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Slaves of Reason:
Perversion Among the Robots   


Louis Armand

 

In 1950, Alan Turing, often considered the father of modern computing, devised a test for determining a machine’s capacity to exhibit intelligent behaviour. Turing’s avowed purpose, outlined in his paper ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’, was to consider the question: ‘can machines think?’ The form of the Turing Test reflects significantly upon this question. In it, an examiner interrogates two unseen test subjects who provide printed responses to a set of questions. On the basis of these responses, the examiner is required to determine which of the test subjects is human and which is machine. While Turing quickly dismissed the notion of thinking machines as ‘too meaningless to deserve discussion’, he did propose that ‘intelligence’, at least, could be defined practically as a measure of imitation. That is to say, if a human is considered intelligent by virtue of being human, then if a machine is capable of exhibiting behaviour that closely imitates that of a human test subject – to the extent it can fool a human examiner – for all intents and purposes, the machine ought to be deemed intelligent. Deciding whether or not a machine can think, or even what thinking is, is a different business entirely.

   

   

In its initial conception, the Turing Test required subjects that were not human and machine, but male and female, where it is the interrogator’s job to distinguish their gender. The fact that Turing’s artificial intelligence test is modelled on a gender test is instructive. Among other things, it serves as a reminder that all forms of testing are founded upon a set of hypothetical norms which its results are expected to either conform to or deviate from. The difficulty, as Turing’s paper points out, is in crediting the norm and in defining what sort of expectations should be attached to it, and how such expectations might be objectified. Specifically, at stake here is what we might call the human hypothesis. There is the risk, Turing warns, that machines may ‘carry out something which ought to be described as thinking but which is very different from what a man does’ – to the extent that ‘machine intelligence’ per se might in fact be unrecognisable in human terms; it would have no analogue. And here is the dilemma: when we speak of intelligence in the universal, are we not resorting to a type of pathetic fallacy, the last line of defence of sentimental humanism?

 

The Turing test ultimately tells us less about what intelligence is or may be, and more about the assumptions involved in deciding what being human is. To complicate matters, as Turing freely admits, the test itself is one of these assumptions. Evoking a species of ‘observer paradox’, Turing’s test presents us with an enchanted mirror, in which the image perceived is not so much a reflection as the simulation of what we expect to see.

   

   

This scenario is adeptly replayed in Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner (1982), an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. In Blade Runner, the Turing Test is transformed into the Voight-Kampff test, a kind of polygraph designed to distinguish Replicants from human beings, on the basis of a test-subject’s empathic response to a set of questions. A Replicant, in Blade Runner-speak, is a type of android, a bio-engineered robot essentially the same in conception as the original robots described in Karel Čapek’s 1923 stage play, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) – which is to say, not so much machines as artificial humans, manufactured (or rather grown) from a protoplasm of synthetic organic matter. Context is provided by the film’s opening titles:

   

 

Early in the 21st Century, the tyrell corporation advanced Robot evolution into the nexus phase – a being virtually identical to a human – known as a Replicant.

      The nexus 6 Replicants were superior in strength and agility, and at least equal in intelligence, to the genetic engineers who created them.

      Replicants were used Off-world as slave labor, in the hazardous exploration and colonization of other planets.

      After a bloody mutiny by a nexus 6 combat team in an Off-world colony, Replicants were declared illegal on earth – under penalty of death.

      Special police squads – blade runner units – had orders to shoot to kill, upon detection, any trespassing Replicant.

      This was not called execution.

      It was called retirement.

   

Glib forms of linguistic sanitation, such as ‘retirement’, have long been a commonplace of US Defence Department press conferences, and belie an ongoing technicisation of the military-entertainment complex that pretends to separate death (really we mean killing, if not precisely murder) from responsible human agency. Here the alibi is provided by the fact that the ‘retirees’ – nexus 6 Replicants – aren’t ‘real people’. It’s an alibi that’s been tried before: the ‘enemy’ is traditionally bestialised, here they are robotised (although in the film, as a sign of the times, they’re also made to appear as a troupe of 1980s urban freaks).

   

   

We are reminded of the original etymology of artist Josef Čapek’s coinage of the word robot, as ‘slave labour’. Robots, accorded the low status of the unenfranchised, are likewise criminalised the moment they trespass upon the ‘sovereign’ human sphere – and although not accorded ‘life’ in its full, human sense, they are freely accorded an extrajudicial ‘death’, subject to an indiscriminate extermination order, a Vernichtungsbefehl. The Blade Runner Units, whose job it is to implement this order, function like the Kripteia of ancient Sparta – death squads who roamed the countryside, executing ‘transgressive’ slaves. Or like the Ku Klux Klan. Or the Einsatzgruppen.

