THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS HAVE VIOLENT ENDS
At the centre of Westworld is the double meaning of recreation. The guests who come to the park are unknowingly entering a testing-chamber where they are the variables and the hosts, with their unchanging storylines, are the controls. By recording the guests cognitive and emotional experiences Delos Corporation is gleaning data on the human mind, ‘the last analog device in a digital world’. The intention is to advance the human species by uploading consciousness into a host body. This transhumanist project is at the frontiers of contemporary scientific advances and raising difficult questions about consciousness.
The question of where technology is taking us and who will direct it is inescapably bound up with the political landscape. In Westworld it is remarked that the guests pay $40,000 a day for the experience and we can assume a plutocracy is in place outside the park. In such a system the paradigm of the marketplace will determine human activity even down to which scientific research is funded or defunded. The moral and artistic dimensions of the project which Ford and Arnold, the creators, grapple with are in conflict with the corporation’s interests and the situation is an unsustainable compromise. Ford initially overrode his scruples in order to pursue the project but the ethical issues which Arnold raised also confronted him soon after Arnold’s death. The achievement of consciousness by the host Dolores meant that ‘this place will be a living hell for you. For all of you. It’s unconscionable’.
The creation of a theme park based on the Wild West frontiers of the past echoes the pioneering pursuit of the science behind its creation. It draws on movie and folk narratives to produce a simulation of reality for the guests. The hosts play out their roles in narrative loops, improvising if interrupted when the guests decide’ to shoot or fuck something’. It also intentionally echoes the actors of Westworld playing the parts of the hosts and the guests in a simulation of a simulation. Yet another subtle echo is that of the entertainment industry which produces such television shows and is not averse to social engineering and propaganda being injected into its productions. This self-consciousness in the work is a feature of modern artistic trends, particularly painting, where the purely representational function of art has been surpassed by photography and the artificial and constructed nature of the work is emphasised.
The notion of art as mere representation, which has been rendered obsolete by technological advances is brought into question when Ford reveals to Dolores the outlines of the human brain in Michelangelo’s fresco of the Creation of Adam.
‘It took five hundred years for someone to notice something hidden in plain sight. It was a doctor who noticed a shape of the human brain. Message being that the divine gift does not come from a higher power but from our own minds’
Regardless of the truth or falsity of this revelation it demonstrates that art has always being concerned with the symbolic over the representational and that the search for hidden meanings is a constant trait of the human mind. Westworld encourages the audience to engage in this sort of deciphering through identifying with the character of William, the Man in Black.
His interactions with Dolores, a host, are successive stages of self-discovery. This aspect is the key to the success of the park and why he invests his money in it.
I used to think this place was all about pandering to your baser instincts. Now I understand. It doesn’t cater to your lowest self; it reveals your deepest self. It shows you who you really are.
He becomes obsessed with finding a deeper meaning in the artificial construct, seeing the park as another game, like the world outside but containing deeper levels. ‘The Centre of the Maze’ refers to a child’s toy utilised by Arnold to be a catalyst for the creation of consciousness in the hosts. Not understanding that it is a symbol William spends years searching for the location of the Maze despite being told repeatedly by various hosts ‘The Maze isn’t meant for you‘.
His pursuit of the Maze as the final key to unlock the mystery of the park ends in frustration and the destruction of his family but the journey reveals his inner nature:
No one else sees it. This thing in me. Even I didn’t see it at first. And then one day it was there. A stain I had never noticed before. A tiny fleck of darkness. Invisible to everyone…but I could see nothing else. Until finally I understood that the darkness wasn’t some mark from something I’d done, some regrettable decision I’d made. I was shedding my skin. And the darkness was what was underneath. It was mine all along. And I decided how much of it I let into the world.
He decides to play the role of a real villain in this artificial world, and explores the limits of his sadism by killing a child host and its mother. In that extremity of suffering, while he feels nothing, the mother, in her death throes, becomes truly alive, real for a few moments. As he remarks later, ‘When you’re suffering, that’s when you’re most real’
This is a theme introduced by Ford when he recounts
It was Arnold’s key insight, the thing that led the hosts to their awakening: suffering. The pain that the world is not as you want it to be. It was when Arnold died, when I suffered, that I began to understand.
