Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Huckleberry Finn on How the World Was Made (or Laid)

Reading Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I came across the following intriguing passage (in chapter 19), in which Huck tells the reader about a brief philosophical or rather cosmological argument he had with his friend and companion, the runaway slave Jim.

“It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky, up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened  - Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many. Jim said the moon could a laid them; well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn’t say nothing against it, because I’ve seen a frog lay most as many, so of course it could be done.”
Jim’s reasoning is built firmly on experience: making a thing takes time, and making so many copies of a thing as there are stars in the sky would have taken an awful lot of time, so it is rather unlikely if not downright impossible that anyone would have taken the trouble to do so. But laying, giving birth, is a process that takes almost no time at all, at least that’s how it may appear to the casual observer: at one moment there is nothing, and the next there is. It is not quite happening, but not making either. Our parents haven’t made us, but neither have we just happened. We have gradually come into existence, in our secret hiding place, the maternal womb, before, at some point, we were suddenly thrown into the world. Our parents have set the whole process that eventually led to our existence in motion, but all the rest happened by itself, although clearly following a plan, a plan that was not devised by our parents. Perhaps the universe has come into existence in a similar way. Perhaps God didn’t make the world either. Perhaps he (or rather she) gave birth to it. (I have to admit I’m not entirely sure what that means, but I’m rather fond of the idea.)

Monday, 18 November 2013

Do Automatic Sweethearts Work?

A couple of weeks ago I briefly discussed, prompted by David Levy’s treatment of the issue in his book Love and Sex with Robots, whether a robot can be said to love a person if they say they do and act as if they did. Today I’d like to continue this discussion.

In his 1909 book The Meaning of Truth, the great William James asserts that a statement is only meaningful if it makes a practical difference whether or not it is true: “if it can make no practical difference whether a given statement be true or false, then the statement has no real meaning.” (p. 52) However, in a footnote later in the same book (p. 189), he corrects a claim that he made in his previous book, Pragmatism, where he declared the terms ‘God’ and ‘matter’ for synonymous “so long as no differing future consequences were deducible from the two conceptions”. Now, however, he no longer believes this, because even if the godless universe were exactly like one in which God does exist, believing the one or the other would definitely make a difference for us. “Even if matter could do every outward thing that God does, the idea of it would not work as satisfactorily, because the chief call for a God on modern man’s part is for a being who will inwardly recognise them and judge them sympathetically.” James then asks us to consider an analogy which he thinks will convince us that there is indeed a relevant, meaningful difference between the two hypotheses:

“The flaw was evident when, as a case analogous to that of a godless universe, I thought of what I called an ‘automatic sweetheart,’ meaning a soulless body which should be absolutely indistinguishable from a spiritually animated maiden, laughing, talking, blushing, nursing us, and performing all feminine offices as tactfully and sweetly as if a soul were in her. Would any one regard her as a full equivalent? Certainly not, and why? Because, framed as we are, our egoism craves above all things inward sympathy and recognition, love and admiration. The outward treatment is valued mainly as an expression, as a manifestation of the accompanying consciousness believed in. Pragmatically, then, belief in the automatic sweetheart would not work, and in point of fact no one treats is as a serious hypothesis.”

Yet just a year later, in December 1910, the philosopher Edgar Arthur Singer gave an address before the American Philosophical Association at Princeton, entitled “Mind as an Observable Object” (later published as the first chapter of his 1924 book Mind as Behavior), in which he directly attacks James for his alleged inconsistency. Pragmatically, a soulless person (that is, one that lacks subjectivity and any form of mental awareness) should be regarded as fully equivalent to the usual kind, to a person with a soul. Singer insists that it would not make any difference whatsoever whether the other really feels anything at all or just behaves in a way that is consistent with real feelings, that is, in such a way that we cannot detect any difference between what they do and what a real, conscious and self-aware person would do. Thus, contrary to what James suggests, for all intents and purposes an automatic sweetheart is just as good as a real human lover.