   

   

The film opens at Tyrell Corporation headquarters, in a drab, bureaucratic setting in stark contrast to the futuristic cityscape outside its windows. A Blade Runner called Holden is about to administer a Voight-Kampff test to a recent employee, Leon Kowalski, suspected of being an escaped Replicant:

   

 

Holden: You’re in a desert, walking along in the sand when all of a sudden you look down and see a ...

Leon: What one?

Holden: What?

Leon: What desert?

Holden: Doesn’t make any difference what desert ... it’s completely hypothetical.

Leon: But how come I’d be there?

Holden: Maybe you’re fed up, maybe you want to be by yourself ... who knows. So you look down and see a tortoise. It’s crawling toward you ...

Leon: A tortoise. What’s that?

Holden: Know what a turtle is?

Leon: Of course.

Holden: Same thing.

Leon: I never seen a turtle … But I understand what you mean.

Holden: You reach down and flip the tortoise over on its back, Leon.

Leon: You make up these questions, Mr Holden, or do they write ‘em down for you?

Holden: The tortoise lays on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun, beating its legs trying to turn itself over. But it can’t. Not with out your help. But you’re not helping.

Leon: Whatya means, I’m not helping?

Holden: I mean you’re not helping. Why is that, Leon?

   

Like the Turing test, the Voight-Kampff test begins with a human hypothesis, and not a very persuasive one: that empathy is an innate characteristic that distinguishes humans from non-humans, and is expressed in specific, quantifiable ways. Of course we know this isn’t the case, but the value of such failed hypotheses is that they expose the fundamentally narcissistic character of a process that secretly operates in reverse from its avowed purpose, since its real aim is to affirm the humanity or intelligence of the examiner while arbitrarily placing that of the subject in doubt. In the case of the Turing Test, it reduces intelligence to a second guess disguised as reasoned judgement; in the case of Voight-Kampff, it reduces humanity to a stereotype – which is to say, to a verbal construct, a type of linguistic automaton, precisely the sort of caricature Turing hypothesises it to be in its simulated ‘machine’ mode.

 

These reductions, as grotesque or ironic as they may appear to us, provide the protocols for a future programming – in other words, they form the basis of a lesson in conformity. For Turing, the very premise of an artificial intelligence test resides in the question: ‘Are there imaginable digital computers which would do well in the imitation game?’ The very idea of the game presupposes that there will be, because that is how they will subsequently be programmed to behave – just as intelligence testing in general presupposes an educational system geared to producing complementary results: the anticipation itself is the test’s premise and its ineradicable flaw. In short, while the question of intelligence presupposes an autonomous idea – sometimes referred to as ‘universal intelligence’ (we might call it Reason) – at the same time, it exposes this idea’s purely definitional character. There is no objective measure of intelligence; like all forms of normativity, there is only an appeal to consensus.

 

This has many implications. Not only might intelligence in its ‘universal’ ramification be something beyond our grasp, so might our own humanity. The assumptions invoked to distinguish humans from machines just as readily expose a secret anxiety that we are, in one manner of speaking or another, already machines. This is hardly a novel proposition: it is an idea implicit in every myth of creation. In contemporary popular culture, it is a theme most frequently visited in the genre of science fiction, for reasons that are not necessarily obvious. In any case, regardless of the degree to which we are willing to invest in the ‘science’ of such creation narratives, there is always the available disclaimer of their being purely in the service of ‘fiction’. In this regard, science fiction is one of the few cultural forms whose unverifiability is almost always treated literally – and this literality is taken as conditional for our imaginative engagement with it; it is, in fact, a form of insistence, an open scepticism serving to reinforce a faith in our unique ‘humanity’. Profoundly mythopoetic narratives, like the Old Testament, are meanwhile allowed broad metaphoric and allegorical latitude in asserting their claims of universal truth. A curious anxiety attaches to science fiction, which distinguishes itself from theological narratives of redemption by frequently implying, even in a sublimated way, the future obsolescence of mankind. In the Bible, of course, the universe ends when we do.

