Isabel Millar considers arguments for and against sex robots, and whether they confront the famous Lacanian maxim that “there is no sexual relation.”
While researching on the uses of Artificial Intelligence and the development of sex-bots, apart from being thoroughly repelled by the sight of men sticking their fingers into the open mouths of inert and dead-eyed naked rubber dolls, I am struck by the apparent absence of any real engagement in the literature on this phenomenon with the theoretical problems surrounding the question of sex and artifice.
So let’s meet Harmony (pictured above), The first generation of Realdollx who has been created by combining an AI app with a silicone sex doll, to enable her purchaser to not only engage in no-strings-attached sexual intercourse but also polite conversational foreplay. The doll can be customized to fit a range of preferences from frigid to promiscuous to sadomasochistic penchants, has 11 vagina options and hundreds of nipple variations. At the moment the AI is in early stages and by no means enables the more sophisticated user to discuss current affairs, their latest Slavoj Žižek book or indeed argue over who is doing the washing up (great at blow jobs but apparently useless with a scourer). But at least they give the semblance of consciousness and consent, which is more than can be said for how many successful men seem to prefer their sexual conquests these days.
But two of the most significant commentators in academia on the question of sex-bots disagree on the prospective dangers, or benefits of these creations. Kathleen Richardson from De Montford University is a professor of Ethics and Culture of Robots and AI who launched the Campaign against Sex Robots in 2015. She argues that sex-bots are a deeply pernicious development that serve to reinforce and reproduce dangerous power structures and legitimize exploitation and sexual objectification of women and children. Kate Devlin on the other hand, a senior lecturer in the Department of Computing at Goldsmiths University of London working in the field of Human Computer Interaction and AI, believes sex-bots may in fact serve a therapeutic and even emancipatory function.
Whist I have sympathy for aspects of both these positions, I fear neither of them grasp the kernel of what is at stake in the question of sex and artifice. First of all, even though there is little evidence yet of the social impact whether positive or negative of sex-bots given their relative novelty and inaccessibility, I am quite sure that they will not pave the way toward diminishing misogyny. I can’t imagine that a rubbery receptacle for bodily fluids furnishes society with the tools it needs to start reducing its time-honoured thirst for violence against women and children. On the other hand, Devlin is right to suggest that sex-bots need not be solely the territory of male fantasy. Women are perfectly capable of fantasizing over cyborgs; Terminator, Robocop, Bender from Futurama anyone? Of course, female fantasmatic tropes of robotic partners rarely revolve around the idea of complete domination over the body of a subservient, vulnerable or scared male. But again, this is not really the point.
The common-sense approach to sex that seems to be apparent in these two above arguments for and against sex-bots, is that there is something inherently meaningful and even natural about the way that we have sex. And by natural, I mean “instinctual” or biologically programmed. The Lacanian psychoanalytic approach to sex is entirely more pessimistic and indeed suspicious of such easy explanations. There is in fact nothing natural nor paradoxically even meaningful about sex. In fact, sex is completely artificial. It occupies and embodies an ontological void, it is, we could say, an abyss of meaning. It is interesting to note then that the company who created Harmony and her silicone buddies is called Abyss Creations. This title (perhaps unwittingly, perhaps not) puts its finger so to speak on precisely the structural logic behind both the sexual relation and the uncanny and terrifying encounter with an Artificial Intelligence.
Whilst the vicissitudes of sexuality may be artificial, as counter-intuitive as it may sound, it is nevertheless underpinned by a structural logic. In Lacanian terms the phrase “the sexual relation does not exist” expresses the impossible and a-symmetrical relation between the sexes not as two biological nor physical categories but two logical subject positions governing a regime of sexual enjoyment. Either position may be occupied by any person regardless of sexual anatomy but correspond to masculine and feminine modesof enjoyment. These two irreconcilable positions depicted below in set theory (masculine to the left and feminine on the right) may be represented as follows:
I will not explain the graph exhaustively here but just googling “Graphs of Sexuation” provides ample explanations. The graph originally appears in Lacan’s Seminar XX – Encore: On Feminine Sexuality The Limits of Love and Knowledge. Here Lacan famously states il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel: ‘there’s no such thing as a sexual relationship’. This often misunderstood statement articulates the logical impasse and antagonism inherent to sexuality, but it also illuminates epistemological questions regarding the possibility of knowledge and its relationship to enjoyment. The psychoanalytic condition of knowledge, according to Lacan, is itself bound to sexual difference, to desire and to love.
So to cut a very, very long story short, the graph of sexuation can be thought of as a formalization of Freud’s idea of the all-enjoying totemic Father from Totem and Taboo. On the left (masculine) side of the graph, the logic is that of the exception from the whole. In other words, the concept of the “The Man” is structured via the exception of one man from the group, which thereby founds the universality of their identity. This is none other than the mythical all enjoying Totemic Father who all the sons killed because, well, he was shagging everyone.
