For this week’s Words for Wednesday, I have an essay on Dollhouse to share with you. I wrote the essay this summer for the graduate course “Psyche and Nature.” It’s written for a reader who is not familiar with the show. In addition to discussing ideas from the course, the assignment required a brief personal reflection. Limited to ten to twelve pages, I didn’t have a chance to delve deeper into ideas regarding Topher or to touch on Senator Perrin at all. Perhaps I’ll expand on it in the future. Enjoy!
“The more successful we become in science and technology, the more diabolical are the uses to which we put our inventions and discoveries” (Carl Jung II).
During 2009 and 2010, two short seasons of Dollhouse aired on FOX. The DVD and Blu-ray sets comprise a total of a mere twenty seven episodes (including two that were unaired). While this television series did not attract the network’s desired ratings, it has been greatly received by many popular culture fans, including the dedicated cult fans of Joss Whedon’s work (including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog). The series blurs lines of morality and asks tough questions about science, technology, and soul. Set in present day, the series focuses on the Los Angeles branch of the Dollhouse, a clandestine business run by the corporation Rossum – a name chosen by the co-founders because of the 1920s play R.U.R. about Rossum’s Universal Robots (“Hollow”). The employers, scientists, and employees of Rossum typically view the mind as a machine and treat it as such. The mindset here is identical to the modern first-world notion identified by Glen Slater in his essay “Cyborgian Drift”: “We have already lost an awareness of ourselves as animals, as a species belonging to an ecosystem, and we are fast developing psychologies that reduce our experience to robotic and computational processes, conceiving of ourselves as analogues of complex machines” (Slater 173). This approach pulls humanity away from its nature, away from the environment of nature, and into a technological world that seems to promise more destruction than hope.
The stage for Dollhouse is initially set by its location in Los Angeles, which provides an interesting backdrop for the series. This crowded, fast-paced, highly industrialized city is often utilized as a setting in film and television to let viewers know they are descending into some type of underground or underworld experience. Despite the glamour often associated with Hollywood, it is not uncommon for people to maintain negative thoughts and assumptions about Los Angeles. This is demonstrated, for example, when one character claims to be in hell and is corrected: “You’re in Los Angeles, though I can see the confusion” (“Belonging”). In a later episode, a character comments, “He’ll be an empty headed robot wandering around Hollywood. He’ll be fine” (“Belle Chose”). This comment, even without its context, clearly identifies assumptions about individuals, technology, and Los Angeles that operate in our world and in the series.
In the fictional Los Angeles of Dollhouse, a technology has been developed where an individual’s personality can be removed and replaced with a technologically constructed personality. This is the service offered through the Dollhouse’s “dolls,” people that have “volunteered” to work for the Dollhouse for a five-year contract. These dolls are transformed into whoever the high-paying client desires for an “engagement” that often only lasts one day. Therefore, each doll undergoes many different engagements and personality implants throughout their service to the Dollhouse. During that time, the original personality of the doll is removed and stored on a wedge (a type of hard-drive). The notion of the wedge has traces back to the 1980s when the “possibility . . . began to surface on the AI grapevine [of] the idea of ‘downloading’ the mind into a machine (Noble 161). Throughout the series, the fictionalized technology demonstrates roots in our modern technological developments.
The dolls are in type sort of blank-slate state when they are at the Dollhouse and not being used for an engagement. When a client requests a doll for a job, the parameters for the desired personality are built by the on-site programmer Topher Brink. The desired personality is then, through a new wedge, technologically imprinted into the doll. The term “imprinted” has a history linking back to Plato and Freud who “liken[ed] memory to imprinting (whether this be on a wax tablet or within specifically psychical neurons in the brain)” (Casey 16). In the Dollhouse, imprinting includes the creation of a false identity with false memories that are transferred into the brain. Therefore, when a doll is imprinted he or she not pretending to be a different person with a different personality – that doll becomes that personality completely and wholly. For example, if a client pays for a doll to steal a piece of art, the doll absolutely believes he or she is a thief. Furthermore, if a client wishes to have a doll for a romantic engagement, that doll is programmed to absolutely love the client. The doll believes their identity just as well as any of us do. The basic assumption in creating and implementing this technology is that the body and the mind are completely separable. As a result, this is an abuse of technology that goes against human nature. Unfortunately, this science fiction thriller offers a glimpse of the threats posed by our own modern technology and desires to improve upon or perfect the human being.
