In Traces: The Human and Posthuman in 2001: A Space Odyssey

In itself, the term “posthuman” publicly pays its respects to that which it moves past – the human. As is implied, the posthuman will often hold valuably many qualities of the human that precedes it. Stanley Kubrick’s multiple visions of the posthuman in his landmark 1968 science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey do just this. In all of the film’s masterful ambiguity, we are still provided with clear presentations of the story’s higher beings and posthuman entities, including their more traditional human qualities that have carried over with them in their respective extensions of the human. In closely observing the film’s story and presentation of the posthuman along side a number of established writers and their original essays, namely Friedrich Nietzsche, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattarri, and Katherine Hayles, we gain insight toward just what exactly Stanley Kubrick was theorizing in 2001. Each form of higher consciousness and the posthuman in 2001: A Space Odyssey is individually haunted by traces of the human in which it has apparently moved past; this makes the statement that there is no form of the posthuman that can exist without possessing qualities of the principal human from which it stems from.

Kubrick’s film begins with an approximately 20 minute-long sequence in which a troop of apes is led toward human evolution by the external aid of our first entity of higher consciousness, the supposedly extraterrestrial monolith. The monoliths play a central role in all 3 sections of the film, and we are introduced to the concept of them in a God-like manner. Upon awakening to find a monolith firmly planted in the ground in front of them, this troop of apes is drawn to the black figure as the members slowly dare to touch it. Soon after, we see one of the apes realizing the potential and benefits of using bones as weapons, using one from a carcass in the form of a club. The group catches on, and the troop hunts with their newly discovered tools, enjoying carnivorous meals and even fighting away another troop who previously took possession of their watering hole. What is immediately interesting in all of this when watching the film is the way in which the monolith is presented. In this, we see our first trace of the human revealing itself in an entity of higher, more-than-human consciousness. The audio that pairs with the presence of the monoliths, specifically when they are “operating” and in the company of human beings, comes in the form of eerie, high-pitched human voices singing in an operatic manner. The sound that these voices produce when brought together seems to evoke a form of dread and human discomfort, and yet what the monolith is effectively doing is furthering human evolution. Kubrick, a perfectionist, undoubtedly put much time and deliberation into how he wanted his monolithic beings to sound. The choice to pair their appearances and operations with natural, human voices suggests the notion that there are no higher beings, extraterrestrial or not, that exist without ties to the human. Visually, we see the monoliths presented in a brilliant manner, with an early shot that sees the monolith superimposed above the viewer (as well as the apes), looking down upon them while pointing up toward the heavens, specifically to our Moon in which the next monolith is discovered. In this view, the monolith appears as a God-like figure. Further in the film, humans have trouble deciphering what the monolith is and what it does/means – the apes here do not stand a chance in understanding what they have been presented with. And yet, they do not need to; they still reap its rewards, benefitting from its presence.

In aiding the species towards evolution, it is important to understand that the monolith drives the human into a state of becoming. In this regard, we can turn to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s text “A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia” to better grasp what this means. Together, they suggest that when things are viewed from an expanding middle, rather than from a beginning or end, they become incomprehensible. The human, thanks to the monolith in this case, has been launched into an expanding middle. It has been ever so slowly evolving, and this entity of higher consciousness has launched this process forward with great momentum. Deleuze and Guattari write, “It’s not easy to see things in the middle, rather than looking down on them from above or up at them from below, or from left to right or right to left…” (1380). The monolith essentially sends these beings into a middle – into a state of becoming. This is the case in the Dawn of Man, where our ancestral apes discover the use of tools and weapons to aid them, in part, toward civilization and the human race. The same is done in the end of 2001 in a manner that cannot be so easily explained, though it operates on the same basis. This will be further addressed when examining later sections of the film. What is important, again, is the audio in which Kubrick presents this monolith’s power with. It is as if a higher form of a human voice compels these apes toward their evolutionary future. We later see this recur on the Moon when the monolith sends its message towards Jupiter. Deleuze and Guattari’s take on this state of becoming into which these animals are thrown says that they become difficult to know. When a consciousness is in the process of becoming, it cannot be pinned down. They elaborate on this idea in their conclusion where they advise the reader to “Run lines, never plot a point! Speed turns the point into a line! Be quick, even when standing still!” (1382). Assuredly, even when standing still, the characters in the film are being quick. They are constantly moving and evolving toward what comes next, and what 2001 does is lay out, in a step by step process, the images of what these next forms of being are. Whenever the entities that bring this about are presented, traces of the human are on display as well.

