While researching on the uses of Artificial Intelligence and the development of sex-bots, apart from being thoroughly repelled by the sight of men sticking their fingers into the open mouths of inert and dead-eyed naked rubber dolls, I am struck by the apparent absence of any real engagement in the literature on this phenomenon with the theoretical problems surrounding the question of sex and artifice.
So let’s meet Harmony (pictured above), The first generation of Realdollx who has been created by combining an AI app with a silicone sex doll, to enable her purchaser to not only engage in no-strings-attached sexual intercourse but also polite conversational foreplay. The doll can be customized to fit a range of preferences from frigid to promiscuous to sadomasochistic penchants, has 11 vagina options and hundreds of nipple variations. At the moment the AI is in early stages and by no means enables the more sophisticated user to discuss current affairs, their latest Slavoj Žižek book or indeed argue over who is doing the washing up (great at blow jobs but apparently useless with a scourer). But at least they give the semblance of consciousness and consent, which is more than can be said for how many successful men seem to prefer their sexual conquests these days.
But two of the most significant commentators in academia on the question of sex-bots, disagree on the prospective dangers, or benefits of these creations. Kathleen Richardson from De Montford University is a professor of Ethics and Culture of Robots and AI who launched the Campaign against Sex Robots in 2015. She argues that sex-bots are a deeply pernicious development that serve to reinforce and reproduce dangerous power structures and legitimize exploitation and sexual objectification of women and children. Kate Devlin on the other hand, a senior lecturer in the Department of Computing at Goldsmiths University of London working in the field of Human Computer Interaction and AI, believes sex-bots may in fact serve a therapeutic and even emancipatory function.
Whist I have sympathy for aspects of both these positions, I fear neither of them grasp the kernel of what is at stake in the question of sex and artifice. First of all, even though there is little evidence yet of the social impact whether positive or negative of sex-bots given their relative novelty and inaccessibility, I am quite sure that they will not pave the way toward diminishing misogyny. I can’t imagine that a rubbery receptacle for bodily fluids furnishes society with the tools it needs to start reducing its time-honoured thirst for violence against women and children. On the other hand, Devlin is right to suggest that sex-bots need not be solely the territory of male fantasy. Women are perfectly capable of fantasizing over cyborgs; Terminator, Robocop, Bender from Futurama anyone? Of course, female fantasmatic tropes of robotic partners rarely revolve around the idea of complete domination over the body of a subservient, vulnerable or scared male. But again, this is not really the point.
The common-sense approach to sex that seems to be apparent in these two above arguments for and against sex-bots, is that there is something inherently meaningful and even natural about the way that we have sex. And by natural, I mean “instinctual” or biologically programmed. The Lacanian psychoanalytic approach to sex is entirely more pessimistic and indeed suspicious of such easy explanations. There is in fact nothing natural nor paradoxically even meaningful about sex. In fact, sex is completely artificial. It occupies and embodies an ontological void, it is, we could say, an abyss of meaning. It is interesting to note then that the company who created Harmony and her silicone buddies is called Abyss Creations. This title (perhaps unwittingly, perhaps not) puts its finger so to speak on precisely the structural logic behind both the sexual relation and the uncanny and terrifying encounter with an Artificial Intelligence.
Whilst the vicissitudes of sexuality may be artificial, as counter-intuitive as it may sound, it is nevertheless underpinned by a structural logic. In Lacanian terms the phrase “the sexual relation does not exist” expresses the impossible and a-symmetrical relation between the sexes not as two biological nor physical categories but two logical subject positions governing a regime of sexual enjoyment. Either position may be occupied by any person regardless of sexual anatomy but correspond to masculine and feminine modes of enjoyment. These two irreconcilable positions depicted below in set theory (masculine to the left and feminine on the right) may be represented as follows:
I will not explain the graph exhaustively here but please google “Graphs of Sexuation” to find ample explanations and see below for suggestions for further reading if you are so inclined. The graph originally appears in Lacan’s Seminar XX “Encore: On Feminine Sexuality The Limits of Love and Knowledge”. Here Lacan famously states il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel: ‘there’s no such thing as a sexual relationship’. This often misunderstood statement articulates the logical impasse and antagonism inherent to sexuality, but it also illuminates epistemological questions regarding the possibility of knowledge and its relationship to enjoyment. The psychoanalytic condition of knowledge, according to Lacan, is itself bound to sexual difference, to desire and to love.
