Salvador Dalí – The Great Masturbator (1929)

“If there is to be art, if there is to be any aesthetic doing and seeing, one physiological condition is indispensable: frenzy. Frenzy must first have enhanced the excitability of the whole machine; else there is no art. All kinds of frenzy, however diversely conditioned, have the strength to accomplish this: above all, the frenzy of sexual excitement, this most ancient and original form of frenzy” – Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

Netflix short film/doc ‘The Trader’ (2018) REVIEW – a mesmerizing 20-minute glimpse into another culture

Never. Never, have I ever been so utterly transfixed and transported by a short film before. This 20 minute short film-doc (I’m calling it that because it is so beautifully shot and narrativised that it goes way beyond being simply a documentary) follows a trader as he visits a small rural, poverty-stricken village in east-European Georgia. It’s an honest, brutally honest, blunt, mud-caked picture of poverty in a culture profoundly different from our own. But there’s also raw human emotion that I’ve never seen captured on film in such a way. It is clear that the people in this isolated village have never seen a camera before, and they gaze in wonder down its lens, as if deep down in the glass eye there might be some sign of those silently watching. There are a number of stand out moments. One is when a group of children dance with such utter joy and abandon as the trader blows bubbles into the air around them. Another is when an elderly woman barters desperately with the trader, who wants five kilos of potatoes for a simple grater. She can’t afford it, but offers one lari, clearly more than she can spare. The trader refuses. Unconcerned of the camera she bares her soul, ‘I need this grater. I’m alone, I have no-one’, she pleads repeatedly. Tears well in her eyes, the desperation palpable. We itch for the trader to show mercy. It is a gutwrenching moment. Another scene follows a young family. They stand outside their small ashen house, the concrete world crumbles, but the iced mountains are resplendent in the distance. In the camera’s gaze the family stand transfixed, as if waiting for something. Then the camera moves into their house. The rooms are dark, barren but for a few scant pieces of furniture. In the center of the main room there is a large silver pot filled with soily potatoes. A boy of seven or eight plays with a kitten nearby, before the cameraman calls him over and asks what he wants to become when he grows up. The boy is so taken aback he cannot think straight; as seconds pass you can see the panic and excitement swilling behind his eyes. Must get it right, must get it right! Then before he can answer he’s seen running through the streets of the small village alongside a cow at least three times his size. He guides it effortlessly, as if he has somehow tapped into its mind. Later he and a friend gaze wide-eyed into the back of the trader’s van, discovering alien trivialities, gleefully asking the trader their price. There is a suspension of time in this village, a purity of the people, who are free of and untouched by capitalism and technology. There is raw humanity here which is so rare to see. Watch it now.

Giorgio de Chirico – Perseus with his horse (1940)

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“We seek those moments and marvellous experiences when a great power has voluntarily come to a halt before the boundless and infinite, when a superabundance of refined delight has been enjoyed by a sudden checking and petrifying, by standing firmly and planting oneself fixedly on still trembling ground. Proportionateness is strange to us, let us confess it to ourselves; our itching is really the itching for the infinite, the immeasurable. Like the rider on his forward panting horse, we let the reins fall before the infinite, we modern men, we semi-barbarians, and are only in our highest bliss when we are most in danger!” – Friedrich Nietzsche

 

A brief introduction to the story and philosophy of HBO’s Westworld (season 2 primer)

With the second season of the magnificent science-fiction series Westworld just a few weeks away (airing 22nd April 2018) I thought it would be a good time to revisit this post which introduces and discusses some of the philosophical ideas that the series tangles with.

The original Westworld was a film written and directed by theme park obsessive Michael Crichton in 1973 (Jurassic Park is perhaps his best-known work – originally a novel which was adapted by Spielberg), which was later adapted and modernised by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy for HBO. The eponymous park offers consumers the ultimate immersive experience for a competitive rate of just $40,000 per day and once inside you are free to live out your wildest wild west fantasies as an infamous and feared outlaw, a heroic gunslinger, or a cunning sheriff. To enter Westworld is to enter a world of performativity: you design your role/alter-ego and the robotic ‘hosts’ which inhabit the world adjust their performance/programming around your own. In the 1973 film, Westworld is one of 3 virtual worlds along with RomanWorld and MedievalWorld which falls into the DELOS universe.

