Theory in a Digital Age: A Project of English 483 Students, Coastal Carolina University

Step Two: Assign Connotations to Signifiers

Signifier #1: The Doll
The first signifier, the outlined doll present in each of the scenes, initially invokes emptiness. This emptiness is projected onto the reader because upon entrance into Davis’s interactive piece of literature, the reader becomes the doll. The image itself, being in the shape of a doll, represents a copy or repressed individual.
Furthermore, Davis’s decision to use the outline of a doll is suggestive. There is an uncanniness surrounding dolls, representative of the dichotomy between human and plastic or dead and alive. Sigmund Freud’s “The ‘Uncanny’” touches on the use of the doll, Olympia, to portray the uncanny when referring to Hoffman’s “Nachtstücken” (Freud 5). While Freud dismisses the argument of the doll to focus on the “Sand-Man,” the mention of the doll is still worth noting. The idea that dolls are copies of living things and “Pieces of Herself” is meant to “comment on social inscriptions of the body” (Davis 1), holds true to the idea that the doll is a representation of a repressed woman due to societal expectations. Freud refers to this idea of replication in the context of repression: “-the fact, that is, that man is capable of self- observation- renders it possible to invest the old idea of a “double” with a new meaning and to ascribe many things to it, above all, those things which seem to the new faculty of self-criticism to belong to the old surmounted narcissism of the earliest period of all” (10). Return of the repressed and self-reflection is Freud’s central focus when examining the uncanny: “for this uncanny is in reality nothing new or foreign, but something familiar and old- established in the mind that has been estranged only by the process of repression” (13). Davis is taking this traditional and familiar expectation of womanhood and signifying it as emptiness. Thus, the doll has a double meaning of the uncanny.
The primary connotation is the doll blurring the dichotomy between real or fake and the secondary connotation of the doll symbolizing returned repression. Both of these connotations come into play throughout the movie, Ex Machina. In the film, Ava, an Artificially Intelligent being, is being tested to see how believable her humanity is. Nathan, her creator, has built her to look like the perfect female. She has all of the physical characteristics of a woman, as well as the social characteristics of sexuality and style that fits the modern stereotypical “woman.” The boundaries are broken down when Ava escapes and finds that she is merely the latest model in a chain of Artificially Intelligent beings and that she, like them, no matter how “real” she feels, is a powerful machine. Like a doll, she is a replica of what it is to be human, and like Davis’s assertion, has been repressing her given role as an inferior female, confined to only the world Nathan allows. There is a distinction between Ava, being an example of the actual uncanny, and "Pieces of Herself," being an example of the literary uncanny. Davis uses the doll throughout her piece to show what Miriam Posner states in her article, “What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities”: “how digital humanities might critically investigate structures of power, like race and gender” (Posner 1).
The doll is experimenting with self- investigating each time a new object is pulled from the space to fill her. Cornel West, one of America’s most provocative public intellectuals and champions for racial justice addresses the idea of self- examination in his interview, Examined Life: “How do you examine yourself, what happens when you interrogate yourself? What happens when you call into question your tacit assumptions and unarticulated presumptions and begin then to become a different kind of person.” West emphasizes that we have to push aside the notion that we have it all, or will ever have it all, and in that removal, we are able to reach our full potential as proud individuals, contrasting our consortium with the societal outlook on identity. By stripping down the doll to an outline, Davis is doing just that. She forcing the reader to come to terms with the essence of the doll, thus examining the purest version of themselves. In that naked honesty, the doll can then decide what secondary elements will be added to fulfill her and what aspects of everyday life will define her. After the introduction but before the simulation begins, Davis presents the reader with a preface stating, “Her friends said she needed to ‘find’ herself. And sure enough, when she started looking, she found pieces of herself everywhere . . .” The exploration doesn’t begin with the first object the reader drags from the space to the doll, but from the very beginning- when the doll is nothing but a shell, an empty outline. It is evident from the first moment of interaction that identity is not pre-destined for the doll, it is a truth the reader can create themselves and then project once complete.

Signifier #2: Objects Within the Space
The various objects scattered throughout the room are the second signifiers. This is when the doll’s uncanny connotation begins to change. This aspect allows the reader to partake in “filling” the paper doll with objects in her everyday life. In printed text, “all the words and images in the print text are immediately accessible to view” (Hayles 4), but in David’s simulation, the object signifiers only become visible when the mouse sweeps over the area they are located. For example, in the Shower, the revealed writing on the bathroom stall, “Tracy & John True Love 4-ever” represents a lasting relationship- love. If the reader navigates into the Living Room, another object becomes apparent- the television, blasting Oprah Winfrey. The sound comes into play here as well. The volume and flashing colors of the television demands an overwhelming and powerless sense of noise, blinding the reader from everything else in the room. The clamor of media is numbing to the reader. All of these spaces are presented in black and white, where all of the objects within them, possess color. The spaces are meaningless and bland. It is the colorful objects the reader uncovers that give the rooms value.  The connotation of the television supports a point the author of the article, “Examples of Simulacra: Disney and Chinatown” makes in the last paragraph of the text, “to trigger viewers to recollect the idea of the truth that lies underneath the manipulated artificial images generated by society” (“Examples of Simulacra: Disney and Chinatown”).  These are all examples of how the objects found throughout the spaces have their own primary connotations, and all of these objects added up together create the secondary connotation of fulfillment. Each time the reader drags an object to the doll, she is less empty inside.
Signifier #3: The Space
The third signifier is the space itself: the rooms the reader moves back and forth from. The reader is enabled to enter seven different spaces: Shower, Bedroom, Outside, Kitchen, Living Room, Office and Main Street. Some of these spaces are private, while others are public. Each time the reader is moved from inside the house to an outside space, there is a shift between a primary and secondary discourse. The objects presented in the inside spaces are personal, even comforting. The objects found in outside spaces are impressionable, even controversial. In the outside spaces, the reader finds a church, flag, police station, hospital and school. All of these places represent the public spectrum and relationships with others outside of the home. For example, the church representing religion: a community one can be a member of. Or the flag, representing America: a country one can be a citizen of. The outside presents a different type of “knowing” the reader can’t find inside, a “knowing” that comes from interaction with different people and things outside of the doll’s comfort zone.
This “knowing” is explained through Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” In “Thoughts about the cave,” Socrates asks Glaucon, “And then what? If he again recalled his first dwelling, and the “knowing” that passes as the norm there, and the people with whom he once was chained, don’t you think he would consider himself lucky because of the transformation that had happened and, by contrast, feel sorry for them” (Plato 4). In this case, the primary connotation is the separation and differences in objects between the inside space and the outside space. The secondary connotation is the transformation the reader experiences when going from a primary discourse to a secondary discourse. In Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” this transformation happens through the prisoner’s introduction to sunlight. Socrates states, “It would obviously take some getting accustomed, I think, if it should be a matter of taking into one’s eyes that which is up there outside the cave, in the light of the sun” (Plato 3).  Unlike the prisoners in the cave, Davis allows her reader the choice to venture into the public space. The reader can choose to fill the doll up with familiar objects from the outside, or confront the political, educational and religious issues represented in the outside spaces. Much like Ava in Ex Machina, and in today’s society, we are given the choice to stay in our dark cave of comfort or take a chance and embrace the light of truth. Either way, the doll will continue to fill up, whether the reader chooses objects from a personal or public space.

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