Erotic Fiction: Generative AI and Alterity

Erotic Fiction: Generative AI and Alterity

UKAI Projects · Local Disturbances - Shorts #33 - Erotic Fiction: Generative AI and Alterity

“Society, as a search engine, a machine for consumption, is abolishing the desire for what is absent – what cannot be found, seized, and consumed.”

– Byung Chul Han, The Agony of Eros

The feeling I get when I engage with most AI-generated work isn’t quite “nothing”, but it lives on the same street. Nothing’s neighbour, perhaps. They go to the same garage sales at least.

I’m not alone in this, and I’ve been fumbling about for an explanation as to why. I’m beginning to see that these experiences are defined by the absence of an Other. The work of generative AI is expansive but lonely.

A Terrain of Uncertain Governance

Mikhail Bakhtin believed that there was no such thing as a “general language”. That is, he denied the possibility of a language spoken in a general voice, distinct from a specific saying. To him, every moment of language (each utterance) involves at least two consciousnesses at a specific point in their own histories, trying to define themselves through the choices they make. Of all the existing languages available to them, they draw forward the elements that best represent their intentions in that specific moment. Moreover, he argued, we are born into a world that is already thick with words and names and associations.

We choose expressions, gestures, intonation, volume, body language and more that we hope will send out our intended message with a minimum of interference. We must consider pre-existing meanings that inhere in the words we choose, and we must consider the intentions and dispositions of the other person or people in the communication.

So, whether it be reading a book written a century ago or talking with a stranger on the street, each is a terrain of uncertain governance. We inhabit the moment and constitute meaning and we can never be sure if we’ve got it right. Each reader, each listener, brings their own endless process of becoming to bear on interpretation.

What happens with texts or images created by machines? What happens then when we arrive on this terrain, and find ourselves alone? There is no stumbling about. There is no obligation to interpret the choices and intentions of the Other. We are alone, surrounded by an endless expanse of alienated language. Words have been made more easily consumable and there is no “Other” there to mess with our digestion. This is narcissism at scale.

Byung Chul Han wrote that “when otherness is stripped from the Other, one cannot love – one can only consume”. Han believes that we are in an era where love and desire are threatened because we are increasingly incapable of the self-negation necessary for these feelings to emerge. The threat does not come from an excess of others, but from the erosion of the Other. Generative AI is accelerating this process, removing the Other entirely so that we are no longer troubled by the particularities and distinctions that emerge when we properly attend to the world.

Otherness

“Otherness” is not consumable difference. Han’s writing explores the effects of neoliberalism, digital technology, and the hyper-connected society on individuals and their sense of identity. He argues that in this moment, traditional notions of Otherness have been transformed. In the past, Otherness referred to the distinction between our self and others. However, Han suggests that the contemporary era, marked by self-exploitation and a constant drive for productivity, has upended the terrain on which these boundaries were written.

In the age of social media and digital connectivity, individuals are increasingly exposed to self-presentation and self-performance. By constantly projecting and curating our identities online, we become self-exploiting subjects, chasing visibility and recognition. This self-exploitation, according to Han, erodes the traditional sense of Otherness. Instead of encountering genuine differences and engaging in meaningful encounters, individuals are trapped in a culture of self-promotion and conformity.

In this context, Otherness becomes homogenized and assimilated into a spectacle of sameness. Han argues that the pressure to conform, the constant comparison with others, and the self-imposed demand for self-optimization lead to a loss of genuine alterity. As a result, individuals become isolated within systems of self-surveillance and self-exploitation, ultimately exacerbating social atomization and psychological distress.

Love

The nature of capitalism means that otherness is eliminated wherever possible in service to consumption. True alterity becomes less available for our uses. Love, to Han and many other thinkers, can be understood as an asymmetrical relationship to the other. Alain Badiou, in his forward to Han’s The Agony of Eros, describes the position in this way:

“Han argues that the minimum condition for true love is possessing sufficient courage to accept self-negation for the sake of discovering the Other”.

In that terrain of uncertain governance where we encounter the Other, we can constitute things aesthetically in order to make meaning. We can also surrender ourselves to alterity. We can negate ourselves to encounter the transgressive or transcendent potential in doing so.

What then happens when we find ourselves alone? Any meaning is entirely self-directed. Surrender to the Other is impossible if they are not present.

Narcissism is when the “world appears only as adumbrations of the narcissist’s self, which is incapable of recognizing the Other in his or her otherness”. Some forms of depression, Han adds, are narcissistic afflictions brought about by an excess or distorted self-reference. The current trajectory for AI-generated work represents a further wound to alterity. There is no joyous awareness of our own inadequacy. Everything is “me” or is written in a currency which I can accept. We cannot find the Other, and therefore come to assume that the world is simply “me” and a good-enough representation of “everyone else”.

“Words are the most subtle symbols which we possess, and our human fabric depends on them … the living and radical nature of language is something which we forget at our peril”

- Iris Murdoch

Novelization

Genres in literature refer to categories defined by how language is assimilated to form. Novels, by contrast, seek to shape their forms to languages, which explains the protean nature of novels over time and space. Novelists constantly experiment with new shapes to display the variety and immediacy of language diversity. To Bakhtin, novels are the name given to whatever forces in a given literary system reveal the limits and artificial constraints of that system.

In our work, we like to think of “novelization” as a process of corruption, as an anti-generic force that infects systematic purity.

For example, we are currently interested in vernacular AI that brings consciousnesses into relationship with each other rather than keeping us apart. One instance of this was launched in June 2023 through a city-scale tabletop role-playing game. If you attended UKAI Project’s Carnival of Algorithmic Culture, you got your hands on a copy and see how we are infecting the genre of generative language with other potential forms.

Another project currently underway invites reflections on the very local. How might we train an AI model on what is emerging and unfolding in the world? How might we encourage the struggle that is involved in finding names or fitting metaphors for what we are seeing, or hearing, or feeling, or tasting?

Bakhtin sees language as a site of struggle between centralizing instincts and centrifugal urges. Generative AI has been commissioned to the service of the centripetal, but this need not be the case.  The absence of the Other is a product of capital’s needs, not a requirement of the technology. Our capacity to make meaning might end up being our saving grace in the age of AI, but only if we create conditions where we might exercise this gift. The creative restlessness that defines us needs alterity, whether alive or long-dead, human or divine. We ought to resist any force that removes this possibility from us or offers an abstracted model of an author in its place.

Sound by Koohyar Habibi

Produced by Kasra Goodarznezhad

Words by Jerrold McGrath

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