So to cut a very, very long story short, the graph of sexuation can be thought of as a formalization of Freud’s idea of the all-enjoying totemic Father from Totem and Taboo. On the left (masculine) side of the graph, the logic is that of the exception from the whole. In other words, the concept of the “The Man” is structured via the exception of one man from the group, which thereby founds the universality of their identity. This is none other than the mythical all enjoying Totemic Father who all the sons killed because, well, he was shagging everyone.
His death instantiates the incest taboo since the guilt felt by the sons prevents them from themselves partaking of the obscene enjoyment of the now absent but super-egoic presence of the father. Hence masculinity is based on a logic of attempting (and failing) to be like the One who escapes (symbolic) castration, or a limit to one’s enjoyment. On the right hand (feminine) side, there is no universal idea of “The Woman” because her logic is that of the non-all, she is not founded on identification with an exception precisely because there is not One who is not submitted to castration. In other words, she is fully submitted to castration. But paradoxically, in being fully submitted, she undermines the very logic of castration by knowing it is a pure artifice, she “sees through the fascinating presence of the phallus” as Žižek would say, unlike men who live and die by it. She knows there is no “other of the other”, no exception outside the law. For this reason, she partakes of an other enjoyment outside the phallic form. The much misunderstood and mythologised “feminine jouissance”. In this sense, like the totemic father, woman herself becomes one of the names-of-the-father, a relentlessly demanding, overwhelming, lustful and capricious presence of complete and full enjoyment.
If you are wondering what that means in reality, then just think for a moment about how our whole civilization is obsessed with knowing (in secret perhaps) the many forms of and means to enjoyment for women. On the one side the veneration and sanctification of the mother’s unconditional and complete enjoyment of her child sanctioned by society, and on the other the disgust and outrage with women’s sexual enjoyment, condemned by society. But here comes the Lacanian twist, curiously when a pornographic image “objectifies” the female body, isn’t it in fact subjectifying the female position of enjoyment? In our obsession with policing and displaying of the female body are we not in fact fascinated by the enigmatic sexual enjoyment of the woman in her various paroxysms of pleasure and pain? And this fascination is of course not just limited to men, women too are fascinated by this supposed other enjoyment which they are assumed to have and encouraged to cultivate.
To quote Žižek:
“Let us take as our starting point the properly Hegelian paradox of coincidentia oppositorum that characterizes the standard notion of women: woman is simultaneously a representation, a spectacle par excellence, an image intended to fascinate, to attract the gaze, while still an enigma, the unrepresentable, that which a priori eludes the gaze. She is all surface, lacking any depth, and the unfathomable abyss.” (1995)
Thus, we could say the veil of the phallus is for women used as a real deception, covering up the void that she knows she is as subject, whereas for men the phallus is a genuine enigma covering the void that he deludes himself he is not. Two eternally incompatible positions.
This is why the logic of sexuality is itself founded not on two opposites but on two failed attempts at becoming a whole subject, giving rise to the many permutations and multifarious modes of covering up this failure that is what we call “sexuality” as such. Hence, the truth of the sexual relation is not male and female but rather LGBTQ++++++++ ad infinitum.
