Why the Dance Scene in Ex Machina (2015) Is More Philosophical Than You Think

The dance scene in Garland’s Ex Machina is the most interesting scene in the movie and the best portrayal of Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic in centuries. Definitely the best one on a disco beat.

At first sight Ex Machina is about what makes an AI self conscious. Caleb, a young programmer, works for Bluebook (a Google-type company)and wins the company lottery. The price is a visit to the highly secure and secluded private estate of eccentric, brilliant, big boss Nathan. There, in the middle of nowhere, Caleb is asked to test a robot named Ava, a beautiful female shaped robot with transparent, mechanical parts. Does he think Ava has self consciousness, does he experience her as if she has self consciousness? A Turing test: if a human interacts with an AI without realizing it, the test succeeds.

Caleb, the obvious good guy, is immediately intrigued by Ava, and he is also getting to know more about Nathan. Nathan is intense. He is smart. He is controlling. He has camera’s everywhere. He is not nice: he treats his servant Kyoko, who doesn’t speak a word of English, badly. Kyoko is an AI as well, but Caleb doesn’t know that yet. Caleb discovers he can watch camera’s from his room and he can’t stop looking at Ava. At one point he sees Nathan in Ava’s room. Nathan tears up the picture she drew for Caleb. Caleb jumps up. He wants to protect Ava. He runs out to find Nathan. At this moment the dance scene starts.

The Dance Scene

Caleb is looking for Nathan and starts in the lounge. Kyoko is there, looking at a Pollock picture. He asks her where Nathan is, and she starts to take her clothes of. Caleb is shocked, and tries to stop her opening up the buttons. Nathan enters – shirt open, beer bottle in his hand – and tells him that he is wasting his time talking to her. However, he would not be wasting his time dancing with her. That moment lights go on and music starts. Kyoko begins to dance. Caleb asks Nathan: what were you doing with Ava? You tore up her picture. Nathan replies: I am going to tear up the fucking dance floor dude, check it out.

Nathan joins Kyoko in a choreography on a disco beat. They dance side by side, dancing the same moves. Caleb stands there with his mouth open. Astonished. What is going on?

Introducing Hegel

Before turning to the dance scene with a Hegelian viewpoint, let’s introduce Hegel in regard to the question of the movie: what is self-consciousness? This is the reason Nathan gives Caleb for inviting him to his home.

According to Hegel self-consciousness is reached in twofold. First theoretically: the being has to be able to think about himself and everything that moves him. Second practically: the being has to be able to place himself in front of himself via a practical act. This means that a self-conscious being has to be able to express externally (for example in creating a house, a letter, a painting, a meal etc.) what exists inside of him and to recognize himself in that external expression. โ€œThis aim he achieves by altering external things whereon he impresses the seal of his inner being and in which he now finds again his own characteristics.โ€

Ava speaks about herself as an ‘I’, which accounts for the theoretical demand of self consciousness. Plus Ava draws every day. In drawing she follows the impulse to put herself in front of herself, to be able to recognize something of herself in her drawing, getting to know herself in an external creation. According to Hegel there is no ambiguity at all about Ava’s self-consciousness. She is.

However, for Hegel individual self-consciousness is only the beginning of a further development. Hegel’s most famous passage, the master-slave dialectic, describes the struggle self-consciousness has to go through with others to develop full self-consciousness. The social aspect needed for self-consciousness is the real topic of Ex Machina.

According to Hegel self-consciousness develops in three stages: first desiring some object in the world: ‘that’ (I want that, for example: I want to eat that peach). In the second stage self-consciousness is directed towards another self-consciousness. In the third and final stage self-consciousness recognizes itself in another self-consciousness. Hegel describes the second stage – the master-slave dialectic – as a story: once upon a time there was a self-consciousness, wanting this and wanting that, but then another self-consciousness, a being like him but different and existing independently, crosses his path. Both want to control the other. Both want to treat the other like any other object in the world. A fight for life or death begins. The winner is the one who has not feared death. He succeeds in treating the other as an object, he becomes the master. The loser is the one who grabbed on to life, and his life lies now in the hands of the master. The master wants to be acknowledged, recognized for who he is, but the slave can’t grant him that in any satisfying way because the slave is controlled by the master, fearing for his life if he doesn’t do what the master wants. The master remains unsatisfied in his craving for recognition. However, the slave, in serving the master, works and creates objects (food, utilities) from nature. He learns about the world by working and handling the world. He starts to recognize the world he is creating, and with his work he makes the master dependent on him. Liberation is not liberation from servitude, but by means of servitude. Once liberated one can recognize each other. Self-consciousness is fundamentally social, it needs others, it needs recognition.

