The Soul of the Marionette by John Gray (2015)

Everywhere , the self-assured confidence of priests, scribes and intellectuals has been mocked by unexpected events… (p.143)

‘Humanity’ is only a name for a ragtag animal with no capacity to take charge of anything. (p.145)

The Soul of the Marionette

The Soul of the Marionette is a short, easy and very stimulating read. Its brevity is indicated by the way it’s set in a larger-than-usual typeface for a Penguin paperback in order to pad it out its 170 or so pages. Really, it’s two extended magazine essays linked by a common theme.

John Gray (b.1948) is a retired political philosopher. He mainly taught at the London School of Economics with spells at Yale etc, so he’s an academic by trade.

For the past thirty years or more he’s been writing non-technical and accessible books, as well as numerous articles and reviews, and from time to time popping up with thought pieces on Radio 4. All of them bang on the same theme over and over again:

1. Modern liberals are wrong Modern progressive thought is wrong. Modern secular thinkers are wrong.

How so? In several connected ways. ‘Modern liberals’ think history is progressing towards a good end, think that there is some purpose or end-point of evolution, think that human societies are heading onward and upward, becoming more enlightened, liberal, permissive and diverse.

The belief that evolution is advancing towards some desirable end is ubiquitous… (p.61)

BUT

Evolution has no attachment to the attributes modern thinkers imagine are essentially human… (p.143)

Above all, modern liberals think human nature can be changed. All Gray’s work presents a barrage of arguments designed to annihilate this position:

2. The survival of violence and barbarism disproves the idea that humans are ‘improving’ Evolution has no goal or plan or design or intention. Stuff is just changing and humans are mad if they think they can alter it very much. Progressives like to think that we ‘learn from history’ or that liberal values are succeeding around the world – but violence, terrible crude sadistic violence, is still practiced all round the globe. There may be no repeats of the two epic world wars, but violence and brutality haven’t gone away; they have merely been scattered and diffused into the form of asymmetrical conflicts in a variety of failed states such as Syria, or sudden eruptions of barbarism as in Burma, or the ongoing horrors of the war in the Congo.

Or else a permanent state of civil unrest, where violent protests teeter on the brink of uprisings and armed conflict. This is the new normal.

In a scathing passage, Gray describes how violence has been internalised in the West, in the ways that America, for example, the supposed ‘land of the free’, imprisons more of its citizens than any other country in the world, and experiences almost daily mass shootings, with the result that its entire police force is now a warzone militia armed with machine guns and bullet-proof vests.

About 40,000 people were killed by guns in America in 2017, compared to the 2,500 who died on D-Day. Gray’s point is that homicidal violence hasn’t gone away because world wars have cease; it’s just become normalised in other ways.

The normalisation of amoral hyper-violence in American culture. This movie is a ‘comedy’.

3. The popularity of dictators demonstrates that human societies aren’t particularly progressing On a purely political level, the elections of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Erdoğan in Turkey, the endless rule of Putin in Russia, and the increasing authoritarianism of Xi Jinping in China – all show conclusively that political or cultural history is not moving steadily upwards towards some progressive, liberal nirvana.

Even more disillusioning for progressives is that most of these leaders were democratically elected because, as one section of the book emphasises, people more than anything else want meaning, order and security in their lives. People prefer meaning, order and security to uncertainty and chaos. You and I, being enlightened progressives, may think that the leaders I’ve listed above are not going to provide the meaning and security which they promised their electorates, but that only proves Gray’s other point, that none of us are really in control of our lives: we choose one thing, we get something completely different.

Most people’s lives are demonstrably in the grip of various impersonal, suprahuman forces – but almost all of us desperately want to feel that we’re in control. Electing strong leaders with assertive agendas gives us electors the illusion of control, that we’re taking part in a fightback against them, the nameless forces which seem to be ruining the world.

4. Technology changes, but people don’t change Above all (to repeat the point, as Gray does again and again), modern liberals think human nature can be changed and improved – but it can’t. The amazing technologies we have developed over the past 200 years have given over-educated and under-experienced Westerners the deluded sense that we can change human nature. Technologies may change, but people don’t change.

Thus one of the book’s central strands is an allusive history of human attempts to create super-humans, from Frankenstein in 1816 to all the hype about artificial intelligence in 2020.

Gray makes the simple point: How can we hope to make better, superior versions of human beings, when we don’t even understand ourselves? Scientists still don’t actually understand how minds work, how consciousness arises from matter, how flashing synapses produce the strange thing called consciousness.

Eradicating evil may produce a new species, but not the one its innocent creators have in mind. Humans have too little self-knowledge to be able to fashion a higher version of themselves. (p.43)

And:

We think we have some kind of privileged access to our own motives and intentions. In fact we have no clear insight into what moves us to live as we do. The stories that we tell ourselves are like messages which appear on Ouija boards. If we are authors of our lives, it is only in retrospect. (p.137)

5. Artificial intelligence is doomed to fail for the simple reason that we don’t understand human intelligence. This is why all the exhibitions I’ve been to recently showcasing artificial intelligence seemed so pathetic and inadequate. (And it’s not just me saying that: the BBC journalist sent to review the Barbican’s exhibition about artificial intelligence also thought the sum total of the best examples of artificial intelligence the curators could assemble from across the world, was ‘pathetic’.)

It’s because any ordinary person knows that machines which can climb up a flight of stairs on their own or a computer which can beat the world chess champion or one which does cumulative facial recognition, are trivial and irrelevant compared to what it is like to be a person – a confused, sleepy, fantasy-driven human consciousness making endless mistakes about bus times or shopping lists or homework or the countless other chores we struggle with every day, as well as trying to manage personal relations with family, friends and work colleagues.

Compared to the complexity of being human, beating this or that chess champion is so very, very narrow an achievement on the part of the programmers who have been slaving away perfecting chess programs for fifty years or more, as to be almost sublimely, hilariously irrelevant.

In fact the most telling thing about artificial intelligence – which comes over very strongly when you read interviews with the scientists developing it – is how keen they are to rush towards a post-human future. But why? Because, Gray says, they cannot cope with the human present.

Struggling to escape from the world that science has revealed, humanity has taken refuge in the illusion that science enables them to remake the world in their own image. (p.30)

6. Communism and other failed utopias Gray reserves some of his most scathing criticism for communists, the followers of Lenin and Stalin, who – in effect – thought that it was worth murdering millions of people in the here and now in order to secure a remote future in which everyone will live in peace. And then in the Cold War era to foment small wars around the world (Africa, South America, South-East Asia) in order to bring an end to war.

Same with the Nazis, who thought they could create a better world by first of all exterminating all the Jews and then all the Slavs.

In the twentieth century the worst episodes of mass killing were perpetrated with the aim of remaking the species. (p.88)

All the atrocities of the 20th century were carried out in the name of building a better world. Gray mocks modern liberals who carry on the same mantra (obviously without the holocausts) because they are basing it on the same basic delusions – that you can remodel human nature. You can’t.

7. Humans are, at bottom, incapable In fact, the reality is that humans barely understand themselves, and are laughably unable to ‘take control of their own destinies’:

Today’s Darwinists will tell you that the task of humanity is to take charge of evolution. But ‘humanity’ is only a name for a ragtag animal with no capacity to take charge of anything. (p.145)

Thus the comedy of climate change is that these pathetic people, this pathetic species, having created a global catastrophe, thinks it can change or fix anything. Oh no it can’t. Watch and learn.

8. The fundamental basis of all modern liberal thought – that things will get better i.e. history has a direction and an end goal – is based on Christian theology If you go back to the ancient Greeks or sideways to read the surviving works of the Aztecs, you find societies which were under no illusion that things – society of human nature – would ever change. Their religions and rituals were not linear and progressive but cyclical, based on the circular rhythm of the seasons plus the recurring astrological cycles.

Aztecs did not share the modern conceit that mass killing can bring about universal peace. They did not envision any future when humans ceased to be violent. (p.86)

The notion that history has a purpose and is heading for a Grand End-Point is a Christian idea (in fact it may be a Zoroastrian or Eastern idea originally, but it was picked up and incorporated in Christianity from its earliest days and thus spread throughout all Christian and post-Christian societies).

It is Christian theology which declares that history is heading to a Glorious End-Point when the Son of Man will return in glory and wind up history as we know it, at which point the dead will be raised and everyone will be judged and dispatched to heaven or hell.

Modern liberals unwittingly base their concept of history as a steady improvement towards some kind of nirvana or utopia on this very Christian theology, but without the subtle and complex insights into human nature developed by Christian thinkers over 2,000 years. Progressives have been:

reared on a curdled brew of Socratism and scraps of decayed Christianity… (p.160)

This is why progressive liberalism feels so shallow. It is piggy-backing on the back of Christian theology, but without the deep and penetrating insights into all aspects of the human psyche which tens of thousands of Christian theologians and writers carried out.

Secular thinking follows a pattern dictated by religion while suppressing religion’s most valuable insights. (p.19)

Instead, modern liberals join hands, sing Things Can Only Get Better and are shocked and amazed when they don’t. Their conviction that everyone is a progressive liberal at heart, if only they had enough education and the opportunity to read the right newspapers, cannot cope with the actual world in its often violent and even evil reality.

This basic naivety explains, in Gray’s opinion, the fact that ‘liberals’ are continually surprised at renewed outbreaks of human atrocity. ‘Liberals’ and ‘modern thinkers’ thought we had learned from the Holocaust and had ‘progressed’, and so they were unable to compute modern horrors like the wars in Yugoslavia, the Rwanda genocide or 9/11 or the Syrian civil war or the Rohynga massacres… and on and on it goes, the roll call of never-ending atrocities.

Events like that just don’t fit into the narrative that every day, in very way, we are becoming more tolerant and free and fair-minded and equal and ‘woke’ and aware. Oh no, Gray says, we aren’t.


Cherry picking from literature

The book’s strength is also its weakness. This is that it takes the form less of a sustained argument than of a kind of daisy chain of potted analyses of authors who Gray likes or whose works provide useful ammunition for his position.

It is very much not a work of political philosophy, in fact it references hardly any philosophers of any kind (apart from two or three pages about Thomas Hobbes and the same about Jeremy Bentham) and certainly no contemporary philosophers.

Instead Gray takes us on a hugely entertaining and colourful journey through the thought of a bright and shiny array of creative writers through the ages, cherry-picking authors whose mordant and gloomy points of view echo, support or anticipate his own.

This is exactly what Christians do with the Bible. The Bible is so vast, varied and contradictory, that you can find quotes to support almost any point of view, from the most socially conservative to wacky science fiction fantasies if you put your mind to it.

And as a literature graduate I know the same is true for the corpus of secular literature, especially if you broaden it out to include all European literature, and extend it back in time to the Renaissance, the Middle Ages or, as Gray does, back to the ancient Greeks.

There are now so many points of view, expressed by so many hundreds of thousands of authors, that – if you adopt Gray’s approach – it is easy to cherry pick ‘proofs’ and ‘evidence’ for any point of view imaginable.

Of course none of this is proof of any kind about human nature or human existence or consciousness or history etc. Proof in any of these areas would require an engagement with the latest scientific literature in areas of consciousness, AI, sociology and so on, with properly carried out studies, and with a world of data and statistics.

Gray skips lightly away from any such engagement and instead gives us an entertaining stroll through some of his favourite authors, who each get a thumbnail biography and then four or five pages summarising their thoughts and musing about human nature, history and so on.

And it comes as no surprise to anyone that all of these thinkers, plus his interpretations of various historical cultural events (his scepticism about the so-called ‘scientific revolution’, his dazzling reinterpretation of Aztec culture), all go to reinforce his anti-liberal, anti-modern secular bias.

A daisy chain of authors

This is a complete list of the authors and works referenced in The Soul of the Marionette:

Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811)’s essay The Puppet Theatre (1810) paradoxically suggests that it is the puppet who is free because he is not conflicted by a torn and agonised self-consciousness.

Novelist and poet Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) in The Avignon Quartet describes a modern-day Gnostic.

Communist crystallographer J.D. Bernal (1901-1971) speculated that human society would be replaced by a Utopia of post-human cyborgs.

Director of Engineering at Google Ray Kurzweil (b.1948) published a book with the sub-title When Humans Transcend Biology.

Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) wrote short stories on the theme of Gnosticism i.e that the world wasn’t created by a benevolent all-powerful God but by a blind or malevolent Demiurge, which explains why it is so botched and chaotic. Only those who come to know this (gnosis is Greek for knowledge) can, through an arduous apprenticeship and reading many mystical books, arrive at true knowledge of their place as souls trapped in fallen bodies in a badly made world, and break out towards the light of the True God.

Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) is famous for his sensuously melancholy verse but also wrote a long work of thoughts about human nature, the Zibaldone, which is bitingly pessimistic about human nature and ridicules the idea that science will improve humanity. He is particularly savage about Christianity which, he thinks (with plenty of evidence to back him up) promotes a universalist claim, Christ’s injunction to his disciples to convert the whole world, which – in practice – gave carte blanche to force everyone in the world to convert, at the point of a sword or under threat of being burned at the stake. This, in Leopardi’s view, explains why the barbarity of the Middle Ages far eclipsed anything known or comprehensible in the ancient, pre-Christian world.

American poet and short story writer Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) wrote some fictions which touch on the Gnostic theme in which characters have dreams which come true, or dream a better world into existence.

Mary Shelley (1797-1951) wrote Frankenstein, always predictably dragged out on these occasions as the forerunner of all ‘modern’ debate about creating artificial life or intelligence.

The Symbolist poet Villiers de L’Isle-Adam (1838-1889) coined the word ‘android’.

Gustav Meyrink (1868-1932) wrote The Golem (1915) another novel about people creating new uber-humans.

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) in his story The Circular Ruins imagines a magician whose dreams come true before he realises that he himself is someone else’s dream.

Polish science fiction author Stanislav Lem (1921-2006) in his novel Solaris (1961) imagines a planet whose surface seems to be alive and conscious in ways we cannot conceive, and which communicates with the humans in the space station orbiting it by creating people from their past or creatures from their dreams.

American science fiction author Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) wrote a whole series of novels exploring the possibility of alternative consciousness, and how individual consciousnesses might be able to bend and warp reality. Gray devotes an unusually prolonged passage to Dick and his works.

H.G. Wells (1866-1946) wrote The War of the Worlds suggesting other intelligences have no concern about us.

Michel Faber (b.1960) wrote Under The Skin in which aliens come to earth purely to capture and eat humans, whose meat is tasty!

Boris and Arkady Strugasky‘s novel Roadside Picnic is about people who venture into the forbidden zones where alien spaceships landed, settled, then took off again. The thrust of all three of these stories is why should we think artificial intelligences we create (if we ever do) will give a damn about us.

