Peter Swirski & artificial intelligence:
the last gasp of bourgeois reason

Notes by Ralph Dumain

(July 2016)


Introduction

So, en route to the Library of Congress to look up Peter Swirski’s From Lowbrow to Nobrow for the chapters on Karel Čapek and Stanislaw Lem, I stopped at the public library, and looking over the $1 sale books and generally avoiding temptation, what do I find but Swirski’s From Literature to Biterature: Lem, Turing, Darwin, and Explorations in Computer Literature, Philosophy of Mind, and Cultural Evolution. I had to get this, though Swirski seems to have hopped on the hi tech bandwagon, a trendy path in academic prostitution. I wouldn’t trust the Digital Humanities with my silverware. Well, we shall see what Swirski has to say. His other book seems to be aimed at redeeming popular culture from approbrium, an equally shallow enterprise, but we shall see what he has to say there too.

From Peter Swirski’s From Lowbrow to Nobrow I scanned only the chapters on Karel Čapek and Stanislaw Lem. The chapter on Čapek is good except where he references ridiculous contemporary pop culture crapola at the end. I am usually not consumed by the hi/low distinction, but he uses his nobrow concept productively. Nobrow apparently is the fusion of high and low literary styles, providing sophisticated literature to a popular audience, as opposed to a highly esoteric literature resistant to a popular audience. Aside from summarizing Čapek’s writings, Swirski succeeds in demonstrating how Čapek’s genius works in an almost self-effacing manner, communicating with prolific imagination a sophisticated perspective on the contemporary world via satire in a popular style. Čapek’s sciencefictiony dystopian masterpieces R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots, 1920) and War with the Newts (1935) address the crisis of the modern world and retain their freshness. Čapek was denied the Nobel Prize for fear of antagonizing Hitler, but he was not about to compromise for the sake of an award.

Swirski, Peter. From Literature to Biterature: Lem, Turing, Darwin, and Explorations in Computer Literature, Philosophy of Mind, and Cultural Evolution. Montreal; Kingston: McGiil-Queen’s University Press, 2013.

I have come to despise the enterprise of artificial intelligence and everyone involved in it. Given the gutting of the humanities, a product of the corporatization of the academy, the worshippers of power have found a new ass to kiss. We shall see how far down the path of shallow positivism Swirski is willing to go. The three heroes of his story are Stanislaw Lem, Alan Turing, and Charles Darwin. The last two are predictable, but given that Lem has taken imaginative speculation as far as it can go, we shall see what Swirski makes of him. The one thing I like about Swirski so far is his disparaging of “Asimov’s asinine three ‘laws’ of robotics.” Swirski at least seriously pursues what would really constitute computer-generated creativity, which he believes is a real possibility and the wave of the future. He gives an example of two pieces of prose—one computer-generated and the other some gobbledegook by Jean Baudrillard—and asks the reader to guess which is the human, which the computer author (p. 26). This does not speak well for postmodernism.

This is the second of Swirski’s books I have looked into in a week.  I’m 120 pages into it: it is an apologia for artificial intelligence, inspired largely by Stanislaw Lem with support from Turing and Darwin, and thus also an apologia for biterature or computer-generated literature. It is reasonably sophisticated but I find the argument unconvincing. I also find the hype over artificial intelligence a menace and I despise everyone in it. I for one do not welcome our new capitalist computer overlords. I am sufficiently pissed off to write an article on this subject. That this book was written by a literary scholar rather than your average technocrat shows how academics gravitate to where the power is in the corporatized university, though Swirski’s own political leanings seem to be in the other direction.

Interview with Peter Swirski, Author of From Literature to Biterature (September 11, 2013)

That this drivel is considered sophisticated makes me long for near-term human extinction via climate change, which even our computers will not survive. For Swirski, a person who knows his Čapek, to be so infantile and lacking in historical perspective is prodigious, but then academics whoring after pop culture garbage and fashionable ideology are capable of just about anything.

Smith, David Livingstone. Review: Peter Swirski, American Utopia and Social Engineering in Literature, Social Thought, and Political History, The Montréal Review, August 2012.

The concepts used by Swirski mentioned are quite pedestrian at this point. Note the emphasis on Darwinism, but where is historical materialism or critical theory?

Swirski, Peter. “Of Morality, Proverbial Wisdom, and Bernard Malamud’s God’s Grace,” Politics and Culture, issue 1, April 29, 2010.

