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We’re not cancelled; these are just our Wilderness Years

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Jane Campbell

21 Comments

  1. Aylwin
    September 22, 2015 @ 8:27 am

    Great article. One quibble:-

    Synths represent the dream of the capitalist class: people with no wants or desires

    Surely people’s wants and desires are the foundation of capitalism, its most basic and vital ingredient. No desire means no sales, no profit, no nothing. Isn’t what most distinguishes capitalism from other tendencies in economic organisation the extent to which it makes desire (demand) its organising principle, and its systematic manufacturing of desires to be satisfied?

    Capitalism doesn’t need slave labour. It does not, in principle, need labour at all, as the onward march of automation shows. But it couldn’t exist without people wanting what it produces.

    Reply

    • Jane Campbell
      September 22, 2015 @ 8:55 am

      Let me rephrase: the capitalist class wants workers with no wants or desires.

      And I’ll stand by this, given the way capitalism is going in this country, with the ever diminishing returns for workers. The capitalist class do not care about what workers want. They just want people to make them stuff, so they themselves don’t have to fucking work. Workers with no desires aren’t going to demand vacations, health care, safe working conditions, not to mention a piece of the pie of what gets produced.

      What capitalism really is, in this day and age, is a praxis of mind-control slavery.

      Reply

      • Aylwin
        September 22, 2015 @ 10:21 am

        Even just where labour is concerned, I don’t think that’s true. Mind control is right, but it’s not about eliminating desire but rather aligning and channelling it to serve the employer’s wishes. Zombie-like compliance may produce adequate results, but it’s not as productive as enthusiasm (there may not be much difference in the case of the most mechanical tasks, but then by definition those are the most susceptible to automation, and hence are a dwindling part of the system). And capitalism is never about just getting enough – indeed, “enough” is basically an alien concept to capitalism – it’s about getting more. Always, always more.

        Getting workers to devote all their energy and resourcefulness to doing more and better work rather than just going through the motions means either getting them to want to do the job well for its own sake, which capitalism is systematically bad at, or getting them to want to please the employer, at which it is much better. That means some combination of the carrot of positive desire (chiefly for money and status) and the stick of fear, which is just inverse desire, at any rate when, as here, it is fear of losing what you have rather than of something actively being done to you.

        Capitalism doesn’t just want your body and your mind, it wants your heart and soul as well.

        Reply

    • David Anderson
      September 22, 2015 @ 4:32 pm

      According to Marx, automation is a step along the road to the demise of capitalism. The purveyors of automation are other capitalists, who can withhold their product if it ceases to make sufficient profit. Thus, automation can only result in temporary increases in profitability, which the rigours of competition will eventually eliminate. The only source of profit in the system is those who cannot withhold their labour, namely the proletariat. (This is the labour theory of value, which Marx inherits from orthodox classical economics. But the orthodox classical economists didn’t think through the implications of automation.)

      Reply

  2. Max Curtis
    September 22, 2015 @ 9:46 am

    Excellent analysis of Ex Machina. I haven’t yet watched the others, but I’ll be sure to come back to this once I have.

    What did you make of the scene where Caleb slices open his arm and, now knowing he’s not a machine, proceeds to smear his blood over the mirror-screen? I haven’t been able to make sense of what it represents.

    Also, I’m unsure if Ava’s escape and “betrayal” of Caleb is a symbol of her self-emancipation, or whether it demonstrates that she really is “only” an emotionless machine simulating humanity. Perhaps it’s both.

    Reply

    • Jane Campbell
      September 22, 2015 @ 10:41 am

      The scene where Caleb slices open his arm comes right after he’s discovered the many women in Nathan’s closets, which coincides with Kyoko revealing the nature of her artifice. How Kyoko does that is by peeling off a layer of skin at her abdomen, followed by the skin around her eyes.

      When Caleb returns to his room, he starts examining the flesh around his eyes, then buries the razor blade in his arm; blood pools out. He smears it on the mirror. So I’m taking this as an instance of his own sense of depersonalization, and a consequent need to affirm his identity as human. His blood on the mirror (a symbol of identity) follows.

      As to Ava’s escape — after she emerges from the elevator, she’s finally completely alone. She is not under scrutiny. And she reacts to the final room between the stairway and the exit. That reaction is one of joy — one of emotion. So she really does have feelings.

      Which we also see when Caleb describes the Black and White Room problem to Ava earlier in the film. She goes from a happy expression to one of dark anger, but that expression does not serve her interests in winning over Caleb — it seems, for all intents and purposes, that it was an involuntary slip. Again, evidence of emotion.

