A quintessential loser, an out-of-job puppeteer, is hired by a firm, whose offices are ensconced in a half floor (literally. 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 visitors into mind of celebrated actor, John Malkovich. The movie is a tongue in cheek discourse of identity, gender and passion in an age of languid promiscuity. It poses all right metaphysical riddles and presses viewers' intellectual stimulation buttons.
A two line bit of dialogue, though, forms axis of this nightmarishly chimerical film. John Malkovich (played by himself), enraged and bewildered by unabashed commercial exploitation of serendipitous portal to his mind, insists that Craig, aforementioned puppet master, cease and desist with his activities. "It is MY brain" - he screams and, with a typical American finale, "I will see you in court". Craig responds: "But, it was I who discovered portal. It is my livelihood".
This apparently innocuous exchange disguises a few very unsettling ethical dilemmas.
The basic 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 is clear that we do not acquire hardware (neurones) and software (electrical and chemical pathways) we are born with. But it is equally clear that we do "acquire" both brain mass and contents of our brains (its wiring or irreversible chemical changes) through learning and experience. Does this process of acquisition endow us with property rights?
It would seem that property rights pertaining to human bodies are fairly restricted. We have no right to sell our kidneys, for instance. Or to destroy our body through use of drugs. Or to commit an abortion at will. Yet, law does recognize and strives to enforce copyrights, patents and other forms of intellectual property rights.
This dichotomy is curious. For what is intellectual property but a mere record of brain's activities? A book, a painting, an invention are documentation and representation of brain waves. They are mere shadows, symbols of real presence - our mind. How can we reconcile this contradiction? We are deemed by law to be capable of holding full and unmitigated rights to PRODUCTS of our brain activity, to recording and documentation of our brain waves. But we hold only partial rights to brain itself, their originator.
This can be somewhat understood if we were to consider this article, for instance. It is composed on a word processor. I do not own full rights to word processing software (merely a licence), nor is laptop I use my property - but I posses and can exercise and enforce full rights regarding this article. Admittedly, it is a partial parallel, at best: computer and word processing software are passive elements. It is my brain that does authoring. And so, mystery remains: how can I own article - but not my brain? Why do I have right to ruin article at will - 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 can copyright a photograph we take of a forest - but not forest. To reduce it to absurd: we can own a sunset captured on film - but never phenomenon thus documented. The brain is natural and life's pivot - could this be why we cannot fully own it?
Wrong premises inevitably lead to wrong conclusions. We often own natural objects and manifestations, including those related to human life directly. We even issue patents for sequences of human DNA. And people do own forests and rivers and specific views of sunsets.