Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Now, I'm almost always suspect of claims about the so-called "hard-wiring" of our minds, but I am especially so when it comes to what seem to me like socially-constructed categories. However, I will admit, of course, that there are some rules and structures that appear to be inviolable in human thinking. The law of noncontradiction, for example. Or the fact that all "experience" is known in space and time. Or that God speaks to humanity through Johnny Cash. (That last one, especially.)
Now, my claim in the original uncanny valley post was that there must be some kind of meaningful and significant dividing line that intersects the bottom of the valley. In the context of the uncanniness of robots and the like, I think that intersecting line distinguishes between the human and the non-human. But I think that line could, and does, represent other major categorical divisions in other contexts, as I suggested in the second installment might be true when we think about race or racial passing. I think we could chart a similar phenomenon with gender and sexuality, too. The more I think about it, the more the "uncanny valley" seems to represent a kind of basic structural phenomenon that is not only iterable but, dare I say it?, hardwired in human thinking. If this is true, then that means that the uncanny valley can't really be about "the human" (or any race, gender, or sex category of "the human"), but rather must be about some other superstructural distinction of which those other distinctions are substructurally derivative.
As I tried to suggest, though incompletely and somewhat unconvincingly in the original post, I think the important distinction being made in any uncanny valley is between the real and the apparent. Or, in different terms, the distinction being made is between that which is "made to appear" and that which "naturally appears." In Greek philosophy, it's the difference between physis (φύσις, that which has a beginning in itself) and techne (τέχνη, that which has a beginning in another). So, the root of the aversion that we feel to the coincidence of the familiar and the unfamiliar is, as I originally claimed, an aversion to deception, to taking the simulation for the real, to conflating the "like" and the "is." Products of techne can be "made" to be very much LIKE physei onta, but we have a deep and abiding (perhaps "hardwired") commitment to maintaining the distinction between the truth and its (even VERY CLOSE) approximation.
Over on his blog, Anotherpanacea has a different take on the uncanny valley (which I highly recommend reading). He focuses on the singularity of the human face and he claims, among other things, that our aversion to things like bad plastic surgery is motivated by the fact that plastic surgery introduces ambiguity into our ready-to-hand taxonomies of facial recognition, thus producing (through techne, I would add) the impression of the familiar in the unfamiliar, and vice versa. He contests my claim that our aversion is at its root an aversion to deception, because he claims that the experience of the uncanny is prejudicative or prereflective.
I'm sticking to my claim, though, because I think in any experience of the uncanny there is at least some kind of minimal reflection or judgment happening. I think I can justify this with the following example: if we were actually deceived by a simulation, that is, if we really took it to BE what it was only LIKE, then we wouldn't have the experience of the unheimliche. We would just have the experience of the "real" (familiar) thing. So, somewhere in the hidden recesses of our consciousness, it seems to me, the experience of the uncanny MUST involve a simultaneous and coincidental experience of two categorically different things (the familiar and the unfamiliar, the real and the simulation, the truth and the approximation). Our aversion to this kind of ambiguity is tanatmount to an aversion to deception. Now, I think AnPan is right that it doesn't quite rise to the level of complex reflection and judgment where one might make the possibile-deception thetic to oneself. However, if we want to explain how something like the uncanny valley can be applied to several different categorical distinctions (which I obviously think it can), then we need some manner of articulating the more fundamental violation of the difference between "being" and "being-like."
So, although I hardly think that things like racial or sexual categories are "hard-wired" into our brains, and I would be willing to allow for the possibility that the human/non-human distinction isn't either, I think the interesting thing about the uncanny valley is that it shows how even in the case of socially-constructed categories our commitment to the reality/simulation difference produces the same kind of cognitive dissonance when it is breached. If we take "whiteness" or "female" or "human" to mean something REAL, whether that "reality" is "true" or not, we find ourselves attracted to the simulation of that reality only up to a certain point, after which we are averse to the danger of mistaking the false and the true, the manufactured and the natural, the "like" and the "is"...
... whatever "it" is or is like.
