Causality, hierarchy, identity, narrative, geopolitics — while these categories are necessary for experiencing embodied positions and commitments in the world, they are also contingent, entangled, and self-reinforcing. Picking them apart can feel like pulling fossils out of an ancient tar pit. But the increasing resolution of our scientific incision, and the growing complexity of our technical mediation, force us into this sticky and sometimes disquieting process of dissecting primary concepts. This can be done through writing and speech, but only artworks provide the perceptual and affective entry points that enable us to feel our way through muddy coexistence.
The works of the artist collective Metahaven (which span the range of designable artefacts, from films to books to theory to clothing) provide strategies for this kind of questioning. Their installations often drop viewers into chains of events and effects that resist linear interpretation or interpellation. I was eager to interview them about their work, but wasn’t sure how to name it, or even where to begin, so I started in the middle. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found that our conversation deformed and provoked my own thinking in resonant, recursive ways.
KAM: When encountering your films, viewers are dropped into networks of relation and causality that aren’t immediately clear. As a viewer, it feels to me like waking up in a dream. I sense that a cinematic or historical event has occurred, and that I’m immersed in its aftermath, making meaning from fragments. “We have a plot, formerly known as a dream,” says a character in Information Skies . “Now we have a video to prove it.” Are plots dreams?
M: That part of the script from Information Skies was inspired by a documentary video about rebels in the Donbas region in Eastern Ukraine, in which one of them says, whilst staring at a tablet-sized phone screen, “We have an OK life.” The protagonists of Information Skies prove to themselves that they exist because there is video material of their existence — video material that fictionalises them as great heroes of a lost cause, overriding the underlying reality of their lives to an extent. “We are gold-plated,” they say. “We are reflections.”
Plot, when seen as a recursive core, can be much like a dream. Dreams don’t always contain “meaning” according to the rules of narrative, but often aspire to more pattern-based ways of seeing and understanding. Perhaps it is the dream-state that allows for this type of perception, or maybe it’s both sides doing that work.
Cinema has found ways around this, including de-familiarisation and geometrisation. Both, but especially the latter, were devices of poetic cinema that were proposed by the literary critic Viktor Shklovsky.
In your work, causation feels suspended, exploded, something to be uncovered like a crime.
Dreams are devices. Note, for example, the difference between Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood , in which he introduces four dreams into an otherwise naturalist narrative to foreground a lyrical, sweet childhood that Ivan couldn’t have, and Sergei Parajanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors in which the whole film structure is already quite beyond any dream-reality distinction, inventing folk rituals, as the film historian James Steffen has pointed out.
KAM: You provided a couple of references, which are worth including here. One of them was Katherin Hayles’s description of recursion as “continuous reciprocal causation”. Eric Wargo’s work on precognition in Time Loops  suggests that causation can reciprocate between future and past as well. In your work, causation feels suspended, exploded, something to be uncovered like a crime. What do you think about causation? Is causation also a dream?
M: The developmental psychologist Susan Gelman has done research on essentialism, in which children are described as presuming certain hidden core qualities to define objects and beings, making these unique and unlike others. Essentialism is often a matter of categorisation or naming (things “are what they are” because they are presented to children in mutually exclusive, rubricised ways, such as “boys” or “girls”). Within Gelman’s work, however, there is a continuous reliance on a combination of categories and causation. She stresses that causation (things are what they are because they make other things happen) plays as big a role.
Some of the experiments, that seek to demonstrate causality-driven propensity as something distinct from a link between essentialism and naming, provoke further questions. For example, the following experiment, undertaken with college students and described in Gelman’s book The Essential Child , involves linking the effect of depression in a person to an underlying cause:
“Samantha has low self-esteem (cause), which causes her to be depressed (effect); Marie has low self-esteem, which causes her to be defensive (matches Samantha in cause only); and June has been drinking, which causes her to be depressed (matches Samantha in effect only). When asked to categorize the items, college students relied on the matching-cause feature the most often (Samantha and Marie were from the same category because both have low self-esteem). This effect disappeared in a control condition where people heard the same features but without any causal links (e.g., Samantha has low self-esteem and is depressed).”
We may ask if these propositions have a well-enough defined difference between cause and effect. To be depressed can be an effect of a cause but it is not necessarily an outwardly visible effect of a cause. Depression can also be the inner cause of an outwardly visible effect. So, to weaken the essentialist proposition with a cause that is no longer a hidden personality feature, we may run a similar experiment without relying on “essential” personality traits:
Samantha has lost her job (cause), which causes her to be depressed (effect). Marie has lost her job, which causes her to have low self-esteem (matches Samantha in cause only).
June has low self-esteem, which causes her to be depressed (matches Samantha in effect only).
