Sunday, December 16, 2012

Lawrence Weschler: Existence and Essence in the Uncanny Valley



 Welcome guest blogger, Collin Ford Lucken,Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering student at NYU-Ploy.


Lawrence Weschler, like many writers before him and many writers who will come after, writes for “the moment when the accumulation of detail mysteriously and almost of its own accord seems to blossom forth into a seamless whole” (Uncanny Valley 274). He writes for the same reason the builders of the Tower of Babel toiled on endlessly, in hope that their work will eventually make the “leap of faith” and, spontaneously of its own accord, reach Heaven (or true understanding of god, or the humans who created him).  Weschler is an experienced writer, he spent twenty years as a journalist at The New Yorker, and currently he is the Head of the Institute of Humanities at New York University where he teaches a graduate course in writing: The Fiction of Nonfiction. Weschler wrote mostly about cultural comedy and political tragedy during his time at The New Yorker, and it suited him because he has an unwavering sense of humor and deep curiosity in what it means to be a human. He is not so different from the programmers and digital artists at Pixar and Dreamworks, they all seek to capture the anima, the soul, of humanity.

“On the Digital Animation of the Face” is a perfectly fitting introduction to the paradox of the Uncanny Valley. Weschler shares with the reader the plight of a modern digital animator, and their war with “the Wall,” the ever so close but infinitely far possibility of rendering a one hundred percent realistic and believable digital human face. It is not hard to imagine the difficulty in creating a digital copy of the human face, which is, as Weschler puts it, “The Seat of the Soul” because the soul, or the consciousness, or the anima, or whatever you want to call it, cannot be quantified or qualified with mathematical reasoning; all computers can understand is math. A computer can generate a perfect-looking human face but because human faces are not perfect the resulting image is uncanny, disturbing in that it is so close to accurate but not quite right. The quest to capture the anima, the soul, what it means to be human, rests at the heart of the human condition; it has been for centuries.  A late medieval mathematician, Nicholas of Cusa, compared the journey to true knowledge of God (and because humans created God, or God created humans in his likeness, knowledge of what it means to be human) to attempting to create a circle by adding infinite sides to a polygon. The more sides added to the polygon, the closer and closer to a circle it becomes, but at the same time it becomes less and less like a circle because a circle only has one side and zero angles and heading up the number line towards infinity is heading in the wrong direction. This same paradox exists in attempting to recreate a digital human and is elaborated on by Andy Jones in Weschler’s essay. “It can get eerie. As you push further and further, it begins to get grotesque. You start to feel like you’re puppeteering a corpse” (Uncanny Valley 16). But Weschler finds that the human face isn’t only uncanny when replicated, it can be uncanny because of context. 

Lawrence Weschler
Certainly finding your likeness in the home of a stranger is uncanny. Weschler visited the apartment of art dealer Richard Gray, his host while he was presenting at the Chicago Humanities Festival, in his essay “On Coming Face to Face with Myself.” While walking through Gray’s house, Weschler finds something that surprises and embarrasses him--a sketch of him that had been made by David Hockney many years ago. While looking at the sketch in some stranger’s apartment, many thoughts went through his head. The last one he recalls is that he, in the painting, would be staring at anyone else who visited that apartment--or even Gray and his wife in their skivvies! The tone of the essay changes quickly from light to dark as the essay’s focus switches almost immediately to Breyten Breytenbach, an apartheid political prisoner.  There is always humor in Weschler’s work, but the reader can always expect that right around the corner is going to be something very important and serious. After all, in his twenty years of being a journalist for The New Yorker, he saw some of the grimmest situations the modern world has to offer. While Weschler’s humor keeps him sane in the face of the political tragedies he has been confronting since his days at The New Yorker, by contrast, his wit also draws attention to the more significant topics he explores. Weschler’s unique qualities are not only his broad view--his desire to understand humanity and what makes a person human--but also the way that desire effects his writing. He is deft, easily switching from the light side of life to the dark. This sudden contrast is sharper than a gradual transition would have been.  The sharp contrast highlights both sides of the extreme. The light--the irony of him staying behind in the drawing to stare at other visitors- becomes lighter, the dark -the plight of the prisoner--darker. His skilled use of language shows that the decision to use contrast is intentional.

