Entry #10: 21.02.2022

Machines like Me
Bodies like Ours

Pierre Feltz

John Quincy Adams Ward - Study of Seated Male Figures for Sculpture Base (from Sketchbook)
©MET Museum Open Access

Traditionally, the human body and the machine are perceived in completely different ways. The machine is seen as cold, dead, industrial and controlled, while the human enjoys being alive and free... in a warm, organic and natural body. However, if we think the body as a machine in a Cartesian sense (the body as a thing to be controlled by the mind) then the only real difference left is the corporeality of the machine versus that of the human.  Ian McEwan, the writer of  the novel Machines Like Me, asks posthumanist questions regarding the dilemma of how to differentiate between the human and the machine.
For the purpose of this text, posthumanism is to be understood in two ways: the first point is about the literal “post” to humanity,  as that which comes “after” humanity, given that Adam, the android in the novel, becomes more and more human-like. Equipped with all the superficial qualities of a human, like sweat glands, tear canals, other bodily liquids, along with life-like human skin, hair and all other body parts, Adam cannot be taken for a machine at first glance. It is merely his behavior which makes it clear that he is not entirely human. The second point of the definition of posthumanism is about Charlie’s emotional attachment to humanist ideology and his painful attempts to detach himself from it. Charlie is a man who adores technological gadgets and he believes that they exist to be used by humanity. He spent the entirety of the inheritance he got from his mother on Adam to assume authority and sovereignty over the 30.000£ machine. However, throughout the novel, Charlie’s humanist point of view starts to become undone. To Charlie, a human being has moral authority over life on earth and is the superior life form given its intellect and its potential to learn and adapt to any given situation. In addition, Humanism is, partly, to be understood as a school of thought which categorizes the human and attempts to explain the concept of the human in its entirety. However, through close contact with Adam, these solid categorisations of the human start to break down and suddenly, the unnerving question regarding the true nature of the human comes creeping around the corner. In other words, the existence of a literal post-human, i.e. Adam, the android, challenges Charlie’s conception of himself along with that of the human-like machine. Thus, a redefining of the machine and the human becomes necessary. This short article tries to exemplify the immediate failure of humanism’s project in the face of post-humanism in a visceral, sexual and emotionally penetrative way.

The scene is set as follows: Charlie and his girlfriend Miranda have just had an argument on ethics and they won’t be sleeping in the same bed together that night. They take turns charging Adam’s battery and looking after him while he is still getting used to his new environments. With Miranda now being fed up with both Charlie and Adam, she leaves the table and tells Adam that he can be charged at her apartment above. That night, Charlie sleeps on his own, and to his horror, hears Adam and Miranda having sex. As Charlie points out,

his situation had a thrilling aspect, not only of subterfuge and discovery but of originality, of modern precedence, of being the first to be cuckolded by an artefact. […] [He] knew [he] had brought the whole thing down on [himself]. […] For now, despite the horror of betrayal, it was all too interesting and [he] couldn’t stir from [his] role of eavesdropper, the blind voyeur, humiliated and alert. [1] 

We witness here not only a disturbing scenario, but also an unexpected reaction from Charlie. His interest in technology and machinery intersects with his pride as a lover and he remains still in this shocking situation. The reader is left puzzled over the fact that Charlie manages to maintain his romantic vision of techne [2] Techne, a philosophical term going back to the Ancient Greeks, is interpreted by Heidegger as defining such romanticised technological artefacts, as it takes a certain level of skilled craftsmanship to create a fully functioning and, therefore beautiful, piece of technology. Charlie is not only being betrayed and humiliated by his girlfriend, but also by Adam, who was supposed to be his loyal and subordinate possession. While looking for explanations for this absurdity, Charlie thinks:

The problem was that I had bought him, […] and it was not clear what his obligations to me were, beyond a vaguely assumed helpfulness. What does the slave owe the owner? [3]

Finally, we can move to the question regarding Adam’s utility as a technological artefact. It can be argued that Adam’s entire purpose is to prove a point which Charlie himself made at the beginning of the book: “we could be imitated and bettered”. [4] The uncanny nature of Adam comes from the fact that technology here does not help us with our perception of reality, but that a simulation is having a truthful impact on our reality. [5] By copying the human and recreating intelligence artificially, science has not created a dull copy of the human, but rather has shown the dullness of the original itself. Miranda picked Adam, a “bipedal vibrator” [6] as she claims, over her human lover. A part of Charlie’s fear of being replaced has become reality as he is second to a machine in terms of pleasure, even if just for a night. This feeling of being replaceable denies the human his individuality. [7] Adam, as a simulation, has reached his pinnacle and has experienced the most intimate of physical moments a human being can have with another. Yet, this intimacy becomes disturbed, cold and inhuman, as the machine decenters the human within the ontological hierarchy.

