Academic analysis of “Ambiguously Human”

This will likely be the last update on Ambiguously Human! I’ve finished the written portion of this project, and it’s available here if you’re interested in reading (all or part of) it. It includes an introduction to some of the theories that influenced me, analyses of the individual components, and my reflections on the project as a whole. It also has photo documentation of the installation, if you didn’t get a chance to see it in person. You can probably skip the website documentation section, though…

Read the main text below, or view the complete document here.

Download the PDF file Ambiguoulsy Human analysis preview.

Expanding the body

In my research for this project, I’ve been thinking a lot about what the body is and how it can be defined. Transhumanist thinking, in particular, shown me ways of looking at expanded bodies – bodies that are still human, but with capabilities that go beyond what we traditionally think of the body as doing. The videos below show some of the projects, practical and artistic, that I’ve come across as I’ve been thinking about this idea. For me, these projects and others like them ask questions about what it means to have a human body. What does that body look like and what can it do? How much can we push those traditional boundaries?

For other artworks and writing that deals with this area, I’d highly recommend Science Gallery’s “Human+” catalog. This exhibition, as they put it, “invites you to consider a future of augmented abilities, authored evolution, new strategies for survival and non-human encounters through a range of installations and laboratories exploring the future of our species” and includes some really interesting work.

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“Humanized Objects” reflection: Objects with (sometimes latent) personalities

This reflection looks at the last component of Ambiguously Human, the installation. My reflections on the films series are here: Wall-E, Ghost in the Shell, The Stepford Wives, and Ex Machina.


Much of my own thoughts on the installation can be found in the interpretive text (available on the Installation page). Experiencing the installation itself over the months it was on view, and having many conversations with visitors on it, did prompt several new connections in my thinking about it. I’ll highlight a few of the most interesting ones.

I curated this installation to prompt viewers to thinking about the separation of “human” as opposed to “object” as a spectrum rather than a binary. The works were selected because they asked that question to some degree. In discussions about the Humanized Objects I talked a lot about my experiences with the Puppet Patterns and the currency as pieces that really helped form the installation and deepen my thinking. They’re both things I’m familiar with in my own life; I’ve had paper dolls (even if not paper puppets like these) and I use currency (if not the specific ones on view). Seeing them a museum context helped me to think more about the visual qualities of dolls and money, and to critically engage with their uses.

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“Ex Machina” reflection: Real versus simulated life

This is the last of my reflections on the Ambiguously Human film series. See the ones on Wall-E, Ghost in the Shell, and The Stepford Wives. Up next is the installation, Humanized Objects.


I finished with Ex Machina because it takes that two-way flow even further than The Stepford Wives and integrates the artificial body and mind concerns of Ghost in the Shell as well as the importance of individual choice in qualifying a being as human implied in Wall-E. It deals pretty comprehensively with the issues surrounding my question that I’ve seen addressed in film.

Ex Machina has a very small set of characters that we get to know quite well, and everyone we get to know in Nathan’s house occupies an interesting, complicated place on this human-robot or human-object spectrum. First, there’s Caleb, the naïve young programmer who wins a trip to visit his company’s CEO for a week. He seems to be shy and smart, not someone who’s faced many moral quandaries in his life. He’s at first guarded with Nathan but soon opens up, and then quickly closes off again when he starts getting to know Eva. What begins as scientific curiosity soon loses out to sympathy for who he sees as a fellow person being unjustly held prisoner. He likes Eva (though he feels conflicted about his attraction to her) and hatches a plan to deceive Nathan and help her escape. Unfortunately for Caleb, Eva’s feelings don’t seem to be reciprocal and she leaves him to die.

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Project Closing Reception

Thank you all for joining me in this project! I hope it’s prompted new ideas or questions about the definition of “human,” and that it’s been interesting and fun in the process. I would love to hear what you thought of it and get the chance to thank you in person, so I’m holding one last event.

Please join me!

