Rendering #8: Animals and Machines

31 03 2010

For this week’s rendering I wanted to post a few clips of robotic animals interacting with those regular old animals that many of us enjoy spending time with. What are robotic animals specifically designed for? How are they actually used? What do the real animals think of them? Lastly, do they (or any other technology) have the potential to help us to grasp any new aspects of another organism’s umwelt?

According to Natalie Jeremijenko’s website, the feral robotic dogs are transformed from their intended use as entertainment device into an activist tool for exploring the material conditions of an area. The website also characterizes the hacking of the dogs as a move to exploit the popularity of these toys for the purpose of critically evaluating the “corporate imagination,” to take advantage of these corporations’ ability to make inexpensive motors and sensing devices, and to present pertinent information about a potentially toxic environment in a different, more creative, and more accessible manner than would be found in a standard scientific report.

Robotic dogs are constructed and given particular features according to what aspects of normal dog behavior are most commonly sought by humans:

“The data from which this analysis draws are the result of research done to advance the design of a pet-like robot, Sony’s “Aibo.” In 2003 one of us (A.H.) performed an observational study of dog–human interactions in play to create a catalogue of play behaviors (more details of the methods of this study are available elsewhere). One goal in the design of the Aibo robot is to “encourage human and robot interaction” (Sony entertainment robot Aibo operating instructions 2000). The robot is dog-like in its form—it is four-legged, has a tail, characteristic head form, etcetera—and behavior— it ambles and wags like a dog, barks, and performs simple trained-dog routines—and is intended to interact with human beings. The research was motivated by a desire to create play routines and games which could be modeled in a dog-like robot such as Aibo. With this method, what initially appear to be highly complex social interactions can be deconstructed, and then reconstructed in the robot.”

Jeremijenko’s hacked robotic dogs subvert this anticipation by repurposing the toys in order to point out the imaginative shortcomings and material waste that a consumer society produces. But how are consumers using these technologies? As the clips comprising my rendering for this week show, consumers are quick to put robotic dogs and other animals into what are most likely unanticipated relations; usually by having these artificial organisms interact with the fleshly organisms they are supposed to be replacing; often to enormously humorous effect for the human observer  (and possibly occasionally for the animal).

Could these robotic dogs be hacked in a way designed to instruct us about real dogs?  What would a robotic dog be like that only displays canine behavior that we do not anticipate or instinctively anthropomorphize?

Horowitz, Alexandra C. ans Bekoff, Marc. “Naturalizing Anthropomorphism: Behavioral Prompts to Our Humanizing of Animals.” Anthrozoös. 20:1 pp 23-35.


Rendering #7: J. Craig Venter, Maverick

17 03 2010

“After these genomes are synthesized, the first step is just transplanting them to a cell without a genome. So we think synthetic cells are going to have tremendous potential, not only for understanding the basis of biology but for, hopefully, environmental and society issues.” (Venter, 12:44-13:03)

“Whereas induction is reasoning by inference from particulars toward general conclusions, and deduction the drawing of conclusions from known principles or theories, abduction is reasoning from premises that may materialize in the future. Venter’s taking of digital snapshots of marine microbial genomes rests upon the promise of yet-to-be-invented techniques and theories for making sense of such information.” (Helmreich, 172)

“When researchers like Venter describe the objects of environmental genomics as environmental genomes (or even an ocean genome), they slip from a description of their method into a claim that their sample represents a bounded entity in the real world. In this process several things drop out, elements that must vanish for the genome to be conjured as such, for the ocean to be identified with its microbial genes. Fishes. Seaweed. But also seasonality, ocean currents- all the things microbiologists interested in context might care about.” (Helmreich, 196)

“… the ocean described by genomics is increasingly abstract, not always understood with respect to geographic, geopolitical knowledge but through traces uploaded into databases- the eventual uses of which are never crystal clear but which may indeed by leveraged into new kinds of property, both substantial and promissory, later. This is the ocean abducted. Outsiders are left to follow in the wake of the scaled-up agencies of powerful travelling scientists who move quickly from one place to the other.” (Helmreich, 201)

Craig Venter seems like a man with a deep ambivalence toward “society issues.” My impression of Venter after watching this video is that he does not care if the ocean is ever described in any sort of context, because he seems to be building a massive tool that will render the future in a way that makes present context irrelevant. He is not just acting on premises that he hopes turn out to be true (Peirce’s abduction), but he is manipulating resources in the effort to create or ensure the future he is banking on, which is also an act of foreclosing other possibilities (the other sense that Helmreich is hinting at). It would be interesting to hear what someone like Latour would make of this double sense of abduction.