Regarding the uncanny or unheimlich, this term was developed and theorised by Freud in his famous essay Das Unheimliche. It expresses the strange feeling of familiarity mixed with that alien quality often associated with the experience of seeing the face of someone who you have never met before and inexplicably noticing a similarity to someone you know. This haunting experience is analogous to the phantasmatic encounter with a robotic life form – depicted in different ways in films like Her, Ex-Machina and Bladerunner – giving the viewer the uneasy feeling “is anyone really ‘in there’?”
Significantly Freud’s treatment of the automated love object Olympia in The Uncanny essay foregrounds questions of subjective structure in relation to feminine hysteria and masculine obsessional neurosis which we see as a constant trope in cinematic depictions of human-robot love affairs. Freud’s Oedipal reading of the uncanny stages the non-existent sexual relation that is apparent between, on the one hand, the masculine desire for a female robotic companion and, on the other hand, the fantasmatic feminine position as a quasi-robot for whom existence is constituted through the hysterical desire of the other’s desire.
This is the abyss that we encounter in the face of the assumption of subjectivity which we are compelled to make in order to engage in any social or ethical encounter. We must assume someone is “in there” but we never really know. This in Lacanian terms is imaginary identification, necessary of course but ultimately a self-deception. It never really accounts for the real part of the encounter which always inexorably escapes any shared symbolic horizons. That part of the other which remains wholly unknowable. The sexual act on the other hand involves another form of abyssal encounter. But this time it is a question of the impossibility of really knowing the enjoyment of the other and only ever experiencing the enjoyment in one’s own fantasy. This is why there are always three elements present in any person’s sexual activity. As well as your partner (or partners), the third party is the empty place holder of fantasy which may be occupied by whatever projection happens to fit the bill at the time; this could be another person, an idea or even an object.
The reason why sex bots are so problematic and yet so fascinating is that they expose precisely the artificial character of the sexual relation. In Lacanian terms the unbearable real of sexuality. The fact that an artificial doll may act as the representation of a sexual fantasy presents us with the true horror of subjectivity: the fantasy is the only thing that really sustains any of our relationships at all. This nugget of artificial wisdom is Lacan’s lasting legacy to us as we move forward into the realms of AI sex and love.
Freud, S. (1919) The Uncanny. In J. Strachey (ed.) (2001) The Complete Psychological Works of
Sigmund Freud Volume XVII (1917-1919). London: Vintage. Freud, S (2001, ) Totem and Taboo SE13 London: Hogarth
Lacan, J. (1998 ) The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book XX: 1972-1973, Encore, on Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge. London: W.W Norton & Company
Žižek, S. (1995) Woman is one of the names of the father, Or how not to misread Lacan’s formulas of sexuation. Retrieved (7th of December 2018) from: http://www.lacan.com/zizwoman.htm
Žižek, S. (2005) The Metastases of Enjoyment: On Women and Causality. Verso: London
For an in-depth discussion of AI, and the non-existent sexual relation see:
(Millar, I) 2018 “Ex-Machina Sex, Knowledge and Artificial Intelligence” in
Psychoanalytische Perspectieven Volume 36 (4) 2018 “On Ecrits”
Or for a discussion of Lacan, AI and enjoyment see:
(Millar, I) 2018 “Black Mirror: From Lacan’s Lathouse to Miller’s Speaking Body” in
Psychoanalytische Perspectieven Volume 36 (2) 2018 “Nothing less than the object a”
And forthcoming: Issue 29 of The Journal of the Centre for Freudian Research and Analysis:
(Millar, I) 2018 “The Sexual relation Does Not Exist But Does My Sex-Bot Know?”
Prompted as I often am, in that typical “feminist” way by annoying things that men say, today’s episode was particularly grating. (Let’s not even talk about Brett Kavanaugh). An Italian physicist named Alessandro Strumia has been suspended after a presentation at Cern where, during a seminar on gender issues in physics, the Prof claimed that male scientists were being discriminated against because of “ideology”. He stated physics was “invented and built by men, it’s not by invitation”. He gave that tired old argument of “scientific objectivity” to defend the purity of academic endeavor from what he saw as the corrosive and counter-productive effects of gender politics.