T.F. Powys (1875-1953) wrote a series of novels in the 1920s and 30s which featured God or Devil or Demiurge characters appearing as normal people, giving rise to a lot of discussion about creation and reality.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) masterpiece Leviathan is based on the idea that people will do anything, and submit to a strong central authority to avoid violence. But Gray thinks this is a chimera, a far too rational view of human nature. All the evidence suggests that people can initiate and put up with a quite staggering degree of violence i.e. human nature isn’t as one-dimensional as Hobbes paints it.

John Dee (1527-1608) was Elizabeth I’s astrologer and magician and an epitome of Gray’s view that what modern secular thinkers like to think of as ‘the scientific revolution’ was in fact deeply intertwined with all kinds of magical and voodoo beliefs, the prime example being Sir Isaac Newton who formulated the laws which underpinned the new scientific view of the universe but was also a mystic and heretical Christian who devoted an enormous amount of energy trying to decipher the prophecies contained in the Book of Revelation.

Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), mathematician and philosopher, helped the Manhattan Project, is acknowledged as the father of cybernetics, and envisaged a future where man makes machines which outdo man.

John von Neumann (1903-1957), mathematician, physicist and computer scientist, also helped with the Manhattan Project and founded game theory. The ideas of both men underpin futurists’ confidence that man can remake man, or make a super-man machine, or machines which can help people achieve super-lives.

Guy Debord (1931-1994) is popular with students of the humanities and the arts because of his book Society of the Spectacle which expands on Marxist ideas that governments control us by getting us to buy into the mindless entertainments of the mass media. More than that, even political protests or extreme events like terrorist attacks, are all part of The Spectacle. Gray is, as you might expect, bitingly sceptical about Debord, concentrating on his career after the 1968 revolution failed to materialise, wandering the French provinces, slowly expelling all the members of his organisation, the Situationist International, drinking heavily, coming to the despairing conclusion that there can be no revolution because The Spectacle can assimilate anything and eventually committing suicide in 1994.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) the ultimate in rationalist philosophers who formulated the ideas of Utilitarianism and said social policy should be judged on whether it promotes the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Gray describes Bentham’s idea for the Panopticon, a prison built in a circle so guards at the centre could monitor all the prisoners, and then goes on to claim that we live in a surveillance society infinitely more thorough and extensive than anything Bentham could have imagined.

E.M. Foster (1879-1970) famous for his novels of Edwardian upper class life, wrote a striking science fiction story, The Machine Stops (which I happen to have read and reviewed). Gray criticises the story for giving no indication of how the bubble world entirely controlled by some vast central machine came into existence. But he mentions it in order to speculate about how our societies might collapse and fall.

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) wrote his satirical vision of the future, Erewhon which predicted there would be labour-saving machines and robots in the future. Well, half of that was correct.


Straw men

Most debaters set up straw men i.e. simplify the arguments of their opponents in order to caricature and counter them. I was struck by the way Gray does just this – establishing an entity or group or party or movement of ‘modern secular thinkers’ which he then proceeds to hammer from all directions – struck because he doesn’t mention a single name. Instead he rings the changes on a generic set of terms for ‘the Enemy’, which I began to find interesting in themselves:

  • many people today…
  • modern secular thinkers believe mankind can be recreated in a higher form…
  • it does not occur to these sublime moralists that in human beings the good and the bad may be intermixed…
  • those who aim to fashion a higher humanity with science…
  • … Gnostic themes that unnoticed or repressed, shape much of modern thinking…
  • this view of things is nowadays close to being incomprehensible…
  • The modern world inherits the Christian view…
  • … human impulses that modern thinking denies..
  • … how tenuous are the assumptions on which western thinkers base their hopes of peace…
  • … modern humanity insists that violence is inhuman…
  • … believers in reason, lacking any deeper faith and too feeble to tolerate doubt…
  • modern individualism tends…
  • Today there are some who expect such machines to be among us within a few decades…
  • …this modern catechism is mistaken…
  • modern thinkers have imagined that humans can achieve a state of freedom…

You can see how the repetition of the central terms builds up an image of a straw man (or straw liberal) who is particularly dim and uninsightful – but without troubling to name names or quote any texts.

Mentioning specific named writers would, of course, instantly complicate the situation, because it is unlikely that any ‘modern secular liberal’ is quite as dim as Gray likes to make out.


Sick writers

There are many ways to be entertained, amused and informed by this lovely jumble sale of a book, but I noted another strand which unintentionally confirms one of my own bête noirs or obsessions: which is that writers – poets and novelist and playwrights and philosophers – are, on the whole, among the very last people whose advice you want to take about life and living, seeing as almost all of them have been sick misfits, with a variety of mental illnesses and substance addictions. Thus:

Kleist was forced to join the civil service which he hated, wanted to be a writer but struggled to produce anything which satisfied him, tried and failed to join up to Napoleon’s army and ended up committing suicide in 1811.

Schulz was forced to become a school teacher in order to support ailing relatives, hated his job, struggled to write, had a failed engagement to a woman, and, as a Jew, was murdered by the Nazis.

Leopardi was a hunchback with poor sight, who was frail and sickly all his life, having a long but unsuccessful involvement with a married woman, living most of his life in poverty, before moving to Naples and dying of TB aged 38.

Edgar Allen Poe was a disastrous shambles of a man, who never secured a regular income despite starting umpteen magazines and journals, living hand to mouth in poverty, a chronic alcoholic, before being discovered roaming the streets of Baltimore out of his mind and wearing someone else’s clothes, dying in a pauper’s hospital aged 40.

Philip K. Dick was mentally ill for most of his life, dosing himself with alcohol and amphetamines to fuel his prodigious output of disturbing novels until he suffered a full-blown mental collapse in 1974, during which he claimed to have a had a great Revelation about life which he spent the rest of his life struggling to understand. Psychosis, five marriages, heavy drug addiction, repeated suicide attempts.

Guy Debord heavy drinker, despair, suicide aged 63.

Not exactly role models, are they? More to the point, where are all the people of their times who lived healthy, happy, fulfilled and productive lives? Well, they were too busy living life to the full, to write anything.

In other words, writers, on the whole, are a self-selecting and self-reinforcing, self-supporting, self-promoting group of the sick, the mentally ill, the addicted, impoverished, failed and frustrated.

To put it another way, writers in their writings tend to give a wildly inaccurate picture of human nature and human society. The works and thoughts of any ‘creative’ writer should, therefore, be taken with a large pinch of salt and not treated as any kind of ‘truth’, let alone as lessons by which to live life.


Gray’s prescription – withdrawal

Seeing all around him chaos, resurgent barbarism, and an array of misguided beliefs in meliorism, social improvement and scientific advances, Gray recommends withdrawing into yourself and there seeking to achieve harmony through acceptance of the fact that you are an irrational, conflicted being which doesn’t understand itself, let alone the world it lives in – and cultivating an inner freedom.

It’s worth quoting the book’s final passage in full as this turns out to be a surprisingly frank and candid piece of advice about how to live.

We do not know how matter came to dream our world into being; we do not know what, if anything, comes when the dream ends for us and we die. We yearn for a type of knowledge that would make us other than we are – though what we would like to be, we cannot say.

Why try to escape from yourself? Accepting the fact of unknowing makes possible an inner freedom very different from that pursued by the Gnostics. if you have this negative capability, you will not want a higher form of consciousness; your ordinary mind will give you all that you need. Rather than trying to impose sense on your life, you will be content to let meaning come and go. (p.165)


My thoughts

I agree with him.

I too believe human nature is unchangeable, that Western progressive liberals make up a minority of the human population which they arrogantly and ignorantly claim to speak for, that their view of human nature is insultingly shallow (amounting to little more that shouting ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’ at anyone who doesn’t fit their narrow parameters) and that their shallow ideology:

  1. fails to grasp, understand or prevent the failure of their political movements, as represented by the election of Trump, Johnson, Brexit
  2. fails to understand why populations would democratically elect right-wing populists such as Bolsonaro or Erdogan and above all
  3. fails to understand or explain why people continue to be barbaric, violent and sadistic in terrible conflicts all around the world

It’s not that progressive liberalism is morally wrong. It is that it is factually inadequate, biologically illiterate, philosophically impoverished, and so politically and socially misleading.

It is doomed to fail because it is based on a false model of human nature.

As to Gray’s prescription, that we abandon the effort to understand either ourselves or the world around us, I think this is a nice idea to read about, here or in Ursula Le Guin, or in a thousand Christian or Eastern mystics. It is a nice fictional place to inhabit, a discursive possibility, in the same way that I – and billions of other readers – inhabit novels or plays or works of art for a while.

But then I am forced to return to the workaday world where I must earn a living and look after my family, and where simply ‘letting meaning come and go’ is not an adequate guide to life.

To thinking about life, maybe. But not to actually living it.


Related links

From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’ by Trevor Paglen @ the Barbican

Listen up! Listen up! American artist, geographer, and author Trevor Paglen has big news for everyone! He is here to tell us that artificial intelligence may not be a totally wonderful, life-enhancing, fair and just invention after all! Here he is to explain.

AI networks

Trev takes as his starting point the way Artificial Intelligence networks are taught how to ‘see’, ‘hear’ and ‘perceive’ the world by engineers who feed them vast ‘training sets’.

Standard ‘training sets’ consist of images, video and sound libraries that depict objects, faces, facial expressions, gestures, actions, speech commands, eye movements and more. The point is that the way these objects are categorised, labelled and interpreted are not value-free; in other words, the human categorisers have to bring in all kinds of subjective and value judgements – and that this subjective element can lead to all kinds of wonky outcomes.

Thus Trev wants to point out that the ongoing development of artificial intelligence is rife with hidden prejudices, biases, stereotypes and just wrong assumptions. And that this process starts (in some iterations) with the scanning of vast reservoirs of images. Such as the one he’s created here.

Machine-seeing-for-machines is a ubiquitous phenomenon, encompassing everything from facial-recognition systems conducting automated biometric surveillance at airports to department stores intercepting customers’ mobile phone pings to create intricate maps of movements through the aisles. But all this seeing, all of these images, are essentially invisible to human eyes. These images aren’t meant for us; they’re meant to do things in the world; human eyes aren’t in the loop.

From apple to anomaly

So where’s the work of art?

Well, the Curve is the long tall curving exhibition space at the Barbican which is so uniquely shaped that the curators commission works of art specifically for its shape and structure.

For his Curve work Trev has had the bright idea of plastering the long curving wall with 35,000 (!) individually printed photographs pinned in a complex mosaic of images along the immense length of the curve. It has an awesome impact. That’s a lot of photos.

From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’ by Trevor Paglen © Tim P. Whitby / Getty Images

As the core of his research & preparation, Trev spent some time at ImageNet. This is one of the most widely shared, publicly available collection of images out there – and it is also used to train artificial intelligence networks. It’s available online, so you can have a go searching its huge image bank:

Apparently, ImageNet contains more than fourteen-million images organised into more than 21,000 categories or ‘classes’.

In most cases, the connotations of image categories and names are uncontroversial i.e. a ‘strawberry’ or ‘orange’ but many others are ambiguous and/or a question of judgement  – such as ‘debtors’, ‘alcoholics’ and ‘bad people’.

As the old computer programming cliché has it: ‘garbage in, garbage out.’ If artificial intelligence programs are being taught to teach themselves based on highly questionable and subjective premises, we shouldn’t be surprised if they start developing all kinds of errors, extrapolating and exaggerating all kinds of initial biases into wild stereotypes and misjudgements.

So the purpose of From Apple to Anomaly is to ‘questions the content of the images which are chosen for machine learning’. These are just some of the kinds of images which researchers are currently using to teach machines about ‘the world’.

Conceptually, it seemed to me that the work doesn’t really go much further than that.

It has a structure of sorts which is that, when you enter, the first images are of the uncontroversial ‘factual’ type – specifically, the first images you come to are of the simple concept ‘apple’.

Nothing can go wrong with images of an apple, right? Then as you walk along it, the mosaic of images widens like a funnel with a steady increase of other categories of all sorts, until the entire wall is covered and you are being bombarded by images arranged according to (what looks like) a fairly random collection of themes. (The themes are identified by black cards with clear white text, as in ‘apple’ below, which are placed at the centre of each cluster of images.)

From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’ by Trevor Paglen © Tim P. Whitby / Getty Images

Having read the blurb about the way words, and AI interpretation of words, becomes increasingly problematic as the words become increasingly abstract, I expected that the concepts would start simple and become increasingly vague. But the work is not, in fact like that – it’s much more random, so that quite specific categories – like paleontologist’ – can be found at the end while quite vague ones crop up very early on.

There was a big cluster of images around the word pizza. These looked revolting, but it was getting close to lunchtime and I found myself mysteriously attracted to the 40 or 50 images which showed fifty or so depictions of ‘ham and eggs’. Mmmm. Ham and eggs, yummy.

Conclusions

Most people are aware that Facebook harvests their data, just like Google and all the other big computer giants, twitter, Instagram blah blah. The disappointing reality for deep thinkers like Trev is that most people, quite obviously, don’t care. As long as they can instant message their mates or post photos of their cats for the world to see, most people don’t appear to give a monkeys what these huge American corporations do with the incalculably vast tracts of date they harvest and hold about us.

I think the same is true of artificial intelligence. Most people don’t care because they don’t think it affects them now or is likely to affect them in the future. Personally, I’m inclined to agree. When I read articles about artificial intelligence, particularly articles about the possible stereotyping of women and blacks i.e. the usual victims

1. American bias The books are written by Americans and feature examples from America. And when you dig deep you tend to find that AI, insofar as it is applied in the real world, tends to exacerbate inequalities and prejudices which already exist. In America. The examples about America’s treatment of its black citizens, or the poor, or the potentially dreadful implications of computerised programmes on healthcare, specifically for the poor – all these examples tend to be taken from America, which is a deeply and distinctively screwed-up country. My point is a lot of the scarifying about AI turns out, on investigation, really to reflect the scary nature of American society, its gross injustices and inequalities.

2. Britain is not America Britain is a different country, with different values, run in different ways. I take the London Underground or sometimes the overground train service every day. Every day I see the chaos and confusion as large-scale systems fail at any number of pressure points. The idea that learning machines are going to make any difference to the basic mismanagement and bad running of most of our organisations seems to me laughable. From time to time I see headlines about self-driving or driverless cars, sometimes taken as an example of artificial intelligence. OK. At what date in the future would you say that the majority of London’s traffic will be driverless cars, lorries, taxis, buses and Deliveroo scooters? In ten years? Twenty years?

3. The triviality of much AI There’s also a problem with the triviality of much AI research. After visiting the exhibition I read a few articles about AI and quickly got bored of reading how supercomputers can now beat grand chessmasters or world champions at the complex game of Go. I can hardly think of anything more irrelevant to the real world. Last year the Barbican itself hosted an exhibition about AI – AI: More Than Human – but the net result of the scores of exhibits and interactive doo-dahs was how trivial and pointless most of them were.

