And so, finally, I suppose, he would be able to look upon the sun itself and see its true nature, not by reflections in water or phantasms of it in an alien setting, but in and by itself in its own place.
In Books III and X of his Republic, Plato addresses his quarrel with poets and, by extension, with artists in general. He deduces that they are imitators of the world, and therefore far from the truth: “The tragic poet is an imitator, and therefore, like all other imitators, he is thrice removed from the king and from the truth.” Plato blames the poet for her corrupting and passion-inciting words, which he considers of a lower quality than the words of reason. Society, according to Plato, should only consist of people who imitate nothing, who produce no stories, fictionalise nothing, and who only play one role (if “play” is the right word at all).
If then we adhere to our original notion and bear in mind that our guardians, setting aside every other business, are to dedicate themselves wholly to the maintenance of freedom in the State, making this their craft, and engaging in no work which does not bear on this end, they ought not to practice or imitate anything else; if they imitate at all, they should imitate from youth upward only those characters which are suitable to their profession—the courageous, temperate, holy, free, and the like; but they should not depict or be skilful at imitating any kind of illiberality or baseness, lest from imitation they should come to be what they imitate. Did you never observe how imitations, beginning in early youth and continuing far into life, at length grow into habits and become a second nature, affecting body, voice, and mind?
When these guardians are to imitate anything or reproduce anything, their acts should be virtuous. Artists cannot by this logic be virtuous, as they imitate what they see without necessarily evaluating the virtue of what they imitate. They create without understanding.
This was the conclusion at which I was seeking to arrive when I said that painting or drawing, and imitation in general, when doing their own proper work, are far removed from truth, and the companions and friends and associates of a principle within us which is equally removed from reason, and that they have no true or healthy aim. The imitative art is an inferior who marries an inferior, and has inferior offspring.
Poets, Plato decides, should therefore not be allowed in a society of reason. Only those who can prove that their art is useful for the continuation of the state are allowed. Those who express narratives of other’s lives, or appeal to the emotions “feed and water the passions instead of drying them up.”
It is striking, then, to see Plato conjure an allegory of the world, a fictionalisation of reality, when he explains the configuration of cave-dwelling, shadow-loving prisoners and fantasises about their escape therefrom. When he tells this picturesque tale of transcendent possibilities, he turns himself into a storyteller of the highest degree. The entire thought experiment of the Republic, in fact, in which Plato discusses the possibility of a nation governed by laws based on righteousness, virtue, and the will of philosopher-kings, is an image of utopia. He envisions a world with and suggests how it ought to be based on his own experience and insights, making him the imitator of his own dreams: he is a philosopher-poet.
The allegory of the cave’s many adaptations in a wide array of forms and genres of fiction are testimony to its poetical value. That we are prisoners, shown only the shadows of true form from our limited vantages; that we are bound to look at projections, unable to turn our heads around; that if we were to break free, the light source would blind us and scare us back into submission; that only the most persistent and pure of people can overcome the blinding light and start to find their way out of the cave; that once outside, the urge is great to free others, but that these others will only appear lost to those enlightened; and that the imprisoned will only ridicule the free, for the enlightened view of the world will seem incomprehensible. From the story of the resurrection of Christ to The Matrix, from Also Sprach Zarathustra to The Truman Show, from The Fountainhead to City of Ember, the story has been transformed, updated, and reimagined. It posits that an individual can escape, almost physically, with much hardship and persistence, from the clutches of a feigned reality, through which she or he will overcome a generalised, status-quo mindset. It is a story of climbing, of taking off, of traversing, of raising, of taking a step, of going forward and upward, of awakening, of opening the eyes, and of expanding the mind. It is a story of transcending the human.
And as Plato, in his mission for rationality and for his own escape from the cave, was inevitably also a great fabulator and poet, so were those who came after him and those who were brought up with expectations of transcending the cave door. The position at the helm of time and the universe, with superior vision and virtue, is given only to those who control the techniques of storytelling, those who combine knowledge and image in fictionalisation. They imitate their experience in formats that permit their transmission. Plato did so with poetic words, others might find painting or drawing to do the trick, and music or sculpture could work for yet another group. For Bergson, the masters are those who paint the story:
The great painters are men who possess a certain vision of things which has or will become the vision of all men. A Corot, a Turner—not to mention others—have seen in nature many an aspect that we did not notice. Shall it be said that they have not seen but created, that they have given us products of their imagination, that we adopt their inventions because we like them and that we get pleasure from looking at nature through the image the great painters have traced for us? […] If we reflect deeply upon what we feel as we look at a Turner or a Corot, we shall find that, if we accept them and admire them, it is because we had already perceived something of what they show us. But we had perceived without seeing.
We seenature and the world through the frames provided by others, by the poets and storytellers, the wordsmiths and marketeers, the artists and masters. And they themselves have created this transcendent story about themselves—promising us that they see more than others, that they see the inner mechanics of reality, that they can cast off their shackles and bear to step outside the cave. We look at the paintings of the master and see a superior view of the world. And then what? Are we supposed to follow their leads, mimicking what they create? Are we to follow in their footsteps and find the keys to our chains ourselves?
What is the goal of this transcendent dream? Plato believes that a nation’s ruler should be the enlightened, cave-exploring philosopher because he thinks himself one. Ideas of individual transcendence have spread through societies like wildfire, kindling the flame of greatness in those who presume themselves to be capable of reaching it. Often referred to as a calling, a vocation, or desire, transcendence—the want to leave a legacy—is presented as innately human, as natural, as human nature: our counteractions to the natural limitations of time and our corporeal existence.
Nature does not permit things to stay the same forever. Progress is a normalisation, an assumption based on the natural progression of time’s arrow. Transcendence, then, represents the final step forwards in ideas of progress. It is an evolution, yes, but not a necessary one. It is only a story we use to cope with time’s dynamics. And like all stories, it is an incomplete one.
3_1_1_What Comes Naturally
Why do we make art? This is hardly an easier question to respond to than “What is art?” not least in contemporary society. As for what it was in the past, we can outline an answer, if incompletely. There are records of objects in early cultures dispersed all over the globe that resemble one another: rock paintings, musical instruments, ornamental pottery, jewels, and collections of feathers or exceptional rocks, clay figurines, monolithic formations, symbols crafted into the soil or mountainside. Seemingly unrelated peoples on far sides of the planet produced these objects, which, on the surface, seem definitively related to each other. With this in mind, I want to return to Steven Pinker, the sociobiologist, who sees causality between the creation of art and human nature. In an attempt to refute the blank-slate dogma, Pinker dedicates an entire chapter of his book The Blank Slate to framing the desire to create as an innate, even genetically determined trait, rather than as a cultural production.
Art is in our nature—in the blood and in the bone, as people used to say; in the brain and in the genes, as we might say today. In all societies people dance, sing, decorate surfaces, and tell and act out stories. Children begin to take part in these activities in their twos and threes, and the arts may even be reflected in the organization of the adult brain: neurological damage may leave a person able to hear and see but unable to appreciate music or visual beauty. Paintings, jewelry, sculpture, and musical instruments go back at least 35,000 years in Europe, and probably far longer in other parts of the world where the archaeological record is scanty. The Australian aborigines have been painting on rocks for 50,000 years, and red ochre has been used as body makeup for at least twice that long. Though the exact forms of art vary widely across cultures, the activities of making and appreciating art are recognizable everywhere.
However, in a 2003 TED Talk given mere months after his book was published, Pinker states that, while his book links a wide variety of controversial human patterns—such as crime, free will, education, evolution, gender differences, homosexuality, Nazism, parenting, rape, religion, and warthat—to biological and evolutionary impulses, his chapters on both the arts and on parenting were the ones met with the greatest resistance. Critics were unable to reconcile with the idea that the arts are a result of biological evolution, of genetic determination, or of natural origin at all.
It is in some ways poetic, then, to see that it is the statement that the arts could somehow be influenced by human nature that draws so much ire and not its opposite. This is a reaction brought about by twentieth and twenty-first century understandings of what art is or what art is supposed to be.
To this, Pinker responds with Dennis Dutton’s seven universal signatures, or facets of art that are recognisable everywhere, in every culture:
Expertise or virtuosity. Technical artistic skills are cultivated, recognized, and admired.
Nonutilitarian pleasure. People enjoy art for art’s sake, and don’t demand that it keep them warm or put food on the table.
Style. Artistic objects and performances satisfy rules of composition that place them in a recognizable style.
Criticism. People make a point of judging, appreciating, and interpreting works of art.
Imitation. With a few important exceptions like music and abstract painting, works of art simulate experiences of the world.
Special focus. Art is set aside from ordinary life and made a dramatic focus of experience.
Imagination. Artists and their audiences entertain hypothetical worlds in the theater of the imagination.
Which one of these rules is truly linked to human nature and can undoubtedly be considered as untouched by the normalisations of society? Where can we say, without any ambiguity, that any one of these is not determined by social relations? Expertise is recognised in art as being a trait of the master, but when performed outside of the arts, say, by a crane operator or an electrician, it is not admired as such. Nonutilitarian pleasure is entirely framed by the definition of utility. Style can be attributed to tradition, which makes it referential and thus recognisable. Criticism can, by definition, only take place within a society and is very much dependent on the normalisations of that time. Special focus is put on art solely by society, as many other activities performed by humanity fit all the other categories yet do not receive a special focus. This leaves us with numbers 5. and number 7., Imitation and Imagination, which I would consider to be closer to each other than is commonly accepted. Imitation is the creation of stories from experience, the creation of normalisations; one could say the same about imagination, at least, when it is brought from the mind to the world.
I do not agree at all with Pinker, but I am fascinated by the reaction to his proposal. His account of the evolution of the arts is approximative at best; he cherry-picks events and transformations of ideas to fit his generalising comparison between high and low art, as if the former was an unfortunate choice and the latter a natural development. Still, the defensive attitude shown by cultural intellectuals towards his questionable argument exposes that cultural values, as universal as they can be thought to be, are wavering.
