“In Hoffman’s novella, Olimpia is an object both created and destroyed by the world of men. The main part of the story tells of Coppelius—part alchemist, part magician, part mad-scientist—who, with the assistance of Professor Spalanzani, creates a life-like automaton that they pass off as the latter’s daughter. The scheme is designed to beguile and entrap the innocent and the one such is the young artist Nathanael. In a critique of the Romantic artistic temperament itself, Nathanael leaves his fiancé Clara as she no longer acts as a mirror to his passions, ironically, calling her a ‘damned lifeless automaton!” before running to his new love Olimpia…She is an inherently Gothic figure as she is not only an uncanny double to a real human—she replaces Clara—but she is also a mirror image of the artist himself. This sees her as not just ‘manmade’ but, in her role of Doppelgänger, as being literally made of Man…Olimpia is a manifestation of this degeneracy while acting as a conduit or mirror to pass it on or reflect it onto other men.
It is hardly surprising then that, as the story reaches its climax, she is literally torn apart by these forces trying to control her or remake her in their own image…
The construction of Olimpia’s femininity is worth examining further as it informs much of the uncanny status of her recurring afterlives. Her womanliness is purely a product of male, patriarchal domination seeing her appearance being created by men for the consumption of other men… Jeffrey A. Brown observes that women and robots can be seen to occupy a very similar status within patriarchal society as a ‘standardized, consumable and indeed replaceable form.’ …
Elissa Marder takes this idea even further and back to the foundations of western civilization in Greek mythology, specifically to the story of Pandora. In Marder’s reading Pandora, the ‘first woman,’ was fabricated by Hephaestus and so was ‘a manufactured product…an android, a robot, or a replicant.’ Further, she speculates that Pandora’s ‘maternal’ jar could be understood as a ‘mechanical reproduction’ of the womb rather than as its representation, which simultaneously posits that the manufactured female body is innately duplicitous in its emptiness, even more so when it looks like a living human, as when Olimpia takes the place of Nathanael’s biological fiancée and future bearer of his children. This mechanical doppelgänger symbolically castrates the young man casting such ‘women’ as inherently evil.
…Huyssen himself sees the urn—the vessel she appears from to perform her dance—as the found of Robot Maria’s second birth, but by introducing Pandora, this becomes a rebirth beyond male control. Although she draws the male-gaze, she uses it for her own ends, constructing her as an active agent in the disruption she causes and not just a puppet or mannequin of male desire.
..The T-X robot [of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines], as with Robot-Maria, should be genderless, a point accentuated by the fact it is able to change its shape at will, yet it is marked at all stages as feminine, even when only its ‘skeleton’ is left.
…Unlike T-X, Ava [of Ex Machina] is never mistaken for a human—everyone involved knows that she is a machine—but she is able to learn and manipulate human emotions….Ava’s femininity is interesting as, like all robots, she should be without gender, but her creator has given her a typically female build…Yet the narrative shows that Ava has modified her own looks and her ways of interacting with Caleb from monitoring the porn sites he surfs from his work computer—this last part is important as it suggests that Ava is able to ‘send’ her consciousness out into the internet. The film does not explore this aspect very much but it means that she is potentially hugely powerful and yet choose to remain in her ‘human’ body. This sees her having a form of individual agency that creates a very specific relationship between herself and the male gaze and male control.”
-Simon Bacon “Remaking Olimpia: Agency and the Gothic Afterlives of ‘female’ Automata” in Gothic Afterlives: Reincarnations of Horror in Film and Popular Media edited by Lorna Piatti-Farnell
An excerpt from the article:
The dream of building minds is an old one. How old? You may be surprised to learn that the ancient Greeks had myths about robots. In “Gods and Robots,” Stanford science historian Adrienne Mayor describes how, more than 2,500 years before the modern computer, people told tales of autonomous machines that could labor, entertain, kill and seduce.
Among them was Talos, a bronze automaton forged by Hephaestus, god of metalworking, to guard the island of Crete. This machine, the size of the Statue of Liberty, patrolled the shore hurling boulders at invaders. (In 1948, the name Talos was given to a partly autonomous missile.) Hephaestus’s human descendant Daedalus was said to craft animated statues of animals so lifelike they needed to be tied up. Pandora, another of Hephaestus’s creations, was an android sent to curse humanity. She entices Epimetheus (“afterthought”) to let her into his home, where she lifts the lid on her woeful jar. (“Box” is a mistranslation.) While Pandora was a one-trick pony — narrow AI — “The Iliad” describes Hephaestus’s golden serving girls as having “sense and reason . . . [and] all the learning of the immortals.” AGI, and then some.
Eastern traditions also featured robots. Indian legend has mechanical soldiers defending the remains of the Buddha. And an ancient Chinese tale has a robotic man dance and flirt with royal concubines, angering King Mu before its creator reveals its artificial nature. That people could even picture such technical feats thousands of years ago may seem a stretch, but they had catapults, voting machines and other automated mechanisms from which to extrapolate. We don’t have anything near time travel, and we can still enjoy “The Terminator.”
In “Gods and Robots,” Mayor carefully examines secondary and source material — writings and artwork — to discern the ancients’ views on minds both supernatural and soulless. She takes an academic tone (her book and Sejnowski’s are from university presses) but draws occasional parallels to modern sci-fi movies such as “Blade Runner” and “Ex Machina,” arguing that our concerns about artificial life haven’t changed much. “The age-old stories,” she writes, “raise questions of free will, slavery, the origins of evil, man’s limits, and what it means to be human.” Can we control our creations? Can our creators control us? Are we robots — in Plato’s words “ingenious puppet[s] of the gods”?
Mayor wonders if Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates, who have warned that AI could kill us all, are “the Promethean Titans of our era.” She calls the stories in her book “good to think with.” And not just for us. Mayor foresees a day when AIs will read our fictions and come to understand us through them.
‘But just why are automatons so attractive? And just what is this “perfect woman” anyway? Rounding up a veritable sorority of artificial Eves, Julie Wosk delves into the issues in her latest book My Fair Ladies, casting an analytical eye over female depictions, both physical and fictitious, to explore the history and the future of Woman 2.0.
The fantasy is far from a modern phenomenon. Even in Ancient Rome, poets were toying with the notion of crafting their ideal partner. “In Ovid’s myth of Pygmalion [he’s] dissatisfied with real women so he creates a beautiful sculpture,” explains Wosk. Since then the “perfect woman” has found herself depicted in myriad forms, from physical automatons to slick celluloid creations. But whatever their form, the underlying traits are often strikingly similar. “I think the notion of perfection has long been imbibed with this idea of a woman who is docile and easily controlled, compliant and unthreatening and that she is somehow superior to real women because of that,” says Wosk. “And almost always they love to cook, are sexually available and they share men’s interests.” Silence, it would seem, is also perceived as golden: “In a lot of [the films] the woman doesn’t talk,” says Wosk.’
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[“BLA and GB Gabbler” (really just a pen name – singular) are the Editor and Narrator behind THE AUTOMATION, vol. 1 of the Circo del Herrero series. They are on facebook, twitter, tumblr, goodreads, and Vulcan’s shit list.]