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Hugo and the Automaton1

On initial viewing, Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film Hugo is likely to leave viewers puzzled. A big-budget, family-friendly, 3-D film featuring heavy use of computer-generated imagery, hardly seems like the kind of fare expected from an auteur whose oeuvre, including Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Casino, skews more gritty, realistic, masculine, and violent. Upon further reflection, such puzzles might be resolved by recognizing Scorsese’s long-standing interest in film preservation. Scorsese is founder and chair of The Film Foundation, dedicated to protecting and preserving motion picture history, and Hugo itself can be read as an argument for film preservation, with its loving recreation of the cinematic workshop and output of Georges Méliès and its interpolation of numerous scenes from classic cinema. Such a reading is underscored by Hugo’s source material, Brian Selznick’s children’s picture book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007). Selznick himself comes from classic cinema royalty, being related to Hollywood producer David O. Selznick, and The Invention of Hugo Cabret nostalgically evokes the glory days of cinema’s past. Furthermore, Selznick’s book, a graphic novel that literally incorporates in its pages cinema’s past in the form of still images, and Scorsese’s film, evoking cinematic history while employing possibly its technological future, are both meditations on the nature and changing forms of literary and cinematic media.

This backward-looking reading of Hugo is certainly not wrong and both book and film are deserving of analysis in terms of questions of form. In this essay, though, I will suggest another, more forward-looking view, focusing largely on the conceptual and narrative ground both book and film explore. Rather than situating Hugo in film’s past as an argument for our cinematic heritage in an age of digital streaming, Hugo can be read as an argument for a future, posthuman vision in which human beings live technologically-mediated lives. On this reading, Hugo is an extended meditation on the technological forces that are transforming not only cinema but human beings.

Those transformations have led some to hypothesize that we are witnessing something of a paradigm shift, from a human to a posthuman world. It is widely maintained today that the convergence of nano-, bio-, cogno-, and information technologies has disrupted the once firm boundaries between human and technology, technology is seen as central to the human condition, and the human being is portrayed as a product of technological relations.

It is in this posthuman context that Scorsese’s film deserves a close, critical reading. Central to the story of Hugo Cabret is a sophisticated philosophical account of technology that contributes to our understanding of how technology mediates culture while simultaneously being mediated by culture. While accounts of the birth of the posthuman in human-technology co-evolution typically move us beyond simplistic accounts of technology as neutral or autonomous, they are often under-theorized, especially in regard to examining the nature of these relations and their shape relative to specific human beings, the so-called users of technology. Turning to film and literature in this context, especially a child’s novel and a “family film,” helps us to examine in a more substantial form the thesis of technological mediation. Hugo, with its intertwined narratives featuring Méliès’ role in the birth of the cinema, and Hugo’s relationship to one of Méliès other inventions, an automaton, as well as Méliès’ goddaughter Isabelle, offers a nuanced view of human-technology relations which suggests that human life has always been shaped and mediated by technology but that we human beings are never simply tool-using animals. While foregrounding the role and significance of human-technology relations in our lives, Hugo suggests that we need to situate those relations in broader cultural frameworks in which we recognize that technology is itself mediated by narrative frameworks. In this regard, Hugo mirrors a view long endorsed by feminist philosophers of the social and cultural dimensions of human beings. As Catriona Mackenzie and Natalie Stoljar observe in their introduction to the anthology Relational Autonomy, “an analysis of the characteristics and capacities of the self cannot be adequately undertaken without attention to the rich and complex social and historical contexts in which agents are embedded” (21).2 It is precisely these complex social and historical, and we should add, technological contexts that both Hugo and its source material attend to.

Hugo and the Posthuman

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a children’s picture book that at first glance seems like a simple coming-of-age story, something of a bildungsroman with a steam-punk splash, but it evolves to be more than it first appears. In form, it clearly challenges the limits of traditional narrative and the distinction between print and cinematic text. As Selznick (n.d.) describes it:

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is not exactly a novel, and it’s not quite a picture book, and it’s not really a graphic novel, or a flip book, or a movie, but a combination of all these things. Each picture (there are nearly three hundred pages of pictures!) takes up an entire double page spread, and the story moves forward because you turn the pages to see the next moment unfold in front of you.

Book and film introduce us to Hugo, a twelve-year-old boy living in Paris in 1931. Hugo lives alone in the walls of the Gare Montparnasse train station and manages to escape notice as he maintains the station’s elaborate timekeeping equipment. He spends much of his time trying to outwit the station inspector, a stern man with a steel leg brace who takes delight in shipping children to the local orphanage. Hugo's only reason for existence, his purpose, is to finish repairing an elaborate automaton capable of writing that he had worked on with his father while he was still alive and which he believes holds the clue to his purpose in life. To fix this device, Hugo steals the necessary parts from a windup toy stand in the train station, which is how he meets the mysterious George Méliès.

