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Can Art go without a Body?


Notes: Article presented during the first Neuro-Aesthetics conference organized at Goldsmiths University, London UK, May 2005. Cultured Brain Section

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick makes one of the most famous jump cuts in the history of cinema, when he cuts from a bone being flung in the air by an ape. In this scene, Kubrick compresses the entire history of the technical and the human and makes a direct correlation between the first, and most primitive tool use, and the most sophisticated technological achievements of modern humanity. Kubrick was well known for the extensive research that he did for his films. His biographer, Vincent LoBrutto describes his, “capacity to grasp and disseminate information of like a human computer.Doubtless, Kubrick familiarized himself with the then current research on the emergence of human kind and prehistoric tool use as preparation for filming “The Dawn of Man” sequence. It’s interesting, therefore, to speculate whether he became aware of the work of French paleoanthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan, and in particular his book Le geste et la parole/Gesture and Speech, published in 1964, the same year in which Kubrick starting work on 2001. (Although Leroi-Gourhan’s book was only just translated in 1991, so that idea is quite dubious.)

Leroi-Gourhan developed his understanding of relationship between the human and technics, and in a particular language, following a discovery, by Lewis B. Leakey in the late 1950s, of early hominoid remains which were upright, bipedal and which bore evidence of tool use, yet having a practically small brain capacity. For Leroi-Gourhan, the emergence of human language and tool use is the result, not of expanding brain capacity, but of becoming upright. As he put it, “everything begins with the feet.” The brain is not the cause of locomotive adaptation, but the beneficiary. He traces the evolution of upright mobility as one result of serious structural transformation and successive liberations in pursuit of mobility, including that of the whole body element, that of the head from the ground, that of the hand from the requirements of locomotion and finally, that of the brain from the facial mask. The achievement of upright posture frees the hand for tool use, which in turn eventually frees the lower jaw for language. The upright posture also enables the spinal column to support a heavier brain case, enabling expansion of the cortical fan and cerebellum, the cortex area which controls speech.

Leroi-Gourhan proposes that tool use, far from being the result of expanded intelligence, is a zoological and evolutionary phenomenon much like the acquisition of a claw exuded from the body. This is a liberation from the fixed sequences established by the confluence of the individual’s internal environment and the exterior. The human capacity for making and using tools and language creates what Leroi-Gourhan describes as a social memory, which exists outside the body. This leads to the apparently paradoxical situation in which the human brains gives end to the thought of birth and it is thus capable of thinking everything, unlike insect societies in which, “each individual must possess the entire capital of collective knowledge and the society can evolve only at the rate of paleontological drift.” (This is where he owes a great debt to Henri Bergson’s The Creative Evolution discussion on the difference between instinct and intelligence.) The externalization of human memory is a process that for Leroi-Gourhan starts with the earliest invented tools and continues right up to, “punched cards and electronic memory.”

Leroi-Gourhan’s ideas have been of great importance to the work of a number of recent thinkers, including Jacque Derrida (who actually reviewed Le geste et la parole when it came out) amoung others, and, in particular for me, Bernard Stiegler and his analysis of the relation between technics and time (which is also the title of his five-volume magnum opus). According to Stiegler, for Leroi-Gourhan, it is the tool, that is tekhne, that invents the human, not the human that invents the technical or, rather, the human invents himself by inventing the tool, by becoming exteriorized technologically in the form of tools. But for Stiegler, the concept of exteriorization is problematic in that it presupposes an interior that can only come into existence in the process of exteriorization. Interiority and exteriority constitute the terms of what Gilbert Simondon calls a transductive relation, a relation that constitute the terms in itself, meaning that a term in the relation does not exist outside of that relation and is constituted by the other term of the relation. It is also through technics that the human is given access to the ‘already there’, to a past that he or she does not inhabit and does not otherwise have access to. And the proof is ‘already there’, that the human comes to be able to anticipate, and thus to know about, his or her mortality. Thus, technicity not only constitutes one part of the transductive relation out from which the human emerges, but also makes possible the human application of time.

As Richard Beardsworth puts it, writing about Stiegler’s critique of Heidegger, there can be no access to the past, no anticipation of the future without technical objects. Technical objects constitute the very process of Dasein’s experiencing of time, that is, of remembering and anticipating. Stiegler opposes that the capacity to conserve experience in a form exterior to the human body, in our technics, constitutes a third kind memory, following that we which inherit from our genes and that which we accumulate in our lifetime in the memory of our central nervous system. He points out that all the high animals had individual experiences engraved in the memory of their nervous systems which allowed them to adopt themselves individually to this or that local environment. Yet, if someone trains an animal and it dies nothing that it has been taught remains, because individual experience of living beings is not inherited by the species and is effaced within each individual death. As Stiegler states, “If there is not an accumulation of experience in animals, in that the species does not inherit the experience of the individuals of which they are composed, it is on the contrary, the possibility for transmitting individual experience that makes possible the process of exteriorization and this is what we call culture.” It is a dramatic statement that culture is nothing but our capacity to inherit individual nervous system experience through generations, via technics, via objects. “Technics is above all a memory, a third memory, neither genetic nor simply epigenetic. I have called it epiphylogenetic because as a fruitful experience it is a richly epigenetic and, because this individual experience is brought together through its memory as technics made possible by transmission as a heritage, a phylum of technics, which owes that possibility to the  culture it is used in.”

