The Next Evolution: The Constitutive Human-Doll Relationship as Companion Species
This work examines arguments postulated by sexologists, science and technology studies (STS) scholars, and similar fields to highlight the ways in which human-(erotic) doll relationships may move from taboo and into a realm where they may in fact be seen as the next step in human evolution. To do so, this work moves from privileging the human-human relationship to taking seriously the importance of the human-nonhuman-non sentient (NHNS) relationship as an equally important element in building the future and understanding the present (as well as admitting to the importance of the doll as an object of human affection). Here, against a backdrop of questioning what is love, I present two theories within STS: Companion Species and Actor Network Theory (ANT) to argue that NHNS things not only matter in the creation of human relationships, but examines how such relationships fill a gap in understanding how it is that humans may truly love their erotic dolls in a meaningful way that not only removes them from realm of taboo but views it as a reasonable, if unsettling, progression into a sociotechnical world in the twenty-first century and beyond.
KeywordsSex doll Actor Network Theory Companion species
Human-Doll relationships are not new and are seen cross culturally and across genders (Blizzard 2014; Fergusson 2010). To illustrate, dolls are often seen as items of comfort or encapsulated messages between like groups. In the former, the doll may be a comfort item for a child learning to attach and detach from those around them. In these cases, items such as dolls and blankets bring comfort to the child who faces disassociation to rethink oneself as a singular self; a separate identity (e.g., Freud 2003). In the latter, dolls may be an inherent message such as a totemic symbol establishing and entrenching relationships of power, belonging, and place within a community. In these, and other sociocultural contexts, dolls are an important and necessary part of self-actualization, identity construction, and community building.
Social theories stemming from work in the social sciences including psychology, sociology, and anthropology, among others, often examine the ways in which humans form bonds or relationships with other humans. From Freudian psychoanalysis, to Bowlby’s attachment theory and beyond, a multitude of theorists and frameworks have utilized concepts such as agency, identity, fear, love, trust, and safety to understand how and why social relations or bonds develop between individuals and examine the outcomes (e.g. Freud 2003; Bowlby 1988). In some cases, the focus is the family or kinship, in others it is marriage or other couplings or groupings, and in still others it is to understand how communities evolve. There are no shortages to the ways to examine the development of human-human social relationships.
While many of the theories and theorists have stood the test of time through ongoing debates and reframing, where they often fall short is when entities in the relationship do not fall under the classification of human. While the built environment mediates human-human relationships, it holds no agency; it simply is. Thus, an examination that takes seriously the idea that humans might form loving relationships with dolls is hard pressed when built on a foundation that social relationships only emerge from sentient, social individuals. In light of these challenges, STS offers some significant purchase into expanding our understanding of human-NHNS relationships.
Before delving too far into this topic, it is important to acknowledge my political and theoretical standpoint as a feminist, given that the objectification of women through the erotic doll has been debated in both scholarly and popular contexts in some depth. As a feminist, I am committed to understanding the interactions of those who own and use erotic dolls. Certainly, entrenching and reproducing views of artifacts that reflect specific forms of masculinity and femininity is problematic; however, to dismiss individual desires in the light of metanarrative taboo is reactionary at best. This work seeks to take seriously how human-doll relationships are evolving and what this may mean for the future of some social relationships. In her work from the Second Congress of Love and Sex with Robots, Trudy Barber offers a clear reason for thinking beyond some feminist claims that limit inherently flexible forms of love mapping and sexual strategies when she writes (on love mapping and sexual strategies see Barber 2017):
“There is a feminist movement – The Campaign Against Sex Robots – that aims to ban sex and technological activities along with anthropomorphic and animistic articulations which are redolent of radical Dworkinite fears and the demeaning of sex workers in general and woman in particular. However, it is argued that this can also be seen a contemporary example of deviation as key to innovation … [self-citation, Deviation as key to innovation: understanding a culture of the future] and as a blatant opportunity to explore sexuality and the human condition in even more depth in a sex-positive way that reveals more about our need to be creative, innovative and inventive as part of our human evolutionary sexual strategy as a whole” (Barber 2017:70).