I’m also very interested in others’ impressions of Venter. I really do not have a good grasp of the man or his past accomplishments and the controversy they seem to have created. How do we put him in context? Is he an extremely important person in the world today or is he a marginal figure engaged in pursuing his own personal whims? On that note, who are some of the other big names in science today?  Are scientists supposed to have high profiles? What does Latour say about this?

Rendering #6: Animal Cannibals

10 03 2010

Nicole Shukin’s definition of animal capital stresses the two-sided, material and semiotic aspects of the animal as sign and as substance. By insisting on the inseparability of these relations, she hopes to direct our attention to the hidden complex of repressed and unresolved material relationships that trouble the dominant cultural memory of capitalist modernity. Bound up with the pervasive and seemingly innocuous images of animals put to work in the advertising campaigns of so many multinational corporations are myriad violent and environmentally devastating material and economic realities; forms of rendering life that cannot be left in full view of the consuming public. The disturbing reality of these rendering practices necessitates the need for their concealment or, when they cannot be concealed, for a pre-emptive attack on their inevitable critique.

The strong identification of anthropomorphized animals with the most recalcitrant and vulgar of stereotyped gender roles is one strategy for deflecting critique, as well as an unfortunate reminder of what kinds of values are still hegemonic in our society. Both sides of the growing political divide today tend to see all issues as having two sides, one right and one wrong, and this logic is supposed to weave through all issues, emanating signs that provide instant orientation for the busy consumer. If you are a socially conservative Republican in the United States, you are not allowed to advocate for tougher government action to combat the effects climate change, even if you are secretly anxious to do so, because the refusal to address this issue has been articulated with the homophobic, racist, sexist, xenophobic, imperialist, and creationist beliefs that this socially conservative Republican holds dear. Not only must this conflicted armchair pundit refrain from acting the way they would like to on this issue, but their commitment to their party leaders requires their tacit complicity in actively opposing their own beliefs. What affectively charged networks of beliefs are these animal signs aligning themselves with? What aspects of an immanent critique are they pre-emptively attacking?

Shukin provides ways to read these depictions of animal cannibals that complement the kind of psychoanalytic investigation that the advertisements are calling out for. Apart from what depictions of hyper-sexualized animated anthropomorphic animals who desire to be eaten might say about our cultural subconscious and its various unresolved issues, Shukin suggests that we focus our attention on the material reality of factory farms and their practices of forced animal cannibalism. Mad cow disease is one symptom of the murky, messy material reality that mirrors these images. H5N1, or bird flu, as well as H1N1, swine flu, are two other symptoms of the overcrowded genetic mess that is the mass meat industry. The ability of small-scale, organic producers of meat to maintain their operations is severely undermined by a warped perspective on what counts as a sanitary work environment that is perpetuated by industry lobbyists, while, as Shukin reminds us, the sins of the factory farm are deflected onto imagined communities in “unsanitary” places such as China (bird flu) and Mexico (swine flu).

These kinds of critiques, coupled with the shock tactics of some animal welfare groups, can be emotionally draining, and they often provoke a kind of willful apathy as much as they incite action. As someone who seems to be somewhat strongly aligned with animals these days, I rarely read about or write these sorts of things, as they have too much of a tinge of self-righteousness, and they tend to simplify complex issues. I still prefer them to no engagement whatsoever, but I understand the instinctive aversion to them. Nevertheless, all signs point to a deeply unjust and, frankly, sadistically psychotic set of relations between humans and other animals today. If Shukin’s book constitutes one important resource in the effort to comprehend and come to terms with our neglected relations with other animals, what do we need in order to begin building new relations?

This one is not selling meat, but I had to include it:

and if you thought my last rendering was muddled…

24 02 2010

Rather than trying to respond in the comments section to the completely valid points that my last rendering provoked, I wanted to shift the issue a little bit, hopefully moving closer to what I was trying but failing to get at last time. I am not sure if this rendering will be much better than the last one, but I seem to be completely stuck in these definitions, so I’ll keep going like this for a little while.

A code was defined in my last rendering as a way of ordering living entities in terms of biovalue that allows them to be enrolled in bio-informatic economies of value that converge with capital economies. I claimed that Body Worlds does not produce a code in the sense Waldby used the term because it has no direct intrusive effect on living matter.

The main points brought up in the comments were:

Does this claim ignore the plastination process, which certainly does have an intrusive effect on the bodies being plastinated?

