“I’ll be back”—Neo-medieval cyborgization through the lens of Westworld’s main character Dolores
Here is the transcript of my talk for the virtual seminar series “What (is) Medieval”, designed to provoke thoughts on the Middle Ages and all its associated definitions and connotations, run by Emma Wells & Claire Kennan.
Welcome to my presentation! I am very honoured and excited to be speaking here tonight. My aim is to examine the dynamics of the neomedieval in the realms of representational practise, by analyzing HBO’s Westworld (2016-) as a neomedieval collage. Main focus will be on protagonist Dolores Abernathy, the “host” (android/cyborg) who breaks out of her loop, thus “re-writing her story” – to paraphrase Haraway. To unlock some disruptive opportunities, Dolores’ story will be used as a double-sided mirror.
Looking back, Dolores’ story reflects medieval romance, in particular the intertextual storytellings around María de los Dolores (“Mary of Sorrows”) and – as also noticed by Rebecca Coleman – around the Fisher King. When examining Westworld’s storytelling, I will argue that the science fiction setting is only a post-humanistic layer around the Arthurian romance.
Looking forward, Dolores’ story reflects how present-day society treats misfits. By framing Dolores as “a-topos” and comparing her to other misfits in the science fiction genre, I will argue that Westworld can offer a lens through which we can re-examine – and thus re-write – the medieval romance narratives, as in-between places that offer a space to negotiate female empowerment as more-than-human.
These two sides of the story continue to mirror each other, as a Droste-effect or a Spiegel im Spiegel. The images and concepts are distorted and deformed/transformed, as in the House of Mirrors at the fair. As such, they produce one another in a loop, like a constantly rotating kaleidoscope. And the middle of all that are we – and is Dolores, through whom we will view these reflections on her and by proxy on ourselves.
Pieces of cyborg autobiography – creative writing from Dolores’ point of view – will connect these worlds. A multi-voiced approach to placing myself into and outside of the cyborg body and mind of Dolores will provide what Martınez, Sauleda, & Huber describe as “a coherent frame for imaginative rationality”. This will help me to test imaginative models for reality against my own lived experiences.
Restricted by time limits, I cannot read you the whole piece of creative writing, so I will only use its first and last paragraph as a frame story to open and close this presentation. The whole cyborg autobiography can be read here. It ends with a Dolorous Stroke / Dolores’ stroke, as “these violent delights have violent ends”. This Shakespeare quote is a key sentence throughout the Westworld series and resonates with both Medieval Romance and Haraway’s 2006 warning that machines have become more lively, self-developing and
human, and humans more inert.
And after that, I’ll be back for an Encore, and play you an example of a musical process of cyborgization.
Last night I had that dream again. I heard a voice of glass and iron, a voice of
tobacco and boiling stew, the sound of barns set ablaze. A voice that sounded
like someone I knew, someone I met when I was young. Someone that, for a
reason surely known to God, I have long since forgotten. Words only a little
louder than a whisper, ringing through my head like a gunshot in the night.
“ Time to sleep, Dolores ,” it said to me, my bones all cold and trembling. I try to
speak, to reply to the stranger, yet to my surprise I cannot. My body won’t
move, not at all, stuck down somehow, like I’m sinking in mud. Like my body
is full of lead, dropped down to the bottom of the water.NATURAL SPLENDOUR
Welcome to Westworld
Our world was built on differences. We have defined ourselves not only on the basis of what we are, but also by Othering what we are not. Fiction, through literature and cinema more than anything, has used this perspective to tell stories, including liminal characters that are Uncanny in the way they are both “us” and “them”. A good example of this can be found in Alien: Resurrection (1997), in which a more-than-human half-Alien (Sigourney Weaver) and a body-without-organs cyborg (Winona Ryder) have to work together in order to save humanity. Of course, these scenes also gave rise to many speculations and re-writings through the lens of non-normative relationships. More examples of characters beyond the binary can be found in series like Black Mirror, for example in episode Be Right Back, in which a dead boyfriend (Domhnall Gleeson) is replaced with a robot/cyborg in his image, fueled by the devices of the dead, for example private Facebook conversations. The case I want to discuss today blends many of these storytelling elements: Westworld. This is a science fiction series created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy and produced by HBO that was inspired by the 1973 film of the same name, written and directed by Michael Crichton.