This article is also an argument for explaining everything via evolution. There is nothing cutting-edge about viewing the entire human world through the lens of Darwin. There seems to be plenty of liberalism in Swirski; he is aware of a number of dangers; but ultimately his perspective is that of a garden-variety social-theory-poor liberal academic.

Artificial Intelligence, the Highest Stage of Bourgeois Reason

Peter Swirski, as a literary critic inspired by Stanislaw Lem, Alan Turing, and Charles Darwin, makes the strongest possible case for artificial intelligence. There are flashes of self-awareness here and there as he is not the garden-variety technocrat. I could easily write this off as the opportunistic representative of the humanities whoring for neoliberalism rather than quietly submitting to death by starvation. Swirski in his delirious positivism does not realize that he is writing a different sort of epitaph for humanity, and that the implications of what he thinks he is advocating were foreseen a century ago by Karinthy and Čapek.

The real novelty here is the inspiration of Lem, as the fields of Turing and Darwin are already well-plowed.

The book can be seen as a thought experiment on what is entailed if the alleged potentials of artificial intelligence are true. This would be a reasonable experiment if it did not also harbor barely questioned apologetics.

The autonomous future of robots is another fantasy that sickens. Aside from the unjustified supposition that such a thing can exist, the only robots that will exist will be those that supplant the existing labor force, geared to the maximization of profit and totalitarian control and extermination of the surplus labor force. And the computers will not survive human extinction.

There are a number of dimensions along which to evaluate artificial intelligence and Swirski in this case:

1. the actual “intelligence” embodied in AI;
2. how far this can be developed;
3. effacement of the actual question of living intelligence;
4. positivist premises & the problem of other minds;
5. the unresolved analysis of the material basis of subjectivity and critical consciousness;
6. reification & the impact on the human;
7. humanity facing its total destruction (via climate change or other means);
8. AI more or less ethical, more or less intellectual, more or less evolved?;
9. the foresight of Karinthy & Čapek;
10. the naive perspective of equality for robots (the identity politics of AI);
11. Praxis as the mediator of contradictions and gaps in knowledge and determination (Yugoslav Praxis philosophers).

Further thoughts to develop:

1. Creative, critical thought vs formulaic intellectual activity: automation of academia vs creativity.
2. Engels: no matter without motion or motion without matter.
3. Jerry Fodor’s functionalism, machine intelligence, and disembodied spirits: the problem with this conception: “The Mind-Body Problem”.


Praxis, utopia, instrumental reason, & artificial intelligence

It is unfortunate that the legacy of the Yugoslav Praxis philosophers has been buried and supplanted by the sophisticated posturing of Slavoj Žižek, whose greatest gift is the understanding of peculiarly human irrationality, which invites one to an entirely legitimate cynicism in a disintegrating world. I am not one for optimism: the Stalinists put their pessimists in prison. The Praxis philosophers (also persecuted and slandered) had a keen sense of the contradictions of the contemporary world, which they sought to mediate conceptually with the notion of praxis (as well as with praxis itself, a harder and ultimately defeated enterprise). All the hype and bullshit I am now reading about artificial intelligence brings them to mind.

The ideological sphere of bourgeois society—which is modern society, including now-defunct Stalinism—is caught up in irreconcilable conceptual dualities. Adorno and Horkheimer recognized this and were pioneers in addressing the issue, but I think they muddied their conceptualization of it at the same time with notions such as Enlightenment as myth, the Odyssey already as Enlightenment, etc. One can easily see Enlightenment as myth in Ayn Rand or Artificial Intelligence, However, hardening the dynamic of “instrumental reason” into a metaphysical concept itself compounds the existing ideological mystification. Popular culture—dystopian fantasy and sci fi—already understands and communicates the notion of instrumental reason and has been doing so for some decades.

Utopian Studies is a thriving discipline. Being relatively new to this corner of the academic milieu, I am inherently suspicious, though. A younger generation having grown up with a different set of dispositions than those of us rooted in print culture have different preoccupations. There are perhaps interesting things to be said about the utopianism of vegetarianism or video games, but understanding the phenomenon is fundamentally about the dialectic of the actual and potential, and especially about what this means at this critical juncture, as we face class genocide and the possible near-term extinction of humanity.

Utopia in the Praxis School:

Reason and Historical Praxis by Mihailo Marković

(Note: The text has been slightly edited and rearranged from my original notes.)


Swirski, Peter. From Literature to Biterature: Lem, Turing, Darwin, and Explorations in Computer Literature, Philosophy of Mind, and Cultural Evolution. Montreal; Kingston: McGiil-Queen’s University Press, 2013.

