A Fabulous Planet to Die On

Delighted to report that Justin Robertson’s interview with me for Ransom Note went up today! Here’s an extract:

I trust my mechanic to fix my car when it’s broken – except when the manufacturer has made the car into a black box that people can’t actually acquire practical knowledge of. And I trust that my physicist friends can calculate how to adjust satellite data for distortions. All in all, I think there’s plenty of expertise around today. But you don’t ask a mechanic to decide on the base rate of the Bank of England or a physicist to bake a soufflé. Most of the problems with expertise happen because we’re failing to recognise who has knowledge of what.

Check out the entirety of A Fabulous Planet to Die On when you get a chance.


Living with Machines: A Dialogue

Living with Machines was a seven part dialogue between veteran Nietzsche scholar Babette Babich and ‘outsider philosopher’ Chris Bateman, looking at our relationship to corporate power and influence, the possibility of virtuous behaviour against a backdrop of pervasive technology, life with social media, dinosaur hands, sex robots, and smartphones.

The dialogue originally ran from 26th January to 9th March 2017. Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on the first link below, and then follow the “next” links to read on.

The seven parts are as follows:

  1. Corporate Venality
  2. Monopoly and Other Games
  3. Mediaddiction
  4. Godzilla’s Tiny Hands
  5. Touching Robots
  6. Your Plastic Pal Who’s Fun To Be With
  7. Techdolls

If you enjoyed this dialogue, please leave a comment! A new Babich and Bateman dialogue begins later this year.


Babich and Bateman: Techdolls

Following on from last week’s discussion of robot friends, this final part sees philosophers Babette Babich and Chris Bateman discuss mechanised dolls.

GI BarbieBB: Sex dolls are another thing again, aesthetically speaking, and there I do not have many hopes for prime time (as it were) anytime soon and not at all for heterosexual women (but the question of desire has its own complexities). To my mind it is plain that there is a market for this, there already is such, inasmuch as such sex dolls are already manufactured, and the new marketing tactic for these dolls is simply to call them robots, but this may be just a little like the Latourbot [discussed last week] and beyond the silicone dolls one can already purchase – there are already plans to create celebrity version of these ‘sex robots’ – it does not seem that these ‘robots’ will be more than talking versions of the supposedly ‘realistic’ dolls on offer. And there are children’s dolls like this, one pulls a cord and the doll utters one of a stock set of phrases. Most children take less than a day to lose interest.

CB: It has passed into cliché that children play longer with the box than with the toy, but there is a certain truth to this. I have found few toys as flexible as a suitably-shaped stick for entertaining my children. Yet there is still a lingering ideal to the powered-up toy that provides the draw – hence my eldest son who just turned six enjoys watching toy commercials (which I try to guard him from) because he likes to get ideas for things he could have. There is a fantasy being sold, here, whether with dolls for boys (“action figures” as Hasbro brilliantly rebranded them in the 1960s to get over the problem that fathers would not otherwise buy dolls for boys), dolls for girls, or dolls for sexually frustrated men.

BB: And here the sex dimension may make all the difference. A little girl may be more demanding than a guy who just wants a robot to have sex with and does not much mind that it doesn’t walk or do anything remotely human like. This is one of the reasons that I suggest that a sex robot for women might need to move in fairly complex ways, just in order to be a sex robot – but also because women do want more than one thing, ought also perhaps to be able to carry things, including its human lover across puddles and muddy fields, up hills and so on, and who would miss the jet pack?  There could be the Colonel Brandon model (just for carrying one up hills when one’s broken heart has left one caught in the rain and dashing off, when one catches cold, to fetch one’s mother) and there could also be Dr Strange models, or Heathcliff models, Tristan models, and Professor Snape models, just to fight the good fight, tortured and conflicted, all terribly romantic, against the Dark Lord and any wandering miscreants while he is at it. But even there, perhaps, and as science fiction authors have long argued, the deficiencies of the human may turn out to be an advantage. To this extent, our “promethean shame,” à la Günther Anders may be our salvation, contra Anders who was of course massively sardonic.

CB: Given the extent that masturbation is driven by imagination, it seems to me that a robot sex doll will do the same job that a pornographic magazine does. But again, the aesthetic of realism interjects itself – the sex doll is somehow more desirable if we judge it to be ‘more real’ than the magazine, and the sense of that realism is utterly flexible; any justification will suffice.

BB: One of the insights of The Matrix worth thinking about is not the updated version of Descartes’ doubting or his evil genius, as some philosophers like to suppose, but much rather the realization that machines are dependent on human beings to invent them (this is the Vico moment) to deploy them now for one thing, now for another (call this the Simondon moment) but ultimately also to power them.

CB: This element of The Matrix would have sat better with me if the plot did not involve blocking out the sun to cut off the robot’s solar power, given that this would also kill all life on Earth. But do go on...

BB: I mean this prosaically not in terms despite its appeal to the myth of machine or the even greater myth of the computer simulation, as we currently project this fantasy vision, as if the machine were a vampire of human energy as our sci fi writers like to pretend (Matrix vision  is a variation on Childhood’s End) but much rather and more prosaically, the machine invented to remedy the lacks or needs of a consumer, mostly a male consumer’s, affective and erotic life – this is the plot of Ex Machina – will also (this was not detailed in Ex Machina because the beauty of a fantasy is that you can pretend that all those tech details are taken care of, and this in turn is the reason for the plot wrinkle you mention in the Matrix) but any foreseeable sex robot would need you to move it, arrange it and also take care of it, keep it clean, do its hair, all that and not least remember to plug it in. Thus the phantasy of the Matrix, well beyond that of the ideal sex doll, is the pure or perfect automaton: the machine that runs by itself, a perpetual motion machine.

Letrons-transformerCB: Thus our science fiction fears that we should be afraid of AI research because the machines will surpass our powers and finally destroy us, as in the mythos of Terminator. Which is darkly amusing, really, because we are destroying ourselves far more effectively than imaginary robots are. Right now, its robot cars, which we’re told are great because… well, actually, I haven’t seen this case made yet. Some people suggest they will be safer, and yet all the discussions of the ethics of robot cars have focussed on who gets killed in a collision, a pedestrian or the driver, because who would want to buy a car that didn’t protect its driver. Never mind that if all our cars were capped at 25 miles per hour no pedestrians would have to die – and we’re talking millions of people a year, more than anything we actively fear, like plane crashes or terrorist attacks. What’s more, I hear it suggested that robot cars will be great because they can go faster than humans, which entails a jaw-dropping evasion of the problems of both energy and transportation that would set Illich to spinning in the grave. And all this sets aside the more worrying point that a huge number of people are employed to drive cars, as truck drivers or taxi drivers and what have you, and that robot cars thus have much to offer millionaires and billionaires who can own mechanical slaves but cannot officially own humans.