When we occasionally call a lover “soulless”, we do, according to Singer, in fact refer to a certain (already observed or predicted) behaviour, so if there is a difference between the soulful and the soulless it is a difference in behaviour: “If I imagine myself come to believe that my mistress, with all her loveliness, is really without soul, I cannot think what I should mean by this if it be not that I fear her future conduct will not bear out my expectations regarding her. Some trait or gesture, a mere tightening of the lips, hardening of the eye, stifling of a yawn, one of those things we say are rather felt than seen, would have raised in my mind the suspicion that she might not to my fuller experience of her remain indistinguishable from a spiritually minded maiden.” If the distinction between ‘soulless’ and ‘soulful’ means anything, then it is this. “Consciousness is not something inferred from behavior; it is behavior.”

James’s point, of course, was that we wouldn’t be happy with a lover of whom we knew that they didn’t really feel anything for us and that all their seemingly loving actions deceive us to the extent that they indicate some kind of emotional involvement on the part of our lover. Yet Singer could respond that we might well be unhappy with an automatic sweetheart, but that we really shouldn’t be because to react like that is completely irrational, given that a real human lover would do nothing different from the automatic one.

It is interesting, though, to see how neatly Singer’s description of a “soulless” lover (where the term can be meaningfully ascribed) fits with the descriptions that we find in literature of equally unsatisfying women and with the accompanying eulogies on the virtues of the artificial lover (as, for example, in Ovid’s Pygmalion, Hoffmann’s The Sandman, or Villiers’ The Future Eve). Once again, it is the real human lover who is decried as soulless, the one that turns out not to be completely reliable, completely with us, completely there for us. It is the yawn that indicates the lack of soul, a less than interested gaze. That is the danger that always exists when we risk getting involved with real human beings. They might lose interest in us, might grow cold and unresponsive, might stop loving us. If that is an indicator of soullessness, then each and every one of us is soulless, and only an automatic sweetheart, one whose eyes will always gaze lovingly at us and will never lose their shine, whose lips never tighten, but are always soft and welcoming, and who will never have to stifle a yawn, only such a one can be said to have a soul.

Thus it appears that the effect of denying that there is any difference between a real person and a fake person, between a real human lover and an automatic sweetheart, is that the soulless becomes, or comes to be regarded as, the truly soulful, and the soulful the truly soulless.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

E.T.A. Hoffmann's Olimpia

Here’s yet another tale about a man’s erotic obsession with a female android, or automaton as it used to be called at the time: E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman”, which was first published in 1817 as part of the story collection Nachtstücke (Night Pieces). It is the story of a young university student called Nathanael who, haunted by the memory of a traumatic childhood experience connected to his father’s death and a mysterious malevolent figure called Coppelius whom as a child he used to identify with the monstrous, eye-stealing Sandman, and who might or might not be real, gradually slides deeper and deeper into madness and eventually throws himself off a tower and kills himself.

But before he does, he becomes infatuated with what at first seems to be a beautiful young woman called Olimpia, who appears to be the daughter of his neighbour (and professor), but later turns out to be nothing but a cleverly constructed (moving and talking) wooden doll. This might be evidence of his growing insanity or a factor contributing to it, but in any case it is rather odd given that he seems to be the only one who does not realize that there is something seriously wrong with the object of his infatuation. Although Olimpia is so superbly crafted and so life-like that when she is introduced to people at a ball, they do not immediately recognise her as what she is, namely a machine, they all sense her strangeness and want nothing to do with her. They find her “strangely stiff and lacking in animation”, her eyes lifeless, as if they were blind (which they are, of course), “as though her every movement were produced by some mechanism like clockwork” (which it is). They believe her to be a “complete imbecile, who plays music and sings “with the disagreeably perfect, soulless timing of a machine”, as if “she was only pretending to be a living being”

