In this text, the script of a performance/lecture, which combines live puppetry, digital film, and a lecture, is paired with a prefatory essay that seeks to address the theoretical questions raised by the play about embodiment, mind, AI, and the staging of consciousness. The play was performed at the Centre for the Less Good Idea, an arts laboratory, in Maboneng, Johannesburg, South Africa, in October 2018. In the play, two characters stand in as the early pioneers of primate research, Wolfgang Köhler (an early Gestalt psychologist) and Jane Goodall, whose observational fieldwork shifted primate studies profoundly. These two distinctive intellects advanced the commitment of the human species to work toward the preservation of, and engagement with, higher primates and in such ways altered our apprehension of the limits of the human through a challenge posed by our closest nonhuman kin. The play also explores the research of Norbert Wiener, the pioneer of the field of cybernetics (a term that he invented). Wiener inaugurated the massive proliferation of research into “feedback” theory, which he saw as fundamental to mechanic intelligence. In such terms, Wiener too was thinking about the limits of the human. The play introduces some discussion of artistic responses to these fields of inquiry through exploring the writings of Samuel Beckett and J. M. Coetzee. The play also addresses ethical questions about the uses of research. Both Wiener and Köhler used their work on the humanities in order to address our obligation to the human. At the same time, the play addresses our relations to those who, for reasons of ideology, “fall” outside of our definitions of the fully human. Much of the persuasive power of the work arises from the uncanny performances and in particular the staging of a life-sized wooden chimpanzee puppet. In this sense, the work makes an argument about meaning as embodied.
The document that follows is an exploration, via lecture and performance, of two distinct but mutually disruptive skeins of research around the notion of “intelligence” in the early to mid-twentieth century. Here I have in mind, on one hand, the field of primate studies, and, on the other, the question of artificial intelligence and machine learning (broadly speaking). Both fields have destabilized our understanding of the limits of the fully human, and the “almost human.” These questions are in turn drawn into speculations about performance and the prosthetic body: more precisely the prosthesis that is the puppet.
These two influential traditions of inquiry into intelligence (primate studies and AI) ultimately proved themselves to be mutually skeptical, looking at one another across disciplinary boundaries. Twentieth-century primate research was initially located as an inquiry within Gestalt psychology, which emphasized the value of complex wholes, while the branch of machine learning known as cybernetics depended on the principle of feedback, a concept that now has substantial relevance because of its integration into neoliberal technologies and techniques via the marketplace and algorithms. Two pioneering figures in these fields, each of whose work in some measure intersects with the other, are Wolfgang Köhler and Norbert Wiener.
For all their marked differences, these two researchers are at some level clearly taking note of one another. Köhler, a psychologist and phenomenologist working in the second decade of the twentieth century, had undertaken research on chimpanzee intelligence through a series of protracted field experiments. He perceived the chimps to be learning through insight, which for him was not instinct but a manifestation of complex and abstract thought evident in the animals' working out of solutions to novel problems. Wiener was a mathematician and engineer whose work was integral to weapons research and computer learning: he explored feedback and recursive learning as core principles for designing intelligent machines. Cybernetics, the term he gave to the study of feedback, would come to inflect many domains of research in the US academy in the twentieth century: originally in computer design and weapons systems, but also in such distinct spheres as media studies, ecology, and family therapy. In our own era, cybernetics has been inherited via theories of the algorithmic treatment of big data and informatics. Today, such “data” and the human subject are increasingly perceived as producing one another in an inescapable circuit. (My self is described as a particular kind of consumer, and, increasingly, my habits of consumption define and determine who I am.) In all spheres of choice, from desire to politics to religious affiliation and educational pathways, we have become integers in a system of information that provides a calculus for market analysis, a development that has massively diminished the popular resistance to surveillance technologies. Latterly, informatics and big data systems have come in many ways to define the contemporary research academy.
What is that story of cybernetics, and how did it attain such a significant place in contemporary formations? Between 1941 and 1960 there was a series of interactions at the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation in New York, an institution established to promote engagement across and between scientific disciplines. Much of the focus of the research turned on inquiries into the human mind. In this domain cybernetics in particular captured the mood of the moment, partially because of its role in advanced weapons research during the 1940s and 1950s. Wiener's term cybernetic had not yet emerged when the conferences began, but the rubric of the inaugural conference indicates that the principle was in the emergent: “Feedback Mechanisms and Circular Causal Systems in Biological and Social Systems.”1 Here one sees the merging of engineering and biology, a trend that will reach its apotheosis in bioinformatics.
