While the HBO show Westworld (2016–present, created by Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan) has gained much critical attention for its byzantine plotting and philosophical conundrums, the present discussion focuses instead on the basic premise on which the titular park operates, namely that the algorithms that govern human behavior can be disclosed by studying how human beings behave toward image beings. Under the guise of a tactile experience of a make-believe past, the park attractions clandestinely function as a large behavioral sensor, extracting actionable data from the guests who reveal their inner drives when interacting with the host environment. Taking its cue from the opening titles of the first season, the argument pivots on the master trope of the series: the machine-readable scroll of perforated paper that commands the automated performance of the player piano. This motif is examined through a double-pronged approach that aligns the anthropology of images developed by Hans Belting, which understands the relation between humans and images as the interactions between “hosts” and “guests,” with the archaeology of media and its dominant concern to uncover the prehistory of the automated control systems of the computer age. While Westworld proffers a timely allegory of biopolitical capture along the digital frontier, the show ultimately testifies to the failure to constructively engage with the precarious relation between hosts and guests that to an equal extent defines our contemporary moment. The initial problem raised by Westworld, the ethics of killing virtual beings, thus gives rise to a broader historical inquiry that concerns the inability of human societies to face the past and deal with the images they inherit.
Screen Violence from Settler Colonialism to Cognitive Capitalism: Westworld and the Player Piano
Henrik Gustafsson is a professor of film, media, and visual culture in the Department of Media and Documentation Science at the Arctic University of Norway. He is the author or editor of five books, including Crime Scenery in Postwar Film and Photography (2019) and Cinema and Agamben: Ethics, Biopolitics and the Moving Image (co-edited with Asbjørn Grønstad, 2014), and is currently working on a book-length project titled The Sedimented Screen.
Henrik Gustafsson; Screen Violence from Settler Colonialism to Cognitive Capitalism: Westworld and the Player Piano. Afterimage 1 September 2022; 49 (3): 23–45. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/aft.2022.49.3.23
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