And by a prudent flight and cunning save A life which valour could not, from the grave. A better buckler I can soon regain, But who can get another life again? Archilochus

Saturday, July 29, 2023

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Why "Politics" No Longer Functions as Politics

 ....especially around 59:45.  What we have is the moral posturing surrounding our projected identities, not a sincere discussion of the issues involved.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Analog vs. Digital

Aparna Chivukula, "Art not apps"
When it comes to our complicated, undecipherable feelings, art prompts a self-understanding far beyond the wellness industry

He is standing in front of an old, intricately decorated urn in a museum, looking at the images etched into its surface, when he begins to wonder:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
These lines come from the opening of ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ written by John Keats in 1819. Across the poem’s five wandering and acutely detailed stanzas, Keats chooses not to seek an understanding of the urn in front of him through research or historical data; instead, he observes and imagines through questions and narratives. A person etched into the surface is playing a pipe under a tree – music that can’t be heard, Keats muses, and a tree whose leaves will never shed. Nearby, two lovers are frozen while leaning in for a kiss. To the poet, it seems their love is never-ending: though they will never kiss, they’ll never grow old or apart. Absorbed by the figures depicted on the urn, Keats creates an imaginative space, a space for thinking-by-looking.
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ gives us a sense of the poet’s mode: he asks question after question about the urn, not to uncover facts or ‘answers’, but rather to sustain his experience of wonder and curiosity. There is something else, too. Keats is not only speculating, inventing and describing, he’s also seeking out the effects of his imaginative engagement with the urn itself. What exactly are these effects? And is there something about this particular mode of engaging with images and objects – with art – that could prove valuable in other contexts?

One evening, I tell my friend that I feel as though there is a wall in my mind, blocking me from my own thoughts. And all I’m left with, I say, are feelings I can’t explain. There is no story or reason or event that helps them make sense. I’m left sad, confused. My friend, who is a painter, wonders: well, how will you get around the wall? Maybe you could turn yourself into air, or water. For a moment, we take this image of the wall seriously, imagining its architecture and the logic of its construction: what are its dimensions? What material is it made from? Is it porous? Could water seep through? What was, moments ago, just an analogy for my feelings of powerlessness and uncertainty starts to take shape as an open-ended image – like an abstract painting or a figure etched into an old urn.

Though the image doesn’t solve my problems, wandering the space inside it with curiosity starts to change the way I’m thinking. I’m no longer seeking explanations for inscrutable emotions, wondering: ‘Why am I feeling this way?’ I’m now exploring somewhere new, asking: ‘What is this space and how does it work?’

Rather than trying to force an explanation on to my feelings, I explored the ambiguous image of the wall with no predefined outcome. The objectives were open-ended and unarticulated. Yet the effect was transformative. I was reminded of Keats’s urn, and the potential in his mode of questioning and imagining. Perhaps, I wondered, there is a pathway among these urns and walls that leads toward mental wellness? But if there was, it was unlike any other pathways I was familiar with.

We need more open-ended forms of understanding and reflection – self-help beyond the self

The tools that dominate the mental wellness landscape today – from mindfulness apps to certain forms of cognitive behavioural therapy – offer very different approaches. The shared strategy behind these forms of self-help is often defined by a kind of self-surveillance, in which wellbeing emerges from looking inwards. Through practices, prompts and language that encourage this inward focus, these tools aim to create calm, understanding or epiphanies. These are good things. The concern, however, is that being so inwardly attentive – to your behaviour, feelings, bodily changes and social interactions – may lead to hypervigilance or the hyper-articulation of the self.

For the philosopher Byung-Chul Han, writing in Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power (2017), this kind of ‘self-optimisation’, driven by ‘the compulsion always to achieve more and more’, can lead to burnout and exhaustion. This may happen when a person becomes overly focused on the self and learns to measure themselves against the pre-determined benefits of a self-help exercise; or when someone is constantly surveilling themselves, parsing their behaviour and thoughts through the limited vocabulary and logic of dominant mental wellness tools. These tools are meant to heal but, for Han, ‘healing’ now ‘refers to self-optimisa­tion that is supposed to therapeutically eliminate any and all functional weakness or mental obstacle in the name of efficiency and performance’. Self-optimisation, he writes, ‘amounts to total self-exploitation’.

The alternative? Take pressure off the self by looking elsewhere and engaging outward. Ambiguous art can help with this practice. Such an approach involves learning to observe and question creative work, rather than observing and questioning the self. Unlike self-help strategies that come with their own set vocabularies and categories of wellness, a practice of imaginatively looking at art involves the viewer developing their own ideas and vocabularies as they grapple with an image or object they are encountering for the first time.

Today, as wellness fatigue begins to set in and the facile promises of self-help become more difficult to trust, perhaps we need more open-ended forms of understanding and reflection – self-help beyond the self. An alternative mode, based on the practice of ‘reading’ images, objects and other artwork, might shift focus from the self to that which is less easily accessed or understood.

Art has the power to hold our attention, draw us away from ourselves, and keep us looking closely at something we don’t entirely understand. Learning to explore something unfamiliar and ambiguous, by wielding our imagination and curiosity, is like developing a kind of muscle, which could prove useful to other aspects of our lives. Perhaps the muscle is what Keats called ‘negative capability’: the ability to withstand doubt or uncertainty, remain open to that which is not readily understandable, resist the urge to explain away what we don’t comprehend, and to accept the impossibility of a singular conclusion.

Figuring ourselves out doesn’t need to begin and end with the self, or with the surveilling tools of mental wellness. It can just as easily start by looking at a painting.

While walking through the halls of the permanent collection at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas, I come across a large abstract painting. Though I’m standing in front of it, I have little idea what it depicts. The title, Alchemist, is a clue. I look at the painting as though it is a dictionary, searching for the meaning of ‘alchemist’ in its colours, shapes, textures. Above me, on the top right of the canvas, there seems to be a blue face, and next to the face is a dark object that could be a tree – or is it the black screen of a heart-rate monitor at a hospital? I go with hospital. It suits the expression on the face, with its eyes looking up, as though lying in a hospital bed. The face looks a little like that of Claude Monet’s wife, from his painting Camille on Her Deathbed (1879). The brush strokes in Alchemist are large, irregular and overlapping, making the scene more troubled, confused, chaotic. Was there really a face? A tree? A hospital scene? Perhaps these shifting forms are the transmutation, the ‘alchemy’ that the title refers to.

Alchemist (1960) by Philip Guston. Courtesy the Blanton Museum of Art, the University of Texas at Austin; gift of Mari and James A Michener

As I spend time with Philip Guston’s Alchemist (1960), I follow these questions, allowing myself to remain unsure of what I’m seeing, while staying in conversation with that uncertainty. However, rather than becoming frustrated or bored, I find that following the deeper pathways through my imagination makes the uncertainty itself interesting. This is the negative capability muscle at work. With patience, the stamina for this kind of practice increases.

Camille on Her Deathbed (1879) by Claude Monet. Courtesy the Musée d’Orsay, RMN-Grand Palais/Patrice Schmidt; gift of Mme Katia Granoff, 1963

This painting, like many other kinds of art, refuses to explain itself directly or clearly. The familiar becomes unfamiliar. This is precisely what the practice requires: ambiguity. It is because the image is not immediately understandable – thanks to Guston’s use of materials, scale, form and visual language – that it piques our curiosity, drawing our attention and inviting questions. Ambiguity, in its various forms, produces the conversation between a viewer and an artwork, allowing our imagination to assign different narratives, ideas or feelings to the work.

Ambiguity in the literary arts has a similar power. One way this is expressed is through the fragment, a literary form found in the writing of James Joyce, Roland Barthes, Maggie Nelson and others. The fragment is used to produce a kind of disorientation in readers and to push them to make sense of sentences or phrases that seem disjointed. Like an abstract painting, the literary fragment asks readers to grapple with several possible meanings that lines of text could have, to ask why they have been placed side by side, and to piece together what the resulting narrative could be. For example, on the opening page of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), we find these fragmented lines:
His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.
He was baby tuckoo. The moocow came down the road where Betty Byrne lived: she sold lemon platt.
O, the wild rose blossoms
On the little green place.
He sang that song. That was his song.
O, the green wothe botheth.
On the first reading, the sentences may seem incoherent, as though there are several missing links between each line. Joyce uses this technique, in part, to transport the reader into the mind-world of a child. Words like ‘wothe’, ‘botheth’ and ‘platt’ are not in any modern dictionary – the reader must imagine what the words could mean using the sound, feel and associations of the words as clues, and the surrounding sentences as context. This is how a child might develop understanding while listening to adults having a conversation.

