Posts Tagged ‘Galatea 2.2’
The grand finale of Galatea 2.2 has gummed up my works. Too much input. My neural net is still churning and I mean this in the most profound and complimentary way.
In the end, the joke is on everyone. The true bet between Lentz, Powers and the scientific team is never whether a machine can learn to think, but whether a human can make meaning where none exists. Powers, the Center?s token humanist, is taken for a ride in believing that Helen, his beloved neural net, is cognizant? or is he? Helen?s abilities surprise even Lentz, the largest skeptic of all. While the joke on Helen is that the human condition is vile, corrupt and undesirable, most interesting is the joke played on the reader, having believed the fallacy alongside Powers the entire time.
For?my?own ignorance,?I blame adulthood. Had I been a child, I would have seen the prank. Pardon my jest, repeating a philosophy conjured by Powers, but having finished his novel, I now understand. The innocence of childhood protects us from the?horrors of?humanity. Once innocence is lost, we shield ourselves from?the harsh?reality of our existence using fiction to process that which we cannot understand. We only hope to stumble upon answers. That hope?is our only redemption.
I find fascinating a work of fiction that moves beyond the scope of entertainment, using its own structure to examine its worth. It becomes particularly potent for this English Lit. major as I am forced to ask myself:
- What value does the study of literature hold?
- Is meaning inherent within a text or do we make meaning as we back-propagate new data through the filters of lived and learned experience?
- Does the difference of inherent or made meaning ultimately matter as we struggle to understand the point of our existence?
Since called upon to decide, I say this. I believe that ideology makes meaning on a cultural level. Within that ideology, literature holds a great deal of power, particularly in its ability to persuade. From fables, myths and war propaganda to presidential elections and the civil rights and environmental?movement, people will always chose the side most representative of their individual reality. Without literature, we would never have the ability to share such complex ideas or decide what our personal reality requires to exist.
For these reasons, having a deep understanding of literature, both the ways in which it operates and its limitations, grants us the power to move toward the goals we deem fit. While this in no way ensures collective agreement, or the chance to single handedly change the world, we have, at the very least,?the power to organize?around a small seed of understanding and find companionship or, as Powers hopes, love in that one simple connection. To read, to be read, to exchange ideas and make meaning as it applies to the here and now of our existence? This is only the beginning of my thoughts on?what literature is to me.
And?with that ponderance I leave you, offering my sincere gratitude for taking the time to make meaning of what I?ve had to say.
This public service announcement has been brought to you by the makers of Viagra?and Geritol.
Which reminds me… This is one of those books, like Don Quixote, that should be read three times in life, somewhere around the ages of?22, 35, and 60. I find that my young classmates identify with A. at 22,?interpreting?Powers as rather lecherous. Still feeling 22 at heart, I (at 37) suffer from the same disbelief as Powers – that so many years have passed and so little has been learned. I only hope that, by my next reading, I will have staved off the bitterness suffered by Lentz, disheartened by literature and the world at large.
Between the pages of 155 and 268, our narrator, Powers, and Dr. Lentz struggle with their traditional masculine roles, feeling that they must care for and protect their women. Lentz feels responsible for his wife Audrey?s stroke occuring directly after their argument while?he was intentionally unreachable.?Guilt ridden?for not taking enough care, he visits her waning consciousness with daily devotion at the Center. Powers also cares for his lost and confused C. but learns that:
The more care I took, the more I turned her into the needy one. And the more I did that, the needier she became. We construed her neediness between the two of us. And that was not care on my part. That was cowardice. (240)
Together, Powers and Lentz search for some sort of answer to the masculine condition through the production and training of Helen, the beloved and experimental neural net in Galatea 2.2. Lentz, although he can?t change the past, has the desire to change the future, developing a way to back up the brain in the case of memory failure. Powers interprets and mulls this goal:
We could eliminate death. That was the long-term idea. We might freeze the temperament of our choice. Suspend it painlessly above experience. Hold it forever at twenty-two. (170)
We have yet to learn what Powers gains from the experiment, but perhaps Donna Haraway might offer a clue.
Pulling out the ol’ Norton, I brushed up on Donna Haraway?s ?A Manifesto for Cyborgs?, several quotes of which were rather pertinent to Helen. First off, ?a cyborg is a cybernetic organism? a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction? (2269). Already, in this one definition, the cyborg blurs the boundaries of human, animal?and machine as well as reality and fiction.
Since?Helen is essentially a new ?other,? her existence could be constued as?a cultural encounter similar to, for example, that of Europeans and Native Americans. It is assumed from the ideology at hand that one must dominate the other. That said, how is it possible to avoid the dominant/male and submissive/female trap that haunts the majority of historical human existence? According to Haraway, the power lies within the technology.
