by Chong Shin Ee
In Andrew Stanton’s WALL-E (2008), humans have migrated from an inhabitable Earth to live on a giant spaceship. Meanwhile, in the post-apocalyptic landscape, the robot named WALL-E is forced to roam around Earth to clean up the remaining trash left behind by the humans. Interestingly, the traditional roles between humans and robots have been reversed, representing a post-apocalyptic environment that has removed humanity of its importance. Humans are stripped of their agency as they embody mindless remnants of their past selves, idly wasting their days away under the control of machinery aboard the spaceship, the Axiom. In contrast, robots are the ones who arguably possess the highest degree of agency at first glance – they can make decisions, fall in love, and most importantly, they can control the fate of humanity. Hence, WALL-E presents the removal and transference of agency from human to machine.
However, it is interesting to note that such agency is not fixed, and it is arguably always changing or in flux. Both the humans and the robots seem to achieve a certain degree of agency, but in different points in the film. From a narrative standpoint, some degree of agency has been conferred to the humans, however, this agency is only consolidated or regained by the humans at the end of the film. This is because humanity finally manages to break free from a state of stasis or of being under the control of the robots, by actively taking charge of their fate to secure a place on Earth at the end of the film. The pivotal moment where the Captain destroys the artificial intelligence (AI), the robot AUTO, is also highly representative of moments where the humans have regained agency by actively rejecting the control of the robots. While WALL-E demonstrates some instances of human agency, other elements of independent agency cannot be overlooked either, which can be seen in the robots. From a critical standpoint, the robots are conferred more narrative agency to direct what happens in the film and to influence the fate of humanity. The narrative being told through WALL-E’s perspective allows the audience to witness how he exercises his individual agency, which is demonstrated through his curious demeanour, his self-awareness, as well as his desire for romance. In addition, WALL-E exercises his agency most critically by disrupting the state of stasis that the humans are living under, acting as the saviour of humanity. While the humans are a simple, undifferentiated group, the robots in WALL-E demonstrate how their individual agency has allowed them to reorganise their society into complex social groups.
Therefore, the humans and robots possess varying degrees of agency at different points in the film. How then do we reconcile the negotiation of agency between the human and the robot? Who has more agency?
Alex Murray’s notion of conjoined agency reconciles the shifting degrees of agency between humans and robots. Murray explains that agency is shared between humans and nonhumans, where both parties work together to achieve a set of goals, in order to allow for the progress of humankind (2020, pp. 10). However, WALL-E does not fully fit into this notion of ‘conjoined agency’ due to the increasing agency of the nonhuman. Instead of the more humanist perspective suggested by Murray where the robots are still largely subject to the will of the humans, we can see that WALL-E presents robotic agency that has transcended from being subordinated by the human to acting independently of humanity.
Therefore, I will argue that WALL-E subverts this notion of a conjoined agency, as it appropriates this idea to better suit the environmentalist context of the film, and also reflects post-humanist ideals about the increasing need to recognise both human and nonhuman potential in our organisation of society. Through this posthuman perspective, we can see how robotic agency is derived from the need to solve the environmental problems created by humanity. Since the role of the robot is elevated to that of the human, this suggests that both robotic and human agency is crucial to the progress of society as a whole.
Conjoined agency is defined by Alex Murray as the ‘shared capacity between humans and nonhumans to exercise intentionality’ (2020, pp. 10). In other words, it is the ability of robots and humans to work together to achieve a set of goals. This idea is useful for WALL-E, as it explains the shifting degrees of agency which is negotiated between the humans and the robots. Murray states that technology can be considered as ‘agentic since they themselves possess a temporally-embedded capacity to intentionally constrain, complement and/or substitute for humans in the practice of routines’ (2020, pp. 3). This is evident in the film, where the robots largely dictate and facilitate huge processes that formulate part of human life. For example, everyday human routines are under robot control, where the robots decide everything from the time that they sleep to what the humans wear. This ability to proceed with routine is also seen in the division of labour within robot society, where different robots are tasked with different routines. For example, WALL-E is a dedicated trash collector, whereas EVE belongs to an entire class of robots whose sole purpose is to seek out hints of life on Earth. In addition, the relationship between the Captain and the AI AUTO is emblematic of such a notion of conjoined agency. More specifically, it is what Murray coins as ‘conjoined agency with automating technologies’, where technology is so advanced that it can optimise decision-making without human intervention, and can ‘intentionally substitute for humans in a routine practice’ (2020, pp. 16). Intended as an assistance device for the Captain, we can see that AUTO has clearly substituted for the Captain’s role in many aspects. Agency is thus conjoined and shared between both parties – while the Captain is able to dictate the actions of AUTO, it is AUTO that fulfils the tasks of a traditional captain. Therefore, we can see conjoined agency in WALL-E in the division and even substitution of labour between humans and robots, where both parties work together to sustain life aboard the Axiom.
