Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Further Adventures in Medievalism: Squatty Potty Edition

I've explored the reason why it matters that we so often equate the medieval past with squalor and filth. So I was delighted when a friend sent me a link to the ad for Squatty Potty (tm) and its adjunct product, Unicorn Gold (tm).






The fancy clothes and posh accents of the spokesman and the courtly ladies put a little polish on the fact that we're watching an ad about shitting and farting. And the clothes themselves are a mix of ancien regime wigs and panniers for the ladies and mock-Tudor doublet and slashed sleeves for the spokesman, signifying a generalized "pre-modern" period ("Humans have been pooping for over a hundred years"). Even the child in the Unicorn Gold (tm) ad reflects the tendency in European portraiture in the 17th-19th centuries to depict children clothed like small adults. During the late Gothic period, the unicorn often signified rarity, beauty, and purity. The use of "real freaking gold" recalls the importance of potable gold as a panacea in medieval and early modern medicine (for those who could afford it), and the admonition to use Unicorn Gold (tm) "when you pay your taxes to King John" is a neat pun as well as an allusion to the plot of virtually every Robin Hood storyline in the 20th and 21st centuries. 

Using medievalism to advertise products related to poop aligns with existing ideas about the grossness of "the Middle Ages." Yet, in a neat inversion of this existing association, the past portrayed in these ads is also more desirable than the present. Hemorrhoids are brought on by the design flaws in modern plumbing; the toilet does not accommodate the human body. And it can be said of the people of Ye Olden Days (at least for the ones who use Unicorn Gold (tm)) that their shit don't stink. Medieval is the new modern.

Friday, June 16, 2017

"Get Out" Got Medieval

 "Get Out," Jordan Peele's racial horror film, uses medievalism as brilliantly as it uses milk and Fruit Loops to inform the audience about character and context. In particular, Jeremy's knight's helmet, which he uses in place of a ski mask to cover his face as he carries out his nefarious pursuits, conveys a great deal about that character, and about the way that white supremacy often relies on medievalism. 

Why a knight's helmet? It could easily come off as goofy or absurd. Mark Twain mined this object for its comic potential in Connecticut Yankee, and more recent cultural offerings, like "Role Models," have poked fun at LARPers and SCA-types. Yet, within the context of a horror film about race in America, it makes perfect sense that Jeremy carries out his misdeeds in medieval cosplay. The knight's helmet can be read as a reference to the Knights of the KKK (founded as a "kinder" KKK in 1975), and it signals the persistent link between white supremacist ideology and medievalism, present since the 19th century. Twain himself laid the blame for this at the feet of Sir Walter Scott, whose early 19th-century historical novels Waverley and Ivanhoe were extremely popular in the American South (and elsewhere). Scott (according to Twain) romanticized life on the grand agricultural estate, sentimentalized aristocracy and rank, and promoted illusion instead of reality. 

"It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations. For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them....Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war."

The opening title credits of "Gone with the Wind" make this link between the antebellum South and medievalism plain: "There was a land/of Cavaliers and Cotton fields/Called the Old South.../Here in this pretty world/Gallantry took its last bow./Here was the last ever to/be seen of Knights and their/Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave./Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered./A Civilization gone with the wind..." The Old South becomes the continuation of an (imagined) courtly, western European Middle Ages, both equally consigned to the past. 

Yet, as many other medieval historians have pointed out, the ideology of white supremacy did not exist in the Middle Ages, because (in part) the idea of a "white" race did not exist. Moreover, racial and ethnic diversity throughout the medieval world was not uncommon. Jeremy's knight's helmet is the perfect prop to signal his adherence to a false narrative of history, a narrative that rests on erasing Black people from history, whether it's the history of the medieval world or of the United States. 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Long History of A.I.

"Time is, time was, time is past," quoth the Brazen Head.
I recently had occasion to discuss medieval legends of oracular heads (brazen and other) in the context of the history of artificial intelligence. Gerbert of Aurillac (Pope Sylvester II), according to William of Malmesbury, made an oracular head using astral science that would answer questions "yes" or "no." Gerbert asked the head a question about the circumstances of his death, but misinterpreted the head's answer, and so died anyway. It's possible that William's proximity to Wales accounts for his tale of the oracular head; previous versions of this legend suggested that Gerbert had summoned a demon, using necromancy, to question about his death, and, according to Celtic legends, the decapitated heads of one's vanquished enemy could be used as oracles.

