It’s almost always difficult to watch someone demonstrate a new bit of technology: the projector won’t cooperate with the laptop, there are glitches as the program is being shown. It gets uncomfortable to watch someone squirm, this is what makes The Office funny, the most awkward characters are the least aware of their awkwardness. But, really, some folks just aren’t born to make sales pitches. Douglas Hines, creator of Roxxxy the sexbot, is one of those folks.
And so, it is particularly difficult to watch Hines’ demonstration in part because he must not only surmount the problems usually encountered in presenting software, or in this case artificial intelligence, but he also has the double duty of convincing us he has a titillating selling point: pressure sensors in Roxxxy the sexbot’s three “inputs.”
And the stage directions would read here something like:
[DOUGLAS HINES, sweaty, eager to announce his new million dollar product, hovers above ROXXXY and begins inserting his fingers into its vagina so as to elicit a sultry, “Ooooh.”]
Maybe it’s just that Roxxxy, bless her heart, is simply abject, the uncanny valley principle: Masahiro Mori coined the phrase in 1970 suggesting that the more closely robots begin to resemble actual human beings, the more revulsive and abject they become to the humans that interact with them. Who doesn’t want a pet robot? Sure, a Roomba’s pretty sweet; but it’s lacking something R2D2 and C3PO had. Yes, Threepio
was annoying, but his prudish mannerisms aren’t as disturbing as Roxxxy. Is Roxxxy disturbing because it’s a sexbot and not a protocol droid?
Or maybe what’s awkward is the psychoanalytic vocabulary that Douglas Hines uses, “The True Companion Robot is a self-contained robot.”
“Containment” is a central term in the Object Relations Theory of psychoanalysis. It’s an extension of Melanie Klein‘s thinking on how the psyche operates. Klein, branching away from Freud, began studying how children develop relationships. The moment when a child is no longer allowed to breast feed, to Klein’s mind, is a traumatic moment. It’s the first in a long line of traumatic experiences. These traumatic experiences are revisited and relived in our minds over and over again. The net result of traumatic experiences can lead to suicide, homicide, all manner of psychological and physiological problems. The natural question becomes, of course, “how in the world is society possible if life is one traumatic event stacked on top of another?” Part of Klein’s answer is projection.
Projection allows us to map onto others the parts of ourselves we are disturbed by and this creates a safe distance between the disgusting parts of ourselves, now ascribed to others. It’s important to emphasize that projection, then, is an act rooted in a fear of being attacked, a lived paranoia that something bad is out there because, curiously, this is a central theme in the development of Roxxxy the sexbot. Containment, developed by Wilfred Bion, extends the projection concept by asking, “if there is identity projection, where does it go?” Bion’s container is an object, perhaps a fetishized object*** or an outgroup, but it is also can be the goal of the psycho-analytic process to become self-contained.
***Last summer, Slavoj Žižek told us a funny story about a fetishized hamster: A colleague’s wife had recently past-away, and his ability to cope with the loss many in the department found remarkable – he seemed unphased. The couple had children and their children had a hamster. The man became very much obsessed with this hamster, carrying it around, and generally maintaining a very close proximity to the rodent. Then, as Nature would have it, one day the little hamster died. This was a devastating loss for the man and it was at this point that all of his grief came gushing forth (you can watch the story at my personal blog, here.)***
Wait, rewind the tape.
Did Doug Hines, after fingerbanging that droid in front of us, just tell us that he developed Roxxxy in response to 9/11?
In Douglas Hines’ own words, “I had a friend who passed away in 9/11…I promised myself I would create a program to store his personality, and that became the foundation for Roxxxy True Companion.” Is Roxxxy, then, quite literally Douglas Hines’ container? Is Roxxxy supposed to be understood, at least in part, as more than sexbot? Should we see Roxxxy as a therapeutic exercise.