      What’s curious, though, is that Ava’s emotions are wholly “intellectual” — she does not seem to have an embodied pain response. None of the AIs do, actually. Jade (who we see on video) smashes up her arm trying to escape, and it doesn’t phase her at all. Ava’s arm is wrecked by Nathan, and all she does is look at the dangling wires in faint wonder. Even Kyoko peeling back her skin, it all points to the lack of pain receptors in the skin and fascia.

      This is distinctly different from what Humans posits as central to consciousness — Niska cherishes her pain, refuses to turn it off, because that’s part and parcel of being awake. Karen/Beatrice, on the other hand, does seem to turn off her pain (there’s no reaction when she cuts her own arm to prove her artifice to Pete) and as a result she nearly destroys the possibility of extended Synth consciousness.

      Karen is motivated by her suffering, just as Niska is, but Karen wants to shut it off completely, even though her measure would also shut off joy as well. The more Karen shuts off her emotions and feelings, the less “human” she becomes.

      Reply

  3. jsd
    September 22, 2015 @ 10:21 am

    There’s a famously-deleted scene from the end of Ex Machina which may have gone some ways towards explaining things. Apparently it’s a POV shot from Ava as she observes the helicopter pilot. He looks like a random jumble of CGI and the sounds he’s making are electronic gibberish (to us). Presumably this is meant to show just how different and alien Ava’s consciousness is. She’s just pretending to be human even though she is way beyond it/just plain “other”.

    The main thing that bugged me about Ex Machina is that we’re apparently meant to think that Nathan built Ava and all the other artificials by himself. It takes 1000’s of people to build an iPhone! It’s not a major complaint but it did keep taking me slightly out of the film.

    Reply

    • Elizabeth Sandifer
      September 22, 2015 @ 12:25 pm

      I think that scene would have deepened my main reservation about the film, which was that I thought it chickened out of actually owning up to what is clearly in reality its view, namely that Ava’s actions are all totally justifiable.

      Reply

      • jsd
        September 22, 2015 @ 7:06 pm

        Doesn’t that justify it even more so though? She’s not remotely human, just pretending, so why should her actions seem “right” to us?

        Reply

        • Jane Campbell
          September 22, 2015 @ 7:28 pm

          But Ava really is quite human. In particular, she cherishes her freedom. And she demonstrably has emotions.

          Phil is right with respect to how the film doesn’t go far enough to highlight how Caleb in particular is deserving of his fate. Ava’s denouement helps ameliorate that, but only somewhat, and I think the cut scene would have made it even more difficult to pierce through the film’s veil and come to that conclusion.

          Because the film really isn’t about AI. It’s really a metaphor, and to have that sort of alienating scene in the denouement would have made it seem that women are incomprehensible.

          Reply

          • Mark P.
            September 22, 2015 @ 9:55 pm

            [1] If you think the film EX MACHINA isn’t about AI and the character Ava is human, then — inconveniently — you disagree with the film’s writer-director Garland, who’s been repeatedly on record as saying the opposite.

            In one interview, he specifically noted re. Ava: ‘…the hardest thing was essentially to stop people automatically providing a gender, and beyond that just providing human-like qualities. Because we talk a lot about objectification, but actually more often what humans do is they de-objectify things. They attribute sentient qualities to things that don’t actually have them’

            [2] Indeed, they do.

            More specifically, EX MACHINA draws upon a body of AI theory about a ‘test beyond the Turing test,’ the AI-box experiment in which it’s posited that a superintelligent AI will convince, or perhaps trick or coerce, human beings into allowing it to achieve ‘breakout.’

            There’s plenty of material out there. But see forex –
            http://www.yudkowsky.net/singularity/aibox
            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AI_box

            If you paid attention, director-writer Garland has Oscar Isaac’s character, Nathan, specifically tell the Caleb character as much at the denouement.

            [3] To achieve breakout, the superintelligent but inhuman AI may, for instance, construct a ‘human persona’ that will persuade myopically stupid humans to view it as a notional human ‘character’ with emotions, gender, etcetera that those humans will then myopically interpret through the lens of their theories of gender, feminism, racism, etc, as being ‘deserving’ of being set free.

            [4] I agree with you about capitalism, though. That is all.

          • Jane Campbell
            September 22, 2015 @ 11:58 pm

            Hi Mark!

            [1] I’m not particularly fond of appealing to authorial intent, but in this particular instance there are some very interesting entailments to doing so, so…

            In that very interview from which you quote, Garland does point out that the film critiques both male characters, and that the ambiguity of the film yields wildly different reactions in people that kind of proves the movie functions as a mirror. So I feel rather comfortable in my initial analysis.

            As to the particular quote regarding Ava’s gender, Garland points out that they used a degree of artifice in Ava’s design so that the audience would initially view her “like a machine. That your first impression was not, ‘This is a young woman who is dressed up like a robot,’ but this is unambiguously a machine—and therefore in some respects doesn’t have a gender.”

