Anatomy of a Robot: Literature, Cinema, and the Cultural Work of Artificial People

Anatomy of a Robot: Literature, Cinema, and the Cultural Work of Artificial People

Anatomy of a Robot: Literature, Cinema, and the Cultural Work of Artificial People

Anatomy of a Robot: Literature, Cinema, and the Cultural Work of Artificial People


Why do we find artificial people fascinating? Drawing from a rich fictional and cinematic tradition, Anatomy of a Robot explores the political and textual implications of our perennial projections of humanity onto figures such as robots, androids, cyborgs, and automata. In an engaging, sophisticated, and accessible presentation, Despina Kakoudaki argues that, in their narrative and cultural deployment, artificial people demarcate what it means to be human. They perform this function by offering us a non-human version of ourselves as a site of investigation. Artificial people teach us that being human, being a person or a self, is a constant process and often a matter of legal, philosophical, and political struggle.

By analyzing a wide range of literary texts and films (including episodes from Twilight Zone, the fiction of Philip K. Dick, Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go, Metropolis, The Golem, Frankenstein, The Terminator, Iron Man, Blade Runner, and I, Robot), and going back to alchemy and to Aristotle's Physics and De Anima, she tracks four foundational narrative elements in this centuries-old discourse-- the fantasy of the artificial birth, the fantasy of the mechanical body, the tendency to represent artificial people as slaves, and the interpretation of artificiality as an existential trope. What unifies these investigations is the return of all four elements to the question of what constitutes the human.

This focused approach to the topic of the artificial, constructed, or mechanical person allows us to reconsider the creation of artificial life. By focusing on their historical provenance and textual versatility, Kakoudaki elucidates artificial people's main cultural function, which is the political and existential negotiation of what it means to be a person.


Stories and films featuring robots, cyborgs, androids, or automata often stage scenes that depict opening the artificial body: someone ejects a face plate, pulls back artificial skin, removes a skull covering, reveals a chest panel, lifts clothing, or pushes a button, thereby rendering visible the insides of the fascinating human-like machine. The interior space may include flashing computer lights, elaborate wiring, metal surfaces, old-fashioned cogs and wheels, or sophisticated electronic equipment. Sometimes the inside is stark in its clean modern efficiency, a gleaming metal box, but it can also be gooey, shocking, or opaque, display a minimalist emptiness, or reveal incongruous skeletal structures that seem unlikely as weight-bearing supports. In their technological interpretation of anatomical structures and process, such narrative moments enact a foundational gesture of revelation as well as of implicit seduction, suggesting that the act of opening will deliver new meanings, that the inside might explain the outside, or that in contrast to the fleshy mysteries of the organic body the robot’s interior will be understandable, logical, or orderly.

Familiar though it may be, what does this impulse toward anatomy reveal? And what do we expect to find when we look inside a robot? The act of opening cannot help but promise clarity or understanding, even when it unveils a confusing interface behind the removable face, fascinating but misleading surfaces inside the body, and pseudo-scientific or fetishistic textures throughout. Anatomical gestures imply an expectation of equivalence between artificial and organic bodies, evident even in negative descriptions, such as “it had flashing lights instead of eyes” or “there was a speaker where its mouth should have been.” Even when the robot’s interior promises to have no secrets and no embarrassing fluids, or when its mechanical efficiency inspires the wish for replaceable body parts and the absence of pain, the transposition of the materiality of the human . . .

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