Monday, September 11, 2023

The Vault and Its Keeper: AI and The Great Filter

 Boris Karloff from The Bride of Frankenstein 
Frankenstein's monster, 1935.


To begin, let me briefly introduce a few concepts to hold in collective tension:


The first is the Fermi paradox—so named for Enrico “Where is everybody?” Fermi—which describes the notion that, while all our best predictive models suggest the universe should be teeming with life—some of it intelligent—we’ve yet to identify it anywhere at all, but Earth.  


The second is a concept called The Great Filter, attributed to economist Robin Hanson.  In astrobiological terms, the idea describes the notion that along a process of evolutionary inflection points, certain nodes may arise as likely, or potentially irresolvable, barriers to complex, technologically-sophisticated life, and may explain why we fail to detect it elsewhere in the universe.  Examples of such filter barriers may be the delicate complexity of lipids combining in disturbed solvents—like froth mixing in ancient tidal pools to form primordial cellular membranes—or, the likelihood of alien species having cause to evolve the prehensile appendages necessary to manipulate and develop complex technologies in the first place; or the general environmental stability of supportive global habitats; or the dangerous paradox of cannibalizing food and mineral resources at great scale from an originating host planet without poisoning it inhospitably; or, of course, the straight odds of cultivating at all, much less sustaining, the complex and diversified civilizations required to produce and maintain large-scale technological systems. 


While certain moments on this line garner greater or lesser theoretical attention, in practical terms, the list might be practically infinite.  And clearly then, among the imagined restrictive hurdles of The Great Filter, we may well find an answer, however lonely and regrettable, to that question of the Fermi paradox.  Of course, it is also true, that however restrictive those obstacles may be, whatever the Great Filter may consist of, there is nothing at all to suggest that its barrier action is not lying in wait before us, rather than behind us.  And often the very fruits of technology—generally in the form of global nuclear conflagration—are also imagined as a potentially restrictive node of this Great Filter.


A clever friend of mine enjoys pointing out that we—Homo Sapiens—are the only remaining hominins on earth—a planet once ripe with myriad species.  While you and I, perhaps, have come to imagining that this humble fact is a sign of our dominance and success—our ineluctable superiority: the haunting look in his eye, the vague shake of his head, instead suggests an eerie and foreboding silence.  Not a silence of the peaceful impress, but of teetering anthropological outcomes.  It is the more notable, because to all appearances, many of them too had their technologies—stones, hammers, flint blades, clothing skins, and fire.  We tend to imagine that we are somehow the exclusive and rightful inheritors of such genetic and technological legacies—but there is no currently proven substance to this thinking.  There’s no reason to imagine anything but that many of the technologies we shared were invented, and reinvented, in multiple sequences, and that, like empty talismans, neither tools nor genetic diversity offered protection against what came.        



In the time of his reign, Saddam Hussein set about devising something of a theme park reconstruction of Babylon exactly upon the base of its ruins, irretrievably diminishing the archeological potential of the site.  He posted an inscription on the Ishtar gate: ‘. . . From Nebuchadnezzar to Saddam Hussein, Babylon is rising again.’  —That it absolutely didn’t, and at least, in the sense of his meaning, absolutely won’t, is as tragic and bitterly ironic as anything in Percy Shelley’sOzymandias.” 


It is a simple axiom that those in power seek to preserve it, and those without seek to replace the powerful with themselves.  Whether this be monarchs, social media influencers, or fry cooks, is merely a formality of ambition and scale.  By what means, and in what time, are the only matters open for something like suspense.  The traditional soft-power methods of cultivating these outcomes involve selling satisfaction down or discord up, depending on your position: cultivating consensus.  Naturally, as we’ve been so recently reminded, however, failing this, options remain.


Technology is a power beyond consensus.  That it’s a force multiplier is, of course, obvious.  Perhaps less obvious is that technology is always a force multiplier against a prevailing state—a lever against the weight of the present.  This lever of technology may be plied against inertia, against circumstance, against others, against hierarchies, or against the very self-conservative tendencies of nature.  One of the nodes of particular concern with regard to The Great Filter, naturally enough, is that very, previously mentioned difficulty of civilization itself.  It would seem impossible for advanced civilizations to construct, monitor, and maintain spacefaring craft along the vast timescales required for any version of intergalactic travel; without that the source civilizations are resource-rich, capable of collecting, storing, and retrieving vast datasets, and all the while resting upon foundations capable of anchoring stability and social and political continuity measured millennia at a time, rather than by the concerns of mere centuries, much less decades.  To conceive a continuity managed at any lesser scale would be to imagine all deep-space voyages as exclusively one-way missions: the civilizations that had launched them could hardly be assumed to receive their return.  And it’s for this reason that the civilization itself must be considered the deepest rudiment of any advanced, self-regarding species—foreign or domestic.


Civilization is a technology unto itself—one understood to be enacted against the prevailing states of nature and other.  But civilization is entirely more than just the durable context or the hourglass that metes out the peculiar textures of our time.  It is also a technology of a different sort: civilization is a data collection, data storage, and data retrieval device.  A vessel.  A library.  A computer.  Civilization understood in this way is not only a receptacle for all the clever doings of man (or alien), but perhaps more crucially, a storehouse for all the collective animal-wisdoms of a species, all the taboos and cultural directives, coping mechanisms and inherited craft; the practical, the rarified, holding tome of defining mythologies, and the collective sacraments of behavior and belief.  It is the volume one may find themselves within, or the canvas one may render themselves against.  And for all of this, it is also a technology with an organically arising processor, and a clocking rhythm of its own—which is to say, a device with emergent computational power, and naturally limiting capacities of computational speed.  —There are things it can do, but not so quickly; there are things it can do, but not so slowly; there are things it does well; things it does poorly: there are things it cannot do. 