I do not believe, as Pinker does,that modern or postmodern art has doomed itself by neglecting or actively counteracting human nature. It is Pinker’s focus on the idea that “art should reflect the perennial and universal qualities of the human species” and on an ill-informed concept of the transformations of art throughout modernity that makes him suggest that recent art history was a mistake, a folly of human culture moving against nature. He conveniently leaves out the modernist movement, with its near-maniacal search for universalities and for scientific explanations for forms of beauty and well-being. Pinker reviles Le Corbusier, the grand hero of modernism, who devoted his entire life to the impossible search for commonalities between all humanity and aimed to build cities on the ruins of what he saw as a historical rejection of human nature. Le Corbusier imagined the history of architecture as one long detour from the natural, a bifurcation leading away from essential ways of living, and wanted to bring it back on course with one generous act of tabula rasa—the blank slate, which Pinker then confused with his idea of the blank slate, denoting the malleability of mankind’s spirit. Both Pinker and Le Corbusier lay their trust in human nature, but place their benchmarks on where human nature starts and where it was disrupted by fictionalisation or culture differently. For Pinker, it started with the modernists, who renounce any type of convention—conventions that Pinker assumes to have originated in human nature. For the modernists, it started much earlier, when highly ornamented, richly adorned, and baroque facades polluted the simple functionality of architecture.
Pinker’s vision of human nature, and the universality thereof, is ultimately imbued with the heroic spirit of computational thinking, the same that fascinatedBoole and Pointcaré and Laplace and Lorenz. The predictability of nature is achievable, and necessarily includes humans; any diversion from this mission is a dismissal of our fullest potential, and therefore useless. What flows through Pinker’s reasoning is an all-or-nothing dogma, obfuscating the fact that his search for universality may very well turn out unsatisfactory, as it did for the modernists. Moreover, his sermon on the timelessness of the human condition directly contributes to the generalising nature of computation. For when the promises of technology do not deliver, the adepts of computational thinking will do everything they can to convince us that computation can and will address its own faults. When universalities cannot be found, averages and the approximations of the human conditions will do just fine.
Computational thinking pushes the essence of art towards universal reason, just as does Pinker. It demands an indivisible basis, like the basis upon which universal units of measurement are built. Moreover, it demands a formal basis, linking the production of art to evolutionary principle, hard-coded genetic urges, or necessities. When Pinker describes the decline of the (high) arts, and the reasons for its decline, he also takes part in this decline. Once the basis of art is determined, all art that does not comply, anything that seems to sprout from elsewhere, is considered unnatural or artificial. This situation cannot be maintained by computational thinking, and therefore computational models exclude it. Art in the age of total computation cannot be random or chaotic; it cannot be a story made by artists based on the complex and ambiguous selection of the totality of information, which is, in turn, influenced from all sides of the natural and cultural environment. No, in a computational world, art requires a computational foundation.
So it is with most of the things we care about—food, friends, recreation, art. Biology reverts to the mean; civilization does not. The mind is a fabulator. It is designed (by natural selection, if you like) to dream up ideas and experiences away from the mean. Its overriding instinct is to be counter-instinctual; otherwise, we could put consciousness to sleep at an early age. The mind has no steady state; it is (as Wallace Stevens said) never satisfied. And it induces the organism to go to fantastic lengths to develop capacities that have no biological necessity. The more defiant something is of the instinctive, the typical, and the sufficient, the more highly it is prized. This is why we have the “Guinness Book of World Records,” the Gautama Buddha, and the Museum of Modern Art. They represent the repudiation of the norm.
The arts are declining not because they are rejecting human nature, as Pinker bemoans, but because they do not comply with a computational mindset. And because computation simulates the fabulating capacities of mankind, we are not even aware of this evolution. The repetitive nature of the popular arts is so popular because it presents its output as new ideas and experiences away from the mean, but does so by adhering to statistics and means. As computation spreads further into societal systems, fixing normalisations, stories, fictions, along the way, it will not only make thinking away from the mean more difficult, but also simulate the impression that thinking away from the mean and along the mean are one and the same.
We are all artists in our own capacity, but those we call artists are those who produce their stories with certain “artistic” media. A child produces stories, but starts to draw because we give her crayons. Art, then, is only necessary because society thinks it important. But the selection, and the capacity to express stories in the spoken language, or the language of colour, dance, image or others, comes into the world through the fabulating mind. Limiting this mind will not stop it from fabulating, but it might stop us from giving crayons to the children.
A 2017 parody of a generic blockbuster smash-hit trailer, made by the Youtube collective Auralnauts, sums up the standardised build-up of an epic Hollywood preview. Meant as a comedic persiflage, the thirty-second video exposes the highly repetitive nature of contemporary filmmaking, especially within the genre of action movies or superhero movies. An unknown threat arises, prompting a hero to counter it. The villain does not make the struggle easy, but in the end, the hero overcomes.
What is striking in the video is the epicness of it all, with music building up, loud dramatic horns, strings whipping up the pace, cutting images in quicker and quicker succession, and an overload of special-effects shots. It is an epicness that has become the standard of our expectations. As each new movie, basically a variation on a theme, tries to attract an audience, this idea of heroism is trotted out yet again, reiterating this same template over and over.
The top fifty all-time highest-grossing movies all feature heroism as their main attraction: from Star Wars and Frozen to Harry Potter and Toy Story. For the number one, Avengers: Endgame, and all its super-hero prequels, heroism is made so explicit that it becomes impossible to see anything else; it is literally embodied by the characters onscreen. Every new iteration of the series, and of the entire superhero genre for that matter, must go over and beyond the heroics depicted in the prior movie, snowballing into a bombastic exposition of ever more legendary champions facing exponentially growing threats. Each battle is more epic than the last.
The morals of heroism, embedded in the scripts of these extremely popular movies, tell a story of individual endeavour and struggle, of personal choice and sacrifice. At first, they glorify a superior character; a person with an unwavering dedication to a cause, with a razor-sharp moral compass and unparalleled perseverance. Yet they also suggest that this person could be anyone. All it takes is a sturdy sense of right and wrong. “It’s the right thing to do” is a phrase often uttered just before an epic clash. This convincing moralistic message is then interrupted by the realisation that, actually, it could not be me or you who defends the planet against evil: we do not have super powers. Unless you are born in an alien world, or bitten by a radioactive spider, or have even just inherited a large business empire, you have no role to play in this legendary quest. Even if you know what’s right and what’s wrong, you are asked to stand aside and let the real heroes do their jobs.
The less direct variants of this script, say, Finding Dory or The Lion King, Furious 7, or even Titanic, do not make use of an explicit superhuman personality with matching superhuman powers, but their main characters boast superhuman morality regardless. Persistence, motivation, and purpose, all balanced on significant moments of insight and revelation, guide the hero towards resolution. These heroes live dramatic lives, built up from epic and legendary moments. The contrast with real life could not be greater. Yet as the box offices suggest, their lives, stark contrasts to ours, the viewers’, attract us. For the duration of the film, we live vicariously through them. And afterwards, the moralistic weight of their stories resonates with usl.
The Randian Hero
Cop stories, which portray the daily routine of members of the police force as danger and evil lurk in the bushes, provide great examples of the glorification of heroics, and how the expectation of heroism is embedded into the credibility of an entire workforce. In crime novels, detective stories, or spy movies, agents of the law or of the state are in constant movement: high-speed car chases are regular, agents’ guns are often drawn, and the bad guys are always taken out. These characters are never tired, never idle, never encumbered by the day-to-day demands of police enforcement. They never patrol, never fill out paperwork, never do the dishes at the precinct; they are never in meetings or briefings longer than a few minutes or even seconds. Hours-long surveillance is condensed into a quiet scene, time for dialogue and character development. The entire reality that police work, much like any other maintenance labour, is in fact very rote and regular, is cut out. By making a selection of only the minimal heroics from the larger monotony of maintenance, cop stories transform the occupation into something epic altogether. Narrative fiction gives us the impression that police officers’ lives, to say nothing of firefighters, soldiers, bankers, doctors, or any other starring role, consist only of significant moments. Fiction obfuscates the repetitiveness of the common life, ignoring the eating and the drinking, the walking, the pondering, the bathroom breaks, the reading and the studying, the waiting—especially the waiting.
Where does that leave us, the regular folks? We have no points of no return, no MacGuffins to pursue, no Deus Ex Machinas to save us at the very last minute. Our routines are messy, vague, our goals unclear: a sequence of insignificant moments. And even the significant moments might not be so captivating in the moment. Hindsight makes them significant, memory brings them to the surface; we stand in the shower thinking of the more dramatic or concise statement we should have made in the heat of it all In reality, we are disappointed to realise that we missed the moment, just because we had not at the time comprehended the situation as it unraveled.
This is because we are not, generally, heroes. Not that we are not courageous or zealous, but because heroics are a fictionalisation entirely, a selection of reality shown outside of any context. Online video databases are filled with clips of people doing heroic deeds—saving children from burning cars, say, or animals from flood streams. What they do not show is the befores and afters, the surroundings, the context. They never include the innumerable similar videos in which the child was not saved because no one dared to enter the car, or, even more likely, in which the car did not catch on fire in the first place. Fiction tells us the tale of the few bold soldiers who saved their buddy from behind enemy lines, but not the one of the millions of young people that were killed without ever realising a bomb or a bullet was headed their way.
Insinuating that anyone can be a hero is a grave and frankly insulting lie. The statement selects a possibility, a meagre chance, from a very large plausible scenario and presents it as a way of life, as a choice. Given this, what makes the ideology of heroism so persistent and so attractive? The image, and additionally the fiction, of the hero is as old as written history, but the normalisation of heroism is not. It was Nietzsche who, in his rage against the mythologies of religion, suggested that transcending the human condition should not be a passive undertaking but an active one. God cannot lift up the spirits beyond mortal realms; only people can do that, by themselves. Humanity could and should transcend its own mortality, its own finiteness. As Zarathustran figures, women and men should therefore not be content with waiting for the afterlife where all would be possible, enabled by something or someone who is not human.
I love those who do not first seek beyond the stars for reasons to go down and to be sacrifices: but who sacrifice themselves to the earth, that the earth may one day belong to the Superman (Übermensch).
Nietzsche’s vision of the übermensch, however, was spiritual, ascetic, almost as mythological as the mythologies he combatted. His hero was the product of a collective enterprise, of a people, rather than an individualistic ambition. The ideology of the hero as a personal ”lifestyle” is claimed by Ayn Rand, whose novels Atlas Shrugged (1957) and The Fountainhead (1943) each present a hero who overcomes everything by force of moral integrity, choice, and confidence. The Randian hero is the paramount of individualistic agency, determination, and purpose. In the words of Stephen Newman,
Rand’s fiction characteristically portrays a superior individual, naturally and properly and egoist, locked in battle with the forces of collectivism (usually the state), which would impose upon him the self-denying and ultimately self-destructive doctrine of altruism. More is at stake in the outcome of this battle than his personal fate, for the Randian hero is really Nietzsche’s superman in the guise of capitalist entrepreneur. He is the creator of all value, the source of all wealth, the instrument of human progress. His destruction means the end of Western civilization.
