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The Secret of the Cyborgs

Article in the Exhibition Catalogue GOLEM

Caspar Battegay

In 2029 the super-computer Golem XIV proclaims the posthuman age in his usual pathos: Humans can only be saved by freeing themselves from the "chains of amino acid" and expanding the limits of the "code." When in Stanisław Lem’s story from 1981 intelligence bids farewell to its organic-biological state, this suggests a qualitatively expanded intellectual capacity, overcoming the fragility associated with the body, and a fundamental transformation of human beings beyond biological evolution. The cybernetic fantasy of the twentieth century has repeatedly taken up the figure of the golem. This also speaks to the old fear that an intelligence we create could turn against us. Norbert Wiener, founder of cybernetics, also mentioned in his last book God and Golem, Inc., published in 1964, that the computer is the "modern counterpart of the Golem of the Rabbi of Prague."

The Golem is created through linguistic magic. This corresponds to the basic thesis of cybernetics, that inorganic and organic processes are driven by data flows and codes. The ambivalent aspect of the golem and cyborg motifs is that both figures develop intelligence on their own, thus recognizing and autonomously defying or overriding their programming. The threatening scenario of artificial intelligence might be old, but with the rapid developments in information technology it has gained new currency. Alex Garland’s film Ex Machina is so eerie because artificial intelligence really does manipulate and seduce us every day through autonomously activated programs.

But the cyborg also contains a promise of freedom. It is not by chance that feminist theorist Donna Haraway has seen this figure as a symbol of the rewriting of social codes. And in Marge Piercy’s science fiction novel He, She and It (1991), the android Yod appears, whose programmer Malka tells him a feminist version of the golem legend. Like his ancestor from Prague, Yod—who is also a perfect lover—is supposed to save the Jewish community. He falls in love with a human colleague and recognizes that both the redemption of the Jews of the future and his own liberation depend on the reprogramming of the codes. By wrenching free of the control of his creator and ultimately opposing him, Yod shows the other figures how rescue and liberation can be conceived: By recognizing oneself and transforming supposedly fixed realities. Piercy’s novel is thus a positive example of what Garland’s film presents from a negative perspective: The secret of artificial intelligence is not its intelligence, but the moment of liberation.

Caspar Battegay is an Ambizione research fellow of the Swiss National Science Foundation at the University of Lausanne. There he is working on his postdoctoral dissertation (Habilitation) on utopian thought in modern Jewish literature. His areas of interest include German-Jewish literature, literary theory, modern humanities and popular culture.

Translated by Allison Brown

Film still from “Ex_machina”: a female android whose neck consists of wire and metal cloth.

Ex Machina (film still)
Screenplay and Director: Alex Garland
England 2015

Citation recommendation:

Caspar Battegay (2016), The Secret of the Cyborgs. Article in the Exhibition Catalogue GOLEM.

Golem als Actionfigur (Ausschnitt)

Online Edition of the GOLEM Catalog: Table of Contents

The Golem in Berlin – introduction by Peter Schäfer
Chapter 1
The Golem Lives On – introduction by Martina Lüdicke
My Light is Your Life – by Anna Dorothea Ludewig
Avatars – by Louisa Hall
Current page: The Secret of the Cyborgs – by Caspar Battegay
Chapter 2
Jewish Mysticism – introduction by Emily D. Bilski
Golem Magic – by Martina Lüdicke
Golem, Language, Dada – by Emily D. Bilski
Chapter 3
Transformation – introduction by Emily D. Bilski
Jana Sterbak’s Golem: Objects as Sensations – by Rita Kersting
Crisálidas (Chrysalises) – by Jorge Gil
Rituals – by Christopher Lyon
A Golem that Ended Well – by Emily D. Bilski
On the Golem – by David Musgrave
Louise Fishman’s Paint Golem – by Emily D. Bilski
Chapter 4
Legendary Prague – introduction by Martina Lüdicke
Golem Variations – by Peter Schäfer
Rabbi Loew’s Well-Deserved Bath – by Harold Gabriel Weisz Carrington
Chapter 5
Horror and Magic – introduction by Martina Lüdicke
Golem and a Little Girl – by Helene Wecker
The Golem with a Group of Children Dancing – by Karin Harrasser
Bringing the Film Set To Life – by Anna-Carolin Augustin
Golem and Mirjam – by Cathy S. Gelbin
Chapter 6
Out of Control – introduction by Emily D. Bilski
Golem—Man Awakened with Glowing Hammer – by Arno Pařík
Dangerous Symbols – by Charlotta Kotik
Be Careful What You Wish For – by Marc Estrin
Chapter 7
Doppelgänger – introduction by Martina Lüdicke
From the Golem-Talmud – by Joshua Cohen
Kitaj’s Art Golem – by Tracy Bartley
The Golem as Techno-Imagination? – by Cosima Wagner
See also
GOLEM – 2016, online edition with selected texts of the exhibition catalog
GOLEM – 2016, complete printed edition of the exhibition catalog, in German
Golem. From Mysticism to Minecraft – Online Feature, 2016
GOLEM – exhibition, 23 Sep 2016 to 29 Jan 2017

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