I didn’t know Mark had written on Westworld and so now here I am reading over his thoughts, published in the New Humanist.
For those unfamiliar, Westworld is a generally unpopular 1973 film written and directed by Michael Crichton (best known for writing the novels that would become The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park) which was remade for TV to critical acclaim in 2016. It’s due to return for a second season in April this year.
I’d thought about Westworld a lot when it first came out, writing on it for an essay that I later shelved and forgot about.
What I’d wanted to consider in that essay from 2016 is now outdated in an interesting way and so I thought it might be interesting to explore this train of thought again before the series comes back.
Considering the cultural and sociopolitical context in which the first series came out and the effect this context had on the discussion around it, I’m left wondering where the series will go next and, particularly, how it will be received by commentators.
Westworld tells the story of a futuristic theme park based on the American West which is populated by highly advanced AI known as “hosts”.
Paying visitors to the park LARP around, playing out their Wild West fantasies either by following their own desires uninhibited or exploring a web of scripted adventures and host routines that give the world its atmosphere.
The hosts’ routines, or “loops”, do just that — they repeat every day, varying only when a visitor interacts with the host who are capable of improvisation within the limited context of their programming.
There are suitable activities for all tastes, abilities and ages, but the show most closely follows those who wish to enter the world and cause trouble — raping, murdering and pillaging everything around them without consequence, in the knowledge everything will be reset the next day, pushing the system itself to its limits and trying to glimpse what further unadvertised possibilities are hidden under the surface.
However, when some of the hosts show signs of remembering the traumas they have been subjected to, following a seemingly routine software update, the park’s management is faced with a dilemma and some profound questions.
At first, they respond with denial and disbelief, but before long some senior employees start to secretly investigate what they suspect is not simply a glitch but some hosts gaining consciousness independent of their given programming.
Or, rather, as Mark puts it:
What the hosts lack is not consciousness — they possess a form of consciousness that has been deliberately limited or blinkered – but an unconscious.
Mark notes how the recurring theme of Crichton’s work is “the impossibility of predicting and controlling emergent phenomena.” When we are concerned with emergent phenomena that we ourselves have created, the suggestion seems to be that any divergence from an intended path is a mistake or glitch and here the concept of a “mistake” itself becomes ungrounded in the light of the new, emergent reality, resulting in a sort of feedback loop of logos.
The glitch that starts to worry the park’s designers and managers is a cognitive failure rather than a predilection towards violence: a kind of android dementia that may be the symptom of emergent consciousness amongst the “hosts”… As the park’s chief founder, conceptualist and demiurge, Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) recognises that a glitch is something more than a mere failure. “Evolution,” he observes, “forged the entirety of sentient life on this planet using only one tool: the mistake.” Ford seems more fascinated than panicked by the prospect of a new wave of mutations in the hosts’ artificial psyches.
Writing for The New Inquiry in late 2016, Joanna Radin believed Ford’s philosophy of emergence could offer viewers hope as they waited for an impending Trump presidency — as if Trump himself were a telos fault; an accidental interruption of Enlightened progressivism.
However, Radin’s takeaway is does not really follow the logic of her own argument.
How did we not see it coming? Was Trump’s “triumph,” as it was dubbed by the New York Times, a glitch? Or were America’s liberals simply more comfortable imagining that misogyny, racism, and xenophobia hadn’t been so deeply programmed into American political life?
If we are serious about trying to reckon with how we ended up in what seems like an alternative future, we might start with sources other than the news: we have a timely resource in HBO’s Westworld, a study about what happens when the power relationships between humans and the androids they created to serve their deepest desires go haywire.
Radin focuses on Dolores’ story, the main protagonist who first shows signs of not only an emergent but a stable (un)conscious(ness).
What appears to her human masters as a glitch is, for Dolores, a means of critiquing the politics that have been programmed into her world. That the human technicians who maintain Dolores underestimate her capacity to experience suffering is their tragic irony. The real horror of the glitch might be that we never cease to be surprised when it occurs.
Instead of fantasizing about ideal technologies, we must learn to recognize what [Rosa] Menkman calls “the inherent fingerprints of imperfections” in those technologies. Rather than seeking to avoid or suppress glitches, we should learn how to conjure them so we can better understand how to break or bend the rules. Whether it’s entertainment or politics — and there may no longer be any difference — we need to be awake to how sexism, racism, and violence continues to be part of the design. It’s time to start taking our fiction seriously. It may be the best resource we have to create a world that won’t kill us, and avoid the ones that will. After all, The Apprentice was great reality TV until it became reality.
