Ex Machina: Machines and Humans in French Literature and Film

R1B (Section 2) :  English Composition through French Literature in Translation (Summer Session D -- 6 weeks)
Summer 2017
Class No: 11618
J. Vaknin


  • Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Tomorrow’s Eve [L’Ève future]
  • Jules Verne, Paris in the Twentieth Century [Paris au XXe siècle]
  • Jean-Luc Godard (dir.), Alphaville
  • Alex Garland (dir.), Ex Machina
  • A course reader containing selections by Diderot, d’Alembert, Vaucanson, Asimov, Leroux, Haraway, and Riskin

Course Description:

The question of automation has long fascinated artists, philosophers, and scientists. In the first volume of Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert’s massive—and hugely controversial—Encyclopédie (1751), one finds the following entry for “Automate” [“Automaton”]:

Instrument which moves by itself, or machine which contains within itself the source of its motion. The word comes from the Greek ἀυτόματον and is composed of ἀυτὸς ipse [ sic ], and μάω, “I am excited, ready to move,” or perhaps μάτην, “easily,” from which came ἀυτόματος “spontaneous,” “voluntary.”

What distinguishes an automaton from other objects is its ability to control itself and move on its own. Even more interestingly, as the term’s Greek etymology suggests, an automaton is an object that acquires a degree of agency—it is an “I” that decides when it is “excited, ready to move.” Equally a source of wonder and dread, the figure of the automaton has been a rich trope in literature and art for centuries. This summer, we’ll begin with the French Enlightenment and peruse the pages of the Encyclopédie in order to examine the symbolic weight of machines during the period. Then, moving more or less chronologically from the eighteenth to the twenty-first centuries, we’ll turn to other examples—mostly in French and francophone literature and film—that deal with automation and robotics. Our discussions will be guided by the following questions, among others: How does art represent the interaction between machines and humans? What function does the figure of the robot perform in literature and film? How does technology raise new questions concerning race, gender, sexuality, and socioeconomic class? What formal features can we identify in science fiction genres?

This course fulfills the university’s R1B requirement and is designed, above all, in order to help students improve their critical reading and writing skills. In addition to short response papers and active class participation, students will be asked to write two longer analytical essays, the second of which will require a research component.

Additional information: 

French R1B fulfills the second half of the Reading and Composition Requirement in the College of Letters and Science. Class conducted in ENGLISH.

Section times and locations in the Schedule of Classes