Does the claim ignore that Body Worlds has an intrusive effect on many bodies by perpetuating certain stereotypical and conservative notions of gender and of what constitutes a normal body?

My answer is that I certainly did ignore those things, and not at all because I do not think they are important. I had to ignore them because I want to try to figure out whether there is something in the definition of a code, or somewhere else in these terms, that has to do with technology that intervenes and that physically removes something or adds something else in a way that makes something unprecedented. This is what I was trying to get at with the word ‘direct,’ which I admit is an awful attempt at clarity. I cannot include the plastination process in this definition because the plastinated body is not itself a technology that can then go and operate on other bodies in this way. And I could not include all of the other intrusive effects that Body Worlds has on bodies, which I implied are ‘indirect,’ which I know is wrong, because then this other set of effects, particularly in their relations to new technologies, gets swept up in something broader. But this still does not make sense. I feel as though I want to articulate something very simple here, and I just cannot seem to hit on it.

I suppose I should also include an actual rendering. There are two renderings I have in mind and that I hope will resonate with you. They both came to mind while I was struggling with how to designate the productive power of technology in this rendering. One is a quote from Natasha’s book:

“Mike Fuller, a longtime member of the LMB, recounts that his first day on the job at the Cavendish laboratories as a 15 year old, the directors asked him: “Have you got a bike?” and promptly sent him off to the slaughterhouse to get hemoglobin- in the form of fresh blood from a horse. As he recounts, “They actually killed the horse in front of you. And you had to stand there and reach out with the flask to catch the blood.”

With the advent of genetic engineering, protein purification is a much cleaner task today. Most proteins are purified from bacteria that have been genetically engineered to over-express a protein of interest.” (43-44)

The other example is two youtube videos describing the economic value of two different technologies for creating dogs:

Rendering #4 Bio-

10 02 2010

For this week’s rendering, I want to begin sorting out some of the important distinctions among the myriad bio- terms that are becoming increasingly essential tools for conceptualizing the links among life, politics, economics, technology, and philosophy. The definitions below are paraphrased from pages 33-35 of Waldby and I have to admit that I have not finished the reading yet, so this might end up being all wrong or incomplete, but at least in that case there will be lots for everyone to comment on. Here is my first step toward some kind of bio-clarity:

Biotechnology: produces biomedical knowledge and techniques for the management and intensification of the productive and reproductive capacities of matter.

Bio-power: Foucault’s term designating the enrolment of the forces of human life and embodiment in the formation of modern social order.

Biovalue: specifies the ways in which technics can intensify and multiply force and forms of vitality by ordering it economically (as a calculable and hierarchical system); pertains  neither to strictly human agents nor to strictly political processes.

Code: a way of ordering living entities in terms of biovalue that allows them to be enrolled in bio-informatic economies of value that converge with capital economies.

Operative images: methods of body-ordering that provide accounts of the ways that living bodies can be instrumentalized.

Archive: a reserve of operative images.

—– particularly in the case of the last three definitions, I try to think of the word ‘account’ as doing two things: on one hand, an account is a rendering of some event or set of data that is supposed to distill whatever is absolutely significant or most important about it. On the other hand, this distillation is produced in order to highlight, necessitate or make possible some future course of action to the exclusion of all others. Accounts tell us something but they also nudge us toward one particular course of action.

Now that I have some preliminary definitions, I wanted to make some sort of chart that would help to distinguish these terms further, and that would also help to categorize some concrete examples. I started out with several of these but had to cut it down to just the VHP and Body Worlds, because it is actually quite difficult and I am not at all confident about how to do this properly. So, I hope to edit this quite a bit, bring in more definitions (like biopolitics, for example), and put in some more examples, but here is the first attempt:

Biotechnology Bio-power Biovalue Code Operative image Archive
Visible Human Project Utilized in the production

of pedagogical materials, among

other potential applications: effects bodies

Increased visibility means potential for new normative vision of the body Body as system usable in medicine, industry, etc. Body rendered as data; a resource that can be sold to commercial interests which can affect new living matter New orientation of interior topography of the human body; optimized for future application The cultivation of the visible nuclear family
Body Worlds Plastination does not engender technologies productive of new living matter Also increases the visibility of the human body; advertised as a way to educate Does not intensify forces or forms of vitality Body rendered as educational tool/ spectacle but has no direct intrusive effect on living matter Also new orientation of interior topography of the human body, but far more difficult to appropriate Not too much you can do with an archive of such heavy and labor-intensive  specimens

Rendering #3 Ah-Shi or Trigger Points

27 01 2010

“There would appear to be, then, at the other extremity of the earth we inhabit, a culture entirely devoted to the ordering of space, but one that does not distribute the multiplicity of existing things into any of the categories that make it possible for us to name, speak, and think.” (xix)

My rendering for this week takes the form of a conversation I had recently. I started going to a naturopathic doctor a few weeks ago for a shoulder problem. He decided to start acupuncture on my back, and he gave a brief description of two types of acupuncture that he would try. For the first type, he would stick a needle into the muscle that was tight and move it around to get the muscle to spasm, releasing all the tension and turning the giant knot in my back into jelly. He explained this process quite clearly, and he was satisfied that he understood how it works. He has a background in Western science, and the process made sense to him.

