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Mannequins, androids and cyborgs: ambivalent corporeality in modern art and literature

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy

This thesis presents an analysis of fictional and artistic depictions of mannequins, androids and cyborgs in predominantly French literature and visual art from 1883 to 1938. These bodies maintain a double layer of representation, firstly as avatars of the human, and secondly as creations of textual or artistic invention: they are representations of representations. Such imagined humanoids are deployed as vehicles through which to interrogate the nature of the human. The fictional status of all three types of humanoid incarnation allows for such an exploration in a space free of real-world concerns or responsibilities. Running through locomotive human-made bodies – specifically, androids and cyborgs in the work of Rachilde, Villiers de l’Isle- Adam, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Gaston Leroux, and prosthetically altered bodies in Weimar, Dada and Surrealist art – is a sense of ambivalence, a suggestion that they remain uncertain and undecidable in a way which reflects the equivocal status of humans living under modernity. The mannequin, android and cyborg are shown to be always already fragmented, existing on a continuum between disassembly and completed construction. Such fragmentation explores an alienation of the self, symptomatic of the combined pressures of modernity more generally, the industrial and consumer revolutions and the physical and psychical effects of war. Related to self-alienation is the issue of identity, both as constructed by the self and as imposed by others. The shifting tension between these two points is replicated in the shop mannequin as deployed by Émile Zola and the French Surrealists, and which vacillates between representing an objectification of woman and offering up a series of identities from which she may choose. Not beholden to a single theoretical framework, this thesis focuses on a collection of ideas and cultural historical mutations which allow the mannequin, android and cyborg to reflect and at times to question cultural discourses surrounding gender identity, energy, prostheses, consumerism and a crisis of individuation. Ultimately, this thesis asks what these constructed bodies can tell us about our understanding of the nature of our own species, its limits and even, perhaps, its future.
Original languageEnglish
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Award date1 Sep 2020

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