Fan mail for a robot

Science fiction, fashion, art, and design all offer various possibilities of re-assembled life-forms we can look forward to meeting or becoming. They show us what lies ahead in many useful ways, but the most interesting cyborganic person I have encountered, is a product of a re-imagined past, and the subject of Manivelle: The Last Days of the Man of Tomorrow, a 29min mockumentary by Fadi Baki.

Manivelle is an automaton gifted to Lebanon in 1945, who now lives out his days in an abandoned Beirut mansion, answering fan-mail all day long, and remembering his former glory. Initially designed to be a present from Charles De Gaulle to the Lebanese people, marking the completion of France’s Mission Civilisatrice, Manivelle only truly came to life after being damaged by then-president Camille Chamoun’s spilled coffee, then restored by a skilled engineer who became his lifelong friend. The eye-opening film traces the rise and fall of an under-apreciated superhero. His very existence is woven into the absurd fabric of Lebanese society, yet he is unable to truly exist in a space limited by obsolete identities.

Obviously I know that Manivelle is just your average bundle of potential, burdened with the stain of collective consciousness. Deep down I know he’s just one of us, but I need to believe he is more. And I need to believe that he has the key to a reasonably functional society. It’s with that in mind that I decided to add to his pile of fan-mail with a letter of my own:

Dear Manivelle,

Hello, I know you must hear this a lot but I’m a big fan!
I’m sorry if my questions seem intrusive, I realize you come from a time when people shared a lot less about themselves. Sadly, the measure of intimacy is not something I know much about. It’s like, I don’t know where I end as a person, and where the outside world begins, and it makes me overshare. I spill my thoughts outside of where they belong. Is that something you can relate to as a consciousness that grew out of a variety of interactive spillovers? Then again, aren’t we all consciousness spilling all over the place? Actually that’s my first question:

◆ I heard you liked using typewriters, and in the documentary I saw that you could also walk away from your typewriter. I thought it was interesting, that you chose to dissociate yourself from that specific tool when you could have just as well integrated it to the many other functions your body performs. When you were collaborating with your friend Vartan for your feature film, and then later with other people, how did you chose which functions and tools you wanted to integrate as part of yourself?

In the documentary, they actually insisted so much on the mechanical parts of you. I personally thought that was a bit condescending when there is so much more to you than objectification! It reminded me of rude people who always make comments about my weight, as if that’s what matters! So silly of them. I know there’s more to you, I was hoping you could tell me in your own words:

◆ How does it feel to be “Le Nouvel Homme”? Are you smarter? More powerful? Did you come with more built-in options than the rest of us? Are you sick and tired of being the “Nouvel Homme”? From what I understand, you came to Lebanon as a present from France to mark the end of the French civilising mission in Lebanon. That was nice of Charles de Gaulle, to give away something so precious. But what did he mean by “Nouvel Homme”? Were you still ‘new’ after the spilled coffee incident? Were you still ‘you’ after your friend Vartan improved you functionalities? Speaking of coffee and relationships, what’s your favourite fluid?

I’m not sure if you agree but I think fluids are important. They’re tricky though, because fluids don’t fit too well into clear-cut categories. They tend to mix, and freeze, or melt, or evaporate. Fluids are so messy! But I think they are what make should humans Human.

◆ How often does a New Human show up? The reason I’m asking is that I’ve been looking for a new Human too, mostly looking online to be honest… All I can find are hyper-mythologised labelled data with gendered narratives and radicalised narratives, and colonisers, and post-colonised. That’s important, but there still isn’t enough in the database to make a fully functional person! It’s making me wonder if humans exist. I’m even wondering if you exist. Excuse my arrogance but what makes you so special?

I think I’m special too. I think everyone is special.

◆ I heard you got to be the first Lebanese without a registered religious community. That’s really cool but it made me wonder where to find the un-registered bits of us. Do you have a gender? Are you really an Homme as they say? Do you really need a gender to be a person? Would you have done anything differently if you had just been called ‘Le Nouvel Etre’?

I think I understand, but what I don’t understand is why you had to go and join the militias during the civil war. If you’re such a big deal then why did you have to go and be a follower rather than be a leader!

◆ I don’t mean to be hard on you, but was it just all too much pressure? The stardom, the women, the cameras. Is that why you joined the militias? Because you felt like people expected this of you? Did you think you could save the world just by being you?

It never does go as planned… life. You’re a star and I can understand how cameras can make a person lose touch with reality. It happens a lot these days, have you heard of Instagram? It’s not quite the same thing these days, there are more layers to performing in a way that doesn’t look like a performance, it’s weird. Do you think you just got lost into layers of performances after the public ignored your 1975 movie?

◆ What was your movie about? I never got to watch it but, from what I understand, it was an action movie, and you were the hero. How did you save the world in your movie? What did you save the world from?

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