Metamorphosis and Mirrors

September 17, 2017 § 1 Comment

[Please Note: This text contains minor spoilers for the 2017 television series “Twin Peaks: The Return.”]

The season finale of “Twin Peaks: The Return” earlier this month created a seismic ripple amongst David Lynch devotees of the Internet. The proliferation of detail-obsessed fan theories, wikis in at least six languages, and thoughtful analytic pieces speaks to the twisted depths of Lynch’s vision in his reboot of the cult 1990s television series. While the show’s terrain is undoubtedly multidimensional, its intricacies depend on a foundational, age-old motif: dual identity.

While doppelgängers have always been important to the “Twin Peaks” universe, Lynch takes it a step further in “The Return” with the introduction of Tulpas: manufactured alternate identities. A Tulpa takes on the exact appearance (with shifts in minute physical details) of a character, but is actually a construct unknowingly advancing evil while the “real” person is trapped somewhere—in another body or alternate dimension. This play on identity undergoes a number of interesting permutations with the show’s central character, FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan). There is 1) the “real” Dale Cooper, known and adored from the original series, 2) his evil doppelgänger, “Bad Cooper,” 3) a manufactured Tulpa, Dougie Jones, 4) Dougie Jones’ evacuated body, which is reinhabited by the “real” Dale Cooper in a dormant, barely verbal state; and, eventually, 5) the reawakened Dale Cooper who, after entering an alternate dimension, becomes someone named Richard. In this shifting landscape, one can never know who is real and who is a Tulpa, not the real characters or the Tulpas themselves, and oftentimes not even the viewers.


Bad Cooper, Dale Cooper, and Dougie Jones (Showtime)

Indeed, any fan of Lynch will recognize doubles as a long-standing interest of the surrealist filmmaker; Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway wholly depend on structures of duality and split existence. But this preoccupation with multiple identities seems to have particular resonance in the world of contemporary television. Jill Soloway’s award-winning series “Transparent,” for instance, revolves around the story of Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor), a transitioning transgender woman who, while exploring the complex (and increasingly unlikely) process of sex reassignment surgery, must make peace with her hybrid identity.

The FX original series “The Americans” offers a more politically oriented site for thinking about metamorphosis: two Soviet spies passing as Americans (as well as happily married) near the end of the Cold War. Additional examples are not hard to find: Walter White/Heisenberg (“Breaking Bad”), Don Draper/Dick Whitman (“Mad Men”), and Tony Soprano (“The Sopranos”), who struggles to reconcile his public role as brutal Mafioso with his inner sense of morality and humanity.

That the theme of metamorphosis is central to so many recent television shows is significant, I think. TV has emerged as a medium that not only offers easily digestible entertainment, but also produces serious art, in some conversations even rivaling film as today’s cinematic experience of choice. And perhaps it is no surprise that in an increasingly digital and fragmented culture, creatives have taken up questions of refracted identity, code-switching, and constructed worlds through a medium that is itself somewhat paradoxical: consisting of isolated parts while also sustaining a long-form narrative whole, a combination that has produced a telling term that yokes the consumptive and temporal—binge-watching.

Perhaps, though, it is not merely technology that is fueling inquiry into questions of identity and self-definition in today’s cultural mainstream. As we become an increasingly global society, boundaries separating countries and cultures are less and less defined (or else more fervently reinforced). It may be productive to consider an earlier era that blurred geographic borders through an increase in travel: the 19th Century. In 1859, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species spawned a crisis of faith in the Western world, exploding people’s notions of what it means to be human. The rise of expeditions into new territories and confrontations with indigenous cultures exposed a seemingly infinite variety among human beings and the natural order.

Identity crisis may indeed be one impulse behind the contemporary revival of the 19th Century as a site for artistic inquiry. A particularly inspired example of such bridging of periods can be found in A. S. Byatt’s 1992 novella Morpho Eugenia, which presents Victorian-era social critique and romance through a modern, hybrid form. The story’s protagonist, William Adamson, admits to being “doomed to a kind of double consciousness” after returning to England from a voyage in the Amazon (28). Throughout the novella, William is jockeyed between a host of tensions and dualities: settling into domesticated married life vs. pursuing his life’s work in the jungle; writing a book on natural science vs. editing his father-in-law’s book arguing for the existence of a divine creator; lusting for a woman who is physically alluring vs. one who is intellectually stimulating.