Méliès runs a small stand at the train station where he sells windup toys and various clockwork creations to the many passersby. He catches Hugo stealing parts and as a result takes one of Hugo's prized possessions, a notebook filled with drawings of the automaton’s various mechanisms made by his father. When Hugo doggedly begs the old man to return this notebook, Méliès states that he will return it only if Hugo works off his debt at the toy stand. Hugo agrees and begins to form a relationship with Méliès and his goddaughter Isabelle.

Given access to an abundance of machine parts, Hugo manages to reconstruct the automaton and realizes that its purpose is to draw a picture (See Figure 1). The picture it draws is a scene from a movie that Hugo’s father once saw, and below the picture the automaton signs the name George Méliès. Hugo and Isabelle find this exceedingly strange and set about finding out the automaton's origins and how it is connected to the owner of the humble toy shop.

Hugo and the Automaton 

Dennis M. Weiss

, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1. Hugo and Isabella watch the Automaton draw a scene from Trip to the Moon.

It is at this point that both book and film recount the history of Méliès. Prior to being consigned to the toy shop, the children learn that he was a famous magician who upon seeing the first films thought they were magic in its purest form. He gave up his successful stage act and became a director. He was successful for a while and his movies were adored by his legions of fans. However, the Great War arrived, tastes changed, and his movies seemed like escapist frivolities in comparison to the real horrors seen on news reels. No one had time for his lighthearted fantasies, and thus the great George Méliès, his dreams destroyed, sold his studio and became the old and bitter owner of the mechanical toy shop in the train station.
Upon their discovery of his tragic history, Hugo and Isabelle set about arranging a meeting between Méliès and Rene Tabard, a professor at the Academy of Film in Paris who is an admirer of Méliès’ work and a lifelong fan of the man himself. Mrs. Méliès at first forbids this meeting because of her husband’s intense sensitivity to the mere mention of what he considers to be his past failures, but once Méliès is reintroduced to his past he realizes that his perceived failures were actually an important part of the history of film and his life. Book and film end happily with the adoption of Hugo by the Méliès family and with Méliès being honored by the Academy of Film as a pioneer in film.

On the surface, there’s little to suggest that Hugo has much to contribute to the debate over posthumanism and human-technology relations. And yet, both book and film speak to concerns central to posthumanism. While a full account of posthumanism would take us far afield from a discussion of Hugo, one can recognize a few elements key to most discussions of the posthuman and posthumanism. Cary Wolfe offers a succinct and widely cited account:

Posthumanism names a historical moment in which the decentering of the human by its imbrication in technical, medical, informatics, and economic networks is increasingly impossible to ignore, a historical development that points toward the necessity of new theoretical paradigms (but also thrusts them on us), a new mode of thought that comes after the cultural repressions and fantasies, the philosophical protocols and evasions, of humanism as a historically specific phenomenon. (xvi)

Recognizing that the human form might be changing radically in light of our imbrication in various networks, the posthuman is the technologically mediated human being. Posthumanism is the critical ideology in which the human being becomes an open question and seeks to come to terms with these changes, reconceptualizing the human being in light of its decentering in a variety of networks. Posthumanism is centrally about how technology is implicated in the disappearing boundaries between human beings, animals, and technology. The human being, it avers, is a prosthetic being who has co-evolved in and with animals, machines, and the material world.

