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What We Aren('t)

by Jules Desai

Klara and the Sun

Kazuo Ishiguro

Faber, March 2021

Intelligence and Spirit

Reza Negarestani

MIT Press, November 2018

‘Don’t you realise,’ Plato’s Socrates asks in the Republic, ‘that we start by telling children stories which are, by and large, untrue? Shall we allow our children to listen to any old stories, made up by just anyone?’

So begins the infamous excommunication of literature from the ideal city. Literature, Plato thinks, is storytelling. And storytelling is storytelling: the conjuring of hollow appearances, twice removed from reality, whose purpose is to pander our emotions. Unless literature, a ‘deformer of the mind,’ can transfigure itself into something more authentic, Plato sees no place for it in Utopia. Regrettably, this hostility towards literature has somewhat stuck around in philosophy (at least, in the Anglophone tradition), which often indulges its unfortunate tendency to exclude the literary form from the sphere of “proper” philosophising.

I think this is a mistake. As a philosophy student, my own optimism about the philosophical potential of literature sometimes tends to remain buried, but it was recently animated upon reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s new book, Klara and the Sun.

Set in a worryingly recognisable, technological future, Ishiguro’s eighth novel invites us to take up the first-person perspective of Klara, the story’s protagonist. She is an ‘AF’ (Artificial Friend) who, like all AFs, is created to be sold as a companion for a human teenager. After an anxious beginning, where she waits in a shop display for her commercial adoption, Klara gets chosen by a bubbly girl, Josie. But it is not long before we learn that Josie is gravely ill, afflicted by a condition which may claim her life. So, we, the readers, infer that Klara’s role is to be somewhere between a mild therapeutic presence and an end-of-life carer.

As Klara gradually becomes exposed to the world, she learns; so too do we, intimately acquainted with her thoughts. We meet Rick, Josie’s neighbour and best friend. But we find out the two are, in a crucial way, different. Society is stratified. Some people (but only some — Josie, but not Rick) are ‘lifted’ at birth. They are, at the will of their parents, subject to genetic enhancement which brings with it a vastly ameliorated life (higher social status, better education, and so on). But lifting occasionally gets botched, crippling the child through no fault of their own. This, tragically, is Josie’s case.

Throughout the novel, as Josie’s health fluctuates into decline, Ishiguro spins together two complementary threads. The first, light both in nature and content, centres on a plan that Klara devises to heal Josie. Klara is solar-powered. One day, while on display in the shopfront, she observes a homeless person (‘Beggar Man’) motionless on the ground. Naturally, she assumes he has died. But a short while later, after the Sun shines upon his body, he starts to move. The innocent Klara, extrapolating from her own solar-powered experience, presumes that Beggar Man has been resurrected. She becomes convinced that, if only she could get the Sun’s divine attention, ‘his nourishment’ might help Josie get better. And so, with Rick’s assistance, she pilgrimages towards the Sun to pray for Josie’s recovery.

The second thread is dark. It begins when Josie’s mother first meets Klara in the shop. Josie herself instinctually bonds with Klara after seeing her on display. Yet ‘the Mother’ (as Klara calls her) is reluctant, always with an air of instrumentalism. Strangely, she asks Klara some hyper-specific questions, all about Josie: what colour her eyes are and what her voice sounds like. This is pushed uncomfortably far when Klara is asked to imitate Josie’s gait. And it is the ability to perfectly mirror Josie’s behaviour, not the authentic, loving bond between child and AF, that ultimately occasions Klara’s adoption.

‘I think it was right we didn’t bring Josie today’, the Mother says, when she brings Klara to one of Josie’s favourite retreats. ‘Klara. Since Josie isn’t here, I want you to be Josie.’ Ishiguro begins to sow seeds of doubt about Klara’s purpose as Josie’s companion. The suspicion is unnervingly confirmed when we learn Josie is having her ‘portrait’ done by a mysterious artist, Mr Capaldi. Klara travels with Josie to a sitting where she undertakes a psychological evaluation. Left unattended, she sneaks out to find this ‘portrait’, only to discover an almost-perfect artificial replica of Josie’s body. It is then that the Mother and Capaldi reveal their grand plan: Klara, should Josie die, is expected to become Josie. ‘The new Josie won’t be an imitation,’ Capaldi says. ‘She really will be Josie. A continuation of Josie.’

