Wittgenstein’s Lion And Solaris

Kris Kelvin, Snow, Gibrarian, and Sartorius are all puzzled and perplexed; as other educated and intelligent residents of Station Solaris–a sophisticated scientific laboratory–have been before them. They are stumped and bewildered by their interactions with the planet Solaris, with the ocean that covers its surface, the one that plays host to mimoids and symmetriads and asymmetriads and vertebrids extensors and fungoids and other strange and wondrous physical forms, which seems to be able to conjure up, out of its own chosen raw materials, facsimiles of the human form–like Kelvin’s former, dearly beloved, and now sadly departed love–that are good enough to induce genuine confusion about their identity on the part of those who would interact with them.

Does the ocean live, is it conscious, does it have a body or a mind? Is it intelligent? Is it communicating with human beings? Does it speak a language? Does it possess knowledge of mathematics or computation? Does the surface of the ocean on Solaris engage in computations; is that what the changes in its physical form signify?Are these human forms, the ones that look like the ones we love, are they forms of communication on the part of the planet? Has it scanned our brains, discovered our obsessions and physically realized them in an attempt to establish contact with us? Has it performed a series of vivisections on our brains and psyches, treating us flippantly like objects for experimentation–the way we have treated physical materials and other species on this planet?

The planet is, of course, Wittgenstein’s lion. It has spoken and we do not understand it. All that the scientists on Station Solaris can bring to bear on their interactions with the planet is their knowledge of themselves and other human beings–and their interactions with each other; this knowledge–of their particular ‘forms of life’–forces them into a particular interpretive stance with respect to the planet, one whose prisoners they remain, and which does not afford a unique and determinative understanding of what the nature of the planet is, and or what it might be trying to say–if it is trying to say anything in the first place. The planet has its own ‘form of life‘ that regulates and determines the form and content of its interactions with the human beings engaged with it; there is little guarantee that this communication is set up to enhance, or even make possible, understanding on the part of its human interlocutors.

Kelvin and Snow and Sartorius and Gibarian have come to realize that these concepts they trade in–life, mind, consciousness, thought, persons, intelligence, brain, language–find their meaning with respect to a particular form of life and being–they do not transcend it. They do not allow for the determination of whether the planet, a ‘being’ perhaps radically similar or dissimilar to them, traffics in similar concepts, or anything like them. If they were to ascribe a ‘life’ or a ‘mind’ to Solaris, it would be an asterisked one–‘life as we know it’–and perhaps that’s all we can or should aspire to.

Black Mirror’s Third Season Nosedives In The First Episode

Black Mirror used to be the real deal: a television show that brought us clever, scary satire about the brave new dystopic, over-technologized world that we are already living in. It was creepy; it was brutal in its exposure of human frailty in the face of technology’s encroachment on our sense of self and our personal relationships.  We are fast becoming–indeed, we already are–slaves to our technology in ways that are warping our moral and psychological being; we are changing, and not always in ways that are pleasant.

That old Black Mirror is no longer so–at least, if the first episode of the rebooted third season is any indication. (Netflix has made the show its own; six new episodes are on display starting yesterday.) In particular, the show has been ‘Americanized’–in the worst way possible, by being made melodramatic. This has been accomplished by violating one of the cardinal principles of storytelling: show, don’t tell.

Season three’s first episode–‘Nosedive‘–takes our current fears about social media and elevates them in the context of a ratings scheme for the offline social world–complete with likes and indexed scores of social likeability based on instant assessments of everyone by everyone as they interact with each other in various social settings. See a person, interact with them, rate them; then, draw on your cumulative indexed score to score social benefits. Or, be locked out of society because your score, your social quotient, the number that reflects how others see you, is too low.

The stuff of nightmares, you’ll agree. Except that ‘Nosedive’ doesn’t pull it off. Its central character, Lacie Pound, a young woman overly anxious about her social ranking, commits to attending a social encounter that will hopefully raise her social quotient, thus enabling her to qualify for a loan discount and a dream apartment; but the journey to that encounter, and her actual presence there, is a catastrophe that has exactly the opposite effect. In the hands of the right director and writer this could have been a devastating tale.

