A Radical Notion: Feminism and the Figure of the Fembot (Part 3 of 7)

III. Man vs. Nature: The Fembot Debate before Computer Technology

Female Automaton at Piano
Picture via Wikimedia by Rama

While issues of femininity and the debate about machine intelligence are at the forefront of the Fembot ‘trope’, there is a bigger, more pervasive issue that this character addresses. Whether the story she inhabits is using her character to question the nature of femininity (is femininity is merely a social performance that can be programmed or something real and ineffable?), or the story is using her as a catalyst to debate issues of consciousness and intelligence (how do we know when someone or something posses consciousness? What is the value of that knowledge?), both are, in essence, asking what is greater, or what holds more value: the products we perceive as coming from nature or the products which mankind creates?

This is a larger question that predates the discussions of Turing and Searle. It is a discussion that does not require ‘modern’ technology to take place. This is significant because it allows the Fembot to be read as a figure that represents the culmination of a broader and older school of thought. Within her, readers and writers look for answers about the hierarchy of the natural world and humanity’s place in it. The question surfaces again and again, in articles and essays spanning all different times and all different places. Oscar Wilde’s 1891 essay The Decay of Lying is just one provocative example of this discussion out of many. The Decay of Lying is of particular importance to my argument because not only does it predate anything resembling modern computer technology, but it unintentionally returns this exploration to the idea of gender.

In this article, written as a dialogue between two men, Wilde argues that the art of “lying” has gone out of fashion. By this he means that he finds modern novels of his era to be relying too heavily on what is “natural” for their source material, when the “artificial” is clearly more valuable. He contends that the artificial is what takes us out of our everyday lives and allows us to imagine and do great things. As he puts it, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life. This results not merely from Life’s imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realize that energy” (Wilde 1891). Wilde calls for the immediate shift from realism back to romanticism, as well as calling for the dethroning of “nature” as all important. To him, Nature provides nothing that cannot be perfected by man.

In the opening and closing sections of his essay, Wilde addresses why humanity might be convinced to favor the artificial over the natural and why a ‘performance’ of truth is more valuable than truth itself. He suggests that “It is fortunate for us, however, that Nature is so imperfect, as otherwise we should have no art at all. Art is our spirited protest, our gallant attempt to teach Nature her proper place” (Wilde, 1891). Wilde contends that it is nature that must learn to imitate the creations of man, not the other way around. When it comes to the creative potential of Nature, Wilde decries it as “a pure myth. It is not to be found in Nature herself. It resides in the imagination, or fancy, or cultivated blindness of the man who looks at her” (Wilde, 1891). Furthermore, in the beginning of the essay, Wilde attempts to explain mankind’s attitude toward the artificial. Wilde notes that when things are taken from nature and “…fashioned for our use and our pleasure” “…everything is subordinated to us….” (Wilde 1891). He compares “Morris’s poorest workman” to the hand of nature, saying that the former is greater than the latter when it comes to making “a more comfortable seat than the whole of Nature can” (Wilde, 1891).

In the opinion of Wilde, that which man can make is greater than nature in the sense that it is more perfectly adapted to his needs as well as under man’s control. Surely this argument resonates in the figure of the Fembot, an artificial woman who is created to correct the ‘mistakes’ of nature’s design while also being under the direct control of her male creator. Wilde even genders ‘Nature’ as female, whereas the ‘creator’ of the ‘corrective art’ is male. From this essay, it is clear that the issue of how we treat machines as creations of men is applicable to how women and those who perform femininity are treated and has been for many centuries, not just with the technical revolution.

Works Cited

Wilde, Oscar. “The Decay of Lying: An Observation.” Intentions (1891). “Life Imitates Art Far More than Art Imitates Life” Minnesota State University, 29 Oct. 2002. Web. 1 Dec. 2010. <http://www.mnstate.edu/gracyk/courses/phil%20of%20art/wildetext.htm>.

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Published by rsjeffrey

Robin Jeffrey was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming to a psychologist and a librarian, giving her a love of literature and a consuming interest in the inner workings of people’s minds.

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