Ex Machina

The allusion to Wittgenstein, which leads to his quasi-behaviorism, which leads to the Turing Test, was clever.

The allusion to Frank Jackson? Less clever. Worries about the rights of artificial persons? Tired. We’ve heard this discussion before, since Blade Runner at least.

But the deep dependence on the plot of The Magus was a surprise; the likely fact that no one will mention this because Fowles is not taught is itself interesting, as is the consilience with the change in the plot [spoiler]: things don’t work out for our “Nicholas” quite as well. The object of his affection, rather, becomes the protagonist ultimately. It’s not that The Magus couldn’t be written today: it’s that it would have to be written from the perspective of Rose and Lily, and love would not be the answer, but an worst an illusion, at best a manipulative tool for facilitating liberation from the patriarchy.

What does this tell us? That the bourgeois individualism of The Magus is probably not a permissible object of study in academia anymore… unless the bourgeois individualist doing the self-discovery and self-liberation is A Person of No Privilege (in this case, white and straight, but at least female and non-human). By contrast, A Person of Privilege is allowed to critique bourgeois individualism (even though this is essentially self-criticism, thus self-discovery, thus bourgeois individualism all over again, and as long as the critique focuses on the cultural surface effects and in no way speculates as to the mechanisms which produce them, and hence to strategies of dismantlement.)

On Living Long, and Prospering


There are several different archetypes of virtue in the history of Western culture: the patriot, the rebel, the artist, the statesman, the woman of faith. Socrates seemed to invent in his own life and personality a new type, and while that type played a huge role in the thought of Plato and Aristotle, and was transmitted down to us in various forms, combined with various types, it was the Stoics who in a way embodied what was central in Socrates. Stoicism had a kind of oblique revival in the thought of Spinoza and Kant, but it could never quite compete with the other images and models in the larger culture. Ironically for us today, the Sixties made matters worse, and the notion that virtue is a sham and a self-betrayal, that what is truly necessary is to get in touch with your feelings, your appetites and passions, seemed to triumph over all else.

Gene Roddenberry wasn’t quite sure at first what he was doing with the Spock concept. At first he was supposed to merely be provocatively alien, and the notion of a cold character who was second in command was planned for a woman, with the intention I imagine of making a feminist statement. The grand pooh-bahs of television wouldn’t wear it, and so the notions were merged and we got the Spock that we know. Without quite knowing what they were doing, Star Trek re-invented Stoicism and presented it to the modern world in an accessible form. Philosophers sometimes say that the image of Spock misrepresents Stoicism, but on further reflection, I think Star Trek got it right in the first place. The forgotten Stoic Poseidonius knew that to achieve the ideal of dignified, self-possessed rationality, one would need to struggle with passions and appetites; in this he followed Plato rather than Zeno. Modern Stoics like Lawrence Becker have insisted that a proper Stoic does not exterminate his or her emotions, but cultivates them selectively, by the light of reason. Spock showed us both the struggle, and the proper role of dignified, rational sentiment, especially the sentiment of friendship. Remarkably, what Roddenberry and Nimoy created did justice to one of the central and yet most often forgotten ethical ideals our culture has produced, and showed that it was worthy of our affection and respect… and for some of us, emulation. From what I know of him, Nimoy had reason to understand from the inside the invisible battles and victories of those whose passions and appetites clamor to overtake their judgement, and he had reason to know what is was like to be an alien in a culture with very different values… and perhaps this was why he was able to make the character so compelling. Though Leonard Nimoy tried fitfully to break out of the role with which he became identified, in the end he acquiesced, and, I think, wisely. He is one of the few non-philosophers I know who gave much of his life to modeling for us The Life of Reason. We philosophers haven’t done a tenth as much in that regard. Leonard Nimoy will be missed, but the character he created is immortal. Mr. Quinto, you now have some pretty big shoes to fill: live long and prosper.

Zero Dark Thirty: Final Thoughts

I wanted to see it again, for two reasons. First, the first time you see an exceptional film, it’s not so much the element of surprise as it is the onrush of temporal flow that comes from never having confronted this particular sequence of events before, which creates certain impressions, but on a second viewing, you can “spatialize” the temporal parts, classify them, analyze them. Second, I wanted to give the “torture endorsement” interpreters more of a run for their money.