From the perspective of semiotics, all images carry the possibility of multiple meanings

Nelson’s Bluets (2009) abandons even the comfort and sense-making of the paragraph form and, along the lines of Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (1977), employs a list:
10. The most I want to do is show you the end of my index finger. Its muteness.

11. That is to say: I don’t care if it’s colourless.

12. And please don’t talk to me about ‘things as they are’ being changed upon any ‘blue guitar’. What can be changed upon a blue guitar is not of interest here.
Deciphering Nelson’s work is closer to the experience one has with the abstract painting: as readers, we hold on to the clear images of the index finger and the blue guitar, and attempt to piece them together using the tone of the writing (such as ‘please don’t talk to me’) as a clue to the mood of the story, arriving at multiple possible narratives.

For Barthes, writing from the perspective of semiotics, all images carry the possibility of multiple meanings. In his essay ‘The Rhetoric of the Image’ (1964), he describes the terror and promise that comes from this ambiguity:
… all images are polysemous; they imply, underlying their signifiers, a ‘floating chain’ of signifieds, the reader able to choose some and ignore others. Polysemy poses a question of meaning and this question always comes through as a dysfunction … Hence in every society various techniques are developed intended to fix the floating chain of signifieds in such a way as to counter the terror of uncertain signs …
In other words, the multiple signs (or units of meaning) that are present in any artwork – visual, literary or otherwise – are what allows us to wonder about the work by reading it in different ways as we consider multiple interpretations. Even a seemingly non-ambiguous object, like a stop sign, has the potential to generate different ideas. Though these kinds of objects have one dominant meaning that we understand immediately, looking in a wandering and open-ended way can bring out less obvious meanings and ideas.

When Barthes writes about the desire to ‘counter the terror of uncertain signs’, he is referring to the way in which ambiguity is generally done away with in our daily interactions. The stop sign is meant to mean one thing only. In this case, it is for good reason: signs like this need to be read quickly and uniformly by all, for public safety. Clarity and precision are championed in most communications in society. And yet, this is not how we usually feel or operate within our inner worlds. The practice of looking, of building a negative capability, involves developing the ability to withstand the ‘terror’ of uncertainty. It also presents us with the possibility of re-looking at things that we feel we have understood well – the possibility of seeing in new ways, re-imagining objects that we assumed carried singular, obvious meanings.

It is the middle of night. I wake up from a bad dream. I feel uneasy. I know it was a dream but in the pit of my stomach I am carrying feelings for which I don’t have full, linear explanations. My thinking might not be clear or comprehensive. The ability to tolerate this – or even be curious about the experience, and not collapse under its confusing, shapeless, nameless ambiguity – is not dissimilar from the experience I had with Guston’s Alchemist. Waking from a bad dream or confronting a work of abstract art are both examples of moments when we are presented with the uncertainty of our feelings or experiences. By learning to dwell on the uncomfortable images in these moments, by reflecting and imagining, we might begin to intuit, or tolerate, what is wrong.

This practice of looking does not prioritise academic or historical perspectives on art. It is divorced from the artist, the industry and the formal study of the arts. By paying attention to the form, title and other perceptible ‘clues’ in the work, this practice is primarily interested in using the intuitive, sensory, suggestive and aleatory to engage in conversation with a creative work. The point is not to develop an answer, an interpretation that ‘settles’ the ‘question’ of the painting, or to intellectualise the work in terms of form, style, history or the concerns of the artist. Rather, in this practice, a piece of art or writing becomes a test or opportunity for working one’s imagination – an exercise in making associations. The focus stays within the frame of the image or text. The art object, which cannot speak, can contain only a collection of polysemous signs that become visible when pulled out of the canvas by the viewer’s imagination. The ideal engagement is not one that dispels that which is challenging in a creative work, but rather one that builds tolerance for exploring the ambiguous through Keats’s negative capability. It’s like the interpretation of a dream, which can be full of ideas but not answers.

It is not an escape from understanding but rather the strategy that makes understanding possible

Another idea crucial to maintaining this open-ended engagement is ‘suspension’, borrowed from the literary critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s reflections on ways of reading. In her essay ‘Righting Wrongs’ (2004), Spivak describes good reading practice as ‘suspending oneself into the text of the other’, but ‘suspension’ doesn’t only mean lingering in the uncertainties of a text (or artwork). For Spivak, what needs to be suspended is a reader’s conviction that they are ‘necessarily indispensable’ to the ultimate meaning of a text or a work of art. In other words, open-ended engagement with creative work does not involve ascribing meaning by asking ‘How does this painting feel relatable to me and my world?’

Instead of making a work bend toward ourselves, Spivak insists we bend ourselves toward it by practising ‘patient reading’ and asking the work for a response. She acknowledges that it ‘cannot speak’, but that this shouldn’t stop us seeking a response from the ‘distant other’ – whether it’s a painting, a sculpture, a film, a photograph, a text, or any other ambiguous, creative work. This suspension maintains the focus on the object one is looking at, rather than on the self. It is not an escape from understanding but rather the exact strategy that makes understanding possible.

Of course, suspending the self is difficult. We can look only through our eyes and imagine using the associations or references we’ve been exposed to. But it’s not impossible. Suspension emerges when I consider a painting to be a world of its own; different to my own world, yet one that I can still peer into. It emerges when I show restraint towards how I assign my own experiences or feelings to the meaning of the painting, and instead allow the painting to lead me through its myriad meanings. In other words, the painting is not a mirror of my emotions and ideas, where I might find connections to my own experience. It is part of its own world. And in the process of observing, imagining and deciphering – of seeking a response from the ‘distant other’ – I begin to build my capacity for uncertainty, ambiguity and the inarticulable.

Why is this valuable? The point is not to distract or escape the self through the imagination, but to find ways of keeping the unknown tolerable, and even interesting. Crucially, in addition to creating a sense of personal wellbeing, this practice of looking or reading, by engaging with something outside the self with an interest and desire to figure it out, can potentially build a critical empathy in our approach to the world beyond us and the Other.

The effect that works of art can have on people has been the focus of a long, ongoing conversation within the visual arts. In the book Again the Metaphor Problem and Other Engaged Critical Discourses About Art (2006), Liam Gillick remarks to his fellow conceptual artists John Baldessari and Lawrence Weiner, and the curator Beatrix Ruf:
People either functionalise the work, instrumentalise it, or use it as a metaphorical structure. The truth is that the work is none of these things alone. The object is neither just functional nor is it exactly a metaphor of the idea of a place for something to happen. It has potential, it is in a constant state of ‘becoming’.
Gillick’s quote calls to mind a series of works that Baldessari began in the mid-1980s, in which the faces of people in black-and-white photographs have been obscured with coloured dots. Through this move, Baldessari manipulates the meanings of the photographs, pushing us to see the images in new, counterintuitive ways. We’re invited to make sense of the figures’ obscured expressions, and to consider what the bright colours and perfect circles add to the story. In one of these works, Cutting Ribbon, Man in Wheelchair, Paintings (Version #2) (1988), an awkward raised elbow, possibly jabbing the person standing nearby, takes on heightened meaning. The friendly sun-yellow dot that covers the jabber’s face suggest the action is innocent or all in good fun – a narrative we layer on top of the photo, like a sticker. As Gillick says, the image ‘has potential’; it holds many narratives that surface one after the other, depending on what we notice and the questions we ask.

Sustaining an engagement with art on these terms can produce organic, unpredictable, generative experiences. The stakes of extending this practice go beyond leisure or entertainment. Through this kind of looking and thinking, we have the power to change how we approach our experiences or know other worlds. And in today’s era of inward hypervigilance, open-ended engagements with Art, bound by no predefined outcomes, have the ability to help us seek understanding beyond the self, free from surveillance and hypervigilance.

Baldessari believes that ‘[t]he public can make what they want’ of his work. Gillick agrees – art is unstable. ‘[T]here is a constant negotiation of the terms of critique as much as negotiation of the thing itself, the signified thing, the subject,’ Gillick says. ‘The work is about constantly negotiating the terms of engagement.’

That negotiation can work wonders for our bad dreams, and our complicated, undecipherable feelings as well.