As a starting academic I can not think of a worse insult than the idea that my work would be held to a lower standard because I am female. But I also know, from my few years of being in academia, this does not and cannot happen. The work is either good or not, no amount of lipstick or hair flicks will help you to understand Lacan believe me. Any institutional “help” that women may have received to access traditionally male disciplines (I definitely did not receive any mind you) does not function to let in poor scholars who should not otherwise be there. In the case of the push towards gender equality in STEM subjects it has merely allowed women to even contemplate the possibility that this world is available to them, the rest is up to them. But the sad thing is, this man and men like him are not going to be in a minority and despite the fact that Cern have condemned his statement, people will believe his crap, probably all the more.
I think back to when I did my undergraduate degree in Philosophy and can indeed recall a few occasions when sexist remarks were made in relation to my choice of traditionally male discipline. But this did not concern me much at the time. I think that’s because I had such a clever mother that female intellectual inferiority just wasn’t even a question. (My father is of course equally clever but then he has the public confirmation of that as most clever men do.)
I often wonder what my mum, Sylvia, would say were she here to witness the state of the world. Given that she would recoil in disgust and horror when “Mrs T” came on the TV, I can’t imagine to what lengths she would have gone to avoid catching a glimpse of Pussy Grabber in Chief. I don’t think she could have imagined this strange dark retrogressive universe even possible. But then there are many things she would not have imagined about today. Like the idea that we are talking about feminism again as if it were a new idea.
I mean in the 80’s me, mum and sis were happily watching that subversive pair of liberated bints Cagney and Lacey with tea and chocolate digestives and looking forward to a bright future. Feminism was the answer to an old problem and therefore was not spoken about much. It was pretty much taken for granted that women had been structurally disadvantaged, and we didn’t even talk about “patriarchy”. It was old news. Little did we know what was to come.
My mum was not particularly into being a “woman” as such. Her uniform was dark blue jeans, boots, men’s white shirts and crew neck sweaters. She never wore skirts, prints patterns or anything that was explicitly feminine. This was not a statement, it was just what she felt least conspicuous in. And given that she was prone to falling over, spilling food and general disorderliness, any form of deliberate attempt at womanly masquerade would have been an impractical extra cognitive effort that she just wasn’t prepared for. When you are often to be found confusing inanimate objects with ethical beings, simplicity is key. There are only so many biscuits you can apologize to if you want to get things done.
Now, I am making my mother out to be an imbecile. Please don’t misunderstand me; as I said, we are talking here about one of the most intelligent, cultured and sophisticated minds you could ever hope to encounter. She studied English at Oxford on a scholarship, could speak Latin, recite whole Shakespeare sonnets, quote Byron, Pliny and Goethe at opportune moments, refer to medieval philosophers in party games, cooked authentic Roman banquets for children’s birthday parties, she knew world history, opera, mythology, botany, spoke 4 languages, had read the whole bible (for literary reasons obvs), could have debated global politics with Jeremy Paxman (though not without telling him to fuck off several times), marched against nuclear weapons, Apartheid, and all the other relevant causes of her time, and on top of that, devoted her life to looking after her 5 children.
But despite her disavowal of being a “little woman” there was one way in which I suppose she was extremely “feminine”. Regardless of all these remarkable talents, she thought she was completely useless. The most remarkable thing about her in fact, wasn’t that she was learned, witty and hilarious but that she had absolutely no idea of the significance of her gifts or the effect she had on people. She put her unique combination of competencies down to sheer fluke of memory and any knowledge or ability she had accrued was a result of aimlessness and a wasted life. I have come to realize, this penchant for self-denigration is a particularly womanly attribute.
Because she had spent her best years in the unpaid and unrecognized profession of “mother”, she had no self-esteem and suffered from acute anxiety and depression. Don’t get me wrong I am very glad and grateful that she was always there at home but I also know that it made her very sad that she didn’t have a “career”. It was an impossible choice she made and one that women have been making for thousands of years and will no doubt continue to make.