But ‘Nosedive’s makers are not content to let the story and the characters speak for themselves. Instead, they beat us over the head with gratuitous moralizing, largely by inserting two superfluous characters: a brother who seems to exist merely to lecture the young woman about her misguided subscription to current social media fashions, and a kindly old outcast woman–with a low social quotient, natch–who suggests there is more to life than getting the best possible ranking. These characters are irritating and misplaced; they drag the story down, telling us much that only needed to be shown, sonorously droning on about how the show is meant to be understood. It is as if the show’s makers did not trust their viewers to make the kinds of inferences they think we should be making.

The old Black Mirror was austere and grim; its humor was black. This new season’s first episode was confused in tone: almost as if it felt its darkness needed to leavened by some heavy-handed relief. I’ll keep watching for now; perhaps the gloom will return.

‘Eva’: Love Can Be Skin-Deep (Justifiably)

Kike Maíllo’s Eva makes for an interesting contribution to the ever-growing–in recent times–genre of robotics and artificial intelligence movies. That is because its central concern–the emulation of humanity by robots–which is not particularly novel in itself, is portrayed in familiar and yet distinctive, form.

The most common objection to the personhood of the ‘artificially sentient,’ the ‘artificially intelligent,’ or ‘artificial agents’ and ‘artificial persons’ is couched in terms similar to the following: How could silicon and plastic ever feel, taste, hurt?  There is no ‘I’ in these beings; no subject, no first-person, no self. If such beings ever provoked our affection and concerns, those reactions would remain entirely ersatz. We know too much about their ‘insides,’ about how they work. Our ‘epistemic hegemony’ over these beings–their internals are transparent to us, their designers and makers–and the dissimilarity between their material substrate and ours renders impossible their admission to our community of persons (those we consider worthy of our moral concern.)

As Eva makes quite clear, such considerations ignore the reality of how our relationships with other human beings are constructed in actuality. We respond first to visible criteria, to observable behavior, to patterns of social interaction; we then seek internal correspondences–biological, physiological–for these to confirm our initial reactions and establishments of social ties; we assume too, by way of abduction, an ‘inner world’ much like ours. But biological similarity is not determinative; if the visible behavior is not satisfactory, we do not hesitate to recommend banishment from the community of persons. (By ostracism, institutionalization, imprisonment etc.) And if visible behavior is indeed, as rich and varied and interactive as we imagine it should be for the formation of viable and rewarding relationships, then our desire to admit the being in question to the community of persons worthy of our moral care will withstand putative evidence that there is considerable difference in constitution and the nature of ‘inner worlds.’  If Martians consisting solely of green goo on the inside were to land on our planet and treat our children with kindness i.e., display kind behavior, and provide the right kinds of reasons–whether verbally or by way of display on an LED screen–when we asked them why they did so, only an irredeemable chauvinist would deny them admission to the community of moral persons.

Eva claims that a robot’s ‘mother’ and her ‘father’–her human designers–may love her in much the same way they would love their human children. For she may bring joy to their life in much the same way they would; she may smile, laugh giddily, play pranks, gaze at them in adoration, demand their protection and care, respond to their affectionate embraces, and so on. In doing so, she provokes older, evolutionarily established instincts of ours. These reactions of ours may strike us so compelling that even a look ‘under the hood’ may not deter their expression. We might come to learn that extending such feelings of acceptance and care to beings we had not previously considered so worthy might make new forms of life and relationships manifest. That doesn’t seem like such a bad bargain.

