Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Gevaudan, solved

18th century print.
UNC Chapel Hill historian Jay M. Smith has published a new book, Monsters of the Gevaudan, which purports to have solved the centuries-old mystery of the identity of the grisly murderer of some 100 peasants in northern France (modern-day Lozere and Haute-Loire) in 1764-5. The legend has grown over the years, with new manifestations as recently as a smash film in 2001 (Brotherhood of the Wolf - very scary, beautifully shot). The public discourse about this figure was explosive, even in the 18th century - naturalists, hunters, academics, theologians, aristocrats, even the King got involved in researching and speculating on the nature of the beast. There were many eyewitnesses and survivors of the beast's attacks, who described a huge, horrifying predator. Three hunters went forth to slay the beast - two killed large wolves. Here are some of explanations that were proffered as serious alternatives over the centuries:

1. A huge wolf;
2. An unknown species of bear or wolf, possibly a crossbreed between a wolf and a domestic dog;
3. A hyena, brought to France for inclusion in a nobleman's menagerie;
4. A last surviving member of the extinct Eocene predator, the Mesonychid;
5. A sorcerer capable of transforming himself into a monster;
6. A werewolf, of course;
7. A psychotic human who had trained a wolf, bear, hyena, or even a lion; and, ever popular,
7. The wrath of God.

Dr. Smith has crafted a work that is threatening to become very dear to my heart. He argues that there is a clear preponderance of evidence to lay the blame for the murders clearly at the feet of a pack of wolves, which is why killing one or two did not stop the predations. He demonstrates that the eyewitness accounts are deliciously entangled - for example, one of the hunters heard an eyewitness account and later repeated it as if it were his own account. But far more interesting to me is his further discussion of why the story of the beast would grow from the actual events, brutal and horrifying as they were, into a great myth and legend. This convincing discourse engages the birth of modernism in a country suffering from the hangover of a horrendous war; in short, all the elements that Cohen's "Monster Theory" encourages us to pursue as we attempt to decode the secrets of monsters. Wolves are wolves; they do what they do. Monsters live in the human psyche, and they do what we do.

In my study of monsters I try to maintain a balance between rational skepticism and an open mind. My students ask me all the time, "do you believe in monsters?" I reply, "I don't have to believe in them, I know for a fact they exist." Monsters bodies, as Cohen recognizes, are purely cultural, but that does not mean they do not have real effects on real people. There are many strange things in the historical record that, as events, defy explanation; but I am actually much more interested in the way stories move and morph through cultures and time. I'm much more interested in what the Beast of Gevaudan can tell us about the people of 18th century France. Dr. Smith has done a brilliant job of this, and I thank him for his contribution.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Meditation on the Death of Vaclav Havel

I really do inhabit a system in which words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government, where words can prove mightier than ten military divisions.
If you want to see your plays performed the way you wrote them, become President.
As a theatre historian who believes strongly in the potential for culture to move politics towards conscience, I am moved to eulogize Havel in this little online diary of mine, for whatever small benefit the four people who read this might gain from it.

Havel was not just a brilliant playwright and a progressive politician, he was a philosopher and ethicist of the highest caliber. My colleague and good friend, J. A. Ball, who has made an extensive study of the man, jokes that Havel was like a better version of the Platonic "philosopher king." Here is an excerpt from one of Havel's most famous essays in which he discusses the concept of anti-political politics, in which: "a single, seemingly powerless person who dares to cry out the word of truth and to stand behind it with all his person and all his life, ready to pay a high price, has, surprisingly, greater power, though formally disenfranchised, than do thousands of anonymous voters." He goes on:
Yes, 'anti-political politics' is possible. Politics 'from below'. Politics of man, not of the apparatus. Politics growing from the heart, not from a thesis. It is not an accident that this hopeful experience has to be lived just here, on this grim battlement. Under the 'rule of everydayness' we have to descend to the very bottom of a well before we can see the stars.

When Jan Patocka wrote about Charter 77, he used the term 'solidarity of the shaken'. He was thinking of those who dared resist impersonal power and to confront it with the only thing at their disposal, their own humanity. Does not the perspective of a better future depend on something like an international community of the shaken which, ignoring state boundaries, political systems, and power blocs, standing outside the high game of traditional politics, aspiring to no titles and appointments, will seek to make a real political force out of a phenomenon so ridiculed by the technicians of power—the phenomenon of human conscience?                                                                        - from "Politics and Conscience" (1984)
I confess to be not sure what he means here by “the rule of everydayness.” He was a semioticist and an inheritor of the famous Prague School, so I suspect it is a commentary on how we interpret signs within a context that seems normal to us, until we can’t for some reason. But is he speaking as Camus did, of an “insistence upon familiarity, an appetite for clarity” (which I think comes from “The Myth of Sisyphus” or somewhere) or is he bringing in one of those elegant Zen paradoxes that lend themselves to the more ironic flavors of Marxist criticism? Havel had an immense capacity for self-criticism, with a terrific sense of humor to support it, and he credited his success to this capacity. In fact, he once wrote that "anyone who takes himself too seriously always runs the risk of looking ridiculous; anyone who can consistently laugh at himself does not."

The media is making Havel sound like a champion of Western values, which is not the whole story. His parents were anti-Soviet intellectuals who were considered enemies of the state, which is why Havel himself was not allowed to go to college and wound up working as a stage manager, and then becoming one of the greatest playwrights and political visionaries of his era. Ironic! Something similar happened to Lessing. But anyway, Havel, suspicious of artificial binaries like Communist/Capitalist and looking for a third term to the argument, was deeply committed to a political dialectic of morality and reason – which is why he was such a great playwright, or perhaps it’s the other way around. In any case, he should be more properly grouped, I think, with John Paul II, who like him decried both the brutal tyranny of Communism (America: Yay!) and the heartless greed of Capitalism (America: What? He never said THAT).

