"Der moderne Prometheus"
Vesalianum - Nebengebäude, Grosser Hörsaal (EO.16)
Post-Cinematic Prometheus: From 'Frankenstein' to 'Ex_Machina'
In reviews and critical discussions, Ex_Machina (dir. Alex Garland, 2014) has occasionally been compared to Mary Shelley’s Gothic novel Frankenstein and the many film adaptations to which it has given rise. Both Frankenstein and Ex_Machina interrogate what I call the “anthropotechnical interface” (Denson 2014), revealing the relation between humans and technologies to be one of mutual construction rather than unilateral control or domination. And both Frankenstein and Ex_Machina weave questions of gender centrally into this apparent deconstruction of the human subject/technical object dichotomy. Clearly, though, any such comparison must take into account the historical, cultural, and technological contexts in which the narratives were articulated and to which they responded. Frankenstein, written in 1816, was composed against the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution with its central technology of the steam engine; Ex_Machina, on the other hand, was composited two centuries later against the backdrop of big data, robotics, AI, and computer-generated imagery. To be fruitful, a nuanced comparison will furthermore need to look beyond narrative contents and examine the media in which these stories are materially embodied. Towards this end, this paper compares the cinematic instantiations of Frankenstein with the distinctly post-cinematic mediations of Ex_Machina (on the notion of “post-cinema,” cf. Shaviro 2010, as well as the contributions to Denson & Leyda 2016). As I will demonstrate, both Frankenstein films and Ex_Machina embody highly self-reflexive engagements with their own medial substrates and with the phenomenological relations that they enable between viewing subjects and the visible objects of moving images. They both therefore also enact, rather than merely thematize, interrogations of human-technological relations. But whereas Frankenstein films are concerned with properly cinematic processes of animation (by which dead, static photographs are put into motion and brought back to life – cf. Nestrick 1979, Redfield 2003), Ex_Machina confronts us with a situation in which algorithms anticipate the subjectivities that engage post-cinematic images, while these images themselves acquire an affective density and agency that is hard to distinguish from that of the living itself.
Shane Denson is Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies in the Department of Art & Art History at Stanford University. His research and teaching interests span a variety of media and historical periods, including phenomenological and media-philosophical approaches to film, digital media, comics, games, and serialized popular forms. He is the author of Postnaturalism: Frankenstein, Film, and the Anthropotechnical Interface (Transcript-Verlag/Columbia University Press, 2014) and co-editor of several collections: Transnational Perspectives on Graphic Narratives (Bloomsbury, 2013), Digital Seriality (special issue of Eludamos: Journal for Computer Game Culture, 2014), and the open-access book Post-Cinema: Theorizing 21st-Century Film (REFRAME Books, 2016).
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