Parable of the Sower: Octavia Butler’s Parable

Octavia Butler‘s Parable of the Sower, the richly symbolic and subversive.story of Lauren Olamina, a prophet in the making, one finding her voice and her people in the midst of an America whose social order is collapsing around her, grows on you.  The story line is sparse: the US’ accumulated social, political and environmental dysfunctions have grown out of control thanks to a myopic complacent populace; some fortunate families shelter in gated communities while urban war rages outside; rape, murder, and mayhem rule rampant; a young girl, convinced she has devised a new religion, Earthseed–whose central principles are that ‘God is Change’ and can be ‘shaped’–finds her sheltering life within these walls untenable, and leaves after yet another attack on them convinces her it is more dangerous inside than outside. From that point on, she accumulates a small band of fellow travelers and heads north to possible safety. On the way she finds further gruesome evidence of the end of the new world and dreams about a new one. The haven promised them turns out to be a burnt-out shelter, the larger world on a smaller scale–but she chooses to drop anchor and get to work on it. (I’ve not read the sequel Parable of the Talents yet, but I intend to. Parable of the Sower was written in 1993, and it sets its action in the years 2025-2027. Though perhaps inevitable, I suspect it is besides the point to wonder if its speculations about a collapsing US are on the mark. The real story lies elsewhere. )

Parable of the Sower is subversive because the prophet is a young black girl, not an old white man. She is wise beyond her years. She is sexually active with young and old men alike; she can be harsh and soft.  She is scientifically literate. She is hyperempathic–she can literally feel the pain of others. (This is a dangerous ‘blessing’ in a world with so much pain but Lauren comes to learn its limits and to live with it.)  She is tough and resourceful and clever; we come to admire her as her dangerous journey progresses. We do not normally associate these qualities with people meeting Lauren’s description–not in this society anyway, with its dominant stereotypes and ideological frames of understanding.  Just for this character, Parable of the Sower would have been an interesting and enlightening read.

But there is more. Earthseed seems a little new-ageish, but teasing out some of Lauren’s pronouncements enable an understanding of it as a kind of existentialist creed, one grounded in a richly interactionist. embedded, dynamic view of man and nature and cosmos. Heaven and hell are found here, around us, made by us, shaped by our actions; the old religions shrouded them in mystery but we live in them everyday. (The shrewd prophet uses that old word ‘God’ to make her religion easier to follow by those accustomed to old anthropomorphic deities.) In a world headed for hell in a handbasket this religion offers no solace, facilitates no finger-pointing; the blame is ours, but so may be the rewards for reconstructing it.  No creed can, or should, offer more.


Ghost From The Machine: Once Again, The Dead Return

Matt Osterman‘s Ghost from the Machine (2010)–originally titled and known internationally as Phasma Ex Machina--is touted by its marketing material as a ‘supernatural thriller’. A low-budget indie, it uses a cast made up of genuine amateurs who sometimes look distinctly uncomfortable and self-conscious on camera, and wears its modest production values on its sleeve. The story sounds hokey enough: a young man, an amateur inventor of sorts, tries to bring his dead parents back to life by building an electrical machine that changes the electromagnetic field surrounding it (I think.) The parents, unsurprisingly, do not return from the dead, but other folks do: a widowed, fellow-garage-tinkerer neighbor’s long-dead wife, and a pair of murderous old folk. (The return to life of this latter bunch makes the movie into a ‘horror’ or ‘ghost’ film; bringing back the garage-tinkerer’s wife would only have made it ‘supernatural.’)

For all that PEM manages to often be genuinely thought-provoking. It is so because its treatment of its subject matter invites immediate analogizing–not comparison–with two cinematic classics: Alfred Hitchcock‘s Vertigo and Andrei Tarkovsky‘s Solaris. In Vertigo, Scottie brings back from the ‘dead’–via an uncanny, painstaking reconstruction–the haunting subject of his obsession, Madeleine, and in Tarkovsky’s Solaris, the dead–in particular, the scientist Kris Kelvin’s dead wife, Hari–come back to life as physical manifestations of long-held, deeply-felt desires and fantasies. In Phasma Ex Machina, the garage inventor’s wife comes back to life; she is, as Hari is in Solaris, made manifest–imperfectly–as his previously unfulfilled desires.

