Ex Machina, Gender, and Post-humanist New Religious Movements



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Today's guest post is from Megan Leverage, a PhD student in American religious history at Florida State. Her interests include religion and technology, millennialism, new religious movements, and Mormonism. She'll be presenting a paper about similar topics to today's post at AAR this year on a panel for the Religion and Transhumanism group.

A couple of months ago I went to go see the British Sci-Fi thriller Ex Machina, the directorial debut of Alex Garland, author of The Beach (novel), and screenplay writer for 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Dredd. You can find the film’s trailer, synopsis and other information on the official website. I had been anxiously awaiting this film’s release not only as an admirer of Garland’s earlier work, but also because this already acclaimed film seemed to have much in common with the research I had been developing over the past two semesters. I had become interested in the sub-sub-genre, gender and new religious movements, particularly post-humanist new religious movements. It may be worth noting that this project was the first instance in which gender seemed so essential, not because I developed a new interest in gender studies, or because I saw gender as a means to fill a gap in the scholarship, but because I became convinced that expressions of gender and sexuality were fundamental features of these particular movements. This observation also applied to Ex Machina, which explored similar post-human themes of technological embodiment and consciousness, and communicated these ideas through the sex appeal of the film’s main character Ava and her post-gendered A.I. body.

Performances of gender and sexuality are both vibrant and varied in and among post-humanist new religious movements. Like the utopian communal experiments of Lawrence Foster’s Religion and Sexuality and Louis J. Kern’s An Ordered Love, post-humanist NRMs interpret and practice these concepts in radically different ways. Similar to the position of the Shakers in Foster’s and Kern’s studies, Heaven’s Gate minimized gender expressions and took vows of celibacy, accomplished with more or less success by wearing loose-fitting windbreakers and for some men, castration. “Students” of Heaven’s Gate took seriously that in order for their souls to be transferred to their new vehicles in the Level Above Human, all ties to their humanity must be severed—a position took to the extreme in 1997 and the mass suicide of 39 members. The Mormon Transhumanist Association, predominantly an online organization founded in 2006, is another post-humanist NRM that seeks godhood through the active development of technology. Although not polygamous, the MTA draws from Joseph Smith’s revelations on eternal progression and eternal marriage, the same theology that supported polygamy in the nineteenth century. The MTA has also referenced nineteenth-century Swedenborgian-Mormon ideas of corporeal relations, sexual procreation, and bearing post-human children in the next world. The Raelian Movement, takes yet another position, attempting to overcome sexual perversions (particularly incidents of pedophilia perpetrated by celibate Catholic priests), by practicing systematic forms of free love (organized by colored feathers), resembling in some respects the Oneida Perfectionists. Raelians view the world as too masculine and encourage the feminine characteristic of empathy. They also encourage birth control, even abortion, as human reproduction is considered inferior to human cloning—allegedly a viable repopulation alternative since the late ‘90s, accomplished by the Raelian-affiliated program Clonaid. Like the alien race, the Elohim, Raelians strive to become powerful scientists capable of achieving immortality and creating life on other planets. In each of these distinct expressions—that certainly share the same broader cultural currents that define the post-war period, particularly cybernetics—gender, sexuality, and procreation are not only central to the identities of these post-humanist new religious movements, but are also foundational to the ways in which they imagine and define what it means to be post-human.

Like post-humanist NRMs, Ex Machina expresses a wide range of questions and positions concerning gender and sexuality. [SPOILER ALERT!] Although both of the female characters are indeed robots (and one of the two is even a mute pleasure machine), evaluated, judged, and kept alive by two male humans, still, in the end Ava survives these men and triumphs over this patriarchal system. But then again, Ava is only able to ensure her survival and freedom after making use of her sexuality—a sexuality tailored to one of these men’s porn preferences according to his internet history. Still more disturbing is the scene in which Ava finds a closet full of dismembered fembots, and “female-presenting” body parts. It’s perhaps unclear whether these problems were intentional or unintentional, and feminist readings of the film are thus split between those who interpreted the gender relations and disturbing details as a critiques of patriarchy, and, those who simply reject misogynistic depictions altogether, adding Ex Machina to the long list of Sci-Fi films that depict women as less than human.

Without denying the potential dangers of patriarchal representations and the power of narrative to maintain the status quo, I think it’s equally important to consider the (post-human?) position Alex Garland offered in his interviews. Garland explained that the film was set up to be an ideas movie, not a position statement. Acknowledging that the patriarchy of course “is there” and portrayed in such a way that was “supposed to be creepy” Garland stated to one interviewer that the patriarchy was both an obvious fact and self-evidently problematic, but that he didn’t need to contextualize that in “the history of science fiction tropes.” Ex Machina’s blurred gender distinctions are rather intended to be points of entry into what’s less clear in our age of information.

Although I believe that it will be a long time before we understand the world-altering changes that accompanied the emergence of computers and the internet, perhaps the entirety of the history of cybernetics is not beyond us. If religion and gender can offer us insight into broader cultural trends, maybe with the right starting point we can begin to comprehend this history.

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