Returning to Hugo, we might again wonder what this coming-of-age family film has to do with posthumanism. Central to both book and film is the crossing of boundaries characteristic of posthumanism. In the remainder of this section, allow me to suggest that Hugo occupies some of the same space as the posthuman by focusing on four figures exemplary of the posthuman: the media, automatons, dogs, and children. Beginning with the question of media and the distinction between print and film, as Selznick makes clear in his description of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, his “book” is a picture book incorporating not only his many drawings, but also dozens of stills from classic cinema. The book almost reads like a moving picture, something that the film dramatically illustrates. In an early scene of Hugo, Méliès, having appropriated Hugo’s notebook, flips through it quickly, bringing Hugo’s line drawings of the automaton to life, as a kind of flipbook. Later, as Hugo and Isabelle are in the Film Academy library, they page through Rene Tabard’s history of the cinema and the pages come alive, transforming from printed page to cinematic text. As the book mediates cinema and the cinema mediates books, both book and film are situated in the realm of border crossings and disappearing boundaries between print and cinema.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret was inspired by Selznick’s love of early cinema and by his reading of Gaby Wood’s Edison’s Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life (2002), which itself is concerned with the borderline between the lifeless and the living and questions about what makes us human, especially in the context of replicating human life in the form of advanced automatons. Edison’s Eve is a cultural history of automatons and includes a discussion of Méliès in which Wood links the automaton with the birth of cinema and what we might term the birth of the posthuman. Wood directly connects the automatons to the invention of film. As she notes, “Cinema was a direct descendent of the androids of the Enlightenment; its birth was a Promethean, or Pygmalionesque, event” (173). The cinema and automatons were, Wood hypothesizes, both methods of mechanically reproducing the mechanical in man. Wood connects the birth of cinema and automatons by situating Méliès in the history of other mechanists testing the boundaries of what was human (176). Wood argues that it was Méliès’ workshop for automata that gave birth to the movies and suggests that both the automaton and the cinema were early figures in the exploration of the boundary between life and lifeless, human and machine (183), concerns central to the posthuman.

Hugo picks up this narrative thread linking automatons and the history of cinema and adds to it something of a dog’s tale. Scorsese’s film includes a subplot not in the book in which two long-haired dachshunds bring together Monsieur Frick and Madame Emile. The film also introduces the character of Maximilian, a Doberman who is the partner of the Station Inspector and drives many of the film’s chase scenes. In its focus on animal life as central to the film’s plot and as providing comic relief, Hugo also participates in the disappearing boundaries between human and animal characteristic of posthumanism, humanizing animals and erasing the boundaries between us and them, questioning and destabilizing the traditional humanist boundaries between human and animal.

Finally, we might recognize that while cinematically the posthuman is most often associated with the genre of science fiction film, children and the family films that focus on them occupy similar territory. Children themselves occupy something of a liminal betwixt-and-between space characteristic of the posthuman, in that they are clearly human and yet they have not acceded to their full humanity, at least as its traditionally imagined by adults in terms of their achieving autonomy, rationality, and responsibility. Hugo himself calls out to be recognized in his humanity and yet is subject to the whims of the Station Inspector and even, at least initially, Méliès. In Children’s Literature and the Posthuman, Zoe Jacques argues that the imaginative and boundary-blurring nature of children’s fiction is an unexplored location for shaping posthuman and proto-posthuman philosophy. As she observes, “children’s fantasy animates and gives a voice to a host of imaginary, impossible and real beings so that drawing boundaries between truth and fiction becomes sufficiently challenging as to question a rigidly hegemonic, humanist ontology, in keeping with the aims of posthuman thinking” (6). From the automaton to Maximilian to Hugo and Isabelle, Scorsese’s film screens an interest in liminal figures central to an exploration of the posthuman.

Hugo and Technological Mediation

It is clear that both The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Hugo have technology at their heart, a metaphor I will return to, and both demonstrate the centrality of technology to our lives. On both page and screen, we have clear representations of the very materiality of technology and an environment deeply shaped by the pervasiveness of technology, beginning most obviously with two technologies that played dominant roles in arguments about the “machine age”: the clock and the steam engine. Much of the action in both film and book takes place in the Gare Montparnasse railway station, and the sounds and sights generated by its giant steam engines shape the film’s mise-en-scène. The steam engine is central to both the narrative of film and book as well as to the history of cinema. The Gare Montparnasse became famous for an incident in which a locomotive derailed and crashed through the station, a scene reenacted in both Hugo and The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The steam engine is also a central character in one of the first documentary films ever produced, the Lumières’ 1895 sort film L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat, which is also featured in Hugo’s narrative and provides the inspiration for Méliès’ love of cinema.

While the steam engine is often credited with powering the industrial age, Lewis Mumford has argued that the clock is equally, if not more, important. As he notes, “The clock, not the steam-engine, is the key-machine of the modern industrial age...The clock…is a piece of power-machinery whose ‘product’ is seconds and minutes…” (14-15). Clocks, too, play a pivotal role in Hugo’s life. He has, after all, been consigned to the clock towers of the train station where he must labor in the upkeep of the clocks, lest he be discovered and sent to an orphanage. The clicking of clocks and the passage of time play a significant role in the film’s mise-en-scène and the clicking sound of time passing is often analogized to the unspooling of film. All the characters are deeply aware of the passing of time, none more so than Méliès, who resents having been all but lost to history.

Hugo and the Automaton 

Dennis M. Weiss

, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2. The city of Paris overlain with a clockwork mechanism.