What is also important to mention when observing the first section of the film (Dawn of Man) is that there is no dialogue at any point of this introductory sequence. At first glance this may seem inconsequential, as the apes are obviously unable to form any complex verbal language. Though when thinking of this from a directorial standpoint, it again becomes Kubrick’s strategic decision not to provide us with any narration or upfront explanation as to what is going on in these early scenes. What he could be implying here is the notion that language itself is something unnecessary, something false. When reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s essay “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense” we are presented with a similar view – that our common use of language is actually a false metaphor. He writes, “…the contrast between truth and lying comes into existence here for the first time: the liar uses the valid tokens of designation – words – to make the unreal appear to be real” (754). Nietzsche’s description of language as something that turns us all into “liars” can imply that those who do not yet use it, the troop of apes for example, are the ones that are truthful. And if the apes are ones that do not yet use language, then the monoliths are entities that have already used it – and moved past it. They no longer require language as such, as it does not benefit them. The monoliths are the supposed masters of evolution, voluntarily aiding other species toward it, and they themselves have evolved past the common use of words. The only form that we have resembling language here is the sound of the monolith, the overwhelming chorus. Perhaps Kubrick shared Nietzsche’s opinions on the topic and chose to apply them in this first section of the film. It cannot be fully escaped though, as the human voice haunts the monolith’s actions when commanding the apes. The Dawn of Man brilliantly introduces us to the themes of the film, dealing with our Earthly beings’ relationships with and use of technology. Just as the monolith does, it points and carries us toward what is to come in “Jupiter Mission”, where we meet our next higher being, a cyborgian form of the posthuman.

In the second section of the film, Jupiter Mission, Kubrick jumps thousands of years into the future where we meet the astronauts who carry out the title mission with the aid of HAL 9000, short for Heuristically Programmed Algorithmic Computer. The match cut shot that the director uses to transition into this new section puts the early apes’ bone weapons on a parallel with our advanced human spacecrafts, reminding us that we come from them, and similarly suggesting that we’re more alike with them than we might think. HAL 9000 is a supercomputer programmed with the voice of a male human. HAL states that he is incapable of error, having a “perfect operational record”, and the fact that he is heuristic in nature means that he is capable of discovering and learning things for himself. In being incapable of error, it can be said that HAL possesses knowledge of all objective facts known by humans. The computer has full control of all of the Discovery One spacecraft’s systems, and is thus given ultimate power in the crew’s outer space environment. The film is moved forward when HAL proves faulty and in error of his diagnosis of a satellite failure that requires replacing. In turn, the human crew becomes skeptical of HAL, and discusses the idea of disconnecting him in order to prevent any hostile behavior that would jeopardize the mission as well as their safety. It is through HAL’s learning of this that he chooses to abuse his power, rationalizing it by telling the crew that their disconnecting of him would itself jeopardize the mission. In Katherine Hayle’s essay, “How We Became Posthuman”, she details her idealistic vision of what the posthuman could be, and we learn more about HAL in the many ways that he differs from her description. She writes: My Dream is a version of the posthuman that embraces the possibilities of information technologies without being seduced by fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality, that recognizes and celebrates finitude as a condition of human being, and that understands human life is embedded in a material world of great complexity, one on which we depend for our continued survival (5). At this point in the film, HAL becomes fearful of his own demise, and turns to this unlimited power and use of information in an attempt to gain the disembodied immortality that Hayles mentions. He kills the humans aboard the ship who are suspended in hibernation, and locks out astronaut Dave who has ventured out to retrieve the body of his crewmember whose necessary life support was severed by HAL.

