Fast, Cheap, and out of Control

During our meeting the other day, Q gave me some interesting insight into this documentary by Errol Morris. One of Morris’s more interesting choices is to intertwine the interviews with apparently random scenes of the circus. He told me the key was to listen to what was being said in the interviews during these interludes, and to ask myself what the significance of these scenes might have in that context.

If we think in terms of the title and of the recurring themes that are reflected in each individual’s story, the circus makes a pretty incisive metaphor. The circus, like the carnival, is a place where unusual and improbable things can happen, a place that is rife with at least the appearance of randomness, lack of control, primality– in short, magic. It is a space where the rules of polite society need not apply.

Let’s have a look at the four individuals that are Morris’s case study. We have a wild animal trainer (Dave Hoover), a topiary gardener (George Mendonça), a mole-rat specialist (Ray Mendez), and a robot scientist (Rodney Brooks). What could these four possibly have in common?

Well, they are all rather unusual jobs. And, when asked, they all seem to have similar reasons for working them.

For Mendonça, it’s about “making” “green animals”, shaping shrubbery that “constantly needs repairing, getting out of control”. His work bespeaks a philosophy of living; it is only possible to sustain his work with infinite patience and devotion.

Hoover trains wild animals because, he says, wild animals are “just like people” on a basic level– it’s about psychology, always making it clear who’s in charge. It’s about maintaining control. Interestingly, after telling the viewers several stories of near-death experiences with his feline wards, Hoover reflects about his career and about friends in his line of work who’ve died in accidents and mishaps with the animal– “lost control”. “I don’t think anybody thinks they’re gonna die, do they?”

Mendez became a mole-rat specialist because the mole-rat is such a unique specimen of creature, a society unto itself. “It’s trying to figure out what the purpose is that interests me,” he says. “It’s the intellectual part that’s interesting for me, it’s about self-knowledge.” When people come to visit the mole-rat exhibit at the zoo, he sees in their faces that they’re “finding themselves in another social animal.” Mendez adds that, in an evolutionary model, the concept of stability is equal to the concept of death; without chaos there is no change, only stagnation. We are all either “prey, enemy, or ignored”. (and, indeed, it made me wonder about the kind of society we live in when Mendez stated that “only in captivity do animals get to get old”…)

Many people think, Brooks tells us, that building robots is “something that men do” since they can’t conceive– it’s a way to build babies. But, since his lab is mostly female and offers proof positive that such a notion is obviously flawed, Brooks suggests another possibility that crosses genders: “[we are] understanding life by building something that is life-like.” When Brooks builds his robots, his “artificial creatures”, his aim is to create a “different way of living…prototypes for living entities, mammals”.

So let’s add it up: All are concerned in some way or another with control, acknowledging that maintaining a level control is necessary but paradoxically complete control is not only impossible but undesirable. All are concerned with life, creating it or sustaining it or both. And all of them see the object of their work as a mirror in which they can see themselves reflected as human beings.

Are the scenes of the circus also committed to these concerns? The trapeze artist always precariously balanced, risking life and limb, the lion tamers– balance is so precious, control is crucial, and yet the purpose of amazing the crowd of spectators, transforming them into a collective feeding off the wild energy of its performers by giving off what is at least the illusion of chaos. The performance is designed to create life by sparking something in the spectator, satisfying some primal need that predates civilization.

I’m not sure what comment all this makes about cyberliterature or posthumanism, but there’s no denying it is fascinating. One thing that has a direct application to what I have been discussing in this blog is a quote by Rodney Brooks:

I don’t believe it’s possible to have a disembodied intelligence without a physical connection to reality. …Everything, everything in our thought process is built around being in touch with reality– even the word “touch”.

Where does that put the case for embodiment in posthumanism?

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