A few centuries later, John Gower transposed elements of this story to Robert Grosseteste, the Franciscan scholar and Bishop of Lincoln. In Gower's version, Grosseteste used astral science to make a brazen head that would foretell the future; unfortunately, Grosseteste slept through the head's pronouncements. At roughly the same time (late fourteenth century), Albert the Great, Dominican scholar and Bishop of Cologne, was credited with having used astral science to make a prophetic statue. In this version, found in a text on Christian morality (Albert exemplifies wisdom), one of Albert's brethren happens upon the statue and destroys it out of fear and ignorance. And just over two hundred years later, Roger Bacon, Franciscan scholar, was immortalized in an Elizabethan play as the "conjuring friar" who used necromancy to summon a demon who forged him a brass head, and which Bacon then animated via celestial magic. Like Grosseteste, his fellow Franciscan--and his intellectual forebear--Bacon, exhausted from his unceasing labors, slept through the head's pronouncement. 

A few common strands emerge from these different stories. In all instances, the man responsible for the head was known--in his lifetime, as well as after--for surpassing wisdom and skill in astral science, and interest in scientific instruments. Furthermore, in all instances, the purpose of the head is either prophecy or a more nebulous "secrets of nature." Additionally, the knowledge that the head provides is "out there"--that the future is already written, that the secrets of nature are not secret to all, but not vouchsafed to human intellect. Finally, and this may be the most salient point, the artificial intelligence is successfully created--the head tells its secrets, but humans are too weak or foolish to understand: we display confirmation bias and cannot correctly interpret what the head tells us (Gerbert), we have weak bodies and need sleep (Grosseteste, Bacon), or others prevent us from realizing our goals due to their own ignorance and fear. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Mirror of History

"Medieval is the new modern" is the tagline of this blog. I came up with it five years ago as a shorthand to signify both that many of the hallmarks of "modernity" have a long history stretching back to the medieval period, and to highlight the persistent medievalism in contemporary culture. 

Walters MS W. 34, fol. 15v.
Of course, "modernity"--just like "the West"--is an ideological construct, and it relies on "medieval" as the pre- or anti-modern category that defines its opposite. "Medieval" is the term that describes the primitive, ignorant, barbaric era that preceded the "Renaissance," the period of rebirth that banished slavish devotion to authority with inquiry and pursuit of intellectual novelty. This established, comforting narrative goes all the way back to (where else?) the medieval period, with Petrarch's lament that he lived in a "dark age." The medieval period undergirds the the narrative of progress; the period is the naive, uncivilized era that "the West" escaped or matured out of with the Renaissance (the individual), the Scientific Revolution (rationality over religion), the Enlightenment (liberalism and secularism), and the Industrial Revolution (wealth of some nations). The medieval period--a vast span of time over the globe replaced by a false, unitary time and place--reminds the philosophers, politicians, and scholars of "the West" of how far we've all come, and becomes a shorthand for what separates us from people living in other places, rather than those living in another time.

But in light of recent events, the Middle Ages are more important than ever. They offer an example of what cataclysmic demographic, political, religious, cultural, and economic change look like. Both halves of the Roman Empire provide object lessons in the perils posed to stability when the ruling elite becomes corrupt and sclerotic, and when abrupt demographic change occurs. By studying the medieval period we can see what happens--on a large scale--during a period of sustained climate change. The Middle Ages offer a mirror of what it looks like to live outside of the paradigm of progress. Medieval is the new modern.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Robots: Will Either Kill Us or Help Us to Death

Greetings, humans. Lots of medieval/robot news to share.

While the NYT reports that the Pentagon is confronting the reality of autonomous killing devices, a new center dedicated to ethical, computational, engineering, and social dimensions of human and machine intelligence just launched at Cambridge University. Meanwhile, San Jose airport has just installed new employees--robot "greeters" to help bewildered passengers. But why do they look female? Laurie Penny explains it all. Finally, fans of the original "Westworld" who had hoped that the new tv show would include Medieval World can continue to keep hope alive...

