Machine Power

by Simon Biggs, 1986

First presented as part of the 1986 Adelaide Festival of Arts Artist's Week Symposium
Published in Artlink, Adelaide, Australia, V7 N3 1986

Our artefacts have come to dominate their producers, pre-determining what it is to be human. Chaplin's worker, a cog in the machine, has been superseded by the post-modern worker, Fritz Lang's vision - the product of the machine; a machine so heterogeneous in its parts and diverse in its functions that it has become invisible as an artefact and now exists as myth.

When reading pre-modern artefacts, as opposed to modern productions, we tend not to take as much care in differentiating between those created within an artistic paradigm and those that were not. Our prime interest in such artefacts is in what they tell us about the peoples and cultures that gave rise to their production. This is particularly evident in the way we address the pre-historical artefact - where that thing, the object of our vision, is all we have to speak of a pre-textual era.

In this sense all our artefacts are seen as equal. One may speak more eloquently than another but fundamentally there is no basis for distinguishing between a mortar stone or a cave painting, between a Venus and a chariot.

Today we live in what is often called the technological or information age. As products of the human the machines and media that define and constitute this age have to be seen as important expressions of the human state - as important, from an art historical/aesthetic position, as an art which has had traditional privilege in this respect.

Within the well charted history of the modern machine, beginning perhaps with Leonardo's fancies and taking its most potent form in the steam engine, the relationship between these artefacts and their makers can be deconstructed. The expressive or metaphorical status of the machine, regarding its producer, can be explored. The machine, as a product of the human, can be seen as modelled directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, on its creator.

With the development of the machine sciences we have witnessed a similar development in the human sciences. The two seem to have evolved as an act of discourse with one another, if in a dialectical relationship. It is difficult to identify which of these scientific cultures, if either, have had precedence at any particular point in time. Our expressions of the human, modelled in our ideas and technologies, often tell us more about ourselves than we thought we had invested in their production. By the same process, with increased or iterated self-knowledge, we invest further in our creations. Regarding ourselves in the mirror of our productions, a mutually recursive, ever expanding and/or shifting series of meta-narratives develop, with ourselves as their object.

This process is not necessarily the modernist paradigm of progress but the inevitable product of any discourse - in this case a discourse between the sentient and their significant objects.

Mary Shelley, writing at a critical point in the Industrial Revolution, created a powerful metaphor in the relationship between Doctor Frankenstein and his monster creation. Shelley can be seen to have recognised an active process of recombinance and reproduction at work in our culture; the idea that we merge with our objects, in a binary function similar to the internal structure of the sign or gene. Recombining, resolving or dissolving this duality, and thus producing a shift from the original, Shelley related her subject to the Jewish myth of the Golem, the prototype story of humanity and its objects, and to a developing machine culture. Shelley identified a process fundamental to the human which, although previously recognised in other contexts such as the Golem and magic, is posited in the Frankenstein story in relation to a new type of artefact - the machine as human.

Mark Poster, in "Mode of Production versus Mode of Information", argues that today we are concerned with machines that deal with information, which he details in contrast to the industrial, modernist modes of production. Although Poster is attempting to resolve Post-Marxist theory with the late post-Structural works of Michel Foucault the argument can be carried tangentially to this objective.

Our machines are human, and here the computer is the obvious focus, in the sense that they are language systems modelled on ourselves as language systems - predicated as tautological systems of exchange manifesting in a multitude of codes. Language, as a system of exchange, is also a system of control from which we draw our individual and social structures and into which, through the agency of our artefacts, we encode our experience.

Although the machine is now human (begging the question, are humans now machines?) this is not to imply that machines have achieved sentience but rather that they are an accurate reflection of how we see ourselves in a form of Lacanian mirror-phase.

Alan Turing envisaged the computer as a meta-machine - a machine that could be any and all machines. A relatively recent development, the computer has come to occupy a position of total dominance in the society of machines. It is the machine that controls all other machines, adapting endlessly to different input and output requirements.

Similarly, the human organism and the social body have inbuilt processes of control. The individual and the culture within which they exist is today seen as hierarchically organised, a set of meta-structures manifest as systems of control through the means of exchange and communication. Control, via systems of exchange, has been if not the actual dominant discourse has at least come to be seen as such in the late Twentieth Century (see Marx, Darwin or Freud)and therefore, for us now, is the dominant issue.

If a thing is not there at least it is reflected there.

Foucault has suggested that we live in a society oriented around a panoptic centre; that we live in a process of continual exchange with an all seeing eye at the core of our culture, the core of our psyche. In this process of exchange and communication are to be found our structures of control.

Around and within us the video eye creeps. We are watched via video cameras and CCTV, in a sense, as in Orwell's 1984, via our TV's. Nam June Paik's TV Buddha achieves self-knowledge through contemplating its video-reflection on a monitor. Dan Graham places the viewer in a Lacanian labyrinth of mirrors that formulate our TV alter-ego's. Graham explores that small gap, in time and space, between us and ourselves constituted in the video gaze. Video cameras linked to digital memory banks that are our own memories close the circuit of self-awareness and function as externalised expressions of both our desire for and our fear of control.

The Walt Disney film Tron described a world formed in the bowels of a computer game run amok. In a scenario dominated by an evil, all seeing Master Control Program all hope for redemption, and a return to a video Eden, is invested in a sole human character within the machine. Although the hero wins the game it is difficult to imagine that such a simple outcome could be hoped for in our "real-time" context of complex social and psychological power structures.

In memory of the primitive fear of theft of self or the related Judeo-Islamic taboo against representational images, painting and photography trapped us in a two dimensional plane of light. More recent media, such as video and film, extended representation into the behavioural and thus the domination of narrative. The computer, with its capacity to model us as a system predicated on language, brings us closer to being part of the machine, the production of the self on a production line under panoptic control.

Whether such a panopticon actually exists as a presence, or is in fact a myth that we have designed to fill what we perceive and fear to be an absence, is debatable. That we see it there, and recognise it, is sufficient. That we accept its existence outside us as a worldly presence (embodied in individuals, institutions or deities) and within us (in our ideas and attitudes) allows us to give our lives a sense of form.

copyright Simon Biggs 1986