It took me longer than it should have to realize Nymphomaniac was Lars Von Triers filmic homage the the novel Justine by the Marquise de Sade. Perhaps during one of the speeches on fly fishing or a walk through the woods to look at leaves it came to me. Trier’s previous film, Melancholia, had a protagonist named Juliette, in reference the Sade book of the same name. Justine and Juliette are sisters, and the books in a way are companion pieces.
The Marquise de Sade was a pretty terrible writer. He can’t plot to save his life, he focuses often on repeated actions, and the prose are turgid. His writing is at best a thought experiment, at worst torture porn, but at no points good; either from an aesthetic or moral perspective at best. . But in some ways, he is better remembered for his philosophy in his works. And these two novels form the foundation of that philosophy, just as the films are the underpinnings of Trier’s viewpoint.
The Sadean worldview is one of pure free will as expressed through libertine sexuality. It casts of the morality plays of the past and expresses the notion that full human potential can only be expressed through complete free action, not impugned by divine judgment or law. Some contend that de Sade’s views on virture, nature and morality examined early enlightenment philosophy, and that the texts themselves were acts of philosophy as opposed to what is considered modern novels.
Nymphomaniac is obsessed with Natural Law. That is, her comparison to fishing laws and attractions and that constant reminders that only she believes herself to be evil. In a way the movie tries to play out a dialogue between pure Natural Law, embodied in a libertine philosophy, and Divine Law, which sanctifies the act of sex. This dialogue features a reversal of sorts. The actual libertine, Joe, feels immense guilt because she feels she has abnegated the divine and thinks of herself as a evil. Her confessor, Siegelman (whose sexuality is never discussed) constantly compares her actions to natural phenomenon, like fish mating, and sees them not as evil but human.
Joe even, in her young rebellion, takes the catholic confessional prayer “Mea culpa…” and transforms it into “Mea vulva”. And yet this action, more than any, reveals a continued attachment to divine forgiveness and condemnation. She sins not out of freedom but out of rebellion
Now, the movie itself is very silly and features a lot of humorously bad scenes and acting. Still it engages in a fascinating philosophical discourse, albeit the writing itself does not live up to the aspirations of such a discourse.
Toward the end of the new Spike Jonze film Her I started to wonder if I was witnessing some sentimental prequel to Terminator. As those who might not remember, the Terminator series is premised on the idea that an A.I system called Skynet, given control over the strategic missile defense, grows incredibly intelligent and, when people try to shut it down, destroys most of humanity in defense. The A.I., named Samantha, in Her never does something so evil, however, some of her actions may be perceived as cruel to humans.
The problem I kept having with the system in Her (called an OS, though it was never clear if it resided on a single computer or somewhere in the cloud as an autonomous program) was that it was never fully explored and seemed to function as a pre-programmed best friend, capable of sympathy, understanding, emotions and learning. However, unlike something that truly mimics human intelligence, it was not, it seemed capable, of making wrong or immoral decisions. To be able to learn is to be able to learn improperly. To be capable of drawing conclusions and making decisions is to be capable of drawing the wrong conclusion and making ethically and/or morally wrong decisions.
Intelligence is not an inoculation against racism, as this article (and many other examples) illustrates. Some of the brightest minds of the 20th century belonged to nazis, many of whom were requisitioned by the U.S. government after WWII to develop long range missiles and the U.S. space program (see Wernher von Braun). In part because no matter how intelligent a person is, they must rely on heuristics for complex decisions. Now a computer, capable of many more computations a minute, can use brute force calculation where humans would use a heuristic approach, but in the end, brute force only works when examining perfect data, like outcomes of a chess game, and not, human behavior or emotions. There just isn’t enough to calculate or to draw on without making some leaps, the kind of leaps humans learn to make when very young with the assistance of parents and society.
We are told at the beginning of Her that the OS is based on the thoughts and ideas of the thousands of programs that helped to develop it. In practice this would mean that the moral views of the OS are based on the amalgamated views of this cohort and the ethics of the OS are based on the programed code of right and wrong (how a conflict would be resolved is unclear). In the end, however, the OS could only apply one system, though it could query the thousand to determine what is right. However, the moral system would be skewed toward the nature of the cohort, presumably computer programmers (which could create an in-group reasoning that would actually lead to sexism or racism depending on the demographics of the programers who, in the U.S. are only 26% women and 72% white and 16% asian).
Which gets me to a problem with the film and the A.I. presented. Samantha is shown to be an understanding friend and, eventually girlfriend, who helps organize e-mails, schedule the protagonists day, forces him to socialize, and eventually acts as a sounding board and advice giver. In many ways, she fits the archetype of a 50’s housewife. However at the same time she is learning, by examining human behavior wherever she can find it. The issue is she always draws conclusions that seem to be the perfect friend or girlfriend conclusion, except for the inevitable denouement where she goes off program. I guess my issue is that any system, no matter it’s program, once it starts learning can’t make mistakes. And not just the minor mistakes depicted, but major awful mistakes. For example, if it were to experience emotional pain or hurt for the first time, its retribution could be catastrophic (i.e. skynet) But this wasn’t really a movie about A.I. and it’s moral implications, it was a movie about a lonely man and inability to interact with other humans.
Still it got me thinking about A.I and it’s implications (a good thing, you should probably see the movie). In the end I kept thinking about the biblical allegory of the tree of knowledge. Knowledge itself is a curse, as is the ability to learn. To bite the apple is to have the world and all its beautiful miracles open up to you, but also to be capable of doing inhuman things to others. We can fly rockets to the moon and we can effectively kill millions. That is what knowledge is. Are we ready for computers to make those decisions?
Halloween is a distant memory now. The night shift is on listening to a black tape recorder at a folding table in the back placed out of sight of the security cameras, next to a cooler filled with freezer burned offal where ice crystals have formed colonies on hearts and suet. A skinny man…
The Lost Lyrics to I Am A God
During the recording of Yeezus Kanye, on multiple occasions, scrapped his lyrics entirely and rewrote them from scratch. Many of these lyrics have been lost to time. However, I have recently uncovered this early version of the song “I Am a God” which was written in response to a slight at Paris Fashion Week. As you can see in these early lyrics, Kanye was much more critical of France and French culture when he initially penned the song. This sentiment was tempered in latter versions.
An interesting note, the last line referencing Jane Birkin was cut from the final version, likely because of a similar line in Jay Z’s Somewhereinamerica, which was released on “Magna Carta…Holy Grail” two weeks after Yeezus.