Blade Runner 2049: Our Slaves Will Set Us Free

Blade Runner 2049 is a provocative visual and aural treat. It sparked many thoughts, two of which I make note of here; the relationship between the two should be apparent.

  1. What is the research project called ‘artificial intelligence’ trying to do? Is it trying to make machines that can do the things which, if done by humans, would be said to require intelligence? Regardless of the particular implementation? Is it trying to accomplish those tasks in the way that human beings do them? Or is it trying to find a non-biological method of reproducing human beings? These are three very different tasks. The first one is a purely engineering task; the machine must accomplish the task regardless of the method–any route to the solution will do, so long as it is tractable and efficient. The second is cognitive science, inspired by Giambattista Vico; “the true and the made are convertible” (Verum et factum convertuntur) or “the true is precisely what is made” (Verum esse ipsum factum); we will only understand the mind, and possess a ‘true’ model of it when we make it. The third is more curious (and related to the second)–it immediately implicates us in the task of making artificial persons. Perhaps by figuring out how the brain works, we can mimic human cognition but this capacity might be  placed in a non-human form made of silicon or plastic or some metal; the artificial persons project insists on a human form–the android or humanoid robot–and on replicating uniquely human capacities including the moral and aesthetic ones. This would require the original cognitive science project to be extended to an all-encompassing project of understanding human physiology so that its bodily functions can be replicated. Which immediately raises the question: why make artificial persons? We have a perfectly good way of making human replicants; and many people actually enjoy engaging in this process. So why make artificial persons this way? If the answer is to increase our knowledge of human beings’ workings, then we might well ask: To what end? To cure incurable diseases? To make us happier? To release us from biological prisons so that we may, in some singularity inspired fantasy, migrate our souls to these more durable containers? Or do we need them to be in human form, so that they can realistically–in all the right ways–fulfill all the functions we will require them to perform. For instance, as in Westworld, they could be our sex slaves, or as in Blade Runner, they could perform dangerous and onerous tasks that human beings are unwilling or unable to do. And, of course, prop up ecologically unstable civilizations like ours.
  2. It is a philosophical commonplace–well, at least to Goethe and Nietzsche, among others–that constraint is necessary for freedom; we cannot be free unless we are restrained, somehow, by law and rule and regulation and artifice. But is it necessary that we ourselves be restrained in order to be free? The Greeks figured out that the slave could be enslaved, lose his freedom, and through this loss, his owner, his master, could be free; as Hannah Arendt puts it in The Human Condition the work of the slaves–barbarians and women–does ‘labor’ for the owner, keeping the owner alive, taking care of his biological necessity, and freeing him up to go to the polis and do politics in a state of freedom, in the company of other property-owning householders like him. So: the slave is necessary for freedom; either we enslave ourselves, suppress our appetites and desires and drives and sublimate and channel them into the ‘right’ outlets, or we enslave someone else. (Freud noted glumly in Civilization and its Discontents that civilization enslaves our desires.) If we cannot enslave humans, with all their capricious desires to be free, then we can enslave other creatures, perhaps animals, domesticating them to turn them into companions and food. And if we ever become technologically adept at reproducing those processes that produce humans or persons, we can make copies–replicants–of ourselves, artificial persons, that mimic us in all the right ways, and keep us free. These slaves, by being slaves, make us free.

Much more on Blade Runner 2049 anon.

The Self As Prison

In his review of Charles Simic‘s The Lunatic: Poems and The Life of Images: Selected Prose Phillip Lopate makes note of Simic’s “cultivation of awe,” his “opening himself to chance, that favorite tactic of Surrealists” and makes note of this pronouncement:

Others pray to God; I pray to chance to show me the way out of this prison I call myself.

I have written here about the difficulties and myths of ‘self-improvement’; one of the possibilities suggested by those difficulties is a terrifying species of realization, of self-discovery, perhaps the most terrifying possibility of all: that we want to change, but find that we cannot, and this knowledge of our inability to do so does not in turn bring about a corresponding diminution of the desire to change. (Hannah Arendt has written of the perennial “wish to escape the human condition;” we may also wish to escape our own personal version of that condition.) We are now locked in a hell of our own making, locked into an eternal ‘repetition compulsion,’ doomed to spend our days like a not-cheerful Sisyphus, one not reconciled to his fate. We wish to change; we find that the combination of this world’s arrangements and workings and our own capacities and inclinations and limitations do not permit such a change; we retreat, defeated time and again in our attempts to transcend ourselves.  We find failure and disgruntlement each time; but rather than accept defeat and ‘go home,’ we, unable to reconcile ourselves to this state of affairs, to the distance now revealed of a bridge too far, persist.