Lemmata 3
PART ONE
1 Biterature 17
2 Computhors 35
3 Bibliosophy 53
4 Transhumana 71
PART TWO
5. TT  89
6. QED 111
7. ToM 130
8. YaK+  149
PART THREE
9 How to Make War and Assassinate People 171
10 Biologic, or the Philosophy of Error 183
11 Mind Your Business  197
NOTES 205
BIBLIOGRAPHY
INDEX

Page notes:

Chapter 1: Biterature
32: Poe & Hemingway

Chapter 2: Computhors
35: Combinatoria: pseudo-creativity
39: Creative works already exist
41: originality ≠ origination. Key is causal independence
43: causal depth
45: absence of intentionality
47: definition of [learning?]: re-design of internal states
49: survival instinct
50: bottom-up the only way
51: Self-reprogramming[?] ŕ blackbox-y

Chapter 3: Bibliosophy
53-54: Lem’s 2 schools of literature
56ff: computers no longer transparent or comprehensible
[NB: how intelligent?]
61: computer analysis of texts
64: computer: art analysis
69-70:  what does treating art scientifically mean?

Chapter 4: Transhumana
71: Lem: 3 stages of biterature: cis-humana, intermediate, transhuman
75: biterature leaves ghuman accomplishments behind? 
76: Voynich ms & non-human art
78: dig against pomo
80: science vs animism & religion
81: L’homme machine 82: Shinto & robots in Japan
84: military robot, human ethics
Human/AI competition for literary prizes
85: computer rights?
86: robot sex & pragmatics
88: belief in AI boils down to consensus

Chapter 5: TT 
98-9: what the Truing Test really is
102-3: objections against TT
107: behaviorism & anthropomorphism

Chapter 6: QED
115: refutation of Searle
116: emergent property
117: Lem’s refutation of Searle
118: question of computer’s understanding to be solved in future
119-20: systems theory of mind
120-1: neural networks independent of material substrate—autocatalytic systems ŕ emergence
123-4: is not operational definition of intelligence.  Inductive & pragmatic. Question of thought is meaningless.
Not a test of machine or human intelligence: both can fail.
125-9: subcognitive associations—human vs. computer intuition & guesstimates. Author’s physicalism. Against idealism, vitalism, panpsychism.

Chapter 7: ToM
Anthropomorphizing computers & robots.
134-5: Weizenbaum
Theory of Mind (ToM)—evolution
136-7: humans programmed for intention & attention—sussing contextual relevance
144: how to give AI motivation
145: AI & evolutionary psychology. Our operations are black boxes to ourselves, w/ role of emotion
146-8: redundancy

Chapter 8: YaK+
150…. AI & techno-hype of past
…. 155: medical robot future
156: robot psychotherapy. Sex therapy.
160: limits of current computer architecture. Parallel processing the future 162ff: zoobots
163: boundary for consciousness?
165: AI desiderata
167: machine dissimulation? Cogito Paradox
168: future lies in transcending capitalism

Chapter 9: How to Make War and Assassinate People
Crude assassination schemes. Huge expensive war machine.
Automating war …. Cheap drones.
176: miniaturizing robot attacks, decentralized command
178: crypto-warfare
179: DNA-bombs
180-1: bacteria the highest life form: war, industry, technology, medicine, computation
181: ALLADIN weapons systems, will escape centralized control

Chapter 10: Biologic, or the Philosophy of Error


Chapter 11: Mind Your Business 
200: semantics = intention = intelligence
204: spectacular failure & uncontrollability


Reason and Historical Praxis by Mihailo Marković

Cybernetics & Artificial Intelligence: Ideology Critique

Ars Combinatoria Study Guide

Karel Čapek: Selected Bibliography & Web Links

Science Fiction & Utopia Research Resources: A Selective Work in Progress

Yugoslav Praxis Philosophy Study Guide

Theodor W. Adorno & Critical Theory Study Guide

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Offsite:

Peter Swirski - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Interview with Peter Swirski, Author of From Literature to Biterature
(September 11, 2013)

Of Morality, Proverbial Wisdom, and Bernard Malamud’s God’s Grace
by Peter Swirski

Review: Peter Swirski, American Utopia and Social Engineering in Literature, Social Thought, and Political History
by David Livingstone Smith

The Mind-Body Problem
by Jerry A. Fodor


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Uploaded 26 October 2019

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