Monthly Archives: March 2013

Android Blues Still Linger

Still from Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Still from Ghost in the Shell (1995). Major Motoko Kusanagi swims in the bay.

Ghost in the Shell—a child of William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982)—continues to mine the cyberpunk genre, yielding thought-provoking content. While the various films and the television series still have some of the pitfalls of anime, such as unnecessary silliness, or perhaps also its penchant for action, it seems that Ghost in the Shell still offers something worthwhile. The original film, which came out in 1995, and its sequel Innocence (2004)—both directed by Mamoru Oshii—are the gems of the series. When the opening scene of the first film includes an intense shootout, it feels like it might just be another action floc, but instead, the film ends up dwelling on moments of contemplative and anxious stillness.

Risking sinking to the bottom of the bay given her outrageously heavy mechanical body, the main character—Major Motoko Kusanagi—finds peace scuba-diving, as if the presence of death assures her of her own subjectivity. In fact, it is this anxiety about subjectivity and existence that drives her through the story. The Major’s yearning for self-understanding pushes her to challenge the increasingly frail divide between living and machine.

Still from Innocence

Still from Innocence. A lifeless shell sits in a lab.

The sequel, Innocence, finds the Major’s former partner Batou dealing with the Major’s exit as well as his own concerns about contemporary life. In one striking scene, Batou stares into the face of a plastic-wrapped android in a forensics laboratory. We learn of the Major’s transformation into a new, larger consciousness transcending individual physical bodies. Her consciousness now exists within the internet, capable of new levels of mental capacity.

It will be interesting to see what the upcoming Ghost in the Shell: Arise has to offer.

Following the Money in Science

I just read Stuart Parkinson’s article about the upcoming Big Bang Fair in the UK, which describes itself as “the largest celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths for young people in the UK.” As Parkinson, writes, however, this conference is not simply a congress on the practice of scientific thought, but seems more like a large recruitment center for some controversial corporations. While it is true that scientific practice is used heavily by employees of these companies, their end goals leave something to be desired.

Some of the companies giving the biggest contributions to the Big Bang Fair include arms companies BAE Systems and General Dynamics, along with the oil company Shell. Of course the scientific field is not the only one that has such practices happening, but it’s still odd to me the way in which such large input from a certain sector exists in a field which tends to define itself as having an allegiance only to reason.

Cabinets of Curiosity

One of the "Cabinets of Curiosity" at the Art Institute of Chicago

One of the “Cabinets of Curiosity” at the Art Institute of Chicago

A few days ago I visited the Art Institute of Chicago. Among the many works there—including the new Picasso exhibition—one thing that later struck me was a small section called “Cabinets of Curiosity.” These are meant to stand in for the type of 16th century collections of rare, expensive (or both) items, that would have certainly been “curious” to the collector and the collector’s contemporaries. Items, like those shown in the photo above, include sea shells from the Americas, Chinese porcelain, and more. I thought to myself, how odd it is, that even now when I have access to images of so many of the items in museums across the world, we still are drawn to the physical originals. I’m sure this is a worn-out topic in art history, but the question still strikes me. The museum’s corresponding text on the wall reminds me, however, that perhaps a sense of the sacred within objects seems weaker than was normal in the 16th century: “Collectors believed that the magical properties of relics and rare minerals were further enhanced by the workmanship of master craftsmen; in other words, the handiwork of nature was complemented by that of man.” My one wish would be that the museum had collected some of these “cabinets” as they were curated by the original collectors themselves, rather than make their own cabinets by all the means afforded by such an institution in the 21st century. I’d love to read any associated texts written for these princely courts.

A mosaic covers a bench in Gaudí's park. Source: wikimedia

A mosaic covers a bench in Gaudí’s Park Güell, Barcelona, Spain. Source: wikimedia.

I was brought back to the memory of my recent visit to the museum when reading William Gibson’s novel Count Zero, which is set somewhere in the future–perhaps 100 years or less from now. Even there, Gibson imagines that our curiosity for such things would remain fresh. In a meeting in virtual reality, where the setting is a replica of Antoni Gaudí’s Park Guëll, a curator is entranced by a rare work of art in a box, owned by a wealthy businessman:

“The object set into that length of bone is a Braun biomonitor. This is the work of a living artist.”

“There are more? More boxes?

“I have found seven. Over a period of three years. The Virek Collection, you see, is a sort of black hole. The unnatural density of my wealth drags irresistibly at the rarest works of the human spirit. An autonomous process, and one I ordinarily take little interest in. . . .”

But Marly was lost in the box, in its evocation of impossible distances, of loss and yearning. It was somber, gentle, and somehow childlike. It contained seven objects.

