Friday, June 23, 2017

Sudden Departures, Delayed Arrivals: Recording That Which Isn’t There in The Leftovers

The archive and the encyclopedia: two adjacent dreams of total information, two Enlightenment projects in parallel, each vexed by its own internal fire.  Parallel, but converging at the vanishing point—where all encyclopedias become archival through obsolescence.
~Paul K. Saint-Amour, Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form

Fair warning—for here, there be spoilers…

HBO’s The Leftovers is a show with no clear conclusion, and it’s better for it.  Adapted from Tom Perrotta’s novel of the same name, the series depicts the aftermath of the Sudden Departure—a mysterious and cataclysmic event in which two percent of the world’s population vanishes into thin air.  At the end of the show’s final episode, viewers learn of another world—an alternate reality, perhaps—exactly the same as the one depicted in the show, but in which the departed two percent apparently live.  Having lost ninety-eight percent of the population, much of the world’s global infrastructure has collapsed; for instance, they still have plenty of airplanes, but far fewer pilots.  Extrapolating from this, we may infer that they have also lost law enforcement officers, construction workers, farmers, engineers… the system of individuals that knits society together.  None of this is to mention the traumatic factor.  In the narrative world of The Leftovers, the world in which the Sudden Departure only took two percent of people on the planet, the remaining ninety-eight percent must grapple with the mystery of losing their loved ones; but the mystery is not debilitating, the loss not (in most cases) materially destructive.  “Over here,” Nora says, “we lost some of them.  But over there, they lost all of us.”
Viewers are never given a glimpse of the other half, of the missing two percent and their dark, decommissioned world—we must take Nora’s word for it.  Some have questioned whether Nora’s story is a lie, but this is beyond the show’s purview.  It doesn’t give us the information necessary to answer this question.  What’s more, the question is beside the point.  The show is not interested in answering the questions of how or why the Sudden Departure occurred, but exploring the kinds of narratives that people (individually and collectively) compose in an attempt to make sense of what happened.  It’s a story about storytelling, in that regard, which is another reason why the show never reveals whether Nora was lying or not—it doesn’t matter.  The story is all that matters.
The Leftovers is a show about dealing with trauma, and the first season in particular reveals some of the more traumatic experiences from the Sudden Departure: a mother whose infant child vanishes from its carrier (the show’s famous opening sequence); a woman (Nora) whose entire family vanishes from her kitchen table; another woman (Laurie) whose unborn child vanishes from the womb; a man (Kevin) whose illicit lover vanishes from his arms while the two are having sex.  Sigmund Freud described trauma as the neurotic reaction to an event for which one could not possibly prepare—a sudden and unexpected event that leaves the mind and body reeling, struggling to make sense of what has happened to them.  What could be more unexpected than the Sudden Departure?  In the wake of World War Two and the rise of the nuclear age, which unleashed the horror of atomic destruction on the world, there emerged a sense of foreboding, a premonitory nervousness.  Freud classified these sensations in different ways: anxiety, for expectation of an unknown danger; fear, for the expectation of a known danger; and fright, for the (non-traumatic) realization of an unexpected danger.  The Sudden Departure left no time for any of these sensations—it was instant, extemporaneous.
