The Movements Of Whales
I have kept my promises in spite of myself. They are mostly simple pledges, relating to the position of my limbs and the angle of my neck. Like a sculpted explosion I am transfixed in frozen motion, my fingers splayed at the tips of outstretched arms, my legs contorted, the skin quivering like elastic stretched over a frame constructed from chicken bones. I shimmer for her: a translucent pink that barely conceals my inner mechanics.
These inner mechanisms, refined since birth, now constitute nothing more than a selection of high-frequency sound detection equipment, fifteen feet of connecting wires, my bone-frame and a withered piece of parchment upon which my maker has scribbled a map of my happiness. I do not understand the map, and as such I am filled with a numbing lethargy. I listen for gloomy echoes from deeper waters that might guide me nonetheless, but so far: silence.
The Complexity Of Rivers
She does not shimmer back at me. My sun faces off against her moon: I squint in the reflected light of myself and see nothing. She is encased in dense spandex, rocketing curves of sheer black that conceal an uncharted interior. Like a curious probe I circle her, scanning her monotone surface for clues, for eyes, for cracks through which my salvation might leak.
I do not know how thick her crust is, but I am almost certain there is a liquid core beneath. She is in constant motion, forever flowing. I try to divert her will by building feeble dams of twigs and leaves, but she always overwhelms me, trickles through the gaps between my fingers, washes over the sandcastles of my memories.
Panic In Bats And Other Mammals
The magnitude of her gravitational pull suggests a violent interior, inflicted with massive reactions and incredible heat. The inert sweep of her surface belies the magnetic rage of her insides. Too close, and my delicate structure - a kite of gossamer skin pulled taut over rickety bones – begins to quiver and disintegrate in her influence. I have been close enough to smell her perfume in the past, but the psychosomatic terror that wells up at such proximity could be sustained for no more than a few minutes.
One day I might touch her, and tremble myself into oblivion as I do.
Depression In Babies
Some years ago, we acquired a son – a depressed baby. We drove to an orphanage specialising in depressed babies and selected him from a litter of runts. My jealousy has known no limits since he was admitted into our family. The sophistication of his sound detection is astonishing. He has discovered more about her in three years than I have in a lifetime. We named him Copernicus, since nothing has been the same since his arrival.
Some Remarks On Auditory Stimulation
With the window open, I can register the click of her heels from the other end of the street. A frequency that thrills me, sends me into a habitual terror and joy all at once. The sharp rasp of metal on concrete, the steady stab of her liquid pins - these things must constitute the essence of her. So long as my radar is consumed by her interior, the reflections of her surface are all I have to go on.
I gather that Copernicus has made progress in his investigations of her soul, but this only makes me hate him more. I am confined to her outsides: her shape, her noises, her movements. She is, to me at least, nothing more than the sum of these stolen images. I collect them pedantically, construct endlessly complex similarity-circles based upon minute qualitative alignments. I hold this leg up against that arm, that sigh against this yawn. I make and remake her in these terms, from these materials – a mannequin hewn from the plastic of noise.
The Melting Point Of Aluminium
The silence of her insides remains. Here, I am confined to conjecture. I have no hard evidence from beneath the skin. I continue to circle her, making vague conjectures about rivers of heat, about bones made of water, about pitying affection that has melted over the years into dull hatred.
Her gravity sucks me in. Slowly, dumbly, blindly, I encircle her, spiralling down to a final impact on the smooth planes of her thighs. I will not reach them, though. I will disintegrate and burn up in the heat of her breath long before touchdown. My skin will liquify; my pores will spread and merge into one great pool of empty air. I will vaporise over her like a desert mist.
It now seems inevitable that when the mass production of the empathy machine brought it to every high street shop, it would be purchased primarily for the purposes of enhancing sexual pleasure. However, when it was first announced to the world that neuroscientists had created a small hand-held device that, held to the temple of another person, would transfer precisely what you were feeling into the others head, it was hailed as a great breakthrough in human communication. It would heal relationships, it was claimed. It would reform those hardened to the suffering of others, bridge cultural divides, enable men and women to finally understand each other. It would almost certainly, many opined, end war and its accompanying brutality.
