This essay was one I wrote in my final year of my undergraduate degree, for a module not centred on fictional literature, but instead rather on literary criticism and philosophical works, such as those of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Deleuze and Guattari.
This essay was a big challenge, since it dealt with very complex and abstract ideas that I wasn’t used to really discussing in such depth. Questions of what make us human of course are only starting to get increasingly more and more complex, as our proficiency with technology and artificial intelligence is becoming even more terrifyingly advanced. Our ideas of what is human can no longer be distinguished simply by what has a consciousness, or by what can be defined as ‘alive’, as our robots are only continuing to become more and more human-like, with consciousnesses of their own.
This essay discusses all of these questions and ideas, in relation to Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film, Metropolis, in relation to Deleuze and Guattari’s 1972 criticism Anti-Oedipus. Metropolis is a film concerning a humanity that is controlled largely by machines, and Freder’s reaction upon discovering his love interest has been replaced with a cyborg created by crazed scientist Rotwang.
In our modern-day society, technology is continually adapting and evolving to help assist and support humanity and its needs. However, in the past few hundred years especially, tensions have arose regarding the boundaries between humanity and the technological. The two have now become so co-dependent on one another, can we even be distinguished anymore? Rosi Bradiotti notes that ‘the relationship between the human and the technological other has shifted […] to reach unprecedented degrees of intimacy and intrusion’. New problems surface in society which were before non-existent, prior to the technological innovations of the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries. Boundaries between what is human and machine have now blurred significantly. By the term ‘human’ I am referring to homo sapiens, creations of flesh and blood, whilst I assign the term ‘technology’ to machines created by humanity, not of flesh and blood; yet these terms will inevitably blur and blend together as my argument develops. I will evaluate and analyse the differences and similarities between the two, paying particular attention to Fritz Lang’s 1927 German film Metropolis, alongside Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s 1972 essay collection Anti-Oedipus, focussing on questions of free will, gender and the anatomy of hands. Here I will be arguing that, although at this moment in the twenty-first century, humans are still largely distinguishable from technology, I believe the boundaries will eventually blur, until humanity is so largely dependent on machinery that both are essentially indistinguishable.
Deleuze and Guattari argue that humans and machines are essentially the same for a multitude of reasons, one of the primary ways being in our lack of free will and control. Machines are frequently depicted in the media as being manufactured or machinic solely due to their status as the created, whilst humans, as their creators, remain in complete control of them. This places technology beneath the human, giving humanity the impression that we are thereby distinguishable and in command of the technical, as Derek Pereboom states, ‘we assume that human beings, but not machines, have this sort of free will’. Yet, arguably, humans are also constrained by rules just as much as technology, making us similar and therefore indistinguishable. Deleuze and Guattari were greatly inspired by nineteenth-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzche, especially his 1895 essay ‘The Antichrist’. In this text Nietzche argues that humans have no free will, but, as our ultimate desires are selfish, our primary ambition is to gain free will and the ability to exercise control over others, through reaching a higher and more esteemed role in society, hereby granting us the illusion of maintaining control. Ultimately, however, we humans still remain controlled by others, akin to how technology is controlled by humanity. These ideas are expressed in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, via the capitalistic structure of the city, as created by Joh Frederson. As the boss of the dystopian city, Frederson controls the machines which keep the city running, yet in a unique chain of power, the machines control the lowly workers underground. The use of height in the film, with the ‘ruling elite living above the ground in towering skyscrapers, and the masses living underground, slaves to the machines that keep the city operating’, serves as a metaphor to illustrate the literal hierarchies at play here. The workers are ‘reduced to their mechanical tasks’, in the way they are oppressed and left with no control over their own lives. Their repetitive, robotic movements and blank expressions render them lifeless and heteronomous; the clockwork way they move about, in