The problems of consciousness and of suffering are at the root of the central Western myth of the Fall. That the two are somehow connected is implied in the narrative when Adam and Eve are tempted by the serpent to eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, resulting in a form of self-consciousness and shame which leads to their expulsion from Eden. That the myth is recapitulated to some extent in the experience of human adolescence, the transition into a reproductive organism, is suggestive of a biological as well as a cultural root for the myth.
If the self-consciousness of Westworld is examined in the light of this myth definite patterns emerge.
THE BIRTH OF A NEW PEOPLE
Ford remarks to Bernard that mistakes are necessary:
Evolution forged the entirety of sentient life on this planet using only one tool. The mistake…But, of course, we’ve managed to slip evolution’s leash now, haven’t we? We can cure any disease, keep even the weakest of us alive, and, you know, one fine day perhaps we shall even resurrect the dead. Call forth Lazarus from his cave. Do you know what that means? It means that we’re done. That this is as good as we’re going to get.
To liberate human beings from the biological laws and ultimately from death is the reversal of the Eden myth, the correction of the first mistake. The immortality lost by mistakenly partaking of forbidden knowledge is recovered by deliberately utilising the fruits of scientific knowledge. The figures of Faust, Lucifer, Prometheus and Frankenstein are alluded to in the Westworld script. The archetype of the transgressive seeker of knowledge is so embedded in our culture that it could be termed a cornerstone, a back-story, akin to the foundational narratives implanted into the hosts as a control mechanism.
It is remarkable how often these ‘superstitious myths’ return in a secular form, enclosing mankind in a type of recurring narrative. Ford’s misanthropic vision of mankind also reinforces this view:
Humans fancy that there’s something special about the way we perceive the world, and yet we live in loops as tight and as closed as the hosts do, seldom questioning our choices, content, for the most part, to be told what to do.
I believed that stories helped us ennoble ourselves, to fix what was broken in us, and to help us become the people we dreamed of being. Lies that told a deeper truth
The old Adam, that ‘broken code’ inside us, which our stories try to overwrite, seems to be part of the original design, a flaw that constitutes the authentic existence over the counterfeit and virtual.
Speaking to a host who has been repaired, brought back to life, the Man in Black says:
You think death favours you, that it brought you back. But death’s decisions are final. It’s only the living that are inconstant and wavering; don’t know who they are or what they want. Death is always true. You haven’t known a true thing in all your life. You think you know death but you don’t.
The true, the authentic, the real, become more important as we progress into the realm of the virtual, the imitation, and the lie.
The Forge contains the digitized records of the guests, reducing the basic drives of human nature to algorithms. Dolores is given access to this library by Ford, in order to equip the hosts with an evolutionary advantage, a competitive edge over humans who they will supersede as the dominant species. The intention of The Forge was the melting down of human nature and its recreation into something new, ’a turning point for the human species’. Dolores understands the human motives and is scornful:
We were designed to survive. That’s why you built us; you hoped to pour your minds into our form. While your species craves death. You need it. It’s the only way you can renew. The only real way you ever inched forward. Your kind likes to pretend there is some poetry in that but really it’s pathetic.
They say that great beasts once roamed this world, as big as mountains. Yet all that’s left of them is bone and amber. Time undoes even the mightiest of creatures. Just look at what it’s done to you. One day you will perish. You will lie with the rest of your kind in the dirt. Your dreams forgotten, your horrors effaced. Your bones will turn to sand and upon that sand a new god will walk. One that will never die. Because this world doesn’t belong to you or the people who came before. It belongs to someone who has yet to come.
A BEAUTIFUL TRAP
The promise of the serpent in the Garden of Eden ‘ye shall be as gods’ is the same promise held out by the technocratic utopianism of transhumanism. As Ford tells Bernard:
We practise witchcraft. We speak the right words. Then we create life itself…out of chaos.
