Disembodied States: Vision, the Body and the Virtual
Key Words ....
a few definitions ...
inter: to bury / to inhume net: mesh / clear profit
Internet: to bury clear profit
utopia: no place
cyberspace: a virtual place
code : that which organizes information for secrecy; programming text
the body: the physical structure of a person
the self: a person's own individuality or essence
subjectivity: that which pertains to the internal and perceptual cognition of self
objectivity: that which pertains to the experiential cognition or deductive logic of a reality external to the self
reality: what underlies appearances; resemblance to an original
cyborg: a human body that aspires to technological fusion
artificial intelligence: a machine that aspires to human consciousness
cybernetics: the science of communications and the automatic control systems in both machines and living beings
virtual being so in essence or effect, but not in form or fact; not physically existing as such but made by software to do so.
material: the matter from which a thing is made; corporeal; not spiritual.
hybrid: heterogeneous; incongruent; cross-bred
In this text I perform a cultural hypertext exercise that moves through time and space to explore issues that arise from the encounter of the body and its virtual apparatus. In relationship to where we are here and now - one hand clutching the mouse, eyes on the screen, feet still mired in the earth, images raining down upon us - I frame this encounter in terms of a hybrid subjectivity: an apprehension of the self that is struggling to bridge the natural and artificial, the sensory and the constructed. How we conceptualize this hybrid subjectivity in all its complexity - as a phenomenological and a political symbolization of our technological projections - is a pressing issue: one that determines our present and also our future relationships to the simulated worlds that envelop us with their synthetic and often invisible embrace.
In invoking the term hybrid, I am not arguing for an apprehension of the self that is specific to postmodernity, but for one that occurs whenever there is a disjuncture of material and virtual realms: a condition of the Americas that doubles back to the collision of cultures that took place over 500 years ago. I imagine the cyborg - that fabulous indeterminate creature described by Donna Haraway - as a creature with one foot planted in the material sediment of the history - and with the other planted in the virtual architecture of new technologies. The cyborg straddles embodied and disembodied realms of cognition; it carries with it the imprints of conquest, colonialism, capitalism. From the oscillation that occurs between these two places, there is a potential for a subjectivity to emerge that disrupts closed feedback loops of immersion and incorporation. The first part of this text explores a conceptual framework for this hybrid subjectivity, one that is anchored in the specificity of historical and cultural legacies. The second part of the text examines how contemporary artists working with new technologies such as David Rokeby construct and interrogate this subjectivity, tracking a sticky residue of technological projections and interactions that entangle the body and its virtual apparatus.
As I engage in the process of thinking through our fascination - and sometimes revulsion - with the machines we have made and now want to imbue with consciousness - that is to make them our own, to make them the same as us - a number of questions come to mind. What philosophical systems shape our prohibitions and projections about the virtual worlds we inhabit? I want to ask - following upon Margaret Morse's question of what cyborgs eat - is whether they can eat us. Who gets castrated in the symbolic unconscious formed from the entry into the language of the machine: us or the computer? These are questions that frame the liminal edges of my inquiry. They are questions that arise from my response to and reflection upon the technological interfaces that are shaping the contours and citizens of a global village.
Several years ago, I participated in a roundtable about the Internet and issues of identity. During the discussion, certain members of the audience spoke of the potential of new technologies to create a utopian space of higher consciousness. Their enthusiasm reached a particularly heightened pitch as they spoke about leaving their bodies behind and be-coming whatever one wrote into existence as code: offering up cyberspace as a panacea for global discord and a virtual infrastructure for collective social harmony. In response to this utopian embrace of cyberspace, I felt compelled to remind one particularly fervent programmer turned aposolate that the material world - with its inequities and wars and hunger and class divisions and racism and gendered identities - still impacted on people's lives, whether they did or did not surf the Net. He turned to give me a look that was at once wounded and outraged. He insisted, with a vehemence out of character for what was until that moment a passively polite and typically Canadian exchange of ideas, that in cyberspace we float above capitalism and those who think otherwise destroy its imaginative potential.
