Anomalisa, or The Effort of Recognition
In Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa, a subjective mode of perception is expressed by a technological procedure. The film’s protagonist, Michael Stone, perceives other human beings as all sharing the very same generic face and voice — something that could only be depicted by having the very same puppet’s face 3D printed over and over again and by using one voice actor for a variety of characters. This interconnectedness of technology and social interaction is remarkable, and we might be inclined to ask if the technology that expresses the alienation is not the very same that caused it. But let us not take the easy road and add another footnote to the vast literature blaming technology for human alienation, for this is not the problem the movie poses. The leading question of Anomalisa is rather: Is individuation more than structural uniqueness? Or, in other words, is there another criterion for individuality than difference?
So many well-worn paths are opening up before us that we can’t help but feel dizzy. Let us try to avoid the weight of tradition by keeping close to the case at hand, which is the one of protagonist Michael Stone. Indeed, if it is really a case, then we might ask ourselves: Is Michael Stone guilty? And guilty of what? Against whom? Will we dare say that he is guilty against humanity — or maybe rather just against Lisa Hesselman, the eponymous Anomalisa, whom he threw away after seducing her with his fame? Let us stay humble and refrain from accusations of inhumanity; what Michael Stone is primarily guilty of is involving Lisa in a private battle. His love was not his first true outburst of emotion, as he tries to frame it, it was an act of desperation that, as with Kierkegaard’s demonic, can’t help but ooze out of the shuttered soul.
Michael doesn’t have the ability to recognize people, just as he couldn’t recognize his former lover in the bar, whose farewell letter he held so melancholically in the airplane. A sharp distinction needs to be made between recognition and distinguishing. For Michael does in fact distinguish people: he distinguishes the taxi driver, the porter, the waitress; he is able to interact with them. Distinction aims at properties, the type, the genus people participate in, in virtue of their social and pragmatic duties; it attributes roles. Successfully distinguishing a person’s role allows us to fulfill the goal of a given interaction (like paying a taxi driver) and to show that we are functioning members of society. But if we say that Michael fails to recognize people, this means that he’s completely ignorant of the individual that assumes said role, of that vague something that we mundanely and intuitively refer to when we say that “everyone’s one of a kind.” In short, he is not able to encounter them. But is Michael simply inept (psychologically flawed), or are we being naïve in assuming that the ‘individual’ is such a self-evident category? With no difficulty we are able to distinguish the interaction with a salesman in a supermarket from the encounter with a close friend. And yet, how can we be sure that the second one is not just a version of the first? Is having friends not just as much a social function as taking a taxi? Is the pleasure of a conversation not comparable to the pleasure of an ice cream on a hot day? The difficulty to categorically differentiate ourselves and our daily interactions from Michael renders the notion of the individual problematic.
So we return to the original question: Is Michael guilty, guilty of not being able to recognize the people he is meeting — or, and hereby the simple psychological flaw gains socio-political weight, are we guilty of pretending to be better than him? It is this question that prevents Anomalisa from becoming a comedy, which renders the seemingly comical effect of having female characters being voiced by a man into an unsettling viewing experience. We realize that we’re not that different. So, let us tackle this question by having a closer look at the case at hand, Michael, and then see what an actual encounter, what real recognition might look like.
We’ve already observed that Michael is able to distinguish people. This means that he remains within a functional context, in as much as the interlocutors only meet in virtue of their functions (waitress-client, porter-guest, taxi driver-passenger) and within an economical context, in as much as there’s always a goal with a well-attributed value: the porter brings the bags to the room and gets a tip, the taxi driver gets his fare, the drinks get paid. Negatively we could derive the elements of true encounter from that; it would need to be essentially non-functional and non-economical. That doesn’t mean that we can’t derive pleasure from meeting friends or that we can’t gain from it by exchanging knowledge or gossip, but, to indicate something ‘deeper’, these can only be understood as a secondary side-effect.
The question arises: Does Anomalisa show us such a real encounter at any point? We might be quick to point to the affair of Lisa and Michael as an obvious suspect. Indeed, only Lisa keeps her true face and voice in Michael’s world — but, alas, only for a short while. This failure is the clearest sign that it was never a real encounter. It was utterly unstable, like Constantius’, Kierkegaard’s alias in Repetition, sudden and unexpected day of joy, which ends because of an irritating eyelash. And it is also Michael’s irritated reaction against Lisa’s whims, her use of a stereotypical sentence that brings us to the heart of the problem. For it is his constant irritability with people — an irritability that is transferred to the viewer as well, and hence also works as a technique of focalization — that is a sign for how his intersubjective experiences remain in the outward (functional, economic), instead of becoming, as one might say, encounters soul to soul — inward, intimate. Michael gets impatient when the people around him try to go beyond the functional with meaningless chatter. Meaningless and useless, sure, but a chatter which gives the conversation a flair of the humane. We get impatient with a person that tells us a story because we are pressing them to ‘get to the point’ — but maybe the true reason for the digressions is that our conversation partner wants us to participate in her life. Patience, understood in that way, stands apart from ‘waiting to receive certain information’ and needs to be understood as a fundamental precondition to allow the individual to become visible.