There is nothing noble or heroic about such persistence now; we are not possessed of an amor fati, we do not ‘own it’; we seek to distance ourselves from ourselves, but cannot. We are not reconciled to our being; we are tormented by ourselves, by the bars for this cage we have constructed on our own. Time on the couch does not help; we are urged to construct a narrative of our life that would make sense of the state we find ourselves in, and simultaneously suggest an onward path; we find ourselves unable to write this tale, to take the first step on a new road. And if we do, we find a familiar character populating that myth, we find familiar roadblocks. We are dogged, at every step, by ourselves.

Our ambitions, which almost always outstrip our abilities and capacities, may bring us to this pass; so might the ambition of others. This world’s orderings might suggest routes and journeys that are not for us to undertake. They require us to be not ourselves, and we cannot change.

This a terrifying state of affairs; all too many of us find ourselves in this state of being. Hell is here, on earth. It is not other people; as John Milton’s Satan had noted,

A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven
What matter where, if I be still the same

Hell can be, and very often is, just us.


Hannah Arendt On Our Creations’ Independent Lives

In ‘Remarks to the American Society of Christian Ethics’ (Library of Congress MSS Box 70, p. 011828)¹,   Hannah Arendt notes,

Each time you write something and send it out into the world and it becomes public, obviously everybody is free to do with it what he pleases, and this is as it should be. I do not have any quarrel with this. You should not try to hold your hand now on whatever may happen to what you have been thinking for yourself. You should rather try to learn from what other people do with it.

In a post responding to David Simon‘s complaints about viewer’s ‘misinterpretations’ of his The Wire, I had written:

[T]here is something rather quaint and old-fashioned in the suggestion that viewers are getting it wrong, that they misconceived the show, that there is, so to speak, some sort of gap between their understanding and take on the show and the meaning that Simon intended, and that this is a crucial lacunae….once the show was made and released, any kind of control [Simon] might have exerted over its meaning was gone. The show doesn’t exist in some autonomous region of meaning that Simon controls access to; it is in a place where its meaning is constructed actively by its spectators and in many ways by the larger world that it is embedded in.

Arendt’s remarks obviously apply to the business of interpreting artistic works–just like they do to other creations of the human mind like philosophical theories of politics and morality. Once ‘made,’ once theorized, and sent ‘out there,’ they have a life of their own, now subject to the hermeneutical sensibilities and strategies of those who come into contact with them; these encounters are mediated by the interests and inclinations and prejudices of the work’s interpreters (as Gadamer would have noted), by the history of the world that has intervened in the period between the creation of the work and its reception by others. To attempt to reclaim the work, to insist on the primacy of the creator’s vision at the cost of others, to regulate how the work may be thought of and more ambitiously, modified to produce derivative works–these are acts of hubris, of vainglory. The openness of such works to a series of rebirths and reinvigorations prepares it for its encounter with greatness; its ability to entertain multiple ‘readings,’ to provide room for fertile exploration with every new generation, these mark a work out as a ‘classic’ one; indeed, such fecundity in the face of repeated exegesis is perhaps the most enduring condition of the ‘classic.’

Arendt’s remarks are cited by Margaret Conovan in her ‘Introduction’ in Arendt’s The Human Condition (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998, p. xx) as he claims that this difficult but rich work will continue to endure precisely because it affords its readers so much opportunity for their own idiosyncratic encounters with the text and its theses. My discussions with my students this semester–as we read Arendt’s book together–will, I think, bolster Conovan’s assertions.

Anticipating Another Encounter With Books And Students

This coming fall semester promises to be a cracker: I have the usual heavy teaching load of three classes (including two four-credit classes whose lectures will be one hundred minutes long, thus making for a very exhausting Monday-Wednesday sequence of teaching running from 9:05 AM to 3:30 PM, with an hour break between the second and third class meetings); and I will be trying to make some headway on a pair of manuscripts, both due next year in May and August respectively (one project examines the Bollywood war movie and the Indian popular imagination, another conducts a philosophical examination of the Indian film director Shyam Benegal’s work.)

