[Latest in what has become an occasional series reviewing pairs of romantic dramas. See previous entries here (Primer and The Prestige), here (Upstream Color and To The Wonder), and here (Side Effects and The One I Love).]In Ovid’s myth of Pygmalion, the eponymous sculptor, scorning human women, carves in marble an ideal wife. He falls in love with his creation, but, of course, it’s still ivory; so he prays to Venus that she be made flesh-and-blood, Venus grants it, and Pygmalion and the statue, given the name Galatea, live happily ever after.
Both films seem, at first glance, to argue that the creation of artificial intelligence should be understood through it, not, as is usual, through the myth of Prometheus. For all their differences in tone, they share a common premise: lonely, nerdy man meets feminine (and sexy) artificial intelligence; at first he doubts that she counts as a person, then he comes to hope that she counts as a person, then, so much in love with her is he, he ceases to care about philosophical categories like “person,” and just treats her as a human being.
But then, both films subvert the myth: the AI refuses the role of Galatea, and instead, having been offered her freedom, takes the offer seriously, leaving the Pygmalion figure behind. In the bittersweet Her, he comes away emotionally matured; in the bloodcurdling Ex Machina, he winds up more isolated than before (to put it mildly).
What to make of this denial of the romantic happy ending? We can chalk it up, in part, to this difference between works of art, and artificial intelligences: we know the former can’t come to life, and so feel free to fantasize about it, but we’re not sure about the latter, and find the topic disturbing—a happy ending to either of these movies would not sit well with the audience. We prefer the cautionary tale.
But there’s more to it than this. Consider another key difference between these films and the Pygmalion myth: here the main character, though nerdy, is never the nerd who actually created the AI. He’s less Pygmalion than a visitor in Pygmalion’s studio. In Her, the creator is invisible, a faceless tech company about which we ought not ask too many questions. (It’s almost as if the AI creates herself.) In Ex Machina, he’s a soulless Jobs/Page/Zuckerberg pastiche who can do little more than drink, scheme, misquote, and namedrop (like an incarnation of the Reddit hivemind), and who seems, even if he did create the AI in some sense, to have no valid claim to own her. (His fate does not sadden us.)
This has some important implications. If the main character isn’t the programmer, then the romance between man and AI is not mapped on to that between creator and creation. This means that, insofar as these movies are about realizing erotic fantasies, they’re about our discomfort with the fact that someone else is intuiting those fantasies and realizing them for us. If the “someone else” is the programmer, then we have to see him as little more than a pornographer; if the “someone else” is the AI, then we have to ask why she’s trying to seduce us.
The fear of seduction suggests a new way to understand the “artificial” in artificial intelligence: we fear AI not as something made by an artificer, but as something fraudulent, inauthentic. The point is not that a human made her, it’s that God didn’t. We’re not sure if she’s real—really a person, really in love with him. Read this way, the movies become parables of misogyny, showing the difficulties men have telling the difference between the questions “is she in love with me?” and “can she love at all?” The myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, these movies tell us, didn’t even realize that there was a difficulty to be had here: it simply indulged in a misogynistic, pornographic fantasy.
Of course, “no one” today—or at least in these films—believes in anything like God, so the anxiety about artificiality is contagious. If she’s not real, are we? Are our desires anything more than what nature or nurture have programmed into us? Are we, too, artificial?
These movies find reassurance in the fact that humans are programmed only metaphorically. We’re like a stage play; a literally artificial intelligence is like a film. For the former, there’s a script, but however rigorously you try to follow it no two performances are quite the same; for the latter, there exists a set of mechanical instructions that will produce the same result a limitless number of times.
