The Sentient Sign
Some speculations on the Totemic value of the artificial Author
by Simon Biggs, December 1993

The Robot belongs to the class of Artifact - those things made by people. Artifacts exist not only as material things, serving certain functions, but as the externalisation of human needs, founded upon various fears and desires, requiring their own satisfaction. The artifact begs an analysis that takes in to account the associative and thus poetic capacity that arises from this. The Robot, as an artifact, requires a similar approach.

As the possibilities envisioned in the Geneticist's laboratory and in Artificial Intelligence research programs edge closer to their realisation, the nature of the particular type of artifact that develops forthwith calls into question both the values associated with the Robot and the value of artifacts in general.

How are we to receive such inventions when, or if, they come about? Is the Robot or the Cyborg (the biological equivalent of the Robot) an artifact no different from the wheel or an electric toaster, or is it something entirely different? Does the Sentient Artifact, or at least its possible existence, raise questions as to how we regard our inventions and our means of addressing them? Does this then change the way we see ourselves?

The Artifact and Value:

The artifact can be seen to have at least three primary dimensions of value. The first is its Use Value. That is, its physical and functional characteristics, as related to the use for which the artifact was originally conceived to be put. Secondly, its Exchange Value (what it is worth to others, and what it can be exchanged for in other goods or currency). Thirdly, the artifacts symbolic and social value; the manner in which it acts as an associative nexus (a point around which meaning gravitates) for the individual and, through a mythologising process, society.

In this last sense the artifact is a Sign, but also far more than that. Or rather, it contains elements that are not often associated with the Sign itself. It follows from this that it would only serve to narrow our interpretation of the artifact to accept that its Socio-symbolic Value is the direct product of its Use Value. Although it may appear that an object's appearance or evocative characteristics develop from its creators intention to satisfy a perceived practical need, it can be argued that this perceived need is not the result of a functional absence, but that this desired functionality is the product of deeper psycho-social drives. As such, a form of Id driven invention, where Socio-symbolic value is in ascendance over Use Value.

This is not to state that the difference between Use Value and Socio-symbolic Value only operates at two levels in the artifacts existence - production and consumption - for this dialectic could be seen to be operating throughout the artifacts various aspects. It is only to elucidate that such a difference is not necessarily heirarchic in the development of the artifact, and therefore not led from one dynamic through into another. Use Value and Socio-symbolic Value are, when talking about the artifact as a class of things in general, equal as components in the artifacts existence, and should not be seen as primarily a product of either use or Id driven need.

In the case of a work of Art it is assumed that the objects status as symbolic is where its primary value lies. However, as an inverse of the case of the 'functional object, it can be shown equally well that the Socio-symbolic Value of the work of Art is subservient to its Use Value or its Exchange Value (the work of Art as commodity). The notion of the object as a signifier of Status evidences this dual role - that the role of status symbol is founded on Socio-symbolic Value, whilst the requirement for such a symbol is the fulfillment of a perceived practical social need (Politic). As such, it is impossible to declare the artifacts existence as being primarily defined by its Socio-symbolic Value or any other form of value - the intertextuality of value requires that they are inextricably of one another. However, although this may be accepted, those objects most often associated with the practical or the mundane seem to escape this analysis (for example, an electric toaster).

What seems to link artifacts such as electric toasters, at least on cursory reflection, is their evolution from the laboratory to the factory. Perhaps the processes of scientific research or commercialised manufacturing establish an aura of rationality upon the artifact - that the social agreement involved in taking a product from the designer's sketch through to manufacture and beyond removes any unlikely aspects; that the reductionist ethic dominating such industrial practise is a rigour disallowing the apparently irrational. In other words, the artifact is depersonalised, the authorial voice removed and the object thus floats free of the concept of creation in the sense that we understand this in terms of the art object.

And yet, what now emerges as possible from scientific and industrial research appears not so much as founded on a rationalist rigour (although that is no doubt central to this method of invention) but as the result of an imagination gripped by a mythologising mania. An imagination drawing more on the unconcious material from which myths are born than any Empirical systemisation of experiment or manufacture.

Therefore, it can be argued that artifacts are the product of both rational and irrational processes. This is not to suggest the existence of a one to one relationship between rationality and irrationality on the one hand, and Use Value and Socio-symbolic Value on the other. In the final analysis such a comparison has no more value than the distinction between the artifacts Socio-symbolic Value and other forms of value - that each is just one side of the same coin. In this sense the process of design and manufacture can be compared to both mythological and empirical methods - that, in the latter case, through group activity and consensus a truth of sorts is arrived at whilst, in the former, that a myth requires social agreement to come into being. Such is veracity as a social value - relative in all its dimensions.

So the artifact can be seen as arriving out of inextricably bound together systems, Socio-symbolic or otherwise, and for each object we can ascribe numerous readings, predicated upon reader, "writer" and their context. Various artifacts will attract various interpretations, not only regarding what they say to us as objects divorced of known origins but what they say to us about their origins when those origins are known. That is, what stories an artifact tells of its maker.

