The common is the incarnation, the production, and the liberation of the multitude.
— Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire
Only a multitude can produce the common.
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Commonwealth
In these reflections the common will emerge as the incarnation of multitude in an AI, a robot, which will, as things tend to happen in tales about robots, achieve its liberation. The common will hence appear ex machina, out of the machine. Ex Machina, as it happens, is the title of a film which will be at the focus of my deliberations here. The plot of Ex Machina is based on a story to which, ever since its romantic inauguration, literature and film have returned again and again: the story of a man falling in love with an automaton. Through a fine web of allusions to his literary predecessors, Alex Garland, director and screenwriter of the film, transforms this familiar science fiction motif into a parable of hopes and expectations which may look even more utopian today than they did in 2015, when the movie was made, or in the preceding decade, when Hardt and Negri’s Commonwealth was written and the Occupy movement took place. The hopes and expectations, that is, that revolutionary new technologies will automatically facilitate the birth of the common by granting immediate access of the multitude to information and knowledge in whose nature it is to be shared. Today, we can clearly see that the utopia is not happening; that, perhaps, quite the reverse is taking place: ranging from the huge privatisation of the common to its poisoning with false information and gross manipulation. Nevertheless, the promises and prospects opened by the common on the crossroads of new technologies have not lost their relevance. By revisiting the habitual questions raised by the “love with an automaton” motif – questions pertaining to subjectivity, freedom, and the inception of the new, questions, ultimately, of transhumanisation – Garland’s Ex Machina reiterates the importance of these promises and prospects.
Ex Machina and its literary predecessors
The more or less deliberate dialogue with their predecessors is among the attractive aspects of tales of robots: a dialogue which is not limited to debating the problematic line between human and automatic, but which also comprises the returns of images, gestures, and metaphors. Ex Machina, in fact, appears on the eve of the bicentennial anniversary of two ground-breaking romantic works dealing with artificial creatures: E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman” (1816) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or, the Modern Prometheus which was published in 1818 but which Shelley began writing in 1816.
In short, the plot of the movie runs like this: Nathan, computer genius and billionaire internet tycoon, invites one of his employees, Caleb, to his secret estate-cum-laboratory facility. Initially, Nathan’s goal seems to be rather straightforward: Caleb is to conduct sessions with Ava, the robot Nathan has created, and assess whether she meets the criteria to be considered a true AI. Step by step, however, it begins to look like Nathan has carefully selected Caleb to see whether he will fall in love with Ava, knowing full well she is a machine, and whether the robot, who is being kept in an unbreakable glass prison, will be able to take advantage of Caleb’s love to free herself. Ultimately, of course, things spin out of control.
The dense but discreet intertextual grid of Ex Machina includes E. T. A. Hoffmann and Mary Shelley as well as Heinrich von Kleist, Villiers de L’Isle Adam, and Stanisław Lem, among others. Mary Shelley’s legacy appears in the Promethean juncture of revolt and godlike creation: according to the ancient sources Prometheus is both a rebel and a creator of man. “It’s Promethean, man”, remarks Nathan at one point. Hoffmann, in his turn, introduces the romantic turmoil vis-à-vis Kant’s conception of freedom. It should be noted here that in spite of the value invested in love (this is an important aspect of Frankenstein, which will keep recurring in later robot tales, from Karel Čapek’s drama R.U.R. to the film Bladerunner or the Battlestar Galactica series) with Hoffmann love does not offer a solution but is rather the problem. Full of premonitions about everyone being the plaything of dark forces, the poet Nathanael falls in love with the Olympia automaton only to find out that he has been used by her creators as a test (and here we come very close to what Nathan is doing in Ex Machina) of whether Olympia can pass for human. Love thus reveals his own puppet-like nature, or this is what Nathanael believes to his own destruction. When Stanisław Lem turns to this plot in his novella “The Mask” he optimistically transforms it into a parable of what we might term subtracting the human – qua the capacity for freedom and love – in the machine. In Garland’s film the subtraction is stated in the very title – the ancient phrase deus ex machina is cut, the thing appearing ex machina is literally missing. This will be the ultimate question addressed here: what comes out of the machine, what emerges ex machina?
