This talk was given at the event Sex Robots: Are we Ready? at Old Street Gallery 12th Dec 2019.
To read my academic work on the Psychoanalysis of AI, please see my Academia.edu page: https://kingston.academia.edu/IsabelMillar.
The full article on Blade Runner 2049 is forthcoming with the Palgrave Lacan series. My doctoral thesis project will be published in 2020.
‘The world is increasingly populated by lathouses. […] The lathouse has absolutely no reason to limit its multiplications. What is important is to know what happens when one really enters into relationship with the lathouse as such.’
Lacan (2007, p. 162)
‘There is something stronger than passion: illusion. There is something stronger than sex or happiness: the passion for illusion.’
Baudrillard (2008, p. 6)
‘Technology is lust removed from nature.’
Delillo (1986, p. 285)
The truth is, as attention grabbing as these lovely things are, I am not particularly interested in sex robots, they actually leave me rather cold. Having said that I think the concept of the sex-bot is fascinating from a psychoanalytic perspective. But what do I mean by the “concept” of a sex-bot, well taken to its speculative zenith it’s an embodied humanoid artificial intelligence with whom we enter into a sexual relation, experience physical and emotional enjoyment, who may even become real love objects, and who in turn may (fantasmatically) “love” or more accurately “enjoy” us back. In psychoanalysis enjoyment or jouissance is a complex term that refers not just to pleasure but also pain and their paradoxical intersection otherwise known as the death drive, that is definitive of human experience.
This idea of AIs as love objects has fascinated writers and film makers for years. Most recently we can think of, for example Ex-Machina, Blade Runner 2049, West World, Black Mirror among many others. And so, in my research which is on the Psychoanalysis of Artificial Intelligence, I use the concept of the sex-bot in film as a tool to examine larger philosophical questions about our intimate and sexual relations with forms of Artificial Intelligence. So, what is sex in psychoanalytic terms? Common characterizations of psychoanalysis accuse it of reducing everything to an underlying “sexual meaning”. But on the contrary, this is to misunderstand what sex is. Sex is not a hidden meaning, but precisely the lack of meaning itself. As philosopher Alenka Zupančič (2017) says:
‘[I]t would… be a big mistake to consider that, in Freudian theory, the sexual (in the sense of constitutively deviational partial drives) is the ultimate horizon of the animal called “human,”… on the contrary it is the operator of the inhuman, the operator of dehumanization’ (p. 7).
This dehumanization as she calls is significant in relation to our discussion of sex robots as undead companions. Since it is from this “inhuman” basis that psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan constructs his theory of subjectivity around this fundamental negativity we call sex. Zupančič says:
‘What Freud calls the sexual is thus not that which makes us human in any received meaning of the term, it is rather that which makes us subjects, or perhaps more precisely it is coextensive with the emergence of the subject’ (p. 7).
The question of sex in Lacanian psychoanalysis has its roots in Freud’s discovery of the unconscious. But Freud’s most significant contribution to the question of sex was to claim that our popular conceptions of what sex is were completely wrong. A common misconception about Freud’s legacy which still persists, is that he reduced all the complexity of human life down to banalities of repressed sexual and bodily drives stemming from originary traumas that underpinned all of our subsequent adult desires. Whilst sexuality is at the root of the Freudian conception of human subjectivity, it is not sex in the common sense meaning of the term. Furthermore, whilst Freud may have spoken about sexual trauma as formative to our adult sexual orientation, this trauma is not necessarily one that ever took place in reality, and nor is there such a thing as normative sexuality which could exist without such trauma in the first place. For Freud, the fact of sexuality itself is the inherent trauma of what it is to be a human being. It is how this trauma is navigated which will determine the precise way in which a person will come to inhabit his her (or their) sexuality.
And this is what Lacan would formalize logically over many years of his seminar culminating eventually in terms of his graphs of sexuation (pictured here) and transitioning from the subject of the unconscious to the fundamentally barred subject otherwise known as the speaking being. Lacan schematized sexual difference in logical terms as two different ways of constituting a totality using the language of set theory and algebra (what are also known in psychoanalysis as mathemes). Masculinity and femininity merely being two failed modes in language of reaching the “impossible absolute” and giving sense to his famous refrain “the sexual relation does not exist”. This relation does not exist because (to simplify somewhat) symbolically the man has the phallus and the woman is the phallus, two mutually exclusive positions.
