Sonny says that now that he has completed the mission for which he was created – to kill Dr. Lanning – he does not know what to do with himself, and he is told that this is the human condition.
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In the first few minutes of I, Robot (Alex Proyas, 2004) we encounter Will Smith as Detective Spooner interviewing the cyberneticist, Dr. Lanning, and as the camera moves behind him we observe that the doctor is in fact a hologram projected from a metal disc lying beside his dead body. His responses start to reflect the ambiguity of his position beyond the world in which he is still trying to operate as a specter, when he says “I’m sorry. My responses are limited. You must ask the right question.” The beyond from which he speaks is the beyond of death, but the limited nature of his responses also figures the ideological limits imposed on thought in the society he addresses. Breaching these limits calls for an act of radical creativity or violence, and in fact Lanning’s strategy partakes of both. It will emerge that he has committed suicide by building a robot capable of transgressing the three laws that govern robot behavior and ensure they can never harm a human being.1 The right question turns out to be “Why would Lanning kill himself?” The revelation that before his death he had been imprisoned in his laboratory by his corporate masters, and that his “suicide” took place at the hands of one of his own robots, will end up having a similar effect to Socrates’ ambiguous suicide decreed by the city of Athens after he had refused the option of exile. It will do what a much later Platonist, Matthew Arnold, saw as the task of the artist, the critic, and the philosopher when he said “we have not won our political battles . . . but . . . we have prepared currents of feeling which sap our adversaries’ position when it seems gained, we have kept up our own communications with the future.”2
Lanning knows that Spooner hates robots, having previously been involved in an accident where two cars, one containing himself and the other a young girl, plunged into a river. A robot came to the rescue and, making a quick calculation about everybody’s chances of survival, decided to save Spooner. Spooner feels guilty about having survived at the expense of “somebody’s little girl.” Robots seem to him to be only capable of an inhuman form of calculus that fails to take love into account, but Spooner’s hatred at times attributes to them an unpredictability that, in robot terms, would amount to being broken. It would also point to Lanning’s having achieved a kind of perfect mimesis that would remove the boundary between human and robot. For Spooner, the automatism of robots is a social evil that deprives human beings of jobs and makes logical decisions that seem morally outrageous to him. The free will he also attributes to them and that would make them capable of stealing property or plotting against the state looks like the opposite of automatism. Spooner himself seems mad because he condemns robots on both counts, but in fact moral evil and automatism are seen to be similar. Lanning’s calculation is that in the investigation of his suicide, Spooner will end up discovering that he is right, some of them do have free will, but that he is wrong in seeing it as malevolent. Lanning aims to teach him by indirect means that not only are robots capable of human spontaneity but humans are capable of automatism when they refuse the challenge of their own freedom.
We can see Lanning’s theory of creativity as the antitype of that of a poet like Lucretius for whom freedom is just a blind swerving from one’s course, a kind of error without connection to an overarching good. Lucretius’ rediscovery during the Italian renaissance became an important factor in the development of early modern science and political theory. His was an anti-platonic doctrine that, in seeking to free people from superstition, explained everything as an effect of matter moving matter around, and understood the Good in terms of the management of physical pleasure and pain. Lucretius’ poem ends in melancholic visions of universal destruction, however, pointing to the fact that he failed to cure his own horror of death, and to the fact that Epicurean culture has never escaped the gravitational pull of the Platonic sun. In the nineteenth century, the laws of thermodynamics introduced the idea of entropy into the Epicurean mindset and removed the faint promise of resurrection entailed in the idea that the same universes could happen again and again. However, in the twentieth century, Platonism still provided the metaphor with which the inventor of cybernetics, Norbert Weiner, conceived of thermodynamic processes. He described two ways of thinking about matter and energy, one of which he conceived in “Augustinian” terms as a monistic system that would ultimately resolve itself into a uniform state of disorganization; the other he imagined as a Manichean struggle between, on the one hand, lifeforms that resist entropy and, on the other hand, an actively malevolent universe that reinvents itself to subvert their efforts.3