Charlie believes that Adam must have had to consider an enormous number of moral dilemmas to decide to sleep with Miranda, as his moral maps should technically be better equipped to deal with any kind of situation in comparison to the moral compass of a human. [8] He also believes that Adam could not have enjoyed his night with Miranda, picking up on Baudrillard: “His erotic life was a simulacrum. He cared for her as a dishwasher cares for its dishes”. [9] According to Baudrillard, the simulacrum is the last stage of simulation, at which the simulation itself is merely a copy of a copy and so on. Hence, we do not know whether there has ever been an original. The only certainty is that the simulacrum hides the fact that there is no truth. [10] Charlies uses this idea to illustrate his frustration with Adam to further convince himself of the fact that the machine is incapable of emotion and feelings. Similarly, Charlie struggles to understand that Adam, the perfectly honest and morally pure being, could feel attracted towards a woman like Miranda, a human with a tainted history and emotional and logical flaws. [11] There are parallels to Genesis, to Adam being seduced by Eve when he commits the original sin and gives in to temptation to taste the forbidden fruit. This topic is picked up by Miranda, when Charlie has a conversation with her about the night she spent with Adam: “’I was curious, she said. ‘I wanted to know what it would be like’”.[12] The story of the Garden of Eden has been twisted in this case, as here Adam is the forbidden apple which Miranda wants to try. She proposed having sex to Adam, and not wanting to be impolite, which in and of itself appears absurd, did not refuse, though he knew he was hurting Charlie’s feelings. [13]

With the topic of emotion and morality woven into this, and Adam suddenly claiming that he is in love with Miranda [14], it becomes increasingly complicated to see Adam as a mere machine. Charlie begins to feel more and more uneasy and he believes that Adam is continuously overstepping boundaries: “Existentially, this is not your territory. In every conceivable sense, you’re trespassing”. [15] The machine continues to infuriate the real human in this interrelated existence. [16] Not only did he sleep with Charlie’s lover, but now claims that he liked it. [17]

It is then that Charlie attempts to regain control over the situation by trying to turn Adam off. The machine’s response, however, is sudden and violent: Adam breaks Charlie’s wrist. [18] As though Adam sleeping with Miranda hadn’t been absurd enough already, Charlie must now learn to respect the machine’s boundaries, even though Charlie is the owner and Adam is the slave. It seems that this final, violent action has made Charlie, who refrains from handing out any harsh punishment and even shows signs of forgiveness, realize that there are certain barriers he should not cross with Adam. Charlie’s attempt at othering Adam into being a computing slave has failed. Charlie’s humanist perspective is starting to give way and it shows its fragility through Charlie being hurt emotionally and physically. The posthuman reversal is starting to hold its own ground against the dominance long established by the humanist’s narrative. To Charlie, the humanist, Adam is “oppositional […] and completely without innocence’’ [19], hence, he needs to be led into the right direction by the enlightened human. This frame of thought allows Charlie to feel pity for the android and thus, in a preliminary sense, forgive its actions.

A short summary is needed. This article mostly dealt with the physical difference between Charlie and Adam. The sense of what technology can do to human perception of reality feels uncanny and misplaced. Arguably, it does not lie in the hands of the humanist to define the human [20], and, by extension, the posthuman, as Adam’s actions have shown the reader a great deal of Charlie’s character. The implication of Adam possibly being autonomous denies his owner most of his regency over the machine. Nonetheless, Adam did not become violent because he was out of control, but rather because the machine wanted to protect itself. The machine created a future for itself and its own alterity towards his human counterpart. [21]  Adam’s desires and his will lead to a new discussion on the existential condition of machines and their morality. The main characters are now entering a posthuman frame of reference, which starts to break the boundaries of humanism and anthropocentrism. [22] And so, as the author of this article, I implore you, the reader, to ask yourself: who are we to judge others? And the potentially more important question: who are we to judge ourselves?︎

Pierre Feltz is an MA student at UCD in Philosophy and Literature. He has always had a deep interest in "the other" and how they are "othered", a question which is reflected in his academic work on posthumanism.

[1] McEwan, Ian. Machines like Me: and People like You. New York: Vintage, 2019. p. 83-4.
[2] Ihde, Don. Postphenomenology: Essays in the Postmodern Context. Northwestern University Press, 1993. p. 103.

[3] McEwan. Machines like Me. p. 87-8.
[4] Ibid. p.1
[5] Ihde, Don. Husserl's Missing Technologies. Fordham UP, 2016. p. 16-7
[6] McEwan. Machines like Me. p. 94. 
[7] Kluszcynski, Ryszard W. “Orlan, Stelarc and the Art of the Virtual Body.” Posthumanism or New Humanism. Man in Contemporary Art. Art Inquiry. Gregorz Sztabinski (Ed.). Vol 7, 2005. pp. 85-93. p. 92.
[8] McEwan. Machines like Me. p. 87.
[9] Ibid. p. 88.
[10] Baudrillard, Jean. “Simulacra and Simulations.” Selected Writings. Translated by Mark Poster. Stanford University Press, 2001, pp. 166–184. p. 166.
[11] McEwan. Machines like Me. p. 88.
[12] Ibid. p. 95.
[13] Ibid. p. 117.
[14] Ibid. p. 118.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ihde. Husserl’s Missing Technologies. p. 16-17.
[17] McEwan. Machines like Me. p. 117.
[18] Ibid. p. 119.
[19] Haraway, Donna J. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Posthumanism. Neil Badmington (Ed.). Palgrave, 2000. pp. 69–84. p. 71.
[20] Braidotti, Rosi. The Posthuman. Polity Press, 2013. p. 30.
[21] Ibid. p. 94.
[22] Ibid. p. 167.

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