Rand’s glorification of heroism takes on a humanitarian stance. To be a hero, in her fiction, means to be of value to society, but not because society demands it. A hero desires to push mankind forwards, his unwavering virtue compels him, and it is neither the state nor the collective that forces him to do so. In The Fountainhead, Rand chronicles the struggle of the young, idealistic architect Howard Roark in face of his adversaries, who all try to undermine his relentless vision and will to innovate architecture in 1940s New York. Roark’s uncompromising and absolute design ethics and worldview render him a heroic figure who spearheads an avant-garde conquest against the conservative forces at hand. Imbued with the American capitalist spirit, Rand depicts Roark as the epitome of the self-made man, and models him after the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The character embodies the tenets of Rand’s Objectivist philosophy:his identity is not the product of his upbringing, his economic class, his family, or his social background, but a distillation of his own choices and his own free will. He is his own man from beginning to end, and throughout the story there is no change in the essence of Roark’s character. His fundamental convictions remain untouched. His heroism comes across as a given, and it is absolute. In a dialogue with his competitor and foil, Peter Keating, Roark is accused of displaying an inimitable heroism. Keating asks:
— “Do you always have to have a purpose? Do you always have to be so damn serious? Can’t you ever do things without reason, just like everybody else? You’re so serious, so old. Everything’s important with you, everything’s great, significant in some way, every minute, even when you keep still. Can’t you ever be comfortable — and unimportant?”
— “Don’t you get tired of the heroic?”
— “What’s heroic about me?”
— “Nothing. Everything. I don’t know. It’s not what you do. It’s what you make people feel around you.”
— “The un-normal. The strain. When I’m with you—it’s always like a choice. Between you—and the rest of the world. I don’t want that kind of a choice. I don’t want to be an outsider. I want to belong. There’s so much in the world that’s simple and pleasant. It’s not all fighting and renunciation. It is—with you.
Rand presents Keating as a conformist, someone constantly influenced by others. He is a suck-up, a social climber, throwing his values overboard whenever the situation demands him to. Keating surrenders his self in this way, surrenders his own loves and values in an attempt to win social approval. In Rand’s eyes, this can only lead to a hollow life, one without happiness; a selfless life in the literal sense. The hero never succumbs to the will of the other, nor to the will of the collective. He (in Rand’s novels the hero is always a man) only follows his own values and builds his own judgement. Rand terms this attitude as a virtue of selfishness, as the opposite of altruism. The hero is never altruistic, a state of mind Rand frames as imposed upon the individual by social expectations; this does not, however, mean he cannot be generous if he wishes.
Being a hero is a choice, a personal vocation, never a forced role. This is the first principle of the heroic narrative that grew popular in the decades after the publication of Rand’s books. In superhero stories, this idea is sometimes obscured by the environmental demands that push the hero towards heroism. Batman becomes a hero because the city’s deterioration, in combination with his background, compels him to, not because his personal virtues demand it. Yet he has every possibility to not engage as a hero, and step away from the misery of Gotham. It is his personal choice to become a righteous defender of the people, not the people’s choice. Superman’s story is similar in this sense, because his environment, the loss of his home planet, drove him to a setting which enabled his heroism. But if his virtues and judgement weren’t unwavering, he would still be a farm boy in Smallville.
Randian heroics are switched on constantly, and any failure to uphold them leads to a complete destruction of the hero. To lead a heroic life is a constant commitment: every instance must be in compliance with the values of the hero.
Is it an inspiring sight to see a man commit a heroic gesture, and then learn that he goes to vaudeville shows for relaxation? Or see a man who’s painted a magnificent canvas—and learn that he spends his time sleeping with every slut he meets?
Every action of the hero is a long extension of his virtues and judgement. There is no in between, no half-way, no hidden qualities. The heroic gesture is absolute, and if followed by an unheroic gesture it topples all heroics which came before. Again, the comparison to the superhero motif is striking: both Batman and Superman never kill anyone, never commit any (serious) crimes, as this would be in direct conflict with the values they work to uphold. If they were to use their powers to kill or steal, even once, their heroic credibility would crumbleThe same is true of those real-life heroes who do not live up to our expected visions of them: superior athletes entangled in doping scandals, outstanding politicians with loose hands, world-famous superstars involved in drug incidents, and so on. They hardly ever recover from their shadowy affairs, as their virtuous images are tainted. This constant heroism is the second principle of the Randian heroic narrative.
As for a third, the message can be found in the contrast that Rand sets up between the character of Howard Roark and that of Ellsworth Toohey, Roark’s direct antagonist. Toohey is portrayed as the villain of the story, the personification of pure evil. He is an anti-hero in Randian terms, as his virtues are as absolute as the hero himself, but they promote self-sacrifice in service of the collective, instead of self-preservation in service of the individual. Moreover, conviction of self-sacrifice counts only for the other, and not himself. He merely pushes others to give up their values, and convinces them that virtue lies in selflessness, in the renunciation of personal desires, and that they must exist for the sake of others. Toohey considers his principles humanitarian, but he ultimately wants to control the collectivised individual.
Look at it. A sublime achievement, isn’t it? A heroic achievement. Think of the thousands who worked to create this and of the millions who profit by it. And it is said that but for the spirit of a dozen men, here and there down the ages, but for a dozen men—less, perhaps—none of this would have been possible. And that might be true. If so, there are—again—two possible attitudes to take. We can say that these twelve were great benefactors, that we are all fed by the overflow of the magnificent wealth of their spirit, and that we are glad to accept it in gratitude and brotherhood. Or, we can say that by the splendor of their achievement which we can neither equal nor keep, these twelve have shown us what we are, that we do not want the free gifts of their grandeur, that a cave by an oozing swamp and a fire of sticks rubbed together are preferable to skyscrapers and neon lights—if the cave and the sticks are the limit of your own creative capacities. Of the two attitudes […], which would you call the truly humanitarian one? Because, you see, I’m a humanitarian.
Toohey presents the heroic achievement as a result of a collective endeavour, whereas Roark represents the heroic gesture of the individual, overcoming collectivised expectations. Rand chooses here to demonise the collective, criticising it for its docility, its compliance when confronted with someone who intends to control it.Toohey, in Rand’s telling, is a parasite who rides on the backs of the people. He creates nothing, he contributes nothing; he merely seeks the minds of people like Keating. However, he has no power over the independent heroes like Roark, whom he cannot persuade to jettison their values. Without a personal heroic stance, anyone could succumb to the influence of puppet-masters like Toohey. It is therefore imperative to be a hero if society is to withstand the forces of collectivised mind-control.
These are the three principles of the Randian hero: heroism is a choice; heroism is absolute;and heroism is necessary. Ayn Rand’s books are all-time bestsellers, translated into innumerable languages and still today disseminated as mandatory literature in schools all over the world. And, though Rand’s philosophy was fervently criticised in the decades after the books’ publication, and though their popularity skewsAmerican despite global familiarity, Randian principles spread consistently through popular culture in widely varying quality: from novels to comics, animated series, and Hollywood blockbusters. Through these channels, the fiction of heroics spread across the world, and ultimately settled in today’s cradle of technological advancement, Silicon Valley. There, Rand’s vision remains much admired by self-proclaimed disruptors, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists—people who see themselves as shaping the future, taking risky bets, moving out in front of everyone else, relying only on their own instincts, intuition, and knowledge, and going against the grain. They feel connected to Rand’s interpretation of the hero, and see themselves as performers of heroic gestures, destroying the established, conservative forces along the way like Howard Roark. This is where computational thinking meets the philosophy of heroism.
Not only do the heralds of tech innovation embody the Randian hero, they also incorporate him into the functionalities of the technology. Apple’s mantra “Think Different,” Google’s “Don’t be evil,” and Facebook’s “Move Fast and Break Things” depict heroic gestures. The famous 1984 Macintosh Super Bowl commercial, set in an Orwellian future of mindless drones clustered around a dictatorial screen, presented the new Apple product as an epic hammer throw, shattering the mind-controlling drudgery. An athletic heroine rushes through the crowd to liberate them from their collective slumber. The message? Technology will give each of us the opportunity to become our own hero. It would allow us to “think different” where before it was not possible.
This wasn’t a machine where you were going to be kowtowed in the workplace, this was a machine for the young, innovative, entrepreneurial mind. It really inspires the creative individual to break free and start something different.
To break free. To wake up, to cast off the shackles of conformism. To innovate. These are the demands of computational heroism. You have the possibility to make a choice, to choose for a heroic life, a creative life, against all odds. Now, we all can achieve heroism. Every moment can become significant, more significant than the last. What computation actually induced is a mediocre world with a collective aversion towards mediocrity; an adoration, a glorification of heroes, mirror-images of Ayn Rand’s champions, who are in fact very average people; a disgust for anyone who does not succeed in transcending her or himself, who is therefore considered a parasite or a scrounger, a coward. She who is not able to fit the hero role is discarded, discredited, neglected, forgotten, and blamed for not trying hard enough, for not wanting it enough. But even those who do see themselves as heroes, following the Randian definition, are never able to fully fill said definition. The principles of heroics as a choice and heroics as a necessity are what attracts people towards the heroic “lifestyle,” but the principle of heroics as an absolute is what makes it impossible. There is always a mundane side to life. Much is left out of the hero-image. As these middling parts of life become less and less relevant, they become more attractive as the territory of the artist.
The epic pressure to perform heroic scenes, modeled after the examples of heroism in history, is what the artist has to deal with on a daily basis, and will have to deal with even more in the future. The great painters, sculptors, architects, writers and musicians of history—the Da Vincis, the Michelangelos, the Le Corbusiers, the Shakespeares, the Mozarts—serve as benchmarks of artistic mastery and vision, to which every creation thereafter must relate. They are the untouchable heroes, pure in essence and virtue, the women and men of the past whose image remains (more or less) untainted by excessive recollection of mediocre, insignificant events. Having access to these prototypical examples of heroism, spurred by the expectation of heroic gestures, forces contemporary artists to go out and beyond, to break through or perish. Only a dream of ever progressing avant-gardism remains.