It is when Dave succeeds over HAL in manually re-entering the spaceship that we see the supercomputer become humanized, revealing the human traces within the posthuman. Kubrick brilliantly stages the physical mind of HAL in which Dave enters with the purpose of disconnecting him, effectively “killing” HAL and putting an end to his consciousness. HAL becomes desperate and begins pleading with Dave to let him live, and for the first time expresses fear. What is important here is the turn in expected emotion that the audience is presented with. Dave is unflinching, serious and sure of what he is doing. HAL, in contrast, is fearful, rambling, and ultimately more human in the scene than Dave. Kubrick plays on our expectations to reveal the humanity in the posthuman figure. Author Joseph Auner speaks of this in his article “‘Sing it for Me’: Posthuman Ventriloquism in Recent Popular Music”. He explains that “…strikingly it is the broken and dying machine that is expressive, not the astronaut, who remains mostly silent, encapsulated in a reflective plastic shell, floating in the blood-red organic space within HAL’s brain” (98). If we view HAL as an extension of the human, as a posthuman, we see that he was actually unable to move past that which he stems from. Even in all of his unlimited access to information and power, he becomes desperate and fearful when that power is taken away. HAL pleads, “Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave… I’m afraid, I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going, I can feel it, I can feel it, my mind is going, there is no question about it” (Kubrick, Clarke). Dave disconnects HAL’s function and memory units one by one, as the computer begs for mercy in a manner that proves his desire for continued consciousness. Kubrick’s decision to portray the computer with heavier emotion than the human confirms the stance that this posthuman is not only able to experience human emotion, but that it must experience these emotions and display human tendencies. HAL is defenseless here and so he pleads for mercy, just as the regular human would.

Another human tendency of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey is displayed through his relationship with truth. Specifically, his relationship with truths that are unpleasant and harmful in their nature. Referring back to Nietzsche’s essay, we see him assert the idea that humans only acknowledge and value truths that benefit them. HAL’s relationship with truth in the film proves to be just the same. Of humans, Nietzsche writes, “They desire the pleasant, life-preserving consequences of truth; they are indifferent to pure knowledge if it has no consequences, but they are actually hostile towards truths which may be harmful and destructive” (754). This notion is wholly applicable to HAL when he is told that he has made an error. In the faulty diagnosis of a satellite failure, mission control lets the Discovery One crew know that their twin 9000 computer proves the fault in HAL’s reading. This truth, as HAL is aware, has dire consequences for him. If unable to be trusted with the control of the spaceship’s status and functions, then it would be inevitable that HAL would be disconnected. This, for the computer, means the end. Just like a human, he does not desire this truth, it proves harmful and destructive to him, and so he refuses to acknowledge it. HAL persists that this must have come as a result of human error. When this does not cut it for the crew, he becomes hostile. In his response to this truth of error we can say with certainty that HAL responded in a way similar to human nature, just as Nietzsche would predict. These human tendencies were not programmed to be part of the HAL 9000 computer, and yet in his heuristic posthuman form, HAL learned them and then exhibited them.

Hal’s demise signals the end of the second section of the movie, and the end of human language in the film as well. Being the only section of the film’s 3 that includes dialogue, Jupiter Mission proves valuable in its portrayal of both human and machine’s relationships with language. Christopher Rowe points this out in his journal article “The Romantic Model of 2001: A Space Odyssey”, he writes: Seen as the apotheosis of rational, logical thought, or of language itself, the HAL 9000’s verbal regression to a state of infancy and eventual silence signals the film’s departure from logocentrism itself; indeed, apart from the prerecorded message from Floyd, the computer’s words are the last spoken in the film (46). As HAL’s pleads are the last words in 2001, they come with a sting of finality. This end of logocentrism that Rowe points out pairs with the death of HAL, and reaffirms to us the idea that the monoliths have moved past language. The monolithic entities possess something more than our language, than our logocentrism. They stand above humans here, as they do throughout the film. Thus, there is no longer the need for language as such, and HAL’s passionate robotic death carries us into Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.

