Kara: Digitally Rendered Frankenstein

Frankenstein films have always been as much about the technological animation of a monster as they are about the medium’s own ability to animate still images. In all of its renderings, Frankenstein also carries traces of the gendered struggles encoded by its first creator, the novel’s author Mary Shelley, who describes the creation of the famous monster — the visual centerpiece of every Frankenstein film — in far less detail than she devotes to the assembly and violent last-minute destruction of its would-be female companion. Films such as James Whale’s classic Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Terence Fisher’s Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), or Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein  (1994) consummate this forbidden act of female creation — i.e. the creation of and not by a woman. They oscillate then between their represented storyworlds and a sort of “frenzy of the visible” (as Linda Williams puts it in her classic study of pornography), consisting in these cases of both a filmic objectification of the woman and a foregrounding of the extradiegetic, medial means of her animation.

Quantic Dream (the French game studio most famous for Heavy Rain) follows in this tradition with their recent demo video “Kara,” shown at the Game Developer’s Conference 2012 in San Francisco (March 5-9) and embedded here. The artificial woman’s body is the vehicle by which the technology itself of animation — the realtime rendering of audiovisual content on a PlayStation 3 — can be made the object of attention. The shifting figure/ground relations between diegetic and non-diegetic levels are made concrete in their correlations with the game of peek-a-boo played with the female android’s body: we see right through her, into the deepest recesses of her artificial anatomy, but a hint of clothing prevents any indecent sights once the envelope of her skin is complete.

The — unseen — engineer marvels, “My God!,” as he reflects on the implications of Kara’s unexpected development of sentience, and on the fact that, despite his better judgment, he refrains from dismantling her and allows her to live. Standing proxy for the spectator in front of the screen, the engineer’s exclamation is also centrally about directing our attention towards the visual surface of the screen — both towards the erotic attraction of Kara’s (supposedly) breathtakingly beautiful body, and towards the assemblage of machinery and code that is capable of bringing it to life.

According to Quantic Dream, the program code/video demonstrates the emotional depth that video games are capable of generating. Clearly, though, it is designed above all to demonstrate technological sophistication — and recalling that the spectacle is rendered in real time on a PS3, it is indeed quite impressive. But if emotional maturity and depth were really at stake here, would it be necessary to instrumentalize the female body in this way? Finally, though, we see here a further demonstration of the continued persistence of the Frankensteinian model — with all its problematic intertwinings of biological, technological, sexual, and media-oriented questions and themes — in shaping our fantasies and imaginations, both for better and for worse, with regard to our visions of the (near) future and the possibilities it holds for novel anthropotechnical relations: whether in the field of android-assisted living or in the space of our living rooms, where in the name of “playing games” we have rapidly grown accustomed to interacting with nonhuman agencies.

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3 responses to “Kara: Digitally Rendered Frankenstein

  1. First off, please allow me to apologize for a reply whose length may be inappropriate to the term “comment.” I had intended simply to say a few words and move on, but I ended up responding with a lengthy essay, the text of which I will also post on my site at nsaxonanderson.com, with a link to your post. In short, what I am primarily trying to respond to is the idea of imagining the (bio)ethics of “novel anthropotechnical relations.”

    It would seem to me that the one aspect of the “Frankensteinian model” that “Kara” plays upon most heavily—though sentimentally so—has to do with the (bio)ethical obligation of the creator to creation. In her novel, Shelley asks after the responsibilities we hold in any act of generating, engendering, and engineering things with “lives with their own”: children, art works, technologies. The tragedy of the novel stems in large part from Victor’s initial blindness toward, and ultimate refusal of, his responsibilities toward the creature.