While conjoined agency can be seen in WALL-E, it must be acknowledged that WALL-E contains elements that subvert this idea. While Murray’s notion of conjoined agency deals with the division of labour between robots and humans, it is still arguably human centric, conferring more agency to human actors, who use these technologies to increase their ‘efficiency and/or effectiveness in the practice of routines’ (2020, pp. 9). Murray argues that technology exists in order to make up for human deficiencies ‘while still allowing humans to exercise intentionality over a routine’s practice’, meaning that while conjoined agency divides responsibility between human and nonhuman actors, ultimate power is still conferred to humanity who use these forms of technology to enhance their lives (2020, pp. 9). However, this notion of human centrism is challenged in WALL-E, as the film seems to dismantle the hierarchy of agency with the humans possessing the most power. This is because the robots in WALL-E are representative of technology that is so advanced that the robots are able to function independently of humanity. Since the denouement of the film seems to highlight both the role of the human and the robots, WALL-E subverts Murray’s more anthropocentric take on conjoined agency – rather, it seems to suggest that agency should be accorded to both humans and robots, with neither being subordinated by the other.
Post-humanism explains the rise of robotic agency in WALL-E. According to Nick J. Fox, post-humanist environmentalism seeks to nurture a societal climate where both human and nonhuman capacities are embraced to achieve the sustainable development of Earth’s resources (Fox, 2019). Applying this to WALL-E, we see that the abilities of the robots and humans are harnessed to save humanity from the post-apocalyptic destruction of the Earth. Most ironically, while the invention of robots has created the problems of consumerism and the loss of human agency, it is only the very same robots that have the capacity to solve the problems that they have created. The endless consumption of goods by the humans is also perpetuated by the robots, even on the Axiom, where the robots help to advertise for consumer goods such as drinks, and even clothing. Since the humans are dependent on the robots to fulfil their everyday routines, they have completely surrendered most of their agency to the robots. However, due to the rise of robotic agency, only the robots possess the power and autonomy to break the cycle of consumerism that the humans are entrapped by. Therefore, we can see that the responsibility lies with the nonhuman in the environmental apocalypse. Following Fox’s argument, he states that the ‘unusual capacities’ of nonhuman Others are ‘essential to address anthropogenic environmental challenges’ (Fox, 2019). This is most evident in EVE’s role throughout the film, as a robot, her ‘unusual capacity’ to find signs of life on Earth is harnessed, and is even essential for the restoration of life back on Earth. Hence, this explains why WALL-E subverts Murray’s notion of conjoined agency: the robots possess overwhelming amounts of agency comparable to that of a human.
However, this does not mean that responsibility for the apocalypse is only conferred to the robots – in fact, Fox clearly argues that human and nonhuman agencies must be merged in order to achieve their fullest potentials (Fox, 2019). Hence, we see that the responsibility does not merely fall upon either the human or nonhuman, but upon the collaboration of both parties to achieve apocalyptic resolution. In this post-humanist arrangement, the agency of the humans and nonhumans are both heightened. Fox argues that the posthuman perspective means that the potential of posthuman Others – nature, technology, the female, should be acknowledged as part of the world (Fox, 2019). In addition, rather than privileging the human over the nonhuman (humanism) or vice versa (anti-humanism), posthuman environmentalism ‘aims to enhance the capacities of both non-human and (post)human’ (Fox, 2019). Through this post-humanist lens, we can see how both parties are accorded with more agency when their potentials are recognised. This is evidenced in how both the humans and the robots undertake a journey of self-realisation and growth throughout the film, uncovering their potential for agency as well as to enact positive change. For the robots WALL-E and EVE, their increasing emotional connection with one another helps them to become more ‘human’ – to embody human traits such as love and empathy, and to lose their robotic traits of order and rationality. In a final act of agency, WALL-E sacrifices himself in an act of expression of his love for humanity. His potential for humanity, as well as agency, is uncovered as he becomes the saviour of the human race. For the humans, their potential is fully recognised through the act of memory. For example, the captain’s curiosity about the Earth, which he was previously nonchalant about, was immediately sparked off when he learns about the human tradition of dancing. By remembering the intricate details about human society, the desire to repopulate the Earth was ignited within its displaced citizens onboard the Axiom. The denouement further highlights the realised potential of both species, where the robots and the humans cooperate harmoniously to improve their lives on Earth. Therefore, post-humanism not only explains the heightened role of the robots, but also the necessity of human-robot cooperation to take charge over the climate crisis.
Murray, A. “Humans and Technology: Forms of Conjoined Agency in Organizations.” The Academy of Management Review 46(3) (2020).
Alldred, P., Fox, N. “Sustainability, feminist posthumanism and the unusual capacities of (post)humans.” ENVIRONMENTAL SOCIOLOGY, 2020, Volume 6, No. 2 (2019): 121-131.
Stanton, A., Morris, J., Lasseter, J., Reardon, J., Docter, P., Newman, T., Eggleston, R., … Buena Vista Home Entertainment (Firm). (2008). WALL-E.