From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’ by Trevor Paglen © Tim P. Whitby / Getty Images

4. No machine will ever ‘think’ And this brings us to the core of the case against AI, which is that it’s impossible. Creating any kind of computer programme which ‘thinks’ like a human is, quite obviously impossible. This is because people don’t actually ‘think’ in any narrowly definable sense of the word. People reach decisions, or just do things, based on thousands of cumulated impulses and experiences, unique to each individual, and so complicated and, in general, so irrational, that no programs or models can ever capture it. The long detailed Wikipedia article about artificial intelligence includes this:

Moravec’s paradox generalizes that low-level sensorimotor skills that humans take for granted are, counterintuitively, difficult to program into a robot; the paradox is named after Hans Moravec, who stated in 1988 that ‘it is comparatively easy to make computers exhibit adult level performance on intelligence tests or playing checkers, and difficult or impossible to give them the skills of a one-year-old when it comes to perception and mobility’.

Intelligence tests, chess, Go – tasks with finite rules of the kinds computer programmers understand – relatively easy to programme. The infinitely complex billions of interactions which characterise human behaviour – impossible.

5. People are irrational I’ve been studying art and literature and history for 40 years or so and if there’s one thing that comes over it is how irrational, perverse, weird and unpredictable people can be, as individuals and in crowds (because the behaviour of people is the subject matter of novels, plays, poems and countless art works; the really profound, bottomless irrationality of human beings is – arguably – the subject matter of the arts).

People smoke and drink and get addicted to drugs (and computer games and smart phones), people follow charismatic leaders like Hitler or Slobodan Milosevic or Donald Trump. People, in other words, are semi-rational animals first and only a long long way afterwards, rational, thinking beings and even then, only rational in limited ways, around specific goals set by their life experiences or jobs or current situations.

Hardly any of this can be factored into any computer program. I am currently working in the IT department of a large American corporation, and what I see every day, repeatedly, throughout the day, is what I’ve seen in all my other jobs in IT and websites and data, which is that the ‘users’, damn their eyes, keep coming up with queer and unpredicted ways of using the system which none of the program managers and project managers and designers and programmers had anticipated.

People keep outwitting and outflanking the computer systems because that’s what people do, not because any individual person is particularly clever but because, taken as a whole, people here, there and across the range, stumble across flaws, errors, glitches, bugs, unexpected combinations, don’t do what ultra-rational computer scientists and data analysts expect them to, Dammit!

6. It doesn’t work The most obvious thing about tech, is that it’s always breaking. I am currently working in the IT department of a large American corporation. This means being on the receiving end of a never-ending tide of complaints and queries about why this, that or the other functionality has broken. Same was true of all the other website jobs I’ve had. The biggest eye-opener for me working in this sector was to learn that things are always broken; there are always bugs and glitches and sometimes quite large structural problems, all of which have to be ranked and prioritised and then we get round to fixing them when we have a) developer time b) budget.

As a tiny confirmation, I have been trying to access Imagenet, the online image bank at the core of this work of art, and guess what? For two days in a row it hasn’t been working, I’ve got the message: ImageNet is under maintenance. Only ILSVRC synsets are included in the search results. Exactly. QED.

7. Big government, dumb data I worked for UK government departments and big government agencies for eight years and my tkeaway from the experience is that it isn’t artificial intelligence we should be frightened of – it is human stupidity.

Working inside the civil service was a terrifying insight into how naturally people in groups fall into a kind of bureaucratic mindset, setting up meetings and committees with minutes and notes and spreadsheets and presentations and how, slowly but steadily, the ability to change anything or get anything is strangled to death. No amount of prejudicing or stereotyping in, to take the anti-AI campaigners’ biggest worries, image recognition, will ever compete with the straightforward bad, dumb, badly thought out, terribly implemented and often cack-handedly horrible decisions which governments and their bureaucracies take.

Take Theresa May’s campaign of sending vans round the UK telling unwanted migrants to go home. Or the vast IT catastrophe which is Universal Credit. For me, any remote and highly speculative threat about the possibility that some AI programs may or may not be compromised by partial judgements and bias is dwarfed by the bad judgements and stereotyping which characterise our society and, in particular our governments, in the present, in the here-and-now.

8. Destroying the world Following this line of thought to its conclusion, it isn’t artificial intelligence which is opening a new coal-fired power stations every two weeks, and building a 100 new airports and manufacturing 75 million new cars and burning down tracts of the rainforest the size of Belgium every year. The meaningful application of artificial intelligence is decades away, whereas good-old-fashioned human stupidity is destroying the world here and now in front of our eyes, and nobody cares very much.

Summary

So. I liked this piece not because of the supposed warning it makes about artificial intelligence – and the obvious criticism or comment about From apple to anomaly is that, apart from a few paragraphs on one wall label, it doesn’t really give you very much background information to get your teeth into or ponder — no, I liked it because:

  1. it is huge and awesome and an impressive thing to walk along – so American! so big!
  2. and because its stomach-churning glut of imagery is testimony to the vast, unstoppable, planet-wasting machine which is humanity

From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’ by Trevor Paglen © Tim P. Whitby / Getty Images


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Barbican

And concerts

AI: More than Human @ Barbican

What a fabulously enjoyable funfair of an exhibition, even if it isn’t quite the searching investigation or revealing insight into its subject which the curators hoped it would be.

Do you remember the science fiction exhibition the Barbican put on two years ago, Into The Unknown? It filled the long, narrow, curving exhibition space they call The Curve with loads of sci fi books, magazines and screens showing clips from classic sci fi movies and TV shows (Star Wars, Star Trek etc), along with models of the spaceships, and some of the actual outfits and spacesuits worn by famous sci fi characters. It was geek heaven!

Well, now that whole exhibition looks a bit like the introduction, the part one, to this exhibition’s part two. Where Into The Unknown romped through retro visions of the future, from Jules Vernes and H.G. Wells to 2001 and Blade Runner, AI: More than Human, packs out the same curving exhibition space with a jamboree of interactive gadgets which explore sci fi aspects of the present and the near future, in particular the notion of artificial intelligence or AI for short.

The exhibition space is absolutely crammed with robots large and small, classic movie clips looming down from overhead screens, videos showing the latest AI research in agriculture or undersea exploration, plus a dozen or more games and touch screen programs you can get involved in – the whole busy funfair of exhibits claiming to be an investigation of how artificial intelligence dominates our current existences and will do so more and more in the near future.

Installation view of AI: More than Human at the Barbican showing Alter 3: Offloaded Agency (Photo by the author)

For example, there’s a photo booth just like the ones you traditionally get your passport photos from, except that in this one you have to type a word of your own choosing into the instruction pad, then pose for the photo. The booth then generates – from your one word – a unique ‘poem’ which it prints out over the photo it’s taken of you. Prints the pic out for you to show your friends. Emails it to you, if you want to share your email address. The idea is the program running it will slowly build up a database of people’s key words and this will influence the evolution of its poetry-writing skills.

Each section of the long curved exhibition space is marked off with translucent white hangings. One little section is devoted to the fact that a computer program, DeepMind recently beat the world champion at Go, the Chinese board game (it was in 2016). the space includes a big video screen showing the world champion pushing through throngs of admirers while, at waist height is a table containing several monitors showing a Go board and counters. One of these monitors showed the fatal move which stunned the Go champion and the Go world with its unexpected brilliance. On others, I think you were meant to have a go at Go against the computer, if you wanted. Personally, I’ve no idea what the rules of Go are and not much interest in finding out.

Installation view of AI: More than Human at the Barbican showing the Go section: a tense Go fan on a screen hanging above the table into which are embedded several monitors showing games of Go. Note the translucent white curtains used through the exhibition (Photo by the author)

In another little alcove I was surprised to come across a couple of two- or three-foot-wide Lego boards. In front of them were a number of ‘wells’ containing Lego pieces of different sizes and colours and behind the bases were screens showing a series of metrics. The idea is to ‘build a city’ using the Lego pieces, and the computer would then sense the design and layout you’ve created and assess its social parameters, such as Quality of Life, Employment, Percentage of Highly Educated and so on. Difficult to see how this information could be generated from a few toy bricks positioned at random. Not easy to see how this would be applied in real-world situations where, presumably, there would already be existing measurements of quality of life, employment rate etc. The whole thing was titled Kreyon City.

Installation view of AI: More than Human at the Barbican showing the Kreyon City installation  (Photo by the author)

In a self-contained alcove was an artwork by Stephanie Dinkins which consisted of a black pot with ‘Do not touch’ written on it. being human and not a robot, I immediately wanted to touch it. Behind it, on the wall, was a large video screen showing, when I strolled in, a big picture of a row of ladies’ hats in a hat shop. The visitor assistant manning this little stall apologised and said the installation was broken, so I wandered round the pot and out again, none the wiser.

Paradox 6554 by Stephanie Dinkins at AI: More than Human at the Barbican

Another stand featured a play area a few yards wide on which a cute little robot ‘puppy’ was trotting across till it bumped into one of the raised edges, turned round and trotted off in a other direction. A French TV presenter was very excitedly explaining the point of this cute little toy to his viewers and rolled a red ball towards the puppy which ignored it.

Just beyond the main exhibition space is a row of four black leather chairs set in front of immersive, split computer games screens. You put on headphones and take the console in your hands and then navigate through a computer-generated image based on the architecture of the Barbican itself. As you go downstairs you enter increasingly futuristic fictional environments. Personally, I have never seen the point of computer games and watching my son fritter away a lot of his teenage years holding just such consoles while he eviscerated vast numbers of enemy warriors in Rome Total War or League of Legends has put me off computer games for life. There didn’t appear to be any guns or swords in this game so my son wouldn’t have been interested.

Installation view of AI: More than Human at the Barbican (Photo by the author)

Early on in the show there was a timeline on the wall showing key moments in mankind’s quest to create artificial intelligence, starting sometime around the writing of Frankenstein and carrying through early computer pioneer Ada Lovelace, the famous Alan Turing, through the women who worked at Bletchley Park during the war and on into the modern age of computer research, increasingly carried out in America and Japan, and then onto contemporary digital technology.

Installation view of AI: More than Human at the Barbican showing the timeline of computers and AI technology (Photo by the author)

Probably the most dramatic attraction came towards the end and was a life-size robot with a prosthetic head which waves its arms around in front of a large screen showing atmospheric shots of Japanese technicians interacting with it, giving the whole installation a very filmic vibe.

Installation view of AI: More than Human at the Barbican (Photo by the author)

Throughout the exhibition there was a wealth of wall labels briefly addressing issues surrounding artificial intelligence. I give a flavour of these in the précis of the press release, below.

None of them really told me anything I didn’t already know. None of them really told me what artificial intelligence is. I didn’t read all of them, but nowhere did I come across a memorable definition. Instead we were eased into the idea by the opening section which described the medieval idea of the golem, a medieval legend of a human-shaped creature which is created from inanimate matter. its story was told through some Marvel and DC superhero comics and I was immediately distracted by a set of big video screens showing clips from classic 1920s and 30s silent sci fi and horror films.

The whole exhibition felt a bit like that. Consecutive thought was everywhere sacrificed to pop culture and flashy effects. But as I marvelled at the big rack of cogs which was part of one of the decoding machines at Bletchley, or admired the role of women who are often overlooked in official histories of computing, or watched a middle-aged man in what appeared to be a simulator of a racing car, or looked at a miniature greenhouse in which plants were growing whose temperature and humidity etc were all controlled by computer — what began to really forcefully impress itself on me was that possibility that there is no such thing as artificial intelligence.

Sure enough the digital world is now full of algorithms which can predict what you want to buy next or your personality type and so on (if you let them access enough of your personal data). Personally, I don’t have a smart phone and don’t use Facebook, twitter or any other social media, for precisely this reason.

But none of us are likely to escape the increasing use of facial recognition programs and one feature seemed to be able – if you stood in the right position – to do a full body scan of you and tell you what kind of fabric clothes you’re wearing. Right at the entrance to the Barbican was an enormous video screen and, if you stand on a circular manhole-cover-sized pad and jig around, then abstract shapes on the screen perform exactly the same movements, as if a piece of modern sculpture had come to life.

But absolutely none of these clever gadgets has a mind, has purpose or intention or agency. None of these devices can choose what they’re doing, or is in the slightest bit aware that it is a machine performing a function.

Programs which are designed to monitor the data they’re processing and change the program itself in light of that data – self-correcting or improving algorithms – can have dramatic effects, but… none of them amount to anything even remotely resembling intelligence.

They are just very thorough face recognition, or clothes recognition, or Lego recognition, or word recognition programs. In the same way that the big robot at the end which can wave its arms about is a million miles away from being human, from being a self-conscious, aware being.

I wondered if my reaction was just me being jaded and cynical but then I happened to get into conversation with a BBC science journalist and a friend of his, who both know a lot more than me about this area.

They referenced the classic 1974 paper by the philosopher Thomas Nagel titled ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ which, apparently, says that even if bats have something we might call ‘intelligence’, it would be of such a completely different type, evolved to perfectly suit bats and their batty situation, that we wouldn’t recognise it anyway, hopelessly programmed as we are to think solely in terms of human values and goals.

The BBC guy’s friend then referenced the philosopher Peter Singer’s work on animal rights to argue that, even if we ever did manage to create a self-starting, self-directed form of intelligence, would we not then be guilty of slavery? If we created something that genuinely had heart and soul and emotions and yearnings – would we not be immediately duty bound to ‘set it free’?

But even thinking about it like this makes you realise how absurdly far we are from a situation like that. Programs and machines and devices which can mimic our movements and project them up onto video screens – these are fabulous as artworks, but in the end, all I saw at the exhibition was toys, glorified toys.

Mimic (concept), 2018, by Universal Everything. Image courtesy of Universal Everything

I was relieved by this little conversation which confirmed my opinion that the exhibition contains lots of fun fairground attractions, eye-catching news snippets (computer beats Go champion, Steven Hawking signs a petition warning governments against weaponising artificial intelligence), and distracting movie clips (right at the start there’s a screen showing a montage of pretty much every movie in which an android or robot turns on its human makers, from Blade Runner to Ex Machina), and lots of featurettes about self-guiding robots which can explore the bottom of the oceans, or monitor growing conditions in greenhouses — but somehow all this gallimaufrey of festival fun manages not, in the end, to be that penetrating or insightful.

I got talking to one of the curators of the exhibition and asked what one thing she’d learned from the year or more they’d been preparing it. She said, ‘Not to be afraid of AI’.

She said here in the West, there’s a long tradition of fear of robots and computers (fears not allayed, it must be said, by the numerous movie clips of robots strangling people which greet you as you walk in).

