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Ambiguities

by J.

From the time of the Greeks we have divided the objects we interact with into pairs of categories such as hot and cold, and wet and dry. These four qualities were associated with four elements, earth (cold and dry) which is the opposite of air (hot and wet?), and fire (hot and dry) which is the opposite of water (cold and wet). Physiology recognized four humours that determined human tem perament: sanguine (cheerful) and melancholic (depressive), phlegmatic (dull) and choleric (irritable), and these four were also arranged in pairs of opposites. Perhaps our predisposition to make binary categories is due in part to the fact that we are bilaterally symmetrical, more or less. This approach to classification is reflected in the bifurcating keys used by biologists to identify a specimen of an unknown animal. The key is a list of statements about the specimen that lead from one to another. Each statement asserts something about the specimen. It has its own index number and the index number of a pair of other statements. One of these numbers indicates the next statement to move to if the current statement is true, which to move to if it is false. So at the beginning of the key you read the first statement, then you examine your specimen to find out if the statement is true or not, and depending on the answer, you move on to the next statement, and continue referring to the key and to the specimen until you come to a terminating statement that identifies the specimen by asserting the name of the species to which it belongs. Each statement has the binary property of being true or false, and using the key we pick our way through the tens of thousands of species of beetles by distinguishing between the opposites of 'true' and 'false'. This approach to dealing with complex categories is so fundamental to our way of thinking that we find it shocking to come across different solutions to this problem. Consider the following classification of animals:

These ambiguities, redundances, and deficiencies recall those attributed by Dr. Franz Kuhn to a certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. On those remote pages it is written that animals are divided into

  1. those that belong to the emperor,
  2. embalmed ones,
  3. those that are trained,
  4. suckling pigs,
  5. mermaids,
  6. fabulous ones,
  7. stray dogs,
  8. those that are included in this classification,
  9. those that tremble as if they were mad,
  10. innumerable ones,
  11. those drawn with a very fine camel's hair brush,
  12. others,
  13. those that have just broken a flower vase,
  14. those that resemble flies from a distance.

The Analytical Language of John Wilkins
In
Jorge Luis Borges (1973)
Other Inquisitions
(Trans. R. L. C. Simms) Souvenir Press, London.

For European minds such a classification is irrational and surreal in part at least because we are stongly conditioned against ambiguity. Where ambiguities of this kind arise it seems that there can be two responses: revulsion, or a morbid fascination. A major bifurcating property that we recognize almost subcon sciously is the separation of natural and artificial. An area where this is important is in architecture. The rectilinear architecture that we have inherited from classical times depends on the rightangle to such an extent that our perceptual processes are shaped by its ubiquity. We learn to interpret properties of the spatial world we occupy using limited information, and these interpretations may be correct only because we habitually live in rectilinear spaces and have acquired assumptions about the geometry of such spaces without realizing that the sensory cues that lead to us make these assumptions admit of a variety of alternative interpretations. Many optical illusions deceive us only because we transfer our habitual interpretations of three dimensional rectilinear spaces to our interpretations of pictures. For western people the right angle is one of the key elements of the artificial. Other key elements are the simple geometric forms such as cylinders, wedges, and planes. The extent of this generalization should not be overemphasised, we do encounter curving objects like the body shells of cars, shaped to minimise the cost of thrusting them through the resisting air, but such objects move on wheels, which are more or less cylinders with heights much less than their diameters. Wheels mean artifice, so there is no ambiguity about the flowing curves of cars: cars are artificial.

African vernacular architecture is much less constrained than European architecture to rectilinear forms; one consequence of this is that the optical illusions that depend on ambiguities of the pictorial representation of perspective in rectilinear spaces do not delude many Africans. The feature of African architecture that strikes Europeans is its organic quality, its ambiguity, artificial and yet natural, inorganic, but possessing organic qualities, and therefore outside the canon, the unconsciously learned visual grammar which most of us use to interpret the architectural spaces we occupy.