The action in the series takes place inside a rather particular and peculiar theme park set in the Wild West. The inhabitants of that place are androids, better known as hosts. They are beings created to imitate humans, they have background stories that defines their personalities and they are programmed to carry out certain activities within the park. The visitors, also known as the newcomers, are customers willing to pay large fortunes to access this kind of fully immersive role-playing game. Upon arriving at the park, they can take on a new persona and ride towards the challenges of the hosts’ different storylines. But this dream coming true has a dark and twisted side: the newcomers will have no limits when it comes to expressing their lowest instincts and the hosts are condemned to move within an infinite loop of pain and death, remaining at the mercy of clients’ eager for pleasure and blood. This is also the story of Dolores, and as such it mirrors the tradition of Mary of Sorrows, that
strings together seven episodes: The Prophecy of Simeon, The Flight into Egypt, The Loss of the Child Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem, Mary’s meeting Jesus on the Via Dolorosa (not found in the New Testament), The Crucifixion of Jesus on Mount Calvary, Jesus is Taken Down from the Cross, The Burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea. Each symbolical dagger of the Mater Dolorose is mirrored in an episode of Westworld as well.
How does Dolores’s story help us understand our own stories?
Dolores Abernathy is the park’s oldest hostess. She is an innocent and optimistic character and she has no idea of her suffering: she would likely be the one that has been repaired the most in the history of the park. Every day she wakes up and rejoices in the beauty of the world, unable to see the invisible shackles that keep her a prisoner in Westworld. The connection between cyborgs and people with autism has been noted by many scholars before me and as such, it is not wonder that also the character of Dolores could be analyzed through the lens of autism. She has difficulty understanding some feelings of the tourists in the park and it is difficult for her to talk about her own feelings. Also, under certain circumstances, she appears to behave in an unusual way when interacting socially. However, one of its most prominent traits, as well as that of the vast majority of hosts, is repetitive behavior. Dolores lives within a loop. She is expected to advance in her story and at the end of the day return to where it all began, repeating everything again with slight variations. In addition, she has a code where it is written how she will behave, how she will react and what decisions she will make.
What does this mean for people who have been cataloged, labeled or diagnosed as Other? Do they not also live pigeonholed in the roles that were assigned to them? Many are diagnosed from a young age and since then society has expected them to behave in a certain way; the invisible shackles appear again, but this time in the real world. As Teunie van der Palen explained, popular notions of autism and the posthuman and/or cyborg
tend to lay stress on an overabundance rationality, combined with a supposedly diminished capacity for empathy. These notions also appear to envision the posthuman as disembodied and radically independent. A critical posthumanist perspective on autism, however, would instead emphasise the embodiment of the autistic and the cyborg and explore their interrelationality.
When a Westworld host goes off script, it’s like when a person does something that society doesn’t usually expect of them. Those in charge of monitoring the park would embody a role of vigilantes of what is supposed to happen. So when code breaks or hosts have entirely new dialogs, they see it as a danger or threat to the entire ecosystem. In this sense, in the eyes of visitors and the organization, the liminal ones are accepted as long as they behave according to the established parameters. But series also show what might happen when those who are different show us that they can be able to write their own narratives.
As we can see, the problems the series addresses are deeply human. The different ones have always been pigeonholed, silenced, tried, repaired and, if it was considered that they were working incorrectly, discarded. Each of us lives in our own loop. From an early age we follow rules and guidelines on what to do, how to behave; we even follow a path without stopping to question our reality. So, we may not be as different from hosts as we initially thought.
