A newly published op-ed by Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty is well worth reading for its nuanced response to the current crisis of falling idols in the world of arts and entertainment. Given my personal literary leanings, I find McNulty’s points to be nicely applicable to the case of someone he doesn’t name: H. P. Lovecraft, the moral excoriation of whom has by this point become de rigeur in some wings of the speculative fiction community. Here are some high points of McNulty’s argument, decontextualized from the rich field of specific examples, both classic and contemporary, that he uses to illustrate his point:
I know that an artist is not identical with his or her masterpieces and that few human beings can live up to their greatest achievements. . . .
If a book or play speaks, it does so in a way that transcends the limitations, and imperfections of the author, a more elusive figure than the publishing industry (and identity politics hard-liners) would have us believe. I’m not so much of the school of literary critic Roland Barthes, who famously declared the death of the author, as of the school of Proust, who saw that a writer crystallizes the notion of a multiplicity of identities, the way each of us contains numerous selves, not all of them readily categorizable.
Anyone whose occupation is imagining the lives of others necessarily has a thronging inner world. The artist who creates beauty can contain a fair amount of ugliness. . . .
History is the ultimate arbiter of what endures. Moral verdicts on the author, the raison d’être of many biographies, is a secondary layer that can color the reception of an artist’s oeuvre but cannot nullify work that retains its expressive power. . . .
Some of the shock we’re experiencing right now about all these fallen idols stems from our mythologizing natures. We expect our heroes to be exemplary, yet (as Proust points out) human fallibility may be a necessary ingredient in creativity. Heinous crimes are another matter entirely, but as any reader of biography can attest, genius and pathology aren’t exactly strangers.
From an essay by Ed Finn, founding director of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University:
We are all centaurs now, our aesthetics continuously enhanced by computation. Every photograph I take on my smartphone is silently improved by algorithms the second after I take it. Every document autocorrected, every digital file optimised. Musicians complain about the death of competence in the wake of Auto-Tune, just as they did in the wake of the synthesiser in the 1970s. It is difficult to think of a medium where creative practice has not been thoroughly transformed by computation and an attendant series of optimisations. . . .
Today, we experience art in collaboration with these algorithms. How can we disentangle the book critic, say, from the highly personalised algorithms managing her notes, communications, browsing history and filtered feeds on Facebook and Instagram? . . . .
The immediate creative consequence of this sea change is that we are building more technical competence into our tools. It is getting harder to take a really terrible digital photograph, and in correlation the average quality of photographs is rising. From automated essay critiques to algorithms that advise people on fashion errors and coordinating outfits, computation is changing aesthetics. When every art has its Auto-Tune, how will we distinguish great beauty from an increasingly perfect average? . . .
We are starting to perceive the world through computational filters, perhaps even organising our lives around the perfect selfie or defining our aesthetic worth around the endorsements of computationally mediated ‘friends’. . . .
Human creativity has always been a response to the immense strangeness of reality, and now its subject has evolved, as reality becomes increasingly codeterminate, and intermingled, with computation. If that statement seems extreme, consider the extent to which our fundamental perceptions of reality — from research in the physical sciences to finance to the little screens we constantly interject between ourselves in the world — have changed what it means to live, to feel, to know. As creators and appreciators of the arts, we would do well to remember all the things that Google does not know.
FULL TEXT: “Art by Algorithm“
“Birthday Boy” by Chris Mars
(The following announcement was first posted yesterday at Thomas Ligotti Online and has now begun to propagate via social media. In addition to the fact that a journal like Vastarien will undoubtedly interest many readers of The Teeming Brain, I’m posting the info about it here for the pointedly personal reason that I’m the project’s Editor-in-Chief.)
Vastarien. The forbidden tome — an entryway into “a place where everything was transfixed in the order of the unreal. . . . Each passage he entered in the book both enchanted and appalled him with images and incidents so freakish and chaotic that his usual sense of these terms disintegrated along with everything else. Rampant oddity seemed to be the rule of the realm; imperfection became the source of the miraculous — wonders of deformity and marvels of miscreation. There was horror, undoubtedly. But it was a horror uncompromised by any feeling of lost joy or thwarted redemption; rather, it was a deliverance by damnation. And if Vastarien was a nightmare, it was a nightmare transformed in spirit by the utter absence of refuge: nightmare made normal” (from “Vastarien” by Thomas Ligotti).
