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Affect and Artificial Intelligence and The Fetish Revisited

Elizabeth A Wilson’s Affect and Artificial Intelligence traces the history and development of the field of artificial intelligence (AI) in the West, from the 1950’s to the 1990’s and early 2000’s to argue that the key thing missing from all attempts to develop machine minds is a recognition of the role that affect plays in social and individual development. She directly engages many of the creators of the field of AI within their own lived historical context and uses Bruno Latour, Freudian Psychoanalysis, Alan Turning’s AI and computational theory, gender studies,cybernetics, Silvan Tomkins’ affect theory, and tools from STS to make her point. Using historical examples of embodied robots and programs, as well as some key instances in which social interactions caused rifts in the field,Wilson argues that crucial among all missing affects is shame, which functions from the social to the individual, and vice versa.

[Cover to Elizabeth A Wilson’s Affect and Artificial Intelligence]

J.Lorand Matory’s The Fetish Revisited looks at a particular section of the history of European-Atlantic and Afro-Atlantic conceptual engagement, namely the place where Afro-Atlantic religious and spiritual practices were taken up and repackaged by white German men. Matory demonstrates that Marx and Freud took the notion of the Fetish and repurposed its meaning and intent, further arguing that this is a product of the both of the positionality of both of these men in their historical and social contexts. Both Marx and Freud, Matory says, Jewish men of potentially-indeterminate ethnicity who could have been read as “mulatto,” and whose work was designed to place them in the good graces of the white supremacist, or at least dominantly hierarchical power structure in which they lived.

Matory combines historiography,anthropology, ethnography, oral history, critical engagement Marxist and Freudian theory and, religious studies, and personal memoir to show that the Fetish is mutually a constituting category, one rendered out of the intersection of individuals, groups, places, needs, and objects. Further, he argues, by trying to use the fetish to mark out a category of “primitive savagery,” both Freud and Marx actually succeeded in making fetishes of their own theoretical frameworks, both in the original sense, and their own pejorative senses.
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Criptiques and A Dying Colonialism

Caitlin Wood’s 2014 edited volume Criptiques consists of 25 articles, essays, poems, songs, or stories, primarily in the first person, all of which are written from disabled people’s perspectives. Both the titles and the content are meant to be provocative and challenging to the reader, and especially if that reader is not, themselves, disabled. As editor Caitlin Wood puts it in the introduction, Criptiques is “a daring space,” designed to allow disabled people to create and inhabit their own feelings and expressions of their lived experiences. As such, there’s no single methodology or style, here, and many of the perspectives contrast or even conflict with each other in their intentions and recommendations.

The 1965 translation of Frantz Fanon’s A Dying Colonialism, on the other hand, is a single coherent text exploring the clinical psychological and sociological implications of the Algerian Revolution. Fanon uses soldiers’ first person accounts, as well as his own psychological and medical training, to explore the impact of the war and its tactics on the individual psychologies, the familial relationships, and the social dynamics of the Algerian people, arguing that the damage and horrors of war and colonialism have placed the Algerians and the French in a new relational mode.

[Image: A copy of the 1961 paperback edition of Frantz Fanon’s A Dying Colonialism, featuring a sea of dark-skinned people with upraised hands, coloured in diagonal bands of orange, red, and magenta.]

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Selfhood, Coloniality, African-Atlantic Religion, and Interrelational Cutlure

In Ras Michael Brown’s African-Atlantic Cultures and the South Carolina Lowcountry Brown wants to talk about the history of the cultural and spiritual practices of African descendants in the American south. To do this, he traces discusses the transport of central, western, and west-central African captives to South Carolina in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,finally, lightly touching on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Brown explores how these African peoples brought, maintained, and transmitted their understandings of spiritual relationships between the physical land of the living and the spiritual land of the dead, and from there how the notions of the African simbi spirits translated through a particular region of South Carolina.

In Kelly Oliver’s The Colonization of Psychic Space­, she constructs and argues for a new theory of subjectivity and individuation—one predicated on a radical forgiveness born of interrelationality and reconciliation between self and culture. Oliver argues that we have neglected to fully explore exactly how sublimation functions in the creation of the self,saying that oppression leads to a unique form of alienation which never fully allows the oppressed to learn to sublimate—to translate their bodily impulses into articulated modes of communication—and so they cannot become a full individual, only ever struggling against their place in society, never fully reconciling with it.

