Welcome to the Course Archive

Welcome to the collaborative course blog for Literature and Science from the Romantics to the Present (a Fall 2013 course taught by John Savarese, in the English Department at Berkeley). Now that the term is over, this site serves primarily as an archive of the thinking, writing, and conversations that came out of our class meetings, which we hope readers will find useful going forward.

Most of the posts below were written by students in the course, and reflect individual student views rather than those of the instructor or of the institution. Posts range from close readings of course texts to reviews of web resources, recently-released films, and scholarly articles on the subject of the relation of literature and science. Please feel free to take a look through the site–you can scroll down to see the most recent posts, or use the right-hand toolbar to navigate the site by author or keyword. If you’re interested in contacting the instructor, I’d love to hear from you, and can be reached here.

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Transcendence

Trailer for a film coming out next year, starring Johnny Depp, about the perils of the technological singularity. Happy holidays everyone!

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Review: Oblivion

I recently sat down and watched Oblivion starring Tom Cruise which has a number of scenes that touch upon a couple of the books we read towards the end of the semester (Neuromancer, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep). In fact I probably annoyed the other people that were watching it because I kept interrupting with sentences beginning “Oh, this is just like that scene in…” It is not a great movie. It’s kind of like a special effects “porn”, very flashy, obvious symbols, not much else. It also takes two plus hours to do what I wish it would have done in a fraction of that time. That is, it became monotonous very quickly and stayed that way throughout, with very little payoff at the end. Those of us that remained awake (seriously) spent a good amount of time discussing what it could have been, or how certain scenes would have been more effective, with not an established film critic in the bunch.

It is set in the year 2077 and focuses on a character named Jack Harper. Jack lives with his wife on an Earth that is more or less uninhabitable due to an alien war. Most everyone else has relocated to the largest moon of Saturn, Titan. This reminded me somewhat of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Blade Runner, save for the fact that there really are no throngs of people still on the planet. They serve as mechanics or technicians that take care of the robots that continue to comb the planet for enemies that threaten their resources, what they believe to be aliens. Right off, we can see something not quite right with his wife. She is too mechanical, again I thought of Blade Runner, and its portrayal of Rachael and Pris. Aside from each other, the only other character they encounter is their boss, who supervises them through their daily routines. Problems arise when Jack starts “remembering” things. This becomes an issue because they are not supposed to have memories, they’ve supposedly been wiped. At any rate, the woman from his memories turns up in a field after crash landing and Jack has to defend her from the robots that have been tasked to kill her. SPOILER: She turns out to be his real wife, Total Recall anyone? Ultimately, this leads to the Jack finding out who he really is, or isn’t. He encounters the “alien” enemies along the way, who turn out to be the lovable Morgan Freeman, and friends. He also ends up encountering himself. This ends up working out along the lines of The Matrix, only not as clearly explained, or explainable for that matter. Bottom line, it is a head scratcher of a movie that is really beautiful to watch, has re-watchable appeal built into the storyline, but fails in its execution. It didn’t endear itself to me enough to be successful in this regard. It tried to be too many things without establishing whatever it was supposed to be on its own. Which was disappointing considering the talent involved. So in summary: big budget, visually breathtaking, mind-numbing and tedious. My recommendation: wait for it to air on network television, then watch, this will lead to a new-found appreciation of commercial advertising and the breaks they provide.

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Android Grows up to Destroy Mother

Hey everyone,

This may be kind of random since we’re done with class and we’ve been done with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? for quite a while but I’ll share a few things I’ve been thinking about. A few ideas spawned for me after reading Donna Haraway’s The Cyborg Manifesto. I love when she says:

The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that 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 (Haraway-10).

This got me thinking about the androids from Do Androids Dream? and how exactly they were birthed into society and what that means going forward. I think it be very closely likened to the birth of the cyborg that Haraway describes, with militarism and capitalism acting as parents.

In connection with this a weapon of war, the Synthetic Freedom Fighter, had been modified; able to function on an alien world, the humanoid robot – strictly speaking, the organic android – had become the mobile donkey engine of the colonization program. Under U.N. law each emigrant automatically received possession of an android subtype of his choice, and, by 2019, the variety of subtypes passed all understanding, in the manner of American automobiles of the 1960s (Dick-16).

 

This quotation offers a couple of insights into this theory. First off, it’s referred to as “a weapon of war.” This makes it pretty obvious that its original function was military related. It was only “modified” later on to help progress the colonization program. I’d say this means we can call militarism the father of the android. And what about its mother? The first link to capitalism is provided by the comparison between the production of the androids to the production of the “American automobiles of the 1960s.” Capitalism’s role in the birth of the android is also noticeable in the words of Eldon Rosen.