    The part of novel involving the female creature that Victor ultimately tears apart is compelling for me because he actually does wrestle with the enormous ethical complexities of the task. At first, he promises to create the female as an obligation toward his original creation, with the agreement that the latter take his new mate to the jungles of South America. After the creature tells his story in the cave at the Mer de Glas, Victor consults his conscience: “His tale, and the feelings he now expressed, proved him to be a creature of fine sensations; and did I not, as his maker, owe him all the portion of happiness that was in my power to bestow?” (vol. 2, ch. 9; 170). The language of duty, responsibility, right, and, ultimately, justice, comes to the fore in this chapter and the ones that follow as both Victor and the creature echo the notion that there is “a portion of happiness” that Victor has a “power to bestow” upon his progeny. The creator waffles between, on the one hand, the sympathy and compassion he feels when he hears the creature speak, and, on the other, the revulsion that overcomes him when he looks at “the filthy mass that moved and talked.” “I tried to stifle these sensations;” he recalls, yet, “I had no right to withhold from him the small portion of happiness which was yet in my power to bestow. . . . After a long pause of reflection, I concluded, that the justice due both to him and my fellow creatures demanded of me that I should comply with his request” (vol. 2, ch. 9; 171-72).

    As Victor recalls the moments leading up to his final decision to destroy the female, he outlines a number of arguments against going through with his promise. It strikes me that what cuts to the heart of the matter, both in the novel and with regard to the broader question of the ethics of creation, especially the creation of “life” (or the act of “making live,” to recall one half of Foucault’s formulation of biopower)—what cuts to the heart of the matter are Victor’s consideration for the position of the female creature:

    He [the creature] had sworn to quit the neighbourhood of man, and hide himself in deserts; but she had not; and she, who in all probability was to become a thinking and reasoning animal, might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation. (vol. 3, ch. 3; 190)

    He goes on to wonder if the female would be abhorred by the original creature and leave them both to solitary misery, precipitating a new round of violence. Or if, on the contrary, the two of them might have children, such that “a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth” (ibid.).

    Victor’s motivation to destroy the nearly-completed female is, in the final instance, characteristically self-centered. When he decides to build the original creature, he is seduced by the promise of glory, both from his peers on account of his feat of reanimating dead flesh, and from the new species who would revere him as their demiurge. Inversely, he tears the female to pieces when he considers how he would be perceived: “I shuddered to think that future ages might curse me as their pest, whose selfishness had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price perhaps of the existence of the whole human race” (ibid.).

    In any event, this notion of the “compact” that precedes the female’s birth, that lies at the root of her conception, that is supposed to bind her, neither with her consent nor even her knowledge; this agreement between two people, two men, that emerges, one might argue, not even out of the desire to create new life, but rather out of their violent struggle for mutual recognition; this settlement between others that stand prior to her own existence and that, ultimately, she must inherit but is ultimately free to disavow; this compact is the key to the bioethics at play in Frankenstein, and, indeed, the descendants of Shelley’s novel.

    I think that this is at work in the unseen engineer’s “Oh my god!” at the end of “Kara,” as she steps onto the skid with the other androids to be shipped to retail. It is the realization that something has been created according to a set of assumptions that are expected to bind it, but to which it is by no bound.

    Of course, this is the existential condition of being born, of being created, being engendered or engineered, whether as a so-called natural or an ostensibly artificial process. It is also the condition of actively bearing, of creating, engendering and engineering. I think we all know this, but the question is how to respond to and be responsible for the monstrous ethics involved here beyond the zero-sum game of debating whether it is better to create the monster or destroy it.

    I wonder if there is some of this questioning at work at the authorial level at Quantic Dream. Here is the figure of Kara, a tech demo and a sexual plaything, which she is at both the level of the narrative itself (which blatantly signals this fact), and at the “meta” levels of video game design and play. The folks at Quantic Dream have consistently been concerned with creating photo-realistic character models at the same time as they experiment with some of the conventions of character control during game play. Kara herself seems simultaneously to address the QA engineer in the narrative and the audience watching the video, but also her designers at Quantic, asking what it means to create a “lifelike” being, the sole purpose of which is to be played with, to be manipulated, and to seduce—that is, to produce the desire to play and manipulate. How, then, do we respond to Kara’s ethical demand in a way that sidesteps simply saying “yes” or “no” to, say, certain representations of gender characteristic of a particular medium or genre; the use of a specific medium or technology; the creation of, or intervention in, the lives of others?

  2. Pingback: A Compact Made before Her Creation | Anthropo-eccentrism

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