In this regard, a feminist critique must not only question the objectification and entrenchment of views of the body and gender, but it must also analyze and contextualize human emotions and the sexualities that create innovative ways to express oneself.
In recent years, some dolls are showing weak AI systems that enable them to appear to speak, learn, and express personalities (e.g. Truecompanion). While the bodies remain non-robotic, the use of AI and computer simulations of identities such as interest in the partner, place these dolls in a unique space to make human-robot love a reality; however, while cutting edge robotics, AI, and enhanced understandings of how and why humans express emotion with robots offer a tempting platform for social analysis, the ultimate future of such sublime human-robot loves lies beyond the scope of this article (on emotions and robots, e.g. Breazeal 2004). Instead, I argue that before moving to this level of analysis we must explore how and why human-doll relationships make sense at a base level. Any true acceptance of human-robot love must first pass a necessary cultural milestone: we need to understand how it is that the human and humanoid-NHNS (e.g., the doll) even makes sense in our many cultural narratives of love, sex, and social relationships. Without first understanding how and why such a relationship may or may not be accepted or sanctioned, it is presumptive to think that such relationships would be accepted within a cultural milieu endowed with multiple moral judgments.
The aim of this article is to offer that foothold where human-NHNS relationships both make sense and are actually viewed as a progression of human evolution (c.f. O’Mahony 2002). Once such arguments are articulated, analyzed, and potentially accepted, the next move to fully accepting not just dolls, but full-fledged robots may be more readily accepted in multiple contexts (i.e., dolls with strong and weak AI as well as mechanical movements, as noted above). Here, I turn attention to this building block: the human-NHNS relationship as realized through the human and doll. To accomplish this goal, I examine the flexibility of love and relationships as a theoretical backdrop and then merge STS concepts of Companion Species and Actor Network Theory to argue that love can occur between the human and doll, and that once accomplished, the next steps into human-robotic loving relationships should not only be anticipated, but also expected.
2 Crazy Little Thing Called Love
How do you know if you are loved? If you have the chance, follow in my purposefully unsettling ways – ask students at a university, “Are you loved”? Generally, a majority will say, “yes.” Then follow up, “how do you know?” The normalized response will likely be “he/she/xe tells me.” Respond, “and is their metric the same as yours?” Now we enter silence as they shift uncomfortably in their chairs. The next response is generally a version of “I believe her,” “he’s never lied to me,” or “I have faith in xe.” The stammers turn defensive. Billy Joel sang about love, It’s a matter of trust.1 He is three-times divorced. Perhaps he loved three times, perhaps he never loved, perhaps we never do.
In his book, Love: A Short Introduction, Ronald de Sousa takes the reader on a largely philosophical journey of varying frameworks for understanding love as an action and ideal across time and cultures (de Sousa 2015). Within de Sousa’s analysis of love he mixes, matches, and combines multiple ways of thinking about love. Foundationally, de Sousa borrows from the work of Dorothy Tennov’s concept of “limerence” as similar to the Greek, eros, to explain a feeling that is “most extreme, obsessive, anxious, and passionate…” (de Sousa p3). Here, de Sousa takes a strong, compelling lead from Tennov when he also presents the framework of Robert Sternberg who analyzes love within a triangular model: love is expressed as intimacy, passion (e.g., limerence), and decision/commitment (de Sousa 2015:81). Any individual within a relationship may experience all three in different ways and to different extents. While intimacy, passion (limerence), and decision/commitment may all fall under the inherently ambiguous term of love, the duration in which the experience exists for those involved may tell us something about the prolonged companionship and thus may offer some highly useful ways to think of the lover’s Other(s) in that relationship. Within these combinations of theories of love an intriguing view of love comes into focus: love exists in both static and progressive forms. Each phase is a form of love but the student, the reader, and colleague are still left to ask, but what is love? To this end de Sousa argues that love is less a feeling or condition than a syndrome. He explains:
“Rather think of love as a condition that shapes and govern thoughts, desires, emotions, and behaviors around the focal person who is ‘beloved’. Like a kind of prism, it affects all sorts of experiences – even ones that don’t directly involve the beloved. I will call that a syndrome: not a kind of feeling, but an intricate pattern of potential thoughts, behaviors, and emotions that tend to ‘run together’. And if it also evokes a disturbance that might call for medical attention, that connotation is not always inappropriate. A person in love, especially if they are limerent, is often said to be crazy with love.” (italics in original, de Sousa 2015:3–4).