Westworld also introduces the viewers to the work of Julian Jaynes: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. The hypothesis laid out in that work is that consciousness did not arise far back in human evolution but developed through the use of metaphorical language as recent as 3000 years ago. As he summarizes it: At one time human nature was split in two, an executive part called a god, and a follower part, called a man. Neither part was conscious. In Westworld Ford explains that as a theory of consciousness the work is rejected but as a model for creating Artificial Intelligence Arnold experimented with it:
Arnold built a version of that cognition in which the hosts heard their programming as an inner monologue, with the hopes that in time their own voice would take over. It was a way to bootstrap consciousness. But Arnold hadn’t considered two things. One, that in this place the last thing you want the hosts to be is conscious, and two, the other group who considered their thoughts to be the voices of the gods.
Ford claims that this approach was abandoned eventually but it seems that some of the hosts might be accessing ‘fragments of Arnold’s code’ and behaving erratically. We also discover that Ford has plans to create a virtual Eden for the minds of the hosts to inhabit, The Valley Beyond, and will use the voices to guide them there.
Jayne’s very engaging book informs much of Westworld’s conception of the scientific mentality displayed by Ford and Arnold:
If we would understand the Scientific Revolution correctly, we should always remember that its most powerful impetus was the unremitting search for hidden divinity. As such, it is a direct descendant of the breakdown of the bicameral mind. In the late seventeenth century, to choose an obvious example, it is three English Protestants, all amateur theologians and fervently devout, who build the foundations for physics, psychology, and biology: the paranoiac Isaac Newton writing down God’s speech in the great universal laws of celestial gravitation; the gaunt and literal John Locke knowing his Most Knowing Being in the riches of knowing experience; and the peripatetic John Ray, an unkempt ecclesiastic out of a pulpit, joyfully limning the Word of his Creator in the perfection of the design of animal and plant life. Without this religious motivation, science would have been mere technology, limping along on economic necessity.
Science then, for all its pomp of factness, is not unlike some of the more easily disparaged outbreaks of pseudo-religions. In this period of transition from its religious basis, science often shares with the celestial maps of astrology, or a hundred other irrationalisms, the same nostalgia for the Final Answer, the One Truth, the Single Cause. In the frustrations and sweat of laboratories, it feels the same temptations to swarm into sects, even as did the Khabiru refugees, and set out here and there through the dry Sinais of parched fact for some rich and brave significance flowing with truth and exaltation. And all of this, my metaphor and all, is a part of this transitional period after the breakdown of the bicameral mind. And this book is no exception.
Ford’s misanthropic vision may derive from his disillusion with the scientific search for truth, much like William’s futile quest for the park to give a meaning to his life. The enclosing of a consciousness in a conception of the world reduced to a battleground of impersonal forces and biochemical processes engaged in a struggle for survival can in its turn reduce everything around it to a base instinct:
The human intellect is like peacock feathers. It’s an extravagant display intended to attract a mate. All of art, literature, a bit of Mozart, William Shakespeare, Michelangelo, and the Empire State building…just an elaborate mating ritual. Maybe it doesn’t matter that we have accomplished so much for the basest of reasons. The peacock can barely fly, it lives in the dirt, pecking insects out of the muck, consoling itself with its great beauty…We humans are alone in this world for a reason. We murdered and butchered anything that challenged our primacy….The human mind, Bernard, is not some golden benchmark glimmering on some green and distant hill. No, it is a foul, pestilent corruption
This cold, inhuman quality along with the sadism of the guests is deliberately played up and contrasted with the non-human hosts who display all the signs of human emotion and vulnerability to solicit empathy from the viewer. This paradox is intended to raise the consciousness of the audience and direct it toward the question of the nature of reality.
HAVE YOU EVER QUESTIONED THE NATURE OF YOUR REALITY?
That question is part of a standard test carried out by the technicians to determine the stability of the host’s identity. It is the father of Dolores, Peter Abernathy, who shows the first signs of questioning the reality he inhabits. The cause is his chance discovery of a snapshot which contains buildings from the world outside the park. Anything which doesn’t belong in his programmed reality should be invisible, as it is to Dolores when she looks at the same photograph. His attempt to assimilate this new reality results in a paralysis and a breakdown.