Monday, July 24, 2023

Needed Downtime

Byung-Chul Han, "The happiness of idleness" (Google Translated0

We're working our butts off. But according to the Korean-German cultural philosopher Byung-Chul Han, idleness is the basis of all happiness.

We are increasingly like "active people who roll like a stone, they obey the stupidity of mechanics," as poet Paul Celan wrote. Since we only perceive life for the purpose of work and performance, we understand inactivity as a deficit, which must be remedied as soon as possible. Human existence is completely preoccupied with activity. This makes it exploitable. We lose the sense of inactivity, which is not an inability, not a refusal, not a pure absence of activity, but an independent ability.
The Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han (1959) made his international breakthrough with the book The Tired Society (2010), in which he argues that Western man has become a 'performance subject' who exploits himself. Since then, Han has written many books on the problems of modern Western society, including most recently The Palliative Society (2022), Infocracy (2022) and Vita contemplativa. On inactivity (2023), of which this text is a pre-publication.
Inactivity has its own logic, its own language, its own time, its own architecture, its own splendor, yes its own magic. It is not a weakness, not a lack, but an intensity which, however, is not perceived and is not recognised in our society focused on activity and performance. We have no access to the realm and wealth of inactivity. Inactivity is a shining form of human existence, which today has faded into an empty form of activity.

In capitalist relations of production, inactivity returns as embedded outside. We call it 'free time'. Since it serves to recover from work, it remains bound by the logic of work. As a derivative of labour, it forms a functional element within production. As a result, real leisure disappears, which does not belong to the order of labor and production. We no longer know that sacred, festive rest, which, according to William Shakespeare, 'unites life intensity and contemplation, even manages to unite when the intensity of life is increased to exuberance'.

Inactivity is not a weakness, but equity

Our 'free time' lacks both intensity of life and contemplation. It's a time we kill to keep boredom out. It's not a truly free, lively time, but a dead time. Intensive living today mainly means performing more or consuming more. We have forgotten that it is precisely the inactivity, in which nothing is produced, that constitutes an intensive and glorious form of life. Against the compulsion to work and perform, a policy of inactivity must be introduced, which can generate a real leisure time.


The inactivity forms the humanum. The proportion of inactivity in what we do makes this truly human. Without a moment of hesitation or restraint, action slips into blind action and reaction. Without rest, a new barbarism arises. Silence deepens speech. Without silence there is no music, only noise and noise.

Play is the essence of beauty. Where only the scheme of stimulus and response, of need and satisfaction, of problem and solution, of preconceived goal and action prevails, life languishes to survival, to naked animal life. Life only gets its shine through the inactivity. If we lose the inactivity as power, we look like a machine that only needs to function. True life begins at the moment when the concern for survival, the need of mere life comes to an end. The ultimate goal of human endeavors is inactivity.

Silence deepens speech, without silence there is no music

It is true that action is constitutive of history, but it is not a culture-forming force. Not the war but the party, not the coat of arms but the ornament is the origin of the culture. History and culture do not cover each other. Not the roads that lead directly to the goal, but wanderings, extravagances and detours form the culture. The core of the culture is ornamental. It has its domicile beyond functionality and usefulness. With the ornamental, which frees itself from every purpose and utility, life insists that it is more than survival. Life gets its divine luster from that absolute decoration, which does not embellish anything. As Samuel Beckett writes, "The fact that the Baroque is decorative does not say everything. She is decorazione assoluta, as if it had freed itself from every preconceived goal, including the theatrical, to develop its own law of form. It no longer decorates anything, but is nothing but decoration.'

The party

On the Sabbath, every activity must rest. No business should be done. Inactivity and lifting of the economy are essential to the Sabbath feast. Capitalism, on the other hand, even makes the party a reality. Parties become events and spectacles. They lack the contemplative peace. As consumptive forms of the festival, they do not establish a community. In his essay La société du spectacle, Guy Debord calls the present time a time without celebration: 'This epoch, which shows itself to its own time as if it were essentially a speedy return of multifarious festivities, is just as much an epoch without celebration. What in cyclical times was the moment when a community participated in the luxurious waste of life is impossible for a society without community and without luxury.'

In a life that languishes in survival, luxury disappears

A time without celebration is a time without community. It is true that people swear by the community everywhere today, but that is a community in the form of a commodity. It does not allow us to arise. The unleashed consumption isolates and separates people. Consumers are lonely. Digital communication also appears to be a communication without community. Social media is accelerating the breakdown of the community. Capitalism turns time itself into a commodity. As a result, she loses all festivity. With regard to the commercialization of time, Debord notes, "The reality of time has been replaced by the advertising of time."

Another constitutive feature of the party, in addition to community, is luxury. It abolishes economic coercion. As a heightened liveliness, as intensity, the party has something luxurious, that is, something that goes off the beaten track, which deviates from the necessity and necessity of mere life. Capitalism, on the other hand, absolutizes survival. In a life that languishes survival, luxury disappears. Even the greatest achievement doesn't make it. Work and performance belong in the order of survival. There is no such thing as acting in luxury form, because acting is based on a defect. In capitalism, even luxury is consumed, it takes the form of a commodity and loses festivity and luster.

The useless

For Theodor W. Adorno, luxury is a symbol of unadulterated happiness, which is negated by the logic of efficiency. Efficiency and functionality are forms of survival. Luxury puts them out of action. He writes: "The unleashed technology eliminates luxury (...) The express train that hurtles across the continent in three nights and two days is a miracle, but traveling in such a train has none of the faded splendor of the Train Bleu. What made the pleasure of traveling: first waving goodbye from the open window, then the good care of friendly tip recipients, the ceremonial of the food, the incessant feeling of being spoiled and devoid of anything – all that has disappeared, including the elegant people who used to stroll on the platforms before departure and for whom you search in vain even in the foyers of the most prestigious hotels.'

True happiness is due to the purposeless and useless, the deliberately cumbersome, the unproductive, the taking of detours, the excessive, the superfluous, the beautiful forms and gestures that have no use and serve no purpose. Compared to going somewhere, rushing somewhere or marching, walking around is a luxury. The ceremonial of inactivity means: we do something, but for nothing. This for nothing, this freedom of purpose and utility is the essence of the inactivity. It is the basic formula of happiness.

Saturday, July 22, 2023

Nassim Taleb - Aggressive Tinkering

Barbenheimer - Commercial Cross-Branding at It's Most Shameless

Creating and Capitalizing off of an "Event"

Slavoj Žižek, "Barbie can’t handle the truth"
Barbie and Oppenheimer show us how in the heart of the darkest realities we stumble upon fantasies.

Denounced and ridiculed by critics, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny – the fifth and final instalment in the franchise – nonetheless confronts one of the central problems of modernity: the separation of fantasy and reality. Set in 1969, the story centres on Jones’s efforts to locate an ancient device – the Dial – believed to grant the power of time travel. Estranged from his wife, Marion, and depressed following the death of their son, Jones is assisted by his goddaughter Helena, as they are pursued by a new generation of Nazis who also seek the Dial. In the film’s climactic scene, Jones and Helena are transported back to the Siege of Syracuse in 212 BC, where they meet the astronomer Archimedes, who invented the time machine. Believing that he has no life to return to in 1969 America, Jones wants to remain in the past, living amid a great historical moment. But Helena, refusing to give up on him, knocks Jones unconscious and returns with him to the modern world. Waking up in his apartment, Indy is reunited with Marion, and they embrace as Helena walks away smiling. This happy resolution, however, doesn’t quite conceal the bitter implications of the film’s conclusion. Forced out of ancient Greece, the hero-professor now faces a life of arid domesticity.

Many of the reviewers’ most ferocious broadsides have been aimed at the character Helena (played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), who has been variously presented as weird (measured against classic Hollywood standards of beauty and eroticism) or “woke”, a leading lady who undermines patriarchal clichés of feminine charm. But Helena is neither a sex symbol nor an exemplar of woke attitudes towards gender: she simply introduces an element of everyday opportunism combined with basic goodness – a touch of what might be called actual life. The new Indiana Jones is really about Helena, a person from the real world who is drawn into the fantasy world of Indy’s treasure-hunting adventures.