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the emergence of the techno-human, this unrecoverable, originative, impossible moment is mythologized and has been brought about by the appearance of serious, mysterious monoliths, each of which is upright, rectangular, black and smooth. The second time the monolith appears it is on the moon, in the late 20th century, by the descendants of the same group of apes to whom the first appeared and whose capacity for tool use has now evolved to the point of being able to travel in space. I think the monolith is one of Kubrick’s most brilliant conceptions, not least because of its visual banality. In the Arthur C. Clarke story, on which 2001 is based, the alien object was pyramidically shape. The change of the form used in the film is inspired, not at least because of the absence of explicit symbolisms, made possible or created various artistic interpretations. Conceived of at the end of the late 1960’s, when massive advances were made in information communication technology, it’s impossible not to reach some reference to such developments into the monolith. The monolith is literally, in visual terms, a kind of black box, (also in engineering or neuroscience terms for processes, technical and otherwise) in which inputs-outputs are known, but whose inner processes it’s not necessary to understand. Similarly, its cool aesthetic, resembling the minimalist sculpture then being made, also resembles that of information processing machines and environments. Photographs of computer systems, such as the IBM 360 operation, looked, to contemporary viewers at least, both modernistic and very much like minimalist sculptures, as does Kubrick stunning realization of an inner-workings of HAL 9000, the sentient computer controlling Discovery, the space ship set to investigate the source of the monolith’s radio signal. Nor is this coincidence. Much as Minimalism helped to make possible the dematerialization of the artwork (along with Conceptualism), the increasing importance of computing in everyday life helped to bring about the dematerialization of information. Mark Midbon goes so far as to suggest that the best way to understand the monolith is as a monolithic integrated circuit, enlarged a hundred times for symbolic purposes. A monolithic integrated circuit is a semiconductor being developed at exactly the same time as 2001 was being made.

However, Kubrick deals most with the notion of machine intelligence, and what new technology was doing, with HAL 9000, the intelligent computer on board of the spaceship explorer. He based HAL on perfectly plausible, but optimistic, extrapolations of A.I. of that period. In a sense, he presents HAL as more lively, even human, than the actual humans on board of that ship who appear curiously passive and disengaged. In contrast, it posits a conviction that leads HAL to murder the crew. This might appear be a warning about our future relationship with machines, but it also prefigures Donna Haraway’s comment, in A Cyborg Manifesto, that our machines are the study of life when we ourselves are frighteningly inert. HAL was an optimistic, but serious, extrapolation on the future progress of artificial intelligence as seen from late 1960’s. Kubrick himself consulted with A.I. experts, such as Marvin Minsky, to make HAL as scientifically plausible as possible. Now that the year 2001 has come and gone, it is obvious that A.I.’s logic failed to fulfill most of its original claims toward future developments. But despite its failure to progress as expected, it remains a highly funded endeavor. I think that it will never succeed, but it’s possible to understand A.I. not as plausible scientific endeavor, but as a way to come to terms with our rapidly changing relationship to technology.

Through his reading of Leroi-Gourhan, Stiegler recognizes in technics another order of beings, a third kingdom as he puts it, between those unorganized, inorganic beings (which are the concern of physics), and organic beings (which are the concern of biology). As such, this third order, which Stiegler describes as being composed of organized, inorganic beings, is subject to morphogenetic laws of evolutionary process as much as the order of living things. Unlike the rhythm of technical evolution, man more or less stabilized biologically around twenty to thirty-thousand years ago. This is why post-Neanderthal man was already modern man in the prehistoric sense. Our organic structure seemed to have stabilized at that moment, but technical evolution has continued to accelerate since that point. In the transductive relationship between our ancestors and technologies that are produced by humans today, it’s only technics that has continued to evolve. But if this is so, it’s only recently that this become evident and its dangers recognized. Stiegler suggests that certain affects of recent technical developments, those of real time computing and live media distort, “profoundly, if not radically, what could be called eventization, that is taking place in time as much through space. In particular, if our transductive relationship with technics is the basis of what we call culture, then it’s accelerating development, especially as measured against the comparative spaces of human evolution, is bringing culture to the point of crisis.” Richard Beardsworth proposes that, “at stake lies the human experience of time. Most immediately it is clear that with the digitization of memory storage systems, our experience of time is being rapidly foreshortened. Through advances in, among other things, genetic manipulation and machine intelligence, present perceptions of history, inheritance, memory and body will be dramatically re-organized according to what is human and what is not, in the context of a  monopoly of organization between techo-scientists and capital.”