The three classes I will be teaching this semester are: Social Philosophy, Philosophy of Law, and Landmarks in the History of Philosophy. The following are their reading lists: the first two classes below feature my favored kind of reading assignments–pick a few select texts and read them from cover to cover; this is a slightly risky move, given that my students–and  I–might find out, together, that the text is ‘not working.’ For whatever reason; some works do not bear up well under closer inspection in a classroom, some material turns out to be tougher to teach and discuss than imagined, and so on. When it works though, a detailed and sustained examination of a philosophical work pregnant with meaning can work wonders, allowing my students and I to trace the various strands of complex arguments at leisure, drawing out their many interpretations and understandings as we do so.

Social Philosophy: 

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press; 2nd ed., 1998,

Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, Routledge Classics,

Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, W. W. Norton & Company, 1989,

Landmarks in the History of Philosophy:

William James, Pragmatism, Dover, 1995

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Dover, 1996,

Thomas Szaz, The Myth of Mental Illness, Harper Perennial

Philosophy of Law: 

‘The Case of the Speluncean Explorers’ by Lon Fuller (to introduce my students–briefly and vividly, hopefully–to theories of natural law, positivism, and some tenets of the interpretation of legal texts.)

HLA Hart, ‘On Primary and Secondary Rules’

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, ‘The Path of the Law’

David Caudill and Jay Gold, Radical Philosophy of Law

Besides these three classes, I will also be conducting an independent study with an undergraduate student on the relationship between Nietzsche’s writings and Buddhism; this promises to be especially fascinating. The following is the list of books my student and I will work through over the course of the semester:

Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities

Nietzsche and Zen: Self Overcoming Without a Self 

Nietzsche and BuddhismProlegomenon to a Comparative Study

Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy

Every semester, as always, brings on that same trembling anticipation: books and students and all the promises those encounters hold–the revelations, the surprises, the discoveries, the missteps. What a great way to spend one’s waking hours; I will have ample opportunities to count my blessings in the weeks that lie ahead.

Hannah Arendt On The Rehabilitation Of George W. Bush

In Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Penguin Classics, New York, p. 144-145, [1963], 2006), Hannah Arendt, making note of Heinrich Himmler‘s ‘change of heart’–as German defeat loomed in the Second World War–with regards to the Final Solution, as he considered suspending the mass killings at Auschwitz, writes:

It was about at this time that a “moderate wing” of the S.S came into existence, consisting of those who were stupid enough to believe that a murderer who could prove he had not killed as many people as he could have killed would have a marvelous alibi, and those who were clever enough to foresee a return to “normal conditions,” when money and good connections would again be of paramount importance.

George W. Bush is making a comeback, and he is being welcomed back with open arms. He has defended the media, under fire from Donald Trump as the ‘enemies of the people,’ he has bemoaned the ‘racism’ present in the American polity’s discourse; he has received hugs from First Ladies; he has been talked up by stand-up comics and liberal talk-show hosts. Welcome back, Dubya; we missed ya. (Even though you walked back your ‘criticism’ of Donald Trump.)

Love means never having to say you are sorry.

Apparently, we love George W. Bush, a mass murdering war criminal, who oversaw torture on his watch, who having bided his time during the Obama Presidency, has now chosen to speak up during the Donald Trump years, all the better to take advantage of an ostensible dramatic contrast with a crude buffoon. George W. Bush remembers only all too well that the scorn that that is now directed at Trump was once sent his way; he is grateful for the cover our Great Orange Leader has now provided him, especially as he count on the fawning admiration of the same commentariat and pundit class that saw fit to deem Donald Trump ‘presidential’ once he had provided proof of his ability to read a prepared speech for television and indulge in the oldest political clichés of all time, that of paying homage to ‘our troops.’