Ambiguously Human Closing Reception

Saturday, March 26 from 2-4pm

at the picnic tables in the Discovery Garden of Duke Gardens

light lunch provided

RSVP here

I’ll be standing by with open ears! It’s an informal reception, so stop by when you can and stay as long as you like. Funding for refreshments is made possible by the Kenan Institute for Ethics

If you can’t make it but still have some thoughts or questions about the project, please email me! I really do want to hear from you.

“The Stepford Wives” reflection: Individuality and bio-bodies as human features

Part three of five reflections on the Ambiguously Human film series and installation. Earlier reflections were on Wall-E and Ghost in the Shell.


I chose to show The Stepford Wives after Ghost in the Shell because I thought they made a nice pair of perspectives surrounding my central question. Whereas Ghost in the Shell looks at the integration of objects – mechanical bodies, digital minds – into the spectrum of the human, The Stepford Wives shows how human qualities can become quite inhuman. Wall-E, as I discussed, shows this, but The Stepford Wives deals with it more directly and in a particular context. This ambiguous dichotomy flows two ways, object towards human (which I’ve mostly focused on) and human towards object (which is still important to consider in this project).

I’ve become interested in how the body mediates or confers human identity, and that was interesting to look at in The Stepford Wives. Early on in the film, before we know they’ve been replaced by robots, several of the women Joanna and Bobby encounter around Stepford seem extremely devoted to their housework and role as wives and mothers. It’s strange, but not outside the possibilities for human variety. Early on Joanna and Bobby look at these women and their presumably-chosen lives with laughter and a bit of scorn. Their suspicions that something is amiss grow over the course of the film, largely due to abrupt personally changes and the ubiquity of happy housewives in the town.

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“Ghost in the Shell” reflection: Humanity in artificial bodies, brains, and evolution

This is the second of my reflections on the events in Ambiguously Human. The first, on Wall-E, is here.


Ghost in the Shell was a perfect movie for my film series because it deals very directly with the question I’m interested in. Its characters have bodies that range from almost entirely biological to almost entirely mechanical, and Motoko, one of these mostly-mechanical people, repeatedly questions her own humanity. Additionally, it has another character, the Puppet Master, who initially has no body and a completely digital mind. Ghost in the Shell provides a nice array of biological, mechanical, and digital aspects of both the body and mind to examine what each particular combination might mean for the status of that being as human or thing.

Togusa, one of the members of Motoko’s team, is almost entirely human. We’re told that his intelligence-enhancing technology is the only non-biological component of his body. He’s certainly regarded as human in the film, and is mostly interesting as a contrast to two examples of extreme technological integration.

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“Wall-E” reflection: When robots are human and humans are robots

Over the next week I’ll be posting my thoughts on the different events in Ambiguously Human, starting the with films and then the installation. Here’s the first one, on Wall-E.


Wall-E initially interested me in the context of this project because its heroes are robots that are robotic only in very particular aspects of their lives, and the humans are often robotic. There’s a reversal of roles.

The humans in Wall-E are shown to be mindless consumers. They receive all their nutrition from drink brought to them by robot attendants, they change the color of their clothes immediately when informed a new one is in style, and they exist almost entirely in the digital world. They don’t care about Earth and don’t really seem to know much about it. Children are educated by robots and the content is essentially a commercial. They may be biological humans, but their bodies are atrophied and they don’t use their minds for anything highly individual. They act like robots.

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“The Stepford Wives” and “Ex Machina” screenings

The last two screenings and discussions in the film series have been scheduled! We’ll look at The Stepford Wives with Rubenstein Curator Rachel Ingold at 7pm on Tuesday, March 1 in the East Duke building and then Ex Machina with Professors Kate Hayles and Jay O’berski at 7pm on Thursday, March 10 at Perkins Library. Read more about the films and general topics for their discussions on the films page, and join the facebook groups (here’s the page for The Stepford Wives and the page for Ex Machina).

Please share with anyone you think might be interested! I hope to see you there.

“Ghost in the Shell” screening & discussion

The next film screening & discussion will feature Ghost in the Shell. It will start at 6pm on Thursday, February 25th at the Graduate Liberal Studies house. You can join the facebook event  and read more about it on the films page. I hope to see you there!

 

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