BB: But here is where the hermeneutico-phenomenological can be helpful just to the extent that includes attention to current reality and current state of the art, rather than assuming that R&D will make all such considerations irrelevant (this is like debating the morality of full head transplants before doctors have figured out how to do them much less how to heal injuries to the spine, the severing of which is required twice over for a head transplant). As it happens, one of the great challenges of contemporary life, and also one of the problems for the environment in complicated ways that have everything to do with what is needed to make a battery to begin with, is the matter of finding a free power outlet, even at home where most outlets are already fully occupied. Travel is worse to the extent that it takes one out of one’s own rhythms and one’s machines out of machine routine. Hence your pocket robot, as you quite rightly name cellphones, drains massively the minute it needs to search for a wifi signal or a new carrier and so on. Airports today come complete with the modern version of the penitent’s soul in guilty search of outlets or, rather like Dante’s Inferno, captive souls chained to a power socket, sitting on the floor for the sake of fifteen or however many minutes of juice. The solution, of course is and will be to design life around the needs of the tool: plugs everywhere, power outlets at every seat. Route 66 has fuel station after fuel station and it is this that makes Route 66 and other roads the kind of complement to the automobile that they are, and the same thing is the reason, among other things, that we still do not have viable jetpacks, hoverboards, what have you.

CB: We spoke before of the invisibility of hands, but the invisibility of the flow of power is just as tangible, and brings to mind Milan Kundera’s remarks in The Unbearable Lightness of Being of our capacity to ignore the rivers of excrement flowing in and around our houses. And then there are those places where these invisible networks come acutely into focus – driving pass the pungent stench of a sewage ‘farm’, for instance, or encountering a ‘charging station’ in a shopping mall or airport. 

BB: I travel frequently and have to say that most of the time, this is 2017, the plane or train seats assigned to me do not happen to have power outlets. Not yet, so we say. The design solution might be not the environment, but self-charging robots (and the Matrix scenario returns…). Yet even this, even apart from dystopic robots, the problem is not necessarily thereby resolved as even if one could design a robot that would, of itself, plug itself in, clean itself, there would remain — this is the robot 2.0 problem as I see it, it is the robot Don Juanism of the tech junkie — the next model with its own set of different challenges and perhaps different power technologies – even if we don’t need to envision a Blade Runner like uprising among the now autonomous and (already or soon to be) outdated models. Valley of the ‘plastic friends’…

CB: Aye, I was struck by a journalist interviewing a man who had queued overnight to get a new model iPhone. They asked him why he had done it, what the new phone could do for him. And he didn’t know; that had never even entered into his mind.

BB: It is one of technology’s enduring mythologies that it pretends or supposes a solution either on hand or else (this is most common) “soon” to be deployed, like jam tomorrow, but never jam today: I call that cargo cult technology, our new millenarianism. The mischief is that we believe in this. We are, in Thoreau’s phrase, the tools of our tools.

More from Babich and Bateman later in the year.


Babich and Bateman: Your Plastic Pal Who's Fun To Be With

Following on from last week’s discussion of hands and robots, this final part sees philosophers Babette Babich and Chris Bateman discuss living with robots.

MarvinsBabette Babich: I think that such robot “friends” [mentioned last week] are coming soon, if I also expect to be underwhelmed by them, just as I was underwhelmed by the realism of most realist game designs (I am mindful that you have worked out an aesthetic for this and as an informed aesthetic can make all the difference, according to no one less than Adorno, I am hoping to learn enough to have this either resolve or else to help me deal with my disappointment).

Chris Bateman: Well at the risk of deflating your opinion here, I’m not sure if I do have an aesthetic for realism in videogames. I describe Imaginary Games as my game-aesthetic grundlegung [groundwork], in a nod to Kant, and I don’t think my book gets that much farther into its chosen territory than Kant’s own moral grundlegung did (which was, of course, still significant). The trouble with realism in games is much like the trouble with realism in life – what are we choosing to highlight as real, and what are we obscuring by doing so? Realism is invoked in both contexts primarily as a means of asserting bias, and in videogames this manifests in enhancing a player’s enjoyment of a particular kind of pornography (in Joyce’s sense of desire-invoking) – gun porn, car porn, gore porn, dictatorship porn, capitalist porn, even straight up sex porn... and when videogames are not indulging in these distractions, we get realism in the didactic sense of alignment with the science megatext (what gets called ‘hard sci fi’), thus drawing our attention away from the relevant questions. Thus, for instance, ‘realistic space travel’, which is very nearly an oxymoron, is supposedly ‘real’ in a certain sense of alignment with contemporary theory, and that particular sense draws attention away from the impossibility that humanity will get to explore space if it doesn’t learn to live on Earth first.

BB: This is a huge issue, on several counts, given the listing of porn varieties as you mention these, in Joyce’s sense.  There is in the context of gaming the disputed question of Gamergate – and although this is usually parsed in feminist terms it was the complex sense of realism as you express these complexities that elicited what was by far the most intense debate among my students last term at Juilliard.  One half of the class was aligned with feminist concerns, the other half with a kind of truth in advertising kind of realism.

CB: Gamergate is such a spectacular example of our current fault lines in thought and our worrying inability to communicate... I have chastised both ‘camps’ publicly, for what little it means, and I so wish that the videogame civil war had led to a productive discourse instead of this divisive hate-fest that failed to achieve anything positive. Microcosms everywhere, I suppose, of the larger problems.

BB: Given the current hyperbolic politics of the unreal (and there are elements of the unreal in Brexit and in Trump , and the more standard journalistic language of ‘fake news’ and post-truth) a great many of the standard conventions or givens, the “supposedly ‘real’,” may be up for grabs. The talk of post-truth is complicated and emotions run high. When Steve Fuller made the very modestly intentioned (so I read his) observation in The Guardian at the end of 2016, “Science Has Always Been a Bit ‘Post-Truth’ ”, reaction on social media was both uncomprehending and antagonistic.

CB: He draws against Kuhn, which I have also liked to do at times (or Foucault, as the mood takes me, as I am one of these people who likes to draw the parallel lines there). But I think Latour’s critique here has a few additional teeth: Boyle’s vacuum pump and Hobbes’ Leviathan mark an epic moment where the split into subject and object, which I like to link up with Descartes and Kant as well, creates the ‘modern constitution’ and the assignment of authority to the State for subjects and the sciences for objects... and precisely what is revealed by ‘post truth’ is that the cracks in this problematic division have become so wide that it is no longer just the academics who are having to face that there is a crisis with what we mean by truth, a catastrophe for which Nietzsche was especially prophetic. It’s suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, drawn my own philosophy into dealing with epistemology, which is what Wikipedia Knows Nothing was all about.

BB: Part of the problem may be the durability of barefoot empiricism as the philosophical greybeards of my youth used, very condescendingly, to say, but another part of the problem is the brute difference between social realities and references to the supposed real world, just to stick to the reference to the ‘real’ dimensionality of the real world where being able to go barefoot and not being able to do so, for whatever reason – think of Socrates’ idyllic example in the Republic – makes all the difference in the way we talk politics of climate change, people present and unpresent at presidential inaugurations, all of which is window dressing when it comes to questions of reality and real world practice. Thus the Dakota Access Pipeline, which was massively protested, and which seemed to have been successful, is indeed proceeding apace: as of today, the protest camp has been ordered dismantled and ABC news is confident enough to tweet that it will be finished “and ready to flow oil in as soon as two weeks”. Beyond the ongoing business of mainstream media and “fake news”, to me, it is the disconnect with real world ‘reality’ that matters and the same people who frack and plan disastrous pipelines and hedge fishing models to permit greater quotas also tend to be people who do not live adjacent to fracking fields or alongside said pipelines.