Sunday, October 18, 2009
The Wordy Shipmates also gets my vote for the best opening lines in a piece of nonfiction. Vowell begins:
The only thing more dangerous than an idea is a belief. And by dangerous I don't mean thought-provoking. I mean: might get people killed.
Go pick this one up! You won't regret it.
Friday, October 16, 2009
(If you press on the "flower"-looking thing between the volume bar and "vimeo" on the bottom, you can watch the video in full-screen.)
Saturday, October 10, 2009
In 1931, at the beginning of the dénouement of the Harlem Renaissance, conservative (some would say "reactionary") African-American author George Schuyler penned Black No More, a bitingly ironic send-up of early 20th C. race discourse that lampoons the KKK and the spokepersons of "black consciousness" (W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, the NAACP) with equally acerbic satirical wit. Black No More is a complex and fascinating text and I can't give a full critical analysis of it here, but if you haven't read it, you should. The novel recounts the story of a rakish African-American insurance agent (Max Disher) who avails himself of the opportunity to "become white" by way of a new scientific machine developed, ironically, by an African-American scientist. In the novel, the machine offers a total transformation from "black" to "white," such that there is no way to perceive the difference between a person who has undergone the procedure and a "real" white person.
Contemporary philosopher of race Charles Mills uses the example of (what he calls) the "Schuyler Machine" in his famous essay "But What Are You Really?: The Metaphysics of Race" from Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race. Mills' hypothesis is that if there were such a thing as racial essences (in the "scientific" or biological sense) then we would easily be able to place people in racial categories (for example, by using a blood test) and we would never encounter racial "passing" as a metaphysical (or epistemological) problem. That is to say, we would never have occasion to ask the question-- of someone whose racial identity is ambiguous-- "but what are you really?" The very question itself assumes the "reality" of racial essences or, to state it another way, the question assumes that it is possible that one may ("really") BE other than how one APPEARS. But, as we all know, there is, in "reality," no litmus test for determining racial categories. "Race" is a social construction and its meaning and definitions change from context to context. The interesting metaphysical problem presented by the Schuyler Machine thought-experiment is: what is the difference between a "real" white person (who appears "white," that is, who is consistent with the "image" of "whiteness," that is, who adheres to all of the available criteria we have for determining "real" whiteness) on the one hand and, on the other hand, a formerly-"black" person who has undergone the operations of the Schuyler Machine (and who, consequently, "appears to appear 'white'," that is, who is only merely or superficially consistent with the "image" of "whiteness" qua "image")? If determinations of "race" can only be made by way of appearances, how do we distinguish between the "real" appearance and the "apparent" appearance? Why isn't the person who has been transformed via the Schuyler Machine really white?
Let's take another example: Michael Jackson (post-cosmetic-surgery). The reactions to Micheal Jackson's gradual approximation of the appearance of a "white" person over the course of his life, loaded with moral approbation as they were, are clear indications that people took his transformation to be some kind of attempted deception or dissimulation. He was "playing at" or "attempting to appear" white, as the conventional wisdom goes. He was presenting us the "image" of whiteness, though he was really black. Of course, Michael Jackson's transformation was a long and slow process and we got to see it in all of its progressive stages, but there definitely came a kind of "tipping point" at which the (white and black) public no longer accepted his presentation as "real" and expressed their outright revulsion to it quite viscerally. He was attempting to "pass" as white. He was a fake, a counterfeit, and we didn't want to be suckered by the bait-and-switch. Sure, he may have appeared white, but we were all capable of and more than willing to make the distinction between reality and appearance... because not only can you not "fake" your racial identity, but you shouldn't. Although Michael Jackson's story couldn't have happened a hundred years ago, because the medical technology wasn't present, the almost-universal social rejection of his "passing" is the same as it has ever been.