In his book on the behavior of ants, William lays out “some more abstract, questioning chapters” according to a series of possible headings: “Instinct or Intelligence,” “Design or Hasard,” “The Individual and the Commonwealth,” “What is an Individual?” (126). These questions have DNA in cultural artifacts from as recent as the television shows discussed above to as distant as Homer’s Odyssey (a source text that’s taken up in Morpho Eugenia and, appropriately, adapted to suit the novella’s own ends). After sketching out William’s chapters, the text shifts into the actual pages of his book, where he considers “the utility to men of other living things.” He writes, “one of the uses we make of them is to try to use them as magical mirrors to reflect back to us our own faces with a difference” (127).

In “Twin Peaks: The Return,” Lynch ends one of the final episodes with a brief, unsettling shot of Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), in an unspecified location, staring aghast at her own mirror-image.


Audrey Horne (Showtime)

Where is she? What year is it? Design or Hasard? What is an individual?

We look to science and religion and art. We look to others and, ultimately, to ourselves. But perhaps the longer and harder we look, the farther away we are from knowing, and the more we demand from the image reflected back to us.

Jennifer Gutman


Byatt, A. S. “Morpho Eugenia.” Angels & Insects. Vintage International, 1994.


Money Speaks Louder than Human Voices

March 28, 2017 § 3 Comments

“Everything has a price.” This phrase in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake is not new, but it takes on a new meaning in the context of her novel (139). In today’s world, corporations dominate in every sphere from the economy to religion and politics. While Atwood’s world in which corporations have absolute control is unsettling, her ideas are merely an extrapolation of current times to the future. However, as Atwood shows, commercialism and commodification come at a high price to society and the humans that are a part of it.

Early on in the novel we learn that Jimmy (or later Snowman) lived on a company compound called OrganInc. The corporation controls everything in Jimmy’s life including his school and the rules he has to abide by, enforced through the CorpSeCorps. Later on, we learn that Jimmy and Crake attend what are similar to universities. These “universities,” particularly Crake’s Watson-Crick Institute, aim to generate profits as well, encouraging the very bright students to innovate and develop new technology, carefully securing their facilities, and minimizing interaction with the outside world. In Jimmy’s world, corporations control everything, and their motives clearly dominate.

The corporation-developed compounds seem absurd; however, in reality, they already exist. Massive companies like Amazon and Google have “campuses” that contain everything one needs to live off of. They include restaurants, gyms, childcare facilities, and even sleeping pods – all designed to keep you inside and focused on doing everything possible for the company. Beyond company campuses, universities today mimic those in Atwood’s story. As Vandy students, we even say that we live in a “Vandy Bubble.” Our lives all exist within the confines of our campus as we strive to learn and make new developments in all fields. We are not far off from the fictitious world that Atwood describes.

Images are renderings of future campuses for Google, Amazon, and Apple (from left to right). 

Why does it matter that corporations and technological research centers have such a wide sphere of influence? In a world where profit governs, everything becomes a commodity. This can easily be seen in Oryx and Crake with the story of Oryx. Not only is Oryx commoditized by the pimps that earn money for her sexual acts and pornography but Oryx is also commoditized by every viewer that watches the child pornography, including Snowman. In her discussions of her experience, Oryx has clearly been influenced by the corporation mentality surrounding her, as she states:

“They had no more love…but they had money value: they represented a cash profit to others. They must have sensed that – sensed they were worth something.” (126)

Do we only value human beings for the monetary value they provide? I hope not. Atwood shows a disturbing reality if corporate power continues on its current trajectory. The power of corporations to influence politics and culture even today has implications for cloning and other advanced technology. It is unsettling to think of the development of human clones by companies driven by their own bottom-line. Morality does not seem to have a place in this kind of world.

If we do consider these clones to be “human,” how do we prevent the corporate developers from treating the clones like commodities and not humans, especially when humans today are already commoditized? In the novel, Snowman compares the children in the pornography to “digital clones,” as they did not feel real to him (90). With this statement, Atwood warns of the commodification of both existing humans and potential human clones in the future. If corporations both govern and profit, we cannot prevent abuse and exploitation.