During the baroque period, especially in churches, where a certain disorientation would be likely to enhance religious feeling, a variety of tech niques of ornament were used to produce illusions that the internal space was more complicated than the four-square exteriors of the buildings implied. A particularly popular device was the depiction on the ceiling of the church of a heavenly scene observed from below, executed in perspective in such a way that the observer looking upwards sees not the ceiling, but the depicted open sky with clouds and heavenly figures. The most elaborate of such scenes is the one painted in the barrel vault of the church of the jesuits in Rome, this has been managed so well that looking up at the correct place, marked by a disc of marble on the floor, it is impossible to escape the illusion that you are gazing up into infinite space at the inhabitants of a baroque heaven. A feature of the illusion is the representation of walls of the church painted on the ceiling in perspective in such a way that it is impossible to see where the real walls end and the painted walls begin. The painted walls end and there is no ceiling to be made out, just an open space filled with clouds and figures aspiring to the symbol at the the zenith. It is fashionable to decry such works of art as being no more than skilful pieces of ornament, or of illusionistic stage-painting; but the effect is astounding, and depends on the subversion of the language the eye has learned to describe space.

Until the present century hardly any Western European buildings had departed from the simple rectilinear inorganic forms. At the beginning of this century Art Nouveau broke away from rectilinearity with swirling sinuous decoration, but underlying the ornament most architects were working within the traditional rectilinear framework. Antonio GaudÝ was the most important architect to break away from the right angle. The cathedral in Barcelona possesses the organic quality of some African vernacular buildings and is all the more ambiguous and disturbing because the design is obviously a mutation of the rectilinear classical tradition. There are good reasons therefore why the breakdown of the dichotomy of artificial and natural should be disturbing, disorienting, and fascinating. The mind uses quite different learned skills in interpreting the disposition of objects in natural as against artificially delimited spaces, and if you can't tell whether the space is natural or artificial you are unable to be sure of how to interpret the most fundamental properties of the environment you occupy. This is disorienting and disturbing.

The designs of H. R. Giger are perhaps the most self-conscious attempt to exploit the disturbing effects of the representation of objects that are ambiguously natural and/or artificial. For the film Alien (directed by Ridley Scott and released in 1980) he designed the alien organism in all its developmental stages: this was impressive enough, but it was unambiguously organic, and no more disgusting than lots of parasitic animals magnified; but he also designed a very ambiguous quasi-organic alien space ship which remains the most convincingly unhuman design that I have ever seen, fascinating and disturbing in its fusion of natural and artificial. The same themes are explored in his graphic works. After examining a collection of Giger's paintings I have the feeling of someone who has eaten a lot of very ripe camembert cheese, too much in fact. The flavour is strong and interesting and there is a self-exciting property about eating it that can lure you into gorging yourself on far more than you can comfortably digest. Afterwards you feel slightly sickened.

Fascination with entities that are ambiguously organic and inorganic is exploited by a recent revamping of elements of myth. Winged sandals and helmets of invisibility, clothing that lends superhuman attributes to the wearer, figure in various Greek myths. The modern reworking of the myth takes two forms: the first, epitomised by the Superman character (See for example the film Superman, released in 1978) gives the hero the superhuman attributes as if by magic, but significantly, he expresses these attributes only when wearing a particular costume - and in the eyes of children it was the possession of the costume that lent him the powers, hence the warning, at the end of each episode shown on American television, that people couldn't really fly, even wearing the costume. This is an interesting reconstruction of the mythological empowerment through the possession of specific garments. In the mythological context the garments are the cause of the superhuman powers, in the comic book the powers inhere in the person, but for arbitrary reasons are not manifested except when the person wears particular garments. In this way the garments become perceived as the source of the powers by the audience, who, mistaking correlation for causation, interpret the costume as the same sort of thing as a cloak of invisibility or seven-league boots, hence the need for the disclaimer.

The second form of the myth, the characteristically modern one, is the substitution of technology for magic and the enhancement of physical functions by machinery. For example, the Six Billion Dollar Man series and the Bionic Woman television series, and recently the RoboCop films and the Terminator films all deal with the person fused with machinery, the organic fused with the inorganic, the disturbing unclassifiable person, unclassifiable because the statement in the identification key (Is it natural?) is neither true nor false. Though all these entertainments are concerned broadly with the same themes they emphasise different aspects of the fusion of person with machine. An important difference is that in the television series the ordeals undergone by the hero and the heroine gives them their superhuman powers leaving their clothed exteriors unaltered. The television series are less disturbing because the exteriors of the characters are at least in part the exteriors of the original person to whom powerful prosthetics have been attached.

