in to/out of the machine

Normally, I don’t believe in reposting 7007 work here (unlike some people) but since I’m told it was received very warmly and has some of my best recent writing, I’d thought I’d share it here.

To postulate the existence of such an entity is to formulate an unverifiable hypothesis—unverifiable, not as a result of practical difficulties, but unverifiable because there is not and cannot be any account of what would constitute verification. Such an entity must remain forever unknown and unknowable, and its presence or absence cannot therefore be the criterion by which we distinguish man from machines .

Miles, T. R. “On the Difference Between Men and Machines.” The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 7.28 (February 1957): 277-292.

It is hard to read Rotman without thinking of two phrases that have obvious linguistic connections but obscure theoretical ones, one which Rotman employs in our readings this week and one which aunts Rotman’s work as an absent but palpable reference: deus ex machina and ghost in the machine. Intentionally or otherwise, Rotman’s work across these essays pulls at questions raised by these two ideas. What follows, then, is some attempts to suggest ways in which these two phrases might offer some directions for understanding Rotman’s work.

Deus ex Machina. Literally, “god out of a machine,” and famously used or abused by Euripides, the conventional understanding of deus ex machina is of a hoary literary device used by desperate dramatists to work their way out of an impossible situation. Deliberately resituating its meaning, however, offers us some insight into the relationships between humans and machines as described by Rotman. The obvious point to look to in Rotman’s work here is his forcible dislocation of Yahweh in “Ghost Effects,” in a section suitably titled “Deus Ex Machina: Writing and its Ghosts,” as he finds and locates the “monoGod” (“Ghost”) in the alphabetic machine only to serve Him His eviction notice. This move, Rotman promises, holds the possibility of thinking beyond the monolithic transcendental subject—what Rotman characterizes elsewhere as the “self-contained eternal psyche understood . . . [as] the tragic, fallen-from-god soul” (“Becoming”)—and into a new subjectivity that foregrounds its own “becoming multiple” (“Ghost”). The becoming-emergent multiplicity becomes the site of monotheism’s demise: “Emerging in its place is the possibility of a new plurality of truths and futures: beings with an awareness of our/their multi-directional itinerary” (“Parallel” 77). Thus the move away from monolithic models of the subject is paralleled (haha!) by a concomitant move out of the strictly linear regimes of the alphabetic machine and into the waiting domain of the post/translinear digital.

Ghost(s) in the Machine. We have seen the parallel motion out of the language machine of monotheism and of monolinear subjectivity. By calling attention to the “ghost in the machine,” though, I hope to pull together some strands of thought from both Doyle and Rotman before returning to the claim forwarded by my epigraph. The ghost in the machine, a phrase introduced in 1949 by philosopher Gilbert Ryle as a critique of Cartesian dualism (thanks Wikipedia!), evokes not only Descartes, but also Plato’s theory of the mind or soul trapped in an imprisoning body. For Rotman, though, the ghost is not only in the (flesh) machine (to borrow from Iggy Pop) but of the machine: “The self may be as is said a natural kind, but it is also a made thing and my understanding here is the machinic processes of technology are (always have been) part of its making” (“Becoming”). Rotman rejects the model of “a psyche whose genesis and vicissitudes are transcultural and independent of history”; rather, he offers in its place “a psyche that is also conceived as being put together within society and history from outside itself, as an extraneously made thing”. As such, the subject is bound intimately to the machine, to technology, and to the world outside of its own perceived limits of interiority:

Now in cyberia the I/me-unit is disintegrating, the one who says “I” is no longer singular but multiple: a shifting plurality of disbursed, distributed, and fragmented personae. The I bleeds outwards into the collective, and the collective introjects, insinuates and internalizes itself within the me. What was privately interior gives way to the public, the historical, the social. What was the world enters the individual soul as personal destiny. The result: disjointed and ultimately unconvincing introspection, dizzying syncretism, the fibrillation of desire as we move back and forth across the boundary of an ongoingly constructed real, and the wild promise of a future dance in the memories of the cyborged and robotized descendents of our body-selves. (”Parallel” 60-61)

The subject is situated, yes, but this is tragic loss of insular identity; as Rotman promises, “pesons, identities, psyches, consciousnesses, subjects, and all kinds of intentional agents” are not illusory. Rather, it is a situation comedy, in the old sense of the word, a happy ending guaranteeing union—not conjugal unions perhaps, but a union with the collective other of which we are always already a part, a cybernetic subjectivity that transposes the boundary of interior and exterior with the “intersection of a neurology already enculturated and a culture inseparable from natural selection (“Becoming”). Rotman’s parallel, multiple self is the ideal subject for the new systemic model of postvital life envisioned by Richard Doyle. As our model of life movies increasingly toward a postvitality best understood as a web or network of interdependent agents and organisms, the multiple subject becomes a necessity for navigating the new translife landscape: multiplicities within multiplicities, a cybernetic cascade of plurality in constant exchange of information, energy, life. By moving outside the flesh-machine, we join the overwhelming copiousness of the vital machine-without-borders.

This move, away from the strict regime of interior subject and exterior bodies, cultures, technologies, is the basis for my final series of questions. The “entity” hailed above is the human conscious, or rather self-consciousness, the Cartesian cogito. On one hand, Miles is plainly right: subjectivity cannot be confirmed by any empirical test yet known (or known to Miles in 1957). On the other hand, though, Miles’s claim points to a fading era in which still stood the categorical imperative of the necessary division of man from machine. Within the pre-digital modern, Miles does not have the vantage point to ask the questions we now ask. But as we begin to theorize the parameters and outlines of what Miles calls homo machinisma and what Rotman elsewhere has named homo digitalis, I want to return to the scene of a half century prior and take up Miles’s question in a different light: do we still need the distinction between man and machine, or is it simply an ideological ghost of the fading monolinear self? A related question: given that, as Rotman asserts, subjectivity is not illusory, how would we verify it? What is the distinguishing mark of a subject given to multiplicity? Is this mode of subjectivity terminally theory-bound, or will our affective experience of subjectivity likewise become plural? How does it feel to wear the new flesh?


2 Responses to “in to/out of the machine”

  1. Kim Lacey Says:

    Yeah, yeah, I guess I’m big on the two-fer blog posting …ya caught me!

  2. and it’s always a she » Blog Archive » Response #7 Says:

    […] as someone else noted, my weekly cheap […]

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