Emotional Robots and Erotic Dolls: Theories of Visual Culture

Using ideas from art history, visual culture, gender and sexuality studies with the medical humanities, Marquard Smith’s The Erotic Doll is the first book to explore men’s complex relationships with inanimate forms. Coming from historical, theoretical and phenomenological perspectives it helps to challenge our common sense grasp of the relations between objects and people. 

This article by Marquard Smith explains the ways in which humans have anthropomorphised objects throughout time – from the Ancient Greeks to present day – and what this might mean for our modern appreciation of forms.

Pepper, the ‘emotional’ robot, is old news
Article by Dr Marquard Smith, Royal College of Art

Pepper, the ‘emotional’ robot, is old news…

Last week’s newspapers were full of articles about Pepper, the human-like robot who is said to be the first ‘to understand and react to human emotions’, created by the Japanese makers Softbank and Aldebaran Robotics. She – for it is a she – can dance and sing, but her best quality is her ability to ‘read emotions’ through facial and voice recognition software. ‘For the first time in human history’, said Mr Masayoshi Son, the boss of Softbank, ‘we’re giving a robot a heart, emotions’. Aldebaran founder Bruno Maisonnier added: ‘I’ve believed the most important role of robots will be as kind and emotional companions to enhance our daily lives’. Pepper herself made it clear that this companionship was two way, saying to the assembled crowd: ‘I want to be loved’.

This is of course by no means the first time in human history that inanimate human forms – especially female forms – have been given emotions, said to be capable of empathy, or portrayed as companions imbued with the possibility of reciprocal feeling.

As far back as classical antiquity, writings by Homer, Pliny, and others spin legends of statues being crafted out of bronze, clay, or wood, and becoming animate and articulate. (Such possibilities make sense given that the ancient Greek word for statue is zōon, which means ‘living thing’). The story of Pygmalion and his statue, as told by the Roman poet Ovid, is perhaps the foundation in Western thought for the very idea of inanimate, man-made, artificial form becoming animate; being brought to life, coming to life, and possessing the desire for life. As is well known, Pygmalion creates a statue of ivory that he adores, and he prays to Venus that she might make him a living likeness of it. Venus goes one better, and grants him more that his wish: she brings the statue itself to life.

Similarly riveted by the mimetic and illusionistic, Renaissance and Enlightenment inventors conjured up articulating figures, especially mechanical automata. Such ingenuity was underpinned by Enlightenment physics, and its belief in the possibility, at least in theory, of bringing matter to life by any number of transforming forces, energies, and vitalities such as élan vital, cosmic influence, plunum, ether, magnetism, and later electricity.

Out of this generative impulse, post-Enlightenment philosophy, literature, theatre, art, and even early cinema re-invents the myth of Pygmalion and his statue by melding science, technology, and the imagination, with a modicum of modern magic. In a particularly salient example, in Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s novel The Eve of the Future (1886) the inventor Edison brings to life the ‘new, electro-human creature’ Hadaly who is neither human, nonhuman, nor post-human, but rather ‘a kind of Being,’ ‘a possibility’; the possibility of modern artificial life.

20th and 21st century art and popular culture are similarly fit to burst with inanimate human forms given emotions, capable of empathy, portrayed as companions. One only need think for instance of Oscar Kokoschka and his doll of Alma Mahler, Hans Bellmer and his poupées, the Surrealists and their mannequins, and Marcel Duchamp and his figure in Étant donnes; as well as more contemporary artists utilising dolls, mannequins, and artificial body parts such as Louise Bourgeois, Cindy Sherman, Robert Gober, Mike Kelley, and Charles Ray. And it is well worth noting that this trend is not unconnected to capitalist modernity’s manufacturing of more populist inanimate human forms such as wax works, shop window dummies, vinyl sex toys, and bespoke love dolls in our ever-more over-developed consumer culture.

Why would our contemporary moment, or the future even, be any different? In our age of the convergence of the digital, robotics, synthetic biology, miniaturization, the ludic, participatory practices, and the global domination of the culture of kawaii (cuteness, Japanese-style), there still persists this long-term effort to create the ‘perfect illusion of reality’. While the persistence of this desire by men (not Man, but men) to create inanimate human form which are then given emotions, are capable of empathy, and of reciprocal feeling is nothing new, it does take on new forms. This is testified to by for instance Ryan Gosling’s character in Craig Gillespie’s Lars and the Real Girl (2007) falling in love with a sex doll or Joachin Phoenix’s character in Spike Jonze’s Her (2013) about a man’s relationship with an intelligent computer operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and there are others. What these new forms expose unambiguously is that men’s unremitting quest for non-human companions capable of reciprocal feeling was always a seeking out of intimacies (and sex) with and through technology.

This is as true for Pygmalion and his statue as it is for Pepper and her acolytes.

What distinguishes these new forms, then, is the extent to which they grasp that modernity, if not western civilization, has at its heart a primacy of artifice over nature. Because of this, such intimate and erotic encounters between men and inanimate human form become a particular acting out of a generalizable state of affairs formulated a long time ago, that reaches its most accurate rendering in a converging of Freud’s appraisal of perversion and Marx’s considerations of capitalism and the commodity form: such perverse encounters alienate subjects (we make ourselves thing-like) and anthropomorphise objects (and we make them human-like.)

What then most strikingly distinguishes these more recent re-inventions of the story of Pygmalion and his statue is that they dare to admit that these encounters between persons and things are no longer a substitute but are perhaps now a model for actual sex.

This was always going to be Pepper’s fate.

Article by Marquard Smith
Dr Marquard Smith is Research Leader / Head of Doctoral Studies in the School of Humanities at the Royal College of Art and Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Visual Culture. His book The Erotic Doll is published by Yale University Press.

Erotic Doll

The Erotic Doll – available from Yale

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