I’ve been doing some (postmodern) soul-searching

Now we’ve got a 3 month old son, Natalie and I watch a lot of DVDs. (OK, so we did that before we had a child.) Between Christmas and New Year this year, we ploughed through the first season of Dollhouse — which was created by Joss Whedon (the man behind Buffy, Angel, Firefly and Serenity).

I’d been wanting to watch Dollhouse for ages — having caught a couple of episodes on a plane. And it didn’t disappoint. It’s an intriguing exploration of what makes us human.

The premise itself is cool. An underground organisation, the Dollhouse, takes beautiful young people who find themselves in a sticky situation and offers them a way out — if they give up five years of their lives to have their memories wiped so their bodies can be programmed to be anything: the perfect date, a super-assassin, or a hostage negotiator with asthma.

This gives the show plenty of scope to sound the murky moral waters of rapid technological advance, to show off the versatility of lead actor, Eliza Dushku, and to ask the all-important question about what makes us who we are.

As a piece of story-telling, it’s brilliant. I especially appreciate how smoothly Dollhouse does exposition — filling in lots of backstory without any of the clunky-ness that could easily have accompanied this.

But what I love most about Dollhouse is the way it weaves together the two recurring threads in Whedon’s work:

There’s his anti-humanist delight in confronting us with a starkly postmodern picture of a world in which massive (and mostly hidden) structures eclipse and put the lie to human agency — where power is the supreme reality.

And — cutting across this in important and endlessly interesting ways — there’s his deep humanism. Again and again in his work, Whedon seems to look at the power-dominated worlds he cynically renders and say “Yes, but…”.

He seems almost obsessively with the need to chip away at the edges of his postmodern sensibility, struggling to pinpoint its unexplained remainder.

You could call this unexplained remainder the human ‘soul’.

But what is it? And where is it?

I don’t think it spoils anything to say that, as Dollhouse progresses, it becomes clear that the ‘soul’ is bound up with a person’s body — quite literally. Even those people who’ve had their memories overwritten seem able to learn and develop creative agency.

This typically Nietzschean answer has merit and interest of its own. But better still, it steers us towards the biblical picture of integrated human personhood — and the created goodness of bodily existence (as underwritten by the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus).

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