Perhaps the closest real-world analogies we might locate are the actual bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (not their spectacular aftermath as the story spread around the world), or the terror attacks of September 11th, 2001 (once again, not their spectacular aftermath).  But neither of these events had an immediate global effect.  Of course, their influence spread rapidly around the world, but they lack the timeless ubiquity of the Sudden Departure.  The 9/11 attacks in particular almost seemed to presage themselves, as certain critics noted afterward: “Far from overwhelming survivors and onlookers through its immediacy,” writes Paul K. Saint-Amour, “[9/11] was ubiquitously mediated, most notably through images that seemed already to have appeared, everyone said, in dozens of Hollywood disaster and sci-fi films.”  What Saint-Amour calls the “ubiquitously mediated” quality of 9/11 is distinct from what I have called the “timeless ubiquity” of the Sudden Departure.  9/11’s ubiquitous mediation derives from its recording and global reproduction on television screens across the world.  It was viewed live, as it happened (absent the first plane, which was viewed later), and continually replayed, unfolding before everyone’s eyes in an uncanny way, as though we’d all seen this before in the movie theater last weekend…
By contrast, the Sudden Departure was an unrecorded event, and the show takes pains to underscore this point.  Characters are often depicted in the immediate aftermath of the Departure, with viewers seeing them in the intimate moments following a particular vanishing.  But the show never—not once—depicts someone vanishing from the screen.  The Sudden Departure happens, in the most direct sense, offscreen.  If we consider the show as a documentation of the event itself, it could only be a documentation of its effects, however immediate they might be (if recordings do exist of people vanishing, the show doesn’t bother to mention them).  In this manner, The Leftovers illuminates the archival impetus toward catastrophe: that is, the urgency to record the disaster so as to shape it into a coherent and cohesive narrative.  To make sense of what is senseless.  The Sudden Departure is the ultimate traumatic event not because it is senseless (the 9/11 attacks still, to many of us, remain somewhat senseless), but because it is unarchived—perhaps even unarchivable.  The Sudden Departure’s singularity—the precise moment of its happening—is designated not by presence, but by absence.
The Leftovers appears to be tapping into a central element of humanistic trauma studies, one whose inaugural moment is likely Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever.  In her examination of Derrida’s work, Cathy Caruth suggests that the events in question—contemporary events such as 9/11, but also Hiroshima, or even the Holocaust—“are not simply the objects of archives, or objects that call out for archiving; they are also, themselves, unique events whose archives have been repressed or erased, and whose singularity, as events, can be defined by that erasure.”  Taking this a step further, Caruth writes that these events “consist precisely in hiding themselves; they become events insofar as they are, precisely, hidden.”  Careful readers will notice Caruth’s repetition of the word “precisely”; I take this to be a suggestive repetition for the case of The Leftovers.  In The Leftovers, the Sudden Departure is precisely what is hidden, what is left offscreen.  We see the repercussions of this event everywhere in the show, in every character, but the actual occurrence obscures itself.  It is an archive of suffering and trauma because the originating moment—ground zero—can never be revisited.
No one likes to witness the originating moment, but its recording often invokes the old adage: You don’t want to stare, but you can’t look away.  As we revisit the photographs of Auschwitz, or the footage of the planes crashing into the towers, we gradually construct a means of dealing with the event.  This phenomenon is unconscious and complex, but takes shape everywhere, from the pursuit of Nazi war criminals to the success of films such as Inglorious Basterds.  In the wake of 9/11 and subsequent attacks, the means of coping has been accompanied by a state of perpetual anxiety, as the world wonders what form the next attack might take.  Avril Horner identifies this phenomenon in contemporary literature and cinema as the “Global Gothic”: “that is, Gothic films and fictions arising from fears about the impacts and effects of globalisation (including terrorist acts) on culture, societies, and individuals.”  The Leftovers may not fit snugly into Horner’s category, but it is global (the third season moves us from America to Australia) and it’s certainly gothic.  The show even imagines its own terrorist organization, the Guilty Remnant—a group that doesn’t inflict physical pain but mental torment.  Its function appears to be to counteract the archival amnesia that accumulates around the event itself; that is, the Guilty Remnant resists forgetting, resists erasure.  Rather, it reminds, remembers, reenacts, and remains.  Its culminating acts occur at the ends of seasons one and two, the first being the uncanny reenactment of the Departed’s near-final moments, and the second being the occupation of the only town that claimed not to lose anyone during the event.