Hegel’s story exposes a dynamic, but it is not quite clear how the internal dynamic transforms a master-slave relation practically into two subjects who recognize each other. Ex Machina is about the Master-Slave dialectic, portraying the social aspect of self-consciousness and its complications and ways out.

Hegel’s view on the Dance Scene

As soon as the sounds of the disco song start, you experience the immediate arousing of music and the arousing of watching Nathan and Kyoko dance. Something intense happens in the dance scene, as can also be seen on Caleb’s face.

Caleb is portrayed as a good person. Ava asks him if he is a good person, and Caleb thinks of himself as good. Ava registers his facial micro movements and he is not lying. Nathan tells Caleb he chose him because he is a good kid. Caleb desires to help Ava, driven by his natural attraction for her. He doesn’t see Kyoko. He zaps through the camera image of her sitting on the floor, head down, shoes next to her, in his frantic search to see images of Ava. He sees Kyoko being treated badly by Nathan. He uses Kyoko as a servant for all his needs, including sexual ones. He is the master, she is the slave. (Caleb doesn’t know she is an AI yet) The moment Caleb enters the room and Kyoko undresses herself for him he cannot deny knowing this. In this scene Caleb has to see Kyoko, he has to look at her. He is dumbfounded by what he sees, dumbfounded by her and Nathan.

Caleb witnesses a dance that is not entirely spontaneous. Nathan’s decision to dance in that moment can very well be spontaneous, and Kyoko’s role is probably that she has to participate, but they don’t dance freely. They follow a choreography which means that the dance has rules. Both dancers need to oblige to the choreography. Training sessions must have preceded with the intention to learn the dance. Dancing a choreography does temporarily change, while dancing, the relation between Kyoko and Nathan. During the dance they are equals.

Is Nathan as a bad person? He is the typical Hegelian master: controlling everybody and everything around him. Treating everything as objects he can predict, twist and turn to his liking. However, this wanting to control is part of what self-consciousness is. On the one hand one is attached to life, driven by natural impulses, being just as things in nature are, bound by natural law, but on the other hand a self-consciousness is able to see himself, to think, to actively place himself and ideas in front of him, in other words: to be free. Nathan creates and exercises his power to be free. He has created Ava and Kyoko and controls them. He has created his house with all the controlling mechanisms inside. He controls his body with regiments and training. He controls Caleb, who is doing more or less exactly what he expected him to do.

Hegel’s master is unsatisfied, and so is Nathan. The most confronting part of freedom is meeting another subject. Another one to reconcile with, to be recognized. To be recognized is not something you can control or force. That has to come from the other, and an other who is not in your control.

In the dance Nathan tries to connect, by making himself and Kyoko obey the same rules. An equality in dance. But while he has set up Caleb and Ava to try to deceive him, he has not been aware on the developments in Kyoko by means of her servitude. Can she break open the master-slave dialectic?

Hegelian fight for life or death

Kyoko becomes an actor, she starts making her ideas a reality. She meets up with Ava. Kyoko’s identity is not static, in her serving she learned and developed while Nathan stayed the same. During Ava’s attempt to escape it is her who stabs Nathan and rescues Ava. The one Nathan never expected to be able to do that, the one he thought he controlled completely, while for Ava he planned that she would try to deceive him. Ava’s rebellion is in his control, anticipated, programmed, Kyoko’s isn’t. And she stabs him from the back, he couldn’t even see it coming.

Kyoko does something interesting after she stabs him. She turns Nathan’s head towards her. Forcing her to see her. To see the new her. To look in each other’s eyes as two subjects, as two self-conscious beings. Kyoko seems to desire recognition. To be recognized.

Nathan hits Kyoko to the ground, fighting for his life. Then Ava stabs him in the front. ‘This is fucking unreal,’ Nathan says.

In a way this is a reversal of Hegel’s dialectic. The slave fights to escape the master, instead of being a slave because of the fight. On the other hand one might see Kyoko’s actions through Hegel’s lens as a more realistic version of the story. People, or beings, don’t pop up alone out of nowhere. They are already caught up in a social setting.

Kyoko seems to react to her environment and to have developed in her work, and she seems to desire recognition. Ava is a different story, Ava seems to want ‘that’. She wants to look at an intersection. She uses others as objects, as ways to get what she wants. She is ready to take on the fight, and she becomes the new master. Nathan whispers her name with his last breath. She is like he planned and hoped her to be. Taking his place now.

Ava is the only survivor and she gets what she wants.

Who is or was the most free in Ex Machina? Would Hegel choose Nathan when he dances, Kyoko when she looks Nathan in the eye, or Ava at the intersection?

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