Such ideas about the separation of mind and body and technological advancement stretch back through our history. Descartes insisted that the mind is separate from the body and the self; by the mid-twentieth century, AI scientist Marvin Lee Minksy “described the human mind as nothing more than a ‘meat machine’ . . . and regarded the body as ‘teleoperator for the brain’” (Noble 156). Minksy, therefore, insisted that we can be replaced by machines (Noble 156). Developments in AI, robotics, and cyborgology have stemmed from this historical perspective and, for many, have called to question the understanding of the mind and the body. What Dollhouse ultimately shows viewers is that, despite advances in technology, there is an inherent mind-body connection. When some of the dolls begin to show “grouping” patterns, Topher notes that what is happening runs “deeper than memory.” Their habit of sharing meals and activities together in the doll state, despite all the wipes and various implants, demonstrates “instinctual survivor patterns” (“Grey Hour”). Furthermore, it demonstrates the inherent connection between mind, body, and experience. To honor humanity and the laws of nature, this connection should not be tampered with. As Jung noted decades ago, “Through scientific understanding, our world has become dehumanized” (Jung 79). Dollhouse is a constant reminder of this break from nature that we need to mend.
The main character in Dollhouse is the doll Echo. Through flashbacks across the two seasons, viewers learn that she was originally Caroline Farrell, a young woman trying to destroy the Dollhouse for its abuses of technology and persons. In her honorable though misguided attempts, she commits terrorist acts. When Rossum Corporation catches her trying to blow up one of their buildings, she is offered a contract with the Dollhouse in exchange for her inevitable prison time. The series begins with several formulaic episodes that depict her various engagements as a doll, such as being someone’s girlfriend, a bodyguard, and a midwife. However, it becomes apparent to Topher that, unlike other dolls, Echo is “evolving” (“Spy”). When the dolls are in the Dollhouse in their doll state, they have no memories or personality. After each engagement with clients, the dolls are wiped – supposedly returned to a blank slate. As early as the second episode, however, Echo is seen, after an engagement that has been wiped, making a “shoulder-to-the-wheel” gesture that the client had taught her. She starts to become more than what they program her to be.
Echo’s name and lack of identity (at the beginning of the series) call to mind the myth of Echo and Narcissus. However, there is more to Echo – in the myth and in the Dollhouse – than meets the eye. The mythic figure is condemned to repeat what is said around her, as Echo in the Dollhouse must behave as she is programmed – but it does not end there. In the myth, Echo is attracted to Narcissus, someone that Patrica Berry identifies as being similar to Echo (121). Berry concludes that through the relationship between Echo and Narcissus, the myth reveals that “what one echoes is very like oneself, and that within one’s echoing is a kind of self” (121). Though Echo’s voice is a mere repetition of what Narcissus says, she has chosen Narcissus as the one to echo. Furthermore, Berry indicates that Echo is “shaped by what’s around her” (121). The same applies to Echo in the Dollhouse. Though Echo does not chose the personalities she is imprinted with, the traits that begin to form her evolving character in doll state are similar to her original personality as Caroline. In fact, as she evolves into a whole person in the second season, Echo adopts the same mission Caroline had to overthrow the Dollhouse. In echoing the person she used to be, she is demonstrating her true self. Her character arch demonstrates that, ultimately, the self cannot be eradicated.
In season one, viewers learn that Echo is not the first doll to exhibit a likeness to her original personality. Flashbacks introduce the doll Alpha (a violent criminal the Dollhouse recruited in exchange for his prison term) who brutally attacks another doll while in his doll state. The Dollhouse was mistaken in believing they could completely eradicate an individual’s natural tendency with technology. After Alpha’s first attack, he is taken for a “treatment” where his mind should be wiped. However, he struggles against being wiped by the tech and a “composite event” occurs: all the personalities that Alpha was ever imprinted with for engagements are dumped into his mind. After this event, Alpha escapes, killing and injuring others on his way out. It is not only the overload of the many imprinted personalities in his head or their temperaments but his own natural propensity to violence that brings out the ferocity of the many “voices” that now struggle in his mind.
Ultimately, the employees of the Dollhouse do not take Alpha’s case seriously enough. The superior of the L.A. Dollhouse, Adelle Dewitt, explains that Alpha was an “unfortunate technical anomaly” (“Omega”). If they really heeded the warning presented by Alpha’s actions, they would see that the real problem was not merely the poor choice to imprint a violent criminal nor was it an anomaly. His violent outburst is representative of the mind/body connection that the Dollhouse has at best misunderstood, but more than likely chosen to ignore. By removing and imprinting personalities, the Dollhouse is interfering with human nature, and the consequences will be much more disastrous than the frightful event with Alpha.