The Guilty Remnant meets its end, appropriately, at the tip of a government missile—an end that offers minimal preparation.  The missile strike is poignantly depicted in the reflection of Evie’s glasses, emphasizing the visual, allowing the audience a glimpse, however slight, into the moment of impact.  Even then, the image is still more than the ubiquitous—and ubiquitously absent—Departure.  The impetus behind an entire series, a series fascinated by the mythic, the fabulous, by the narratives that arise from an unrecorded and—to the extent that it was unexpected—unobservable event.  Even those whose eyes were trained on one of the Departed in the last instant before vanishing cannot be said to have observed the event, as its occurrence could not have been anticipated.  This may be a counterintuitive statement, so I’ll linger on it for just a moment.  Who can claim to have actually observed the event in the same way that we observe an experiment, a wedding, or a television show?  In keeping with the etymology of observation, we have to remember that observation is not simply looking, but obeying, hence the phraseology of “observing the law.”  But what laws are there to observe in an event that defies them all?  What do our instruments record when we have constructed them according to those laws, when we read their measurements according to their capacities?  In retrospect, we realize that even visual recordings of the Departure can’t be said to have recorded the event, that even our eyes can’t be said to have witnessed it.  They have only witnessed a mystery.
In his essay on nuclear war, “No Apocalypse, Not Now (Full Speed Ahead, Seven Missiles, Seven Missives),” Derrida writes that nuclear war “has never occurred, itself; it is a non-event.”  Fittingly, The Leftovers gives us a glimpse into the possible advent of nuclear war in the third season, although the show suggests that it will not escalate.  What was once one of the worst disasters imaginable seems poised to begin, yet none of the characters appear distraught or nervous.  The mushroom cloud hangs in the distance, recorded capably and reported on news stations across the world.  It feels contained, sealed-off.  In fact, the only reaction it significantly evokes is frustration, as several of the characters find themselves stranded when air traffic is grounded.  The nuclear explosion is mere background, consigned to the dustbin of relative inconsequence.  “For the moment,” Derrida goes on to write,
one may say that a non-localizable nuclear war has not occurred; it has existence only through what is said of it, only where it is talked about.  Some might call it a fable, then, a pure invention: in the sense in which it is said that a myth, an image, a fiction, a utopia, a rhetorical figure, a fantasy, a phantasm, are inventions.  It may also be called a speculation, even a fabulous specularization.  The breaking of the mirror would be, finally, through an act of language, the very occurrence of nuclear war.  Who can swear that our unconscious is not expecting this? dreaming of it, desiring it?
Is it possible that, in the world of The Leftovers, no one dreams of nuclear war anymore?  That it no longer occupies our thoughts or desires?  That even our Trumpian anxieties have been trumped by something else, by a mystery we cannot solve?  If this is the case, then what are we to make of the show’s narrative choices?  What does the Sudden Departure signify—do we even dare to ask?
            A number of reviewers have noted, as I do above, that The Leftovers leaves Nora’s final lines—her description of her journey into the mirror-world, where the Departed two percent live—entirely undepicted.  It is an unrecorded experience, related only through her words.  By contrast, the show repeatedly depicts Kevin’s heavily symbolic journeys, all the while refusing to verify whether they possess some preternatural quality, or whether they consist entirely of hallucinations he has in his own head (he suggestively cannot provide an answer as to why Grace’s children were missing their shoes).  Kevin’s experiences rapidly become the stuff of prophecy and faith, a source for Matt’s quest for religious meaning in the wake of the Departure.  He embarks on his journeys (or induces his visions) by completely unscientific means, requiring others to hold him underwater until he drowns (we never learn how he repeatedly regains consciousness, often without being resuscitated).  Nora’s journey, on the other hand, might be the most scientific aspect of the show, even if the writers never go into the specifics of the science behind it (we know there’s a physicist involved—being a humanities scholar, that’s enough for me); and yet, we’re never shown anything from her tale.  In a beautiful yet confounding move, the audience can only identify with Kevin, whose sanity has never been entirely unquestionable.  We listen to her words, and we decide if we agree with Kevin’s final lines: “I believe you,” which he follows with, “Why wouldn’t I believe you?  You’re here.”