In the case of Art it is the relationship between the Author and the artifact that primarily informs the Reader - that beyond the initial statement framing something as a work of Art. Here, the Author is seen not so much as a discernable individual (for this is impossible to consider in relation to, for instance, Pre-historic Art) but as a nexus upon which social and psychological forces were at work. As such, the Artist is seen as representative of their context - reflected in the artifact.

The Reader seeks in the work of Art a rationale for its existence, attempting to locate that principle within another individual. It is the anonymity in the origins of the manufactured object that seem to remove it from this consideration, and thus from that class of artifacts called Art. Yet, if the Author is only there to serve as a suitable nexus, then this anonymity must only be a convention and should not be a problem.

It could be argued that Duchamp's intention in signing a standard issue urinal "R.Mutt" was not to remove the manufactured object from mundane existence and place it as an Art object - and thus establish a conflict between what is and is not Art - nor to question the notion of the Artist's authority in declaring something a work of Art, but merely his way of saying that a standard issue urinal is already potential Art, whether we like it or not, due to its irrational and Socio-symbolic Value dependent origins.

It is perhaps because of this that objects which feature the patina of time gradually take on the aura of the work of Art, for time serves to seperate us from a dependence upon an easily identified Author. Rather than causing us to regard such artifacts as not Art, due to their lack of Authorial origin, we fictionalise their genesis, writing histories that carry the Authorial role. The mass-produced object of non-identifiable origins expresses another authority - the authority of the Panopticon; that which is unknown but ever present at the core of social praxis, the authority of consensus.

The Machine as Author:

Allan Turing developed a test for a theoretical machine - a machine he defined as one that could be any other machine (in a word, programmable). The intention of this test was to establish whether or not a machine was intelligent. It involved placing an opaque screen between an interviewer and two respondents - one a human, the other a computer. If the interviewer could not detect any qualifiable difference in the answers of the two interviewees then the machine had passed the test, and could be regarded as a fair simulation of the human.

Whether such a test could be effective in establishing anything in particular has been the source of much debate. Essentially it utilises Descarte's 'I think, therefore I am' notion of the Self. If, for instance, this was altered to read 'I make, therefore I am' then Turing's test would involve ascertaining the machines facility to create other machines and artifacts as evidence of its human-like qualities. Nevertheless, the Turing Test is generally regarded as seminal in the development of computing and artificial intelligence. However, to regard something as human will no doubt require the satisfaction of a far greater range of conditions. After all, various human groups have been adept at refusing to recognise others as similar - and this where relative differences are comparatively minimal.

What if, as it is claimed in some quarters, artificial intelligence research does result in a sentient machine? Given what has already been put forward, regarding the value of the artifact, how will such things be regarded and what social role will they have?

Freud established a connection between Oedipal guilt and the role of the Totem, evidencing the rituals for which the Totem is a focus as leading to the establishment of both social mechanisms of control and regulation and the development of the individuals equivalent of this, the Super Ego. For Freud the Totem symbolised the dead patriach of the tribe, having been killed by His progeny in order that they could possess that which the Father controlled. Putting aside problems associated with gender, the idea that the Totem functions to bind the group through evidencing a sense of social guilt seems reasonable. This process is related to the individuals own mechanisms of self control, refered to by Freud as the Super Ego. So, a connection is established between both individual and social identity - of control, reflection and self-knowledge.

So what in todays world has taken on the role of the totem? Or rather, what has become of it? For centuries the Church occupied this role, and after that the secular State. In Late Capitalist culture it is difficult to identify any of these as the source of real social power and control. The individual no longer identifies themself via these models.

Late Capitalism, according to many commentators, represents a society in which desire appears to govern a great deal more than previously. Although this may be so, the reality is that the society we live in, although pluralistic in some senses, is not in immediate danger of disintegration. That is, that there are functioning social mechanisms of control, albeit perhaps strained to the limit, and that most individuals manage to maintain a continuity of identity within this system.

Before going any further in this particular speculation it should be established that when talking of control mechanisms what is at issue is not an individual, or a centralised, authority over others. The discussion is on an altogether different level, dealing with the necessity for particular systems of control, and why it is that one structure or paradigm is replaced by another, as cultures shift or develop. So when the subject is the Church or the State the issue is not a particular case, but rather the social dynamics that led to power being established in a particular form.

Returning to the dynamism of desire in Late Capitalist culture, it is the case that the other side of this is an equally dynamic process of control and reflection. Where does this process lie? In the act of consumption itself? And through what means does this occur? The Media has now become both Church and State, representing to us all that we desire and simultaneously functioning to desublimate our guilt. It is the cathartic window upon our souls.

The televisual author is glimpsed so fleetingly and in so many guises that it has become ourselves. It is the social body and the individual consience. In short, it has become our Totem, around which our daily rituals are established and choreographed.