I would have done anything to make my mum happy, but I know she would not have been my mum if she had been. The two of us spent many years sitting in cafes and restaurants comparing notes on who was most depressed and each attempting to encourage the other to be happier, only being made sadder by the other’s self-doubt. Her insecurity ran so deep as to inhabit her whole way of interacting with the outside world. Wherever we went I would watch after her every move anticipating that she would drop her glasses, trip over her bag, or walk into the door. It was a full-time concern, and largely justified, I mean this is someone who nearly burnt the house down after putting a plastic electric kettle on top of an open flame, coz she “forgot” we hadn’t used a metal boiler for 20 years. Not to mention the time she called me from the toilets of a train to tell me what awful person she was stuck sitting next to, not realizing she was accidentally leaning against the emergency intercom, broadcasting her insults to the whole carriage.
One day I came down to breakfast to find her at the kitchen table with a massive black eye. She had gone on her usual early morning trip to the shops and had slipped on the ice. Instead of telling anyone she just cleaned the kitchen and listened to the radio on her own for 3 hours, and still made sure she had a hot croissant and fresh juice waiting for me. My mum tried many things to improve her life but every option was foiled by crippling self-doubt and genuine white hot fear of humiliation. But, hey less of the sympathy, she was no sad-sack. At the regular, drunken and somewhat notorious dinner parties we had over the years she never failed to entertain all comers with her countless tales of hilarity, literary apercus and bungled actions followed by trenchant outbursts of righteous rage ending with head on the table in despair and tears.
But after years of inexplicable fear and trembling, when she actually found out she was terminally ill she never cried once. A strange fatalistic determination fell over her and she underwent her chemotherapy with the composure of a Trappist monk, not a single word of self-pity or anger was uttered as her body was devoured and her faculties stripped away. The horrors she endured I still cannot bare to think about.
Among the many awful moments during her viscous illness from lung cancer, I remember one particularly devastating conversation in the intensive care ward. After several tortuous days with a massive tube down her throat in order to breath, the consultant told us they would have to perform a tracheotomy. Even though she was clearly about to die, at the time I still could not fathom that possibility. So when the doctor told us the procedure was the only humane thing to do, my main concern was if they took her voice box out I would never hear my mum’s voice again. That was it, my favourite voice, lost forever. The metaphysics of it were baffling to me, all of those words and thoughts and jokes would be removed and put into a surgical tray and flushed away into oblivion!
The following days after the operation as she lay in a morphine induced semi -conscious state having blood pumped off her lungs into buckets next to the bed, she would communicate to us with a pad and pen. It took her a long time to write, but even then, everything she said was funny, her lifelong sense of morbid cynicism was finally vindicated and her one liners were better than ever. But the best and the last one that unknowingly summed up the greatness of her ironic talent had us poised in anticipation as she limply tried to scrawl the words down. Slowly we read each word as she wrote them; “Get…me…my…pen”. My brothers, sister and I burst into tears and laughter as we realized what she had done as her final characteristic flourish in defiance of logic and reality. And then my mum did the gesture that had become so familiar in those last two weeks. She slowly lifted her arm up which was covered in tubes, gestured with her hand towards her head in an attempt to tap her temple and roll her eyes back as if to say “How stupid am I!”.
When she died apart from the grief of losing my mum and best friend, I felt another terrifying and more abstract existential anxiety. Where does all that knowledge go? What happens to the unique un-digitizable archive of her mind that we can never access again?
My brother often wonders if perhaps science will one day find a way to reproduce her genetic material perfectly enough to make a version of her brain, or even just a virtual representation of her in holographic form. But the curious thing is, had my mother been the person she wanted to be, she would not have been the person she was. And how can science replicate that? Perhaps we should ask Professor Strumia.