Our inter-subjective experiences rely on the premise of an embodied subject. Most filmic conventions follow this premise, and convey information to an embodied spectator (through visual and aural stimuli), and present characters who are also embodied. This creates a para-subjective and para-social relationship between embodied subjects.

But what happens when the character does not possess a body? AIs, ghosts, and other supernatural creatures (such as demons) are common character archetypes for speculative fiction. Using examples from films such as Hollow Man, Her, and Blade Runner 2019, I will analyse the intersection of the fantastic body and film form, and explore the various strategies that filmmakers adopt to get around this tension between perceptual representation and disembodiment. This dichotomy in turn defamiliarizes our relationship with embodiment and evokes debates around Cartesian dualism and the politics of identity.

The most common strategy is to manufacture embodiment (possession, mind transfer, embodied AI). From a storytelling perspective, the character then has all the advantages of a physical, visible, audible body (usually represented by a human performer), but through the embodiment, issues of gender and race are bound to arise. Secondly, various visual effects can represent an absence of a physical body: ethereal manifestations, holograms, fragmented body parts (floating head, eye or mouth). This strategy allows for selective use of aural or visual elements, while still signalling Otherness. Finally, the furthest from embodiment, another strategy sees the foregrounding of the aural element: in this case there is no visible body, only an audible voice. This strategy mobilizes and problematizes techniques like the voice-over and the voice-off, and conversely defamiliarizes the relationship between characters and visible on-screen space.

From re-embodiment to pure invisibility, disembodied subjectivity in film interrogates our relationship to the haptic, visible, audible body.

About the speaker

Zoe Wible is a PhD student in Film at the University of Kent. Her research interests include science-fiction and cognitive film theory. Following her master’s dissertation on the reception of androids in contemporary television show Westworld, she is now researching the relationship between imaginary creatures and spectator engagement in visual narrative media. She also draws on recent developments in interactive media and forms of engagement, including video games and online fandom spaces. The provisional title for her thesis is: “Monster schemas and the space of possible minds: A cognitive approach to science fiction characters in contemporary cinema”.

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