University of Aberdeen)

This video essay explores the exponentially growing influence of Buddhism in western societies, tracing its reach in an unlikely source: Spike Jones’ 2013 film Her, a futuristic indie romance about a man (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with his virtual personal assistant Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). My analysis builds on previous studies of the long and fascinating history of Buddhist adaptations to the west—and to the modern world in general—a process that scholars have labelled “Buddhist Modernism” (Bechert 1966). 

Beginning in the 19th century, western philologists and colonial officials began to study and translate early Buddhist texts. They approached this work from an orientalist worldview, seeking a pure Buddhism in the “original” tradition, considering contemporary Buddhist communities to be degenerate. They recast the Buddha as a rational empiricist, something like a Victorian gentleman scholar (Lopez 2012). At the same time, many Asian Buddhists initiated modernizing projects, often aimed at staving off Christian missionary influence. They popularized meditation and the study of the dharma (teachings)—activities formerly only undertaken by specialist monks. They also advanced the argument that Buddhism was a more rational religion than Christianity, more compatible with a scientific worldview (Lopez 2002). 

Buddhist modernism was formed from these different currents, and over the past centuries it has caught the attention of diverse groups in the west: spiritual seekers, disillusioned with their own Christian or Jewish traditions; artists, writers and intellectuals, who see in Buddhism a reflection of the Romantic and Modernist questioning of individualism; psychologists, who draw from the Buddhist philosophy of the mind and point to parallels between meditation and psychoanalysis (McMahan 2008).

Since the 1950s, Buddhism has also entered mainstream society in the US and other places in the west. Japanese Zen Buddhist scholar D.T. Suzuki became a celebrity in that era, portrayed in popular media as an iconic Asian sage transmitting ancient wisdom to American and European audiences. Suzuki famously influenced the Beats and British philosopher Alan Watts—who, as we will see, makes an appearance in Her. Though all these figures published writings and gave lectures presenting Buddhist ideas and practices, in the popular imagination Zen was associated with fashionable style and intellectual cachet as much as with any particular philosophy or spiritual practice (Iwamura 2011: 23-62).

However, Suzuki’s philosophy of Zen as a direct experience of the world and Watts’ eclectic mix of Western and Eastern anti-individualist philosophy inspired those looking for an escape route from postwar consumerism and captured the imagination of 1950s and 60s counterculture movements. Subsequently, the late 60s and the 70s saw the emergence of several Buddhist figures connected to the peace movements and social turmoil of that era, such as the Vietnamese monk Tich Nhat Hanh and the Tibetan lama Chögyam Trungpa, as well as the Americans Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzburg (Wilson 2014).

Since the 1970s, the Buddhist term mindfulness has been used to formulate psychological and self-help techniques whose connection to Buddhism itself is often downplayed, or sometimes completely hidden. The most famous of these are two 8-week courses: Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). These efforts have given birth to a sprawling mindfulness industry: courses and seminars, self-help books and magazine articles, school and corporate wellbeing programmes, even military training techniques. Critics have labelled this industry “McMindfulness”: a streamlined and highly commercialized mindfulness, emptied of the philosophical and ethical bases of Buddhism. Moreover, they accuse mindfulness purveyors of creating a neo-liberal tool that individualizes the causes of suffering, teaching individuals to repress their discontent through breathing exercises, rather than seeking external social and economic causes (Purser 2019). 

Contrasting with this superficial assimilation of mindfulness into mainstream western culture, the last few decades have also seen an unprecedented growth of Buddhist convert communities, and of individuals who practice Buddhist techniques with varying degrees of rigor. The lines between these practices and the more insidious versions of mindfulness are sometimes blurry, but there are certainly currents of the Buddhist/mindfulness movements that do take Buddhist philosophy and ethics seriously, and often use them to challenge neoliberal ideology—as is the case, for example, with socially engaged Buddhism (Glieg 2019; McMahan 2008). 

This video essay suggests that the impact of Buddhist modernism in contemporary society goes beyond what is clearly traceable in Buddhist communities, therapeutic applications, popular books and mindfulness courses. Most viewers will overlook the Buddhist influence in Her, as it is only referenced a couple times. However, I argue that Buddhist concepts are in fact key to the development of the film’s existential themes. Moreover, I suggest that Samantha—the artificially intelligent personal assistant—becomes a Buddha-like figure over the course of the story [1]. This image of spiritual awakening is fitting for the film’s postmodern cosmology of global interconnection and virtual communications. 

Notes 

1. Neela Bhattacharya Saxena makes a similar suggestion in her brief analysis of the film, arguing that the “space between the words” that Samantha describes in the film reflects the in-between Bardo state in Tibetan Buddhism (2020).

Bibliography  

  • Bechert, Heinz. Buddhismus, Staat und Geselschaft in den Ländern des Theravāda Buddhismus. Vol. 1. Frankfurt and Berlin: Alfred Metzner, 1966.
  • Bhattacharya Saxena, Neela. “AI as Awakened Intelligence: Buddha, Kurzweil and the Film Her,” Theology and Science 18.1: 74-85.
  • Glieg, Ann. American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019.
  • Iwamura, Jane. 2011. Virtual Orientalism: Asian religions and American popular Culture. London: Oxford University Press.  
  • Lopez, Donald S., Jr., ed. A Modern Buddhist Bible: Essential Readings from East and West. Boston: Beacon, 2002.
  • –. The Scientific Buddha: His Short and Happy Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.
  • McMahan, David L. The Making of Buddhist Modernism. London: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Purser, Ronald E. McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality. New York: Repeater Books/Random House, 2019.
  • Wilson, Jeff. Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhism Meditation and American Culture. London: Oxford University Press, 2014.

 

 

How to cite this article: Barker, J. (2021). Spike Jonze’s Her (2013): Buddhist Stories for a Postmodern World. Tecmerin. Journal of Audiovisual Essays, 8, 2021(2). ISSN: 2659-4269

Other videoessays in this issue:

Piola
Andrés Sanjurjo García (UPF/UDC)

Citizens May Laugh: Latinx Comedy and the Politics of Documented Migration
Juan Llamas-Rodriguez (University of Texas at Dallas)

From the Archive