‘We produced what the colonists wanted,’ Eldon Rosen said. ‘We followed the time-honored principle underlying every commercial venture. If our firm hadn’t made these progressively more human types, other firms in the field would have’ (Dick-54).

 

Eldon alludes to the basic structures of capitalism that have led to the current form of android being produced. So if we do take militarism and capitalism to be the mother and father of the android, where does that leave us? Well I’m not sure. But if I keep rolling with Haraway it seems that the android may be quite unfaithful to its origins. What does that mean in this case? Well my imagination starts to get a little wild here and I start thinking about the downfall of classic American capitalism at the hands of the organic android. The human and the android are already incredibly similar, making it nearly impossible to tell them apart (only through the bone marrow). So what happens as the androids keep getting more sophisticated, eventually reaching the point at which you really can’t tell them apart from people at all? What happens when the real and the artificial merge and become one giant cluster?

 Since the 1800s the economy has relied on machines to produce commodities quickly and cheaply. But what will happen when the machines that produce these commodities begin to demand wages? What happens when various assembly lines call an assembly for themselves, form a union, and go on strike? It will be the end of cheap production. The competition between companies that was previously characterized chiefly by which company had the better technology will be over when machines no longer constitute a form of labor that is cheaper to employ than a human work force.

Ya I know. Just food for thought.

 People are already becoming more machine like on their own. Even if we give no though to machines becoming more “real” we still have to keep in mind the fact that people are becoming more “artificial.” We get implants and operations that render us in some cases quite bionic (like that one dude that has a mechanical heart:   http://newsroom.ucla.edu/portal/ucla/man-s-heart-removed-and-replaced-241430.aspx  ).

So anyways I’ll just leave you with this, a few words from PKD himself:

Someday a human being, named perhaps Fred White, may shoot a robot named Pete Something-or-other, which has come out of a General Electric factory, and to his surprise see it weep and bleed. And the dying robot may shoot back and, to its surprise, see a wisp of gray smoke arise from the electric pump that it supposed was Mr. White’s beating heart. It would be rather a great moment of truth for both of them.

 

(from his 1972 speech entitled The Android and the Human)

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Fruitful Couplings

Personally, one of the most interesting aspects of a popular and enduring symbol of dualism, the ‘Yin and Yang’, has always been, not the perfect curvature of the line dividing the two aspects, but rather the two dots, or as I like to see them, the eyes of contrasting colors within contrasting colors. Suggesting not static division, but rather a tacit understanding and/or acceptance of dynamic blends inherent in all things; perhaps a better representation, difficult if not impossible to show on a two dimensional canvas, would be an undulating exchange of the two colors, showcasing the constant activity along the sinuous border. This is one of the reasons I enjoyed Donna Haraway’s cyborg imagery and representation of dualism within her manifesto.

Right out of the gate, she implores the reader to consider the benefits an escape from rigid dualism might provide, she says that she is “making an argument for the cyborg as a fiction mapping our social and bodily reality suggesting some very fruitful couplings.” (Haraway 1). It was hard not to think of Bruno Latour given the number of his readings we’ve delved into this semester; his “We Have Never Been Modern” being the most relevant to the preceding quote. And again, later on the same page Haraway admits that, “[t]his chapter is an argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for the responsibility of their construction”, which of course brought to mind the second Latour reading, “It’s Development, stupid! or: How to Modernize Modernization” (1). Both of those readings offer an escape from the futility of dualisms if we are willing to do the, not too difficult, work of accepting that there is much to be gained by living on the edge, so to speak. I think this gets to the heart of the purpose of this course, or rather (before I go making assumptions on Professor Savarese’s motivations) this gets to the heart of why I took this course. Science and Literature?; as I read the course title and description it sounded like a zany experiment to me, like someone attempting to mix oil and water, but I also felt it had the potential to be like the melding of bacon and chocolate. So I went for it. I was not disappointed. As has been far more eloquently and convincingly stated by most of the author’s we’ve read this semester these seemingly polarized fields have a lot to offer one another and each sits at the ready to provide, “fresh sources of power”, to the other (Haraway 7). The use of cyborgs in her manifesto, I feel, are an excellent choice to represent the apprehension, anxiety, or fear of this emulsification. Further, they are also the perfect conduit to show the irrationality intrinsic to those feelings. Haraway states, “The machine is us, our processes, and aspect of our embodiment. We can be responsible for machines; they do not dominate or threaten us. We are responsible for boundaries; we are they” (12). We need not be afraid of the “monsters” we create, they can be nurtured, corrected, and improved upon so that they continue to be an extension of ourselves. But we must be willing to accept that the real action does take (and always has taken) place on the borders.

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Living amongst humanoids.

