Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Love Gasoline

On April 29th, I saw a wonderful documentary The Mechanical Bride by Allison de Fren at HotDocs in Toronto. I met Allison at HASTAC: Traversing Digital Boundaries (Un of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) in 2009. Several months later, we met again at DAC ’09 – After Media: Embodiment and Context (Un of California, Irvine) as co-panelists presenting on technology, sex, and sexuality. And now I happened to be in Toronto on the day of her film’s world premiere!

The title of the film is borrowed from Marshall McLuhan’s book The Mechanical Bride: Folklore for Industrial Man (1951), where he discusses the persuasive rhetoric of advertisement. “Anybody who takes time to study the techniques of pictorial reportage in the popular press and magazines will easily find a dominant pattern composed of sex and technology,” the media theorist opens his essay that gave the title to the book (98). “In the era of thinking machines, he continues, it would be surprising, indeed, if the love-machine were not thought of as well” (99). The subject of this documentary though is not limited to the intelligent love-machines themselves. This film offers a close look at technosexuality, also known as robot fetishism, of ASFRians (after Alt.Sex.Fetish.Robots), or those who acknowledge and pursue a fantasy to have an android partner for sexual or other purposes. These “other purposes” is what the film invites us to explore.

Among the variety of robotic objects of obsession, the director chooses to focus on the RealDoll, “the most realistic love doll in the world.” This suggests that such fantasies are constructed as ambivalent since they balance or negotiate the uncanny sensations of human-like nonhuman matter. Although some of the interviewees do share bits of their sexual experiences with dolls, what seems to be the most striking about their confessions is their emotional attachment to the “mechanical brides.” In the Q&A after the premiere, Allison pointed out that the issues this film highlights are related not only to the subculture of ASFRians, but anyone and everyone – “us.” Is this emotional attachment to dolls the effect of the overwhelming presence of technology in our lives? Should we be worried? One of the reviewers confesses: “It is arguably the most terrifying film I have seen in a long time… The Mechanical Bride, by its subject and presentation, might better be classified a brilliant horror film.” Really? Personally, I feel more uncomfortable when I encounter the instances of eerie becoming a doll, as in the case of Ukrainian living Barbie Valeria Lukyanova or of those re-de-constructed silicon divas of Hollywood, rather than “humanizing” a nonhuman object. But in the end, neither is worse. Despite a certain resistance, we are moving towards even closer proximity to the machine, the goddess of capitalism, the bride of postindustrial man. And our fear or disgust are only the matter of negotiations.

'One of the great works of art of the 20th century' ... Marcel Duchamp with The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. Photograph: Mark Kauffman/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image (From: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog+books/fiction)

‘One of the great works of art of the 20th century’ … Marcel Duchamp with The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. Photograph: Mark Kauffman/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image
(From: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog+books/fiction)

But what if we just have to admit that technology scares us not so much because it is getting better at simulating live objects, but because it is getting so much better at revealing and screening our fantasies. To Lacan, for instance, fantasy is what stages the subject’s relation to the object of desire and at the same time, what protects the subject from encountering the unbearable Real. There is a tendency to dismiss everything that does not support a so called “norm” or “common sense.” And ASFRians certainly fall under the category of “abnormal” for the majority of viewers. Psychoanalysis appreciates such cases though as they are most helpful for challenging the norms. In this sense, the very possibility of being sexually attracted to and then falling in love with a rubber doll brings to the fore Lacan’s claim that there is no sexual rapport between sexual partners of any sex and gender – no “chemistry,” no destiny, no becoming “one.” There is only symptom, a “piece” of the Real. If there is no sexual rapport, a doll and a human being are equal: it is the subject’s fantasy raises both to the status of the object of desire or love – in a pretty  similar way.

This intuition has been circulating for a while. As we know, McLuhan’s title The Mechanical Bride, in its turn, derives from Marcel Duchamp’s collage The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) of 1923. Part of this Dadaist project is Duchamp’s own extensive comments and notes on this work. According to the artist, this collage depicts the erotic encounter between the “Bachelors” in the bottom part of the work and the “Bride” occupying the upper level. He explains that the bride machine is a “love machine running on love-gasoline” produced by the nine bachelors:

She constantly teasers the bachelors with her tentacle to encourage them to produce the love gasoline, which is filtered from the three-dimensional world to the four-dimensional bride domain through a system of alchemical sieves. The bachelors are driven beyond themselves by desire to reach an impossible unity with the bride, while the bride needs to fuel their desire to ensure her supply of love gasoline. The whole apparatus is a machine of frustration that can be read as Duchamp’s allegorical commentary on the restricted potentialities of cross-gender communications. (Kluitenberg 62)

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McLuhan, Marshall. The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man. New York: The Vanguard Press Inc., 1951.
Kluitenberg, Eric. “On Archaeology of Imaginary Media.” Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications. Eds. Erkki Huhtamo and Parikka, Jussi. Berkeley: California UP, 2011. 48-69.