“In this age of contemporary technics”, writes Bernard Stiegler in Technics and Time, “it might be thought that the technical power risks sweeping the human away.” Stiegler follows Maurice Blanchot in saying that the world made possible by contemporary technology I s ushering in a new era. According to Blanchot, modern technics, the collective organization on a planetary scale of planned mechanization and automatization, allows mankind to achieve what hitherto only stars could accomplish. Thus, the human itself has become a star. This has a dramatic effect on the human relation to temporality, which was once conceived as that of a sublunary world whose bearings were constituted from the standpoint of the stars. The new Astral Era, which belongs to the history, is defined by a separated human world from the stars. Humanity, the human world, was history. The end of history is perhaps the end of the contingent world of sublunary humanity and it’s super-cession by Astral humanity, from whose technics renders the world entirely amenable to planning and control, but also paradoxically is the point at which technics frightens to sweep away the human. A.I. research is possibly an attempt to mediate or represent this succession and to preserve some sense of the human in the situation, but in truth human intelligence is always already artificial and is always bound up with its prosthetic external storage devices, language systems, oral traditions, books, archives, and databases.

Ironically A.I., far from being a means by which machines will supersede humans, is in my view the last redoubt of humanists, or humility, in which thought is rendered at something like human speed, and resembling something like human thought, and rooted through systems of symbolic representation which tend to mimic human thinking. While advocates of A.I. are making their usual apocalyptic predictions, in which machines will become more intelligent than humans in 2020 or 2030 or whenever is just long enough away to be plausible, machines may have long since long bypassed the problems of intelligent consciousness all together, or at least in human terms. For it is perhaps merely the epiphenomenon of our technical mediated relationship to the world and increasing our necessary loop in the systems of data storage manipulation exchange that characterize the Astral Era. The human, and all that it is defined by it (art, history and so on), is perhaps an episode before real-time processing renders the human superfluous.

These issues are explored by Jean-François Lyotard in his brilliant provocative essay “Can thought go on without the body?” In it he framed the discussion in the nature of thinking, through a typically Lyotardian conceit that life might continue in light of the immanent explosion of the sun, immanent in at least the next 4 and a half billion years, and the consequent cessation of Earth’s existence and the death of all of that is Earth bound. Constructed as a dialog between a He and a She, the essay debates the consequences of such an event for thought. With such an end, thinking of any sort will utterly cease about the very abolition of thinking. This is, according to the first speaker, He, radically different from any normal conception of death, which incorporates the idea of survivors, and thus of death in human terms. The death of the Sun by contrast would destroy all matter and thus all witnesses. He concludes that the Earth, which is a precondition for human existence and thought, is far less stable than it might appear. It is continuously subject to material change, on which its destruction of its present form is only one example. The Earth and its current stable form is only a few billion years old, which is nothing in universal terms. It is merely a temporary stabilization of energy in a remote corner of the universe. To imagine that this apparently stable situation is actually so, or that our relationship the earth is equally stable, is illusive. Solar death renders all human attempts to come to terms with death, as we understand it, pointless and any familiar idea of disaster a pale imitation. Solar death is inevitable so you might ignore it (for a half million years) and remain within a vague of thinking that connects thought with earth and nature and just remain vaguely aware of future disaster or, you can decide to deal with it by accepting exploiting the approximation of matter and by working out how human thought can survive after the annihilation of the Earth. This work is already on the way in a number of different fields including dietetics, neurophysiology, genetics, fission synthesis, particle physics, astrophysics, electronics, information science and nuclear physics. He points out that the technology is what invents us, rather than the other way around.

As anthropologists and other scientists have shown, all organisms are technical devices inasmuch as they filter information necessary for their survival and are capable of remembering, processing and making decisions based on that information including modifying the environment in order to perpetuate their survival. Human beings are exactly the same except they have a more complex and differentiated system based on codes and rules and this system is less dependent on the environmental context and therefore, capable of reflexive responses to the environment itself. Inasmuch as humans need to live on the earth, the response of this system to the environment can come to an end. The body is the hardware to thought software. Without the body functioning property there can be no thought. All that philosophy concerned itself with in terms of thought is just an advanced state of the process of regulation of the environment, a more evolved version of memories of which organisms regulate their relationship with their surroundings. The human mind is highly sophisticated, but is dependent on the hardware. The body would disappear in the event of solar death. Thus, the problem for technoscience is how to develop hardware for another software that could survive beyond the Earth, in other words, how to make thought without a body possible.

