By Joyce E. Chaplin
You can read Professor Chaplin’s article “Can the Nonhuman Speak?: Breaking the Chain of Being in the Anthropocene” in this quarter’s edition of the Journal of the History of Ideas.

“Do you like our owl?”

“It’s artificial?”

“Of course it is.”

“Must be expensive.”


There it is, scripted as flirtatious banter, possibly the most dangerous hypothesis we currently entertain, the idea that we could somehow survive without other naturally-occurring species. The dialogue appeared in Blade Runner, a movie set in 2019 and released in cinemas in 1982, and it is replayed in Blade Runner 2049, set in that year and released in ours. To imagine our survival in a world without functioning ecosystems may be our era’s most dangerous hypothesis because it is the most hypothetical. Could it be done? How would we know it could be done? Like all owls, the owl of Minerva, symbol of wisdom, flies at dusk, a habit that G. W. F. Hegel interpreted as the tendency to acquire knowledge too late, only as night falls. The artificial owl in Blade Runner obligingly flies across a vast room with huge windows through which we see the sun setting over a Los Angeles that has no trees, no birds, no parks, and no exposed earth, nothing that is not artificial—except the people, at least some of them. Could humanity actually survive in such a place? If we don’t know that we could, why wait until too late to risk it?
The two Blade Runner films’ storylines (and some of their characters) are portrayed in time shots that are 30 years apart, and the filmmakers themselves worked 35 years apart—each interval is about a generation’s measure, going by the typically accepted average of 30-35 years. A “generation” is precisely what is at stake in the films, which imagine a future in which biological regeneration is rare and precious. The films’ android “replicants” are manufactured slaves who, except in one case, cannot reproduce. Any replicants who evade human command are tracked and “retired” by LAPD “blade runners,” some of them also replicants. The whole thing is a meditation on what it means to be human—of course it is—with special attention to the psychological testing that supposedly reveals the shallowly-souled nature of replicants.
But if the morality play about humanity and justice is the obvious plot of the films, the dystopian view of human life plays out against a background drained of every other kind of life. Is that even possible? The question was embedded in the Blade Runner ur-text, Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Both films pose variations on Dick’s question, again and again, and very often in sentences that end in question marks, that lead to other questions, no resolution.
Poor Leon (Brion James), the replicant whose interrogation starts off the first Blade Runner. Brought in for psychological testing, his interrogator asks him to imagine being in a desert. “Which desert?” Leon asks. “Doesn’t matter,” the official says, who wants Leon to imagine a tortoise lying on its back in a desert, should he help it? Leon doesn’t know what a tortoise is, has to be told it’s like a turtle, an animal he’s never seen but knows about. But Leon’s question—“which desert?”—is not replicant obtuseness, not necessarily. It’s something any wildlife biologist would ask, a big clue, the first clue, that replicants are more complicated than they’re supposed to be. Later, when Blade Runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) interrogates replicant Rachael (Sean Young)—they of the flirty owl banter—he asks questions meant to test her awareness of the immorality, in the dying world of 2019, of owning a calfskin wallet, of eating raw oysters, of killing a wasp, of keeping a butterfly collection. Somehow, amid it all, Rachael and Deckard fall in love and escape, a human and a humanoid, and away they soar, in his flying police car, out of Los Angeles and over a visually soothing landscape of forest and mountain slopes.
No such hope in the new movie, which presents the world beyond LA as an extended toxic garbage dump, barely habitable. The movie’s immediate past is a total collapse of ecosystems that occurred in the 2020s. People and androids only survive because of synthetic farming, done in special tents and vats, the trademarked product of a mad scientist who is also crafting new replicant models. Spoiler alert: get your hydroponic setup working now, so you’ll have some garlic to kick some flavor into the protein afforded by synth-farm insect grubs. Given the hard-boiled, neo-noir aesthetic of both films, it’s apt that their characters somehow have plentiful cigarettes, coffee, and liquor, though one wonders what these staples are actually made of, and worries that they resemble the Victory Gin in 1984. Blade Runner 2049 is also explicit about what resource scarcity can do to human relations, most obviously in an orphanage (workhouse) for sick, starving children who are forced to process electronic waste.