After reading Do Androids… I found a sudden interest in androids, humanoids, and robots. There are a good amount of robots already developed which carry out a diversity of purposes. I think it would serve as useful to see how androids are living among us and what the future entails for human life living amongst such humanoids.

Produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation and aired on NHK World (the international broadcasting service of Japan) Robot Revolution: Will Machines Surpass Humans? is a documentary featuring the different types of robots created thus far. This documentary puts into perspective the modern utility of an android, tracks the progress of robot genera, and projects the future of robots around the world. The documentary starts off describing, “…robots can take over when things become dangerous…”. This function is the most crucial role for a robot and is emphasized through out the documentary. A convention was held in which the top international manufacturers of the finest robots met and were asked to develop a robot that could help provide relief for the Japan earthquake and tsunami of 2011. This led to the exploration of different robots worldwide. The manufacturers surface some of the issues they have been faced with such as flexibility, and the act of balancing. These robots are able to recognize faces, respond to questions, and can complete basic tasks. The documentary further takes viewers through the journey of the modern robot and breaks down many of its human-like components such as the ankle.

What was emphasized on multiple occasions in the documentary was that androids are able to make decisions on their own without human intervention. Asimo is an android created by Honda that can perform tasks within an office setting. It can fetch drinks for people and decide on its own how to complete a request, which peculiarly lead me to question this development in terms of robot slavery. There is clearly a need for an entity to bypass such dangerous circumstances in terms of a natural disaster. However, some companies are creating robots to fulfill the needs of humans that are fully capable of completing such tasks on their own such as getting coffee and doing groceries. At 9:12 minutes a sketch is presented of a woman walking in front of a robot who is carrying all of her groceries/shopping products up a flight of stairs. I found it striking when the narrator earlier mentioned, “they think like we do, move like we do, and even sacrifice themselves for us…” Humans keep saying that they want robots to help humans live an easier life but is that not very similar to slavery?

The notion that a machine is able to successfully complete the job of a human is something that took place in both the industrial and computer revolutions. At 38 minutes a man tells the narrator that a robot would be really useful for his company because some workers are about to retire and an android can essentially do their job. The following man states that having a robot for his company “…would be cheaper than employing a person,” and further states that a robot could work all day while humans legally need lunch breaks etc. I cannot help but think about the labor market and how it will be affected in the future after these androids enter the public market. Are we able to progress as a species and with technology without veering into some ethically questionable issues in terms of the realistic application of robots and the labor market? Will robots eventually take over the jobs of humans? This brings me to similar thoughts that resonated in Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor in which several people lost their jobs because a machine did the job much faster and cheaper.

If robot research and development is so heavily funded by both major corporations and military, and also keeping in mind that robots are able to use their “senses” to complete tasks, will they one day be able to develop a conscious or emotions? Will they be able to make conscious decisions? These are a few thoughts that occurred to me after having both read the book and also watching this documentary. If you all are interested in the current humanoids put forth recently, you should check out Hanson Robotics, the actuality of the Rosen Association.

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Batty at the forefront

One of the most compelling features of Blade Runner is the character of Roy Batty. His violent resistance to “accelerated decrepitude” and quest to extend his lifespan speak to his frustration at not being allowed to live longer than four years. Through the noble actions that ensue after Batty has chased Deckard up on to the roof of Sebastian’s building, the viewer is able to appreciate the complexity of Batty’s character. In the beginning of the film, rather than resist death as a sort of knee-jerk reaction, or at least immediately understand his “retirement” as inevitable (as Batty’s character seems to do in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), he adopts a very “human” relationship with the knowledge that he is to be killed. Batty is characterized by a degree of suffering unmatched by any other Nexus-6 in the film, as it directly relates to his being informed that a “coding sequence cannot be revised once it’s been established”. His suffering and ability to empathize with other Nexus-6s is evident also when he comes across recently-retired Pris and kisses her good-bye.

If the objective of the film’s creators is to encourage the viewers to understand the human/non-human interplay through the eyes of the Nexus-6s, Rachael’s perspective seems much easier and more natural for the viewer to undertake (as her experience as a non-human revolves around learning that her memories are not hers, and forcing herself to be loved by a human). While Batty’s struggle with the idea of a very limited mortality and his lack of innocent motives make him, at times, deplorable and antagonistic, he does seem more the antihero than Deckard himself. Batty’s refusal to understand death as inevitable persists until he and Deckard meet in Sebastian’s building. After death begins to creep up on Batty, and through his decision to save Deckard’s life, the viewer can appreciate the complexity of Batty’s character. As he speaks his last words (“All those moments will be lost in time like tears in rain. Time to die”), the viewer is left to experience for himself the entire weight of Batty’s suffering.

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