The slender fluted bone, surely formed for flight, surely from the wing of some large bird. Three archaic circuit boards, faced with mazes of gold. A smooth white sphere of baked clay. An age-blackened fragment of lace. A finger-length segment of what she assumed was bone from a human wrist, grayish white, inset smoothly with the silicon shaft of a small instrument that must once have ridden flush with the surface of the skin–but the thing’s face was seared and blackened.

The Box was a universe, a poem, frozen on the boundaries of human experience.

Although Marly experiences the sensation of this box within virtual reality, her knowledge of its reality excites her more than any other fabricated replica of the same thing. Perhaps it is the item’s rarity, or its evocation of human experience and history that draws us into such things. Is it merely just a crumbling hurdle of proper replication of these objects for the viewer to see?

I could spend a whole day perusing pictures online of paintings by Mark Rothko, but it never compares to standing before the colossal works and feeling their soft colors loom tragically in space.

Theodor Adorno, “Commitment”

I just read Theodor Adorno’s essay, “Commitment,” in Aesthetics and Politics. I’m especially drawn to Adorno’s criticism of Bertolt Brecht’s technique when it comes to presentation. In other words, the balancing act of aesthetic and thought in a work of art, or even questioning that compositional formula itself.  About Brecht’s play Saint Joan, Adorno writes,

The play is set in a Chicago half-way between the Wild West fables of Mahagonny and economic facts. But the more preoccupied Brecht becomes with information, and the less he looks for images, the more he misses the essence of capitalism which the parable is supposed to present. Mere episodes in the sphere of circulation, in which competitors maul each other, are recounted instead of the appropriation of surplus-value in the sphere of production [. . .] (183).

Not having seen or read Saint Joan, I can’t comment on it directly. But the reason I quote this passage is for the second portion, in which Adorno calls Brecht’s scenes and images “Mere episodes.” I think this is a good example of the reification of daily life, in which events come to feel episodic. Georg Lukács points out something similar that begins to happen in literature with the rise of capitalism. The presentation of the world becomes a mere backdrop to small bourgeois conflicts.

The Tramp is berated on the assembly line in Modern Times

The Tramp is berated on the assembly line in Chaplin’s Modern Times

Adorno then goes on to speak of the failed critique of fascism through artistic creation in Brecht’s Arturo Ui and Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator:

the deconstruction of leaders, as with all individuals in Brecht, is extended into a reconstruction of the social and economic nexus in which the dictator acts. Instead of a conspiracy of the wealthy and powerful, we are given a trivial gangster organization, the cabbage trust. The true horror of fascism is conjured away; it is no longer a slow end-product of the concentration of social power, but mere hazard, like an accident or a crime [. . .] That is why the buffoonery of fascism, evoked by Chaplin as well, was at the same time also its ultimate horror. If this is suppressed, and a few sorry exploiters of greengrocers are mocked, where key positions of economic power are actually at issue, the attack misfires. The Great Dictator loses all satirical force and becomes obscene when a Jewish girl can hit a line of storm-troopers on the head with a pan without being torn to pieces. For the sake of political commitment, political reality is trivialized: which then reduces the political effect (184-185).

From this passage, I’m reminded of Charlie Chaplin’s film, Modern Times (1936). I’m fond of the film, but it’s not free of criticism. Of course, this criticism is not reduced to a rejection of the film’s comedy, but rather its scope. Just as the first passage above references the episodic quality of Brecht’s play, Modern Times also falls into the same trap. The film’s scope of capitalism sometimes reaches its limit at the angry figure of a boss. If only he were nicer, we are meant to think.

Still from Sans Soleil

Still from Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil

And now, I’m reminded also of a humorous, short section in Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983). The narrator ponders an arcade game, the objective of which is to hit different members of your job’s hierarchy:

I saw these games born in Japan. I later met up with them again all over the world, but one detail was different. At the beginning the game was familiar: a kind of anti-ecological beating where the idea was to kill off—as soon as they showed the white of their eyes—creatures that were either prairie dogs or baby seals, I can’t be sure which. Now here’s the Japanese variation. Instead of the critters, there’s some vaguely human heads identified by a label. At the top, the chairman of the board. In front of him, the vice president and the directors. In the front row, the section heads and the personnel manager. The guy I filmed, who was smashing up the hierarchy with an enviable energy, confided in me that for him the game was not at all allegorical, that he was thinking very precisely of his superiors. No doubt that’s why the puppet representing the personnel manager has been clubbed so often and so hard, that it’s out of commission, and why it had to be replaced again by a baby seal.

My point in bringing this up is not that art should really be focused on higher members of such hierarchies, but rather that the the “game” itself represents reification by presenting to the user a set of names to be responsible for the ills of work under capitalism. A more recent example of misplaced anger might be the way in which individual bankers were thought of as the enemy during demonstrations at Occupy Wall Street. That’s for another day though.