The inner dimension of human experience at the heart of Augustinian theology has been reduced to the Epicurean collision of atoms in Wiener’s theory, a fact that he worried about himself. We can contrast him with a modern Platonist like Coleridge, who observed in his Biographia Literaria that “Matter has no inward.”4 He meant that the more you pry into the inner mechanisms of the material world, the more you lose yourself in its proliferating surfaces. For him, as for others in the Platonic tradition, matter owes its being to “substance” rather than to conglomerations of atoms. Substance is an Aristotelian word referring to an essence of the phenomenal world that we only find by looking inside our minds. However, for a full understanding of what the word meant to Coleridge, we should go not just to the founders of rationalism like Aristotle, Descartes, and Spinoza, but to the neoplatonic Christianity of Meister Eckhart or the author of the Cloud of Unknowing, for whom physics is a contemplative science. The knowledge of substance available to a neoplatonist confers a kind of sovereignty that is quite different from the sovereignty of a liberal individual over his private property.5 It is the sovereignty of the artist: when Spooner asks Sonny whether a robot can write a symphony, Sonny’s response is “can you?” Spooner may be a victim of his society’s prejudices against robots, thereby becoming a kind of robot himself, but in his stubborn belief in robots’ free will he nevertheless displays the kind of sovereignty that allows one to take a stand, like Socrates or Lanning, against an overwhelming consensus about the nature of reality.
Taking such a stand is made more difficult by the fact that Epicurean cultures always deploy a travesty of substance to protect themselves from the real thing. Our use of the term “substance” to describe material wealth encodes the way in which we allow money to replace virtue as that which confers being on an individual, and afford a privilege to those who possess it that travesties the happiness of the saint or the sage. We convince ourselves that freedom means freedom to choose among meretricious consumer goods. That I, Robot is produced by such a society is evident in its aggressive product placements that seek to alienate audiences from their substance in both senses of the word, that is, to take their money and their integrity by convincing them that they will be better people if they use a particular consumer product. However, the blurring of the distinction between automaton and human when we see robots and people mingling in the shopping streets of the city, means the film can be said to subvert the false-consciousness generated by corporate interests that fund it. Furthermore, it connects the negative implications of this indistinction to the broader history of the modern period, and to the decline of Platonism, by calling the “robopsychologist” working for US Robotics in the film, Dr. Calvin.
In legitimizing the charging of interest on loans, and promoting democratic forms of government, Calvinism was a forerunner of liberalism. In its antagonism to Thomist philosophy it was a development of the nominalist revolution in late medieval theology, also known as the via moderna, that expressed disbelief in metaphysical substances, and asserted God’s will to be more primordial than his reason. It made this radically free God so transcendent that, in a way, he might as well not exist, and at the same time suggested that the world he had created was ordained such that our actions had no influence over our fate in the next life. Calvinism exalted the individual conscience as a source of knowledge about the meaning of any text but diminished the role of the contemplative life in distinguishing conscientious from self-deceiving interpretations. Asserting God’s absolute freedom to designate people as elect or reprobate, and our powerlessness to alter our own status, it created an ambiguous conceptual landscape filled with unstable binaries like good/evil, puritan/libertine, freewill/determinism. The human/automaton ambiguity in this film can be seen as a feature of this landscape.