But by contrast, she said that one of the curators was Japanese and it had been a real eye-opener for her to see the completely different approach the Japanese have to new technology. Possibly it is because of their Shinto traditions, according to which the world is full of spirits, but the Japanese seem to be more open and receptive to the idea that we are on the verge of developing new types and forms of intelligence. For us in the West, this immediately prompts headlines about Frankenstein. For the Japanese, she said, these new developments are to be welcomed into a world already full of various types of technology.

That was an interesting insight into Japanese culture. But I couldn’t help noticing how she, like all the wall labels and exhibition promo material, said that we are on the verge of a brave new world where there will be trans-humans incorporating digital technology, or cities will run themselves, cars drive themselves and so on and so on.

I was a big fan of science fiction in the 1970s, I watched Tomorrow’s World every week, and they told us then that robots were about to take over all the boring chores of life, that soon cities would be run by computers and that this would usher in The Leisure Society – an age where everything was done for us by smart bots and so the biggest struggle people would have would be finding ways to fill all their leisure time. Everyone would become poets and playwrights and artists. It would be utopia. And what followed all this technological utopianism? The 1980s of Mrs Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Robot technologies were introduced in some car manufacturing plants, but they were a drop in the ocean compared to the mass unemployment, social crises, to the Miners Strike and the Poll Tax riots. The failure of the technological utopianism of the 1970s innoculated me for life against believing a word of the prophets of Shiny New Societies until I actually see them.

Meanwhile what I see is the destruction of countless ecosystems, the extermination of species at an unprecedented rate, the irreversible heating of the atmosphere, the poisoning of the oceans, and the new digital technology being used by China to control its population and Russia to launch cyber-attacks on its enemies.

That is the actual existing world which we live in and no sweet little robot puppy or booth which prints rubbish poems over your passport photo or big monitor screens on which shapes dance around mimicing your movements, are going to change it.

What a Loving and Beautiful World

Just like the Into The Unkown exhibition, elements of the show are scattered beyond the Curve, in the entrance space and foyer – where a film is running of a dancer whose movements are copied by sensors and where there’s a tall pulsing sculpture called Totem. But the best thing is downstairs in the space they call The Pit.

Here, in a big square room, a Japanese art collective called teamLab have installed a wonderful thing – projected onto the four walls is a continual slow flow of colour washes, down which move large images of Chinese characters i.e. letters from Chinese script. If you reach out your hand and the shadow of your hand touches one of these characters it gently explodes releasing a plume of images. Thus I reached out and the shadow of my hand touched a Chinese character as it slowly moved down the wall and – it disappeared in a puff of smoke and a covey of brightly coloured birds appeared and started flying round the walls!

If someone else happens to have touched the character for ‘tree’, the birds you’ve released will fly round the walls and go and roost in the tree. Touching another character released a flourish of butterflies which fluttered round the wall. All this is accompanied by a soundtrack of very chilled Oriental music consisting of just a flute and maybe a cymbal or two, very soft, very mellow, very calming.

I’ve been subjected to many interactive installations in my time, but I think this might be the most genuinely interactive, and certainly the most mellow and blissful, I’ve ever experienced. I couldn’t for the life of me, though, see what it had to do with ‘artificial intelligence’. Rather it is just (i say ‘just’ – it is the immensely impressive) use of advanced but still non-conscious, non-self-correcting computer programming.

Installation view of What a Loving, and Beautiful World, part of AI: More than Human at the Barbican (Photo by the author)

Thoughts

I went round the exhibition twice and nothing I read on any of the wall labels and none of the interactive exhibits really explained artificial intelligence to me, or the current state of research into artificial intelligence. Instead I was distracted from distractions by more distractions. It was decades ago – 1996 – that IBM’s computer DeepBlue beat world chess master Gary Kasparov at chess. Did it rock my world? Now DeepBlue has beaten the world Go champion. Somehow I can’t get excited.

I couldn’t help thinking that if a metal robot waving its arms around and a cute little plastic puppy are the best that contemporary robotics can come up with, the rest of us have nothing to fear. And, if playing with Lego is the best that AI can offer contemporary architecture, isn’t that rather pitiful?

A major risk with creating an exhibition like this, most of which seems to consist of funky digital art works, is that the artworks hugely distract from the actual, intellectual questions we should be asking.

For example, I saw one little monitor tucked away in a corner with a short wall label describing in a superficial way China’s use of digital and social media to define and control its entire population. This is a massive issue, an absolutely enormous development, with huge ramifications for the way the same kind of system of total digital control might possibly be introduced into the West. But it wasn’t explored or followed through.

There was footage of some researchers who’ve developed some kind of deep sea fish robot which learns about its environment. That’s sweet, but news last week revealed that

A retired naval officer dove in a submarine nearly 36,000ft into the deepest place on Earth, only to find what appears to be plastic waste.

We are, in other words, destroying the planet, laying waste to entire ecosystems, burning up the atmosphere and poisoning the oceans far faster than we can develop any kind of technology to stop it.

Downstairs on the other side of the Barbican from the main show was a bar which has been set up with a robot barperson i.e. a robotic arm, which can mix any cocktail you want from a row of liquor bottles in front of it. Is… is that the best they can do? Are the pubs round where I live ever going to have robot bar staff? No.

One of the exhibits showcases the following project:

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), Australian Center for Field Robotics, and NASA present pioneering research that took place in Costa Rican waters on Schmidt Ocean Institute’s Research Vessel Falkor, using the deep sea as a testbed for exploration of Europa – one of Jupiter’s moons.

Do you really think we are ever going to ‘explore’ Jupiter’s moons? And why would we? We are burning up this planet. Shouldn’t absolutely every scrap of scientific research imaginable be going towards devising non-carbon ways of generating energy, storing energy, non-carbon ways to travel and transport food and goods?

I react to projects like these as I react to Elon Musk’s announcements that he is going to fund a manned expedition to Mars, which is: Why? Is he mad? Why isn’t he spending billions trying to save this planet, the one we all live on?

Another exhibit:

With the consequences of climate change growing in scale every year, MIT’s Open Agriculture Initiative looks at ensuring our food security for the future with their AI-driven ‘personal computer farms’ that optimise the development of crops in tabletop-sized growing chambers. It hopes to bring controlled agriculture into the household, by gathering crop-growing data from a network of farms and sharing it with the wider public.

‘It hopes to bring controlled agriculture into the household’! In my household we can’t even grow cacti on the windowsill. This is never going to be affordable or practical. Those who are interested already grow vegetables in windowboxes or garden beds or their local allotment.

If this is the best contemporary technology has to offer us, we’re doomed.


A précis of the press release

There is so much to see, and the exhibition itself is just part of a wider Barbican season about life in modern technology, that, in the name of spreading information and enlightenment – and also to give the full, official explanation of some of the exhibits I’ve mentioned above –  I here give a summary of the press release. I’ve highlighted in bold the exhibits I’ve referred to in my review.

AI: More than Human is part of Life Rewired, the Barbican’s 2019 season exploring what it means to be human when technology is changing everything.

It tells the rapidly developing story of AI, from its ancient roots in Japanese Shintoism through Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage’s early experiments in computing, to AI’s major developmental leaps from the 1940s to the present day.

The exhibition features some of the most cutting-edge research projects in the field from DeepMind, Jigsaw, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Computer Science Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (MIT CSAIL), IBM, Sony Computer Science Laboratories, Google Arts and Culture, Google PAIR, Affectiva, Lichtman Lab at Harvard, Eyewire, Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, Wyss Institute and Emulate Inc.

The exhibition also features commissions by artists, researchers and scientists Memo Akten, Joy Buolamwini, Certain Measures (Andrew Witt & Tobias Nolte), Es Devlin, Stephanie Dinkins, Justine Emard, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Stefan Hurtig & Detlef Weitz, Hiroshi Ishiguro & Takashi Ikegami, Mario Klingemann, Kode 9, Lawrence Lek, Daito Manabe & Yukiyasu Kamitani, Massive Attack & Mick Grierson, Lauren McCarthy, Yoichi Ochiai, Neri Oxman, Qosmo, Anna Ridler, Chris Salter in collaboration with Sofian Audry, Takashi Ikegami, Alexandre Saunier and Thomas Spier , Sam Twidale and Marija Avramovic, Yuri Suzuki, teamLab and Universal Everything.

The exhibition includes digital media, immersive art installations and a chance for visitors to interact directly with exhibits to experience AI’s capabilities first-hand, to examine the subject from multiple, global perspectives and give visitors the tools to decide for themselves how to navigate our evolving world.

The exhibition asks the big questions: What does it mean to be human? What is consciousness? Will machines ever outsmart a human? And how can humans and machines work collaboratively?

Section 1. The Dream of AI

The exhibition charts the human desire to bring the inanimate to life right back to ancient times, from the religious traditions of Shintoism and Judaism to the mystical science of alchemy.

Artist and electronic musician Kode9 presents a newly commissioned sound installation on the golem. A mythical creature from Jewish folklore, the golem has influenced art, literature and film for centuries from Frankenstein to Blade Runner. Kode9’s audio essay adapts and samples from many of these stories of unruly artificial entities to create an eerie starting point to the exhibition. Stefan Hurtig & Detlef Weitz also look at the golem as well as other artificial life forms and how they are imagined in film and television.

This section explores Japanese animism philosophy, including Shinto food ceremonies and a selection of ancient anthropomorphic Japanese cooking tools, shown for the first time outside Japan. Sam Twidale and Marija Avramovic also look at AI through the lens of Japanese Shinto beliefs to explore notions of animism and techno-animism in Sunshowers.

Doraemon – one of the best known Japanese manga animations – will also be on display, exploring its influence on the philosophy of robotics and technology development.

Section 2. Mind Machines

This section explains how AI has developed through history from the early innovators who tried to convert rational thought into code, to the creation of the first neural network in the 1940s, which copied the brain’s own processes, going on to show how this has developed into machine learning – when an AI is able to learn, respond and improve by itself.

It includes some of the most important moments and figures in AI’s history:

  • computing pioneers Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage
  • Claude Shannon’s experimental games
  • Alan Turing’s groundbreaking efforts to decipher code in World War II
  • Deep Blue vs chess champion Garry Kasparov
  • IBM’s Watson, who beat a human on US gameshow, Jeopardy! in 2011
  • DeepMind’s AlphaGo, which became the first computer to defeat a professional in the complex Chinese strategy game Go in 2016, including an in-depth explanation of the surprising Move 37 – a turning point in the history of AI, that shocked the world

This section also looks at how AI sees images, understands language and moves, as artificial intelligence developed beyond the brain to the body. Projects on display include MIT CSAIL’s SoFi – a robotic fish that can independently swim alongside real fish in the sea and Sony’s 2018 robot puppy, aibo, who uses its database of memories and experiences to develop its own personality.

Google PAIR’s project Waterfall of Meaning is a poetic glimpse into the interior of an AI, showing how a machine absorbs human associations between words.

Artist Mario Klingemann’s piece Circuit Training invites visitors to take part in teaching a neural network to create a piece of art. Visitors will first help create the data set by allowing the AI to capture their image, then select from the visuals produced by the network, to teach it what they find interesting. The machine is constantly learning from this human interaction to create an evolving piece of live art.

In Myriad (Tulips), artist Anna Ridler looks at the politics and process of using large datasets to produce a piece of art. Inspired by ‘tulip-mania’ – the financial craze for tulip bulbs that swept across the Netherlands in the 1630s, she took 10,000 photographs of tulips and categorised them by hand, revealing the human aspect that sits behind machine learning. Her second piece Mosaic Virus uses this data set to create a video work generated by an AI, which shows a tulip blooming, an updated version of a Dutch still life for the 21st Century.

Myriad (Tulips) by Anna Ridler atAI: More Than Human. Image credit: Emily Grundon, 2019

Section 3. Data Worlds

At the heart of the main exhibition in The Curve is Data Worlds. This section examines AI’s capability to improve commerce, change society and enhance our personal lives. It looks at AI’s real-life application in fields such as healthcare, journalism and retail.

Affectiva, the leader in Human Perception AI, will demonstrate how AI can improve road safety and the transportation experience, through a driving arcade game during which Affectiva’s AI will track drivers’ emotions and reactions as they encounter different situations.

In Sony CSL’s Kreyon City, visitors plan and build their own city out of LEGO and learn how the combination of human creativity and AI could represent a promising tool in major architecture and infrastructure decisions.

Lauren McCarthy’s experiment to become a human version of a smart home intelligence system explores the tensions between intimacy vs privacy, convenience vs the agency they present, and the role of human labour in the future of automation.

Qosmo’s sound artwork creates a dialogue between human and machine by inviting visitors to make music together with AI.

Nexus Studios have produced a series of interactive works that demonstrate how AI works. Visitors can opt to be classified by an AI, revealing how the computer interprets their image. Nexus Studios have collaborated with artist Memo Akten to present Learning to See, which allows visitors to manipulate everyday objects to illustrate how a neural network trained on a specific data set can be fooled into seeing the world as a painting. It can see only what it already knows, just like us.

Data Worlds also addresses important ethical issues such as bias, control, truth and privacy.

Scientist, activist and founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, Joy Buolamwini, examines racial and gender bias in facial analysis software. As a graduate student, Joy found an AI system detected her better when she was wearing a white mask, prompting her research project Gender Shades. This project uncovered the bias built in to commercial AI in gender classification showing that facial analysis technology AI has a heavy bias towards white males. In parallel to this, Joy wrote AI, Ain’t I A Woman – a spoken word piece that highlights the ways in which artificial intelligence can misinterpret the images of iconic black women.

Joy Buolamwini /The Algorithmic Justice League at MIT Media Lab, part of AI: More Than Human. Image credit: Jimmy Day/MIT Media Lab

Section 4. Endless Evolution

The final section of the exhibition looks at the future of our species and envisions the creation of new species, reflecting on the laws of ‘nature’ and how artificial forms of life fit into this. A newly commissioned set of interviews will discuss themes of the future through the eyes of visionary thinkers.

Massive Attack mark the 20th anniversary of their landmark album Mezzanine by encoding the album in strands of synthetic DNA in a spraypaint can – a nod towards founding member and visual artist Robert del Naja’s roots as the pioneer of the Bristol Graffiti scene. Each spray can contains around one million copies of Mezzanine-encoded ink. The project highlights the need to find alternative storage solutions in a data-driven world, with DNA as a real possibility to store large quantities of data in the future.

Mezzanine will also be at the centre of a new sound composition – a co-production between Massive Attack and machine. Robert Del Naja is working with Mick Grierson at the Creative Computing Institute at University of the Arts London (UAL), students from UAL and Goldsmith’s College, and Andrew Melchior of the Third Space Agency to create a unique piece of art that highlights the remarkable possibilities when music and technology collide. The album will be fed into a neural network and visitors will be able to affect its sound by their actions and movements, with the output returned in high definition.