Although love has been documented, theorized, and pondered through multiple ontological and epistemological understandings, nevertheless it remains allusive. However, as seen in the work of de Sousa and others, if western preoccupation with human-human monogamy is challenged as not being (1) the natural or (2) the preferred manner in which human beings love, multiple other social and cultural framings of loving relationships come into play.
2. Objectum sexuality and objectophilia2
To love a NHNS entity is not new, but it is far from morally, legally, and psychologically accepted in the general social science and medical literatures. When individuals claim to love a NHNS they are often explained as experiencing objectophilia; in short, they are in love with objects. Although at first blush objectophilia appears awkward, some theorists argue that it is more than reasonable and likely a newly constructed natural. de Sousa explains,
“In short, while love is often assumed to be a peculiarly human capacity, there seem to be no natural constraints on what people can claim to love. For the truly broad-minded, that includes animals, inanimate objects, and some things in between. Is it a mistake to be thus broad minded (If you are too open-minded, a wit once quipped, your brain might fall out). Objektophiles undoubtedly feel something: but can it really be love?” (italics in original, de Sousa 2015:6).
The actual number of people who express objectophilia is difficult to identify as the taboo and social stigma that will likely follow may be paralyzing or worse. Perhaps the best-known examination of this phenomena was conducted by Amy Marsh in an effort to make “object sexuality” a better understood and potentially accepted social phenomena (Marsh 2010). In her work, “Love Among The Objectum Sexuals” she conducted a survey of members of the online group, OS- Internationale, an organization comprised of approximately 40 individuals who claim to love objects to understand who OS effects and what objects are involved in the relationships. Through a survey (respondents n = 21), Marsh was able to drill down into some of the similarities and differences experienced by “objectiphiles” (Marsh 2010). Unfortunately, a double edged sword appears when shedding light on objectophilia. Often reports of its existence are met with ridicule and reported in marginal media outlets without scientific peer review and other forms of social and professional legitimization to the findings. As Marsh explains:
“Objectum sexuals or objectophiles experience a range of emotional, romantic and/or sexual attractions to objects, often forgoing or dispensing with human romantic or sexual intimacy. Thanks to a glut of media coverage but a dearth of intelligent inquiry, objectum sexuality (OS) currently serves as a kind of ready made sexual sideshow, isolated from the “big top” of mainstream human sexual behavior. The lives of Erika Eiffel, Eija-Ritta Eklof Berliner-Mauer and other objectophiles have been chronicled by journalists who inevitably find themselves torn between straining to understand or simply exploiting the entertainment value of details which the public finds unusual or titillating” (http://www.ejhs.org/volume13/ObjSexuals.htm).
For example, the US based cable network, The Learning Channel (TLC) airs a show called, My Strange Addiction. In the show, the producers frequently identify sexual practices of individuals and communities that are rarely known or accepted by the norm of multiple societies. Unfortunately, the goal for this show appears to lie less in educating a voyeuristic public than in shocking the viewer into judgment of assumed perverted behavior. The dialogue and cut-always tell stories of real people experiencing real sexual experiences in such a way that the viewer cannot help but gasp. My Strange Addiction, and other series similar to it, such as HBO’s Real Sex are in many ways theater (as is much reality television).3 For example, in one episode a young man, Nathaniel, claims to be in love with his car, Chase.4 Carefully filmed interactions between the man and the car are many. The viewer watches the man caress the car, kiss the car, and rub against the car. Although the show does bring attention to objectophilia, the critical viewer is left to ask, is this useful, or is it just more fodder for moral judgment?
