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Masters and Slaves


When Aristophanes was summoned in Plato’s symposium to speak of eros (έρως), he reverted to the root of human nature, the bodily reality of three sexes: male, female and the vanished malefemale (αρσενικοθήλυκο). The latter was the strongest and fastest of all, combining both male and female attributes. Its appearance was whole and round with four hands and legs, two faces, and a back on all sides. The creature was not erect and would never stand vertical to the earth. It did not walk, but tumbled after taking a spherical shape. Its power of completeness became a threat to the gods, so Zeus invented a machine, destined not to eliminate the third sex, but to fade its supremacy; he sent a lightning bolt to split the sex. As soon as the creature was fractured, each half ran with passion to the other because its desire for reunification was greater than hunger or survival. So according to Aristophanes, eros is inherent to human nature as the tormented journey for reunion of original descent. Eros attempts to make the two more than one and thus remedy the original shortcoming of each as a split symbol.

Aristophanes’ duality was displaced later in the Symposium by Diotima’s version of eros (narrated by Socrates), as a multidimensional diaspora (διασπορά) of the body in floating fragments; a fractured ego looking not simply for the other, but for pieces of one’s body. Following this, it becomes evident that eros is as much directed to the “other” as it is to the “self” of one’s body, as it narrates erotic desire stemming not merely from a longing for completion, but also from an intense desire to replicate the “self,” one’s body and identity; to enlarge and prolong it to eternity.

The story of designing, editing and replicating ourselves is as much a story of love as one of slavery. Jumping from circa 380BC to 1974, the desire for a replicate body that would complement and exponentially augment its carrier returns as an advanced engineering experiment filed by NASA in United States Patent #4046262. Under the rubric of experiments for man-machine integration, the contentious term “master-slave” has consistently been used since the late 1950s for anthropomorphic manipulator systems, and later on for computer networking. In the patent, the “slave” is a mechanical replica of the body and armature of the “master,” designed to carry unimaginable loads and endure all possible injury, virtually without consequence to the user. The term-pair was later used to define a centralized communication protocol: one device or process, the master, would control all others, the slaves. In 2003, with the rise of distributed computing, “master/slave” was banned by the County of Los Angeles, and subsequently by the Global Language Monitor, as one of the most egregious and offensive terms of the year. Nevertheless, if we allow ourselves to look beyond the politics of domination restated as computer theory, one can find a story of melancholy and deep anxiety as much as one of mechanized authority. As we travel in time from an unsubstantiated myth to a carefully designed patent, the replication of our bodies quite clearly demonstrates the persistence of our schizoid existence and delusion for wholeness.

At present, the pervasive use of social media (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram et al.) requires us to carefully construct and steadily edit digital identities, projecting the “self” into a carefully designed entity assembled of data fragments. While this practice is unlike the mechanical anthropomorphic body that literally replicates the physique of the body, the reproduction of the self online still enforces a type of master/slave relationship and a yearning for a mirror image either materialized or narrated. Our digital selves are possibly even more accurate versions of us than our raw physical bodies walking in flesh. In every post we review, control and refine with utmost care how to project our own design. As Sherry Turkle argues, posting allows us to present the self we want to be—not too little, not too much, but just right. Who is the slave, though, in this newer, nuanced version of self-replication? Is the ethereal online identity we build analogous to NASA’s patent? Or is it the other way around; are we are in fact voluntary slaves of what we have earnestly designed with love?

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