This section includes Alter 3, created by roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro and Kohei Ogawa with artificial life researcher Takashi Ikegami and Itsuki Doi. With a body of a bare machine and a genderless, ageless face, Alter learns and matures through an interplay with the surrounding world.

Justine Emard’s piece Co(AI)xistence explores a communication between different forms of intelligences: human and machine. Through signals, body movements and spoken language, she created the interaction between Alter and Mirai Moriyama, a Japanese performer. Using a deep learning system, Alter learns from his experiences and the two try to define new perspectives of co-existence in the world. (So this explains the film running on the big screen behind the robot waving its arms around.)

Stephanie Dinkins’s new work Not The Only One is the multigenerational memoir of one black American family with which visitors can have conversations and ask questions, continuing her ongoing dialogue around AI and race, gender and aging. As society becomes more reliant on artificial intelligence, many voices are left out of the creation of these systems and bias and discrimination can be encoded in AI systems. In Not The Only One, the AI is trained with the needs and ideals of races which are under-represented in the tech sector.

Architect, designer and MIT Professor Neri Oxman presents ongoing projects from her research lab, The Mediated Matter Group at MIT.

The Synthetic Apiary explores the possibility of a controlled space in which seasonal honeybees can produce honey all year round. A large scale investigation into the cultivation of bees and their behaviour has huge implications for the future of the human race, due to the massive decline in bees worldwide over recent years.

Mediated Matter Synthetic Apairy Honeybee Hive in the Synthetic Apiary environment, part of AI: More Than Human at Barbican © The Mediated Matter Group

In an era when we can engineer genomes and design life, Vespers, explores what it means to design (with) life. From the relic of the ancient death mask to the design and digital fabrication of an adaptive and responsive living mask, the project points towards an imminent future where wearable interfaces and building skins are customised not only to fit a particular shape, but also a specific material, chemical and even genetic make-up, tailoring the wearable to both the body and the environment which it inhabits.

For the first time in the UK, Japanese media artist Yoichi Ochiai presents projects from his research lab, Digital Nature, including an artificial butterfly.

Resurrecting The Sublime by Christina Agapakis of Ginkgo Bioworks, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, and Sissel Tolaas, brings back the smell of flowers made extinct through human activity. The creation of these smells asks questions about our relationship with nature and the decisions we make as a species.

Japanese art and technology specialist Daito Manabe from Rhizomatiks and neuroscientist Yukiyasu Kamitani present Dissonant Imaginary, a research art project that investigates the relationship between sound and images. Using brain decoding technology facilitated by fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to generate imagery visualised from brain activity data that changes according to sound, the project seeks to recreate the vivid emotional imagery that can be conjured when listening to a film soundtrack or nostalgic music and foresees a future in which music and visuals may directly interact with the brain as a new medium.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), Australian Center for Field Robotics, and NASA present pioneering research that took place in Costa Rican waters on Schmidt Ocean Institute’s Research Vessel Falkor, using the deep sea as a testbed for exploration of Europa – one of Jupiter’s moons.

With the consequences of climate change growing in scale every year, MIT’s Open Agriculture Initiative looks at ensuring our food security for the future with their AI-driven ‘personal computer farms’ that optimise the development of crops in tabletop-sized growing chambers. It hopes to bring controlled agriculture into the household, by gathering crop-growing data from a network of farms and sharing it with the wider public. Strategic design firm Method display their own take on the concept by using upcycled materials and a modular design to build a durable DIY Food Computer.

This section also looks at the research labs using AI to revolutionise healthcare. Lichtman Lab at Harvard and Eyewire both look at mapping the brain in their research projects and the implications this could have for our health. Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine is engineering tissues and organs made from human cells in the lab. Wyss Institute and Emulate, Inc. present their human Organs-on-Chips technology that contain tiny hollow channels lined with living human cells and tissues, opening up new understanding of how different diseases, medicines, chemicals, and foods affect human health and potentially changing the way drugs are developed forever.

The exhibition ends with a short film produced by Mark Gorton, Visionaries, which lets thinkers and experts Danielle George, Amy Robinson Sterling, Kanta Dihal, Yoichi Ochiai, Francesca Rossi and Andrew Hessel speak about their vision of singularity and the future.

Installation view of AI: More Than Human at the Barbican (Photo by the author)

Level G

A series of new commissions run across the Barbican’s Level G spaces throughout the exhibition.

Digital art and design collective Universal Everything take over the Barbican’s main Silk Street entrance hall to create a new installation, Future You, where visitors can interact with an AI version of themselves. Large digital avatars mimic visitors’ movements onscreen. When the exhibition opens, the character begins in primitive, childlike form and evolves throughout the exhibition’s run, as it learns new ergonomic abilities.

Chris Salter’s piece Totem, in collaboration with Sofian Audry, Takashi Ikegami, Alexandre Saunier and Thomas Spier, is a large-scale, dynamic installation that uses sensing and machine learning to inform its patterns, rhythm and behaviour that will give the installation a feeling of a living, breathing entity.

Lawrence Lek’s open-world video game 2065 is set in a speculative future, when advanced automation means that people no longer have to work and can spend all day playing video games and art is indistinguishable from gaming. Integrating the architecture of the Barbican Curve into the virtual world, players are invited to play the role of an AI to imagine what life might be like in future years.

Artist and designer Es Devlin’s PoemPortraits is a social sculpture that brings together art, design, poetry and machine learning; it has been created in collaboration with Google Arts and Culture and Ross Goodwin. Each visitor will be invited to donate a single word to the piece. This word will be instantly incorporated into a two-line poem generated by an algorithm trained on 20 million words of poetry. This poem will form the photographic flash that illuminates each unique PoemPortrait. The work is cumulative; each poem will also include a word donated by another visitor. At the end of the exhibition, a collective PoemPortrait will be generated from everyone’s contributions: a trace of this transient social sculpture.

Inspired by Raymond Scott’s Electronium machine, Yuri Suzuki’s Digital Electronium gives visitors the chance to input sounds to create a changing soundscape through AI and algorithms.

A Machine View of London, a video work by Certain Measures (Andrew Witt and Tobias Nolte), presents an AI categorising and mapping the shapes of the one million buildings in London. This project is one of their series of FormMaps, an ongoing architectural research project that aims to compare and create a complete catalogue of building patterns from cities around the world.

The exhibition chatbot

To support the exhibition and widen the conversations around artificial intelligence, the Barbican worked with marketing technology agency, Byte, to create a chatbot aimed at stimulating conversations around the role of AI within society. Appearing on the Barbican’s website and Facebook page, the chatbot gives people the chance to engage further with the role of AI tech within different cultural arenas. Opening with a definition of AI, the chatbot develops the conversation around four themes reflected in the exhibition – Why are you afraid of AI? Does data discriminate? Who’s driving the car? And What makes us human?

Curators

The exhibition was created and produced by Barbican International Enterprises, with guest curators Dr Suzanne Livingston and Maholo Uchida.


Related links

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2017 @ the National Portrait Gallery

Every year the National Portrait Gallery holds an exhibition displaying the 60 or so photographs which made the shortlist for the international Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, a leading international photographic portrait competition.

5,717 photos were entered for the 2017 competition, from a total of 2,423 photographers, based in 66 countries. The exhibition of this top 60 opened in mid-November and continues until 8 February.

A first, second and third prize are awarded, along with the John Kobel prize for best work by a photographer aged under 35.

This is the third year when they’ve also had an ‘In Focus’ feature, profiling a specific photographer. This year it is Todd Hido, an American photographer represented by four big studio shots of women.

I guess there are several ways to approach an exhibition like this. Since it happens every year, you could compare it with last year’s and the year before’s exhibitions with a view to spotting changing trends and developments. Alas, I don’t have a firm enough grasp of previous years to do that.

If you’re a photography buff you will be interested in technique or device, for example the use of digital versus film photography, or the use of new lenses, maybe new ways of using light and shadow, of composition etc. Alas, I know next to nothing about cameras. But also, the information panels next to each photo, often four or five paragraphs long, give little or no technical information but instead focus on the psychology, the mood and feel of the photos, and often discuss the ‘issues’ they raise or ‘investigate’.

You can just saunter round seeing what takes your fancy – which plenty of people were doing on the day I visited, including a gaggle of junior school children who were having a great time being asked by their teachers what they liked and why.

Or you could regard it as what Roland Barthes called a corpus, a body of work to be analysed, a set of 60 photographs to be analysed as a group or cohort, finding themes and patterns in it, maybe hazarding a guess at how it indicates ‘signs of the times’ and the ‘Zeitgeist’.

In this respect, it was notable that two of the three prizewinning photos addressed the issue of refugees and war.

Amadou Sumaila by César Dezfuli © César Dezfuli

Amadou Sumaila by César Dezfuli © César Dezfuli

First prize went to César Dezfuli for his portrait of a migrant rescued in the Mediterranean off the Libyan coast. His photo is of Amadou Sumaila, a sixteen-year-old from Mali, who’s just been plucked from a refugee boat by an Italian rescue vessel and is looking understandably troubled. César received £15,000 for his photograph, I wonder how much Amadou got.

Second prize (£3,000) went to Abbie Trayler-Smith for her photograph of a girl fleeing ISIS in Mosul, Iraq. Abbie, a former BBC producer, was working for Oxfam at the Hasan Sham displaced persons camp in Iraq, documenting the charity’s work helping people fleeing ISIS. A bus was bringing in people who had, only hours earlier, been in a battle zone. For me this was probably the best photo in the show, in the sense of the deepest and most haunting image, the streaks of sand left by rainwater trickling down the bus window contrasting with the detached beauty of the woman’s face.

Fleeing Mosul from the series Women in War: Life After ISIS by Abbie Trayler-Smith © Abbie Trayler-Smith

Fleeing Mosul from the series Women in War: Life After ISIS by Abbie Trayler-Smith © Abbie Trayler-Smith

But these two were the exceptions – there weren’t many other photos from combat zones, trouble spots or areas of distress e.g. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen or Bangladesh. Periodically I flick through the couple of books I have by war photographer Don McCullin. There was nothing that intense or first hand here. Surfing through the websites of the featured photographers I came across some tough images by Adam Hinton of street gangs in El Salvador and the ruins of Kiev. There was nothing that gritty on display here.

Also, I happen to have recently visited the Tate Modern exhibition about Russian revolutionary art, a lot of which – films, photos and posters – depicts the proletariat and peasants at work, in fields, in factories, driving combine harvesters or sweating near blast furnaces. In this whole exhibition I think there was only one photograph of a person actually working, a black guy in South Africa holding a garden strimmer.

And despite two shots of boys in football strip, there were no shots of sports actually taking place, or in fact of any activities at all. A guy washing his feet in a sink. A mother in a natural pool with her baby and son. Four ladies holding floats in a swimming pool. That’s about as energetic as it got.

Maybe portraits have to be static. But can’t you have portraits of people doing something? Most of the photos here seemed posed and passive, exuding calm and poise. Take the third prize, which went to Maija Tammi from Finland for her portrait of a Japanese android called Erica. Android!? Yes, Erica is a robot made by Japanese scientists. Tammi had half an hour in the lab with Erica and one of her designers to take photos of the (disturbingly lifelike) android. The curators claim the photo ‘addresses issues’ of human versus robot etc, but for me, as an image, its main quality is its supreme calm and placidness.

One of Them Is a Human #1 by Maija Tammi (Erica: Erato Ishiguro Symbiotic Human-Robot Interaction Project) © Maija Tammi

One of Them Is a Human #1 by Maija Tammi (Erica: Erato Ishiguro Symbiotic Human-Robot Interaction Project) © Maija Tammi

Static

Quite a few of the photos just showed people in static positions, posed face-on to the camera or only slightly turned and positioned. Take, for example, the two photos from Owen Harvey’s series of Skins and Suedes. This one combines teenage surliness (‘Who you lookin’ at?’) with vulnerability, a kind of tough helplessness. Fine – except that quite a few of the other photos in the exhibition use exactly the same pose and approach.

Chelsea, Skinhead, Hyde Park, London, from the series Skins & Suedes by Owen Harvey 2017 © Owen Harvey

Chelsea, Skinhead, Hyde Park, London from the series Skins & Suedes by Owen Harvey 2017 © Owen Harvey

Some of them were very static indeed, posed with a kind of deliberately geometric sterility.

Anna and Helen, Blue Earth County Fair, Minnesota, 2016 by R. J. Kern 2016 © R. J. Kern

Anna and Helen, Blue Earth County Fair, Minnesota, 2016 by R. J. Kern 2016 © R. J. Kern

The overwhelming vibe of the show was of this placid, sterile, posed, numb effect. Maybe this is a ‘sign of the times’.

American dominance

This latter photo brings us to the issue of America’s representation in the show.

Since the introduction makes much of numbers –  5,717 photos submitted etc – I did a little counting of my own. Of the 60 or so photos on display, no fewer than 22 are from or about America – starting with Todd Hido’s four studio portraits.

There’s a whole wall of six or so American political photos, including ones of Trump, Obama and Hillary Clinton – the latter a worryingly big close-up of the lady in full campaign mode, reminding us of her hawkish foreign policy record, and that she is 70 years old (albeit younger than Trump, 71, or Bernie Saunders, 76: America the Gerontocracy).

Campaign #1 Hillary Rodham Clinton, West Palm Beach, FL from the series Ambition, Charm, and the Will to Power by Alan Mozes 2016 © Alan Mozes

Campaign #1 Hillary Rodham Clinton, West Palm Beach, FL from the series Ambition, Charm, and the Will to Power by Alan Mozes 2016 © Alan Mozes

These figures of power were placed next to a pair of photos of poor women taken against, or rather through, the metal grilles of part of the wall between the US and Mexico, as well as shots of blue collar Trump supporters, a teenage American gun fan, and so on.

The very first photo in the exhibition is by an American of a classic American subject – two drum majorettes caught in a casual moment. There’s a shot of a young black guy posed on a horse, a stylishly dressed black girl on Venice beach, the naked mum in a pool in Idaho. There, in other words, are lots of Yanks in this show.

This latter photo (below) is striking because it is, for this show, an unusually dynamic composition, the outstretched arm and leg making striking diagonal lines and the swimming boy nearly making three sides of an X shape. It is a rare example of a relatively unposed photo, the woman reaching for her glasses (are they glasses) giving it an air of precariousness and risk missing from almost all the other works here.

Jennifer, Lur, and Emile, Warm Spring Creek, Idaho from the series Water's Edge by Matthew Hamon 2016 © Matthew Hamon

Jennifer, Lur, and Emile, Warm Spring Creek, Idaho from the series Water’s Edge by Matthew Hamon 2016 © Matthew Hamon

Having brought up two children since they were babies, I wasn’t charmed by this image of primal innocence (if that’s the intention): I was mainly worried about the safety of the baby!