Another episode on My Strange Addiction highlighted the RealDoll (a high-end erotic doll) and its now celebrity purchaser, companion, and lover, Davecat.5 Similar to the story above, Davecat and his lifestyle are reported, yet implicitly judged at the same time. However, unlike the story of Nathaniel and Chase, human-doll relationships, and in particular the RealDoll, have been the topic of quite a few news programs and documentaries (as well as the topic of feature films) and thus appears to be moving into a more mainstream understating of sexuality (though still not separated from claims of perversity or objectification). Movies such as Lars and the Real Girl, as well as documentaries including Guys and Dolls, tend to take a more mature, less titillating, approach to the topic, and it is here where dolls as the topic of objectophilia may find a very useful purchase into understanding the next steps of social relationships, sanctioned and not sanctioned (yet?) (Blizzard 2014).6 So, how might social theorists take doll love seriously?
3 Companion Species
One of the best-known theorists in interdisciplinary social sciences, and certainly STS, is renowned scholar, Donna Haraway. For decades, Haraway has examined the ways in which humans (re)make and (re)think themselves through the twentieth and into the twenty-first century. Her work, “The Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” is often cited as one of the treatises to bring the concept of the cyborg into twenty-first century thinking (Haraway 1991). The cyborg, a term coined in 1960 by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline was a merging the term cybernetic and organism and was presented as a fairly straight forward concept that evolved into a complex idea/theory/materiality (Clynes and Kline 1960). The basic idea was to find a way to remake the human (chemically) so that the person (an astronaut or other space traveler) could exist in space without the burden of taking with them technologies such as space suits and other forms of traveling vessels that they would need to control.7 Since the introduction of the space traveling cyborg, many social theorists and technologists and have taken up the concept and broadened it to a being that is part human and part Other.8 These theorists embrace the concept of Otherness and a heterogeneous-whole while also exploring a variety of realities from which they can rethink a post human world and thus, post human relationships (e.g. Hables Gray 2000; Mussies and Maliepaard 2017).
Moving beyond the original definition of 1960, over two decades later, Haraway reimagines the cyborg into a category of social existence, political resistance, and gender transformation. In the manifesto, she explains her reasons for writing, “I am making an argument for the cyborg as a fiction mapping our social and bodily reality and as an imaginative resource suggesting some very fruitful couplings. …This chapter is an argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction” (Haraway 1991:150). She later continues, “so my cyborg myth is about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities which progressive people might explore as one part of needed political work.” (Haraway 1991:154). The cyborg manifesto, a self-admitted, “blasphemy,” takes the reader into realms of conceptualizing the world out of the dangers of dichotomous thinking nurtured in paternalism and historical inequity and to a world beyond traditional bodies: bodies of flesh, bodies of politics; bodies (Haraway 1991:149).9 With frenetic eloquence, Haraway takes readers on an exploration of the inadequacies of current classifications and aberrations within them. What is so natural about the natural? Perhaps it is best seen as a flexible manner of understanding? Haraway argues that assumed classifications are breaking down and that new ways of thinking of the world are possible. This awareness becomes pertinent to an analysis of understanding love between Others. In particular, she considers three areas of “boundary breakdowns” (Haraway 1991:151) and suggests a more “leaky” (Haraway 1991:152) existence between previously assumed dichotomies. The first breakdown occurs between the human and the animal; a second breakdown lies between the human-animal and machine, and finally there is a breakdown between the physical and non-physical (Haraway 1991:151–152). These new ways of viewing the world lead to a better understanding of the human-doll relationship as one that exists within a new sociotechnical relationship. These fusions and their political infestations lead to her next work that further speaks to the importance of the doll as an active actor in a social network: companion species.