Weschler’s language is precise, and meaningful. One word changes the meaning of a sentence, often a powerful adjective, and he knows this. During his brief recollection of the profile of Breyten Breytenbach in “On Coming Face to Face with Myself” he writes that the guards fiercely forbid Breytenbach from painting while he was incarcerated. Attaching the word fiercely makes the idea of the suppression of freedom of expression much more menacing. Often Weschler forsakes the precision of clever adjectives for the brute force of long, winding sentences:

While you’re at it, surround its magnificent hulking presence with an even vaster ellipsis, one that you rotate as well, only this time counterclockwise, providing a narrow vertical passageway on the other side, such that a visitor entering the maze might experience an initially tapered pathway widening as he or she went along, while the opening above, initially quite wide and expansive, would itself taper precipitously the deeper in one went, and then vice versa, until, suddenly, one was delivered into the heart of the labyrinth, that original half-basketball-court-sized elliptical agora, its walls pitching vertiginously from side to side (Torqued Brueghel 25).

 It’s a long complicated sentence, one that serves not only as a detailed description of Sierra’s art but one that gives the reader the same sense of wonder as a firsthand experience: it’s easy to imagine wandering through the twists and turns of the ellipses while wandering through the twists and turns of Weschler’s writing.  While his careful and skilled prose can be admired in its own right, it is also reflective of Weschler’s larger themes, those same themes that permeate much of his work.

Weschler, an intellectual, is heavily influenced by other who share his quest to define humanity. Weschler’s work is heavily influenced by Jean Paul Sartre, a 20th century French intellectual. Similarities to Sartre’s ideas are prevalent in Weschler’s writing, especially in Uncanny Valley’s Afterword. In Existentialism and Humanism Sartre writes “Existence precedes essence,” which strikes a remarkable parallel to the conclusion of Uncanny Valley’s Afterword:

The same with stories. God invented man, the wise man says, because he loved stories. And maybe the other way around: Man invented God for the same reason. Or maybe Narrative invented both of us: Couldn’t do without us. Hallelujah. Amen. (Uncanny Valley 278).

Here Weschler concludes, like Sartre did many years before, that before our creation humanity was nothing, and that before humanity, creation (or God) was nothing. Existence, to Weschler, precedes essence, as with Sartre.

Sartre concludes, in one of his most famous quotes, that we, as humans, are utterly free willed (he says we are condemned to be so, in fact), and that the choices we make are our ultimate responsibility. Weschler’s essay “Vermeer in Bosnia,” about his time in The Hague at a revolutionary War Crime Tribunal overseeing the case of Bosnian-Serb war criminal Dusko Tadic, concludes similarly in that, “We are left alone, without excuse” (Sartre Existentialism and Humanism), in the face of our past deeds. That despite our political or religious affiliations, despite our “orders,” we are free willed and the guilt of our actions rests only with us. To live and breathe is not the same as being human. Being a human and having humanity are not the same.  The boundary is difficult to see--like with the long sentences, where does “it” end--where does existing end and humanity start.

Perhaps that ultimate responsibility of choice is the epitome of what it means to be human. This is where Sartre’s opinion and Weschler’s divide. Sartre was starkly against the idea that there was an omnipotent celestial force, a god that created us. This absence of essence before existence is why Sartre believes we are left alone. While Weschler never overtly says in Uncanny Valley “Hey, I’m Religious,” he does make subtle hints to his beliefs throughout the text and a less subtle one at the ending his book’s afterword:  “Hallelujah. Amen.” Weschler would not agree that humanity’s free will comes from a lack of a God, he would argue the opposite, that god granted us our free will.

Be it the builders at the tower of Babel, or the programmers in Ehmryville California at Pixar studios, true understanding of the meaning of humanity will always be sought after. One can only imagine how future generations might attempt this. Weschler seems to already be content with his answer, that “it is the stories that are the true living entities of this third planet from the sun, and we, the humans, maybe merely the endlessly flowing medium in which they abide.” (Uncanny Valley 278). 

I can’t help but agree with him.

****

For a related post, read Human Clones: The Ultimate Uncanny

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