Anyway, health and safety aside, my point is: how come so many Americans?

The US population is 323 million, just 4.25% of the global population of 7.6 billion. Why, then, were over 30% of the photos in this international competition by or about Americans?

Maybe because we in Britain are so drenched in Americana, through movies, TV shows, pop and rock and country music and so on, through the voices of academics and journalists on radio and TV, that we half believe these images and icons are ours. We somehow believe that we have a special claim on, or connection with, American culture. Maybe this is why British intellectuals get so very cross about Donald Trump almost as if he’s president of our country, and we hear so much about American domestic policy, about its race relations, or its abortion clinics, or the endless coverage of every new scandal from Hollywood, as if it directly affects us in Clapham and Cleethorpes and Clovelly.

Or maybe America is just so big and rich that it has a disproportionately large number of well-educated graduates of art and photography courses, plus an enormous network of magazines of all shapes and sizes and styles, and competitions and prizes and money – an entire ecosystem which can sustain tens of thousands of photographers. And so the quality of the best American photographers just is among the best in the world, and so they just deserve to dominate every international photography competition.

George S. Texas 2016 from the series "Age of Innocence" Children and guns in the USA by Laurent Elie Badessi 2016 © Laurent Elie Badessi

George S. Texas 2016 from the series Age of Innocence: Children and guns in the USA by Laurent Elie Badessi 2016 © Laurent Elie Badessi

Having counted the number of photos with American subject matter, I then turned to examine the list of photographers. I counted 51 photographers, responsible for 62 photographs (see below for a complete list of photographers and how many photos they have in the show). Of those 51 photographers, 31 are British and 9 are American. I.e. 40 out of the 51 photographers in the exhibition (78%) are British or American.

This is a bit disappointing. What about China (pop. 1.4 billion), India (pop. 1.3 billion), Indonesia or Brazil? And although it’s less populous (144 million), I always wish there was more coverage of Russia in shows like this, Russia being the largest country in the world, with its vast Siberian hinterland occupied by all sorts of interesting tribes and ethnic groups.

Considering that China will become the economic powerhouse of the world, and Putin’s Russia presents a distinct threat to the West, in both military and digital terms, I think the more we see and understand about these countries and their people the better; and so – fairly or unfairly – I can’t help thinking that supposedly ‘global’ competitions which don’t adequately represent them are missing a trick.

Maybe the disproportionately high number of British and American entrants is for the simple reason that the competition is well publicised in these countries, which after all have a large cultural overlap. Maybe the competition is just not very well promoted in other countries (even in other Anglo countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, which didn’t have any representatives here). Maybe the Anglo bias of the show reflects the difficulty of publicising it elsewhere.

All I know for sure is that, against this Anglocentric backdrop, the handful of colourfully non-Anglo subjects really stood out.

Kijini Primary School students learn to float, swim, and perform rescues in the Indian Ocean off of Mnyuni, Zanzibar by Anna Boyiazis, 2016 © Anna Boyiazis

Kijini Primary School students learn to float, swim, and perform rescues in the Indian Ocean off of Mnyuni, Zanzibar by Anna Boyiazis, 2016 © Anna Boyiazis

Cool photo. By an American, though.

Humour

Not many people in these photos are smiling let alone laughing. Just like in last year’s BP Portrait Award show (for painted portraits), happiness seems to be verboten. Maybe it’s a function of the highly posed nature of most of the photos: the subjects obviously felt they had to be on their best behaviour.

Green chalk stripe suit from the series You Get Me? by Mahtab Hussain 2017 © Mahtab Hussain

Green chalk stripe suit from the series You Get Me? by Mahtab Hussain 2017 © Mahtab Hussain

Having recently read a few books about Surrealism my head is also full of bizarre images created by yoking together unexpected juxtapositions, as in the numerous cutouts and collages of Max Ernst.

Only one photo of the 60 or so here really played at all with these possibilities of photography as a medium. Typically, it was not only a) American but b) very earnest.

It represents the experience of Swedish photographer Alice Schoolcraft who visited her American relatives only to discover that they were Bible-thumping, gun-toting Republicans, and particularly fond of their German Shepherd dog. Hence this photomontage which, I felt, was neither as weird or as convincingly photoshopped as it ought to be.

Halo from the series The Other Side by Alice Schoolcraft 2017 © Alice Schoolcraft

Halo from the series The Other Side by Alice Schoolcraft 2017 © Alice Schoolcraft

Women’s bodies

Women appear to be much more interested in their bodies than men are in theirs, as facts and figures from GPs, hospitals, pharmacies, the fashion and beauty industries, and anecdotal evidence suggest. Probably because women’s bodies are so much more interesting than men’s bodies, dominated as they are by the great central Fact of childbirth, which overshadows their lives – from the advent of menstruation to the onset of the menopause, via a lifetime worrying about contraception, with maybe one or more pregnancies to live through, babies to deliver in agony, and then the long, wearing years of child rearing.

All this to cope with before you even consider the non-stop pestering and objectifying by boys and men, and the great weight of social pressure to conform, be polite and submissive, dress well and look good at all times. What a nightmare!

These thoughts were prompted by the fact that buried in the show is an unobtrusive strand about girlhood, womanhood, motherhood and old age. I wonder if the organisers knew it was there – it would be nice to think it was a very subtle piece of thematic planning. But deliberate or not, ten or so of the pictures could be arranged to form a kind of ‘life cycle of a woman’. They kick off with this graphic photo of childbirth.

Sophie's first breath by Sean Smith 2017 © Sean Smith

Sophie’s first breath by Sean Smith 2017 © Sean Smith

I’ve referred to the photo of the mum swimming with a baby, above, which stands for babies and toddlers. Next in this ‘life cycle’ would come photos showing:

  • a pre-pubescent girl in a swimsuit in a poolside shower
  • a clutch of sulky punk girls from London’s streets (the third photo in this review)
  • the stylish young black woman in torn jeans posing on Venice beach

Then there’s another medical shot, focusing on a specifically female condition – a photo of a woman’s stomach indicating operations resulting from her endemetriosis. In fact it’s the photographer’s own body, Georgie Wileman having suffered from this horrible condition and turned her plight into a photographic project.

Early in my career I produced and directed a dozen medical videos which involved researching some pretty horrible conditions, looking at hundreds of photos of disfigured bodies, and filming a number of surgical procedures (the operation to treat piles was probably the most gruesome). This disabused me of any naive innocence about the human body. All of us, no matter how young and beautiful, are medical patients in waiting.

2014 - 2017 from the series Endometriosis by Georgie Wileman 2017 © Georgie Wileman

2014 – 2017 from the series Endometriosis by Georgie Wileman 2017 © Georgie Wileman

In terms of thinking about themes and trends, this photo made me realise that there is probably a whole modern genre here, the ‘Woman’s body as a medical battlefield’ genre. In the past people wrote books about ‘The Nude’. Nowadays you could fill a book with art photos of women’s bodies after mastectomies, caesarian sections and so on.

Further on in the exhibition, a photo of a family picnic on Southwold beach can be taken as symbolising motherhood and middle age, all making sandwiches and the school run.

And, to complete the cycle, tucked away among other, brasher photos, is an unobtrusive but moving picture of an old woman dying.

I found this hard to look at since it reminded me too much of holding my own mother’s hand as she passed away in a cold, white hospital room. The lifeless white hair. The skin like parchment.

Untitled from the series Mother by Matthew Finn 2016 © Matthew Finn

Untitled from the series Mother by Matthew Finn 2016 © Matthew Finn

Once I’d noticed this women’s life cycle – almost like one of Hogarth’s moral tales – the many photos of lads and men alongside them seemed callow and trite by comparison. Maybe these reflect the way many boy’s and men’s lives are indeed a succession of shallow thrill-seeking, dares and accidents. Fast cars, football and fags.

A number of the photographers here seemed to have had the idea of focusing on teenage boys, hanging out, smoking tabs, wondering how much that camera’s worth. I grew up among lads like this, so I liked this strand. ‘Oi mate, want some blow?’ Is he a nice boy who loves his Mum – or is he about to stab you? ‘Teenagers’ was another noticeable theme of the exhibition.

Kieran from Bolton aged 18 from the series Blackpool 2016 by Adam Hinton 2016 © Adam Hinton

Kieran from Bolton aged 18 from the series Blackpool 2016 by Adam Hinton 2016 © Adam Hinton

Artists

And smoking brings us neatly to a little suite of photos of creative types. To be precise, there are photos of two artists and a writer in the show:

The Sunday Times columnist A.A. Gill is photographed in his Chelsea garden in the advanced stages of the cancer that was shortly to kill him. He was a recovering alcoholic who, at one point, smoked 60 tabs a day. He died of lung cancer.

The popular but critically slated painter Jack Vettriano is photographed looking grey-haired and gaunt in his home in Battersea having only recently, the wall label tells us, recovered from his chronic alcoholism. Also a heavy smoker.

But my favourite was a cracking photo of artist Maggi Hambling CBE, aged 72 and still smoking like a trooper. Here she is in the garden of her home in Suffolk. She insisted on smoking throughout the shoot and, apparently, got through a pack and a half of fags before the photographer had the bright idea of setting up a smoke machine to give the surreal impression that her ciggies are blotting out the entire landscape. Maybe I liked it because it’s virtually the only humorous photo in the show.

Maggi Hambling by Harry Cory Wright 2016 © Harry Cory Wright

Maggi Hambling by Harry Cory Wright 2016 © Harry Cory Wright

I was mildly interested to read who the judges were:

  • Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Chair (Director, National Portrait Gallery, London)
  • Dr David Campany (Writer, Curator and Artist)
  • Tim Eyles, Managing Partner, Taylor Wessing LLP
  • Dr Sabina Jaskot-Gill (Associate Curator, Photographs, National Portrait Gallery, London)
  • Fiona Shields (Head of Photography, The Guardian)
  • Gillian Wearing (Artist)

50% women – but no black or Asian judges. Blackness is seen via white photographers selected by white judges. But then that does seem to be par for the course for London galleries (see my blog post on Women and ethnic minorities in the art world).

Conclusion

If you’re interested in photography this is an excellent snapshot of work from around the world (well, by Americans and Brits who travel round the world).

All of the photos are technically very finished, well lit, focused, clear and crisp.

A handful (the winners) are really stunning.

I found the American presence oppressive, maybe other people will like it.

I detected a hidden theme of womanhood; maybe other visitors will find other themes. (The winning photo of César Dezfuli suggests the theme of migrants, emigrants and refugees, with quite a few shots of British or American blacks and Asians finding their place in the predominantly white culture and – on the anti-immigrant side – photos of Trump and his supporters – there’s enough material here to write an essay just on this very timely theme – but this review is long enough already).

If my review comes over as dismissive, I don’t intend it to be: I found the show fascinating in all kinds of ways and, more tellingly, I’ve found its effects lingering on. Following up the three prize winners and some of the others via the internet has opened my eyes to the dazzling world of contemporary photography. In this respect the exhibition can be used as a valuable gateway, as an introduction and incitement to explore further.

Having looked, read and thought carefully about all 61 photos, maybe the biggest take-home message is:

Smoking is really, really bad for you 🙂


List of photographers

  • Abbie Trayler-Smith, UK (1 photo)
  • Adam Hinton, UK (2)
  • Alan Mozes, USA (2)
  • Alejandro Cartagena, Mexico (2)
  • Alice Schoolcraft, Sweden/USA (1)
  • Alva White, UK (1)
  • Alys Tomlinson, UK (1)
  • Anna Boyiazis, USA (1)
  • Baud Postma, UK (1)
  • Benjamin Rasmussen, USA (1)
  • Camille Mack, UK (1)
  • Catherine Hyland, UK (2)
  • César Dezfuli, Spain (1)
  • Charlie Bibby, UK (1)
  • Charlie Clift, UK (1)
  • Cian Oba-Smith, UK (1)
  • Cig Harvey, UK (1)
  • Craig Bernard, UK (1)
  • Craig Easton, UK (2)
  • Danny North, UK (2)
  • Davey James Clarke, UK (1)
  • David Vintiner, UK (1)
  • Debbie Naylor, UK (1)
  • Georgie Wileman, UK (1)
  • Hania Farrell, Lebanon/UK (1)
  • Harry Cory Wright, UK (1)
  • Ian McIlgorm, UK (1)
  • Joel Redman, UK (1)
  • Jon Tonks, UK (1)
  • Keith Bernstein, South Africa (1)
  • Kurt Hörbst, Germany (2)
  • Laurence Cartwright, UK (1)
  • Laurent Elie Badessi, France (1)
  • Mahtab Hussain, UK (1)
  • Maija Tammi, Finland (1)
  • Matthew Finn, UK (1)
  • Matthew Hamon, USA (1)
  • Mitchell Moreno, UK (2)
  • Monika Merva, USA (1)
  • Nancy Newberry, USA (1)
  • Natasta Alipour-Faridani, UK (1)
  • Owen Harvey, UK (2)
  • Paola Serino, Italy (1)
  • R. J. Kern, USA (1)
  • Richard Beaven, USA (1)
  • Sean Smith, UK (1)
  • Simon Urwin, UK (1)
  • Thom Pierce, UK (1)
  • Todd Hido, USA (4)
  • Tom Craig, UK (1)
  • Tommy Hatwell, UK (1)

Caveats

1. This list is taken from promotional material given out by the NPG press office; it may not be 100% complete. 2. Nationalities are as per the photographers’ entries on the internet; some of these, again, may not be 100% accurate (i.e. someone might have been born in one country and changed nationality). I apologise for any errors and will correct any, if pointed out to me.


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

Thinks… by David Lodge (2001)

‘Imagine what the Richmonds’ dinner party would have been like, if everyone had had those bubbles over their heads that you get in kids’ comics, with “Thinks…” inside them.’…
‘I suppose that’s why people read novels,’ she says. ‘To find out what goes on in other peoples’ heads.’
‘But all they really find out is what has gone on in the writer’s head. It’s not real knowledge.’
‘Oh, what is real knowledge, then?’
‘Scientific knowledge.’ (p.42)

The plot

Self-doubting and recently bereaved lady novelist Helen Reed hesitantly takes up a position teaching creative writing at the (fictional) University of Gloucester. Along with the rest of the faculty she meets cognitive scientist and media star, Ralph Messenger, secure in the bosom of his rich American wife, four kids and big house in the country. He gives her (and the reader) a Brody’s Notes-level introduction to the newly fashionable sciences of artificial intelligence, evolutionary psychology and so on, touching on other topics which came to popular attention in the 1990s, such as chaos theory and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.

Helen is not only a novelist but a lapsed Catholic and so, rather predictably, responds to Messenger’s confident scientism with her belief that you can’t reduce consciousness to algorithms, graphs and charts -surely there is some meaning to the universe, what about our feelings etc.

