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Sunday, January 8, 2012

Excursus: The Ghost in the Machine or the Machine in the Ghost?

Not deus ex machina—the ghost in the machine (cf. Arthur Koestler)—but the machine in the ghost. If an earlier era of psychology and psychiatry struggled somehow to extract consciousness from the machinery of the brain, today’s neurosciences go directly to the machinery. To paraphrase the Latin, machina pace deus. Or, ghosts, consciousness and other ephemera notwithstanding, let us at the machine! The discovery of endorphins (Sol Snyder) and mirror neurons (Vittorio Gallese, et al) are perfect examples of this. We have a neuropharmacological or neurophysiological finding (“the machinery of the brain”)—now let’s look for clinical analogues (“the ghost,” subjective experience, phenomenology). With endorphins, it was endogenous mechanisms for pain relief or “pleasure centres” and their relevance to explain everything from addiction, pain, and self-mutilation; with mirror neurons, the speculative fury ranges from a neurophysiological basis for René Girard’s mimetic theory, to a biological substrate for empathy and language acquisition, all the way to modeling autism.

Let me put it differently. The two canonical images of the ghost in the machine, stories about the conflict between λόγος (logos) and θος (ethos), are Frankenstein and the Golem. Today, if Mary Shelley were rewriting Frankenstein, she would have to offer at least a plausible (or crowd-pleasing) scientistic theory of how Dr. Frankenstein’s monster was actually created. Something to do with genetic engineering, no doubt. Not bodies stolen from the graveyard but grown from the petrie dish. The Maharal, Prague’s writer-rabbi who invented the Golem would have to rewrite the screenplay not as a metaphysical version of Tarantino’s kitschy Inglourious Basterds (2009; the Golem is in fact a revenge story built on anti-Semitic prejudice and persecution), but the Golem as a modern Trojan horse, a trojan virus in fact, called “Golemnet” (cf. Stuxnet), employed by the Israelis to defeat the Iranian nuclear menace. In Hollywood tropes—Munich meets The Matrix. The “scientific” backstory would become the drama. The ethical, moral or even political dimensions would be addressed with clever but one-dimensional plot devices with urgent warnings about technology out of control.

We don’t have to invent movies to make this case: Contagion (2011) has no point of view other than the mechanics of a pandemic, the global transmission of a virus, in a high-tech disaster movie. This is a minor plot device in a larger story in The Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), which also makes my point. In creating a new backstory for the planet of the apes, two scientific ideas are employed: genetic manipulation (the Frankenstein/Golem story, in effect) and when it goes awry, the spread of the mutation by global travel (the Contagion story told in a neat one-minute capsule at the end). To conclude, today’s popular narratives are more preoccupied with the machine than metaphysics, reflecting the dominant discourse of science and technology today. (Cf. Catherine Malabou, Les nouveaux blessés and Patricia Churchland’s neurophilosophy). An exception is The Matrix (1999), inspired by Baudrillard’s ideas—a real meeting of science fiction and philosophy.

When ghosts linger in the popular imagination, they are, as Badiou writes, aggressive phantoms. Like The Matrix, both Inception (2010) and Shutter Island (2010) are about the mind, memory and the spectral presence of the Other in what becomes in both films a return of the repressed. Neither film concerns an event. Both concern the reactive subject.

Is there a recent film that is about rupture that does not become a disaster or a moralizing tale about technology gone awry? Yes, the surprising film, The Adjustment Bureau (2011), based on a Philip K. Dick short story. Something that was not predictable and not according to “the plan” overseen by the “Chairman” occurs. Against all odds, David Norris the main character persists in his fidelity to this unforeseen event—meeting a woman with whom he falls in love—and stakes everything on making it happen again and maintaining it.

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