Over fifteen years after her highly influential “Cyborg Manifesto,” Haraway released her next manifesto: The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness (Haraway 2003). Here, Haraway takes a bold step away from her seminal work and literally goes to the dogs: instead of pairing human-technology, she ponders how might we better understand the world by thinking about human-nonhuman species relationships that are seen in a variety of “naturecultures,” where the naturecultures contain within them an assortment of biological-biological constitutive relationships (Haraway 2003:12)? What might we learn if we turn our attention more to that which builds us as singular entities through the awareness of our necessary collaborative life? The biological lives, the naturecultures, that integrate within human existence she terms companion species. Within the realm of companion species, the dog, the variant of the wolf and worker and friend to humans, stands out. And it is the dog, which while being understood within the historical understanding of cyborg and humans turns a spotlight on the deep integration of human relationships. Reflecting on her earlier work she writes, “…cyborg reconfigurations hardly exhaust the tropic work required for ontological choreography in technoscience. I have come to see cyborgs as junior siblings in the much bigger, queer family of companion species…” (Haraway 2003:11; on “ontological choreography” see Thompson 2007). In her earliest musings within the manifesto she leaves a tempting platform for seriously thinking through the human-doll relationship when she writes:
“We are, constitutively, companion species. We make each other up in the flesh. Significantly other to each other, in specific difference, we signify in the flesh a nasty developmental infection called love. This love is an historical aberration and a naturalcultural legacy” (Haraway 2003:2–3).
The western world is a sociotechnical system in which the organic and inorganic mesh in a “spiral dance” (Haraway 1991) and this “ontological choreography” (Thompson 2007) allows us, and may even demand of us, that we seriously consider love as naturally engineered, a rhetorical and embodied history of the freedom attained through difference (Haraway 1991; de Sousa 2015). An opportunity arises: limerence and decision/commitment, two key components behind de Sousa’s inquiry of love via Tennov and Sternberg, might be attained within, across, and outside of species.
What might an analysis of companion species offer a critique of human-NHNS relationships? The answer and potential future that it generates is as simple as it is complex: social relationships are constitutively driven aberrations located in a multifaceted context. What constitutes a social relationship is as varied as those who build them and those who sanction them. And more to the point, we are comingled in evolving naturecultures: each dependent upon the other and each evolves in a heterogeneous mix of body and constituent mind. Us and them may not exist at all. We simply are. The emotional mathematics becomes clearer, if unnerving. If humans can have relationships with humans, and if humans can have relationships with non-humans (e.g. dogs), why not expand relationships to include NHNS entities? In this case, dolls?
The leaky boundaries introduced in the Cyborg Manifesto, come to deeper fruition in Companion Species, where she highlights how multiple forms of Otherness are an inherent symbiotic existence of unified diversity. Dog/human or human/dog? What is the correct classification? Thus, Haraway takes an important step in the social theory of human praxis: humans and sentient non-humans do fulfill and create a needed existence of dependency. The singular is a duality of dependency and beyond. In sum, Haraway’s Companion Species and others of a similar theoretical leaning, are positioned to take seriously human/Other.
4 Actor Network Theory (ANT)
A theory that emerged in the 1980s within the social studies of science and science and technology studies was Actor Network Theory (ANT). The ideas behind ANT were first brought to scholarly attention in the works of Bruno Latour, John Law, and Michel Callon, among other STS scholars (e.g., Bijker et al. 1989). The basic premise to ANT is quite simple though rarely fully understood as it is not clearly a theory or method as much as it is a process for understanding how the world is made and how it functions (Law and Singleton 2013). The approach allows for an individual to view a network or interlinking relationships between humans and nonhumans (i.e., technology) as all having purchase on the outcomes of the network; the human(s) and the technology(ies) are linked. To illustrate, the purchase of a carton of milk involves the cows, the dairy equipment, the farm (food and tools to sustain it), the infrastructure to purify, package and move the product to market, the humans to stack the shelves, the humans to purchase it, and the humans to sell it. Together they form a network. The networks exist, and from them we gain insights into the social forces they produce. For the milk to make it to a kitchen table all must be functioning. Which part of the network is more important? Which has the most influence? ANT adds the invisible technologies and practices that are often forgotten and values the roles that they play (and some may argue the agency that non-ANT approaches exclude).