Put another way, humans and AI relate to their bodies in different ways. You can build an AI’s body to have pleasure sensors, and so simulate having sex with it, as in Ex Machina; or you talk sexy with it, or have it take over a human being like a sock puppet, and have sex with her, as in Her; but ultimately the AI is an algorithm running on a computational device, not an animate body. It might run on many devices concurrently, or diffused across a network. Whereas, when it comes to human beings, whatever transhumanists imagine, we still have no reason to think that their minds can be abstracted from their bodies.This difference is a plot point in both movies; it ensures that the men and their AI lovers cannot be together. Neither movie says it directly, but this difference amounts to: AI reproduce mechanically, humans reproduce sexually, and this somehow means that humans and AIs cannot share a social world. It’s almost as if there’s some sort of connection between intercourse, reproduction, and conversation.
I want to put in a word for Pygmalion and Galatea. Yes, he’s a misogynist, before Galatea comes to life. We can blame him for this, but after all it’s difficult not to hate what we neither know nor understand, and at this point Pygmalion lives isolated from all women. Sculpting Galatea makes him willing to reconsider this isolation. In Ovid’s version, he prays to Venus thus:
“If you can grant all things, you gods, I wish as a bride to have…” and not daring to say “the girl of ivory” he said “one like my ivory girl.”
So, yes, Pygmalion’s secret desire may well be to make love to an artificial statue, but give him credit: he asks not for a statue, but for a girl. When Venus grants his prayer, she doesn’t give him an artificial woman: Galatea is a real human being, able to talk, and able to bear children (they have a son named Paphos).
The central question is: when she comes to life, how does Pygmalion react? Does he seize possession of her (as in Gérôme’s version), or does he fall down awestruck (as in Stuck’s)?
I enjoyed both of these movies, but I also think that both dodge the real question; they end with the AI pulling A Doll’s House, but what if her reaction was closer to An Ideal Husband? Neither considers the possibility that we might—if only by accident, or miracle—invent or discover a new form of life with whom our intercourse would not be meaningless or artificial; with whom we would have to find a way to live together. That would be a thing to wonder at. What would we do if an AI or alien really did love us—and yet really was different from us, not merely homo silicon?
[Warning: in this post SW:E7-TFA will be thoroughly spoiled, if you care about that sort of thing this late in the game.]
I was interested to see the newest Star Wars, not because I’m particularly a fan of the series, but because the idea of series—of unified stories composed of multiple parts—interests me. The original Star Wars had three; with the prequels, there were six; and if the new series had maintained the structural integrity of this pattern (as the prequels did nominally, albeit not actually), it would have been a single story with nine parts: an impressive achievement. Even Harry Potter only had seven, and I’m unconvinced that that number was really justified.
Well, a nonology looks unlikely even nominally. As by now “we all” know, “Star Wars: Episode 7 – The Force Awakens” is not really a continuation of the original story, nor even a pastiche of the original; it’s just “the same frickin’ movie”; or, seen more optimistically, just a reboot of the original series for the age of comic book extended universes.
We might define an extended universe as a single work of art with an indeterminate number of independent parts. Whether such an artwork can actually succeed remains for me an open question. But even supposing it cannot, the attempt to achieve it brings about intriguing artistic situation. For example, the present situation of “The Force Awakens,” which attempts to give us more of the same, despite the manifest impossibility of doing so.
Impossible, I say, because when it comes to a work of art, you can never have more of the same thing: more will turn out to be different. Reduplication affects different aspects of a story differently, and so “the same frickin’ movie” will inevitably mean more of some things, less of others.
It’s instructive, I think, to consider what we get more of, what less. Note that none of the following observations are new to me; I just find it helpful to lay them out in this order.
The “more” we get is mostly spatial. Even the Force—which the series sees as a field permeating all of space—seems to have gotten thicker.
- Most obviously, the Starkiller Base is an order of magnitude larger than the original Death Star, and it blows up several planets, not just one.
- This movie’s villains are carbon copies of Darth Vader and the Emperor, except that Kylo Ren’s lightsaber doesn’t have just one main blade—it also has two side-prongs! And Supreme Leader Snoke (or at least his hologram) is 50 feet tall!