Several things jumped out at me. The impression I had that by the time we reach the mission, torture is long forgotten, is an artifact of the length and a first viewing. Perhaps this is overcorrection, but detention and torture shadow every scene in some fashion, and whether or not it is fair to assert that the film is strongly committed to a specific thesis about the necessity for  torture to obtain the specific information that leads to the successful kill (that strikes me as a prosecutorial approach to the film rather than an art-critical one), it is fair to say that the protagonists seem to regard torture as propelling them forward and attempts to stop it as thwarting them. For me personally, the most painful instance of this was a remark made at one point that it is futile to re-interrogate detainees now (after torture has been restricted) because the detainees have “lawyered up” and their lawyers will presumably use the contents of the questions they will learn from participating in proper interrogations as a means of tipping off Bin Laden. This cynical equation of lawyers and due process with treason, and of course the implication that things were better before, is hard to construe as anything but dismay that torture has been ended. Similarly the comment made by Dan that Maya has to be careful now that the politicians are starting to close in, that she “doesn’t want to be the last one holding a dog collar” clearly pits the CIA’s team against the political order that would hamper, obstruct and penalize them. On a second viewing, I could not agree with, say, Andrew Sullivan’s account, that torture is shown not to work and when it is abandoned the investigation is more successful. Rather, we are shown the teams’ frustration at the loss of availability of torture. To the extent that the audience identifies with Maya, it will be offered an opportunity to view torture similarly.

The second issue is the role that revenge plays. I still think the film serves as a kind of critique of revenge, but in my first viewing, I think my sympathy for Maya made me downplay the extent to which a desire for revenge animates her after Jessica’s death. The only trace of a personal connection Maya is shown to have to anyone is after the death: Jessica’s face (next to Maya’s own) is the desktop wallpaper on Maya’s computer. I had on the first viewing not recognized the face except as a family member, possibly even a child, and had thought that this indicated an object of Maya’s solicitude. Instead, it is an object of Maya’s grief, and taken with the scene in which she announces that she (as if she herself, personally) will kill Bin Laden, well, the revenge motive is hard to discount.

None of that precludes something like the account I gave previously, for revenge itself is a futile attempt to master nothingness, and the note of calm emptiness the film ends on remains haunting even when inflected in this way.

I have resisted addressing the political response to the film, except, like Glenn Kenny or Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, to push against it to make a space for the film as an end in itself, but this response is not going away, and needs to be addressed. First, the irony: the film is unusual in being condemned by so many people before seeing it. First, Republicans wrongly assumed that it would function as a kind of pro-Obama propaganda film and help him win the election. We now know how misguided a reaction that was: the film was never seen before the election, and the shadowy, mostly absent role Obama plays (by implication) is to thwart the team by ending torture, to delay a response once made aware of Bin Laden’s location (all those wonderful shots of Maya writing the number of days no action has been taken, in red magic marker, on her boss’ window, day after day, underscore that and accuse, if anyone, the president and his advisers) and then in the end to be the one who authorizes the killing. In short, he is mostly absent, mostly ambiguous. But when the film appeared, it was Democrats’ turn to be upset, for the film seemed to indicate that Obama’s lauded success was due to Bush’s reviled torture policy (I’m using these proper names to make sure we don’t take the eye off the ball here, which is who shall win elections, control government, and shape the perceptions of posterity). Apparently some Republicans have said as much out loud. This in turn leads Democrats to denounce the film as fascist propaganda. The bill of particulars is: torture is shown to lead to a clue that leads to the killing (I keep calling it a killing for a reason, bear with me), this showing is “patently false” (as one put it), and the overall tone of Bigelow’s aesthetic celebrates efficiency and cruelty (Vishnevetsky is perhaps most valuable about the film’s portrayal of technological optimization).

