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Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Surplus of Pathos

For my final project I will analyze the affective intensities that swirl around the recent debates about the budget and the deficit in the U.S. I will discuss both the institutionalized and dominant forms of discourse as well as the counter-publics. More specifically, I will draw on Sara Ahmed’s work on “Affective Economies” to illustrate the ways that rhetorical strategies are driven by processes of alignment on collective and individual levels. This crisis is an especially poignant example because questions of spending decide in who and in what we should invest in. The rhetoric fashions a specific group conception of what type of person or body politic the nation should adopt. This is an especially intense issue because of the way that American pulics view issues of spending as inextricably intertwined with conceptions of identity.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011


A 2008 study by Stanford researchers ("I Am My Robot: The Impact of Robot-building and Robot Form on Operators") indicates that the design of a robot has a serious effect on peoples' attitudes toward the technology at their disposal. People assembled either a humanoid or car robot, they then used a robot that was built by either them or another group of people. The experiments had the following results: “Participants showed greater extension of their self-concept into the car robot and preferred the personality of the car robot over the humanoid robot. People showed greater self-extension into a robot and preferred the personality of the robot they assembled over a robot they believed to be assembled by another” (31). Despite what type of robot they built, “people rated the car as being friendlier and having more integrity, while the humanoid was more malicious. People operating the humanoid may have been suspicious or critical of the robot, perceiving it as an independent actor and a threat to their performance as compared to a directly-controlled object” (35). People also took more credit for tasks completed with less anthropomorphized robots. This research has a few implications for future technologies. In the case of medical technologies, it may be better to use less humanoid appearing forms of technology in medical procedures because it allows for a better sense of self-extension. In the case of military robots using humanoid robots could allow operators to dissociate themselves from their actions, since they see the humanoid bots as seemingly more independent. The lack of self-extension leads to a lessened sense of responsibility.

A recent Wired article by Brendan Koerner outlines some of implications of such military research: “Yet despite our love of science fiction, this coming trend in robo-aesthetics is a bad idea. By anthropomorphizing their products, robot designers may unwittingly be encouraging needless bloodshed. Because, as recent research shows, the more human a robot looks, the more likely the Homo sapiens at its controls may be tempted to make the droids go Rambo on their foes.”

Like most innovations there is however a flip-side:
That’s not to say that having humanoid bots is always bad. Self-extension among robot operators may be desirable in combat but not necessarily in other grave situations. In search-and-rescue operations, for example, one of the biggest problems is operator stress—people find it incredibly taxing to sift through rubble remotely, with the monotony broken only by the ghoulish discovery of corpses or body parts. Humanoid robots would be ideal for such tasks; they could help the operators feel less viscerally attached to the grim work at hand.
The results of this research are somewhat odd. On the one hand since humanoids are more like us you’d think one could imagine their self as the robot, thus making it easier to identify with their technological counterpart. Yet on the other hand, the robots are so lifelike that it only makes sense for people to perceive it as an entity unto itself. It’s also striking that people perceived the humanoids as malicious. You’d think that people would imagine the perfectly calculating machine as able to make the rational rather than ill-willed intention. Perhaps it is simply how mediatized the figure of the Robot or Cyborg has become to our collective imagination that we simply assume it cannot possess the proper ethical reasoning that actual humans can. Either way this research bears a heightened relevance as Robots become a more influential aspect of our day-to-day existence.

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Eros, Economics, and Analysts: Working Through Ahmed's Affective Economies

Sara Ahmed’s essay “Affective Economies” toes the ephemeral threshold between the ordinary and the fantastic. Ahmed returns to a previous reading of Marx as the first analyst of the symptom by analogizing affective intensities to the circulation of commodities. Signs are converted into affective intensities not because of a property that inheres to them, but due to the surplus of sticky associations they gain as an effect of the process of circulation.

Ahmed reads against the grain of traditional interpretations of emotions in arguing that it is the nonresidence of emotions that makes them binding. Emotions are not a positive presence that may be possessed or contained nor are they psychological dispositions that originate solely within the subject. She takes the Marxist analogy further through the concept of commodity fetishism. Just as commodities in their ‘objective’ form conceal the hidden histories of labor and exchanges within a capitalist economy, “feelings appear in objects or as objects with a life of their own, only by the concealment of their personal histories, of production and labors, and circulation and exchange” (120-1). The analogy she says breaks down without reference to the exchange value/use-value distinction. It is here where she aligns herself more closely to the psychoanalytic school of thought. (I think it’s interesting that in an essay about the materialization of borders, she both entrenches and breaks down the borders between disciplines and academic pedantry.) Psychoanalysis offers a method of understanding emotions in relation to the unconscious. She differs from a strictly Lacanian version of psychoanalysis because she views “the subject” within the affective economy as “simply one nodal point in the economy, rather than its origin and destination” (121). Lacan, according to Ahmed, on the other hand adopted a view in which the subject is the “settlement” (121) of the signifier. She indicates that this would lead one to conceive of affects as a positive presence. Rather she would see the unconscious as a lack of presence or “the failure to be present – that constitutes the relationality of subjects and objects (a relationality that works through the circulation of signs)” (121). The unconscious in this view is not an unconscious that is possessed by or contained within the contours of the subject, but represents the absence of such a possibility or the grappling with fixing or materializing those contours. Repression then operates not as a repression of a feeling but through the displacement of the idea that caused it. Understanding affect as a form or language of the unconscious that works through the process of differentiation and displacement allows her to analyze the associative or metonymic process of substitution that occurs in the slippage between the figures of the asylum seeker, the terrorist, and the criminal. These figures gain a calcified affective value, being associated primarily with the fear of loss, yet remain spectral in their ties to particular, physical manifestations. Through temporal and rhetorical juxtaposition the figures become substitutable for one another. 