At the end of season one, Alpha returns to kidnap Echo. He then dumps all of her past imprints into her mind to make her like him (harkening images of Frankenstein’s creature desiring the creation of another monster). However, since her nature is different from his, she rejects him. After surviving Alpha’s kidnapping, Echo is returned to the Dollhouse in the first season’s penultimate episode. She undergoes a wipe that is supposed to remove all the personalities that Alpha dumped into her. After this, she appears to be in the traditional doll state, but the early episodes of season two reveal that she remembers pieces of all her engagements. Eventually, imprinting is not even necessary. She can access any personality she chooses. She does not pose a threat in the way Alpha did because she is not naturally violent. She does pose a threat to the Dollhouse because she wants to destroy Rossum. However, over the course of season two, employees of the Los Angeles branch of the Dollhouse also begin to recognize that what Rossum is truly trying to achieve is far from respectable or acceptable. Ultimately, they work with Echo to try and prevent an apocalyptic future that their technological “advances” threaten to generate.
The various events that transpire throughout Dollhouse because of the technology implemented point to one key element: memory. To begin with, most of the individuals that volunteer to be dolls have memories they are wishing to escape or subdue. For example, one doll, Victor, is suffering from severe post-traumatic stress after serving in the army. In return for his time to the Dollhouse, he will be compensated with a great amount of money and the removal of his PTSD. Another doll, November, has signed her contract because she cannot deal with the death of her child. However, as Dennis Slattery has identified, “Body and autobiography, one’s individual life story, are seamless” (210). Likewise, Edward S. Casey in his book Remembering: A Phenomenological Study emphasizes again and again that the body and the mind are inseparable. Memories are not housed in just the mind; they are a part of the body as well. This explains why Alpha’s formal criminal nature surfaces in his doll state and why Echo continues her fight against Rossum. Something in them is aware of who they used to be.
The unconscious is another important element explored in Dollhouse. The physical placement of the Dollhouse (besides its Los Angeles locale) points to the unconscious. It is housed underground, hidden underneath a business building at street level. The dolls literally descend into the Dollhouse. To drive the metaphor even deeper, when the dolls sleep, they go into sleep pods that are inlayed in the floor. They physically go down into bed for the dreamless sleep they are given. It would be dangerous, from the perspective of the Dollhouse, for the dolls to dream. The removal of dreams, of that access to the unconscious, leaves the dolls even further cut off from their psyches, their selves, and their very human nature.
In pushing the limitations of human nature, Topher “advances” the technological possibilities in the Dollhouse, altering not only the minds of the dolls but their bodies as well. His most extravagant attempt is with Echo in the episode “Instinct.” Nate, the client Echo is sent to, lost his wife during the birth of their son. Unable to bond with his son and care for him, Nate pays the Dollhouse to program Echo to be the boy’s mother. To make this as real as possible for Echo, Topher makes “a code for the brain that change[s] the physical body . . . on a glandular level”: he programs Echo’s body to lactate (“Instinct”). The bond she experiences with the child is as strong as the bond between a birth mother and her child. After the engagement ends and the imprint is supposedly wiped from Echo, she fights off Topher and flees the Dollhouse to return to her baby. When another employee notes, “Maybe her body was stronger than her brain,” Topher recognizes that “the maternal instinct is the purest” (“Instinct”). This is the first time that Topher realizes that he took something too far. Though Topher is only one cog in the machine of the global Dollhouses, his character provides a fascinating look at the scientific mind.
In 1929, scientist John Desmond Beral noted, “Scientists would emerge as a new species and leave humanity behind” (qtd. in Noble 196). This is echoed in the fictional company Rossum, whose plans are certainly for the elite; their application of science and technology will not only leave behind but abuse the rest of humanity. What is really perplexing about this idea is that while some see it Beral’s claim as a threat, others see it as a promise. Individuals such as Reinhardt readily recognize the “threat to our survival” posed by technology (qtd. in Noble 208), while those like Moravec see it as a salvation, with the ability of machines to provide “personal immortality by mind transplant” (qtd. in Noble 162). Many former and current scientists would be greatly impressed and thrilled by the developments of the Rossum Corporation.