CB: The NIMBY problem: ‘not in my back yard’.

BB: This means that one can talk about ‘real’ space travel and ‘real’ space exploration but ignore the more paltry results of the same real science. China lands a rover on the moon in December 2013 and we see and hear about it for how long and under conditions scientists name ‘mysterious’? We have wonderful images of the outer planets, but NASA enhances each and every one of them. Will a later generation manage the rendering of the same data differently, ‘enhanced’ in different ways? But your point is a powerful aesthetic-moral one, deserving a separate discussion. What should count as realistic? I once wondered in print about the realism, so-called, of Myst, and the realism, so-called, of Avatar, My own conviction is that this realism, here I am in accord with your observations, depends entirely on a selective focus. In art, supposedly ‘realistic’ styles present considerable variation over the centuries and not less across cultures. This is also the question when it comes to supposedly realistic robots.

CB: ‘Realistic’ here standing for the ease of imagining it is something that it is not.

Sex-robot-in-vertical-sectionBB: Hence sex robots are very realistic, from a certain perspective which tends to depend upon a certain level of inattention and conventionality. Both seem to correspond to a fairly general male heterosexual convention. By contrast, male robots currently on offer are literally built out of versions of the female ground plan, mouths designed as receptacles (o, joy), and so on. Most significantly the male robots qua based on the female robots are the same size. On the one hand this is a ‘good thing’ given that sex robots must be dragged about manually inasmuch as they are exactly not automata à la Descartes. They could not be mistaken for a human being wandering in the street because there is no wandering that they do.

CB: Aye, the sci fi movies taught us to expect ambulatory androids… thus we failed to recognise how ubiquitous robots became in a relatively short space of time. You mentioned that you expected to be underwhelmed by ‘robot friends’?

BB: I expect to be underwhelmed by them because the test of the Turing test tends to have absurdly low standards to begin with: we credit others with having minds, this is the good old problem of ‘other minds’ after all, but as Nietzsche points out we are quite capable of retracting that credit at any time, especially when we think back on things and when it comes to interaction, a certain amount of our engagement with a friend and a great deal of our engagement with a lover involves reflection on and reconstruction of motivation and intention.

CB: It seems to me quite clear since the very first bot, Eliza, which was created in the mid-60s, that all something needs for us to inject consciousness upon it is a willingness to let ourselves talk at it. Eliza’s trick was picking up keywords in what the human typed and turning it into a question – you say “I’m angry at your mother”, and Eliza says “Tell me about your Joseph Weizenbaummother.” Which is a clever trick, when you think about it, and one that therapists also like to deploy. Personally, it seems to me that Joseph Weizenbaum should be the patron saint of contemporary social media bots, because his Eliza paved the way for them (although, as a Jew who fled Nazi Germany, ‘patron saint’ is probably a bad choice of wording). As someone who studied AI at a Masters level, though, my main takeaway was that we have no viable way of making a robot that is a being we could be friends with, even though we can certainly make bots capable of interaction. But then, a cactus can interact with you...

BB: That thing-interaction was Schopenhauer's presentative point regarding the world, though I am fairly sure he was not thinking of cacti. Regarding the diffusing of bot interaction, which has its own set of codes, of course, it may be that the Turing test has a certain bit of trivial play left in it.  It can happen that one can mistake one kind of bot for another kind of bot.  And proof of the Turing test is the thrill kill one can experience on Twitter upon discovering that a bot one takes to be a not is not a bot after all. I used to play with Latourbot, for the fun of it, talking to Latourbot as if he were Pepé le Pew, a cartoon skunk dating back from years before my time, until Latour himself yelled at me (if one can yell and of course one can) not to pay any attention to the Latourbot as it was only a troll. Only. A. Troll. I was crushed. Maybe it wasn’t Latour who did the take down, what else was unreal, blue pill or red pill?  What could I do? And so I unfollowed what I had taken to be an automated account, a robot account and just because, as it turned out, it was not a robot account. The Latourbot was not a bot. Had it been a random algo, a tweet generator as I had supposed it to have been, it would have been better, if it is also true that I needed it to have been an Aramis-style automated joke designed at Latour’s behest. At the same time, inasmuch as I had been pretending to myself that the algorithm (again, I never took it to be Latour) was a cartoon skunk, I was also rather relieved. As one of many fake-twitter accounts, some of which but not all include ‘fake’ in the name, like the Twertzog account, tweeted by William Pannapacker pretending to be Werner Herzog, the dissonance of an accent (Hertzog’s German and Latour’s French) became an element not of charm but disquiet. This is one of the problems of projected intentionality as even this animates mechanism.

CB: Aye, nothing is truly autonomous, is it? The networks of connectivity bear upon agency in so many ways, and not just in questions of interpretation and meaning, since the practices we learn can’t be dismissed as entirely subjective, even if what those practices mean to us, or to others, is always somewhat negotiable. How quickly we learned to put on a mask and present ourselves in the digital public spaces – and how slowly we realised the costs of that anonymity.

The dialogue concludes next week: Techdolls


Babich and Bateman: Touching Robots

Last week, the tyrannosaur’s hands. This week, philosophers Babette Babich and Chris Bateman talk about hands upon computers and the illusions of interaction.

IMG_7514Babette Babich: The German name for cell phone is ‘Handy,’ which seems to be because having hands means we like to have things at hand, and we like to do things with our hands – pretty much all the time.  And this is ubiquitous: here I include a photo of the Princeton philosopher Alexander Nehamas, taken in Athens at the last World Philosophy Congress, consulting with his cell phone.

Chris Bateman: I recall how uncomfortable I became thinking about whether my hands were or were not in my pockets... bringing this to my conscious attention as a late-teen made me ask questions about what I was doing with my hands, and why.

BB: Once upon a time, part of growing up was learning what to do with one’s hands: meaning nothing whatever. There were pockets but one wasn’t meant to have one’s hands in one’s pockets. Briefcases and handbags but one also was not meant to be rummaging around in them. And books, but then, in the company of others, except among strangers on a train of course, and so on, or in school, but in a meeting, during conversation, one was to use one’s hands to hold the book, without fidgeting and without reading it.

CB: The book, more than anything in my childhood, was the primary thing my hand was holding. Now, although I still read a great deal of books, the thing more often being held in my hand is a smartphone, or as I like to call it a ‘pocket robot’. And there’s a strong parallel here, because I used to read books as I walked down the street to work (a skill requiring considerable practice, and requiring strong peripheral vision if you are not to step in something untoward!)... for some reason, walking with the smartphone in my hand bothers me more than the book did – and I don’t really know if this is because of differences in the experiences of book versus robot, or because I have changed in the almost twenty years between. In both cases, for me, the item is an escape for me, out of perceptual reality and into the theatre of my mind – and in this, as Graeme Kirkpatrick pointed out in respect of videogame players and their controllers, my hands are out-of-mind. The smartphone, perhaps, makes it harder to ignore our hands than the book did.