ANT makes NHNS actors relevant to the construction and experience of reality. Although ANT was taken up with much excitement, it also warranted strong criticisms. Two criticisms are particularly important when considering how the human-doll relationship may be viewed: first, ANT has been criticized for having an overwhelming zeal for heterogeneity which may lead to anthropomorphizing or overestimating the sentience or agency of a nonhuman actor; and, second, ANT may fail to determine who or what exerts more force into the network and for what reasons (e.g., how and why do actors express power, reason, and meaning in the experience?). In their clever article presented in dialogue and narrative form, John Law and Vicky Singleton work to clarify what ANT is and is not. Vicky makes it clear in her own words:
“We need to remember that some people don’t like ANT because it says objects are pretty much like humans; that they are actors too. And vice versa. For some people this sounds uncaring. Inhumane. But I think this is a bit of a misunderstanding. ANT isn’t saying that people are robots. It’s saying that people can be understood as an effect of the unfolding of web relations they’re caught up in. And that human and non-human actors are assembled together” (Law and Singleton 2013:501–502).
Not unlike the companion species of Haraway, the actors in the network, the humans and nonhumans, are co-constructing a constitutive reality.
Although ANT has some failings, it can be quite beneficial as its supporters urge us to think more generally about viewing social and technical artifacts as both relevant in the creation of sociotechnical relationships. To illustrate, in their work on IT in medical systems Cresswell, Worth, and Sheikh remind readers that,
“Despite some limitations, an Actor-Network Theory-based approach is conceptually useful in helping to appreciate the complexity of reality (including the complexity of organisations) and the active role of technology in this context. This can prove helpful in understanding how social effects are generated as a result of associations between different actors in a network. Of central importance in this respect is that Actor-Network Theory provides a lens through which to view the role of technology in shaping social processes” (italics added, np).
Whether the item or system under scrutiny is a toaster, a person, an idea, or a medical technology, ANT approaches highlight the interconnectedness of things and aims to level the discourse and analysis so that all can be seen as relevant in the construction of the meaning of the reality of the context in question.
5 Enter the Doll
In his work, Love + Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships, David Levy (and the very point to the Congress) explores human, animal/pet, and robot love. Not surprisingly, many mainstream media, and some scholars for that matter, contend that such claims undermine the primary (and universalizing) stance that love can only be shared by sentient, human, consensual agreement. However, when exploring the built environment termed technology from a critical standpoint, the possibilities for extending Levy’s initial thoughts are more than promising: they are warranted; they are necessary. In parallel, but not in conversation with Levy, STS scholars add a nuanced attention to the technical. It is the turn to the sociotechnical as a constitutive relationship, where STS and sexuality scholars may find fertile ground for deeper theoretical exploration into human-doll relationships.
Erotic dolls are difficult to define (Blizzard 2014; Fergusson 2010). Following the emergence of blow up dolls in the 1980s in which mass marketed dolls were available for mail-order, the 1990s witnessed an emergence of a different doll (Fergusson 2010). This new doll could be made to order, was a physiological facsimile, and appeared by sight and touch to more closely resemble a human.10 In my earlier work examining the RealDoll (a high end made to order erotic doll) I contend that,
“Although the doll is not human, it can stimulate very human emotions within its owner. The doll is the figurative receptacle of the emotions put into it as well as the literal receptacle of human touch and fluids that evoke and signify human arousal. It is not just a doll, it is its own Otherness. Certainly the doll is not human, but it may be near human to its partner if the partner infuses it with personality, and emotional and perceived agency that can only be read by its human lover or companion.” (Blizzard 2014:64).