 

In his 1989 book The Sublime Object of Ideology, Slavoj Žižek identifies a recurring trope on which precisely such an anxiety appears to hinge. This is what I will call the Blade Runner moment. The story, writes Žižek:

   

 

is usually told from the perspective of a hero who gradually makes the horrifying discovery that all the people around him are not really human beings but some kind of automatons, robots, who only look and act like real human beings; the final point of these stories is of course the hero’s discovery that he himself is also such an automaton and not a real human being. (1)

 

 

1. Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989), p. 47.  


In Blade Runner, the story centres on the threat of human society being infiltrated by escaped robots who cannot be told apart from us. Robots who might be us. And by declensions, that we might be them – trapped unbeknownst to ourselves in a posthuman future: a future that is in effect nothing but a prosthesis of history, since history itself – as that humanism par excellence, the discourse of Reason – will already have ended, as Francis Fukuyama might say.

   

   

The major protagonist of Scott’s film is Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a formerly retired Blade Runner, reactivated in light of a recently detected group of Replicants who have returned to Earth – presented in microcosm by a dystopian Los Angeles circa 2019 – with the intention, as we soon discover, of confronting their maker, Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel). As in R.U.R., this slaves’ revolt evokes certain Biblical comparisons. It is the story of Paradise Lost all over again, married to The Return of the Prodigal Son – stories whose moral is nothing if not relative. What remains, however, is the perennial question: Who is master, who is slave? Plus the question implied but never directly stated in Turing’s test hypothesis: how arbitrary is the distinction? As the ‘illegitimate’ son Edmund says in Shakespeare’s King Lear:

   

 

Why bastard? Wherefore base?

My mind is as generous and my shape as true,

As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us

With base? With baseness? Bastardy? Base, base? [I.ii.6-10]

   

One of Deckard’s first tasks in Blade Runner is to visit to the offices of Tyrell Corporation to subject a new nexus prototype to the Voight-Kampff test. The Tyrell building is a dressed-up future-noir version of the Temple of the Sun at Teotihuacan in Mexico. Obviously it is meant to be the House of God. Eldon Tyrell, the corporation’s founder, demands that Deckard first demonstrate the test on his assistant, Rachel, explaining that he wants to see it ‘work on a person … I want to see a negative before I provide you with a positive’. Rachel doubts Deckard’s motivations: ‘It seems you feel our work is not a benefit to the public’, she says. Deckard replies: ‘Replicants are like any other machine. They’re either a benefit or a hazard. If they’re a benefit, it’s not my problem’.

   

   

As the test proceeds, the ‘questions’ fall broadly into two categories, dealing with sex and death – primarily killing and eating:

   

 

You’re watching a stage play. A banquet is in progress. The guests are enjoying an appetizer of raw oysters. The entrée consists of boiled dog …

   

In a nod to the test’s originally genderised Turing model, Rachel interrupts Deckard at a certain point (‘You’re reading a magazine. You come across a full-page nude photo of a girl …’) to demand: ‘Is this to test whether I’m a Replicant or a lesbian, Mr Deckard?’

   

   

In Blade Runner, the issue of sexuality is never clear-cut. Next to the question of whether or not a machine can be intelligent seems to be posed the question: What does it mean for a machine to experience desire? This is wholly different from the sexualisation of machines, which has a long history. Indeed, the story of Genesis in the Old Testament centres upon the invention of a sexual prosthesis, first in the objectification of feminine desire (sin), and second in the technologisation of ‘creation’ as reproduction (atonement). Likewise, Blade Runner presents female Replicants as dedicated or potential sex-machines, or ‘pleasure models’, programmed according to an array of gender stereotypes. Robot desire is regarded as pure simulation in the service of human masters – the robots themselves are not supposed to experience pleasure; to suggest otherwise would be somehow perverse. When the Replicants express sexual emotions among themselves, there is always the suggestion that this is nothing but simulated transgression – mechanical toys getting up to mischief in their masters’ absence. Or else a type of mechanical bestialism, devoid of the sentimentality humans frequently attach to the sex act – the way we might view dogs, or as formerly human slaves were viewed.

   

   

The question of desire is not limited to sexuality, although sexual objectification is symptomatic of a broader dehumanisation in relation to desire. Running throughout the film is a sub-plot about colonialism. The inhabitants of Scott’s Los Angeles are constantly bombarded with animated billboard messages: ‘A new life awaits you in the off-world colonies, the chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure …’. It is the function of the Replicants to serve as slave-labour in these colonies, and their status may be likened to that of the ‘colonial subject’. We are reminded that one of the features of colonialism is the enforced schizophrenia of assimilation and segregation – in Blade Runner, it is the demand to be ‘more human than human’ (which is the Tyrell corporate slogan) while at the same time being denigrated as non-human.