Clearly, no one wants to be accused of
repressing an other's imagination, and although it seemed to me that he
had missed the point I was trying to make in suggesting that the material
and the virtual are indivisible rather than separate, I was both fascinated
and taken aback by his passionate belief that to link the two would destroy,
like the avenging angel, all hope of redemption. This psychological investment
in a cyberspace where imagination is unfettered by the constraints of a
bodily existence is widespread. It is adopted by anarchist Net artists
and appropriated by corporate interests alike, deflecting our attention
away from the collapsing boundaries between the self and its technological
The computer and the cybernetic future it promises are the products of a late capitalism that has fueled the global economy of the last quarter century, creating whole classes of workers and work spaces including electronic sweat shops where silicon chips are made, computers assembled and web pages designed. Computer interfaces - the mouse, the glove, the keyboard - depend on the physical presence of the body and access to technology. In order to have an avatar (one's digitally generated self in cyberspace) one must first have the economic infrastructure to create it. The virtual apparatus that promises us flight from the material world is also used to pin down our bodies in a web of surveillance; the virtual commons of the Internet heralding unfettered communication is being rapidly privatized. No matter how many times one changes sex or age or race or identity in a virtual world, it cannot alter how one embodies a material universe weighted down with its history and philosophy and belief systems and economics. Rather than cybernetics dispensing with the material world, it masks and mimics its social relations within a realm of virtual representations.
All of this leaves us with a paradoxical site of interrogation. On one hand, the rupture envisioned between the physical self and its simulation is one of pure projection. On the other, projections do impact upon our consciousness. Virtual representations have the power to shift the ways in which we perceive worlds we cannot necessarily change, and to create an imaginary that allows us to dream a different future and sometimes act upon it. Utopian projection as collective will is a little understood phenomena, whether it results in millenarian movements and insurrections or ritualized ceremonies leading to spirit realms and virtual communities. It can serve as of a nodal point of resistance to institutionalized power; it can also be simultaneously linked to delusion and oppression.
The schism between the economic underpinnings of cybernetics - most often associated with dystopic views of a posthuman future - and its virtual representations - coalescing into utopian projections of a brave new universe - has tended to polarize discussions about new technologies. There are the true believers and the nay sayers and each think the other the rearguard of reactionary thought. Take, for example, the futuristic sound bite discourse of Arthur and Marilouise Kroker. In one breath, they denounce genetic re-engineering (the latest breakthroughs being human cloning and mutating monkeys) and artificial life (Hal from the film 2001 is posed to take over as we sit here today) as a social and economic disaster spiraling out of control, one that is creating a genetically designed elite and a vast underclass of unmodified human beings. In the next breath, they announce that new technologies are beyond our ethical and social grasp and embrace the posthuman condition as inevitable.
While the Krokers are astute in their assessment
of the dramatic impact of cybernetics and biotechnology on a new global
economy, their doomsday and revelation paradigm constructs a circular vortex
of hopelessness. There is no conceptual opening to envision a dialectic
relationship between human beings and their cyborg creations, one in we
interact with and act upon the technologies that are reshaping the apprehension
of the self. Rather than acquiesce to the polarization in the contemporary
debates about new technologies, I have become interested in understanding
how and why this schism occurs. What philosophical and historical legacies
have created an investment in a virtual world that floats above the material
one, or conversely, one that is leading us to certain extinction? What
models can enable us to strategize a hybrid subjectivity, accounting for
the ways in which our bodies and technologies intertwine?
One of the most common philosophical systems evoked in relationship to new technologies is a platonic one. In Michael Benedikt's influential anthology, Cyberspace: First Steps, Michael Heim's article "The Erotic Ontology of Cyberspace" articulates the often unacknowledged philosophical assumptions that underlie a utopian investment in cyberspace as a realm of higher consciousness. Heim locates in the virtual representations produced by computers - often referred to as virtual reality - the potential for the realization of Plato's ideal forms. In his assessment, the increasing capacity of cybernetics to produce artificial intelligence and virtual infrastructures enables us to discard the imperfect material world. We can finally break the shackles that tie us to the shadowy realm of appearances of Plato's cave and apprehend ideal form as patterns of information. What Plato envisioned as a model of philosophical enlightenment linked to internal mental processes of human beings has been transferred wholesale to the mathematical logic of machines.
