Tag Archives: desire

A Note on Ex Machina (2015)

Cramming for the Bechdel test.After passing the Turing Test, it’s time to cram for the Bechdel Test.

I was utterly mesmerized the first time I saw Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. The remote and secluded setting, the erratic tech billionaire, his haplessly earnest employee and test subject, and then finally the female android, whose strange, transparent body, which showed her wiring and components, conveyed delicacy and vulnerability rather than coldness and alienation. Alicia Vikander’s performance as the robot Ava is absorbing – she shifts convincingly from expressing curiosity about herself and human beings to confiding in the programmer assigned to interacting with her that her creator has dark designs.

The programmer Caleb, played by Domhnall Gleason, is charged by his boss, the tech mogul Nathan (Oscar Isaac) to ascertain whether the android is capable of independent thought. As one might expect from past examples of erotic encounters staged between humans and robots, the experiment works so well that it ends in catastrophe. Caleb succumbs to Ava’s charms, an outcome which is revealed to be premeditated when Nathan confides to Caleb that he designed Ava’s features in accordance with his employee’s romantic preferences, as indicated by his downloads and surfing habits. Much of the controversy around the film has revolved around the eroticism associated with the female android – security footage reveals the brutal fates of the earlier models, which Nathan had apparently created for the sake of fulfilling his sexually sadistic desires.

But what makes Ava different from the other fem-bots, who destroyed themselves, or were driven to destroy themselves, from the abuse that Nathan inflicted on them? For one thing, she is a brunette, and she is white. The previous models were either blonde or East Asian. In other words, Ava might be an object of fantasy for Caleb, but she is not desired by Nathan. What kind of relationship does Nathan have with Ava? The nature of their relationship is revealed when Ava is about to set herself free from the compound. Nathan, alarmed by Ava’s attempt to grasp her freedom, tells her, almost in a sitcom tone of voice, “go back to your room!” Nathan, in creating Ava to physical specifications other than those which turn him on, becomes capable of relating to her as a parent, rather than as a lover. Nathan behaves like a jerky father to be sure, ripping up the drawing that Ava makes while Caleb is conveniently away from her room, but the film makes a point about freedom which I think has eluded reviewers like Daniel Mendelsohn, for whom sexual desire is enough to account for the motives of the tech genius – “Why does the creator create? Because he’s horny.”

It is the dream of Nathan to create an android that is fully autonomous, independent, and free. But the film recognizes that it is very difficult for us to feel such a desire toward those with whom we have sexual relations, whereas this same desire is something we feel naturally toward our children. In order to create a robot who is capable of being free, and whose freedom he can actively desire, the inventor realizes that he must regard her as a child, and not a lover. Perhaps this disordering effect of sexual desire, and the fact that possession constitutes a limit on the freedom of the other, is a lesson which has become more elusive in contemporary society, and which a great film or work of art like Ex Machina can help us in relearning.

Your Dreams May Vary from Those of the Employees of the Globex Corporation and Its Shareholders and Subsidiaries

The strongest traces of historical memory, as well as the manner in which these embers of the past are extinguished, can be found when one compares the dreams of successive generations.  What one aspires to after all is shaped by the beliefs and expectations of those who came before us, and the reality of how one lives up to or fails to live up to those aspirations is what one bequeaths to the next generation.  This question is particularly interesting to consider when one explores discusses generations that are divided by some kind of cataclysmic break, such as war or revolution, as borne out by a passage from Tocqueville’s Democracy in America:

“… one must remember well that people who destroy an aristocracy have lived under its laws; they have seen its splendors and they have allowed themselves, without knowing it, to be pervaded with the sentiments and ideas that it had conceived.  Therefore, at the moment when an aristocracy is dissolved, its spirit still drifts over the mass, and its instincts are preserved long after it has been defeated.”

An earlier passage backs up this point when Tocqueville refers to how the French, even with all the turbulence and disruption caused by the revolution, found the courage and fortitude to fight off the united militaries of the European monarchies during the War of the First Coalition. But how long is it before the aristocratic spirit – and the pursuit of glory it inspires – dissipates and dreams of battlefield renown become viewed as a primitive and atavistic yearning, or the desire to create a work of art for the ages appears as quixotic as tilting at a windmill?  The novels of Stendhal and Flaubert provide an interesting point of comparison for how drastically dreams and ambitions can contract from one generation to the next.

