A friend of mine just read “Nutshell” by Ian McEwan – highly popular and rated as a British author.
The premise is funny – the first person narrator is a foetus, who opens with the line: “Here I am, hanging upside down in a woman’s body”.
A template for the story is Hamlet – the foetus knows about wrongdoing outside – like the mother and uncle conspiring to murder his father – but can do little, obviously.
My friend complained that the great McEwan’s book’s characters all felt stifled or thin, and that they weren’t real. They were all the voice of the (misogynist) author.
If McEwan is speaking through his characters, if the characters feel not like fully realised people, that begs the question of what a “real” character is.
Rather than just the narrow voices derived from the single voice of some rather limited creator / writer. All sounding the same.
In fiction, everything is invented.
How does the real enter fiction?
Through some kind of magic? Or imagination? Or technique? Consent?
Which begs the question of how the real, the uninvented, enters life for us, becomes real.
Who or what writes us, who speaks us, if at all? Are we written? Or are we people in our own right? Fully fleshed out characters? Or do we just imitate?
Is the idea of “real character” just the business of a lot of good imitations, likenesses and layering? The way the human brain and body is an assemblage, modular – no better illustrated than by the way someone we know and love disintegrates as hugely complex parts of their brain disintegrate?
And isn’t it fair to ask whether the idea that my favourite character or creation is more realistic—or believable, or realised, than yours, theirs or his—is a kind of egoism or narcissism by proxy?
And should there even be “fully fleshed-out characters”?
Are ‘characters’ an illusion created by a way of looking at life dramatically? As if it is a narrative? A stage? On which we star?
Which arguably it is damn well not.
Are other people, “real fleshed out people”, in their own right, really just determined pawns or characters for us?
Do we subconsciously, in a childlike, primitive way, really think of them as characters in some wider scheme – political or social or religious – or a show – that we havn’t fully fathomed? That can be brought to consciousness?
In Westworld, the Sky Atlantic TV series—suffused with a sense of a mysterious grand plan or an unseen controller or design or designer, or, scarily, none at all—-the most important characters, arguably, are robots.
The prostheses of the company and creators running the theme park.
They will—apparently—attain some kind of subjectivity as they recover memories of terrible trauma, imprinted on their very sophisticated circuits, that they experienced in past scenarios where they played different characters.
They suffered “trauma” in pre-programmed situations. They were programmed as AI to feel, act, react.
But how can they have true experiences if they are cyborgs? Albeit part fleshy, part mainframe.
We will root for them as they – like all good heroes or underdogs – piece together their memories,”wake up”, and attain some kind of autonomy; as they stop having their existence directed or run by the company/creators/directors of the park.
Or so we imagine.
But they are also surely just playthings for us to show up to watch and be entertained by.
To project our desires, fears, thoughts onto and have opinions about, to judge the level of consciousness of robot, thespian entertainers.
Who are also, one might say, to all intents and purposes just material images, fictions, on a screen.
In just the way the maybe repellent, rich characters come to the fictional park for an adventure that feels real, where they can play at shooting people or sex or hunting or gambling.
We watch the “trauma” – the slick, glossy, commercial TV realisation of shoot outs, assaults and tragedy, replayed over and over.
The cyborgs repeat themselves – they repeat enchantment, repeat longing, repeat yearning, repeat learning, repeat desire, repeat pain.
We watch, from a position of supposed mastery, outside the box.
Or from inside our own loops, our own passivity (as plausibly described by the all-powerful Viktor Frankenstein or Wizard of Oz character played by Anthony Hopkins), being fed commercial narrative product by a clever, hi-tech, highly sophisticated industry.
A bit like the cyborgs, perhaps, we switch off the fiction and go about our business or sleep afterwards.
Which is not to lamely criticise television drama in a one-dimensional, proto-political way but merely to illustrate that Westworld acts as a metaphor or analog of its own creative control over actors and audiences.
It raises the spectre of its own control and theatre-making in the spectator’s mind as a way of creating tension and anxiety and thereby fuelling their involvement in the drama.
Form mirrors content.
So what I’m also asking is: in Westworld, the main characters are objectively, plainly, “people who are not real” (whatever that means). So why identify with them so strongly – these circuit boards, these mouthpieces, these prostheses, these mechanical wonders?
These voids, ciphers, stereotypes?
Why identify with puppets and cardboard? With the play of light on a screen?
Why bother with the work of their despotic creators?