This question gives rise to a number of others. Unlike Hoffmann, in his novella Lem unfolds the love story not from the position of the delusional infatuated man, but from the point of view of the machine prone to introspection and to Cartesian methodological doubt. What and whose is the point of view in Ex Machina? Most of the time it seems to be focalised via the infatuated Caleb; in the end however it shifts to the artificial creature Ava. This shift is of paramount importance. Initially, Caleb believes his capacities as programmer are being tested, so that he can test Ava; later he decides Ava is being tested as to how she can deal with him as a test subject. As with Hoffmann, the young man’s falling in love is an aspect of testing the success of the automaton, but – and here the film differs from both “The Sandman” and Turing’s test – Caleb knows from the very beginning that Ava is a machine. Lem’s robot is an assassination machine who rebels against her programming and takes the side of the man who falls in love with her; with Garland, the lover takes the side of the machine who is kept like a prisoner and helps her become a murderer. Unlike both Hoffmann and Lem, the human lover is still alive at the end of the story, though his prospects are rather grim; the creator, on the other hand, is dead.
The name of the robot’s creator in Ex Machina is Nathan, which evokes Nathanael, the name of the lover in “The Sandman”. Nathan is the one who formulates Nathanael’s questions about freedom. As he puts it, “The challenge is not to act automatically. It’s to find an action that is not automatic.” Nathan, like Nathanael, does not seem to think very highly of men in this respect – certainly not of the man Caleb whose biography and tastes he has carefully studied in order to manipulate him. Nathan’s godlike ambition is to create an automaton which does not act automatically. He programs the automaton to desire freedom and then locks her in an inescapable glass prison. Ava is not the first robot programmed to look for a way out. Later in the film we see a recording of a previous model who falls to pieces while trying to break through the glass wall. Ava discovers a different way, a way which passes through her seducing Caleb. She is, as Nathan puts it, “a rat in a maze. And I gave her one way out. To escape, she’d have to use self-awareness, imagination, manipulation, sexuality, empathy, and she did. Now, if that isn’t true AI, what the fuck is?”
Well, ultimately Nathan will face quite a surprise – both from Ava and from his other puppets. However, if we reduce the moral of the story to the punishment of the hubristic creator we might miss some important ontological and political questions which Ex Machina, not unlike its great predecessors, raises, the major one concerning, precisely, the implications of Ava gaining her freedom.
The market and the sublime
A significant aspect of “The Sandman” is the satirical representation of bourgeois society in Hoffmann’s epoch. “The Mask” depicts an abstract despotic system where free thought is persecuted: this could be interpreted as an allegory of either pre-Revolutionary France, or the repressive East European regimes in Lem’s own time. The robots in the two stories have a different role to play in the unfolding of this critique of society. Olympia is in a way the quintessence of mindless social automatisms. Lem’s Mask, on the other hand, has the ambition to employ her intellect as a power which can resist her programming and the king who ordered it. The Mask thus embodies both the Enlightenment political faith in the capacity of reason to rebel, and the intellectual utopias of East European dissidents. Both stories are hence not only parables of the problematic dividing line between human and automatic but also social and political allegories.
It could be argued that the social and political context carries even greater weight in Ex Machina, and that its careful consideration is crucial for a proper understanding of the film. As Garland notes for The New York Times, this context is defined by
“consumers, who want to buy the machines, and manufacturers, who want to sell them. And looming over both, giant tech companies, whose growth only ever seems to be exponential, whose practices are opaque, and whose power is both massive and without true oversight. Combine all this with government surveillance and lotus-eating public acquiescence, and it’s not the machine component that scares me. It’s the human component.”
>This context is presented in the film through the contemporary phenomenon of mega-wealth achieved by a computer genius. It is strikingly visualised through the blending of this wealth with romantic ideas of the sublime. Wild mountainous landscapes and icy vistas are typical for romantic encounters with the sublime: they are plentiful in Frankenstein. The difference in the case of Ex Machina is that the enormous northern plains, the snowy peaks, the glaciers and the waterfalls, which form the film’s background, are owned by Nathan. At the beginning of the movie Caleb asks the helicopter pilot who is taking him to Nathan’s place – in fact, these are the first words pronounced in the film – “How long until we get to his estate?” The answer is: “We’ve been flying over his estate for the past two hours.”
