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...

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Six And A Half Ways of Being Undead in "Game of Thrones"

Is Jon Snow really dead? That is the question that has been on everyone's minds since the finale of Season 5 (or since the end of ADWD)--including President Obama's. D. B. Weiss has said that Snow won't be back--"Dead is dead," quoth he. But of course, the learned reader knows that this phrase appears on the first page of A Game of Thrones, spoken by Gared, one of the Rangers. Royce responds, "But are they dead? What proof have we?"
In fact, there are a number of ways to come back from the dead on GoT, as we've seen since the pilot episode. 
1) Wights, the risen dead in thrall to the White Walkers.
2) Mirri Maz Duur's resurrection of Khal Drogo.
3) Beric Dondarrion's resurrections by Thoros of Myr.
4) Those who seek death in the House of Black and White live again when the Faceless Men use their identities. 
4.5) Qyburn "saves" The Mountain from death (or brings him back?) and turns him into something...else.

Book bonus:
5) Aeron "Damphair" Greyjoy serves the Drowned God as a priest, after he was drowned and resuscitated. 
6) Varamyr Sixskins, a warg, who lives on after his human death in his wolf One-Eye.

Any other examples?


Thursday, April 2, 2015

Out of Time: Outlander's Medievalism

"Outlander,"* the captivating historical fantasy/romance based on the series by Diana Gabaldon, has a lot going on: a charismatic, capable hero; a gorgeous love interest (or two); a terrifying villain; serpentine political machinations; textile porn; lush scenery; sex; and an unprecedented commitment to the female gaze. And something else: medievalism. 

The medievalism of "Outlander" is there from the outset. Thoroughly modern Claire Beauchamp Randall and her urbane, ardent husband, Frank, venture to the Scottish Highlands for their second honeymoon. In the pilot episode, Claire's (and Frank's) modernity is emphasized over and over again...and especially when she suggests, with a few glances and a tantalizing lack of undergarments, that her husband go down on her in an abandoned castle (he agrees with enthusiasm). Their egalitarian partnership--sexual and otherwise--and Claire's full autonomy are highlighted against the gloomy medieval backdrop, which itself dates from a time when, supposedly, women were little more than chattel and had no autonomy of their own. 

Later, Claire steps through the standing stones at Craigh na Dun and is thrown back in time, to 1743. The first thing that happens to her in 1743 is that she's almost raped by a British soldier and the second thing that happens is that she's rescued by a Scot and then taken prisoner--confirming the notion (for the audience and for Claire) that the past is a dangerous place for women. A mysterious local woman, Geillis Duncan, later warns Claire that the Highlands are no place for a woman alone; this warning stands in stark contrast to Claire's memories of the work she did as a nurse on the front lines in WWII, separated from her husband by their respective war duties. By the end of the episode, she ends up at the same castle--Castle Leoch--where she and Frank had their intimate interlude. Only now, Castle Leoch isn't abandoned. It's the bustling seat of Clan Mackenzie and Claire's new home/prison.

Claire's an Englishwoman in the Highlands, a sassenach (foreigner), and her Scots hosts (or captors) are suspicious of her for that reason. Her asynchrony is her secret, something that only she--and the audience--can know.** Claire's "out-of-time-ness" drives much of the plot: her attempts to escape her Scots guards and evade the sadistic British captain who tried to rape her and return to Frank, and her knowledge of the Jacobite Rising of 1745, which virtually destroyed much of the distinctive Highland culture. The audience learns, through voice over and flashback (or is it flash-forward?), that after the Battle of Culloden in 1745, the Highland clans were broken and their language--Gaelic--forbidden by the British. For Claire and for the audience, the outcome of the Rising is both history and foreknowledge, and Claire's anachronism gives rise to nostalgia for a way of life that will soon be lost.

That way of life, which Claire--and the audience--get to know over several episodes, is distinctly medieval, uninterrupted for centuries. Collum Mackenzie, the laird (or lord) of the clan lives in a castle; his brother, Dougal, is a war-chieftain. Collum has a harper in his service, just like in days of yore. Claire acts as a healer, or Beaton, to the residents of Castle Leoch, and her disgust at the filthy and barbaric implements and remedies that her predecessor used highlights the "medieval" medicine available at the time. She attends the Gathering, when all of the laird's tenants come to the castle to pledge their fealty with solemn vow, and celebrate with games, drinking, and a boar hunt, and she saves a young boy from the clutches of the fanatical and benighted Father Bain by diagnosing him with accidental poisoning rather than demonic possession. Dougal and the men-at-arms (including Jamie) collect the annual rents from the laird's tenants. Despite the fact that specie is widely used, the Mackenzie tenants often pay their rent in livestock, grain, or other goods. The women in one of the settlements chant songs that have come down through generations of women, going back hundreds of years. The laird's man of law, Ned Gowan, admits to Claire that he came to the Highlands from tame, civilized Edinburgh in search of wilderness and adventure. The English soldiers that Claire meets in Brockton call the Scots uncivilized, brutish, and wild--not because they live in the Highlands, but because they live in the past. Their loyalty is to their local laird, not their distant king; they wear kilts instead of trousers; they speak Gaelic instead of English; they live in crofts and villages, rather than towns and cities. 
The trope of the Scottish Highlands as an untamed, uncivilized wilderness goes back to the Middle Ages, when Latin writers posited that Scotland (and Ireland) were at the far edges of the inhabited world, and were home to monsters, wild men, and forbidding topography and landscapes. "Outlander" dramatizes that trope and updates it, so that the Highlanders become medieval people living in the Georgian period, just as out of time as Claire.

