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.

Laurence Olivier on the Indispensability of Personas

In his autobiography, Confessions of an Actor (Penguin, 1982), Laurence Olivier writes of an unforgettable mentor, and reveals a great deal about acting:

[Miss Fogerty] gave me one unforgettable, very special word of advice, which has been imprinted forever in my memory. I can’t think of when, if ever, I had heard or known such a penetrating foray into the hazardous area of an actor’s psychological weakness. During my recitation I had noticed her shading her eyes top and bottom in order to peer at me with greater intensity. She now leant towards me and said, “You have weakness…here,” and placed the tip of her little finger on my forehead against the base of my remarkably low hairline, and slid it down to rest in the deep hollow of my brow line and the top of my nose. There was obviously some shyness behind my gaze. This was a thing I comprehended so completely  that it shadowed my first few years as an actor. I am not imputing to Elsie Fogerty the responsibility for a psychological block–it was simply not like that, I knew it was true, there was a weakness there. It lasted until I discovered the protective shelter of nose putty and enjoyed a pleasurable sense of relief and relaxation when some character part called for a sculptural addition to my face, affording me the shelter of an alien character and enabling me to avoid anything so embarrassing as self-representation. [pp. 37-38]

You wouldn’t consider actors to be shy folks. But many of them are. One way to overcome that shyness, of course, as many acting coaches tell their wards, is to simply get ‘into character.’ After all, once you are busy being someone else, you are too busy to be shy or embarrassed, emotional and psychological states that belong to your older self; you are now someone else, you inhabit another persona, and this one certainly is too busy doing whatever it is that your character requires. You have a new persona.

But sometimes actors, the shy ones like Olivier, or even those that are not, have to be reminded they inhabit another persona. The easiest way to do this is the oldest: the mask (from which the word ‘persona’ is derived); it enables the easy slipping into, the taking on, of another personality, another self. The disguise it afforded was all the cover required to transcend one’s awkwardness in an old skin; it was a putting on that enabled a shedding off. But as Olivier points out, you don’t even need anything as elaborate as a mask; even simple nose putty will do. The essentials are then in place; a physical barrier is placed between ‘in here’ and ‘out there’; and now, comforted by this separation, this distancing, the previously discomfited can get on with the business of being someone else.

Representing ourselves is always a tough business; we are not quite sure what to bring forth, what to suppress, what will meet with approval, what with dismay. The mask, the persona can provide some much-needed cover and calm for this state of psychic confusion and bewilderment.

Schopenhauer on Revealing Our True Feelings

Thus spake Schopenhauer:

If you want to know how you really feel about someone take note of the impression an unexpected letter from him makes on you when you first see it on the doormat.¹

Why does Schopenhauer imagine that these kinds of reactions of ours would be particularly revealing of our ‘true’ feelings towards our acquaintances? One can hazard some educated guesses.

First, Schopenhauer suggests that on hearing from someone unexpectedly, we are caught off-guard, unprepared by social conditioning and convention, unable to fall back on safe, canned responses.  Thus, our first reaction is very likely to be an instinctive one, a ‘true’ indicator of our visceral, deeply rooted feelings. (There is also the small matter of the fact that more often than not, we will be alone when we pick up the mail and thus, unlikely to be putting on a performance for anyone else.) Schopenhauer deliberately does not suggest that our true feelings would be revealed during a chance personal encounter with an old acquaintance; for then our reactions would be affected by his presence, his eyes upon us.  We might then ‘perform’ for him. Rather, we must be made conscious of our acquaintance without feeling we need to ‘perform’ for him and conform to his expectations of how we would respond to his presence, his station in life, his role in ours. (Presumably, Schopenhauer might think we would have a similarly authentic reaction were we to unexpectedly encounter someone’s letter or photograph in a personal collection of ours; there again, we would be alone and able to respond unguardedly and unselfconsciously.)

Second, Schopenhauer suggests that most social encounters are well-defined and circumscribed ones, their parameters of acceptable behavioral responses quite clearly delineated by all manners of social norms, conventions and niceties; in these settings, we are not being ourselves but are rather, playing very particular roles. As he notes elsewhere in his essays:

There is an unconscious appositeness in the use of the word person to designate the human individual, as it is done in all European languages: for persona means an actor’s mask, and it is true that no one reveals himself as he is; we all wear a mask and play a role.

Here Schopenhauer takes refuge in the unnecessary essentialism of ‘himself as he is’. While this is perhaps unsurprising for someone so fond of the otherwise incomprehensible notion of ‘thing-in-itself‘, he could well have rested content with noting that what we consider someone’s personality is merely the sum total of these roles. There is nothing left over once these roles are accounted for. As the first aphorism suggests, Schopenhauer does think there is a ‘genuine core’ left over. But perhaps even our reaction to the unexpected letter might be a kind of role-playing, one performed for the ever-present witness of our selves. Certainly, in the conversations–sometimes silent, sometimes not–we have with ourselves all day long, we constantly acknowledge the presence of this other.

Notes:

1. Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms, ‘On Psychology’, R. J. Hollingdale, Penguin, New York, p. 171.

Paul Valéry on the Indispensability of Avatars

Paul Valéry is quoted in Stephen Dunn‘s Walking Light (New York, Norton 1993) as saying:

I believe in all sincerity that if each man were not able to live a number of lives besides his own, he would not be able to live his own life.

Valéry’s stress on the sincerity of this claim for the necessity of multiple personalities and selves is required, obviously, in case our first response is to ask which one of his selves is speaking.¹ But with that out of the way, we can get down to inquiring into the grounds for such a pressing need: Why is this multiplicity desirable? Why disdain a coherent, unitary, integrated, self? Or at least, why imagine that to maintain the appearance of one life, one self–for that is all that appears to remain in Valery’s imagining–many others are needed and necessary?

Perhaps because Valéry has noticed, like many of us do, that to want to take on many lives, to imagine living them in all of their particular details, appears as an essential component of our days and nights, that the taking on and trying out, of a new self is an integral part of our appreciation of the arts, and indeed, of others. If we empathize, it is because we can imagine ourselves as another; if we gaze in wonder at a painting depicting the joy, or sorrow, or daily tedium of another, it is because our imaginative capacity has revealed itself in our taking on the beings of those depicted on the canvas in front of us; if we feel ourselves captivated by a novel’s characters it is because we have allowed ourselves to feel themselves in us, to become them while we read.

Perhaps it is also because Valéry notices the difficulty in maintaining a coherent narrative of the self through our past and present, when physical appearances are fleeting, where psychological change is almost as continuous as our external transformation, where the attenuation, modification and alteration of the face(s) we present to our daily circumstances is a never-ending task requiring much careful attention and customization. More importantly it is a task we revel in, not one we resent. If there is a stable self, it appears at best as a convenient, fictional foundation for all the performances staged on it.

So the Internet didn’t create avatars or make them more popular; it just gave them another space to be shown and displayed in. It wasn’t and isn’t any different from all the other spaces in which we put on our personas: the office, the bedroom, the playing field, the performing stage. It lets us pretty up the avatar-construction and the showing and telling, but the activities it facilitates are not considerably different from those that take place in physical spaces: the artful posturing, the careful selection of profiles, the self-regulated speech–a Twitter feed or a Facebook timeline with a ‘personality’ can often function just like a feigned accent, a dressing-up, a personality makeover.

From many one, or rather, to approximate one, many. To convey the appearance of a self, one must appear to have many.

Notes:

1. As Adam Phillips does in Terrors and Experts pp. 81.