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Oedipus dup(e)licated: Artificial intelligence and the matter(e)ices of desire and the symbolic

The Letter, Issue 36, Spring 2006, Pages 103 - 112


Eve Watson

This paper proposes to speak about a film narrative, Bicentennial Man. In the author's view, the film narrative lends itself to an analytic deconstruction that follows Oedipal and familial lines. Given that the film is ostensibly a 'children's film' and can be found only in the children's section of the video shop, there is a question of locating its symbolic place, an idea echoed by the android in the story who seeks to map out his own symbolic place. None of the children the author spoke to who viewed the film said they enjoyed it. And adults often don't find the film unless they happen upon it at the video shop in the children's section next to The Jungle Book or Finding Nemo. The film narrative, a sentimental tale of human exploration directed by none other than a man named Chris Columbus, seems provocative in its determination to engage with the Real by means of a confusing and lacking Symbolic. Birth, sex, love and death are prominent, driving the narrative onward towards as we shall see, the only 'real' human conclusion possible.

By way of introduction, the film's box jacket enthusiastically informs us that this is a film 'about a robot that is no ordinary household appliance. Andrew is a machine with real emotions and a burning capacity to discover what it means to be human. Will Andrew ever achieve his goal to become human?' That is broadly-speaking the narrative sweep of the tale before us. Indeed, this is a story of an android, a man-like robot named Andrew who similar to Oedipus embodies as Lacan says, the passage from myth to existence.[1] He undertakes a passage from machine to human, determined to realise his destiny, a destiny implied in his naming, to become 'a man' (see below). The android tears himself apart, submitting to five 'upgrades' that transform him from immortal machine to a being-for-death, a process that allows him to realise a human destiny. If life is a lengthy dogged detour towards death, the two hundred years of Andrew's travails attend to that which insists throughout his life and all human endeavours - the attempt to impute meaning to existence, to ascertain what is behind the drama of the passage into existence. For all of that, Andrew's coming-to-be is fraught with subjective moments of enunciative anxiety, with ambiguity and uncertainty and with the varied problematics of love and desire. Let us enter into the narrative of Andrew's insistence.

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