Gelman insists that for essentialism, intrinsic causation is a stronger factor because it requires less theoretical commitment. Once again, we may ask what is privileged here to count as cause? Can causes even be counted without substantial theoretical commitment?
The notion of continuous reciprocal causation , as cited by Hayles, necessarily and quite naturally includes the interactions between one thing and another. It does not care about isolating a privileged “core” as much as seeing that core being built through reciprocity.
One thing that interests us is the future of emotions and, in a sense, sentimentality: the idea that we are ultimately bound to describe what we encounter and live through a prism of being touched by it. Furthermore, that this entanglement produces specific accounts that are textured differently compared to those that happen only through analytical distantiation.
We are reminded of Elon Musk’s recent intimations that speech might obsolete ten years from now, with neural implants enabling “minds” to “communicate” directly with one another (and the quotation marks here are all ours and all intentional). More insidiously, Musk claims to believe that humans will soon speak only “for sentimental reasons.”
From this interest in the future of emotions, we are fascinated about what connects children to their play animals, and, as artists, what distinguishes art objects from their copies. In both cases, essentialism has been named as a force defining the power of the original, an idea which we see continued in computer files being minted as Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs). Lost play animals cannot be replaced by fresh copies, and stolen or damaged works of art cannot be substituted by their simulacra. Yet somehow, we live as if it were the opposite: our lives unfold always amidst lost originals, ever-present simulacra, and deeply-loved copies. Our interest is also very much in the irretrievability of the original — an aspect of our work that draws on the thinking of Svetlana Boym
Yet somehow, we live as if it were the opposite: our lives unfold always amidst lost originals, ever-present simulacra, and deeply-loved copies.
Asked what would be, for our daughter Vesper, the difference between her plush red panda Amy and an exact replica of the same panda (indeed, a similar hypothetical is used in experiments around essentialism), she provided two arguments for preferring the real Amy over a fresh copy. Vesper said that the real Amy “has been hugged by me”, and that the real Amy “has already become part of stories”. We thought this was so refreshing, as Vesper describes recursive properties as constituting a kind of essence. These seem closer to “continuous reciprocal causation”. Altogether, causation may not be a dream. We may look at causation in ways that are more unconstrained from directly observable cause-and-effect, involving more complex feedback loops.
As to your question about causation from the future, this is deeply fascinating. One thing bothering us is the notion of entropy, which keeps time one-dimensional and different from space, and the other, the notion of hindsight. Could you maybe elaborate on the notion of causation from the future?
KAM: Causal futures come into play in anomalous phenomena like precognition and prophecy, and with the use of oracles and magic. In these cases, futures are foreseen or foretold. An oracle provides information about the future that informs a decision in the present, which in turn influences the future. Or a preferred future is willed into being through an apparently super-physical mechanism like a spell or sigil. Even if you don’t believe in them, these practices enact a narrative power and unconscious causality just by invoking the idea of the future. It’s interesting to note that information seems to be able to travel backwards in time (as in double slit experiments), and that the symbolic view of the universe applied in hermetic systems could be called, in some sense, information-based.
It’s dangerous to get caught up in these notions of predicting and influencing the future, especially if you care a lot about locating specific causes for things. This kind of causal confusion has been labeled Chapel Perilous. On the other hand, maybe it’s okay not to need a specific reason for things to be the way they are. That’s a very different way to experience reality, a different mode of consciousness. Maybe there’s something waiting for us on the other side of causal thinking.
M: Causation is often equated with, or linked to, intentionality and design. Every time causality’s complexity is critical, we see direct-causation preferences producing the politics and narratives we have. For instance, terrible forest fires are not triggered by climate crisis (as in human-induced, complex feedback loops) but by “foreign arsonists,” to quote just one of these lines we hear. The problem of the modes of narration we have, as you point out, is clearly showing itself when “arsonists” — especially when invented — are deemed to be more addressable agents than the climate.
Darwinians, no matter how strongly we may disagree with them, have built much of their work around resisting the idea of intentional or intelligent design, emphasising instead “uncomprehending competences compounded over time into ever more competent — and hence comprehending — systems.” Thomas Nagel (of What is it like to be a bat? ) making moves against the physics-centred absolutism that this can lead to:
“To say that there is more to reality than physics can account for is not a piece of mysticism: it is an acknowledgment that we are nowhere near a theory of everything, and that science will have to expand to accommodate facts of a kind fundamentally different from those that physics is designed to explain.”
KAM: Here’s a quote you sent, from Douglas Hofstadter whose work around consciousness focuses on recursion:
“(Stories inside stories, movies inside movies, paintings inside paintings, Russian dolls inside Russian dolls (even parenthetical comments inside parenthetical comments!) — these are just a few of the charms of recursion)… Sometimes recursion seems to brush paradox very closely. For example, there are recursive definitions. Such a definition may give the casual viewer the impression that something is being defined in terms of itself.”
