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Modernism/modernity 10.3 (2003) 481-500

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The Work of Art in the Age of Biocybernetic Reproduction

W. J. T. Mitchell


Until you were born, robots didn't dream, they didn't have desires.
—Said to the robot boy David by his designer—AI Stephen Spielberg

The life of images has taken a decisive turn in our time: the oldest myth about the creation of living images, the fabrication of an intelligent organism by artificial, technical means, has now become a theoretical and practical possibility thanks to new constellations of media at many different levels. The convergence of genetic and computational technologies with new forms of speculative capital has turned cyberspace and biospace, the inner structure of organisms, into frontiers for technical innovation, appropriation, and exploitation—new forms of objecthood and territoriality for a new form of empire. In AI, Stephen Spielberg registers this change by telling a story about the invention of an image that is, quite literally, a "desiring machine." David, the contemporary answer to Pinocchio, is a robot boy with dreams and desires, and with an apparently fully elaborated human subjectivity. He is programmed to love and to demand love, a demand that becomes so obsessive (he is in competition with his real human "brother" for the love of his mother) that he is rejected and becomes an orphan. To the question, "What do pictures want?" the answer in this instance is clear: they want to be loved, and to be "real."

The genius of AI is not in its narrative, which is full of clunky, implausible moments, but in its vision of a new world and its [End Page 481] new objects. David is a perfectly photogenic, adorable simulacrum of a boy who is loveable and endearing in every way. The filmic point of view encourages us to identify with him throughout, and to despise his mother for rejecting him. Yet underlying the sickeningly sweet fantasy of mother-son bliss (a utopian resolution of the Oedipus complex?) is the horror of the double, the encounter with one's own mirror image rendered autonomous, a horror that even the robot boy is capable of feeling when he sees scores of his own duplicates on the assembly line, ready to be packaged for the Christmas shopping season. The fantasy of AI, then, is a kind of extreme exaggeration of the uncanny, when the old, familiar phobia or superstition is realized in an unexpected way. This fantasy was, of course, always already predicted from the moment of the creation of Adam from the red clay of the ground, the creation of the first drawing with the red earth of vermilion, the casting of the Golden Calf from Egyptian gold. In our time, the materials are organic substances, proteins, cells, DNA molecules, and the shaping, casting procedures are computational. This is the age of biocybernetic reproduction, when (as we suppose) images really do come alive and want things. What follows is an attempt to sketch out a thick description of this moment, and to assess some of the artistic practices that have accompanied it.

The current revolutions in biology and computers signified here by the images of the double helix and the Turing Machine (figs. 1 and 2) and their implications for ethics and politics raise a host of new questions for which the arts, traditional humanistic disciplines, and Enlightenment modes of rationality may seem ill-prepared. What good is it even to talk about the human if a humanist like Katherine Hayles is right in arguing that we live in a post-human age? 1 What is the point of asking the great philosophical questions about the meaning of life, when we seem to be on the verge of reducing this most ancient question of metaphysics to what Giorgio Agamben has called "bare life," a matter of technical means, a calculable chemical process? 2 And what about the ancient mystery of death in a time of neomorts, indefinitely extended comas, and organ transplants? Is death now merely a problem to be solved by engineering and adjudicated...