The other kind of acupuncture involved placing a series of needles in my back in a pattern. This pattern, he explained, would reorient something in my back in some way, whether one wants to call it energy, Qi or something else. He claimed that he had no idea why it worked, only that it seemed to. He seemed to be in quite the dilemma: he would not adopt a language that would account for the existence and behavior of Qi, since that would be to give up his own system of reference, but at the same time he was trained to do this and he could not deny that the procedure works, as he has seen results from it time and time again.

Compare these two passages from the website for the Acupuncture Foundation of Canada Institute. They have quite a lot to say about the size, shape, and material composition of the needles used in acupuncture, and also about where to put them, but relatively little to say about why it works:

“Acupuncture needles are solid, usually stainless steel (they may also be gold or silver), and measure from 13-70 mm, although longer reusable ones up to about 150 mm in length can be purchased. The needles are very fine, flexible and rounded but sharp at the tip. They are ‘atraumatic’, meaning that they do not have a cutting edge like a hypodermic needle, which slices through tissue. Their design allows acupuncture needles to slide smoothly through tissues and makes them unlikely to cause bleeding or damage to underlying structures.”

“Acupuncture points (also referred to as ‘acupoints’) are places on the skin that have a lower resistance to the passage of electricity than the surrounding skin and are part of a network of points that were mapped centuries ago by the Chinese. Most are found along ‘meridians’ or ‘channels’ that are believed to be the pathways by which energy or Qi (pronounced ‘Chee’) flows through the body. Acupoints are located either by identifying anatomical landmarks or by the classical method (for example: “the point where the middle finger touches the thigh when standing at attention”).”

Upon further investigation, there is a copious body of research (much of it cited on the AFCI website) that clearly explains how acupuncture works in Western scientific medical terms. Nevertheless, there is still a barrier and no small amount of distrust that exists between “scientific” and “non-scientific” understanding and descriptive language, which is why naturopathic doctors exist. A lot of people I know are quite skeptical about the idea that having needles stuck in them might help them. Oddly enough, I went to a regular medical doctor a few times seeking advice about my shoulder before going to the naturopath, and this doctor also recommended needles, albeit ones filled with anesthetic.

I understand that it is hardly a simple clash of Eastern vs. Western approaches or attitudes. I spent a year in Korea, for example, got sick frequently, and was given more antibiotics, vitamins, and jelly-like substances that I didn’t know whether to eat or rub on my chest than I had ever seen before. This issue is far more complicated than I can do justice to or even really articulate here or elsewhere, but as it has resonances with this week’s text and also with Jeff’s Qigong rendering, I’m hoping it will provoke some interesting conversation.

Acupuncture and science:

Rendering #2: Anthropomorphism, Thinking Things and Automatons

20 01 2010

dog experiencing what may or may not resemble guilt

Rene Descartes really made a mess of things for nonhuman animals when he insisted that perceptions were a class of conscious thought (Heller-Roazen, 165). For Descartes, animals cannot really be distinguished from machines for two reasons. Firstly, they would have to be able to transmit their thoughts and opinions to us via language or some similar method of communication. Secondly, they must be capable of acting from knowledge and not as the result of having specialized organs which make them well-adapted to particular situations but inflexible when compared to the abilities of the conscious thinker. They must be able to respond thoughtfully, in other words, in a manner that cannot be construed as an automatic reaction to a stimulus. For Descartes, this cannot be conclusively demonstrated.

Animals cannot rearrange their words (when they even have the ability to utter them, which is rare in itself) or other signs in order to make new sentences. When comparing even the dimmest of human specimens to animals which seem to be intelligent and which can demonstrate speech in some way, like parrots, Descartes argues that it makes more sense to say that nonhumans have no reason whatsoever, that they are doing something altogether different than thinking, than to claim that they merely have less. Descartes makes another distinction: human beings, he explains, can use signs to express things other than passions, while animal communication is irrevocably tied to instinctive behavior.