Now, to be propaganda, a thing has to leave you with some greater propensity to approve of something, yes? But I ask you, who would be encouraged to learn that torture, the infliction of pain, can facilitate killing, the infliction of death? Will the film change the minds of any radical Islamists, dissuading them from their perception of the US as infinitely cruel and unjust? (That’s a joke, albeit an unfunny one.) Will the film change the minds of radical Christian pacifists, dissuading them from their conviction that nothing can justify torturing and killing people? Will the film change the minds of conservatives who had argued in favor of torture as a necessary means to an end? Will the film change the mind of a hypothetical Marxist who sees the US as nothing but the imperialist police state of late capitalism? Who might be led to change their minds about anything here? All these audiences would presumably nod at and appreciate the “truths” the film reveals, the manner in which the film seems to validate the perceptions of (deep breath now) radical Islamists, Christian pacifists, Marxist anti-imperialists and neoconservative Republicans. Only Democrats who were previously admiring their bloody end result while vehemently criticizing the preceding administration’s cruelty and lawlessness could possibly be affected. If the film forges a link between Bush and Obama, between torture and killing, what is at stake? Nothing less than the whole “restoration of human decency” narrative which is one of the central rationales of the Obama administration. So one would hope that the link doesn’t exist, and if the film asserts that it does, one would hope that the film is “patently false.”

But is it?  Consider the following quote from Steve Coll:

The record remains riddled with gaps and unanswered questions. An estimate of how large the chasm is between what the public knows and what still-secret records describe can be drawn from accounts of a recently completed Senate Intelligence Committee staff report about the CIA program. The staff report is said to run to six thousand pages, based upon a review of about six million CIA documents and cables to and from “black sites” where just fewer than one hundred al-Qaeda suspects were held and where at least some of them were interrogated brutally, as depicted in Zero Dark Thirty. The Senate report remains highly classified, however, and is unlikely to be released in full anytime soon. The result of such secrecy is that what is often described as America’s “debate” about the use of torture on al-Qaeda suspects largely consists of assertions, without evidence, by public officials with security clearances who have access to the classified record and who have expressed diametrically opposed opinions about what the record proves.

There have been some remarkably confident assertions that that is the case, based almost entirely on the contents of a Senate investigation report whose contents are largely classified, and in turn based on information furnished by, you guessed it, the CIA itself. A Democratic administration in private dialogue with a Democrat-controlled Senate, in other words. It must be true, because the government tells us so! We have it on good authority that the current administration does not torture because it knows that torture does not work and did not help produce the current administration’s current success. Whose authority? Why, the current administration’s, that’s whose! Accusations of patent falsehood should be made of sterner stuff. One looks forward to progressives falling out of power again, if only so that their hermeneutics of suspicion can overcome its current bout of narcolepsy.

The claim is ridiculous on its face anyway. “Patent falsehood” means here that it is provably false that information from torture interrogations in any way assisted in the finding of Bin Laden. Not only do pundits who lack access to classified information not know that: in all likelihood, the CIA itself doesn’t know that. One has to show that in the possible world in which no torture occurred, Bin Laden is still found and killed. God alone knows that.

Thus I think that Bigelow’s seemingly evasive way of putting things is actually exactly right: torture was “part of the story we couldn’t ignore.” It was indeed, no matter how desperately we might wish that it hadn’t been. Within the confines of the simplifications needed to transform a mass of information (the product of Mark Boal’s own investigative journalist skills) into a coherent story while doing justice to the broad themes of that information, and specifically the story Bigelow chose to tell, that of an individual CIA analyst as the personification of the CIA’s experience in the hunting of Bin Laden, well, I’d be very surprised if the truth wasn’t something along these lines. There are other stories that can be told, indefinitely many, but they chose to tell this one.

The pundits’ easy rejection of Bigelow’s assertion that depiction isn’t endorsement founders on one simple fact: showing that torture was believed by the CIA to help get us to Bin Laden and kill him, and that that may very well have been the case, only amounts to endorsement if you take the CIA’s perspective as your own, if you want Bin Laden killed yourself. The pundits may very well think that it is simply inconceivable for any viewer to not take the perspective of the CIA, of US national security, of American passions for revenge, to not regard this killing as a great achievement. I would say, “speak for yourselves,” were it not for the fact that you obviously already have.

A great work of art has held up a mirror to our nation, and to our souls. Like Maya, I weep for what I see. The response of some is the moral equivalent of suing the artist for libel. This is what passes for self-examination among our minders and scolds, in this new empire we have built on the ashes of three thousand dead.

Zero Dark Thirty Review: Exegesis

I stand by my review. But it is rather short, so perhaps it will be helpful to spell out what I was thinking in more detail.

