Technology and A.I. in “2001: A Space Odyssey”

At the start, the very appearance of the monolith creates a disturbance within the hominid family. The microcosm of wider society is this group, so we are to assume, and the immediate implication is thus that these are our primitive ancestors. We are presented with as close to that fictional-mythical state of nature as it might be possible to be, a picture by yet another artist, but shaved of Rousseau’s sentimentality. We are confronted by its artistic subversion of that ideal state, ground down to its base honesty. The monolith appears, and that dissonant, malevolent chorus crescendos. The break with the past is irrevocable, and the disruption will never be undone outside of acts of the imagination. At the same time as science and technology are born, with this moment of bone wielded as tool, as weapon, is born all the myriad problems of application. 

The primary problem is death in the world. We cannot escape this myth of technology coming out of conflict, and of conflict being escalated by these tools. It is telling, however, that Kubrick slyly implies that technology as we see it here is actually a result of biological bootstrapping. Bones become tools, not sticks or stones, which are at a remove from our nature as carnal beings. Bone must be liberated from its casing of meat, and life must be taken away for it to become available to us. This makes the subtle point once again that there was no Eden, that there is no innocence, as death is and ever will be a constant to living beings.  The difference is, however, in the change that has come about in death’s timescale. Before the monolith, there was a rhythm to time’s passing, and the basic impulse to live. Day followed night followed day. The pace slow, monotonous. Seasons came and went on their vegetable timescale. Within this our appetites then would dictate when food thus foraging or the hunt were necessary on our animal timescale. The tool introduces the technological timescale, for it liberates death from a causal connection with nature. Death ceases to be a passive fact of time, a result of disease, or old-age, or hunting. It instead becomes something the weapon can decide. The vast timescale of life and death can be accelerated and telescoped into an instant of aggression.

With the species’s first footstep on the road to civilization, time becomes uncertain, jagged. The individual holding the bone asserts supremacy over the entire universe of death. Life has become considerably more uncertain, and the distinction is echoed in the form of the monolith itself. Glossy, geometrically sharp, utterly antithetical to the craggy, dusty landscape in which it appears. It is properly alien, since at no point are we given a trajectory of its origin, or any mental points of reference to begin to explain it. It is a ferocious expression of definition that is almost entirely self-involved. It can be reacted to, but not interacted with. It is an ontological gauntlet thrown down to the hominids, and in that famous jump-cut we traverse hundreds of thousands of years of extrapolating that one action of picking up the bone and using it as a club. Only after completing this great explosion of development (the jump-cut is actually a witty expression of its rapidity, rather than an artistic indulgence) can we begin to even approach this alien artefact…or can we…

In fact, the rest of the film deals with the issue of a new form of life emerging, but from within one already extant. In the humanity of this act, the agon between life and death has approached something approaching equilibrium, since we are not quite post-scarcity (brands such as Pan Am still exist), but but getting close. We are being civilized via civilization, well expressed in that most self-regardingly civilized of dances, the waltz of the Strauss’s Blue Danube. Indeed, Johann Strauss II’s piece must be contrasted with the film’s opening scene and the use of the fanfare from Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. Music used in these two ways contrasts the path which has been traversed by humanity, leading us from explosive romanticism to dissonance to gentility in our space-craft and their space ballet of docking. Our dark past has been muted into commercial muzak. With the reappearance of the monolith (or discovery of another monolith?) we note a pre-tremor of the unstable and unpredictable forces to be unleashed.

The monolith, in the most austere of senses, strips us down to our own past, and our notions of what it means to be civilized, and consequently readies us for an engagement with our future. It makes us confront the redacted story of our origins. It is neither good nor bad, since it is the alien precursor of such distinctions which we drew up in response to our confrontation with it. When our proxy kills HAL, we are to face not only where we came from, but more significantly exactly what we will do to hold on to our position of preeminence, our philosophical hegemony. Kubrick has affirmed our humanity as being the result of a negation. The monolith should not be dismissed as merely an “Other” because such an easy categorization puts the confrontation on our terms. This is what Zizek calls the hermeneutic impulse, the rush to interpret.

The word and concept of “Other” refuses the responsibility of looking at ourselves. HAL is both us as we were and as we are, with the problem of what we will be to be found in the clash of his “death”, our “murder”, and the malevolent stasis of the monolith. The difficulty we have in talking about the HAL narrative shows up our lack of points of reference on the matter. We are woefully under-prepared for the possibility of our being the stepping off point for new life. In this narrative, we revert to the base algorithm of “Kill it, fuck it, or eat it.” Perhaps we are being precipitous in even thinking that we could adequately engage with such an enormous responsibility, especially as even our nature as tool-users, with our advancement being predicated upon tool-use remains so controversial. Is the death/murder of HAL simply the compulsive repetition of that first death with the use of the bone as a club? Will we continue to use tools in this destructive manner until we fully engage with truth of their ontological audacity, of our incredible transformation of reality. The tool has allowed us to transcend space and time, and yet this is mystified and misunderstood. According to such a view, the monolith is the black hole of our unwillingness to engage ourselves, to see ourselves as alien.

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One thought on “Technology and A.I. in “2001: A Space Odyssey”

  1. Pingback: Also Sprach Zarathustra (Chicago & NY Phil Brass) « Sound the Trumpet: How to Blow Your Own Horn

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