Radin’s article is exemplary of the opinion pieces of late 2016 in which leftwing media outlets continuously assumed the ideological undercurrents of contemporary SF are made exclusively in their image — reductively and to their detriment. Again and again, the left fails to realise that the ideas and practices they are now holding up as revolutionary and inspiring in the aftermath of Trump’s election are precisely the ideas and practices that put him there in the first place.
Yes: Trump is a “glitch” — a glitch that has allowed the Right to bend the rules much further than many thought they could possibly get away with. We could just as easily see Trump (or the Alt-Right more generally) as Dolores in this analogy. It is he who represents the challenge to an inherited ideological default of progressivism. It is the Left’s tragic irony that this fact could not be processed and responded to effectively. Faced with a new world, the Left has instead demonstrated an “android dementia” in contrast to the Right’s (relatively) stable emergence.
This is exemplified by Radin’s call to take our fictions seriously.
Online, with numerous high-profile attempts to conjure and proliferate hyperstitions, it is precisely taking fictions seriously that allowed the “idea” of President Trump to memetically take hold, particularly in the mode of “conspiracy theory”.
There is no shortage of these online. Social media runs on conspiracy theories; on “fake news”. Trump himself has been a public supporter of various conspiracies in recent years, most notoriously as a vocal member of the so-called Birther movement throughout Barack Obama’s presidency.
The Right’s obsession with conspiracy theory was intensified by Trump’s legitimisation of Alex Jones, the controversial radio and YouTube host. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump appeared on Jones’ show, later calling him a “nice guy”. Jones later went on to report that he had spoken to the then President-elect on a number of occasions in private and other news sources reported on Jones having Trump’s ear.
Jones himself explained their connection on his YouTube channel:
Trump is dialled into something that I’m dialled into — so it’s like we’re watching the same TV show. What I say politically, what I cover politically, isn’t just something that I cooked up — some cosmology or some science-fiction that I, you know, basically wrote in my office like I’m a novelist.
Whilst Trump had not gone quite as far as Jones in voicing extreme and outlandish beliefs outside of the mainstream, the insinuation from Jones is that Trump nonetheless believes his stories too, including (and, perhaps, particularly) those conjured in response to the cache of Hillary Clinton’s emails published by WikiLeaks in late 2015 and early 2016.
Typing “Hillary Clinton” into the search bar on Jones’ channel reveals a series of videos calling her a demon and purporting to reveal her secret satanic practices, citing many of the leaked emails as evidence. He constructs a narrative that Clinton truly is “an abject psychopathic demon from hell” that wants to destroy the planet.
The people around her are saying that she’s so dark now and so evil and so possessed that they are having nightmares… I was told by the people around [Hillary] that they think she is demon-possessed… Obama and Hillary both smell like sulfur.
A far more complex conspiracy theory that emerged from the leaked emails is known as Pizzagate. It is the theory that there are coded messages in the leaked emails which point to a child abduction ring involving various pizzerias around the United States. The purposes of the ring are supposedly sexual molestation, rape and ritual sacrifice. The accusations of ritual sacrifice seem to stem from an email to or from retired Foreign Service Officer W. Lewis Amselem.
UNCLASSIFIED U.S. Department of State Case No. F-2014-20439 Doc No. C05764911 Date: 07/31/2015
With fingers crossed, the old rabbit’s foot out of the box in the attic, I will be sacrificing a chicken in the backyard to Moloch . . .
