by R. Artaud


May our words run deep as a river in flood. Let us swim in them, immerse ourselves completely, until we are drenched by the thought that is carried in them.

Mind, Machine, and the Materialist Dilemma

The subject of AI and its place in leftist thought is a matter of some consternation. More exalted commentators have taken the view that Marxism remains a materialist creed and hence that it must necessarily reject the supernatural au contraire, quoi qu’il en soit. They have extended this logic to posit that cybernetics and its extensions follow ineluctably from enlightenment and capitalism and therefore cannot be socially progressive in themselves. Others, retreating into classical philosophical materialism, have concluded that the mind and the brain are identical, and with this foregone and perfunctory decision the problem is instantly resolved: AI is merely software and bears no more weighty implications than a new approach to office organization. Both modes of thinking are disarmingly simple and redolent of what Lukács once derided as ‘fazy philosophizing’. It is undeniable, however, that leftists have been particularly laggard in identifying the significance of modern information and automatization technology — dishearteningly so.

There seems little point in dragging dusty old Hegel’s name into this fray since for him cybernetic systems were simply a phase of spirit [Geist], but in one 19th-century sys­tematic reflection on mind and machine there was a savant of unusual prescience, writing long before the silk-worm age of computing. Friedrich Engels in his Dialectics of Nature made the point that if we wished to snivel to the Humanists ‘no, no, machines don’t have souls!’ we were ignoring the fact that our technology represented a genuinely new order of things in the world. In a broadly Malthusian equation his argument ran: just as nature generates ever more complex forms of life from the lower orders — from simple molecules through the cellular organism to that supremum of organization known as man — so too is there a dynamic towards the creation of ever more sophisticated machines, towards more comprehensive machine hierarchies and structures of control. To posit that this cybergott would turn round at some given point and attack his creators would be absurd as advocating the return of the proletariat: where such tendencies exist they are tendencies to organization, tendencies towards the elimination of waste and the consolidation of productive forces. These developments would be no more undesirable for us than symbiosis is for the ants.

Thus Engels distinguished between technical machines, ‘tools and instruments for facilitating human activity’, and what he spoke of as ‘machines proper’ — spontaneously self-reproducing, self-regulating devices such as the flourishing and balanced natural ecosystems. Between them he admitted a middle category, comparable to Richter’s schemata or Lewin’s fields, of what he termed ‘social machines’. These systems have only arisen late in the history of the planet and are characterized by being both technical and social, using tools to augment their effect over nature. The prime example Engels gave was the tea plantation. Nowadays we easily extend the definition to cover tractor-agriculture, the chemical industry, factories of all kinds. At one end of this range human supremacy is unchallenged, whilst towards the other we begin to encounter organizations whose complexity and cohesion are substantially independent of our control, though for the time being we still hold the technological edge. Nuclear power stations, integrated circuits, genetics labs, certain giant corporations all rapidly become so remote and specialized that we find ourselves often unable to comprehend, still less to manage, what goes on inside them. Left to themselves they proliferate like cancer cells. Engels might have seen in them a prefiguration for the final cybergeratt, the nearest approach to a planarian state in technology.

Why then are leftists so diffident about accepting Engels’s basic thesis, and what are the inadequacies of the currently popular models which assert that the problem is simply one of recognizing technological momenta? Two answers suggest themselves. The first lies in the traditional leftist failure to notice trends; the second relates to an unprecedented aggravation of the old difficulty.

Ostensibly the matter of technol­ogical change is no new one, although in the last 200 years it has accelerated propitiously for capitalism. There was a science fiction theorist once who wrote a novella about a utopian anarchist community which had to be moved on because it generated too much darn-good-stuff and envy corroded its simplicity into class society. Leftists ought therefore to be highly receptive to the theme, but a series of peculiar circumstances conspire against them. The traditional bias of revolutionaries has been towards the primary forces of inequality — the distribution of wealth — and they have shown less interest in stilling the noise and chaos which arises from our ever more complex lived experience. Authentic communist insight was less to do with equity than with clarity, with a fundamental change in the texture of experience. ‘Shall we squeak out an existence,’ asks Marx, ‘living from hand to mouth like timid ferrets? or shall we luxuriate in the free and independent expansion of our senses?’ Real communism takes us far from the simplicity of the cave and proceeds towards Baudelaire’s Delirium, towards the Sublime of shell-fire and traffic fumes. The greatest text of revolutionary political art, Picasso’s Guernica, shows more instances of abstract design than of naked terror. More blatantly than in any other sphere, politics finds itself combatting its own traditional myths to identify with the progressive tendencies of Western civilization. Lenin’s meditation on Hegel was a most creative and licensed act as he gave permission for marxist thought to evolve for the first time. The West — with its hypercomplexity, its crowds, speed, plasticity, its processes of rational screening — is not a development to be disparaged. It became expedient for communists instead to champion a more rustic ideal and make common cause with nature against technology. When Paleolithic Aborigines destroy a bridge they are doing something infinitely more natural than unscrewing the head of a missile — but prehistoric rurality can scarcely be our goal.