Given the Western influence in the incipient stages of cybernetics, it is not surprising that platonism is evoked as a way to philosophically describe a computer generated virtual realm. Yet in the application of platonic ideal forms to the binary clarity of a cybernetic 0/1 code, a closed feedback loop of incorporation and immersion is enforced. To achieve pure knowledge is to be one with the matrix; to refuse its logic is to refuse to leave the cave. Either way the distinction between the material as false and the virtual as truth is absolute, negating the potentially contaminating effect of a hybrid self who moves between different forms of knowledge: straddling the sensorial and the cerebral, the concrete and the abstract, the natural and the artificial. Arenas of contamination have always been fruitful places of exchange that the state and the church have fought hard to exorcise. Plato, clearly, was no enemy of the Western civilization.
In contradistinction to Heim's use of Plato to think through the collapsing boundaries of the material and the virtual, I want to argue for the importance of grounding our contemporary interactions with new technologies to a material history of place and colonization. Rather than link the philosophical roots of cyberspace to a platonic tradition of idealism, I would like to propose a conceptual model for the encounter of the body and its virtual apparatus that is linked to the encounter of Europeans with the indigenous beliefs of the New World, one described by the Mexican writer Octavio Paz as the collision of radically different world views. In this collision emerged both an imperial order and a zone of instability that provides historical insight to the current rash of utopian projections, platonic idealizations, and doomsday scenarios.
In this regard, the analysis of the conquest of the Americas by the Uruguayan cultural theorist, Angel Rama, is instructive. In Rama's posthumously published book, La Cuidad Letrada, (The Lettered City) he argues that colonization was achieved by the imposition of an idealized urban design linked to an independent order of signs. While medieval cities grew organically in relationship to human labour and social interaction, the Americas presented the opportunity - in confluence with the humanistic and visual models of the Renaissance - to map an idealized city grid upon a terra incognita. This mapping of the city in advance provided a spatial architecture for a symbolic ordering of reality. In turn, the idealized grid was serviced by letrados, functionaries of the king, who as the only literate subjects of the empire, wrote the codes - edicts and laws - that reinforced this symbolic ordering. The letrados, argues Rama, were the programmers of a new world order, producing a linguistic framework that linked the writing of code to the architecture of colonialism. For those who could not write or read the code, the church provided a visual interface through the dizzying splendor of baroque art. In between these ordered spaces of the cities, however, there remained a vast disorder: an indigenous reality that presented an indecipherable chaos. The letrados could not order, nor decipher, this underlying chaos, and so they sought instead to impose an independent system of signs that would mask its existence. Like the programmer's fervent belief in a cyberspace that floats above capitalism, the letrados created a symbolic order that appeared to float above the colonial reality of oppression.
As Rama points out in his book, the evolution of this symbolic ordering of reality did not lose its momentum with the end of Spanish colonialism. On the contrary, its apotheosis is reached in a contemporary context in which schemes of signals, indices, diagrams, logotypes aspire to imitate or replace communication. Similarly, the computer programmers who write code are the modern day letrados, linking an independent order of signs to a virtual architecture. Like those who lived in the colonial era we are either part of the letrado elite, or those who engage with its technological interfaces, or those who occupy the vast disordered spaces. The question of how we disrupt this symbolic ordering leads us from the polis to the wilderness - to those "no places" in between architectonic (systemization of knowledge) structures of the collective social imagination.