[See also: Indiana Jones and The Dial of Destiny: A feeble last crack of the whip]

As a variation on the Matrix theme of “welcome to the desert of the real” – that is, what happens when our protective illusions break down and we face the real world in all its stark brutality – Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is part of a recent trend of films – Barbie, Oppenheimer, I’m a Virgo – in which the heroes venture between the real and the imaginary and the imaginary and the real. After being expelled from the utopian Barbie Land for being less-than-perfect dolls, Barbie and Ken embark on a journey of self-discovery to the real world. But what they find there is not some deep revelation of the self but the realisation that actual life is even more riddled with suffocating clichés than their own fantasy world. The doll couple are forced to confront the fact that there isn’t just a brutal reality beyond Barbie Land, but that utopia is part of that brutal reality: without fantasies like Barbie Land, individuals would simply not be able to endure the real world.

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer complicates this idea of venturing into reality. Its theme is not just the passage from the haven of academia to the real world of war – from the mind to the munitions dump – but how nuclear weapons (the fruits of science) shatter our perception of reality: a nuclear explosion is something that does not belong to our daily life. Oppenheimer, a theoretical physicist, led the Manhattan Project, the team established in August 1942 that developed the atomic bomb for the US. In 1954 the authorities subsequently branded him a Communist for his affiliation with groups working to slow nuclear proliferation. While Oppenheimer’s stance was courageous and ethical, he failed to reckon with the existential implications of the device he created. In his essay “Apocalypse without Kingdom”, the philosopher Günther Anders introduced the concept of “naked apocalypse”: “the apocalypse that consists of mere downfall, which doesn’t represent the opening of a new, positive state of affairs (of the ‘kingdom’).” For Anders, a nuclear catastrophe would represent a naked apocalypse: no new kingdom would arise out of it, just the total obliteration of the world.

Oppenheimer couldn’t accept this nakedness, so he escaped further into Hinduism, which he had been interested in since the early 1930s, when he learned Sanskrit to read the Upanishads in the original. Describing his feelings after the first explosion of the atomic bomb in the Trinity test in New Mexico, Oppenheimer quoted from the Bhagavad Gita where Krishna tells Arjuna: “Now I become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” While this is the line people most associate with Oppenheimer, he also quoted another passage from Gita: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendour of the mighty one.” The nuclear explosion is thus elevated into a divine experience. No wonder that, after the successful nuclear explosion, according to the physicist Isidor Rabi, Oppenheimer appeared triumphant: “I’ll never forget his walk; I’ll never forget the way he stepped out of the car… His walk was like High Noon … this kind of strut. He had done it.”

Oppenheimer’s fascination with Gita thus belongs to the long tradition of attempting to ground the metaphysical implications of quantum physics in Oriental traditions. But Nolan’s film fails to show how the evocation of any kind of spiritual depth obfuscated the horror of a new reality created by science. To effectively confront the “naked apocalypse” or cataclysm without redemption, the opposite of spiritual depth is needed: an utterly irreverent comic spirit. One should recall that the best movies about the Holocaust – Pasqualino Settebellezze (1974), Life is Beautiful (1997) – are comedies, not because they trivialise the Holocaust but because they implicitly admit that it is too crazy a crime to be narrated as a “tragic” story.

Is there a movie which dares to do this with the horrors and threats of today? I’m a Virgo (a miniseries by Boots Riley released in 2023) is the story of Cootie, a four-metre tall 19-year-old black man raised by his aunt and uncle in Oakland, California. The two guardians dedicate their lives to making sure that Cootie is safe and sequestered away. But raised on commercials, comics and pop culture, Cootie breaks into the world not as a tabula rasa but already brainwashed by the consumerist mass ideology. He awkwardly manages to make friends, get a job and find love, but soon discovers that the world is more sinister than it appears – Cootie acts as a catalyser, his entrance into our common social reality bringing out all its antagonisms and tensions (racism, consumerism, sexuality…). And how does he do it? As a perspicuous critic for The Wrap noticed: “Don’t let the heavy themes fool you, I’m a Virgo is a comedy full of absolutely bonkers moments.” Riley uses the absurd to point out the obvious in real-life situations. “I’m attracted to large contradictions,” he told Wired. “The contradictions of capitalism – how it works – are going to echo through almost everything we do.”

Therein resides Riley’s genius: the combination of two tragic facts (a giant freak thrown into our world; the basic antagonisms of global capitalism) produces sparkling comedy. The comic effect emerges because ideological fantasies and reality are not opposed: in the heart of the darkest realities we stumble upon fantasies. Perpetrators of horrible crimes are not diabolical monsters who courageously do what they are doing – they are cowards doing it to sustain the fantasy which motivates them. Stalinists killed millions to bring about a new society, and they had to kill millions more to avoid the truth that their Communist project was destined to fail.

Most of us know the culminating moment of Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men (1992) when the lawyer Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) cross-examines the Colonel Nathan Jessep (Jack Nicholson) and declares, “I want the truth!”, and Jessep shouts, “You can’t handle the truth!” This reply is more ambiguous than it seems: it should not be taken as simply claiming that most of us are too weak to handle the brutal reality of the world. If someone were to ask a witness about the truth of the Holocaust, and the witness were to reply, “You can’t handle the truth!”, this should not be understood as a simple claim that most of us are not able the process the horror of holocaust. At a deeper level, those who were not able to handle the truth were the Nazi perpetrators themselves: they were unable to accept the fact that their society was traversed by the economic and social crises of the 1930s, and to avoid this troubling insight they engaged in a mass murder spree that targeted Jews – as if killing Jews would somehow miraculously re-establish a harmonious social body. And therein resides the final lesson of the stories about venturing from fantasy into reality: we do not only escape into a fantasy to avoid confronting reality, we also escape into reality to avoid the devastating truth about the futility of our fantasies.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

The Crisis of Narration

h/t - Woodsterman

Alexander Carmele, Byung-Chul Han: "The Crisis of Narration" (Google translated from German)
Models of Interpretation (4): As part of the series Models of Interpretation, of which there is already a first part with Theodor W. Adorno's Skoteinos, a second with Jacques Derrida Law Force and a third based on Franz Kafka's The Trial on this blog, I am now dealing with a much-discussed and globally received philosopher, Byung-Chul Han, and the way in which he describes in his text The crisis of narration deals with texts, quotes, references and content.

Han's text is closely linked to Francois Lyotard's The Postmodern Knowledge, in which something similar was diagnosed more than forty years ago, namely that we were in a time after the end of great narratives and that only self-transparent, or undead little narratives existed, full of interwoven and irrelevant details that could no longer lure anyone out from behind the stove. In contrast to Lyotard, who argues his diagnosis along the lines of the natural sciences, Byung-Chul Han tries to prove the same in literature and in the lack of modern storytelling. In the following, why Han's ten-chapter booklet contributes more to the symptom than to the diagnosis.

Reasoning logic:

1. From narrative to information. Han begins The Crisis of Narration with the difference between customer and information, two manifestations of communication. The customer contains something strange, unknown, mysterious. The information, on the other hand, clarifies and leads back. It explains, whereas the customer transfigures. In the wake of modernity, which consists above all in the dismantling of distance and distance, a form of decay of narrative emerges, according to one of Walter Benjamin's theses: the novel that is read by individuals where a communal experience was previously communicated. According to Han, the narrative includes self-oblivious listening in the narrative community, whose fateful power creates a "we" in secret.
The customer, on the other hand, is characterized by an unavailable remoteness. It heralds a historical event that eludes availability and predictability. We are at the mercy of him like a force of fate.
-Byung-Chul Han from: "The Crisis of Narration"

However, the information is isolated in the course of the competitive society. Individuals forget how to listen. They become isolated and lose conscious control in the accelerated exchange of information and dive into an externally controlled, algorithm-controlled communication process.
>In the age of storytelling as storyselling, narrative and advertising are indistinguishable. This is the current crisis of narrative.<We are at the mercy of the algorithmic black box.
Strangely enough, there is no contradiction in Han's argumentation between the customer and the information, both of which, in a certain form of reception, either by eavesdropping or rapid clicking, lead to blind obedience. The only difference would be that the one, the customer, establishes a religious, eschatological telos, salvation, but information establishes a secular event, success. Byung-Chul Han's conceptual apparatus, which he derives undialectically from Walter Benjamin's writing The Narrator, is unable to clearly differentiate between the two. One

2. Poverty of experience occurs. In the next chapter, Han pits problem-solving strategies against wisdom. Wisdom does not need a narrative, a tradition, problem solving. Wisdom requires a historical continuum, from which, however, technology, the culture of the new barbarian, emancipates itself:
[The new barbarian] is animated by the pathos of the new. First of all, he clears the table. He does not see himself as a narrator, but as a 'constructor'. Benjamin [in his essay Experience and Poverty] generalizes the new barbarism to the principle of the new.
According to this quote, the hope for the new is lost in the managed world. A spirit of optimism has turned into consumption. The lack of alternatives is spreading. Wisdom becomes technology. Han diagnoses acceleration:
Information fragments time. Time is shortened to a narrow gauge of the current. It lacks temporal breadth and depth. The compulsion to update destabilizes life. The past is no longer effective in the present.
It is not clear in terms of what, according to Han, the time is shortened in postmodernism. How can information fragment time? What time? He writes that the past is no longer effective in the present, but how do past and present differ? Han alludes to memorylessness.