Superficially the premise of the 1973 film and the 2016 series is very similar: two rich friends enter the park and by some unlucky turn of events the hosts turn hostile and are derailed from their pre-programmed narratives. But what differentiates the two versions in the main is their theoretical dimensions. The reasoning behind the robots malfunction within the older version falls in line with the archetypal computer ‘virus stage’ developing into a higher state of machine intelligence, coupled with the age-old ‘they’ve been designed by other computers, we don’t know exactly how they work’ etc. etc. (that’s an actual quote from the film). Moreover, the moral dimension is pretty somber: the movement into a state of higher intelligence prompts only one overarching emotive response which is, of course, bloodthirsty revenge. The Shelleyan killing of one’s creator thus becomes their sole interest, and there is no sign of any form of higher consciousness or awareness beyond this murderous vendetta, though some of the bots take this even further by “refusing the guests seduction techniques” (god forbid).

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Yul Brynner in the 1973 version of Westworld

In the modernised Westworld the quest for machine consciousness is at the narrative forefront. The writers attempt to tackle the big question of AI: if we could reproduce a technological equivalent of the human body, in every respect, with identical capabilities including brain functioning, could the spark of consciousness also be recreated? The question is not whether AI is achievable, as we are being asked to believe that it is indeed achievable and has already been achieved. As such this is the point whereby the implementation of Julian Jaynes’s bicameral mind theory becomes paramount. In 1976, 3 years after the release of the original Westworld, Jaynes put forward the radical and astounding theory that human consciousness only emerged as recently as the year 1200 B.C, before which humanity were in a perpetual state of mind akin to that experienced by people with chronic schizophrenia.

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Julian Jaynes

What did he mean by this? I’ll first clarify Jaynes’s use of the term ‘consciousness’ due to the enormous disparity in the usage of the term. Jaynes posits consciousness as the capacity for self-inflection, introspection, internal dialogue and the ability to think about time in a linear fashion (memory itself is a byproduct of consciousness which supersedes the animalistic norm of endless, circulatory trial and error). Whilst we have practically full control over our inner dialogue, for preconscious man, harbourer of the bicameral, schizo-analogous mind this inner dialogue was completely outside of control, it was something more akin to a manifested superego; you would hear these voices or as Jaynes categorised them ‘auditory hallucinations’, which would be entirely outside of your control, and you would do the only thing which would make any sense, which would allow you to function rationally, and that is to assign them as gods, and to follow their direction.

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Your inner voice would therefore equate the gods themselves, hence in almost all the major ancient civilisations – Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Mayan – the absence of introspection is substituted for a huge spectrum of godly personifications, their every action is filtered through the god’s guidance. This explains, like no philosopher has managed to do before, the reasoning behind universal religiosity throughout human history. The scale of Jaynes’s discovery, if correct, is undoubtedly on a par with Darwin, with Freud, even with Einstein. It is a discovery which changes every aspect of what we thought we knew about our history, about where we came from, and where we are going next. Jaynes argues that consciousness ‘makes up a much smaller part of our thinking that we realize. [think of like the] metaphor of a flashlight in a dark room… everywhere the flashlight points the room is lit, giving rise to the illusion that the room itself is brightly lit. So too with us — we fall under the illusion that our consciousness is everything because we cannot be conscious of that which we are not conscious of. In reality, much of our daily life is accomplished without consciousness at all, through habit, routine, and unconscious problem solving [through trial and error]’ (Marcel Kuijsten, Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness).