“But in my opinion the main reason, which suggests that the beasts lack thought is the following. Within a single species some of them are more perfect than others, as men are too. This can be seen in horses and dogs, some of whom learn what they are taught much better than others. Yet, although all animals easily communicate to us, by voice or bodily movement, their natural impulses of anger, fear, hunger and so on, it has never yet been observed that any brute animal reached the stage of using real speech, that is to say, of indicating by word or sign something pertaining to pure thought and not to natural impulse. Such speech is the only certain sign of thought hidden in a body. All men use it, however stupid and insane they may be, and though they may lack tongue and organs of voice: but no animals do. Consequently it can be taken as a real specific difference between men and dumb animals” (Descartes, 4 of 4).

The bottom line for Descartes is that, since we cannot find any conclusive evidence that other animals have things like interior mental states, because they cannot demonstrate conscious thought in a manner that we would recognize as familiar (in other words, and what amounts to the same thing, because they are not human), we must conclude that, while thought cannot be conclusively denied to all nonhuman animals, it also cannot be assumed that they possess it.

“But though I regard it as established that we cannot prove there is any thought in animals. I do not think it is thereby proved that there is not, since the human mind does not reach into their hearts. But when I investigate what is most probable in this matter, I see no argument for animals having thoughts except the fact that since they have eyes, ears, tongues, and other sense-organs like ours, it seems likely that they have sensation like us: and since thought is included in our mode of sensation, similar thought seems to be attributable to them” (Descartes, 4 of 4).

So ultimately, we can neither prove nor disprove that nonhuman animals can experience complex emotional states such as happiness or guilt. To suggest that they do would be to commit the sin of anthropomorphism. Two things are happening here, and this is important because, as far as I can tell, debates in fields such as cognitive ethology have not progressed too far past this impasse (please correct me if I’m wrong here, I have not read enough in these areas yet to be confident about this): on one hand, we say that it cannot be demonstrated that nonhuman animals have thoughts. On the other hand, we define ourselves as uniquely human in large part by claiming to be the only animals capable of thinking. Then, we study other animals by trying to figure out how close they can get to being human-like thinkers, while delimiting their potential at the outset by measuring them against a standard that, by definition, they will never come close to attaining. The definition of the human here remains completely removed from consideration and completely unexamined. The debate, as it pertains to nonhuman animals, is then centered on whether we allow some tentative use of anthropomorphic language, or whether we criticize its usage in the following sort of manner:

“There is no objective theory formation or testing, no careful consideration of evidence; there is just unreflective application of human descriptions to non-humans. Anthropomorphism is a category error, some argue: the treatment of an entity (an animal) as a member of a class (things with minds) to which it does not belong; or the comparison of that entity to one (such as a human) belonging in a different category. Describing a dog as feeling guilt is like saying that ideas are green. Those who assert that there are distinctively human traits might so argue: if the trait is, by definition, what separates humans from animals, then to treat an animal as possessing the trait is a logical error. If consciousness is a defining characteristic of humans, for instance, to claim consciousness in non-humans is a category mistake” (Horowitz, 4 of 7).

Descartes’ logic in arguing that we cannot know for sure what (if anything) is happening within the minds of nonhuman animals is not really unreasonable in itself. The real problems with Descartes have to do with the narrow and limiting account he gives of the human as essentially a thinking thing, free of any complicated relationship to the body and the world it inhabits. The other problem with Descartes is that, while he had to admit that it cannot be known for certain whether or not humans are the only thinking things, he preferred to hold this opinion, and because of this he was able to devalue everything that was taken to be outside thought. No evidence of thought, no problems whatsoever with destroying animals or any other aspect of the world, for that matter.

“Please note that I am speaking of thought, and not of life or sensation. I do not deny life to animals, since I regard it as consisting simply in the heat of the heart; and I do not deny sensation, in so far as it depends on a bodily organ. Thus my opinion is not so much cruel to animals as indulgent to men—at least to those who are not given to the superstitions of Pythagoras—since it absolves them from the suspicion of crime when they eat or kill animals” (Descartes, 4 of 4).

Descartes, Rene. “Animals are Machines.” In S. J. Armstrong and R. G. Botzler, ed., Environmental Ethics: Divergence and Convergence. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993, pp 281-285. January 20, 2010

Horowitz A. 2007. “Anthropomorphism.” In M. Bekoff, ed., Encyclopedia of Human-Animal Relationships. Westport, CT Greenwood Publishing Group, pp 60-66.  January 20, 2010