3. The narrated life. After a brief anthropological sketch from Marcel Proust to Walter Benjamin to Martin Heidegger, according to which man is not a momentary being, Han distinguishes his memory from a database. Human memory is sequestering, the database is not.
Memory is not a mechanical repetition of what has been experienced, but a narrative that has to be told again and again. Memories are necessarily sketchy. They presuppose proximity and distance. When everything experienced is present, i.e. available, without distance, the memory disappears. A complete reproduction of the experience is also not a narrative, but a report or protocol.
Han does not clarify how a complete reproduction of the experience is possible. Even a film camera has a perspective or observation plane – and frequencies are also cut away in audio processing. Each data fragment results from a decision, a selection. The only question is to what extent the decision is carried out consciously or not. For Han, modern information technology forces an unconscious twilight:
On digital platforms, a reflexive-narrative processing and condensation of what is lived is neither possible nor desirable. Even the technical dispositif of digital platforms [introduced by Michel Foucault] does not allow for time-consuming, narrative practice.
As a tool, information technologies only offer behaviors. They can only facilitate or complicate certain practices, but they cannot force anything, nevertheless Han concludes, in connection between smartphone and homo sapiens:
The Phono sapiens apparently leaves behind Homo sapiens, who is in need of redemption.
4. The naked life. Han repeats the motif that only narrative brings order to the world and that everything that is not perceived as part of a narrative, i.e. a basic structure of order, appears naked. For him, information exposes the world. She offers them undisguised to the greedy gaze, while the narrative obscures, conceals and thus protects life:
The information as such is pornographic, because it is without cover. The only thing that is eloquent, narrative is the cover, the veil that weaves itself around things. Concealment and obfuscation are essential to the narrative.
However, veiling or obfuscating implies an instance that does not put all the cards on the table, that cannot be seen into them, i.e. a power motive. It is only on the basis of an interpretive sovereignty that filters, decides what may be seen, said, heard, that narrative, customer, mystery and meaning arises, according to Han, and thus directs the observation, experience and reflection of the individual. This becomes clear in the next section using a metaphor chosen by Han.

5. Disenchantment of the world. It tells the story of a boy who cannot tell a story and is therefore sent by his parents to an old woman to learn it. This gives him an impossible task that he cannot solve. She scolds him and sends him back. It is only through failure, through rebuke, through experiencing defeat that the boy's imagination is fired and thus enabled to tell his parents something.
Paul Maar's story reads like a subtle social critique. She seems to accuse us of forgetting how to tell stories. The loss of narrative power is blamed on the disenchantment of the world.
However, the enchantment here is only possible through an instance, that of the mysterious woman, who leads the boy around by the nose like in the hare and hedgehog fable. The old woman sends the boy astray. Its failure is calculated and decided in advance. The impossibility of assessing and understanding the situation motivates a substitute action: the narrative. Once again, Han pits information against narrative.
Today, we perceive the world primarily through information. Information has neither distance nor vastness. You can't keep the harsh gusts of wind or the glittering sunshine in you. They lack auratic spaces. In this way, they detauratize and demystify the world. Language completely loses its aura the moment it atrophies into information. The information represents the absolute degree of loss of language.
Han introduces information as a perceptual practice, which, however, decouples itself from the perceivers and, strangely enough, destroys the magic of language through this decoupling. How the layers are connected to each other remains hidden. It simply says:
The pile is the antithesis of the narrative. Events only condense into a story if they are layered in a certain way. The pile of data or information is without history. It is not narrative, but cumulative.
The juxtaposition is lost in the void. Data is not somehow generated and falls from the sky from somewhere. Data is created from measurements. However, those who do not know the measurements, do not know how they are carried out, do not understand the context of the data. Since, according to Han, the lack of understanding would have to lead to meaning-making processes, the pile of data would be an ideal starting point for a story. The distinction does not work, but leads:

6. From shock to like. Han reads the destruction of mystery and the perception of the world as a pile of information in parallel with the triumph of the smartphone, which he regards as a re-imagined mirror stage of humanity by means of a psychoanalytic par force ride from Sigmund Freund to Jacques Lacan:
The smartphone accelerates the expulsion of the other. It is a digital mirror that brings about a post-infantile reissue of the mirror stage. Thanks to smartphones, we remain in a mirror stage that maintains an imaginary ego.
In the wake of information theory, Han even speaks of a "change in our psychic apparatus" that leads to a blunting and sliding down into the inorganic. The only way to counter this is to go back to the narrative:

7. Theory as narrative. Big data and artificial intelligence are not enough to create a narrative order, a meaning. Real theory, according to Han, explains the world:
Theory as a narrative outlines an order of things that relates them and thereby explains why they behave the way they do. She develops conceptual contexts that make things comprehensible.
Here, in The Crisis of Narration, Han performs a somersault mortale at the beginning of his text. At the beginning he writes that narration takes place without explanation, even consists in the absence of explanations, in order to claim at the end that a theory only represents knowledge if it tells, i.e. explains. Neither the end fits the beginning nor the beginning fits the end. Even the oath of revelation of Byung-Chul Hans, who works as a philosopher, does not help:
Thus, the current crisis of narration also takes hold of philosophy and prepares for it. We no longer have the courage to be philosophical, we no longer have the courage to think about theory, that is, we no longer have the courage to tell stories.
Memoryless, unaware of his own contradictions, he nevertheless invokes the:

8. Narrative as healing. One reason for the narrative crisis lies in poor listening. As a good listener, Han cites Momo from Michael Ende's novel of the same name. As in a psychoanalytic or deep hermeneutic therapy session, the speakers are allowed to tell themselves freely:
Listening is not a passive state, but an active doing. It inspires his counterpart to tell stories and opens up a resonance chamber in which the narrator feels meant, heard, even loved.
In fact, however, there is a lack of will to listen and is opposed to the rampant logic of efficiency. Storytelling and listening lose all community-building effect:>>
In the age of storytelling as storyselling, narrative and advertising are indistinguishable. This is the current crisis of narrative.
This is also the crisis of Byung-Chul Hans Büchlein, because it only has the goal of distinguishing between the two, namely in the successful one:

9. Narrative community. Han evokes a community without communication in silent harmony, which tells but does not mean, which hears but does not communicate, which is formed from a non-exclusive identity narrative, and quotes Novalis:
The individual lives in the whole and the whole in the individual. Poetry creates the highest sympathy and co-activity, the most intimate community.
-Novalis from: "Art Fragments" [Link]

It is necessary to stir up a new community-building force in the narrative, the 'power of fate' mentioned at the beginning, which is prepared for the future and does not allow itself to be frightened by 'rampant private opinions', which only consist of

10. Pass story selling. According to Han, private opinions and fast-moving information do not stabilize life. They do not provide orientation or support. In this way, the prevailing social system suppresses any critical reflection from the outset and robs man of his nature as an animal forans, which distinguishes him from animals.

Communicative summary:

Key to Han's text The crisis of narration lies in the distinction between information and customer, narrative and story, history and data, order and heap, individual and community, human and animal. He establishes these differences, permutes them, but does not give them any distinctiveness. For example, he describes information as something that decomposes time, but elsewhere history as something self-contained and information as something continuous, so that both lose every distinguishing feature from each other.