But these two threads are left dangling. Following a climactic moment in which Klara tears open Josie’s bedroom curtains, bathing the gravely unwell Josie in sunlight, the novel leaps forward in time. Josie, who has unexpectedly become healthier, is about to leave for college. We learn that Capaldi’s creation is unnecessary. And while we know that Klara’s plan makes no medical difference to Josie, to her, in her naivety, things appear differently.

The novel swiftly concludes by jumping forward in time once again. Klara is alone in a scrapyard. She is seated, deteriorating and immobile — yet genuinely content. It only now becomes clear that the whole book is Klara’s quiet recollection of her fond memories — and we, the readers, silently thinking with her.

In a later passage in the Republic, Plato trains his sights on the writer’s appropriation of one of philosophy’s oldest concerns — reflection on what we are: ‘We’ve discussed how gods must be portrayed — and deities, heroes, and the dead … So, wouldn’t we be left with writing which has human beings as its subject?’ In these words, a question resonates: what can literature teach us about our own nature?

As per Plato, who insinuates that the writer’s picture of ourselves will invariably be distorted, I think Ishiguro’s book paints a penetrating picture of what we are. This, by itself, is perhaps only mildly interesting; many works of literature can be understood as doing the same. But Ishiguro’s work is distinctive: it is a deliberate illustration of what we are by provoking us to consider what we might not be. This puts it in a privileged position to reveal something substantial about ourselves. Whatever we are, it is clear (after millennia of trying) that it might well be ineffable; thinking through contrasts allows some form of progress in approaching questions which otherwise seem insurmountable.

In this regard, Ishiguro’s book shares a remarkable similarity with a recent work of academic philosophy: Reza Negarestani’s Intelligence and Spirit. In Negarestani’s words, his project is to develop a ‘photographic negative’ of ourselves, telling us ‘what we are in virtue of what we are determinately not.’ By placing these two very different works of negative self-portraiture alongside one another, Klara and the Sun becomes not a literary work masquerading as philosophy, but a work of philosophy proper, one which really philosophises over what we are.

Intelligence and Spirit, a difficult work occupying a middle-ground between ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ philosophy, offers an account of the nature of intelligence. An intelligent mind, Negarestani thinks, ‘is only what it does’ — it ‘structure[s] the universe to which it belongs’. Reappropriating Hegel’s idea of Geist (a single, conscious spirit common to all of us), Negarestani argues that an intelligent mind is a product of a community of agents rather than something each of us privately and subjectively develops.

‘The significance,’ he writes, of this picture ‘is that it enables a thoroughgoing analysis of essentially self-conscious creatures: what activities, in what sorts of structures, are required in order to realise a self-conscious rational agent?’ Indeed, he takes the very project of understanding intelligence to be made tractable by the Kantian strategy that he adopts: starting from what we are and reasoning backwards to how things must be for this to be possible.

He talks of this as making an ‘outside view of ourselves’. Already, we have an inside view given to us through the experience of our own distinctive existence (Heidegger’s conception of Dasein as ‘being-in-the-world’ comes to mind). But only certain elements of this view (like rational self-consciousness) are necessary for intelligence. Others (like being fleshy) are not: they are mere contingencies of the human form of life. So, in order to understand the essence of intelligence, we must distinguish between the two.

To do this, Negarestani sets out to hypothetically construct a prototypical artificial intelligence. In this process, we may come to recognise various impasses which threaten to render the project an impossible feat. These impasses (more precisely, their negation) thereby reveal to us ‘conditions necessary for the possibility of having mind.’