These latter reasons were not why Sean bought the HumanTouch model for his girlfriend for her birthday and wrapped it in holographic wrapping paper, which he thought had an appropriately futuristic aura. These reasons were not why Myrtle was pleased upon opening her present, though nor, it should be pointed out, was she pleased at the thought of future sexual pleasure. Myrtle was pleased because the last few presents Sean had bought her had been presents for himself, and he hadnt even bothered to wrap them. The iPod speaker stand, she had been forced to point out, was useless to someone who listened to all her music on the radio. The folding bike had been more appropriate to a commuter – Sean, for example – than to someone whose office was five minutes down the road. As for the gas-powered barbecue, she had never been allowed to touch it.
To Myrtles surprise and Seans joy, the sexual ecstasy attained with the help of the HumanTouch was every bit as intense as the advertising had promised. For several weeks they barely stirred from their bed at the weekend, and the small white machine, not unlike a glossy television remote, was constantly in their hands. Their relationship felt revived, almost reborn. They told all their friends about the empathy machine, both in real life and online, mostly to show they were ahead of the curve with new technology, but also because they wanted other people to experience the new level of pleasure they had discovered.
Sean was home alone one night while Myrtle caught up with a female friend at the pub (she had been falling behind with her friends since the arrival of the machine) when he was struck by the idea of holding the HumanTouch to the head of his dog Walter. If Sean had consulted the instruction manual, he would have noticed the paragraph warning against using the device on animals, but he had not read beyond the first page of the manual since buying the machine, so he called Walter to the sofa and touched the machine to his dogs head.
Sean had always vaguely imagined animals to be morally superior to selfish, grasping humans. Far from his dogs mind being a tranquil place made warm by the constant presence of food and loving human owners, it was instead a swirl of mild hatreds, strong jealousies and strange paranoias - the causes of which Sean could not begin to guess, since the machine did not reveal that level of knowledge about a mind, only the feelings. Sean felt a rush of disappointment, anger even, that Walter had been deceiving him these past three years. His dog was no better than a human.
Sean stared at Walter with a mounting loathing for some minutes, and then he tried another experiment. He put the dogs paw on the HumanTouch controller, and he touched the machine to his own forehead, so that Walter would know what he felt.
Walter dropped dead.
To this day no one knows why this happens, whether animals are unable to bear the intensity of human emotions, or whether there is some more fundamental incompatibility between human and animal minds. Whatever the reason, when Walter dropped dead, Sean felt no regret. The dog was as bad as people. What purpose would there have been in feeding and watering and walking him every day after that?
Later that afternoon, when Myrtle came home from meeting her friend, slightly tipsy, she found herself walking past pet corpses scattered along the street. She became increasingly puzzled and upset at the massacre, then reached her house, feeling somewhat lost, and found at her front door a furious crowd, with Sean at its centre, fending off neighbours with the empathy machine.
"You have no idea what Im feeling!" he screamed at them. "Come on if you dare!"
The crowd drew back a little, then surged forward again as more spectators arrived. Her way to Sean blocked, Myrtle stood at the back of the crowd, neither attempting to shove her way through nor walking away, wide eyes fixed on the raging man on the doorstep.
The world is replete with ridiculous contraptions, and they can be thought of as such in part because of their implausible ends. Here, it isnt just that such machines attempt the impossible, such as trying to fly through replicating a birds motions, its also those machines that perform tasks which seem entirely redundant. Take, for instance, Professor Fabers Euphonis, a talking machine made in 1830 that could speak all five vowels. The fascination is not that such things are possible, but that a machine can perform them. Likewise, I remember my brother and I being held in thrall by a computer game on the Commodore 64 system that could say a crude approximation of the word – Robocop – and this in spite of it being transmitted to me through a television, and the game itself having been loaded from a tape cassette.