The transformations wrought by these two great industrial technologies are made especially apparent in the long opening tracking shot of the film, which begins with a complex shot of a clockwork mechanism that slowly transforms into a night vision of Paris, suggesting the city itself is a giant clockwork mechanism (See Figure 2). Later, as Hugo grows closer to Isabelle, he takes her to the clock tower and shows her the cityscape, commenting: “Right after my father died, I would come up here a lot. I’d imagine the whole world was one big machine.” As the camera sweeps through the city, it travels through the train station and along the train tracks, alighting on the station’s clock tower, where a tiny Hugo can be spied staring out from the clock at the life below, unfolding in mechanistic precision.

Human beings are, as it were, at home in this monument to industrial technologies, suggestive of the intimate ways in which human beings live in and with technology. Indeed, technology itself functions as a grand metaphysical scheme in Hugo’s life and the theme of technological mediation is driven home in the manner in which both Hugo and Méliès appropriate technological metaphors as they grapple with their own existential situation and try to understand their place in a fractured world. Indeed, Hugo blows this image up into a metaphysical scheme meant to account for his very place in the world and his purpose for being. As he tells Isabelle: “Machines never have any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact number they need. So I figured if the entire world was one big machine I couldn’t be an extra part, I had to be here for some reason.” Hugo’s very purpose is vouchsafed by this grand technological metaphor and we see how a technology such as the clockwork mechanism can itself function as tantamount to a myth, a story we tell ourselves to articulate our place and significance in the world.

The automaton too plays such a role in Hugo’s life, becoming a central metaphor for understanding what it means to be human, particularly what it means to be a broken human being. Selznick’s novel regularly employs metaphorical language serving to connect human beings to their technological others: Hugo’s mind was spinning, travelers are cogs in an intricate machine, Hugo feels the cogs and wheels in his head spinning in different direction, the imaginary gears in his head were always turning. And both Hugo and Méliès describe themselves as broken; Méliès in particular feels like a broken windup toy. Scorsese’s take on the automaton noticeably diverges from Selznick’s, in that while Selznick adheres more closely to the traditional image of an automaton dressed in clothes and with wooden arms, Scorsese’s is all lovingly glossy and gleaming, a Victorian take on a digital avatar.

The figure of the automaton also helps to convey the pure passion and existential joy that often comes from technology. Hugo’s relationship to his father is mediated by their love of cinema and their working together on fixing the automaton. When Hugo’s father brings home the abandoned and broken automaton, Hugo is worried that it can’t be repaired but his father replies, “Of course we can fix it! We’re clock makers, aren’t we!” Father and son spend many hours together, laboring over the automaton, which comes to represent for Hugo his bond with his father. Both Hugo and his father are drawn to the automaton and feel a deep reverence if not love for the automaton. Hugo and Méliès share a mechanical aptitude and a love for and connection to machinery and Méliès too long ago loved the automaton, stating “he was a particular treasure. I put my heart and soul into him.” Méliès’ fascination with technology and his love of machines is what initially draws him to cinema, as he recounts in the film: “The Lumiere brothers had invented the movies. I fell in love with their invention. How could I not be a part of it? It was like a new kind of magic...” Where humanism has often been defined by its distrust and dread of the machine, especially in those uncanny situations when they challenge distinctions between life and nonlife, the organic and the mechanical, Hugo presents technology as a source of wonder and even love and existential joy.

Beyond these early technological forces in the industrial machine age, we also have the technology of the book, which occupies a key role in Isabelle’s life and the rediscovery of Méliès. The movie goes to some lengths to emphasize book culture, including a touching scene in the movie not included in the book in which the owner of a used book emporium, Monsieur Labisse, gives Hugo a gift of the book Robin Hood. Isabelle had just thanked Hugo for taking him to the movies (Isabelle declares, “It was a gift.”) and then Labisse gives him a book that was intended for his godson. Both movies and books are gifts. Hugo had earlier commented that Labisse really has purpose and both he and Isabelle find refuge in Labisse’s bookshop. One sees in both book and film a love and regard for book culture, even in the midst of the high technology of a 3-D, special-effects driven film. This is especially noteworthy in Selznick’s very non-traditional graphic novel which incorporates narrative with drawings and film stills, literally enacting a kind of textual and technological mediation.