The fantasy at the heart of these movies is similar: primarily, it is that of beating death at its grimly inevitable game. In each case, the agency that makes it so differs. In Vertigo, Scottie makes the immortalizing happen; he forces his new girlfriend–via a kind of physical mortification of bodily appearance and clothing–into the desired mold. This return is only figurative–since Madeleine has never died, Judy brings her back to life by assuming her form. In Solaris, the reconstructing agency is possessed by the mysterious planet–a strange, inexplicable, natural phenomenon, a force field that populates the world with the desires of its inhabitants. In Phasma Ex Machina a similar force field is present, but it is the result of the inventor’s tinkering; it is his mastery of the subversion of nature that brings about the return of the dead.  (The wishing for the parents’ return to life is of course, an especially primeval fantasy; the premature loss of a parent is a particularly terrible loss, perhaps only exceeded in its poignancy by the loss of a child to the parent. Here, the fantasy is made more affecting because the central character–the ‘inventor’–believes himself to have been responsible for his parent’s death. We might even see the death of the parents as an earlier fantasy having gone terribly wrong; the son might have fantasized about his father’s death, but his successful wishing so brought his mother’s death in its wake. Oedipus never stops screwing things up.)

In each of the three movies noted here, the effect of the reconstruction is deeply flawed: the resurrected dead are only real insofar as they are objects of someone’s subjectivity–in each case, the fantasy is shattered. (As Žižek notes in the The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema–in referring to Solaris–this is a “low form of male fantasy’. Here, woman exists only in the imagination of man, her flaws and defects exist insofar as they are present in the male conception of her, the visible shortcomings of which her ultimately make her return so deeply, terribly, frightening.) In PEM too, the dream becomes a nightmare. While the son might only have wished to bring back his parents to life he does a great deal more–as the unexpected appearances of murderers shows. The world then, becomes just a tad more terrifying. For it is revealed to not be indifferent; instead, the world and the natural order might actually respond to our prayers and entreaties but with their own idiosyncratic interpretation of the form and content of our fantasies. Perhaps we might fear the incompletely realized fantasy more than we fear the indifferent world. In one case, we confront a world deaf to our importunations; in the latter we take the chance the world might hear a prayer we had never directed toward it.

One might read some old-fashioned moral instruction into both Vertigo and Phasma Ex Machina–an indictment of the Frankensteinian arrogance and ignorance of the scientist, who blunders on, attempting to remake reality into a form more amenable to him. But I think the movie says more than that.

There is a curiously mixed sensibility–perhaps Nietzschean, perhaps religious–at the heart of Phasma Ex Machina–it preaches to us the virtues of a Stoic acceptance of our fate, of the hand dealt to us, to take on, and not reject, all of our selves, past and present, along with their imperfections and flaws. It suggests an amor fati of sorts: a taking on, an acceptance, of our older lives and actions, of absorbing the consequences of our actions into the lives we choose to live. The young inventor, who with his machine aims to violently disrupt the very fabric of space-time, is urged–by an internal conscience during a moment of internal reckoning–to accept, internalize, and resolve his guilt over his parent’s death, which was not ’caused’ by him, but which invites such an analysis from the grief-stricken. He is urged too, to return to the daily particulars of his life, which include the responsibilities he owes to his younger brother, whose guardian he now is. (PEM gratuitously makes it the case that ceasing his experimentation, destroying his beloved machine, will also have the positive side-effect of saving his younger brother from the murderous attention of the former residents of their house.) This life’s work, its relationship with the living await; attending to the dead is a non-virtuous turning away.

These comparisons with Vertigo and Solaris have only been hinted at here by me; much more, I think, could be said, about the recurring cinematic fantasy of bringing the dead back to life.

Mankind as Deluded Sisyphus

As the apocalypse closes in again on humanity in Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle For Leibowitz, Joshua, who has been ‘chosen’ to ‘escape’ into space, leaving this world behind, wonders about the cyclical nature of human history:

The closer men came to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they seemed to become with it, and with themselves as well. They made a garden of pleasure, and became progressively more miserable with it as it grew in richness and power and beauty; for them, perhaps, it was easier for them to see that something was  missing in the garden, some tree or shrub that would not grow. When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle’s eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn. Well, they were going to destroy it again, were they?–this garden Earth, civilized and knowing, to be torn apart again that Man might hope again in wretched darkness. [pp. 285]

These reflections on mankind’s supposed propensity for self-destruction indict it of a particular–and peculiar–failing: a lack of self-knowledge, a misguided or deluded Sisypheanism (which I noted a while ago in the context of personal quests for ‘self-improvement.’) To wit, the achievement of a previously desired state is not enough; a regression–to the bottom–is undertaken; the climb to the ‘top’ begins again; the pleasure of ascending through the ‘lower stages’ is re-experienced; and this novelty, this rapid transience, is all the reward sought or desired. The desired state, the supposed end point, is merely used as marker–it is never to be attained, only the pleasure of the movement toward it is sought.