perfect synchronisation with one another, makes them seem just as robotic as the machines they work all day and night. This draws similarities to what Deleuze and Guattari termed as schizoanalysis, and their study of schizophrenics in relation to human machinery. Deleuze and Guattari note that the schizophrenic is left to rot with little mental stimulation in a mental institution, and this lack of self-control leaves them a broken, hollow machine which cannot think or act on its own, having lost all sense of its own free will. The workers in Metropolis fit this description perfectly, having lost all semblance of personality or individuality, due to the intense control they have been restrained under, as they ‘lubricate the machine joints with their own blood’. This also grants an interesting Marxist reading of the film, where the corrupt bourgeoisie render the struggling proletariats powerless and defunct, in order to help themselves amass larger quantities of money. Robots in most forms of media similarly are characterised like the human workers in Metropolis, absent of any personality, acting out their orders without question. Robot rules differ slightly, in that they are not motivated by the need to earn money to stay alive and well, instead being constrained by different rules, depending entirely on what their creators decide. One famous set of rules is Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, in his 1950 short story collection, I, Robot, which declares that robots must on no accounts ever harm humans, rules which often end up being broken in popular films and novels. Questions of control and free will are also raised in E. M. Forster’s 1909 short story ‘The Machine Stops’, set in a similarly dystopian society to Metropolis, where the majority of citizens live in the lap of luxury, thanks to ‘the Machine.’ The capitalisation of ‘Machine’ highlights the reverence held for this particular form of technology which controls everything in society, as the protagonist, Vashti, ‘felt the delirium of acquiescence’ at the mere thought of the Machine. Vashti is unable to imagine life without the Machine, and society is brainwashed by this technological invention, which they believe they are in control of, however they cannot live without it exercising control over every aspect of their lives. Vashti’s son is the voice of reason, as he states ‘you talk as if god had made the Machine […] Men made it, do not forget that’. Forster’s novel also echoes Paul Virilio’s argument that soon we will all forget what life was like without technology, losing all ‘mnemonic consolidation’ until life without technology seems impossible. Despite this, humanity still maintains control over technology, thereby making us still distinguishable, although it is debatable whether this will last. ‘The Machine Stops’ and Metropolis both reflect the fears of early twentieth-century society at the hands of industrialisation, and this topic continues to be widely discussed now as technology continues to infiltrate our lives in even more ways, with the advancement of computers, the internet and mobile phones. Joh Frederson may control the machines in Metropolis, however this isn’t a permanent arrangement. The Machine-Man’s Frankenstein complex causes it to revolt against its creators, as it declares ‘death to the machines!’ The city soon crumbles, leaving us to question whether humans really have the upper-hand in this wavering power struggle.
Moving on from the upper-hand to ideas of literal hands, the topic of anatomy and hands has been broadly discussed in relation to differentiating humans and machinery. Hands are a central motif in Metropolis, with frequent shots focussing on the hand, such as the films ending handshake and the use of Rotwang’s prosthetic hand. Sarah Jackson notes that ‘when Rotwang introduces the Machine-Man to Joh Frederson […] the first thing that moves is the hand’, the most significant and humanualist feature of the anatomy. Many scholars and philosophers, such as Aristotle, believe hands are what make us human, but theorist Jacques Derrida opposes this argument, claiming hands to be ‘the monstrous sign’ and a form of technics or tool. Derrida also notes that ‘the hand cannot be spoken about without speaking of technics’, as it serves as a blend of the human and the technological. This is reflected in Charles Simic’s 1970s poem ‘Fork’, about the eponymous utensil we use for eating. In this free verse poem Simic subtly describes how ‘you stab with it into a piece of meat’. Even technology as simple as a fork has some degree of control over the user and how one utilises it. Hands themselves are tools for picking up items, touching, evoking gestures, and they connect to other machines, such as forks, in ‘machinic connections’. If Derrida states hands are monstrous, then machines are therefore a complex metaphor for monstrosity. The term monster, in the fourteenth-century, originally referred to a hybrid, part-animal, part-human creature. Rotwang, with his prosthetic hand, is an example of this hybridisation, ‘an