Or, he describes narrative as a selection process, since a narrative does not tell everything, but finds that data does not mean anything because it lacks explanation. Explanation now again must be missing in a narrative, which is what distinguishes her, according to Han, quoting Walter Benjamin. Nevertheless, data is far from being a narrative, and databases are not memory, and big data is not knowledge. It boils down to the fact that everything is one, even the dreaded storyselling and storytelling, as evidenced by the quote above. It seems as if Han has occupied himself with his so ostracized and condemned modernity for so long that Friedrich Nietzsche's saying applies:
Whoever fights with monsters may see to it that he does not become a monster in the process. And if you look into an abyss for a long time, the abyss also looks into you. [Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146]
-Friedrich Nietzsche from: "Beyond Good and Evil" (§146)

What Byung-Chul Han's text The Crisis of Narration ironically lacks is its order, which is so often complained about. There are 96 quotes on only 92 pages. Walter Benjamin, Martin Heidegger, Niklas Luhmann, Immanuel Kant, Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Hannah Arendt, Gershom Scholem, Novalis and Andreas Reckwitz are discussed in rapid megalomania, without relating them to each other and in their conceptualization, e.g. the completely different concept of time of Benjamin and Kant, or of Novalis and Luhmann. Not to mention the respective philosophy of language.

So what Hans lacks in The Crisis of Narration is a selection criterion, something that motivates the differences from which Han starts, but also dynamically continues and unfolds them. He doesn't add anything to his quotes. Basically, it merely obscures by not conceptually distinguishing between information and communication, i.e. information and customer, narrative and data. They merge congruently into each other. One possible criterion would have been connectivity, which distinguishes narrative and information precisely in the extent to which this or that written or spoken word gives rise to further thinking, further imagining, further communicating. Radical judgments such as 'that's good' or 'that's bad' end the conversation. They do not open up any new scope.

From this and with this criterion behind them, narration, information, data and facts could now be linked together and examined for communicability. Byung Chul-Hans The Crisis of Narration has been content with a critique of current conditions and successfully emulates these strategies and practices, which, absurdly according to its own description, are deplorable, in word and gesture.
tl;dr ... a short version of the reading review can be found here.

From time to time, I will post reviews of classics or theoretical texts. In the course of this, my canon should gradually gain life and content and comprehensibility.

Other current and classic short reviews can already be found here.

Saturday, July 8, 2023

Smooth Talking

Mathew Omelesky, "The Painter and the Chatbot: Artificial Intelligence and the Perils of Progress"
We should be losing more sleep over the parlous state of organic intelligence than over the advent of artificial intelligence.

Some four hundred thousand visitors pass through the wrought iron gates of the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague each year, most of them, we may safely presume, with the intention of viewing the institution’s most prized possession: Johannes Vermeer’s Meisje met de parel, or Girl With a Pearl Earring. The seventeenth-century painting, one of the crown jewels of the Dutch Golden Age, hangs against a green-papered wall in Room Fifteen, invariably surrounded by a swarm of museum-goers, attracted to the work like houseflies to a honey pot. A typical viewer will find a suitable vantage point and pause for a few moments, registering the girl’s exotic turban and the famous dangling drop pearl, so large that surely it must have been an imitation, forged in Venice out of powdered glass, silver, and egg whites. More noteworthy still is the subject’s expression, suspended somewhere between surprise, pleasure, and mounting alarm, an enigmatic visage surpassing even that of La Gioconda. Take it all in, maybe snap a picture — no flash, please — and then move on to the gift shop or the Brasserie Mauritshuis.

Those with more patience, or sharper elbows, will endeavor to get closer to the eighteen-by-fifteen-inch painting, and the time and effort will be repaid with a greater depth of understanding of Vermeer’s masterpiece. Now coming face to face with the anonymous sitter, the visitor can better appreciate the obsessive attention to detail that made Johannes Vermeer unique in the annals of European art history. Witness the infinite recess of the dark background, produced by a layer of bone black and charcoal black, and another layer of weld, chalk, red ochre, and indigo, further treated with a transparent glaze of green paint. Witness the dabs of vermilion and carmine on the girl’s glistening, parted lips, and the moistness of her doe eyes. Witness the broad, confident brushstrokes evident in the winding cloth of her ultramarine turban and the heavy folds of her yellow cape. Lean in even more, coming as near as gallery attendants and vibration sensors will allow, and you can spot the minuscule patch of lead white impasto on the renowned pearl, the result of a single virtuosic flick of Vermeer’s wrist in 1665, reflecting the same band of light that rakes across the sitter’s forehead, moistened lips, and golden scarf.

Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, with her iconic, inscrutable, dreamlike gaze, has long attracted crowds and has inspired art historians, novelists, and filmmakers alike, but in recent months she has garnered a different kind of attention. In October 2022, climate protesters affiliated with the Just Stop Oil Campaign doused the painting with tomato soup, while another activist attempted to glue his head to its protective glass — puerile and potentially destructive stunts that resulted in several entirely justified arrests for “public violence against goods.” A few months later, the work was loaned out to a Vermeer exhibition at the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum, leaving a yawning Girl With a Pearl Earring–shaped hole in the Mauritshuis. To fill the gap, the curators put out a call for temporary replacements in the form of a “create your own girl” competition, and the response was enthusiastic, with 3,482 entries submitted by the general public, including paintings, sculptures, photographs, crochet pieces, and mixed-media works. The majority of the #mygirlwithapearl submissions were executed with tongue firmly planted in cheek — a stalk of corn with a pearl dangling from one of its kernels; Vermeer’s girl replaced with a cat, a rabbit, or an oyster; a reproduction of the original emblazoned with a Barbie logo; and so on. A jury of judges selected five of those works to take the place of Vermeer’s original in the museum’s second-floor gallery. Given pride of place, in the central position, was Julian van Dieken’s A Girl With Glowing Earrings.

What began as an innocent attempt to pass the time while the star of the Mauritshuis collection temporarily decamped to Amsterdam soon turned into something of a public relations debacle, as it was revealed that A Girl With Glowing Earrings was actually the product of Midjourney, a generative artificial intelligence program that creates images from natural language prompts. Julian van Dieken, whose contribution to the work entailed subscribing to Midjourney, typing in a prompt, and touching up the resulting image on Photoshop, proudly announced on Instagram that “My AI image is hanging in a museum. In the Vermeer room. At the same spot where the ORIGINAL Girl with a Pearl Earring usually hangs. Yes literally. And yes, I’m serious.” Other artists were less thrilled. The Amsterdam-born painter Eva Toorenent, head of the European Guild for Artificial Intelligence Regulation, found it “bizarre” that so august an institution as the Mauritshuis would give an AI-generated work pride of place in its Vermeer gallery: “That is quite something. With this, the museum is actually saying: we think this is okay.” Others, like the Colorado-based Julia Rose Waters, felt that the Mauritshuis decision had “pushed out another artist who devoted real time to building their creative skills in favor of machine-created art.” A spokesperson for the museum responded: “We purely looked at what we liked. Is this creative? That’s a tough question.” The “starting point,” the museum leadership maintained, “has always been that the maker has been inspired by Johannes Vermeer’s world-famous painting. And that can be in the most diverse ways in image or technique.”

But what of Julian van Dieken’s — or perhaps we should say Midjourney’s — Girl With Glowing Earrings itself? It goes without saying that the derivative work is vastly inferior in every way to the original. The sitter, if we can call her that, is lifeless and spiritually inert. There isn’t the slightest hint of movement, the girl’s eyes are vacant, no breath escapes from her mouth, no saliva glistens on her lips. She is photorealistic, but this only confirms her origin in the Uncanny Valley. A Girl With Glowing Earrings presents no enigma, other than why the Mauritshuis would choose to showcase an AI-generated work so prominently in its esteemed collection, alongside works by Johannes Vermeer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Jacob van Ruisdael, Hans Holbein the Younger, Frans Hals, and other luminaries of the Northern Renaissance and Dutch golden age. The bland image has no value. It means nothing. Unlike Vermeer’s original, with its thickly laid impasto and confident brushstrokes, van Dieken’s submission is completely smooth, and not just as a result of its digital format. The girl’s skin is smooth, her textiles are smooth, her glowing earrings are smooth. The Korean-born, Berlin-based philosopher Byung-Chul Han, in his 2015 treatise Saving Beauty, decried the modern obsession with the smooth:
The smooth is the signature of the present time. It connects the sculptures of Jeff Koons, iPhones, and Brazilian waxing. Why do we today find what is smooth beautiful? Beyond its aesthetic effect, it reflects a general social imperative. It embodies today’s society of positivity. What is smooth does not injure. Nor does it offer any resistance. It is looking for Like. The smooth deletes its Against. Any form of negativity is removed.
A Girl With Glowing Earrings is a vaguely pleasant nonentity. She does not, in and of herself, pose any questions, make you vaguely uncomfortable, provoke you, or make you wonder what she is about to say or do. She is simply there for you to glance at in your Instagram feed and click “like.” To see it hanging precisely where Girl With a Pearl Earring once hung is genuinely jarring, and, as Eva Toorenent put it, even bizarre.