The cyborg has no origin story? they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism. But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential. (2270-2271)
According to Haraway, Powers and Lentz are “inessential” as fathers.?Once they load the data, Helen thinks on her own. Although Powers has coded Helen with gender, it is within the power of the cyborg to blur the boundaries of such a dichotomy as the masculine and feminine. Once blurred, perhaps some revelation will be made to both about the roles of men and women in society.
While this unique?lesson of love?between man and machine has yet to be revealed , one thing is certain. Helen has already invoked much discussion about what constitutes human intelligence, blurring the distinction between true knowledge and switch flipping. Are we nothing more than weighted switches constantly back-feeding input through our neural nets, or is there something inherently human that sets us apart from a machine?
I’ll be turning pages rapidly to?find out?
Let me just say that, as my 37th year?speeds?toward the platform and is?due to arrive in a paltry?seven days, I’m not crazy about this novel’s claim about?the 35th year:
You begin to think, ‘Well, I more or less understand how things work. Do I really want to disassemble tens of thousands of semi accurate beliefs on the off chance that I might be able to bring one small receptor field into better focus?’ (111)
With a projected 50 years left, give or take a decade, that’s a long time to sit on my ass and?give up the quest. Let the disassembly continue… Full Speed Ahead!
That said, let’s move on to pages 48-153 of the novel.
CHILDHOOD REALITY V. ADULT DELUSION
One would generally assume that children would have a stronger imagination than adults, the ability to?create their own reality and imaginary friends, but that isn’t what is being said in this novel. As I mentioned in?a previous post, “something between childhood and becoming an adult shifts the understanding of language, makes it less literal, less real.” I found this idea interesting when Powers described a?book that permanently?influenced him?while he was still young?(19).?This same type of reference appears later, when Lentz and Hartrick?dupe Powers about Imp C’s ability:
A babe in the woods would have seen through this… I myself would never have bitten, had I still been a child. Yet I’d believed. I’d wanted to. (123)
Powers can no longer see the real, but why? Perhaps, as our narrator describes,?it is his adult desire to want to believe.
In childhood, facts are collected?much like?William and Peter Hartrick’s?alphabet and international flags.?Conceptual meaning hasn’t yet been assigned, as Hutcheon would point out.??Unlike the boys,?Powers?associates everything with narrative rather than fact. When speaking about their mother, Diane,?Powers says “I didn’t know the first thing about her” (136) but?”I recognized?this?woman…?from a book I read once as a novice adult” (137).?This referential knowing is not real. It stems from a concept learned elsewhere?during Powers’?early adulthood rather than from what actually stands in front of him?in the moment.
Powers recognizes the impact of narrative on his thoughts and the ways in which those thoughts then shape his reality. “Here was the home I would never have. Shaped by a book, I’d made sure I wouldn’t. I’d forced my heart’s reading matter to come true” (138). To deny himself access to Diane or?a home based on a particular?book leads me to believe that, had he read another?book (or no book), things might have turned out?differently. Like ideology, the story has the power to order Powers’?thoughts, but also to confine him within that story.
SUBJECT V. OBJECT
Confinement within the story becomes problematic for all the main characters in this novel. Diane, Lentz, C.?and even Powers?become splintered identities in terms of subject/object. As said above, Diane is a stereotype in Powers’ internal narrative. First?she is?scientist, then mother, then “she became a different woman” (136) after she put her children to bed and?sat in her living room. None of these images allow access to the real Diane, for Powers or the reader. Lentz too is seen solely as mad scientist until Powers?recognizes him as husband and father thanks to the calendar on the door. Still, he doesn’t know who Lenz truly is or why he’s such a sad,?angry man. These characters are nothing more than objects seen through the one limited?lens of the narrator.
Powers and C. are special cases in the subject/object dichotomy. Powers, when proofing his latest book, says:
My eleventh-hour triage demoralized me even more than the first writing. I felt a despair I had not felt while still the teller… What lost me, while listening to my own news account, was learning that I didn’t have the first idea who I was. Or of how I had gone so emptied.?(117)
Is Powers really so emptied and lost?within his own identity? The word?”emptied” implies that Powers was?once full.?When?he writes about himself as?the subject, he?is unaware that this identity crises exists because it doesn’t yet. It is when he no longer writes but reads, making the switch from subject to object, that he feels some sort of self identity loss. It is the mechanism?of narrative?that induces the loss, unable to capture the whole of who Powers is, even in his own attempt to portray himself.
Perhaps Powers?has stopped?disassembling his?”tens of thousands of semi accurate beliefs” at 35,?having learned?little since his relationship’s end with C.?Prior to this autobiographical fiction,?Powers becomes the subject of C’s story and she becomes the object, driving?the wedge?of death into their relationship. Powers knows?this to be true?when C. says, “It’s your story… It makes me feel worthless” (108). He begins to question:
What did the finished thing mean? That book was no more than a structured pastiche … One that by accident ate her alive… She would never again listen to a word I wrote without suspicion. (108-109)
Even after living the consequence of setting the divisive dichotomy of subject/object in motion with C., Powers inflicts that same divide within himself and feels the power and pain from both sides.