Hugo also underscores the manner in which the technologies of book and film shape subjectivity. Isabelle describes the bookshop as “the most wonderful place on earth! Neverland and Oz and Treasure Island all wrapped up into one,” and she often understands her own experiences through the mediation of literature. “I feel like Jean Valjean!” she comments as she and Hugo begin an adventure. She observes that it’s alright for Hugo to cry for they are always crying in books. Hugo and his father bonded over science fiction and adventure tales, reading Jules Verne and Robin Hood together. More significantly, we learn that Hugo and his father used to enjoy going to the cinema and Hugo’s flashbacks are themselves presented in cinematic form. As Hugo remembers back to when his father found the automaton, we hear the running of a projector (Méliès later comments, “I would recognize the sound of a movie projector anywhere.”) and we see the distinctive pattern of light coming from a movie projector as we are taken back in time. Our very capacities to remember are shaped by our experience with cinematic technology.

Novel and film also, in interesting and contrasting ways, point both backwards and forwards to indicate how deeply implicated technology is in human life and underscoring how human life has always been mediated by technology.  A central element of the novel that all but disappears in the film is the myth of Prometheus, the Titan and trickster figure who steals the gifts of technical knowledge and fire for humankind and is linked in the novel to the founding of cinema. Prometheus steals fire from the gods to create movies. In this regard, Selznick’s children’s novel interestingly points in the direction of Bernard Stiegler’s (1998) appropriation of the myth of Epimetheus and Prometheus in volume one of Technics and Time, where he connects Epimetheus’ act of forgetting to bestow any talents on human beings to Prometheus’ gift of technology, which then becomes the ground of our being. Our anthropogenesis is simultaneously a technogenesis. Hugo too is forgotten, and, in this void, technology too serves as his anthropogenesis, or better his technogenesis.

The figure of Prometheus is all but displaced in the Scorsese film. We have instead the Station Inspector, who plays a much larger role in the film than he does in the book. And here too we are reminded of our technoanthropological nature, of our being natural born cyborgs, to borrow a phrase from Andy Clark (2003). The Station Inspector, Gustav, was injured in World War One and he is forced to wear a leg brace, which becomes his defining feature. Indeed, the brace’s squeakiness and propensity to seize up and get caught on things is the source of much of the movie’s comic set pieces. By the end of the movie, though, Hugo, our modern Prometheus, has redesigned the brace, which now works flawlessly, and Gustav reports: “It does not squeak at all.…I’m now a fully functioning man.” With his take on the automaton and the Station Inspector, Scorsese embraces a steampunk aesthetic that reminds us that our current fascination with artificial life and cyborgs already has a long history that predates our digital era.

Hugo’s meditation on technological mediation extends to film technology itself and it is especially knowing in this regard, as it uses and foregrounds contemporary digital technologies to tell a story about the invention of film technology. We learn in both book and film that Méliès was an early adapter of film as a source of illusion and mystery and many of his films dealt with fantastic tales and relied on what was at the time advanced techniques to create fantastical images and scenes. Hugo literally pulls back the curtain so to speak on the technological production of film, showing us how Méliès created some of this magic. Hugo itself, as a 3D film heavily dependent on CGI, engages in some of these very same practices of spectacle, foregrounding the simulational nature of film experience and further underscoring technology’s mediation. It takes complicated technology to produce Hugo, further underscoring the mediating nature of film technology, especially in the hands of a consummate director such as Scorsese.

Hugo’s Complications

All of this suggests that Hugo has given us a thoughtful take on human-technology relations that accords with the current recognition of how posthuman life is fundamentally mediated by technology. Our lives are indeed inextricably bound up with and shaped by technology. But drawing on a metaphor from horology, I’d now like to read both texts somewhat against this grain. In horology, a complication refers to any feature on a watch that goes beyond the simple display of hours and minutes. Automatons themselves were something of a complication, demonstrating the ultimate art of the watchmaker. Hugo’s automaton, then, perhaps invites us to complicate this picture of technology and the posthuman and in this section, I’ll argue that Hugo suggests that while our lives are indeed mediated by technology, we ought not to make the mistake of placing technology in a fundamental or foundational position, a mistake often made today when we place too much emphasis on the power of technology and forget that it too has cultural, historical, and social dimensions.