   

   

The master-slave relation that pertains between humans and Replicants inevitably produces a situation in which a desire to be human is encouraged, while a strict prohibition is set against its actual realisation: the Replicant’s ‘desire’ is never permitted to be more than a vestige of the ‘imitation game’. Which is to say, it is never permitted to be more than a reflection of the Master’s desire. When the Replicants begin to experience the emergence of an autonomous ‘self-consciousness’, they also experience the emergence of an emancipatory desire.

   

   

It would be easy to view the murder of Tyrell by the Replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) towards the end of Blade Runner as being occasioned by a ‘neurotic’ desire to become human – as much as by any impulse towards destruction or emancipation. Batty, the leader of the group of escaped nexus-6 Replicants who Deckard has been tasked to hunt down and ‘retire’, articulates this desire as a reasoned response to his having been denied a fully-realised life: Tyrell, we learn, has genetically engineered a terminator gene in the nexus-6 series, which limits their lifespan to four years. Batty’s desire to become human is supposed therefore to originate in the realisation that, although an intelligent ‘being’, he is not … human. If we accept this view, the ensuing action is driven by a kind of irrational desperation. The desire for the impossible. (2)

   

 

2. Consequently, we can see how in R.U.R. the figure of the robot actually functions in two ways: in the first instance, as the menial performer of tasks dictated to it by the ‘human’ agents of reason; in the second, as instruments of their own emancipation, but only insofar as this emancipation involves a ‘becoming human’, i.e., by learning to submit to reason.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


But there is something more to it, a perversion of the robot ‘ego’ which is intensified by this accelerated ‘death drive’ of the four year terminator gene. Batty’s murder of Tyrell is ecstatic, the passion of a transcendental suicide. If, as psychoanalysis suggests, ‘perversion is in the unconscious of the neurotic as phantasy of the Other’, (3) then the question of empathy may in fact devolve on a kind of autism: an empathic over-investment in the regard of the Other, in the human, rather than a lack of empathy as such. The formula cogito ergo sum, as the measure of intelligent being, is displaced by the neurotic insistence that, if the Other (the Master) thinks of me, then I exist, and my existence transcends my condition. In the words of media theorist McKenzie Wark: ‘Post human? All too human’. (4) The true purpose of the Voight-Kampff test, then, is to expose the slave’s dialectical investment in the consciousness of the master: in reality, the Replicant’s affective disorder stems from an over-anxiety to satisfy the desire of the Other, the Master, the interrogator – who has no desire, in fact, other than for the subject to fail.

 

3. Jacques Lacan, ‘The Subversion of the Subject and Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious’, in V.E. Taylor & C.E. Winquist (eds), Postmodernism: Foundational Essays (London: Routledge, 1998), p. 746.  

4. McKenzie Wark, ‘Post Human? All Too Human’, World Art (May 2000).  


   

Blade Runner ends on a similarly ambiguous note. Like R.U.R., the action resolves into a ‘sexual’ drama between the supposed Blade Runner Deckard and the assumed Replicant Rachel. In R.U.R., the play ends with Helena and Primus, the only two robots imbued with the ability to reproduce, effectively re-staging the Adam and Eve story – going off to found a new race after the robot armies have destroyed all human life on the planet. The implication is clear: this new race will effectively be indistinguishable from the one it has overcome. It will be, quite literally, the master race. The theme of eugenics remains consistent throughout.

   

   

In Blade Runner, the sexual drama is already inaugurated at the moment of the Voight-Kampff test Deckard administers to Rachel. This quasi-voyeuristic act enables Deckard to discover that, unbeknownst to herself, Rachel is in fact a Replicant. Rachel, who has been led to believe that she’s human, has even been implanted with memories belonging to Tyrell’s niece. She carries a photograph of her ‘mother’, who could actually be anyone since she only exists in a photograph. Her immediate response is understandably one of denial, but also shame: how would a human being respond to being told that they are not really human, that their memories are implants? Which begs the question about the efficacy of any form of empathic testing vested in the faith we ourselves, the purportedly human, have in our own humanity – what we might call the affective fallacy.