BB: Pocket robot! I love this expression, because this personal robotic dimension is very surely part of the reason we are addicted to our phones! And the peripheral vision challenge is part of the allure of Pokémon Go, I think we will see more enhancements to come beyond Pokémon reality ‘skins’: imagine, and I know you are better at this than I could ever be as a game designer, but if one could outfit the world around one at will, say, dressing people on the streets in medieval garb?  What fun!  A personal holodeck to be configured at will. At the very least it could improve a blind date experience, maybe best without the other person knowing about it.  Augmented reality, Miniver Cheever style! I defer to your judgment, but I can’t help wondering if the controller is not also a technological extension of the hand, just as we manage to use our keyboards that way, have for years… and I will bracket the comparison to Athanasius Kircher à la Siegfried Zielinski just to get back to analytic philosophy’s own preoccupation with hands, think Peter Godfrey-Smith and his octopus mind.

ControllersCB: You absolutely correct, the game controller functions as a prosthetic hand extension, indeed, I should say, game controllers, as these too went through something of a Cambrian Explosion in the early arcade – trackballs, the myriad buttons of Defender, toy guns, joysticks from lollipops to aircraft yokes – before steady commercial pressure stabilised the twin stick controller that is the standard form for most game-literate players today. As VR comes in now, the pressure of the channel dug by this comfortable design now becomes a problem, for players have learned that their right hand adjusts their view (and most players are not conscious of this while doing so because it is habitual), but with a headset to dump you into the visual field now the neck must be used instead. The result is both confusion, because the hand has learned and doesn’t rapidly unlearn, and disorientation, even nausea. I think of Wittgenstein’s ‘if a lion could speak, we would not understand him’, and think this might apply to our own hands.

BB: The Wittgenstein connection (although I also make the case with reference to Merleau-Ponty) is central – think of Wittgenstein’s On Certainty. Our hands are part of the way we communicate to others.  The genius of the single, so-called gesture-enhanced or multi-touch modes, is that the desire to use our hands plays into this, and is part of what can count as ‘intuitive’ design. Think of dating apps, swipe left (or right). In each case, with or without the app, our smartphones and tablets let us touch, worse yet, they require us to do so, in order to use them optimally, not that all of us do. But, and this is the phenomenological take away, owing to our hand involvement, we cannot but interact with our devices: we are not merely using them to talk to others, we are talking to them, and they are talking back. One of my students at Juilliard (you will recall that they were all ‘kind enough’ to make some comments on the last blog, ‘required’ as you pointed out that these comments were), wrote a term paper on the phenomenon of autofill (and the point appears in one of the comments). This is the talking back that is autocorrect, the autofill completion, not necessarily qua response as much as an opting in to a replacement, whereby autofill speaks on our behalf. This is clearly the future and at the same time we have been opting in to allowing our machines to speak for us ever since we started using typewriters (this is a Kittleresque argument, who in turn borrows from Nietzsche and other early adoptors) and answering machines, allowing the machine to intercede for us, to take messages as a secretary would in our absence and not less in our presence, screening calls on our behalf.

CB: Absolutely, we are talking to our machines and we are simultaneously ignoring them, just as it was once (and not all that long ago) acceptable to instruct black servants without ever thinking of that as conversation, or even in many cases to think of them as people. This righty shocks our sensibilities now that the issues of race are almost painfully and embarrassingly in focus, and while I am highly doubtful of a similar revolution in moral perspective happening with respect of computerised devices (which are nowhere near sentience, contra the late Justin Leiber), the time will come that they too will come into view. One of my principal philosophical interests at the moment is our relationships with our robots, and the ways that we dismiss the significance of this. Because, to give a simple example, when our robot summons us with a chime, we take it in hand and respond to its summons (Hegel’s Herrschaft und Knechtschaft [master and servant] again...). But this chimed summons will interrupt our engagement with others around us; it takes us out of our social space in a way that feels very different to the people who watch it happen. I have found, since first having this come to my attention, that it is an oddly shocking situation that those absent-and-distant people, when mediated by a robot, are perceived to deserve more respect than those present with us.

BB: Telephone obedience, quite Pavlovian, corresponds to the compulsion we feel to respond to a ringing phone, chime, or beep. The mischief is, the problem is thinking that we are really interacting. Thus if someone designs a really excellent sex robot, and it meets the Turing test that we have yet to devise, call this the Pinocchio test: a cartoon or a fairy tale that tells us that if there is a difference (more Leibniz) that makes no difference, we have attained godlike powers or what is just as good, an ideal companion, Galatea (and of course Galatea is Pygmalion’s male artist’s ideal of an ideal woman). But note that just that ideal would, for some folk, be an ideal friend: this would be, and now we can go back to Aristotle, someone who is everything we wish them to be, who responds as we would like, when we like, just as long as we would like.  This could be an ideal chess partner or, if we can multiply players, the perfect rugby match. Maybe we can get a real-life version of Monty Python’s Philosopher’s Football. Or, beyond a gaming partner, and this seems to get the lion’s share of attention, for obvious reasons, there was an entire conference at Goldsmith’s just before Christmas, just a month ago now, on robot sex – I wrote a small essay for the occasion on ‘teledildonics’ – or to be vanilla about it, and Hollywood has already gotten there first with the film Robot and Frank, just a companion for one’s elderly relatives in need of a caretaker.

Robot and Frank

CB: That we would happily mistake a robot for a person at least strikes me as a superior mistake than to mistake a person for a robot or, as sprang mischievously from Descartes view of animals as clockwork automata, to fail to see an animal for a being. And here is an ironic end to a story that spans four centuries, because from mistaking animals as automata we now come to mistaking automata as people – a situation not entirely helped, in my estimation, by reducing everything to objects or (which amounts to much the same thing) telling people they are only an illusion. If I pretend that we can reduce all things to one kind – call it object, or unit, or body, or whatever – it only brings into clearer relief for me the differences between beings and things, which helps demonstrate how the idea of subjects and objects that descends from Descartes through Kant holds such force, even today. Yet the smartphone and other robots are the things that feel most like beings, because of their capacity for independent function. A robot, quite unlike a watch, is fun to be with.

The dialogue continues next week: Your Plastic Pal Who’s Fun To Be With


Babich and Bateman: The Tyrannosaur's Hands

Last week, the self-satisfying qualities of social media. This week, philosophers Babette Babich and Chris Bateman talk about dinosaur hands.

Vollbildaufzeichnung 22.12.2015 170053Babette Babich: To say just one thing about this bodying forth [introduced last week] along with slow ways to pour coffee, it is worth pointing out that we can, indeed, point things out. We can do that in rather a good many ways, nod with our chins or noses, raise eyebrows (do let us think of the late Alan Rickman, because of what he could do with an eyebrow, and he himself gave the palm to Dame Maggie Smith in the same regard), or nudge something with an elbow (to be Gilbert and Sullivan about it) or for a Manchester reference, with a knee and so on, but usually we point a digit, a finger, sometimes in the Facebook iconography, that somebody, should someday think of tracing back to its patently imperialist association with the Roman Empire: a thumb.

I recently tweeted about Randall Jarrell’s The Bat Poet, “with wings,” as Jarrell wrote about his little misfit bat poet (and here I develop a response nascent in the reply offered by one member of the twitterati to my tweet), suggesting that there might be an answer to Thomas Nagel avant la lettre. Where bats have wings, these are their hands, so the comparative anatomy would have it, and it makes a difference to think here of the sheer having of hands.

