Tuesday, May 03, 2005

The Human-Aesthetics of Transhumanity and Non-humanity...

This blog entry deals with issues of aesthetics rather than science..... The particular question is: To what extent is it possible to make "humanly good" art pertaining to the transhuman realm??

I don't really spend much time thinking about aesthetic philosophy in the abstract, but as an "artistic creator" type I do mull it over occasionally. The thoughts I share here were inspired by a post sci-fi author Damien Broderick made to the SL4 list. Damien's post was as follows:


is an interesting review of my new sf novel GODPLAYERS. The reviewer is especially exercised by the fact that my posthuman characters are not immediately understandable -- indeed, beyond empathy -- by human standards:

"the frustration level mounts as one waits in vain... for characters... to display any hint of a genuine inner life as they move randomly from scene to scene, world to world, reality to reality. Perhaps Vorpal homunculi do not possess inner lives, and Broderick's point is that these seeming superhumans, for all their power, are soulless automatons without a shred of humanity.... Surely there should be some character, somewhere in a novel, to which human readers can feel connected. ...As the sequence of events grows increasingly frenzied, with ever-greater reliance placed on what might be termed info-splatters, the lack of a deep humanistic substrate left this reader, at least, with no ground to stand on. "

I'm torn in my response to this. On the one hand, it wouldn't make much sense to write about posthumans as if they were representations of the people down the road, or in the next room. On the other, I have tried to ground the fairly breakneck narrative within thematic structures and reverberations recognizable from myth, dream, and the traditions of science-fiction itself when it ventures upon the superhuman. Greg Egan met with this same objection, of course, and so, in various degrees, did John C. Wright and Charlie Stross. Maybe it's an artistic problem beyond solution -- for humans.

-- Damien Broderick

Damien's post reminded me of conversations I used to have with my friend Jeff Pressing (an American who was a psych prof at the University of Melbourne, and also an accomplished jazz, classical and West-African-percussion composer/musician ... for a while he was head of the music school at LaTrobe University... he was originally a physicist and for a couple years was my AI collaborator ... unfortunately, he died of a fluke meningitis infection a few years back...).

Anyway, I compose and play music as well, and though I'm nowhere near as erudite or technically skilled as Jeff in the musical domain, I was never quite sure I wanted to be. I always felt that his compositions, though wonderfully subtle and intricate and learned and often beautiful (and integrating ideas from nearly every form of music ever created on Earth), lacked some human emotional OOMPH!! that I tried to put into my own (significantly simpler) music.

Now Jeff was by no means lacking in emotional OOMPH!! himself ... far from it ... he was a nerd of sorts, but his personal and emotional and social life had a lot of different dimensions ...

But what he always said to me, when I complained about this (we had this conversation repeatedly), was, "Ben, I learned a long time ago how to evoke human emotions through music. It's not very hard to elicit powerful feelings in people by arranging chords and notes in the right way. But I just lost interest in those very simple equations a long time ago. The patterns in the music I'm making now are a lot more subtle and interesting."

I'd reply something obnoxious like "Well, if it's so easy to elicit powerful feelings in people via music, then how come you've never written anything as good at evoking human feelings as the Jupiter Symphony, or Beethoven's Ninth, or Round Midnight...."

His response then would depend on his mood. Sometimes he'd say that those pieces of music, though good in their own way, didn't really interest him anyway. When he was in his "detached and superior musical snob" mode, he viewed these great compositions the same way I might view the bronzed and hulking flesh of an exquisitely well-toned bodybuilder -- outstanding in its own way, but not the sort of thing that really gets me excited....

Modern classical music, and to an extent modern jazz as well, have left behind the need to pander to human emotions, and are in large part exploring realms of musical structure that don't interact so intensely with the particular dynamical patterns of interaction and fluctuation that characterize human feeling.

Personally, I like many instances of this sort of music -- but it's never my absolute favorite, it never moves me as much as Mozart or Monk or Paganini or Jimi Hendrix, who explicitly do pander to my human emotions, who explicitly arrange notes and sounds in familiar forms that elicit feelings of anger, love, wonder, confusion, relaxation and so forth within me.... I can see that these composers and musicians are playing with my neurophysiological responses in a fairly simplistic way, compared to the patterns existing in the music of Jeff and other more modern and sophisticated composers -- but as a human being, I like having my neurophysiological responses played with in that way. And of course, getting that "simplistic" manipulation so wonderfully right still takes a lot of art and science....

Anyway, I haven't read Damien;s new novel yet but I got a similar vibe from his novel Transcension, even though the characters were real humans living real lives. Partly because the reality they were living in seemed so tenuous, and partly because of the author's patterns of focus and language in describing the characters and their actions, it was hard for me to feel really emotionally attached to any of the characters. This did make the novel less appealing to me than others of similar quality, in certain ways; yet it also made it more appealing, in other ways ... because it provoked thoughts and feelings about the nature of mind/feeling/reality that more conventional novels don't tend to provoke.

I suppose that truly transhumanist fiction lives in the same artistic space as modern classical music, in the sense that it's constructing and evoking interesting, intricate patterns that happen not to be closely cued to human body-responses. In a sense these more abstract, body-detached art genres will never be as gripping as their more human-body-centered, "primitive" counterparts -- but as the Singularity approaches, they may come to have a greater and greater appeal even so.... Personally I find such works of art fascinating precisely because of the META-FEELING they evoke --- the way they acutely sensitize me to the fact that I am a human body and so much of what I think is important and interesting is cued to my physiological responses and evolutionary biases.

One thing that would be interesting to see in a sci-fi novel would be a character who the reader DOES intensely care about, because he/she has been developed in a loving and careful manner characteristic of high-quality traditional literature, who THEN becomes transhuman, rational, emotionally-detached and MORE INTERESTING but yet LESS EMOTIONALLY GRIPPING to the reader. This would solve the artistic problem Damien mentions, in a sense, and it would have a powerful impact on the reader in terms of making the aesthetic difficulties I've been discussing explicit as part of the story's theme.

In my own in-process Singularity-oide novel Echoes of the Great Farewell, the focus is on the pre-Singularity period not the doings of post-Singularity superhuman beings. So the subtle aesthetic issues that Broderick brings up are avoided altogether. Wimpy of me, I guess, but it was the type of novel I felt like writing at the moment (it's about 2/3 done now, but I won't finish it till I wrap up the various nonfiction books on my plate, which is a slow process as writing is a spare-time activity for me these days.)