A MITH Digital Dialogue

  • Tuesday, March 24, 12:30-1:45
  • MITH Conference Room, McKeldin Library B0135
  • Are Robots Real? The Robot as an Object of Study"

This talk explores the figure of the robot as an object of study, and one that specifically requires an integration of methodologies from both the humanities and the sciences. Traditionally, the figure of the robot has been regarded very differently in these two realms: in the sciences, it is related to the promises of scientific inquiry, and motivates research and innovation in actual technological applications, or the future possibility for such applications. In the humanities, however, the robot is a figure of fiction and science fiction, which, despite its un-reality channels feelings about culture and technology, difference and justice, often in indirect ways. After exploring the implications and fundamental trends of the two modes, the paper proposes that an integrated interdisciplinary methodology would allow us to better understand the attraction and meaning of the robot as a figure, without resorting to the binary opposition between fantasy and reality. Using examples from fiction, popular culture, recent scientific applications and research in robotics, I argue that the two approaches fuel each other: as cultural figures, robots are both real and imaginary, and indeed it is often their imaginary qualities that fuel and inspire actual research. Despite the claims of roboticists that real robots are immanent, the cultural power and meaning of robots comes from their fictional and literary tradition, indeed from their unreality, their virtuality.


DESPINA KAKOUDAKI teaches interdisciplinary courses in literature and film, visual culture, and the history of technology and new media at American University. She completed her doctorate in Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley, and has taught at UC Berkeley and Harvard University, where she was instrumental in the formation of the film studies undergraduate and graduate programs. This talk is part of a larger two-book project on the representation of artificial people, such as robots, cyborgs and androids, in literature, film and philosophy. She has received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities for her current book project, The Human Machine: A Cultural History of Artificial People, which traces the history and cultural function of constructed people and animated objects from antiquity to the present.

Kakoudaki's interests include cultural studies, silent cinema, science fiction, apocalyptic narratives, and the representation of race and gender in literature and film. She has co-edited a new collection of essays on the work of Pedro AlmodA?var (with Brad Epps, forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press), and published articles on robots and cyborgs, race and melodrama in action and disaster films, body transformation and technology in early film, the political role of the pin-up in World War II, and the representation of the archive in postmodern fiction.

Coming up @MITH 3/31: "Shakespeare's Quartos: A MITH Research Update"

View MITH's complete Digital Dialogues schedule here:

  • http://www.mith2.umd.edu/programs/mith_speakers_spring_2009.pdf
  • All talks free and open to the public!
  • Contact: Neil Fraistat, Director, MITH (www.mith.umd.edu, mith@umd.edu, 5-8927).