Via the stream-of-consciousness tape recordings Messenger is making to ‘capture’ his thoughts in flight, we learn the rather predictable fact that he is scheming to screw Helen. Via her sensitive diary, we learn that Helen is tempted but recoils, but is tempted again, but recoils etc. No but yes but no.

The text consists of Messenger’s tape recordings, Helen’s diary, and a third-person omniscient narrator, often covering the same incidents from different points of view. This is a fairly interesting idea, but in practice a little dull, since it is devoted entirely to the subject of middle-aged academics pondering at great length their adulterous affairs.

The text is also interspersed with essays and assignments by Helen’s creative writing students. These score ten on the clever-clogs-ometer for being done in the style of a range of bang-up-to-date 1990s authors, such as Martin Amis, Irvine Welsh, Salman Rushdie et al.

Halfway through the novel Helen discovers that her dead husband – an award-winning BBC radio documentary maker and hitherto a mournful memory – had been systematically unfaithful to her. This is cleverly (and amusingly?) done, because Helen reads an account of her husband’s sexual technique and peccadilloes in a piece of fiction written by one of her students. A bit of clandestine digging reveals that the said student was a ‘research assistant’ to her husband in the early 1990s. When she confronts her student, the latter confesses all and implies that her husband was notorious for seducing his research assistants and having it off whenever he was away on location.

All this comes as a devastating thunderbolt to Helen but made me laugh out loud. Because a) in terms of her character, it shows that being a sensitive lady novelist with two published books does not make you a lofty exception to the human race, does not mean you are especially intelligent or have special insight into other people. In fact, the opposite.

He must have been very, very careful. Or perhaps it was just me who was very stupid, very unobservant, very trusting. (p.202)

Quite. b) In terms of the plot, it very conveniently means that she is not only now ‘available’ for sex, but vows to make up for lost time. Messenger’s boat has come in.

Common themes in David Lodge’s fiction

This is David Lodge’s 11th novel and certain patterns in his fiction are very apparent:

  • there will be a lot of embarrassingly blunt sexual descriptions
  • one or more of the protagonists will be experts on an academic subject and not shy about lecturing the reader on it
  • one or more of the characters will be a Roman Catholic liable, at the drop of a chasuble, to conjure up memories of their cramped, traditional religious upbringing and how they heroically overcame it
  • there will be ‘formal’ tricksiness ie Sunday supplement experimentalism (eg the deployment of the clever literary pastiches mentioned above)
  • a male and female character will journey towards reconciliation and love

Sex

Oh dear. The male lead, cognitive scientist Ralph Messenger, is randy as a goat on heat. The novel opens with a transcript of him recording his secret, innermost thoughts, trying to catch the free association of ideas in action:

I recorded us in bed to test the range of the condenser mike, left it running on the chair with my clothes without her knowing… she made a lot of noise when she came I like that in a woman… What a lot of pubic hair she had, black and springy and densely woven, like a birdsnest, you wouldn’t have been surprised to find a little white egg warm inside her labia… (p.2)

Maybe I’m very prudish but I think the novelist has to earn the right to be this blunt about sex in general, and have the good manners to introduce us to the characters as human beings before giving us dreamy descriptions of their labia. D.H. Lawrence takes a long time setting the scene and ambience before the famous rude scenes in Lady Chatterley. By contrast, opening a Lodge novel is like turning on a TV to be instantly confronted by a big close up of penises shoving into vaginas amid howls and grunts. Maybe that is progress.

As the novel progresses Messenger gravitates from using a tape-recorder to a computer transcription program. When he’s wondering what to describe to test out the new transcription device, he was a brainwave – he’ll describe his ‘first fuck’ (p.73) – which leads him into a sequence of reminiscences about being in a strip joint, being discovered swimming naked when he was a teenager, and so on, complete with plenty of erections and ejaculations.

she laughed softly and came over and stood in front of me so I was staring straight at her crotch sparsely fleeced with ginger pubic hair veiling but not concealing the pinky-brown crease of her cunt… (p.78)

A little later, he ponders the plight (as he sees it) of being homosexual:

What a deprivation, not to find the bodies of women attractive, their curves and their cunts and all the other fascinating differences from women… (p.116)

The novel is divided broadly into three points of view: the prim and proper diary which Helen Reed is keeping; an objective 3rd-person narrator; and Messenger’s stream-of-consciousness passages. The heart sinks when you come to every new Messenger section, for we are never very far from pricks and cunts.

It is odd that Lodge’s later novels regularly include figures who worry about the high moral purpose of art, of the value of the soul, of the imagination etc, sometimes almost as if they mean it – but the texts themselves routinely return us to an unpleasantly male gaze, a coarse objectifying of women, the brutal use of the crudest possible language.

I had time for a quick appraisal as she shrugged off her robe and climbed into the tub.. the tits are a little low slung and wide apart, but shapely and firm… they bounced perceptibly – with their own elasticity, not the cotton latex, as she stepped into the tub… in fact only a tiny strip of material, not much more than an inch wide, prevented me from staring right up her fanny… (p.117)

Comments like that, if written or even spoken aloud, would get you sacked for gross misconduct in most modern work-places. Yet slip them into a cleverly-structured, large-format Penguin paperback and this kind of vulgar language and grossly objectifying attitude wins literary prizes.

I’d like to fuck Emily [his step-daughter]…. Helen Reed, yes, I’d like to fuck her too… (p.118)

Speaking of his teenage step-daughter:

That time I saw her naked about a year ago, when I walked into the family bathroom, looking for something, and she was having a bath… just glimpsed her taut adolescent breasts gleaming wet with big brown aureoles and pointed nipples before I turned on my heel and walked out… (p.117)

No doubt the defense is that the very point of the stream-of-consciousness is to reveal everything, no matter how embarrassing, about a character. OK. But it seems to me a failure of imagination to think that revelations, secrets and embarrassments have to and can only be sexual revelations, secrets and embarrassments. There is more to human beings than screwing. On top of which, it feels lame that this extremely limited view of human nature can itself only be expressed by the monotonous repetition of the crudest language.

my tumescent cock… given me a tremendous hard-on (78)… panting for breath and with an erection like a broomstick (118)… I had to stay behind in the tub till my hard-on subsided (148)… if it happened that he lost his erection it didn’t matter (177)… How eager the young men were, how impatient their quivering erections (178).. It isn’t easy to drive with an erection (p.256)…

Male and female

Changing Places was structured around the comparison between go-getting American academic Morris Zapp and shy, bumbling English lecturer Philip Swallow.

Nice Work was structured around the contrast between high-falutin’ literary expert Robyn Penrose and hard-headed industrialist Vic Wilcox.

Thinks… is another dichotomy built around the opposition of Dr Ralph Messenger (male, scientist, rational) and Helen Reed (woman, novelist, feeling). Ralph is all aggressive rationalism and long lectures about current thinking in Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence. Helen was already a deeply sensitive person, and is now prone to even more intense feelings due to the recent, unexpected death of her husband (which also, of course, makes her conveniently available for a love affair).

Woman meets man = Sex. Or 300 pages of well-mannered foreplay rotating round and round the subject of sex. Again and again, I thought: Just get on and fuck him, for God’s sake, and then progress to the next, equally predictable stage – reams of high-minded literary regret.

Cognitive science

In his 20s the novelist Aldous Huxley set out to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, all 30 volumes of it. Nancy Cunard said you could tell which letter he was up to by his conversation. If it was all about hormones, horses and hysteria, he was up to… H! Something similar can be applied to Lodge. What has he been reading up on to turn into the theme of his next novel?

In his previous novel, Therapy, Lodge had obviously been reading the work of Søren Kierkegård because the protagonist of that novel gives us frequent expositions of the Danish philosopher’s theories, ethics and religious beliefs, as well as his biography, and indeed ends up travelling to Copenhagen to visit the Kierkegård museum and the places where the Great Dane lived and loved. Lodge is nothing if not thorough.

In the run-up to this novel Lodge has read intensively around the subjects of Cognitive Science, Artificial Intelligence and related fields. We know this because of the two-page acknowledgement at the back of the book which thanks various cognitive scientists for their help and encouragement, and includes an impressive reading list.

The novel is, therefore, an exercise in weaving Lodge’s characteristically clear, plain and forthright expositions of this branch of science into the more mundane love story between the randy science professor and the sensitive lady novelist.

Will there be misunderstandings and arguments? Will they squabble about the relative importance of science versus art, of evidence versus emotion? Will there be a lot of expository prose about cognitive science and artificial intelligence and qualia and affective modelling and genetic algorithms? Yes. Lots.

  • Genetic algorithms are computer programs designed to replicate themselves like biological life forms (p.45)
  • Affective modelling is computer simulation of the way emotions affect human behaviour (p.45)
  • qualia – the specific quality of our subjective experiences of the world – like the smell of coffee, or the taste of pineapple (p.36)
  • ‘Mentalese’ – some kind of preverbal medium of consciousness which at a certain point, for certain purposes, gets articulated by the particular parts of the brain that specialise in speech (p.37)
  • The Prisoner’s Dilemma (p.51)
  • Schrödinger’s Cat (p.54)
  • Locked-in syndrome (p.86)
  • Very small particles behave like waves, in random and unpredictable ways,’ says Douglas. ‘When we make a measurement, we cause the wave to collapse. It’s been suggested that the phenomenon of consciousness is a series of continuous collapses of the wave function.’ (p.127)
  • ‘Heisenberg demonstrated that you cannot accurately specify both the position and the speed of a particle. If you get one right, you get the other wrong.’ (p.128)
  • ‘Chaos theory deals with systems that are unusually sensitive to variations in their initial conditions or affected by a large number of independent variables. Like the weather, for instance.’ (p.128)
  • ‘TOM. Theory of Mind. Knowing that other people may interpret the world differently from yourself. The ability to lie depends on it. Most children acquire it at age three or four. Autistics never do.’ (p.134)

My son’s doing philosophy A-Level and I am surprised at the high standard of information and debate required for the subject. This novel is not pitched as high as A-Level. It raises various school debating society issues, but almost all in conversation, in dialogue, briefly, without going into depth: Is there a soul or are our minds just complex computers? Is life meaningful if there is no afterlife, or is it horribly pointless? —

When Lodge quotes from his sources (as above) the text is densely factual. But when he dramatises them into the mouths of his characters, especially the dim lady novelist, they are all too easily dumbed down into jokey dialogue. One of the characters has an autistic son: when Helen has one of the AI programs explained to her (it can process information but has no emotions) she quips that it is autistic. Having had chaos theory explained to her, she watches the annual rubber duck race on a nearby river, held for charity: and points out to the prof that what determines which duck gets into the lead is tiny variations in the initial conditions: Helen’s Chaos theory of Ducks! Boom boom. See how the novelist has dramatised these complex scientific theories for the benefit of us stupid people.

Is all this thorough learning integrated into the narrative of the novel? No. It would have been riveting if the plot had somehow turned on developments in AI, if one of the computer programs or experiments had somehow caused a crucial plot development. (Something like this in fact happens in Robert Harris’s thriller, The Fear Index, where an artificially intelligent algorithm designed to play the stock market starts to flex its muscles.) But here? No. The core of the novel is simply about a randy male academic who wants to sleep with an attractive female academic. The scientific elements appear from time to time as topics of conversation like any other, in among the hum of chat about the General Election or young people these days or the future of higher education or nice pubs in Gloucestershire.

Roman Catholicism

There’s always at least one Catholic character in a Lodge novel (some are entirely about Roman Catholic teaching and its recent history, such as The British Museum Is Falling Down or How Far Can You Go?).

The Catholic in this novel is the creative writing teacher, Helen Reed. She abandoned her faith decades ago, when a student, but her husband recently died of a brain haemorrhage and she now finds herself (very predictably) attracted to the campus chapel, nostalgically hankering for the religious certainties of her childhood faith. Yawn. When she visits her parents at Easter she is drawn back to the elaborate rituals of the weekend of special services. And when she discusses the mind, consciousness and fiction with her polar opposite, the alpha male scientist, Helen draws on convenient snippets of Christian belief to perform her allotted role in the novel’s scheme: as representative of the “lady novelist / emotions and empathy / but surely the universe has some meaning?” school of argument.

‘But aren’t there areas of human experience where scientific method doesn’t apply?’
‘Qualia, you mean?’
‘I suppose so,’ [Helen] said. ‘I was thinking of happiness, unhappiness. The sense of the sublime. Love.’ (p.229)

Dear oh dear. She is made out to be laugh-out-loud dim and – the point of her not realising her husband was unfaithful – completely unperceptive about other people. But like many dim people, she takes her own inability to follow an argument or to weigh the evidence systematically, as a virtue, as a proof that her own vague post-Christian vapourings about souls and spirits and the universe and feeling, are somehow more true, more authentic, more real than yukky science.

Bourgeois world

After Small World, Lodge appears to have made a conscious choice not to return to the cartoony, comic exuberance of that and its predecessor novels. Although comedic in structure (they have happy endings) and often funny in occasional details, Nice WorkParadise NewsTherapy and Thinks… address more ‘serious’ subjects and seem to be trying to treat them in a more adult style. Lacking the zany improbabilities of the comic novels, they become more ‘realistic’ in tone and approach.

1. I read the news today… One sign of this is the foregrounding of contemporary news and issues in the text. All these novels are set in very carefully defined time periods. Often (in Therapy and here) the majority of the text consists of journals or diaries where Lodge is able to tie the characters’ thoughts or events to specific dates in specific years, and to reference the political events, the economic background and the news stories to create a ‘realistic’ timeframe for the narrative (the Jamie Bulger case, Squidgygate, the bombing of Sarajevo etc in Therapy).

In this novel it is the build-up to the General Election in May 1997 which ended 18 years of Conservative government, and inaugurated 13 years of New Labour rule. (Typically, Messenger and Helen have sex on the momentous night itself. Sex overrides every other value in these novels.)

However, I’m not sure this tactic really works. I argued in my review of Therapy that just referring to contemporary events without somehow integrating them into the plot or narrative has the paradoxical effect of making the narratives appear shallower, as if the stories are themselves as trite and throwaway as the daily papers.

2. But the other noticeable trend in these post-comic novels is the increasing embourgeoisement of the characters. The clever grammar school boy swept up into National Service in Ginger, You’re Barmy or whose childhood and youth are sensitively described in Out Of The Shelter are exceptional, maybe, in their precocious intelligence, but act as windows onto a broader social scene, the working class squaddies in Ginger or American-dominated post-war Germany. The academic world of Changing Places and Small World is deliberately exaggerated to cartoon colourfulness for our amusement, and generally features comically poor, struggling, up-and-coming, frustrated, stymied and accident-prone academics.

