Frankie and Johnny: Shelley, Gibson, and Hollywood's Love Affair with the Cyborg[Notice]

  • Andrea Austin

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  • Andrea Austin
    Queen's University

The Turing Test has been a kind of Miltonic bogey in the field of artificial intelligence research and theory. From the time of its proposition by Alan Turing in 1950, it has generated controversy. In "Computing Machinery and Intelligence," Turing declares that the question "can machines think?" is naive, and suggests that the answer to this kind of question "is to be sought in a statistical survey such as a Gallup poll." He argues instead for the replacement of the question with another, "closely related to it and . . . expressed in relatively unambiguous words" (Turing, 5). What he replaces the question with, in fact, is a "test," modeled on a procedure he calls "the imitation game." Turing describes the original game thus: "It is played by three people, a man (A), a woman (B), and an interrogator (C) who may be of either sex. The interrogator stays in a room apart from the other two. The object of the game for the interrogator is to determine which of the other two is the man and which is the woman" (Turing, 6-7). He then transforms the game into the Turing Test with the question "What will happen when a machine takes the part of A in this game?" (Turing, 7). Indeed, the suggested substitution does deal with issues which are "closely related" but it is in no way "relatively unambiguous." While the certainty of biological difference is a specious component of the Turing Test, its substitutionally implied equivalence of the problem of artificial intelligence with that of the problem of gender identity does, however, make a curious kind of cultural logic. The importance of gender to the question of what does or does not qualify as "human" or as a "person" is familiar territory for feminist theorists. At the same time, the figure of the cyborg functions as an economical focus for questions of difference, especially in popular culture. This essay is aimed at contributing to an understanding of the connection between the problem of gender identity and that of artificial intelligence through a discussion of the relationship between Mary Shelley's foundational cyborg story, Frankenstein, and William Gibson's "Johnny Mnemonic," which is not only a re-working of the Frankenstein story, but also a foundational text of cyberpunk fiction. I argue, first, that Shelley and Gibson similarly use central cyborg characters to interrogate such culturally primary divisions as male and female, human and not human, and that each similarly refuses to provide resolution to or deferral of anxieties raised by the stories' interrogations. I argue, secondly, that two recent film versions of the stories, Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Robert Longo's Johnny Mnemonic, are at the same time both exemplary of the originary texts' irresolution as a sore spot for popular culture and symptomatic of Hollywood cinema's special difficulties with the figure of the "male" cyborg. Where Shelley and Gibson adopt a strategy of multiply-directed irony to achieve the effects of arousal and irresolution, Branagh's and Longo's films seek to resolve difference anxiety by relying on a strategy of visual substitution. In Frankenstein and in "Johnny Mnemonic," the cyborg arouses anxieties about the difference between male and female, human and not human, against a cultural backdrop of the division between technology as feminine and mastery of technology as masculine. The ambiguities Shelley instates with the doppelganger pair of Victor and his creation, and which Gibson condenses into the single character of his cyborg protagonist, Johnny, affirm Donna Haraway's thesis about the cyborg's potential to unsettle dominant gender associations but are less conclusive about artificial intelligence's liberatory potential …

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