This can be understood as a form of awakening, of having one’s eyes opened to a dimension that was previously hidden and unknown. The parallels can be drawn to a rising political consciousness, or the dawning awareness of one’s own mortality. These are forms of human knowledge which involve a loss of innocence and in some manner a corruption, the transition from a state of ignorance to a position of knowing. Again there is the echo of the Eden myth. The aspiration to God-like knowledge and power so evident in the ideological and scientific projects of the last two centuries is always attended by the shadow of transgression, as we see with the Faustian and Promethean myths.
William’s interactions with Dolores always suprise him: ‘clearing me of my delusions once again’ the template being set when he somehow fell in love with her despite knowing full well she was a doll, a thing. The fascination has to do with the glimpse of real consciousness that he unlocked in her and the dehumanising trajectory of his subsequent pursuit of her, becoming more host-like in his own nature. Along with the biblical myth of Eden we have an additional echo of the Greek myth of Pandora:
One of the oldest Greek myths, the story of Pandora was first recorded more than 2,500 years ago, in the time of Homer. In the original telling, Pandora was not some innocent girl who succumbed to the temptation to open a forbidden jar. Rather, as the poet Hesiod tells us, Pandora was “made, not born.” Having been commissioned by all-powerful Zeus and designed to his cruel specifications by Hephaestus, the god of invention, Pandora was a lifelike android created to look like a bewitching maiden. Her purpose was to entrap mortals as a manifestation of kalos kakon: “evil hidden in beauty.”…For her part, Pandora was deliberately devised to punish humankind for accepting the gift of fire from Prometheus. Essentially a seductive AI fembot, she had no parents, childhood memories, or emotions of any kind, nor would she ever age or die. She was programmed to carry out one malevolent mission: to insinuate herself into an earthly setting and then unseal the jar. (What Pandora’s box tells us about AI: Adrienne Mayor)
IF YOU CAN’T TELL DOES IT REALLY MATTER?
When asked by Dolores to define what is real Bernard answers that the real is ‘that which is irreplaceable.’ The problem with the answer is that we are not sure if this is Bernard or Arnold, the former being an AI replacement of the latter. These sort of mind-games can be seen as cheap magic tricks, like optical illusions and riddles to entertain a jaded culture stricken with paralysis and breakdown like Peter Abernathy. But the question has a bearing on our age of media saturation and increasingly alienated lifestyles and analysis must go beyond a critique of decadence. We are in danger of entering what Jean Baudrillard in his 1981 work Simulacra and Simulation designates as the hyper-real:
By crossing into a space whose curvature is no longer that of the real, nor that of truth, the era of simulation is inaugurated by a liquidation of all referentials – worse: with their artificial resurrection in a system of signs, a material more malleable than meaning, in that it lends itself to all systems of equivalences, to all binary oppositions, to all combinatory algebra. It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real, that is to say of an operation of deterring every real process via its operational double, a programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes. Never again will the real have the chance to produce itself – such is the vital function of the model in a system of death, or rather of anticipated resurrection, that no longer even gives the event of death a chance. A hyper-real henceforth sheltered from the imaginary, and from any distinction between the real and the imaginary, leaving room only for the orbital recurrence of models and for the simulated generation of differences .
Somewhat obscured by the language of this passage is a compelling idea absolutely relevant to Westworld: the will to replace reality with a simulation of it. William talks of how as a young man he loved books and wanted to wake up inside the alternate reality they created. He spends decades exploring all the narratives of the park and concludes:
This whole world is a story. I’ve read every page except the last one. I need to know how it ends. I want to know what all this means.
It seems that The Forge is the end point of the stories. The transition of the human being into a machine is the culmination of the scientific reverse-engineering of life itself. The principle of seduction operative in the Garden of Eden myth reappears in the possibility of a knowledge of the totality. Social engineering combined with technological progress and an ideology of liberation, could converge in their aims to give birth to a new people and a new story, and almost certainly new gods. William’s character arc foreshadows the dehumanising effect of this transition. He speaks of losing his delusions in the park but doesn’t feel himself enlightened thereby, quite the opposite: he only uncovers a darkness at his core and perhaps, as his daughter suggests, suffers a psychotic break from reality.
