Bodies with/out Souls: The Material vs. the Immaterial in Isaac Asimov’s “The Bicentennial Man”

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Abstract

In Issac Asimov’s robot stories, a recurring theme hinges on robots’ ontological status as machines/humans. As evidenced by his stories, many robots are denied their human quality due to humans’ fear of the other and the unknown. They are often excluded from the mainstream, human-centered society, taking a secondary position as machines, servants, and helpers. This image serves as a stark contrast to humans who are reputably higher beings that play the role of thinkers, masters, and decision-makers. Intriguingly, what lies behind this hierarchical distinction between humans and robots is the concocted interplay between the immaterial and the material. In the wake of such a mindset, whereas humans are spiritual and emotional, robots are construed as materialistic and mechanical. Nonetheless, some robots in Asimov’s stories deviate from this norm; his critically acclaimed novella “The Bicentennial Man” is an illustration. In this story, Andrew is a humanoid robot that is not so much a mechanical domestic helper as an intelligent, artistic, creative, and affectionate cyborg. Examining Asimov’s “the Bicentennial Man,” this paper discusses the construction of robots alongside traditional polarities such as mind/body and machine/human, and, wittingly or unwittingly, Asimov’s debunking of the nexus between the material and the immaterial in relation to his conception of robots’ being and becoming. Aside from the textual analysis, critical concepts deliberated on in Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception and N. Katherine Hayle’s How We Became Posthuman will be brought into discussion to help figure out the conundrums relevant to notions of mind/body and material/immaterial in Asimov’s robot stories. Copyright © 2021 National Taiwan Normal University Department of English, all rights reserved.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2021

Citation

Chang, T. C. H. (2021, October). Bodies with/out Souls: The Material vs. the Immaterial in Isaac Asimov’s “The Bicentennial Man”. Paper presented at the 29th Annual Conference of the English and American Literature Association (EALA 2021), National Taiwan Normal University, Taipei, Taiwan.

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