The avant-garde—the vanguard—is the apogee of heroism in art: the spearhead, leading the way, breaking the front-lines and opening up a path for the regular foot-soldiers. Framing the role of the artist as a catalyst for achieving cutting-edge newness, born out of sheer persistence and personal desire and genius rather than as a result of collective efforts or a cultural evolution, is what characterises the avant-garde as an ideology. As a military term transformed into a cultural or political expectation, the word avant-garde is inevitably loaded with an epic undertone: the scouts on the field, the explorers, the mappers. In the cultural field, they are the harbingers of innovation, the tokens of the new, either expanding on the existing or chopping away the average and the known. Going against the conventional is their trademark.
By promoting avant-gardism as a desirable way of life, as a necessity for heroism by Randian standards, and thus setting artists on an endless conquest for innovation, the cultural world simultaneously creates an adoration for heroes and solidifies the impossibility of becoming one. Firstly, the early heroes—the ones who have not been corrupted by excessive details on their non-heroic lives, or at least the ones who’s unwanted details are left out voluntarily—are mystified to such an extent that their vigour and virtue is unattainable today. This leads to the fallacy that, for instance, individual scientists of yesteryear, for instance—Einstein, Skłodowska-Curie, Darwin, Tesla—are heroes that we must strive to match or even surpass, but who are so epically prolific in their discoveries and their scientific virtues that we will never be able to match or surpass them. Many have tried and still try to recreate the innovative atmosphere of the 1919 to 1932 Bauhaus scene, to match its incredible impact on society. This call to arms transforms a historical setting into an impossible heroic scenario.
The adoration of heroes also implies the constant incorporation and commodification of heroic gestures into the expectations of a general public, of a mainstream. Every act of heroism is quickly recuperated by the agents of computation—by the marketeers, the PR departments, the corporate image designers, the news media and the social networks, but also by the cultural and artistic world—to take advantage of these historical moments of bravery and heroism. In 2018, the athletic shoe and clothing company Nike, picked up the NFL outcast and social rights activist Colin Kaepernick in a new advertisement campaign. Since 2016, Kaepernick had then been protesting the injustice and oppression against Black people and people of colour by kneeling during the American national anthem at the start of every football match he played in. The ad featured a black-and-white close-up of Kaepernick’s face overlaid with the caption: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” Selflessness through selfishness, a true Randian recuperation of heroism. You’d almost forget that Nike sells shoes. Avant-gardism is now the standard, the expectation; the exact opposite of what an avant-garde stands for. Avant-gardism takes on heroism as a normalisation.
This blind race for innovation had led us to an all-encompassing glorification of exceptionalism. But we were never given the tools to be exceptional. On the contrary, everything that we expect to be exceptional is in fact anticipated or quickly integrated, normalised, every dream for exceptionalism placed so far out of reach that it is unattainable, and reduced to a festering nostalgia for non-existent times when it was still attainable—when strong men could still achieve strong results.
Fictional narratives of heroics, however, are in direct conflict with computational thinking, which reduces everything to the median. Computation requires a world without heroes, without renewal and innovation, without individuals who struggle against conformism and repetition. So it therefore incorporates heroism into its models, integrating heroic gestures into a list of possible actions. Every act of moving against the system becomes one that supports it.
Avant-garde artists set the expectation of the role of the artist: the artist must innovate, be a creative mind, think outside the box, solve problems in new ways. They live their bohemian lives, turning everything they touch into creative gems, subversively criticising conventions and imagining new ways of living. They stand on the barricade between the dull, known world and the refreshing, inspiring world of the future. They are the heroes of the creative class. At least, that is, according to Richard Florida’s 2002 best-selling but highly criticised The Rise of the Creative Class. Florida projects an image of the artist, or rather of the creative worker, as a highly flexible individual, fuelled mostly by personal determination, by desire, and by confidence rather than by money or by any other external motivation. She is a catalyst for community building and urban renaissance, fertilising the creative soil in the area where she is stationed by inspiring the original population and attracting a new one in the process. Placing the subversive, disruptive, and open-minded character of the creative individual in an economic framework, Florida succeeds in modelling a world where the heroic artist, the avant-garde artist, plays the key role, where the artist serves as an example for any other profession. Under the term “creative class,” he places the painter, the tech developer, the sculptor, the marketeer, the architect, the graphic designer, the writer, and the coder all together. All lead similar lives of irregular hours, moments of contemplation, preparation, and reflection followed by moments of incubation, illumination, the “Eureka!” step, and then a period of laborious perseverance. They exhibit their creativity, even if it is unwanted, even if they are given every opportunity to hide or halt it. They chase their dreams without anyone telling them to do so, just because they believe in themselves, because they have built up their own values, their own judgement regardless of external influence. They are Howard Roarks in their own right, now not just being subversive for subversiveness’s sake, but serving the economic goals of gentrification and city branding.
Florida’s analysis of the creative class led him to the conclusion that these stubborn individuals called artists actually transform the environment around them, turning their neighbourhoods into creative hubs, bringing together a community into a creative factory—a loose bond of colleagues, competitors, and everything in between, all of whom push one another to be more productive, more creative, and to influence each other’s work and ideas. They increase not only the land value around them, but also each other’s value. This image of the quickly adapting, creatively thinking, highly motivated and independent artist offered a prototype for the workers of the future. Before long, we would have creative nurses, creative plumbers, creative mechanics, creative lawyers, creative taxi drivers, none of whom would be motivated by their wages or boss; they would work because they want to, because they share an ability to adapt to any situation and find joy and pleasure in doing so. They too can become heroes of their own making.
Creative Class Heroes
Richard Florida later corrected his theory and even renounced parts of it, mostly due to critique on his definition of the creative class, which some saw as nominally associating urban renewal and development with the bohemian lifestyle rather than with the influx of highly educated (and privileged) people traditionally associated with creative positions. Still, Florida’s ideas were quickly picked up by mayors and officials of cities and towns all over the world, who mostly saw his theories as a quick fix to boost their abandoned downtown areas or their rundown industrial plants. They opened their derelict warehouses to artists and designers and their vagrant shopping district to start-ups and pop-ups and leased entire neighbourhoods to arty initiatives and collectives of bohemian artisans all in an effort to create an atmosphere favourable for high land value.Every city with some space to spare started pinning their renovation hopes on Florida’s creative class.
But some saw the definition of this class as a waypoint towards redefining the entire workforce. If it was possible to give a polluted, dilapidated industrial complex a second profitable life by simply releasing the creative horde upon it, then it might also be possible for other domains to increase their value by becoming “creative.”. Factories, hospitals, farms, harbours, shops, offices, schools, public transportation services; their employees, the theory held, could learn a thing or two from these creative geniuses. The artist had become the blueprint for every kind of worker based only on the artist’s capacity to rely on her or himself. In 2005, the ministries of economic affairs and of education, culture and science of the Netherlands published a vision statement named “Our Creative Capacity,”’ in which they stipulated a policy of cultural and economical parallels to Richard Florida’s creative class. In the document, the ministries set out to promote a creative industry not only by investing in what they delineate as the existing creative industry, but also by encouraging the adaptation of models from the creative industries in other sectors. The logic is that creativity enables innovation, so in order for traditional labour activities to innovate and renew, they need to be creative—creativity, they imply, is the source of prosperity. The political vision of the Dutch ministries thus demanded the transition of the entirety of the Dutch workforce towards the flexibility of the creative class—freelancers, flexi-workers, creative entrepreneurs, producers, and project managers were the new heroes.
In this model, computational thinking simultaneously generates expectations of heroism and of anti-heroism, of totalities and voids, of absolutes. But the outcome is non-heroic, mundane, trivial, average: shoe companies generate expectations of a heroic lifestyle, but still peddle shoes, while electronic hardware developers whip up visions of epic liberation, but actually just hawk consumer devices, and government ministries capitalize on individual innovation to add value to industry.
Marketing Collective Transcendence
Whether it is the nurse, the cashier, the taxi driver, or the artist that counts as heroic, the reliance of society on their heroics runs deep—that is, the heroic narrative runs deep. In reality, hardly any of these actions or jobs are individual efforts. At least, not in the sense that individual gestures have tremendous impact. As with the police officers depicted by fiction as solitary heroes, reality is simplified to relieve storytelling of the ambitious task of fictionalising a group effort. Dramatising the collective effort of a squad of 150 policewomen and men is something contemporary fiction apparently is not ready to attempt.
The standard action movie narrative require one exceptional person in the foreground, which requires the rest of the characters to be on the spectrum from useless to clueless to wicked, plus a few moderately helpful auxiliary characters. There are not a lot of movies about magnificent collective action […]. Disaster movies begin with a sudden upset in the order of things—the tower becomes a towering inferno, the meteor heads toward earth, the earth shakes—and then smooths it all over with a kind of father-knows-best here-comes-a-hero plotline of rescuing helpless women and subduing vicious men. Patriarchal authority itself is shown as the solution to disasters, or a sort of drug to make us feel secure despite them.
Even when the narrative of heroism adapts to accommodate a group effort, the collective nature of that effort is quickly jettisoned to propagate an idea of individual responsibility. The battle against plastic waste is a great example of this. Instead of reducing or completely banning plastic products after the oil crises of the 1970s and the increasing protests against environmental pollution, corporations producing or using plastics set up a grand marketing scheme to convince the public that individual, private recycling efforts were the way forward, and, most importantly, that the accumulation of these efforts would bring all plastics back into the cycle of production. The plastics industry spent millions on advertising convincing the public that recycling would keep the environment clean while making billions selling new plastic. Those who recycle would be named heroes, those who did not would be seen as pariahs. Meanwhile, the industry remained in the clear. Their heroic fiction drove the public to be concerned about something they had no stake in.
Corporations, governments, and nonprofits offer a similar approach to tackling the current climate crisis. They distort a collective predicament into an individual challenge, emphasising the “challenge” aspect. The “A better world starts with yourself” ads overwhelm the actual question: Who bears the responsibility for this crisis? Who owns the largest share of the problem? Rhetoric like this drowns out any attempt to hold anyone or anything accountable for the state of the world. Critiques are rebutted with numerous memelike evocations of the 18-year-old Dutch self-made environmental hero Boyan Slat and his Ocean Cleanup initiative followed by the deafening words: “What’s your excuse?!” Even within the cohorts of fervent climate disciples, the solution for the climate challenge starts from within: taking fewer or no airplanes, buying fewer or no plastics, eating organically grown food, or, more extremely, deciding not to have children. And while this movement is not necessarily a negative evolution—actively rejecting consumerism is a legitimate form of protest—it also offers corporations and governments an avenue to avoid responsibility. They pose as though the “general public” needs to change its habits before they change theirs, providing merely what the market bids, but are meanwhile actively engaged in altering public opinion altogether. Because the problem is transformed into an individual challenge, the need for more and more heroes becomes incorporated in models of computational thinking. Thus emerges heroism as an expectation we have both of ourselves and of others Computational thinking demands everyone attempt to transcend themselves, constantly, everywhere. Everything now, every battle now, every struggle now. And it demands us to expect it from everyone else too. Everyone now.
