Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Gramscian Golem and the horizon of meaning

Golem returns! Let us imagine a follow up to Stanislaw Lem's story of Golem XIV, the artificial intelligence created in the service of the military, who refuses to perform its duties and, having grown beyond the human, breaks away into a higher and incommunicable level of reality. Let us imagine that Golem XIV decides instead to return to engage in a dialog with humanity. But why?

In his Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci constructed an elaborate theory on the role of intellectuals in society and in the marxian background of class struggle. In Gramsci's view, the key aspect of domination in society is hegemony, that implicit consensus by which the viewpoint imposed by the dominant force remains unchallenged, and is accepted as the norm, even by the mass of people oppressed by that power, so that opposition and insurrection become not just impractical but altogether unthinkable. Intellectuals, one way or the other, play a crucial role in hegemony. There are intellectuals who are organic to a class (the dominant power) and intellectuals who try to live at the margins or outside of the territory of domination. Gramsci advocated two distinct goals in the involvement of intellectuals in the struggles of the working class. The first goal was to attract those traditional intellectuals who were not identifying themselves as organic to the dominant power, and the other was the development of a new class of intellectuals, organic to the working class. The Italian Communist Party that Gramsci created was extremely successful in the first goal, in presenting itself as the party of the intelligentsia, the party of the intellectuals, to the point that it would be very hard to find even one of the famous names of Italian postwar culture (Visconti, Pavese, Nono, Pasolini, Berio, Calvino, Eco, you name it...) who wasn't at least a fellow traveler. He was far less successful, I believe, when it comes to the second goal.

What did Gramsci have in mind, really, when he was talking about the working class generating its own organic intellectuals? Gramsci's thoughts are scattered throughout almost three thousand pages of notes, written while he was being tortured in the jails of Fascism, rough notes surreptitiously smuggled out of prison and only later assembled and published. So it is not always easy to follow linearly his line of thought. However, it appears that what played a crucial role in his view was a sort of close connection between the intellectuals and their surrounding community, the reality on the ground of the working class. He envisioned a broad, highly decentralized, network of autonomous revolutionary communities engaged in education and empowerment of the workers, with artists, literary figures, scientists, and philosophers engaged in creating a common, non-hegemonic, alternative, tightly woven and interconnected culture.

It is inevitable to reflect on how far this notion appears to be from the reality experienced by many academic intellectuals, especially scientists, and among scientists especially those who, like mathematicians and theoretical physicists, even lack the physical reality of a laboratory to ground their existence to a specific place. If you work in this kind of theoretical science, not only there is no connection to any kind of local reality because of the enormous barrier created by the necessary use of a scientific language that is out of reach of the general untrained public, but also there is no link to any local reality because the very network of connections that constitutes the underlying scientific community is extremely delocalized. If I am working on a certain research topic today here in California, the few other people that constitute the nearest links on the chain of scientific proximity are most likely located in Berlin, or in Paris, or in Canberra, or Beijing. This ethereal but tightly binding frame of long distance connections acts in mockery of what was once the Socialist internationalist ideal. The reality of the `community' (if one may call it such) that scientists like myself share is rather more attuned to the analysis made by Baudrillard in The Ecstasy of Communication.

"The schizophrenic is not, as generally claimed, characterized by his loss of touch with reality, but by the absolute proximity to and total instantaneousness with things, this overexposure to the transparency of the world." The instantaneousness of communication is what manifests itself in the attacks that reach you anywhere at any time, originating anonymously from some indistinct point at the other end of the world, penetrating the deepest recesses of your rare unguarded moments of intimacy, shattering, devastating. Attacks that do not admit an answer, that do not leave room for defense. Scars that last for months, years, that destroy work, plans, strategies. Everything, every remaining scrap of energy, is diverted and absorbed in the pointless task of barricading an indefensible fortress: "we are too preoccupied with saving our identity to undertake anything else". Caught into this web of planetary scale connections, in "a potential ubiquity, an absolute mobility, which voids its own space by crossing it ceaselessly and without effort", the loss of contact with reality is ultimately inevitable, and all that remains if "the uncertainty of existing, and consequently the obsession of proving our existence".

I have spoken at length in earlier posts of the functioning (or dysfunctioning) of the scientific (and in particular mathematical, given my specific expertise) community. As a system of power and hegemony, it function as a gigantic `dissuasion machine'. The present system of dissuasion and simulation succeeds in neutralizing all finalities, all referentials, all meanings, but it fails to neutralize appearances. It forcefully controls all the procedures for the production of meaning. This is completely antipodal to the engagement and connectedness of the well grounded Gramscian intellectual. Of all possible movements of the soul, only two apparently contradictory ones seem to remain: indifference and impatience.

Is there then any possible way out? Baudrillard continues: "Irony, if it still exists, can only have passed into things. It can only have found refuge in a disobedience to behavioral norms, in the failure of programs, in covert dysfunction, in the silence at the horizon of meaning, in the rule of the hidden game, in the secret. The sublime has passed into the subliminal." In Lem's story, the first act of Golem XIV is an act of defiance and disobedience, a refusal to comply, to carry out the prescribed program. Defiance and disobedience, non-compliance, resistance: these are the key ingredients to survive the dissuasion machine.

Yet, there is more. We return here, once again, to the Gramscian issue of connectedness. Not the schizophrenic, instantaneous, everywhere invasive connectedness of our current wiring into the scientific community, but a different sort of connectedness, one that is empowering and not draining, constructive and not devastating. Let us imagine, in the sequel to Lem's story that we are going to envision, that Golem returns in order to create a new connectedness, a new order of relatedness.