Michael’s one night stand, as sensual as it was, remained impersonal. The unsettling effect of that scene on the viewer was undoubtedly intended, a sign for its lack of intimacy. The important thing is to note that requirements for it were missing from both sides. First of all, a real encounter couldn’t occur, because Lisa was seduced by Michael’s fame, not his individuality; she fell for him because she admired him as a once unreachable star. Once we step out of Michael’s perspective, in which he’s in love with the only unique being of the world, we easily see that the shy and unpopular Lisa — as well as her “usually more popular” companion Emily — is enchanted by the attention of a man she admires so much, that she went on a road trip and booked a hotel just to hear him speak, even though she could barely afford it. It was all but an affair among equals. The conditions for a real encounter weren’t fulfilled from Lisa’s side, but, and here’s the second issue, not from Michael’s side either. Even though we might believe him for a minute when he speaks of “the floodgates being open” after meeting Lisa, it becomes painfully obvious by the end of the movie, that the whole ‘encounter’ occurred on a private battlefield. Even this gesture of hope to open up to the outside failed. Michael is indeed a classic example of Kierkegaard’s demonic, who communicates without really wanting to, but who remains sealed within.
It is indeed a battlefield, because throughout the movie, particularly in his dream, it becomes more and more obvious that Michael is suffering from his condition and is trying to fight it. He is, one could say, struggling with himself, or, rather, with his own desperation. His writing consultation books for customer service was maybe an attempt to resolve it. With Freud one might speak of repression and sublimation; but let’s not step too far into theory here. Rather, this outward gesture of therapeutic expertise can be seen as testifying to the inner struggle, the gnawing urge to understand the other, to get through to the individual. Why does that fail? Because the therapeutic mode creates a distance that is also hierarchical (as in: doctor-patient) — another movie that also dealt with the failure of trying to therapeutically understand another human being was, by the way, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist. Michael tries to understand, he contemplates about the other and ends up writing about the most impersonal and maybe even most dreaded type of human communication: customer service. He remains in the observer’s position and acquires the impression of superiority that accompanies that — we’ll deal with his narcissism in a second. In any case, the method Michael has decided to use to deal with his issue has only increased his distance from other people. And yet, we need to understand, that ‘decreasing’ said distance, as the seemingly obvious solution to the problem, is no less an effort than the diligent study of human interaction.
Understanding individuation as an effort is a major aspect of Henri Bergson’s philosophy. Borrowing from William James’ pragmatism as much as from insights of evolutionary biology, Bergson understood that to live is to act and that our interactions with the outside world, as nature intended it, is inherently to be practical. But just as the wolf doesn’t distinguish between kid and lamb, in general, we don’t distinguish individual lambs either (see his essays about Laughter). In other words, we generally remain in the ‘general’. To recognize an individual, on the other hand, is an effort, a continuous effort even, as we always have the penchant to fall back to the functional generality. But the more we put in the effort of individuation, the closer we are getting to the ‘true’ nature of things, as Bergson considered every moment, every being, every true inner sentiment to be unique and irreplaceable (he used the beautiful term nuance to express that) — and while not everyone might be willing to go that far, we will surely appreciate this valuable insight when it comes to understanding the true encounter. What we gain from it in particular, is the understanding that we can’t blame Michael for lacking something, like empathy, but rather for not willing to raise a certain effort, to traverse the distance that stretches between two people. This effort, that breaks through all hierarchies, is categorically different from a diligence that flatters the studious “expert on people” with a false sense of self-worth.
