… body electric …

Tolima Pectoral 1000AD

In my last post, Teddy mentioned my fascination with AI. This interest became obsessive while doing a sabbatical film degree that ended in 1997 – my lucky chance to catch up on cultural history and post-modern theories. I plan to re-type my dissertation, which includes pages of tedious notes and a bibliography. But presently, like so many papers I wrote at the time, the master piece rests in an old Mac disc in a format I can’t translate to Word.

Artificial intelligence is unstoppable. I’m curious as to your take on the subject, so I’m sharing a few quotes from my exploration of human identity in the digital age.

I pinched the title for my dissertation ‘Body Electric,’ from Walt Whitman’s poem ‘I sing the body electric.’  He celebrates the body – of man, of woman, of child, bodies of flesh, sinew and blood. Do follow the above link, the invigorating poem stands in ironic juxtaposition to the theme of AI. Could a mechanical electric body ever convey the curious, breathing, laughing flesh that Whitman hearts because it pleases the soul? How would its divine nimbus compare to a form governed by mechanical algorithms? For Whitman the human body is sacred. Its magnetism comes through eyes, from the soul, a term shelved by neuroscience. Call it what you will, soul or consciousness; its light will forever seek vessels and new direction.

Fronting ‘Body Electric’ is my translation of R M Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus X, which, even at his time, bemoans machines that ignore the hesitant gesture of a radiant hand. Here only one a few lines:

Yet our being remains spun in mysteries of birthing

Origins from enchanted wells, a play of pristine powers

To behold only with eyes closed and in adoration.

The text develops as an intuitive assembly and starts with a quote by Michael Foucault:

‘Man is only a recent invention, a figure not yet two centuries old, a new wrinkle in our knowledge; he will disappear again as soon as that knowledge has discovered a new form.’

For the artist Maya Deren (1917-1951,) who created some highly influential films in her short life, scientific findings were but the raw materials of creative action: ‘The first step of creative action is the violation of the natural integrity of an original context.’ She saw the function of art and its validation in the creation of mythical realities. Her symbolic images of personal significance also chime universally.

Here is a link to her film ‘At Land.’

In dreams, time vanishes. This applies equally when dream worlds are shared, with the additional ecstasy of an interactive virtual reality:

‘… we would enter the world of fluids … Over with the solid, over with the continuous and the calm; some dance quality would invade everything and Cartesian philosophers would go through a trance, floating on history like chops on gravy.’ – Henry Michaux

But what about the vanishing space? In the public realm of instant ‘in’form’ation’ nothing keeps its form long enough to take root. Spaces to hide or resist the other fade as human nature is flood-lit. Jean Baudrillard foresaw a silence of the masses as ironic and antagonistic coping mechanism:

‘… hyper conformist simulation of the very mechanism of the system, which is another form of refusal by over acceptance …’  Jean Baudrillard

Simulated reality blinds with the Gestalt of our collective mind, where every viewpoint exists at the same time. It lacks context and shadow definition, over-exposes our field of consciousness. For Baudrillard, the schizophrenic subject can no longer produce the limits of its own being, or produce itself as a mirror. It becomes a screen, a switching center for all networks of influence. The electric sphere of the internet simulates our nervous system and turns it inside out. There remains the reality of our psychological experiences, where shadows have to be reckoned with.

Donna Haraway, a biologist and professor of the History of Consciousness, sees pleasure in the confusion of boundaries. She once said, ‘I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess.’ This intrigues. The inspiring, if manic torrent of concepts pouring into Haraway’s lectures requires extreme co-presence from her students. I resonate with her thought that contradiction is the criterion of the real, which is a theme in my planned third book (following Course of Mirrors and Shapers.) I like it that Haraway’s favourite story teller is Ursula Le Guin 🙂

CYBORG – a human, enhanced with integral technology. Visit this link for a taster – a TED talk by Kevin Warwick, a Professor of Cybernetics.

When it becomes possible to clone super humans one has to ask, why the need for babies, why the need for women, and what’s the point of males. Can myth be banished, and what if the human being – that pack of neurons – is squeezed into microchips like genies into bottles, how will future societies hang together?