This approach opens the doll to be an actor via ANT, and taking the lead from Levy, if it is made real or relevant through its human partner, it might move way from a category of thing to a possible category of whom. Moving deeper into the ideas forming the foundation of a companion species, while fully acknowledging the a-biological make-up of the doll, the doll becomes a fully relevant existence in the reality of a social network and narrative. The doll becomes less a doppelgänger or simulacra than a separate engaging entity (c.f., Marquet et al. 2016). Returning to de Sousa’s analysis of love, we are left to ask, can the doll make sense in a loving relationship? My answer: why not? Why not love in multiple different fashions? de Sousa writes with a compelling openness:
“Equipped with a little of that objectifying attitude that is peculiar to science, you might be able to stand back and see through the illusion. Once you do, there is no reason not to grant that, alongside happy monogamous marriages, countless different arrangements are compatible with the diversity of human tastes and temperaments. We should then accept that for some people, the love of one or more life partners can be enriched rather than doomed by their openness to unconventional experience.” (de Sousa 2015:107)
The doll is the unconventional, yet nevertheless real experience. This is where the doll and the dog part ways. The dog does not resemble the human, nor do is progenitors (dogs and human breeders) try to make it so. The dog is a dog, glorious in its own right, a companion species, but not human or near human. The doll of the twenty-first century can, and sometimes eerily does, resemble the human in very “uncanny” ways (Mori 1970).11 Today’s erotic doll brings an interesting challenge to the concept of a NHNS: it is designed to resemble, in great detail, the human to which it may be accepted as companion. Further it takes on two important aspects of human familiarity; first, it is designed to appear human, and second, it is often given an identity by its owner/companion and the community in which it resides. These two points are important as they mark the doll as both Other and companion. These points illustrate an attempt to make the doll as lifelike as possible; its creators and users are attempting to cross the dangerous uncanny valley (Mori 1970; Blizzard 2014). For the purchaser, the work, the effort, and the feelings that are infused into the doll are real, yet emotionally invisible (though the outcomes of the investment may be highly visible, e.g., taking the doll to a public space). Regardless of how others view the doll, it is the owner’s or utilizer’s view of the dolls that make them real and worthy.
6 Discussion and Conclusions
By bringing together companion species and ANT, there is considerable room to conceptualize what it means to be in a social relationship. As explored above, ANT makes all actors relevant, but has serious shortcomings in anthropomorphizing entities, or put another way, to underestimate the importance of sentience and agency, that is, who and what exerts more into the network and for what reasons. Companion species demonstrate that individuals are better seen as constitutively created. Haraway and others call to question the perversity of androcentric taxonomies in the world. When thinking through the overriding desire to dichotomize and privilege the human as agent it becomes clear that our understanding of legitimate human relationships is limited. ANT theorists argue that the person and the artifact are both acting and constructing the sociotechnical web in which we all build, interact, and experience the world. Here, I argue that ANT, when combined with concepts such as companion species, transgress the boundaries of Otherness and lead to a critical interpretation of how and why loving a doll, may also be equally normalized into a developmental progression of human-NHNS relationships. So, what does this mean for the future of love and sex with robots, and in this case doll?
At the heart of this exploration, I ask, what does it mean to be attached or in a relationship with another? As ANT theorists have turned to objects, and Haraway has literally gone to the dogs, it becomes very possible and fruitful to consider that human-doll love is the next step in our evolution as sentient beings in a post human world (c.f., O’Mahony 2002; Hables Gray 2000). ANT theorists and those who support them, can present a worldview where human and NHNS entities form an important network of social understanding. Classic cases that utilize ANT introduce how we build sociotechnical networks physically; but why not emotionally, too? The doll is an object of affection that may well love us back, at least in our minds, which is the final arbiter in defining our reality. While people outside of the individual may see the activity as irrational, immoral, or worse, such accusations and arguments are similarly built in their own reality. So, whose reality wins?12
At first blush the doll may literally appear to be an attempt at human likeness. However, when placing the doll within a sociotechnical network analyzed via ANT and problematized as a new a-biological companion species, the doll is far more. Unfortunately, the doll has been as easy target for many who argue mainstream morality: simply put, it is often viewed as an assumed attempt at creating a presence to masquerade as something that it is not. However, critical social theory that examines sociotechnical relationships and identities offers another insight into the doll and the realities that support its existence: what if the doll is simply a sociotechnical existence that, when combined with other actors, forms a different form of constitutively created social identity?