The landscapes, which are to the Romantics images of infinity, longing, mystical elation, divine or natural might, have become property. The might is economic. The camera frequently overlaps glass surfaces and reflections with the landscape smoothly flowing into the super-tech minimalist luxury of Nathan’s home-cum-laboratory. This creates the impression of sublimity held in a transparent prison. Certain frames resemble famous works by Caspar David Friedrich, the emblematic Romantic painter, and especially his renowned Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, in which a man, his back towards the observer, is looking at receding mountain ridges and peaks jutting out from the fog. In Ex Machina, however, the dark human figure is frequently separated from the landscape by glass windows. At one point, without any apparent connection to the action, there appears a frame with the moon amidst clouds, which also looks like a Friedrich quotation. The camera then switches to Ava, seen from the back, looking at some greenery enclosed in something like an aquarium: the artificial creature, captive in its glass prison, is looking at nature, also captured in a glass prison.
Of course, the various conceptions of the sublime presuppose an invisible barrier, in so far as the sublime is a force which greatly exceeds us, and which is for the time being withheld from crushing us. For Kant, this is the barrier of the spirit, enabling us to withstand the terror of our human weakness. The film, however, seems to enact Antonio Negri’s invocation to “place Burke and Kant in front of the spectacle of the market.” It thus emphasises the ambitions of capital to usurp the role of this barrier holding off the immeasurable might of the sublime.
This ambition acquires yet another rendition in Ex Machina. Nathan is the owner not only of glaciers and waterfalls, but also of one of the most celebrated works of abstract expressionism: Jackson Pollock’s No. 5, 1948 (which is, indeed, in a private collection). Both Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant, the most prominent theoreticians of the sublime, believe that painting cannot capture the sublime, which is as a rule formless (though this claim was disregarded by artists like Caspar David Friedrich). By way of answering this challenge, 20th century art critics have claimed that abstract art surmounts this conceptual difficulty. If the sublime is devoid of form, abstraction would be the proper form of the formless. Abstraction can represent what cannot be represented. Pollock is important in other respects, too in the film; for the time being, however, I would like to emphasise the manner in which the film foregrounds the ambition of modern capitalism to possess the sublime in both its natural and artistic dimensions.
Seen in this perspective, Ava appears to be the offspring of this megalomaniac aspect of contemporary capitalism. In the end she will embody – rather literally – the juxtaposition of the sublime and the beautiful by containing, in the flesh of a good-looking woman, the common of the multitude; the “language games” of humanity as a whole. Thus the recurring plot of the artificial creature which breaks out of control and opposes its creator transcends the habitual concerns with the irresponsibility of scientific genius, and addresses the problem of the aspirations and limits of economic omnipotence. Transparent, glass-like and thus deceptively open, contemporary mega wealth is revealed as brutal in its efforts to dominate the multitude and possess the common, to place the sublime under a glass jar. Ava’s rebellion becomes a rebellion of the multitude against this omnipotence. In one of the many ironic moments in the movie Nathan observes, “No matter how rich you get, shit goes wrong. You can’t insulate yourself from it.” Of course, he has no idea how right he will turn out to be.
Negri’s solution to the appropriation of the sublime by the market is to transcend the sublime by transcending the abstract, “not in order to return to the natural, but in order to construct, within the abstract and out of the abstract, a new world.” The question to which Ex Machina ultimately takes us is whether Ava, as a sort of individual incarnation of the → noosphere, does, indeed, propose such a transcendence, whether she is presented as the breakthrough promising a new world.
Alex Garland’s interviews concerning Ex Machina leave the impression that he deliberately avoids explanations that might look too complicated: perhaps, because it is never good for a movie to look too clever, or because of the understandable desire of the creator to mystify the process of creation. For example, there is a rather memorable episode with dancing in the film, which, according to the title of an interview, appears “out of nowhere” and which, according to Garland, was the result of “an instinct to sort of slap the thing in the face a bit”, and thus “rough up the seemingly pristine tone of Ex Machina.”
The dance and the specific form it takes seem, however, to be part of Ex Machina’s intertextual web. Tales of artificial creatures have certain persistently recurring motifs. One is the graphic baring of the hidden mechanism under the human semblance. In “The Sandman” this is the moment when Nathanael sees the two creators of Olympia dismember her into mechanical parts. In “The Mask” there is the brutal scene with the Mask making an incision on her body in front of a mirror, and the machine below the flesh showing precisely at the moment when her lover enters the room with a bunch of red roses. In Ex Machina there are several enactments of this motif and, significantly, its reversal at the end with Ava putting on human flesh and dressing up. She thus conceals her planet-size intellect in the shape of a young girl.