The second conference was titled “Teleological Mechanisms and Circular Causal Systems,” and, as part of the unfolding dialogues, the anthropologist Gregory Bateson organized a “sociological subconference” called “Teleological Mechanisms in Society” so that Wiener and the computer designer John von Neumann could meet the social scientists in the group.2 The working group, in turn, suggested that the concepts field and gestalt be clarified. The discussion was deferred until the group had a chance to meet with Köhler, who was renowned as the leader in the field. Köhler was invited to the third meeting but in fact did not attend until the fourth. When Köhler did present his work, that work was dismissed by Walter Pitts and Warren McCulloch, two mainstay members of the working group, as “mere theory devoid of empirical basis.”3 There was clearly much at stake as the Macy group sought to merge the study of the mind with the sphere of the hard sciences.4
As I have indicated, cybernetics research has resulted in several associated methodologies and contents. Media theorist Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan refers to this as a “cybernetic apparatus,” a formulation that he deploys to characterize a nexus of thinking and engagement associated with the early theorists of AI and information theory. Geoghegan indicates that this cybernetic apparatus draws on the Foucauldian notion of the dispositif, whose English meanings include “mechanism,” “device,” “deployment,” and even “disposition,” and he adds that for Foucault “institutions, architecture, scientific and moral statements, and instruments were among elements that, in response to an urgent need, might be organized into an apparatus.”5
With cybernetic apparatus, Geoghegan intends the cluster of condensed metaphors and material forms that arise across popular culture and science at the moment when the notional “robot” becomes a complex and uncanny double in the world of human experience. He cites a community of scholars from Martin Heidegger to Friedrich Kittler who mark a shift in value, and he sees this as consequent on the emergence of the cybernetic: “Sometime in the middle of the twentieth century cybernetics began to eclipse venerable distinctions between thought and automation, human and machine, vibrant lifeworld and the barren desert of technology.”6 Until this point, the conceit of intelligent machines had functioned as a ghosting at the edge of reason, expressed largely through metaphysics, philosophy, and artistic practice, and, through these expressions, troubling conceptions of complexity, thought, and value.7
What twentieth century cybernetics brings to this conception is the early unfolding of an algorithmic grasp of information systems, a development arising in large measure from weapons design.8 The term cybernetic had been coined by Wiener, who understood the significance of “feedback” as a process of reintroducing information into a system to influence behavior at the origin.9 His term described how information could become complex and self-regulating through a circuit of reciprocal exchange, as if the machine were learning from itself as well as from its context.10 In a short span of time, cybernetics grew into more than an arcane field of research looking at “machine intelligence.” By the mid-twentieth century, within a decade or two of the first murmurings of the cybernetic, the field opened out into a range of philosophical and aesthetic exploration. The model of artificial intelligence was mapped onto neural structure. Alan Turing has been acknowledged as a pivotal figure in the pioneering of machine intelligence. During World War II he hypothesized that “mind” might come to inhabit the machine.11 According to David Bates, “Turing's hypothesis was that the infant human brain should be considered an unorganized machine that requires organization through suitable ‘interference training.’”12 This mapping of the neurological and the biological is also evident in Gregory Bateson's work. In his paper “Conscious Purpose Versus Nature,” Bateson gives an account of Russel Wallace's letter to Darwin, in which Wallace describes his discovery of natural selection. Here is Wallace's rather uncanny conception: “The action of this principle [the struggle for existence] is exactly like that of the steam engine, which checks and corrects any irregularities almost before they become evident; and in like manner no unbalanced deficiency in the animal kingdom can ever reach any conspicuous magnitude, because it would make itself felt at the very first step, by rendering existence difficult and extinction almost sure to follow.”13 Bateson elaborates on the operations of this “analogy engine,” and asserts, “The steam engine with a governor is simply a circular train of causal events.” This leads to his claim that “Wallace, in fact, proposed the first cybernetic model.”14
In the pages following this prefatory note, there is a performance text that is integral to my inquiry. It consists of a staging of a series of interactions between Wolfgang Köhler, Jane Goodall, and a life-sized wooden puppet of a chimpanzee.
Through this performance I introduce a third strand of research (along with these questions of machine learning and primate studies addressed above). One further field of inquiry into the limits of intelligence that emerged between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is the well-documented field of eugenics. In 1970, I. I. Gottesman, director of the American Eugenics Society, defined the society's purposes: “The essence of evolution is natural selection; the essence of eugenics is the replacement of ‘natural’ selection by conscious, premeditated, or artificial selection in the hope of speeding up the evolution of ‘desirable’ characteristics and the elimination of undesirable ones.”15 Gottesman's definition of eugenics resonates with Wallace's description of the steam engine, which, like the eugenicist, “checks and corrects any irregularities almost before they become evident.”16 The eugenics movement at the start of the twentieth century took much of its momentum from the research of Francis Galton, Darwin's nephew. Galton's proximity to Darwin draws him into a dialogue with Wallace, who as Bateson argues, is a proto-cyberneticist.
The performance aspect of this lecture brings together more pointedly the nexus of ideas around AI, primate research, and race theory as they disrupt or reinforce one another. This nexus of ideas posits a relation between the human and the machine and the human and the ape, establishing oblique proprieties about the bounded horizon of the “fully human” with regard to each proxy doppelganger. The threat of racial miscegenation is articulated via popular fantasies about the porous integration of the “live” and the “made.” This threat, in standard twentieth-century fashion, has supplementary effects as a version of racial anxiety. No doubt the fear that the machine will displace the human has its own weight, but it seems that the “almost human” does additional work in the mode of allegory.
In the following transcription of the lecture/performance I explore the uncanny moments that arise in the “event” of the performance, though these may not be self-evident in a bare reading of the text. The later part of this paper is based on a transcribed performance with a chimpanzee puppet presented in October 2018 at the Centre for the Less Good Idea, an arts laboratory, in Maboneng, Johannesburg, South Africa. That carved wooden figure somehow generates in the audience the experience that they are watching an embodied intelligence. The mute and insensate puppet (made by Adrian Kohler of Handspring Puppet Company) manages to persuade its audience that they are observing thought processes that are visible through observed physical action. We are reminded here of the philosophical engagement with the question of “other minds”: how do we know that other minds exist or imagine what they are thinking? Because “mind” is invisible, we make assumptions that the actions and gestures of others are evidence of an internal mental life.
As audience members, we are moved inexplicably by the gestural and expressive capacities of the wooden puppet. In the lecture, I am investigating the thresholds of human empathy and remarking on our capacity to engage in fellow feeling for a mechanical contrivance while we have historically demonstrated our incapacity to recognize human subjects as “fully” human.
This is something of the enigma of puppetry, and its principles also pertain to robotics and animation. As we observe the puppet engaged in various simulated activities, such as “fishing” for termites with a stick, we project without hesitation onto the puppet something akin to thought processes, mapping a relay of anticipation, action, and reward onto a few minimal gestures. We read intentionality from wooden gestures and are somehow predisposed to believe in the vitality of manipulated matter.
Our projective identification with the puppet mimics a process documented in the observational research of pioneering primatologist Wolfgang Köhler at the start of the twentieth century. For this research, Köhler observed a group of chimpanzees as they attempted to solve a series of manipulation puzzles he set up for them. He was convinced that he could detect evidence of intellectual processes in the actions of the chimps.