Negarestani begins with a basic automaton whose sensory awareness is rudimentary, but whose intellect is not yet furnished with concepts (its intellect bears resemblance to that of an infant). By considering the automaton’s experience of the world, Negarestani arrives at his first necessary condition for the existence of intelligence: the possibility of having ‘an encounter with the world from a nonconceptual, [spatiotemporal] point of view.’

But this automaton is intellectually passive; it can receive perceptual data but cannot actively think them. So, Negarestani turns to equipping the automaton with the necessary structures for complex thought. He does this by adopting a ‘resolutely Hegelian approach’ which assumes that the intellectual ability to manipulate concepts arises from one’s embeddedness in a linguistic community. Importantly, Negarestani also takes this to make possible a concept of ‘the self’, for he thinks ‘an individual is only an individual to the extent that it is individuated by social recognition.’

This pattern of gradually ‘upgrading’ the automaton, continues throughout the book, eventually yielding further constraints on what language must be like. Its final product is the impressively rich negative self-portrait that we were promised in the beginning: an outside view that shows us what we are by excluding what we are not.

Negarestani is asking: Who are we? However, just who we are will depend on behalf of whom one is speaking. In Negarestani’s case, ‘we’ represents intelligence as such, encompassing, but going much further than, the limits of humanity. His contrastive method of photographic negatives can indeed answer questions about a different ‘we.’

Intelligence and Spirit acquaints us with artificial agents and draws a negative self-portrait of ourselves as intelligent beings. Klara and the Sun, by the very same logic, acquaints us with the artificial Klara to tentatively draw a negative self-portrait about ourselves as humans. I don’t mean here ‘human’ in the biological sense of homo sapiens. I rather mean a distinct, empathetic notion of humanity: humans as those in whom we can see ourselves reflected and with whom we can empathise.

The pivotal question Ishiguro poses is: could Klara really be Josie? This is, on the surface, a question of our individuality: what exactly is it that makes each of us who we are?

At one point, Klara finds herself alone with Josie’s father. ‘Do you believe in the human heart?’ he says. ‘I don’t mean simply the organ, obviously … Something that makes each of us special and individual?’ He goes on to say that our individuality is unique, that it can only ever be imitatively appropriated by another. The artist Capaldi, however, disagrees. He reminds Klara, ‘so you see what’s being asked of you … You’re being asked to continue her for [the Mother]. And for everyone who loves Josie.’

‘But is that going to be possible?’, the Mother interjects.

‘Yes’, says Capaldi, resolutely. ‘Now Klara’s completed the survey … I’ll be able to give you scientific proof of it. Proof she’s already well on her way to accessing quite comprehensively all of Josie’s impulses and desires.’

Klara herself, in the novel’s final pages, makes up her mind. ‘I did all I could to learn Josie,’ she reflects. ‘But I don’t think it would have worked out … Mr Capaldi believed there was nothing special inside Josie that couldn’t be continued … There was something very special, but it wasn’t inside Josie. It was inside those who loved her.’ This poignant idea, that each of us is in part constituted by others, interestingly connects with Negarestani’s thought about the importance of social recognition for subject-formation.

But lying behind the question of individuality is another one. Asking whether Klara could be Josie, we intuit, is asking whether or not a robot could be human. And depending on whether we find ourselves able to accept Klara as our own, we develop different photographic negatives of what we are. We redraw the boundary of what humanity means.

Indeed, Ishiguro powerfully challenges our intuitions about this boundary. While Klara, in some ways, is very different from us, she is the same in others. Take her tendency to sublimate the sun: religious sentiment like this is characteristically human, embodying our urge to hope and to understand, but also our poverty-stricken finitude. Even more telling is the book’s great irony: the inversion of humanistic, natural motherhood and scientistic, synthetic roboticism. The sapiens Mother — the symbol of the natural world — pushes so strongly for Capaldi’s unnatural, technological solution (embodied by the cold, harsh, white lights of his sterile studio). Yet, the robotic, artificial Klara — as symbol of a dystopian, unnatural future — seeks the natural, primitive nourishment of the Sun (embodied by the warm, soft, yellow sunlight). Might Klara fit our intuitive paradigm of humanity better than the Mother? And what does this say about the limits of humanity itself, about where they fall?