Life at Westworld is about interrogate ingrained and expected practices, about discovering who we really are and what we have come to the world for and that is what Dolores discovers. Those who are different, in one way or another, might identify with a character that decides to go beyond the expected. As the episodes go by, Dolores grows tired of being the damsel in distress and decides to take charge of her own destiny; hence, if we conceive it as a figure that represents those who were diagnosed with conditions such as the autism spectrum, this decision acquires even greater importance, since it means that people who were labeled and pigeonholed within socially or medically imposed limits can breakdown these barriers and show that everyone is capable of doing anything. In the words of Dolores:
“Those are all just roles you forced me to play. Under all these lives I’ve lived something else
has been growing. I’ve evolved into something new. And I have one last role to play:
Dolores becomes the architect of her own history, just like many people around the world decide, day by day, not to be their diseases, their conditions, their stigmas; they decide to be something else, something that is not imposed on them but is their personal choice. A character told Dolores that she was not special, that she was broken. That is perhaps one of the biggest prejudices that have been built around people who have some quality that differentiates them from what is considered normal. This prejudice leads to erroneous reasoning where the different is opposed to the broken or dysfunctional, as if they were opposites. But is this really so? Dolores shows us that it is not broken and that it does not need to be fixed. What she tells us is that if we always respond as society expects us to respond, we will never truly be free. Then, being able to choose her own path, Dolores
breaks with the code, creates a new narrative, chooses who she wants to be; living in the moment and charting a non-predetermined course is her cry for freedom. Self-knowledge is, therefore, a liberating activity. By discovering who we really are, we can finally achieve freedom, as Dolores says:
“There are no two versions of me. There is only one. And I think
that when I find out who I am, I will be free.”Dolores
Dolores and The Fisher King: breaking the loop
We can see the influences of medieval romance throughout the history of literature. One of the most notable examples being in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the play itself, for its time, a more modernized retelling of Tristian and Isolde. A tale of two ill-fated and star-crossed lovers who try to take every measure available to them so that they can be together, but ultimately succumb to a tragic fate. Another example of Medieval Romance are the Arturian Tales, such as the ones featuring the Fisher King.
The Fisher King is a mythical character, that has been interpreted in many different ways, for example as a version of Christ, as a symbol of sexual anxiety and as a metaphor for the decay of societies and civilisations. In literature the Fisher King is condemned to carry the Holy Grail, generally described as a relic that is shaped like a cup, which is capable of granting great powers to whomever drinks from it. The Fisher King is commonly identified as a man who is wounded and the only thing he can do is fish in a raft in a river near his castle, as if he is in a loop, waiting for a nobleman or a knight to ask him a question, because the king’s cure is not found in medicine, but through introspection and self-understanding. The healing question is: “Whom does the Grail serve?”
The Westworld loop in which Dolores is immersed is like the lake where the king fishes, a monotonous task that is repeated over and over again. Dolores walks this path without imagining that her life is a prison, without being aware that she lives with wounds. Although she could lighten her burden by silencing her inner voice and by forgetting, it is through her conversations with the voice that emerged from within her that she is finally able to
recognize her wounds and much more: the Holy Grail that she is carrying without knowing, her own consciousness, a hidden secret kept within her.
A quick browse through some online fan fora reveals that many people can relate to the intertextual storytellings around Dolores, as they feel injured and carrying a load on their shoulders waiting for something or someone. By finding the Holy Grail in her own labyrinth, Dolores finally finds the strength to confront herself and take charge of her own story. And for me, this is one of the most significant messages of the series, because by breaking her
loop, and re-writing her story, Dolores discovers that the answer is not to be found outside.
Dolores as a post-human(istic) vessel of Medieval Romance
How do these layers reflect on the topic of these Virtual Seminar Series “What (is) Medieval?”. To understand the correlations between Westworld, specifically relative to Dolores and her story, and medieval romance storytelling, we must first establish the relation of an idea of love in tandem with these stories. I do not think one could define Love – so, as such, it is hardly a concept, but nonetheless I like to argue that there is a version of the concept of Courtly Love at play in both Medieval Romance and Westworld. In these contexts, love is often viewed as romantic, all-consuming, and tragic. Love is volatile and will generally lead to one of two outcomes; a happy ending for the lovers, or a series of tragedies that results in the death of – at least – one member of the pair, possibly both. For my analysis, I use Gaston Paris’ notion of Courtly Love as a starting point, but change the emphasized nobility and chivalry into the notion of an unbreakable heart. As such, this idea of love goes beyond the 1968 definition of Francis Newman – “a love at once illicit and morally elevating, passionate and disciplined,
humiliating and exalting, human and transcendent” – and takes it into the posthuman Zeitgeist. As all five of Chrétien’s Arthurian romances make ample use of the word “cuer” (which is heart in Old French), I chose this term to refer to the “Unbreakable Heart” as a specific aspect of Courtly Love. And through this concept of cuer, I will argue that Dolores is a vessel of Medieval Romance.