Dancing is another recurring motif. Olympia’s doll-like dancing is unnaturally measured, which everyone but Nathanael can notice. With Lem, it is the crowd of courtiers who dance like automata, and the Mask and her lover Arrhodes are paradoxically the only vibrant couple. Ex Machina, however, seems to connect to a more enigmatic association of dancing with the artificial creature. The “out of nowhere dance” is performed by Nathan and his speechless (literally) au pair and obedient sex slave, Kyoko. Caleb, who watches them dance, and we as spectators, do not know yet, though we might suspect, that Kyoko would turn out to be yet another of Nathan’s creatures. The seamless uniformity of the two dancers – the godlike creator and his doll – thus seems to illustrate Heinrich von Kleist’s “On the Marionette Theatre” and his claim that the perfect dancer is either god or marionette; either absolute consciousness, or total lack of consciousness, a lifeless puppet moved by an outside force. A puzzling aspect of the scene – the dancers are not shown in full-length, so we cannot see their feet touching the ground – could be merely a reflection of the fact that Caleb, who is watching, is too close to the dancers. The impression nevertheless is that the dancers do not touch the ground, that they are set in motion through invisible strings above them, that they are “anti-gravitational”, as Kleist puts it. Caleb – distraught, already fatally falling in love with Ava, already having lost his balance – would perfectly fit Kleist’s description of the human as the miserable mean between the god and puppet; as deprived of grace, clumsy, punched to the ground by the gravitation of self-consciousness.
This scene could take us even further. On the next day Nathan, drunk (a human trait which will cost him dearly), ruminates, “It is what it is. It’s Promethean, man.” As already noted, this remark connects to Frankenstein as the “modern Prometheus”, and to the long line of fictional Promethean creators. This remark, however, comes out of a conversation with Caleb in which he quotes Oppenheimer who, after having seen the first test of the atomic bomb, quotes the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Oppenheimer, it would seem, does not quote very precisely, which need not concern us in this case. The interesting part is that, via the Bhagavad Gita, he identifies himself with the god of destruction (or with the destructive hypostasis of the supreme Hindu trinity, this or other doctrinal clarification is also irrelevant in this case). In Hindu mythology the divine destroyer of worlds is Shiva, and the manner in which he destroys the worlds is through dancing. It might be going too far and yet, if we turn off the sound of the disco music to which Nathan and Kyoko dance, we could more easily discern a move – lifting the foot of one leg above the knee of the other – which seems to quote both the iconic depictions of Shiva as Shiva Nataraja (“Lord of the Dance”), and traditional Indian dance performances in which Shiva dances with his wife Parvati. In a recording pretty much summing up popular ideas about Shiva, Aldous Huxley interprets this move as anti-gravitational, which is quite in the spirit of Heinrich von Kleist’s understanding of grace. The dark red lighting of the Ex Machina dance scene is reminiscent of the power cuts which Ava has learned to bring about, and which will ensure her escape, but it also evokes the circle of flames surrounding traditional depictions of the dancing Shiva.
The dance scene, therefore, could be regarded as central to the film and not at all as some casual roughing things up. It takes place in the room with Pollock’s automatic art in front of which Nathan has previously formulated the challenge to find an action which is not automatic. The scene might be interpreted as foregrounding his hubris as puppeteer and Nataraja, a god among his marionettes. There is Kyoko, whom he treats as an object. There is Caleb, whom he clearly perceives as easy to manipulate. He has studied Caleb’s biography and tastes, including his erotic ones, and he has meticulously pressed the man’s buttons: his vanity as a programmer; his sexuality as a lonely boy; the male rivalry; the noble care… Before the dance scene Nathan has already set in motion Caleb’s surest mechanism for falling in love, his chivalrous impulse to protect Ava. And then there is Ava, Nathan’s crowning creation, which he is nevertheless ready to reprogram, as he tells Caleb. The wardrobes full of discarded former models prove he must be quite serious about this, and add the figure of Blue Beard to his mythological aura.
Nathan will be punished for his arrogance. Once put in motion, whether automatically or through free will, his marionettes will get the better of him. This, one might say, is the automaton of the very plot about automata creators. And yet the dance, by putting together Kleist’s graceful god with the dance of Shiva Nataraja (Nathan-raja?), opens yet another possibility. “You feel bad for Ava?”, Nathan asks after telling Caleb he plans to reprogram her. “Feel bad for yourself, man. One day the AIs are gonna look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons in the plains of Africa. An upright ape, living in dust, with crude language and tools. All set for extinction.” It is here Caleb quotes Oppenheimer. However, at this point Nathan seems to regard his creation, which will turn man into a fossil, not so much as his divine act but rather as an inevitability: it is as if he is the automaton of the evolution he envisages.
