Artificial Mythologies — A Sad & Lonely Constellation

This was a talk given at the A Sad & Lonely Constellation conference held in Milan on 3rd May 2019. You can read more about this event here.

This session was really great and I enjoyed it immensely. The discussion, once it got going, was fantastic and all too short. David Roden’s final comments (sidenote: you can read his excellent paper here) were almost painful to end on because he ended up opening up so many doors which I would have loved to have probed the other panelists on. My silence at the end was occasioned by me trying to scramble together some online reference points which just didn’t load in quick enough. I was particularly interested to hear Amelia’s thoughts on how she saw her own research on alienation fitting in between these various points made in the Q&A.

Maybe those thoughts could be posted here at another time.

During the Q&A I also was asked a question about glitches. In response I mentioned I’d written on the topic before in relation to the TV show Westworld and glossed an argument from a previous post. That post can be found here — it’s not great but I’ve been in the process of massively reworking all of my Westworld posts to become the final chapter of my book Egress which I should probably get round to finishing at some point…

Anyway, here’s a transcript of my talk below, which perhaps attempted to cram too much into a 15 minute presentation, but I had a lot of fun presenting it.

Hi everyone.

I’d just like to start by saying thanks so much for having me. It’s great to be here and shout out to the Italian Weird Theory contingent.

What I want to talk about today is the weird ways in which AI might provide a new ground for previously unrealised political potentialities, but in a way that drags into the discussion some philosophical (and not-so-philosophical) references points which I hope are surprising enough to shake up our prospective discussion.

A lot of this is part of new research I’ve been working on for only a couple of months and so this reading is fragile and but, in my experience, sharing that sort of thing anyway can make for some good conversation.

With that in mind, I want to begin this talk in true academic style by telling you all about a book that I haven’t read. It’s a book called Dogs and it’s by the French philosopher Mark Alizart, which is currently forthcoming in English translation via Polity Books. As its title suggests, it’s a book about dogs but, more specifically, it’s a book about humanity’s relationship to dogs across millennia. To quote from the summary of the book on Polity’s website:

Mark Alizart dispenses with the well-worn clichés concerning dogs and their masters, seeing them not as submissive pets but rather as unexpected life coaches, ready to teach us the elusive recipes for contentment and joy. Dogs have faced their fate in life with a certain detachment that is not easy to understand. Unlike other animals in a similar situation, they have not become hardened, nor have they let themselves die a little inside. On the contrary, they seem to have softened.

Whilst this might all sound very nice and a little wet behind the ears, once the book reaches its conclusion — so I’m told — it makes the quite surprising connection between dogs and artificial intelligence. Alizart argues that our relationship to dogs has not just shaped them as a species in myriad ways through, for instance, domestication; it has also fundamentally shaped us as well in ways that we may not fully appreciate.

Alizart goes on to suggest that we might need to start thinking of ourselves in a position relative to dogs when we are eventually confronted by the reality of an AGI. This is not a dystopian vision, however, where we are reduced to little more than pets for our AI overlords, as Alizart holds dogs’ civilisational relationship to humans in much higher regard. This relationship instead signals a new inter-species companionship, a kind of techno-species friendship, which will impact both humans and AI in equal measure and to an extent that we, at present, can’t yet fully foresee.

What is made explicit in the book’s summary is that the nature of this relationship should be a softening rather than a hardening of these intersubjective boundaries.

Whilst I’ll need to actually read the book to fully grasp Alizart’s argument — rigorous para-academic over here — I haven’t stopped thinking about this suggestion since it was told to me a few weeks ago, particularly at a time when so many theorists have been emphasising an eco-political need to reimagine our relationships to other species; to rethink the hierarchies of our cross-species relations.

This is something I’ve written about before, particularly in relation to the hardening of these subjective boundaries. An article that will forever stay with me is Laurie Penny’s 2016 essay “Against Bargaining” in which she describes the psychological impact of Trump’s election in the US as a “mental health asteroid”. We see this sort of thing more often than we might think — in which crises of subjectivity are increasingly equated with climate disaster or extinction events. Mark Fisher most famously noted how we’ve seen this in relation to capitalism as a whole, but I think the effects of “capitalist realism” on subjectivity — which Mark would also talk about length of course — are worthy of far more consideration than the overall picture because, whilst thinking the end of capitalism remains difficult, I think we’re far more aware of the fact that we as subjects are more malleable than we often given ourselves credit for. And so when Alizart talks of a softening, I think this is what he means — the innate malleability of capitalist subjectivity.