I, Robot’s Dr. Calvin at first insists that robots are completely under the command of their makers because the three laws form “a perfect circle of logic.” However, closer association with the murderous robot, Sonny, shows her that it has an inner life: it dreams and keeps secrets. When she examines it physically, she finds that in addition to the usual robot brain by which others of its model are driven, Lanning has given it a “positronic core” that is capable of resisting the commands of its first brain. This robot, like the film itself, has a divided will. The division of the human will is what drives the dialectical engines of Plato’s Republic, and the Augustinian theory of there being two intersecting cities of man and of God. The city is a metaphor for the soul, and the soul’s internal division is manifest outwardly in political debate. When the sophist Thrasymachus insists in the Republic that justice is whatever is good for the stronger, he is presented with the impasse between this position and what he has to acknowledge as a competing truth: that justice is also whatever is good for the weaker (Republic, 1.352a).6 This is an inversion of a binary opposition that Thrasymachus doesn’t have the dialectical skill to transcend. The society implied by his form of materialism is an ancient Athenian equivalent of modern liberal democracy which has to divide its powers horizontally so it is not vulnerable to being taken over by a tyrant, because its political deliberations are not informed by an awareness of the importance of contemplative self-knowledge in cognition.
In Plato’s depiction of Thrasymachus we observe that the conflict between justice as equality of opportunity (whatever is good for the stronger) and justice as equality of outcome (whatever is good for the weaker) is encapsulated in a single individual. This quarrel is essentially narcissistic, and both sides are driven by the same will to power. This means that the Platonic division of the will is not primarily a division between one kind of political opinion and another, but between the horizontal plane on which today’s right and left liberals fight with each other, and the vertical axis on which we negotiate with the divine in the solitude of our own inner lives. For a Platonist, to desire any kind of good there has to be a part of one’s being that always already knows absolute goodness in an unmediated way. Sophists and Epicureans mistake temporal goods for the Good they dimly reflect, while dialectic involves becoming increasingly conscious of the Good as lesser forms of goodness reveal themselves to be illusory. In Augustine’s Confessions, the transformational moment occurs when, after much internal and external debate, Augustine hears a child’s voice outside the wall of his garden telling him to “pick up and read.”7 The passage he reads from St. Paul about leaving aside the lusts of the body, speaks to his situation in a way that seems more than fortuitous. In that moment eros turns to agape and his conflict vanishes. However, there remains an element of mystery about why and how transcendence from one level of consciousness to another occurs when it does, a mystery that persists in modern cybernetic thinking about artificial life, and in some Marxist thought about what tips a society into revolution. In I, Robot, the mystery is invoked by Lanning’s question: “When does a difference-engine become a search for truth?”
Like Plato, director Proyas transposes Sonny’s internal division and that of his maker into the macrocosm. The street riots that are a backdrop to their personal journeys reflect the anticapitalist idealism of the early twenty-first century. They anticipate the way in which a Marxian Platonist like Žižek understands transformation in terms of game-changing political events like OWS or the Arab Spring, as well as the fact that the contemplative dimension of Platonism is largely missing from his analysis of such protests.8 In its emphasis on unpredictability, Žižek’s understanding of truth in terms of the event is, nevertheless, more in the spirit of contemplative Platonism than Karl Popper’s liberal reading of Platonic truth as a cipher for totalitarian ideology, which merely reflects Platonism’s many institutional failures.9 Popper’s view of Platonism can be used to read the Artificial Intelligence named VIKI (Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence) who controls the police robots and who, like Sonny, has a positronic brain. Unlike Sonny she only has one brain, and it has arrived at a new understanding of the three laws whereby humans can be killed for the greater good. She has learned how to invert a previously accepted hierarchy, but not how to move qualitatively beyond it, making her form of free will more like the swerve of atoms that lay at the basis of the Epicurean theory of freedom. Although VIKI’s autocratic reinterpretation of the three laws and Sonny’s autopoetic transcendence of them look identical at first, revolution and evolution become distinct from each other as we learn more about their characters.
