November 26, 2016
It’s easy to cast Disney-Pixar’s hit 2008 film WALL·E as not much more than a simple love tale between two robots. While that tale may weirdly exotic in its own right — just what kind of move might be necessary for a robot to gain human emotions that allow them to “fall in love” in the first place? — in the reading of the film presented here, I want to reposition the film not as merely a love tale between WALL·E and EVE, but one that hints at something much deeper — a radical way to reimagine politics through a Jean Paul Sartre-inspired yet communitarian lens.
The film begins in a barren wasteland — which the viewer later learn is the Earth in the far future. Destroyed by wasted derived as a byproduct of ferocious ultra-capitalist individualism, robots have been built by the Buy and Large corporation to “clean up the mess,” while the humans escaped on a series of starliners, also sponsored by the Buy and Large corporation, to wait for the Earth to be clean enough for re-colonization. 700 years after what was designed to be a 5-year program, only one being remains on the Earth: the title character, WALL·E: “Waste Allocation Load Lifter — Earth-class.”
All other selves in this world appear to have been obliterated. WALL·E has presumably survived long enough on the planet that he appears to have somehow gained sentience. The first twelve minutes of the film are spent focusing on the aesthetic world of the curious, independent WALL·E. In many ways, WALL·E is exemplary of the classical liberal being: free, curious, and completely independent — roaming around the planet, collecting trash, and occasionally stashing away knick-knacks. One of those artifacts happens to be a tiny seedling in a boot — the only sign of biological life in an otherwise obliterated world. Ever the curious soul, WALL·E tucks it away.
It is around this time the viewer meets WALL·E’s eventual love interest — EVE, or “Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator.” EVE is a probe sent by the starliner Axiom to scan the Earth for signs of life, return to the starliner, and announce that the world is once again hospitable — thus triggering a return and re-colonization. At this point in the film EVE does not appear to be a fully realized self, as she appears to be lacking sentience and coldly driven entirely by her “directive.” Nevertheless, WALL·E becomes obsessed with EVE. Though she remains emotionless and inert, he shows her his home, his collection of widgets, and his TV, which he uses to teaches her to dance to his recording of “Hello Dolly” (“there’s a world outside of Yonkers… there’s lots of world out there.”) Slowly, through his interaction with the otherness of EVE, we begin to see her developing proto-emotions.
This scene begins to hint at a connection I will return to later in this piece: that is, Sartre’s argument that humans need the gaze of the Other to truly substantiate our own consciousness. One might even say that it is through WALL·E’s gaze that EVE becomes sentient. For Sartre, this, of course, requires objectification of EVE on WALL·E’s part, because it is impossible to gaze at the other’s ego directly. But through denying the selfhood of EVE, WALL·E also denies the subjectivity of himself, as his subjectivity is predicated on the recognition of the subjectivity of the Other. This, for Sartre, is the nexus of human conflict — but without this moment, human consciousness simply isn’t possible: I need the Other to give rise to myself.
EVE, however, isn’t quite ready to accept her consciousness, and the moment WALL·E shows here the plant, she immediately whisks it into her body and falls “asleep.” In typical creepy American romantic comedy fashion, however, WALL·E is determined not to give up: caressing her inert body and even carrying her inert body around. Eventually, EVE encounters her return ship, boards it, and — again, in typical American romantic comedy fashion — WALL·E grasps the rocket and follows her to the Axiom.
The world of the Axiom is a grotesque world of order, dehumanization, and control. WALL·E does not fit into the systems of control in place in the Axiom. From the moment he enters the ship, he is pursued by service bots who chase he and EVE. He does not follow the paths the other bots follow, creating chaos. He is “unnatural,” filthy, a “foreign containment,” and must be stopped.
Until the introduction of WALL·E, the world of the Axiom is a world of programming and a world lacking free selves: it is telling that it is not until almost 40 minutes into the film that the viewer is introduced to a human-like figure, and until this point, there’s even been an absence of dialogue beyond the robotic cries of “Eee-vah” and “Wally” our main characters appear to use to communicate.