This is a malleability that is far more visible within ecological discourses today than in political philosophy more generally — and I think the emphasis on this which we find in Deleuze and Guattari’s “geophilosophy” or, more recently, other people’s writings around “geopoetics” are deserving of far more attention in this regard — and so Alizart’s call to take a critical step back from our anthropocentrism in order to help us relate to an AGI, which we might see as representing something like a new species in the sense that it is a new and external intelligence, presents us with a shift of perspective that this kind of species-being — to borrow a turn of phrase from Donna Haraway — requires. In this way, an AGI may likewise assist us in politically thinking our ecological dilemmas, making us the “Other Species” for a change by way of it constituting, as Reza Negarestani writes in his book Intelligence and Spirit, an “outside view of ourselves [which] tells us what we are in virtue of what we are determinably not.”[1]

Reza’s book is a particularly interesting example of this kind of philosophical discourse related to AGI because he infrequently nods to this kind of intersubjective relation.  For instance, when writing on how to rethink the very task of a philosophy of intelligence, he writes: “In an age when philosophy is considered to be at best an antiquated enterprise, and at worst a residue of what is orthodoxly normative, patriarchal, repressive, and complicit with all that is overprivileged and fascist, what does it mean to rekindle philosophy’s insinuative temptations to think and to act, to galvanize that activity which is at bottom impersonal and communist?”[2]

When writing on this before, I’ve always emphasized the observation that, when we see post-capitalist and post-apocalyptic dramas in our fictions, they almost always occasion the emergence of a newly communal, collective and — yes — communist subject. The TV show The Walking Dead is a particularly interesting if bad example of this, where the zombified dead provide the central characters with this outside view of themselves, by telling them what they are in virtue of what they are not, causing a complete social breakdown of the kinds of communality we know and leading to us seeing this communality rebuilt in a variety of different ways. Those who are unable to adapt die, and so a great deal of emphasis is put on this human malleability. However, the prevalence of this kind of narrative in horror — it’s also interestingly central to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos — whilst innately acknowledging the truth that such a transition will never be easy, and it may even be — by present standards — deeply immoral, it also betrays the depths of our present pessimism.

So, what I’d like to consider here, very briefly, after an all too long introduction, is a very different perspective than that recently made popular within Reza’s book — one which focuses on fictions but reimagines their valences via a trip down a slightly different history of philosophy than the one deployed by Reza. For instance, whilst Reza might argue that this outside view of ourselves has constantly been attempted by philosophy — often failing, albeit productively — I’d like to shift away from this argument and instead argue that this more accurately the very purpose of mythology. I wonder: how can an AGI help us reimagine mythology in a way that has long been desired but has never been fully actuated within our reality, and, further to that, how we might consider a newly mythical thinking to also be innately communist.

First things first, and being all too aware of the time, I want to give you a whistle-stop and inevitably reductive history of mythology:

Studies of mythology in the West typically begin in Greece with the likes of Plato and Aristotle, for whom philosophy was understood as the return of a knowledge following the pre-historic age of pure theology. Mythology then, constituted by fragmentary memories of a time before writing, becomes, for the Greeks, a transitory knowledge, on which Aristotle in particular would ground his “hermeneutics”, notably named after the mythical figure of Hermes, the messenger of the Gods. In this sense, philosophy is born of but distinct from mythology. As central as these tales were to the Greeks, providing their philosophers with a language and a vocabulary more than anything, through which to comment abstractly on thought and that which is both within and outside of themselves, philosophy was nonetheless placed above the myth in a new hierarchy of human thinking.

Fast forward to the 18th century and this hierarchy between mythology and philosophy is disturbed. Myth begins to rise above philosophy as the imagined home of a profound and original knowledge, of which philosophy is only ever an extrapolation and a reduction. This triggered something of an existential crisis amongst the thinkers of the age. The Romantics, in particular, wanting (in some instances, colonially – that is, literally and physically) to return to a mythic space-time, in order to acquire a glimpse of this original truth, instead find themselves blinkered by the strata of reason in which they are embedded. To paraphrase an exploration of this period by Rudolph Gasche: “the language of the sciences and the new rationality (in contrast to the “old reason” of the Greeks) by which [we have] been marked, whose spell [we] cannot escape, allows the anticipated return to the mythical only in a distorted form”[3] — perhaps, a gothic form. “Therefore,” Gasche continues, “the simple return or the turning back fails: what remains is the longing for the origins and the painful experience of the impossibility of its renewed realization.”[4]

Here the horror of the story of Frankenstein, that myth of the modern Prometheus, might quickly come to mind. In thinking ourselves, euphemistically at least, as Gods in our apparent mastery of the sciences, we are nonetheless terrified by our own aptitude for destruction or abominable creation, contrasted to the absolute and apparently pure creativity of that which supposedly gave us life. And what is Frankenstein himself if not an artificial intelligence.