Editor-in-Chief Matt Cardin and Senior Editors Jon Padgett, Brian Poe, and Kevin Moquin are pleased to announce that Vastarien: A Literary Journal is now open for submissions. Vastarien aspires to be a source of critical study and creative response to the corpus of Thomas Ligotti, as well as associated authors and creative work. We plan to do this through the publication of scholarly and critical works of nonfiction, literary horror fiction, poetry, and artwork. Please visit our website for more information. And stay tuned for more news as we review submissions and head toward a launch date.
The following is excerpted and adapted from the introduction to A Darke Phantastique: Encounters with the Uncanny and Other Magical Things, edited by Jason V Brock for Cycatrix Press. Jason’s full introduction is titled “An Abiding Darkness, A Phantastique Light.” The book also features a foreword by Ray Bradbury in the form of a previously unpublished 1951 essay titled “The Beginnings of Imagination.”
Why do we, as a species, create things? What is it to “create”? What is the purpose of such activity?
These are fascinating questions, and likely no one has a complete answer to them. However, from my vantage point, in its most essential form, creativity is making the divine out of the mundane. It is taking the fundamental life force of the human spirit and resolving that unfocused energy into something akin to the spiritual. (Sexuality is another example of this process, and is tied to creativity.)
Shamans were often catalysts of this in pre-religious contexts. In more organized societies, religion has attempted to channel energy of this nature with decidedly mixed results, often heaping upon the creative impulse the added burdens of castigation and humiliation, lest the individual attempt to take their (rightful) place amongst the gods. Just as one need not believe in a godhead to live a moral and righteous life, one can be a creative without the insufferable tyranny of an organized gathering of impotents taking umbrage at every word written, every stroke painted, every dish prepared, every frame captured. We are the authors of our lives and the masters of the final outcome, not the politicians or religious leaders of the moment.
Who are these individuals to dictate to us? How are they more able to advise us than any other person in the world, including ourselves? Certainly none of us needs a pope, a president, a lama, or a god to assist us in navigating any moral conviction; it is an innate function of socialization and reasoning. We have imbued such people with this ability; they are not actually illuming our existence. To understand this takes courage, passion, skill, talent, and inspiration. Otherwise we are all doomed, in the words of Thoreau, to lead “lives of quiet desperation.” And then the grave, followed by the unknown. Why not take one’s life and steer it, rather than listen to the protestations of less valiant persons hiding from the possible?
Other questions of interest to humanity — and to creators, especially in our science-driven, technologically dependent age — present themselves upon analysis: What is the fundamental nature of reality? Why are we alive? Are we alone in the universe? When does consciousness become non-artificial? If a humanoid (or non-human animal for that matter) has enough experience and wisdom to have insight, that means the threshold of insight has been crossed, which means the “artificial” aspects of Artificial Intelligence (simply programming data points or relying on input/output mechanisms) will have been breached. It isn’t artificial at that point. It just “is.”
“What is the fundamental nature of reality? Why are we alive? Are we alone in the universe? When does consciousness become non-artificial?”
Using that as an illustration, we realize that we are at an intriguing juncture as a world-changing species. When the first non-living organism begins to manifest actual sentience (as opposed to simple self-awareness), true emotions (not just programmed reactions), and is able, for example, to produce a profound work of art — a masterpiece of literature, painting, music, cinema, or the equivalent — then there will be no fundamental difference between “AI” and just plain garden-variety “I.” Once that happens, we will really have to examine the ethics of how we treat things that are neither born nor cultivated, but built for a purpose — something humanity struggles with now as it is related to non-human creatures and even to other humans based on sexuality, gender, and race, all of which are natural manifestations of DNA expression on Earth.
And indeed, what purpose is there to creating such a being? If we limit their life course to what “we decide” versus their own free will, isn’t that slavery? What if they are psychopathic and intentionally shut off the electrical grid to a hospital, for example, or commit an act of terrorism? Would that be a crime? I think it means we would need to reconsider many aspects of jurisprudence and mental health, for a start. Additionally, it is said that one learns more from failure than success, so does that mean that for higher levels of consciousness to be attained, AI must first have input from extremely negative learning experiences in order to garner enough data for such things as insight or empathy to manifest? Where does that lead? Uploading all the misery of the Holocaust? The horror of a cancer diagnosis? Deprivation due to the inability to see, hear, or speak, like Helen Keller?
And who are we to decide that these beings are mortals? (They could, technically, be immortals with the current technologies.) Are these prerequisites for such phenomena as the creation of emotionally moving artworks or philosophy, including knowledge of one’s own eventual death? Is immortality a good thing for humanity, either organic or manufactured?
I will address these concerns in Part 2, to be published soon.