Let’s begin with Hugo’s cosmological metaphor: the clockwork universe. While there are a number of elements in both book and film that embrace this technologically mediated vision of the cosmos, there are an equal number which push back against it and which look for competing narratives and competing mediations in our lives. Consider, for instance, Hugo’s treatment of time. While Hugo’s uncle tells us that time is everything, we also learn in the conclusion to the book that “Time can play all sorts of tricks on you” (Selznick 2007, p. 509). While time might mean the fixed, orderly world of clock time, which inevitably and inexorably moves forward, analogous perhaps to the fixed and orderly unfolding of the visual scene on the screen as the spool of film inevitably and inexorably unwinds, time might also mean our sense of lived time, in which time speeds up and slows down, or even cinematic time, in which time freely moves backwards and forwards. Hugo itself is an argument for the mutability of time as its narrative repeatedly takes us backwards in time. And as Selznick notes in regard to time and the cinema, “In the darkness of a new cinema that opened in a nearby neighborhood, Hugo was able to travel backward through time and see dinosaurs and pirates and cowboys, and he saw the future, with robots and cities so gigantic they blocked out the sky” (Selznick, 2007, p. 492). Scorsese seemingly emphasizes this alternative sense of time by inserting Salvador Dali and James Joyce into the action of the Parisian train station, perhaps recalling Dali’s experiments with dripping and melting clock pieces and Joyce’s experiments in Ulysses with narrative time in which hundreds of pages and tens of thousands of words are used up in the expanse of a single day. Time from this alternative perspective is not merely the mechanical passage of seconds and minutes marked by the mediation of technical artifacts, but the dramatic and symbolic time mediated by narrative and cinema and aesthetic phenomena.

Indeed, we may read Hugo as suggesting that while our lives are indeed technologically mediated, our appropriations of technology are themselves always mediated by complex symbolic constructions. While horology is often elevated to a cosmological vision, it is also deeply tied to magic and Hugo’s and Méliès love of magic, illusion, myth, and fantasy. Hugo comes from a long line of horologists charged with fixing clocks and keeping time, but what he really wants to be is a magician. Hugo disrupts the simplistic technological metaphor of the clockwork mechanism, a dominant theme in the Enlightenment and one that still rules today. We see that Hugo is struggling with this metaphor and using it, employing it to make sense of his life and the misfortunes he has been subject to. But we also see him struggling against it and resisting it much in the same way that he struggles against his family heritage of being clockmakers. Hugo adopts what he knows—fixing machines—to thinking about the universe as a whole, including thinking about the issue of purpose. His discussion of being broken or fixed, of having extra parts, of fitting in (analogous to how all the parts have to fit the automaton precisely) all suggest a particular mechanical and therefore technological take on the world. But this picture of the world must compete in both book and film with an alternative picture of the world shrouded in mystery and illusion and dreams and predicated not on mechanical fixity but the power of fate.

This same theme is emphasized in Gaby Wood’s Edison’s Eve, which recounts the strange mixture of magic, technology, and desire that went into the early development of the automatons. Following the rediscovery of Méliès in book and film, he triumphantly takes the stage and addresses the audience as they truly are: “wizards, mermaids, travelers, adventurers…and magicians.” “Come dream with me,” he says. Méliès is not simply one of the early inventors of film but the inventor of film as fiction and our appropriations of technology are never far from the powerfully mediating influences of narrative and myth and even Hollywood magic.

There are still further challenges to Hugo’s clockwork universe where everything has a place and happens for a reason. While the novel concludes on the optimistic note that “The machinery of the world lined up…and Hugo’s future seemed to fall perfectly into place” (Selznick, 2007, p. 507), we also have to assume that if the world is a vast machine where every part has a purpose and there is a reason for everything, then Hugo’s father had to die, his uncle had to imprison him in the clock tower, and his loneliness is completely explicable. And Hugo’s loneliness and his disconnection from people are almost palpable. After being caught by Gustav, he implores: “Listen to me! Please! Listen to me! You don’t understand! You have to let me go! I don’t understand why my father died! Why I’m alone!” Hugo is as much characterized by his being alone as by his mechanical aptitude.

Hugo and the Automaton 

Dennis M. Weiss

, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3. Hugo transformed in a nightmare into an automaton.

It is this fear which drives a central and emotionally compelling scene in the film in which Hugo wakes up from a nightmare only to hear a ticking coming from within himself. He rips aside his nightshirt and discovers that he is himself an automaton and his heart has been replaced with machinery (See Figure 3). He dreams of being enclosed and entrapped within the walls of the clock tower as his humanity slowly seeps out. He finally awakens in a fright. While Hugo is attracted to the automaton and finds it beautiful, he also fears being turned into one. At this point in the film, the clockwork mechanism is presented in darker and more claustrophobic ways. What Hugo lacks, both figuratively and in the case of the automaton literally, is a heart and he ultimately depends upon someone else to provide that missing piece, taking the difficult step of learning to trust Isabelle and reach out to someone or something other than the automaton. Hugo begins to push back against a metaphysical picture of the human being suggested by the automaton and common to western thought.