The later section of the lecture emphasizes Köhler along with his fellow primate researcher Jane Goodall. Goodall is more or less a household name, while Köhler remains pretty well unknown outside specialist circles. Nonetheless, Köhler's groundbreaking observational research on a group of chimpanzees at the Prussian Academy of Science Anthropoid Research Station on the island of Tenerife was groundbreaking. The lecture allows the two researchers' stories to unfold as performance ensues; however, I will underscore here that Köhler, who was very mindful of the self-reflexive awareness of the chimps he studied, wrote a very critical review of Norbert Wiener's work on cybernetics. Köhler was convinced that no machine yet invented would demonstrate the principle of “insight,” the kind of awareness that Köhler observed in the chimps and which, for him, was evidence of true thought.17
The casting of the performers is also integral to the meaning of the performance. The chimpanzee puppet is operated by two people, and I cast a middle-aged white woman as one of the puppeteers, and a young male black actor as the other. Both performers were known to me, and I was interested in the particular qualities that they brought to the roles. The female actor (Terry Norton) has a quality of ethereal strength, a kind of personal authority, and in many ways is a strong embodiment of Jane Goodall. The male actor, Tony Miyambo, has over the past several years been performing a version of Kafka's “Report to an Academy,” and he is interested in disquieting audiences who find a black man playing an ape unnerving. What Miyambo explores is the audience's horror at his placing himself inside a situation that mobilizes much of its unconscious meaning from attitudes of racist supremacism. He brings some of this troubling interrogation to the performance.
At one point in the lecture/performance there is a screened film clip of the chimp-puppet attempting to play the piano. The feeling of sadness that we, as an audience, experience seems to arise from an ambiguity: Are we watching a chimp battling to master the keyboard? Or are we watching a piece of wood in what is effectively a life-and-death struggle (if we don't believe the piano playing, the piece of wood will cease to live)?
What is it about the puppet that provokes strong opinions, either of wonder or of repugnance? New discourses on animism and magical thinking are integral to a reorientation of inquiries around the subject/object relationship. Sigmund Freud's defining essay “The Uncanny” is suggestive, linking the gaze and castration anxiety with the ambiguous undead status of the being that is “made” yet simulates that it is “born.” The essay's status has been of immense theoretical significance, and yet it does not quite seem to catch at the complexity of the question. The theoretical terrain is suggestive; and the puppet is a key figure in helping us think about debates on the distribution of the sensible. The puppet is insensate, and yet its audience/observer has no difficulty in projecting affect onto its mute body.
Similar terrain was integral to early modern conceptions of the human and was explored early in the enlightenment by Étienne Bonnot de Condillac in his Treatise on Sensations (1754). This enigmatic equation of the human as “essentially” sensory has been at the heart of many considerations from John Locke through Denis Diderot. Freud's essay on the uncanny has located the automaton as pivotal in figurations of the modern subject, hopelessly disaggregated between mind and sensory being. Puppets insist on their status as live beings, and they “resist” attempts at their objectification. As early as 1970, robotics professor Masahiro Mori identified the “uncanny valley” as the feeling of nausea associated with our encounter with simulations that approach the limit of the almost real. The uncanny valley's challenge to the category of the “human” has had a strong place in various sci-fi explications of capitalism. Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) and Chaplin's Modern Times (1936) begin the tradition with their representations of the commodification and dehumanization of an underclass serving an idle elite. More recently such conventions have been used to challenge conceptions of “humanness” by interrogating the threshold between the categories of the “fully human” and the “almost human.”
These are some of the skeins informing my inquiry into the intersecting asymmetrical spheres of primate studies and cybernetics. If information could be filtered meaningfully back into a machine, could that machine be said to be thinking? And in what sense could this model inform one's understanding of neural processes?
One other strand of thought that intersects with the discussion here touches on metaphysics. It would seem that many of the most profound cultural practices have engaged in behaviors that are embedded within processes of animistic projection. The absolute threshold between the human, the animal, and the object has increasingly been understood as an anthropocentric fiction that props up instrumental reason. Harry Garuba has made a compelling claim: “How do we account for the recent resurgence of interest in animism and animistic thought? Once considered a kind of cognitive error. . . . It has become an acceptable if not entirely respectable way of knowing and acting in the world.”18 Several of the twenty-first century cultural forms of great significance have been animé, animation, robotics, and puppetry arts, all of which rely on a projective diffusion between subjects and objects. Michael Taussig asserts vigorously, “Now the strange thing about this silly if not desperate place between the real and the really made up is that it appears to be where most of us spend most of our time.” It is all but impossible for Taussig's readers to determine where he situates his own position on the skepticism and credulity spectrum.19 Nonetheless, he seems to assert, we cannot negate the “as if” suspension of disbelief through which we transact our lives.
The method in my paper relies in part on the productive abrasion of Geoghegan's “cybernetic apparatus,” along with Donna Haraway's conception of primatology as “Simian Orientalism”: “Perhaps most primatologists in the field in the first decades after World War II failed to appreciate that the interrelationships of people, land, and animals in Africa and Asia are at least partly due to the positions of the researchers within systems of racism and imperialism.”20 Here Haraway points to a kind of collusive naivete, and her temporalizing of the frame of reference as “in the first decades after World War II” is indeed significant for my purposes. Haraway is exploring the invention of a field, “primate studies,” and notes how this is articulated with twentieth-century theories of race and place (“Simian Orientalism”). Area studies would bring social studies and the humanities together as a way of researching regional strategic interests.
