The hidden posthuman messages in Pixar moviesS

Futurist Kyle Munkittrick has an interesting essay about Pixar movies over at Discover's Science Not Fiction blog, where he argues that most of the studio's films are offering a message about how non-human creatures (like robots or rats) are just as sentient as humans are, and deserve to be treated like people. He sees this as a distinctly transhuman or posthuman perspective, a sensibility that everyone might share in a future with intelligent robots and uplifted animals.

It's tempting to say, "well, all animated movies are about talking animals and toys," but the difference is that in Pixar movies this is treated as a significant issue. We're not in a 101 Dalmations universe of fantasy, where we just take for granted that dogs talk because the movie is from the dogs' point of view. Instead, we're in a world of humans and non-human sentient creatures, and the non-humans often have to work hard to persuade the humans that they deserve what amount to human rights. Here's what Munkittrick writes:

In each Pixar film, at least one member of the team is human and at least one member is not human but possesses human levels of intelligence.

You can see where I'm going here. Particularly in WALL•E, Ratatouille and Up! there is no ambiguity about the reality of intelligence in the non-human characters. Each Pixar film asks us to accept one deviation from our reality. While it seems like the deviation is different in every case (e.g. monsters are real, robots can fall in love, fish have a sense of family, Kevin is a girl, a rat can cook), the simple fact is that

Pixar only asks us to accept one idea over and over and over again: Non-humans are sentient beings. That is the central difference between Pixar's universe and our current reality . . .

Taken together as a whole narrative, the Pixar canon diagrams what will likely this century's main rights battle – the rights of personhood – in three stages.

First are the Humans as Villain stories, in which the non-humans discover and develop personhood. I mean, Buzz Lightyear's character arc is about his becoming self-aware as a toy. These films represent nascent personhood among non-human entities. For the viewer, we begin to see how some animals and items we see as mindless may have inner lives of which we are unaware.

Second are the Humans as Partners stories, in which exceptional non-humans and exceptional humans share a moment of mutual recognition of personhood. The moment when Linguini realizes Remy is answering him is second only to the moment when Remy shows Ego around the kitchen – such beautiful transformations of the Other into the self. These films represent the first forays of non-human persons into seeking parity with human beings.

Third, and finally, there is The Incredibles, which turns the personhood equation on its head. Instead of portraying the struggle for non-humans to be accepted as human, The Incredibles shows how human enhancement, going beyond the human norm, will trigger equally strong reactions of revulsion and otherization. The message, however, is that the human traits we value have nothing to do with our physical powers but are instead based in our moral and emotional bonds. Beneficence and courage require far more humanity than raw might. The Incredibles teaches a striking lesson: human enhancement does not make you inhuman – the choices you make and the way you treat others determines how human you really are.

Pixar has given those who would fight for personhood the narratives necessary to convince the world that non-humans that display characteristics of a person deserve the rights of a person. For every category there is a character: uplifted animals (Dug), naturally intelligent species (Remy and Kevin), A.I robots (WALL-E, EVE), and alien/monsters (Sully & Mike). Then there is the Incredible family, transhumans with superpowers. Through the films, these otherwise strange entities become unmistakably familiar, so clearly akin to us.

The message hidden inside Pixar's magnificent films is this: humanity does not have a monopoly on personhood. In whatever form non- or super-human intelligence takes, it will need brave souls on both sides to defend what is right. If we can live up to this burden, humanity and the world we live in will be better for it.

Read the full article over at Discover's Science Not Fiction blog