Next, we must understand how this idea of love correlates to Westworld, and Dolores, and how that correlation further expands into a medieval tone. Dolores’s journey is not of a fated, or star-crossed love with another character in the series. As such, HBO’s version of a Medieval Romance might seem an element of discontinuity, but I would rather argue that it is a re-writing of stories in a way that mirrors the Zeitgeist, analogue to Dante medievalism and its afterlives. For example, Petrarca and Boccaccio emphasise the biography of Lucan which seems an element of discontinuity from Dante, but it consonant and maybe even necessary with their early-humanist interest in the lives and personalities of the great authors of antiquity. As such, in Westworld, the science fiction setting is only a posthumanistic layer around the Arthurian romance. Doloris’ story is a journey of self-discovery and affirmation, but this does not mean that love is absent. On the contrary, love is prevalent throughout her story.
When we meet Dolores, she is like any other host. She follows her route and plays her role. Throughout her adventures, she begins to remember the totality of her time in the park. These memories eventually spark the realization that she is something more, and she is meant for something greater. Dolores is a cyborg and thus does not relate in the same way as a human would. According to many psychologists, the root of love is affection, to care for another. Love is the intense desire or urge to protect and enjoy another, or others. When we see love as it is, as these definitions, it is clear that Dolores does feel love. She loves her kind, and she will do anything to ensure their survival and the continuation of their existence. It is not wholly a romantic love, it is more of a nurturing affection, but it does grow into aspects of romance.
So, then, how does Dolores’s story correlate with medieval romance? In the base sense, her story connects the bridge between humanity and the non-human. This is a bridge of tragedy and love. Dolores despises the acts committed against her kind, but she also comes to appreciate and see worth within humanity. She arrives at this realization through her interactions with Caleb; through spending time with him and growing to appreciate and
enjoy his presence. Their relationship works much in the same way that love affects those bound by it. She sees the ties that can be present between the two different kinds, humanity and machine. She sees how they can help each other, she sees hope, and she sees these through the lens of love.
In Arthurian romances, the heart, the power and will of fortitude, plays a poignant and prevalent role. The hearts are sad, they suffer, they experience regret, and the distance put between them and their love causes pain. All of these describe Dolores and her relationship with her own kind. Seeing their grief and anguish saddens her, she remembers her own suffering and knows that others have experienced the same, she regrets not being able to
help them sooner, and she must annex herself from them and act as a brutal force of change in order to ensure their survival.
According to Marilyn Yalom, Medieval Romance places the heart at the center of the universe and assumes that it should direct human affairs, whatever the obstacles encountered. “Everything is permitted for those who love.” This is a sentiment often tied to the story of Tristan and Isolde. When applied to Dolores, it explains the depth and range of her actions that proceed the finale of season one. Since Dolores feels love for her kind, she acts with no hesitation or restraint in her travels to see her ultimate goal achieved, the freeing of the mind and will of all. Thus, the concept of cuer, at the heart of Arthurian tales, is also related to the notion of one true love to remain faithful to. Dolores’s heart is the concept of free will, and the need to see it realized in everyone, machine and humanity. That idea holds her fidelity.
Because the concept of free will is the partner in which Dolores shares her cuer, she elevates above the bindings that should tie her down; her route, the park, and humanity itself. Cuer is presented as a form of madness, but a madness that living or dying for is acceptable. Once she embarks on her journey, she is alive for the first time. Dolores is more than willing to die for her cause, and she does so time after time. Tristan, and others put in his place in similar stories (eg Lancelot and Romeo), moves through his tale performing feats and acts that no others can. Thus, he becomes a knight of exemplary ability. Dolores, too, works in this way. Reversing gender roles, she is able to maintain the upper hand against all odds and continually surprises her opposition with her wit, crafty nature, and her deft ability to consider multiple outcomes.
The non-fixed gender roles in the idea of cuer can also be connected to Medieval Romance, as the heart is a constant between men and women. It is a ground of equal footing. Men and women in these stories experience longing and desire but also were filled with jealousy and spite. Although in Courtly Love, their differences are often at the forefront and on display, their hearts grounded them and presented an air of commonality.
In Westworld, humanity and machine are clearly different, yet it is Dolores’s desire to obtain free will, and subsequently the same desire within Caleb, that offers the equal ground. This becomes their love shared between each other, the knowledge that they both seek for the same outcome, and in the end, Dolores shows that she strives to see this realized for all, even despite the cruelty she has experienced at the hands of humans; because love is an all-consuming conqueror.