embodiment of this central tension […] on the metonymic level of the hands’; he is a blend of humanualism; the human and the manual, or machinic. He is also seen as monstrous due to his disability of having lost a hand, with his phantom limb of a hand constantly referred to throughout the film. Rotwang draws similarities to the schizophrenics Deleuze and Guattari discuss in Anti-Oedipus, who are deemed monstrous for refusing to align to social norms, who’s ‘soul and body ultimately perish… [causing them to] return to nothingness’. They expand on this point, suggesting that monsters are merely species we do not understand and cannot categorise yet. Technology inevitably falls into this description, as it is continually developing and therefore cannot be fully understood, instead being seen as something alien, ‘prosthesis [being] necessarily a transfer into otherness’. Monsters also can be defined as Bodies without Organs, a term introduced by nineteenth-century dramatist Antonin Artaud and adopted by Deleuze and Guattari, as they lack automatic reactions; this means that they do not repress desires based off of what is deemed socially acceptable, they are ‘the unproductive, the sterile, the unengendered’. This subverts Freud’s popular ideas of psychoanalysis, which emphasises repression as a key mode of maintaining control over oneself. Deleuze and Guattari, training under fellow psychologist Jacques Lacan, subverted this mode of thought, emphasising the philosophy of uninhibited thought. If monsters are technological and do not repress forbidden desires, then Rotwang is inherently monstrous, and therefore more technological than he is human. His transgressive experiments with life and death, and the fusion of a Machine-Man into a woman, were considered extremely controversial at the time of the film’s production. The robot Maria is similarly monstrous, due to her hybridised status as a man and woman, she is unable to be categorised, and therefore technology in Metropolis is distinguishable from humanity, as it is something which cannot be categorised by humanity’s means of understanding the world. One interesting argument however is the consideration that it is perhaps beneficial to be considered technological, and therefore monstrous, even if one can’t integrate with society. Brian Massumi notes that ‘becoming-other’ is liberating, as you complicate rules and set binaries, giving yourself the choice to be whoever you wish to be, a ‘complication which is also a measure of success’. In this light, whilst technology is ostracised and separable from humanity, being monstrous could allow you to achieve a greater degree of liberation, enabling one to embrace ‘infinite degrees of freedom’.
Technology also symbolises a greater extent of freedom in relation to gender roles within society, as emphasised in Metropolis by the Machine-Man’s transition into womanhood by performing as Maria. Multiple boundaries are blurred through the Machine-Man’s performance, as he is not only a robot posing as a human, but also a man posing as a woman, rendering the robot a multi-layered hybrid with an extremely unstable identity, echoing back to how the film itself was frequently referred to as a ‘changeling […] mutilated or merely mutated’, brimming with themes of versatility and adaptability. The film evokes a Post-Structuralist depiction of gender, with an emphasis on fluidity and non-essentialism, as the Machine-Man’s true identity is known only to Rotwang, and later to Freder Frederson. The Machine-Man, posing as Maria, seems to integrate almost perfectly with society in Metropolis, signifying the robot as indistinguishable from humanity. Deleuze and Guattari note that humanity can also undergo these fluid changes to identity, in connecting to other machines and orifices in an endless flow, which shapeshifts and changes continually the multiple forms of the individual. They note that ‘desiring-machines are binary machines, obeying a binary law’, however, machines need not to align with the binaries of human categorisation, and so, according to Deleuze and Guattari, can essentially be considered genderless. This intermingling of bodies carries sexual and gendered connotations. As society grows increasingly more understanding and aware of bodies as ‘contingent construction[s] which assume multiple forms’, we arguably grow closer to machines in our abilities to be reshaped and altered. Yet despite this, Peta Malins notes ‘the pressure to stratify and organise as a subject is strong’ in humans, and the need to categorise is difficult to escape from. In Freder’s dreams of Maria dancing, sexual attraction is even displayed for the technological, as the scene focusses on men’s voyeuristic eyes, as robot Maria dances seductively for their enjoyment. This scene serves as a literal representation of what Laura Mulvey termed as the Male Gaze, as the eyes focus on the woman as the eroticised subject. Matthew Gandy argues that society holds great anxiety ‘towards the invasion of the body by strange technologies’, yet in this instance, the