This same theme takes center stage with our cyborg Station Inspector Gustav. Near the end of the film, Gustav finally captures Hugo and locks him up until he can be taken away to the orphanage. He tells Hugo, “You’ll learn a thing or two. I certainly did. How to follow orders, how to keep to yourself. How to survive without a family, because you don’t need one. You don’t need a family!” Gustav is the human equivalent of the clockwork mechanism. He’s a social automaton—isolated and alone, without a family, simply following orders and keeping to himself. His task is to keep the train station running orderly and efficiently where there is no room for orphans, whom he characterizes as urchins and vermin, failing to recognize their humanity. But he also yearns for a relationship with the flower girl Lisette, with whom he bonds as they both recall the mechanistic terrors represented by the Battle of Verdun in World War I.

The flip side of the Enlightenment metaphors of the clock work mechanism and the automaton is the view of human relations as socially atomistic. And yet Scorsese portrays a film rife with people yearning for relationship and connection: Hugo and Isabelle, Gustav and Lisette, Emilie and Frick. Even the dogs get in on the action as Emilie and Frick are brought together through the amorous pairing of their dachshunds. As Gustav moves to arrest Hugo, Lisette looks at him imploringly and Emilie appeals, “Gustav, have a heart.” And it’s the heart that Hugo previously dreamed disappearing, and it’s the heart that Isabelle finally provides to animate the automaton, in the form of a heart-shaped key that brings life to the automaton and hope to Hugo.  A heart-shaped key Isabelle received from Mamma Jeanne who received it as a gift from Papa Georges. While fatherhood plays an important role in Hugo, or at least the absent father does, it is relationships to women, mediated by the presence of a heart, that finally redeem Hugo and Georges and Gustav. When Gustav finally accedes at the end of the film to being a fully functioning man, it’s perhaps partly because Hugo has provided him with a new prosthesis.  But it’s equally because he has a new relationship. He speaks first to the musicians he had previously run into: “Don’t worry. I’m now a fully functioning man.” Then he looks directly at Lisette and continues, “Aren’t I, dear?” displaying one of the three smiles he has mastered.

By the end of film and novel, Hugo and Gustav, as well as Georges Méliès of course, find their place. They belong. They are not alone. And this sense of belonging, of place, could not be provided by the automaton or the clocks or any of the other myriad mechanisms Hugo and Georges and the Station Inspector have surrounded themselves with. All three are deemed broken and need to be fixed, but Hugo discovers that the mechanical fixes that work for the automaton don’t suffice for Papa Georges or the Station Inspector or even himself. Hugo says of the automaton, “I thought if I could fix it ... I wouldn’t be so alone.” But fixing the automaton isn’t sufficient to addressing his loneliness. Our fix involves other human beings. Film and novel suggest that relations are important and that human beings can only be understood from the standpoint of a relational ontology. Technology plays a role in that ontology and we human beings are technologically mediated tool-using animals. But before any of those tools can do the work they are supposed to do, we human beings must first have a heart and enter into a more fundamental relation with other human beings.

Feminist ethicists have long recognized the significance of a relational ontology and its challenge to the same Enlightenment (and one might add masculinist) model critiqued by posthumanists. As feminist philosopher Susan Sherwin notes in “Whither Bioethics? How Feminism Can Help Reorient Bioethics,”

Feminist relational theorists have helped make vivid and comprehensible the fact that persons are, inevitably, connected with other persons and with social institutions. We are not isolated atoms, or islands, or self-contained entities, but rather products of historical, social, and cultural processes and interactions. The existence of any person is dependent on the existence and social arrangements of many others. Our interests are discovered by and pursued within social environments that help to shape our identities, characters, and opportunities. (Sherwin 12)

Sherwin’s observations are especially relevant when dealing with children, such as Hugo and Isabelle, both of whom are orphans seeking connection. In the world of Hugo, children, and perhaps even more so orphans, exist in some of the same boundary space as the posthuman. They are perceived as neither fully rational subjects nor in control of their own destiny or agency; their humanity is not yet fully formed. But the processes by which we move from children, thought of by the Station Inspector as vermin and urchins, abused by uncles and deserted by parents, that process seldom takes central stage in accounts of the posthuman. How is the achievement accomplished? Hugo suggests that no amount of technology, machines, or even dogs is going to be enough to do the trick. What it takes to achieve this is first and foremost other human persons, caregivers who help us realize our humanity, even as that humanity is shaped by technology and nonhuman others.