The Australian Tampa crisis illustrates this point in a dramatic fashion. Here the red ship loomed on the horizon of the public's imagination as an object of terror, even though people were fundamentally unaware as to what the threat actually was. Since media coverage was restricted, the incessant barrage of the same image of the lone ship gained an intensity through its circulation. Lone Bertleson and Andrew Murphie analyze in detail the event in an essay titled "An Ethics of Everyday Infinities and Powers: Felix Guattari on Affect and the Refrain" in the Affect Theory Reader. The perception of the ship was anything but merely representational, all people had was the repetition of a singular image. Bertleson and Murphie  said that the ship 
becomes the mark, the possibility of a new event (a new virtual potential for things to happen differently), of a set of new physical territories (actual borders, detention centers, ship's decks, islands, bodies), and of a set of new existential territories (these include virtual potentials, physical places, new modes of living, new laws, new sign systems, discourses, rhetorics, new feelings and emotions, new powers to affect and be affected). In sum a new field of expression arises, a refrain that potentializes other refrains (142). 
Here the relationship between a singular image and the question of alignment is especially explicit. The crisis occurred during a time when a conservative government needed an issue to rally around to justify its recent increases in security policies. The ship offered a new opportunity for the possibility of redirecting affective investments into a highly mediatized figure of the asylum seeker. The asylum seekers were denied access because of the possibility that they had ties to Osama bin Laden and other terrorist organizations. Since it becomes increasingly difficult to mark or differentiate exactly what a good asylum seeker looks like, any potential stranger or alien can be metamorphosized into a 'bogeyman.

On this basis Ahmed is able to twist the typical distinction between fear and anxiety. Fear, since at least Aristotle, if not earlier, is often argued to be in reference to a particular object, whereas anxiety lacks a stable referent. Ahmed on the other hand contends that fear is often less a question of the approach of a particular object than an approach to a vaguely outlined object. The lack of a stable referent intensifies rather than diminishes fear. Fear evokes the ontological questions of security, vulnerability and the bordering of bodies and nations.

Ahmed writes:
My argument is not that there is a psychic economy of fear that then becomes social and collective: rather, the individual subject comes into being through its very alignment with the collective. It is the very failure of affect to be located in a subject or object that allows it to generate the surfaces of collective bodies (128).
Fear is first an impersonal affect, or the condition, and it is through the process of alignment that a subject establishes its borders. There is first a state of insecurity a la Dillon, and then the marking of dangers allows us to create ideas of security. Ahmed argues that it is the fear of the loss of an object that is more profound than the actual object of fear. For example we fear what an inauthentic asylum seeker would steal from us more so than an actual asylum seeker. We fear their supposed disruption to the traditional family values, economy, and stability of the nation more so than the actual threat posed by a person to us. We are not afraid of the black other because actually seeing them instill fear that is completely contained within this body, but because affects open up past histories of intense signs that are attached to the present figure. In this way fear affects “relation between the objects feared (rather than simply the relation between the subject and its objects)” (128). In this way too affects operate within an economy that implies a socialized and materialized totality of values or affects rather than simply a subjective state felt. To a certain extent fear is contained within particular figures, but this is only as a result of the histories and sticky association temporarily evoked in relation to this figure. It makes sense that these negative affects would be intensified by not being able to locate them. It is the inability to designate who is and is not a terrorist that gives terrorism its force as an idea. When one hears an alarm but does not know what it is referencing is more powerful of a feeling because one does not know how to act in relation to the alarm. The inability know, the absence of a referent, seems to be at the heart of the feeling in the first place.

I wonder what the flipside would like. It seems that Socrates makes a similar point about Love in The Symposium. Socrates takes Eros through a topsy-turvy turn. Rather than viewing Eros as the attempt to unify a particular person with their unique lost half, Eros is understood as a form of Beauty that can be seen in many things. In the traditional view love would end the second the chase is over, once the object of desire was obtained. Eros for Socrates can be embodied in multiple and many referents and it is in viewing Eros as an eternal form that allows for a more intense experience of connection. Acknowledgment of the fact that there are many things rather than a singular person that are worthy of love lets one truly bask in its glory. Yet it also entails an understanding that one cannot ever completely obtain the feeling of love. The lack is still omnipresent but it is in the act of detaching the affect from a particular object or subject that intensifies it and lets it circulate more freely. 

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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Kurzweil's Cult

Robert Geraci writes on the growing influence of the singularity movement:
Will robots become massively intelligent? Will human beings become highly intelligent cyborgs or upload our minds fully into machines and thereby live forever? Whether they are correct is probably less important than the fact that the faithful who believe they are has a growing membership. Singularity University had more than 1200 applications for its first nine-week graduate class in 2009 (40 students were accepted). Public policy leaders and corporate officers have attended executive classes and funding has come from major tech companies such as Google and Nokia. Press surrounding the university has been positive, including even an encouraging review from the Chronicle of Higher Education, which suggests that traditional universities have much to learn from SU’s curriculum.

What we see is the emergence of a genuine religious tradition. Is it new? Not exactly: faith in technology to produce transcendent human conditions is centuries old. But this manifestation, whether it be under the label of transhumanism, Singularitarianism, or (as I’ve called it) Apocalyptic AI, has a cultural cachet that goes far and allows it to separate itself from other religious visions.
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