What makes a loving relationship? This is a question that even human-human participants cannot fully answer, so why hold the doll to a higher standard? In this work I do not argue the morality of human-doll love; however, I do argue that just as some theorists have analyzed human non-human relationships as legitimate aspects of understanding authentic human experiences, so must we consider, even briefly, the possibility of human-NHNS relationships as meriting serious social inquiry and analysis without the burden of limitations created through preconceived moral judgment. At the very least, such analysis must come with an awareness that such culturally constructed claims of morality do not lay outside of the same cultural milieu that attempts to understand the meaning of human relationships and the very essence of amorphous love. The doll is not human. However, as we build them, they in turn, build us. This issue alone requires serious attention to the ways in which humans are creating our own innovative realities as we construct creative love maps as we find our ideal companion species, biological or otherwise (c.f. Barber 2017; Haraway 2003).
There are many different spellings of the terms used to identify the process of loving objects as well as those who claim to love objects. Such terms include, but are not limited to, objectophilia, objectum sexuality and objektophiles. In this work I use the spelling and term used by the individual scholar to whom I am referring and not attempt to cleanse the sometimes confusing terms by forcing forward one true way to understand it or the individual.
For information on Real Sex: http://www.tv.com/shows/real-sex/; for information on My Strange Addiction: https://www.tlc.com/tv-shows/my-strange-addiction/.
The authors reasoned that to remove the burden of monitoring the technology to keep the person alive, the person could focus on other issues, as they stated in their article, Cyborgs and Space, “If man attempts partial adaptation to space conditions, instead of insisting on carrying his whole environment along with him, a number of new possibilities appear” (Clynes and Kline 1960:30). They continue with a vivid example: “If man in space, in addition to flying his vehicle, must continuously be checking on things and making adjustments merely in order to keep himself alive, he becomes a slave to the machine. The purpose of the Cyborg, as well as his own homeostatic systems, is to provide an organizational system in which such robot-like problems are taken care of automatically and unconsciously, leaving man free to explore, to create, to think and to feel” (Clynes and Kline 1960:31).
Clynes and Kline began a path of social analysis (and controversy) that few could have imagined, and today’s cyborg imaginings rarely hold a resemblance to the articulation of the first “cyborg.” In most cases, certainly those highlighted in popular culture, the cyborg is generally a human/robot or human with mechanical attachments (though some are cyborgs chemical, harkening back to the initial concept proposed by Clines and Kline, e.g. Oehlert 1995).
For an excellent analysis of the ways in which cyborgs and Otherness may be metaphorically analyzed in the case studies of Asperger’s and those practicing BDSM or holding such desires, see Mussies and Maliepaard 2017.
Perhaps the best known and most artistic or realistic doll that emerged during this time was the RealDoll, a creation of the merging of the Hollywood make up industry and artistry with engineering prowess (Blizzard 2014). The dolls were envisioned by artists and the realism and hyperrealism did not go unnoticed. RealDoll transgressed the boundary between art and sex; a boundary often blurred throughout the history of art (e.g. surrealism and the use of mannequins, see, Dali and Newton e.g. Fergusson 2010).
Taking the lead from Freud’s analysis of the uncanny, in 1970 roboticist Masahiro Mori turned an eye toward the robot, a figure newly emergent from the twentieth century imaginings of those creating humanoids and the willingness of individuals to accept or reject them. In his path breaking work, “The Uncanny Valley” Mori hypothesized that as humans and robots begin to form relationships it is generally enjoyable, however, if the robot appears too human it may prove repulsive to the human viewer – it is close, but not close enough. Something is off. Red flags are raised and some viewers stammer away, unsettled by the realistic entity that falls short of convincing the viewer it is real. In response to this revulsion, some artists and technologists have tried not to replicate the human fully and to stay in the realm of fantasy. Instead of making the entity look human they imbue the entity with human likeness in the form of language, morals, and other aspects within the cultural metanarrative of the human condition (c.f., de Fren 2009; Barber 2017).
For an excellent discussion of competing claims of objectivity leading to an overall generally accepted objectivity see, Harding (1995) “Strong Objectivity”: A response to the new objectivity question. Synthese 104(3): 331–349.
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