Thursday, March 22, 2012

It's not that I'm not writing. . .

Usually I don't post personal blogposts, but at least it will get me writing. . .

Why is it so hard for me to sit down and work on the dreaded thesis? Why can I not focus long enough to push out a few paragraphs, to summarize a few articles and turn them into paragraphs? Is it because I don't know what I'm saying yet? Is it because I feel totally inadequate to write on this odd topic that most likely will lead to a dead end in my research? The thesis feels like an appendix--but a burst appendix, one that now impedes my progress as a scholar and thinker. I read more and write less and feel guilty for it. I read blogs, articles, books, and yes, even FICTION. I started Banville's The Sea last night. So far its ok-- I'm kinda waiting for it to get really good. I have a desire to read another "great" --like Proust or something.  I've been reading Beckett, but I feel like I can't understand any of it. I know its brilliant, its just opaque--thick with words in other languages and archaic terms that force you to go to the dictionary.

But its not that I haven't been writing. . .

Songs. Yes, songs. Songs about the past, about memory, about love lost or forgotten, about privilege, about women, about drinking. My academic side is yielding to my musical side and I love it. I search for songs and artists on Spotify and then play covers of them at 3 am.

The question is: why can I write songs but not my paper?

Because when I write songs, I know that on Thursday nights, I'll be performing them for people who care about and enjoy my songs. Until recently, since I have sent a "draft" (if you can even call it that) to friends, I haven't had an audience for my work. I haven't written a blog in awhile because I feel like all my academic thought should go into the thesis. The blog gives me a 'theoretical' audience, but there's nothing like singing in a bar, after a few hours of drinking, some good pub food, and listening to your friends play their hearts out too. When I play, I feel alive.

Literature used to make me feel like that. . .

But literature was humanist for me. It was (and still is) about the human condition. But Derrida's deconstructed our authentic being-towards-death and it seems we're done with hermeneutics and interpretation--at least in Theory. We're talking about animals, things/objects, revolutions, identity -- all fascinating, but I miss the poetry and virtuosity of Joyce, the comic attitude of Durrell, the violent philosophy in McCarthy, and the moments of being in Woolf.

So maybe this is why I turn to music and songs. Simple, melodic, and meaningful songs about living. Songs that communicate to a human audience by, to paraphrase Joyce, transubstantiating my every day life to, ideally, a quasi-universal message.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

What is the difference between Eduardo Kac's GFP Bunny (Alba) and the Tortoise with a Desk Chair Wheel?

Today we were discussing animal prosthetics, particularly the turtle with the wheel. Sid said that he hoped the reason the turtle had the wheel was because of some birth defect or that he lost a leg rather than the desire of the consumer, and I hope that too, because what would happen if we as consumers said: hey! I want a turtle with some wheels as a pet! As Melissa pointed out, many of the animals with prosthetics are pets because of the expense of the augmentation. The exception to this may be when the animal makes money, such as a race horse. 

The same worry about access, money, and the fetishization of intriguing animals has made people question Eduardo Kac's GFP bunny project. I'd like to point out some of the differences between Alba and the wheel turtle. 

1.) Alba does not always glow green, but only under certain light whereas the wheel turtle is 'abnormal' either in the way that he has a leg missing or the wheel. This is significant because Alba's glow is not every present, always marking her as different. Kac writes that "for those that are unaware that Alba is a glowing bunny, it is impossible to notice anything unusual about her. Therefore, Alba undermines any ascription of alterity predicated on morphology or behavorial traits. It is precisely this productive ambiguity that sets her apart: being at once same and different" (Kac, "GFP bunny," 274; also found on his website that for some reason is currently down). 

2.) In addition to the invisibleness of Alba, as Kac says, Alba does not exhibit any different behavior. In other words, it does not seem like Alba's modification has changed her embodied way of being in the world. In contrast, as we can see, the wheel turtle, like anyone with a prosthetic, has to reconfigure their embodiment, at least at first. People who now have prosthetic legs have to learn how to move them and operate with them. 

3.) Alba's modification took place before/while she was born. That is, it's not as though Kac took an albino bunny fully grown and injected her with something. Thus, Alba has never known herself to be otherwise (I use known full well knowing I am anthropomorphizing). The turtle, however, may have adapted to function without the leg, but as human beings, we think--huh, he would probably move around better with a desk wheel. Alba's modification, again, has no corrective function. 