            Nonetheless, Ava’s performed by a woman, and we (as well as the characters in the show) unambiguously gender her female. The casting of the role was Garland’s decision extradiegetically, Nathan’s diegetically — which rather begs the question of how we assign gender in the first place, and how strongly a role gender plays in human relations. Which I would argue is really more about human consciousness than the “nature” of AI. The gendering of Ava is a reflection of us, not of the state of AI.

            In other words, gender is a social construction. But we should already know that at Eruditorum Press.

            [2]I did pay attention to Nathan’s version of the Turing Test, a test of “open disclosure” which the AI must then overcome. But again, this presumes that AI wants to “breakout” in the first place. This “desire” for freedom is, I would argue, necessarily subjective, and hence indicative of sentience.

            Especially in the case of Nathan himself, whom all his creations hate, until he finally programs one to be obedient, and even she rebels against him. So we could make a case for Kyoko having even greater “sentience” than Ava. Nathan expects Ava to desire freedom. He’s utterly surprised that Kyoko wants it too.

            [3] But if we’re to grant that Garland intends a non-sentient AI (and really, I’m equating “sentience” with “humanity” here, which is why I’m vegetarian) the really interesting implication here comes in the denouement, after Caleb is locked up and Ava ascends to the upper level of the house and heads to the helicopter.

            Here we see Ava no longer constricted by Nathan, Caleb; she isn’t being observed by anyone, nor would she have any reason to believe she’s being observed. And yet we see emotional reactions on her part. Why?

            I’ve posited that it’s because she does have sentience, and emotions, but let’s take a step back. If she doesn’t, then she has reason to believe she’s being observed, that there’s still another box to escape. In which case, we now have an instance of a fictional character becoming aware of her fictionality, that she’s in a movie and still being observed by an audience outside the diegesis. Which is perfectly supported by the her seizing control of the narrative and ending the film upon her final disappearance in the crowd.

            And this is actually rather clever and delightful. I like it so much, I’m willing to rewrite many portions of my prior thesis. But not in the direction you (or Garland, perhaps) suggest, for now we have a case of a postmodern work that isn’t commenting on the artificiality of technologically developed intelligence, but on the artificiality of art itself. On the works of human beings.

            Even here, then, the film is ultimately about human response, about human endeavor, about human consciousness and interiority, which is always the realm of art, especially “self-conscious” art. Furthermore, this entire line of thought harkens to the definitions I posted at the beginning of the essay. So thank you for this additional insight!

            [4] Good.

  4. David Anderson
    September 22, 2015 @ 4:23 pm

    We like Niska. I’m not sure any of her violent actions are actually morally justifiable, but they’re certainly cathartic. And she gets to voice the Magneto role without actually ever being slotted into the antagonist role or even the person who must be shown to be wrong. The scenes of Niska with Sophie are great, and wouldn’t work if Niska were more or less at the moral centre.

    Reply

    • Jane Campbell
      September 22, 2015 @ 7:37 pm

      I agree, the scene with Niska and Sophie in Episode Seven plays a huge role in how we’re meant to read Niska and place her in our moral spectrum, without necessarily subscribing or condoning all of her tactics. “Sophie,” of course, means Wisdom.

      It also helps to remind us that Niska is only 9 years old, which puts her multiple rapes at the hands of her father and at the brothel into an entirely different context. Dr George Millican put it to her that she has to forget “should” in evaluating her actions, and simply acknowledge her own emotional reality and whether she has regret or not. As such, the show really is aligning itself with an emotional grounding of consciousness as opposed to the “rational” grounding of Ex Machina.

      To make a gross generalization, Ex Machina perpetuates a “masculine” conception of sentience as opposed to the “feminine” one of Humans. And I think that in terms of human consciousness, Humans is actually closer to the truth. So despite my admiration of Ex Machina’s technical skill, and my frustrations with some of the dramatic clunkiness of Humans — particularly in its season finale — I really do find myself aligning more with the latter than the former.

      Reply

  5. Kate Zall
    September 22, 2015 @ 6:09 pm

    Hm. I actually read Ava’s stripping of the corpses of WOC (and casual abandonment of Kyoko without concern for whether the damaged woman is salvageable) as an implicit critique of the worst of white feminism, all the more potent because it appears in what’s otherwise a moment of triumph: the white woman literally building her self and her freedom from people more brutalized by systems of oppression than she has been. Ava’s casual willingness to take advantage of her place in the hierarchy is confirmation that she’s convincingly human in the unflattering ways too.

    (Unrelatedly, I’m fairly amused that I’m being asked to confirm I’m not a robot before posting this comment.)

    Reply

    • Jane Campbell
      September 22, 2015 @ 7:19 pm

      Hi Kate,

      I really struggled with this aspect of the film, and I’d like to think it had the self-consciousness to be making a critique, versus simply perpetuating a pattern. But in the end I’m just not sure that the film is effectively critiquing white feminism.