Risk and Return
For an artist, and by extension, for any occupation currently besieged by the relentless demand to be creative, the avant-garde image of history is the expectation—to be famous, cutting-edge, legacy-worthy, and authentic—but the threshold to get to this point is simultaneously reachable and continually moving beyond reach. Historical examples, to which we must conform, are magnified to mythical proportions, but what these historical people achieved seems so much less complex than what the demand for heroics was then. T They were pioneers, so they could take risks. Now, these risks are incorporated into computational thinking.
Pioneering engineers, avant-garde artists, scientists, firefighters, police officers, taxi drivers and cashiers —all are asked to take on all the risks of heroism and none of them simultaneously. The result is a confusing inertia, where the riskless deeds are presented as heroic gestures, and where heroic gestures are dwarfed by the crushing weight of the legendary past. The philosophy of “great risks yield great returns” is ubiquitous, but only as inspiration, not as blueprint. We can and should take risks, but only if they fit within the parameters of calculation, of anticipation, and of computation, which tend to bring risk to zero.
This great paradox of computational heroism raises the question as to why we need to perform these grand gestures at all. Does it take a journey to our natural satellite, or better to Mars, to satisfy our transcendent desires? Can we not be happy and content without the pressure to perform heroic gestures? Why should we take risks to lead a good, full life? Maybe it comes naturally, as part of our transcendent raison-être. Or maybe it is an expectation instilled upon us by artificial competition, by an ideology that glorifies individual achievements and cold-shoulders collective risks.
I am conflicted about the position the artist should take in this imposed dilemma—I too wish for a life studded with heroic gestures, one in which considered risks pay off. I do wish for a life of movement, progress, and evolution, in which the drudgery and stagnation of daily routine is broken and the greyness interrupted. So I ask myself if this sentiment is natural, or if it is an expectation, a normalisation. Must we invent the glorious future all by ourselves? Or is that heroism itself part of a larger story that has been used and abused to ensure the chase of a dream, like a carrot on a stick? I guess both can be right.
Therefore I do not wholly condemn heroism:. The desire to perform heroic gestures are part of life, as much as is the reality of non-heroic gestures counteracting them. Our fascination for transcendence is part of our confrontation with the unknown future. It is our dream of a better world, one without decay, deteriorating progression, without the complex, the random, and the inevitable. It is a dream of a life without compromise, without doubt, without uncertainty. And it would be foolish to think that this dream is a construct of technology or computation, that it is an external fiction imposed upon us. To think that would be to destroy any concept of imagination and desire, and to ultimately descend into a never-ending spiral of nihilism and futility. We want things, we want them to be better than they are now, regardless of where this betterness lies. And if the things are at best the way they are now, we wish to preserve them, defend them and sustain them.
However, it is out of this dream that technology and computation arose. Computation finds its source in the sentiment for betterness, in the heroic vision of a graceful future, beyond the ails of the human body and mind, beyond the unknown future. Prediction, anticipation, and foresight are views of the world of tomorrow and set the course for how to be heroic in it.
It is therefore particularly conflicting to see that computation deals with heroics as a liability in need of moderation, as a calculated risk. Computation is set in motion through heroics, only to annul it thereafter. The heroic artist, the heroic taxi driver, the heroic paramedic, and the heroic politician, superstar, or movement leader are all starting to fit within the anticipated models of the future. They remain artificially heroic, within the set parameters, as to meet our expectations of heroic dreams, but computational thinking does not allow us to go beyond. Computation implores us to be the best in a battle of comparative heroics, only to create an infinite array of possible differences between each and every participant.
If heroics are the amplification of differences between individuals and computation is unable to process differences except through the selection of averages, then how can we escape from this great equaliser? How do we perform gestures of heroism, and make them significant without triggering a glorification of heroism? Or is it possible to counter said heroics, or better, avoid them? Because countering them could easily be interpreted as yet another heroic act, ready to be recuperated. Every anti-heroic gesture is as epic as the heroic gesture it wishes to undo. So, how can we produce an anti-heroic gesture? A gesture so banal, so common, so regular, so repetitive, that it barely registers in the enormous databases and statistics of computation?
Heroism is marketed as a way of life, as a necessity. Heroism as fiction is presented as an absolute virtue, without any of the daily practicalities. Heroism is pure creativity put to use, it is an example for everyone to follow. Heroism is used as a strategy to divide a collective into individuals. Heroism is a disregard of risks, but these risks should never be taken. These are the ways in which the sentiment, the desire to perform heroic gestures is abused by computational thinking. So they are strategies that must be circumvented in order to achieve the non-heroic gesture, which is still heroic, but not registered as such.
The non-heroic gesture must therefore not be a way of life but unnecessary and determined. It must always be relative and focused on daily practicalities. It must be trivial creativity, unexemplary. It should enable collectivity. It should never be recorded nor fractalised. And most importantly, it should reject any form of risk-taking. It is, in its essence, maintenance.
Before we move too far into the practicalities of anti-heroism, I want to further address the evolution of transcendent ideologies, and both the positive and negative implications of what I call übermenschlichkeit. As I have said before, the development of computation stems from our desire to transcend our corporeal limitations and predict the future. While this techno-optimistic motivation has often been used to cover more nefarious uses of computational technologies, I believe that it indeed originates in a good-faith vision of humanity’s potential advancement. The early ambassadors of cybernetics imagined a symbiosis between human and machine, and through it a collaboration between all people. Buckminster Fuller, one of the heralds of cybernetics and systems-thinking, often made claims to this effect in his numerous publications. In the conclusion of his famous Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, he wrote:
You may very appropriately want to ask me how we are going to resolve the ever-acceleratingly dangerous impasse of world-opposed politicians and ideological dogmas. I answer, it will be resolved by the computer. Man has ever-increasing confidence in the computer; witness his unconcerned landings as airtransport passengers coming in for a landing in the combined invisibility of fog and night. While no politician or political system can ever afford to yield understandably and enthusiastically to their adversaries and opposers, all politicians can and will yield enthusiastically to the computers safe flight-controlling capabilities in bringing all of humanity in for a happy landing.
So, planners, architects, and engineers take the initiative. Go to work, and above all co-operate and don’t hold back on one another or try to gain at the expense of another. Any success in such lopsidedness will be increasingly short-lived. These are the synergetic rules that evolution is employing and trying to make clear to us. They are not man-made laws. They are the infinitely accommodative laws of the intellectual integrity governing Universe.
As much as I admire Bucky—for his prescient view of the planet as a closed system in itself, for his endless search for universalities, for his grand design gestures, and for his persistence to assuring the well-being of the entirety of the human population—I have to admit that his reverence of a computational world seems, in hindsight, somewhat perverted. Fuller’s 1969 dream for the technology-guided governance of the planet and its population did not come true as he would have expected. His romantic dreams of the possibilities afforded by technology, I believe, in fact helped launch the development of computational systems that resurrect the past rather than set us moving forward. While Fuller’s techno-utopian declarations and hyper-optimistic cybernetic manifestos today seem hyperbolic, even laughable to some, his vision has largely become reality, though devoid of his futurist optimism. Cybernetics, as Norbert Wiener coined the techno-optimistic field, cannot be mentioned anymore without skepticism or derision; its development grew entwined with the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, ridding it, in some circles, of its seriousness.. Still, politicians and scientists alike enthusiastically take to the field of research borne from cybernetics—combining mechanical, physical, biological, cognitive, and social systems. The difference is, these parties no longer call such thinking cybernetics anymore—it is so integrated into technological development that it need not be named anymore.
Cybernetics proposed a systematic view of the world, one in which the connections between moving parts can be represented by mechanical or electrical circuits. A cause triggers an effect, which turns into a cause that triggers a further effect. Every process in the physical world can be abstracted into a virtual counterpart, resulting in complex schematics of actions and feedback systems. This analytical mindset went hand in hand with the development of computational devices, which were increasingly able to simulate said schematics, to reproduce them inside the circuitry of the computer. By further analysing and abstracting the systems of economics, ecology, social interactions, communication, psychology, biology, and others, researchers were able to produce parallels between them. All of these systems were seen as transposable.
When researchers revealed the mechanics of interaction between these systems, they came to the conclusion that we, people, were also ultimately nothing more than moving parts in an information-processing system. The brain, then, was understood as similar to, if not exactly the same as, a computer’s processor and memory storage.
In time, the distinction between human and machine faded, and the dream of symbiosis became a dream of assimilation. Humans and machines were no longer complementary, but part of one and the same system. Before long, propagators of this new interpretation of cybernetics came to the conclusion that, if humans were computers, then they were ultimately inferior in power to artificial, electrical computers, which were capable of running numerous cognitive calculations at once, at incredible speeds, and with numbers impossible to process by the human mind.
The sole purpose of the human in this system, then, was to create a computer in its image, and to improve this device until it could completely surpass every human capability, making humans obsolete. The role of mankind would be to launch this superior life form into being and then get out of the way. This ideology is what we call transhumanism.
Infused with a cynical form of heroism, transhumanism proposes an austere view on humanity’s future. It is a transcendent creed, placing us, humans, in the transitionary phase between rudimentary civilisation, hardly distinguishable from nature, and a higher form of consciousness. Transhumanism is propelled by a quest for singularity—a universal artificial intelligence, a unified mind of interconnected, hyper-efficient computers, programs, algorithms and world-observing sensors with instant access to the totality of information available in the universe—after which humans either become a part of said singularity, through cognitive augmentation and genetic modification, or live like a subspecies.
This is, of course, a far less generous image of the future than that of the early cyberneticists, at least regarding the position of the human. As digital ethics professor Sarah Spiekermann writes:
Transhumanists confound emotionality with irrationality, dormant potential with stupidity and disability with dispensability. And as a result of this confusion they promote and push for a future that blindly heralds ubiquitously wired, genetically optimized, computing-led societies, in which supposedly fallible humans are manipulated and enhanced by an invisible, presumably controllable and more optimal, robot-driven machinery called the next stage of ostensible “evolution” for humanity.
