A perfect loser, an out-of-job puppeteer, is hired with a organization, whose offices are ensconced inside a half floor, in a literal sense. The ceiling is about a metre high, reminiscent of Taniel’s hallucinatory Alice in Wonderland illustrations). By sheer accident, he discovers a tunnel (a “portal”, in Internet-age parlance), which sucks its guests into the mind of the famous actor, John Malkovich. The motion picture is a tongue in cheek discourse of identity, gender and passion in an age of languid promiscuity. It poses all of the right metaphysical riddles and presses the viewers’ intellectual stimulation buttons.
A couple of lines of dialogue, even though, forms the axis of the nightmarishly chimerical motion picture. John Malkovich is performed by himself, enraged and bewildered through the unabashed commercial exploitation from the serendipitous portal to his mind, insists that Craig, the puppet master, cease and desist these activities. “It is MY brain” – he screams and, with a typical American finale, “I will see you in court”. Craig responds: “But, it had been I who discovered the portal. It is indeed my livelihood”.
This apparently innocent exchange disguises a few very disturbing moral problems.
The essential question is “whose brain is it, anyway”? Does John Malkovich OWN his brain? Is one’s brain – one’s PROPERTY? Property is usually acquired somehow. Is our brain “acquired”? It’s clear that we don’t acquire the hardware (neurones) and software (electrical and chemical pathways) we are born with. But it’s equally clear that people do “acquire” both brain mass and the contents of our minds (its wiring or irreversible chemical changes) through learning and experience. Does this procedure for acquisition endow us with property rights?
It appears that property rights pertaining to human bodies are fairly restricted. We have no right to sell our kidneys, for example. Or to destroy the body through the use of drugs. Yet, what the law states does recognize and strives to enforce copyrights, patents along with other forms of intellectual property rights.
This dichotomy is curious. For which is intellectual property but a mere record of the brain’s activities? A magazine, a painting, an invention are the documentation and representation of brain waves. They are mere shadows, symbols of the real presence – our mind. How can we reconcile this contradiction? We’re deemed through the law to manage to holding full and unmitigated rights to the products of our brain activity, to the recording and documentation in our brain waves. Yet we hold only partial rights to the brain itself, their originator.
This may be to some extent understood if we were to consider this informative article, for instance. It’s composed on the word processor. I don’t own full rights to the word processing software (merely a licence), nor is the laptop I use my property – but I possess and may exercise and enforce full rights regarding this article. Admittedly, it’s a partial parallel, at best: the computer and word processing software are passive elements. It is indeed my brain that does the authoring. And so, the mystery remains: how can i own the article – although not my brain? Why do i have the right to ruin the article when needed – but not to annihilate my brain at whim?
Another angle of philosophical attack is to say that we rarely hold rights to nature or to life. We are able to copyright a photograph we take of the forest – but not the forest. To reduce it to the absurd: we can own a sunset captured on film – but never the phenomenon thus documented. The brain is natural and life’s pivot – could this be why we can’t fully possess it?
Completely wrong premises inevitably lead to wrong conclusions. We often own natural objects and manifestations, including those associated with human life directly. We even issue patents for sequences of human DNA. The ones do own forests and rivers and also the specific views of sunsets.
A number of scholars raise the issues of exclusivity and scarcity as the precursors of property rights. My brain can be accessed only by myself and its is unique (sui generis). True although not relevant. One cannot rigorously derive from all of these properties in our brain a right to deny others use of them (if this should become technologically feasible) – as well as to create a cost on such granted access. In other words, exclusivity and scarcity do not constitute property rights as well as lead to their establishment. Other rights may be at play (the right to privacy, for example) – although not the right to own property and to derive economic benefits from such ownership.
Quite the opposite, it’s surprisingly easy to consider numerous exceptions to a purported natural right of single access to one’s brain. If one memorized the formula to cure AIDS or cancer and refused to divulge it for any reasonable compensation – surely, we ought to feel entitled to invade his brain and extract it? Once such technology is available – shouldn’t authorized bodies of inspection have access to the brains of our leaders on the periodic basis? And shouldn’t we all gain visitation rights to the minds of great women and men of science, art and culture – as we do today access their homes and to these products of the brains?
There is one hidden assumption, though, in both the movie and this article. It is that mind and brain are one. The portal leads to John Malkovich’s MIND – yet, he keeps referring to his BRAIN and writhing physically on the screen. The portal is useless without JM’s mind. Indeed, it’s possible to wonder whether JM’s mind is not a fundamental element of the portal – structurally and functionally inseparable from it. If that’s the case, doesn’t the discoverer from the portal hold equal rights to John Malkovich’s mind, an integral part thereof?
The portal leads to JM’s mind. Are we able to prove that it leads to his brain? Is identity automatic? Of course not. It’s the old psychophysical question, in the center of dualism – still far from resolved. Can a MIND be copyrighted or patented? If no one knows What is a mind – how can it be the topic of laws and rights? If JM is bothered by the portal voyagers, the intruders – he surely has legal recourse, but not through the application of the rights to possess property and to benefit from it. These rights provide him with no remedy as their subject (your brain) is a mystery. Can JM sue Craig and the clientele for unauthorized visits to his mind (trespassing) – IF he is unaware of the comings and goings and unperturbed by them? Moreover, can he prove how the portal leads to HIS mind, that it’s HIS mind that is being visited? Is there a way to PROVE that one has visited another’s mind?
Needless to say, if property rights to one’s brain and mind were firmly established – how will telepathy (if ever proven) be treated legally? Or mind reading? The recording of dreams? Will a distinction be made between a mere visit – and the exercise of influence on the host and his / her manipulation (similar questions arise over time travel)?
All right, exactly here is where the film crosses the line between the intriguing and the macabre. The master puppeteer, not able to resist his urges, manipulates John Malkovich last but not least possesses him completely. This really is so clearly wrong, so manifestly forbidden, so patently immoral, that the movie loses its urgent ambivalence, its surrealistic moral landscape and deteriorates directly into another banal comedy of circumstances.