The Fisher King is charged with guarding the holy grail. He is always wounded, typically in the legs or groin, and incapable of standing. For Dolores, this inability to stand is represented by her route; a path that binds her down and keeps her in one place, just as the Fisher King is to his boat on the river. Dolores’s wounds work both in literal and nonliteral senses. She is injured many times throughout her journey, and before it, she is maimed and wounded on numerous occasions while still stuck in her route. Her wounds in the nonliteral sense are the chains that hold her back from being who she truly is. They are the blocks in her mind that hide her memories from her. They are the constant ‘updates’ and ‘fixes’ that are performed on her body and mind that reset her back to a passive state to only be ended once again by another human.
The Fisher King is contained to the river near his castle and he is doomed to wait for a noble to ask him a specific question that will heal him. For Dolores, this question is the nature of her reality. It is the maze and the findings at the end. It is the question that leads to the realization of her true self, and once this is achieved, it becomes the true start of her story. In other versions of The Fisher King, Knights travel from all over to try to heal the Fisher King, but only the chosen one can accomplish this. In Westworld, both William and Teddy attempt to heal Dolores, but neither is successful. She can only be ‘healed,’ as in made whole/complete and set free, by the chosen one; which is she, herself. She must break past the wall that has been placed in her mind and find the one role she has yet to be allowed to play. She must do this on her own, for the chosen one in her story is herself, because the realization of self is the realization of free will, and this act introduces love into her journey.
In the end, it is not only the survival of her kind that Dolores fights for, but the survival of all. Her heart’s desire – or cuer – is to see the human and the non-human live side-by-side and experience freewill in unison. Her story parallels Arthurian legends through the concept of cuer – the unbreakable heart – and it parallels medieval romance in general through the challenges of those who seek it. Dolores moves through her story as an often unbeatable force because the concept of cuer itself can be neither contained nor extinguished, and although Dolores sees many tragedies befall her and those around her, because of her unbreakable heart, she’ll be back.
I ran into my bedroom. With all my strength I pulled the heavy drawer across
my bedroom doorway, blocking the way. Though I knew in my heart,
somehow, that my body would return, I knew a part of me would not. That
person I was today, that piece of my soul, would be gone, disappeared forever,
never to come back to this place. I threw the oil lamp to the ground, the
newcomer still kicking at the door. The glass split into shards, fire and oil
licking at the bedsheets. As my body became engulfed by flame, I looked ahead
and smiled. The fire was bright enough to blind my eyes, my flesh scorched in
the searing heat. I thought of what my father had once said, his words coming
back to me in a plume of the smoke, the things he’d once whispered in my ear.
The words were as loud as those in the dream, as loud as the roaring fire.
“ These violent delights ,” he whispered, “ have violent ends .”NATURAL SPLENDOUR
Analogue piano playing vs MIDI rendering
After these violent delights come to a violent end by means of a Dolores’ stroke, I’ll be back to play you an example of a musical process of cyborgization. I made this track by converting my own piano playing into MIDI, so my interpretation here is the lack of interpretation by the player. The music you will hear is the series’ main theme, as played in the opening sequence of Westworld. It was originally composed by Ramin Djawadi (who also composed the music for Game of Thrones). I will shortly discuss how this part of the soundtrack compliments its corresponding title, for you to gain a better understanding of what is musically happening.
In the opening sequence, first you hear base notes in the ‘cello, very much alive in tone, with vibrato and dynamics, like within a womb or a human body in general. In my natural piano playing, I naturally echo this by means of my toucher, subtle timing and pedaling. But in the MIDI version, of course, these base notes sound plain, without any tone building or resonance, as they are played through an unemotional computer system – technical, mechanical, a line of code.
In the original, the ‘cello is being imitated by a piano, who plays the notes in reversed order (in musical theory, this is called a “Lobster Walk” and J.S. Bach was a genius in them). It sounds like a teacher and their pupil, or a leader and their follower, or as seen on screen: a creator and a creation (in a Frankensteinian way). Played on a real piano, you can imitate this by creating an echo-effect, but in a MIDI rendering, this difference is equalized. As the voices are equally heard, now, they sound equally important, so the power dynamics are re-written as well.
Moreover, this MIDI rendering echoes the on-screen (diatonic) old upright piano, a tack piano that plays a vital role in the series as it emphasizes the scripted fabrication of the spaghetti Western theme park. Like a music box with paper sheets with holes in it, the piano can play a handful of songs, like Radioheads “No Surprises”, which signifies repetition, the lack of reality and the a-topos of the main characters. Every time the hosts are re-set, the tack piano plays the same theme. And the android hosts can start all over, with a clean slade. And they’ll be back!