Andrew Marcus. Black On White, No. 7, Sumi Ink on Paper, 15" x 22", 2017. All rights reserved
by Tim Richardson
Associate Professor of English - University of Texas at Arlington
In 1970, roboticist Masahiro Mori famously proposed that, “as robots appear more humanlike, our sense of their familiarity increases until we come to a valley. I call this relation the ‘uncanny valley’” (“Uncanny”). His point is that, as the robotic moves from the commonly industrial to scenarios in which it interacts more directly with humans and takes on our traits, it generally follows an upward trajectory of acceptability. But Mori argues that there is a point at which the human-seeming and the human become directly at odds, as the replica draws attention to mortality and, indeed, insists by its appearance as a reminder of it. As a figure for this uncanny, he suggests the prosthesis.
Clearly, a prosthetic hand, say, has its uses and its presence isn’t something most of us are going to object to. Encountering someone with a hook, for instance, serves to draw attention to a loss and may spark sympathy for the user. But as prostheses become more complicated and more discrete, [s]ome prosthetic hands attempt to simulate veins, muscles, tendons, finger nails, and finger prints, and their color resembles human pigmentation. So maybe the prosthetic arm has achieved a degree of human verisimilitude on par with false teeth. But this kind of prosthetic hand is too real and when we notice it is prosthetic, we have a sense of strangeness. So if we shake the hand, we are surprised by the lack of soft tissue and cold temperature. In this case, there is no longer a sense of familiarity. It is uncanny.
In terms of hands, the world is made by us for thumbs and fingers. But the cosmetic changes also serve a purpose, since these may help the user integrate with the larger social without too many stares. Mori demonstrates that this is so only as long as a certain distance is maintained. When we get too close, the experience can be a little, well, creepy.
In terms of Hollywood fantasy, films may work as a sexual prosthetics only so long as a certain distance is maintained. For instance, as Slavoj Žižek pointed out years ago, the paradox of the extreme close-ups and frantic cutting that mark traditional passionate sex scenes in movies is that their apparent intimacy is founded by viewing angles and audio mixing that are impossible to experience in real life versions of the acts. Staging anything depends both on distance from the audience and on hiding that distance.
And even away from the screen, if Žižek is right in saying that sex is masturbation with a partner, then a lot of our imagination and technology has gone toward fabricating the best prosthetic hand we can. Teledildonics is a thing (and may suggest psychoanalytic digital humanities). And there have been dolls for sex for a very long time. The problem is that even the “best” sex dolls resemble partners in no way but the physical.
Of course, some films and tv participate differently with what is probably primarily masculine fantasy. Recently, the films Her (2013) and Ex Machina (2014)—in very different ways from, say Hoffmann's story The Sandman (1818)—present surrogates that resemble women in every way but the physical. In HER, the new operating system named Samantha is only a voice; and it’s impossible to not see Ava’s mechanical nature in Ex Machina. Their physicality is always in parts (here I’m thinking of Alenka Zupančič’s excellent chapter “The Perforated Sheet” in Sexuation, 2000?) and these films amplify the constructed-ness of fantasy by clearly and immediately removing “real” women, instead demonstrating the gross function of the prosthetic in masculine fantasy.
Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her, is all about maintaining distances. Theodore’s job is composing personal letters, love letters, for others. His sex life apparently often features audio connections—phone sex—with strangers. His relationship with OS1, the new operating system who names herself Samantha and becomes his personal assistant, begins perhaps as an example of what Nina Power calls the “soft coercion of the recorded female voice” (Acoustic City 23), as Samantha leads him out of his solitary habits and eventually becomes a lens through which he can re-experience the world. And lens is the right word, since, besides her microphone, Samantha’s only sensory input is the camera of his smart-device – kept surfaced in his pocket by a safety pin. Samantha has no body, and the absence of a body – this difference - is precisely what allows for the relationship. For Theodore, sex actually is masturbation with a partner, and works best when the desire at the other end is a mirror of his own.