Other articulations, also associated with World War II, show primate research and cybernetic research coalescing in particular ways. The historian of science, Peter Galison, in a discussion of the military application of cybernetics, outlines Norbert Wiener's letter to “the czar of American war research, Vannevar Bush, on 20 September 1940.”21 Wiener was to develop the “anti-aircraft (AA) predictor” through experiments using feedback. According to Galison, “Wiener came to see the predictor as a prototype not only of the mind of an inaccessible Axis opponent but of the Allied antiaircraft gunner as well, and then even more widely to include the vast array of human proprioceptive and electrophysiological feedback systems.”22 This paper/performance seeks to remind us, as heirs to the algorithmic adventurism of our time, of the articulation of primate research, colonial ambition, and cybernetics in the emergence of a particular information order. At the same time, the performance dimensions of this piece seek to provoke consideration of the experience of the uncanny, in the face of a hand-manipulated puppet of a chimpanzee.
The initiating event is a sound.
WHISTLE FROM OFFSTAGE
Subsequent to this whistle are two distinct events: one is a lecture; the other takes place alongside the lectern and is a staging of a small scene. These simultaneous “beats” are sketched below, and together they open a lecture-performance that presents a particular intersection of primate research, race theory, AI studies, and theatre history.
The lecture takes place alongside a scene in which a carved wooden chimpanzee puppet is manipulated by two puppeteers.
The description of action in the text that follows (as distinct from the character-based spoken words) adheres to the conventions of the stage directions of a playtext. Such directions require a particular kind of discipline of mind: that is, the competence to read such directions while exercising a creative capacity for a mental evocation of the event. This provides the point of departure for a theoretical question I explore, which is triggered by a reading of Samuel Beckett's Act Without Words, a play that consists of a set of stage directions for a performer. My “scenes” are here rendered in italic script.
This lecture is interested in considering the ways in which manifestly distinct discourses intersect and become mutually constitutive, entangled; they figure over-determining modes of thought via a kind of osmotic transfusion. This porous intersection of ideas and modes suggests, for me, the ways in which intellectual histories and ideological habits inform one another, “clouding the water,” so to speak. Early primate research looks across the disciplinary boundary at cybernetics, and Artificial Intelligence gazes back. The mutuality of informing attitudes becomes opaque, and a generative rereading of the intellectual history calls for a deliberated dissection of the various skeins of thought.
Sounds of African bushveldt. A chimp swings through looping motions on invisible lianas into the space, settles on the playboard. (The two puppeteers manipulate the chimp together.) The chimp finds a leafy stick. Explores and mouths the stick. Scratches itself; it spies termites to eat; scratches itself. Leans toward the edge of playboard, looking down into the termite mound. Picks up the stick, which it accidentally drops off the playboard. (It is unclear whether this is an error on behalf of the puppeteers, or a mistake of the puppet.) Chimp loops down onto the floor to pick up the stick. Clambers back up; scratches itself. Sits back. Scratches itself again. THINKS. Scratches itself with the stick. THINKS. Fishes for the termites with stick. Mouths the termites very deliberately from the stick, continues chewing.
Meanwhile the lecture proceeds; and the audience is aware of two orders of apprehension as it is drawn into a field of theatrical observation that makes an argument through the material presences of the puppet and performers, while it is absorbing the argument being constituted by the lecture.
Lecturer: The ape has provided a long-standing metaphor for our preoccupation with the limits of the human being. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, expanding empires looked for ways to justify the occupation of foreign territories and the extraction of wealth. The political framing of a quasi-scientific question about species emerged as an attempt to redefine the threshold of the fully human and the almost human. That inquiry would turn out to have a murderous intensity. This lecture thinks about some of the complexity of the relationship between primate research, race theory, and artificial intelligence. I will begin with the work of Wolfgang Köhler.
Chimp (from on the puppet playboard) makes a noise as of recognition, throws stick in the air.
Lecturer:(an aside) The chimp is misrecognizing the name. He remembers Adrian Kohler, from Handspring Puppet Company, the man who made him. I am referring now to Wolfgang Köhler, the pioneering Prussian primatologist, who inaugurated the most significant inquiry into chimp research in the past century, and who has, as far as I can determine, no relation to Adrian Kohler, puppet master.
I have for the past several years had the companionship of a wooden chimp puppet made by Adrian Kohler. Inevitably this has made me think about both primate research and about puppetry arts. It is in some ways unpredictable that these two inquiries should inform each other, but as I have discovered, there is an almost necessary link between theories of mind and robotics. This is in many ways the story of our future.
Wolfgang Köhler inaugurated the most significant inquiry into chimp research in the past century.
More familiar to us, though, is Jane Goodall, the modern pioneer of chimp research, though her work wasn't recognized as research at first. Goodall was remarkable in part for her immense influence on the global imaginary. Goodall eschewed the scientific illusion of objectivity and openly inhabited the world of the chimps, as they inhabited hers. Early on, this counter-theoretical approach earned her work the stigma of being inadequately detached; however the approach resulted in the profound disruption of the field of inquiry. Goodall's work triggered a reassessment not just of the primate, but of primate studies itself.
Goodall insisted that the chimps she observed were individuals. This was how she proceeded with her research, by naming individuals. Chimps, like other “charismatic megafauna” (complex beings like whales, dolphins, apes, and elephants), make a particular kind of demand on our emotions; and we swoon at their emotional appeal.23
Puppets, by contrast, depend on mutual relations to sustain the life force within them. At some level, then, the puppet is a metaphor for human relations: each individual is actually a cluster.
Jean-Luc Nancy's expanded this idea of the complex self in his Being Multiple Singular, and he suggests that none of us is one of us. We are, as it were, always compound beings. Donald Winnicott, the psychoanalyst, famously asserted: “There is no such thing as the baby. There is only the baby and someone.”24
The infant will only become fully human, if I believe in its potential to do so, if I project a performance of its subjectivity into the sensory complex that waits for me to extend my personhood into it. This is why we are inclined to believe in the puppet. We believe in the puppet because we are hard-wired to do so: the puppet provides an emblem of our species' method of reproducing itself. We project ourselves into one another—this is the basis of sympathy.
Sympathy might in such terms be understood as implicated in both how we think identity as well as how we think difference. It has been an immense category within recent humanistic inquiry, within the history of the human, and certainly within the history of this region, Southern Africa, with empire and slaughter as part of its defining modernity.