Chris Bateman: The pointing out interests me as a capacity because, for instance, dogs are perfectly capable of understanding us when we point, yet they lack hands. When they need to gesture in a direction, they must use their whole body – a faculty that gives the Pointer breed its name. Our capacity to point with our hands goes beyond a simple compass reading; gesture is a whole other language of its own (and sign language thus essentially a development of that). Yet it strikes me that neither pointing nor gesturing actually require fingers...

BB: What is at issue is not the number of digits and such, not as in pop anthropology and physiology, the having of opposable thumbs and all that that is meant to have brought us, to wit various and sundry connections with comprehension and apprehension and the having of things in the palm of one’s hand, as it were.

When I was studying biology at university, way back in the last three decades of the last century, in the mid-1970s, professors teaching earth science still insisted to us in lectures that plate tectonics was an unproven theory, dismissing Wegener’s continental drift as had been done to his frustration throughout his life.  In courses in Comparative Anatomy and in Ornithology I read beyond classroom lectures to discover the then-speculative connection between dinosaurs and birds – including the economic arguments that larger dinosaurs could not have been, simply given that they moved at all, poikilothermic, cold-blooded. What convinced me concerning warm-blooded dinosaurs was the fossil record, not at all of the well-known archaeopteryx but rather of a find in Russia (as Russians like to name things), Sordes pilosus (hairy filth, hairy devil as it was then translated), the Latin gives us the Rickmanian resonance once again. But if a pterodactyl has fur or fur-like feathers that will serve, as in the comparative and cognate case of a bat's wings to be sure, to protect core body heat that can be lost in the surface area of wingspan, much else follows. I used to run around campus tweeting the way one tweeted before there was Twitter, imitating Tyrannosaurus rex, tweet, tweet, tweet, in a very deep voice: I did this with friends as part of a game, my boyfriend, who was much taller, was better at tweeting like T. rex. What follows for science is all about everything we cannot know as we have no trace of it, nothing of integument, little of feathers, little of fur, no reptilian scales, nothing of colouring, all things lost to the fossil record, apart from sheerly, literally glorious finds (like the recent amber discovery of a tail, complete, to be sure with fur, or as most reports describe it, with feathers, and other more recondite surface finds like Sordes pilosus).

CB: This image of you and your friends playing at tweeting tyrannosaur is not going to leave me very quickly! As an avid junior palaeontologist myself (admittedly, my ‘field work’ as a nine year old merely accumulated a veritable treasury of ammonites…), what struck me was the rapid manner in which the status of fossils changed. I remember, for instance, a brief period in the 1980s when archaeopteryx was a hoax owing, I think in part, to the excellent British astronomer Fred Hoyle. Stephen Jay Gould, at the end of that decade, put the Burgess Shale into the spotlight – probably the only time a rock strata has been famous! – as a panoply of oddities and the Simon Conway Morris (who I spoke to briefly for The Mythology of Evolution) disputed this interpretation. Soon after the book was closed on the bird-dinosaur connection you refer to, which seemed to go from heresy to orthodoxy in record time! Every dinosaur instantly went from crocodile-kin to bird-ancestor almost overnight (although, of course, those two are not mutually exclusive…)

imageBB: Brilliant! And we are probably still ensconced in that orthodox trend! But there are other questions: how did T.rex actually eat? After solving the energetic problems of getting up from sleep, and and having the energy to run at all, never mind the tweeting, T. rex, and paleoanatomists debated this at some length in the literature, would have had trouble putting anything in its mouth – and its feet don't seem, like a raptor's feet to be for grasping....meaning that it would have had to use its hands. But how it  consume its prey?  What else are we missing? I am thus fond of imagining that T. rex did not merely have little hands but perhaps the little hands are just what remains of a variation on wings, like the baleen of a whale’s jaws, or as a bird is a better analogue than a cetacean, as complement to jaws that would allow them to function like a pelican's beak. But it could also involve other anatomical extensions, like the cockscomb of a rooster or the flaring ruff of a desert lizard, there would, so I thought, there could well have been extra bits. All we see are the bones for little vestigial hands, as we suppose the appendix to be vestigial (what we are learning about the gut and its associated flora is likely to make that attribution as wrong-headed as our views on continental drift), still where would Japanese monster movies be without Godzilla’s little hands? But these ‘hands’ could also be differently articulated, and might be quite enough as basis for cartilage and other extensions, or some other adaptation related to the thermodynamic eating demands of being a large land animal, from which could grow what were the effective ‘wings’ of the thunder lizard, not used for flight but gathering prey. In addition to his bass tweet, tyrannosaurus might have run through the forest canopy or along the veldt, sweeping everything in its path into a great drag net of feathered, curved wings: gathered and scooped into those huge jaws. 

Think pac-man with feet.

For human beings, our having hands as we do probably gets in the way of imagining T. rex at all (we find it hard to understand that a bat’s wings are, to a great extent, the bat’s ‘hands’). But above all, beyond flights of fanciful palaeontology, the German name for cell phone is ‘Handy,’ which seems to be because having hands means we like to have things at hand, and we like to do things with our hands – pretty much all the time.

The dialogue continues next week: Touching Robots


Babich and Bateman: Mediaddiction

Last week, the discussion about corporate venality passed sideways into a diagnosis of US politics and the commercial system propping it up. This week, philosophers Babette Babich and Chris Bateman turn to the moral ambiguity of social media.

clip_image002Chris Bateman: You also suggest social media is rooted in a kind of masturbatory (if you’ll forgive the allusion) self-satisfaction, self-enclosure. Like dogs begging for treats, we become self-conditioned to seek the strokes of trivial recognition that social media hands out – and there’s nothing genuinely social about this. Yet you and I remain on Twitter despite our awareness of this problematic situation. Are we trapped? Naïve? Self-deceived? Or is there a counterpoint to this problem that justifies colluding with mediated culture? What, if anything, is the alternative?

Babette Babich: This is a grand question, it is, as I do suggest and I do mean this, perhaps also a certain benefit of social media that it has this self-satisfying character, though I also spoke more neutrally of a kind of social media autism. Sherry Turkle looks at this issue as she has written several books on the matter as her own thought has evolved and she thinks, and a lot of cognitive psychologists concur, that it might be better, in a word, simplistic as it can be, as she suggests this, if we were to put down our phones.

CB: Which we have made impossible by becoming habituated to our cyborg existence as robot-with-human, since the smartphone is nothing but a robot slave which, in line with Hegel’s famous critique, we as masters are dependent upon.

BB: We hack the imprecations of modern digital culture on our psyche in our lives by means of these little objects and the cybernetic reaches, as it were, its full conclusion, its ultimate consequences with this little device. We have hands.

CB: Not to mention eyes. The eye and the hand are our passage between worlds, worlds sustained by imagination (such as the worlds of videogames, or for that matter movies or paintings or novels) or worlds sustained by corporeal practices – including the kind of practical world that has been rendered endangered by the systemic dependency on production we all accept and cannot question. I have never forgotten meeting a blind girl who played the videogames that the company I worked for at the time made, games that had been designed without any thought that someone without vision might play them. Yet she did. She essentially substituted patience for seeing. Which is ironic, because the prevalence of social media today is the substitution of seeing for patience, about which nobody has any vestige – yet spectacle, pre-generated visions, video distractions... for these, we have an unquenchable appetite.

