“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
“Jack Pierce’s makeup design for the creature furthers the film’s criticism of technology by making him look like an automaton created by an industrialized society. Karloff’s flat head and neck bolts were a throwback to the original idea of the monster as half-man, half robot inspired by earlier films like Metropolis (1923) and Karloff carried this robotic impression through in his performance of the creature’s stiff-legged gait. The robotic quality of Karloff’s creature speaks to contemporary fear that society’s ‘devotion to science and industry, reason and rationality [was] rendering [people] less human.’ The robotic, fragmented look of Karloff’s creature represents a significant shift in how the monster was adapted. Instead of ‘Mary Shelley’s well-proportioned but scary creature, her new Adam, and instead of Presumption’s dark haired brute in a blue body=stocking, the monster became a more literal thing of scars and stitches and skewers.’ The evolution of the creature from a coherent whole to a thing stitched together form different parts is a powerful metaphor for how modern advancements in technology had fragmented the self. According to Szollosy these feelings of fragmentation were the result of people projecting their unconscious fears of becoming automatons onto the creature as ‘excessive splitting and projections can leave one feeling fragmented, in pieces.’” – Jeanette Laredo, “Unmade and Remade: Trauma and Modern Adaptations of Frankenstein” in Gothic Afterlives: Reincarnations of Horror in Film and Popular Media
Robots are typically seen as having no consciousness. But potentially they have the highest kind: equanimity. This is the emotion Buddhism counts as among the most sublime. The Buddha evidently described the equanimous mind as “abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility, and without ill will.” My Roomba is certainly without hostility and ill will. Going about her daily rounds, she’s something like blithe—both self-contained and indifferent to human value systems. As for abundant, exalted, and immeasurable, I can’t be sure. How to measure these things, or is that what “immeasurable” means?
Like any totally-normal-not-at-all-obsessed person, I spend a lot of time thinking about automatons.
Mostly, I shake my fist at the sky like an old man complaining that kids these days only like their sleek, human-passing, electric robots and no one cares about the wind, fire, water, and clockwork powered beings that preceded them. Is MonkBot not sexy? With that sweet, sweet segmented mouth action?
Automatons are usually thought of as no different from golems, living dolls, or patchwork girls. Just another category of animated being: nifty, sure, but so what? But automatons are, and have always been, important. And for two thousand years we knew that.
In the arc of human invention, automatons predate paper. That means before we thought “sure would be nice to write things in a convenient and portable manner” we thought “sure would be nice to have an inhuman creation in our shape that moves.” Then we immediately looked at this thing we’d made and instead of believing we’d become gods, we thought we’d created them. In ancient Rome and Egypt, as well as during the medieval period, automatons were representations of the divine. Even after they shifted into the realm of entertainment, automatons were singular wonders, art that brought joy to the viewer.
By remembering automatons we remember how the prioritization of art can become bulldozed by wants of industry, the miraculous giving way to the profitable. These creations are still essential to study, because when humans create in their own image they also create a tangible snapshot of the values and visions of the world at that moment. Sometimes, that image is of religious devotion. Sometimes, it’s an image of intellectual curiosity and wonder. But sometimes they are darker, cautionary tales exposing how power operates against the powerless.