These works are very different, so obviously, to achieve their goals, Brown and Oliver lean on distinct tools,methodologies, and sources. Brown focuses on the techniques of religious studies as he examines a religious history: historiography, anthropology, sociology, and linguistic and narrative analysis. He explores the written records and first person accounts of enslaved peoples and their captors, as well as the contextualizing historical documents of Black liberation theorists who were contemporary to the time frame he discusses. Oliver’s project is one of social psychology, and she explores it through the lenses of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis,social construction theory, Hegelian dialectic, and the works of Franz Fanon. She is looking to build psycho-social analysis that takes both the social and the individual into account, fundamentally asking the question “How do we belong to the social as singular?”
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Cyborg Theology and An Anthropology of Robots and AI

Scott Midson’s Cyborg Theology and Kathleen Richardson’s An Anthropology of Robots and AI both trace histories of technology and human-machine interactions, and both make use of fictional narratives as well as other theoretical techniques. The goal of Midson’s book is to put forward a new understanding of what it means to be human, an understanding to supplant the myth of a perfect “Edenic” state and the various disciplines’ dichotomous oppositions of “human” and “other.” This new understanding, Midson says, exists at the intersection of technological, theological, and ecological contexts,and he argues that an understanding of the conceptual category of the cyborg can allow us to understand this assemblage in a new way.

That is, all of the categories of “human,” “animal,” “technological,” “natural,” and more are far more porous than people tend to admit and their boundaries should be challenged; this understanding of the cyborg gives us the tools to do so. Richardson, on the other hand, seeks to argue that what it means to be human has been devalued by the drive to render human capacities and likenesses into machines, and that this drive arises from the male-dominated and otherwise socialized spaces in which these systems are created. The more we elide the distinction between the human and the machine, the more we will harm human beings and human relationships.

Midson’s training is in theology and religious studies, and so it’s no real surprise that he primarily uses theological exegesis (and specifically an exegesis of Genesis creation stories), but he also deploys the tools of cyborg anthropology (specifically Donna Haraway’s 1991 work on cyborgs), sociology, anthropology, and comparative religious studies. He engages in interdisciplinary narrative analysis and comparison,exploring the themes from several pieces of speculative fiction media and the writings of multiple theorists from several disciplines.

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Bodyminds, Self-Transformations, and Situated Selfhood

Back in the spring, I read and did a critical comparative analysis on both Cressida J. Heyes’ Self-Transformations: Foucault, Ethics, and Normalized Bodies, and Dr. Sami Schalk’s BODYMINDS REIMAGINED: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction. Each of these texts aims to explore conceptions of modes of embodied being, and the ways the exterior pressure of societal norms impacts what are seen as “normal” or “acceptable” bodies.

For Heyes, that exploration takes the form of three case studies: The hermeneutics of transgender individuals, especially trans women; the “Askeses” (self-discipline practices) of organized weight loss dieting programs; and “Attempts to represent the subjectivity of cosmetic surgery patients.” Schalk’s site of interrogation is Black women speculative fiction authors and the ways in which their writing illuminates new understandings of race, gender, and what Schalk terms “(dis)ability.

Both Heyes and Schalk focus on popular culture and they both center gender as a valence of investigation because the embodied experience of women in western society is the crux point for multiple intersecting pressures.

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Colonialism and the Technologized Other

One of the things I’m did this past spring was an independent study—a vehicle by which to move through my dissertation’s tentative bibliography, at a pace of around two books at time, every two weeks, and to write short comparative analyses of the texts. These books covered intersections of philosophy, psychology, theology, machine consciousness, and Afro-Atlantic magico-religious traditions, I thought my reviews might be of interest, here.

My first two books in this process were Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks and David J. Gunkel’s The Machine Question, and while I didn’t initially have plans for the texts to thematically link, the first foray made it pretty clear that patterns would emerge whether I consciously intended or not.

[Image of a careworn copy of Frantz Fanon’s BLACK SKIN, WHITE MASKS, showing a full-on image of a Black man’s face wearing a white anonymizing eye-mask.]

In choosing both Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks and Gunkel’s The Machine Question, I was initially worried that they would have very little to say to each other; however, on reading the texts, I instead found myself struck by how firmly the notions of otherness and alterity were entrenched throughout both. Each author, for very different reasons and from within very different contexts, explores the preconditions, the ethical implications, and a course of necessary actions to rectify the coming to be of otherness.