Atwood is not far off in her portrayal of the commodification of human clones. Human cloning has often been criticized for turning human organs into commodities due to their monetary value with cancer treatments and other diseases. President Bush famously rejected all human cloning, stating, “Life is a creation, not a commodity.” He is not alone in being concerned with this idea, as scientists, philosophers, and policy-makers have discussed the implications of human cloning for decades. The Presidents Council on Bioethics expressed the following:

“When the ‘products’ are human beings, the ‘market’ could become a profoundly dehumanizing force.” (The Presidents Council on Bioethics, 2002)

When corporate greed becomes entangled with the morality of health remedies, the potential commodification of humans and human clones is endless. Although Atwood’s fictitious world seems so distant, the reality is that it is much closer to present day than one would first think. From humans to clones to our independence and our value, Atwood shows that everything has a price, and the costs to society are high.


Atwood, Margaret. Oryx and Crake. New York: Anchor, 2004. Print.
Arter, Melanie. “Bush: ‘Life Is A Creation, Not A Commodity’.” CNS News. CFC, 07 July 2008. Web. 28 Mar. 2017.
The President’s Council on Bioethics. “Human Cloning and Human Dignity: An Ethical Inquiry.” Georgetown University, July 2002. Web. 28 Mar. 2017.
Cambria, Nancy. “Our 21st-century Prophet, Margaret Atwood.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. STLtoday, 26 Sept. 2015. Web. 28 Mar. 2017.

Images source:

Subverting Cognition: Surrealist Automatism and Brooks’ Intelligence Theory

March 13, 2017 § 3 Comments

In Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us, Rodney Brooks presents his unique take on the pathway to create meaningful artificial intelligence. To briefly summarize, he suggests that removing clunky algorithms aimed at simulating cognition, while simultaneously creating a direct link between sensation and action, supports more advanced general intelligence (functional intelligence). For me, Brooks’ theory of intelligence found in “the interaction between perception and action” (Brooks Ch.3 “Planetary Ambassadors”) called to mind the techniques of Surrealist painters like Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró, and André Masson. The Surrealists used automatism — painting without conscious thought — to subvert their own cognition and the rational mind, in order to tap into deeper and more raw thoughts and feelings. I argue that given the parallel intention of Brooks’ approach to AI and Surrealist Automatism, an exploration of the latter can help us gain an understanding of Brooks’ method.

Before diving in, let me quickly clarify what I mean when I say ‘meaningful artificial intelligence’ or ‘general intelligence’. In Flesh and Machines, Brooks distinguishes between the tasks and processes traditionally tackled by AI researchers (playing chess at the level of mastery, solving calculus problems, etc) and more practical expressions of intelligence (entering a room, navigating a new environment, avoiding obstacles), and points to the fact that programming a robot to do the latter is a considerable challenge. Thus, I define meaningful or general artificial intelligence as the intelligence that human beings and animals employ in performing ‘basic’ operations, but are far more complicated on a cognitive level than they appear to us. Brooks’ strategy was geared towards cracking the code of programming this kind of intelligence, and it was these simpler actions and motions that the Surrealists sought to simplify their brush strokes and methods too.

Caught in a time of political uncertainty both within the art world and the world at large, the Surrealists reflected on how the conscious mind and higher-level cognition is difficult and beset with ideology from what they saw as a flawed society. They wanted to divorce the art-making process from the constraints of the rational mind indoctrinated by an oppressive society. In order to escape, they adopted a working method called automatism, which allowed them to essentially paint without conscious thinking, thus sourcing the lines and forms that resulted from their subconscious.

Pioneered by André Masson, the Surrealists painted using automatism by first completely clearing their minds. Often, they would even close their eyes or use drugs or natural supplements to achieve a more detached state. Then, they would allow their hand, holding a paintbrush, to flow randomly across the canvas, so that the resulting lines and forms were more a product of chance than conscious manipulation of the paintbrush. In this way, their style was free of rational control. In this way, the Surrealists thought that the compositions they created using automatism came directly from their subconscious — the epicenter of interaction between perception and action. In other words, they tried to simplify their cognitive processes as much as physically possible down to the point where they merely operated on the basis of the interaction between their perception — the way the paintbrush felt across the grain of the canvas — and action — creating a line via the paintbrush on the canvas.


Andre Masson, “Automatic Drawing”, 1924

As you can see, there are strong parallels between the working method of the Surrealists and Brooks’ approach to simulating general intelligence. In explaining the benefits of his theory, Brooks describes his “subsumption architecture” for machines, by which he created a hierarchy of processing levels simulating the process of evolution of traits.

