Existentialism and The Terminator

existterminal

It is no mistake that Sarah Connor‘s famous dictum that there is “No fate but what we make” closely resembles Jean-Paul Sartre‘s first principle of existentialism, that “Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.”

In this video Ro Smith, who is working toward her doctorate in Philosophy, explains and explores the thematic treatment of existentialism in the Terminator movies. For these purposes, she limits discussion to the films James Cameron wrote and directed (The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day) as presenting a cohesive vision.

In her description of the video, Smith states that she hopes you will enjoy this as adding to your viewing experience and demonstrating that there can be sophisticated exploration of philosophical thought even within violent action movies, and that the literary is not confined to the staid.

Much of Smith’s essay “Existentialism and The Terminator” deals with the main lighting states in Cameron’s two Terminator films (she doesn’t deal with the other two movies or the TV series.) She connects the use of lighting in these films to the noir genre, in which lighting states are also “symbolically significant,” and talks about the symbolism of the main types of lighting in these films.

However, she also connects the films not just to questions of agency and free will, but also to the nature of objects. At one point, she writes:

In Sartre’s ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’ he contrasts human beings, for whom existence precedes essence, with articles of manufacture, whose essence is determined by humans. A knife is a knife because humans design them for a purpose: to be used to cut things. Yet, equally, such articles lose their essence in the absence of humans to use them.

Terminator 2 brings the question of articles of manufacture vs self-determining minded beings to the fore. Skynet was a self-actualising AI, but always off screen. But in T2, Sarah removes the inhibition placed on the T-800 against learning. The T-800 is allowed to explore its own self-actualisation, and in doing so it comes to affect those around it; to build relationships. The T-800 may not have the ability to self-terminate, but he’s capable of bringing the matter to the attention of Sarah Connor – that her brief fantasy of having a father figure for John cannot be allowed without consequences for the world. That is a moral action, and action that affects others, and that recommends a moral stance to others.

Well worth the read, particularly for my graduate students at the university pursuing their own advanced degrees at the Master and Doctoral level.

First, here’s the video for your edification and amusement:

A full transcript of the video is available at http://rhube.co.uk/wp/2014/10/15/existentialism-and-the-terminator via her blog, The Rhubosphere at http://rhube.co.uk/wp.

References to other works mentioned in the video are below:

Cameron, James (1984), The Terminator, Helmdale Film Corporation, Pacific Western Productions

Cameron, James (1991), Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Carolco Pictures, Lightstorm Entertainment, Pacific Western Studio Canal

de Beauvior, Simone (1949), The Second Sex, H M Parshley (trans.) for Penguin (1972); Andy Blunden (transcribed 2005), published in Marxists Internet Archive, last updated 2005, accessed on 13/10/2014 at: https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/ethics/de-beauvoir/2nd-sex/index.htm

Friedman, Josh (2008-9), Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Bartleby Company, C2 Pictures, The Halcyon Company, Warner Bros Television, 20th Century Fox Television

Sartre, Jean-Paul (2000), Nausea, James Wood (int.), Robert Baldick (trans.), London: Penguin Classics

Sartre, Jean-Paul (1946), ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’, Walter Kaufman (ed.), Philip Marriet (trans.) for Meridian Publishing Company (1989); Andy Blunden (HTML mark-up), published in Marxists Internet Archive, last updated 2005, accessed on 13/10/2014 at: https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/sartre/works/exist/sartre.htm

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