The nature of the recurrence–the rise, the fall, the rise, the fall again–in mankind’s history, as depicted in Miller’s science-fiction classic, suggests that mankind prefers the anticipatory pleasures of hoping for unavailable light in the ‘wretched darkness’ to learning how to reconcile itself to the illumination of the brightly lit day. The ‘richness and power and beauty’ of this ‘garden of pleasure’ – the world constructed with knowledge and technique and painfully acquired wisdom acts as a disincentive for inquiry, as a retardant on the ‘yearning’, the movement to ‘perfection.’ Thus the destruction, so that the seeking, and its pleasures, may be re-experienced.

Here then, the inevitability of the recurrence finds its grounding in the nature of man, not in the workings of the cosmos. Man is not subject to the cycles of the Eternal Recurrence because such are the cosmologies he confronts, but rather it is because he is the kind of creature who will make of his world a cyclical one, in which he can find his most coveted pleasures in the form he desires. The darkness returns again and again because man brings it back, finding in its enveloping folds a space for his desires not afforded him elsewhere.

Ridley Scott’s Promethean Stinker

I often disagreed with Roger Ebert‘s rating of movies. Sometimes, our disagreement would be a simple matter of Ebert being a little too kind, a little too forgiving. The latest instance of this discord may be found in our differing assessments of Ridley Scott‘s Prometheus. Ebert gives it four stars. I don’t.

I found Prometheus to be a failure as a horror film, a philosophical meditation, or an action movie.   A few visually striking images, some memorable set pieces and an interesting character–the android David–did not compensate for a movie that felt stale quite quickly.

My disappointments began early. Indeed, matters go rapidly downhill once the humans wake up from their hibernatory slumbers on the good ship Prometheus, Their motivations–despite the avowedly profound goal they declare themselves dedicated too–are not particularly interesting and neither are their resultant interactions. Try as I did, I found it hard to get worked up about their fates. So in a movie whose central characters frequently emphasize their soul-centric humanity to their android interlocutor, it is the latter is that is more emotionally affecting, a more compelling focus of our attention and interest. (I think I could have stood a version of Prometheus–shorter, of course–that features David navigating–by himself–the mysteries and attractions of  the LV-223 moon).

The central conceits of the movie–that it can simultaneously terrify, edify and entertain–are rendered false by its failure to address any of these goals with consistency and depth. The horror scenes strive, and fail, to put new spin on old, familiar tropes, sometimes drawn from close by in the director’s own oeuvre; the debates between science and religion–as ludicrously instantiated in human form in its characters– are sketchy; the central speculation–creation and design of humans by giant, really buff dudes who look like Olympians on ‘roids and live in a galaxy far, far away–isn’t particularly exciting; the action scenes suffer from a familiar modern failure: sound and fury with no heart. I am a little baffled by some of the critical acclaim the film has garnered; so impressed are the critics it seems by the overt claims of the film to profundity–the origin of man, the central epistemic and moral crisis of the science versus religion conflict–that they seem not to have examined the evidence presented to them.

Perhaps I’m being harsh. Perhaps. It might also be that when I am presented with glittering surfaces, I expect sublime depth will follow.  Prometheus fails because it seems to devote a great deal of energy in getting its stage to look good without bothering itself with the human-machine-creatures conflict supposed to play out on it. Strangely enough, by the end of the movie, so stricken had I become by the ennui dispensed by its central human characters, that I stopped caring about the human planet itself. I was curiously unaffected by any response approaching anxiety as the mighty Engineer’s spacecraft took off on its putatively Earth-destructive mission; and so, concomitantly, unafflicted by any pride or joy in Captain Janek’s Kamikaze-like ramming action.

Prometheus aspired, I think, to a kind of greatness; its failure is correspondingly larger.