Archive for René Descartes

Your Mind is Now Undead!

Posted in Divine Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 19, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan
Teh ceiling cat is in ur machine, reading ur mind...

Teh ceiling cat is in ur machine, reading ur mind...

Less than a week ago researchers in Japan confirmed a way to extract images directly from brains. Yes, you read that correctly; in a nutshell: by hooking you up to this machine everyone can now see what you are thinking, because it will be shown in a monitor. I had this reply in my Twitter stream when I tweeted about it, and although I have not yet seen that movie it is nonetheless very easy to imagine this invention being taken right out of a science fiction gig. (Being the shameless otaku that I am, my personal memory that this news recalled is none other than Japan’s anime ambassador, Doraemon.)

I often have people asking me what I think of the newest mind-blowing inventions the world has to offer (which is one of the reasons why this blog was created). Perhaps surprisingly to some, I never throw out horrible paranoiac scenarios of nightmarish dystopias people commonly take as “critical” reviews of a certain technology. While I do acknowledge the potential new narratives of paranoia such technologies — and especially mind-reading technologies — will engender, I like to look at technology the way I look at bodies, Lacanian style — i.e., as the false representative, the lacking signifier of the subject.

Being able to record one’s thought into an image on the computer screen is one of the basic tenets of posthuman fluidity. After all, if video games can read your mind, why shouldn’t the computer be able to see your mind?

Here, however, I have a very basic question: will our mind, after being replicated into a computer screen, remain our mind? Will my mind not, rather, take the position of an “undead” mind, a mind that is both mine and not mine at the same time, giving me the uncanny experience akin to listening to a recording of my own voice, a voice both mine and not mine at the same time? In the domain of the voice, we have horror movies like The Exorcist, in which a ghostly intrusion is symbolized by the changing of the voice. Similarly, we also have scenarios like the Imperius Curse in Harry Potter, in which a Death Eater intrusion is symbolized by the changing of a victim’s mind.

What this implies, however, is a much more radical thesis: today, with neuroscience and other mind-reading technologies, the mind reveals its inherent split: my mind is not my mind. (Or, to put it in Hegelian tautology-as-contradiction: my mind is my mind.) It is no longer the age-old “Cartesian” split between the mind and the body — we are now forced to realize that even without the body, the mind is already inherently split from within. Yes, we can extract minds, read them, project them onto screens, record them and store them, build them from individual neurons, etc., but the fact remains that there is an irreducible kernel behind its presence, its irreducible (misrecognizing) reflexivity. After all is said and done, we still have a gaping void in the middle of the thinking mind, its “true” presence (compared to the “undead” simulation of the projections on the screen, which is not fully our mind, etc.), what Žižek calls “the unbearable lightness of being no one”.

It is here that we may come up with another definition of the posthuman subject: the posthuman subject is the subject whose mind is undead, a subject whose externalized mind as such loses its phenomenological vigor of living presence and turns into a zombie.

As an additional note, it is fun to imagine the birth of “mind art” in the future with this technology — far from needing any motoric skills, the artist would only utilize his sharp concentration to create stunning artworks. Like, you know, porn.

Now, replace the snowman with a nude chick.

The snowman is actually a nude chick.

Chinese Room and the Cogito

Posted in Pure Theory with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan
Chinese Room

The Chinese Room

Cogito ergo sum is perhaps the most abused three-word phrase in our contemporary intellectual sphere, so much so that most of us no longer bothered to read further on the subject and what Descartes really meant. “I think therefore I am” has been recycled over and over by changing the verb into every other activity, from shopping to tweeting. All these has of course one underlying assumption, a false reading of the Cartesian subject as a substantial subject. Truth be told, the mind-body split did not come from Descartes at all — the idea has obviously been around since the pre-Socratic era (why else would we have the narratives of heaven and hell?). The true Cartesian revolution is in fact the opposite one: that of a total desubstantialized subject.

This does not mean, again, a subject desubstantialized of of a body and becoming a free-flowing mind, a (mis)reading found everywhere today in the intellectual sphere, and especially in the area of third-wave cybernetic research. Among the most fiercest proponents of this version of Descartes is none other than John Searle, the proponent of the famous Chinese Room argument. Unknowingly for Searle, however, the Chinese Room argument is, in fact, at one point, an ultimately Cartesian paradox.

What does the res cogitans, the thinking substance, mean, then, if not the common misreading of it as a declaration of a subject of pure thought? Here, it is crucial to look at what kind of thinking the cogito is first formulated under. The thinking that brought upon the cogito is none other than pure doubt — the doubting of reality and my existence within it. This doubt is irreducible, so much so that, in what may pass as a rather desperate move, the doubt itself becomes the only positive proof of the thing that I doubt — I exist only insofar as I doubt my existence. Rather than a substance of pure thought (“that can be downloaded into computers”, as Hans Moravec put it, etc…), the Cartesian subjectivity is a void of pure self-doubt.

