Nothingness as the human experience of being

by Jessica Tremblay

Alex Rivera’s 2008 film Sleep Dealer has everything to do with nothing. Or to put it more precisely, the film delves deeply into the philosophical topic of nothingness. Utilizing the conflict of connection (in the form of technology) versus alienation, Rivera exposes audiences to the inescapable nothingness that permeates our human existence. Whether the protagonist Memo is alienated from technology in his remote village of Santa Ana or connected using the latest technology in Tijuana, he is still faced with overwhelming amounts of nothingness. 

But what is nothingness? How does one describe something that is not? Kovac’s Genre in Modern Cinema draws attention to three of Jean-Paul Sartre’s ideas about nothingness. The first is that nothingness is “a product of human intentions and at the same time the essence of being” (Kovacs, p. 92). As such, nothingness is a central part of our world, and it is inescapable. The second principle is that nothingness is born of unmet expectations, or the “non-being of something that should be” (Kovacs, p.92). Human expectations, frustrations, and memory are the creators of nothingness. The final Sartrian idea is the notion that nothingness is freedom. Nothingness is “an empty moment in the world where man is liberated from his past and must choose” (Kovacs, p. 93). The nothingness as the gap between what was and what could create the opportunity to make a choice. Sleep Dealer encompasses all three of these Sartrian ideas. Because nothingness is a central element of human existence, Memo can never escape it, whether he is alienated from or connected with technology.

The nothingness is first presented when Memo is alienated from technology. To be alienated is to be absent. Prior to Memo’s migration to Tijuana, technology, the fast-paced lifestyle of the city, work, and etc. are all absent from his life. There’s a nothingness in their place and this nothingness presents a gap. Furthermore, this nothingness exists because Memo has created an expectation of what could be were he not alienated. While still in Santa Ana, he uses amateur hacking skills to overhear the conversations of various node workers around the world. From these slivers of conversation, he paints a fantasy image of how being connected with the technology of the big cities will provide him with everything he has ever wanted. It is through these fantasies that he is aware of their “non-being” in his own life. He does not have nodes, nor is he living in a bustling city or working as a node worker. In their place is a great nothingness. And in this gap, he has the freedom to choose. Will he stay in Santa Anna or will he move to the city? Ultimately, an even greater nothingness – the loss of his father at the hands of a military node worker – stimulates Memo to choose to move to Tijuana and get connected. There is an irony here; Memo moves to Tijuana to fill a gap created by technology through using technology. Technology is both the cause and the solution for the nothingness. It is inescapable.  

The inescapability of the nothingness becomes even more apparent when Memo moves to Tijuana and gets his nodes. Although he has filled the absence of technology in his life, he finds even more absences in its place, i.e. the absence of meaningfulness/satisfaction in what he does, contact with his work and connection with others. Again, the absence of meaningfulness/satisfaction is due to an unmet expectation. As it turns out, being a node worker is not the fulfilling career choice Memo had dreamed it to be. In fact, his whole endeavour to get connected was terribly disappointing; he gets mugged by the first “coyote” he attempts to do business with, he works 12-hour night shifts to the point of exhaustion and he does not even have a proper home to retire to at night. And in the end, all of these sacrifices are for nothing.

Memo’s job as a node worker is loaded with nothingness. At the start of every shift, Memo plugs into his personal terminal and puts on his contact lenses. He no longer sees the factory environment where he really is or the other node workers standing beside him. He simply becomes surrounded by nothingness. Although he operates a robot that exists in another real location, there is an absence of contact with the environment in which he works. Once plugged in, he could be in California, or China, or anywhere, without ever actually being there. Furthermore, the robots operated by node-workers such as Memo bear little semblance to humans. They look and operate like robots. In effect, there is a complete absence of humanity when Memo plugs into his terminal and becomes a robot. But the final and most ironic way in which Memo encounters nothingness in Tijuana is in the absence of connectedness. The very technology that was meant to cross borders and connect people actually serves to alienate them. For example, Luz states that the whole reason she became a “writer” (or rather a memory merchant) was to promote connectedness. But in recording Memo’s story and selling it, she actually alienates herself from him – as seen from Memo’s rather negative reaction when he discovers her true motives for spending time with him. The military node worker Rudy serves as another example of how technology removed the connectedness it was supposed to promote; rather than connecting him to his country and the people he is supposed to protect, the technology has alienated him from them to the extent that they become nothing more than targets – as in the case of Memo’s father. Lastly, Memo also experiences the lack of connectedness in his factory job, as described earlier. The very nothingness that incited the need for technology is the same nothingness that technology promotes. 

Throughout the film, the audience comes to realize that the true conflict of the film is not alienation versus connection, but alienation versus alienation, or nothingness versus nothingness. In the film, the pervasiveness of nothingness is much more powerful than the characters’ abilities to fill it. In watching the film, audiences realize that the same is true of reality and that there will always be more nothingness than can be filled. Overall, Rivera successfully captures how central nothingness is the human experience of being.