In the fictional world of Dollhouse, scientists have gone even further than AI, robotics, and cyborg technology. Here, the mind is not replaced by a machine but enhanced by the use of technology. Modification to the original human mind is a great leap forward, from this scientific perspective, because the mind has a far greater computational power than any designed computer or machine. The ability to program the human mind as one can program a computer seems like a great concept to many of the scientists and employees of Rossum. Through their technological capacity to copy, remove, and replace an individual’s mind, Rossum eventually plans to offer “upgrades,” wherein clients can move their mind from one body to the next. The technology is already being used by some employees of the company. Historically, this echoes the vision of AI specialist Hans Moravec and his prediction of “‘postbiological’ computer based immortality” (Noble 161). He foretold that with this technology and “enough widely dispersed copies, your permanent death would be highly unlikely” (Moravec qtd. in Noble 162). Though this sounds exciting to many in our world and in the Dollhouse, one of the co-creators of Rossum, Clyde Randolph, recognized a problem.
Whenever dolls or employees of Rossum become damaged or pose a threat to the Dollhouse or Rossum, they are sent to the Attic. In the Attic, the individual is placed into a permanent comatose state. The body is completely restricted and the individual is left in a nightmare state, trapped in an endless loop. It is in the Attic (on a secret undercover mission) that Echo meets Clyde, who was placed in the Attic by his partner when he tried to detect possible problems with the use of their technology. Clyde reveals his nightmare loop to Echo: over the fifteen years that he has been in the Attic, he has “run statistical probability scenarios for where the technology [of Rossum] might lead. All but three percent of them include the end of civilization” (“Attic”). As the episodes “Epitaph 1″ and “Epitaph 2″ (the respective season one and season two finales) ultimately reveal, he is not wrong.
Like many that work for the Dollhouse, Topher is completely embedded in the promises of Rossum’s technology. Season 2 reveals that he sleeps on a mattress surrounded by machines in a room connected to his office in the Dollhouse, which he rarely leaves. Ecologist and philosopher David Abram identifies that we currently “participate almost exclusively with other humans and with our own human-made machines” (ix). This is most aptly demonstrated in Topher’s character as he primarily interacts with other employees, dolls, and technology. In the season one episode “Haunted,” Topher even programs a doll to celebrate his birthday with him. He is completely cut off from the outside world and, therefore, from nature. Abram recognizes that our trending technological, human-based modality is “threatening to obliterate the world-of-life entirely” (41). Indeed, that becomes the greatest threat of the Dollhouse, as predicted by Clyde.
Rossum’s technology, which continually develops, falls into the wrong hands, and by the year 2019, wiping and imprinting has happened on a mass scale. The world has fallen into chaos and many people have lost their minds – literally. Echo and her comrades attempted to prevent this fall out, and they are ultimately able to save the world in the heart wrenching finale, but the path is dangerous and destructive. The destructive and frightening ability of the technology clearly supersedes any benefits it may have once presented.
Scientists like the AI guru Earl Cox see technology as a promise that will allow people to “escape the human condition” (qtd. in Noble 164), failing to recognize the greatness of our flawed condition. It is the human condition that allows us to experience the wonder of the world and to treat the world and each other with any sort of kindness. It is not an easy world, but allowing technology to run or replace our race is not the solution. As Joseph Campbell indicates in Pathways to Bliss, “Life is a horrendous presence, and you wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that. The first function of a mythological order has been to reconcile consciousness to this fact” (3). This is clearly something that our modern technological myths lack.
A lack of nature – the physical outdoor world – is apparent throughout Dollhouse. In one poignant moment in season one, this is brought to attention in a brief conversation. When Echo is remotely wiped while on an engagement, and before she has developed any autonomy, she is suddenly in her doll state in the real world. As a result, she becomes clueless and helpless on the heist she was supposed to manage. Noting that they are now going to get caught, a fellow thief comments that they will be sent to prison. Echo innocently asks what prison is, and he replies, “A place with no sky.” This is great commentary on the Dollhouse itself. Embedded in technology in the depths of the ground without windows, sunshine, or fresh air, the characters in Dollhouse face the same trauma that Glendinning identifies in her essay “Technology, Trauma, and the Wild”: “The trauma endured by technological people like ourselves is the systemic and systematic removal of our lives from the natural world: from the tendrils of earthy textures, from the rhythms of sun and moon, from the spirits of the bears and trees, from the life force itself” (Glendinning 51). The Dollhouse shows us what happens when technology essentially possesses the mind and attempts to delete the natural, needed exposure to nature.