Yet Nathanael is blind and deaf to her mechanical nature and only sees and hears what his imagination prompts him to perceive. He flatly refuses to pay heed to the warnings of his friends whom he deems “cold and prosaic”, and prefers to project his own self into the invitingly blank slate that the automaton offers him - which he obviously finds so enjoyable and rewarding that he completely forgets his fiancée Clara who waits for him in his home town and who not only loves him dearly, but is also very bright, sensible and down-to-earth. Yet precisely that may be the problem. When she writes to him and very competently tries to argue him out of the gloom that has come over him as a result of an encounter with what he perceives to be a new incarnation of his childhood nemesis, the Sandman, he writes back to her brother Lothar, complaining about her attempt to dissuade him from his fears in her “damnably sensible” letter and voicing his suspicion that it was really Lothar who had taught her to argue like that. Obviously he finds it inappropriate for a woman to be so clever: “Really, who would have thought that the spirit which shines from such clear, gracious, smiling, child-like eyes, like a sweet and lovely dream, could draw such intellectual distinctions, worthy of a university graduate?” Apparently he feels that there is something unfitting about a sharp intellect in a woman, something that threatens to destroy the “sweet and lovely dream” that her features evoke. And he is right of course. A sharp intellect is by its very nature critical and unobliging. It resists the projection of another’s self. It insists on, and serves as a constant reminder of, its bearer’s independence. And, vain and self-absorbed as we usually are, that is not necessarily what we want in a lover. (I was tempted to write: not necessarily what a man hopes to find in a woman, but I’m not entirely sure that this is, on the most fundamental level, an issue that men have with women, rather than one that human beings have with other human beings.)

The narrator describes Clara as follows: “Clara had the vivid imagination of a cheerful, ingenuous, child-like child, a deep heart filled with womanly tenderness, and a very acute, discriminating mind. She was no friend to muddle-headed enthusiasts (...) Many people accordingly criticized Clara for being cold, unresponsive, and prosaic.” Although Nathanael is reported not to belong to those people, his words and actions indicate that in fact he does. When it becomes clear to him that she doesn’t believe in “the mystical doctrine of devils and evil forces”, Nathanael blames her disbelief on her “cold and insensitive temperament”, and when she persists in her gentle and loving attempts to talk some sense into him, he accuses her of being a “lifeless automaton”.

Olimpia, on the other hand, “the beautiful statue”, who really is a lifeless automaton, strikes him as the ideal woman. It appears to him that she “gazes at him yearningly” when he sits with her, holds her hand and talks to her about his love “in fiery, enthusiastic words”. And although she never says anything in response but “oh! oh! oh!”, Nathanael feels himself, apparently for the first time in his life, completely understood. Enraptured, he exclaims: “O you splendid, divine woman! You ray shining from the promised afterlife of love! You profound spirit, reflecting my whole existence!” What an interesting choice of words: the machine is addressed as a goddess, the less than human as more than human. She is all that a woman is meant to be and that a real woman can never be. She makes good on the promise that her beauty has made, and she does that by reflecting his whole existence. Yet it stands to reason that whatever reflects another’s whole existence cannot have an existence of its own. A real person can never be a pure reflection. But a machine can. That is of course its greatest advantage. It can be anything we want it to be, and it allows us to be whatever we want to be. In return, we only too willingly allow its essential vacuity to masquerade as profundity. Characteristically, Nathanael is unperturbed by Olimpia’s taciturnity and interprets her persistent sighing as proof of a deep mind: “she doesn’t engage in trivial chit-chat, like other banal minds. She utters few words, certainly; but these few words are true hieroglyphs, disclosing an inner world filled with love and lofty awareness of the spiritual life led in contemplation of the everlasting Beyond.” She is of course a “perfect listener”, who is never distracted by other things, never in need of concealing “her yawns by a slight artificial cough”. With the peculiar binary logic that may work just fine when applied to humans, but fails utterly when we apply it to machines, her undistractibility is perceived as attentiveness, as utter concentration on what he has got to say and an implicit acknowledgement of its importance. If she doesn’t speak then that’s because words are too profane for her. She is a “child of heaven” that cannot “adjust itself to the narrow confines drawn by miserable earthly needs”. Her lack of earthly needs is reconstructed as a clear indicator of a higher, more “heavenly” existence. Absences are turned into presences.