It is unsurprising that George W. Bush’s stock would rise on stepping down from the Oval Office. Our nation’s memory is short; we are all too eager to believe that everything that happens is sui generis and ab initio (and any other Latin phrases you’d like to deploy to make the same point), that all is unprecedented, extraordinary, novel, utterly lacking in historical provenance. Donald Trump is a singularity, appearing suddenly, dramatically, out of nowhere, posing a radical disjuncture with all that preceded him. We appear unwilling to consider that he is the product of a particular political party with an established track record, one whose leaders waged an illegal war and tortured, who were not prosecuted by the Obama Administration, which then went on to wage more war, and further expand the powers and reach of the executive branch, which now provides a veritable arsenal of loaded weapons to Donald Trump. (To his credit, Trump has not as yet ordered illegal war resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of ‘furriners,’ though he might be sorely tempted to do so, given the standing ovation on Monday night.)

Why wouldn’t we forgive and forget? All the better to prepare ourselves for the next unprecedented moment in American history. The loss of memory is the best way to ensure novelty.

Arendt, the Problem of ‘The Absolute’ and Revolutionary Fascination by Antiquity

There are many, many remarkable passages in Hannah Arendt‘s On Revolution, which forms part of my reading list for this fall semester’s Political Philosophy seminar. In particular, there is a profusion of them in Chapter 5, ‘Novus Ordo Saeclorum’. Here Arendt offers an analysis of the problem of legitimacy of post-revolutionary government i.e., the problem of ‘the absolute’, which confronts any system of power that dispenses with transcendent and transhumane sources of sanction (like those relied upon by the Church and monarchies) and concentrates on seeking foundations in the secular, the mundane, the profane, the earthly, the human. Arendt, in attempting to show how this problem might have been addressed by the American revolutionaries, goes on to note the inspiration that Roman antiquity provided to American and French revolutionaries alike, and provides an understanding of ‘revolution’ as ‘restoration’; it is a treatment remarkable both for its erudition and insight and should be required reading for any student of political theory. This chapter should be required reading, too, in any Philosophy of Law course for the keen understanding it displays of the natural and positive law debates. The relationship of law to political power, which is often missing in standard philosophical takes on these, is front and center in Arendt’s analysis.

I hope to write a more detailed analysis of this chapter sometime soon; for now, here is a tiny sampler, one which picks up on the perplexity that might be occasioned by noting the enthusiasm revolutionaries had for the ancients, and which, I think, is still relevant, as is most of Arendt’s analysis, for our day and age:

It has often been noticed that the actions of the men of the revolutions were inspired and guided to an extraordinary degree by the examples of Roman antiquity, and this is not only true for the French Revolution, whose agents had indeed an extraordinary flair for the theatrical; the Americans, perhaps, thought less of themselves in terms of ancient  greatness – though Thomas Paine was wont to think ‘what Athens was in miniature, America will be in magnitude’ – they certainly were conscious of emulating ancient virtue. When Saint-Just exclaimed, ‘The world has been empty since the Romans and is filled only with their memory, which is now our only prophecy of freedom’, he was echoing John Adams, to whom ‘the Roman constitution formed the noblest people and the greatest power that has ever existed’, just as Paine’s remark was preceded by James Wilson’s prediction that ‘the glory of America will rival- it will outshine the glory of Greece’. I have mentioned how strange this enthusiasm for the ancients actually was, how out of tune with the modern age, how unexpected that the men of the revolutions should turn to a distant past which had been so vehemently denounced by the scientists and the philosophers of the seventeenth century. And yet, when we recall with what  enthusiasm for ‘ancient prudence’ Cromwell’s short dictatorship had been greeted even in the seventeenth century by Harrington and. Milton, and with what unerring precision Montesquieu, in the first part of the eighteenth century,  turned his attention to the Romans again, we may well come to the conclusion that, without the classical example shining through the centuries, none of the men of the revolutions on either side of the Atlantic would have possessed the courage for what then. turned out to be unprecedented action. Historically speaking, it was as though the Renaissance’s revival of antiquity that had come to an abrupt end with the rise of the modern age should suddenly be granted another lease on life, as though the republican fervour of the short-lived Italian city-states – foredoomed, as Machiavelli ,knew so well, by the advent of the nation-state – had only lain dormant to give the nations of Europe the time to grow up, as it were, under the tutelage of absolute princes and enlightened despots.