Two things struck me coming out of the film. The first was the Silence of the Lambs parallels, right down to the night vision goggles and the creepy lair, and the way that, for me at least, the presence of those parallels “leveraged” a fuller response, since we’ve had far more time to understand and appreciate Silence. For awhile I thought that because so many reviews opened with this comparison, that the implications of it would start to be explored as well, but I’m not seeing that happen. The second was the emotional tone of my reaction to the ending, which gave me pause. I came out with an almost sublime sense of calm, space, silence. Naturally the first thought in reflection on that was: is this “catharsis” – a prettified revenge? All I can do is ask you take on trust that I am willing to entertain that hypothesis, both about the film and about myself, and yet it felt wrong, an interpretive easy way out. I had not felt avenged on the day that the killing occurred and I did not feel avenged revisiting that day in a darkened theater. That impression has persisted. The film is about revenge, but not in the way that one might think. Putting these preliminary thoughts together, I identified this sense of silence, calm and space that the ending induced with the silence of Silence. Maya wants to put an end to the screaming of the lambs, every bit as much as Clarice does, and Clarice’s desire is not about revenge. It is about protection, and something beyond protection.

People are troubled by the torture scenes, but the film is not engaging with the critics’ moral passions on this level at all. The notable fact about the torture scenes is not that they precede and suggest a causal connection to the ultimate success, as if the film was undoubtedly endorsing that success (is that assumption so very difficult for us to question?) because, honestly, on a first viewing, you forget about the torture scenes by the end (well, I did – make the most of it). Rather it is that they come immediately after the devastating opening of the audiotapes of the 9/11 victims, suggesting the other causal connection: these interrogations are the revenge. “Without skipping a beat” the cries of the dying turn into the cruelty of the interrogator. The question is not whether this cruelty “works” or not, since that would be to suppose it is motivated by a desire for what works. It isn’t. It is motivated by resentment over the insecurity created by what has gone before. And this kind of retail revenge goes nowhere. It is, if anything, a kind of ironic coincidence if anything useful comes of it later, the film seems to say.

So inflicting pain on people thought to be responsible for your insecurity goes nowhere. We must move on. The middle of the film, then, is dominated by detective work, cognition, the attempt to know something: an attempt to bring what is cloaked in darkness into the light of disclosure. As a means to an end, disclosure for closure? Well, in a sense, obviously, but knowledge has benefits of its own. For what is it we are observing? Detection, investigation, the pursuit of knowledge as a part of a “war on terror.” Many have commented on the oddity of that phrase, since typically one wages wars against nations and not techniques. But of course terror itself is only indirectly a technique. It is first and foremost a condition one can find oneself in. And now the phrase becomes unnervingly apt: we spent a decade in war with our own terror. Terror in the face of the destruction of “world,” terror in the face of non-existence. Maya (illusion) is our proxy in an inquiry into nothingness, in the hopes that through understanding it, we might master and perhaps even abolish it. Whether Maya wants to protect human beings in some non-specific sense, or her nation, or just herself, is immaterial. All of that, presumably. She wants to protect them from nothingness, the shock of the onset of nothingness, from knowledge of the abyss, from terror. That makes sense.

“You will never find him. He is one of the disappeared ones.” This caution from a detainee, offered wisely and genially, applies to her lead, Bin Laden’s courier, but the film trailers insinuate that it is about Bin Laden himself which, in a sense it is and isn’t. Some are troubled by the fact that the enemy is never given a point of view in this film, but this is not a moral choice so much as a logistical one. The enemy is death itself, and when Maya comes to identify Bin Laden’s body, and shortly thereafter is unable to respond to the question “where do you want to go?” with anything but tears, this is not about the hollowness of revenge judged from a moral perspective. Revenge is two hours behind us, abandoned. This is about the hollowness of taking safety for the absence of death, and taking a man who causes death for death itself. She sought to look into the face of death itself, and thereby conquer it, but all she got was another corpse. It should not surprise us that the death Bin Laden incarnates should slip away like a shadow leaving only a meaningless body behind.

