The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Screen: Digital Fiction and the Mind/Machine Problem

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

In 21st century philosophy of mind, the mind/body problem shares center stage with what
we might call the – equally intractable but arguably more urgent – mind/machine problem.
No doubt informed by the rationalist legacy of Cartesian dualism, its continuum of concerns
moves from better understandings and explanations of our cognitive apparatus with
recourse to computer technology to, in its most extreme iteration, the project of formalizing
and abstracting the (software) program of the mind for use in other, similarly
“computational” media.

The proposed paper begins with the premise that, as a conspicuously hybrid form of human
and computer output, one that often – or perhaps inevitably – supplies critical comment on
that same communion, digital fiction is well placed to interrogate the aesthetic and political
implications of the mind/machine problem. Part of this project certainly entails what David
Golumbia (2009), in his critique of a broader set of beliefs that uncritically privilege the
(progressive and instrumental) power of computation, calls “computationalism.” But
another, perhaps preliminary part is more a matter of where we draw the lines, especially
with regard to the phenomena of thinking, intending, learning, and remembering – and the
substrates that support them.

The medium of digital narratives can preempt or even predetermine both the critical
comment their stories convey and the kind of critical readings they allow. Such readings
often amount, by default, to either a mode of Romantic resistance to technoculture and its
stranglehold on contemporary consciousness, or one of blissful affirmation of our
posthumanist condition. But more commonly we see a profound yet productive
ambivalence that explores the kind of imaginative, expressive, and emotive outputs of
minds and machines; the same kind of aesthetic uncertainty, moreover, avoids necessarily
opposing or equating both entities involved.

The proposed paper will focus on two works of digital fiction to illustrate its claims: Andy
Campbell and Judi Alston’s Nightingale’s Playground (2010), and Fox Harrell’s Mimesis
(2012). Nightingale’s Playground puts forth a vision that celebrates the individuality and
fallibility of the human mind while issuing a deeply ambivalent comment on our inability to
escape the media that enrich, shape, surround, and – for the protagonist Carl Robertson –
quite possibly consume it. Mimesis creates a feedback loop between, on the one hand,
conceptual domains common to literary practice (in its imaginative fashioning of fictional
beings and fictional worlds) and those common to cognitive science on the other (namely
categorical and schematic strategies that guide us epistemologically). More specifically,
using conversational sea creatures as its narrative agents, the text encodes a limited range
of emotional exchanges that simulate subtle forms of social aggression, thereby fashioning
an experience that eschews the totalizing realism of a rational system for that which is a
highly delimited yet highly convincing social one.

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Record posted by: 
Thor Baukhol Madsen