So, what does this have to do with robots and the uncanny valley? Well, nothing directly, but it serves as a nice analogue. Race theorists like Frantz Fanon, Homi Bhabha, Edward Said and Albert Memmi have spent a lot of time explaining how, in racist societies, "Whiteness" (and, more specifically, white supremacy) demands that non-whites adopt the affects, practices, values and norms of white people WHILE AT THE SAME TIME refusing non-whites full access to "white" identity. Fanon described the Syisyphan existence of non-whites in a white-supremacist society as a project of "black skins donning white masks." Similarly, Bhabha explains the strategy of racial (and racist) discourse as one of ironic farce-- in which whites demand of non-whites the impossible task: "Be like me, but don't be just like me"-- such that the life of non-whites becomes defined by and obsessed with an always-imperfect mimicry. The point here is that "whiteness" is set as a universal norm to which everyone is accountable and expected to aspire, only the very idea of "whiteness" requires that not everyone be able to achieve it. Like the uncanny valley, whites accept non-whites the closer and closer they approximate whiteness-- up to a point-- but when non-whites get close enough in their mimicry to "pass" as "really" white, the integrity and truth of "whiteness" becomes threatened and the mimicry is violently rejected.
Michael Jackson, from about 1987 to his death, was in the uncanny valley of race. For all of the talk of our post-racial society, we are still as secretly terrified of something like the Schuyler Machine as we are of robots that might pass for real human beings. We believe that the human/non-human distinction is a difference that makes a difference, just as we believe the same about racial differences, and we have a deep investment in maintaining the distinction between the real and the apparent... even in the case of racial identities, which are almost entirely about the "apparent." The philosophical problem here is, of course, that we haven't bothered to do the work of making these nuanced distinctions intelligible, much less defensible. Maybe it's possible that something like the uncanny valley is hardwired into the human brain-- that was certainly Jentsch's and Freud's conception of Das Unheimliche, from which the valley takes its name-- but surely we are obliged to consider the possibility that we can be habituated into taking certain weakly-defined and weakly-conceived norms (like "race") to hold the same kind of "reality" as stronger norms (like "life," human or otherwise). And, surely, we can ask ourselves what our "real" investments in avoiding deception are in each of these cases.
In Schuyler's novel, and in the "real" racist world, our investments are not that difficult to locate. We reject the person who was black, but who is black-no-more, because that person threatens the deep struts and girders of our social ontology, which depend on our being able to accurately differentiate between the advantaged (or those who ought to be accorded advantage) and the disadvantaged (or who those who ought not). But the relationship between that "is" and "ought" is not a natural one, nor is it a given one, and our revulsion at the familiar/unfamiliar expression of it is something for which we are obliged to account.
Mori's hypothesis states that as a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance and motion, the emotional response from a human being to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong repulsion. However, as the appearance and motion continue to become more distinguishable from a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once more and approaches human-to-human empathy levels.
This area of repulsive response aroused by a robot with appearance and motion between a "barely human" and "fully human" entity is called the uncanny valley. The name captures the idea that a robot which is "almost human" will seem overly "strange" to a human being and thus will fail to evoke the empathic response required for productive human-robot interaction.
And here's a graph showing the hypothesized emotional response of human subjects plotted against the anthropomorphism of a robot. The uncanny valley is the region of negative emotional reponse to robots that are "almost human. " (You can click on the graph for a clearer image.)
The Polar Express (with Tom Hanks, pictured above) and, as Mori hypothesized, I did find the "almost human" CGI animation in that film to be a little creepy. The idea here is that the uncanny valley seems like a strange anomaly-- that is, it seems like we should feel greater affection and empathy for non-human simulations as they more closely approximate "real" human appearance and movement, but at some point (the uncanny valley), our empathetic reponse to them drops off dramatically and we become revulsed by the imitation. But why is this the case?
I can imagine several possible explanations, all of which are problematic in their own way, but my first intuition is to say that there is a fundamental "reality/appearance" distinction here that we are deeply invested, cognitively, in preserving. The one thing the chart above is missing, I think, is an indicator of what that line is and where it is crossed. What seems obvious to me is that there should be a "NON-HUMAN/HUMAN" divider, like the one I have added here. (See amended graph.)