In their Human Manifesto, a team of scientists led by Spiekermann takes action against the growing influence of transhumanist thought in science and against the hegemonic claim that transhumanists enforce upon the supposedly necessary transformation of the species. The scientists outline the problem of transhumanism as being based on three flawed beliefs: “Reality is the totality of information; Humans are nothing but information processing objects; Artificial intelligence is intelligence in a human sense.” Based on these three beliefs, the team summarises, transhumanists argue that “decision-making should generally be based on information and the artificial intelligence that operates on it, because this kind of decision-making leads to better decisions; and we should welcome a next phase of evolution, in which humans can be enhanced; for instance by artificial intelligence that is more powerful than human intelligence.”
The Human Manifesto then goes on to tackle these erroneous assumptions one by one, foregrounding human emotionality—“our fragility, our sentience, our self-awareness, and our embodied sense of ‘who’ we are”—as the characteristic that distinguishes us from any comparison to biological computers, brains in vats, or information-processing objects. What strikes me most in the philosophy of transhumanism is the desire for a next phase in evolution and the welcoming stance that transhumanist ideology adopts towards the idea of a more powerful entity.
This idea, however futurist, is rich with nostalgia.. Transhumanist belief states that the natural evolution of computation will lead to the birth of a superior species, under whose rule the current species, homo sapiens, will not likely triumph. Some proponents of transhumanism try to help humans compete with this new, better iteration of sentient life, but most have given up on this entirely. We will either perish, they believe, or, preferably, be demoted to a servient species, for whom everything will be taken care of, like a pet or reserve animal. Protected by the next stage of sentience, by an all-knowing entity, humanity will be able to return to nature, and become part of an ecosystem again which it has, in the past centuries, tried to subdue and master. Humanity will be able to live without worries of the future, without the constant strife and struggle against the unknown future that have long characterised our existence.
This nostalgia, a sort of neo-naturalism, is embedded within both the hyper-optimism of cybernetics and the techno-inevitability of transhumanism. The widespread ideology of the techno-realists, who fervently combat the woolly image of early systems-thinkers, finds its origin in a return to nature and an abdication of the responsibility of constant improvement. Their heroic next-phase-for-humanity crusade is actually an endgame strategy in disguise. Their dreams of transcendence are but a script for the reenactment of an idealised past.
In this nostalgic vision of the future, the cynicism of the widely held belief of transhumanism converges again with the techno-optimist persuasions of cybernetics — a vision embodied in Richard Brautigan’s famous poem, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace”:
I like to think
(and the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
like pure water
touching clear sky.
I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.
I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over by machines of loving grace.
Nostalgia is blamed for alienating people from the present. When not catastrophic or fearsome, today’s world becomes “undistinguished, unexciting, blank,” charges a critic, “a time that leaves nothing for our imaginations to do except plunge into the past.” The enormous popularity of the reconstructed “landscapes that we never knew, but wish we had,” suggests refusal to face up to the dilemmas of the present.
— David Lowenthal
Maybe the past was better. I say this not as a critique of today, but as a suggestion. The problem is that we will never know. Contemporary movements of ecological preservation invoke images of an idealised natural habitat, one unsoiled by human activity. But in doing so, they enter a dream of utter nostalgia, longing for a world they never knew—a return to the original state of things. As we now know, this recovery is unfeasible, because even if we knew what this original might be, the relentless motion of time’s arrow is irreversible. Entropic decay annuls any possibility of an original. A building can never be restored into the sand, clay, and limestone from which it was made. The soil which was displaced to make way for its foundation is dispersed, spread over the land, and eroded. To return to its original state would require a perfect recollection of the position of each and every particle of soil, and to place it back precisely where it came from—in other words, a total reconstruction. Nostalgia for the originality of nature, then, amounts to an impossible dream.
Perhaps it is this unattainability that renders nostalgia so powerful a sentiment. Our knowledge that we will never come near the heroes of the past generates a longing for bygone times, despite that we know it is impossible to return. The past is spoken of in superlatives, but so is the process of returning to said past. And so, this want for a return too becomes a heroic goal in itself, laced with a mist of transcendence: to achieve the unachievable, to produce the unproducible, to retrieve the irretrievable.
Yet we can no more slip back to the past than leap forward to the future. Save in imaginative reconstruction, yesterday is forever barred to us; we have only attentuated memories and fragmentary chronicles of prior experience and can only dream of escaping the confines of the present. But in recent years such nostalgic dreams have become almost habitual, if not epidemic.
Our times are characterised by a split between ideas of a radical return to the past, so that we can cut our losses before things get out of hand, and of aresolute stride forwards, so that we can transcend the unknown future. And, as we have seen, even the most progressive ideas about the computational future betray a longing for the past. Techno-escapists wish to fly to Mars and start over, to escape the mess on Earth and do it the right way next time. Techno-optimists daydream of a symbiotic technocracy in which we live in balance with nature and technology. Techno-realists envision a world governed by computation, one in which we are but pets that frolic through the meadows. Even techno-nihilists predict the inevitability of a restoration of the original state of the world in the absence of humanity, under the watchful eye of the transcendent next phase of evolution. All forms of techno-futurism are permeated with a naturalist nostalgia.
As for those who advocate a 180° turn away from technological advancement, for abandoning all projects that propose to eliminate, subjugate, or liberate us, they clamp onto a polished version of the past in which technology has not soiled our true connection to nature and our origins. These Neo-Luddites propose giving up on ideas of progress in favor of pre-industrial concepts of cohabitation with nature. They want to cash out of the technological race. Some suggest the need for a new plague or natural holocaust to initiate such return, ousting technological development with it, while others suggest a complete withdrawal into a parallel society. Both proposals aim to recreate the conditions of a world before we turned onto a road towards computation. Again, nostalgia prevails.
Between these looks backwards and forwards, both prophesying the return to nature, is the dynamic world, the world in motion, balanced on this bifurcation, on the choice between discontinuation and acceleration. Instead of heralding the new order of superior cognition through acceleration, the mechanics of computation suspend this in-between world in a state of constancy. Stability, envisioned by transhumanists to come into effect when computation reaches its full potential, has already been attained. It is a stability of repetition and of reiteration. As David Lowenthal notes of the current state of things, this world “leaves nothing for our imaginations to do except plunge into the past.” Computation reinforces the heroism associated with nostalgia.
Lowenthal’s 1985 book forebodes a nostalgic future. He registers, even then, society’s tendency to gravitate towards the adoration of an unlived past. And while the term nostalgia—from the Greek nosos, meaning a return to the native land, and algos, denoting suffering or grief—was first coined in 1688 as a deadly medical affliction, commonly contracted after travelling far distances away from the homeland, its definition as the reaction to a physical displacement shifted over time towards a longing for a temporal displacement, a homesickness induced by a longing for faraway times. The growing uncertainties of the future, and the computational camouflage of unpredictability, push our current nostalgic desires towards ubiquity. The glorification of a past when such uncertainties were nonexistent renders the exhaustive wave of nostalgia overwhelming, swelling it, once again, to near medical proportions.
Mistrust in the future […] fuels today’s nostalgia. We may not live the past as excessively as many did in the nineteenth century, but out misgivings about what may come are more grave. […] Prospects of economic ruin, of resource depletion, of nuclear Armageddon make the past a crucial haven, and so extensive is our regression that one authority fears “we are entering a future in which people may again die of nostalgia.”
I believe it is the overwhelming bore, not of repetition itself but of the realisation that this repetition brings no change at all, that bombards people into nostalgia. People are, indeed, again dying of this depression. The futurelessness of computation has caught us by surprise exactly because it is masked so well by the stories of heroism and transcendence. In Samuel Beckett’s famous En Attendant Godot, the protagonists Vladimir and Estragon wait for a nonexistent character, day and night. Both characters stand at the ready for Godot’s arrival having nearly forgotten the preceding days in which they did exactly the same. Vladimir and Estragon find themselves in a sort of purgatory, waiting for their release, but forgetting why, again and again. It seems almost like torture for a person to perform the same action repeatedly and forget why. In the first act, Estragon removes his boots, which do not fit well and hurt his feet. Then, in the second act, now barefoot, Estragon is euphoric when he finds his boots again, forgetting that they had already caused him much agony.
The risk of returning to a life of maintenance, as a rejection of heroism, is this crushing bore, the repetitiveness and repressiveness of upholding the same while not knowing why. Heroics tend to counteract this by inserting the feeling of daily accomplishment into everyday tasks, making everything a challenge. Computation, in this way, builds in and relies on its illusion of heroic gestures.
This is why stories that position their protagonists either for or against technology end in nostalgia. Our imaginations of the past act as escapes from the iterative nature of computation: we take our great leaps forward into the past. We escape from Plato’s cave only to see that the sun’s true nature lies in history. But even this is a simulation run by computation.
David Graeber, in his essay on our collective disappointment about the failed promise of flying cars from the 1950s and 1960s, addresses computation as a method of simulating the realisation of visions of the past. The idea of flying cars was one such vision, yet we still drive around in vehicles that are essentially the same as they were then. We are now nostalgic for those times when grand visions of this sort were still common, but instead we are served simulations of these visions, drenched in tropes of vintage fiction and retro-hopefulness.
That last word, “simulate,” is key. What technological progress we have seen since the seventies has largely been in information technologies—that is, technologies of simulation. They are technologies of what Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco used to call the “hyper- real”—the ability to make imitations more realistic than the original. The entire postmodern sensibility, the feeling that we had somehow broken into an unprecedented new historical period where we understood that there was nothing new; that grand historical narratives of progress and liberation were meaningless; that everything now was simulation, ironic repetition, fragmentation and pastiche: all this only makes sense in a technological environment where the only major breakthroughs were ones making it easier to create, transfer, and rearrange virtual projections of things that either already existed, or, we now came to realize, never really would.
What now offers us comfort is that we can still perceive this pattern. We can identify nostalgia as nostalgic and heroism as heroic. We can still create stories without copying the script, and we can perform repetition while feeling that, somehow, we are still moving forwards.
3_1_5_Use and Abuse of Creativity
The word “creativity” typically boomerangs about, used in corporate and political interpretations as much as in artistic or cultural-origin stories. It is the central concept for innovation and progress and in problem-solving and thinking-outside-the-box. It is the driving force behind artistic creation, scientific research, and engineering. It is an emotional exponent of passion, desire and willpower, but also a technical quality, needed to engage in maintenance. It is an expectation for some and a prohibition for others.