BB: What a beautiful analogy, especially the fast short-circuit to immediate gratification and its demands. This is the way addiction works. The dark problem with the dream of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his Oculus Rift and thus and indirectly that of whoever feeds him tidbits from whatever military-corporate government security arm there may be (the surveillance arm may be utterly ‘invisible’ but we know it is omnipresent and we know, or can suppose, its interests), is the built in, downloadable chip, or the very acoustic signal alone — I talk about this in The Hallelujah Effect, it is what effects the effect — hacked into our minds, our consciousness.

CB: The cyberpunk novelists were deeply into exploring this theme, with varying degrees of success, but the lesson of the early 21st century has been that you don’t need the cybernetics actually inside your flesh, you don’t need a neural splice or a data port, because hands and eyes are already a sufficient interface to enter into another world, a robot-mediated world, the ‘consensual hallucination’ William Gibson foreshadowed. Sterling’s imaginative future of conflict between those who favour genetic enhancement and those who favour software enhancement overreached the mark: we needed much less than expected to fall prey to the ‘near future’.

BB: Hands, eyes, and ears! This is the reason The Hallelujah Effect focuses on the acoustic – and if I were writing this book today rather than four years ago now, in addition to all the things you are mentioning, I would probably try to integrate a review of the ASMR augment [Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response], for those who can ‘feel’ it, and this too is a kind of ‘masturbatory’ thing. (There are various versions of the acronym floating around on the internet, and one refers to a non-ASMR Magic Fades album, Augmented Sapiosexual Misanthropic Relationships.) To my mind, the ASMR YouTube phenomenon, specifically the work of video performance artists – and there are several I feel worth noting [for example, here, here and here] but to name those names is worth its own blog discussion (probably in another and expressly acoustic context) – might in fact be further connected in the spirit of the anthropology and sociology and psychology of social media with the Asexual movement. Thus ASMR has nothing to do with the erotic despite the popular press’s habit (BBC’s Nick Higham has been trying to explore this [e.g. here, and again here]) of invoking ‘brain orgasms.’ Such journalistic prose gets a lot of attention but misses the point of ‘entrainment’ as this concerns me, as does the first response to the phenomenon suggested by Liverpool neuroscientist, Frances McGlone, as Higham quotes him. But to miss the connection with entrainment means missing utterly the interface point you very importantly emphasized above, Chris. Acoustic brain entrainment has been a research topic in the military for years (happens to be the disturbing but valuable take-away from the Scots philosopher – and performance artist! AKA Kode9 – Steve Goodman in his book, Sonic Warfare). But the miss may also be no accident inasmuch as official cognitive science refuses to recognize ASMR, so much so that current research on it is done by teams of grad students (nary a supervisor in sight) – and not too many teams of grad students at that. At the same time – this is a “normal science” phenomenon in Kuhn’s sense of the term – one can wonder whether a failure to recognize a phenomenon counts as proof against ontological standing or as an indication of a failure of scientific currency? Here the problem is that not everyone has an ASMR response, just as not everyone is colorblind. Thus there is a partial parallel with the debate on synaesthesia which was also for a long time roundly denied as a phenomenon for similar reasons. And, in addition to the non-universality of the phenomenon, there is also the general trouble we have with nuance and complexity in complex physical systems. Take the example of nutrition science. When I was young, and oddly this conviction remains in force and no amount of research seems able to shake it, nutritionists argued that a calorie was a calorie was a calorie in order to deny that table sugar was as such, that is: qua disaccharide (where glucose, which is what the body uses for energy, is a monosaccharide), a particularly bad thing, which even sugar lovers, and I am one, know it to be by direct experience: one lives the phenomenon, captivating high (or nervous absorption, however it works for you) followed by an almost predictable crash, and then there is dental health as well as the tendency to gain weight, adiposity, attested to a century ago by Brillat-Savarin.

CB: There is sometimes a pressure in research communities to find the simplest explanation – a calorie is a calorie – as if this was the highest goal of the sciences. It’s Occam’s Razor gone wild, throwing out every relevant circumstance in the pursuit of the elegance of simplicity. So I would counter the original suggestion that non sunt multiplicanda entia sine necessitate, “entities must not be multiplied without necessity” (which apparently Occam got from John Punch’s commentary on Duns Scotus) with what I like to call Occam’s Nemesis: necesse est ponere plures, “it is necessary to posit plurality”. In my estimation you are not demonstrating much in the way of expertise if you can only represent complex situations inadequately.

Flat WhiteBB: And so the question: does expert denial constitute idiocy or does it simply reflect the durability of the received view? The hermeneutic phenomenological approach that matters to me as a continental philosopher can be useful here. One can philosophize about apricot cocktails with it, the great beauty of the thing is that this includes other cocktails, and beer in addition to sucrose, as well as different kinds of coffee, as I am a great one for thinking about the virtues of coffee and philosophy, but not less travel, as coffee is a multifarious thing, a culture that cannot simply be translated into Starbucks’ parlance or indeed and lamentable prevalence but is sedimented into the variations of a worldview. Took me years, and I am still not sure I am right about it, and I do live part-time in Winchester, to parse what a flat white might be.

CB: It is striking how coffee practices are automatically amalgamated into the commercial system. The flat white from 1980s Australia; the cortado from Spanish and Portuguese culture... If a new way of drinking coffee was discovered in the Amazonian rain forest tomorrow, I would expect to be drinking it in a coffee chain by the end of the month (and for someone somewhere to be complaining that they didn’t have it yet).

BB: You see, the things an American can learn! But experience tells us that that it might not catch on: Starbucks tried to do the slow pour, but as a New Yorker I can attest that Starbucks is slow enough as it is, and the Japanese take on coffee requires a little more time than we tend to have (still: I love it because of its metonymic – this is a joke, like my mention of the title alone in Heidegger’s Analytic as if that alone would suffice – association with the supposed Coriolis effect, as if the entire earth were somehow involved in the brewing of your coffee, or in the pouring of water over one’s tea). As a hermeneutic phenomenologist, one attends to the lived world but not less to the embodiment of living what is lived in that lifeworld and for the sake of that. Thus someone like Heidegger could remind us not only of the life of the lifeworld but of very vortices of the world as such (Heidegger speaks of worldhood and with-world) and the bodying forth of that life in the living of it.

CB: Phenomenology always leads me back to the imagination, and your remarks on Heidegger here reminds me of Theseus’ famous speech in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which also has some bearing on the social media phenomena:

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy.
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

The dialogue continues next week: Touching Robots


Babich and Bateman: Monopoly and Other Games

Last week, a discussion about corporate venality and Ivan Illich’s ‘machine’. This week, philosophers Babette Babich and Chris Bateman turn to the problems of US politics.

imageBB: Our relation to industrial or corporate capitalism seems, at least in certain of its elements, to be a version of the faith one might have in the Irish Lottery, that or a kind of contact fetishism: we seem to think we must be beholden to millionaires all the way down (as if contact with or enthusiastic support of the wealthy might be the secret ingredient to waking up wealthy some fine day). I like your feudal vision of this indenture [discussed last week], perhaps there could be game design that might be thus inspired – if the great Jane McGonigal’s game reflections draw out the advantages of games for life and even for measurable pain management, maybe we can have a game for the economy, the opposite of Ge Jin’s ‘gold farmers’ (like Jane, he had also been briefly at Fordham, though I met him at UCSD) a game that might help us understand real-life economics. Of course, as you know, such exist, like Bertell Ollman’s board game for Marxism, Class Struggle (which was actually released as a board game — and I am grateful to Tracy Strong for tipping me off about this, although, and this is also how metonymy works, Tracy remembered Ollman’s game under the name of the more memorable, because rather higher profile board game, Anti-Monopoly by the San Francisco political theorist Ralph Ansbach).