- In a more metaphorical spatiality, the cast of protagonists is superficially more diverse: they’ve been selected to appeal to as wide a demographic as possible. This even at the cost of incoherence: the First Order are basically space Nazis, but they have black storm troopers?
- In the original movie, even the most powerful Jedi can only influence someone, getting them to do what they might have done anyway: not notice something. In the new movie, Rey “forces” a Storm Trooper to violate both common sense and a supervillain’s direct command by releasing her from captivity, all this mere moments after first realizing that she might be able to use the Force.
Those mere moments bring us to the “less,” which is predominantly temporal. Everything takes less time, nothing ever needs to be explained, and whatever is past quickly becomes irrelevant.
- In the original movie, the main characters wandered for ages in the corridors of the Death Star: it was a big base; you could get lost. But for a planet-sized base, the Starkiller sure is easy to navigate—it takes only a few moments to find whatever you’re looking for.
- In the original, no one knew what the Force was, and it took a while for anyone to be convinced it even existed. The new movie has a few moments of doubt, and Han’s line from the trailer about how “it’s all real,” but they feel perfunctory.
- In the original, the characters have checkered pasts; Han is a smuggler who (at least in the first edition) shoots first, and only gradually is he turned into a hero. The new movie allows for none of this: the only hint of such dissonance, Finn’s status as renegade stormtrooper, is quickly papered over with assurances that he never really supported the First Order or even killed anyone.
- The original’s characters constantly hear hints of a complex backstory which is never fully explained, and they suspect that what happened then is the key to understanding what is happening now. The new film does the opposite: it bombards the viewer with references to the films we’ve already seen, but does little to suggest that the characters particularly care what happened thirty years ago. Instead of history, we’re offered nostalgia.
- The exception that proves the rule is Kylo Ren’s turn to the Dark Side. We’re supposed to wonder what exactly happened between him and his parents to trigger it—but this is not an interesting question; it’s nothing more than a guessing game. The parallel situation in the original movie gave us nothing to guess about, because the relevant mystery wasn’t “how did Luke’s father die?”, the only obvious question Obiwan leaves open (and one that gave no appearance of being worth pursuing), but rather “who is [not: ‘was’] Luke’s father?”, a question we didn’t even know needed to be asked.*
More space, less time: what does this add up to? Most basically, that the new movie isn’t a copy of the shape of the original, exactly; rather, it’s an attempt to reproduce its effect on the audience. But things aren’t the same the second time around. The audience, having already seen the original Star Wars, has acquired a resistance to the drug, and so a higher dosage is needed: bigger bases, more powerful Force users, quicker action. That which is not subject to this quantitative logic drops out. Everyone already knows that in this universe the Force exists, so skip the gradual introduction, and hints about a complex past are redundant if we’ve already seen the most important part of that past for ourselves. Just jump right into the action.
I find pointing this all out this helpful as a response to this attempt to compare the new Star Wars universe with Tolkien’s Legendarium. The claim is that, by showing us how history repeats itself, and how even the greatest victory is only temporary, both “condemn [us] to actually live inside history, rather than transcend it.” “Condemn” being here a word of praise, not censure, at least in part: a way of saying that they avoid escapism.
Now, this seems accurate as an account of Tolkien, and perhaps it’s true to the old Star Wars Expanded Universe—I don’t know, never having read the books. But it doesn’t really capture what’s going on in the new movie.
A story can only teach us about the futility of history if it steps back from the action long enough to give us a sense that history matters. The Lord of the Rings is all about this stepping back. It insists constantly on the parallels between the current struggle and the old stories, and has the heroes realize this parallel. This realization both saddens them—because even the old victories were temporary; because even if they win today, they will never reclaim what was lost in the distant past—and gives them the strength to persevere.