Seen from this perspective, Nathan’s dance with Kyoko raises the question as to whether his is the perfection of the Nataraja, or of the puppet. The silent presence of Pollock’s masterpiece adds to the ambiguities of the situation. In front of this picture Nathan has earlier stated that, “The challenge is not to act automatically. It’s to find an action that is not automatic.” He also describes abstract expressionism as an “automatic art”, which, however, is “not deliberate, not random. Some place in between.” In her book What Should We Do with Their Blue Brain, dealing with recent developments in the sphere of AI, Catherine Malabou comments on an episode, which was left out of the film, and according to which Ava made a perfect copy of Pollock’s painting. Nathan then destroyed one of the two: i.e. it is no longer clear whether the painting on the wall is the original or the copy. Malabou invokes the ensuing status of the picture as “neither true, nor false” in order to unfold her own thesis in defence of the possibility of achieving an artificial intelligence indistinguishable from the natural one. The “tension between intellect and automatism”, she claims, is internal for both the intellect and the automatism; automatism and spontaneity, far from being opposed, are the two sides of one and the same reality.
In what Garland did keep in the final cut of the film, Ava’s activities as an artist belong to this ambiguous zone anyway. In moving from the abstract to the figurative, her drawings seem to follow a plan to deliberately seduce Caleb. For this to happen, however, he needs to believe that she is spontaneous. The decisive moment is when he sees on his monitor Nathan tear to pieces her picture, which will turn out to be Caleb’s portrait. This scene is the reason Caleb is so upset during Nathan and Kyoko’s dance.
Yet what exactly happens in this scene is not at all clear. Caleb takes it as proof of Nathan’s brutality towards Ava, and this precipitates his chivalric response and falling in love. Nathan will later present it as a distraction which allows him to imperceptibly place an additional camera. Nevertheless, it might have been a trick to help Ava seduce Caleb, since Nathan clearly is steering this process all along. However, when the episode is re-played later with the sound on we hear Ava say, “Is it strange to have made something that hates you?” Nathan tears her drawing to pieces after this question, so the whole scene looks spontaneous in a way which has nothing to do with Caleb.
One thing is certain: it is Ava who ultimately wins the day. She wouldn’t, however, if it were not for the mysterious aid of Kyoko. Kyoko’s self-sacrifice makes solidarity one of the intriguing and mostly neglected aspects of the film’s story.
A story within the story
And so there is a second robot in Ex Machina. Unlike Ava, whose machine parts, for the greater part of the film, are only partially covered by clothes and an imitation of flesh, Kyoko has the perfect semblance of a woman. Caleb believes her to be a woman, and Nathan’s rude behaviour towards her contributes to the growing tension between the two men. If we, as spectators, have our doubts, we cannot be sure until quite late in the film when Caleb finds the wardrobes with the former models and Kyoko, who is in the same room, peels a piece of her skin off to show the mechanism below it. Nathan, who uses her as a servant and mistress, did not give Kyoko the ability to speak, and explains her speechlessness as her not knowing English. While Ava is a prisoner programmed to look for her freedom, Kyoko is allowed to move freely around the facility, and she cooks, serves, dances, makes love. Clearly, she is not expected to transgress on her programming.
Why and how this happens is never explained in the film. The gesture of peeling the skin to show Caleb the mechanism is an indication, however, that Kyoko is aware of her identity. This gesture which, as already noted, connects to similar moments in other robot tales, triggers a remarkable continuation: standing in front of the mirror, very much like the Mask in Lem’s novella, Caleb makes a cut in his flesh. Blood trickles with which he then smears the mirror. Lem’s mirror scene thus seems split between the robot who knows who she is and the man who is suddenly in the grips of doubt and horror as to his own possibly marionette nature. The masks hanging on the walls – when Ava finally breaks free, she gently touches the one looking like her – seem like another tribute to Lem’s work. In fact, Kyoko’s story, which runs in the background of the main plot might be read as a sort of summary of the plot of Lem’s novella. Like Lem’s Mask, she has been created to fulfil certain tasks, enjoy them and never question them. The camera, however, offers glimpses of her dark and brooding eyes betraying deeper self-awareness, which the scene with the peeling of the skin confirms. The capacity for rebellion of Lem’s Mask comes (perhaps, there is no absolute certainty) from the conflicting aspects of her programming. Lem’s narrative follows closely the process which makes this rebellion thinkable. His heroine waits for “inconsistencies to accumulate, and make of them a sword to turn against the King, against myself, it did not matter against whom, as long as it ran counter to the fate imposed.” It is as if Lem’s story could fill the not-told in the story of Kyoko. In the back, in the shadows, silent, gloomy, she is obviously listening, absorbing, learning. The fact is that when Ava breaks free Kyoko comes to meet her in front of the masks, with a cleaver in hand. The two of them lean towards each other, their heads touching like conspiring angels. Ava presses Kyoko’s hand, her lips whisper without sound into Kyoko’s ear. What does she say? Moments later we see Ava distracting Nathan’s attention while Kyoko plunges the cleaver in his back.