Now live: my interview with Canadian filmmaker J. F. Martel, author of the just-published — and thoroughly wonderful — Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice, which should be of interest to all Teeming Brainers since it comes with glowing blurb recommendations from the likes of Daniel Pinchbeck, Patrick Harpur, Erik Davis, and yours truly.
Here’s a taste of J. F.’s and my conversation:
MATT CARDIN: How would you describe Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice to the uninitiated, to someone who comes to it cold and has no idea what it’s about?
J. F. MARTEL: The book is an attempt to defend art against the onslaught of the cultural industries, which today seek to reduce art to a mindless form of entertainment or, at best, a communication tool. In Reclaiming Art I argue that great works of art constitute an expressive response to the radical mystery of existence. They are therefore inherently strange, troubling, and impossible to reduce to a single meaning or message. Much of contemporary culture is organized in such a way as to push this kind of art to the margins while celebrating works that reaffirm prevailing ideologies. In contrast, real works of art are machines for destroying ideologies, first and foremost the ideologies in which they were created.
MC: What exactly do you mean? How do real works of art serve this subversive function?
JFM: A great art work, be it a movie, a novel, a film, or a dance piece, presents the entire world aesthetically — meaning, as a play of forces that have no inherent moral value. Even the personal convictions of the author, however implicit they may be in the work itself, are given over to the aesthetic. By becoming part of an aesthetic universe, they relinquish the claims to truth that they may hold in the author’s mind in the everyday. This, I think, is how a Christian author like Dostoyevsky can write such agnostic novels, and how an atheistic author like Thomas Ligotti can create fictional worlds imbued with a sense of the sacred, however dark or malignant. Nietzsche said that the world can only be justified aesthetically, that is, beyond the good-and-evil binary trap of ideological thinking. The reason for this is that when we tune in to the aesthetic frequency, we see that the forces that make up the world exceed our “human, all too human” conceptualizations.
FULL INTERVIEW: “Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice“
The above image is a photo of a Strandbeest. What, you may ask, is that? Here’s how its creator, the Dutch artist Theo Jansen (who can be seen in the photo as well), explains the matter:
Since 1990 I have been occupied creating new forms of life. Not pollen or seeds but plastic yellow tubes are used as the basic material of this new nature. I make skeletons that are able to walk on the wind, so they don’t have to eat. Over time, these skeletons have become increasingly better at surviving the elements such as storms and water, and eventually I want to put these animals out in herds on the beaches, so they will live their own lives.
If you wonder what this actual entails and looks like in action, see the video below. Be advised that it will probably stand as the coolest and most mind-blowing thing you’ll see all week, month, or maybe year:
Last summer Jansen visited the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, in preparation for the first major American exhibition of his work, which will be presented at the PEM in 2015 and titled “The Dream of the Strandbeest.” My sister Dinah is a writer for PEM, and here’s how she described his visit:
Prior to meeting the man behind the Strandbeest, my introduction was the same as most — gazing at online videos of the enormous beach-combing beasts, while trying to teleport myself to that peaceful beach in the Netherlands. From the first moment I saw the lifelike creatures walking their four-legged dog pace, I wondered whether the God-like figure behind these post-apocalyptic-looking critters could likely change the world.
. . . In a roomful of PEM staff, Jansen shared how a Strandbeest works with pistons that act like muscles. Constructed of plastic tubes and recycled water bottles, the creature has a purpose beyond its more obvious one of being beautiful and mysterious. They are built to harness wind power and save eroding beaches. They detect atmospheric pressure and are designed to “pin themselves to the ground” to survive storms. Jansen spends his mornings coming up with difficult algorithms in the workshop, before biking 50 kilometers to the beach to try them out. By the end of the day, he said, the design works or it doesn’t. “The tubes point you in a certain way,” he says. “I’m surprised by how beautiful they are.”
. . . Jansen recently shared the genetic code of the Strandbeest on the web and is proud of the resulting designs in wood, out of Legos, in materials imagined by children and adults, so that the average person can be “infected” with the compulsion to create a Strandbeest. This is how they masterfully reproduce, he points out, adding that he eventually wants to put them out on the beach in herds, so that they can live on their own.
“Maybe it’s only a fairytale in my head . . . a surviving animal on the beach,” he said. “These are all designed for that. Maybe before I die, these animals will be there. This is my horizon, you could say.”
