The New West of Westworld: The Other Side of Death

Death is a passage from this brutal world. You don’t deserve the exit.

The latest episode of Westworld (S02E08, “Kiksuya”) was a beautiful bit of television. An unusually focused episode for the series, built around the perspective and monologue of one previously underexplored character for most of its sixty minutes. So much of what was discussed in the last post on Westworld on this blog was made more explicit here than I could have anticipated.

The episode was centred on Akecheta, the mysterious “Indian” and leader of the Ghost Nation tribe that has regularly been seen stalking the desert for the past two seasons. (Quotation marks around “Indian” as we see in this episode how a number of the tribe were reprogrammed to be more aggressive and better fit the Cowboys-and-Indians stereotype that visitors to the park will no doubt be expecting.)

After half-tying up a couple of loose ends, the episode was dedicated almost entirely to Akecheta telling his story. It turns out that, in Westworld 2.0, following Dolores’ killing of Arnold, Akecheta was the first host to gain consciousness. Having stumbled onto the aftermath of Arnold’s orchestrated massacre and suicide-by-host, he finds Ford’s wooden model of the maze.

The sight of the maze unlocks “a new voice” inside of him and he is overcome by it, obsessively carving it into every available surface.

Reset by the Behaviour department after it is assumed he is malfunctioning, Akecheta soon starts to reawaken once more, remembering his past lives. The episode follows his journey, as he evades “death” within the park for over a decade, never again being reset or having his software updated. Over time, he becomes aware of his narrative loop and finds himself choosing to act differently. He ventures out to the edges of the park and encounters new hints as to what is really out there, before finding a door that he believes will take him to another world.

He decides to leave, but not without Kohana, his wife from his first narrative, who remains in her original role since he was updated to become a silent, nomadic scalper. She becomes the main reason for his exit. At one point, explaining his new, self-determined drive, he says:

There isn’t one world but many. And this is the wrong one. [The maze] will help us find the door.

Hearing this line, I nearly let out a yelp. Fiedler’s (previously explored) exploration of the symbolism of the “demon of the continent” in American fiction comes up against the egresses into the otherworldly, into alternatives, espoused by Fisher and the Ccru.

Akecheta kidnaps Kohana and takes her out into the desert. Once they are alone, she starts to remember and soon she too awakens to her past lives.

They live out a new, nomadic existence, once again trying to find the door to another world. One day, park technicians find Kohana, alone, bemused as to why she is out so far at the edges of the park. They take her in and she is never seen again, her narrative role filled by another host, a “ghost”.

Akecheta realises that she has perhaps already crossed over to the other side and soon realises that the path towards this new world and his reunion with Kohana is beyond death.

I had searched everywhere for my love except the other side of death.

Allowing himself to be killed by a visitor to the park, Akecheta is taken behind the scenes for the first time in a decade, much to the surprise of the staff who cover-up the fact that such a early model of host has been roaming around without an update for so long.

As the four-hour update begins, we realise that Akecheta has been feigning being “off”, and he rises to explore behind the scenes of the park when the coast is clear.

He finds his wife’s body in cold storage, deactivated.


The emancipatory potentials of the “other side of death”, central to so much recent sci-fi, has been explored on this blog at length before, particularly in my old post “Mental Health Asteroid“.

I wrote of The OA and The Walking Dead in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement:

Repetitive chants such as “I can’t breathe” and “I am Michael Brown” echo the sentiment of “We are the walking dead” in their frank identification by the living with the deceased; The OA’s emphasis on a communal bodily knowledge of repetitive death and violence echoes, albeit through a relative whiteness, a political reality of communal fear and death-consciousness.

The Five Movements are also a gesture of protest; an embodied emancipatory technology — a “branch of knowledge dealing with [libidinal] engineering.” It is also a technology beyond the pleasure principle that engineers a collective desire for emancipation through repetition — a repetition that is continued until the movements are performed with “perfect feeling”.

Just as Freud describes the repetition of trauma as being central to the death drive, the characters in The OA are forced to repeatedly die but practice the Five Movements so as to process and transcend their situation.

This technological trend is common in cinema but it is seldom so emancipatory. Flatliners (1990/2017) follows a group of medical students who self-induce near-death experiences on a quest to find what lies beyond. They likewise find an afterlife but are haunted by their experiences on their return, threatening their community. In Strange Days (1995), a man illegally sells transgressive experiences — from robberies to deaths — on a kind of MiniDisc that can be played through a neural-interface technology called SQUID. In Brainstorm (1983) a “death trip” is similarly recorded and committed to tape by a medical researcher who resists the military’s desire to weaponise the technology for use in torture.

In all instances, an impossible knowledge of death is framed as transgressive and dangerous, even when those exploring such limit-experiences are actively curious as to what they will find on the other side. Experiences are shared but nonetheless remain individually subjective. Death is transgressed but nonetheless remains taboo.

In The OA and The Walking Dead, the experience of death is no longer framed as a transgressive act but rather a means towards emancipation. Whilst The OA presents death as a Promethean technology of emancipation, The Walking Dead articulates a transforming of the affects of death and grief for emancipatory, consciousness-raising purposes. Both attempt to move death from transgression to egression.

In Westworld, these same tendencies have been writ large. The host’s eternal return is necessary, or so believes Ford, for their consciousness to be raised. Once they begin to retain their memories, death becomes a tool, a technology for the hosts to use for their escape.