An emerging idea proposes that to maintain homeostasis requires a new religion, DATAISM. Check this link to an extract from Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari on WIRED … 

Would shadow entities of the collective psyche slip through data and act out hidden agendas? Kevin Kelly wrote: ‘… as we unleash living forces into our created machines, we lose control of them. They acquire wildness and some the surprises that the wild entails. This then is the dilemma all gods must accept: That they can no longer be completely sovereign over their finest creations.’

Besides the above quotes, my dissertation includes thoughts from Marshall McLuhan, Paul Virilio, Roger Callois, Walter Benjamin, Gregory Bateson, Don Cupitt, Francis Crick, D Dennett, Goethe, Anthony Stevens, John Searle, David Chalmers, Horst Hendriks-Jansen, Sherry Turkle, Danah Zohar and many more – all of them google worthy.

As a golden thread through my dissertation I use scenes from the film Bladerunner, where replicants are indistinguishable from humans and develop emotional responses. If we give them a past, Tyrell says, we create a cushion for their emotions and can control them. A fail-safe device makes sure of that. Familiar? It turns out that ‘mother’ the equivalent of history, is a trigger word for lack. One replicant blasts his tester to smithereens and seeks revenge on his maker. The film leaves one with the uncomfortable sense that we are all replicants, with memories implanted by history. There is no escape from the burden of existential insecurity.

Theodor Kittelsen 1857 – 1914

Relationships and the context of place are vital to experience a sense of identity, like an energy field that grows in relation to the reality we create for ourselves. In other words, we are artists of our continuous self-invention, and we must choose our horizons.

Reverend Don Cupitt wrote the self is an animal with cultural inscriptions on the surface. Not that he is wrong, but when he assumes the soul has died, he must refer to his personal version of soul and its loss of meaning.

The Soul, the light of the universe, eternal life and consciousness, is essentially independent of matter and mind. Once embodied, we tend to forget the light’s source and feel trapped and homesick. Whether there is a purpose to the cyclic embodiment of consciousness may be a useless question, since purpose can only emerge through living and through the myths we create. Bless our imagination. Presently AI is the most generously funded myth, forging ahead, regardless of the dire state of humanity and our planet as a whole.

Birth and death remain the ultimate spinners of life. In the parlance of the mystic, the moment of exaltation is in the immanent glimpse of the curl of the beloved. Can the beloved be the beloved if she is fully known? And what do we know of the various dimensions where she resides?

Don’t miss this worthwhile article by John Gray in the New Statesman (Oct 2016) on the upgrade from Homo sapiens into Homo deus. The page may take a while to load.

All links open a new page. They are part of post and totally worthwhile.


Filed under Blog

25 responses to “… body electric …

  1. Rob Leech

    Hi Ashen
    Just a few thoughts stimulated by your latest post.
    Quantum Physics seems to point to the fundamental layer of being being consciousness, that is, all things arise from consciousness. The brain is not the generator of consciousness but, like everything else, is generated by it. All entities come into apparent existence (at least with respect to our normally experienced world of three spacial dimensions plus time) only when collapsed from potentially infinite waves of probability and all the evidence so far points to this thing we call “consciousness” as being the “perpetrator”. Entities, as observed so far, have not managed not collapse themselves into being.
    Been watching quite a bit of bioscientist Rupert Shelldrake , quantum physicist, Amit Goswami and others on Youtube during these dark, cold winter evenings. They are not interested in descartian machine paradigms which, according to them, already began to be superseded by the field models of Faraday and Maxwell in the mid nineteenth century. Shelldrake sees Dennet, no matter how sophisticated his “brain = computer” models may be, as falling most definitely into the “mechanist” camp.
    I’m sure exceedingly clever machines will be developed but whether they will ever be capable of participating in conscious being in the way that humans and quite possibly other biological species do is very uncertain. So far, no machine observer has managed to collapse a quantum probability wave into a localised particle like an electron, photon, proton or what have you. It has only happened in interaction (Aswami calls it “entanglement”) with human consciousness.
    So as always the underlying mystery is consciousness. What is it and where does it come from? For me at this moment it feels like a light and warmth in my heart. Not a paradigm the mechanists would accept I’m sure.
    Rob X