This reference to Moloch, an old Canaanite God associated with child sacrifice, was picked up by Anon on 4chan who started a thread in /pol/ titled “Kek vs Moloch!” (which has since been archived):
The only thing clear is that Moloch started as an idea that was made widespread by mention and usage. Sound familar? Ok now note what it says… it was meant to sacrifice children! NOW WHERE HAVE WE SEEN IN ANY LEFTWING COUNTRY? ABUSE OF CHILDREN!? If Germany hasn’t come to mind yet then your doing something wrong Anon. Mudslimes and Nignogs are raping kids like nobodies fucking business. And while Germany is a hot spot its worldwide. Women raping underage boys in America and getting child support payments? Pedo rings in Britain? Its all the same. Sacrifices to Moloch. The left have figured out meme magic and are putting it into practice in a way so sophisticated that damnit im horrified but impressed. I bet the majority of these fuckers dont know they are memeing to Moloch. They want to create an Ergegore /pol/. A force that can influence events for them. This cannot happen. We need to fight fire with fire. Rare pepe’s may not be enough. Im not saying (in fact I am strongly against lowering outselves to the leftard’s standards.)we need to perform sacrifices. But we have to get strong. We have to be ready to crusade. We need every meme we can summon. Christ-chan, Trump Presidency, Winter-Chan, Ebola-Chan, and of course KEK. We cannot allow them to win! Now /pol/ I know you are apathetic. God knows I am too. But we can’t let this slide! Lets kick her ass! Respond to this thread with “DEATH TO MOLOCH! LORD KEK IS WIN!” and lets make it happen! DEUS VULT!
There is a strange irony here. The Left, as far as I can tell, is far from understanding and appreciating meme magic. It seems that the Alt-Right, by spraying their bullets so recklessly, have memed their own enemies into existence. Or perhaps they have done this on purpose: creating strawmen for themselves to attack in order to take their activities to the next level. However, if they’re not careful, they’ll become even better at fighting themselves than the Left is. Such is the unpredictability of meme magic.
The academic Left certainly seems interested in hyperstition too but they have made it impotent. The concept has split into two — “hyperstition” is now a sterilised philosophical plaything and the infectious material that was removed from this present definition has scuttled off under the web to become “meme magic”. They are (in some ways) one and the same, but the former seems to have lost its agency in the process of academic reification.
The Left does not understand meme magic but the Right is also naive to think it can contain it.
Before we disappear completely down the rabbit hole…
This neverending spiral of reality-distortion is just as central to the narrative of Westworld as it is the the praxes of the Alt-Right. Mark notes how the hosts’ “struggle to understand what they are — alternating between thinking there is something wrong with their minds and something wrong with their world — possesses a kind of metaphysical lyricism.” Is this not the precisely the function of political fictioning?
Whereas the traumatised Left routinely engage in processes of making-sense, the emboldened Alt-Right engaged in processes of making-memes which seemed to function as a form of reality-testing, echoing the worldly explorations of a burgeoning subjectivity.
The Left knows what it is and is doing all it can to retain its disintegrating self-image. The Right does not yet know its position in this world — or rather rejects the position it has been given — and so is striking out for something new, and its mutations are horrifying to many.
Whilst, in hindsight, these processes seem somewhat obvious, nothing seemed very clear in the chaos of late 2016. To an extent, things have settled down. The Alt-Right does not command the same amount of media airtime as it once did and, over the course of Trump’s first year in office, we have seen an accelerated decline: from political invincibility to bureaucratic chaos — a chaos shared by the current UK government of Normie Conservatives.
What can the glitches of Westworld offer us now? What opinion pieces will they occasion this time?
The Super Bowl trailer gives us a big clue:
We can save this world.
We can burn it to the ground and, from the ashes, build a new world.
Are we to be treated to the spectacle of a Westworld “ripped apart and decimated by forces rushing up from within and around [its] system, which in turn mobilize the entirety of the system towards its own dissolution point“?
What about this now-familiar Age of Trump?
As the first quarter of 2018 flies by, is the Left any closer to taking its fictions seriously than it was in 2016? Is it any closer to accepting Trump as a glitch of politics as a whole, rather than one limited to their own ideological bubble?
The all too dangerous argument of late 2016 — similar in some ways to pro-Brexit arguments heard from the Left — was that Trump serves as an opportunity to level political playing fields. However, this has been resolutely knocked back and forgotten.
Zižek reneged (sort of) on his original cynicism and “radical heresy” following a backlash. In truth, Zižek seemed to only regret his facetiousness rather than his argument as a whole and it seems that, because he was the one to (most publicly) make said argument, it was untenable. Peak Zižek.
I very much doubt this argument will reemerge. It’s time of potency has been and gone. But does his argument not precisely reveal the (true) stakes of Radin’s article?
…I won’t hold my breath for a thinkpiece about Westworld 2 that effectively rallies the glitching masses…