Read like this, Klara and the Sun becomes a powerful critique of the scientific outlook that finds itself at the foundation of much contemporary thought. We might recall Capaldi’s words, ‘I’ll give you scientific proof of it,’ in response to whether Klara could continue her existence as Josie. Seduced by its power, Capaldi exalts the scientific to displace other forms of thinking, assimilating the essentially human problem that Josie and her mother face into a question of cold, mechanistic empiricism. Perhaps, given the inversion of Klara and the Mother, of robot and sapiens, we might even take Ishiguro as insinuating that this unbridled scientistic infatuation is, above all, dehumanising.

To a significant extent, a similar scientism has gripped academic philosophy. And I suspect it is partly culpable for the present-day retention of the Platonic sentiment that excludes literature from the domain of philosophy. Given the technicality of Negarestani’s book, it is a pleasant surprise when, in its conclusion, he advances a highly sensitive image of philosophy with an essentially non-scientific dimension. ‘Philosophy,’ he says, is ‘a historical [computer] program for investigating the consequences of the possibility of thinking.’ If, he thinks, there can be intelligence at all, there must be certain intelligibilities in the world. Yet, at any point in time, cognitive and technological contingencies imply that mind always encounters limits of intelligibility. Philosophy, Negarestani proposes, explores what is intelligible at a particular time, enabling change through the socio-technological progress that results from making better sense of things. As this progress is made, more of the world in turn becomes intelligible. Thus, philosophy operates as a ‘fulcrum’ by means of which the limits of thought are constantly expanded and redrawn. When ‘viewed from an Archimedean point in the future of thought’s unfolding,’ he says, ‘philosophy is seen as that which has instructed thinking to become a systematic program … a project for the emancipation of intelligence’.

This image of philosophy has two important points of relevance. The first is its generality, accommodating both scientistic and humanistic thought. Its chief and only aim is intelligence coming to, truly and finally, understand itself and the world, through exploring and expanding the contingent limits of sense. The second follows from the central idea that the intelligent mind, as an essentially public phenomenon, is distributed across a community. Philosophy, if this is the case, is then intrinsically democratic. It is, by compulsion, an activity of both personal and mutual sense-making.

If we can recognise the essence of the philosophical in this picture, then it seems to me that Klara and the Sun is as much a work of philosophy as any other. Ishiguro has a remarkable ability to invite the reader to project their philosophical thoughts onto the scaffolding that his words erect. And it is there, like a literary body comprising a skeleton and blood, that those thoughts are supported, nourished, die and are (re)born.

Might it be here where we find the philosophical value of literature? Literary works will probably never tell us the answer to a philosophical question. Nor will they advance any theses, at least not on terms familiar to academia. But they will, I presume, stimulate us to thoughts of our own.

Indeed, the question of whether Klara is truly human is left open, so we might wonder about the answer. But perhaps this is a mistake. Searching for an answer would presuppose that the concept of humanity is rigid, as if its boundaries are impersonally predetermined. Must this be the case? Why not read the book as asking us, and helping us, to determine these boundaries firstly for ourselves and then secondly together?

Ishiguro’s work, especially when held up against Negarestani’s, is as compelling a case as any that it is possible for everyone to stake a claim, through literature, to the philosophy that occupies a central part of the human and the intelligent conditions. And if we think, as the philosopher Bernard Williams did, that philosophy should have a humanistic dimension, then surely it would be a mistake if philosophy couldn’t help us all make sense of ourselves. If this doesn’t earn literature the name ‘philosophy,’ then the towers of the Academy risk casting themselves in an ugly shade of ivory.

JULES DESAI spends some time reading Philosophy at Magdalen College. He spends more time reading the menu at Tse Noodle on Ship Street.

Art by Fred Seddon.


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