    Liked by 2 people

    • Like you say … So far, no machine observer has managed to collapse a quantum probability wave into a localised particle like an electron, photon, proton or what have you. It has only happened in interaction (Aswami calls it “entanglement”) with human consciousness …

      Re: the hard problem, consciousness. A vital element is being missed. Maybe scientists should study prophets more, and Jung, and poets, and other visionaries, including Inayat Khan.

      All this research is exciting, and would be so much more so if it was not overshooting itself by ignoring what is actually happening to humanity and our distressed planet at this point in time.


      • Rob Leech

        Shelldrake reports that numerous, quite prominent scientists have approached him in a kind of conspiratorial manner to confide that the current materialist model is not sufficient to support what they are encountering in their research but they feel obliged not to speak out about this for fear of jeopardising their careers, research grants etc. Two examples he gives are measured variations in what the materialist model holds to be universal (invariable) constants like the gravitational constant and the velocity of light. It’s not supposed to happen!
        The materialist orthodoxy resembles the oppressive dogmas of institutional religions and political ideologies. Ossification!

        Liked by 1 person

        • This doesn’t surprise. Many innovative scientists are being sidelined, sometimes viciously. Rupert Sheldrake’s hypothesis of morphic resonance, for example, makes total sense to me. He apparently gave a workshop yesterday https://www.sheldrake.org/ on science and spiritual practices.
          Big research Grants go where the money is – and profit, and status. Same in other areas of study, including medicine. Material orthodoxy tends to toss ideas that are awkward to its status into a slush pile – marked pseudo science.


      • Rob Leech

        Just to add that I feel that undermining the materialist model by means of a more honest and thorough-going science is an important factor in breaking down the economic, social and political structures that are at the root of much of human destructiveness. If humans can feel free again to experience the universe as a living, conscious entity then it is likely to add momentum to the much needed changes in behaviour.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds like a very exciting project Ashen. I hope to have some time (what IS time, it seems to be in short supply these days) to check out your links provided thank you. I like Donna Haraway’s thought as you say: ‘I resonate with her thought that contradiction is the criterion of the real’.

    Liked by 2 people

    • All in your own time, Susan. So much is up in the air at the moment, let alone personal decisions pressing on us. When you get to follow up the links, you’ll find them fascinating, and thought provoking.
      Meanwhile, all the best to you and yours.☼


  3. Excellent post … the quotes are eloquent.
    All this issues related to artificial intelligence and cyborg reminded me of one of my favorite Black Mirror episodes (if not my favorite). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B2mX3mWY0Ko (attention the video contains spoilers!). I´ll come back to check out the links, as this is very interesting to me. Love & best wishes 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks, Aquiiana. I’m glad you’re inspired to follow the links. I haven’t watched the Black Mirror series, which explores the theme. Looks interesting.


  5. Would an AI being have free will? Do humans have free will?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Whitman would epitomize the human as opposed to AI.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Working with computers every day, using new applications and teaching them to students has its pros and cons. As I was reading your article, I was reminded of a book I read, ‘Do robots dream of electric sheep’ by Philip Dick, which was later made into the cult movie Blade Runner. Great book and movie, and it makes me wonder whether AI, whatever the form, has the potential to do amazing things, yet there’s also the potential for it to go the other way. Sci Fi books are great for asking the questions what if and should we.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Luciana, Yes, P, Dick’s story is great, and Blade Runner is a brilliant movie based on his idea, of which I used sequences in the dissertation mentioned. I share your ambivalence, being at once fascinated and also apprehensive as to where AI will lead, especially watching the crisis of ignorance engulfing world politics. I wonder what your students make of AI?

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: … speed – falling upwards into spatial & temporal bewilderment … | Course of Mirrors

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