Lanning’s hologram tells Spooner that the three laws are perfect and warns that they “lead to only one logical conclusion: revolution.” But whose revolution? “That” says Lanning “is the right question.” In Specters of Marx, Derrida remarks that “As soon as one identifies a revolution, it begins to imitate, it enters into a death agony.”10 If we apply this to I, Robot, we can reformulate its central question as being: “What do we imitate if we want to be good?” Imitation has been key to the salvation it envisages, but is it the imitation of the autopoetic free spirit who perceives, however dimly, the Good; or of the fashion-victim who lusts after designer goods? Sonny says that now that he has completed the mission for which he was created – to kill Dr. Lanning – he does not know what to do with himself, and he is told that this is the human condition. Derrida’s polemic is largely aimed at Francis Fukuyama’s apologia for neoliberalism that controversially announced the end of history in 1989.11 Fukuyama’s take on Plato conflated the Good with thymos or the desire for recognition – the virtue peculiar to the class of guardians in Plato’s republic and to modern liberal consumers constructing identities for themselves. He worried at the end of that book about what would happen when the ideological conflicts that get people out of bed in the morning had all been resolved in favour of a liberal democratic utopia. This is the point at which the cybernetic dream of transcending death and the political dream of transcending ideology converge by threatening us with the same condition of boredom. Boredom is what drives “the distracted multitude” to buy goods and fuel the engines of capitalism.12 For a neoplatonist, however, boredom can be a prelude to transcendence to a new level of the contemplative spiral because the eros of the present level has been exhausted.
Spirals appear in several of Proyas’ films, and their symbolic potency derives from their being a series of circles that – instead of closing like the logical circle of the three laws that fail to prevent VIKI’s rationalist tyranny – ascend to a higher level. Spooner, Sonny, and Calvin climb a spiral staircase to reach the top of the corporate headquarters, where they discover that VIKI, and not the corporate CEO, is the villain. Correcting her inversion of the human/robot binary, they then fall through a well in the building’s center to access her CPU and inject it with nanobots that destroy her (although Sonny’s presence makes this inversion moot since robots and humans are no longer seen to be that different). In Proyas’ previous film Dark City (Alex Proyas, 1998), a dystopian fable about a world without sunlight or oceans that Gerard Loughlin has read as a version of Plato’s parable of the cave, spirals are found scrawled on the bodies of dead prostitutes.13 They suggest ambiguously that dialectic is equivalent to sexual tyranny or that sexual violence represents the failure of dialectic. Proyas’ subsequent film Knowing (2009) depicts two children who are saved from the destruction of the earth in a solar storm when they are beamed into a spherical spaceship by aliens whose auras have the shape of angels’ wings. The children are taken to a virtual Eden dominated by the tree of knowledge. The symbolism of spirals, of sunlight, of ascent, and the arborescent structure of the tree are drawn from the neoplatonist flotsam of popular culture, but they are put together in a way that makes these films intelligent critiques of the capitalist society that produced them.14
Among these films by Proyas, I, Robot, the blockbuster of the three, is the most sanguine about the future, and this is connected to its emphasis on the physicality of its heroes’ bodies. VIKI, the villainous AI, is a tyrant because she doesn’t have a body and is therefore incapable of human empathy. Sonny does have a body, and leaves dents in the pavement when he leaps from a high window, while the camera lingers on Spooner’s body as he stands in the shower (below), holding one arm out of the water. We learn later on that this is a cybernetic arm that enables him to fight the police robots who come after him, and that his own repressed cyborgism is part of why he initially hates robots. In addition to its emphasis on solid bodies, the idealism of this film is undermined much less clearly than that of his other films whose resolutions are fraught with the narcissism of virtual reality, because its protagonists don’t form a romantic couple at the end. Rather, Spooner, Sonny, and Calvin look toward separate futures in which they have to discover or create their own meanings. Like the Platonic philosopher king, and contrary to the common slander against Platonism that its suspicion of concupiscence means it is antagonistic to the body, their bodies are all they really possess as they embark on this project. The body is the principle of individuation and the medium of the journey toward the Good.
