There is very important lessons to be taken from the film “Solaris” which deals with the relationship between the other, exploration, desire, and understanding culture.

The 1972 film “Solaris” by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky is a visually stunning film that was an adaptation of a science fiction novel by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem. It is an example of a science fiction film, in the same general spirit as “2001: A Space Odyssey”, that deals with ideas rather than being an elaborate action movie. Beyond the wonderful cinematography, there is the presentation of a very interesting set of philosophical ideas that moves the plot forward. A psychologist is assigned to visit a space station orbiting the planet Solaris whose surface is a mysterious ocean of some kind of liquid. Strange occurrences have been going on with the crew of the space station, including cases of hallucinations. When the psychologist arrives at the space station, he finds one of the three remaining scientists has committed suicide and the other two are reluctant to talk about what is going on. Shortly afterward he finds his wife, who herself committed suicide some time ago, in his quarters. The psychologist discovers that the planet, or some alien force on the surface, has been able to tap into the minds of the visitors and project incarnations of their unconscious as living beings on the space station. If these beings die or are killed, they return shortly afterward with no memory of their disposal. The rest of the movie is the psychologist and the crew dealing with this phenomenon, as the artificial wife begins to believe that she is more and more real, while trying to understand what the alien force wants through this manifestation process. The attempt at understanding what is going on leads to some conclusions about how humans encounter what is different from them, while the emotional conflict between the psychologist and the image of his dead wife illustrates related issues concerning desire and how humans express that desire.

The act of space exploration is part of a larger objective experience of difference. This experience of difference is objective in that it deals with the material existence of what is different from those who have the experience. The confrontation with difference is external to the individual who has the experience. This difference is the line that divides the self and the other. The unified self is developed through a universal identity with uniform particular parts. In other words, the self is formed with an appearance that looks like it fits naturally with reality and is true in all situations. It therefore appears to be the correct identity. This identity of the self is an external discontinuity from the other, a clear break from any possibility of the other having their own self-sufficient identity. The identity of the self is also an internal continuity in that it makes all who are participants within it the same. This similarity of those who are within this identity is what occurs in any structure of meaning. The humans who are recognized as the self must conform to this unified identity. On the other hand, the other is marginalized in contrast to the self. The other is portrayed as a diverse multiplicity of unique individuals. The other appears to not be as organized or as consistent as the self. There is then an inability to understand the other as a component of reality. The self as a complete identity is an obstacle to the understanding of the other. The other seems to be too different or strange for a proper comprehension.

This failure in understanding the other has created a specific relationship between exploration and colonization. By definition, exploration involves seeking out what is new and alien while colonization is the procedure where an intervening culture replicates itself in another culture or land. At first glance, the traits of exploration and colonization seem to be polar opposites. But the history of civilizations has demonstrated that colonization immediately follows many acts of exploration. Exploration is the interaction between the self and the other through difference. This absolute difference is acknowledged and accepted. Colonization is the interaction between the self and the other through equivalence. The other is made to resemble the self and any unique characteristic of the other is obscured. The movement from exploration to colonization is the gap between the self and the other. Exploration flips into colonization because of the inability to understand the difference of the other that the self encounters. Rather than try to understand, and take a possible risk, the self reproduces what they know as part of themselves. The real identity of the other is pushed into the shadows of the background.

The subjective experience of difference is how humans are affected by what they experience, rather than the objective reality external to humans. Here desire is transformed into drive. Desire is unique to each human and stimulates a productive capacity in order to satisfy this desire. Drive is an internal and artificial lack, a result of humans incompletely absorbing external structures of meaning. Humans will then be motivated to search for a fulfillment to this drive through objects that promise a direct connection to reality. These small partial objects of desire may stand in for reality, but they only redirect desire and nullify its creative potential. Therefore, desire is the creation of novelty from the difference found in reality. Desire is also the formation of a unique use value by various individuals and collectives. On the other hand, drive is only the structural reproduction of the equivalence within structures, a maintaining of these structural formations that forces desire to comply with it. Drive is the formation of an exchange value that obscures particular use values. Humans will see things that they mistake as a satisfaction of their desire, but in reality these things only serve to distract them from any real confrontation with what is real. Since desire is expressed through immanent structures and drive through transcendent structures, humans who search for an external object that they think they need will result in them being contained by a larger structure. Authentic desire is an act of freedom in this respect. Drive prevents this freedom by giving humans what they perceive they want rather than what they actually need.

The channeling of desire into drive can be seen in the relationship between social pluralism and multiculturalism. Social pluralism is the placement of different cultures parallel to each other. Social pluralism also means that the self is simultaneous with the other in a direct relationship with reality. Each culture is an attempt by a group of people to understand the overall reality that they find themselves in. There is a unique quality to each culture as they try to understand reality. Therefore, social pluralism is the expression of individual or collective desire that results in the creation of culture and meaning. However, multiculturalism demands a direct relationship between cultures that can result in an unequal arrangement. The irony is that cultures beginning to understand other cultures can result in specific misunderstandings or distortions due to the structural process that is being employed. Multiculturalism is the colonization and reproduction of the self in the other, since multiculturalism begins as one culture trying to understand the other culture. The first culture can only understand the second culture through an act of translating the second culture’s structure of meaning into the terms of the first culture. The second culture can not be understood in itself through this process. Therefore, multiculturalism is the expression of drive toward the small partial objects of desire. The first culture can only see what they want to see in the second culture. These small partial objects of desire is the various pieces of the second culture that prevents this culture from being seen as a complete and valid method for understanding the reality that contains both cultures.

The mysterious planet of Solaris, and how it reacts to human visitors, reveals the intricacies of how difficult it can be for humans to encounter actual difference. When humans meet difference, they bring with them their own identity that obscures the understanding of the other. This identity of the self can promote the transition from exploration to colonization that will recreate the culture of the explorer. The recreation of the self identity can only present objects that seem to satisfy predetermined drives, without any creation of anything new from real desire. Any trace of the other quickly becomes embedded within this process as just another object to be consumed. Real desire can have the potential to fully understand the other as different because real desire can create unexpected and unforeseen novelty. A planet that can manifest what a visitor can want, while still hiding its true nature, is a very clear example. The important political and philosophical lesson is that it is not necessarily automatic that exploration will result in colonization. Desire is a vital factor not only in individual freedom, but in an openness to the other. Desire can prevent any valid exploration from transforming into a process of colonization, built upon illusions and deceptions.