It’s a beautiful end to a beautiful series.  When the archive fails—when our feverish impulse to document, to record, to represent everything ends up erasing the thing we want so desperately to understand—what other choice do we have?  In Kierkegaardian fashion, The Leftovers encourages its audience to take stock of what we know, and to juxtapose this with what we must believe (or not believe).  Kevin’s experiences—the experiences of a man who has possibly inherited a mental illness—are rendered imaginatively on film, while Nora’s experience—the experience of the show’s persistent debunker of hoaxes—is left to language.  In the wake of an unassimilable event, possibly the ultimate unassimilable event, the show returns us to the problem we began with: not just the unknown, but the unarchived.  No matter what we take away from the show’s Sudden Departure, or from any traumatic event by which we are beset, it won’t be our ability to return to it, to somehow recover it, as though unearthing its record, that allows us to move on.

The Leftovers ends the only way it can: at the moment when knowing is no longer necessary.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Hard Problems: Beyond Westworld

            In the eighth episode of HBO’s Westworld, park creator Robert Ford suggests that human consciousness is, in fact, no more spectacular than the state of mind the artificial hosts experience.  He suggests that consciousness may not, in fact, be all that special after all:
There is no threshold that makes us greater than the sum of our parts, no inflection point at which we become fully alive. We can't define consciousness because consciousness does not exist. Humans fancy that there's something special about the way we perceive the world, and yet we live in loops as tight and as closed as the hosts do, seldom questioning our choices, content, for the most part, to be told what to do next. No, my friend, you're not missing anything at all.
As I listened to these lines, I realized that I had heard them before, and not in the eliminative materialism of Paul Churchland or Daniel Dennett.  No, I realized that I had heard them before on HBO, from True Detective’s own Rust Cohle: “We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self; an accretion of sensory, experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody.”  The critique of selfhood, the illusion of consciousness, the epiphenomena of perception…
            I’m beginning to think that HBO is trying to convince its viewers they don’t exist.
            Of course, I’m on board with all of this.  I often wonder whether I exist.  Not my body, or whatever cognitive processes are going on inside my body that produce this sense of I-ness, this impression of subjective experience.  The impression is very real, and I think that even the eliminative materialists will back me up on that one.  I’m skeptical, rather, of the way we structure our subjectivity, the way in which we conceive the ground of our experience.  We could discuss this in directional terms: in other words, does the I produce our experience of reality; or does our experience of reality produce the I?  This is the big question that shows like Westworld and True Detective are actually asking, if we take the time to push past the superficiality of character.  After all, what is the real anxiety fueling a show like Westworld?  Is it that androids, if and when we’re actually able to create perfect human replicants, might become self-aware and rebel against their master-creators?  This is certainly one possible interpretation of HBO’s show, but it isn’t the primary anxiety—or what I would even call the horror—that drives its narrative.
            The central anxiety of Westworld is not that nonhuman replicants might become conscious and rebel, but that actual humans might not even be conscious at all.
            That we are all no more than replicants.
            A very literal interpretation of this anxiety is that we have all been biomechanically engineered and are simply unaware.  Westworld even taps into this uncertainty in the final episode when Maeve and the other awakened androids are escaping: one of the human employees stares at his own hands, contemplating the possibility that he is an android until Maeve puts his mind at ease: “Oh for fuck’s sake.  You’re not one of us.  You’re one of them.”  The hostility in her words is palpable, and it’s not long before most of the Delos employees meet their doom at the hands of the rebel replicants.  We find similar examples in other artificial intelligence narratives as well, such as Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, when Caleb cuts into his own arm to verify whether he is actually human.  The message is clear: when replication reaches a certain stage, we may all suffer such uncertainty.
            The less literal interpretation is not that we are actually androids—artificially created, technologically maintained, etc.—but that our subjective experience is, in fact, no different from that of an android.  That our minds are comprised of “loops as tight and as closed” as any observing system.  Westworld realizes this possibility via a conceptual analogy that takes place at the level of both form and content: specifically, what the androids experience as the limits of their conscious knowledge, viewers experience as the epistemological limits of the show itself, the narrative limits—or, what I more concretely like to think of as the limits of Westworld, the theme park.