Even when we do meet a human-like figure, they are mangled. Micro-gravity and the terrible lifestyle habits imposed by the Buy and Large corporation have, through the course of the 700 years aboard the vessel, caused a rapid expansion in the girth of every resident on the Axiom. They don’t walk, instead preferring to transit on-board a futuristic hovering space scooter (“hover chair”); they never even communicate face-to-face except through the holographic display attached to their chair. Even more than WALL·E, they are the ultimate liberal self: enclosed in a way of being that functionally consists entirely of just them and no one else. They are completely oblivious to even basic facts about their surrounding atmosphere (“I didn’t know we had a pool!” suggests John in astonishment after WALL·E knocks him out of his hover chair and he sees his environment unmediated for what seems to be the first time (Stanton and Docter, 2008)). Critically, they do not act; they merely receive, as “an action,” suggests Sartre, “is on principle intentional…” and, to act is to “intentionally realiz[e] a conscious project” (Sartre, 1946.) Even the captain of the vessel relies on his autopilot system, Auto, to do the work of sustaining the ship; at one point, there is a small glimpse of dismay at this state of affairs as he anxiously exclaims that the morning announcements from the bridge are “honestly… the one thing I get to do on this ship” — but it is fleeting.
These figures embody the image of the café-waiter described by Sartre: they simply never question their position within this system, and merely appear they’re “supposed” to appear — almost too well. Sartre would argue that while doing this, they’re participating in bad faith. They are enclosed, separated from each other and the world. The central struggle in the film is then poised around an imperative to break free from this collective hallucination: to re-colonize Earth, they must first return to a state of individual consciousness — which requires they first turn away from their screens, step out of their chairs, and gaze back towards each other.
Furthermore, they must defeat the robots — manifestations of the Buy and Large corporation — from dictating how they live their lives; just as neoliberal humans might want to shift away from a distant politics of representation and legislation and towards political systems that embrace peer-to-peer collaboration. They must even learn to re-embrace their own physical bodies: the film’s climatic struggle ends when the captain forces himself out of his hover chair and carefully re-learns to walk — merely to waltz over and manually pull Auto’s override switch from “auto” to “manual.”
One interpretation of this event might be that we need to bemoan automation and technology — the traditional apocalyptic narrative that technology is evil, it is dangerous, it is humans against machines. I offer this rather robust outline of WALL·E, however, with a different goal in mind, which is to suggest that perhaps it can be used to help frame an anarchic critique of politics: perhaps politics isn’t simply a struggle to hunt for new leaders or enact new legislative powers; it might be time for a radical rethinking of “what it means to do politics” — one, as suggested above — that shifts itself from away from an reliance on external powers and focuses squarely onto our direct relationships with each other.
I believe — following Sartre’s later political and economic thoughts — that the fundamental goal of any political system should be to enable radical freedom — of the ontological sort (which is always possible, even in imprisonment) and the material sort (which can be denied.) This does not seem to be possible under systems which fail to provide the basic facilities to human flourishing: both for the basic material needs of sustaining humankind (food, water, shelter); but also for the more abstract foundational precepts of material human freedom: access to education and cultural enrichment (for a system without education is denying the freedom of the mind), access to healthcare (for a system without healthcare is a system that denies the freedom of the body), access to economic stability without resorting to wage labor (for a system predicated on wage labor denies the freedom of time.) Furthermore, a political system with these goals in mind seems to also require the eradication of systems of desire, for want is the colonization of desire.
These are, of course, utopian dreams: and, rather than endeavoring to argue whether a system that fully embodies this fundamental telos can exist, the consideration here is destroy the assumed dialectical opposition of liberal and communitarian values. Unlike some readings of Sartre, what seems to be critical to this new politics is embracing our necessary relationship with the Other, rather than focusing on the conflict that arises during this confrontation. In other words, the goal of this politics is not to hoist ourselves further and further onto our hoverchairs and hide behind our holograms while delegating our political goals to third parties — such as corporations. Instead, this new politics must be grounded on re-entering into political relationships based on cooperation; conflict will inevitably arise, but without the gaze of the Other, it is impossible to ground a theory of ontological consciousness.
Thus far, I have committed to an incredibly liberal notion of the individual and the self, one not terribly readily shared by the communitarian theorists I seem to be following. Many communitarians doubt the primacy of the independent liberal self. Imagine a pin-cushion: the self, argue classical liberals, is the inert cushion itself, independent from the pins, which represent our societal background, other people, systems of politics, privilege, events in our lives, etcetera. The goal, suggests thinkers like John Rawls, is to remove the pins and imagine the kind of politics we do before we know what those pins are. Communitarians, on the other hand, suggest there is no pin cushion at all: what it is to be a self is to lie at the center of many pins. These systems may not actually be opposed.