Race became a category through which to straddle the boundary between identity and difference. Race disrupted the traditions of thinking about species, even though Darwin had asserted there is only one race for persons: the human race.
What is at play with the powerful competing experience of identity and difference that humans apprehend when observing the primate? The primate is perhaps experienced by us as a species limit, occasionally designated as like, occasionally as unlike ourselves.
My interest in questions of sympathy and puppetry are obviously linked to the question of the primate/human cusp.
(Puppet chimp clambers off playboard in order to retrieve the stick.)
I have spent some years observing puppetry in performance, trying to grasp what it is that persuades us that something remote, like a wooden puppet, is capable of consciousness, deserving of sympathy. And what do we experience on observing the puppet primate?
(Lecturer turns with interest to observe the chimp clambering back onto playboard.)
There must be, always, infinitely small motions deploying the body of the puppet to provide signs of thought. This is where Wolfgang Köhler takes his place in my considerations. He decided early in his research that movement could be evidence of thought.
In 1913, just before the outbreak of World War I, Wolfgang Köhler traveled to the island of Tenerife in order to run the Prussian Academy's Anthropoid Research Station.
There are no chimps that are native to Tenerife. These chimps at the Research Station were themselves migrants, from the Cameroons. In 1917, after several years of observing chimpanzee behavior, Köhler published a monograph, The Mentality of Apes, which describes his experimental research. Köhler was interested in observing the apes in problem-solving and “intelligent acts.”
How could embodied actions be taken as evidence of consciousness?
This was the basis of Köhler's research.
(One puppeteer examines chimp puppet with second puppeteer helping as a kind of “lab assistant.”)
As an heir to Darwin, Köhler watched for indications that thought and understanding might be evident in chimpanzees. For primatologists, that research became pivotal as the sciences and the humanities drew closer together.
WHISTLE FROM OFFSTAGE
On a screen upstage there is a projection of a clip from the Köhler archive, of chimps stacking crates, over the next speech.
First Puppeteer as Wolfgang Köhler: Thank you (addressing second puppeteer). I set up, for the chimps, several tasks with definite ends, but constantly blocked the chimps' direct route to their objectives; though I did leave an indirect passage open to them. I determined that the chimps could solve problems by imagining oblique or figurative paths to problems. They were indeed demonstrating “insight.” Their reasoning was based on interpreting relationships between things, extrapolating and making decisions based on the ties between elements within the given activities; they were forming a pictorial representation in the mind. The tasks I set the chimps that are most renowned revolve around wooden crates, bunches of bananas, and a high wire. The chimps solved their dilemma through fashioning short sticks together to create a tool for their use. Here the primates were in a controlled environment, responding to defined tests.
Some decades later Jane Goodall observed tool use in chimps in the wild.
WHISTLE FROM OFFSTAGE
Second Puppeteer as Jane Goodall:(Seated with chimp on lap. She minimally manipulates chimp as she talks, so that the ape gives the impression of nudging at her, trying to stop her talking as would an attention-seeking infant, perhaps) Dear old Louis, who had spent, it seemed, years and years and years digging up fossilized tools in order to identify the earliest humans, was flabbergasted when I first identified that chimps in the wild use tools.
“We either have to redefine ‘tool’; redefine ‘man’ or accept chimps as humans.” That was Leakey's revolutionary cry.
What was he suggesting?
That our definitions stumble at our desire to set up the boundaries of our species?
Lecturer: Köhler subsequently went on to work at the Psychological Institute at the University of Berlin. Some twenty years later the Nazis came to power. Köhler wrote, for the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, what has been named the last anti-Nazi article published openly in Germany under the Nazis. He had been deeply disappointed by his colleagues. As he noted,
First Puppeeteer as Wolfgang Köhler: “Nothing astonished the Nazis so much as the cowardice of whole university faculties, which did not consist of Nazis. Naturally this corroborated the Nazis' contempt for the intellectual life.”25
Lecturer: In 1933 the Nazis decreed that professors must open their lectures with the Nazi salute. Köhler began his lecture with a flipping of his hand in an ironic gesture. These are his words as they were recorded at the time:
First Puppeteer as Wolfgang Köhler: Ladies and gentlemen, I have just saluted you in a manner that the government decreed. I could not see how to avoid it.
(Striding around venue)
Still, I must say something about it. I am a professor of philosophy in this university, and this circumstance obligates me to be candid with you, my students. A professor who wished to disguise his views by word or by action would have no place here. You could no longer respect him; he could no longer have anything to say to you about philosophy or important human affairs.
Therefore I say: the form of my salute was until recently the sign of very particular ideas in politics and elsewhere. If I want to be honest, and if I am to be respected by you, I must explain that, although I am prepared to give that salute,
(Gives ironic half salute)
I do not share the ideology which it usually signifies or used to signify . . .
Nobility and purity of purpose among the Germans are goals for which the National Socialists are working hard. I am no National Socialist . . .
Lecturer: In December Köhler's psychology colloquium was placed under guard by Nazi troops who searched students for their student cards as they left the venue. Köhler at first negotiated a kind of truce with the rector of the university, Eugen Fischer, but after a series of increasingly threatening episodes, Köhler resigned when his Jewish colleagues and assistants were dismissed. Six months later he removed himself to the United States.
The rector at Berlin, Eugen Fisher, was working on eugenics. This work had derived in large part from his research on the Basters in German Southwest Africa: the area now referred to as Namibia, our neighbor, and at one time under South African administration.
Fisher's studies resulted in a prohibition of mixed marriages in the German colonies.
In 1924, Hendrik Verwoerd, the so-called Architect of Apartheid, had completed his psychology doctorate on “the blunting of emotions” and in 1926 he won a scholarship to pursue his studies at several institutions in Germany, one of which was the University of Berlin. He presumably had contact with the work of both Köhler and Fisher. On one hand, Wolfgang Köhler was engaged in exploring how he could identify insight in chimpanzees. On the other hand, Eugen Fisher was attempting to exclude human beings from the “Family of Man.”