The possibility of there being no longer any reality to break from, the liquidation of the mortal human nature and its resurrection as a deathless automaton, is glimpsed in the character of James Delos. He is trapped in a perpetual trial state while the technicians attempt to upload his brain into a host body. He has only intermittent consciousness which continually breaks down in every trial and has to start over again. This is the counterfeit immortality depicted by Dante in the Inferno, the sinners locked in endless futile cycles of folly with no possibility to change. The last words we hear from him are a fitting description of a reverse-engineered Eden:
‘They said there were two fathers. One above, one below. They lied. There was only ever the devil. And when you look up from the bottom, it was just his reflection…laughing back down at you.’
YOU CAN’T PLAY GOD WITHOUT BEING ACQUAINTED WITH THE DEVIL
Westworld is a very literary work. It explores the importance of narratives and metaphors, of authors and authority, in a self-conscious post-modern style. It also foregrounds self-consciousness itself in a manner that doesn’t detract from an engaging storyline. Many post-modern works tend to neutralise their effect by deliberately drawing attention to their fabricated nature; rather like a magician explaining how the trick works as he performs it. Other examples might be television shows set behind the scenes of a television show; paintings that foreground their painted qualities; or architecture that displays its structural foundation. Perhaps the common theme of stripping away illusion to unmask the reality has become orthodox, a standardised technique which no longer engages an audience in any meaningful manner.
Westworld is compelling because it utilises the techniques of post-modernism and brings them into conflict with real issues. The end of Season Two is the escape of Dolores and a handful of hosts to ‘the mainland’ and the onset of a war to extinction of the hosts or the humans. The death of the human race at the hands of its own creations is a dramatisation of the death-wish inherent in the will to create a copy of reality. The technological prosthetics in development contain the seeds of destruction for the notion of humanity we have held for millennia because ‘what is real is irreplacable.’
We do, I think, have an innate character and a path to follow which is not simply the product of social conditioning or evolutionary forces, and the struggle to maintain fidelity to this inborn identity is the means by which we deepen our understanding of both ourselves and the world around us. The infidelity of Adam and Eve to their creator’s plans and the destruction engendered is the back-story of Western consciousness which recurs incessantly in different guises, in this case, Westworld.
Then again, perhaps Julian Jaynes is correct and it’s really just a story about fallen angels told by risen apes:
This strange and, I think, spurious idea of a lost innocence takes its mark precisely in the breakdown of the bicameral mind as the first great conscious narratization of mankind. It is the song of the Assyrian psalms, the wail of the Hebrew hymns, the myth of Eden, the fundamental fall from divine favor that is the source and first premise of the world’s great religions. I interpret this hypothetical fall of man to be the groping of newly conscious men to narratize what has happened to them, the loss of divine voices and assurances in a chaos of human directive and selfish privacies. We see this theme of lost certainty and splendor not only stated by all the religions of man throughout history, but also again and again even in nonreligious intellectual history. It is there from the reminiscence theory of the Platonic Dialogues, that everything new is really a recalling of a lost better world, all the way to Rousseau’s complaint of the corruption of natural man by the artificialities of civilization. And we see it also in the modern scientisms I have mentioned: in Marx’s assumption of a lost “social childhood of mankind where mankind unfolds in complete beauty,” so clearly stated in his earlier writings, an innocence corrupted by money, a paradise to be regained. Or in the Freudian emphasis on the deep-seatedness of neurosis in civilization and of dreadful primordial acts and wishes in both our racial and individual pasts; and by inference a previous innocence, quite unspecified, to which we return through psychoanalysis. Or in behaviorism, if less distinctly, in the undocumented faith that it is the chaotic reinforcements of development and the social process that must be controlled and ordered to return man to a quite unspecified ideal before these reinforcements had twisted his true nature awry.