This desire to produce a new mythology was not, despite how it may sound, regressive but is rather rooted in a desire to reground poetry — and, by extension, subjectivity — within the uneasy new age of reason, and none were more successful in this regard than Schelling. Whereas Hegel would notoriously equate mythology with religion in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, echoing the long-held Platonic-Aristotelian view of myth as a lower and less rational thought, which positions philosophy as an exercise in the hardening of the boundaries of a previous subject, Schelling would, by contrast, offer up a far more generous reading with his Philosophy of Mythology, presented as a series of lectures given towards the end of his life.

Here, Schelling defines mythology as the poetic expression of that which is beyond historical time, as the expression of “occurrences and events that belong to an entirely different order of things (not only … the historical, but also the human…)”[5] The Greek mythology of Gods and Goddesses is just one such example of this, but it is Schelling’s implicit argument that this particular form of expression is not the only kind and we should not misjudge a system of mythology as a somehow primitive mode of thought, in its general disregard for truth. This is tendency that continues to persist in the arts today. For Schelling, it seems, this is the misstep taken by his unfortunately more famous colleague Hegel. The importance of myth to what Hegel calls Spirit — albeit reduced in Hegel’s own analysis — is that mythology is the expression of Spirit’s “poetic drive for invention.”[6] In this sense, we can see why the Creation Myth is a primary category within different mythologies from around the world. This is to suggest that, whilst philosophy tends to concern itself with ends, mythology becomes a transcultural attempt to think beginnings — the beginnings of religions, of peoples, of places, of times, of ideas, but also — and particularly revelant to our discussion today perhaps — of revolutions and technologies. It is in this sense that Gilles Deleuze would write in his essay “Desert Islands” of the way that geography and geology, in particular, are examples of “science mak[ing] mythology more concrete, and mythology mak[ing] science more vivid.”[7]

What is most interesting about Schelling’s Philosophy of Mythology is that, in tracing its roots and tracing mythology itself back to the point of its own emergence within human culture, he finds that it is not, in fact, the product of human agency in itself. Just as we have come to appreciate the poetic in its unruliness, its resistance to reason, its multiplicitous interpretations, we find that mythology instead lurks in the shadow of Hegel’s Spirit. Reza, who has used Hegel and German Idealism at length in his book on AGI, nonetheless seems to miss something in his picking up of Spirit in a typically Hegelian mode, which Schelling himself critiqued Hegel for missing also. Reza, however, even goes further, distancing geistig even more than Hegel from any occultural connotation, and defining it as that which constitutes a “community of rational agents as a social model of mind” which is, more specifically, a social model which is defined by its function. Schelling’s mythology is, again, contrary to this – it does not intend to “assert or teach something” but rather just invent.[8] To call upon its function is to kill it — to condition it is to kill it — and in this sense we further parallels with the political discussions that have long circled the topics of communism and, more recently, accelerationism.

The importance of myth to the discussion of an emerging AGI, however, is that, in the its uneasy outsideness, in being that which emerges from us but is beyond us, its future origins may shift our own origins in their predominance. For instance, to return to our canine friends, in looking at the psychedelic dogs produced by Google DeepDream, we might see this as a nascent and inchoate example of an externally “sensuous imagination”, to borrow a phrase from Schelling. And yet, in its imaging of noumenal dogs, it is still the product of a broadly anthropocentric subjectivity. If our thinking on this matter is indeed to become more rigorously political but also radical and communist, we need to soften ourselves further still. DeepDream, for instance, is an example of us using computer to dream dogs. We instead need to think what it is like for dogs to dream us.

[1] Reza Negarestani, Intelligence & Spirit (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2019), 4

[2] Ibid., 407-408

[3] Rudolph Gasche, Georges Bataille: Phenomenology and Phantasmatology, trans. Roland Vegso(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012), 32

[4] Ibid.

[5] F.W.J. Schelling, Historical-Critical Introduction to the Philosophy of Mythology, trans. Mason Richey and Markus Zisselsberger (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007), 9

[6] Ibid., 13

[7] Gilles Deleuze, “Desert Islands” in Desert Islands and Other Texts 1953-1974 (South Pasadena: Semiotext(e), 2004), 9

[8] Schelling, Historical-Critical Introduction to the Philosophy of Mythology, 13


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