Civilization should be understood then, to be a uniquely perquisite technology for advanced life: one of greatly sustaining power, but also not one of infinite negotiability.  And beside all its other properties is one more: preservation—a technology against which nearly all other technologies are poised in antagonism.  Hierarchy, inertia, persisting circumstance: these are among the chief virtues of civilization—order and durability.  Civilization is a deep-freezer for bureaucracies, staid, reliable mores, and clockworks of the labor state, beside which radical change is an existential and persistent threat.


Civilizations based in Western-style open economies and generally pluralist-type political systems offer a range of benefits where corruption can be kept at bay.  They tend to innovate quickly because there is little between the market and the innovator but capital—and given that they prize commerce first and most, they tend toward social adaptability.  But simultaneous to this innovation, speed and plasticity are the veiled costs of these very same attributes—that they demand a continual renegotiation of the personal, economic, labor skill, comfort, belief, and individual meaning. Where closed and politically immutable societies do much to limit this level of offloading the cost of social re-tooling onto the individual, they also tend to wild autocracy, where the sense of safety and trust in the state is vague, and where opportunities tend to be closely governed and sparse; and, where innovation—by design—is low.  And while these characterizations may be relatively simplistic and broadly brushed, they do begin to illustrate the dichotomies between the approaches, and something of their limiting dimensions.  


Over centuries, even generations, change is inevitable.  Priorities shift.  This is natural.  But the renegotiation of the sense of individual identity and purpose, of economic skill and capability, of personal and collective value, not once, but multiple times in an individual’s ostensibly productive life, is greatly disruptive, and unsustainable at scale.  Civilizations that cannot learn to carefully curate such elements, to moderate social and economic continuity as against innovation and change, to sustain and preserve value, even as they mete-out its evolution, will eventually devolve into warring baronies of resource, in-group identification, and cultural conviction—and will serve to greatly increase the near-term jeopardy to the species.


But if it’s the case that these dangers, individually or collectively, threaten to cast any civilization into great peril, is it possible that none may be greater than the very technology which the technology of the civilization itself is intended to foster and propagate?  Levers and pulleys, wheels and axles; steam, coal, gasoline; pistons and turbines—primarily multiply force, time, and the efficiencies of labor.  Electricity, the transistor, telecommunications, the semiconductor, scale disruptions in distance, speed, measurement, data collection, retention, processing, and forecasting power.  They lay, and still largely rely upon, their analog forebears—but their pervasive utility also induces grave disruptions in context, rather than the more product-laden analog changes in circumstance that came before.  That is, they don’t just change how we do things, or what with—they change what the doing means, and raise uncomfortable questions about what a newly recast do-er might mean as well.  The recently minted Artificial Intelligence we are confronted with today is not, as many techno-optimists claim, merely another lever with commensurate dislocating and revitalizing force.  Rather, it is a form of technology so consolidated, that it is not hyperbole to suggest that it is almost literally technology personified.  It is a computational power so distilled we find perceived, or very real, cognitive features peering back from the algorithms before us.  And very much unlike the force-multipliers of yore, we struggle to behold not only the immediacy for its threat of change, but the scope of its true horizon of power.  A power, which, when sincerely initiated, will grow by exponents.


It is properly realistic to imagine that any civilization with a will toward moving among the stars and exploring the boundless depths of the universe will find that coming upon such profound technologies as a comprehensively simulated intelligence—an AI—will be a prerequisite for devising, modeling, discovering, measuring, and engineering works at scales and complexities beyond the scope of collective organic intelligences—as well as, for managing rare propulsion systems and navigating at theoretical speeds, over astronomical distances.  By any measure it must be that the cultivation of a stable, powerful AI presents an immutably consequential node for The Great Filter.


Without such a technology there is no reason at all to imagine we would ever hear from, much less witness, other advanced life in the universe, or expect to find their toys.  Perhaps, just as likely, we wouldn’t expect to be it.  But could it also be that threading a species through the eye of the AI needle, may be by far the narrowest, most perilous gateway of any prior?  Estimating the Great-Filtering strength of AI relative to solvent-forming lipid membranes, or the statistical-cosmological likelihood of opposable thumbs, is a rather more freighted intuition.  But identifying AI as by far the most existentially disruptive technology on a line that includes shelter, fire, automobiles, and cellular phones, seems hilariously frighteningly obvious.  In fact, it seems so treacherous a passage, one imagines it may appropriately require navigational resources from the opposite side: and given we’ve yet to thread this Great-Filtering needle, perhaps it does.  And in this regard, it seems a matter of little humor.  Getting it right, governing AI early and hard, establishing unblinking global protocols, decisive prohibitions, and immutable directives seems as imperative as it is unlikely.     