We are faced with a similar question in Atom Egoyan’s film Adoration. Simon is a Canadian youth living with his uncle after the death of his parents. While living with his uncle, Simon attempts to make sense of the conflicting stories of who his father really was. Simon’s grandfather minces no terms: Simon’s father was a killer and he killed Simon’s mother. But Simon’s teacher encourages Simon to elaborate and develop a narrative where his father has gone missing after attempting to detonate a bomb he has planted in Simon’s mother’s handbag while on a flight to Israel.
Unexpectedly, Simon’s narrative of an attempted bombing spreads to unintended audiences via the internet. Now the passengers of that flight argue over the trauma of that moment, they illustrate what Hal Foster in his essay “Obscene Abject Trauma” called the lingua trauma.
The passengers of Egoyan’s fictional flight discuss amongst themselves the possibility that the traumatic is perhaps, “Whether it is real or fictional, once we imagine it we must deal with it,” states one man. “I don’t understand what is so seductive about being a victim,” replies a woman, “we embrace this sense of being a victim almost to the extent that it blinds us to the pain of others…” Passenger David, who, always on the verge of exploding himself, announces:
DAVID: It’s not like I was such a great person to begin with. I think that I am the guy who was blown to smithereens…
[OTHER PASSENGER: “what?”]
DAVID: …okay? In a terrorist attack. And, I’ve come back from the dead, to rage against these fucking assholes. Who. Believe. That killing yourself for an idea is something that’s, that’s, that’s, viable.
OTHER PASSENGER: But you weren’t, in fact, blown to smithereens. I don’t understand why you say…
DAVID: Did you hear what I said? “I am the guy who came back from the dead.” I am speaking for them.
Perhaps we’ve gotten used to the invocation of September 11 in our daily affairs; but doesn’t it get absurd at some point to do this?
Adoration poses the problem well: politics is today consumed in one of two forms: as absurd theater a la Jon Stewart and The Daily Show***; or as pornography, where the purpose is not to participate in the sex you are watching but to derive pleasure from the simulated act.
***Recall that watershed moment for American society in 2006 when Stewart was featured on CNN’s Crossfire? Stewart’s central thesis was that CNN and the Mainstream Media are lacking integrity, but The Daily Show (and we must assume The Colbert Report) are immune from this criticism because their shows exist solely to illuminate “the absurdity of it all.” See Cynthia Willett’s Irony in the Age of Empire.***
Are Douglas Hines and Roxxxy part of some performance art piece? This may not be an unreasonable question, after all, ABC News reports Roxxxy was designed after a fine arts student. Is Roxxxy modeled after a particular artist? Or is there something about artists that is inherently sexy?
This invocation of September 11 potentially serves as a moment of obscenity in the Roxxxy story, Hal Foster asks in a footnote, “Can there be an obscene representation that is not pornographic?” For Foster the difference between obscenity as potentially artistic and simple pornographic representation is
determined in the staging of the event. This seems to be the inspiration for Andrea Fraser‘s Untitled (2003). Fraser struck-out onto (and at) the art world in 1989 with her performance Museum Highlights wherein she dressed as a docent and led groups around the museum explaining the art and the structure of the museum itself (including a public water fountain’s “economy and monumentality”). With her 2003 piece, Fraser asked a gallery to negotiate a commission from a private collector that would pay $20,000 for the first edition (of five) DVDs. The disc would lack audio but would feature the video of the collector and Fraser having sex in a hotel room.
It would seem that in order for Roxxxy to be considered more than simply a sex object the audience will have to encounter Roxxxy in a situation that André Breton requires of all beauty: the beautiful must be convulsive. Beauty will reveal, in a meaning-full way, the terrifying reality that all of this is impermanent. This quality of the Beautiful is necessary because convulsing is movement, a kinetic life, active engagement. The alternative to this reading is that Douglas Hines really wished he could have had sex with his now-dead friend, and seemingly at the crowded, geeked-out Consumer Electronics Showcase. I’d prefer to think of Roxxxy as a farewell to a dear friend, but I guess I’m a hopeless romantic.