Köhler's research on Tenerife had persuaded him that the chimps demonstrated reflexive thought, what he characterized as insight, something that had been associated exclusively with the human.
In the first pages of The Mentality of Apes, Köhler describes the chimps' self-aware reflexiveness. He describes the processes of the chimps as plastic, mobile, and he sees in this “the logical starting point of theoretical speculation.”26
(Chimp puppet, now seated behind the playboard, plays piano notes on an imaginary keyboard, as if in his mind recalling or “projecting” something. Sound of piano in the background. During the following speech we observe the projected film clip of the chimp puppet with first puppeteer and a pianist, as if the puppet is “attempting” to play the piano.)
Köhler's observations were to become key, not just for animal studies, but for the complexity he associated with thought. This would be a central idea in the yet-to-emerge field of artificial intelligence. Köhler posited that the machine could not be shown to have insight. However, in World War II Wiener would work on missile technology, exploring how electronics could use a feedback principle. In other words, a missile could adjust its flight path in response to its current position and direction. Could the missile then be said to have “insight”? Was posing this question possible without Wolfgang Köhler's research? In 1951, after Norbert Wiener published his study of artificial intelligence, Köhler published a review that expressed his misgivings about the presumption that electronic devices could be characterized as producing anything like human thought.
Köhler's observations of the chimpanzees had inclined him to an understanding of mind as flexible, generative. His review essay of the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski's A Scientific Theory of Culture and Other Essays finds Malinowski's work to be grounded in a mode of functionalism. For Köhler, Malinowski depended on conceptions of “conditioning” and operations of “reinforcement,” the very principles that would inform Wiener's conception of feedback.27 Köhler's interpretation, by contrast, is characteristically nuanced: his assessment of Malinowski's positivism is that “there is more sense in the facts of culture than this positivistic account would lead us to believe.”28
The implications of feedback theory have an early resonance for us today, an era of drone technology and big data. In Cybernetics; or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machines, Wiener had intuited the problem seven decades ago:
First Puppeteer as Norbert Wiener: “There are those who hope that the good of a better understanding of man and society which is offered by this new field of work may anticipate and outweigh the incidental contribution we are making to the concentration of power. I write in 1947, and I am compelled to say that it is a very slight hope.”29
Lecturer: In those years, the arts were finding their own way to interrogate the questions being raised by science. In 1956, Beckett had been invited to work with a Sadler's Wells trained performer, Deryk Mendel, to contribute to a dance program. A few weeks later, his short play Acte Sans Parole (Act Without Words), entered the world. Of course, there are words in Beckett's play, but no words spoken on stage. The words are stage directions, and they are sketching a scene.
Second Puppeteer:(In this scene, the puppeteer is “channeling” Beckett. The second puppeteer is talking to the first puppeteer as if he is an actor, who performs these activities as the “Beckett” figure describes them.) Desert. Dazzling light.
The man is flung backwards on stage from right wing. He falls, gets up immediately, dusts himself, turns aside, reflects.30
Lecturer: The man in the drama is eventually subjected to a series of small torments as various oddments are offered as distractions: a little tree is lowered from the flies, and a pair of tailor's scissors. A cube upon which he sits is yanked away from under him; a carafe descends but is pulled up as he approaches it. Beckett describes here an embodiment of an intellectual process.
Whistle from right wing.
He reflects, goes out right.
Immediately flung back on stage, he falls, gets up immediately, dusts himself, turns aside, reflects.
Whistle from left wing.
He reflects, goes out left.
Immediately flung back on stage, he falls, gets up immediately, dusts himself, turns aside, reflects.
Whistle from left wing.
He reflects, goes toward left wing, hesitates, thinks better of it, halts, turns aside, reflects.31
Lecturer: The “man” in the scene first hesitates. That “hesitation” is a visual flag for “thinks better of it”; he then halts, and turns aside, and reflects. This is the external manifestation of insight.
It is no surprise to discover that Beckett had been reading Wolfgang Köhler's Mentality of Apes. We know this because in Beckett's novel, Murphy, the narrator comments, “Köhler's studies on apes at German anthropoid station at Teneriffe during the war. Did the apes possess insight? Was their learning more than a mere matter of trial & terror?”32
Beckett's concluding line in the play is, “looks at his hands.” All the history of guilt as shown on the stage is evident in that scene. The conscious being “looks at his hands.”33
(On the screen we see a slide of an ape looking at its hands.)
The hand is an instrument of mind, but it also acts as if by its own volition. When I drop something and catch it before I know it is dropped, is the hand the agent of the movement?
We seldom see our face each day, but spend all of our working life looking at our hands, those instruments with which we cling to the world. Engels in 1876 wrote “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man,” and he notes that the hand is not only the organ of labor, it is also the product of labor.34
SOUND OF PIANO PLAYING IN THE BACKGROUND.
By this he means that the acquisition of uprightness freed the hand for complex and subtle tasks; and this adaptation precipitated shifting increments in manual dexterity. Working with the hand is what made the hand into the hand.
Second Puppeteer as Jane Goodall: I had always very much admired the work of Köhler, who had such an intuition for the chimp. It really did influence me in my own research. “Intuition” is one of those metaphysical ideas that the scientists don't much go for. At the end of 1917, when Köhler's monograph was published, Franz Kafka published his “Report to an Academy,” a memoir in the voice of a captive ape named Red Peter. I only became aware of this recently when I read your South African writer, J. M. Coetzee's, Lives of Animals. The novel is an odd piece, in the form of a lecture given via the fictional writer Elizabeth Costello, who suggests that Kafka's story might have been influenced by Köhler's research, though she can provide no proof that might not be characterized as coincidence.
Here is a fragment from The Lives of Animals. It has taught me to reconsider . . . several things.
