Puppets Versus Robots
I’m sitting in a hotel in Prague right now getting over a bad fever last night and a severely clogged nose and I’m leaving tomorrow for a couple of days in Plzen before my flight to Tbilisi, Georgia. I’m watching my budget a lot more. And I’m quite far behind, so much has happened in Prague, on writing things down. But I’m not going to skimp. So my bags are packed and I’ve got a little time, let’s see what I can do.
There was one thing I wanted to get down before it gets too far away. It happened back in Switzerland at L’Abri, where I’d been invited to give a few lectures. I gave the first on Social Media as the perfect vehicle for what Jaques Ellul would call Horizontal Propaganda, that is what we do to ourselves to keep each other in line. I also gave a lecture on A Brief History of Puppetry, which might show up on YouTube someday. Then there was an informal evening sharing with the folks about the music and dance of Georgia (not the US state), which if you need a clue I’ve written about it elsewhere.
But the lecture that got me the most reaction was called Conceptual Humanity. And this does have slight connection to puppetry. The basic idea of the lecture was this. We once, in western society, held the notion that humans were made in the image of God, we have since largely overthrown this belief and replaced it with a notion that the we both are our desires and choices and ironically that we don’t have any free will when it comes down to who we are. Lady Gaga sums up the 21st Century thought succinctly in her song and video of Born This Way. And so the lecture presented a wide variety of ways in which we have sought to adapt whatever most modern people mean now by being human. This was connected to another essay I had written several years back called A Doll’s Heart, concerning the correlations between newer conceptions of dolls and their owners. (You can read that here on my Anadromous Life site.)
I followed the trails that led from movie star and rock star worship and imitation, to cosmetic surgery, through body modification and B.I.I.D., through the new anatomically correct doll’s to doll brothels in Japan to the attempt to make sex robots. I was questioning the idea of conceptual humanity, wondering whether we could indeed change ourselves beyond the point of recognition, what some have called post-human.
Interestingly enough also on this trip when I was back in Paris I noticed an exhibition at the Branly Museum (Musée du Quai Branly), the French state anthropology museum, entitled – Persona: Strangely Human. This dealt exactly with this issue of how we create automata, dolls, robots, etc. that we then emulate. The exhibit finishes with the wall-sized video of a Japanese man marrying his sex doll in a marriage ceremony. The major difference between my lecture and the museum’s presentation was the utter neutrality of the museum. These things are just happening. Certainly you couldn’t raise the kinds of issues I was. And yet for the students attending my lecture the creep factor was high as was the unnerving underlying assumption that we are all complicit in the new world.
What a curious contrast to the puppetry lecture, where most of the students couldn’t figure out why I wanted to discuss puppets and by the end, between the art and the imagery, it was all deeply human. The dolls and robots entered what is called ‘the uncanny valley’, a hypothesis that states that the closer our images come to reality the creepier it makes us feel. But the puppets were in a different zone entirely, being the rather homely creations of genuine human imagination and filled with the real potential for great art. Who knows maybe in the future it may come down to puppets versus robots? I know which side I’m on.
Prague, Czech Republic