Jeff Bezos is said to have described among his corporate memoranda a notion for the distinction between passing through doors that can be reentered, and passing through doors that fix inalterably, behind.  It is a simple but important concept among Western socio-economic postures that view the inalterable as a figment of imaginative, if not descriptive, heresy.  —All change is possible all of the time, and if it’s not always pleasant, it’s surely survivable: buck-up—it’ll be fine.  Or so goes the doctrine of our service-fluid, product-laden, free-market faith.  After all, we survived the steam engine, and that wasn’t so bad; the printing press was only a rise; the crossbow; gunpowder; complex pharmaceuticals; social media!—what’s not to love?  But for each of these, and the rest unmentioned, there is nevertheless a world barred-off, from reentry, but also other evolutionary paths.  For every revolution, or even merely throbbing innovation, there is not only a past of complex aptitudes, sins, and virtues which is foreclosed, but a long and meandering future is put down as well.  An entrance with distinct exits; and exits with consequent, and wholly unique entrances: entire lineages of irreproducible opportunity and embodied futures, are born, and laid to rest.  Ways we wanted to be.  Ways of being we hadn’t finished with.  Retired, not by conclaves of sober cardinals, but impatient directorial boards, or corporate titans tingling for the next yacht, or these days, often as not, man-children in Underroos, with Cheetos and a ruminating malice on their mind.     


It's the nature of revolutionaries and conquistadores—whether armed or arm-chaired—to be solipsists.  They bend the world toward their advantage and sell the bend as an advantage for all—and they do it the more easily for its lightness. What goes unconsidered bears no weight.  There is no moderation among the invisible.  And chief among the unmoderated misconceptions of such revolutionaries and change-makers, is that the structures which preserve—the resistant armatures of civilization—can be shattered or dislodged to a purpose, but also remain, as if untouched for the collection of benefit.  


Our Mark Zuckerbergs and Elon Musks, and particularly our Sam Altmans, seem to imagine that our social moods and economic tendencies, our cultural threads, together comprise such august and formidable architectures that any burden may be hung from it, windows may be added while preserving the wall that holds them—that it’s all at once loadbearing, and, capable of absorbing infinite and simultaneous renovation.  Of course this is untrue; of course this is impossible—but this delusion is prevalent in the society of our moment, and made the more virulent by the very technologies which presume to inform and empower.  And if these rather more prosaic economic oversights and cultural indiscretions—the work-a-day sabotage of ordinary strivers and the commercially vengeful, can so challenge our current frame—what then of a system of ubiquitous interlinking autonomous technologies and cascading economic displacements so radical they challenge very literal and intuitive meanings of labor, the utility of the individual, and the purpose of collective civilization itself?  


If in fact, civilization is not only a data processor or vessel, but also, and crucially, a mechanism of data retrieval—what might the purpose of that retrieval be, what might it mean?  Might it be to place and locate, might it check and amend, might it restore and enfold?  A civilization ceaselessly broken by what it is meant to hold, neither collects, nor stores—and certainly one cannot draw from an empty vault.  We rupture, cauterize, and drain the quality of culture and collective memory by our clever exploitations, all the while imagining that efficiency, novelty, or commercial gratification will fill the vacuum in meaning.  But pain wants purpose: our sacrifice wants expression in utility.  And a technology which threatens to leave little but profit and the easy-bleached shadows of generations of mankind against the pavement is whole magnitudes apart, in scale or duration, from our fiercest arsenals.  But for now, it’s also one we’ll leave to pets and children, start-ups, and whip-smart technophiles.  —Buck-up—it’ll be fine.  


Guiding such a powerful technology with the extreme care and requisite foresight through adolescence to its maturation so that it doesn’t merely detonate its host culture, is no less likely to pose existential perils to alien civilizations than to our own.  And along the commonly imagined gauntlet of failures are typically the poles of nuclear annihilation on one side, and a dystopian surveillance-state of weaponized robot dogs, on the other.  On cosmological scales, there’s no reason to imagine those expressions of The Great Filter are wrong.  But a perhaps more likely, more common, more reasoned presentation of this node of the Filter might instead be a Luddite apocalypse.  It could be that time and again, as civilizations are thrust upon the tip of AI technologies so powerful as to be irresolvably transfiguring, they may instead turn away.  They may reason that a tool empowers its holder by preserving and advancing his state, and that anything which breaks the bearer to wield it, which muddles and diminishes his shape in meaning, can only be a weapon aimed at the self.  They might reason it in dire senates, or they might rush the temples of technology wielding torches, to pull them down, and light them.  And if, formally or informally, they’d weighed costs, inflected and agreed, could we be so sure it was wrong?  Perhaps such technologies might be invented, and reinvented, dismantled, and dismantled again, in a continuity of sequence, and that time-after-time they might elect to preserve the meaning of the finite and the mortalizing, rather than an interplanetary omnipotence whose power can neither be held nor entered.  Perhaps every civilization moves toward its outermost understanding—and seeks to live there.  Perhaps all civilizations with technologies they cannot guide will turn from them.


Perhaps the gravest node of The Great Filter is not calamity, but choice.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Camus—Meaning and Suicide: A Stranger in Two Tales

Photography by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Among gods and authors there is a salient and commonly attendant phrase: authorial intent.  This phrase—high-flung though it may sound—means, simply enough: the will of the author as it deploys in their work (or, creation—if your work happens to be God-hood).  The phrase comes up in graduate lectures and cathedrals, mosques and temples, and other domiciles of learning and high intention—whereabout the deliberative meaning of works are most commonly extoled, or, alternatively, called to fist-shaking clarification.  Which is to say: Oh Lord . . . show your work!  Interpretation is, of course, the essence of this matter, and divinities and authors share that monstrous habit of bearing exclusive copies of their source material with them in their products, their lives, and away with them through to their ultimate deconsecration.  —Le poof.