CB: Since you have invoked Monopoly, I am honour bound to comment on the rather sordid history of this game. For it originates, as these days people are more aware of, as a modification to Elizabeth Magie’s 1904 The Landlord’s Game. Magie, struck by how children had an innate sense of fairness, thought that if a game made it clear how unjust property ownership was, it would allow a future generation to produce a fairer world. The game rules, in fact (linked to above), contain some remarkable clauses such as: “The Landlord’s Game is based on present prevailing business methods. This the players can prove for themselves; and they can also prove what must be the logical outcome of such a system, i.e., that the land monopolist... is monarch of the world.” There is also a rule allowing players to vote in a Single Tax, which allows land ownership revenue to be used for everyone’s benefit. It’s a remarkable design – and an even more remarkable story, for of course the ending is that it did not enjoy success in that form but instead became the design template for the hymn to capitalism that is Charles Darrow et al’s 1935 game Monopoly. It’s a game, frankly, that game designers hate because it is shockingly unbalanced – yet it has its fans, if for no other reason than its millionaire power fantasy has a near-universal appeal.

BB: My point is less about riffs upon or reinventions of Monopoly than the critically phenomenological observation that we do not buck the system. Thus it is worth remembering that the same system one worries about under the reign of the crass and still crasser regime of Trump-style crony capitalism was unchallenged in eight years under Obama, whose main virtue now seems to be that he was classier about it. Obama bailed Wall Street out effectively to the very same dollar amount that Bush had done just prior to his own assumption of office, as if to send a signal. And as power is passed from one administrative regime to the next, the most critical voices (though not heard on mainstream news channels) raise questions about Obama’s drone habit…

CB: It continues to shock me, both that it happens, and that people do not appear to be horrified about it.

BB: Sloterdijk’s Terror from the Air could use an update on the bombs dropped by the US under Obama – a fairly silent war conducted without report, behind the scenes, unwitnessed, to which we can only add current anxieties about the very same legacy of the military industrial complex that will continue under Trump whose only promise appears to be to bring us more military projects for less investment.

CB: This is a problem that can be out in the open or hidden away. In the US, the demand for the best equipment for the troops (who are now permanently deployed, in stark denial of the intentions of the Founding Fathers) pours shocking money into programmes that culminate with planet-killing bombs or murderous robots. The UK, with its smaller size, does not engage so directly with industrial weapons research and settles instead for a thriving business selling weapons abroad. We rival China for arms exports, although the two together sell less than a third of what the US manages to send abroad. It doesn’t matter who you vote for in this regard, the CIA and similar agencies keep pushing along their projects and agendas more-or-less regardless of who sits in the White House.

imageBB: Note that we didn’t quite have a choice in the last election which was less a matter of Trump or Clinton (and the very fact that Sanders was closed out of the election is part of this non-choice), not only because of the workings of the ‘Hallelujah Effect’ but also because the popular vote has never been what decides an American presidential election: we did not invent the electoral college at Trump’s behest. And despite this, professors of political science who teach the rules for American elections in their classes by day, moonlight on Facebook and Twitter saying the same things one can hear on Fox News and CNN regarding the dangers of Trump, the virtues of the popular vote, and the importance of blaming Jill Stein for Clinton’s defeat. After the election the same debates re the popular vote continued, shifting blame still to Jill Stein or else to Russia. But hacking is an issue that has nothing to do with Russia, it is an old question in a digital age (thank you Diebold) so clichéd by 2016 that ten years ago there was an HBO documentary on hacking American elections, Hacking Democracy. At issue in the documentary – it’s worth seeing – is less that hacking happens as it does than that, and this is digitally and philosophically very intriguing, when it does it is undetectable: it is a difference that literally makes no difference: it is undetectable, unless you know it is being done, you can neither detect it nor rule it out.

CB: As a friend of hackers, I might dispute that claim – a good hacker can produce a trail of breadcrumbs in situations that otherwise seem immaculate. But please go on!

BB: Still, what may be more disturbing is that stealing elections, the very idea, is so entrenched in US politics that political scientists take it for granted and factor it into their discussions of the popular vote, as if there were no other way about it.  Thus if Bush steals an election from Gore, we shrug, or at least we let the Supreme Court do the shrugging for us. When Clinton’s campaign does related things contra Sanders, we shrug: backroom politics, what are ya gonna do? Thus in the face of all that past shrugging the most surprising thing is perhaps mainstream media complaints regarding a putative Putin hack, post Trump.  Hacks to one side, what is evident is that we work ourselves into a frenzy over the supposed choice between two non-choices while ridiculing anyone who claims that either one comes down to the same. We do this even after eight years of explaining on both social media and in academic conference lectures and corridors that Obama could not keep his campaign promises because of Republican opposition and corporate and lobbying forces in Washington – the same Republican concerns Obama sought to work with, the same corporate interests Obama bailed out.

CB: We are so focussed on the person who sits in a particular office, that it manages to obscure the larger system they are incorporated into, and which they cannot change. It always comes back to the same thing for me: how was Obama unable to stop drone assassinations? Attacks that killed vast numbers of innocents and that were by no means the ‘precision strikes’ they were intended to be. Indeed, these shameful practices – which in my view dishonour the very troops that US citizens, and indeed myself, have such respect for – flourished under Obama’s watch. And not, I suspect, because he was entirely in support of them, although sometimes I wonder...

BB: Note that we have already said all the trigger things needed for the automatic associations that drive these debates and to inspire counter claims: everyone knows where to come down on these and related issues.

CB: This is the problem with moral horror, as I call it in Chaos Ethics; the cognitive dissonance of politics and ethics: the moment you are triggered, as it has become popular to say, all possibility of discussion has already ended. We fight over these flashpoint situations without there being any possibility of that conflict doing anything but entrench our ‘enemies’, making productive dialogue impossible. It is all too easy to simply give in to cynicism and conclude that there is no point making any kind of effort at all. At which point, Illich’s machine has most certainly won out. Corporate venality, as you have eloquently put it, is all that is left.

BB: I take very seriously your question as to what one might then do.  I don’t know. It seems to me that a great deal might be attained if one might finally come to see that there was a problem to begin with, in all its complexity and not less in its persistence. As Nietzsche once reflected – and his formulation is more salient than standard reflections on akrasia [ἀκρασία] – knowing better does not remove the conundrum: it does not mean one will do things otherwise, and it is far from the beginning of liberation: there is necessity, ananke [ἀνάγκη], all the way down.