The Red and the Black is set during the Bourbon Restoration (1814-1830), which brought the Bourbon dynasty back on the throne after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo and his exile to St. Helena.  Its protagonist, Julien Sorel, is the son of a carpenter in the provinces.  But he is obsessed with visions of Napoleonic glory and dreams of achieving fame in battle.  His favorite reading is The Bulletins of the Grand Army, which reported on the actions of Napoleon’s forces and their enemies. Although he never fights in a single battle, Julien continually turns to military metaphors (conquest, siege, feint) when reflecting on his ambitions and the obstacles he encounters in fulfilling them.  Although Julien wins a prized commission in the army from his future father-in-law, the shrewd and perspicacious Marquis de la Mole, as Allan Bloom notes, the novel portrays Julien as a bedroom warrior, defying injury and death to sneak around the houses of his lovers, rather than braving enemy fire as an officer of the hussars.

Sentimental Education takes place in the years leading up to and following the revolution of 1848.  The protagonist, Frédéric Moreau, is young enough to be the son of Julien Sorel.  But the differences between the two young men are dramatic.  Where Julien is passionate, ambitious, and driven, never taking his eyes off his visions of glory or acting (or even thinking) in a manner contrary to his passions, Moreau is something of a schemer and dilettante.  In the event that his passions run up against obstacles, he makes back-up plans, which also come to grief because of his inability to commit himself.  When he finds himself rebuffed by Mme. Arnoux, the object of his passion, he initiates a relationship with the prostitute Rosannette.  But the life he has with her provides no outlet for his ambition, so he becomes the lover of the cold and unscrupulous Mme. Dambreuse, who has a wealthy husband and whose support he hopes will catapult him to a position of fame and prestige.  His ventures in politics prove just as fruitless and abortive.  Attempting to gauge public opinion during a period of erratic political shifts, he gives speeches in which he attacks the rich and terrifies his wealthy sponsor.  When Moreau presents himself as an earnest republican, voicing his support for a speech that calls for the state to seize the banks, abolish legacies, and create a fund for workers, the person giving the speech blasts him for having refused to fund a democratic newspaper in the past.  The distracted and desultory nature of his personality, moreover, makes its impact felt on the level of narrative construction, which appears increasingly fractured, incomplete, and unresolved.

One of key differences between the two novels is that Moreau does not ever compare himself to historical models, whereas Julien is highly conscious of how the heroes he admires would look upon his actions.  It is not only the image of Bonaparte that has evaporated by the time Moreau arrives in Paris from the provinces, but also that historical consciousness as such, which would have served as a vessel for the feelings, values, and thoughts of the old aristocracy, has largely dissipated.  As René Girard puts it,

“Julien Sorel is followed by a whole crowd of young men who come, like him, to ‘conquer’ the capital.  They are less talented but more greedy.  Chances of success are not wanting but everybody wants the most ‘conspicuous’ position, and the front row can never be stretched far since it owes its position purely to the inevitably limited attention of the crowd.  The number of those who are called increases constantly but the number of the elect does not.  Flaubert’s ambitious man never attains the object of his desires.  He knows neither the real misery nor the real despair caused by possession and disillusionment.  He is doomed to bitterness, malice, and petty rivalries.  Flaubert’s novel confirms Stendhal’s dire predictions on the future of the bourgeois” (Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, 136).

As it stands, what Julien achieves in his short life far outweighs what Moreau accomplishes in his much longer one.  Julien, after many hardships, wins the hand of the proud Mathilde de la Mole and a landed title, which he then hurls away to return to his hometown to shoot his former lover, Mme. de Rênal.  In prison, Julien rediscovers his love for Mme. de Rênal and, as Girard has argued, arrives at a full understanding of his life and the lives of others.  Even execution does not appear to be a terrible fate: “Death did not seem to him, in and of itself, horrible.  His whole life had been nothing but a long preparation for misfortunes, and he had made sure never to neglect that which passes for the greatest of them all” (475).  At the end of Sentimental Education, by contrast, Moreau also reunites with his true love, but then sends her on her way.  Experience has worn out his ambitions and drained his hopes, rendering him apathetic.  When he sees Mme. Arnoux, the problem of having to get rid of her later on, after sleeping with her, extinguishes the feeble remnants of his passion.

One of the key causes of the discrepancy between their levels of passion, vitality, and freedom, I think lies in their dreams.  Julien has Napoleon and his Marshals towering over him.  While he does not match their feats on the battlefield, their unparalleled example serves as a source of strength for his meteoric rise from the provinces to the exclusive circle of the Marquis de la Mole.  Moreau has no such figures to spur him on, and while it is common in our age to explain his failures according to a lack of role models rather than to a deficiency of character, it is clear that the Moreau has grown up in a very different age.  Whereas Sorel and his kin were social climbers dreaming of military glory, Moreau and his generation have as their “ideals” the social climbers themselves.  They do not mistake dreams for reality, rather they fail to understand that their perspective rests on a dream, and is nourished by the dream.

