Reminder: This Thursday at 6:00 PM ET we will have our first salon conversation of Fall 2021 with Noah Levenson. Noah will discuss how to navigate the ups and downs of AI projects and share experiences from past projects such as Stealing Ur Feelings or his current role as Hacker in Residence at the Consumer Reports Digital Lab. Admission is free for paid subscribers (which is $6/month and provides access to workshops, events, and early access to publications and new sale items).
image of Salineras de Maras - patchwork of pre-Incan salt ponds in Peru
“Si vous faîtes attention aux signes, quand donc ferez vous attention à ce qu'ils signifient?
― François Rabelais
This is a newsletter about artificial intelligence and how AI might be leveraged to serve diverse ends. AI is expensive and technically challenging. Unsurprisingly, most of the solutions developed with AI come from “official” institutions, whether academic, government, or corporate, and therefore represent “official” ideologies of the world. They also amplify these ideologies to an almost deafening degree.
I do this work because I believe that art and culture must play a central role in drawing attention to these patterns and finding other, less “official” uses for these technologies. I also believe that others have asked similar questions in the past, and they might prove helpful in imagining what we might do going forward.
What kind of art do we need?
I deeply appreciate the proliferation of speculative futures that are helping us imagine different worlds than the one we’re in or the ones being presented us through dominant narratives. I am also curious about the tactics necessary to occupy these worlds, and approaches to create open texts for others to write themselves into our times.
Almost a century ago, Mikhail Bakhtin, literary and cultural theorist, was also concerned with how people might write themselves into the events happening around them. He watched as his old world of Russian aristocracy and quasi-feudal relationships to land gave way to a socialist revolution and an uncertainty about what that actually meant. Bakhtin was looking for a way to exist in the gap between cosmologies, a way to avoid being consumed by ready-made solutions in the realm of thought and world outlook. Being cautious, he made his points by exploring another gap in cosmologies some four centuries prior, the turmoil brought about by the Reformation in Europe, and the invention of the modern novel in the hands of François Rabelais.
For those not familiar with Rabelais’ work, one might be surprised at the amount of violence, subterfuge, urine, and flesh contained in these stories. A Renaissance monk, Rabelais commented on the social systems of his time through the grotesque, the penetrative, and the folk idiom of the world he inhabited. His accomplishment was the novelization of a way of being in the world to which we have mostly lost access today – the carnivalesque.
The carnivalesque, to Bakhtin, was a social institution that allowed for the everyday social order to be suspended and where people could be “reborn for new, purely human relations”. This was a place of cyclical time, of indivisible bodies, of the grotesque, of orifices, and most of all, of laughter.
Ideologies are tremendous time savers. When well-armored with a set of ready-made beliefs, we need never feel confusion or uncertainty about how we are meant to respond. Or as journalist George Packer offers, “Ideology knows the answer before the question has been asked”. And we live in a world of ideologies each fighting for a bigger piece of the broad terrain of our attention and each leveraging the tools of artificial intelligence to extend their reach.
In the past, the marketplace for ideologies was a fairly bare one. The social group to which one belonged had its beliefs and created rules for members to follow. Failure to follow those rules marked one as an outsider, and life became much more difficult as a result.
To prevent these rules from becoming overly ossified or destructive to community, spaces were endorsed where these rules could be suspended. In Europe, particularly prior to the Renaissance, this took the form of the carnival or related rituals such as the Saturnalia in the Roman empire. Despite the use of the term “carnival” we should not confuse it with our modern takes on the term, or the idea of holiday or festival, that are, according to Mikhail Bakhtin, “fostered by governments, secular or theocratic”. Rather, carnival represented both a second life and a second world in opposition to the “official” order.
During these ritualized interruptions, hierarchies were inverted. The high became low. The low high. Bodies were understood as undifferentiated, and the grotesque took precedent. Food, drink, defecation, and copulation were all central themes and activities. Bakhtin saw laughter and carnival as a border clash and a space to build a “world in opposition to the official world, its own church versus the official church, its own state versus the official state”.
Why the carnival?
Carnival served a critical function, one that the last 500 years of increasing institutionalization and control have mostly eradicated. Carnival and related rituals “celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchies, rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions. Carnival was the feast of time, the feast of becoming, change, and renewal. It is hostile to all that was immortalized and completed”.
What we might understand as carnival today is a corruption of this early idea. Events in the United States like Burning Man or Mardi Gras in New Orleans differ from this traditional conception of carnival in two key ways. Firstly, these events remain highly ordered, though the rules and expectations often differ considerably from the status quo. They represent not a suspension, but rather a substitution of new kinds of rules. Secondly, they almost always occur with those outside of our day-to-day community. We may attend a festival or spectacle with friends, but the banker, the shopkeeper, the street-involved, the elderly couple down the road are not with us at Burning Man. In fact, many might imagine days in the desert as an escape from these quotidian encounters.
Even local festivals do little but reinforce the existing hierarchy. The mayor drives by in a special car. The social order is affirmed collectively. Traditional carnival removed hierarchy and the rules of the everyday world, often for weeks on end.
So, what kind of art do we need?
Carnival was an occupation at the borderline between art and life. And “in reality, it is life itself, but shaped according to a certain pattern of play”. It was not something to be seen, but something to be lived in. Divisions are removed and “the cosmic, social and bodily elements are given here as an indivisible whole. And this whole is gay and gracious”.
Most importantly, carnival served a critical function of social renewal. It celebrated not specific change, but the potential for change, and specifically with those with whom we share a sense of community.
I increasingly believe that the art we need is art that is lived rather than the events and spectacles to which we’ve grown accustomed.
Rather than re-enacting versions of official ideologies, might we create spaces where these ideologies might be suspended and debased? Spaces to occupy with those with whom we live and not just those with whom we already agree. Spaces that do not command or ask for anything. Spaces that are not viewed, but lived in. Spaces for the body, for dissipation and renewal.
In a world of technologies that asks that everyone perform, and everyone be observed, a model of the arts based on a stage and a paying audience seems increasingly superfluous.
What kinds of social architectures might be possible that remove the observer and reintegrate the body of the community physically and aesthetically?
Let me know your thoughts!