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Review of Nick Harkaway’s GNOMON

Last year, I was given and read Nick Harkaway’s GNOMON, and I’ve wanted to take a little time to describe to you why you should read it, if you haven’t already.

GNOMON starts with an investigator in London looking into the death of someone in the course of what should have been a routine investigation. A woman was strapped into a chair and her mind was probed with drugs and machines to learn the truth of who she was and whether she posed a threat to the city. Mielikki Neith works for The Witness—an automated algorithmic learning and surveillance system tied into a systema dn series of networked devices across London’s populace, creating and enabling the ultimate democracy. Citizens are engaged and connected to the laws, status, and operations of their country, in real time, and it is through this system that Neith is assigned to the task of investigating Diana Hunter’s death.

From there, things get very strange, very fast. As the real-time recording of Hunter’s mind under interrogation unfolds in Neith’s consciousness—a tool used by Witness service to maximize transparency and understanding—Neith finds more than just Hunter’s mind: she also the life story of another. As the story unfolds, it actually doesn’t. It refolds, mountain folds, and valley folds through time and space and placeness, and that gets, ultimately, to what I want to say to you about what Nick Harkaway has done here.


[Cover of Nick Harkaway’s GNOMON]

Here are some things that are true about GNOMON:

This book is and is about magic, machine consciousness, and communities of resistance, in the weirdest ways possible.

It is exactly 666 pages long.

This book has four or five or six main threads, and it weaves all of them around and through all of them, each enveloping and enfolding each, wrapping around the outside only to then traverse it and find that you are inside of and beneath the next layer in the line.

The entire book resonates with Borges, Hofstadter, Danielewski, Butler, and LeGuin, without imitation.

Each one of these personages appears or seems to appear, but just when you think you’re sure how they’ll be seen, they are not there, like a shark fin in the ocean that becomes and always was the wave of the sea you’re swimming in and then, again, or maybe never, churns and is the shark: No less deeply and immediately important for the reminder of what is in there with you, and quietly unsettling for upending what you think you know…

GNOMON is the kind of thing that you know is behaving as intended when one of the metaphors/similes/analogies you’ve decided to use to describe it shows up in it the day after you think of it.

It is almost impossible to spoil this book without telling you literally all of the events of this book, but I also don’t want to colour your intake, too much, other than to say that this book is important. There is mystery in it, and there’s art. It is a masterful thing, and if all you see is the surface plot of it, then you’ve missed the central conceit of the thing.

If you have not already done so, definitely get it, when you get a chance.


Nick Harkaway’s GNOMON is available from Penguin Books.

Why prostitutes?

Susannah Breslin reviews the material she’s received for Letters from Johns and Letters From Working Girls:

Often these guys aren’t just looking for sex. Many are depressed or stressed, lonely or bored, looking for intimacy or a connection, no matter how transient, no matter the cost. One john who was rejected on a regular basis in the dating scene wrote that, in contrast to the women he met at bars, prostitutes saw him as “a normal and charming guy.” Other men recalled youthful sexcapades in the military while deployed overseas, from a German brothel called Crazy Sexy to a barbershop in Asia where women performed oral sex on men getting haircuts. An “overeducated” 28-year-old went through a bad breakup, a death in the family, and the loss of his job. Online he found a “courtesan” who taught him what he wanted in a relationship and gave him his confidence back. “I’m really grateful to her,” he reported.

Full Story: Newsweek.

The Tarots of Precariomancy

the intern tarot card

I. The Intern: He set his foot on the beginning of the path. He is the one of the he-doesn’t-work-here-he’s-just-an-intern. Formation and harsh exploitation merge in the same hour for the Intern. He is known for being the weakest and the one under the most uncertain condition, as well as for his optimism: unpaid jobs, petty cash, and three euros an hour of untaxable wages do not frighten him. The Manager asks him to wash his car during his coffee break, and his Estate is his parents. The Intern stands for the skill to learn the secrets of the companies and of his bosses while he is being abused for free. If matched with the Justice (very rarely!) this implies an unexpected lucky shot. If opening the game, the Intern stands for availability, innocence and bad luck. If closing the game, it stands for bad luck and nothing more.
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Full Deck: Almanac of Precariomancy

(via Robot Wisdom)

This is one of the best “modern tarot” interpretations I’ve ever seen. Funny, well drawn, and heartbreakingly apt.

Demon Summoning for Dummies

"Um… Ia? Ia? F’thagan?" by Harris O’Malley (or on deviantART). Brings a smile to me face.

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