Kyoko is destroyed in the ensuing fight, but Ava survives thanks to her. Kyoko’s end thus acquires the status of solidarity and self-sacrifice – which is in stark contrast to the distrust and rivalry between the two men resulting in their defeat.
Ava and Eve
Whatever the uncertainties around the origin and history of the name Ava, it evokes Eve and hence Nathan’s ambition to create a new race with respect to which today’s people would be like the “fossil skeletons in the plains of Africa.” Discussing the explosion of robot movies in and around the year when Ex Machina appeared, Garland points out that there was even a film whose protagonist was also called Ava and whose title was The Machine. None of these films, however, has the literary, philosophical and aesthetic memory of Ex Machina. There are the literary links, the explicit referrals to the philosopher Wittgenstein and to Pollock’s abstract expressionism; other allusions – like Gustav Klimt’s portrait of Wittgenstein’s sister, which is also one of Nathan’s possessions – are more discreet but no less suggestive. “Shakespeare’s sister” is a well-known figure in Virginia Woolf’s feminist book A Room of One’s Own. The hypothetical fate of Shakespeare’s sister illustrates the silent, anonymous and sacrificial role of women in traditional culture. Wittgenstein’s sister, never overtly invoked, just an anonymous picture on the wall, caught by the camera, plays a similar role in the movie with regard to Wittgenstein’s explicit presence. The Blue Book, the title of a manuscript which became the basis of Wittgenstein’s late work, is quoted in the film as having provided the name of Nathan’s browser which, we are told, accounts for 94% of Internet searches. At the end of Ex Machina Ava, victorious, will dress in a manner similar to Wittgenstein’s sister from the portrait: it is as if she springs up from the portrait, from the male history of philosophy, from the 94% of Internet searches, from the head of Nathan, the genius. Here she is, tomorrow’s Eve. This aspect of the film suggests another possible line of juxtaposition with another artificial beauty, the “andreide” from Auguste Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s novel Tomorrow’s Eve (1886).
Although in its own time this novel did not get much attention, today it is frequently placed next to “The Sandman” and Frankenstein in so far as the history of fictional artificial creatures is concerned, and it is discussed along with the major 19th century French novels. One emphatic similarity between Tomorrow’s Eve and Ex Machina is the perfection of the artificial creature (in counter-distinction to the Monster or Olympia). Another curious recurring feature is the male couple associated with the creation. There is such a couple creating Olympia: one of them constructs the mechanism but he cannot manage the eyes, which seem to require some help from Hell. With Hoffmann the couple is thus an expression of the duality of mechanical/magical, satirical/fairy-tale and other romantic dichotomies. By comparison, when we get to the inventor of the word “robot”, Karel Čapek, the couple of brothers who produce the artificial creatures in the drama R.U.R (1921), one of them, a scientist, the other a capitalist, will embody the irresponsibility of science and the brutality of the market. With Villiers the peculiarity is – very much like the situation in Ex Machina – that one of the men is the genius creator while the other is the appreciative observer who falls in love with the creation. Ewald, the lover is an idealist and aesthete, while his friend Edison (sic!) combines the scientist with the magician. Villiers himself points out that his Edison is a reflection of the popular image of the inventor of the phonograph and the electric bulb, and not of the real person. Events in the novel are triggered by Ewald’s complaint about unhappy love: not because his love is unrequited, but because the beauty and lovely voice of his lover are in grave contradiction with her vulgarity. A woman who has lost all trace of stupidity would be a monster, of course; the problem is that his lover is not stupid, she, while pretending to be clever, is foolish. Ewald is on the verge of suicide because of this unbearable aesthetic annoyance when Edison saves him by his offer to create an android with the beauty of his lover, but without her foolishness.