But without a large complement of non-human creatures in nature, would anyone get fed anyway? Not even Blade Runner’s creators quite believe it. In the second film, the land around a grub farmer’s homestead is described as having nothing but “dirt and worms.” Great news! Earthworms help things grow, their presence slightly belies the long-dead tree in their midst. Later, a red, ruined landscape nevertheless harbors a mysterious array of thrumming beehives. Worms and bees are exactly the small creatures that would support agriculture—ecosystem collapse seems not to have been total. It’s other creatures, after all, animals and plants, that help to make human food or are human food. If they did all die, it’s still an open question whether we would continue to live. Everyone? Or only certain people? Who?
Even if we did survive ecosystem collapse, would human nature be altered, perhaps worsened, in the absence of natural things? For millennia, we have used seasons, landscapes, and non-human others to orientate ourselves, to give ourselves meaning. Without them, would we still be human? Would we be synth-humans, virtual androids? Both films feature characters who long for and make versions of the animals that are no longer physically present. Gaff (James Edward Olmos) compulsively does origami, folding paper into creatures, in one case, a paper sheep. Deckard eventually imitates him by whittling animals from wood. One of his carvings, a wooden horse, is a coveted toy for which a child gets beaten up, badly. Adults have synthetic animals, if they can afford them, as with that “very” expensive owl in the first movie.
For those who can’t afford artificial pets, there are synthesized human companions that, in the second film, are, with depressing consistency, female. A customizable electronic companion named Joi is the only option for the replicant Blade Runner nicknamed “K,” after the first character of his serial number, later renamed “Joe” by his Joi. He and the other Joes who have Jois call them up with software whose signature is taken from Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” the playful piece that acoustically summons animals: duck, cat, bird, wolf. Joi is thus summoned, someone nice for K/Joe to come home to, good kitty. Her nemesis is the replicant Luv, the mad scientist’s attack dog. Male replicants are animalized too. Joe’s boss encourages him at one point with “attaboy,” though Luv later calls him a “bad dog.” But Joe is a gender exception in an artificial landscape overstocked with artificially tractable women. An ad for the Joi prototype shows her fuchsia-skinned, azure-haired, with solid-black anime eyes, a blank ready to have any racial or other characteristics projected onto her. It’s an unsettling warning, this suggestion that, in a world without animals, women would be regarded as pets, even more explicitly than may be done now. (Will androids ever read Donna Haraway?)


We go to nature not just to get food, but to consider how we are different, perhaps, from the rest of nature. Without that non-human nature, we can’t ask certain questions, including questions about ourselves. My essay for this month’s Journal of the History of Ideas is about that problem, and is meant to encourage more historians of ideas to interrogate the history of human beings’ asking who they are in relation to the non-human, even to the point of discovering where those questions end in silence—because they must be posed to non-humans. At the end of Blade Runner 2049 K/Joe goes to Las Vegas and finds there not only those mysterious bees but also a mythic hunk of charisma. No, not Harrison Ford, though he’s there too, reprising his role as Deckard. But let’s consider his lupine companion, maybe a dog, maybe a wolf, a shaggy, intriguing, four-legged presence. Deckard gives K/Joe some whiskey from his cache of “millions” of pre-2020s bottles. He kindly slops some on the floor for his other companion. As the creature slurps away, it’s K’s turn to ask the question: “Is it real?” Deckard, retired from blade running, tired of its hierarchical divisions between human and non-human, fires back: “I don’t know. Ask him.”
Joyce E. Chaplin is the James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History at Harvard University. She recently edited Thomas Robert Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, A Norton Critical Edition (2017).