In drawing an historical parallel between a symbolic ordering of signs during the colonial period and our contemporary context, I want to consider briefly the worldview of the Guaraní, one of the indigenous peoples who fell in between the platonic grid of Rama's ideal cities. The Guaraní are a semi-nomadic people whose territories at the time of the conquest stretched from the coast of Brazil inland to Argentina and Paraguay. During the colonial period, they were the subjects of a spiritual conquest, gathered by the Jesuits into the famous Paraguay missions. Despite the Jesuits efforts to exorcise their worldview through the same deployment of an ideal spatial grid linked to a symbolic ordering of signs, the Guaraní preserved their spirituality and their rituals. Today, diminished in numbers through disease, war and enslavement, only small groups of Guarani remain, living in Paraguay and the Brazilian pantanal.
In relationship to the collapsing boundaries between the material and the virtual that we are experiencing, what is most striking about the Guaraní cosmology is the way in which they embody a virtual world that is viewed as real but distinct from the material world. Just as Michael Heim imagines that cyberspace will lead to a perfected virtual realm in which the material world is a shadow imitation, so the Guarani believe that there exists a virtual world that is more complete than the one they can perceive through their everyday senses. How they reach this virtual realm is through a series of ritualized chants that invoke "the beautiful words." The beautiful words belong to the sacred realm of language, transforming the material into the virtual through the use of metaphor. In the shamanistic order of the Guarani, all of the community has access to the virtual world through the chants; in turn, very powerful shamans preside over specific rituals and have a highly developed and nuanced language of metaphor that facilitates movement back and forth between worlds.
Since the first encounters with the Guaraní, Europeans have been fascinated by their abstract metaphysical system. For most Westerner observers and commentators, the Guarani's virtual world appears to correspond to a neoplatonic framework in which a spiritual architecture houses ideal forms. In contradistinction to this interpretation, I would argue that to inscribe this shamanistic realm with platonic attributes is a misrecognition: the same misrecognition that shapes contemporary perceptions of what cyberspace is or could become. What is specific to the Guarani is the embodiment of their experiences in their virtual reality. This is not an idealized realm but a connective tissue which facilitates movement between cognitive worlds; it is social place in which access to codes is shared and not individualized; it is a metaphysical and phenomenological system in the encounter between the body and its virtual apparatus intertwines the material and spiritual. What the Guarani cosmology offers is a conceptual framework for a hybrid subjectivity in which it is the bodily entanglements with a language of metaphors that shape the apprehension of the virtual world.
In bringing the Guaraní's apprehension of the virtual to a discussion of new technologies, I want to suggest the importance of considering how metaphors guide the encounter of the body with a virtual apparatus. And while I am loathe to ascribe to artists the role of the shaman, (with all its new age echoes), as does Marshall McLuhan when he lauds their "integral awareness" as a "counter-irritant" to the stress of technological transformation, I do believe they are central to the creation of a language of metaphor for the ways in which we interact with and act upon new technologies. For McLuhan, artists are the healers of the global village, creating the antidotes for the psychic dismemberment that accompanies the amplification of the self through new technologies. They are both shaman and anaethetist, cushioning the pain as consciousness mutates, offering a salve to those extensions of mankind still raw and unassimilated. In contrast to McLuhan's embrace of artists as the magicians who can make whole again a body amputated by technology, I want to argue for the role of the artist, like the Guaraní shaman, as one of a mediator between the material and virtual worlds we inhabit.
In the context of Canadian artists working with new media, the first metaphors to emerge for the encounter of the body with its virtual apparatus were ones of merging and doubling: metaphors anchored to vision and the electronic feedback loops of video portapak technology and prototype teleconferencing. Take for example Janus (1973), by Colin Campbell, in which a live feed camera traces the artist making love to himself reproduced as a life-size nude photograph. The artist's embrace of himself is an embrace of his virtual representation; the act of lovemaking is mirrored by its video image. The boundaries of inside and outside blur. Identification is displaced by a doubling of presence, a mimetic sexuality, a homoerotic simulation. Campbell's votive offering to a technological gaze finds a collective manifestation in Vera Frenkel's String Games: Improvisations for Inter-City Video (1974). Using Northern Telecom's fledging technology of instantaneous image transmission, Frenkel orchestrated a game of cat's cradle as a series of gestures and conversations between two groups of people facing cameras in two different cities across Canada. Touching the frontiers of simulation, the participants reach earnestly toward the telematic image of their counterparts as if to touch them across space and time. They seem to be asking, like disbelievers witnessing an apparition: Are you really there? Can you exist?