“For Allen [his first physical robot] I targeted three layers. The first was… to make sure that the robot avoided contact with objects… The second layer would give the robot wanderlust, so that it would move about aimlessly. The third layer was to explore purposefully whenever it perceived anything interesting…” Rodney Brooks, Flesh and Machines

Using Brooks’ vocabulary and framework of layers, one can analyze the process of the Surrealists in a similar way. The primary (first, or bottom) layer of automatism was to paint. The fundamental task programmed into the Surrealist’s action was to paint by dipping paintbrush into paint and applying it to the canvas. The second layer was to paint continuously without really stopping. The surrealists were concerned that if they paused longer than an instant, the conscious mind would kick back in. In terms of programming, the continuous painting layer doesn’t have to process how to paint, because the first layer achieved that. Then, the third and tertiary layer was to explore/follow through on a particular line if the sensation of that line or the texture in that region of the canvas captured the artist momentarily. Thus, the automatism employed by some of the Surrealist painters very closely mirrors the “thoughts”of Brooks’ coded AI. In fact, the drawing by Andre Masson above even looks like it could be an aerial view of the paths that Allen may have taken, moving around Brooks’ research lab.

I find the parallels between the techniques of the Surrealists (developed and employed in the early 1900’s) and Brooks’ theory of intelligence (developed and employed in the late 1900’s) to be confirming the validity and ingenuity of Brooks’ theory for machine intelligence. That is to say, if human beings sought to shed the weight and burden of clunky cognitive thought in order to achieve a greater level of functionality in expressing themselves on the canvas, it is incredibly impressive and valid for Brooks to suggest the same for his machines; he argued to remove dedicated “cognition boxes” from his machines, thus eliminating time-consuming and complex cognition algorithms from his AI’s ‘thought’ processes.

While Brooks may not have drawn inspiration from the methods of the Surrealists, I find it beautiful that leaders in two remarkably distinct disciplines both arrived at a similar point of seeking a purified relationship between sensation and action to achieve greater expression and intelligence of movement. Though it has often been suggested that links between memories will be the key to creating thinking artificial intelligence, Brooks’ theories have led me for the first time to consider that in the future, progress in AI development will also come from the mutual inspiration between disciplines, especially the humanities in creating more “intelligent” and human-like robots and machines.


Sources / For more information on Surrealism and Automatism:

Patrizio Murdocca

A New Age of Artifice

January 23, 2017 § 5 Comments

In the fall of 2011, Duke University’s undergraduate literary journal published a rather unassuming poem entitled “For the Bristlecone Snag” (“The Archive”). To the journal’s poetry editors, the poem appeared to be a typical undergraduate work, comprised of several unfulfilled metaphors and awkward turns of phrase. What the editors did not know at the time of publication, however, was that this poem was not written by a human. Instead, it was written by a computer program (Merchant).

When I first learned about “For the Bristlecone Snag”, I was reminded of the writings of Alan Turing, a renowned English computer scientist in the mid 20th century. In his seminal article on the subject of artificial intelligence (A.I.), Turing articulates that the question, “can machines think?”, is “too meaningless to deserve discussion” (Turing 442). After all, he claims, we have no direct evidence that other humans can think, and we merely assume that they do based on their behavior. Turing argues that this “polite convention that everyone thinks” should apply to all beings that can demonstrate human behavior (Turing 446). It is from this line of thought that Turing conceptualized the Turing Test, an experiment in which a computer tries to convince a human of its humanity. According to Turing, if an A.I. can convince a human judge that it is human, then we must assume that the A.I. can think.

While the program that produced “For the Bristlecone Snag” did not complete an extensive and proper Turing Test, it did convince human judges that it was human. At the very least, the poem’s acceptance into an undergraduate literary journal reveals that literate machines can, and will, exist in the near future. The way is paved for more professional and accomplished artificial authors.

Indeed, even in the half decade since “For the Bristlecone Snag” was published, the technology behind artificial intelligence has improved rapidly. Watson, IBM’s “cognitive computing platform”, is a great example of this progress (Captain). In 2011, Watson defeated two reigning champions in Jeopardy, successfully interpreting and answering the game show’s questions. While this feat alone was a remarkable step in cognitive computing, Watson’s analytical abilities have since then contributed to over thirty separate industries, including marketing, finance, and medicine (Captain). For example, the machine can read and understand millions of medical research papers in just a matter of minutes (Captain). As intelligent as Watson is, however, he was never designed to pretend to be human. The chief innovation officer at IBM, Bernie Meyerson, believes ‘“it’s not about the damn Turing Test”’; his team is more interested in accomplishing distinctly inhuman tasks, such as big data analysis (Captain).