(It is of course true that, in Descartes, there is ultimately a mind-body duality: the subject does not depend on the world, res extensa, to truly exist. This is, however, not because they are two separate substances, but because the former is a precondition of the latter; because the cogito is a prior void around which res extensa can only emerge as such.)

Does John Searle not reproduce exactly same motive in his Chinese Room argument, but instead of doubting the true existence of his reality, he doubts the cognition of computer programs? The famous Cartesian doubt, “What if God is a liar” is here replaced by Searle’s “What if I ultimately do not understand the symbols with which I communicate, but only know its perfect grammar?” Of course, the path they take in the end is different: If Descartes were a Searlean, he would have claimed that he cannot prove his own existence; if Searle were a Cartesian, he would have acknowledged that it would not be possible for one to know grammar without knowing semantics, for ultimately meaning is generated from structure, as the Structuralists already have it.

A great answer to the Chinese Room argument, and so far the best, I think, is the systems reply, claiming that it is the whole room instead of the person that understands, because cognition could not be localized to a single source. This would be the true Cartesian revolution, that cognition is separate from any particular subject, and the true Lacanian experience of the subject as barred. Searle rejected this argument by saying that if the entire room is located inside the brain, that would not make a subject understand any more than he does, despite his being able to communicate — which, of course, presupposes an ideal subject that “truly understands.”

Here, Daniel Dennett’s reply is worth noting: Dennett claims that if such non-thinking-but-nevertheless-communicating subjects exist, they would be the ones surviving natural selection, hence we would all be “zombies”. Does this not perfectly mimic the humanists’ fear of the post-struturalist alienation of the subject from language? Dennett, perhaps rather unfortunately, then goes on to say that the Chinese Room is impossible because we are not zombies — which, again, presupposes an ideal, non-alienated subject.

Distributed cognition is where the barred subject takes its place in contemporary cybernetics, and this is, contrary to popular belief, ultimately a Cartesian move that fully separates cognition from its local basis, as the separation of mind from its carbon basis. It turns out that Descartes was not only the first Lacanian, as Žižek put it, but also the first third-wave posthumanist. It is a sad fact, thus, that leaders in the field of cybernetics overlook this fact and, in both sides of the argument, tend to return to Aristotelian ideals, to illusions of wholeness.

Okami: Divine Subjects and Image-Instruments

Posted in Pop Culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 9, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan


OK, most of you probably know that I’m a hardcore Wii fan by now, so I’m guessing it’s about time to put the gaming geek of myself to elucidate my Lacanian new media theories. One of the core concepts of my thesis is a new subjective experience I call the divine subject. This notion of transcendent subjective experience made possible by technology has its roots in cybernetics and the Macy conferences of the 20th century, as Katherine Hayles has explained in her 1999 book How We Became Posthuman. The postmodern notion of contingent bodies and posthuman transformations is not, as many may argue, a rejection of the liberal humanist subject of Enlightenment (“ethics is deconstructed with biotechnology,” “it’s all about the dehumanizing market,” etc.), but instead, as John Searle is well aware, a faithful move to take the Cartesian subject one step further: a desperate move to preserve the cogito under postmodernity — precisely because thought is the only viable experience, we need no more bodies!

What better piece of literature to illustrate the divinity of the subject than Okami, a game in which you actually take control of God herself? This game in which your avatar is the Japanese sun God, Okami Amaterasu (taking the form of the white wolf avatar, Shiranui), has as its core element the ability for players to create objects in the scenes by painting on them directly — you create suns by painting circles in skies, stars by painting dots, cut enemies by painting slashes, etc. This is a perfect example of what Lev Manovich calls the transformation from image to image-instruments. With the advent of the computer age, signifiers now has a double role: not only a part of the sign, but also something to be acted upon, a portal to another dimension.

What to say of today’s world of signs? It is no longer the Baudrillardian object-dominated world of simulacra in which subjects are fashionably dead, but a world in which the simulacra is an extension of subjective experience. The correct way to read the popular postmodern dystopia in which even our bodies is nothing but a simulacra is not that we are dead, reduced to mere Foucauldian sand imprints, but the opposite one: every simulacra may be our body. (Is this not the ultimate dream of ubiquitous computing, ambient intelligence, etc?) With Žižek, the (Cartesian) subject is not dead, but preserved through its reflexivity.

Okami perfectly illustrates my thesis: with signifiers evolving from its original purpose to include a role as portals of actions, with subjects depending more and more on avatars (the contingent simulacra body, explained further on my theories of the psychoanalytic monitor phase) both for social interaction and individual enjoyment, it is only prudent to note the possibility that there is an evolution going on in the dialectics of the Symbolic and Imaginary orders. Does the divine paintbrush of Okami not show that the Imaginary self may very well lie outside the visible biological self?