For psychoanalysis the fact that we speak and are castrated by language is the sine qua non of our subjectivity and sexuality. A process which all speaking beings must by definition undergo, and which determines their sexuated position within language and discourse. The term castration here does not refer to the actual removal of the phallic organ but rather the symbolic operation of entering into the realm of language. Our first experience of language of course, being as a stand in for something missing that we desperately wanted; a breast, a toy, a person, a look. Language is the mark of the thing that we lacked, and which provides us the substitute satisfaction in its place.
But importantly this form of understanding sexuation does not conform to genetic or biological models and therefore does not depend on what type of body you inhabit. These positions within language are highly abstract and correspond to the way in which the symbolic carves up our bodies and orients our enjoyment. These forms of enjoyment dictate the way in which we experience ourselves as an object for the other, and in return how the other may be an object of enjoyment for us. We don’t have time to go into it fully here but we can simply say that the masculine position corresponds to the all of exception and inclusion, to be on the masculine side you are characterized by belonging to a closed group which is constituted by an exception in the form of the mythical totemic and all enjoying father (Freud, 2001 ). For the masculine sex all except one are castrated. This totemic father never really existed but yet as a fantasy he operates. To make it more tangible think of Donald Trump as the ultimate obscene totemic Freudian father, who is permitted to enjoy everything (including, as he insinuates, his own daughter) and in doing so creates the exception to the rule, creating the category of so called real “men”.
The feminine non-all in contrast is an open set which doesn’t require a boundary to define itself. There is not one that is not castrated. For this reason, masculinity is, formally speaking, a limit to forms of enjoyment and femininity is an unlimited mode of enjoyment. Not because women are not subject to castration, but because the function of non-castration does not determine their enjoyment. Think here of the logic of femininity not as something mystical or ineffable but rather as a formal category which entails an infinite proliferation of possibilities. To give you an image, think of the notion of female enjoyment (and its prohibition) as the absolute fascination of our culture. We have always been completely obsessed with how women enjoy. As pornography shows, the enjoying body of a woman is the ultimate prize and the ultimate enigma. The strange thing about the two modes of sexuation, however is that on the masculine side the category of man is generated as a totality, whereas on the feminine side the category of woman logically simply cannot exist. Since the conditions of her totality are impossible.
So, what does this have to do with sex robots? At a time when the notion of the technological singularity is hotly debated, we are presented with all kinds of imagined futures wherein the boundaries of humanity and sexuality are redefined and transgressed. Even though actual sex-bots are in their infancy in the present stage of techno-capitalism, their fantasmatic presence in culture, betray our long-time fascination with intimate relationships with AI more generally. In Lacan’s Seminar XVII he famously invented two new terms the lathouse and the alethosphere. The alethosphere, from the Greek word Alethia – truth, in contemporary times would refer to the realm of individualized and formalized truth making that we each plug into in the digitally mediated social space. In other words, the self-contained echo chamber of our own ideas and enjoyment, wherein despite our connectivity we are all profoundly alone. Just think about the lonely desperation of the twitter-sphere, or the deluge of angry men with a dangerous grudge that the internet has spawned. And so the lathouse is this strange object that is, to paraphrase Lacan, “not quite being and not quite the Other”, but is to be found in the guise of the ever-proliferating objects a , or object causes of desire which sustain this self-contained bubble of auto-enjoyment (these may be material, technological or conceptual in nature). And what better example of this is there than the love-dolls we are seeing tonight? So rather than a standard feminist critique of the misogynistic aspects of the sex robot industry then, I am more interested rather in what the fantasy of a relationship between a human and an embodied AI (a modern day lathouse), tells us about subjectivity in the alethosphere. Because whether we like it or not, AI is entering the social bond. In the context of Lacanian theory, this (impossible) relationship is interlinked with the question of knowledge, enjoyment and sexuation:
‘[I]t’s a logical articulation that is at stake in the formulation that knowledge is the Other’s jouissance – the Other’s, of course, insofar as – since there is no Other – the intervention of the signifier makes the Other emerge as a field’ (Lacan, 2007 , p. 15).
