Tag Archives: Don Cupitt

… 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.

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… the gulf between writers and readers …

This post was sparked by a stimulating and taxing interview Philippa Rees conducted with the writer Vivienne Tuffnell  P1060427lower - CopyThe interview attempts to re-define the gulf between writers and readers in the way commercial algorithms define values for readers, blanking out the appearance of new green shoots.

This disrupted my sleep, in addition to lots of other stuff going on, so I tried stepping back for a wider perspective. No answers, only a few muddled reflections …

My generation, whose early years were without TV, needed to adjust to rapid periods of change, particularly the change from analogue to digital recording, – two entirely different metaphors. The true significance of this shift has not yet been absorbed by the general public.  In a dissertation during a sabbatical film degree as a mature student in the mid-nineties, I quoted Jean Baudrillard  who saw the forced silence of the masses no longer as sign of passivity or alienation, but as ironic and antagonistic. He commented on the strategy of the masses:

‘… refusal of meaning and refusal of speech; or of the hyper-conformist simulation of the very mechanism of the system, which is another form of refusal by over-acceptance. It is the actual strategy of the masses … it is the winning one today, because it is the most adapted to the present phase of the system.’ Moroc, Marrakech Riad roof, golden vision - low

I recognised this as the Zeitgeist  gradually reaching across the globe. My continuous studies, driven by curiosity and endless questions, prepared me, but I still find it difficult to accept a reality where, for many otherwise intelligent people, the beautiful term ‘soul’ has lost its impact. I place the word carefully in my work and in my writing to avoid bias. Marion Woodman  uses it powerfully … ‘Our very survival depends on spirit embracing soul.’  

The quote becomes poignant through experience, not theory.

Don Cupitt – a philosopher of religion who rejects authoritarianism, once said … ‘The soul, the self, has died. The self in an animal with cultural inscriptions on its surface.’ Sobering, and true, depending of course from which plane of experience one perceives.

In our present culture the commercial speed train whistles through every zone of life. Publishers are among many enterprises struggling to survive amidst overproduction. The ‘Road Closed Pending Repairs’ signs Philippa refers to in her interview grow like mushrooms. Small businesses, for example, vanish at an alarming rate, at least in my little town. Be it a supermarket or a bookshop, I’m bombarded with buy-one-get-one-free or two for three offers. Plenty of people I know look beyond the more-is-better and cheaper hype, but their numbers won’t topple the algorithm-driven logic of mass-cargo firms like Amazon (click for latest newsletter.) Their long term strategy is to please the consumer, which, now, increasingly, includes writers who self-publish … To make profit in an oversaturated market requires ever-new smart inventions.

Works not created from templates, but from inside out, which, sigh,  includes my novels, will struggle to find a position on consumer maps. Traditional meanings are collapsing.  New genres for books are proposed. The box marked cross-genre sounds like a stir fry of left overs. How, as a writer, does one shoulder the marketing speech for novels not fitting into boxes? Crime? No! Romance? No! Religious? No! Paranormal? No! Sci Fi? No! Fantasy? No!

The distillation of a life’s experience, a work of creative imagination? What’s that?

Authors of such ilk have the formidable and possibly worthwhile task of writing their own obituary. Are any of the thoughts a writer expresses original? I don’t think so. Thoughts happen to us. What’s original is their processing and linking based on personal experience, which may offer a new window of reference. I look at my bookshelves and ponder what I would have missed had the authors whose works snuggle up to each other had lost faith in their work. Few commercially produced genre books leave impressions that live on. They’ll drown in ISBN databanks. Our shelves at home hold unique books that surprised and inspired us over the years, and until we become cyborgs and can, with a mere thought, make book pages fall open on any surface of our choice, this will not change soon.

I admire self-published writers. Vivian published several novels herself,  as did Philippa, which speaks for their tenacity and belief in their work. And I admire Philippa’s poignant questions, and how Vivienne exposes herself to them …

the very uniqueness you want to write about? Could you define why that is so difficult? Is it simply too much surrounding noise? Or something else?

‘… is writing the way in which we confront out existential loneliness, and are readers who ‘get’ and share that now the substitutes for lovers?’ 

MercatsSuch questions and similar ones are worth their salt, and expose our vulnerability … do writers, any artists, want to be truly seen? Is one person’s interpretation of truth going to be interesting to others? Will the public feel preached to? Such questions haunt many of the most inspired artists, poets and writers who weave works from layers and layers of their psyche. To expect an instant resonance from crowds will bring deep disappointment.

And yet, the most deeply personal experiences, combined with some magic ingredient of presentation, can, over time, have universal appeal. Stan Brakhage, an experimental filmmaker, put it this way … ‘I had the concept of everything radiating out of me, and that the more personal and egocentric I would become the deeper I would reach and the more I would touch those universal concerns which would involve all men.’

If I’m positive about the future it comes from an understanding in tune with Walter Benjamin  … ‘Technology, instead of liberating us from myth, confronts us as a force of a second nature just as overpowering as the forces of a more elementary nature in archaic times.’

To me, this means learning and unlearning accelerates in condensed time. Think how we make ourselves visible by blogging. How brave and scary to step in front of a public mirror … Virtual or not, the psychological process of engaging with virtual friends and foes is totally real. Sherry Turkle expressed this … ‘I believe that our experience with virtual reality, with artificial life are serious play; our need for a practical philosophy of self-knowledge has never been greater.’ My self-understanding is now aided by the relationship with people I have not met face to face – I never shook hands with or exchanged a hug with Vivienne, but I emphasise with her loss of joy, and her frustration with the ironic and antagonistic attitudes of people who belittle deeper strands of truth for fear of looking inside, and the sense of being a square peg that doesn’t fit the neat round hole of genres and algorithms.

Many writers will recognise these obstacles, including Philippa, and myself. How do we attract and persuade people to sample the green growth in our plot? At the same time, I’m convinced we are co-creating artists of our continuous self-invention. Mourning a not-yet existing frame for our work  might hinder this process, which moves and dances naturally through each breath. And I’m heartened by how writers and poets influence us over time.

A poet and mystic from over 800 years back examplifies this phenomenon …

‘The minute I heard my first love story I started looking for you, not knowing how blind I was. Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere. They’re in each other all along.’ – Rumi

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