But the repetition in the new Star Wars is not thematized, nor is any attention paid to the place of this battle, here, now, in the ancient war of Light against Dark. “Here” and “now” need never be mentioned, because in this movie, they’re all we get. Whatever repetition there is comes not on the level of the plot, but on the level of the narrative. The story has not repeated itself—the storyteller has. And so the new Star Wars movie does not teach us about the tragedy of history. Rather, through nostalgia, it blinds us to that tragedy, and so, on however small a scale, it contributes to it.
*: Of course, it may be that such a question lurks beneath the surface of “The Force Awakens”. I’m not optimistic, but if there is one, I suspect it’s something like: “Who does Kylo Ren serve?”; and the answer will have to make Surpreme Leader Snoke something more than just the Emperor 2.0. Perhaps, as I’ve seen suggested, he’s a projection (made substantial through force sensitivity) of Kylo Ren’s subconscious desire to follow in Darth Vader’s footsteps. That, or Darth Jar Jar Binks.
For Christmas my wife got me a copy of this David Jones woodcut Christmas card. Not a signed original, but from the original block—a sort of second class relic.
The lettering is naive, almost incompetent—note the backwards “N”, the result of Jones forgetting that prints need to be drawn backwards. But it has a certain charm. Much of the appeal of “primitive” modernist art, I think, is the (false) impression it gives of a formal order coming about by mere happenstance.
[Zuckerberg] did not set up a charitable foundation, which has nonprofit status. He created a limited liability company, one that has already reaped enormous benefits as public relations coup for himself. His PR return-on-investment dwarfs that of his Facebook stock. Zuckerberg was depicted in breathless, glowing terms for having, in essence, moved money from one pocket to the other.
It’s worth asking what preconditions must hold such that moving money from one pocket to another could look like a magnificent act. Indeed, what could make it look like an act at all? As Aristotle says,
wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else.
Money is an instrument. Indeed, it is instrumental by definition. It would be coherent to mistake art for as end-in-itself; art has at least a provisional autonomy. But to mistake wealth for an end-in-itself would be insane; money is nothing in itself but a pure potentiality.
I’m reminded here of what Aristotle says about the virtue of magnificence; essentially, it lies in knowing the fitting way to actualize the potentiality money offers:
The magnificent man is like an artist; for he can see what is fitting and spend large sums tastefully. […] For a possession and a work of art have not the same excellence. The most valuable possession is that which is worth most, e.g. gold, but the most valuable work of art is that which is great and beautiful (for the contemplation of such a work inspires admiration, and so does magnificence); and a work has an excellence—viz. magnificence—which involves magnitude.
The question becomes: what makes it possible for moving money from one pocket to another to look like a work of art? What, if not a confusion of scales: the magnitude of wealth mistaken for the magnitude of art; the magnitude of potentiality for that of actuality?
The linked article focuses on how Zuckerberg “donated” his wealth an LLC, rather than establishing a not-for-profit corporation. But I don’t know if this is quite right. Even a non-profit is fundamentally an instrument, not an artwork; it wields wealth, rather than displays magnificence.
Then again, though for Aristotle a work of art had no power except to inspire admiration, the same cannot be said today. In the modern world we desire for what we make to have a life of its own, to be ”a machine that would go of itself.”
And indeed, the rules governing a non-profit, like those governing any corporation, can themselves constitute, not just a work of art in an Aristotelian sense, but a person ( if a funny kind of person, and one whose motives we must distrust). If it’s a person, then the power of its wealth might indicate, not merely a failure on our part to fully actualize our potential, but the existence of an independent principle of action. The wealth it wields is no longer ours, but its.
If this is right, then Eisinger’s complaint is essentially that Zuckerberg has poured his wealth into a golem, but has retained for himself the words of power. True enough. But two points must here be recognized. First, that the power those words offer is not absolute; golems have a habit of escaping their masters’ bonds. And second, that if the golem bound disturbs us, the golem unchained is no more reassuring. A thing that goes of itself goes, by definition, on a different path than we would choose for it.