He continues, only by being able to imagine the continuation of thought without the body, as it stands in terms of a complex human organism, can we think about the solar death. The issue is to build a hardware capable of nurturing the software that is our thoughts. This needs to be is some kind of nutrient or support that can survive beyond the Earth using cosmic source energy. Such a thing is clearly possible, but the technology for storing the capacity to think outside of organic bodies is also clearly much has advanced. Finally, He goes on, according to the brain active thinking he acknowledges that the body is more than simply hardware to thought software, but necessary as a model for any artificial intelligence in that the operations of thought, “constitute the experience of body, of an actual or phenomenological body, in its spacetime continuum of sensibility and perception.”

After He has finished speaking, She offers her response representing what she describes as the interest of philosophers. She claims that the acknowledgment of the necessity of the body is a relief of philosophy. Much as vision requires a particular relationship with the environment and results from the ongoing process of the perception and understanding, so writing is always incomplete and always bound up by the possibilities of language. Both need to be understood as partly bound by the environment in which they operate. Thus, it is not just a question of simulating the result of cognition, but also giving body function.  Any attempts at mimicking the effects of conceptual thought will fail, and have already. Nevertheless, this is, She suggests, this is a worthwhile and necessary project and difficult for sorts of practical reasons.

But there is another issue, that of the way creative acts evolve more than just selecting and tabulating data, but of data offer themselves for selection. This involves a kind of emptying of the mind and a suffering in order to open up to the thought to receive it. This kind of thinking cannot be reduced to the act of combining symbols with a set of rules. It has to wait for its rules. Thus, the question is: How are these thinking machines be able to achieve this kind of thinking that requires waiting and that was not yet known what it would think? How will they be able to suffer the waiting needed for this kind of thinking? Will they suffer? Thinking is suffering because if is hard to find new and different ways of thinking to produce new things when thought is already describe as contained in culture. She remarks that, “any thought should involve inscription. We think and the word inscription is already there. You can call this culture if you like. And, if we think that this is because there’s still something missing in this plenitude, a room has been for this lack by making the mind a blank, which allows that something else remaining to be thought to happen.” That which is unthought is uncomfortable because we are comfortable with the already-thought. Thinking is the accepting of this comfort the young thought brings and trying to think the new in the forlorn hope that things will get better. That’s the hope sustaining all writing, painting etc., that at the end things will be better. For any machine to start thinking, it requires them to suffer because what is not thought and because of what they remember, the burden of memory.
In the final scene of 2001, Bowman, having passed through the star gate, sees an older Bowman at a table who senses him and looks around sees nothing. It is a rather weird magical scene. After this, one gets the extraordinary and very bizarre scene of the Star-Child floating in the universe and which suggests that the whole film is a kind of Nietzchian or theological progress towards some kind of new super-humanity, which is quite crude but Kubrick’s kind of inhumanity basically demands that. In his video work, Beyond the Infinite (Multiplied), Graham Gussin takes the sequence showing the younger Bowman being sensed by his older self, and mixes it so it runs in a continuous coherent loop that can in theory can go on forever with the older and younger Bowmans continually seeing and sensing each other. If Beyond the Infinite (Multiplied) was cut into the rest of the actual film of 2001 and allowed to run in its infinite state, that would mean the scene in which mankind, represented by the decrepit body of the old man, is to be transcendent and presumably reborn as the Star-Child. If that’s what that scene means, it could never be reached. Maybe it’s a way of reminding us of what Leroi-Gourhan says, “that it all begins with the feet.”

“In Kubrick, the world itself is a brain. There is identity of brain and world, as in the great circular and luminous table in Doctor Strangelove, the giant computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. The black stone of 2001 presides over both cosmic states and cerebral stages. It is the soul of the three bodies; earth, sun and moon, but also the seed of the three brains; animal, human, machine. Kubrick is renewing the theme of the initiatory journey because every journey in the world is an exploration of the brain.”
-Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2

Charlie Gere is Reader in New Media Research in the Institute for Cultural Research, Lancaster University, Chair of Computers and the History of Art (CHArt), and the Director of Computer Arts, Contexts, Histories, etc (CACHe), an AHRB-funded research project looking at the history of early British computer art. He is the co-editor, with sibling and historian of science, Cathy Gere, of a special issue of Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, on ‘Brains in Vats,’ and author of Digital Culture, Reaktion Books (2002), and is currently undertaking research into the relationship between art and speed from the early nineteenth century up to the present day, to be published as Art, Time, and Technology, by Berg in 2005.