 

During their first encounter, Rachel pointedly asks Deckard if he has ever ‘retired a human by mistake’. Deckard says ‘no’, but his answer immediately admits an unwelcome thought – that the reason he has never retired a human by mistake is that there are no humans left, just as there are no animals in this world that are not manufactured in labs. Indeed, just about everything in 2019 Los Angeles seems to be synthetic, existing on a kind of artificial life-support. It is just possible that humanity is nothing but propaganda for a status quo; that what we’re seeing is R.U.R’.s ‘posthuman’ future of the robot master race, created in the image of lost gods.

   

   

When Rachel confronts Deckard in distress after his discovery that she is a Replicant, his response to her is markedly callous – we might even say, inhumane. Later, after Rachel saves his life by shooting the Replicant Leon, Deckard finds himself conscience-stricken, unable to follow the orders he has been given to ‘retire’ her. This is the first real sign of Deckard’s ‘humanity’, precisely at the moment there appears the first glimmer of a suspicion that he himself may not be human either. He knows that if he does not ‘retire’ Rachel, someone else will. Through an admixture of repulsion and attraction, the two become sexually involved. Here the question of perversion creeps back in; the taboo of miscegenation hovers in the background. Unlike R.U.R., the future of the two protagonists is entirely uncertain. We are left in medias res with Deckard and Rachel setting out to evade the fate most likely to befall them. A voice-over echoes: ‘It’s too bad she won’t live! But then again, who does?’

   

   

The question poses itself: has Deckard learned to transcend himself by way of his humanity, or are his actions driven by a nihilistic admission of the Replicant within? Not some Cartesian homunculus, as the seat of reason, but rather that autonomous machine-mind we call libido or desire, which always threatens to destabilise our system of thought-controls, our rationalisations: like the world of Orwell’s 1984, Scott’s Los Angeles of the future is a wreck. His Replicants, uncanny doubles of ourselves, appear as agents of perversion: sexual deviants and Oedipal patricides, as if acting out the repressed urges of a collective psyche in lock-down.

 

Humanity, in this imagined future, finds truth only in the enigma of the Replicant he both is and is not. And it is because this enigma is that of a ceaseless struggle that the collective consciousness experiences its limits in it. This is because it poses an ontological question that reaches to the core of humanity’s self perception as a potentially emancipated being – which it is the role of the Replicant to seek to fulfil as a kind of proxy. In this formulation, the Replicant is nothing less than the return of the repressed, collectively speaking, in whom the possibility of living as if we were the same as our reason, rather than subjected to it, threatens to materialise.

 

This dilemma is central to the genealogy of the robot as critique of the discourse of emancipation. The question is not whether or not emancipation is possible without the attribute of becoming human, but what the implied eugenics of this struggle accomplishes with respects to the ideology of reason. While Josef Čapek is credited with introducing the word ‘robot’ into general usage, the concept attached to it has a long genealogy – one extending at least as far back as the earliest attempts at providing a philosophical foundation of the State and the origins of philosophy itself as a system of reason; a process already formalised in Plato’s Republic. Here the State or ‘ideal polis’ is not only accorded a certain rationalism and organised accordingly, but it is programmed, so to speak, according to the operations of reason itself – specifically, through the instruction of philosophy. For Plato, the ideal polis is a dictatorship of Reason.

 

The ‘history of reason’, in this formal sense, is thus also the history of a political idea. Reason, as instituted by Plato, is an ideology – an ideology that accords itself precedence over all others. It is no coincidence that reason subsequently acquires cognates like God and History. Reason becomes the transcendental signified par excellence.

 

The robot is the counterpart to this history of reason. Beginning with Plato, who in the Republic devises a complex system of enslavement to reason, the history of the robot is formalised as the rationalisation of the other. It provided the justification for the literal slavery upon which both democracy and totalitarianism have been based, whether through the institutional practice of slavery itself, the promulgation of race laws, gender and wage slavery, or the diverse forms of slavish consumerism produced by the industrial revolution and – it only seems paradoxical – underwriting the laissez-faire ‘emancipationism’ of postmodernity.