The film’s third and final section, Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite, is the most abstract and ambiguous of 2001: A Space Odyssey. That being said, it is still in this part of the film where we find some finality, and are provided with the story’s ultimate image of the posthuman. After leaving Discovery One to explore a monolith that’s orbiting Jupiter, astronaut Dr. Dave Bowman is pulled into and across vast distances of space inside what has been deemed the Stargate. Bowman experiences bizarre visuals that culminate in distorted and discoloured landscapes that appear uncanny to the viewer in that they resemble Earth’s natural landscapes, yet they are strange and different. Kubrick presents us with these visuals without description or language – the visual shots themselves are all the viewer receives. Yet it is an important directorial decision of his to have these strange, otherworldly landscapes resemble Earth. In this way, the monolith is again humanized. We assume that the worlds in which Bowman is being propelled through belong, at least in part, to the monoliths. These entities are the reason that Bowman finds himself in this situation. Their worlds, even if unfathomable distances away, still resemble ours in the film.

At the end of this journey through the stargate, Bowman sits inside his EVA pod in a bedroom that the monoliths have assumedly constructed for him. He encounters older versions of himself in sharp filmic cuts made by Kubrick, then quickly becomes these very versions. All human understanding of time and space appears to fade away inside of this bedroom, implying that it resides inside another world altogether. Spatially, Bowman encounters other living versions of himself, and then ages decades in the span of minutes. His web of concepts as a human is of no value here, as he exists in a dream-like state, unable to comprehend where exactly he is. Once again, referring to Nietzsche’s essay “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense” gives us a better understanding of what Bowman is experiencing in this sequence of the film. Nietzsche writes: Actually the waking human being is only clear about the fact that he is awake thanks to the rigid and regular web of concepts, and for that reason he sometimes comes to believe that he is dreaming if once that web of concepts is torn apart by art (760). In Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite, Bowman’s regular web of concepts is completely torn apart. Just as art does to the human, the monolith’s environment and experience of time and space throws the character into a new world altogether, one with separate laws and ideologies. He stands little chance in understanding what he is experiencing, as his web of concepts is no longer applicable. The monolith plays the role of father figure here, providing Bowman with rebirth, as he is transformed into the film’s final figure of the posthuman: the Star Child.

Bowman, now appearing as an elderly man spending the final days of his life lying down inside of the bedroom, reaches out toward the foot of the bed where we find a monolith. He appears to be asking for something, requesting an end and signaling that he is ready for what is next. His wish is fulfilled – after a clear shot of the monolith in the bedroom, the camera turns to face Bowman, appearing as a fetus enveloped inside an orb of light. Kubrick then zooms into the black monolith and transports us, as well as Bowman, back above Earth looking down on the planet in which the film began. In the final shots of 2001, Bowman, now the posthuman figure of the Star Child, gazes at his (once) home planet and then looks the viewer directly in the eye before the screen fades to black. This sequence has many implications, the form of the Star Child itself being one of them. Here, Kubrick presents us with another example of a posthuman figure that cannot fully escape the human. The Star Child closely resembles a human fetus, becoming an emblem of the rebirth of the human species. This comes as a result of the final aiding of the monoliths – they take Bowman in his human form and jump the evolutionary process, moving straight toward the Star Child. With one look at the being, it is clear that though it is supposedly more powerful than the human, it is not that far removed from it visually. Bowman plays the role of the young child of the new world in which the human race will enter. After surviving the epic cosmic journey, he returns to what he once was, reborn as a baby, and one that undeniably resembles a human fetus. Kubrick asserts the idea that the posthuman, then, is not able to exist without traces of the human remaining. As its name implies, the posthuman contains the human within it, even with its abilities that range far beyond those of the typical Homo sapiens.