The RoboCop films and the Terminator films are much more ambiguous. The protagonist of the RoboCop series, the original film directed by Paul Verhoeven, released in 1987, is a policeman so badly injured in the course of his duties that he would have died had he not been transferred to a powered metal body, the ultimate prosthesis. The nervous system is deprogrammed in some way so that the RoboCop is represented at first as no more than a man-shaped machine under the control of a computer that happens to be made of meat. In the course of the film it becomes apparent that the expunging of the policeman's personality has not been complete and it re-emerges to a limited extent. The whole of the exterior of the policeman's body and limbs is covered, replaced, with metal. Part of the fascination of the film resides in the conflict between whatever remains of the natural man enclosed in a prison, and the power his imprisonment allows him. The ambiguity of man fused with machine carries a powerful emotional charge, and this stimulates the question 'How much is man and how much machine?' This question is answered in the second of the films when the robocop is effectively dismembered by a more advanced and almost entirely inorganic hybrid individual. This reveals that the organic element of the original hybrid does not extend beyond the head and part of the torso.

This same ambiguity is explored in another pair of films, the Terminator series, the first, The Terminator, released in 1985, was directed by James Cameron, both starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. The first of these films is really quite a cheap exploitation movie built around Schwarzenegger, exploiting his grotesquely hypertrophied somatic musculature (that's an appropriately grotesque and hypertrophied description of the prodigy) and his limited acting ability. Schwarzenegger plays the part of a robot assassin, a terminator, disguised as a human being. As the film unfolds, the superficial human disguise is stripped off an underlying metal armature, as the terminator is continually frustrated in its goal of killing a woman while at the same time surviving increasingly strenuous efforts to destroy it.

In the second of the films (In the interval between making the first and the second Arnie has become star and therefore he can't be expected to play the baddie) the terminator has been reprogrammed to protect the same woman from the attacks of an even more advanced model of terminator, a protean individual that can mimic exactly other people, so exactly that real actors are given the opportunity to play their 'own' characters and their characters as simulated by the second terminator. Once again the fascination with the fusion of organic and inorganic is satisfied in a scene where the simple terminator has to persuade a sceptical scientist that it is a fusion of flesh and machinery. It takes a knife and making an incision through the flesh to the armature beneath, pulls the flesh off its arm, as if stripping off a long glove, revealing the metal below, clean bright, unbloody, sterile, and mechanical. A further layer of irony is provided by the gut-twistingly embarrasing sub-plot of a kid-hooligan, but good at heart, what else?, the offspring of the heroine, and destined to be a kind of world-saviour figure, eliciting good-buddy human feelings from the terminator. This is adds a Russian doll-like quality to the character of the terminator, an approximately human exterior (Well Schwarzenegger is approximately human-looking) with an underlying armature of polished white metal which is articulated in part from componenents with simple geometric structures like cylindrical rods and recognizable hinge joints, but with the the torso repre sented by curving metal shells, and within the armature somewhere, a controlling computer, and within the programming of the computer the glimmerings of a human identity.

The two pairs of films appear to be paradigmatic in their exhaustion of the possibilities of the idea of the fusion of person and machine. In the RoboCop films the machine is on the outside and person is on the inside, in the terminator films the person is on the outside, the machine on the inside, and in both pairs there is an explicit revelation of the proportions of human and machine and in that revelation a resolution of the ambiguity that both fascinates and disturbs.

These exploitations of this fascination have a vaguely distasteful quality, predicated on the idea, not yet true, and in my view unlikely ever to be true, that though technology cannot simply regrow a limb, it can instead supply an alternative that replaces completely all the limb's functions and enhances them as well.These films are immensely successful. I suggest that they are exploiting our responses to ambiguity.

Perhaps part of the fascination felt by men towards women who have to wear callipers or who use functional, rather than cosmetic prostheses such as split-hooks, or peg-legs, may be due to the unexpected fusion of artificial and natural that the user presents. I chose the word 'fascination' carefully. I believe that the fascination is more widespread than the attraction felt by devotees. People are curious about how the prosthesis is attached, how it works, how effective it is; but I believe that they are also intrigued, perhaps unconsciously, by a person who is not purely organic and a thing that it not purely artificial, an entity falling outside the usual dichotomous categories.

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