To be real for you: acousmatic cyborgs, asexuality, and becoming human


  • Ashley Barr



Figured as either subhuman, superhuman, or too nearly human, cyborgs in cinema are often used as a vehicle for expressing anxieties about the instability of “real” humanity as a position. Their representations in film reveal the broader cultural logics that are used to define humanity. These logics often rely on demonstrating social and emotional learning that centers the experience of (especially hetero)sexual attraction and desire, which is opposed to mechanical rationality, coded as “asexual,” so that sexuality is taken to be foundational to the concept of humanity. In this paper I will elaborate on the cultural logics behind humanity’s affiliation with sexuality, especially as they are manifested in the narrative structures of the films Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and Her (2013). These two films are of particular interest because their artificially intelligent cyborg characters directly express the desire “to be real for” the benefit of a comparatively more “real” protagonist — and this desire is mediated through heterosexuality. I will argue that the threats that cyborg pose to our sense of humanity, and attempts to address these threats in film, ultimately reveal the concepts of sexuality and sexual attraction, as well as humanity along with them, as mechanical effects rather than innately possessed characteristics. If becoming really human depends on normalization through sexuality, then the positioning of asexuality at the boundaries of humanity is an instructive starting point for reconceiving the positive values associated with achieving humanity. Instead of attempting to normalize the threat to our being that is represented by the kind of lives that refuse to cohere with established concepts of real humanity, we must engage with the experience of the threat and its suggestion that those things that make us “real” are not, in fact, very human after all.