* Talking about the tv show in this post, not the books.
** For now.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Vikings: They Do Things Differently There

Viking graffiti found in Orkney
"Vikings," the History Channel's scripted drama, just returned for its third season. Many others have written about the many historical antecedents and inaccuracies, exactly how metal the show is, and the political ideology behind the show. Despite the fact that the show airs on a channel called The History Channel, I find discussions of accuracy to be pointless. "Vikings" is a scripted drama, not a multi-series documentary about The Viking Age (NB: VPs of programming: I'd watch that, too), and, besides, The History Channel isn't that concerned with peer review or even historicity in much of its programming. 

There's plenty about the show that I don't care for (total absence of suspense, tedious love stories, gaping plot holes), but what I love about it is its total commitment to medievalism. The Vikings speak in what sounds like Old Norse, the Anglo-Saxons speak Old English. Aethelstan and his brethren labor in the scriptorium, copying ancient texts and making art to glorify Christianity. Enlightened characters, like Aethelstan and Ecgbert, have heard of the Romans and their achievements, while the common folk believe that giants once ruled England. The blood eagle makes an appearance (just like in "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned"), Charlemagne and Offa are name-checked, and everyone is dirty (except for the enlightened King Ecgbert, who bathes regularly).

And yet the show is so good at presenting the Northmen and Anglo-Saxons of the late 8th and early 9th centuries as just similar enough to us to be sympathetic, but strange enough to be compelling. I think Aristotle meant something else when he said that drama should be "transporting," but I still argue that "Vikings" transports the viewer to a very different time and place. The show looks good--the settlements, homesteads, and even great shrines (like Winchester) are small and poky, the great halls are big, smoky, and filled with people and animals. The women wear the same style of ornaments that I saw in York, Edinburgh, and London at different Viking exhibits. More importantly, the Northmen on the show are riveting and alien. They are motivated by different things from the viewers (and also the Anglo-Saxons)--the potency of their beliefs and rituals echoes throughout episodes like "A King's Ransom" and "Sacrifice" (dealing with burial and ritual sacrifice, respectively), but also in the repeated insistence on fate, the desire of the Northmen to die in battle, and their gender relations. 

The writers have admittedly drawn on some great historical source material: Saxo Grammaticus, Ibn Fadlan's account of his time among the Rus, sagas, annals, and skaldic poetry. But I wonder about another, uncredited source: King Hereafter. Ragnar reminds me of Thorfinn: His watchfulness, his soul-friendship with Aethelstan, his dry wit ("looks like your god really came through for you"), his gift for military and political strategy, and his gift for foresight are all qualities that he has in common with Thorfinn. Even Ragnar's complex relationship with Flokí is somewhat reminiscent of the dynamic between Thorfinn and Rognvald (without the homoeroticism). Perhaps the third season will bring more similarities between their storylines: Ragnar will reign and, like Thorfinn, will journey farther afield (perhaps Constantinople instead of Rome), have his faith in his gods tested, and eventually die in single combat and be called to Valhalla.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

You Must Change Your Life with Norse Paganism

News of Iceland's first temple to the Norse pantheon to be built in the last millennium arrived in my inbox the same week that I started trying to wrap my brain around Peter Sloterdijk's work (Spheres and You Must Change Your Life). The neo-pagans of Ásatrúarfélagið explicitly eschew literal belief in the myths of the pantheon. The temple will be the space for numerous life-cycle events, as well as the celebration of seasonal festivals. The temple itself will be circular, dug into a hillside, and topped with a dome. 

Like I said, I've had Sloterdijk on my I was tickled to read about the creation of a literal sphere as a place of religious worship. Spheres are Sloterdijk's model of the three "ages" of human existence (nested spheres inside one giant sphere; the terraquaeous globe; microspheres and "global foams"). And he contends that religion does not exist; instead, what we think of as religion is the misshapen, stunted distortion of poorly understood "spiritual regimens," in other words, religion is a bad translation of practices or habits that lead to transcendence. And since humans can never inhabit the exterior, only the interior, constructing the interior is what creates transcendence. 

The neo-pagans in Iceland explicitly reject the literality Old Norse beliefs in favor of creating a sphere of community (in the form of ritual, celebration, and ways to understand the world) based on the practices that Old Norse myths reveal. I hope their praxis and their new spherical interior lead them to transcendence, as Sloterdijk contends.