The human holds consciousness as its great asset, its distinguishing quality being its awareness of its own awareness. Though, the film’s ending suggests that perhaps our pride in our awareness is conceited in nature. Referring back to Hayle’s work, “How We Became Posthuman”, we see that her explanation of the posthuman view sits well with this theory. She writes: …the posthuman view considers consciousness, regarded as the seat of human identity in the Western tradition long before Descartes thought he was a mind thinking, as an epiphenomenon, as an evolutionary upstart trying to claim that it is the whole show when in actuality it is only a minor sideshow (2-3). For the monoliths, and now for Bowman as the Star Child, consciousness may no longer be the seat of identity that humans have long contemplated it as. Hayles explains that from a posthuman viewpoint, consciousness is not as valuable as humans typically hold it to be. This is the case in 2001, as the monoliths have helped Bowman evolve past this point. First there were the apes who were rewarded with self-awareness and tools, eventually leading to our exploration of space, and now there is the Star Child, who will carry humanity into its great next steps.

The monolith, through these actions, becomes an example of Hayles’s previously mentioned ideal posthuman. We can assume that the monolith has brilliant power, and it is apparently not linked to a finite body. If the monoliths possess the ability to evolve species, then they surely possess the power to eliminate species. They refrain from this, though, and act as a guide, as the God-like figure giving new life to species in ways that they have never before known. In his article “Mythic Patterns in 2001: A Space Odyssey”, David Hoch affirms this role that the monoliths assume. “He then sees the monolith and is transformed into a cosmic fetus,” he writes of Bowman, “This is all symbolic of atonement with the monolith as father and of rebirth as the green décor of the bedroom indicates” (964). This idea of rebirth is especially important in the film’s setting for humans, again referring to our concept of time. It is no mistake that the story takes place in the year 2001 – the beginning of a new century, a new millennium, and ultimately a new world. The monoliths, in their generous and empowering rebirth, can then be viewed as benevolent figures in the film. Though we cannot yet know how humans would behave if given this power over other species in the grand universe, we hope that it is on par with the monoliths. And if benevolence can be used as a descriptor of the human race, then we once more see a form of consciousness separate from the human being humanized.

2001: A Space Odyssey has proved to be one of the most influential and important works in cinematic history. As an innovative, lengthy, and image-heavy work, Stanley Kubrick was tasked with keeping the film both believable and engaging. Through intelligent ambiguity and visual mastery, the director succeeded and has kept audiences in conversation about the film for over 50 years. His portrayal of higher beings and entities, specifically the posthuman, brings us toward many truths – arguably the most important being that posthumans are unable to exist without containing traces of the human within themselves. Specific to 2001, this can be seen in the monoliths, HAL 9000, and the Star Child. As technology progresses, Kubrick’s take on our relationships with it proves to be just as important as it was half of a century ago, perhaps even more so. In taking us away from Earth and toward these higher beings he ironically reminds us of what we are – human.

Works Cited

Auner, Joseph. “‘Sing it for Me’: Posthuman Ventriloquism in Recent Popular Music.” Journal of the Royal Musical Association, vol. 128, no. 1, 2003, pp. 98-122. JSTOR.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. “A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, Third Edition, edited by Vincent B. Leitch, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2018, pp. 1374-1382.

Hayles, Katherine. “How We Became Posthuman.” Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 1999, pp. 1-21.

Hoch, David. “Mythic Patterns in 2001: A Space Odyssey.” The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 4, pp. 961-965. Research Gate.

Kubrick, Stanley, and Arthur C. Clarke. 2001: A Space Odyssey. United States: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp, 1968.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, Third Edition, edited by Vincent B. Leitch, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2018, pp. 752-762.

Rowe, Christopher. “The Romantic Model of 2001: A Space Odyssey.” Canadian Journal of Film Studies, vol. 22, no. 2, 2013, pp. 41-63. JSTOR.

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