However that may be, the reason why the men of the revolutions turned to antiquity for inspiration and guidance was most emphatically not a romantic yearning for past and tradition. Romantic conservatism – and which conservatism worth its salt has not been romantic? – was a consequence of the revolutions, more specifically of the failure of revolution in Europe; and this conservatism turned to the Middles Ages, not to antiquity; it glorified those centuries when the secular realm of worldly politics received its light from the splendour of the Church, that is, when the public realm lived from borrowed light. The men of the revolutions prided themselves on their ‘enlightenment’, on their intellectual freedom from tradition, and since they had not yet discovered the spiritual perplexities of this situation, they were still untainted by the sentimentalities about the past and traditions in general which were to become so characteristic for the intellectual climate of the early nineteenth century. When they turned to the ancients, it was because they discovered in them a dimension which had not been handed down by tradition – neither by the traditions of customs and institutions nor by the great tradition of Western thought and concept. Hence, it was not tradition that bound them back to the beginnings of Western history but, on the contrary, their own experiences, for which they needed models and precedents. And the great model and precedent, all occasional rhetoric about the glory of Athens and Greece notwithstanding, was for them, as it had been for Machiavelli, the Roman republic and the grandeur of its history.

Note: The problem of the absolute is a familiar one: it appears in another form in discussions of the foundations of ethics, in the problem of finding an absolute authority to back up moral obligations when belief in divine commands is lacking; in The Brothers Karamazov it is what perplexed Dimitri when he heard Father Paissy recount Ivan’s argument that immorality follows without belief in immortality.

Studying Political Philosophy via Revolutions (Well, Three of Them)

Today, I’m going to think out loud about the syllabus I’m designing for the coming fall semester’s seminar on Political Philosophy. (I’m conducting this rumination in a public forum in the hope of helping me finalize this pesky business; please do chime in with suggestions, critiques, bouquets, brickbats etc.) My class will meet twice a week–two hundred-minute classroom sessions–count for four credits, and is roughly re-describable as ‘Classical and Contemporary Social and Political Philosophy.’ (This would clear things up considerably were it not for the fact that our department also offers Social Philosophy, which I’m told, is also redescribable as ‘Classical and Contemporary Social and Political Philosophy.’)

In the fall, I plan to center my class’ discussions and readings on political revolutions; to use the French, American and Haitian Revolutions to introduce and illustrate  many central questions of political philosophy: the nature of political power and the state, political resistance, the rights of citizens, the nature of citizenship, the legitimacy of legal regimes, the varieties of political unions, the nature of conservatism etc. The readings then, should be a mix of contemporary polemics and retrospective evaluation.

For the French Revolution, we’ll begin with SieyesWhat is the Third Estate, then read Edmund Burke‘s classic, Reflections on The Revolution in France, followed by some yet-to-settled-on excerpts from Michael Walzer‘s Regicide and Revolution and Tocqueville‘s Ancien Regime and the French Revolution, and close with Maistre‘s Considerations on France. I will probably include: some material by Robespierre and William Doyle’s A Very Short History (to start things off).

For the American Revolution, we will probably begin with excerpts from Trenchard and Gordon’s Cato’s Letters before reading Thomas Paine‘s The Rights of Man and Common Sense. (A new Verso edition that collects these two looks promising.) Then we’ll read some of The Federalist Papers. The current list includes 1-3, 9-10, 14-15; time permitting: 22-23, 26-27, 37, 39, 47-48; and then 84, 78, 70, 39, 51.

Having read a bit about the French and American Revolutions, we will read Hannah Arendt‘s On Revolution before moving on to the Haitian Revolution. As historical background, we’ll read CLR JamesBlack Jacobins. (I’m also considering Laurent Dubois’ Avengers of the New World.) For theoretical assessments, we’ll read excerpts from Nick Nesbitt’s Universal Emancipation (I’m inclined to think the Nesbitt’s writing is likely to present a challenge to many of my students) and Susan Buck-MorssHegel and Haiti. (I’ve just been pointed to Aristide’s edited collection of Toussaint L’ouverture‘s writings, collected in The Haitian Revolution (Verso) and will probably include selections from there.)

So: This isn’t a perfect syllabus by any means. There is possibly too much reading–but I had to leave so much out!–and too little balance. But I think it does well in providing a historically situated debate on most of the central questions of political philosophy. The writing is accessible; indeed, there are a few stylists in there (Burke,Paine, the Federalist Papers etc) so the reading assignments should be quite enjoyable. Most of the pieces are provocative with a few that have real polemical bite.

It should make for an entertaining fourteen weeks.