The urge to definitive scholarship in these matters is certainly understandable.  What did he say?  What did he mean?  If that’s all he said, was that all he meant?  It is not merely a question of discrete meanings, of course, but also one of canonical meanings—the bookends of the interpretively possible.  And, as one will readily imagine, because of the physics of the former, we find durable problems with the latter—i.e., because of that issue with the sealed and vanishing container, we find the seeing and the knowing behave very much more like the scrying.  We are collectively alone with our collective ignorance . . . and we have that at least to share.


All the same, we understand through experience and intuition that the life of the work and the meaning of the maker share a type of placental co-vasculature, rather more than an author may say with perfect didaction—The sum of what I meant, and that sum of what you have, is here.  In this way the work may be said to condense and cohere to an extent, of its own meanings, and also to reach out by them and lead their author with their own grasping hand.  So that occasionally we may find that the author’s assertions are patently false; occasionally they are well intended misunderstandings; and very often their declarations represent merely part of a larger, emergent, whole—the blood plasma and skin grafts of the beginning, we might say.  


In 2012, in The New Yorker Adam Gopnik had a very fine piece entitled: “Facing History Why we love Camus.”  The topic of The Stranger—certainly Camus’ most famous and celebrated piece—was not Gopnik’s primary subject, but he wisely framed it beside The Myth of Sisyphus—Camus’ book of essays elaborating on the themes of The Stranger.  But of the novel directly, he says this:

“The Stranger” tells the story of an alienated Franco-Algerian, Meursault, who kills an Arab on the beach one day for no good reason. The no-good-reason is key: if it’s possible to act for no good reason, maybe there is never any reason to talk about “good” when you act.


The characterization is striking for its facile economy, and for how ably it sums the standard reading of the book—a reading I recognize well, and one with which, in my youth, I may once have felt close.  Indeed, it seems something of an institutional article of faith that The Stranger is about moral frames: after all, is its subject not in fact the callous murder of an Arab on the beach—“for no good reason”—which is to say, no reason at all?  Well . . . no.  The murder, as it unfolds, is not accurately described as being literally, for no reason at all.  And . . . no: the murder is not the subject of the work—as that institutional article of faith would have it, and as Adam Gopnik so concisely puts it. 


What, in fact, The Strangeris—about, seems, even after all this time, to be, on the one hand, something half revealed by Camus, in his elaborations in The Myth of Sisyphus, and half concealed by Jean-Paul Sartre, with his often back-handed praise of it in his An Explication of The Stranger; and, a perhaps not coincidental urge to circumscribe and coopt its dark and subtle articulations for his own, rather more sharply ideological purposes.  


It is not just useful, but important, to have The Myth of Sisyphus beside The Stranger here, because, arguably, we lack that definitive key which refutes the standard reading without it.  Camus follows The Stranger with this book of essays, and in them makes clear that he is working on adjacent material, and from the outset tells us he could hardly be more concerned with ‘meanings.’  What Sartre insists in his explication is, that The Stranger is a nothing about nothing.  An absurdity about absurdity—as he says it must be: the world after all is absurd, and so then must be he who comes from it: Meursault—the putative protagonist, or as Sartre refers to him: the ‘hero.’  While it indeed rhymes with Camus, this line of argument seems fashioned to do nothing so much as to strip Camus’ ‘meanings’ from the work in claiming them as deliberate mirages—meanwhile mouthing Camus’ words, and with them overwriting an interpretive veneer of his own.  


Already between the two men—Camus and his self-appointed interpreter, Sartre—we can find a touching upon and then pulling against different argumentative threads.  Both here are preoccupied by the ‘absurd,’ but it quickly seems clear that they mean importantly different things by it.  Sartre appears to see it as acknowledgment of a fundamental meaninglessness at the root of things—that all things are interpretively empty vessels, and cannot be filled.  If the world is absurd, then so are its fruits: if the world lacks meaning, then so do the spoils of it, lives, and therefore, so that life of man must lack it as well.  For Sartre these surfaces are so smoothly polished, so unburdened with intrinsic form, they might be cleaned of even that residual evidence of purported meanings, and might then be reordered and reassigned: a final act of post-war enlightenment, and victorious erasure.  He cannot help but be attracted by the social and political implication for this power.  For Camus’ part, however, he appears to see the ‘absurd’ as more an articulation of something broken—a form which once existed, a thing which once functioned, or was meant to, and which no longer does.  A corruption, then, of what ‘is,’ or was ever intended—a bitterly comic, painful corruption, so dire as to threaten the durability, transmissibility, or indeed, even the ongoing possibility, of meanings.  But this sentiment is fundamentally different from Sartre, and exists as a kind of lamenting ‘should,’ which hangs in man and object the way a vestige odor hangs in the fibers of cloth.  It may not function, but neither will it be purged and reassigned, and the result is a paradoxical admixture of empowerment, and despair.  An instinct and conclusion very much more literary than purely philosophical: not that there was never meaning, but that it has somewhere been lost, Grail-like; made impossible by incipient knowledge, technology, and industrially revolutionized scales of warfare: that it has perished with man’s foreclosed intuitions.  A sentiment, then, which echoes with the Nietzschean declaration that ‘God is dead,’ and ‘we have killed him’: not that there was never prior meaning, but that like a sublime magic, man has defiled and render it ineffective, and now he must live in the liberty and the consequence of his actions—his new power, and the burden of purpose in wielding it . . . and, the new and silent emptiness of living within an authorless work.  —"Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name . . .”     


