Death and Machine Creativity: Spontaneity and Radical Plasticity

Originally written as an abstract for a conference in May 2015.
There is a deep affinity between the dead and the machinic when it comes to creativity, the creation of novelty; an affinity that is not reducible to their shared character of non-life. If creativity is the creation of an alterity, an act of spontaneity and a whim through which an other “without genealogy” (Malabou 2012, p. 3) comes to be, and if an organ(ism) creates itself into something new through an instant of self-determination, then by necessity that acts is a near-death experience; there is something of death in every spontaneous (self)creation. Spinoza mentions the zombie-poet Góngora, in his illustration of a death that is not actually dying but the emergence of new structures, new “ratios of motion and rest” (Spinoza and Parkinson 2000) between the parts, of novelty in a body that can no longer be the same. The amnesiac is a popular and necessary figure in the anthropology of creativity, yet one which pales against the cybernetic machine.


Malabou is precise in her designation of plasticity by the term “destructive” (Malabou 2012) for in that long tradition that conceives of novelty and creativity as a second birth (by non-pre-determined acts), the less background and “genealogy” there is, the less limited the scope of creativity and the potentiality of the emerging novelty: in order to become a new human being, one usually needs to become an amnesiac. It is only through “destructiveness” that plasticity becomes possible; it is only in the second birth, birth of “spirit from spirit” that the agent, the organism, gets to become wind: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going (John 3:8).”
By speaking of cybernetics, by no means am I limiting myself to the short-lived, disappointing little discipline that Wiener and the Macey group invented; what first manifests itself in cybernetics is the very logic underlying Big-Data Ideology today. The essence of Cybernetics lies in the discovery of machines that (based on feedback mechanisms) are able to change their behavior by sensing their environment and the effects of the actions upon it. The cybernetic machine moves from an “untrained” generic state, where everything all is potentiality, into a fully singular, fully adapted state where its behavior is completely “fitted” to the milieu (the AI gamer of DeepMind would be a good example of a recent model). Only, in case of the cybernetic device, in contrast to the Leibnizian machine, “overspecialization” does not “lead to death” since it does not result from pre-meditated design and is also fully reversible, instantenously. In principle the cybernetic organ can kick its old “habits” with the most fluid ease. It is this fluidity that has been assumed or attempted in case of the human being in certain philosophies (like Deleuze and Guattari’s), which will of course lead into all sorts of machinic mysticisms. The Cartesian radical doubt (and attempted the erasure of all prior education-qua-habit-formation) as well as the more fashionable Deleuzian deterritorialization and Becoming (and BwO) are just ways of wiling the same “destructive plasticity” in human beings.
This singularized plasticity afforded by the Cybernetic Organon changes the essence of creativity. The never-functioning procedures of individuation through education (adaptation) and un-individuation (universalization) meant to ensure maximum efficiency for each individual throughout time is made
simply unnecessary by the Cybernetic Organon’s short-circuiting of individuation and the direct, instantaneous bridge it makes between the absolutely singular and the wholly generic. With cybernetic organs, creativity is not even in need of a milieu to which to adapt. Indeed Wolfram’s experiments on a “simple programs” (Wolfram 2002) in the contours of his “new kind of science” have shown that the capability of the isolated cybernetic organ for the creation of randomness (read novelty) is in fact greater than systems in touch with an outside “nature” that is random of its own (or, as can always be argued, assumed random due to gaps of knowledge).
Death is at the center of this conception of creativity: take Metis or Proteus (whom Malabou also discusses); they can create themselves into almost anything. Theirs is a multitudinous menagerie, but still denumerable and finite. Proteus cannot become a dead body, cannot die and then metamorphose into something else: death is the very end of creativity and plasticity but in order to truly create, to go beyond the finite bestiary of Proteus, one has to get close to death, as close as humans can get. This is why Deleuze’s image of full human potentiality, the potential to become anything or anyone is the “homo tantum,” the dying human being whose supposedly “bare life” so close to death loses all of its specificity and singularity to become so generic as to be able to become anything.
Perhaps the ultimate creative act, the ultimate decision to make at the moment of absolute spontaneity and the full potential of self-determination, is to die. The transformation from the living into the dead is the (only?) perfect creative act in which nothing of the old remains in the new. Perhaps this is the fascination of zombies; they are the post-life organisms that are a completely new being from the person to whom their bodies had once belonged.
Outside of death, there is always a limit where humans are concerned. A limitation through their subjectivity and their concept, to use Hegel’s terms:
“[t]here is present in each human being, although universally unique, a specific principle that makes him human (or in each individual animal a specific principle that makes it animal): if this is true, then there is no saying what such an individual could still be if this foundation were removed from him” (Hegel and Di Giovanni 2010, p. 16)
In fact, the wholly generic state, the blank slate from which absolute creation might be attempted, if at all possible, is only possible for the cybernetic organ. That is why from another aspect, Deleuze’s evacuated subjects resemble machines and Badiou is right indeed by calling them “automata” (Badiou 2000, p. 13). Meillassoux’s philosophy of contingency (Meillassoux 2008) is the perfection of the Cybernetic notion of creativity and de-singularization. His explicit rejection of the principle of sufficient reason and the unleashing of the full force of Humean radical empiricism marks him as one of cybernetic philosophy’s vanguards. Meillassoux is the philosopher who finally dares to bring the conclusions of creativity onto the plane of the physical reality and in the name of a dead world (the world before givenness) erects the universe into a system of absolute creativity where the next moment is in no way constrained by the memory of the past ones.
Badiou, A. 2000. Deleuze : The clamor of being Theory out of bounds. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Hegel, G.W.F. and G. Di Giovanni. 2010. The science of logic Cambridge hegel translations. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.
Malabou, C. 2012. Ontology of the accident : An essay on destructive plasticity. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Meillassoux, Q. 2008. After finitude : An essay on the necessity of contingency. London ; New York: Continuum.
Spinoza, B.D. and G.H.R. Parkinson. 2000. Ethics Oxford philosophical texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wolfram, S. 2002. A new kind of science. Champaign, IL: Wolfram Media.

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