"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Thursday, August 3, 2017


Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) is an intriguing story based on vocational functionalism, which in turn is based on deism. In other words, the film essentially applies an early modern theological "argument from design" to a pillar of modern society: one’s profession. In this regard, the film is not just a kids’ movie. The visual "3D" feature is not where the real depth of the film is located. The story achieves its fullness beyond the visuals in having several levels around a core philosophy, which serves as the story's core meaning. For this reason, Hugo has the potential to become a classic. In this essay, I explore the philosophy that lies at the basis of the film's story. I begin with deism and tie it to functionalism.

Deism posits that God is akin to a “clock maker,” designing Creation, “winding it up,” and then "stepping back" to let it work without divine intervention. The salient divine attribute is that of designer. The world, in turn functions as designed. Because the design comes from God, malfunction due to a problem of design is theologically problematic. Indeed, not functioning as designed can be viewed as evil, or at least immoral. Furthermore, if perfect design ensues from a divine designer, bad fits in nature's design must be held to be problematic. For example, the bodies of a man and woman to fit together quite well sexually; the same cannot be said of two men, yet what if the two men are in love? Those who value love are not likely to view the physiological relative lack of natural fit as problematic, yet the fact that the male and female fit is better is difficult for them to ignore. Lest it be objected that the relative lack of fit is not from God, it is difficult to hold that God is omnipotent and still maintain that design-induced malfunction is not sourced in God.

In Hugo, the deism is not made explicit, so its theological problems are not dealt with directly. Rather, the theology is implied as Hugo observes the world could be one big machine. If so, it follows that even people might be machines. Because each machine contains just the number of parts needed, if the world is a machine, then—Hugo reasons—he must have a purpose even though he doesn’t know it because he has no parents to tell him what it is. In other words, Hugo faces existential angst because he does not know his function.

Combining society-as-machine with deism, Creation itself is one machine consisting of machines. In one scene, Hugo dreams that he himself consists of the internals of a clock, and furthermore, that everything is wheels. An implication is that God does not create extra parts (or extra machines). Put another way, God does not permit unnecessary machines to go on existing. The orphanage represents the place where such machines—the reprobate—go. As enforced by the train station’s inspector, kids without parents do not work, and therefore much be removed from society. To work again, Hugo says, is to do what one is supposed, or meant, to do, as per how one was designed (by God); it is to have a purpose, without which one faces nothing short of nihilism. Essentially, this is functionalism, the philosophy that one is what one does. In business schools and especially in the business world itself, people tend to assume that function explains what one is. Even in ordinary conversation, someone is wont to say something like, “I am a lawyer.” The implication is that the vocation identifies who one is. Alternatively, the sentence could read, “I do lawyering.” This sentence refers only to function, rather than ontology.

The film identifies having a function—working (as a machine works and in the sense of having a job)—not only with what one is supposed or meant to do, but also with having a home. This is ethically problematic, for it implies that people who do not work do not deserve having a home. This problem provides the basis of the film’s dramatic tension. According to Hugo’s understanding, an orphan without a home (i.e., parents) cannot know, and therefore perform, his function; he cannot work as designed. He is thus surfeit in society-as-machine, whose parts can only be necessary. Kids that don’t work (at recognized jobs) do not legitimately exist, from the vantage point of society so conceived. More abstractly, meaning is presumed to depend on function, or being able to work. Everything, including everyone, is supposed to work—meaning being meant to have a particular function. This is the deist ethic.

What of mentally or physically impaired people who cannot work as designed? Does vocational deism justify the Nazi killing of members of society deemed worthless because they are retarded? Should unemployment compensation be stopped because the unemployed are not working? Moreover, does human worth come from function or design? A person who has not found his or her functional raison d’etre might wonder if he or she deserves to exist. This is essentially what Hugo is about.

Hugo’s objects of desire all represent means he thinks will lead him to discover what he is “meant” or “designed” to do—how he was designed to function. He is driven to overcome all odds to work; he is a machine, as are we all, and he is driven to discover his purpose. His antagonist is ultimately nihilism, which can be defined here in terms of not having a purpose. Home represents the security of having evaded non-existence (or expulsion from society, as in going to the orphanage) by having found one’s necessary function and thus being able to work “as intended” and thus as one should. Deism provides the theological background here, as the design is presumed to be the basis of purpose. Ironically, Hugo’s function is to fix human machines that no longer function as designed. His function is sourced in the design of his heart in having compassion for others who have broken down. Interestingly, he didn't have to recognize his design or function in order for it to work throughout his journey. To function vocationally making use of one's design (e.g., as in Asa Butterfield being a natural actor), however, one must first recognize the natural ability in order to apply it in a job.

Hugo is an amazing story in covering several levels precisely because it goes from Deism (abstractly) to functionalism as vocation (tangible). In laboring (i.e., working), a person works like a machine works. For the viewer, the questions go from whether function proffers worth to whether our function from design is that which we use in our work. In the documentary on Woody Allen on PBS (2011), the comic points out that some people can draw really good pictures, such as of horses. Allen admits that he does not have that talent. He goes on to say that jokes, however, naturally come to him, even while he is taking a walk. It is simply how he sees the world; the jokes just come to him. He has an aptitude that is natural for him. The obvious implication is that each person naturally does some things better than other things. If a person has no idea of what comes naturally—perhaps because he or she is so close to it—that person could presumably benefit greatly by discovering it. There is indeed very little choice in one's "gifts." They are what given in one's design. If a person realizes and functions in line with one's natural excellences, one is on what Joseph Campbell called “the blissful path.” However, if worth is not derived only or primarily from function, then the blissful path does not depend on discovering one's natural talents; being transcends doing. In Hugo, this issue is front and center, with Deism serving as the foundation.

See related essay: "Oscars: Beyond Eye-Candy"