But in these later novels the characters have made it. They are successful and they enjoy the conventional trappings of success. In Therapy the protagonist has a big house in the Midlands (with four loos), a flash car and a handy flat in central London. In Thinks… the lady novelist’s books have won prizes, she has a house in London, her parents have a nice retirement home in Southwold; the male protagonist, Ralph Messenger, has a house on the university campus and another fabulous house in the country, with a hot tub set on a slope with a commanding view, which the characters luxuriate in while discussing the nature of consciousness and the problem of point-of-view in fiction. (Or looking at the women’s tits, if you’re Messenger.)

There is lots of fine dining. More attention is paid than before to the brands of food and – maybe the most salient marker of English bourgeois life – of wine. Messenger likes his wines and, characteristically, uses them to try and get women drunk and into bed. In line with her role as the representative of Henry James and religious feeling and fine sensibility, it is the lady novelist through whose eyes we see the middle-class dinner parties and cocktail parties and birthday parties, the lovely house in the country, the charming town of Cheltenham with its lovely Regency architecture and charming curio shops which sell such lovely trinkets and the charming pubs in the lovely villages around Gloucester which serve such wonderful lunches.

After Helen has visited the wonderful church of Ledbury and communed with the soul of Henry James, who also visited it and left such an exquisite diary entry about it, she returns to a just adorable pub she spotted in the village.

Logs smouldered in the big open fireplace, and there were spring flowers on every table – solid, unpolished wooden tables, with comfortable Windsor armchairs. Blackboards over the long bar listed an enticing and adventurous menu. I ordered garlic and herb tagliatelle with chilli prawns and sun-dried tomatoes, reserving the possibility of an orange truffle pot with Grand Marnier sauce for dessert. A smiling motherly waitress took my order, to which I added a large glass of the house Chardonnay. The first course, when it came, was as mouth-watering as its description promised. I could hardly believe my good fortune. (p.233)

The scene, the prose are like something from Cotswolds tourist board, like an upmarket review on TripAdvisor.

But it is, with thumping inevitability, on this little pilgrimage to an out-of-the-way church, in this well-appointed pub with its wonderful cuisine that Helen spots Messenger’s wife and another man clearly having an illicit meeting, obviously carrying on an affair.

It is the inevitability of the way that, in middle-class novels, it is always the formal dinner party or the lovely meal with the Chardonnay (or was it that wonderful Pouilly-Fuissé, darling?) or the trip to the exquisite restaurant, where one or other married character makes a pass at another married character, or so-and-so’s affair is discovered and there is the most horrendous scene.

I find this world – real enough as it is, and as I’ve experienced it at numerous tense dinner parties – narrow, limited, sticky and thick with hypocrisy, full of successful bankers and lawyers and academics guffawing and pouring you some more Beaujolais and telling you why Tony just has to support George because there definitely are weapons of mass destruction, you know, a good friend in the FO told me it’s all true, and Saddam Hussein is just such a beastly man. A hermetically sealed world of People Like Us who never let the ugly, uncongenial facts of existence disturb their cosy groupthink.

It is a world and a class which are hard not to find repellent in its cosseted smugness. I preferred Norman the pig man in Ginger, You’re Barmy – his memory makes me smile because he represented something unsmooth and rebarbative, something which couldn’t be bought off with another glass of this rather fine Nuits-Saint-Georges, a working-class aggression which turned out to have an oddly endearing sweetness about it, something unexpected and which therefore stretched my imagination and human sympathies. A rude honesty which reaches back through Shakespeare to Chaucer and medieval gargoyles.

More plot

But there’s more. Once she’s discovered her (now dead) husband was unfaithful to her, Helen – on the rebound – of course makes herself available to the nearest thrusting alpha male, Dr Messenger. She prepares carefully for a scene of touching and sensitive seduction, cleaning her small flat, changing the sheets, washing and putting on one of her nicest outfits. So far the female point of view. Messenger records it on his tape thus:

This afternoon I fucked one of England’s finest female novelists… She looked so attractive at Bourton-on-the-Water, in a close-fitting pair of white jeans that showed her shapely bum to advantage, and her breasts moving about interestingly under her sweater… I didn’t want to give her any time for second thoughts, and I soon discovered that there was no need for elaborate foreplay. In fact she came with astonishing rapidity, almost as soon as I entered her. (p.257)

(It helps for practical purposes that Messenger’s wife has been called to America to the bedside of her ailing father.)

Thus Helen allows Messenger to fuck her and, like millions of women before and since, wonders whether she is truly in love with him and just what her feelings are and whether she has somehow betrayed her loyalty to her dead husband and is there still some vestige of sin in adultery etc etc etc etc for page after page of her dim-witted self-absorbed journal — while Messenger just calculates all the different ways and places he can fuck her – in the jacuzzi, high on a sheep-covered hillside, in their country retreat quietly when the kids are asleep, in her flat, on top, from behind, ringing the changes and treating her like a hank of meat.

[Messenger] liked to get inside her quickly and copulate in various positions before he achieved his orgasm, bringing Helen to several in the meantime. He was immensely strong in the arms and shoulders, and flipped her effortlessly this way and that, over and under him, like a wrestler practising ‘holds’. (p.263)

All of which crude abuse we read Helen rationalising to herself as just a rather boisterous expression of his love for her, his emotions for her, of the deep spiritual bond they have forged together. Pathetic stupid self delusion.

Crescendo and climax

After a fairly leisurely 280 pages the last 60 pick up speed as a number of plot strands converge:

  • In chapter 23 Messenger had visited Prague, where his publisher had fixed him up with a slender beauty to show him round (and what do you think they do that night? Fuck? Correct.) Messenger vaguely promised her she could attend the summer conference at his university. Now she writes, taking him up on his promise and eventually threatening to reveal their affair (one fuck) to his wife.
  • More dramatically, Messenger is diagnosed with a lump on the liver which dominates the final chapters. It is eventually revealed to be benign, a cyst caused by a parasite picked up during a youthful holiday working on a sheep farm. But the fear that it is cancer casts a pall over everyone. With crashing inevitability, it brings him and his wife closer together. He realises what a fool he’s been (lol), screwing around with the Czech woman, and then this crazy affair with Helen. He completely disengages from her. For her part, Helen is beside herself with concern and can’t understand why Messenger is suddenly so stand-offish (being unable to imagine that she was, all along, a glorified sex doll for a middle-aged sex maniac).
  • On the night of the big conference a small plot strand explodes when the Child Pornography Unit of Gloucestershire Police arrive to announce that someone in his department has been downloading child pornography – an investigation which quickly takes them to Messenger’s number two, the angry, frustrated Professor Duggan, a perennial loser who never got over Messenger being appointed to the job he thought was his by rights and who – in a surprise move – hangs himself from shame.
  • All of these incidents rushing together make Messenger immediately and logically realise he wants to terminate the fling with Helen. Apart from anything else, it is his American wife who is the rich one – in a divorce she would probably keep all the money, the house and the children. Yes, but better break it to her gently, old chap. Helen, characteristically, takes a lot longer and invokes the soul, art and Henry James before reaching pretty much the same conclusion. Her heart says one thing, her head says another – ‘I fear I love this man!’ (and so on).

In the final scene Messenger goes to her flat to tell her it’s over. She is late back from work. At a loose end he opens her laptop, starts to read her journal and is thunderstruck to discover that his wife, Carrie, is herself having an affair (from the entry Helen made about seeing Carrie with the man at the pub in Ledbury). Turns out Messenger doesn’t know what’s going on in other people’s heads, either.

Or: it turns out that just about every superior middle-class person in the book is totally available for affairs and flings, adultery and betrayal. It is a dispiritingly shallow view of the world and human nature, that all this expensive education, all this knowledge and insight, is put almost exclusively to the service of furtive fucking.

Morality and irresponsibility

Helen, in her high-mindedly self-deceiving way, thinks that all her windy hand-wringing about whether to fuck Messenger is essentially a moral question and (God help us) what novels mostly are and should be about. After the biggest computer in the world replicates all human thought processes, she states,

‘The same moral problems of love and lust, fidelity and betrayal, will remain’ (p.299).

No doubt morality will remain, but I find the notion that morality is exclusively concerned with sexual behaviour – as this statement (and the whole novel) implies – to be constrictingly narrow and unattractive.

Freud, who knew a thing or two about human sexuality, says ‘morality is simple’. Are you going to betray your marriage vows, yes or no. If you think it will make you unhappy and is ‘wrong’, don’t do it.

This novel reminded me of Woody Allen’s films (not just because of the scene where he sexually fantasises about his step-daughter) but also because the characters can’t seem to behave like adults, can’t live by simple rules, can’t – and this is the point – deny themselves any pleasures they set their eyes on. It is a world where everyone wants to be happily married but also screw anyone they want to. Aaaaaaw mom, I wanna ice cream!!!

Like Allen’s films, this kind of novel teaches us nothing about ‘morality’, but a great deal about the self-centred, spoilt, childish kidults from the 80s and 90s who dress up their inability to act their age in fancy words and long-winded monologues about self-expression or life choices or qualia.

Morality is about respecting other people and helping and supporting them through a life which can often be difficult and painful, through bereavement and accident and disease and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, through the natural stages of loving and committing and parenting and caring for children, for your partner, for your parents when they become old and ill. It is about behaving with generosity and kindness, giving, helping, acting responsibly and rationally, overcoming difficulties and – through all of this – accepting that a large part of being an adult means self-denial.

Morality is not about having a well-paid job, a loving partner, living in a big house overflowing with food and over-educated friends – and agonising about who to fuck next. That is self-indulgence, indiscipline and decadence.

Satire?

The concluding question is: is this novel a satire? Does Lodge intend us to dislike and despise these characters as much as I do? The scientific gobbets are presented at face value. And so are the characters’ discussions of them. Helen’s upset at her husband’s death, and then of discovering his betrayal, seem serious. The child porn addict hanging himself – is that utterly serious, or does it smack a little of the savage farcical angle of a Tom Sharpe satire? Carrie’s father’s illness, Messenger’s own diagnosis with a liver condition – these are both presented ‘straight’, as if in a completely realistic novel where we are meant to sympathise with the characters’ plights and problems.

But surely Lodge cannot have created such a rapacious monster of egotism (Messenger) and such a self-absorbed, self-deceiving ninny as Helen, without realising it?

Lodge has been studying, teaching and writing novels for 50 years. Is he cannily creating space within the text for the reader to create the story they need? Some will warm to Helen’s tender-heartedness and read it as one woman’s journey to self-realisation; others might take from it the clever interweaving of up-to-date science with contemporary characters; randy men might warm to, or at least find hilarious, Messenger’s uninhibitedly frank sex talk.

Is a consistent take on the characters and the ‘story’ difficult because Lodge is deliberately deploying the material over a spectrum of ‘seriousness’, from the entirely heart-felt to the savagely ironic. The text very obviously consists of three main ‘voices’ (Messenger’s tape recordings, Helen’s diary entries, the omniscient narrator linking it all). Are there also different ‘registers of seriousness’ weaving across all three voices i.e. sometimes we’re meant to take their feelings and ideas seriously but at other times they are meant to be laughable and at other times… somewhere in between?

In the final page, looking back from some years later, the narrator records that Helen settles down with another writer and wins prizes for her novels, while Messenger is awarded the CBE for services to science. Is the novel serious in intention and satirical in outcome – both at the same time? Is official society’s recognition of this fine pair of boobies (prizes, honours) a parting gesture by Lodge which unmistakably marks the text as a satire on our values today, the way we live now? Or is the whole novel a sophisticated litmus test in which the reader’s response reveals more about him or her than about the author or his ‘intentions’?

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Penguin paperback edition of Thinks...

Penguin paperback edition of Thinks…

David Lodge’s novels

1960 – The Picturegoers – An ensemble piece following the lives of various characters in the fictional London suburb of Brickley, all linked by their attendance at their local cinema, the Palladium, as they fall in and out of love, practice various degrees of Catholicism and worry about sex.
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being spring by the IRA, and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down – a day in the life of young academic Adam Appleby, unhappy Catholic father of three, who spends a day at the BM failing to do any research and finds himself embroiled in more and more comic complexities, all the time panic-stricken that his wife might be pregnant for an unbearable fourth time.
1970 – Out of the Shelter – the boyhood and teenage years of Timothy Young, child of very ordinary suburban London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war, and a teenager when he goes to stay with his older sister in post-war Germany, where he makes all kinds of discoveries about war and peace and life and love.
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses – It is January 1969 and two English Literature professors are swapping jobs for a term: down-trodden Englishman Philip Swallow is heading for the Californian delights of Euphoria State University, and lit crit superstar Morris Zapp is heading towards rundown rainy Rummidge University. How will they cope with the resulting culture shocks? A hilariously knowing romp, a sophisticated comedy classic.
1980 – How Far Can You Go? – The stories of 10 young Catholics in the 1950s and their adventures as they mature during the 1960s and 70s, larded with lots of commentary about the sweeping changes to Catholic dogma during this period, and lots and lots of clinical descriptions of sex, in a surprisingly flat and unentertaining novel.
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance – a brilliantly conceived comedy of manners satirising the world of modern literary scholarship with its cast of jetsetting, globe-trotting, back-stabbing, vaultingly ambitious and goatishly lecherous academics, led by the protagonists of Changing Places, but with a whole lot more characters added, all travelling, questing and falling in and out of love in the artfully contrived and very funny modern-day equivalent of a medieval romance. (A pilgrimage novel)
1988 – Nice Work – feminist literary academic Robyn Penrose reluctantly takes part in the university’s scheme to shadow figures from local industry, being assigned to the equally reluctant Vic Wilcox, Managing Director of J. Pringle and Sons, a local metal-working factory. Initially antagonistic, they open each other’s eyes to new worlds, rather inevitably fall in love, but then go beyond that to reach a more mature and realistic friendship.
1991 – Paradise News – Agnostic priest Bernard Walsh is rung up by his dying aunt Ursula who lives in Honolulu (she married an American during the war) asking him to come visit her and bring his father (her brother). Thus begins a ‘holiday’ in ‘paradise’ in which old family secrets are disinterred, old wounds healed, and new life begins. (A pilgrimage novel)
1995 – Therapy – Successful TV scriptwriter Laurence Passmore has it all – hit show, sexy wife, grown-up kids flown the nest, big house, flash car – but is still obscurely unhappy, a problem which turns into a plight when his wife abruptly sues for divorce and he seeks refuge in the past as his life falls apart. (A pilgrimage novel)
2001 – Thinks… – At the (fictional) University of Gloucester, clever, lecherous cognitive scientist Ralph Messenger fancies fucking bereaved novelist Helen Reed, amid numerous lectures on artificial intelligence, cut & pasted from the popular science books of the 1990s.
2004 – Author, Author
2008 – Deaf Sentence
2011 – A Man of Parts

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