Why identify with the slave rebellion of Maeve, the machinic brothel madam – who has an “awakening” when it is demonstrated that her thoughts, feelings and speech and qualia are all perfectly predictable outcomes of software inputs and outputs – the implication—or misdirection—being that it might be possible for her—or us–to stand with free will and autonomy outside the determined loops, with mastery? Phonemes, letters, colons and their pixellated copies and their vocalisation that speak for themselves?
It is moot whether Maeve is speaking for robots or for women in the real world experiencing a thrill of recognition and is properly overturning a tyranny, has self-esteem problems or borderline personality disorder, or is a textbook case of narcissistic leadership.
Sealed off behind the skin of a screen, self-absorbed, and with an unrealistic grandiosity. (But forever threatening to become a reality by escaping and materialising in front of both screen and spectators.)
Particularly with regard to the way she manipulates her own attributes once she has grabbed control of the central operating system – a determined entity determining her own entity yet further.
(It is all misdirection, maybe, because the illustration or exposition of the problem of freewill and AI is a fictional one in a totally fictitious, made up world with its own say-so and elisions about how minds and cyborgs might work. The problem as set out may be incommensurate with real everyday life or AI science.)
But why identify?
Because we too are machines? Voids? structures? Puppets? Characters in a narrative?
Or written by somebody else?
Or because we believe, in a techno-romantic way, that machine-consciousness is superior?
We might feel cheated by unreal or unfleshed out characters in a novel – cheated by the voice of the boring, uninspiring, narrow everyday real creator, droning on and on, failing to transport us.
We might say we are dissatisfied.
But think of the analogy of a musical ensemble.
To express a great or at least respectable work of music, to realise the work of a composer, the conductor expects the violins, tubas, drums and singers not to drop off the musical score and social script, not to express their “realness” or individuality or consciousness.
To jolly well follow the baton; as do the audience; in order to make the musical body surrounding what we understand so well – or don’t.
The wonderful Barbara Hannigan in the Mystery of the Macabre by Ligeti
Even when that piece of music is supposedly “breaking all the rules”.
When would we feel like – and know – we were having real emotions and experiences and not following the script, the image, the form, and know that we were shucking the bully or crowd or bad – or good – influence or social convention or Bible or ridiculous protocol?
I have no answer.
But maybe like a glamorous, beautiful cyborg character’s “autonomic” digestive system, blindly processing rubbish and the nutritious alike…yes…I am on the path to full awakening!
The dramatic exposition of some AI theory seems effective to me, in Westworld. Because we are dealing with cyborgs, the question seems to be raised of what constitutes sentient life – but also whether the drama itself, and the life we give it in our imagination, is “sentient”, real, believable, worth bothering with.
The power of Westworld surely depends to some extent on the fact that this is a realisable, future world – these are not babbling or eloquent toasters, trees or foxes or ghosts in a fantasy narrative.
It would be much harder, to make up, to engineer, plausible reasons in a realist drama as to why a fox spoke – unless it was a cyborg in Westworld, surely?
Apart from the suspension of disbelief necessary to carry all realistic drama—the magic, the just believing, in some corner of our minds, that a recorded, scripted drama is life happening—this series depends to some degree on the authority of neuroscience, not magic, and neuroscientists and philosophers—or their texts—will probably have been consulted.
But all the cyborgs’ realistic f*****g, fighting, shooting, imagining, dying, emoting, yearning and loving is both believable and utterly controlled, scripted and empty in a way – which is part of the mystery and allure, of why we keep watching.
But so are the activities of the human characters too, acted by actors – this is determined, expensive, glossy television narrative.
And it appears to be commenting, through the story, on its own production as a show – the drive to produce characters and storylines that will work and sell and hold our attention. Form mirroring content.
If cyborgs, real or fictitious, matter or media projection, confront us with the idea that we, even as fleshy beings, may be form, matter, mask, medium, or mechanism, then whither the authenticity of character or their believability or the reflection of the real social world rather than just the narrow conceptions of a limited human author or whatever origin or attitudes?
If we – like the media, story and music we consume – are all medium, mask, structure, or channel, then what are we a channel for? More product? Or for a beating heart?
Can we be media in our own right?
There is a theory of film that says the most helpful way to think of film is as a mind. A useful conceptual scheme rather than a scientific, testable description.
The film mind believes in its characters.
But what does it mean for a machine to believe?
And surely machines, in a sense, just “are”.