This way, we can understand how the uncanny valley has its "upward" curve. Without it, there would simply have to be a radical "break" between the simulation and the real human being, with no gradual upwards approximation back toward the real. The non-human/human divide must intersect at the point of the human corpse, I think, which is the point at which whatever revulsion we feel at the "simulation" of the human-- my hypothesis is that this revulsion is motivated by our aversion to "deception"-- begins to be replaced by an affectively similar, but categorically different, kind of revulsion, i.e., the kind of revulsion that is motivated by our aversion to morbidity and mortality. So, the most real and life-like human simulation will provoke almost the exact same response as a corpse, and they will both be coincidentally located at the bottom of the valley of the uncanny.
BUT... when I tried floating my hypothesis to a few of my colleagues over dinner last night, Professor Grady pointed out to me that I may not have accomplished as much with this explanation as I had hoped. Inserting the non-human/human (appearance/reality) axis certainly DOES explain how the uncanny valley can be charted as a "valley"-- and not simply a precipice-- but it still presumes that both the image (or simulation of the real) and "the real" itself exist on some kind of a continuum. Yet, as close as our affective reactions to an "almost real" human simulation and a real human corpse may be, there is nonetheless a radical categorical break between how we think about the two.
Now, Professor Grady spends a lot more time thinking about "the image" than I do-- though I might arguably spend more time thinking about "the human" than he does-- so pairing up our noggins on this one made for a very interesting and productive conversation. (Prof. Grady used to keep a blog himself, to which I would love to direct you in order to get the other side of this conversation, but alas it is no more. Contact me if you want to sign the petition to have him reinstate it! In the meantime, though, you're stuck with me.) The more I think about the uncanny valley, the more questions it opens up for me concerning the "image" of the human being and our investments in it qua "image"... but this post is already gone on a bit long.
Up next: what does this have to do with the metaphysics of "race"?
Thursday, October 08, 2009
An article by Brooke Lewis in The Philosopher's Magazine entitled "Where are all the women?" confirms what just about anybody could have guessed: Philosophy departments in the U.S. and U.K. trail FAR behind the other humanities in female faculty. Brian Leiter picked up the story on his philosophy blog (here and here), and the SWIP (Society for Women in Philosophy) list-serv has been on fire with the topic. One suggestion, present in the original article and repeated endlessly in the commentaries on it, is that the discipline of Philosophy has an intrinsically "masculine"-- i.e., agressive and argumentative-- culture, which is ill-suited and off-putting to many women. This is the explanation for why, despite the fact that almost equal numbers of men and women graduate with B.A.'s in Philosophy, the number of women drops off dramatically at the M.A. level, and even more dramatically at the Ph.D. level. At present, only about 1 in 5 full-time professors of Philosophy are women, meaning that it is not only possible, but very likely, that if you are an employed female philosopher, you could be the only one in your department. (That's the situation in my department, for example.) The knee-jerk explanation showing up all over the place goes something like this: Philosophy is rigorous and demanding, not soft and womanish, so it's not surprising that the ladies can't hack it.
A part of me feels like this is not even worth entertaining, but since I've somehow managed to make it through the professional-training-in-verbal-sparring gauntlet and thus proven that I ain't skeered of an arguemnt, here are a few retorts:
(1) Philosophy, as a discipline and as an intellectual practice, is not "intrinsically" argumentative and aggressive. That's just one way of doing philosophy-- a way that has its virtues and its vices. It's not the only way of doing philosophy and it's not always even the best way of doing philosophy.
(2) The argument that women are less inclined to engage in argumentative and aggressive scholarship than men, that they are turned-off by rigorous and demanding intellectual exercise, and that they don't possess the "natural" aptitude for philosophy depends, of course, on an essentialist account of gender-determined affects and abilities that has absolutely no reasonable or scientific basis. Women flourish in plenty of other disciplines that could be characterized in the same way as Philosophy-- law, the "hard" sciences, and almost all of the other humanities. Surely, we don't want to say that those are all "soft" disciplines. Seriously.
(3) The discipline of Philosophy DOES, however, have a protracted and sedimented institutional culture. That culture includes-- along with actual and explicit sexist prejudices-- a kind of default devaluation of women's thought and abilities and a gross underrrepresentation of women who might correct that devaluation. If you're color-blind, you can't complain that the world isn't popping and sparkling with more color.
