A Lonely Centaur Roams the Uncanny Valley

Some years back, US Weekly spoke with an ex-girlfriend of New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez who divulged that A-Rod had not one but two portraits of himself as a centaur hanging above his bed. He later denied having these paintings, but it’s done little to quell the perception that we’re dealing with a person who probably would have paintings of himself as a centaur. Furthermore, the story seemed credible when you remember that A-Rod tends to gravitate toward classical Greek myths for his self-representations, as seen in this Narcissus-inspired photograph for Details magazine (although this is uncomfortably close even for Narcissus):

Details magazine

A-Rod was widely lampooned for these images, which were perceived as exhibitions of his vanity and self-absorption. But as enjoyable as it is to make fun of someone who does stuff like this, these images—doppelgängers and mythical hybrid creatures—provide us with confirmation that there’s something unsettling, something not quite human about A-Rod that makes him so unpopular.

And A-Rod is very unpopular: the most hated man in baseball even before this most recent suspension. A “liar,” a “fraud” (making for a suitable, if obvious, pun), and an “incurably self-conscious phony.” The name-calling gets slightly more interesting when the insults begin to dig a bit deeper and assert, for instance, how his sizeable public relations team has “damaged whatever chances A-Rod had of become [sic] a normal human being.” But he’s not just abnormal, he also “unnatural” perhaps not “even really a member of the human race” (“Maybe he’s really Beldar, from some distant galaxy where lies are truth and reality is whatever you say it is.”) Plenty of people have lied before and plenty of people have cheated, but the rhetoric condemning A-Rod seems to bypass calling him a sociopath and approach the creaturely.

But maybe there’s more to this than just national media types doing their perfunctory moralizing and upbraiding; perhaps A-Rod’s perceived inhumanity may have something to do with the synthetic ways he has enhanced his body for the sake of athletic performance and achievement. He’s admitted to using an anabolic steroid he referred to as “boli,” been loosely associated with international human growth hormone smuggler Dr. Anthony Galea, had his “blood spun” in Germany (since the controversial medical procedure isn’t approved in the US or Canada), and now has been suspended for a record 211 games (which he is appealing) “based on his use and possession of numerous forms of prohibited performance-enhancing substances, including testosterone and human growth hormone” obtained from an anti-aging clinic in Florida that went by the eerie-sounding name of Biogenesis, which has since shut its doors). Perhaps he’s not an alien exactly, but the term human seems ill-fitting in a technical sense when considering A-Rod’s status as a life-form. Suddenly, the centaur and the mirror image make-out session don’t seem quite so absurd.

In the field of robotics the term “uncanny valley” refers to a hypothesis asserting that the more closely a robot resembles a human being in appearance and movement the more creeped out we are by it. [The valley is the dip on the graph in likeability as appearance approaches human similarity, which this video nicely demonstrates. But be forewarned: the animatronic face at :37 will haunt you for the rest of your life.] The uncanny valley can be applied beyond robotics to many non-human entities such as zombies and aliens and maybe even to A-Rod given his consistent inability to approximate the depths of human emotion and his repeated use of PEDs. There’s already a precedent for observing to A-Rod’s facial expressions and their strangeness: his “death stare,” his many faces, and again, his many faces. Such attention to A-Rod’s visage suggests the desire to locate some kind of inhumanity (sort of like the Voight-Kampff test from Bladerunner) by noting the attempts he makes to appear human and measuring the distance by which he falls short. That is, A-Rod is monstrous but that monstrosity is disguised as human almost seamlessly so that you can barely detect the creepy monster lurking within which, of course, makes it all the more creepy and monstrous.

All this talk about A-Rod’s uncanniness, far-fetched as it may be, seems relevant because of how often we’re told that everybody loves a comeback story and everyone loves to forgive repentant sinners. But A-Rod seems to exist beyond the purview of such hypothetical compassion. Just last week when Major League Baseball seemed to be railroading A-Rod in this Biogenesis case, some wondered if maybe, just maybe, A-Rod might be a sympathetic figure, more sinned against than sinning at least in this particular case. But as it turns out, no.

So it’s worth wondering if the vitriolic hatred and booing showered upon A-Rod throughout his career (not just in this instance) has to do with something beyond the moral or ethical bounds of sports that A-Rod has breached (again). After all, NFL players have tested positive for PEDs and receive a fraction of the scorn that MLB players do. Maybe football players, though, are already dehumanized by their gargantuan size and their uniforms and helmets that make them look like cyborgs. In other words, they’re always already inhuman and exist outside of the uncanny valley, which is why their PED use doesn’t threaten our conception of what it means to be human and why A-Rod’s does.

The robotics scientists who theorized the uncanny valley suggest that we find these all-too-human robots and creatures disturbing in part because they offer a memento mori, a distressing reminder of our own inevitable death. All the booing and hand-ringing over A-Rod, then, may have less to do with venting our frustrations about cheating athletes or with wanting a level competitive playing field and more to do with working through some pretty serious existential angst.

Too many big words after all I’m from the U.P.

Gene Olsen    Dec 3, 09:13 PM    #

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2 Comments

  1. This article is just fantastic. It’s hilarious, but also strikes at a kernel of truth…A-Rod is always trying really hard, but never quite manages to hit the right note or act the right way. He always just feels a little off…as if he’s trying really hard to be a human, but he’s really some sort of robot or alien, I guess.

    • Thanks for reading. Now that he’s retired, I wonder if he can relax and just start being a human. During the baseball playoffs last year, he was a studio analyst and he was really, really good. Both insightful and funny (at times). So maybe it isn’t him, just the pressure cooker of American sports that made into some kind of robot-alien.

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