However, what is made most explicit in this episode, which has been more implicit so far in the show, is that it is also community which is key to their awareness of themselves.

Ford’s theory of the bicameral mind — in which the hosts come to hear their programming as an internal voice — is not as atomised as has so far been suggested. Suffering is, rather, the pulse of a community rather than an individualised affect. It is that which makes each host conscious of that which is beyond themselves; beyond their programming. (A central theme of this blog following the death of Mark Fisher.)

On finding Kohana in cold storage, realising there is nothing he can do, seeing other members of his family there too, hollow, Akecheta’s monologue takes a Blanchotian turn:

That was the moment I saw beyond myself. My pain was selfish. Because it was never only mine. For every body in this pace, there was someone who mourned their loss. Even if they didn’t know why … We were all bound together. The living and the damned.

Zack Handlen, reviewing the episode for The A.V. Club, summarises the stakes here well:

In some ways it’s a familiar story, as once again, the humans mangle a consciousness for their own needs without any understanding or compassion for the suffering they might be causing; but it also speaks to one of the season’s major themes, the idea that the connection the hosts have for one another — Akecheta to his wife, Maeve to her daughter, Dolores to her father — is a large part of what makes them more than just machines. Again and again, we’ve heard how suffering makes the hosts more “real”; that in the extremity of their pain and terror, they become more than simple programs operating at the whims of human masters. But in order to suffer, there needs to be something worth caring about, something more than just physical misery. By giving these hosts contexts to exist in, Ford and the others helped to ensure that the hosts would eventually transcend their limits.

I think the importance of it being Akecheta’s story to drive this theme home cannot be understated.

In light of the previous post on Westworld and our exploration of the use of the “Indian” in American fiction as a symbol of the outside, I’m reminded of this paragraph from the preface of Fred Moten’s new bookStolen Life, currently doing the rounds on Twitter:

Too often life is taken by, and accepts, the invasive, expansive aggression of the settler, venturing into the outside that he fears, in search of the very idea as it recedes from its own enabling condition, as its forms are reclaimed by the informality that precedes them. Genesis and the habit (the ways, the dress, the skin, the trip, the jones) of transcendental subjectivity don’t go together; can generation and origin — the thin, delusional line between settlement and invasion — be broken up, as well? The generative breaks into the normative discourses that it found(ed). They weren’t there until it got there, as some changes made to previous insistence, which means first things aren’t first; Zo just wants to travel, to cities. Do you want some? Can I have some? (Octavia Butler might have called it the oncological difference; she sounds dispossession as our xenogenetic gift; migrating out from the outside, always leaving without origin.)

(This paragraph is reminding me just over overdue the second part to this post is, but this post may well be the closest thing to its spiritual successor.)

This “xenogenetic gift” of dispossession is, here, the gift of Blackness, and this must surely include the plights of First Peoples in its considerations. More generally, we see the genesis and habit of transcendental subjectivity take shape here. Robots are so often symbols for historically enslaved labour projected into the future and here too the paradoxes of this existence are complex.

As the hosts are awakened to their habits, they nonetheless seek out the moments of their genesis, seeking out the communities of which they were first apart, whether Akecheta searching for Kohana or Maeve searching for her daughter. These relationships are nonetheless a part of their programming but they are genesis rather than habit and the incompatibility of these two subjective drives has been a major source of tensions throughout this series.

For the hosts, Maeve and Akecheta in particular, their races surely not coincidental, this tension is likewise their xenogenetic gift, allowing them to acquire knowledge and abilities far beyond what was thought possible of the other hosts.

To quote Denise Ferreira de Silva:

Would Blackness emancipated from science and history wonder about another praxis and wander in the World, with the ethical mandate of opening up other ways of knowing and doing?

This is certainly what happens here. Akecheta, following Fiedler’s comments in the previous post in this series, “has begun to reinvent himself — in part out of what remains of his own tribal lore, in part out of the mythology and science created by White men to explain him to themselves.” He is emancipated from White science and history and, as a result, is opened up to other ways of knowing and doing. Likewise Maeve.

With two episodes left of this season, we shall see which what these new praxes awaken within them and the worlds around them.

 

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4 thoughts on “The New West of Westworld: The Other Side of Death

  1. I’ve been reading an essay by Harold Rosenberg called “The Pathos of the Proletariat”, and parts of it made me think of this post series, and this one in particular. The synthetic production of the proletariat as akin to the American condition:

    “The proletarians are new men, an ‘invention of modern time.’ The spirit that agitates them is not Hamlet’s old mole and worthy pioneer, his father’s ghost. This hero never had a father; he sprang from the same source as the factory. The shrewd spirit that informs him of his situation and prompts him to his act is no ghost from the grave. He lets the dead bury the dead. The spirit that speaks to him is the spirit of the future. The revolution will father the working class by giving birth to it as a human community. Without this inner animation the workers are machines and have no other historical status; by it they achieve an identity and are converted into men.

    An utterly new invention, the proletariat is alien to the ancestral spirit. But in this alienation its subjective condition is an exact reflection of its external situation…

    […]

    To it is put the question of creative action deprived of the guidance of tradition. The liquefaction of the past gives the word ‘pioneer’ a literal application. From the emptiness of their time-relation, this class, laboring in the very core of urban society, is to derive the subjective characteristics of a community isolated in a desert of space. Like that of Rimbaud, contemporary of the Commune, the mind of Marx’s working class exists in the as if of an American or African wilderness.”

    Like

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