MORE: “Stunning Strandbeests“
Image by Roel via Flickr under Creative Commons
EDITOR’S NOTE: Many of you are probably (surely) aware that H. R. Giger died last week. The obituary in The New York Times — which is just one entry in the outpouring of recognitions and appreciations that have flooded the media — opens with a concise and excellent summation of Giger’s master themes and cultural significance:
A thread running through Mr. Giger’s work was the uneasy meshing of machines and biology, in a highly idiosyncratic blend of science fiction and surrealism. From books to movies to record albums to magazine illustrations to a back-scratcher inspired by ‘Alien,’ his designs challenged norms. He kept a notepad next to his bed so he could sketch the terrors that rocked his uneasy sleep — nightmarish forms that could as easily have lumbered from prehistory as arrived from Mars.
The same piece also contains a worthy quote from none other than Timothy Leary, who knew the man personally: “Giger’s work disturbs us, spooks us, because of its enormous evolutionary time span. It shows us, all too clearly, where we come from and where we are going.”
Someone else who knew the man personally is Teeming Brain columnist Jason V. Brock. Here, Jason offers a tribute and farewell in which he describes the time he met Giger and shares his reflections on the artist’s legacy and importance.
* * *
H. R. Giger and Jason V Brock
In 2006 my wife Sunni and I met the late visionary artist H. R. Giger at his home in Zürich, Switzerland.*
We were there to interview him for our forthcoming documentary Image, Reflection, Shadow: Artists of the Fantastic, and he, along with his lovely wife Carmen, entertained us for several hours. His house was a fascinating place, as one would imagine, and he was in a fine mood, laughing and discussing his artwork, as well as inquiring about a mutual friend, filmmaker Dan O’Bannon (writer of Alien, director of Return of the Living Dead and The Resurrected), who was still alive at the time. There was more to that fantastic encounter, including a fine meal, bottles of wine, the telling of amusing anecdotes, etc., but much of it is of a private nature; it is something that Sunni and I will always cherish and hold dear in our hearts. What I can share, however, is that Giger was very pleased that I had brought along a recent picture I had taken of Dan. He kept looking at the image in astonishment and muttering, “Mein Gott. ” I could sense that he was traveling back in time and reliving those moments so many years ago on the closed set of what would become the classic horror/sci-fi film Alien. Read the rest of this entry
I’m always struck by the passion and power of Chris Hedges’ words whenever he mingles his signature brand of journalistic-prophetic doomsaying with reflections on spiritual and artistic issues. (No surprise that he’s quite lucid in the latter area, by the way; he does have a Master of Divinity from Harvard, after all.)
Current case in point: his recent column about the power of imagination in an age of spiritual suicide.
Oracles were revered in premodern societies. These oracles were in touch with realities and forces that lay beyond the empirical. All societies have oracles — such as Thomas Paine, Emma Goldman, W.E.B. Du Bois and James Baldwin in the United States — but in a modern society they are pushed to the margins, ridiculed and often persecuted. Those who spoke out of their vision quests in Native American society, or from Delphi in ancient Greece, did not employ the cold, clinical language of science and reason. They spoke, rather, in the nebulous language of love, tenderness, patience, justice, redemption and forgiveness. They paid homage, and called on us to pay homage, to the mysterious incongruities of human existence. A society that loses its respect for the sacred, that ignores its oracles and severs itself from the power of human imagination, ensures its obliteration.
Reason makes possible the calculations, science and technological advances of industrial civilization. But reason does not lift us upward to the heavens. It does not bring us into contact with the sacred. It does not permit us to curb our self-destructive urges. Herman Melville, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Emily Dickinson, Marcel Proust, William Faulkner, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson mocked the myth of human progress and the folly of hubris. They, like Shakespeare, warned that conflating technological advancement with human progress deforms us.
. . . It is through imagination that we can reach the dark regions of the human psyche and face our mortality and the brevity of existence. It is through imagination that we can recover reverence and kinship. It is through imagination that we can see ourselves in our neighbors and the other living organisms of the earth. It is through imagination that we can envision other ways to form a society. The triumph of modern utilitarianism, implanted by violence, crushed the primacy of the human imagination. It enslaved us to the cult of the self. And with this enslavement came an inability to see, the central theme of “King Lear.”
. . . Songs, poetry, music, theater, dance, sculpture, art, fiction and ritual move human beings toward the sacred. They clear the way for transformation. The prosaic world of facts, data, science, news, technology, business and the military is cut off from the mysteries of creation and existence. We will recover this imagination, this capacity for the sacred, or we will vanish as a species.
MORE: “The Power of Imagination“
(Hat tip to Michael Hughes for alerting me to this item. And on a separate [but related?] note, why haven’t you read Michael’s paranormal/occult thriller novel Blackwater Lights, out last year from Random House’s Hydra imprint?)