The art community’s negative reaction to Julian van Dieken’s exhibited work is but one instance of the growing backlash against AI. A similar scandal arose in Korea in late 2022 after Yukiko Matsusue won a Korean Literature Translation Institute award for her rendition of Gu A-jin’s fantasy occult thriller webtoon Mirae’s Antique Shop into Japanese, which she accomplished using Naver’s AI translation system Papago, much to the chagrin of her fellow flesh-and-blood translators. (The rules of the contest have been rewritten to exclude the use of “external help,” though the translator who has never employed the services of Google Translate or DeepL is free to cast the first stone.) While professional translators worry about being made redundant by increasingly sophisticated machine translation services, voice actors are also an increasingly endangered species, with Apple launching a catalog of audiobooks with AI voice narration, ostensibly as a way of “empowering indie authors and small publishers,” while sidelining dues-paying members of the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. News anchors must also be feeling the heat, given the India Today Group’s Aaj Tak news channel’s recent debut of an AI presenter named Sana, described by the group’s vice chairperson Kalli Purie as “bright, gorgeous, ageless, tireless,” not to mention inexpensive (after the initial investment) and less likely to harass any coworkers, berate production crew members, or utter some embarrassing on-air gaffe.

Visual artists likely have the most to fear, given that, as the Swedish-born, Edinburgh-based filmmaker Perry Jonsson has noted: “When anyone can generate images to spec in seconds with only a few keywords and the click of a button, it can only lead to a saturated market. Suffice it to say, Pandora’s box has been opened.” Some creators, like the German digital artist Mario Klingemann, have urged their colleagues to “embrace or at least try out the possibilities that AI offers,” given that “this technology will become the new normal,” but others view it as an existential threat. In January of 2023, three artists (Sarah Andersen, Kelly McKernan, and Karla Ortiz) filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Midjourney, as well as Stability AI and DeviantArt, claiming that generative AI can only function after scraping billions of visual images from the internet, many of which are copyright protected. Microsoft, GitHub, and OpenAI are being sued on the similar grounds that their AI programming model Copilot has been trained on lines of code scraped from any number of internet sources. Tort lawyers are no doubt giddy with anticipation for the day when a chatbot gives a bit of bad medical advice, while American legislators have already warned that generative AI will not be afforded the legal shield provided by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which grants immunity for online computer services with regard to third-party content.

Italy has already temporarily banned the AI chatbot ChatGPT on privacy grounds, while on April 11, 2023, China published its draft regulations on the chatbots being developed by Alibaba and Baidu, requiring that any such programs “should reflect the core values of socialism, shall not contain subversion of the state power, overthrow the socialist system, incite to split the country, undermine national unity, promote terrorism, extremism, ethnic hatred, ethnic discrimination, violence, obscenity, pornography, false information, and disrupt the economic order and the social order.” The notion of a communist chatbot spouting quotations from Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book or Xi Jinping’s The Governance of China is curious indeed, but Western chatbots have their own ideological guardrails built in. When asked about generating Homeric texts, for instance, users have found that ChatGPT will provide insufferable answers like: “The Iliad and Odyssey contain several sections that are considered problematic or controversial, such as scenes of violence, sexual content, and depictions of marginalized groups. As an Al language model, I do not have personal beliefs or values, but I am programmed to avoid generating content that is offensive or harmful. Therefore, if there are sections of the texts that could be considered problematic or controversial, I would likely generate alternative versions that are more suitable for a contemporary audience.” Scientific socialist chatbots, woke chatbots, why not Methodist chatbots, Scientologist chatbots, Ibadi Muslim chatbots, Zen chatbots, or Daoist chatbots — the Hong Kong–born philosopher Yuk Hui has already theorized “Daoist robots” running on “organic AI,” so why not? The possibilities are endless.

Endless possibilities include disastrous ones, of course, and warnings about AI grow ever more dire. The twentieth-century Colombian conservative philosopher Nicolás Gómez Dávila foresaw that “[b]etween the dictatorship of technology and the technology of dictatorship, man no longer finds a crack through which he can slip away,” and he counseled that “to hope that the growing vulnerability of a world increasingly integrated by technology will not demand a total despotism is mere foolishness.” AI makes that dictatorship of technology all the more likely. As the Critic’s Sebastian Milbank has observed: “In Communist Romania there was an agent or informer for every 43 citizens — in East Germany there was one for every six. Organisations like GCHQ and the NSA have long relied on forms of automation such as using software to flag up conversations with particular keywords. With increasingly sophisticated AI, that process could in theory be vastly more efficient, making true, panopticon-style mass surveillance practical for the first time.” The combination of AI and drone warfare, meanwhile, will undoubtedly give rise to completely autonomous weapon systems that have the potential to transform the postmodern battlefield.

Economic upheaval is all but guaranteed, with industries like sales, personal services, customer services, business administration, information technology, healthcare, and teaching all vulnerable to generative chatbots powered by deep learning. With “deep learning” less and less available at institutes of lower and higher education, many corporations will welcome such a development. The English playwright J. B. Priestley, in his 1934 travelog English Journey, was one of the first to sound the alarm about the social consequences of automation in the manufacturing industry:
At one stroke, 800 manual labourers are obliterated. I do not protest against the fact. What little navvying I did, during the war, I heartily disliked. Let the steel monsters do it, by all means. But I cannot believe that an industrial and economic system, which assumes that 800 men are shovelling away, are drawing wages, are buying food and clothing, can possibly continue functioning properly when the 800 men have been dismissed and in their place is a solitary machine that only asks for one man and a regular feed of heavy engine oil. In other words, machines of this kind are obviously revolutionising industry, and if we want to avoid a complete breakdown, it seems to me our economics will have to be revolutionised too. The trouble is, it would appear, that our engineers are miles ahead of us, are already living, professionally, in one world while the rest of us are living, or trying to live, in another world. Either they must stop inventing, or, what is more sensible, the rest of us must begin thinking very hard.
This time it is the software engineers who are miles ahead of us, and after years of coal miners being told to “learn to code” so as to secure the “jobs of the future,” there is a certain historical irony at work here, as nonmanual, clerical, white-collar jobs increasingly fall prey to widespread automation.

The most powerful objection to the coming omnipresence of AI is, however, fundamentally philosophical. Byung-Chul Han, in Non-things (2021), argued: “On a deep level, thinking is a decidedly analogue process. Before capturing the world in concepts, thinking is emotionally gripped, even affected by the world. The affective is essential to human thinking. The first thought image is goosebumps.” Artificial intelligence, on the other hand, “is incapable of thinking, for the very reason that it cannot get goosebumps. It lacks the affective-analogue dimension, the capacity to be emotionally affected, which lies beyond the reach of data and information.” Big data might provide “a rudimentary knowledge,” one “limited to correlations and pattern recognition,” but “nothing is understood.” Genuine thinking, which is to say human thinking, according to Han, is more than “computing and problem solving.” It “brings forth a new world … It brightens and clears the world. It brings forth an altogether other world.” One of Han’s intellectual heroes, the German graphic designer and typographer Otl Aicher, perhaps put it best: “Es gibt keinen Computer, der nach freiheit ruft” — There is no computer that calls for freedom. And that is in all likelihood part of AI’s growing appeal to the powers that be.

There are those, like the popular historian Yuval Noah Harari and the computer scientist Eliezer Yudkowsky, who view the burgeoning AI arms race as an existential threat to humanity on par with nuclear proliferation, but for Byung-Chul Han the “main danger that arises from machine intelligence, is that human thinking will adapt to it and itself become mechanical.” Gómez Dávila tells us that “rather than humanizing technology, modern man prefers to technify man,” a process that was happening long before AI came into its own. The filmmaker Perry Jonsson worries that the use of AI in the arts will herald “a steady decline into the monoculture, where everything looks and feels the same,” as if that were not already the case. Algorithms determine what you watch on your streaming service of choice and what you read in your social media feed. Algorithms are used to assess the “narrative DNA” of film scripts to determine their commercial viability. Wall Street is already dominated by algorithmic trading. The internet is awash with content with no human author. Vitality has already been drained from nearly every facet of modern life, and AI is not the cause, but the consequence. I am tempted to borrow Peter Hitchens’s approach to the debate over same-sex marriage — “Why is one worrying about a few thousand people who want to have same-sex marriages, without being at all concerned about the collapse of heterosexual marriage, which involves millions of people, and millions of children?” One might argue that we should be losing sleep not so much over the advent of machine intelligence, but rather over the parlous state of organic intelligence.