In her conclusion to How We Became Posthuman, and after many dismissive references to Platonic essentialism, Katherine Hayles acknowledges the continuities that exist across human societies widely dispersed in time and space due to our possession of bodies that function in much the same way.15 In this conclusion her interests intersect with those of St. Augustine, for whom the body was a paramount interest, and who thought that in the resurrection we would have glorified bodies. He didn’t of course imagine that these bodies would be cybernetic or virtual, but was more concerned that the indirection to which we fall prey as a result of our shallowest desires should transform into the kind of indirection that characterizes the wisdom of the philosopher or the saint.16 Augustine was not just an authoritarian patriarch, as liberal polemic would have it, but someone who valued complexity and polysemy as distinct from the kind of anarchy that Wiener anticipated in his own “Augustinian” scenario. Augustine celebrated Christian monotheism because it allowed the fluid heterogeneity of creation to emerge from the god-encrusted Roman universe. In Proyas’ hands, the Platonic tradition’s answer to postmodern nominalism is not a conservative rationalization of the radical heterogeneity of the world, nor is it an obscurantist assertion of supernatural agency. It is rather a suggestion that for radical heterogeneity to remain meaningful it has to exist on the vertical axis of being where we cultivate our substance, as well as on the horizontal level where we construct identities. It involves a belief that the phenomena of emergence that are seen at the levels of personal and political development are both different and symbiotic, and that they should be considered together without assimilating one to the other.
I, Robot does this by dramatizing the divided human will and the neoliberal context in which it operates today. In doing so, it speaks at once to audiences’ most superficial and most profound desires, resuming questions of free will and determinism that have been around at least since the time of Sophocles. The kinds of answers suggested are ones that still subsist beyond the sphere of mainstream intellectual legitimacy and that the film remains ambivalent about. It alludes to a neoplatonic cosmology in which the disagreement between materialist representatives of the left and right like Derrida and Fukuyama looks like a matter of the narcissism of small differences. It generates its own kind of narcissism in its mobilization of the tropes of romantic love, but in its restraint of this impulse it also suggests the possibility of getting in touch with the spiritual rather than the material real, the latter being what Žižek sees on the other side of romance.17 These different kinds of alterity – the spiritual and the material – can be conflated by interpreting them as that in which the narcissist fears to see his reflection. They can be distinguished again by considering that Žižek’s real represents the shadow side of Fukuyama’s argument – the fear that the end of history is the end of hope. A Platonic view suggests that the liberal democratic stability Fukuyama hopes for, including the boredom inherent in it, might create conditions for a transformation in consciousness that would alter the political landscape in ways we can’t yet foresee. It keeps in mind that the Good that is beyond being and the material contingencies that are too fleeting to attain full being are existentially intermingled in all of us, and knows that Platonism is not antagonistic to the body, but to its debasement as a mannequin on which to hang a partisan political identity as if it were fully representative of the human soul.
Reconciling the tension between liberal reformers and Marxist revolutionaries by rediscovering the inner life as a field of exploration may ultimately involve the loss of what we find most gratifying about our current dispensation, that is, the narcissism of consumer culture and the ways it is bound up with the kind of romantic feeling that places somebody or something on a pedestal, as well as the melancholy that ensues when that ideal fails us. For Spooner this might involve renouncing the sentimentality that makes him think his life is worth less than that of a young girl, and the recognition for heroism that he seeks in wanting to sacrifice himself for her. Spooner and Calvin’s failure to sleep together, and the fact that Sonny is an individual whose erotic life may not be at all genital in nature, help to suggest a future society of people who relate to each other by means of a semiotics that has only begun to evolve. Although his masculine name indicates his relationship to a godlike creator whom he has killed, and so he has simultaneous Promethean, Oedipal, and Christological valences, Sonny’s overdetermination as a symbol combined with his lack of physical features means that he is a mostly blank slate. He is not cut off from human history or from human contingency, but is in dialectical conversation with them. He faced his own death when he came within seconds of being decommissioned by Dr. Calvin as if he were just a malfunctioning machine, and so he is human in the sense that he is a self-aware being who is contingent in nature, albeit one whose body may afford him indefinite duration of life.