The Robot; A Contemporary Condition:

The Media is not in itself sentient. Like other social mechanisms, it is instituted as the externalisation of certain systems of the Self and society that require to be identified as Other for their authority to be sustained. It is not fixed, just as the State and the Church before it were unfixed. When it became possible to identify the boundaries of these mechanisms, and thus fix them by their limits, their days were numbered. The Media exists as an abstract entity - more an idea than an artifact. It is a medium - not a product in its own right.

However, as a reflection of the human it evidences many human characteristics. The Media represents the social group constructing its own conscience, externalising various conflicts in a reflective manner. In the same way that this is so for the Media it is also the case for other artifacts. All artifacts, to a greater or lesser degree, can be seen as attempts at Self-reproduction.

In the case of the computer this is especially evident, and with the Robot it becomes explicit. The Robot is an attempt at Self-reproduction - not of the Self as we know it, but as we would like to see it. As such, the Robot is an idealised form of Self, functioning similar to the ideals of Classical sculpture - this itself derived from the same needs that informed Totemic culture.

A mythologising process has occured around the notion of the Robot, well in advance of its actual manifestation. This process can be seen as occuring even before the word Robot had been thought of, and these earlier stories serve to place the Robot - both imaginary and actual - within the popular imagination and as an Icon. Contextualising the Robot's contemporary existence is its origins in scientific research and the relationship between technology and power, as it has developed.

The Robot is always seen as resolutely Other. It is an artifact which invites both our identification and alienation. It is created in our image, and is thus the result of our desire for ourselves - which is reflected in our desire for its existence - and as such is an object of desire itself. It is also unarguably different in the most fundamental sense, being, as it is, inorganic - cold, cthonic, dead. In this regard it repulses us and takes on associations of the alien and threatening. It is thus an object representing both our fears and desires.

The Robot is often seen as being in a role of authority - the Robocop syndrom. However, it is doubtful if this would be the case simply because of its cthonic Otherness. More likely, it is because of the association with the general field of technology, and technology's relationship with Capital and power, that we place the Robot in such a role.

Nevertheless, we have firmly associated the Robot - at least the Robot of popular imagination (which is potentially more 'real' than the dumb arm-like machines found in manufacturing industry today) - with authority. In this role it appears to be allied to our desire for social and Self control. It is the ultimate (perhaps penultimate) Police Unit. In this manner we have invested it with powers not dissimilar to that of a Super-Ego; a mechanism we allow to control us on the understanding that we are responsible for its creation and raison d'etre.

Here we see a direct connection between Freud's notion of the Super-Ego and Foucault's concept of the Panopticon as expressed through the surveilance and control functions of the robo(cop)t.

So, as we already transcend the Age of Information (so young) with its central image the media, and particularly television, we now enter the Virtual Age. An era where reality and complete simulation decay into one another, the tools allowing this being the computer and genetics and its central image the Robot - the artificial Self. The border between the Robot - the Other - and the Self blur, with reactive and 'intelligent' prothesis evolving to be part of ourselves. It will become more and more difficult to discriminate between the artificial and the 'original', for a large part of the Self will be manufactured, whilst that which is entirely manufactured will so resemble the Self (as it disintegrates) as to be a mirror to that which created it. Thus we create our contemporary Totem, with all its attendant Freudian associations still intact.

Notes and References:

Arguments for a political-economy of the sign, establishing as fundamental to this an update on Marxist notions of the object or sign's social and use value, have been central to recent debate on the construction of meaning. Whether this argument is still applicable when the object takes on an authority similar to that of its creator - that is, when the object itself can author other objects - is questionable. Perhaps this essentially semiological approach can not deal with the 'sentient sign', and a somewhat different tactic is necessary in the analysis of the value of such artifacts. A tactic which, whilst recognising aspects of semiological research, seeks to address the psychology of the user's relationship with the object.

Jean Baudrillard, 'Toward a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign'. Here distinctions are established between the Use Value, Exchange Value and Sign Value of the artifact, in its various social roles. My use of the term Socio-symbolic Value is not intended to replace Baudrillard's concept of Sign Value, nor to dispute his arguments on Value, but to suggest other aspects in the artifacts existence.

Electric toasters
Walter Benjamin, 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', for a somewhat different approach to aspects of this issue.


Michel Foucault, 'Discipline and Punish'; Penguin 1979, outlines various manifestations of what he terms the Panopticon.

Allan Turing
Allan Turing was, during the 30's and 40's, central in the development of what was to become computer science and what has opened up into other frontiers.

Sigmund Freud, 'Totem and Taboo'; Ark Paperbacks 1983.

Isaac Asimov's Robot series of novels, or Stanislaw Lem's rather more irreverent, but perhaps more incisive, 'Cyberiad', stand as examples of a particular genre of Twentieth Century literature.

Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein', Goethe's 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice' and the ancient Jewish myth of the Golem are all examples. Even earlier than this are such ideas as the Egyptian Ka and, in the Old Testament Adam, before receiving a Soul, is refered to as a Golem (a sort of non-living humanoid creature).

Here Capital is seen to include not only material forms of symbolic exchange, such as money, but also the currency of Late Capitalism - information.