Fictions of Female Labor

from ELIZA to Pager


Natalia Cecire, University of Sussex

@ncecire |

Modern Language Association 2017, Philadelphia, PA

ELIZA is a program which makes natural language conversation with a computer possible. ... Its name was chosen to emphasize that it may be incrementally improved by its users, since its language abilities may be continually improved by a ‘teacher’. Like the Eliza of Pygmalion fame, it can be made to appear even more civilized, the relation of appearance to reality, however, remaining in the domain of the playwright.

Joseph Weizenbaum, “ELIZA — A Computer Program for the Study of Natural Language Communication between Man and Machine” (1966)

two images of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady

Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle ("before" and "after"), in My Fair Lady (1964), the musical based on Shaw's Pygmalion.

film poster for Pretty Womanfilm poster for Bringing Down the Housefilm poster for Annie

Left to right: film posters for Pretty Woman (1990), Bringing Down the House (2003), and Annie (1982).
Summary: White guy in a suit learns to appreciate life, thanks to a structurally oppressed woman with attitude.

Robots have replaced humans in performing repetitive and dangerous tasks which humans prefer not to do, or are unable to do because of size limitations.

Wikipedia, "Robot"

Primitives are mystics, in tune with nature, part of its harmonies. Primitives are free. Primitives exist at the ‘lowest cultural levels’; we occupy the ‘highest,’ in the metaphors of stratification and hierarchy.... The ensemble of these tropes—however miscellaneous and contradictory—forms the basic grammar and vocabulary of...primitivist discourse.

Marianna Torgovnick, Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives (1990)

Every one knew how laborious the usual method is of attaining to arts and sciences; whereas, by his contrivance, the most ignorant person at a reasonable charge, and with a little bodily labour, may write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, law, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study. ... It was twenty foot square, placed in the middle of the room. The superficies was composed of several bits of wood, about the bigness of a die, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender wires. These bits of wood were covered on every square with paper pasted on them, and on these papers were written all the words of their language, in their several moods, tenses, and declensions, but without any order.

Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels, 1726

image of the machine at the Academy of Lagado in Gulliver's Travels

The machine. Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels, 1726.

People have got that ancient prejudice so firmly rooted in their heads—that one mustn't write save at the dictation of the Holy Spirit. I tell you, writing is a business. Get together half a dozen fair specimens of the Sunday-school prize; study them; discover the essential points of such composition; hit upon new attractions; then go to work methodically, so many pages a day.

George Gissing, New Grub Street, 1891

A few days ago her startled eye had caught an advertisement in the newspaper, headed ‘Literary Machine’; had it then been invented at last, some automaton to supply the place of such poor creatures as herself, to turn out books and articles? But surely before long some Edison would make the true automaton; the problem must be comparatively such a simple one. Only to throw in a given number of old books, and have them reduced, blended, modernised into a single one for to-day's consumption.

George Gissing, New Grub Street, 1891

These are imagined by the greatest poets, the most subtle metaphysicians, and the most profound writers of the age, geniuses to whom I have applied, and who have sent me, at a high price, these hitherto unseen marvels. This is why I say that Hadaly replaces an intelligence with Intelligence itself.

Celles-ci sont imaginées par les plus grands poètes, les plus subtils métaphysiciens et les romanciers les plus profonds du siècle, génies auxquels je me suis adressé—et qui m’ont livré, au poids du diamant ces merveilles à jamais inédites. C'est pourqui je dis que Hadaly remplace une intelligence par l'Intelligence.

Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, L'Ève Future (1886)

The speaker further defends his impression (which even in real life may be illusory) by attributing to his conversational partner all sorts of background knowledge, insights and reasoning ability. But ... these are the speaker's contribution to the conversation.

Joseph Weizenbaum, “ELIZA — A Computer Program for the Study of Natural Language Communication between Man and Machine” (1966)

New York subway ad for Pager, close-up

New York subway ad for Pager, a health care app. Photo taken on a terrible phone (sorry) in March 2016.

The sample chat reads:

I'm feeling achy and there's something going around the office. I think it could be the flu.

I'm sorry to hear that. Tell me about your symptoms.

I took my temperature an hour ago and it was 101.

. . .

Tina Fey as Liz Lemon

Tina Fey as Liz Lemon in the 30 Rock parody of a phone sex line, "1-900-OK-FACE."

The sketch closes with the plea, "Please, no suicide calls," acknowledging the way that the emotional labor done by sex workers may be called upon to supplement or replace inadequate mental health care.

avatar for Microsoft bot Tay

Twitter profile for Microsoft bot Tay.

avatar for Microsoft bot XiaoIce

Weibo avatar for Microsoft bot XiaoIce.

These slides and a copy of this talk are available at


These slides were made using reveal.js by Hakim El Hattab.


A selected bibliography follows this slide.

Selected bibliography

Balsamo, Anne Marie. Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women. Durham, N.C: Duke University Press, 1996.

Boltanski, Luc, and Eve Chiapello. The New Spirit of Capitalism. New York, NY: Verso, 2005.

Cecire, Natalia. “Ways of Not Reading Gertrude Stein.” ELH 82, no. 1 (2015): 281–312.

Corsani, A. (Antonella). “Beyond the Myth of Woman: The Becoming-Transfeminist of (Post-)Marxism.” Translated by Timothy S. Murphy. SubStance 36, no. 1 (2007): 107–38.

Ensmenger, Nathan. The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2010.

Federici, Silvia. Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle. Oakland: PM Press, 2012.

Fisher, Mark. “Suffering with a Smile.” The Occupied Times, June 23, 2013.

Gissing, George. New Grub Street: A Novel. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. 3 vols. London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1891. []

Goldstone, Andrew. Fictions of Autonomy: Modernism from Wilde to de Man. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. (I basically stole Andrew's title.)


Selected bibliography continued [p. 2]

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Hicks, Marie. Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2017.

James, Robin. Resilience & Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism. Alresford, UK: Zero Books, 2015.

Lee, Peter. “Learning from Tay’s Introduction.” The Official Microsoft Blog, March 25, 2016.

Liu, Alan. The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Murray, Janet Horowitz. “Eliza’s Daughters.” In Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, 214–47. New York: Free Press, 1997.

Nakamura, Lisa. Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Ngai, Sianne. “Theory of the Gimmick.” Critical Inquiry 43, no. 2 (December 12, 2016): 466–505. doi:10.1086/689672.

Plant, Sadie. Zeros + Ones : Digital Women + the New Technoculture. London: Fourth Estate, 1997.


Selected bibliography continued [p. 3]

Rutenberg, Jim. “On Twitter, Hate Speech Bounded Only by a Character Limit.” The New York Times, October 2, 2016.

Searle, John R. “Minds, Brains, and Programs.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3, no. 3 (1980): 417–24. doi:10.1017/S0140525X00005756.

Swift, Jonathan. The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift. Edited by G. Ravenscroft Dennis. Vol. VIII. London: George Bell & Sons, 1899. []

Torgovnick, Marianna. Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, Auguste. L’Ève Future. Paris: Charpentier, 1909. []

Wang, Yongdong. “Your Next New Best Friend Might Be a Robot.” Nautilus, February 4, 2016.

Weizenbaum, Joseph. “Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation.” In The New Media Reader, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, 368–75. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2003.

———. “ELIZA—A Computer Program for the Study of Natural Language Communication between Man and Machine.” Communications of the ACM 9, no. 1 (January 1966): 36–45.