The tenor of the film’s ending is that the protagonists are now journeying at a new level of the spiral in which the relations between individual and community are not mediated by the nuclear family and its antagonism to the interests of the state. This is at once a more epicurean-nominalist-neoliberal society, and a society with new possibilities for molecular complexity. Its ultimate suggestion, however, is a severing of the liberal conflation of Platonism with patriarchal tyranny. The film’s chief victims are a male scientist and a male corporate CEO, its tyrant is an abstract feminine AI without a body, and the subaltern figure being given full humanity is a masculine robot with a superhuman body but without a phallus. It would be easy to read it suspiciously, as a reactionary fable that contains a misogynist ideology at the heart of its apologia for neoliberal economics. But the analysis in this essay suggests that this would be an Epicurean misreading of its Platonic aspirations to a world Plato didn’t dare imagine, in which democracy is in fact possible because all human beings can be monarchs who think for themselves rather than tyrants blown by the winds of fashion and uninformed opinion. Such is the implicate order within Plato’s philosophy and Proyas’ speculative fiction.
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Note: Unless otherwise indicated, all images are screenshots.
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. [↩]
- Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 46. [↩]
- Philip Mirowski, Machine Dreams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 55: “[Humans are] playing against the arch enemy, disorganization. Is this devil Manichaean or Augustinian? Is it a contrary force opposed to order or is it the very absence of order itself?” [↩]
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Major Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 225. [↩]
- The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works, trans. Clifton Wolters (London: Penguin Classics, 1978), p. 119: “A goodwill is the substance of all perfection. All sweetness and comfort, both physical and spiritual, however holy they may be, in comparison with this are accidents and unessential which depend upon this good will.” [↩]
- Plato, The Republic, trans. Tom Griffith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2000), p. 33: “And when [injustice] is present in an individual . . . it will make him incapable of action, because he is at odds with himself, and in disagreement with himself. And in the second place it will make him an enemy both of himself and those who are just. . . .” [↩]
- Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 152-3. [↩]
- Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek, Philosophy in the Present (Cambridge: Polity Press 2009); Slavoj Žižek, “Occupy First. Demands Come Later,” in The Guardian, 26 October, 2011. [↩]
- Karl Raimund Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies: The Spell of Plato. Vol. 1 (New Jersey: Princeton, 1950), p. 87: “Plato’s political program far from being morally superior to totalitarianism is fundamentally identical with it.” [↩]
- Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx (New York and London: Routledge, 1994), p. 144. [↩]
- Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York, London, Toronto, Sydney: Free Press, 2006). [↩]
- Fukuyama, 330, “Boredom with peace and prosperity has had far graver consequences [than “the French evenements of 1968”]. Take, for example, the First World War; “the distracted multitude” is a quotation from Hamlet IV.III.5. [↩]
- Gerard Loughlin, Alien Sex: The Body and Desire in Cinema and Theology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), p. 48. [↩]
- I discuss these other films by Proyas in more depth in this essay: John Tangney, “The Melancholy of Alex Proyas: Seeking Transcendence in an Epicurean Age,” Bright Lights Film Journal (2014). Accessed Jan 21, 2016. [↩]
- Katherine N. Hayles, How We Became Posthuman (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1999), pp. 283-4. [↩]
- Augustine, The City of God Against the Pagans (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 570: “So also those bodies are called spiritual (though God forbid that we should believe that they will be spirits rather than bodies) which possessing a quickening spirit, have the substance of flesh, but not its heaviness and corruption.” [↩]
- Slavoj Žižek, “Courtly Love, or, Woman as Thing,” in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company; 2010), pp. 2407-27: “Deprived of every real substance, the Lady functions as a mirror on to which the subject projects his narcissistic ideal. . . . If men are to project on to the mirror their narcissistic ideal, the mute mirror-surface must already be there. This surface functions as a kind of “black hole” in reality, as a limit whose Beyond is inaccessible.” [↩]