A Host of Questions: Artificial Agency in Westworld

Maria Torres-Quevedo | 20th February 2016.

Trigger Warning: Rape, Violence.

Westworld (2016) depicts a sci-fi not-too-distant future in which humans have mastered the art of artificial intelligence, and have used this to create a Western-style theme park in which real humans (almost exclusively white men) from the real world can live out their fantasies consequence-free with “non-human” robots.

The park ostensibly serves to allow its human patrons to “find themselves,” revealing their real desires in an environment designed to cater specifically to them. More interesting to me, however, is the self-discovery exemplified by the two female robots (hosts) around which much of the narrative centres.

SPOILER ALERT!

Both of these women come to consciousness at some point in the series, remembering the horrors they have endured at the hands of human guests and deciding that they want to escape the narrative loops they have been programmed to repeat and escape their environment altogether. Indeed, critics have commented that “the hosts have the tough but perhaps enviable task of deciding who they want to be” (PBS idea channel), asserting that they are “commanders of their own destiny. Whether the men that created them like it or not” (Dickens).

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Dolores Waking Up in Westworld  (Image credit: Business Insider)

This is somewhat complicated by the fact that one of these women, Maeve, a prostitute, wakes up in the lab in which she is being repaired and discovers the conditions of her origins and existence; in particular, she is horrified by the realisation that her personality in its entirety, including her “independence” and “strength,” has been coded—or, to use different terminology, constructed—with the explicit purpose of entertaining and titillating the guests. The same is true for other hosts; in an episode in which the virginal host Dolores is trying to free herself from a guest who is trying to rape her, the man tells her “I didn’t pay all this money cos I wanted it easy. I want you to fight” (Season 1, Episode 1).

Against a backdrop that is so central to an American mythology of freedom from the restrictions of society, that of the self-reliant, sovereign individual, these women’s realities raise some important questions about the possibility of agency and free will. Even with consciousness, even with a knowledge of the ways in which they have been constructed, what kind of agency can the hosts have, if their desire for agency is a product of their construction and, as such, predetermined? How can they decide who they want to be when their every impulse and desire is constructed? How can they be commanders of their own destiny when their understanding of these concepts has been produced by the forces that are most invested in keeping them subjugated? How can you make the master’s tools dismantle the master’s house when both the tools and the house are your “self”?

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 Personality Traits in Westworld (Image credit: Business Insider)

These questions are not just salient to the existence of Westworld’s hosts; they are at the heart of postmodern feminist constructivist theories of human experience, selfhood, and agency. Elspeth Probyn highlights that “there is no clear dividing line between an authentic female experience and one that along the way may have been ‘man-made.’” (179) There is similarly no clear dividing line between our “authentic” selves and an identity that is “man-made.” If, as constructivist theories suggest, our subjectivities and identities are the result of social conditioning, how can we draw a line between the parts of our selves and our desires that has been formed by our environment, and the part that is “authentic”? Without such a line, how can agency exist? Hekman also notes this issue of agency and identity when she asks “how does the subject that is wholly constituted by discourse resist that constitution? How can we understand agency in the constituted subject? These questions have haunted feminists since the advent of postmodern feminism” (116). How can we know that our resistance is ours, and not merely another part of our social construction? And if it is the latter, can we call it resistance?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer to these questions, nor, I suspect, do the writers of Westworld. However, perhaps we can think of this another way; perhaps it is false to imagine agency as coming from somewhere free from subjection to power. Foucault famously claimed that “Where there is power there is resistance” (95); perhaps the opposite is also true—there is no resistance, no agency, without power and subjection to resist.


About Maria:

Maria is a PhD student in English Literature, focussing on contemporary American life writing through a postmodern feminist lens. She previously studied at the University of Seville and Cornell University. Her research interests include gender, identity politics, the intersection of narrative and identity construction, and genre theory.

Article edited by Kate Lewis Hood and Niki Holzapfel.

Works Cited:

Dickens, Donna. “Despite the Orgies, ‘Westworld’ Has Shockingly Feminist Themes.” HitFix, 1 Nov 2016, https://hitfix.com/harpy/despite-the-orgies-westworld-has-shockingly-feminist-themes. Web. 14 Feb 2017.

Foucault, Michel. The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality. Volume 1. London: Penguin, 1986. Print.

Hekman, Susan. The Feminine Subject. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2014. Print.

PBS Idea Channel. “Could You ‘Find Yourself’ At Westworld?” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 12 Jan 2017. Web. 14 Feb 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J62hmHFbho0

Probyn, Elspeth. “Travels in the Postmodern: Making Sense of the Local.” Feminism/ Postmodernism. Ed. Linda Nicholson. New York: Routledge, 1990. 176-189. Print.

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