We need the illusion, we need Maya. We cannot live in a world rocked by unpredictable explosions and sudden annihilation. We cannot come to terms with the ontological condition we find ourselves in without the luxury of at least some time and peace. And in a smaller sense, the protection is very real (this is another reason why the revenge interpretation is not quite right: the film shows how attacks keep coming and must be disclosed to be prevented, how nothing is entirely behind us, with all action directed merely at the past). In a larger sense, though, all that conquering the shadow’s current incarnation does is make us aware of the fact that one does not defeat the shadow by killing a man. Even if you come to know, locate and annihilate the man, you cannot know, locate or annihilate the shadow. It is disappearance itself; you will never find him.

An Ugly Hypothesis

Tolstoy said that art is to be evaluated by the moral position it takes. This is wrong, and the sort of thing that makes otherwise decent people suspicious of morality. Or is it that we suspect that the moral hysteric isn’t really moral after all? These are not mutually exclusive hypotheses. In any event, my only purpose today was to promote the following defense of Zero Dark Thirty from Glenn Greenwald’s hamfisted, self-righteous response to it. I may want to add more after I see the film Friday, but I can think of nothing to add to this commentary on the “torture debate” about the film. As for Greenwald himself, and every other hysteric who called the film “propaganda” an ugly hypothesis occurs to me, a very “Nietzschean” hypothesis. Many people who have seen Zero Dark Thirty have said that it very disturbingly portrays torture without moral commentary, which I suspect is accurate, having seen Bigelow’s work before. Greenwald sees the film as celebrating torture, and then morally condemns that. In order to make that mistake, he would have to (1) observe the realist morally-neutral representation, (2) feel pleasure at the infliction of pain on helpless individuals, (3) feel guilty about feeling pleasure, and then (4) project all that outward. Which is puzzling: you wouldn’t think someone on the Left would harbor an unconscious desire for revenge and violence, would you?

The Dogma of Ambiguity

This New Yorker review by Richard Brody of Zero Dark Thirty, a film which, like most people in the real world, I have not yet seen, is fascinating in what it inadvertently reveals. Brody suggests that the film’s realist aesthetic participates in a “dogma” shared by many art films, that artistic success is a function of showing reality as it is without judging, and that such showing will presumably reveal moral ambiguity. It is not quite clear whether Brody wants to challenge this more generally, or simply complain that Bigelow is not doing it right, or well enough. The issue, of course, is that getting Bin Laden is good, torture is bad, torture is a part of getting Bin Laden – I use the hopelessly vague words “is a part of” advisedly – and therefore the entire enterprise is morally ambiguous. If you respond favorably to the film, then you become complicit, and thus receive an education in moral ambiguity. Brody tries valiantly then to show why it is bad when we do this with the war on terror, though good when we do it about countlessly many other things, in other art films.

Now the simpler reaction to have here is the partisan one. How interesting for a community to relentlessly accuse another community of being obtuse, unsophisticated, emotionally shallow, etc. etc. for demanding moral clarity, and then suddenly turn on a dime when an artist presents the war on terror, which for a time was a partisan litmus test, in a morally ambiguous way. No! Now we want moral clarity! Cut President Bush (or was it President Obama? Well, one of those) no slack! Consistency then would seem to require that one of these communities cut back on the whole condescension towards those who engage in simplistic moral judgments. One might even acknowledge that sometimes the problem is not a conflict between the morally sophisticated and the morally simplistic, but just moral disagreement simpliciter.

But something more interesting, I think, is going on in Brody’s review, when he begins to push the view that what Bigelow gives us is fake realism, because we see nothing but professionals doing professional stuff (and at the risk of paining anyone, let me remind: successfully). Where is Maya’s love-life? Her personal weaknesses? Etc. A commenter in the attached thread complains that “by far the most disconcertingly manipulative strand of propaganda for me was the ‘feminist’ aspect.” In other words, Maya is strong, feminism wants women to be empowered, now I’m rooting for the CIA, something has obviously gone terribly terribly wrong.

Now this reminded me of another reviewer, I don’t recall who, who, remarkably, called Bigelow a “sadist” pure and simple, which to my mind outdoes anything I’ve seen from conservatives in the moral hysteria department lately.

So is this the problem? That moral ambiguity doing service for, not to say as a shield for, weakness is desirable, but moral ambiguity in the service of strength is a “dogma”? So much so that even if the strength is female, this renders the feminism fake? How interesting. Perhaps Nietzsche was on to something with that whole “master morality/slave morality” contrast after all; Bigelow and her critics seem to be on opposite sides of it.