“For it is certainly easier to create without answering for life, and easier to live without any consideration for art. Art and life are not one, but they must become united in myself - in the unity of my answerability”
- Mikhail Bakhtin, Art and Answerability
If you read a sentence, like this one, written in a language you are fluent in, then you will have no choice but to understand it. Our minds turn the lines and shapes into letters, into words, into meaning.
To Mikhail Bakhtin, being human is constructing meaning. We experience some event and the event happens within a place and context. No other human being can occupy the same space, time, and path that we do. We are presented with the choice to assemble the various elements into a whole through the lens of our radical subjectivity. Once the whole is consummated it comes to possess meaning. We do this work from our positions in a body, in a place, and as part of a cultural history.
Wholes are never given, but are achieved.
Meaning is obtained through a process of consummation — shaping parts into wholes.
In perception, the elements that we shape into wholes are not abstractions but present in the events of our unique lives.
Imagine that you and I are walking down a busy sidewalk on an August afternoon. Up ahead we hear the sound of singing and as we draw closer we see an older woman standing near a bus stop, performing an opera buffa seemingly without embarrassment. You and I stand side by side, yet our “points of view” are distinct, both in terms of our physical positioning, but also the experiences and values we bring to the moment. We both decide to linger and to do the work of consummation, of turning the event and the context within which the event is situated into an aesthetic whole. Is this wonderful? Unnerving?
We live in a society and in relationship with others, and certain interpretations are transformed from aesthetic consummations into routines for how the world is perceived. A woman singing by a bus stop in my neighbourhood in Toronto would be quite remarkable and likely cause for caution for many. Rather than making my own meaning, I can draw on this “pre-located” discourse to do the work of sense-making for me. Perhaps the same scene in Little Italy or in Jakarta would be unremarkable. I don’t know. I can’t know. I’m not there.
Just as you and I can draw on a shared language in order to communicate meaningfully, we can also draw on shared expectations for what things mean in order to consummate an event.
Of course, when we uncritically apply what we hold to be our dominant ideology to interactions we forego the work of consummation, of achieving wholeness from the events of our lives. Sometimes this makes sense as we are constantly exposed to experiences and to do the work of interpreting each as an unique aesthetic act would exhaust us.
We can also abstract the event from its context and turn it into a purely ethical determination. Singing by a bus stop is either good or bad, orderly or disorderly, efficient or inefficient. We refuse the work of assembling a whole from the parts and respond simply to the category to which the event belongs.
“Singing in public is … disruptive … joyous … cause for fear …”
When we consistently rely on the stories that others tell or the categories others use to interpret the world we forego our own agency and the joy of aesthetically constructing the world. When we abstract events from their embodiment, we lose opportunities for awe and beauty, and narrow the ethical judgments we apply to experience. Of course, when we consistently refuse shared interpretations we may find ourselves exhausted and isolated.
When we do the work of aesthetically constructing events, we then become answerable for what we assemble. This brings us back to the quote from Bakhtin that opens this letter. For most, “I was only following orders” is an inadequate defence. When I refuse to be answerable for the meaning of the events of my life, I am in opposition to the work of being human.
We vary the language we use based on the contexts we are in. Perhaps we merely speak how we “ought” to speak. Perhaps we cast ourselves into the consciousness of another and speak in ways so that they might consummate our speech and infer our meaning. I cannot guarantee that my daughter will recognize the love and care with which I scold her. There is no guarantee that I will achieve the whole of my intentions, but I can shape my utterance in ways I hope will achieve that goal. Of course this relies on my daughter being willing to turn the parts of my speech and our context into a aesthetic whole.
Implications for Artificial Intelligence
So, while human beings are constantly presented with opportunities to assemble the events of living in order to achieve an aesthetic wholeness, a meaning for events, artificial intelligence too often does the opposite work. We design these systems to pull things apart so that elements might be categorized, sorted, prioritized, or selected.
AI is, by definition, unable to operate from a "point of view" - it has no centre to look out from. The only meaning that it can consummate in the context of living is the meaning that it has been provided by its creators or through the decontextualized data from which it has “learned”. It can make determinations about good or bad, orderly or disorderly, efficient or inefficient purely on the categories that it uses to sort its perceptions. It is not answerable because it is incapable of consummating the events of its world.
This leaves me feeling quite sorry for these machines but also deeply concerned about the decisions we are turning over to them. Automated systems are designed with goals. Goals draw on routines and narratives of what is valuable, what is meaningful, and what can be ignored. AI then amplifies those “pre-located” discourses, to Bakhtin the “stories of the fathers”, to haunt the present and increasingly to occupy our future.
At Ferment AI we are looking to invest in and support projects that embrace Bakhtin’s aesthetic and its “emphasis on the primacy of lived experience in all its bewildering specificity”. We wish to support art that when consummated by others questions the routines by which meaning is constructed and suggests new centres of value.
Please let us know what you think in the comments or share this with others.