While IBM may not be interested in the Turing Test, other artificial intelligence companies have been working specifically towards the goal. In 2014, a program by the name of Eugene Goostman passed the Turing Test using machine learning strategies similar to those that drive Watson (“TURING TEST SUCCESS”). The chatbot, or program that specializes in human conversation, was able to convince several human judges that it was a thirteen-year-old boy (“TURING TEST SUCCESS”). Given the success of Eugene Goostman, and the intelligent accomplishments of Watson, it is indisputable that the Turing Test can be, and has been, passed. Artificial intelligence is a reality. Machines can think.

As an aspiring writer and computer scientist, I can’t help but fixate on the implications that A.I. has for literature. It is entirely possible, even likely, that “For the Bristlecone Snag” foreshadows an era in which the most successful and prolific authors will be machines, an era in which the Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize in Literature are no longer given to humans, an era in which humanity no longer writes its own stories.

Yet, this era of artifice should not be greeted with worry or anxiety. Art has always been artificial, a constructed medium for human expression. In the coming decades, we will author the next authors, create the new creators, we will mold the hand that holds the brush. Artificial intelligence should not be feared as an end to art, but rather a new medium, a new age of artifice.

– Zach Gospe


Captain, Sean. “Can IBM’s Watson Do It All?” Fast Company. N.p., 05 Jan. 2017. Web. 20 Jan. 2017.

Merchant, Brian. “The Poem That Passed the Turing Test.” Motherboard. N.p., 5 Feb. 2015. Web. 20 Jan. 2017.

“The Archive, Fall 2011.” Issuu. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Jan. 2017.<>.

Turing, A. M. “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” Mind, vol. 59, no. 236, 1950,  pp. 433–460.

“TURING TEST SUCCESS MARKS MILESTONE IN COMPUTING HISTORY” University of Reading. N.p., 8 June 2014. Web. 21 Jan. 2017.

At First Sight

November 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

Log 10950. 11.05.32. 2200. Control Room of the Virginia.We have finally located an alien vessel. Vessel was detected on the scanners at 1200 today. Our ship’s shields are fully functional. We are confident we are undetected. Scans of internal structure will begin at 0800 tomorrow. Signing out, Capt. McCarthy.

 Log 10951. 11.06.32. 2300. Control Room of the Virginia.Scanning of the alien vessel commenced today. Vessel is constructed out of a material that appears to be similar to our own carbon nanotubes. This suggests their civilization at the time of their takeoff was no more or less advanced than Earth’s at the time of our takeoff. We also infer that the presence of carbon nanotubes may suggest carbon-based life on the alien’s planet of origin. After this discovery we decided not to attempt contact with vessel, but to observe through scans. We do not want to be tailed back to Earth by aliens whose hostility is unknown. Scanning of external ship structure was completed at 1500. Scanning of internal ship structure commenced at 1700. Thermal imaging shows life forms aboard the ship. More detailed scanning of life forms will commence at 0800 tomorrow. Signing out, Capt. McCarthy.

 Log 10952. 11.07.32. 2200. Control Room of the Virginia.We believe the alien life forms may have evolved in a similar manner to our own evolution. They are bipedal organisms. They seem to have a hierarchal system, with each organism reporting to a higher organism, and these higher organisms report to the highest. There are no outward signs that indicate why this organism is elevated above the rest, but based on the mannerisms of the organism outlines we have generated from our scans to study the aliens, the lower forms resent the power and mannerisms of the higher. He seems to be rather condescending, assuming the aliens experience emotions in the same manner as we humans do. Our scans are not advanced enough to create detailed models of the physical characteristics of the aliens, so we must study their mannerisms to estimate if they are hostile or not. Signing off, Capt. McCarthy.

 Log 10953. 11.08.32. 2100. Control Room of the Virginia.More study of the aliens brings us to the conclusion that they are hostile. The leader seems to be highly aggressive and quick to act. We are moving in to eliminate the ship to prevent any chance of them knowing of our existence. Attack will commence at 0900 tomorrow. We will come in eye sight of the ship, hopefully before they can see us with bare eyes. This first sight of the alien threat will be our last. This threat to us and potentially Earth must be eliminated. Signing off, Capt. McCarthy.

 Log 10954. 11.09.32. 1000. Control Room of the Virginia.Elimination of ship is cancelled. Removing from area at full warp speed. When we moved in for the kill, the first zoomed image the outer cameras provided of the ship revealed the name painted on the side of the ship. It said Virginia…

Orion, B7


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