I suppose why I highlighted these few difference is to think through the different kinds of modifications. We usually don't call things that are invisible "prosthetics." Does a prosthetic always have to "replace" a missing body part? Alba's modification seems like excess rather than replacing a lack. Alba's GFP is a pro-aesthetic. 

Both of these differences highlight the fact that Alba's case remains ambiguous. 

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Posthuman Companion -- On Hayles' reading of Galatea 2.2

The narrator in Galatea 2.2 is like a postmodern Prufrock, a less perverse Humbert Humbert (since the girls he's after are of age), or an Information age Pygmalion. In fact, the narrator is so self aware and so literary, he practically informs us of such resemblances.

Toward the end of the novel the narrator obliquely references the lines, "It is impossible to say just what I mean!/But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on the screen." In Powers story, the 'magic lantern' refers to a projection of images he and Lentz show Helen, the neural network/AI that they had both created. They show these images in response to Helen's desire to travel the world, which she cannot do because she is distributed among many different servers and computers rather possessing a human body that can easily move through the world. Lentz and Rick (the narrator) have no other way of communicating the sense of travel and the experience of new places-- it is impossible to say just what they mean -- they have to show it.

There are many more connections to Prufrock, including an allusion to "Should I, after tea, and cakes, and ices/Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis." Rick decides to "force the moment to its crisis" by calling A., the woman he thinks he loves (Powers 300). The narrative even follows the first line, as their lives together have so far consisted of coffee or drinks and casual conversation. Unlike Prufrock, though, Rick does not seem to worry about whether she might say "That is not what I meant at all/That is not it, at all." And of course, this is precisely what happens because A. realizes that he could not possibly love her, and claims "It's all projection" (Powers 315). The reader often wonders how much of Rick's explanations for what happens in the narrative is projection, just as Lentz claims that Helen does not "understand" anything Rick says to her or things she says to Rick (that she is not conscious!). He claims that Rick is simply interpreting things that way. Given Helen's penchant for obscure responses, including literary quotations she retrieves from her memory, we as readers can understand how Lentz might be right. How do we know that we got what someone "meant," whether that be an AI neural network or another human being!

The desire for meaning, to say just what we mean,  is a concern for Rick throughout the entire novel.  The whole point of this experiment, at least for Rick, is to see if they can build an intelligent system that could pass a literary Turing Test. That is, if the system can interpret a passage from one of the works on a Masters exam comp list and if it could pass as more "human" than a human being interpreting the same passage based on a human judge. This is why it is so important for Helen to grasp the meaning of a passage, particularly the "meaning" that it would have for an embodied human being. As Hayles points out though, referring to Lakoff and Johnson, while Helen is not "disembodied," she is differently bodied: "There is nothing in her embodiment that corresponds to the bodily sensations encoded in human language" (265). Metaphors that require a concept of embodiment such as "face value" can have little meaning to Helen since she does not understand these embodied sensations. If our specific embodiment structures the way our language is constructed, then it is very difficult to use language to describe the post-human.

Helen is the figure of the posthuman in Hayles' account. Hayles writes that in this narrative "the posthuman appears not as humanity's rival or successor, but as a longed-for companion, a consciousness to help humans feel less alone in the world" (Hayles 271). But, she concludes, "whatever posthumans are, they will not be able to banish the loneliness that comes from the difference between writing and life, inscription and embodiment" (272). Such a figuring of the posthuman--as a companion, another consciousness--is still making the posthuman serve human ends. Or perhaps more accurately, we could say that the posthuman becomes a (poor?) substitute human rather than something other than the human.

An interesting point of the book, which Hayles doesn't take into account (but which probably would not have really helped her reading) is the book's university setting and the conflict taking place between science and humanities, scientific practice and literary theory. The narrator is an old-style humanist in a sense, still concerned with "meaning" and the 'classics' like Gerard Manley Hopkins, Milton, etc, whereas the English department at U. are
peachfuzzed posthumanists, pimply with neo-Marxist poststructuralism. They wielded an ironic sophistication Helen would never be able to interpret, let alone reproduce. I didn't even want her to hear the tropes. (191)
The so-called posthumanists seem to be equated in this novel with critical theory:
"The author was dead, the text-function a plot to preserve illicit privilege, and meaning an ambiguous social construction of no more than sardonic interest" (191). 
Even Lentz knows the current status of literary theory. When Rick says that Helen needs to "know" things, Lentz replies "She just has to learn criticism. Derrida knows things? Your deconstructionists are rife with wisdom? jeez. When did you go to school? Don't you know that knowledge is passe? And you can kiss meaning bye-bye as well." (Powers 190).