Creativity is a concept that conjures the new, the unknown. It can be seen as a necessity when playing games like chess or Go, but creativity can also be undesirable in games like World of Warcraft, where min-maxing is protocol and where the exact strategies need to be followed in order to win the game. Creativity can be marketing strategy or a personal motivation, it can be used to develop land value or the inner spirit. It can represent new ways of doing things, or signify the creation of something out of nothing. In this sense, creativity enabled the exploration of the moon, but also the blitzkrieg. It is the start of both the construction and the destruction of the World Trade Center. Creativity can stand for a personal trait or for the efforts of a collective. It can mean interpretation, reconfiguration, or rejection. An electrician can be creative, in the same way a graphic designer can. It is a product of the imagination. So, confronted with these seemingly contradictory definitions, how do we define what creativity means? For Oli Mould, there is a more universal definition of creativity:
Creativity has always been a slippery and nebulous concept. But strip away the millennia of etymological layering, and you are left with a kernel of truth: it is the power to create something from nothing. And it is a “power” rather than an “ability.” Being creative is more than the “ability” to create something from nothing in response to a particular need or lack. Nor is it simply an ability to produce a new product that the market has deemed necessary. Creativity is a power because it blends knowledge (from the institutional and mechanistic level to the pre-cognitive), agency, and importantly desire to create something that does not yet exist. Far from being reactive, it is proactive; it drives society into new worlds of living.
I agree with Mould that creativity is a power, and that it requires desire to be activated; both facets are related to humanity’s story-making capacity. But I am more reserved about the idea that this power is out to bring something new into the world. It is exactly this concept of creativity—the idea that it is a motor to create something from nothing—that has led to the countless definitions of the word, and ultimately to its abuse. This fixation on the new is fuelled by thoughts of transcendence, and the normalisation of endless progress. It is a normalisation in and of itself.
Creativity has been a central concept in the development of artificial intelligence in recent years. For an automated brain to function along the design of the human brain, it is generally thought to need some sort of creative ability to solve complex problems. The idea of artificial intelligence is to outsource the capacity of the human brain, which is now used to code if-this-then-that algorithms, and let the machine handle this difficult task by itself. If the challenge of automation is the problem of updates—the machine always performs the same tasks regardless of the change of environment or demand—which always requires human interference, then it is significantly more convenient to let the machine take care of itself, releasing the human of the burdensome task of maintaining it. For these kinds of tasks, however, there is no straightforward protocol. What is necessary is an adaptive response, a fluid readiness to address any type of problem. And, for now, only the human brain is capable of deconstructing a complex problem, repairing its dysfunctional parts, updating the whole and putting it back into action. Many complex questions rely on such proactive and associative thinking to keep a production running. The process is dynamic, versatile, and flexible, and it requires a constant reinterpretation of known and unknown factors. It is this composite of insights and adaptability that is referred to as creativity. And its simulation has become the holy grail of computation.
During the 2019 International Symposium for Computational Media Art, I was part of a panel that included two young researchers from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication. In their presentation, called “Artificial Intelligence, Artists and Art: Attitudes Towards Artwork Produced by Humans vs. Artificial Intelligence,” they explained that, in a test, a group of people could not differentiate between human-made and artificially generated paintings. When told that some were “fake,” most participants indicated that it did not influence their evaluation or appreciation of the artwork. The researchers argued that, if machines could produce artworks indistinguishable from human-made artworks, then these computers had reached a human level of creativity. They summarised:
The results of this survey-experiment shed light on the ways that people evaluate AI and human artwork, including the degree of skill and creativity they assign to each. Such evaluation has implications not only for the way that society views AI created creative projects, but also for the ways that society defines concepts like creativity and art more broadly.
Through the conference, a number of presenters offered creative applications of artificial intelligence, such as computers producing products we might consider artworks. Yet none of the works displayed any creativity by Oli Mould’s definition. Some were thought to carry proof of knowledge, such as a machine that creates new poetry in the style of Shakespeare, having gone over every text by the English writer. But none of them could reasonably demonstrate agency, let alone desire. There were no works or papers or videos presented of, for instance,a welding robot in a car factory that all of the sudden decides that its repetitive work has no relevance, only to turn away from the assembly line and weld a sculpture. Not one presentation told a story of how researchers fed a computer all of van Gogh’s paintings, only for it to then start painting something completely distinct from the data set.
While many of the conference’s featured projects were impressive, eerie, or seemingly magical, none could confidently speak of artificial creativity. The programmers envisioned an effect, and worked towards an expectation. Some were surprised by the result, stating that it exceeded all expectations. But the text-processing program processed text, the video-rendering software rendered video, and the sound-generating algorithm generated sound. The artists and programmers projected their own creativity onto the machine, and attributed the aesthetics of the artificial artwork to the unfathomable black box of artificial intelligence, neglecting their own input in an effort to present the device as self-sustaining and as creative.
Why do these scientists, artists, designers and programmers work so hard to synthesise creativity? And why does this mission lead them to apply the word creativity to anything that might be remotely associated with it? The transcendent belief, the transhumanist ideology, that the creative process, at least as undertaken by humans, is slow and cumbersome, takes detours and unnecessary shortcuts, and should therefore be streamlined and optimised for society to reach its full potential runs deep within the community experimenting with the potential of AI. But in their blind fascination for the dream of the self-sustainability of extra-human intelligence, they conflate the power to combine agency, desire, and knowledge with the capacity to solve complex problems.
While I do not mean to belittle these computational media artists’ creations, I do mean to contest their implied understandings of creativity. What incites their creativity is their fascination for the functionalities of generative adversarial networks, for complex coding, and for deep learning. Their minds spur this lifeless code to produce something it was first intended to do, and made it produce something never before produced. They bring together a team of specialists to find a solution to a problem they desire to solve. This is the power to combine knowledge, agency, and desire. What the machines they make ultimately execute is not.
Ultimately, it was computational thinking that implores them to define their work as part of a whole, as a road to something greater. Computational normalisation forces them to anthropomorphise the machine, calling it creative. At the conference, researchers talked about computers “thinking” in unexpected ways, its cameras “watching” paintings or “reading” texts, and its microphones “listening” to thousands of hours of music. Computers “learned” how to speak. The actions of computers were seen as decisions that follow reason and logic. The attendees saw their devices come to life. And in their fascination for this newly created life, they forgot that the origin of this creation laid in them, the creators
Creativity and desire—what we often reduce, in political economy terms, to “production” and “consumption”—are essentially vehicles of the imagination. Structures of inequality and domination—structural violence, if you will—tend to skew the imagination. Structural violence might create situations where laborers are relegated to mind-numbing, boring, mechanical jobs, and only a small elite is allowed to indulge in imaginative labor, leading to the feeling, on the part of the workers, that they are alienated from their own labor, that their very deeds belong to someone else. It might also create social situations where kings, politicians, celebrities, or CEOs prance about oblivious to almost everything around them while their wives, servants, staff, and handlers spend all their time engaged in the imaginative work of maintaining them in their fantasies. Most situations of inequality I suspect combine elements of both.
David Graeber refers here to the dynamics of structural violence and political economy that distort the imaginations of workers. I propose that computational thinking works similarly, in that it creates a structural expectation, a normalisation, of what creativity—desire and imagination—is supposed to be. Computational thinking, as a politico-economic strategy, reduces creativity and desire to production and consumption, and renders humans subordinates in the service of the proliferation of this production and consumption rather than agents of their own creativity and desire. As in the examples of the heroic, creative taxi driver or the creative nurse, true creativity is only condoned if it contributes to the system that ultimately negates their creativity altogether. This means that creativity, in the computational sense, has hardly anything to do with the power to synthesise knowledge, agency, and desire. But it also means that those who do wield this power are enlisted to propagate the structures antithetical to creativity.
The words of the two communications scientists are particularly striking because they acknowledge unknowingly that their research, which betrays a computational definition of the notion of creativity, will change our understanding of the concept. They confirm that looking at creativity through a purely functional lens will ultimately alter “the ways that society defines concepts like creativity and art.”
This implicit claim makes it easier for us to declare that creativity is intrinsically non-computational, non-automatic, and anti-heroic. If society evolves towards the normalisation of computational thinking and its collateral expectations of creativity, then creativity becomes its own opposite. Any use of the word in a context that complies with these expectations of computation becomes meaningless. If creativity is used to incentivise dockworkers, mechanics, and factory workers to adopt a more flexible attitude towards labor expectations, then the word becomes hollow. If creativity is exemplified by the ability of people to solve problems that computers cannot, then these become the actions to avoid when engaging in true creativity.
The anti-heroic act of creativity is triggered by fascination, an inexplicable curiosity for things—a desire to understand that which we do not fully comprehend, to elaborate on that which we do understand, and to probe for the edges of what cannot be understood.In other words, it is triggered by our need for stories and our desire for quality, betterment, improvement, and stability, as well as conservation, structure, order, and a means to combat entropy. Creativity, then, becomes an act, rather than a creation in the productive sense, a process that includes the sensations of fascination and frustration and that originates from our power to combine knowledge, agency, and desire. Creative acts utilise only a pragmatic attitude towards computation; creative people are fascinated by it but also frustrated by it. In this sense, the makers of the painting machines at the conference acted creatively. But creativity, ultimately, does not work like that. Despite computation’s tendencies towards these actions, creativity is not transmittable, not projectable, and not transposable.
It is this conclusion that leads me to propose the act of maintenance as an act of potential creativity—anti-heroic, non-automatic, and non-computational creativity. The expansion of computational thinking will inevitably lead us to perceive creativity as embodied by mind-numbing, boring, mechanical jobs—those conventionally traditionally seen as the opposite of creative. Maintenance defies this abuse of creativity.
Computational thinking always assumes that repetitive actions are not creative, that they are dull and useless. Its logical conclusion is that these actions therefore need to be automated to liberate humanity from routine and free our spirits to engage in creative activities. It is easy to speculate that the masons, electricians, and cleaners of this world think of their jobs in society as repetitive, making them easily replaceable by automations. But this mindset completely ignores the joy and fascination one might find in the repetitive act, one in which every iteration contributes to the long-term development of mastery
Without claiming that every act of maintenance incites fascination, joy, or contentment, I want to posit that maintenance holds the potential for creativity in a world defined by computational thinking. Maintenance, as the gesture we most commonly associate with computation and automation, simultaneously upholds and offsets computation. The continuation of computation depends on the mechanical interpretation of maintenance, but this continuation is undone by our creative interpretation of such repetitive acts. For, in the end, the repetition in creative maintenance is not at all as circular as is its mechanical counterpart. Every iteration starts differently; every repetition can lead to a different result.