But a contraption also appears as ridiculous by throwing together incongruous parts and using convoluted methods. One only needs think of those featured in Wallace and Gromit – a leather-booted ball-kicking machine with a ball carriage resembling an anti-aircraft array, or a rabbit catcher with the aesthetics of a plumbing system and a fairground tombola. Theyre jokes, and indeed Sigmund Freud starts his exploration of the technique of jokes by examining jokes that work by such condensation. For instance, De Quincy once remarked how old people were prone to their anecdotage. If we were prone to whimsy, we could imagine the contraption originating in a similar joke:
CONTRACTION = CONTRAPTION
In the word contraction we have the first signs that a new life is ready to emerge, and the means by which it is going to do so. A trap, on the other hand, is associated with death, or at least capture. It also evokes a particular kind of machine, a one shot deal which then has to be re-set. And of course contraction is another word we could apply to this form of joke. All this is after all a joke in itself, not a remotely plausible etymology and certainly no guide to its meaning, which can only come from examining the actual use of word. Quite like the way a joke can open out the associations and connections in languages, the contraption opens up the potential forms and uses of machines. Both have their uses – the first points to new ideas, ways of thinking and patterns of reasoning; the second, more often than not, points to new modes of production.
As a history of automata by Mary Hillier reveals, by the eighteenth century complicated and intricate mechanisms were often the preserve of showmen and magicians as well as clockmakers. Using the tools of the clockmaker, Jacques de Vaucanson drew crowds with his mechanical grocer, flute-player and, most famously, a duck automaton which could flap its wings and eat grain. Later, Vaucauson created innovative improvements to weaving methods, including automating patterns through punchcards, an innovation that lead Jacquard to create his famous industrial loom. Likewise in Japan, Takeda Omi I started as a sand clock maker before establishing a mechanical theatre of dolls driven by clockwork, sand, water, levers or pulleys. The techniques of Japanese automata were later borrowed to improve manufacturing processes for sugar and medicine. Here, we can only acknowledge the age that these engineers were entering - that of the standardisation of time across geographical difference, the shift from paying workers for their produce to paying them for their labour time, and the new regimes of industrial production. But it suffices to note here that the relation between the showman and the clockmaker was not one where the former appropriated the tools and techniques of the latter. In many ways the clock is the origin of automata, as well as its horizon. For instance, the fabulous water clock sent by the King of Persia in the ninth century would open a door and drop a ball bearing at each hour – then at the twelfth a mechanical horseman would whirl round and shut them, returning the clock to equilibrium. Before the invention of the pendulum clock in the seventeenth century, clocks were brilliant contraptions but lousy timekeepers.
The clock can still be a spectacle today. Joao Wilberts Exquisite Clock (www.exquisiteclock.org) is a networked artwork, a collaboratively created timepiece where users submit their own images of numbers to create a digital clock face. But in the exposed wires and circuitry of its various installations, it might also remind us of that time where engineers starting out would use the same tools and mechanisms as clocks to become showmen, and thus start make a living from their trade. In this exposure, Wilberts work can be aligned with the eighteenth century Japanese tradition in which viewers would be taken behind the scenes to see how the mechanisms worked, rather than in Europe where the mechanisms were kept veiled so as not to spoil the magic. More than this – the exposure makes the work that much more a contraption, as does the difficulty we have in reading the clock through its mash of images. What it primarily puts on display, however, is capitalisms latest stage of evolution – the prosumed networked artefact – and attention to how people interact with this work can only add to understanding of this development.
The historian of technology Otto Mayr identifies the clock as a symbol of an authoritarian world. He relays how, from the seventeenth century, the clockwork metaphor was extended to the body, the state and the world and as such entailed a radical denial of the freedom of its subjects. Its imagery dies off with the absolute despots. Perhaps Exquisite Clock could be such a symbol for our age – we all get to contribute, to participate, but nonetheless perfect time is kept, control is somehow maintained. Its not simply that we can determine content but not form – we can of course hack it, as an open source program were actually invited to. But the most this could be is a gesture, akin to those in the 1848 revolution who began shooting at the public clock faces. The clocks keep running, the system picks itself back up even after a crash.
Few functioning timepieces today can properly be thought of as contraptions. The idea of the contraption comes to the fore when there is something anomalous, some quirk or instability, some surprise or contrivance. We become aware of the machinic element, but in a chaotic way, and at times it's almost as though theres a claw at life, but never an attempt to become life. Do such machines raise a smirk because they remind us of our own ability – not just as individuals, but as societies – to be mechanical, rigid, inflexible? Or is it something else – as the machine whirls and strains, regular but not quite invariable, when it seems as though it might collapse at any moment but never quite does – do we have a moment of actual recognition, do we see a spark of agency flying out between the cogs?