So how does the question of non-human or undead sexual companions reflect a far more intractable problem regarding sex, speech, knowledge and the body? When there is less and less space between demand and fulfilment, we may ask what is the status of fantasy as a sustaining structure to “real” life? In psychoanalysis, fantasy is the framework through which we construct our subjectivity, our deepest desires being based around a fictional structure, that is constitutively unknown to us. The function of fantasy is in fact the logical framework that allows the subject to become intelligible and for the ‘imaginary [to be] captured by a particular use of signifiers’ (Lacan, 2017 , p. 387). This leads us to query the logic of fantasy in relation to artificial intelligence and the different ways sexuation can manifest in fantasies of AI.
The enigma of sex then, is one which we will always find right at the heart of our fantasies of radical futures for the human species and alternative utopian or dystopian landscapes and has recently found expression in various depictions of AI and our sexual relation to it in cinema. Much like the first Blade Runner movie, Denis Villeneuve’s 2017 sequel Blade Runner 2049 asks fundamental questions about the nature of human existence in the context of accelerated techno-capitalism. This time though the crux of the protagonist K’s dilemma is no longer am I human? but was I born? K, in searching for the film’s object of desire – the missing child – fantasmatically tries to reconstruct his very own primal scene, ie the impossible knowledge of his own creation. K now starts to believe he is the “chosen one”, born of the union of man and woman.
The enigmatic and profoundly human problem of sexuation is thus brought to the fore. The anxiety depicted here is therefore the disintegration of the illusion of the sexual relation, which according to psychoanalysis, never existed in the first place. Since in this imagined future, humans are reproduced “artificially” and without the need for the work of female gestation, the significance of sexuation becomes ever more conspicuous. Why would we still need so called “men” and “women” if we can reproduce a-sexually? But whilst K is a replica of a male human yet aware of his replicant status, Joi his holographic girlfriend is a virtual AI programmed for the sole purpose of being a love interest for her husband but supposedly unaware of her existential quandary i.e that she is “not real” or doesn’t exist. Joi is perhaps what Lacan would have referred to as the ultimate ‘lathouse’. The lathouse which Lacan derives from the Greek ousia meaning being, merged with venthouse the French for suction cup, and vent for wind, evokes a device for siphoning off enjoyment. This allusion we may relate to the voice and breath and the enjoyment of speech, involved in feminine jouissance and which is one of the most tangible features of Joi’s character. Joi, in her fully automated luxury femininity summons up the image of the capitalist dream of women as pure object a. Joi represents the phallus as pure signifier of castration, an “impossible” undead body. Reading Slavoj Žižek (2005) on the question of the phallus and the body we could similarly understand Joi’s significance thus:
‘Its ‘transcendental’ status means there is nothing ‘substantial’ about it: the phallus is the semblance par excellence. What the phallus ‘causes’ is the gap that separates the surface event from bodily density: it is the ‘pseudo-cause’ that sustains the autonomy of the field of Sense with regard to its true, effective, bodily cause’ (p. 130).
It is thus the question of the enjoying body as depicted between K and his fantasmatic relationship to both his love object and his own idea of his body (as born, not made) that provides us with the conceptual transition from the Freudian unconscious to the Lacanian speaking body. K’s unconscious becomes a site of contestation via the various discursive modalities that he enjoys through his fantasy of lost, or potential enjoyment. His enjoyment is very much predicated on his ability to experience himself fantasmatically via the body of the ‘woman’, whether that is his holographic lover, simulacrum of a sister, or dead mother. So, sex is here what is missing from the signifying chain, a gap in knowledge. In other words, sex is the very structural incompleteness of nature and of being. In the age of the alethosphere is this not the point of the sex robot, the possibility to experience ourselves via the body of an impossible other, the body of the woman who doesn’t really exist?
Baudrillard, J. (2008) The Perfect Crime. London: Verso.
Delillo, D. (1985) White Noise. New York: Penguin Random House.
Freud, S. (2001) Totem and Taboo. In: The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVII (1917-1919). London: Vintage.
Lacan, J. (1998) The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XX: Encore – On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge. London: W.W. Norton & Company.
Lacan, J. (2006) Écrits. London: W.W. Norton & Company.
Lacan, J. (2007) The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XVII: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis. London: W.W. Norton & Company.
Villeneuve, D. (Dir.) (2017) Blade Runner 2049 [Film] Warner Brothers.
Žižek, S. (2005) The Metastases of Enjoyment: On Women and Causality. Verso: London.
Zupančič, A. (2017) What is Sex? Cambridge: MIT Press.