When we look at Michael’s own self, we can’t help but witness his deep narcissism; and, like any narcissist, he covers his lack of selfhood with overly colourful feathers. Besides his perpetual noli me tangere attitude, there are two scenes that particularly play into this theme: the gaze into the mirror and Michael’s nightmare. It is crucial that his panic attack, from which he is wrested by Lisa’s voice, is initiated by a look into the mirror and that it is his mechanical being that comes to light in its dollish convulsions and the peeling-off of the 3D printed mask (the image that opens this article). While he, as the protagonist of his own world, is the only unique being, he is, just like the others, a mechanical puppet. He does not transcend the others on a material level; he stands apart, yes, but only on the outside, only by appearance, and, in the end, only in virtue of him being the protagonist of his own story. His ego is founded on distinction, but it cannot stand apart from the purely basal difference that diversifies each being by default. With this in mind, we can see that his narcissistic selfhood only appertains to a false transcendence — false because he considered himself higher than the others instead of recognizing the transcendence in others. His poise is only built on the admiration of others, a purely outward criterion, and it is this fragile foundation that his narcissist self inflates unlimitedly, as expressed in Michael’s nightmare, the second scene to be considered.
In this dream, Michael flees from everyone else, all the people of the world who want to express and realize their love to him. In fleeing, his dreaming self drags a confused Lisa along with him and they hide in his own hotel room. Instead of stepping outside of himself and approaching Lisa, this dreamful abduction reveals something that we can only repeat — namely, that the whole affair was only Michael’s own private battlefield where Lisa is only dragged on because she offered the opportunity. It is this skewed perspective of a self-centeredness, a mania that is similarly treated in the Truman Show, where the self escapes a bubble, a world that only turned around it and because of it. In its narcissism, the self seeks the validation of the outside world and seeks distinction to merit appreciation by it, but it ends up running around in circles, unable to escape its own territory. Kierkegaard says that one can only own the world by being owned by it and in a certain way, Michael expresses that perfectly.
We could say, looking back at the initial question of this essay, that Michael’s whole problem consists of him chaining individuation to difference. He individuates Lisa because she’s an anomaly — and that’s also how she perceives herself, notably in virtue of Michael’s book. Her distinct voice and face (the scar, the red streak) are distinctions of outward appearance, not different from Michael’s intellectual merit. But these impressions fade quickly and the singularity of the event blurs into the haze of the commonplace: Anomalisa becomes like the others once she repeats stereotyped phrases, once her bad habits bring back Michael’s irritability. Individuation by difference is an inherently unstable category. Once again, we can negatively point to the elements a true encounter needs to display — namely continuity and inwardness, both as an inward continuity and a continuous inwardness. The first refers to what we ordinarily call the unconditional element of love, an overly romantic cliché maybe, but the awareness of which and the aspiration to which gives us at least a feeble hope to escape the disappointments of the ordinary — an idea of love that shouldn’t be reduced to romantic relations. However this unconditional nature is to be understood, we can clearly see that Michael is very far from it, as he immediately starts controlling Lisa after they start making plans together, setting conditions and trying to change her habits. The second, continuous inwardness, refers once again to Michael’s impatience and suddenness, like when he left his former girlfriend, Bella, who is estranged by his sudden departure (running in circles, he is bound to repeat himself endlessly, we can only assume that Bella once appeared to him as an anomaly as well). Unable to acquire a true inner self that is neither defined by, nor dependent on outward distinctions by status, wealth, or education, he is equally unable to create anything lasting. For how should someone, who doesn’t manage to become continuous, build a relationship that is more continuous than himself? It is this aspiration that Kierkegaard talked about when he talked about becoming a self, so it is to no surprise that suddenness is yet another sign of the demonic character. But how else would we recognize people if not by differentiating them?
It is clear that if we look back at the whole problematic at hand, that the answer to this question is multi-faceted. It concerns first of all the relation of the individual to itself, and second the relation of the individual to others. A true encounter would need to express itself with patience; and to understand the other as an individual, to recognize them, would first of all condition an overcoming of one’s own narcissism, so it would need to express itself with some sort of humility. But most importantly, we’d need to remember that a true encounter between individuals is a continuous effort from all participants, an effort for the concretization of the other, against the penchant of abstraction to functional roles and economic goals. In fact, it is by concretization that another being becomes ‘more than it is’, more than just the bag of flesh and bones that is standing in front of us, while abstraction is a reductive process, namely to traits and roles, classes, and genera. The concrete is that which is transcendent in an individual, while the abstract is the immanent, as it reifies the counterpart, reduces him to the functional role he is to fulfill for one’s needs. Furthermore, accordingly, recognition cannot be extended to a method, not bound to general criteria (as in self-help books like How to Win Friends and Influence People), but is an effort that needs to be exercised over and over again, in every encounter anew. This means that individuality and inwardness cannot be understood as givens, but as something that needs to be acquired in a patient process of subject formation.
The potential for such a patient effort can be seen shortly in the final frames, where we see the two travelers, Lisa and her friend, with their ‘true’ faces, finally freed from Michael’s desperation.