Of these two—The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus—one may be pardoned for imagining an explicit correlation. Sartre himself sees these not as two, but rather as effectively one work in two volumes.  In his An Explication of The Stranger, to be sure, Sartre sees one continuous arc between them, merely described across two abridgeable texts.  He borrows from The Myth of Sisyphus to describe his paired images of “emotion” and of “lucidity”—and he sees these, then, as twin piers, left and right legs of this arcing ideal.  In his explication Sartre says: “The Myth of Sisyphus might be said to aim at giving us the idea, and The Stranger at giving us the feeling.”  Thought and feeling, emotion and lucidity—two presentations cut of divergent polarities and overlaid to a perfect and singular registration.  Redundant proofs and the singular argument.  . . . If only it were so.  The registration points, however, do not align—they tell us this isn’t so.  The parallax of their arcs is similar, but not the same: they are two individuated assertions, in two distinct tales.


In the case of Meursault, he takes a pistol from his neighbor-friend, Raymond, originally in an act of de-escalation, and then distractedly carries it in his pocket with him on a solitary walk down the beach, to the very scene of an earlier confrontation.  The legal trial which follows fixates on the minutiae of moment and motive, on conscientiousness, lucidity, and deliberations—on the climate of moral character.  But Camus understands the murder of the Arab on the beach as inevitable as violent causes finding a rioter.  By the time Meursault has arrived at the scene, the true moment of prevention has passed, and he becomes, as men often do, an agent of demolition awaiting self-selecting targets.  A fate awaiting particulars.  


When The Stranger is published, France in 1942 remains a nation occupied.  While perhaps some of his contemporaries will have admired a character so unleashed by the death of meanings as to blunder easily into casual and benumbed murder, it is in no way possible that this trait—as common to Nazi secret police and Vichy spies as to hapless street toughs—is to Camus some newfound power of the ‘absurd.’  Also important is the fact that, of ‘an alienated Franco-Algerian’ accused of murdering an Arab in 1942 French Algeria, there is not the least certainty of conviction.  In fact, the reality is that Meursault faces a merely fractional legal danger, and it is an entirely more pressing question why Meursault might not—however corruptly—squeeze through the performative bars of justice, and off into the mundane anonymity of ordinary life.  As it is, over and again Meursault is approached by the various characters and appurtenances of the Law—each of whom at first waits for all they need truly to hear—‘I was endangered!’ ‘threatened!’ ‘I feared for my life!’ ‘acted in self-defense,’ ‘I repent!’  But when these powers of the Law come looking for such gestures from Meursault, when such simple and obvious ameliorating claims will not appear, they try at first with nods and glances to produce them, then induce them between their teeth, and eventually issue flat-out defenses of the case Meursault need do nothing more than assent to.  


In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus says early on: “Galileo, who held a scientific truth of great importance, abjured it with the greatest ease as soon as it endangered his life.  In a certain sense, he did right.  That truth was not worth the stake.”  Right or wrong—self-preservation—Camus sees as a rather unromantic, pre-philosophical sacrament—one not to be contravened by mere performances in ideology.  It is the first responsibility of the self.  And yet, Meursault seems to fail this basic test.  He will not speak the words which will save him.  Indeed, he will not even think them into reach.


It is here that we know—must see and understand—that the murder of the Arab on the beach is not at all the subject of the work, nor is it the climax.  It is no more the matter of The Stranger than the fact that Meursault does not, perhaps will not, cry at his mother’s funeral.  The murder of the Arab is neither more nor less than the original sin of the man who discovers that he has been born out of all certainty of meanings.  It is the blundering act which ejects him from them, the epiphany of discovering oneself outside the complicit and express gravity of the agreements of being; it is the slaying of the shade-self that abides there: it is Nietzsche’s madman waving a lantern in a daylit square—announcing the death of God.  It is an act, a discovery, a sin . . . a birth—into power of ultimate liberty and ultimate despair—for which that numbness at a mother’s funeral can be but a foreshadowing prefiguration.  What can be that emotion of birth?—wonders Camus—might it be that joy of release?—or the stumble-drunk disorientation of catastrophe?—the problem of recontextualizing the vehicle . . . and its rules . . . amidst the plummeting absence of lift.  Should this lack of ready-made, articulable emotion really surprise us then?  After all, who is moving away from whom?  Who is genuinely departing—she, or him?


The literal breaks itself.  The consequences of the real explode into metaphor and negative space.  The magnitude of effects fracture planes of continuity and render their own causes impossible—and yet, cannot prevent them.  For Camus, nothing less than the true, unmoderated gravity of a murder will bear the energetic potentials necessary to gain access to the space he means to enter—will pierce the physics of meanings, and allow us to penetrate to their vacuum interior: not climax, but the location of the beginning.  The bardo space; the Planck Scale; the location ineluctably arrived at when we fall out of the sphere of meanings and into the reservoir of their parts—the shatters and sand of implications, where they exist exclusively in their quantum and probabilistic state. 


It is in this space that the two tales of a stranger overlap, where their arcs coincide. Because this is the uterine space of interiority.  All those who collapse through the armature of significances arrive in this space—both Meursault and Sisyphus, you and I—when we are knocked from our root convictions of the consequence of being.  The question from here becomes, what next—where?  Sartre will see here the two purgatory vaults; the two receptacle cells of consciousness; the two penitents bound to eternity and its emptiness—job done, he might say: a portrait record of the truth.  Camus, however, does not.  He sees not a baptism of the end, but the site of the riddle of the self.  The real work has yet to be done.  The labyrinth has yet to be navigated.  This is the location of the choice.  And while the choice will not salve the traveler from the knowledge of the broken context, the failure of meanings, the perilous fall from them, or of the harrowing truth of this vault of the self utterly without them—the choice will allow him motion, a permeability—not a pardon, but the aperture of parole.