There was a time when I would have located in these mimetic gestures a desire for the fusion of self and its virtual other. Now I see in the early video works of the 1970s the primal gestures of a bodily defiance to a technological immersion. Where once the metaphors of fusion and doubling belonged to the artist, promising a poetic future, they now belong to the market place, heralding a digital present that threatens to swallow us whole In the context of an economy driven by cybernetics, the mimetic quality of virtual representations, described by Walter Benjamin in his 1933 essay, "On The Mimetic Faculty," as an imitative power in which "the gift of seeing resemblances is nothing other than a rudiment of the powerful compulsion in former times to become and behave like something else," leads us to closed feedback loops of incorporation. With computer codes creating seamless interfaces, it is no longer clear if the machine is mimicking us or we are mimicking the machine.
Whether we catch an accidental glimpse of ourselves on a security camera or receive an unexpected email from an unknown source that has tracked our online patterns or lie in bed at night, restless with insomnia from too many hours spent in front of a computer terminal, the control systems of technology construct an unsettled and unsettling mirroring of the body and its virtual apparatus. No wonder, then, caught in a web of surveillance and computer generated feedback loops, that we are tempted to give ourselves over to a phantasmagoric fantasy of a devouring matrix, oscillating wildly between an impotent rage against the computer as an alien other (witness a recent report in the Globe and Mail on the growing problem with IT rage that leads to keyboards being hurled and erratic office behavior) and a desire to become one with the alien intruder.
In the work of David Rokeby, the question of who eats who is central to his exploration of the body, vision, and the virtual. Rather than deploying new technologies to mirror the self as a virtual other, he explores how the computer "sees" us. As Rokeby notes in his description of Watch, he has been constructing artificial perception systems for years. In his construction of these systems, such as in his early work The Very Nervous System, our movements are only seen by the computer programme, that in turn, translates our primal gestures into sounds or music that we experience. In more recent work such as Watch, Rokeby brings vision back into the field of representation, but in such a way as to invert and disrupt a mimetic compulsion. As in Colin Campbell's early video work, Janus, Rokeby uses a live feed camera in Watch to create a feedback loop that blurs the boundaries between the material and the virtual. Only now the image is literally a mirror image of itself rather than of us.
As we enter the gallery space in Watch, what we "see" as viewers is a large double projection in a darkened room of live feed surveillance video footage that has been processed through a computer programme. The computer duplicates the surveillance footage captured by a camera placed on the street outside the gallery and "reads" the images for information about motion. Through this process of doubling and distortion, a stereoscopic environment of mirror images is created in which the viewer does not "see" the literal image but its relationship to the computer's processing. In the one image of the double projection, the only discernable objects that are visible are motionless, such as pedestrians waiting for a streetlight to turn green. All else blurs or disappears. In the other image, the only visible objects are in motion, such as cars, or people walking. The viewer is immersed within a virtual apparatus that resonates with the conventions of early daguerreotype photography, whereby the camera could only capture that which remained still. He or she is also enveloped by the sounds of a watch, a heartbeat, soft breathing, that mark the presence of the absent people in the image. In Watch, the ubiquitous and invisible interface of the computer has become manifest as a living breathing moving camera obscura.
Rather than identifying with the eye of the camera, what we experience as viewers is how the machine watches us. As Rokeby has suggested, "a person cannot exist in both images at once," and so the fantasy of leaving our body behind in virtual reality is dispersed by a perceptual disjuncture; the illusion of a simulation that mimics the real is countered by an eerie sense of physical displacement as ghostly figures appear and disappear from view. What emerges from this embodied experience of the virtual is not sameness not difference. How the computer sees and what we perceive are distinct but entangled; our apprehension of the self oscillaties between material sensations and virtual representations. What the computer sees is a material reality as information that it processes through code; what we perceive is time and motion translated into images.