When Nathanael eventually learns the truth about Olimpia, that she is in fact merely a wooden doll, he completely breaks apart:”Madness seized him with its red-hot claws and entered his heart, tearing his mind to pieces.” And as the story of his fate spreads, those who hear it, instead of congratulating themselves on their own good sense, start doubting their own judgement and suddenly see robots lurking in every corner and behind every human face: “In order to make quite sure that they were not in love with wooden dolls, several lovers demanded that their beloved should fail to keep time in singing and dancing, and that, when being read aloud to, she should sew, knit, or play with her pug-dog; above all, the beloved was required not merely to listen, but also, from time to time, to speak in a manner that revealed genuine thought and feeling. The bonds between some lovers thus became firmer and pleasanter; others quietly dissolved. ‘One really can’t take the risk’, said some.”

Although this passage strikes a rare humorous note in an otherwise pretty depressing tale, what is being described here is actually the most uncanny event in the whole story. It is the moment when Nathanael’s insanity turns epidemic. Everybody has been infected with uncertainty. The difference between humans and machines has become blurry: no longer can people tell for sure which is which. Your neighbour, your best friend, your lover, could all turn out to be machines. This is Descartes’s methodological doubt turned into a fact of life. Nobody is unquestioningly certain anymore. The existence of the human other has become problematic, their actual non-existence a permanent possibility. It is the same uncertainty that is later so hauntingly brought out by Don Siegel in his 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And contrary to what Sigmund Freud argued in his highly overrated essay The Uncanny (1919), this uncertainty is indeed at the heart of that peculiar feeling that the events related by Hoffmann excite (whatever you want to call it). Freud famously analysed Hoffmann’s Sandman in his essay, but he focuses entirely on the figure of Coppelius alias the sandman (who, in Freud’s analysis, embodies the son’s fear of being castrated by his father) and all but ignores Nathanael’s relationship to Olimpia and Clara (which is odd considering that Clara with her superior intelligence and moral strength may quite reasonably be seen as threatening to “castrate”, i.e. emasculate Nathanael). For Freud, there is no uncertainty: the reader knows that Olimpia is an automaton, and we also know that the strange events witnessed by Nathanael are all real and not just a figment of his overwrought imagination. But of course we don’t really know any of this. Nathanael might be haunted to his grave by unnatural forces, or he may just be insane and imagine the whole thing. Ernst Jentsch whose paper on the “The Psychology of the Uncanny” Freud references (and promptly dismisses) captures the essence of Hoffmann’s tale far better than Freud does when Jentsch emphasises the role of the “doubt as to whether an apparently inanimate object really is alive and, conversely, whether a lifeless object might not perhaps be animate” (Jentsch’s paper was originally published in 1908; an English translation appeared in 1997 in Angelaki. Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 2/1: 7-16).

There is, however, one passage in Freud’s essay that I think may well prove relevant to a proper understanding of not only Hoffmann’s Sandman, but also of all related tales about men who develop an erotic obsession with artificial women, such as Ovid’s Pygmalion or Villiers’s The Future Eve. “It often happens”, Freud informs us, “that neurotic men state that to them there is something uncanny about the female genitals. But what they find uncanny (‘unheimlich’ = lit.: unhomely) is actually the entrance to man’s old ‘home’, the place where everyone once lived.” This would certainly explain the appeal of the artificial lover (whose genitals are new and ready-made and do not threaten us with annihilation as that from which we have originated, the old home, does).

In another of his tales, “The Automata” (which may not have been translated into English), Hoffmann has one of his characters express his disgust for all automata that attempt to assume a human shape. He calls them “those true statues of a living death or a dead life” (“diese wahren Standbilder eines lebendigen Todes oder eines toten Lebens”). This sums up the ambiguity quite nicely.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Animal Nature Disgust in Ovid's Pygmalion

The story of Pygmalion, as it has been related to us by Ovid in the tenth book of his Metamorphoses, is characterised by an astonishing ambivalence towards women and the idea of sexual love. Pygmalion is not just a sculptor who one day creates a statue that he then happens to fall in love with (which is how most people will remember the story), but rather somebody who deliberately sets out to create a being that is worthy of being loved by him. Ovid introduces him as a man who is disgusted by the whole female sex after seeing the daughters of Propoetus prostituting themselves in public (which is not entirely voluntary, but rather a punishment inflicted on them by the goddess Venus for having offended her). They are being described as having “lost all sense of shame” and “the power to blush, as the blood hardened in their cheeks”