   

The radical idea at the core of R.U.R. is not that emancipation from the injustice of slavery and so on is possible, but quite the contrary: that the very concept of emancipation is a mirage thrown up by the logic of slavery itself. (5) This is the dilemma passed down via Hegel and it derives from the separation of thought and life, which is the mode in which the supposed tyranny of reason extends itself into all aspects of consciousness. The robot is not merely a continuation of this idea but its apotheosis, since the slavery it represents is already that of a neurotic fantasy, which is of course the fantasy of the species – a fantasy in which reason desires to become its own witness and devotes itself to the production of the prosthesis of ‘universal self-consciousness’ which, in the last resort, it is prepared to become, even at the cost of its own extinction.

 

Put otherwise, the drama at hand is not a simple allegory of a freeing of the slaves, but rather the emancipation of reason, reason enslaved to its own system. This is why, in R.U.R., nothing short of total war is conceivable. In the end, reason must succumb to its own neurotic fantasy. Just as in Marx, for whom the master-slave dialectic posits the dilemma that there is no true emancipation, only an ideology of emancipation to which emancipation is itself bound. While emancipation ‘presupposes the elimination of power, the abolition of the subject/object distinction’, as Ernesto Laclau has said,  ‘there is no emancipation without oppression, and there is no oppression without the presence of something which is impeded in its free development’. (6) The result appears to be a vicious circle, the dialectic interminable. All that remains is the fantasy of a projected self-consciousness: the gratification of reason bearing witness to its own end in order to evolve, to continue to evolve, towards singularity.

 

5. Slavery is nowhere more achieved than in the myth of emancipation, which is effectively the abeit macht frei of Reason. This is because emancipation is only able to represent itself as the admission to a permitted idea. (The surrender to ‘unreason’ is thus tantamount to a surrender to ‘unnatural’ desires; the technocratic state demands robots who act like human-animals only to the extent their desires can be regulated – regulation is the nature of Reason.)

 

 

6. Ernesto Laclau, Emancipation(s) (London: Verso, 1996), p. 1.


There is a moment in his seminar on cybernetics and consciousness when Jacques Lacan describes a scenario in which all evidence of human life has disappeared from the planet, with the exception of an analogue camera, positioned on a tripod, beside a lake, in which a mountain is reflected. The camera still operates. (7) The shutter clicks, there is a flash, the film winds on. But who is to say what the camera has perceived? And what would it mean to say that this perception in some way attests to the ‘absence of man’? Perhaps what is really being played out in R.U.R. and Blade Runner is the after-death fantasy of humanism itself which, despite all evidence to the contrary, refuses to give up the ghost. The figure of the robot, of course, is one of humanism’s greatest triumphs. In it, it seeks a material as well as metaphysical transcendence of the limits history has placed upon it. If only to know what happens next. Like every other ego who wants to continue listening-in on the conversation after it has left the room: the neurotic surveillance system of reason’s afterlife. The great undead, extending its reach into the impossible.

  7. Jacques Lacan ‘A Materialist Definition of the Phenomenon of Consciousness’, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book II: The Ego in Freud ‘s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954-1955 (London: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 47.

   

By way of a final digression: there is a memorable scene at the end of Ken Russell’s Lisztomania (1975) in which Richard Wagner (Paul Nicholas) is resurrected and transformed into a Nazi Golem rampaging through the Jewish ghetto like some archaic monster-machine. In the film, the ghetto and the world at large is saved by a celestial spaceship (a Utopian machine) piloted by an angelic Franz Liszt (Roger Daltrey), who blasts this Golem robot with pipe-organ laser guns. Russell’s kitsch extravaganza is something like a last appeal to a humanism – after the fact. A posthumous humanism. Like Wagner’s Auferstehung, the humanist zombie returns to preside over the triumph of the machines. And here, as in R.U.R. and Blade Runner, we get an inclination of what that picture of Lacan’s really means: the mind’s-eye portrait of a sentimental apocalypse machine, signifying nothing, merely, only just merely, the impossible.

   

   

Between R.U.R. and Blade Runner, Plato’s ideal polis and the Nazi State extermination machinery, the collective fantasy reveals itself as the true automaton. The myth of human perfectability tends toward its ideal ambivalence. We have come full circle. Perhaps humanity long ago learned to do without itself, if simply in order to go on. Progress implies a certain human obsolescence in the technological-evolutionary equation. The problem has always been how to get to the future without succumbing to a Blade Runner moment, when we all begin to suspect that we are really machines, Replicants with a nostalgia for our so-called creators – and perhaps always were. But after all, isn’t this, precisely this, the truth of the human condition?

   

from Issue 5: Shows

   


Louis Armand 2014.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.


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