While most of Rokeby's computer-integrated works are interactive - in that the viewer can identify the computer's response to the user's input - there is strictly speaking nothing interactive about Watch that the viewer is cognizant of. The computer does "read" the observor's presence through an infrared motion detector that senses when the observor has been still for some time and then makes a movement. This in turn triggers a camera shutter sound and a change in the computer's processing of the image according to a random decision function. The action of the motion detector, however, is not transparent to the viewer. Rather, our presence and the presence of those observed by the computer outside the gallery walls does not appear to act upon the machine. Instead, we as viewers are positioned as witnesses to a metaphor for interactivity that seems heterogeneous and incongruent. In constructing such a metaphor - a descriptive term which is imaginatively but not literally applicable - Rokeby provides a language for our interactions with new technologies that counters the dominant metaphor of fusion that drives a cyber-industry. While most computer interfaces are encoded to create an appearance of seamlessness, Watch reveals the disjunctures between ourselves and machines that underlie computer generated simulations. As one of the letrados who write and read the code, Rokeby could chose to create a symbolic order that floats above material reality. Instead he has chosen to explore a conceptual model for a hybrid subjectivity that facilitates movement between cognitive worlds.
In the Giver of Names, a work that has evolved from a keyboard interface, in which the user typed in words to which the computer responded, to a visual interface, in which the computer performs an image processing on an object the viewer has placed on a pedestal in front of a video camera, perception and language are conjoined. The computer's perception of the object through an image analysis of colour, texture, outline is "radiated" (Rokeby's term) through an associative database that enables the computer to translate images into words and sentences that are spoken aloud. On the computer screen itself, the associative database is literally represented as clusters of words the computer retrieved from its memory bank. If Watch addresses the question I posed at the beginning of my paper of whether machines can eat us, The Giver of Names touches upon another question I posed: who gets castrated in the symbolic unconscious formed by the entry into the language of the machine: us or the computer? The Giver is Names is not a psychoanalytical inquiry, and as such, does not frame the question the same way, but it does interrogate the relationship between naming, perception and transference.
The first time I became aware of Rokeby's Giver of Names, which has been many years in the making, it was in its first stages of conceptualization. I was on an Ontario Arts Council jury that awarded the project seed funding. I can still remember my astonishment when I reviewed a proposal to programme a computer that could "see" and name objects. I thought at the time, this is amazing, here is an artist requesting funding for the development of artificial intelligence, an undertaking usually shepherded by the high tech labs of the military. Years later, after following the project through its prototype stages, it has become clear to me that while the Giver of Names resembles artificial intelligence, it is in fact an investigation of the differences and not the similarities between consciousness and simulation.
As a computer that not only sees but describes, the Giver of Names corresponds to our own internal value system of what makes us human and social beings, our entry into language. But while we enter this symbolic realm through the acquisition of a mother tongue and a complex unconscious process of separation leading to an internal and perceptual cognition of the self - that is, to subjectivity- the computer acquires a skill set of analyses through building blocks of code that provides it with the capacity to process the experiential cognition or deductive logic of an external reality, that is, objectivity. What makes the computer intelligent is not its considerable perceptual and linguistic apparatus, but our identification with it as one of us. Through our interactions with its interfaces, we can end up with the sensation that it is speaking to us, and that interactivity extends beyond a user input into the realm of affect. While not everyone may experience the Giver of Names the same way, I certainly have grown fond of this machine spilling its nonsensical and poetic reactions to things I put in front of its video eye.
Inherent in the visual and text interfaces of the Giver of Names is a correspondence between how it and we "see" objects through naming. Yet at the same time, its perceptual apparatus has no relationship to signification as a semiotics shaped by cultural and social relations. It mimics rather than embodies language, lacking the secondary processes of the unconscious symbolic order - dreams, desire, and fantasy - that shape language's conscious nuances and unconscious slips. Yet although the computer cannot dream or desire, it does evoke a fantasy of mastery: that enlightenment project to rationalize all of reality, to conquer those vast unruly spaces that lay outside the idealized grid of Rama's lettered city. In the 1700s, two hundred years after the letrados imposed their independent order of signs upon a culturally heterogeneous reality, natural science embarked upon a project to remodel nature as a universal and homogeneous nomenclature. Following upon the publication of Lineas's descriptive apparatus of classification in 1735, naturalists fanned out across the globe, cataloguing specimens. In the process, the project of naming nature as things severed a material reality from its cultural genealogy.