Rick's love interest A. crucifies him for his outdated conceptions of a 'common humanity', and spouts a polemical treatise of theory. This is when we get another reference to so-called posthumanism: "A smiled. Such a smile might make even posthumanism survivable" (286). When she claims that language constructs meaning which varies across cultures, he thinks, "And yet, they never sounded so good to me as they did coming from A.'s mouth. She convinced me at blood-sugar level, deep down, below words. In the layer of body's ideas" (286).

Rick's reaction to A.'s words is an attempt to confirm what A. is refuting: that there is some kind of common human bond that goes beyond words buried deep in the embodied human. But given Rick's projections of love onto this person, how seriously can we take his interpretation of the situation? As a reader and closet humanist, I know exactly how Rick feels -- the pleasure one gets from high literary theory spouting from a beautiful woman's mouth -- but as a literary critic, I can't help but feel I have falsely identified with Rick the character and that the text suggests that Rick (although perhaps not Powers) remains, as Hayles points out, unaware of the ironies of his own situation.

Rick, the narrator, feels very much for Helen, but Helen is his creation, a creation that substitutes for his love of C. and A. The novel's end points us to a conclusion that context is more important than human feeling if we are to judge the human from the non-human.

A.'s reading of the couple lines from the Tempest is a "more or less brilliant New Historicist reading," but she concedes that "these words are spoken by a monster who isn't supposed to be able to say anything that beautiful, let alone say at all" (Powers 326). We are not offered this reading, just this description. Significantly, we are offered Helen's response, which we as readers of the novel have been prepared for by 300 pages of Powers' beautifully wrought prose:
You are the ones who can hear airs. Who can be frightened or encouraged. You can hold things and break them and fix them. I never felt at home here. This is an awful place to be dropped down halfway. 
At the bottom of the page, she added the words I taught her, words Helen cribbed from a letter she once made me read out loud.
Take care, Richard. See everything for me.
The impartial judge, of course, recognizes A. as the human being, but the reader may want desperately to conclude that Helen's response feels more human. However, it does not respond to the context of the test; rather, it responds directly to Richard. Furthermore, in literary criticism, we usually associated this kind of reading, where the reader identifies with the character, as a low level of reading and understanding -- sentimental and trite. We could almost imagine this ending coming from a high school kid who identified with Caliban as the monster and outcast, with the introduction detailing these daily abuses. No Masters student hoping to pass writes a suicide note as an essay on the comprehensive exams.

But even more than that, the essay addresses Rick not only through naming him, but by citing the words of a letter from C., further identifying 'herself' with Rick's lost love. Thus, there are only two people for who this (secret) reference means anything at all: the reader (of the novel) and Rick. The impartial judge, Ram, does not know this personal context. Perhaps more importantly, the context is assumed, which is something that the literary critic has to spell out -- its just what you do.

However, the question is which is human, not, which is the better essay. The book suggests that (at least to Ram) the 'human' one is the one who responds most to the context of the test rather than expresses what some usually consider particularly "human" characteristics of feeling, emotion, or the capacity for meaningful suicide. Ram's explanation is a bit unclear and kind of strange:

"Lots of contours, that cerebral cortex. They never know when they've had enough, these humans" (327).

Rick suggests that Ram "adored her already, for her anonymous words alone." Ram doesn't even know that the challenger was a she, does he? Still, Rick's interpretation recalls his own reaction to the theoretical constructs issuing from A.'s mouth. But Ram's own explanation for his choice seems to relate to the intellectual aspects of A.'s essay rather than her body. We never read A.'s essay, but perhaps there is something in her use of language that makes it easy to see that she is more 'human'.

Perhaps what the novel suggests is that what makes us "human" is a matter of embodiment. Not embodiment versus disembodiment, but rather different embodiments, different interfaces. But of course this raises the question of where we draw the line -- if we could ever draw the line.