Love in the Time of Cybernetica

December 5, 2022 / Claire Tsui

“A sense of wrongness, of fraught unease, as if long nails scraped the surface of the moon, raising the hackles of the soul.” — China Mieville

Act I: Galatea

Swathed in silks and linens stands an ivory maiden. She is struck in a pose of effortless grace, her lips pressed shut and her gaze lowered in gentle demurity.

Before her stands her sculptor, king Pygmalion. Notorious for his disdain of the lusty women in his realm, Pygmalion sought to create one of his own. One hewn to his tastes, whose eyes could see no other, and could thus belong to no other. With a half-curled hand, he traces his fingers along the cut of her cheek, his eyes roaming over her exquisitely carved face in raptured silence. He marvels at the pearlescent beauty of his work, as pale and otherworldly as the moon.

Perfection, he thinks. She is perfection incarnate.

Yet like the moon, the maiden remains stonily out of Pygmalion’s reach. Her fingers are cold and stiff, her ivory flesh unyielding to his touch; lovely as she may be, he cannot truly be with her.

Driven to obsession by his inability to have her, Pygmalion finally beseeches none other than the goddess of love herself.

To turn men into stone is the power of Medusa, but to turn stone into woman is Aphrodite’s. From high above in her heavenly chaise, she observes, with detached amusement, the small mortal man currently knelt before her pyre. Resting her chin upon a delicate hand, she leans over the clouds to hear his pleas and to determine whether his heartache is worthy of her time. As she listens, her lips twist wryly.  

So this is how mortals love, she hums to herself. He has fashioned himself a dumb, mute, beautiful statue, and now he wishes for it to become his dumb, mute, and beautiful queen.

But she sighs obligingly and casts her voice to the earth, where it spirals down from the vaulted ceilings of the temple into Pygamlion’s ears. Amidst the smoke and savor, she tells him to return home and embrace the statue, that he will see it become a maiden in his hands.

Pygmalion rushes back to the pavilion in excited haste. Throwing himself upon the statue, he gathers it into his arms and seals its ivory lips with a kiss. When he draws back, he sees lips flushed red with life-blood and a maiden of flesh and bone. Her skin is still pale like the moonlight, and he watches, entranced, as she raises her dark eyes with the shyness of a newborn fawn. Her first sight sees, in a single glimpse, Pygmalion and the sun crowned behind his head.

Beheld by her wide, innocent eyes — filled with nothing but him and the heavens above — Pygmalion knew he could love no other.

Act II: Ex Machina

Myth is enlightenment, and our enlightenment returns to myth.

The desire to artificially create another being, one that is bent to our will, is rooted in narcissism, a hubristic hunger to play god and build in our own image. In this era of biotechnology and artificial intelligence, it is more possible than ever for men to become postmodern Pygmalions. Now, instead of smooth expanses of ivory, their lovers possess lithe, flexible torsos supported by metal frames, chrome limbs wrapped in synthetic collagen — sleek and shiny, like a boy’s novel plaything.

Those who claim the superiority of the gynoid over the human woman cite its ability to be our perfect lover. Programmed to our unique tastes, the gynoid self-adjusts like a personal thermostat to meet our needs. By analyzing our behavior, it adapts accordingly to our hot or cold to never frustrate, disappoint, or betray us. The gynoid would be devoted to their express purpose of fulfilling us sexually and romantically, utterly compliant and selfless with no needs of their own to burden us. They are, in all senses, born to love us.

But it is only a certain breed of men who fancy this notion of artificial lovers — one who holds an idealized notion of femininity and desires the glamorous idea of a woman more than an actual woman. For the so-called love that he espouses is nothing but a perversion of it; he dreams of a woman tailored to his preferences whose sole aspiration is to pleasure him, with no dimension or autonomy of her own. What he fantasizes is not love, but sexual servitude.

Pygmalion’s beloved, pearly maiden was likewise a mere projection of the artist’s fantasies, a hollow cast of a woman sculpted to his beau idéal. The myth never deigned to grant her a name, so one was given to her post-canonically: Galatea — she who is milk-white. A reflection of her physical beauty and nothing more. When brought to life, she remained a woman in body and appearance only — a perfectly-posed statue of feminine beauty and submission with no words, autonomy, or any humanizing grace of her own. Yet herein laid her appeal to Pygmalion, for what he loved was not a woman but an unattainable ideal of femininity.

Pygmalion scorned the women of Propoetides because of their lustiness and unabashed sexual liberty. He desired a woman who was pure yet erotic in appearance, chaste and sexless to all men except for him. She was, in a sense, a reflection of Pygmalion’s masculine narcissism.

The worldly man and the innocent, wide-eyed virgin — a dynamic of power that has long been exploited by men. They relish the gratuity of unwrapping their shiny new toys, in the power of being the first to claim the untouched and unsullied.

Then again, love has always been rooted in a sense of ownership. The most primordial act of love we know, after all, is in the act of establishing our claim upon another and declaring to the world that they are ours.

But that is not the case for the postmodern Pygmalion. Love between a man and his artificial lover is nothing short of domination. The artificial lover is a vehicle of submission, over which man exercises his lust for total control. Love degenerates from being a dealing between equals: it becomes subjugation.

Man and wife; creator and creation; master and slave. To Pygmalion, Galatea was the masterpiece that belonged to him utterly and exclusively. She could never be allowed to have autonomy, for that was to give her independent will, and to give her independent will was to give her the freedom to love or leave him as she pleased.

Such are the consequences of granting artificial lovers humanization without humanity. Empathy and respect for women degrade as a whole, as man learns to see his feminoid counterpart as servile property over which he is entitled to govern. Yet the great irony of it all is that man still desires a lover who appears, in all senses, to be a woman. Just as Pygmalion prayed for his ivory maiden to become flesh and blood, we, too, installed our gynoids with artificial intelligence, synthetic skin, and a woman’s face. Man wants all the physiological sensuality of a woman without bearing the effort of being with a real one. It is easier, after all, to pretend his lover is not just a programmed slave when she looks and acts utterly human.

It is pointless to ask what will become of love and intimacy in such a future. There exists no world in which humanity holds power and does not inevitably abuse it; in giving man the power to create and control an artificial lover, one would be naive to imagine an ending in which he does not exploit that power.

In a posthuman future where love becomes synonymous with subjugation, the fate of mutual love and intimacy hovers at the edge of a dark and almost certain precipice — for there can be no happy endings in a world where a man plays god to attain his fantasies. ■

By: Claire Tsui

Layout: Caroline Clark

Photographer: Annahita Escher

Stylist: David Garcia

Hmua: Gabrielle Duhon

Model: Presley Simmons

View the full spread as it appeared in Issue No. 19 here.
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