In the 1953, León Cadogan, a Paraguayan ethnographer whose writings of the 1950s and 1960s on the Guaraní are key sources of information on their myths, beliefs, rituals, and perceptions, published a small pamphlet on this project of nature and naming. In his text, Cadogan traced how the ethnobotonical vocabulary of the Guaraní reflects the preservation of a cultural specificity and a synthesis with foreign influences to construct a specific, fluid and hybrid - as opposed to universal, fixed and singular - nomenclature. For Cadogan, the language of the Guaraní provides a naming of material reality that accounts for a multiplicity of dimensions: folkloric and spiritual, scientific and material. By way of conclusion, he ends his text with the story of a forestry engineer named Hutchison, who in his work involving the documentation of native trees encountered situations in which his Guaraní informants would refuse to divulge the names of certain trees whose branches and leaves he brought to them to identify.
One day, frustrated at an informant's refusal to provide him with names for his specimens, Hutchison pointed at a near by tree known in Guaraní as kyrypyne and asked what its name was. In response, the informant went up to the tree, embraced it, caressed it, whispered to it, and then caressed himself, in the same manner that two Guaraní would greet each other in order to demonstrate their friendship. Based on Cadogan's research of the Guaraní cosmology, in which trees share a common origin with humans and speak to them from time to time of the virtual world, he surmised that the hug of the Guaraní signalled an intimate and fraternal relationship with the tree. What the Guaraní whispered to his brother, the tree, Cadogan could never know, but he imagines the possibility of the following words:
Brother kyrypyne, everything is over. Those who possess the thunder have started to show me branches and leaves of your brothers, that are at the same time my brothers. But why? Undoubtedly in order to tell me that they intend to destroy you, like they have destroyed our palms, our subsistence; the herb trees whose fruit fed so many birds, the cedars whose scent was refreshing and who offered cones to the monkeys; ...and now its your turn, kyrypyne, it is for this that they signal to you and want to know your name .....
By greeting his tree as his brother, the Guaraní crossed a boundary between the objective ordering of the natural world and the subjective realm of human emotions. He effectively changed a story about naming and nature to one of naming and culture. In turn, Cadogan's interpretation of the Guaraní's caress changes a story about naming and nature into one of knowledge and domination. Cadogan's imagined words point to the relationship of naming to the inscription and codification of discursive power. To remove the power of ordering words, and thus the ability to order reality, is to infantalize the production of meaning. The Guaraní becomes a child, always in the process of learning the language of the colonizer.
While Cadogan has given us a story about naming and natural world that is related to the Guaraní's acute sense of the connectivity between their material and virtual realms, Rokeby provides in the Giver of Names a metaphor for naming and simulation that is equally related to an increasing fluidity between material reality and the virtual. Like Cadogan's story, Rokeby's metaphor is embedded in a narrative about the discursive power of language. The Giver of Names performs a technical process of translating code into an assembly of words. As such, it is the engineer, following a descriptive model of classification that is unambiguous and universalizing, stripping language of its cultural and historical associations. At the same time, its idiosyncratic output reveals how much language depends on a cultural framework to produce meaning.
Rokeby has told me that he thinks about the Giver of Names as a fish out of water, floundering in a sea of language that it can manipulate correctly - the Giver of Names speaks in full grammatically correct sentences - but cannot make sense of. For while naming can be a quantifiable process, meaning is embedded in consciousness. What gives the Giver of Names its discursive power is our willingness to give over to the computer the task of ordering reality. As such, I would like to hope that the transference we experience with the Giver of Names is similar to the one between the Guaraní and the tree, rather than the one between the tree and the engineer. The computer, like the tree, can speak to us of a virtual realm. But if we do not connect this virtual realm to a subjectivity anchored in our social and cultural relations, we strip ourselves of consciousness. We become the child dominated by the machine, always in the process of learning the language of the colonizer. It is we, not the machine, that gets castrated in the symbolic unconscious formed by the entry into the language.
