- The Existential Robot
Despite the long history of the genre, we continue telling and listening to stories about robots and other artificial people. What’s more, The Stepford Wives (1975; 2004) notwithstanding, surprisingly few narratives about robots and clones can be considered camp. We generally play it straight, and we play it over and over again, with a broad repertoire of variations and twists. We see a particularly fertile variety of uses for these figures across a range of recent work, including the television show Orphan Black (2014–15), Alex Garland’s film Ex Machina (2015), and fiction by Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, Paolo Bacigalupi, Kim Stanley Robinson, and others. Particularly as crossovers between science fiction and literary fiction grow more and more common, students and scholars of contemporary literature find a pressing need to account for the work that robots perform in narrative.
The robot and the artificial person have been the subject of science fiction criticism for some time, and they make for a good case study in how we read. The trope of the robot imposter has long been an obvious candidate for older forms of symptomatic reading, in which the robots in a particular text might represent deep-seated anxieties about conformity, or technological change, or the alienation of labor. Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” famously challenged critics [End Page 695] to think of machinic artificiality as a feature, not a bug, of late-twentieth-century life and politics, an approach that generated many accounts of positively inflected cyborgs.1 Beginning with How We Became Posthuman, N. Katherine Hayles and other posthumanists have focused on the determining force of cybernetic-oriented thought and media technology in contemporary culture.2 These analyses often pose the literature of robotics at the vanguard, as works positioned to see humanity’s future in physical, media-perceptual, or philosophical terms. That conversation has yet to converge with more historically oriented work, such as the historian Minsoo Kang’s recent Sublime Dreams of Living Machines.3 Kang looks to the long literary and philosophical history of automata, from antiquity to the present, and frames his study around the phenomenological tension of how we perceive people and objects differently. Confusion between the two makes way for powerful aesthetic effects, including Bergsonian laughter and the Freudian and Jentschian uncanny. The cognitive literary critic Lisa Zunshine has reached similar but more limited conclusions about our perception of objects and people but baked them into a universalizing evolutionary framework.4
The robot thus raises political, technological, and aesthetic questions and problems, and Despina Kakoudaki’s Anatomy of a Robot: Literature, Cinema, and the Cultural Work of Artificial People offers a unique and noteworthy approach to bringing them together. Anatomy of a Robot explores first and foremost the philosophical questions associated with artificial people, but it does so by analyzing the themes that recur across historical periods in robot and quasi robot narratives. Kakoudaki calls her methodology “roughly structuralist” (26), by which I understand the author to be establishing some distance from historicist and particularly technologically [End Page 696] determined accounts of robots’ significance, in order to deal with a larger “network of historical and philosophical meanings” (13) that reach into other periods. This strategy is useful, since many of the questions that animate contemporary narratives about robots have long literary and philosophical histories worth looking into. In its treatment of genre, Kakoudaki’s approach thus seems to me not dissimilar to Wai Chee Dimock’s recent work on the “deep time” of American and world literature, and Kakoudaki is unafraid of finding similarities between Philip K. Dick’s existential vertigo in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and E. T. A. Hoffmann’s similar aesthetic effects in “The Sandman” (1816).5 Importantly for such an approach, Anatomy of a Robot does pay attention to works’ historical contexts when they bear on the readings, though overall the book is more interested in tracing generic continuities than in delineating historical discontinuities.
Whereas Kang’s history of...