“Sultan is alone in his pen. He is hungry: the food that used to arrive regularly has unaccountably ceased coming.
The man who used to feed him and has stopped feeding him stretches a wire over the pen three metres above ground level, and hangs a bunch of bananas from it. Into the pen he drags three wooden crates. Then he disappears, closing the gate behind him, though he is still somewhere in the vicinity, since one can smell him.
Sultan knows: Now one is supposed to think. That is what the bananas up there are about. The bananas are there to make one think, to spur one to the limits of one's thinking. But what must one think? One thinks: Why is he starving me? One thinks: What have I done? Why has he stopped liking me? One thinks: Why does he not want these crates anymore? But none of these is the right thought. Even a more complicated thought—for instance: What is wrong with him, what misconception does he have of me, that leads him to believe it is easier for me to reach a banana hanging from a wire than to pick up a banana from the floor?—is wrong. The right thought to think is: How does one use the crates to reach the bananas?
. . . At every turn Sultan is driven to think the less interesting thought. From the purity of speculation (Why do men behave like this?) he is relentlessly propelled toward lower, practical, instrumental reason (How does one use this to get that?).”35
Coetzee is confirming what Köhler knows: that the chimps have insight.
Coetzee states it simply: “Sultan knows. ‘Now one is supposed to think.’”
Lecturer: Coetzee is a Beckett scholar, and his exploration of Köhler, in Lives of Animals, is likely to have been provoked by Beckett.
These ideas have led me to a consideration about primate intelligence and our compulsion to teach primates language. If we believe so absolutely in the intelligence of the great apes, why do we not expect that they can be afflicted by our disappointment in them?
Any individual who lacks the capacity or inclination to achieve what the parent's will imposes on them is profoundly damaged.
First Puppeteer: (now acting as a kind of “Kafka's Ape” figure, says, as if to himself) I couldn't completely shake the feeling that I had been a disappointment, after all of the efforts undertaken on my behalf. The research was generally understood to be groundbreaking, though of course each decade had given rise to a new hypothesis.
Was it tool use that defined the species?
Was it language? The scientists became obsessed with this idea. That would have a profound impact on my existence.
I had always understood that I would in some way or another be called upon to give myself up to a great task on behalf of others. There are those who live fully, and those through whom they live.
In their attempt to examine the question of primate intelligence, I was going to be raised as if I was a chimp. I had by chance observed a hypnotist in performance when just a child. That was a foolish game: people running about play-acting at being chickens; or a man who became a rhinoceros.
At the homestay, the director had observed my obvious interest: he must have recognized in me a real propensity to submit myself to an overbearing will.
I was selected to pioneer an exploration by becoming an ape. What are the limits of empathy? the director was intellectually disposed to ask. After I received several months of deep hypnosis, I entered into the condition—no—into the very being, of a chimpanzee.
From my perspective, I think the experiment was surprisingly successful, and it made me the beneficiary of many unanticipated benefits. I was given access to an education that far exceeded my own opportunities or ambitions; I had exposure to the latest techniques in literacy transmission, though nothing would induce me to talk or to show any signs of understanding writing. It seemed that I wanted to begin a new mode of learning. Perhaps it was because I quickly learned that as a chimp, I was exorbitantly rewarded for the most meager achievements, rather than being punished for any errors.
Certain of the usual proscriptions were simply abandoned. No one ever admonished me for playing with my food.
They were following a program of research.
I gave up my old habit of reading, which had been my main consolation.
I am aware that I no longer have the capacity to write home, though I would have liked to send a secret missive to my father, explaining my regret that I had always been rather afraid of him. That opportunity no longer seems to be available to me. Don't delay doing those things that you may, at some point, regret having avoided.
“For in me there have been two fools, among others, one asking nothing better than to stay where he is and the other imagining that life might be slightly less horrible further on.”36 That line is from Samuel Beckett, one of my favorites.
As to the matter of reading: it meant that I was going to be absented from the world of complex literature. All my experience became schematic: the trick I was to perform was to gesture with a predictable degree of accuracy toward the childish cutouts that mimicked the world I had lost. I longed for a tangerine when I was shown an orange circle. Nothing would induce them to give me anything but an orange. When a golden sickle was shown to me, I thought only of the moon over the bay back at my childhood home.
That image filled my head up with complex time.
I had lapsed into a perpetual present in my years under hypnosis and was surprised to remember the feeling of time past. On gesturing to the image of the golden sickle with longing, I discovered that I was presented only with a banana. At first I was vexed and wailed as if hurt, and no one could understand me. After some while, I began to realize that there were strategies I could deploy to appease some of the ache in my soul, and I made do with bananas.
Lecturer: Many of us by now have seen Laurie Anderson's dog playing avant-garde music or making art works. There is just enough irony left in Anderson's tone of voice to make us feel that we are in a place of play. But what of a chimp who no longer gets rewarded because it fails to produce what its researcher needs, in terms of acquisition of language skills? What if abstract thought in the chimp is being replaced by a Pavlovian urge to be rewarded? And what if the chimp is not just a scientific research instrument, but a sensible and intelligent being?
There are meanings, too, for both chimp and observer when they are entwined in a complex of feeling and being.
WHISTLE FROM OFFSTAGE.
Second Puppeteer as Jane Goodall: I was asked recently if I felt at home when I went to Africa. No, I answered. I had felt at home in Africa before I ever went there. My mind had been filled with African tales.
I was born Valerie Jane as a child. It was at seventeen that I understood, for myself, that I was Jane, and adopted that name. So at twenty-three I went there, to live in the bush, to watch. For months and months I watched, noting what I saw.
(She is watching the chimp puppet, who responds minimally with first puppeteer moving the arm of the puppet as he scratches.)
That was science.
Science finally called me forth. Would I present my research at a conference? And I thought,
I am just sitting there, chimp-like, on my rocks, pulling out prickles and thorns, and laugh to think of this unknown “Miss Goodall” who is said to be doing scientific research somewhere. Much better to be ME—I think to myself—just going out to live like the chimps. None of this scientific talk for me!!