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Creating Lives in "Black Mirror" and "Ex Machina"

Netflix has just announced that it will produce another dozen episodes of "Black Mirror," hallelujah. The brilliant series interrogates later-capitalist techno-modernity and the shifting boundaries between self and object--specifically, our personal computing devices. This broad topic--humanity's relationship to intelligent computers and robots--has been explored recently in the new tv show "Humans" on AMC and Alex Garland's Biblically inspired film, "Ex Machina." But "Black Mirror" tackles gender in ways that complicate and enrich the narratives of human-machine relations, and that are not replicated elsewhere.

Daniel Mendelsohn, in a superb essay out this summer in the NYRB, explored "Ex Machina," Spike Jonze's "Her," and the lineage of sentient machines in the western cultural imagination, arguing that the current crop of films and tv shows are less about machines that become like humans, and more about humans that become like soulless automatons. Mendelsohn used examples to describe both what he calls the "economic" kind of robots--machines that replace or augment human labor--and the "theological"--sentient objects made in their makers' images. Both groups of objects include those gendered as male (Talus, Frankenstein) and female (Haephestus' handmaidens, Ava). 

Many tales of the sentient machine have an erotic charge. Ava, the SAI droid in "Ex Machina," was made, like her "sisters," to fulfill her creator's sexual fantasies. Of course, this goes all the way back to Pygmalion's statue of Galatea, whom Pygmalion created, adored, and used sexually before she was "brought to life" by Aphrodite. In fact, in every example that I can think of, when this story--of the creator and his uncannily life-like creation--appears with erotic elements, the creator is male and the created object is female. 

Like "Ex Machina," "Be Right Back," the first episode of the second series of "Black Mirror" also takes up the limits of the human creator and the human-machine relationship. But unlike the other examples, the machine-being in "Be Right Back" is male, and the creator who calls him into being is female. Martha (Hayley Atwell) and Ash (Domhnall Gleeson)* move to a new house; Ash, addicted to his smart phone and social media updates, dies in a car accident; Martha discovers she's pregnant. She pays a service that mines Ash's entire online presence to create a simulacrum of him, first as a disembodied AI program, and then fully embodied in a synthetic form that is almost identical to Ash. As Martha, pregnant with Ash's child (we see them having pretty banal, and--to Martha--unsatisfying sex earlier), prepares to create a new life, she practices by bringing an old life (Ash) back. The synthetic version of Ash is eerily servile and literal-minded, but he is also an improvement on the "real" Ash in some ways. For example, he is a much more satisfying and skilled lover, something that delights and also discomfits Martha. 

By making the creator figure a woman and the object a man, Charlie Brooker, the writer, highlights the importance of gender in creation stories in a way that is ultimately far more interesting than Garland's patriarchal "Ex Machina." Martha "creates" Ash just after she discovers that she is pregnant, and key moments of bonding with the synthetic Ash occur alongside hallmarks of her pregnancy, like when she shares the first sonogram image with the disembodied AI Ash. Brooker juxtaposes the narrative of natural creation (pregnancy, baby) with artificial creation (synthetic human replacement) and asks, how are we responsible for what we create? Martha grows to regret her synthetic creation, but she cannot destroy or abandon it. Part of the reason why is hinted in the poignant coda, which shows that the synthetic Ash is still "alive," but banished to the attic, where he is visited once a year by Martha's other creation, her daughter. This "father" is the only father her daughter will know. 

*Of course, Domhnall Gleeson is the sacrificial Caleb in "Ex Machina."

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Animals & Machines

St. Thomas Aquinas, in Summa contra Gentiles, compared animals to machines--lacking reason, animals behave in a prescribed sequence of actions, much like how a crossbow bolt is propelled forward by the force of the bow. What, I wonder, would he make of these animals, from various species, that attack drones? 

I suppose he might take it as further evidence for the similarity between animals and machines. But then there are the cats who have figured out how to use Roombas as mobile cat beds. Crows aren't the only animals who've figure out how to use tools...