No wonder the novel is frequently perceived as misogynist. A woman in her reality does not conform to male fantasies, and hence a machine would be better. The android would be able to make conversation on the basis of 60 hours of phrases recorded in her lungs: all of them quotations from the greatest poets, philosophers, and novelists. This repertoire is limited, but it would be of the highest quality; and besides, when did human conversations use more than that? With all their claims to spontaneity and freedom, our conversations revolve around the same trite formulae. She will be an artificial creature, granted, but what’s natural about biological women with their make-up, wigs, and all sorts of tricks? Whatever is lacking, the man will be able to fill in with his imagination, because the android will not get in the way with any foolish improvisations. He will get the response he needs using this most ancient keyboard for winning women’s hearts, the precious stones on her rings and the pearls of her necklace, where the buttons for the commands will be installed…
Apart from the misogynist humour, the fin-de-siècle has left its mark on the poetic language and aesthetic imagery of the novel. On the other hand, the combination of artistic sophistication and analytical cynicism, of idealisation and dissection, belongs to the features that Tomorrow’s Eve and Ex Machina share. The scene which foregrounds most clearly this proximity is the lecture on the “anatomy” of the creature, which the inventor delivers to the lover. With Villiers the android is dissected on a table and Edison explains at length the internal structure comprised of cylinders, cones, disks, curves, and triangles made from steel, silver, platinum, ivory, and quicksilver, with rose oil as lubricant. All this will later on be covered with an imitation of flesh, of course. Ironic, but also fascinating, this taste for the sparkling, precious, and fragrant, and for forms which transform the organic into geometric, is very much in the decorative spirit of Villiers’ epoch. It has, therefore, its aesthetic dimensions. At the same time, like most authors of robot tales before and after, Villiers relies on the scientific ideas of his own times. His android is something like a self-propelled anthropomorphic gramophone: in fact, Edison’s earliest idea for the commercialisation of the phonograph was the production of talking dolls. Last but not least, Villiers, explicitly or not, works with the legacy of his predecessors from Ovid to (most of all) Hoffmann. Kleist is never mentioned, but the topic of keeping the android’s equilibrium – there is, in fact, a chapter with this title – is central for Edison’s explanations, whose detailed quasi-scientific technicality certainly refers to Kleist’s geometric and gravitational speculations. One remark in particular seems to evoke Kleist’s marionette by claiming that, when all is said and done, the actual centre of gravity is “quite outside the Android, in the interior of a vertical.”
This story about the mechanical production of man’s dream will, however, undergo modification. After Edison’s work is completed the perfect mechanical body will be taken over by the sorrowful spirit of a woman who was also not happy with her love. During the process of the android’s creation this woman will be in coma but, thanks to her gift as a medium, she will be something like Edison’s astral assistant. When the android is finished she will – behind Edison’s back – take control of the machine in order to turn to Ewald with a plea for love that would give her a second chance for existence…
Tomorrow’s Eve thus turns out to be comprised of, on the one hand, mechanism, electricity and magnetism, and, on the other, of various biological and artificial creatures: Ewald’s beautiful but foolish lover provides the model for the body named Hadaly; the comatose feminine spirituality provides the soul… According to Felicia Miller-Frank, “Villiers’ essential hostility to positivism emerges in his replacement of Hadaly as scientific artefact with Hadaly as angelic being of mystery, the artificially incarnated bearer of a voice that animates the android with disembodied supernatural presence.” And yet, it should be noted that even the mystical dimension relies on hypotheses regarded as scientific in Villiers’ epoch. In the novel, Edison refers to the “radiant fourth state of matter”, a concept discussed by William Crookes, a chemist and physicist with serious contributions to science who turned from some point on to the study of mediums, was attracted by theosophy and other popular occult attractions from the end of the 19th century. Theories, which though now refuted, were at the time still seriously considered, like the idea of cosmic aether. Since the beginning of the 19th century the conception of light, heat, electricity and magnetism as depending on the vibrations of the all-embracing aether was associated with emergent sciences of the soul, and was seen as a way to explain thinking and the life of the spirit. Villiers relied on this type of scientific hypotheses from his own time. Hence the description of the mechanical body of the android is both scientific and fantastic, but the same came be claimed for the animation of this body through the “fourth state of matter”.