I lived amongst them. Habituation, they call it. I discovered that if I was unobtrusive, they would carry on just as if I was not there. What a thing—can you imagine? To have that relationship with a troop of wild animals?
I was the first to observe so many things never seen in the wild before, because I lived with them as they entered into my world, and I entered theirs.
George, who had been working on gorillas, wrote to me that if I could observe chimps eating meat or using a tool, a whole year's work would be justified.
Then two weeks later, I spotted two chimps sitting next to each other in the tree. One of them, a big male, was eating away at a softish pink lump. Every few minutes the female tentatively reached toward the male, touched the pink mass. Is it honey, in some form? I asked myself.
He climbed out into the open at the top of the tree. He lifted it to his mouth and seemed to “suck” rather than bite, at the limp end. It was meat. How very exciting it was to see, but it is rather like a detective book with not only the end chapter missing, but the beginning as well. We have an unidentified victim, we do not know how he met his death and we are not sure of the murderer.
He had a pale, slightly mottled face, with conspicuous white beard and very pink, “flabby” testicles.
It was only two weeks after that that I was given a demonstration of how chimps fashioned a termite fishing rod, in order to extract the insects out of their mound.
Back then, we didn't know that chimps can catch human diseases like polio.
(Chimp drags itself across playboard, limp on one side as one puppeteer departs.)
We didn't imagine that we were doing any harm.
(Chimp looks across audience—a kind of mute accusation.)
In 1974, I observed an infanticide. I used to think that chimps were like us, but better. Now I realize that they are simply like us.
Chimp becomes aware of an invisible cage projected as a set of bars on the screen.
The chimp responds to the enclosure—distraught, it beats its chest; it rattles the bars, beats its legs in frustration, leaps forward and upward, and clings to the bars.
WHISTLE FROM OFF STAGE.
The two puppeteers/actors who performed in the production of Pan at the Centre for the Less Good Idea are Tony Miyambo and Terry Norton.
Bateson was the ex-spouse of Margaret Mead, whose comparative studies of sexual mores in diverse cultures cast the Western nuclear family as a technology in the repressive regime of mainstream occidental culture. Bateson's collection of essays, Steps to the Ecology of Mind, has several papers that attest to the impact of cybernetics on his imagination over the succeeding twenty years.
B. D. Geoghegan makes a similar point: “In the 1950s an interdisciplinary team of researchers associated with anthropologist Gregory Bateson embarked on a collective effort to dethrone psychoanalysis” (“Family as Machine,” 71).
Descartes, according to popular records, had an automaton, a figure referred to as Francine, who was at times characterized as his daughter, at times as his niece. The original account of this figure is a work from 1699, titled Mélanges d'histoire et de littérature by Vigneul-Marville. See Kang, “Mechanical Daughter.”
Wiener had volunteered himself for the US war effort, actively courting Vannever Bush. Peter Galison cites a letter in which Wiener writes, “I . . . hope you can find some corner of activity in which I may be of use during the emergency” . He clearly apprehended that this was the best source of technical research funding in the 1940s United States. See Galison, “Ontology of the Enemy,” 228.
Galison has caught some of the articulation between weapons research and the emergence of the cybernetic in his paper “The Ontology of the Enemy: Norbert Wiener and the Cybernetic Vision.” He recounts how Wiener approached Vannevar Bush on September 20, 1940, making himself available for the “war effort.” Wiener characterized the precarious moment as “the emergency”—Britain was being besieged by aerial attack, and Wiener was keen to apply his mind to defense and to finding ways to counter the assault. His plan was to develop a predictive capacity that could anticipate the movements of enemy planes. He was developing smart machines at the interface of “human proprioceptive and electro-physiological feedback systems.” This was the foundation of the new science of cybernetics. See Galison, “Ontology of the Enemy,” 229.
That idea of feedback did not arise ex nihilo. Rather, it had a complex lineage with substantial origins. Edward Thorndike in the nineteenth century had explored how reinforcement might be deployed to influence behaviors; Pavlov, among others, inherited and extended the question.
In Mentality of Apes, Köhler writes, “In the intelligent performances of anthropoid apes we may see in their plastic state once more processes with which we have become so familiar that we can no longer immediately recognize their original form: but which, because of their very simplicity, we should treat as the logical starting point of theoretical speculation” (2). This can be read in relation to Köhler's review of Norbert Wiener's Cybernetics; or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine: “The machines do not know [why a combination of performances is required], because among their functions there is none that can be compared with insight into the meaning of a problem” (128).
The early geneticist, Herbert Spencer Jennings, who had his own particular love affair with protozoa, expressed the opinion that “if Amoeba were a large animal, so as to come within the everyday experience of human beings, its behavior would at once call forth the attribution to it of all states of pleasure and pain . . . on precisely the same basis as we attribute these things to a dog” (quoted in Sacks, River of Consciousness, 72).
This principle exists in several formulations: see for example, the discussion in Lehmann, “There Is No Such Thing as a Baby.”
Beckett, Act Without Words, 37. Written in French in 1956, first published in Paris in 1957. First published in English by Grove Press, NY, in 1958. First performed at the Royal Court Theatre, London, in 1957. As the piece is mimed, the translation of the work is in some ways an irrelevance for the performance.
Beckett, Act Without Words, 40. The dramatic trope of guilt that is figured in an obsessive staring at the hands is most familiar perhaps through the figure of Lady Macbeth who attempts without success to wash the stain of murder from her hands. I am invoking this famous scene here while also alluding to the multiple complicities and the unresolved guilt that pursues human life: Wiener's disquiet over the military uses of his research; the violence and debasement entailed in racist differentiation between self-and-other.
Engels, “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man” (originally “Anteil der Arbeit an der Menschwerdung des Affen”) unfinished essay, chapter 9 of Dialectics of Nature, 1876.