The dialogue continues next week: Mediaddiction


Babich and Bateman: Corporate Venality

In this latest dialogue between philosopher and Nietzsche scholar Babette Babich and ‘outsider philosopher’ Chris Bateman, we discuss our relationship to corporate power and influence, the possibility of virtuous behaviour against a backdrop of pervasive technology, and living with robots.

imageChris Bateman: In your book The Hallelujah Effect, you draw out some of the ways that our apparently freely motivated actions in social media tend to devolve into propping up the corporate ownership of popular culture. Web 2.0’s much vaunted appointment of the masses to the role of ‘content creator’ becomes a kind of ‘free range egg’ alternative to ‘battery farmed’ corporate content creation – the content we ‘create’ is an unpaid corporate promotional service. You suggest this is the new venality, a corporate venality where we are effectively being psychologically ‘bribed’ to prop up corporate interests. And we all end up participating – even those of us who question this arrangement. Is this inevitable? How would someone find a virtuous path in this situation?

Babette Babich: This is a great question.

This is such a great question that I would be up for anyone who might suggest such a path out of the fly bottle.

I don’t think such a path exists, or at least and surely not without critique, which is why there is a need to focus on Adorno (even if Adorno’s tone can annoy a lot of readers, Horkheimer does not make it any better) or Günther Anders (part of Anders’ 1956, The Obsolescence of Humanity, “On Promethean Shame” is now available in English as part of Christopher Müller’s Prometheanism) or Marcuse or indeed Baudrillard. The problem is that as happy denizens of the capitalist world view, that is, as happy consumers dedicated to feeding the corporate machine all the gigantic profits it can eat, that the dynamic is just as self-detonating as Marx suggested long ago and as we have, quite empirically found, to our great distress, bubble after bubble, in the UK under Thatcher and since then, as if no lessons had been learnt, and they weren’t, and on-going again with Brexit and its subsidiary consequences.

CB: On Brexit, I shall have to defer comment, if only for brevity, although it is something I spend time quite some time thinking about, and remain quite conflicted.

BB: Let me also note – although I am mindful of the complexity deferred – that academic authors are perhaps more insulated from the same profit question though no less involved. I was just interviewed for a UK job (patently I was not offered the position or I would not be talking about it, and that complicity is worth a blog of its own) where I was asked point blank about just how I planned to bring corporate money to the university: I have no such plans or techniques for the same, and I said as much.  What I did not say was that I thought that the very idea violated academic integrity.  And yet there is no way to be an academic and not be involved with corporate money, corporate enhancement, corporate exchange, whether one intends this or not. Thus just to limit this complexity to something as seemingly innocuous as research – academics routinely write (and edit: recruit, and collate for journals and book collections, reads copy: one’s own, that of others) for no compensation, before, during, or after publication. Yet most academics who write for the sake of communication and engagement, the furthering of research, also vigorously protest file-sharing – a complex issue on which you have written and which remains very resistant to analysis at any level. Maybe this is because the digital ontology of our lives is happening, or unfolding, all around us.

CB: You say ‘corporate machine’, and ‘machine’ was specifically the metaphor Ivan Illich used to describe the way that Western society – the democratic, free market economy, rights-claiming ideological system – functioned, and he tried to warn countries that had not yet been pulled into it what they stood to lose. Because it seems, as you suggest here, that once inside there is no way out, no way back, because once you join an economy of specialisation and dependence upon manufacture and commerce you can never be self-sufficient in any tangible sense. The moment you are not growing your own food, the moment you lose those skills that once were the mainstay of existence, you are entirely dependent upon the system to sustain you – and the system now is the corporations just as in feudal times it was the aristocracy. Feudal capitalism would be another way to see it; millionaires swearing fealty to billionaires, and the peasants in thrall to their employers who – whether by bank or by capital investment – all depend upon millionaires or billionaires somewhere down the line.

imageBB: It was Illich’s metaphor and it still bears reflection, as I often connect it too to the Frankfurt School theorists and their culture industry.  I write occasionally  about Illich in connection with education and health care but I think his comments even more vital in connection with what he called conviviality, and this complex feudality is, I think part of that as we live semi-blind to the system that sustains us, as you say, and corporate feudality is a matrix all its own. Illich pointed out that what is at issue is more than the preservation of exotic cultures, Carmen Sandiego style (where in the world can one be free of corporate control?) if only because as he also argued, there is no place, to one side or the other of Brexit complexity or Trump wall-building insanity, where one is or could be free of corporate control.  Illich’s writing and sensibility has, if one opens oneself to reading him, the capacity to raise the tone, to remind us of conviviality, that we are very much in this together even if we need the spirit of an almost-saint, as I believe Illich was such, we certainly need the patience of one, even to pose such questions at all. Hence toward the end of his life, talking about his decision to shut down the centre he himself had founded in Cuernevaca, Illich spoke of the “cultivation of conspiracy,” meaning, as he gave a historical as well as etymological discussion, being close enough to others that we might be able to share their breath, to breathe with them. “Con-spiratio.”

CB: Finding Illich was transformational for me, because here were precisely the questions not being asked today, and (soberingly) being asked around the time that I was born. Having taken these questions to heart, though, I have felt remarkably isolated – because to think with Illich is to exile yourself from almost everyone else today, to challenge everything that most people unquestioningly take to be the best aspect of what we have (whether education, medicine, or transport). Worst of all for me is precisely that I do not feel close enough to others to share breath – far from the delight in my nomadic existence that gave me my company name (International Hobo Limited), now I feel an acute sense of the costs of that nomadic existence, but the habit is there now, and it is terribly difficult to break… I had not thought, before you mentioned it, of this other meaning of ‘conspiracy’, shared breath, but yes, I suppose I yearn for a conspiracy I feel able to belong to!

BB: Historical philology is captivating and one learns from Illich’s account, but you mentioned him to touch on the question less of spirit (and Illich’s conspiracy) than speculation and capital, specifically our unwitting involvement with it, an unwitting involvement that tends to become quite witting. Most of us at university will seek corporate sponsorship if we can. Hence a nearly universal response to Illich on breathing the breath of others – he was speaking of the original meaning of the kiss of peace – can be the same as a fairly universal response to Žižek in the time of Occupy Wall Street (I include here some of the photos I took of the movement, during a day of organized protests, with union support from all over the New York seaboard and mindful that Occupy has in the space of a few years passed into a cliché for a thoroughly defeated movement) as Žižek suggested then that we might, say, dismantle capitalism, that would be the ultimate Brexit. As is his wont, Žižek articulated our own answer for us in effort to get us to think about what we consider, this is a Lacanian conundrum, what we regard as or name the impossible.

The dialogue continues next week: Monopoly and Other Games


The Last of the Continental Philosophers: A Dialogue

The Last of the Continental Philosophers was a four part dialogue between veteran Nietzsche scholar Babette Babich and ‘outsider philosopher’ Chris Bateman, looking at why continental philosophy is something every academic philosopher claims for their own while the practices of this tradition are gradually dying out.

The dialogue originally ran from 29th November to 20th December 2016. Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on the first link below, and then follow the “next” links to read on.

The four parts are as follows:

  1. Last of the Continental Philosophers
  2. What is Continental Philosophy?
  3. Claiming the Continental Flag
  4. Analytic Philosophy and the Sciences

If you enjoyed this dialogue, please leave a comment! A new Babich and Bateman dialogue begins in early 2017.