Annette Baier reminds us that all persons start out as children. Persons require, according to Baier, successive periods of infancy, childhood and youth, during which they develop as persons. “In virtue of our long and helpless infancy, persons, who all begin as small persons, are necessarily social beings, who first learn from older persons, by play, by imitation, by correction” (Baier 10).  It is our social nature, the fact of mutual recognition and answerability, our responsiveness to other persons, that shapes and makes possible our personhood. As Lorraine Code observes, Baier’s account of second persons “shows that uniqueness, creativity, and moral accountability grow out of interdependence and continually turn back to it for affirmation and continuation” (82). Hugo Cabret’s “invention” involves a repudiation of the Station Inspector’s dictum that you don’t need a family to survive. His humanity unacknowledged, Hugo yearns for connection and to understand why he is alone. As a children’s novel and family movie, Invention and Hugo stress that maturity and the achievement of humanity comes not from alienating yourself from others and achieving autonomy through disconnection and independence but through a recognition of dependence and vulnerability and the need for others, a lesson that both Papa Georges and Gustav ultimately learn as well.

Hugo comes into his own and accedes to his full humanity as he risks moving out of the clock tower and setting aside his automaton and entering into interpersonal relations with Isabelle, Georges, and even Gustav. Ultimately, both Hugo and The Invention of Hugo Cabret are less about technology than about what it means to be human in a technological world. And what it means to be human is defined as much by our relations to others and our dreams and our desires for a little bit of magic as it is our relations to technology.

Complications Aside

Posthumanism encourages us to reimagine what it means to be human, especially in light of our increasing imbrication in technological networks. Doing so, however, should not entail failing to recognize distinctive aspects of being human. Hugo reminds us that we human beings need literature and film, that both are gifts, that we need to preserve that heritage and perhaps recognize that it points to distinctive features of the human experience, including our seeking out imaginative adventures. Yes, books and cinema are technologies, but they are technologies that point to something in the human being that Kate Soper refers to as “the distinctively human appetite for innovative forms of cultural transcendence and individualizing self-expression” (366). As well, Hugo reminds us that social relations are central to becoming human, that we become human in the presence of other human beings and that without such relations we fail to achieve our full humanity. Hugo ends not in the train station but in the Méliès family home with a lively party scene where Georges is united with his many fans, Gustave and Lisette join Frick and Emilie, and Hugo entertains guests with his magic as Isabelle begins to write his story. The automaton is relegated to a side room, where it sits alone, momentarily forgotten. And yet, the movie ends with an extended shot of the automaton staring out at us, engaging us, perhaps inviting a last word: a mechanical, if not magical, word.


1  I would like to thank Ian Olney, Colbey Reid, and an anonymous reviewer for their comments and feedback on an earlier draft of this essay.

2  For more on feminist arguments for reconfiguring the self as social and relational, see the essays collected in Relational Autonomy: Feminist Perspectives on Autonomy, Agency, and the Social Self, edited by Mackenzie and Stoljar; the essays collected in Diana Meyers, Feminists rethink the self; and Cynthia Willett, Maternal Ethics and Other Slave Moralities.

Works Cited

Baier, Annette. “A Naturalist View of Persons.” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, vol. 65, no. 3, 1991, pp. 5-17.

Code, Lorraine. “Second Persons.” In What Can She Know? Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge, Cornell, 1991, pp. 71 – 109.

Hugo. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Paramount, 2011.

Jacques, Zoe. Children’s Literature and the Posthuman, Routledge, 2015.

Mackenzie, Catriona and Natalie Stoljar. “Introduction: Autonomy Refigured.” Relational Autonomy: Feminst Perspectives on Autonomy, Agency, and the Social Self, Oxford, 2000, pp. 3 – 31.

Meyers, Diana, editor. Feminists Rethink the Self, Routledge, 1997.

Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization, Routledge, 1934.

Selznick, Brian. The Invention of Hugo Cabret: A Novel in Words and Pictures, Scholastic, 2007.

---. (n.d.). The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Retrieved from https://www.theinventionofhugocabret.com/about_hugo_intro.htm

Sherwin, Susan. “Whither Bioethics? How Feminism Can Help Reorient Bioethics,” International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics, vol. 1, no. 1, 2008, pp. 7–27.

Stiegler, Bernard. Technics and Time, Stanford UP, 1998.

Soper, Kate. “The Humanism in Posthumanism.” Comparative Critical Studies, vol. 9, no. 3, 2012, pp. 365–378.

Willett, Cynthia. Maternal Ethics and Other Slave Moralities, Routledge, 1995.

Wolfe, Cary. What is Posthumanism, U of Minnesotta Press, 2009.

Wood, Gaby. Edison's Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life, Anchor, 2003.