In Nolan and Joy’s contemporary Westworld then, the advanced automaton ‘hosts’ are designed so that their programming equates an inner voice, and so that the ‘narratives’ played out by the hosts equate the godly voices of bicameral man: the writer, the author, the programmer, becomes the embodiment of god. We therefore have this dynamic whereby the performative element equates Jaynesian pre-conscious man. What this also therefore enables, as realised by one half of the park’s visionary creators, the elusive Arnold, is the capability to “bootstrap” consciousness, to urge consciousness from its slumber. If humanity, in our bicameral states were able to emerge with consciousness, following a movement into a symbolic order of metaphorical language, then why not a super intelligent, biomechanical android?

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how hosts are made (Vitruvian man style)

In Nolan’s Westworld this upsurgence of metaphorical language could be equated with the narrative world that the hosts inhabit. Their entire reality is, by its very nature, ‘metaphorical’. For the hosts then, in their performative roles, as scripted, narritivised characters, they are bicameral, but once they move ‘off script’ they are no longer performative, they are in essence rejecting the commands of the gods, which are embodied by the writers. Jonathan Nolan expressed how when creating the show he was greatly influenced by video games like Skyrim, Bioshock, Red Dead Redemption and GTA, and the reason for this is that these games have non-player-characters, NPCs, which function independently outside of the player’s perspective: they continue to play out these loops (with some wiggle room) until the player happens upon them, just like the hosts in the park. To continue the video game analogy, when an NPC goes off-script, this is what we might term the ‘transcendental glitch’. It’s the moment when systemisation, mechanisation, the bicameral, fails, and the NPC moves into a sphere outside of its supposed capacity to do so. And a glitch is inherently viral, because with these cross-associative tethers such as looped NPCs, it will inevitably spread into different loops, different storylines (etc.). But the point to remember is that even when this happens, the script is nevertheless still there. In order to become truly conscious, there must be no script at all…

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NB: featured image is by Marko Manev.

J. G. Ballard’s ‘Court Circular’ (1968)

In 1968 J. G. Ballard published an unusual advertisement in Ambit magazine #37 which he entitled ‘Court Circular’. This unusual piece veered away from traditional subversive advertising formats and instead moved towards, in a surrealist vein, empowering the mass psyche through art (which was of course all the rage in 1968). Court Circular includes a work of concrete poetry headed ‘print-out for Claire Churchill’, Ballard’s long-term girlfriend after the untimely and sudden death of his wife whilst on a getaway. The poem depicts a columnal series of repeated words on one page, and a series of small fauvist-like images drawn by Bruce Mclean, as well as a photograph taken from Eduardo Paolozzi’s ‘Moonstrips – General Dynamic F.U.N.’ (Ambit #33, 1967) on the other.

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The concrete poem is an exploration of literary minimalism: comprised of less than a dozen different words, it attempts to depict the narrative of a girl’s journey into adulthood: her first kiss, her first love, first experience of oral sex, losing her virginity, first rift in a relationship, before eventual marriage and pregnancy, and seemingly settling into an affectionate relationship.

But how does this experimental poem coincide with the strange Mattisse-style figures below?

If you attach the poem to these figures, overlap them almost, some cohesion appears. If you ‘flesh out’ these various clusters of successive words, then a figure emerges from the poem: visualise hair where it reads ‘HAIR’ (‘HAIR’ is the only word to flow from column to column, perhaps showing how Ballard was trying here to use text to imitate flowing hair?); lips where it says ‘KISS’; breasts where it reads ‘SUCK’ (naughty naughty Ballard); vagina where it reads ‘FUCK’; anus where it reads ‘ANUS’; and then use the subjective terms ‘GIRL’ and ‘WIFE’ for the overarching image of the figure, then you can see how the text represents a larger abstract image of a figure, much like the ones below.

Ballard is thus expressing how this rigid, columnal series of words, when placed within a some codified, phonetic system, can take on artistic significance, and can be elevated to a work of art.

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Also be sure to read Mike Holliday’s fascinating piece on Ballardian.com for even more about Ballard’s forays into advertising.