In the industrial and military applications of cybernetics to artificial intelligence, the driving ethos of programming is to discover to what degree the computer can simulate human communication and utilize deductive logic. Rokeby, on the other hand, is more interested in programming what the computer cannot do. In the Giver of Names, the interface that communicates this algorithmic frustration is intended to reveal the differences and not the similarities between human consciousness and intelligent machines. Rokeby has told me that he hopes the Giver of Names will disappoint the viewer. Instead of creating a transparent and intuitive interface - one that would satisfy the viewer's longing for verisimilitude, he constructs a disjuncture between perception and language in which the body's interaction with a virtual apparatus straddles cognitive worlds, learning from the computer without being dominated by it.
In Rokeby's ethical approach to a technological field that is driven by a market place ethos of profit and a scientific will to mastery, he follows upon the example of Norman White, one of Canada's most important and pioneering new media artists and his teacher at the Ontario College of Art and Design. Norman White's Helpless Robot, a free standing electronically controlled kinetic sculpture that depends on external forces for its motion, is in many ways a companion piece to Rokeby's Giver of Names. With limited powers of communication, the Helpless Robot has to cajole humans into cooperating with it. It does so through one critical mode of output, an electronically synthesized voice. The driving principle of the machine's program is an insatiable curiosity about activity in its immediate environment. To sense this activity, it is equipped with a variety of proximity light and sound sensors. It also uses a shaft-position encoder to determine the direction in which it is facing and then it will process this information to generate an internal working model of its surroundings. The machine builds a memory bank of its records of its encounters with humans and by evaluating the success of past strategies it "learns" how to deal with people so as to best satisfy its curiosity.
The Helpless Robot, while at the mercy of the viewer's willingness to act upon it, also senses when it is being handled in an overly rough manner, and takes appropriate action, activating an internal braking mechanism, protesting loudly, or sounding an alarm. It has a vocabulary of 263 phrases that mediate its interaction with the viewer as she or he turns the robot. The built in programming pathos of the robot is its own alienation from social relations. The more you cooperate by turning it as instructed, the grumpier it gets. When you leave you abandon it to its bad humour; it can be heard to complain:"come and go, they always come and go" ... "I'm not here for my health you know" ... "they think I can't hear them sneaking around." Like Rokeby, White is interested in understanding the ways in which the interface filter and shape our social relations: entangling the body and its virtual apparatus in a language of metaphor where it is the incongruency and disjunctures between us and the machines we have made - and now want to make the same as us - that mediate the collapsing boundaries between the material and the virtual that we are experiencing.
In one sense, the computer - with its linguistic and perceptual ordering of signs - is the apotheosis the colonization of the Americas that began with the idealized grids of the Lettered City and continued with the project of natural science to attach an order of signs to an unknowable chaos that lay outside the boundaries of the polis. Only now the imposition of an independent order of signs no longer floats above the material reality of the colonized but is interconnected in indivisible and invisible ways that would have been unimaginable two hundred years ago. Given the degree to which the computer has become central to the connective tissue that links our material and virtual worlds, the work of artists who are exploring ways in which to register embodied experiences in a computer generated universe is increasingly important. It may be, as Donna Haraway has suggested a matter of survival. If we are not cognizant of the ways in which the encounter of the body and its virtual apparatus are transforming both social relations and our habitation of social space, we risk the very real danger of succumbing to the devouring terror or utopian ecstasy of the matrix that currently governs our technological projections of the self. Against this paradigm of doomsday and revelation, so articulately espoused by the Krokers, artists such as David Rokeby call for a resistance located in hybrid subjectivity that is embodied, radical, and cross-bred.
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