(4) The characterization of Philosophy that we see in these apologetics is more indicative of how (particularly male, "analytic") philosophers WANT to see themselves and their work than it is of women's aptitude or inclinations. So, the more felicitous question to ask would be: why are we so invested in seeing "Philosophy" this way?
I feel very fortunate to work in a department with enlightened and progressive-thinking male colleagues, but I know that many of our conversations would be VERY different if I weren't the sole representative of my gender-group. I also know, though, that my own disposition and personality tend toward the kind of Type-A characterization of Philosophy that many men want to preserve. (I can be, admittedly, "agressive and argumentative," to put it mildly.) But I would hope, and I think my colleagues would also hope, that philosophers would be attuned enough to the complex operations of social constructions to realize that what we see in the recent spate of articles on gender disparity in Philosophy is not only a red herring, but a terribly unreasonable and uncritical account of an relatively easily-explainable phenomenon.
Tuesday, October 06, 2009
I should say at the outset that I'm not exactly a stranger to hospitals. I'm a Type 1 Diabetic and about 10 years ago I was also diagnosed with a mysterious condition that my doctors called Autoimmune Disorder, which basically means that my body's soldiers (the antibodies) sometimes can't tell the difference between healthy cells and antigens, and they consequently attack my healthy cells as if they were foreign. (Stupid antibodies.) There's a blood test that can show whether or not your body is producing these rogue agents, which are called antinuclear antibodies, but all the test really tells you is that your body is malfunctioning. It doesn't tell you why, or how that confusion will express itself next. Juvenile Diabetes, like the kind I have, is an autoimmune disease, for example. So is arthritis, which I also have. So is iritis, which is kind of like arthritis in the eye, and which I also had once before. The point is, I've had to get used to hospitals and doctors over the course of my life. Those are the cards I was dealt. I like to think of it as a fair trade-off for my winning personality and rapier-like wit. (Just kidding.) This time around, however, I was totally unprepared. Here's what happened:
Friday morning I woke up around 7am, per usual, to get ready for class... but I realized a few moments after waking that I was having an extreme hypoglycemic episode (low blood-sugar). That happens sometimes, and usually it is remedied with a little orange juice and about 15-20 minutes of time for my body to readjust. After I had my OJ, though, I wasn't feeling any better. I was still dizzy and had a splitting headache and felt nauseous. Still, I (slowly and clumsily) moved through my morning routine and eventually made it up to campus about 15 minutes before my 10:00 class. I went to my office, but as soon as I got there I realized that I was in bad shape and that I was going to have to cancel my class. So, I went downstairs to my classroom-- feeling extremely disoriented at this point-- and tried to tell my class that I wasn't feeling well and they would have to conduct class without me...
...only, I couldn't form sentences. First major sign of trouble.
I returned to my office and (thankfully) one of my students followed shortly behind me to check on me. I was in a very bad way. I couldn't get oriented, I had a SPLITTING headache, I was clammy and had the chills. My student gave me a Powerbar from his bag and my department chair stopped by my office and gave me some candy, but nothing was helping. The student eventually called the school nurse, who came over to my office and (of course) first checked my blood sugar. It was normal, but I was getting worse. [NOTE: this part is all a bit fuzzy in my memory, but this is what has been recounted to me.] So, they called 911 and I do remember an army of EMT's coming into my office. All I could think at the time was that the lights were really making my head hurt. The EMT's asked me a hundred questions and I couldn't seem to answer any of them. Now, it wasn't that I didn't KNOW the answers to their questions or couldn't formulate the answers in my mind, but I couldn't form sentences. It was like when you know there's a particular word you want to use but that word just temporarily disappears from your internal word-bank. Only this was the case with ALL of my words.