sexual, the human and the machine integrate without any ‘fear or trepidation’. Desire, Deleuze and Guattari argue, is the primary machinic process; ‘desire causes the current to flow’ and machines to therefore function. Reproduction has even entered into the realm of the technological, as computers have created other components for others computers, crossing the boundary which before was strictly non-technological. The Machine-Man so fluently adapts to any role, so well that the robot Maria is even subjected to the same sexist stereotyping of the human woman in the 1920s. Maria is expected to remain the traditionally submissive woman of the early nineteenth-century, frequently over sexualised but also serving as an object to be owned by the men of the film, reflected in Rotwang’s declaration of his creation as ‘the most perfect and most obedient tool that a man has ever possessed’. In contrast however, Donna Haraway’s 1984 essay ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ suggests robot Maria to in fact be a challenge to phallogocentrism, giving the female a voice in an otherwise male-dominated film. On the surface, the Machine-Man as Maria seems a perfect example of the integration of the human and the technological, however ‘the robot is not only a replacement for but a refinement of the human’. One could also argue, however, the Machine-Man’s integration is not as successful as one might initially believe, when placed in relation to Julia Kristeva’s theory on gender and performativity. The robotic Maria may seem to integrate with society, but this is not without undergoing significant changes to its core essence and identity. Her entire robotic form must be disguised, and he/she must perform both as a human and as a woman. Rotwang aspires that ‘no man […] will be able to differentiate the Machine-Man from a mortal’, however, this façade must constantly be maintained or there is the threat of ostracism. The performance could be compared to a form of drag, which ‘implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself as well as its contingency’, relating to Kristeva’s theory of gender as a performance. The robotic Maria needs to reinvent its own identity, relating to her theory that bodies are falsely naturalised by society, which is especially relevant in the 1920s, an era where gender roles were still exceedingly strict. Maria’s robotic form therefore has a liminality, it is constantly on the threshold, neither within society or outside; it cannot properly belong. This proves Kristeva’s theory of gender performativity, as the Machine-Man can so easily parody the human with some simple behavioural changes, thus supporting Deleuze and Guattari’s statement that gender itself is also a machinic process, which humans feel obliged to perform in their otherwise indefinite articles or bodies, in order to integrate with society. The Machine-Man cannot reveal his true machinic nature without it leading to utter destruction and anarchy, as it does when he/she urges the men to take up arms and destroy the machines. This concludes with the Machine-Man burnt at the stake, a violent act with witchlike connotations, symbolising that something with such an unstable identity is satanic and cannot be condoned amongst human society, where everything must be categorised. Jackson notes that the Machine-Man cannot fully integrate with society, as the real Maria still exists, which ‘arouses in us a suspicion that perhaps the human and the machine can never be quite so easily distinguished’. In this view, humanity and machine are arguably indistinguishable, however this can never be a permanent situation, eventually humanity will discover the presence of the machines, and may or may not revolt as they did in Metropolis.
Overall, machines in society may seem at first to integrate and perform as a perfect refinement of the human, however this cannot last. Problems will always arise in relation to humanity and machines, as tensions between the two continue to reach an unprecedented level of anxiety. However, as time progresses, society is growing to accept the technological into its world with little question of its true nature or whether we really need it. A dystopian future where humanity is indistinguishable from the machine, much akin to Metropolis or The Machine Stops, does not seem unlikely. As time continues to pass, machinery will so perfectly imitate and integrate with humanity that soon we will truly be indistinguishable, and we ourselves as humans can be considered, much like Deleuze and Guattari state, to be machines ourselves.
When I read back over this essay, I remember just how horribly confusing all of these ideas were! It amazes me that I managed to get a first for this essay, since I still have no idea what Deleuze and Guattari were going on about in Anti-Oedipus 😀
What are your thoughts on AI and humanity? Have you seen Metropolis? If so what did you think? Let me hear your thoughts in the comments 🙂
You can check out my other essays here.
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