Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Introduction: Our Automated Bodies/ Our Selves

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Introduction: Our Automated Bodies/ Our Selves

Article excerpt

What is an automated body? What constitutes automaticity or makes an action or an impulse automatic? What is the difference between an automatic--or reflex--response to stimulus and an automated-machinic--response? What is the difference between a body that is constituted as a machine and a body that is self-acting in the way we understand the human body to be? Is an automated body always a machine? Is a human body always not a machine? Or always one? This special double issue of English Studies in Canada arises in response to a recent proliferation of narratives in which automated bodies call into question the nature of humanness, both as it is comprehensible in relation to the machinic and to "artificially" constituted elements (AI, prosthetics, and more) and as it is measured by the ways in which humans respond to humanoid bodies.

In recent representations, that is, the ways in which humans intersect and interact with humanoid entities mark the automated body as a site of anxiety not only about technology and humanness, or humanity as "the human race," but humanity as kindness or benevolence--or, in other words, the ways humans behave to each other, the desires and impulses that can be exercised on humanoids if not on "actual" humans, the limits of love and cruelty. Although the essays in this issue do not all or necessarily respond to the texts of this moment, they undertake an engagement that can be understood in the context of the same questions raised by contemporary representations: Are we automated? Are automated bodies us? Who is in control?

These, at any rate, are the kinds of questions arguably at the heart of recent films such as Alex Garland's 2015 Ex Machina, television series such as HEO's 2016 Westworld or the 2015 series Mr. Robot and Humans, and books such as Paolo Bacigalupi's 2009 The Windup Girl, to name only a handful of the early twenty-first-century narratives in which the relationships of automated and human bodies are salient and complicated and in which control operates as a narrative crux: thus the marketing of Mr. Robot with the tagline "Control is an illusion" and of Humans as a story of entities who are "Made in our image. Out of our control" The tagline for Westworld, "Every hero has a code," similarly foregrounds the pivoting of the narrative on the balance of power between the machine and the human. While the representation of relationships between humans and machines is not new--such representation is evident long before the industrial revolution and the machine age in, for instance, Da Vinci's late fifteenth-century automaton (1)--recent robot stories tend to depart from the construction of robot friends and enemies as visibly machine and to demonstrate anxiety about human inability not only to control the machine but to recognize the machine as "other." That is, in recent representations, the ability to distinguish between humans and robots has become increasingly urgent, as the production of humanoid machines has moved away from the clearly machinic--Gort in the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still, Rosie the maid in the 1960s Hanna-Barbera animated series The Jetsons, Paul Verhoeven's 1987 RoboCop--and toward a commodity valuing of the apparent humanness of the machine. Series such as Westworld represent robot designers and robotic system coders who are driven to make the theme park's android "hosts" as human as possible, as part of what makes their services even more desirable to the "real" human users.

Anxiety about the inability to recognize robots is not, of course, a phenomenon only of the past couple of decades. Ridley Scott's 1982 film Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick's 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, in which former detective Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) needs to find humanoid workers who have escaped from the offworld colonies where they function as slave labour, is able in the film to determine the madeness of the "replicants" only by their serial numbered parts; even the empathy test designed to distinguish androids from humans does not provide indisputable results. …

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