Here, Sartre seems useful yet again: for Sartre, part of what it means to be a self is to be that that which acts. Mobs of people, governments, families and even corporations can and do act as a self; though Sartre himself might not agree with this, it appears that the self is contextual. This necessarily complicates things quite a bit, of course: it is entirely possible to have multiple conflicting selves composing one larger self, and it is possible for those selves to oppose themselves to the telos of the larger self. The goal ought to be how to bring the two opposing forces into symmetry. This, too, should be the goals of our politics.
WALL·E presents a compelling vision of how that might be possible. To rescue the Axiom and recolonize the planet, the passengers on the Axiom must work together — and before they do that, they must learn to merely recognize each other. This process happens in stages in several parts of the film: when WALL·E first meets humans, for instance, it is through knocking John out of his hover chair. There is a stunned glimpse in John’s eye as he contacts WALL·E’s otherness for the first time — a glare of astonishment, but also of enlightenment. John is beginning to learn what it means to interact with the consciousness of the Other. The most striking evidence of this, however, occurs in the climax of the film — when Auto steers the ship on its side: in this moment, all the passenger’s hover chairs slide to the side, dramatically forcing them into contact with each other.
It is, again, easy to read this as a vilification of the relationship of machinery to the humans. This may not, however, be the most useful reading of the film: if anything, until this moment in the film, the humans are as equally robot-figures as the automated machinery they surround themselves with. They cannot be rescued until they break from this spell and exercise the freedom that they are endowed with.
Furthermore, what needs to happen in the universe of WALL·E is not to a return to an individualist ethic: that ethic is the state of being prior to the entrance of WALL·E and EVE. Trapped in their own hoverchair world, the passengers are materially free — it appears that in the utopian world of the Axiom all material desires are accessible without limit, but that material freedom has operated in such a peculiar way that it has functionally denied their ontological freedom, because it has forced them away from each other and into themselves. To regain their consciousness and return to Earth, they must acknowledge the other and, literally, collaborate with the other beings: what finally allows the ship to return home to Earth is a kumbaya-esque moment where the plant is passed from person to person into the sensor.
This is perhaps what Sartre means when he says “Existentialism is a Humanism.” “Man is freedom,” (Sartre, 1946) but to act is to necessarily contend with the existence of the other. Before WALL·E, the passengers on the ship do not really act and therefore do not really exist in any terribly important or interesting way — certainly not more than the machines they surround themselves with. Anguish does not just rise out of a merely an ethical or moral dilemma: it is necessary, for most things which could be rightly called “actions,” to act with the Other; but by doing so, I am necessarily making an imposition on the state of being of the Other.
The naïve reading of Sartre is to take these values as contrary to the values of collectiveness or communitarianism; Sartre’s perspective on human freedom presents a picture that makes it incredibly easy to justify a nihilistic or desperate inward towards selfishness. The existential journey in WALL·E presents a different reading of Sartre: it is not a quest towards ever-greater levels of individualism that is necessary to reach ontological and material freedom; rather, it is by acknowledging the Other that I acknowledge myself; and through acknowledging myself, understand that I must consider the responsibility of this acknowledgement not just towards myself, but to the Other as well. Sartre himself suggests exactly this: “when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality, but that is his responsible for all men” (Sartre 1946.) Any action of mine necessarily acts upon others; for it is simply not possible to act in a way that does not impact the external world.
This turn away from individualism has exciting political implications: suggesting that such a system is not an impossible project. To enable the conditions for radical human freedom of both the ontological and material sort, it is a necessary project; and one friendly with the politics of communitarian living! Existentialism is not a doctrine of quietism; it is quite the opposite of this: “man is nothing else but what he purposes, he exists only in so far as he realizes himself, he is therefore nothing else but the sum of his actions, nothing else but what his life is” (Sartre 1946.)
WALL·E is a tale about this turn towards action. Not only do the passengers of the ship break free of their collective hallucinations — Plato’s Cave-style — but in doing so, they enter in to a new political relationship with each other: one repositioned away from the Buy and Large corporation and onto themselves. As Daniel Kemmis explains in Community and The Politics of Place “once the parties themselves get the idea that they are responsible for coming up with the answer, rather than simply turning it over to a third party, they are likely to begin to think and act differently” (Kemmis 1990, 113.) It is telling that it is not until the captain learns that he is ultimately responsible — not just for himself, but even for that which is outside him — that he begins fighting Auto and pushing towards a return towards Earth. He is initially intellectually fascinated with the concept of a return to the planet, but it is not until he finds and feeds the wilting plant that he exclaims, as described in the movie’s script (Stanton and Docker, 2008):
CAPTAIN There you go little guy. You came a long way for a drink of water... Just needed someone to look after you, that's all -- He is struck with a notion. Stares out the window at space for a beat. Sees HIS REFLECTION holding the plant. Glances at his EARTH GLOBE CAPTAIN (to himself) We have to go back.
