Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse and Thomistic Anthropology

My husband and I are big Joss Whedon fans, probably because his shows (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and most recently Dollhouse), have such interesting philosophical and theological components. Joss Whedon’s new show Dollhouse is perhaps his most thoroughly philosophical.

The premise of the show is that the “Dollhouse” is a powerful, cutting edge organization that recruits young, beautiful individuals to be “dolls,” to have their brains wiped and memories erased so that they can be uploaded with different personalities to serve the needs of the Dollhouse clients. The leading scientist, the nerdy Topher, has designed a technology to quickly and practically effortlessly install the dolls’ brains with complete personalities, including memories, skills like rockclimbing and breaking into bank safes, and emotional connections with other people.

The most recent episode, starring, as always, Eliza Dushku as the evolving doll Echo, includes a new twist, as Topher figures out a way to change Echo on a glandular level in order to meet the demands of a distraught Dollhouse client who recently lost his wife in childbirth and can’t bond with his son. The man needs a mother for his son, and the Dollhouse provides. The opening scene shows Echo nuzzling an adorable baby as she breastfeeds him while her “husband” sleeps in the next room.

The client, Nate, quickly comes to recognize that the doll Echo is not his wife, and that hiring the Dollhouse to provide a mother for his son was a mistake. He calls the Dollhouse, demanding they remove her “or he’ll get rid of the baby,” while Echo surreptitiously listens at the door. Echo, fully installed with maternal instincts and lactating breasts, fears that her son is in danger, and desperately tries to escape.

She is almost successful. Echo is a remarkable doll in the show’s ongoing storyline, who is always sharp, smart, and talented, no matter what her personality, and always equipped with the best survival instincts. Her handler, Paul Ballard, ends up having to drag her screaming from a police station, while the father goes to recover his child. Even the standard calming line “Would you like a treatment,” fails to soothe the maternal Echo who fully believes that her child has been stolen from her.

When Topher goes to wipe the personality, returning Echo to the irenic “doll” state in which she walks around in pajamas and talks in naïve monotone, the story gets particularly interested. Echo’s maternal instinct doesn’t get wiped. When Topher asks her how she feels, Echo, half doll and half mother, punches Topher and makes for the exit, showing up at Nate’s house with the baby and a knife in hand, still fighting to keep her child.

When asked what went wrong, Topher responds:

“Maternal instinct is too strong for a normal wipe. I outplayed myself. . . Perhaps triggering lactation was a bridge too far.”

The father is eventually able to talk Echo down, explaining to her that he hired her to be a mother because he could not be a father, but that the real mother is a part of his son. Echo is not. In a poignant realization of what she is, a doll and not a mother, Echo hands over the baby. The next scene shows her in a playground, as Paul Ballard tentatively approaches.

Echo: I had a baby, now I don’t have him anymore. I feel sad. All of these things that happen to me, I feel them.
Paul: I know, Echo. I know you remember everything.
Echo: Not remember. Feel. I was married, I felt love. And pain, fear. It’s not pretend for me. They made me love my little boy, and then they took him away. They make it so real, every time, they make it so real. Why do they do that?. . .

Paul: If you want I can tell Topher what is going on with you and he can wipe you. You won’t have to feel sad anymore.
Echo: Feeling nothing would be worse. That would be like being asleep, like before. I’m awake now. I don’t want to go back to sleep.

What is so interesting about this episode from an EverydayThomist perspective is that Joss Whedon is implicitly endorsing an Aristotelian-Thomistic anthropology. For Aristotle and Aquinas, form subsists in matter. This means that the form of a person, their soul if you will, is not contained or trapped in the body, but is an integral, inseparable part of the body.

In Aristotelian studies, this concept is pitted against a Platonic metaphysic and anthropology that sees the body and soul or the matter and form of a substance as two different opposing realities that are connected, but not necessarily so, in the human person. For Plato, the human person is primarily spirit. The matter, and this includes the entire sensitive appetite including the emotions, is unnecessary, transitory, and disruptive. Aristotle argued against such a dualistic anthropology that body and soul were what made a human being a person. Matter, including the emotions, is not disruptive but necessary. The human form cannot subsist without matter.

In Thomist studies, this concept is referred to as Aquinas’ hylomorphic anthropology, hyle meaning “matter” and morphe meaning “form.” The passions or emotions like love and fear which Dushku mentions in the above quote must be understood in light of this hylomorphism. The subject of the passions is not only the body, nor is it only the soul, but is rather the substance, the unification of the two. The passions are accidents which are predicated of the hylomorphic unity of the person who can only subsist as both body and soul.

Every passion, therefore, involves a psychosomatic change in the person. This means that every passion, properly understood, effects both the immaterial soul of the person and the material body. This is not a question of cause and effect, as it was for the neo-Platonist Descartes who assumed that the immaterial mind/soul of the person was affected by the passions emerging from the body. Rather, the psychosomatic movement of the passions is a unified event for Aquinas. One quippy way of putting this is that every act of love is also an act of knowledge, and every act of knowledge is also an act of love. The intellect and the passions, the soul and body, the form and matter, are always moving as a unified, hylomorphic unity.

A more Cartesian anthropology assumes that the mind is the controlling force of the person. In other words, Descarte’s cogito, ergo sum posits that the person is a subject who thinks, or a mind who happens to have a body. The body, and the emotions, are not essential to anthropology (although there is some debate about whether this is a caricature of Descartes. Another story for another blogpost).

What Joss Whedon gives us in Dollhouse is a challenge to this Cartesian metaphysics and anthropology. Topher assumes that the mind is the operating principle of the person—change the brain, change the person. Moreover, he assumes that the brain controls the body as he illustrates in this episode. With the proper changes to the brain, Echo goes from gun-fighting superwoman to lactating mama.

But the person, as “Instinct” cleverly points out, does not subsist just in the mind or the form of the person, but in the body itself. Echo does not just think as her infused personalities do, she also feels the way they do. And when Topher wipes her brain at the end of each mission, what he fails to recognize is that he cannot fully wipe each personality because each personality is somehow in Echo’s body, and specifically in her sensitive appetite which is still left with the somatic imprint of the psychosomatic emotional changes that each of her personalities experienced.

In contemporary Thomistic studies, this is becoming more of an important point, post-Grisez and Finnis who, along with the other neo-Thomists, assigned too much control to reason, and neglected the dynamism of the sensitive appetite in Aquinas’ philosophical anthropology. This mistake was based on a larger cultural assumption that the “mind over matter” mentality encapsulated what it meant to be a human being. More recently, we are rediscovering the importance of human matter in moral psychology. Joss Whedon’s “Instinct” perhaps unwittingly pointed that out. Another point for the Thomists.


1 comment so far

  1. Innocent on

    Hello! Great blog!

    Regarding this particular post: Is this why excessive fear, despair and despondency are such powerfully destructive sins? Because it’s not “just a feeling” of loss of hope but actually take the entire human being out of God’s presence and will leave an impression on the entire person which is later not easily overcome, except with difficulty?

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