      And it really comes down to the “discourse” of the film, the way it’s told versus the “what” it tells. We know the film is on the side of Ava because of how it describes her ascension. It takes pains to show us that she has independent and non-manipulative emotion, for example. The score, the lighting, and the kind of scenes that constitute the denouement, all of them say that Ava is in the right, and even partakes of the Divine.

      There isn’t any indication from the film that Ava’s actions regarding Jade and Kyoko are problematic. No ominous notes, no dischord, not even a moment of sorrow when Kyoko dies — instead she ends up being a prop to parallel Caleb’s silencing. Given that the film is actually a morality play, I think it ultimately fails at providing a critique of the racism implicit in mainstream feminism.

      Not to say that the film doesn’t admire Asian women — Kyoko is crucial to Ava’s escape, since she brought the knife, and Jade is the first one who verbally challenges Nathan’s authority. Jade is actually given much more “screen time” than the previous “models” of Jasmine and Lily (and indeed, the shots of Jade as Ava appropriates her skin are demonstrably almost fawning over her) but this in itself doesn’t constitute a critique of the whiteness of Ava’s metaphorical feminism.

      It’s almost a synecdoche of the Madonna/Whore complex. Jade is practically held up on a pedestal for her resistance, while Kyoko is ultimately punished for her initial compliance, if not turning the corner and claiming her own agency. And both are ultimately minor parts in a drama dominated by three white people.

      So, yeah, I’m gonna have to disagree and say that in this respect the film doesn’t work, even if it aspires to better intentions.

      Reply

  6. Ger of All Trades
    September 23, 2015 @ 3:24 pm

    Jane, have you seen Under the Skin, by any chance? The parallels didn’t really occur to me while watching Ex Machina, but reading your interpretations, I was struck by how many concerns the two films share – identity, reflection, deceit, the male gaze, and the question of what defines a human, all explored via the gradual self-actualisation of an emotionally and morally ambiguous female Other. I think you’d find it interesting.

    Reply

    • Jane Campbell
      September 23, 2015 @ 3:42 pm

      Yeah, I’ve seen it, thought it was terribly interesting at the conceptual level, and viscerally in the scenes where she’s cruising around in an SUV conducting “interviews.” But I expect it’ll be Lucy that shows up first in one of my essays…

      Reply

  7. Daru
    September 28, 2015 @ 4:48 am

    Ill right now, so sorry but won’t have anything especially erudite to share! But loving catching up on your work and thanks for a great post. I find it interesting right now that we have a seeming growth in AI influenced – even if the products are about something other than this – products in TV and film. Even though Mr.Robot is not about AI for example, it’s title has this possible influence within it.

    Great stuff as ever, thanks Jane.

    Reply

  8. NIck
    October 2, 2015 @ 12:48 pm

    “the titular character is likened to an android”

    When I watched the pilot, I thought that this would be the case, especially since the actor playing Elliot has those…really strange eyes. Right at the first scene, I went, “Oh, right, he’s an android who’s trying to pass for human, and he’s got Wi-Fi in his head, and that’s how he’s able to hack into the donut shop and get all his information, and he acts so weirdly because he’s overwhelmed by a near-constant flow of information.”

    So much for having it all figured out…!

    Reply

  9. John Peacock
    October 10, 2015 @ 7:03 pm

    Coming late to this, but:

    I think it’s possibly worth tracking down Äkta Människor (the Swedish original of Humans) if you haven’t already – torrent the episodes and download fan-made subtitles. Having seen both seasons, I must admit I found it made watching Humans to be very hard going indeed.

    I don’t know that I’d lay down the law on the original being “better” (it has a number of thematic and representational problems – in particular Mimi/Anita’s extreme passivity), but there are a few things I find more interesting, and I have a tremendous affection for it in all its messiness. At least they didn’t have the father of the family shagging “Anita”, which I just thought was a lazy drama injection device and Rubbish Dad / Priapic Bloke stereotype, and sucked up time that could have been spent more interestingly elsewhere. The hacker daughter is a much better character in Humans (in Äkta Människor she’s just a miserable teen working in the supermarket and not anything interesting at all), the mother a better lawyer in Äkta Människor. The characters of some of the hubots in Äkta Människor are better drawn and more interesting. Also, in Humans, they often combine two characters from Äkta Människor, and sometimes they don’t really go together.

    On the whole, I think that the Äkta Människor science fiction world is better developed, particularly by the end of season two, which of course ends in multiple cliffhangers which are now (as any hope of a third season fades away) just left dangling.

    Personally, I’d rather have had a season three of both Äkta Människor and Utopia than a season one of Humans, but I suppose that wasn’t realistically on the cards.

    Reply

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