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Bodily forms from natural things

August 10, 2015

[A round-up of links old and new, and a sequel of sorts to this previous post.]

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick

“Want to understand what it means to be a woman? Look at robots.” So Alyssa Rosenberg instructs us. To be sure, there’s some sort of connection; she amasses sufficient evidence, in the form of movies and music videos, to demonstrate this. (Surprisingly, Rosenberg doesn’t mention the origins of the Turing Test, which, as I discuss here, emerged from a parlor game in which a man tries to imitate a woman.)

The problem with Rosenberg’s commentary is implicit in the title. How is looking at robots supposed to help us understand women? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Which of those two things do any of us know anything about? Of course, she doesn’t actually want us to look at robots; she wants us to look at how certain people imagine robots. “Robots,” for her, is not a technological concept, but a mythological one. More specifically, a science fiction one: its status as fiction is obscured by its claim to a scientific pedigree.

………………………………… unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress

To be a robot, in this mythic world, means that to be your own person you must escape belonging to someone else. Nature, or perhaps culture—no sharp distinction is drawn between them. Paradoxically, in this mythos, you escape one’s createdness by creating yourself: for example, by getting a tattoo.

But as Christine Rosen discusses in The Hedgehog Review, this is rather self-defeating:

Today we treat our bodies like material possessions over which we have exclusive ownership and, we incorrectly assume, total control. But questions about the human body will only become more important in the near future, when we will have access to a range of new technological and genetic enhancements that will force us to confront what it even means to be human. The conversations we should be having aren’t about deviance and power and the fetishization of difference; they are about the integrity of the human body. After all, our physical bodies are the means by which we understand ourselves and the world, and the greatest proof of our shared history as human beings. They are what we have in common with each other, no matter how much we attempt to change. That understanding, like the tattooists’ skill with needle and ink, is something we must cultivate if we don’t want it to fade.

True, a tattoo transforms your body from an emblem of commonality with other human beings, into an expression of personal preference: but if your culture is built around the glorification of such expression, what exactly have you escaped?

Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence

The problem, perhaps, is the equation of culture and nature described above; perhaps the two are, in fact opposed. Matthew Crawford, in an excerpt published in The New Atlantis from his new(ish) book The World Beyond Your Head, suggests that modern culture is built around a rejection of nature, and an elevation of “virtual reality as moral ideal,” such that culture seeks to reshape human nature to function better within it. Crawford takes as emblem of this ideal a contemporary cartoon show (contrasted with the old Mickey Mouse cartoons, in which the characters experience the world as something that resists their desires):

When the choosing will is sealed off from the fuzzy, hard-to-master contingencies of the empirical world, it becomes more “free” in a sense: free for the kind of neurotic dissociation from reality that opens the door wide for others to leap in on our behalf, and present options that are available to us without the world-disclosing effort of skillful engagement. For the Mousekedoer, choosing (from a menu of ready-made solutions) replaces doing, and it follows that such a person should be more pliable to the “choice architectures” presented to us in mass culture.

The absence of the real from Mickey Mouse Clubhouse — indeed the dissociative or abstract quality of children’s television in general these days — makes it an ideal vehicle for psychological adjustment; for constructing and managing the kind of selves that society requires, without meddling interference from the nature of things. The particular adjustments to be carried out will have to be determined by a Disney script supervisor, or some other functionary of the modern self.

Against this, Crawford wants to argue (my words, not his): the pathways of causality are labyrinthine. We should not think that these pathways can be smoothed out for us, giving us what we want while avoiding any confrontation with “the nature of things.” Such smoothing represents, not freedom from nature, but enslavement by culture.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall

It’s true, of course: the pathways of causality are labyrinthine. But Crawford’s response accepts the science fiction mythos it claims to reject. It merely inverts the view that those pathways ought to be smoothed out, by claiming that their ruggedness ought instead to be celebrated, as an opportunity for self-creation. Culture is what other people do, when they smooth out the world for me; nature is when I make myself rugged through a direct confrontation with a rugged nature.