This is the critical moment in the film: where the captain becomes aware “of what he is; that “the full responsibility of his existence rest[s] on him” (Sartre 1948) — and that his existence necessarily impacts the existence and political agency of every other passenger on the Axiom.
My reading of WALL·E adds one final twist: the last clue may be to answer this: how, exactly, did humankind lose their connection to each other and to their responsibility? Ironically — given the movie was produced by a multinational corporation — it is the Buy and Large corporation which is controlling almost all aspects of life upon the Axiom. One might even say Buy and Large, metaphysically, simply is the WALL·E universe. It is the Buy and Large corporation which initially destroyed the planet; it is the Buy and Large corporation which presented a solution to that problem. In the WALL·E universe, the Buy and Large corporation has forced private values onto all public life, such that it has essentially destroyed public life — encompassing and constructing the entire universe under the Buy and Large brand.
Kemmis warns about this, too: “corporations… have grown so powerful in both the economic and political spheres that they are often able to dictate terms to the very public which allows them to exist in the first place… when this happens, it marks a very substantial failure of our public life.” (Kemmis 1990, 130) WALL·E presents a universe where that failure has been taken to extremes. Public life has been destroyed to the point where public life — and thus consciousness, because consciousness is predicated on the existence of the Other — has been obliterated. For Kemmis, cooperation — perhaps the kind needed to save a planet from global warming — “is, in fact an exercise in citizenship, in the classic sense of that world… but this, in turn, implies that corporations must be capable of citizenship on a local level” (Kemmis 1990, 133.) Kemmis doesn’t see this kind of relationship as impossible, rather, he’s suggesting that inhabitation and a politics of place is a pre-requisite to this relationship; and that is a relationship typically not readily embodied by the corporation. In other words, the concerns of the corporation are not on the relation to the land and those who live in that place, but squarely on shareholders who are often detached from the land and people that inhabit the place where the corporation operates. In the WALL·E universe, however, not only is the Buy and Large corporation not properly inhabiting the place — Buy and Large has completely obliterated the notion of “place” by sending everyone into “space” — a kind of non-place (“too much garbage in your face? There’s plenty of space out in space” (Stanton and Docter, 2008) suggests an advertisement for Buy and Large’s starliners.)
It’s probably fair to assume that this has always been Buy and Large’s goal all along: the reason the machines (which are, again, appendages of the Buy and Large corporation) fight against the captain’s desire to return to Earth was a “classified” message from the company’s CEO directing Auto to never return to Earth; suggesting that Buy and Large knew the dream of re-colonization was always intended to be a fantasy — this explains why the starship somehow was built to survive 695 years after the anticipated end of the “intended” 5-year project. In this way, it is not simply that we need to be wary of corporations for environmental or political reasons, but it is entirely possible that corporations have the power to obliterate our notions of consciousness itself.
WALL·E is a beautiful movie, but it is about more than adorable robot love; nor is it merely a tale about eco-consciousness or a warning about techno-utopian corporate post-capitalism. Through depicting the collective existential journey embarked on by every passenger on the Axiom, it provides an interesting vantage point on why a new politics is critical. This politics, grounded in both Sartrian existentialism — the realization that it is the responsibility of humankind to individually and thus collectively make meaning out of world; and communitarian cooperation — the realization that the important part of politics is not what happens in the voting booth and is instead what happens on the local level between selves — is fundamental to struggling towards ontological and material human freedom. Other beings — even other machines — will not do this work. Even traditionally democratic structures won’t allow for this because they separate the self from action; denying the very conditions — that is to say, direct action — required for both ontological and material freedom. Only through firstly reckoning with the Other and choosing an ethos of cooperation with the Other is this politics possible. This is a politics of hope and action, not of despair and quietism — and a politics desperately needed in a post-Trump America.
Kemmis, Daniel. 1990. Community and the Politics of Place. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1946. “Freedom to Have, To Do, To Be.” In Being and Nothingness. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1948. “Existentialism is a Humanism.”
Stanton, Andrew and Docter, Pete 2008. WALL·E. Directed by Andrew Stanton. Produced by Jim Morris. By Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, Fred Willard, John Ratzenberger, Kathy Najimy, Sigourney Weaver, and MacInTalk. United States: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.