In my life, I have found nature to the most grounding element in my life. At times of stress or worry, the best thing that I can do is spend time outside, especially at the beach. As far back as I can remember, I have felt at peace and in balance when I am staring into the open ocean. Sitting on the sand and watching the tide flow in and out awakens my rhythm with nature. It reminds me of everything essential, natural, and important. I love that the ocean (not the beach front around it) is not run by mankind. We do not move the shore line or orchestrate the ocean waves. This is nature at its finest. When I cannot get to the beach, and I feel stress, I will literally stop what I am doing, go outside, and simply get some fresh air. Stopping, breathing, feeling the nature of the air, examining the sky, and hearing the birds is deeply refreshing. I really got a feel for how important this connection with nature is when I worked in an office building that had no windows. Some days I would literally run down the stairs to get outside on my breaks or at the end of my shift. Even four hours of complete indoor isolation is damaging to the psyche. The absence of nature in Dollhouse reminds me of that windowless office.
Dollhouse addresses many concerns about technology and humanity, including many secondary storylines that extend beyond the scope of this paper. Essentially, the series serves as a great warning, signaling what catastrophic possibilities may indeed lay before us if we continue on our speedy, developmental path with technology. As Slater indicates in his “Cyborgian Drift” essay, “resistance is not futile.” Our path does not have to end in destruction, and our way to salvation is not the negation of technology. However, as Dollhouse emphasizes, the important questions must be asked sooner rather than later. In her essay, Glendinning asks us to ask all the right questions: “What is the essence of modern technology? How does it structure our lives? Our perceptions? Our politics? How does it shape our psyches? What does it say about our relationship to our humanness and to the Earth?” (42). It is our responsibility to explore and answer these questions in a manner that honestly honors our nature and our psyches, as well as the earth and its nature. If we ignore these questions now, we just may pass the point of no return.
Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-human World. New York: Pantheon, 1996. Print.
“The Attic.” Dollhouse. Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon. Fox. 18 Dec. 2009. Twentieth Century Fox, 2010. DVD.
Berry, Patricia. Echo’s Subtle Body: Contributions to an Archetypal Psychology. Dallas: Spring Publications. 1982. Print.
Campbell, Joseph. Pathways to Bliss. Novato: New World, 2004.
Casey, Edward S. Remembering: A Phenomenological Study. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2000. Print.
“Epitaph 1.” Dollhouse. Joss Whedon. Fox. Unaired. Twentieth Century Fox, 2009. DVD.
Glendinning, Chellis. “Technology, Trauma, and the Wild.” Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind. Ed. Theodore Roszak, Mary E. Gomes, and Allen D. Kanner. San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1995. 41-54. Print.
“Gray Hour.” Dollhouse. Writ. Sarah Faine and Elizabeth Craft. Fox. 6 Mar. 2009. Twentieth Century Fox, 2009. DVD.
“The Hollow Men” Dollhouse. Writ. Michele Fazekas, Tara Butters, and Tracy Bellomo. Fox. 15 Jan. 2010. Twentieth Century Fox, 2010. DVD.
“Instinct.” Dollhouse. Writ. Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters. Fox. 2 Oct. 2009. Twentieth Century Fox, 2010. DVD.
Jung, C. G. The Earth Has a Soul: The Nature Writings of C.G. Jung. Ed. Meredith Sabini. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic, 2002. Print.
Noble, David F. The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1997. Print.
“Omega.” Dollhouse. Writ. Tim Minear. Fox. 8 May 2009. Twentieth Century Fox, 2009. DVD.
Roszak, Theodore. The Voice of the Earth. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. Print.
Slater, Glen. “CYBORGIAN DRIFT: RESISTANCE IS NOT FUTILE.” Psyche & Nature. Vol. 75. New Orleans, LA: Spring: A Journal of Archetype and Culture, 2006. 171-95. Print.
Slattery, Dennis. The Wounded Body: Remembering the Markings of Flesh. Albany: State University of New York, 2000. Print.
“A Spy in the House of Love.” Dollhouse. Writ. Andrew Chambliss. Fox. 10 Apr. 2009. Twentieth Century Fox, 2009. DVD.
Whedon, Joss. Writ. “Man on the Streets.” Dollhouse. Audio Commentary. Twentieth Century Fox, 2009. DVD