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Thoughts on Wall-E and Buddhism

March 6, 2009

Update:  After watching Wall-E for the umptienth time I have found another great example of religious theory:  Near the end, after Eve has replaced all of Wall-E’s parts and is attempting to retrieve his personality, Wall-E starts to take the junk he had previously collected and compacts it into a little trash cube.  This is a great example of the idea of the ‘sacred and the profane.’  In short, sacred and profane is an idea that explains why some things develop holy religious connotations and others become evil.  In the case of Wall-E, a piece of junk becomes sacred only when Wall-E determines it to be so and places it in a place of honor (such as his home).  However, the exact same item reverts to junk once Wall-E stops considering itself sacred, such as the end when he crushes his treasures into a cube, thereby rendering them profane.  The point is simple, any religious item is considered holy simply becomes society accepts it as such, and as soon as they forget it’s sacred it becomes profane.  There is nothing inherently sacred about an object other than that bestowed upon it by its worshippers.  Or so goes the theory…

 

Wall-E's search for happiness through material goods will ultimately fail, as no object is permanently capable of satisfying his curiosity, therefore the only way for him to find happiness is by ridding himself of his materialistic desires

Wall-E's search for happiness through material goods will ultimately fail, as no object is permanently capable of satisfying his curiosity, therefore the only way for him to find happiness is by ridding himself of his materialistic desires

Update:  As my friend Jason (link to his blog on the right)  pointed out, Wall-E starts off with Wall-E collecting all sorts of stuff, thereby seeming to validate a materialistic lifestyle.  However, one could also argue that the acquisition of material goods continually fails to bring Wall-E happiness as no object is capable of permanently satisfying his curiosity, hence his need to keep collecting (a concept known in Buddhism as ‘Samsara’) and it is not until Wall-E abandons his search for happiness through material goods by pursuing a relationship with Eve that he truly finds happiness.

 

I’ve been reading a lot about Buddhism lately.  I took a course or two in college as part of my religion studies and always found it to be an interesting philosophy (or religion, it depends on who you ask) on how to approach the world.  I’m trying to incorporate various aspects of Buddhist philosophy into my life,  such as abandoning thoughts of the existence of a soul and attempting to disconnect myself from certain aspects of the material world.  I’ve found that doing this has helped me to take a more dispassionate view towards my job – by separating my sense of identity from my job, I am able to focus solely on doing what my job requires, as opposed to getting caught up in the personal feelings and attachments that develop when one identifies themselves based on what they do for a living.  Interestingly enough, the idea that people define their sense of self based on their jobs is probably one of the reasons nothing gets done in this town, for at the core of the issue of identifying yourself by your job is the problem that you cannot admit when you have made a mistake because to do so would be tacitly admitting that there is something wrong not just with your decision, but with who you are as a person.  Not a pleasant thought and one that I think keeps a lot of people from being able to objectively analyze a situation. 

Strangely enough, one of the things that really got me back into studying Buddhism was the movie, “Wall-E.”  Aside from the obvious environmental message (which, ironically enough, the director stated was  intended only as a plot device and not a political message, so take that right-wing nuts – more on this in a future post) the movie also raises a lot of important Buddhist concepts, namely the dangers that come from not detaching ones self from material goods and the idea of ‘no soul.’  Regarding the materialism theme – the obvious message is that failure to detach ones sense of self from the material world will ultimately result in ones destruction, whether it be physical or spiritual.  Does this mean that one should sell off all their material possessions and live the life of a wandering mendicant?  Well, for me, no, but it does show that one should not define themselves by their material possessions.  In other words, ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ should be avoided.  The second theme, what defines a person, is more interesting and occurs at the end of the movie when Wall-E is broken and has to be fixed by Eve.  She basically replaces every component of Wall-E, his eyes, legs, body, and most of all, his circuit card (i.e. brain).  By the end, there are very few components to Wall-E that are original, which brings up the question of,  ‘how does one define oneself.’  In the case of Wall-E, if you remove his original legs (which the movie shows he has done many times prior to the ending) is he still the same robot?  What about if you remove his eyes?  Still the same?  What about his circuit board, or, brain?  After Wall-E is done charging after having had his brain replaced, he is no longer the same and has reverted back to his original programming with no indication of the personality he displayed throughout the movie.  This would seem to answer the question of ‘no soul,’ in that once your brain has been replaced (or for humans, you are determined to be brain dead) you are no longer the person you once were and therefore are a different person.  However, after Eve’s pleas, Wall-E eventually regains his memory and personality.  The question here is, ‘if his brain has been removed and all his parts replaced, what part of him still exists that allows him to remember who he is?’  I suppose the answer would be, ‘his soul,’ and therefore contradict the ‘no soul’ concept.  Interesting stuff to think about, especially in terms of morality and medical ethics.  And all this plus a bag of popcorn!

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2 comments

  1. I must respond to the following partial quote in the Wall-E blog: “such as abandoning thoughts of the existence of a soul and attempting to disconnect myself from certain aspects of the material world. I’ve found that doing this has helped me to take a more dispassionate view towards my job – by separating my sense of identity from my job, I am able to focus solely on doing what my job requires, as opposed to getting caught up in the personal feelings and attachments that develop when one identifies themselves based on what they do for a living.”
    This is ridiculous. A profession, as opposed to a job, can be an extremely satisfying and highly energizing. We spend at least a third of our life working in our profession (school can be a profession just as a paying position can be), we meet people who we connect with and learn from, we make friends that we will be in touch with forever, we learn the value of other perspectives, and we are motivated by the work (or lack thereof) of others. All of these should not be tossed aside as insignificant. Defining oneself by their profession can be a bad idea, but it can also be a wonderful way to move through the universe. Love, Mother Ducker


  2. There’s no need to posit that Wall-E had a “soul”. The board that AUTO fried with his Taser could not have been his brain. Although he’s quite sick he keeps his personality until he’s crushed by the holodetector.

    That board seems more likely a part of his power supply, as it is immediately behind the terminals to which he connects jumper cables while trying to revive EVE in the first act.

    No, it seems much more likely that Wall-E’s brain was still intact somewhere else inside him. Either it took time to fully reboot after being completely powered off, or EVE’s kiss reloaded it from a backup dump she took when she kissed him the first time after he survived the pod explosion.

    Since this is fiction, I can believe anything I want about it. So there. [turns into box]



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