Despite my (incoherent) objections (which basically just amounted to me shaking my head "no"), they decided that I needed to go to the emergency room. I had really great EMT's, and they figured out from my sign language that I needed my cell phone and that they could find my parents' phone numbers in my phone. By the time we got to the emergency room, I was reduced to about three words-- "uh...", "I...", and "no..."-- but I was still totally conscious and, even though in pain and very disoriented, I was still totally aware of what was happening and I could comprehend the language that other people were using. When my dad finally got to the ER, the doctor sent him to me to see if I could talk to him, which I couldn't. They tried giving me a pen and paper to see if I could write, which at the time I was SO thankful for, since I knew that I wasn't crazy. But when I put the pen to paper.... nothing. That's when I heard the doctor say the dreaded word for the first time: APHASIA. Specifically, it was a form of "expressive aphasia," which meant that I couldn't really speak or write, even though I knew what I wanted to say. The doctor said there were basically two explanations for it: either I had some form of a stroke, or I had some infection that had spread to my brain.
That's when I started to panic. That's also when the conversations between my doctors and my parents were taken outside of my earshot.
The next twelve hours were as follows: Blood tests, which revealed that I had a high white blood cell count, which meant there was some kind of infection somewhere in my body. Then, antiviral and antibacterial IV-drips. Then a CAT scan. More blood tests. Different antibiotics. Then, an MRI (terrifying, claustrophobic, extremely loud, and awful). More blood tests. Discussion of a spinal tap (which, thankfully, never came to pass). X-rays. More blood tests. More drugs that I can't pronounce and I don't know what they were for.
But as this was all going on, I slowly started to recover my ability to speak and, by the time I had returned from the MRI, when they handed me a pen and paper again and asked me to write something down-- "just write anything," they said... talk about pressure-- I was able to scrawl: "I teach philosophy at Rhodes." Things were looking up. The most dramatic symptoms were fading.
I was in the hospital (on the "stroke" floor) for another 4 days... and, they're still not exactly sure what happened. My MRI and CAT scan came back (mostly) clear-- no bleeding on the brain, so no anuerysm or serious stroke-- and whatever infection had caused my high white blood cell count responded to the antibiotics quickly. The neurologists said that it is still possible that an infection caused my symptoms, but that the symptoms themselves were more consistent with a transient ischemic attack or TIA (commonly known as a "mini-stroke") which leaves no permanent damage and therefore does not show up on scans. Anyone can have a TIA as a result of a temporary spasm in one of the arteries that feeds blood to the brain-- in fact, people have them all the time with hardly no symptoms at all-- but Type 1 diabetics are more prone to them.
Given my own medical history, I tend to be rather stoic about these things, but I have to say that for those hours that I couldn't speak or write, I was in a total panic. My dad told me that the neurologist had a conversation with them explaining that aphasia is particularly difficult for intelligent people, and that although my speech could come back within hours, it could also take weeks or months. They didn't want to say this in front of me because they were afraid that my fear and frustration might impair my ability to recover. The brain, like the rest of the human organism, is a strange and mysterious thing.
As people who know me know well, my WHOLE LIFE is speaking and writing, and I think that this experience was the closest encounter I've ever had to actually having to consider what my life might be devoid of all the meaning that I've invested in it. I am, of course, very happy that things have turned out okay, but I expect it will be a long time before I fully recover from this scare. If ever.
I also realized in the course of this event what a tremendous network of friends and family I have. I really can't thank them enough for all of their help and support over the last several days. Nobody wants to need their friends like that, but it sure is nice to have them when you need them. And my family was consistently calm and reassuring, even when things looked very, very bad and even when I was obviously starting to panic. (They also saved me several times from having to eat disgusting hospital food.) Finally, I would be totally remiss not to thank my student, Walter Clapp-- a senior Philosophy major-- who is the real hero of this whole story. He was the one that noticed that something was terribly wrong with me in class on Friday morning, who followed me back to my office, called the nurse and then the ambulance, who travelled to the emergency room and explained everything that had happened that morning to my parents, and who even stayed at the hospital long after my family had arrived to make sure I was okay. He is the very definition of a good samaritan, and I will be eternally grateful for his kindness and care.
I'm home recovering today, but hope to be back in the swing of things tomorrow... with many, many debts of kindness to repay.