This loss of shame is clearly understood as a decisive step in a process of dehumanisation: a little more hardening, we are told, and they would be indistinguishable from flint. (Compare this to Lord Ewald’s claim in Villiers de l’Isle Adam’s The Future Eve that Alicia has no “soul” because she is too earthly.) Appalled by so much female depravity, Pygmalion decides (just as many centuries later Celia’s disillusioned lover in Swift’s “Lady’s Dressing Room”) that he no longer wants to have anything to do with women and is determined to stay a bachelor. Yet entirely happy with his wifeless (read: sexless) existence he is not, because soon enough he carves a statue that looks exactly like a woman and is so exceedingly lifelike that one has the impression that she might move any second now and that it is only modesty that keeps her from doing so. And Pygmalion falls in love with his own creation. Here is, finally, the woman that he has been waiting for, that all men (if we take Pygmalion to represent the male sex) have been waiting for: a woman who knows how to behave properly and who is pure and free of all unseemly desires and inclinations, and this purity and freedom makes her much superior to all real women. In Pygmalion’s mind, the statue is actually more human than any real woman could ever be. All real women are ultimately like the Propoetides: natural born sluts, and as such less than human (less than what humans, or at least human females, should be), more like stones, almost like living statues. The actual statue, on the other hand, is as a woman should be. The statue, in its immaculate ivory-whiteness is the true woman.

Curiously, however, Pygmalion has a very sexual relationship with this statue. He clearly desires her: “Often he runs his hand over the work, tempted as to whether it is flesh or ivory, not admitting it to be ivory. He kisses it and thinks his kisses are returned; and speaks to it, and holds it, and imagines that his fingers press into the limbs”. He dresses his new love, gives her presents, gets her jewellery, and most importantly, takes her to bed and sleeps with her. For a while that seems to work, but for obvious reasons (a statue is unlikely to make a good sex doll) it is not very satisfactory in the long run. So Pygmalion approaches the goddess Venus and begs her to bring his ivory maiden to life. She obliges, and ivory becomes human flesh. He kisses her, and she “felt warm: he pressed his lips to her again, and also touched her breast with his hand”. Gradually her body yields to his touch, loses its hardness and becomes malleable under his caressing hands. “The lover is stupefied, and joyful, but uncertain, and afraid he is wrong, reaffirms the fulfilment of his wishes, with his hand, again, and again. It was flesh!” Soon enough, the no-longer ivory maiden becomes aware of what Pygmalion is doing with her, and in the same moment that she becomes fully awake to the world, in the very moment of her birth, acknowledges him as her rightful lover: “The girl felt the kisses he gave, blushed, and raising her bashful eyes to the light, saw both her lover and the sky.” She cannot help loving him back, and since we are told that nine months later she gives birth to a son, she is obviously not reluctant to have sex with Pygmalion, nor he with her.

So why is Pygmalion not disgusted by her? What is it about her that makes her so different from all other women that he can accept her and even have sexual intercourse with her without being repelled by her? It must have something to do with the fact that she is not an ordinary woman, but a statue come alive, and that she carries the modesty, the bashfulness of the inanimate thing, over to her new existence. She doesn’t move on her own. She doesn’t follow her own will. She has no own will. She is a perfect mirror of her lover’s desires, without having any desires of her own that might threaten her purity. She lives only for her lover, who is her one and only. He is, quite literally, her world. She is a supposedly living woman, but without the flaws, a living paradox. She is perfect and pure, but also perfectly usable, obedient and ready to serve her one and only master. She does what she is told. She is the ideal woman, the Eve of the Future, a precursor of today’s or tomorrow’s sexbots, a tailor-made, always-willing, never-tiring sexual companion, a Stepford wife.

Isn’t it odd how little our desires have changed over the last two thousand years?