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Beating Nature: Artificiality, Imitation and Simulation


Module description

Mankind has always been dreaming of being godlike by creating humans and super humans not through the sexual act of reproduction with women giving birth but through the mental and technical skills of (male) artists, mechanics and scientists. While many have succeeded in actually creating machines resembling humans (automatons, wax figures, puppets, marionettes, androids), it was first and foremost the visions and alternative realities of writers and filmmakers which have sparked the cultural imagination. Their fantastical creatures such as living statues, homunculi, golems and mandrakes instil such conflicting feelings as fascination and fear, desire and horror.

Indicative module syllabus

  • Dreaming up your perfect woman: from the German Romantics to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (D 1927), E.T.A. Hoffmann’s ‘The Sand-man’ (1816) and Joseph von Eichendorff’s ‘The Marble Image’ (1818), we will explore man’s desire to create the perfect woman - a desire that can be traced back to Hesiod’s ‘Pandora’ (6 AC) and Ovid’s ‘Pygmalion' (Metamorphoses, 10 AC).
  • New mothers and other monsters: an exploration of the theories and fictions of the nightmarishly metamorphosed parent, in which fathers and (especially) mothers are inexplicably replaced by monstrous, robotic or otherwise uncanny simulacra.
  • What does it mean to be human? Dystopian futures (1): an exploration of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s science fiction crime thriller World on a Wire (Welt am Draht, 1973), which represents a dystopian future in which human beings reside in computer-generated worlds and explores what it means to take individual responsibility in the face of political repression.
  • 'Against Nature' Villiers de l’Isle-Adam: L’Eve Future: an exploration of French nineteenth-century Symbolist author Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s novel The Future Eve, or Tomorrow's Eve, generally regarded as one of the earliest and most prescient science fiction novels ever written.
  • What does it mean to be human? Dystopian futures (2): an exploration of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go alongside the 2010 film adaptation of it (dir. Mark Romanek) in relation to discourses about the ethics of cloning.

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you should be familiar with:

  • the cultural history of automatons, androids, machines with an overview of the motif of the artificial human in various European cultures, starting with Ovid and Hesiod up to films such as Metropolis
  • the various issues which have been explored through the motif of the artificial human, such as the question of what it is that makes us human, notions of the self, identity and gender, theories on the nature-culture-divide, the body-soul-dichotomy, concepts of creativity and ideas of the real and the hyper-real.