In Search of the Corporeal: Westworld and the Meaning of Corpses

(photo of Westworld hosts Maeve and Clementine via Slate – by John P. Johnson/HBO)

Last night I finished binge-watching Westworld. I’ve been captivated by the series and the questions it raises about what it means to be human. The line, it seems, is very thin, in terms of self-realization, and the capacity to empathize and feel pain; the AIs (called hosts) in Westworld are scarily life-like. But when it comes down to it, one of the most stark differences between a human and a host is death: a human cannot come back online once it dies.

Regardless of this fact, as the series progresses, you watch humans shed their ability to discern between a human and a host. They develop connections with hosts that are as genuine and intimate as human connections, even though underneath the host is a skeleton of metal and wires and a computer instead of a brain. But it is precisely the human-like exterior that allows humans to treat the hosts like one of their own; this is probably seen best, initially, in the way humans are so quick to have sex with the hosts. Their exterior just seem so real. It takes them a little longer, however, to break through their benign, pre-programmed identities.

In a scene later in the season, Logan cuts (host) Delores open to reveal her robotic interior to (human) William in an attempt to shock him out of his love for her; he tries to remind William that Delores is not real. It was in this scene that I began to think of the connection between these human-like AIs and human corpses. Neither are conscious; neither are human, and yet we view them as such: we regard them (or should regard them, I should say) in way that we would treat a fellow living human. Those that mistreat the hosts in Westworld, such as Logan, are seen as exhibiting evil, and this is because the hosts, like human corpses, serve as reminders of our humanity.

In Westworld, hosts symbolize the best – and often the very worst – of our humanity. Because of their capacity to suffer, abusing a host is akin to abusing a human; hosts physically represent what it means to be human. And while human corpses cannot feel pain, they physically symbolize the living person who once used to occupy them. As Thomas Lacquer argues in The Work of the Dead, dead bodies are the last corporeal metaphor we have for a person lost. While the dead body is not a person,  it served as the vessel that once held that person. Even the hosts in Westworld are not immune to this corporeal metaphor, demonstrated by the way Maeve regards the lobotimized/decommissioned Clementine: she kisses her grey, ‘lifeless’ body before attempting to make her escape.

To dishonor a dead body is to dishonor the memory of the person once living, and this is why we humans cling to – and revere – our dead. Someone who mutilates the dead is seen as someone inhuman. Lacquer’s thesis in The Work of the Dead is essentially this: the way we treat our dead reveals our humanity and is at the core of our culture. The same can be said for the way humans treat the hosts in Westworld – the humans’ actions toward the hosts reveal our capacity for evil, for goodness, for empathy… and it is only when the hosts begin to exhibit the full spectrum of human capability in all of its glory and all of its horror that they become truly life-like.

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