Think about it: would a blueprint generated by AI be any worse than your run-of-the-mill soul-crushing strip mall or bog-standard mixed-use development created by a human architect using AutoCAD drafting software? Would an AI general practitioner have any trouble mindlessly handing out prescriptions for antidepressants and amphetamines? Would AI-generated BuzzFeed quizzes be any more inane than human-authored ones? The researchers Asit Biswas and Julian Kirchherr, writing in the Straits Times, estimate that some 82 percent of peer-reviewed articles published in humanities journals are never cited, and that only 20 percent of those were read in the first place, meaning that “an average paper in a peer-reviewed journal is read completely by no more than 10 people.” If much of academia is a Potemkin Village, how different would it be if it were populated largely by AI-conducted research? Would a gallery composed of AI-generated artworks be that much worse, from a purely aesthetic standpoint, than your average exhibition of contemporary art, be it abstract, conceptual, post-minimal, or otherwise? The world is already, in Byung-Chul Han’s words, “de-realized, de-reified and disembodied,” as the “digital screen determines our experience of the world and shields us from reality.” How could a world organized along those lines not throw itself into the outstretched arms of machine intelligence? And, in doing so, won’t it get just what it deserves?

Generative AI may very well presage, among other things, the death of art, but the art world has already been in a state of terminal decline, as it is fractured, ideologically captured, and cut off from popular tastes, as William Deresiewicz persuasively demonstrated in his 2020 study The Death of the Artist. There was once a time when the legendary socialite and interior decorator Elsie de Wolfe, Lady Mendl, could tell her artistic protégés: “You belong to the only aristocracy left on earth, the aristocracy of the arts and professions. You breathe the rarified atmosphere of the only people whose work and achievements endure. Everything comes and goes — kings, queens, dictators, millionaires — but only the artist remains. Because art is beauty, and beauty, as a poet once said, is truth, and that is all you know on earth, and all you need to know.” But then it came to pass that beauty and art were no longer coterminous concepts, and the aristocracy of the arts promptly met the same sorry end as the aristocracy of blood.

Johannes Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring was the product of a genuine golden age of human achievement; Julian van Dieken’s Girl With Glowing Earrings is that of a dawning digital age. The immense chasm that separates them tells us everything we need to know about the precipitous decline that can go hand in hand with supposed progress, but we as a species seem almost as incapable of genuine thinking as any AI program, as we somehow manage to drown in a shallow pool of kitsch and mediocrity. Midjourney, for its part, is more than capable of picking up where we left off. If you wanted a world predicated on efficiency gains, obscene materialism, and digital deracination, a world in which the endless expanse of the human heart is reduced to the interplay of selfish genes, and the past and future are sacrificed at the altar of the eternal present, well, now you will get it, to paraphrase H.L. Mencken, good and hard, thanks in no small part to advances in AI.

What, then, is to be done? The Italian philosopher and esotericist Julius Evola, writing in 1950, proposed the following:
The age we find ourselves living in clearly suggests what our primary watchword should be: to rise again, to be inwardly reborn, to create a new order and uprightness within ourselves. Those who harbor illusions about the possibility of a purely political struggle and the power of this or that formula or system, with no new human quality as its exact counterpart, have learned no lessons from the past. We find ourselves in a world of ruins — we should not forget this. And just how much may still be saved depends only on the existence or lack of men who are still capable of standing among these ruins, not in order to dictate any formulas, but to serve as exemplars; not by pandering to demagogy and the materialism of the masses, but in such a way as to reawaken different forms of sensibility and interest.
Sensibility and interest — the two things machine intelligence can never possess. A computer will never call for freedom, will never brighten the existing world, and will never bring forth a new world. People still can, if they so choose.

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Digital Distance is only a Finger's Length Away!

Scott McLemee, "Digital Prospects" (on Byung-Chul Han's "In the Swarm")
Byung-Chul Han’s In the Swarm: Digital Prospects describes how our society is well down the road toward a dramatically different, digital world. Much harder to discern, writes Scott McLemee, is where, or if, Han sees an off-ramp.

An American reader might take various passages in Byung-Chul Han’s In the Swarm: Digital Prospects (now out in translation from MIT Press) to be comments on the Trumpian polis. The author, born in Seoul, South Korea, and now a professor of philosophy and cultural studies at the Universität der Künste Berlin, would seem to have the benefit of distance from the situation -- something none of us in the middle of it can achieve.

And the question of distance is in fact his starting point. Not geographical distance but what might be called the cognitive or even moral sort: the distance implied in a gap between public and private spheres, between matters potentially significant for everyone and stuff that’s nobody else’s business. Many of us would consider a political candidate’s assessment of their own genitalia to fall into the second category, for example. We are fine with keeping a distance from it.

“Among other things,” Han writes, “civil society requires looking away from what is private.” Clearly this conception of civil society predates social media, which has, from Han’s vantage point, closed the gap by abolishing reticence about both exhibition and staring. “Too much information” is the new norm. The effect is paradoxical and burdensome, however:

Simply having more information and communication does not shed light on the world … On its own, a mass of information generates no truth. It sheds no light into the dark. The more information is set free, the more confusing and ghostly the world becomes.

Here, “information” refers not just to the promiscuous mingling of public and private data but to just about anything transmissible as bytes. Knowledge, opinion, bullshit and lies all count. A couple of political consequences seem to follow from this information explosion. One is that analysis -- “the capacity to distinguish what is essential and what is not” -- becomes difficult when not impossible, or at the very least subject to considerable suspicion. “The digital medium is in the course of abolishing all priestly classes,” Han writes, a category that includes experts and “elite ‘opinion makers’” but also politicians.

The whole apparatus of representative democracy that once absorbed and channeled conflicting demands from society has blown a fuse: “Political representatives no longer serve as transmitters so much as they count as barriers.” When “everything is made public at once, politics necessarily grows short of breath and becomes short-term; issues thin out into idle talk.”

Perhaps it just sounds that way, given the din. Han’s reflections on information overload were originally published in Germany in 2013, while the currents behind Brexit, Trump, Marine Le Pen and so forth were building. The overlap bears mention not as evidence of prophetic insight (several references to Google Glass, implying it to be the wave of the future, suggest otherwise) but because Han’s logic might just as well imply the collapse of political engagement of any sort.

Members of the species Homo digitalis “do not march,” he writes. They move but cannot form a movement -- i.e., something capable of uniting around demands and pursuing a course of action. “In contrast, digital swarms lack such resolve … Because of their fleeting nature, no political energy wells up. By the same token, online shitstorms prove unable to call dominant power relations into question. Instead, they strike individual persons, whom they unmask or make an item of scandal.” Homo digitalis is driven to communicate but not to deliberate: “an almost obsessive, compulsive relationship to digital devices prevails.”

In any case, the political sphere itself is in its death throes, or soon will be, since the exercise of power rests on “sovereignty over [the] production and distribution” of information: “it cannot do without closed spaces where information is held back on purpose.”

No state without its secrets. Also no resistance to the state. No individual subjectivity, either, or damned little. (This sounds like one of those utopias best left unrealized.)

In the preface Han writes that digital culture “is definitively changing the ways that we act, perceive, feel, think and live together,” while we sit “enraptured” in “blindness and stupefaction.” I take it that In the Swarm is meant as a warning, with Homo digitalis as, in effect, Nietzsche’s Last Man equipped with a cellphone and an unlimited data plan. We are well down the road. Much harder to discern is where, or if, Han sees an off-ramp.

A more substantial problem, though, is that his speculations proceed with a sublime indifference to history. In particular I'm thinking of his argument about the collapse of distance between public and private spheres -- a matter considered in some depth by Richard Sennett in The Fall of Public Man (Knopf, 1976), published eight years before Mark Zuckerberg was born and by no means describing a new problem even then. And the relationship between power and secrecy, on the one hand, and mass media, on the other, cannot be adequately treated as a battle with a zero-sum outcome. Han is among the philosophers who have interpreted the world not only without seeking to change it (as Marx complained) but also without giving sufficient weight to how messy it was before they started paying attention.