Automation, Emotion, and Engagement

When Oliphant meets Sybil in the Latin Quarter towards the end of the Fifth Iteration, she is surrounded by the kinotropistes and has apparently been accepted into this scene due to her affair with the (real-life) author Theophile Gauthier, whose most famous short story was about a priest who falls in love with a woman’s ghost. She shows Oliphant a daguerrotype of her husband, the (fictional) Aristide Tournachon, who she describes as “real, you know, not just one of them the clackers made up” (446). As she looks at the image with “mingled longing and sadness”, Oliphant understands that she had “never in her life set eyes upon” this man. 

This scene stood out to me, not only because of what we talked in class about the replacement of the artist-class by the technology-dependent kinotropy-creators, but also because of this curious understanding on the part of Oliphant– how did he know for sure that this man never existed, even though Sybil was so emotional in her interactions with the image, and so insistent that he was not someone invented? It made me more attentive to two moments in the modus: the first being the description of the funeral march at Lord Byron’s funeral as the “somber melodies of the automatic organs” (455).  The second was the description of the impact of gambling on The Gaming Lady Ada– “the passions suffer no less by this gaming-fever than the understanding and the imagination. What vivid, unnatural hope and fear, joy and anger, sorrow and discontent, burst out all at once upon a roll of the dice, a turn of the card, a run of the shining gurneys! Who can consider without indignation that all those womanly affections, which should have been consecrated to children and husband, are thus vilely prostituted and thrown away.” (464). This is the voice of the Reverend, who is subsequently murdered, but I was curious about this implied connection between technology-enabled emotion– whether it’s connected to gambling or to an identification with an old picture (since Sybil takes Tournachon’s name)–with the sacrifice of what is “natural” in life. And in the case of the funeral of the Lord Byron, it’s an automation that both takes the place of emotive and creative composition and also enables flesh and blood people to mourn. 

I think the connection between these instances, and what they mean for the society the book depicts, is relatively straightforward — this is a world where technology has somehow made unnecessary most artistic creation, and has also begun to itself provoke the emotional reactions you’d typically expect from art. But what does that mean about this book itself– a depiction of an attempt at self-articulation and self-knowledge by a machine? Does it matter that these people and this world are “computer-generated”, if they’ve provoked interest in us readers? And what’s the difference between author-generated and computer-generated, if either way the effect on the reader is equivalent to becoming excited by a gambling machine, or to falling in love with a ghost in a picture?