In Lacan on Love, Bruce Fink writes:
There are always differences between the things that get identified (insofar as identification necessarily involves the equating of two different things), and those differences are lopped off, as it were. The ego is thus essentially based on a misrecognition or misunderstanding, in other words, mistaken understanding. (7)
Usually, Hollywood fantasy relies on the audience’s misrecognition and/or identification, our willingness to go along uncritically. From the beginning, by being set in a future recognizable enough to highlight and amplify difference, Her insists on alterity while demonstrating the function of fantasy.
Again, Bruce Fink:
This equation of ourselves with the other during the passionate experience of falling in love often goes so far as to ignore any signs that the other is in fact quite different from us, and to read all signs as if they corroborated our hypothesis that the other is just like us. (88)
I would go so far as to argue that difference, which is a kind of distance, and its assumption in fantasy is one way of “falling in love.” The translation of difference into sameness, like the translation of lack into loss, is the function of fantasy. The Imaginary dimension of identification is important here insofar as it is also a site of misrecognition. It may be that what one identifies with in fantasy is difference as a point of intersection: “you are different like me. You and I are exceptional.”
This identification with difference is precisely Alenka Zupančič’s insight:
the institution of the exception (which is the operation of the law) ‘‘exceptionalizes’’ the set of all. … Which is exactly why, although ‘‘they are all the same’’ (they all satisfy a certain condition), each one is special. Except that one should not say ‘‘although,’’ but rather ‘‘to the extent’’: to the extent that they all satisfy the same condition, each one is very special. This means that women should probably feel less enthusiastic about the famous ‘‘you are very special’’ line. For it usually means nothing but ‘‘you qualify for the series.’’ (285)
Alex Garland’s 2015 film Ex Machina is likewise set in a very close future. Ava is the latest in a series of artificially intelligent robots developed by genius tech billionaire Nathan. Nathan brings Caleb, one of his employees, to his isolated home to test Ava. To see if she is convincingly human-like even though she is obviously not human. Caleb falls for her, comes to believe that Nathan is cruel, and ultimately helps Ava escape.
Žižek’s point about Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), that it “relies on science-ﬁction rules to enact in reality itself, to present as a material fact, the notion that woman merely materializes a male fantasy,” seems just as clear in Ex Machina (Sexuation 229). It’s even suggested that Ava has been tailored to mirror Caleb’s internet porn history. The difference is that she is also always obviously a machine. There is no confusion; Ava has been made. Paradoxically, her mechanical nature reflects-and-enforces Caleb’s sense that he is responding clinically—how could he be in love?—while at the same time sustains the distance necessary for fantasy to operate. He falls in love with her because it’s impossible.
There’s a lot in this film: the function of voyeurism, the mimetic rivalry between the two men, Caleb’s identification with Ava, her striptease-in-reverse as she puts on nakedness. What I’d like to at least suggest here is that these films—and other projects like BLACK MIRROR and especially HUMANS—close the temporal distance and difference so often present in fantasy-inflected sci-fi in order to amplify a difference that is usually elided in movies and tv. This may not be a recent innovation exactly, but that they appear more frequently and get much more attention may indicate something.
Works Cited (Parts l and ll)
Ex Machina. Directed by Alex Garland, Perf. Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac. DNA Films, 2014.
Fink, Bruce. Lacan on Love: An Exploration of Lacan's Seminar VIII, Transference. Cambridge: Polity, 2016. Print.
Her. Directed by Spike Jonze, Perf. Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde. Annapurna Pictures 2013.
McGowan, Todd. Out of Time: Desire in Atemporal Cinema. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2011. Print.
Mori, Masahiro. “The Uncanny Valley.” Trans. Karl F. MacDorman and Takashi Minato. Energy, 7(4), 1970, pp. 33-35
Ragland, Ellie. The Logic of Sexuation: From Aristotle to Lacan. State U of New York P, 2004.
Žižek, Slavoj. ""The Thing from Inner Space"" Sexuation. Ed. Renata Salecl. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2000. N. pag. Print.
Zupančič, Alenka. ""The Case of the Perforated Sheet"" Sexuation. Ed. Renata Salecl. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2000. N. pag. Print.