But Havel must also be counted along with Lessing, and Athol Fugard (but not, I hope, with John Wilkes Booth or the assassin of Philip of Alexandria) as someone who could not only visualize but actualize the potential of the THEATRE to affect significant political change (I admit it took Lessing hundreds of years, but he got there the day Nathan the Wise became the first play performed in post-Nazi Germany). Havel emerged as a dissident playwright in the 1960's whose work was beginning to become known in the West (His play The Memorandum appeared at the New York Public in 1968). In the crackdowns that followed the Prague Spring that same year, Havel was banned from the theatre and forced to take a job in a brewery. He spent a lot of time in and out of prison. His plays, however, became a rallying point for the Czech Underground, and were included in illegally-distributed copies of Czech samizdat. Havel became more and more active in the resistance. The Velvet Revolution began on November 17 of 1989 with a student protest -  by the 18th, theaters all over Prague went on strike in sympathy. A general student strike was led by the students of the Academy for Performing Arts. It was in a Prague Theatre that Havel organized the Civic Forum, which would become the unofficial representative to the Czech government. With an astonishingly low number of casualties, by December 10th the Czech constitution had been altered, and a non-Communist government was sworn in. Havel was elected President in the first free election on December 29, and his service as President was marked by an unswerving dedication to principles of justice, moral humanism, and a bottom-up style of democracy.

Havel is a great hero of mine. I became aware of him in the late 1980's, when Czech-born Tom Stoppard was working hard to make the playwrights of the Czech Underground popular in the West - a political operation as much as an aesthetic one, as this turned the fickle attention of the West to the problems in that country, just as Fugard did with South Africa. In fact, my first job in my field was when I was approached by my very best friend Martin Christofel to act as dramaturg on a production of Havel's play Largo Desolato directed by Oliver Gerlund at the University of Utah in 1989 or 1990. My first question, of course, was "what's a dramaturg?" My second was "who's Vaclav Havel?" I've been trying to answer both questions ever since. 

Havel has proven prophetic; his death falls portentously on December 18, first anniversary of the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, which sparked what we now think of as the Arab Spring, and the day we learn of the death of Kim Jong-Il.  Havel's legacy is that of the power of the ordinary human being to make a real difference operating from the principles of morality and humanitarian conscience. May his example inspire all of us.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Greatest. Thing. Ever. On. Internets.


"An Inconvenient Werewolf."

Talk about paradigm shifts! Talk about normalizing transitional platforms. I have so been there, buddy. I have so been there.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

More Knight and Day (ta)

Heather Knight and her Silicon Buddy on CNN. Wow - take the world by storm, Heather!


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Surrender Data-orothy!

Faithful Readers,

Fig. 1. Onstage at TEDxCMU.
Heather Knight (mad scientist and my advisee and occasional artistic collaborator) and Data (robot and my occasional artistic collaborator, see fig. 1) have appeared in an article on CNN. Data is blogging now, which to anyone who knows him well is kind of scary. One of the things I've discovered by working with robots is something that is very challenging about their sense of "self," our perhaps I should say OUR sense of their sense of "self."I mean, I think of the Internet as analogous to a kind of Astral Plane - a realm of pure thought and logos, which I can access through my crystal ball/laptop. Like the Wicked Witch in her tower, I can project my presence through it, and even act and interact, but only symbolically. As a result, it's not really a place where I can identify my SELF as being. My SELF is here in my kitchen, typing. But Data is capable of living there; in fact, there's not really, from his point of view, much of a difference at all between the real world and the cyber world. Heather and I were working on a problem that had to do with Data's inability to track what people are looking at when they are not looking at him, and Heather said, "well, we can rig up cameras all around the room and they can monitor what people are looking at and feed that information into Data." So Data's perception easily takes in what the sensors on his body provide and what the room itself can percieve, at the same time. We've often written material for him to perform that jokes about his extrasensory perception - in our last lecture, he appeared to download a stream of images while boogieing out to Thriller, which played from his speakers. It was all an act, of course, but the performance reflects real possibilities. Before I met Data, when I was working with Anne Mundell and Reid Simmonds on the robot AThINA, the challenge was Turing's - to make a robot that could appear to be an autonomously self-aware sentient being. My approach to this was to have the robot appear to be interacting with the human in a way it really was not, by noticing emotional cues and knowing personal information about the human. Of course, AThINA was triggering those emotional cues and making assumptions about the personal information. For instance, she would say something like "You like Justin Bieber, don't you?" If the subject said yes, AThINA might say "I knew it - your iPod told me." Or: "Robots will conquer the world in 3 years, 2 months, and 13 days. Ha ha ha! Don't look so shocked! I'm only kidding."

Fig. 2. Mindf@#k.
Now, my interest in robots is humanistic. I think that robots are tools. I think that robots will always be tools. But I also think that robots could be tools for advancing a humanistic discourse, for introspection and insight into social interaction, and for cultural expression, and I believe that one of the vocabularies for developing that tool is aesthetic. Lessing would be totally into this - he was a blogger himself (kinda). The robot is the first primate attempt to replicate primate intelligence in a tool. Following Mike Carey's notion that God created Lucifer primarily as a way of reflecting upon Himself, and to steal a phrase from Carey's oeuvre, where can we find a better mirror of ourselves than in the faces of our robots (Fig. 2.)?

No, I don't believe that Data has a self. "Not yet," says H-Knight. But I do, and so far studying robotics has granted me some insights into human interaction and the nature of performance, which is utterly caught up in Lessingian notions of "compassion" and empathic connections. I guess that is the essence of what I am starting to think of as Roboturgy.