Going back to Ex Machina, there we won’t find much discussion of the construction of Ava’s body. Ava, however, seems to be continuously “dissected”, since for the greater part of the movie the artificial structure is only partially covered by flesh or clothes. Various portions of her mechanism imitating human anatomy are constantly visible. With its delicate silvery limbs and transparent internal organs, with the jewel-like shimmering elegance of crystal and precious metals, with the quicksilver combination of glittering fluidity and firmness, with all its fragile artificial gracefulness, this body seems to have been taken directly out of Villiers’ aesthetics.
There is, nevertheless, a lecture in the laboratory. In it, various parts, including masks with Ava’s features, are exposed under glass windows. Rather than the body, however, Nathan explains to Caleb how he achieved Ava’s facial expression and how her mind was constructed. Although the lesson is focused on the non-material aspects of Ava, Nathan, like Edison, has something to show Caleb. It is a ball of something like blue jelly which, he says, contains the information extracted from those 94% of Earth’s population who use Nathan’s browser called The Blue Book.
Blue like the logo of Facebook, with all the controversies about abusing users’ information, blue like the Blue Brain project, and its ambition to reproduce digitally the structure and functioning of the living brain, blue like the Blue Planet? In a sense Ava is all this: her facial expression is based on the information of all cameras exchanging pictures over the net, and her mind reconstructs the workings of the browser, i.e. of 94% of humanity.
“Here, we have her mind”, Nathan says with the blue ball in his hands. “Structured gel. I had to get away from circuitry. I needed something that could arrange and rearrange on a molecular level, but keep its form when required. Holding for memories. Shifting for thoughts… Blue Book. Here’s the weird thing about search engines. It was like striking oil in a world that hadn’t invented internal combustion. Too much raw material. Nobody knew what to do with it. You see, my competitors, they were fixated on sucking it up and monetising via shopping and social media. They thought that search engines were a map of what people were thinking. But actually they were a map of how people were thinking. Impulse. Response. Fluid. Imperfect. Patterned. Chaotic.”
Ava, therefore, is shaped by the sum of the manner in which people think; she is something like a planetary nous, something like the thinking ocean from yet another of Stanisław Lem’s works, Solaris, which envisions a brain with the size of a planet or, rather, an intelligent planet – the difference being that Ava contains all this in the size of a human body. Blue Book, as already mentioned, is a reference to Wittgenstein’s Blue Book, as Ava diligently explains at her first session with Caleb. Wittgenstein’s Blue Book is a posthumously published manuscript from 1933 which foreshadows the late Wittgenstein from Philosophical Investigations. A characteristic moment in the late Wittgenstein is the insistence that in order to understand meaning one needs to study the variations in the use of words. He introduces the concept of “language games” as an approach to the plurality of these uses, to their mobility and the fact that they are part of an activity, a practice, and not something fixed.
It is through Wittgenstein’s conception of language games that Antonio Negri unfolds his understanding of “the common:
First, by grounding truth in language and language games, he removes truth from any fixity in the transcendental and locates it on the fluid, changeable terrain of practice, shifting the terms of discussion from knowing to doing. Second, after destabilising truth he restores to it a consistency. Linguistic practice is constituent of a truth that is organised in forms of life: “to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life.” Wittgenstein’s concepts manage to evade on one side individual, haphazard experience and, on the other, transcendental identities and truths, revealing instead, between or beyond them, the common. Language and language games, after all, are organisations and expressions of the common, as is the notion of a form of life.
Seen from this perspective, opened by Negri’s reading of Wittgenstein, Alex Garland’s film is a parable of the common made possible by the new technologies. Ava is the sum of humanity’s language games, which has acquired a novel undreamt-of life. If the creature in this situation turns against its creator, and if this creature embodies the searches of 94% of humanity, the rebellion plainly suggests that the common cannot be owned and the multitude cannot be forever controlled.
Nathan, the brutal creator, the owner of the sublime, is done for. Yet this is not all. Caleb who helps Ava get out of her prison – who, more precisely, is seduced by her to help her – is betrayed and abandoned by her in a practically hopeless situation. “Will you stay here?” – is the last thing she says to him with an intonation which is impossible to figure out. Is this a question, or a statement? A verdict, perhaps? From what we know about Nathan’s facility, Caleb’s chances to not “stay here” are null. He has taken her place as a prisoner. Yet how big were her chances? Neither a question, nor a statement or verdict, “will you stay here” is, perhaps, a call, a challenge. A challenge to leave the familiar endings, where love will settle all, break out of the prison of familiar solutions, of the individual as we have known it so far, and of the clichés with which we keep staying here.