Thinking about the rapid rise of South Korea from dire poverty of the postwar years to the wealth and affluence of the present brings me back to the works of these French novelists.  I wonder whether we will see a similar dynamic playing out in the coming years.  The generation that built the South Korean economy and won its freedom from military dictatorship has been called Korea’s “greatest generation.”  But what does the future hold for their children?  Will they become the Frédéric Moreaus to the elder generation’s Julien Sorels?  I think in times of hardship and poverty, many Korean people found in themselves the determination and strength of purpose to overcome their circumstances and build a modern industrial economy.  Of course, some failed, but many more reached deep within themselves to accomplish a goal that must have appeared impossibly remote a few decades ago.  But when people have choices, and grow up in conditions of comfort, a large number of them, larger than those who did not survive the transition, fail or fall short in the occupations they’ve chosen.  Necessity strengthens the will and fixes the mind, while choice weakens the will and distracts the mind, because failure becomes an option.  This shift is perhaps no more than the movement of a historical cycle, and perhaps it is too risky to act pre-emptively to forestall changes that are probably inevitable.  But one does have the obligation to speak before the thought itself is swept up into oblivion, when something otherwise can exist at least in the mind. 

Against Compassion

Andrea Mantegna, detail from Pallas and the Vices

The problem with making compassion into the foundation of an ethic is that compassion by itself does not provide a very solid incentive to conquer one’s fears, to struggle against one’s weaknesses, or to pursue undertakings that are high in risk, low in material reward, and provide gratification that cannot be accounted for in terms of the crude calculus of sex, money, and power. Compassion leads us to feel sympathy for others, but it is of limited use in helping us to understand their grievances, ambitions, and aspirations, and is of even less value in enabling us to determine the extent to which the desires, animosities, and anxieties of the other are justified. The latter task involves two contrary movements, first in the form of detachment, in which we move away from our immediate emotional response to the person, and second in reflecting on our own passions, our own capacities for injustice, anger, and excess. Compassion by itself does not obligate us to look within ourselves, or to confront instances in which we ourselves have been blinded by rage, passion, or humiliation.  Instead, it is a projection of our own softness onto others, which exempts us from engaging with the other in the terms in which he or she sees himself or herself.

In the NY Times review of Steven Pinker’s latest book, we find the following bien pensant commonplace from Peter Singer:

“We prefer life to death, and happiness to suffering, and we understand that we live in a world in which others can make a difference to whether we live well or die miserably. Therefore we will want to tell others that they should not hurt us, and in doing so we commit ourselves to the idea that we should not hurt them.”

There is a total obliviousness here to the fact that human beings are comparative creatures, for whom happiness is not something fixed and settled for all time, but changes, often drastically, with the rising expectations and material wealth of a society. It is these rising expectations that arouse envy in people who might otherwise have every reason, historically and rationally speaking, to be happy (steady access to food and reliable shelter, a modest income, a family), but find themselves made discontented by the perception that there are others enjoying an even greater happiness than them in the form of earning vast wealth, possessing a more attractive physical appearance, enjoying a far greater number of  sexual partners, etc.

There is a stronger desire than the desire not to die and the desire to be happy: the desire to be exceptional. This can take the form of violating the dominant values of a society simply for the sake of negating them, even if these values are as enlightened as the ones stated by Singer. The drive for distinction is the source of enormous social disruption as well as immense creativity. If even only one person experiences this desire strongly enough, it is often the case that the many who do not will prove no match for such intensity, as the history of dictators bear out, because the desires of the many for happiness is always a moderate desire, one which is not ready to sacrifice everything for its fulfillment, because it considers unthinkable the very possibility of sacrificing anything. It has no answer for unwavering commitment that risks everything. Tenderhearted liberalism reflects an obstinate determination not to learn what the person driven by a singular passion has learned: that pain is the best teacher.

If the virtue of courage often coexists with a tendency toward impulsiveness and recklessness, then compassion can accompany a general slackening of the spirit. But it is easy to see why people living in an individualistic, affluent, and fragmented society would gravitate toward an ethics based on sympathy, because compassion is the only virtue which arouses no disagreement. It is also the virtue that demands the least of the individual, unlike temperance and chastity, which entail self-control, and charity and diligence, which call for action. The illusion of linking compassion to progress and evolution masks the rigid and ultimately unreasonable demand that the other respect one’s show of tenderhearted feelings.