Of course,?objectification is okay when you’re Powers, the author of this novel,?portraying the narrator as the author and narrator of his own novel. Only by making this move does narrative no longer mean objectification alone. Narrative, in this manner,?becomes self-reflexivity, or has… self-reflexive Powers. (Insert “bad joke” groan here.)
PS: If C was with Powers in U., E., and B., who do you think A. is in her 22nd year?? Son of [a] B!! I can?t seem to work it out yet? but I sure do sound like a mathematician when I try.
The first 48 pages…
I found A Brief Biographical Sketch (excerpted and adapted, with the author’s permission, from Understanding Richard Powers by Joseph Dewey) helpful in understanding the extreme similarities between the author and narrator of Galetea 2.2. In essence, Powers’ life is the source of his fiction and fiction thus becomes his life. This is not unlike the photography of Nikki Lee. Each quite literally lives the art that they create and questions representations of the real. Although this is interesting in and of itself, for the purposes of this post “Powers” refers to the narrator, not the author, unless otherwise indicated.
The novel begins with the sentence, “It was like so, but wasn’t,” and screams for a sneak peek at the last page for clues. I refuse to give in. According to this book, there is no short cut to learning – even for neural nets. Let?the synaptic links painfully struggle to?materialize, one at a time.
The plot centers around teaching language, and subsequently the canonical list of Great Books, to a neural network in order to understand how the brain orders and accumulates information to learn. We didn’t get to talk much about language limitations in class, but there are so many references to it throughout the book, I find myself tracing each instance.
- In the first paragraph, Powers says of his 35th year, “We got separated in the confusion of a foreign city where the language was strange” (3).
- At U., “Work at the Center divided into areas so esoteric I could not tell their nature from their names” (5).
- At the Center, ?Talk in its public spaces sounded like a UN picnic: excited, wild, and mutually unintelligible. I loved how you could never be sure what a person did even after they explained it to you” (6).
- When meeting Lentz, Powers says, “We made interstellar contact, paralyzed by the mutual knowledge that any attempt to communicate would be culture bound. Worse than meaningless” (13).
- The Dutch, according to Powers, amount to little in the area of novel-writing due to “the fault of translation.” Lentz blames it on “the limits of that Low German dialect” (18).
- Powers “still dreamed in that language. It had ruined [him] for English” (18).
- Of a flood Powers read about in a book as a child, he says, “this was my unshakable image… The word “Holland” filled me with autumnal diluvian disaster… even after living for years… in the Dutch Mountains” (19).
These types of quotes span?just pages 3-19, but there are many more. Following the order listed above, these quotes point toward:
- general linguistic separation and confusion
- lack of concept transference within the same language
- cultural boundaries rendering speech less than meaningless
- loss of meaning in translation?from one language?to the next
- the bondage of language on thoughts and dreams
- creation of real perceptions and representation of a non-reality
If language is so fallible, how can a machine avoid these linguistic pitfalls, particularly when “taught” by similarly fallible humans? What is the key to getting it right, making language more communicable?
According to Powers:
A child’s account of the flood that ravaged Zeeland shortly before I was born turned real in my head. That’s what it means to be eight. Words haven’t yet separated from their fatal content. (19)
Something between childhood and becoming an adult shifts the understanding of language, makes it less literal, less real. A return to that childhood state, when switches quickly flip through intelligent processing, may offer better understanding of how to access reality through language. To return to the beginning, new opportunity exists in discovering how a mind learns and how to better teach that mind.
Like a child, the machine too requires “someone like Lenz to supply the occasional ‘Try again’s and ‘Good Boy!’s” (31) as it essentially makes its own decisions and deductions about what is correct and incorrect. That said, with a father figure like Lenz, will the machine suffer emotional damage, adopt his bad attitude, reject him all together? We’ll have to read on and see. Good Lord, that man is frightening!
This fires my next response…
Powers, the author, takes on the mother of all self-reflexivity in this novel. While postmodernism examines the ways in which particular forms like language, photography, film and music represent reality, Powers goes one step further and examines the very tool that both creates and interprets all form… THE SYNAPSE. As Powers, the narrator, says:
After great inference, I came to the conclusion that I hadn’t the foggiest idea of what cognition was… No tougher question existed. No other, either. If we knew the world only through synapses, how could we know the synapses? (28).
In that last question, one could replace the word synapse with narrative,?and see?the bold move that?Powers, the author, is making. To examine synapse as “form” is the greatest postmodern experiment of all,?the likes of which makes my head hurt.?
(How appropriate?for this post to appear on a blog called “Brain Drain, I Think Its Sprained.”)