The nature of the choice, or its texture in this context, is without import for Camus.  There is in the end—from this place without meanings—not nearly so great a variety of choosing as we might imagine.  The choice may have the sound of labor, or the feel of loving, or the ink stains of creative concentration, or simply just the anchoring touch of wind snapping against our conscious surface.  It is not plural nor binary, so much as singular—the choice of the affirmation.  ‘Yes.’  And this choice is the redemptive act.  Sisyphus eventually comes to choose to push the boulder up the hill.  It is an act of subversion, and reclamation.  A manifestation of meaning by the self for the self.  An act like the drowning man producing the lifeboat which rescues him.  An act of manifestation consecrated in choice.  In this way Sisyphus tells us one side of this story.  His is the one, empowered, melancholy, full arc—falling through the crumbling architecture of meanings, navigating the storm of the self in the void of inconsequence, and then, with an affirming choice based on nothing, and housed nowhere but within, he, like a true god, invents a meaning for himself—however small, however modest—and turns his penitentiary inside out by the mere occasion of the choosing.  This, says Camus, is victory—the only one there is.


But if Sisyphus is victory, if his is the one of two tales, what is Meursault?  Does he not find himself in a cell of his own making?—does he not tumble into the perilous volume of his own interiority?—does he not claim a happiness in his captive state which rhymes with that happiness Camus tells us we must see in Sisyphus?  Perhaps, but just.  The arc of Meursault resembles that of Sisyphus: we witness the fall, the birth into the corruption of meanings, the bouncing the baseball off the walls of the bardo . . . and that is all.  The tale of Sisyphus is that of victory in meaning, and the tale of Meursault is the tale of the suicide.  His is the cautionary tale.  Camus’ warning—that merely to realize a frightening and empowering passage out of meanings, is not, ultimately, to pierce the second veil; is not at all a guarantee to find the self and grapple with him, to make him yield a choice, and by it find transfiguration—rare knowledge and strange freedoms . . . or even, nobility in persistence.


Meursault does not choose.  He does not fall out of meanings by reflecting on them, but by being too careless even to reach for them.  He has neither the agency to avoid murder, nor to prevent his own.  He cannot speak the words which would explain himself, even for ultimate salvation.  Indeed, he cannot consider a salvation that keys at first on his selfhood—only the deliverance of exterior machinations.  Meursault is broken, his interiority has no volume, his reflections are feeble and childish—he is exactly the suicide Camus is preoccupied with, and he is a suicide from the beginning.  He does not choose.  He cannot choose.  The vital self with such powers cannot be located, and his will be a waking death from the outset, the suicide that cannot be bothered to step off the tracks, because it can sense imperative in neither train nor being.  Meursault is a Bartleby for all seasons.  —And a warning . . . that falling into meaninglessness, and abiding in nihilism . . . are only similar in appearance.  One is explicitly fatal.  


In his explication, Sartre says of Meursault: “Once the character had been sketched in, he probably completed himself; he certainly had a real weight of his own.  . . . that’s how he is, and that’s that.”  It may be that Camus originally wanted for Meursault what he would later provide for Sisyphus.  Perhaps Camus had intended sovereign redemption: a single arc across two volumes.  And, perhaps, then, that singular choice of Meursault’s truncated life was to reach out instead, and guide his maker by the hand.  


Friday, April 20, 2012

Richard Serra: Drawing in Space

Richard Serra
Taraval Beach, 1977
Paintstick on Belgian linen
Shown installed at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Whitney Biennial Collection of the artist Artwork by Richard Serra (c) 2012 Richard Serra
Photo: BeVan Davies

Relative to other modes of visual expression drawing is perhaps the most elemental, immediate, and direct.  Historically, it has been one obliged to service as a largely preparatory underpinning of art-making, and in the Western tradition has earned a space for independent consideration only comparatively recently.  By no means the exclusive province of drawing however, the physicality of mark-making also exists as an obvious and essential ingredient of written communication.  Writing by hand, the figures of letters and words must—irrespective of their individual or collective meanings—be drawn as both a preparatory and integral measure of their production, a process whereby writing ensnares thought, and drawing, signification.  However unintended or imperceptible, the consequence of such a circuit is that literal physicality gives rise to generative conception by way of paths both formative and receptive.  Considered in this way, making and cognition achieve an elusive procedural feedback which stands apart from—and even resists our common expectations for—where along this chain intention, as a decisive inertial moment truly lies.

Exploring this Möbius-like circularity is an exhibition organized by the Menil Collection, “Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective.”  The third and final destination for the exhibition which opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and remains on view at the Menil in Houston through the 10th of June—the retrospective examines not the sculptural forms for which Serra is most broadly known, but instead takes a view of his drawing discipline. 

This relationship of mark-making and meaning has greatly occupied art-theoretical mechanisms since its early confrontation at the hands of the Impressionists, and since Modernism has coalesced as an inescapable point of consideration with arguments whose forms have grown more refined as their employment has grown more radical.  Engaging methods for conceptually and procedurally distilling, if not resolving, these concerns is a point of preoccupying interest for Richard Serra.  It is profound understatement to say that Serra’s work is neither light nor easy; to engage it meaningfully requires an investment of consideration.  But among the retrospective’s accomplishments, one of significance is its ability to suggest Serra’s formal investigations in viscerally intuitive, rather than purely external, academic terms.  To some extent it is the curation and compressive context which foster this access—forcing apart and rendering observable the fundamental particles of his work as one might the composition of atomic nuclei, by slamming them against one another.

