George Immersed and Emergent

In "Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers," Katherine Hayles argues that in the post-human era, our relationship with the machine is such that "we become the codes we punch" (13). "Working with a VR simulation, the user learns to move her hand in stylized gestures that the computer can accommodate. In the process, changes take place in the neural configuration of the user's brain, some of which can be long-lasting. The computer molds the human even as the human builds the computer" (14). Peter Brooks makes a parallel argument about reader and text; he asserts that the reader himself is "virtually a text, a composite of all that he has read, or heard read, or imagined as written" (Brooks 19).

In Hayles' vision of human animal and machine, the boundaries between the two are porous and even ambiguous. This point of view compels an altogether different reading of the relationship between the Emperor and the mechanical bird, one in which both are explicitly influencing each other in a kind of cybernetic loop. The Emperor winds up the mechanical nightingale, and it "sings" for a bit, until, the Emperor must again tighten its spring, ad infinitum. Andersen's original narrative exposed the causality between the two in a more inclusive context (one that compared live bird to juke bird), showing how the Emperor was changed by his overinvestment in the machine to the point that he neglected the beauty and uniqueness of the living Nightingale. The Nightingale was also set in relationship to her mechanical analog. As I have pointed out elsewhere, the mechanical nightingale's arrival leads very quickly to the Nightingale's freedom, and conversely the Nightingale preserves the machine intact at the end of the fable, when the Emperor threatened to dismantle it into "a thousand pieces."

Extrapolating the Emperor's relationship with the machine into the post-human era, we see George engaging with an immersive environment of unspecified origins. In the artifice of this theaterwork, the fantasy world that George sees is seen by the audience on the screen. George's immersive world is emblematic of contemporary cyberlife, where visual models, reproductions, immaterial but apparently real constructions substitute for the kinesthetic. It is the place where he can escape the words and thoughts that keep his sense of self static and immobile, his relationship in struggle. The self in this space is held more loosely so that it is emergent, becoming, instead of rigidly held in place.

(Moving Towards the Post-Human: Why George Is the Way He Is)

The immersive environment of the II9 allows George access to a more flexible and labile self that has the potential to afford him greater ease in his relationship (if Vogler is right). In this altered space, there is the possibility that he can heal the split between his word-world and his embodied self. When George ultimately leaves machine space, he has been changed by it; ironically it is in this post-human state where the machine can change the human that George moves into an embodied and thus more fully human form.

When this process is complete, we learn that Marta was the designer behind George's II9 environment, that in fact this particular immersive experience is part of her latest interactive installation. George's transformation at her hands compels him to renegotiate his relationship with Marta. If struggle is embedded in the words, then the wordless world of the II9 has offered the possibility of transcendence and the renegotiation of roles, in much the same way that the Nightingale's song kept Death at bay and allowed the Emperor to live. But Marta integrates technology in a way that resolves the dichotomy posited by Andersen between the live and the mechanical. Marta Nightingale builds the machine, an extension of herself, that renegotiates the world in images and sounds, in place of the chatter of well-rehearsed arguments. Here when they "become the codes [they] punch," it's a great relief. The human-machine union takes a self as input (as George engages with the II9) and returns a no-self, at least for a time, creating a place where "one can forget who one is... 'liberated from the fetters of selfhood'" (Roy Baumeister as quoted in Vogler 51).

Back to beginning of theory on Andersen story

Improvisation theory


Act I, Scene 1