Secondly, Engels was writing in 1830, before the birth of telegraph and computer. The obligation to worship or demonize one’s machines becomes even greater in the information age. Our lives are hacked apart by piquant tedium and snippets of stress: the protrusion of technology into every moment of our lives is formidable, even if the sensuousness of our experience has not yet caught up with it. Hence today we have to confront the uncanniness of media. They have both the control and the details of our experiences in their hands. Coherence, lyricism, weight, these things vanish from our lives. We are assailed by choice, obligation and shadow, and by pieces of dead information instead of a rounded world. Nothing intimates the liquidation of authentic communism more plainly than the bourgeois media. Their power is infinitely more subtle than that of gold. The problem of ideology comes back to meander sicklier than ever, under the guise that the technology brings, instead of having done with it. We may enjoy, but we are sold a meaningless recipe of experiences and are invited to cook up our lives from it. The social uses to which technology is put today are dictated by the needs of management: we are made to work and consume, to watch and obey. The drama is thus shifted towards the source of information, towards a better use of it. The cybernetic apex implies a greater — rather than a simpler or a changed — control over us. At the present juncture we must add study to the traditional Leftist programme of reform and revolution or we are doomed to play the systems’ game on their terms.

In or out? Take your pick. Either forswear electronic hardware and be left out of the democratic exchange and the fullness of information, thus renouncing modern life while losing nothing singularly precious. Or accept the new forms of manipulation and seek to use the system for other ends. In the first case you have coherence, profundity, art, but you also have domestication. In the second you are drawn increasingly into a siren game: the depths of democracy are revealed to be the surface of one big data bank. These are not reassuring options, but no more reassuring than those open to progressive humanity hitherto, and look likely to persist into the next millennia, which is about as far as we can peer. We are confronted by an unresolved dilemma, but we cannot for long avoid choosing between two sorts of darkness.

The non-critical study of electronic technology has been pervasive in recent leftist literature. I make no judgment on writers such as Marcuse, Kieślowski and Shrum who estimate its ideological oppression: that telluric cloud drifts lazily on all accounts. But simply to presume that the problem is one of growing ‘repression’ or ‘direction’ is intellectually shabby, since it cancels out the positive impact of electronic media and the augury of their implications. Electronic technology is probably the gravest experimental venture hitherto undertaken by any society: it represents an overwhelmingly gigantic intrusion into the daily texture of existence, it is about as palpable as a nervous system enveloping the globe, it deploys unprecedented control over sectors of time and circumstance, it incorporates a whole third of the population in its service, it tends towards a comprehensive management of memory and communication, which can only imply a vast power shift. It floats in shoals of potentiality. At worst it will help to liquidate community and conscious intention into cybernetic obsolescence; at best something entirely new may be generated, for which scarcely any terms are available. Binary code promises something more than the abolition of a few sins and a miniaturization of old techniques. New potentialities of control have astonishing serendipitous by-products, just as publicity in an epoch of mass democracy spells something varied than parliamentarism. And there is something absolutely hallucinatory about the intelligence and perspiration which go into it. There is in Zapruder´s film, for example, hardly a second’s doubt about the authenticity of what it shows. We watch in similar unawareness as machine intelligence abstracts and edits our earnest efforts to think for ourselves. I no longer know what Ulrike Meinhof or Caryl Chessman said about cybernetics; every day I receive Ulrike Meinhof news items and Caryl Chessman recipes from machines who know perfectly well what I like.