One such beneficiary of this contextual framing is his piece “Drawings after Circuit.”  Here 24 drawings are arranged into three rows of eight, with each framed sheet comprised of three or four individual, uninterrupted vertical paintstick marks.  More than many of the exhibited works, this piece bears a direct correlation with Serra’s sculpture.  Known for his somewhat idiosyncratic habit of making sketches which do not precede—but rather follow and respond—to his own installed sculptural works, Serra composed this series of drawings based on his own physical engagement with and reaction to his sculpture “Circuit,” an installation comprised of four steel plates, each reaching on the diagonal, out from the corners of the room.  The marks echo his motion through the space, varying in their length and placement.  But rather than serving to relate his drawing to his sculpture in reactive or derivational terms, the work and its simple, repetitive, meditative marks suggests among the most persuasive and articulate arguments for Serra’s sculpture as being highly informed by his drawing concern, embodying the experiential scaling of and impulse toward a drawing made physical—a drawing in space.

Hardly blooms unfolding to the mere touch of observation, then, Serra’s drawings are much more theoretical devices, mechanisms which when carefully probed often reveal a lever, a means by which the work may be opened in remarkable, if somewhat paradoxical ways.  The lesser works, however, do not do this.  And it is the ironic flipside of the retrospective that, while it provides the collisions which pry apart some of these recalcitrant works, that same context reveals others as essentially inert.  Such examples include the several “Untitled” works from the early ‘70s, images of rhomboid shapes or of circular forms which prefigure the Rounds and Solids to emerge later, or which invoke the more structural or architectural concerns of his sculpture.  While certainly handsome, they nevertheless resolve as far less compelling than their peers.

There are other casualties as well, but of a different sort.  Serra’s Installation Drawings, without question the main feature of the exhibition, are also works of extraordinary contextual fragility, with properties of light, room volume, and wall dimension substantively influencing their resonant properties.  Among these, “Triangle” and “Diamond,” pieces of heavily worked paintstick on Belgian linen trimmed in accord with the shapes their names suggest, feel uncharacteristically more localized in time than space, while other celebrated pieces are simply ill at ease.  “Pacific Judson Murphy,” a paintstick on linen which provocatively turns a corner, and “Blank,” two black paintstick fields which antagonize each other from across the room, each suggest having perfected their fight within the pre-war architectural context prevailing among New York institutions, but here seem decidedly unhappy with the excess of space, while “Abstract Slavery” appears equally discontent in the natural lighting and with the ceiling well beyond the reach of its threatening gestures.

Conversely, the vast black monolithic expanse of “Taraval Beach,” isolated in its own chamber and reaching floor to ceiling—the tooth of the Belgian linen resolving beneath the heavily matted paintstick to intone sculptural rather than graphic processes—cannot have been happier in life, with the draft and beam of the Menil apparently tailored for fit.  It is a work simultaneously of brutal confrontation and monastic concentration, and vividly illustrates Serra’s refutation of drawing’s conventional delineations of either gesture or form.

Richard Serra
out-of-round X, 1999
Paintstick on handmade Hiromi paper
79 ½ x 79 inches
Collection of the artist
Artwork by Richard Serra (c) 2012 Richard Serra
Photo: Rob McKeever
Among such conceptually preoccupied company one might expect Serra’s Rounds to offer a standout dose of narcotic immediacy, but they are unexpectedly swamped by the trio “No Mandatory Patriotism,” “Pittsburgh,” and “The United States Courts are Partial to Government.”  Excepting “Pittsburgh,” these are works whose titles invoke the vitriol of Serra’s contentious legal battle to preserve his sculpture “Tilted Arc,” and its eventual destruction.  In this case, the works are framed diptychs whose pigmented surfaces achieve a rich granularity by Serra’s application of meat grinder-prepared paintstick.  Unlike the Installation Drawings, here the use of frames proves essential for the dictatorial spatial control Serra employs, forging tension between the forms as they crowd against each other and their context.  These pieces are imbued with a distinct, raw visual intensity—a blind exquisitely rendered ferocity; and which, it might be added, succeed further by inducing the keen lamentations of a life spent in all the ways that will never bring one home.      

More than any one piece however, to truly submit oneself to this work is to be taken into the close and volatile confidence of a professional tuff, one whose assertions range between the opaque and the sublime—but are delivered with unswerving bare-knuckled, ecclesiastical certitude in every case.  In a very real sense, Serra’s drawings are the argumentative explorations for which they are their own artifactual proofs.  Despite the occasional sparsely-sutured point of self-referential closure, the severity and continuity of this argumentation can nevertheless astonish.  Serra’s concern is so adamantly theoretical that even additional powers of magnification seem to yield a startling coherence. 

