Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Ruminations on the horror of the uncanny valley

The concept of the uncanny valley has been floating around for some time now. I think it would be relatively easy to use in a further discussion of the "haunted media" I posted on a little while back. This got me thinking though, derridata, do you know what the take up of this concept has been like among Japanese academics, particularly in relation to anime culture, the regard in which Masahiro Mori is held, etc? The same goes for ludologists, I expect.

Moving away from Japan for now, I really enjoyed reading Posthumanism in John Carpenter's The Thing, simply because it touches on 2 of this blog's all-time favourite films:

The 'uncanny valley', a hypothesis that suggests that the more human in appearance a robot may be, the more repulsive it will be received by a genuine human. Also applicable to dolls and computer generated characters, the uncanny valley suggests that we hold the body sacred, and become disturbed when something appears almost human... but not quite.

This is a far more complex identity anxiety to appreciate, in terms of visual or physical imagery, than the 'Other body' of the Thing. Giger's Xenomorph design, from Ridley Scott's Alien, is a humanoid, relatable evolution of the shark; engineered and phallic in design, externally based on both human genitalia and machine parts. The Xenomorph is ritually parasitic and sexless, both savage and motherly, vile and alluring. Strangely, the Thing lacks this fetishist attractiveness; when it does take on human parts, they are either a perfect mimic, or stretched and disfigured beyond association. But it does fascinate, if only through indifference, and for the film's stunning use of animatronic technology, itself a mechanical imitation of natural life. Though it is sexless (or at the very least, its gender is unidentifiable) the creature shares two common elements with man, a drive to consume and a desire to keep warm.

The case studies we have looked at, such as The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, are not set in futuristic dystopias or idealistic utopias, but grounded in our own present. The 'it could happen to you' impact of these films should not be overlooked. The Thing is a hideous half-resemblance of man, an amorphous, monstrous fake that not unlike the infection that it metaphorically represents, wants nothing more than to survive; to find food and shelter. In this respect, we are not so different. Science fiction has represented the posthuman in as many ways as it has the human, emphasizing that:

The Thing preys not only on the fear of contagion, but on the loss of individuality. Of all of the recent science fiction 'horrors' it reveals the human condition as much as it tells a good monster story. The films human characters are almost indistinguishable from one another. Cold and impersonal, they are a study of the human race as a whole than any one specimen. The protagonist MacReady's identity is defined not by similarity to his fellow men, but from his differences to the alien. In Carpenter's movie, the posthuman Other and the human form are indeterminable, and identity is indefinite.

As if that wasn't enough, it's incredible how a quote from Darwin resonates so well with Alien's bio-horror theme:

The expression of this [Trigonocephalus] snake’s face was hideous and fierce; the pupil consisted of a vertical slit in a mottled and coppery iris; the jaws were broad at the base, and the nose terminated in a triangular projection. I do not think I ever saw anything more ugly, excepting, perhaps, some of the vampire bats. I imagine this repulsive aspect originates from the features being placed in positions, with respect to each other, somewhat proportional to the human face; and thus we obtain a scale of hideousness.
—Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle[30]

Another point worth pondering: Aliens alumnus James Cameron believes cinema will soon move out of the uncanny valley, because the medium is not bound to "real time rendering". I won't speculate here though on the chilling technological implications of this statement for "ethical governor" scenarios taken to their logical extreme, as alluded to in derridata's last post:

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