            Near the end of the final episode, the android Maeve nearly makes her escape; but while sitting on the train she observes a mother and daughter, and this interaction compels her to leave the train and reenter the park to find her own daughter.  The question remains, of course, whether this decision is her own, or whether it was programmed into her; but the implications are crucial: by redirecting Maeve back into the park, her decision (or her directive) has led her away from the epistemological limit of the show, the mysterious outside, the social context that exists beyond the park.  We are reminded, here, of one of the show’s mantras: Consciousness is not a journey upward, but a journey inward.  Consciousness is a matter of reflection and repetition, not a matter of extending our perception beyond the constitutive limits of our brains.  We are embodied beings.
            Ford tells the Man in Black that the maze was not meant for him, but this is not entirely true.  The maze, as it represents consciousness, was not meant for us; but the maze, as it represents an awareness of our cognitive limits, is meant for us.  Consciousness is not the only maze in Westworld—the narrative itself is a maze.  I can’t help but think that the writers make this connection, given the show’s preoccupation with narratives.  The entire series circles around the revelation of a new narrative whose purpose is revolution.  This revolution is ostensibly the androids’, but it belongs to viewers as well.  Our quest for answers parallels the androids’ quest for answers.  To fully understand this, we have to identify the patterns, the signals the show sends out to us.  We receive one such signal in the very first episode: the photograph of William’s fiancé.
            When confronted with this photograph, Dolores offers the proper response, the response that all androids are (supposedly) programmed to give when presented with objects that do not conform to the expectations of their reality: “It doesn’t look like anything to me.”  The reason it doesn’t look like anything is not just because it depicts something beyond the androids’ experience, but because it functions as information on a higher level; and this is why it inevitably generates a sense of paranoia among the androids—that it means something, and that its meaning must have some purpose for the androids’ reality.  In fact, the photo has no purpose for the androids’ reality, is dropped entirely by accident; but it ends up having profound consequences.  It is a part of the network of signals within the show, even if its presence is contingent.  It is a difference between what Douglas R. Hofstadter might refer to as “operating system levels”—depending on how information is collected and collated, it has different meanings at different scales.  The androids of Westworld must work their way to a state of awareness in which the photograph means something, in which it makes sense—just as viewers of the show must realize the emergent analogy at the heart of the series: that the process of android consciousness mirrors our own epistemological limits.
            To put this another way, we can reconfigure Westworld’s emphasis on narrative—its repeated references to new narratives, drawing the audience’s attention to its own narrative structure—can be reframed as an emphasis on cognitive function.  Narrative is Westworld’s ultimate maze, the complex structure by which viewers come to their own kind of realization: that we occupy a position analogous to the park’s androids, and that the show’s narrative has been analogous to Arnold’s maze, guiding the androids to consciousness.  The humanist response to this interpretation would be to acknowledge the very real human capacities of the androids themselves—that their coming-to-consciousness, being like ours, places them in the realm of the human.  There is also a posthumanist response, however, one that is much more chilling—that human beings, embedded in the narratives of our own making, are nothing more than complex androids, generated by evolutionary development.  This is the central anxiety of Westworld, and of most critical AI literature since Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?: that human consciousness is a machine, a complex system… chemicals and electricity, to paraphrase SF writer Peter Watts.
            There is a point to made here that experience may be enough to qualify the existence of consciousness.  Of course, this involves a pesky net of circumstances.  First of all, experience refers to the subjective receipt of material phenomena; it does not account for a communal, or shared, perception of the world.  Experience is an individualized process, or what Thomas Metzinger describes as a tunnel: “the ongoing process of conscious experience is not so much an image of reality as a tunnel through reality.”  The problem with appealing to the experience of consciousness as evidence for the existence of consciousness is that one runs into the problem of allowing as evidence the experience of anything.  To put this another way, when I dream I may experience the sensation of flying, but this does not translate into evidence that I actually was flying.  As a singular and isolated phenomenon, experience fails to provide the kind of material evidence necessary for qualifying the existence of consciousness.