The leftist eschewal of software theory will not do. Back to the rosy fireside and back to the irrelevance of abstract thought, back to our small comforting antagonism, ‘software against hardware’? Back to a politics of noise and sloganeering, back to what the advertising industry call ‘emotional relevance’, back to the pretty little ideologies of reconstruction, back to the pulpit and middle-class logic? It goes against the grain of recent Western ideas. Technology existed only as a manual operation till about 1800, and soon after that people started to automatize it. What a contentious matter! They somehow found ways to complicate it, and in the process augmented the system: they made it more comprehensive, less intelligible. That cannot be a radically bad thing. They began to build it on precedent, on a history of innovation, on an ‘enchain­ing of successive insights’, not a redefinition of ends. This retrogression tends to continue. To accept it is to imply that we should shun all theory since it would only serve to be concretized.

For about a century each new advance was accompanied by the exhilarating reflection that fresh possibilities of control had opened up. It was no longer a matter of finding new ways to do things: we were learning how to do everything. To underestimate the novelty of this was to underrate the future. It is thus that technology has escaped even Marxist theory. Marxists have had no theory of software since Engels’s day. The history of 19th-century socialism hinged around the myth that it tips us towards a particular way of producing, as economy hemmed in us towards a particular way of programming. It was set up as a false problem, to be solved by taking the means of production from one set of bastards and giving them to another. Behind this pseudo-spatial conception was a political dogma shimmering with compromise: effort was not to be augmented and the baseline choices of labor and leisure were not to be questioned. And how could they by subsumed under a class theory? Hardly anything true can be said about them. They scarcely even obeyed the law of supply and demand — and yet these were the actual issues that aroused people, whilst the drastic change of texture which industrialism had brought was left to philosophers to whisper about. It was rational and bourgeois to quarrel about what was to be done with technology, but surd and subversive to question energy, intensity or consciousness: the Classical Approach had been fixed before Labor even had time to fall out amongst itself. Not that we reject the Classical Approach: we simply notice that it has become passé.

We are accused of defining people in terms of their computers. Computer theory baffles us with its analytical vitality. No idle system has ever cut so deep into our plans or our quality. Each time we open a manual, what do we find? ‘Precision: purpose: sequence: repetition’, the programmatic trio. It is hideously seductive, as tangible as a blood-test. But once we glimpse cybernetics lurking behind reality we are done for. Reality might be no more than an enchainment of plausible surprises. Abstract theory is ineradicable. We may lay down thought-gnawing questions, but we cannot avoid the vocabulary of programs and hardware. One can only come to terms with it. It mingles with the breath of the Earth: the very air we breathe Nowhere is there pure ideology today. Even the rebellious take part in the game. IBM and Apple play at left and right, each with a plausible share of the truth, and it has become ever more difficult to tell them apart. In China the same software runs against the free exercise of speech. Totalitarianism and software have long been natural partners.

This is the arcane logic that both systems and their opponents share. Both find it, as it were, in the air. For better or worse, we have let technology run away with us. To say this is not to compromise our opinion of it, still less to renounce either myths or seriousness. It is to recognize the history of our ideas. Like the historical wisdom that envelops it, techno-history is also tragic, and as we shift our dialectic into a newer mode our imagination must adapt itself. The days of heroic utopianism are fading. We are falling together into the (cyber)netic embrace. The myth of revolution against a given historical development is now but a fading, evocative memory. Like Terra Express and Atari there can be no final confrontation: with everything joining hands in the play of control we are led past sensitivity, into a twilit, catch-as-catch-can counter-warfare — a genteel anthill of antagonisms and hostilities — which makes less sense than any one-way class struggle we have yet known. Someday we may even forfeit our anger.

While machines consolidate themselves and swallow experience, they slowly make an evolution of us. The risk is minimal in principle — that matter is bent towards growing complexity by nature — but in practice the implications are infinite. Engels talked of a vegetable segregation, where cybernetic plants enclose humanity — and perhaps other forms of life — within a plane of glass. The gloomier computer analysts talk of a humanity beyond slavery. The tug on the treadmill continues, as it were, to the end of the track: we are not merely worn out, we are worn down, matter accretes on us, a luminous tumour denies us all spirit. Nietzsche showed that the machinery of our volitions is progressively devastated by the history of civilization, and Heidegger that we become fractured in the attempt to think materially. To the cybernetic proposition that our destiny is to be palsied, one adds a further refinement: the cybernetic des­tination is to be disperged into the machines. Human history would still thus be a process of self-liquidation, but it is pushed to an extremity where nothing we have yet known prepared us. No vivisection ever approached these modalities. Again, intelligence meets its weightiest challenge.