His death instantiates the incest taboo since the guilt felt by the sons prevents them from themselves partaking of the obscene enjoyment of the now absent but super-egoic presence of the father. Hence masculinity is based on a logic of attempting (and failing) to be like the One who escapes (symbolic) castration, or a limit to one’s enjoyment. On the right hand (feminine) side, there is no universal idea of “The Woman” because her logic is that of the non-all, she is not founded on identification with an exception precisely because there is not One who is not submitted to castration. In other words, she is fully submitted to castration. But paradoxically, in being fully submitted, she undermines the very logic of castration by knowing it is a pure artifice, she “sees through the fascinating presence of the phallus” as Žižek would say, unlike men who live and die by it. She knows there is no “other of the other”, no exception outside the law. For this reason, she partakes of an other enjoyment outside the phallic form. The much misunderstood and mythologised “feminine jouissance”. In this sense, like the totemic father, woman herself becomes one of the names-of-the-father, a relentlessly demanding, overwhelming, lustful and capricious presence of complete and full enjoyment.
If you are wondering what that means in reality, then just think for a moment about how our whole civilization is obsessed with knowing (in secret perhaps) the many forms of and means to enjoyment for women. On the one side the veneration and sanctification of the mother’s unconditional and complete enjoyment of her child sanctioned by society, and on the other the disgust and outrage with women’s sexual enjoyment, condemned by society. But here comes the Lacanian twist, curiously when a pornographic image “objectifies” the female body, isn’t it in fact subjectifyingthe female position of enjoyment? In our obsession with policing and displaying of the female body are we not in fact fascinated by the enigmatic sexual enjoyment of the woman in her various paroxysms of pleasure and pain? And this fascination is of course not just limited to men, women too are fascinated by this supposed other enjoyment which they are assumed to have and encouraged to cultivate.
To quote Žižek:
“Let us take as our starting point the properly Hegelian paradox of coincidentia oppositorum that characterizes the standard notion of women: woman is simultaneously a representation, a spectacle par excellence, an image intended to fascinate, to attract the gaze, while still an enigma, the unrepresentable, that which a priori eludes the gaze. She is all surface, lacking any depth, and the unfathomable abyss.” (1995)
Thus, we could say the veil of the phallus is for women used as a real deception, covering up the void that she knows she is as subject, whereas for men the phallus is a genuine enigma covering the void that he deludes himself he is not. Two eternally incompatible positions.
This is why the logic of sexuality is itself founded not on two opposites but on two failed attempts at becoming a whole subject, giving rise to the many permutations and multifarious modes of covering up this failure that is what we call “sexuality” as such. Hence, the truth of the sexual relation is not male and female but rather LGBTQ++++++++ ad infinitum.
Regarding the uncanny or unheimlich, this term was developed and theorised by Freud in his famous essay Das Unheimliche. It expresses the strange feeling of familiarity mixed with that alien quality often associated with the experience of seeing the face of someone who you have never met before and inexplicably noticing a similarity to someone you know. This haunting experience is analogous to the phantasmatic encounter with a robotic life form – depicted in different ways in films like Her, Ex-Machina and Bladerunner – giving the viewer the uneasy feeling “is anyone really ‘in there’?”
Significantly Freud’s treatment of the automated love object Olympia in The Uncanny essay foregrounds questions of subjective structure in relation to feminine hysteria and masculine obsessional neurosis which we see as a constant trope in cinematic depictions of human-robot love affairs. Freud’s Oedipal reading of the uncanny stages the non-existent sexual relation that is apparent between, on the one hand, the masculine desire for a female robotic companion and, on the other hand, the fantasmatic feminine position as a quasi-robot for whom existence is constituted through the hysterical desire of the other’s desire.
This is the abyss that we encounter in the face of the assumption of subjectivity which we are compelled to make in order to engage in any social or ethical encounter. We must assume someone is “in there” but we never really know. This in Lacanian terms is imaginary identification, necessary of course but ultimately a self-deception. It never really accounts for the real part of the encounter which always inexorably escapes any shared symbolic horizons. That part of the other which remains wholly unknowable. The sexual act on the other hand involves another form of abyssal encounter. But this time it is a question of the impossibility of really knowing the enjoyment of the other and only ever experiencing the enjoyment in one’s own fantasy. This is why there are always three elements present in any person’s sexual activity. As well as your partner (or partners), the third party is the empty place holder of fantasy which may be occupied by whatever projection happens to fit the bill at the time; this could be another person, an idea or even an object.
The reason why sex bots are so problematic and yet so fascinating is that they expose precisely the artificial character of the sexual relation. In Lacanian terms the unbearable real of sexuality. The fact that an artificial doll may act as the representation of a sexual fantasy presents us with the true horror of subjectivity: the fantasy is the only thing that really sustains any of our relationships at all. This nugget of artificial wisdom is Lacan’s lasting legacy to us as we move forward into the realms of AI sex and love.
Isabel Millar is a PhD candidate at Kingston University, School of Art in Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Theory. Her research is on Jacques Lacan, Sex and Technology.
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Freud, S. (1919) The Uncanny. In J. Strachey (ed.) (2001) The Complete Psychological Works of
Sigmund Freud Volume XVII (1917-1919). London: Vintage. Freud, S (2001, ) Totem and Taboo SE13 London: Hogarth
Lacan, J. (1998 ) The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book XX: 1972-1973, Encore, on Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge. London: W.W Norton & Company
Žižek, S. (1995) Woman is one of the names of the father, Or how not to misread Lacan’s formulas of sexuation. Retrieved (7th of December 2018) from: http://www.lacan.com/zizwoman.htm
Žižek, S. (2005) The Metastases of Enjoyment: On Women and Causality. Verso: London