I recorded a conversation before Christmas about #Pizzagate & trauma for Always Record, with S.J. Anderson, Alex Fulton, and Dennis M. Koch, “Beyond the Pale King Kill,” which you can listen to here. Towards the end of the two and a half hour conversation, Alex brings up Westworld, which I had only started to watch at the time and was quite optimistic about. Later the bubble burst.
I posted a few thoughts on Faceborg about the show before leaving that psychic swamp:
What happens when you keep twisting a narrative? It snaps.
Westworld got more & more like Lost. I had my doubts throughout, but it wasn’t till the last episode that I felt “slimed.” Not just the Dr Who level of staging but how the whole thing seemed to be, after all, just setting the stage for “robots massacre humans” celebratory finale. Still, the whole thing would make an interesting case study for entertainment media as delivery device for transhumanist ideologies. It even has the line “A little trauma can be illuminating.”
Alex Fulton responded at Faceborg that: “these shows are carrier-waves for things that are completely unintended by their creators, so they carry differing, even contradictory agendas.” I replied:
I wonder what that (how much a product serves as a carrier for unintended meanings) depends on, exactly? How coldly and calculatingly it is designed and controlled to prevent that from happening (my beef with Kubrick?), to prevent the unexpected from emerging? Westworld definitely had its moments; it seemed to be the product of a committee of writers trying to convey as many ideas & intellectual propositions as they could fit into the show, without a unifying vision (no controlling intelligence). Hence in the end it felt to me more like a commercial (propaganda) than a work of art. & what it was selling, as far as I can tell, was [the perennial American trope:] violence as a means for transcendence.
More recently, I had an an email exchange about it with the author Peter Watts, who blogged favorably about the show here. My email to Peter:
Yeah, you raise interesting issues. Obviously I come down on a different side of them than you do, but maybe that’s just because we got to the series from different starting points.
I had kind of an inverse reaction to yours over the whole plot-twisting thing; I was increasingly lost until the later episodes, when the whole dual-timeline clicked into place. At that point everything snapped into focus, and I was impressed that the producers actually had enough faith in their audience to demand patience prior to payoff. I did think at first that maybe that whole conceit was more gimmick than dramatic necessity– hell, why not just throw in text cards between scenes so we know up front we’re dealing with two different segments of the timeline?– but on second thought I think they made the right call. The revelation that William = Man in Black was a punchline best delayed. (And hell, gimmicky or not, I don’t think “Memento” would have been nearly as good either, if they’d played the timeline right way around.)
I’ve never heard of “transhumanist traumagenesis”, so I can’t comment on that score. All I know is that one of the most intriguing theories of consciousness I’ve ever come across (the PRISM model I mentioned on the blog post) hinges on the internal conflict of stressed bodies; it’s not well known in the pop-sci sense but it’s peer-reviewed and legit and well-thought-out (and spookily reminiscent of Herbert’s gom jabbar in Dune). The elements that you saw as promoting violence struck me as evidence these guys had actually done their science homework, which is virtually unheard of for a popular TV show. Also it doesn’t hurt (see what I did there?) that suffering-towards-sapience carries a lot of intrinsic dramatic potential.
On a more fundamental level, I think we disagree about the role of ethics in critique. Ideally I think such discussions should be ethics-free, because the line between ethics and ideology is so damn blurry. I’ve lapsed in this position myself– I ranted on the ‘crawl about “Interstellar”‘s odious We weren’t meant to save the Earth, we were meant to fuck it over, jump ship, and stick our roomies with the bill theme (although for the sake of honesty I did have to admit to an uncomfortable parallel between my attitude and that of the anti-abortion crowd). But for the most part, I’m a firm believer in following the data, and fuck the ideological consequences. For example, the genre is full of refugees from the other side of campus who shit all over basic biology because they think it conflicts with their chosen ideology; I’ve seen people decry the use of neutral descriptive words like “male” and “female” as “dehumanising”. I once wrote a story one reviewer literally threw across the room for it’s inherent misogyny– even though the story was told from the POV of a semiautonomous military drone, and contained no human characters of any gender whatsoever. So when someone criticizes a work because it doesn’t make logical sense, or because it’s badly written, or because it’s inconsistent in the way it makes its points, I’m cool with that. But if the critique boils down to “ethically objectionable” — i.e., this show presents a viewpoint I disagree with— my response is generally suck it up, dude.
Perhaps I’ve been lucky in that most of the shows that I personally find ethically disagreeable are also logically inconsistent and poorly argued. I can shit on the show for failing to make its case, which means I can dismiss its philosophical viewpoint as unviable (again, see my take on the deeply-flawed “Interstellar”). I don’t know how I’d react if (for example) someone produced a work of fiction that compellingly and unassailably made a case for racism. I hope I could accept it on its merits, but you never know. They repugnance of the bottom line might overwhelm my desire to follow the data wherever it led. As someone wise once said: as a (former) scientist, I can’t let personal investment interfere with the quest for truth.
At any rate, circling back to Westworld, We Have Sapience; so perhaps the need for traumatic transcendence has passed. I’m expecting that Season 2 will deal more with the conflict between the newly-liberated theme park and the world beyond. Time will tell.
And yeah, of course your wife’s right. Arguing about stuff is what we do here. Life would be a lot more boring otherwise.
People who have been trauma-engineered (which would include many, I would say probably all, leading cultural figures) are naturally going to lack affective empathy and so their “genius” will be top-heavy, intellect-based, ideas driven, machinelike, and fundamentally anti-human/dehumanizing (the primary effect of sexual abuse); to some degree, this will be reflected also in the aesthetically barren narratives they generate, or at least, there will be some observable correlation between the two “lacks.”
Gold Nuggets version (52 mins):
Two minute highlight: