Doctor Who, dementia and android persons


Yesterday’s Dr.Who was the pure fantasy of a kind I don’t really enjoy but the scenes with Paisley Braithwait were brilliant, especially as he lay prostrate with his mechanical innards exposed on the floor. The Doctor and Amy insisting that he was human, that it was his memories that made him human and more pointedly all his memories of pain. Trauma is the core of the human in this scene. What finally had the machine believing its humanity was specifically the trauma of lost love, the loss of the beloved.

In placing traumatised memory at the heart of the human being we get some sense of personhood in that is often outlined in relation to dementia. It is not specifically narrative or biographical memory, or even cognitive ability, that makes a person a person as such but the affective memory, the complexes of memory that are still present even without the ability to frame them in words.

There is a person where I work who is ‘afraid of being afraid’. There is nothing to fear but fear itself. This is precisely the Kantian idea of dread, generalised and without object. In Virno’s discussion of this problematic  he writes that anguish, this totally nebulous form of dread, arises when one is cut off from a community that is a shared world. Braithwait experiences this cutting off, this phenomenological isolation that arises from his realisation that he is from another kind of being, not simply alien but horrifically, violently, pathologically alien. He is a pathological other that is not simply cut-off from the community but also puts that community at risk of annihilation.

Yet by way of calling up the mood of lost love, the other violence of an impinging loss, a trauma that would seem to have structured his ‘heart’, the android remains human. He is first forced to take leave from community before discovering again what he has in common with it.

The android is an object in the sense that he is a thing. Immediately he discovers himself as such and decides that this means he is not real, that he is not a properly autonomous being, his relation to his Dalek creators exhaust him. Yet despite this he comes to realise that he exceeds this exorelation to his malefic masters. He exceeds even his endorelations to his own biographical world, revealed to him (as it is for us all) as a structuring Illusion.

This has been seen at least once before in Doctor Who, in the episode The Battle for Torchwood Tower where the Torchwood executive officer is killed, has her brain removed from her body and transplanted into that of a Cyberman. Unlike almost all other Cybermen she retains this emotive memory, albeit it in ritualised traumatic form, which is revealed in her turning on her fellow Cybermen whilst repeating the phrase “I did my duty for Queen and Country” that she has previously uttered in her human form, aghast at the horror she had unleashed on the earth. This heavily suggests her personhood is intact; how else to explain the impossibility of a Cyberman crying when it has no organic eyes and no tearducts?

The memory of trauma remains, the pain and the sorrow. Something within her is withdrawn and excessive. Through it she is returned to her status as human being, a status that must be lurking subterranean all the time, and this is so with the person with dementia too. Another example might be the episode in which the Doctor, on a parallel Earth, kills a Cyberman and explores its inner workings. Stripping back its mechanical shell he discovered the brain still alive and at least partially functional. Once he removes an emotional inhibitor the dying Cyberman asks where its husband is, breaking the Doctor and a resistance fighter’s hearts.

This is not uncommon in people with dementia. A spouse or loved one long since lost remains inside of them, always about appear to take them home, imprinted as they are within the compressed, crystalline affective memory. In this same episode the Cybermen are defeated by blocking all emotional inhibitors. In despair at what they have become the Cybermen-Humans are destroyed by the overwhelming torrent of anguished sorrow. Again, to return to the person with dementia, there are occasions of lucidity (either induced spontaneously or by means of anticholinesterase medications) wherein the insight into their condition becomes so painful that they wish to die.  I don’t say this to presume that dementia patients are like Cybermen as monsters but rather that beneath the monstrosity of their disease processes remains there still remains a person.

Contact with dementia or other forms of severe cognitive disability can- and indeed should- take us out of our customary patterns of over-busyness, hypercognitivism, and extreme talkativity, into a way of being in which emotion and feeling are given a much larger place.

-Tom Kitwood, Dementia reconsidered: the person comes first.

In dementia there is a loss of cognitive ability, of orientation (that is, of one’s place in the order of all objects) and, as the disease progresses, their is increased deterioration in memory. Yet there is still the affective and emotive abilities. Communication between persons becomes less, in Kitwood’s words, a hypercognitive affair and more one of transmitting meaning through subtler codes: the person with dementia dwells in a world of tone, of pitch, of posture and gesture, of facial expression, tactility. Above all the person with dementia lives in a traumatised state that is also a recession into that excessive place. The ego diminishes but the person remains. Personhood is not entirely Lockean nor entirely Humean in its design.

We too are the Cybermen, those of us who are lucky enough to not have passed into often extremely disturbing nocturnal or overly illuminated worlds of post-traumatism, anxiety, dementia, schizophrenia and so on. In there appearance, their comportment, their mission to exponentially improve the design of objects, their way of speaking. Everything that comes from their robotised, vocoded and motionless mouths is in the totally utilitarian languages of engineering and utilitarian computational functionality: to kill is to delete, to become a Cyberman is to be upgraded. In their confrontation with the Dalek’s the Cybermen also claim that they have no concept of aesthetic. If the Dalek’s had a real historical referent it could be Nazism, both driven by a campaign to expunge their respective worlds of inferior non-Dalek beings. The Cybermen are more obsessed with efficiency,  with being always rational, always hypercognitive,  with getting the job done quickly and cleanly, they have no time for dreaming, for useless pleasures, they are unable to truly enjoy themselves but keep on going remorselessly without stopping, accelerating all the time their campaigns and Progress. Doesn’t this sound like ourselves as we are posed within capitalist realism?

When the Doctor stands over Paisley I don’t think we should take his words ‘you are human being’  to be finally conclusive. We could just as easily imagine the Doctor saying to some alien life form, replacing the word ‘human’ with whatever name that species carried. Wouldn’t it be easy to imagine the Doctor simply saying “you are still a person”? Finally, I am reminded of Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s The post-futurist manifesto, specifically where it poetically states:

We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of autonomy. Each to her own rhythm; nobody must be constrained to march on a uniform pace. Cars have lost their allure of rarity and above all they can no longer perform the task they were conceived for: speed has slowed down. Cars are immobile like stupid slumbering tortoises in the city traffic. Only slowness is fast.

I am always arguing with my girlfriend over the idea of autonomy. She prefers, in a relationist vein, to see everything as entirely interdependent. In spatial terms we speak of inward withdrawal and recession and an outward propertisation, enacting qualities that other objects meet, but at the same time, in temportal terms we can speak of objects having their own rhythms, their own refrains, divergences and repetitions.So yes, by all means things enter into relations and are interdependent on other object but here is their autonomy; the virtuality of all objects (human and nonhuman), the personhood of people with and without dementia and other mental disorders, of androids and finally even of the Cybermen.

Update: It has just occurred to me that the Doctor himself is an example of what I have been saying. Every time the Doctor dies he is regenerated as a different individual but he remains the Doctor. Although his properties have changed he remains the Doctor. He is recomposed of the same virtuality and retains his persistent existence. Even as, say, the Tenth Doctor dies the Eleventh Doctor survives and continues him. The virtual object remains while the relational object is utterly and irrevocably altered.


Kitwood, T. 1997. Dementia reconsidered: the person comes first.

Berardi, F. (Bifo). 2009. The post-futurist manifesto.

Virno, P. 2004. A grammar of the multitude.


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