            A rejoinder might reasonably suggest that the experience of consciousness is redundant, if not tautological—that experience is consciousness, and consciousness is experience.  In this case, experience is evidence enough for the existence of consciousness since experience implies consciousness.  This equivocation belies its unprovability, since it provides no ground from which to make the identification between experience and consciousness.  In order to know something as something—i.e. to be conscious of something—one must experience it; but in this scenario, consciousness (the thing we are trying to qualify as existing) is precisely what cannot be experienced.  It precludes itself from experience, thereby rendering its identification as experience nothing more than arbitrary.  Ludwig Wittgenstein makes a metaphorical version of this point in his Tractatus: “Where in the world is a metaphysical subject to be noted?  You say that this case is altogether like that of the eye and the field of sight.  But you do not really see the eye.  And from nothing in the field of sight can it be concluded that it is seen from the eye” (122-123).  Wittgenstein connects this analogy to the concept of experience, writing that “no part of our experience is also a priori” (123).  The identification of experience with consciousness can only be a priori since it is impossible for us to observe this identification.
            The problem is that this association of consciousness and experience can only be verified subjectively, and can only be suggested intersubjectively.  To paraphrase Stanley Cavell, I know that I experience consciousness, but I can only acknowledge the experience of consciousness in others.  Even if my knowledge of my experience of consciousness is immediate and complete (doubtful), this is nothing more than a solipsistic understanding.  I cannot extend my knowledge of this experience to others.  This conundrum is what philosophical skeptics call the problem of other minds, and the presence of the android foregrounds this conundrum to an extreme degree.  Our anxiety about the android is not only that it might imitate humanity so well as to fake its own consciousness, but that the near-perfect imitative capacities of the android raise a troubling question: might an imitative agent fake consciousness so well that it not only fools those around it, but fools itself as well?  In other words, might we all just be a bunch of fakers?
            For the sake of illuminating this dilemma, I want to suggest that the android presents us with an ultimatum: either we accept android functionality as conscious, or we admit that our own consciousness is ersatz—that what we experience as consciousness is, in fact, an elaborate magic show put on by the brain.
            I don’t expect that this ultimatum will come easy to most, mainly because it seems so utterly alien and irrational to understand that our internal mental processes could be so radically discrete.  To accept this estranging scenario, it helps to understand that the “I” isn’t actually located anywhere; it is an effect, and epiphenomenon of complex brain processes, and not the ground on which these processes rest.  Likewise, it is incredibly difficult to imagine that this cognitive ground, the ephemeral “I,” could be extended to anything other than a human being.  It is for this reason that AI skeptics are so reluctant to acknowledge the findings of AI research.  Douglas Hofstadter refers to this as “Tesler’s Theorem,” and defines it as “AI is whatever hasn’t been done yet.”  In other words, every time researchers expand the capacities of artificial intelligence, these new capacities are subtracted from what was previously considered exclusively human behavior: “If computers can do it, then it must not be essentially human.”  Such reasoning is not only fallacious (it perpetually moves the goalposts), it is utterly repugnant.  If it means so much to us to preserve the sacred interior of the human, then we might as well stop pretending like we need logical consistency in order to do so.  After the death of God, the Human is the new spiritual center.  Logic doesn’t matter when we have faith.

            I’m no strict admirer of logic, but I am an admirer of critique; and in the case of consciousness, I’m eternally critical of the attempts to edify human experience against the increasingly impressive developments in AI.  The android may yet be a fantasy, and an extremely anthropomorphic one at that; but it reveals to us our contradictions, the exclusions latent in our humanism.  When confronted with the image of the imitative—the android, the replicant—the challenge is to not retreat out of fear or discomfort.  The challenge is to pursue the implications of a brain that can only know itself by constructing an internal model through which knowledge is possible.