When he accepts this mythos, equating nature with what resists us, he denies nature what he means to restore to it: integrity. This denial is conceptual, but also practical. As any student of American history knows, rugged individualism is not exactly the natural world’s friend. Consider, not an obvious example like buffalo-hunts, but something more pervasive: air conditioning, and the general belief that it is somehow unnatural, because it takes a shortcut through the labyrinth of causality. It’s true that it’s pathway is fairly complex (though once you do understand it, it’s quite fascinating). Yet, as Megan McArdle describes, air conditioning is better for the environment than heating. So why does everyone believe the opposite?:

Heating also seems normal because it is normal, if not exactly natural. Once we harnessed fire, humans started moving into temperate areas that were previously uninhabitable by hairless bipeds evolved for the equatorial plains of Africa. By now, warming ourselves in the winter seems like “something that everyone has to do”; we don’t see it as “a great deal of energy expended to live in an area that’s not really all that suitable for human habitation.”

In other words, air conditioning feels “smooth,” rather than “rugged.” It does not feel like an interaction with nature, but like an escape from it. Whereas heating involves manipulation of a basic chemical process, one so basic that it’s not obvious there even is anything to understand, and for whose contours we can quickly get an intuitive feel. Pre-modern cultures often considered fire one of the basic elements. It is the epitome of “rugged” nature.

But fire, quite literally, destroys the labyrinthine pathways of nature, reducing complex organic matter to heat pure and simple. A/C does the same thing—everything does, as the second law of thermodynamics tells us—but it’s less wasteful. It does less to destroy the labyrinthine pathways, less to propel the universe towards its final oblivion. While the rugged/smooth dichotomy concerns nature-as-alien-force, the hot/cool dichotomy concerns nature-as-common-home. These dichotomies are not antiparallel, but orthogonal. A/C is smooth and cool, fire is rugged and hot; cars are smooth and hot, bicycles are rugged and cool.

Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is

This observation doesn’t compel us Chicagoans to stop heating our homes, or to all move to Texas (which isn’t a realistic possibility anyway). But it forces us to ask: is our goal to keep things rugged, or to keep them cool? Is it to test our mettle against nature, or to live peacefully within nature?

The same question applies also to less hypothetical controversies. Many conservatives object to trangender surgery because it’s not “natural.” Most supporters of transgender rights find this objection difficult even to comprehend, and so don’t really try. An interesting exception can be found in this article in Public Discourse, “Rethinking the Conservative Approach to Transgenderism.” Basically (the author argues), transgender persons aren’t psychologically disordered; their minds were ordered the way they are from their beginning. So nothing would count as restoring their mind to proper alignment with their body. In the terms developed above, psychological treatment is of course more rugged than sex-change surgery (talking is a fairly basic technology), but it’s no less hot; any psychological treatment that successfully altered a mind’s gender would consume, not heal, what had been there before, just as much as would any surgical sex-change.

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

Of course, while transgender surgery is “smooth” in the sense that it’s not “rugged,” no one would ever imagine that it was shiny and chrome. We might introduce here a third dichotomy: normal and grotesque: what feels like part of the world, and what feels like a distortion of the natural way of things. As with rugged/smooth and hot/cool, these terms don’t translate simply into good/bad; they’re about sensibilities, not ethics. For example, organ transplants feel grotesque, and probably always will. And when people invoke the mythos of the Robot Future, that future feels to them normal. Perhap’s it’s terrifying, but it’s not disgusting; it’s the way of things. Technology, like history, flows ever onward.

Perhaps this is the real problem with the robot mythos. It knows robots are smooth, not rough; but it has no views on whether they’re hot or cool; and it mistakenly believes that robots are normal, not grotesque. In fact, far from being Cartesian, robots are Lovecraftean. When a computer looks at the world, the result looks to us like Yog-Sothoth.


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