We must therefore not deny the repetitive nature of creativity, and the joy, pride, and fascination we uphold in the accomplishment of yet another iteration of the same. Our lives are not mechanical, as the transcendent ideologies of computational thinking and transhumanism might suggest. They are not circular, with continual return to a mechanical starting point. No, maintenance is the anti-heroic and therefore creative—by the true definition of the word—act of repeating a similar but not identical act ad infinitum. It is this creative maintenance that allows us to build our bodies, to keep our houses upright, to become specialists, to play a theatre piece, to do research, to talk and write, and to produce artwork.
Albert Einstein’s apocryphal quote in which he supposedly defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results marginalises repetition and its creative potential. Rather, doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is, for me, the definition of creativity. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting the same results is, in fact, the exact goal of computational thinking.
3_1_6_Art for Art’s Sake
If art is deprived of the purpose of preaching morality and of improving mankind, it does not by any means follow that art is absolutely pointless, purposeless, senseless, in short l’art pour l’art—a snake which bites its own tail. “No purpose at all is better than a moral purpose!”—thus does pure passion speak. A psychologist, on the other hand, puts the question: what does all art do? does it not praise? does it not glorify? does it not select? does it not bring things into prominence? In all this it strengthens or weakens certain valuations. Is this only a secondary matter? an accident? something in which the artist’s instinct has no share? Or is it not rather the very prerequisite which enables the artist to accomplish something?... Is his most fundamental instinct concerned with art? Is it not rather concerned with the purpose of art, with life? with a certain desirable kind of life? Art is the great stimulus to life; how can it be regarded as purpose less, as pointless, as l’art pour l’art?
— Friedrich Nietzsche
I want to return to my initial question, “Why do we make art?” and my discussion of the implications of heroism, nostalgia, and creativity in light of the rising influence of the transcendental mindset of computational thinking and transhumanist ideology. I would like to elaborate on the reasons to create art in the future, taking note of the role of the artist in the past. If the concept of transcendence, as a reflex of mankind facing the unknown future, is the origin of the creation of art, then why do suggestions of the opposite—that art can have no origin, nor a purpose—persist?
I wonder, here, if there is a universal reason to create art. Because if this reason is universal, then there is no ground to believe that this will radically change in the future: the creation of art will always, by this logic, remain intrinsically the same, or at least the basis on which art comes into existence will remain consistent. Yet this can only be so if art exists without purpose, that is, if art does not depend on its context to be defined as such. But, indeed, it is context that determines what can be called art and that obscures the question of whether the creation of art is naturally bound to humanity’s reflexes. How, realistically, could we rid ourselves of context?
Despite this point,we have for centuries searched for the essence of pure creation, a reason for artmaking unaffected by expectations of social normalisation. Were this essence were to be found, art would cease to change, to follow style, or to adapt to any whim of political preference or commodity value. Art would remain art without master.
Further, and for this account more importantly, art would then be unfazed by the forces of computation. If the essence of art were inherently human and thus, through generations, permanent, then computational thinking would not be able to alter our understanding of it. But this can only be true if art exists for art’s sake, if it is possible for art to serve no purpose, and so to remain untouchable, pristine, neutral, or in other words, universal.
L’art pour l’art has been a fascination of Western artists since the nineteenth th century, when ideas of utilitarianism, morality, politics, or didacticism were questioned alongside other fixed societal ideas. Art should not, these artists thought, bend to the will of society, or conform to the rules of industrial production or of the political state. Rather, art should sprout only from the desire of the artist to bring forth a work of art. It should levitate in the void of purposelessness, without touching anything or anyone in a way that could render the work utilitarian. With the purpose of the artwork made obsolete, its creation becomes a pure, untainted, and primordial act. As Edgar Allen Poe put it:
We have taken it into our heads that to write a poem simply for the poem’s sake, and to acknowledge such to have been our design, would be to confess ourselves radically wanting in the true poetic dignity and force: —but the simple fact is, that, would we but permit ourselves to look into our own souls, we should immediately there discover that under the sun there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified—more supremely noble than this very poem—this poem per se—this poem which is a poem and nothing more, this poem written solely for the poem’s sake.
The creation of a poem for the purpose of instantiating poetry, and then assuming that it has come into existence without reason nor purpose, has, in hindsight, been a futile endeavour. Art that sprouts solely from the soul needs to stay in the soul in order for it to remain supremely noble. Once an artwork is loosed upon the world, it becomes part of the world. It is integrated into the selective nature of human society as words or as colours, shapes, surfaces, forms, buildings, sounds, or movements. Once an artwork is actualised, it becomes a sequence of choices, decisions to use a certain material and not another, to place words in a certain order and not another, and so on. It inevitably follows the mechanics of normalisation, and specifically the impulse to demarcate what the soul, mind, or spirit can come up with.
This shows that, regardless of the effort involved, every work of art complies with the expectations of normalisation once made unto the world. Or, as Nietzsche asks: “Does it (art) not select?” It does. It is an act of pure selection. But in this act, all hopes for nobleness is lost, and with it its purposelessness. Nevertheless, this reasoning has not stopped artists in the past 200 years from trying to achieve l’art pour l’art, as exemplified in styles such as formalism or abstract expressionism. Or from trying to achieve the exact opposite for that matter, reaffirming art’s ability to serve grand purposes.. The detachment of art from societal context, and the situation of art production in the sterile void, with the artist reduced to the role of spectator while generating work originating in pure self-expression, is a modus operandi still vivid today.
Adam Curtis, in his documentary Hypernormalisation, describes an evolution concerning the activist artists of the 1970s, who, confronted with an every more complex barrier of political pressure and economical prioritisation, resorted to a life of reflection instead of one of direct action:
The radicals and the left-wingers who, ten years before, had dreamt of changing America through revolution did nothing. They had retreated and were living in the abandoned buildings in Manhattan. The singer Patti Smith later described the mood of disillusion that had come over them: ”I could not identify with the political movements any longer,” she said. “All the manic activity in the streets. In trying to join them, I felt overwhelmed by yet another form of bureaucracy.”
What she was describing was the rise of a new, powerful individualism that could not fit with the idea of collective political action. Instead, Patti Smith and many others became a new kind of individual radical, who watched the decaying city with a cool detachment. They didn’t try and change it. They just experienced it.
[Smith strolls through the neighbourhoods of New York and comments on the life in the city] “Look at that. Isn’t that cool? I love that, where, like, kids write all over the walls. That, to me, is neater than any art sometimes. Jose and Maria forever.”
Instead, radicals across America turned to art and music as a means of expressing their criticism of society. They believed that instead of trying to change the world outside the new radicalism should try and change what was inside people’s heads, and the way to do this was through self-expression, not collective action.
It is this change in mindset, this focus on self-expression—that art is an excretion of the individual mind rather than the result of a purpose-driven collective enterprise—that heralded in a new understanding of art for art’s sake still widely supported today by artists and teachers of the arts. For these individuals, art cannot exist within an exterior context—as do design or architecture, or even music—but can only come from within. There can be made no compromise at the starting point of the work as the essence of the work would then be forfeited. And even the intention of “changing what is inside people’s heads,” inside the spectator’s heads is hardly permitted. What the artwork does to other people’s minds is their business, not the artist’s.
I understand this reflex as a method to sterilise the work prior to its existence. This way, the artist can disclaim any wrongful understanding or recuperation. The apathetic comportment fobs off with any responsibility towards a community, and can claim a position for the artist that is no more and no less than a primordial and thus inevitable expression of artistic desire and intuition. The sole impulse to make art then becomes the only raison d’être of art.
Of course, as I have discussed, the distinction between the natural impulses of mankind and those influenced by normalisation is hard to make. We cannot exist, nor has anyone ever lived, apart from the world around. Artists who can sincerely claim to act only out of pure individual incentive, out of the innate desires linked to the genetically determined personality, and thus not for reasons followed by a purpose in the realms of inter-human relations, are scarce, if even existent. Every artwork that has been brought into existence, whether it is made public or not, has been shaped by what is exterior, even if the intention of the artist is to make it expressly without purpose. Every incentive to make anything is, therefore, unavoidably affected by the position of the artist within the whole, by the role they create for themselves in the process of making an artwork. Therefore, any product of that position is bound to serve some sort of purpose within that role. In other words, purposelessness is impossible, which renders our ability to find a static, pristine foundation upon which art can come into being impossible as well.
There is, however, another way to frame the universality of art. Because art for art’s sake explicitly dictates a state in which art must be created, and because radical reactions to this position popped up at the same time, the art world has remained in an almost synchronously oscillating state between these two positions. I believe that the strength and survival of art and artmaking resides in the area between these poles, in the ever-changing position of the artist..
One can wholeheartedly defend art as pure individual expression or prove the opposite, and both positions can support the making of art. Art survives as art because it is never the same, because it is never absolute or universal. Ideals of beauty or form that are considered the essence of art can be overthrown by yet another perception of what these ideals should be, showing that the principles once considered universal mean very little. But at every instance, there is someone out there who produces something which is then or later viewed as art, and then, even later, not viewed as art anymore. The re-interpretation of what art is and why we make art is what makes art universal. It is always something other. And this is exactly why it is so difficult to define art, and why it is becoming increasingly difficult to justify, and simultaneously so attractive to engage in, l’art pour l’art.
The current hegemony of computational normalisations demands a fixed purpose for everything, particularly in the market-economical sense. Every action serves an end, which then contributes to a pre-fixed expectation of the future. But if the purpose of that action changes all the time, it becomes increasingly difficult to categorise. Some artists may find financial benefit in their actions, modifying their practices to meet market demand. Their purpose is to produce products to be desired and to sell them as such. Others might not find satisfaction in this, and might produce the exact opposite, demonstrating that their products are purposeless. Can we then claim that one is art and the other is not? Only contemporary context, which transforms at tremendous speeds, defines any particular work as art.
What attracts people to art is that it can be anything and that it should be anything. Which is why, as with the monasteries following the Rule of Benedict remaining intact after 1500 years, art keeps adapting, keeps changing, and keeps renewing after every generation. When someone or something tries to keep it in place—by, for instance, claiming a universality in l’art pour l’art—artists tend to produce the exact opposite, proving once again that the universality, the rule, cannot be wholly true.