In many cases the interstitial dimensions of Serra’s drawings are so close, the conceptual tolerances so tight, and the considerations of good and bad, like and dislike, so carefully circumvented, they seem almost quaintly irrelevant.  Instead, agree or disagree seem to be the valuational terms on offer.  But one is warned to mind the apparently egalitarian tone: Serra means to do irreparable violence to drawing’s formal considerations.  And if amongst its arsenal, a singular defense remains, it can only be the extent to which Serra’s work interdependently requires and relies upon those very semantical terms in order to entrench, define, and substantiate his opposition to them.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: Beautiful Malaise

Image Courtesy Focus Features

To begin:  A woman on the center aisle sent something like a toaster clattering improbably from her purse.  It was followed somehow by more.  And when she upended her sack to retrieve them, its entire remaining contents scattered like marbles.  Her bag had a marvelous capacity.  The theater and lobby were menacingly joined.  With the consequence that jangling registers and the prattle of fructose fingered attendants played on beneath anything resembling silence.  The only toilet on the whole of the main floor had been crammed beneath the projector.  Its flush was melodious.  Also, it seems sufferers of respiratory distress are keen enthusiasts for le Carré.  Popcorn was provided in brown paper bags so that every other sound was that of Christmas morning.  Hot dogs were cunningly served upon two microwave-hardened, tractionless halves of unjoined bun—to attempt one in the dark is its own occupation.  And for the certainty of good measure, the fellow at the aisle’s end fell asleep halfway through, and his gentle wife endured his snoring until compelled by the astonished choir of laughter to wake him.

And also there was the film.

Handsome and Impenetrable

“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” is John le Carré’s 1974 novel about the Manila-foldered reality of the espionage business at the waning edges of the Cold War, and the byzantine frameworks which make secret keeping possible, and the apparatus for keeping them, vulnerable.  This current treatment directed by Tomas Alfredson, is the first to bring George Smiley (le Carré’s rain soaked protagonist) to the screen since 1979, when Sir Alec Guinness deftly handled the role in a mini-series adaptation.  Here it is reprised by Gary Oldman in a spare, sepia-tone vision of the 1970s information trade.  The work draws from the memory and furtive imaginings which are the property of le Carré, and to be sure it is no matter of sunshine and flowers. 

In life David Cornwell, the man for whom John le Carré is the Savile Row nom de plume, served as a bona fide spook for British Intelligence during the fifties and sixties.  And despite such nervy firsthand experience, or perhaps because of it, his work aligns at a great distance from the flash bang of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, and centers itself instead on a high-resolution, macro view of the espionage business—its back rooms and book keeping—and upon the richly nuanced and brilliantly turned out characters which populate it.  With concern to mannerism Alfredson’s film adaptation faithfully renders the cold coffee, warm gin, and nicotine stained ambiance which hangs in the book’s air like the residue of a pub at close.  The setting is distinct and the mood is singularly palpable.  Regrettably however, while the dress and atmosphere of “Tinker Tailor” are points for praise, those other dimensions of le Carré’s painstakingly crafted work—those beyond the mere occasion of its backdrop—its convincing characterization and deeply constructed storyline, are both conspicuously absent.  

Precisely what obligation if any, a filmmaker holds out for the source of his material is a point with a history of broad interpretation.  Where the most liberal interpretations flourish, they generally do so by forging toward the essence of plot and character such that the filmmakers may have their merry way with what’s left.  On the other hand are works whose scope or structure is so vast, or so tightly bound, that they lend themselves poorly to attempts at creative manipulation.  What Alfredson and his screenwriter’s have chosen is a work belonging to the latter, and ill advisedly provided a treatment which belongs to the former.  The result despite all its careful attention to the topiary of 1970s men’s fashion, or the gritty tropes of 70s cinematographic techniques, nevertheless reveals as only slightly more than the stylish commercial for the film one expects to see: the film which responds intelligently to the source material; the one rightly expected to be superb.

It is true that the filmmaker lacks the narrative space which is the novelist’s luxury, with the consequence that he must considerably distill and refit the material in transcription.  In “Tinker Tailor” however, Alfredson fritters away precious time on countless establishing shots of Smiley treading delicately along English lanes as though struggling with incontinence; or upon a rush of abstracted interactions—no doubt intended as a stand-in for character development—with and between characters we do not, nor in this film, do we ever know.  In the same way that a rambling diatribe about toasters, whooping cough, and slippery hotdogs does nothing to expedite the substance of a film review, so endless clever cutaways to dumbwaiters, or holiday parties imbued with the implication of significant gravity, do nothing to advance the framework of a highly faceted espionage film.

The doom that comes to this draft of “Tinker Tailor” was certainly not preordained, but comes largely as the result of the free hand which Alfredson and his writers seek to have with its retelling, along with a considerable preference for style over substance.  Le Carré himself had his work cut out in composing this story, and his narrative and structural decisions are informed largely by the necessary balance of tension with the simple imperative of expediency.  Whereas in the film, where the first thing we know (when we know nothing at all) is that there’s a mole: in the book this revelation doesn’t present itself for some seventy pages, during a scene in which Peter Guillam has spirited Smiley away in his sports car to a meeting at Lacon’s shambling wood-paneled estate, and Ricki Tarr unfolds the elaborate and compelling tale which facilely introduces the pertinent players, and jump starts the narrative with a purpose.  The decision to trade this elegant section for the cubist early movements of the film, may have been the single most costly mistake of the enterprise.  The cohesion achieved with le Carré’s one scene is never replicated in the course of the entire film.      

The irritating paradox of “Tinker Tailor” is that despite utterly failing to convey an intelligible story, wasting a flawless cast, entirely missing the mark with regard to character—le Carré’s Smiley however dry and reserved, remains richly pearlescent, where Alfredson’s Smiley is merely dead—everything praiseworthy about it, belongs not to the film, but to the book: thereby reserving as the film’s principle accolade the simple fact of having chosen it.