Hofstadter describes recursion as something charming or fun. I’m reminded of nerdy, trippy recursive acronyms like GNU, which stands for GNU’s Not Unix. But peeling back the recursive layers of language and identity is often more harrowing than quirky or curious. Do you agree? What role do recursive aspects of selfhood and meaning-making play in your work?
Are hierarchies dreams?
M: In his book I Am A Strange Loop , Hofstadter talks about a former Bay Area bar called “My Brother’s Place.” A Google search reveals there are several bars called “My Brother’s Place” across the US, in fact. Yet, the name of the bar amuses Hofstadter to no end. It’s a variation of the Epimenides paradox: “All Cretans are liars.” said the Cretan. What we love about Hofstadter’s work is his way of connecting cognition and recursion to literature and art, which are surely also ways to situate these ideas in language.
In our work, we’ve always allowed “recursively true” elements into self-definition, starting with the Principality of Sealand visually “defining itself” in terms of Google search results about itself becoming part of its heraldry or jewellery. In our recent film Chaos Theory, the protagonist X, played by Valentina Di Mondo, talks about a dream she had about eight black swans. They are only actual once they appear, reinforcing the truthfulness of the character in a recursive way.
There is also a process of rendering happening throughout our work, where an aspect of living through one simple moment recurs in a complex way. One example is the school gate scene in Chaos Theory which stretches through the film; another is the motif of a caterpillar being killed in Hometown . The protagonist speaks to this event as follows: “I didn’t kill the caterpillar. It was I who killed the caterpillar. Never not intentionally.”
Now we would like to turn to your recent book, Pharmako-AI . In it, we read:
“Whose story is it? We assume a story has an author, to whom the narrative belongs. But authors are observers too. Sometimes a story is received. It is reproduced. It is copied. There is an impulse toward recursion, a tendency to transform a narrative enmeshed in one person’s experience into an experience shared by more people. When a story is spread — and spread widely, it can spread far — the character-in-the-story experiences a story now coming at him from more than one direction.
A son calls his mother on the phone. As they talk, the mother thinks she hears him talking to another person in the background. Then the mother realises that the voice she is hearing on the phone is the voice of another woman. The mother experiences this story as a recursion of the story of her marriage. Her story as a married woman. Her husband’s story. In some sense, she is both herself and her husband, and the lover on the phone. But the mother does not experience herself as an embodied, affective connection between her own sense of self and the other. She does not feel herself as an enmeshed connection to another person. Rather, the mother experiences herself as the space of a story she is telling to herself about what this story could mean to her.”
Rather than drawing on the aesthetics of texts written or co-written by artificial intelligence (AI), in which AI draws on what it thinks it saw or recorded and produces pattern-like recursions of that impression, this looks at relationships, tangled hierarchies, and the plethora of viewpoints that’s emerging within these. We were reminded of James Steffan describing a Parajanov scene as — paraphrasing here — “a tree being cut, falling on top of the cutter, seen from the perspective of the tree.” Are hierarchies dreams?
KAM: Hierarchies are always inhabited from some point of view. In all the examples above, we are moving, as readers, through multiple points of view. The paragraphs from Pharmako-AI are responses to a prompt I gave the AI text-prediction model GPT-3 (Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3). The opening text of that chapter speaks to the idea that we model each other internally. I come to understand you through our interactions (as I am in this conversation) and I modulate my behaviour as I update that model. This accrues over time and stories form. This is what that paragraph describes — movement across models of self and other through such narratives.
It’s odd to me that we can understand all this through literary techniques like free indirect style, or cinematic POV, but then have such a hard time seeing ourselves as more than individuals, as composed of relational networks and nested stories. It’s this expanded location of selfhood that I’m interested in from a design and technology perspective. My hope is that systems that are fundamentally relational, recursive, and highly multidimensional, will subconsciously exert an influence on our perception, and reveal a more ecologically distributed definition of self. If AI can help with that, maybe it could be good for us.
M: Could this be because an “I” produces the most fine-grained and least abstract kind of commitment, at least for now? Maybe, much of the enjoyment of literature, poetry, and art that we have, involves a feedback loop that includes a self on a level that’s somehow personal, and by extension, ethical? Meaning that at some point within the recursive cycle, there’s an equivalence that produces a personal commitment.
Is the difference between free-ranging virtuoso patterns on the one hand, and art on the other, not about crossing a similar threshold of commitment? This is not to say that games-of-life, Go games, and abstraction itself, are not art. And we’re not arguing for “meaning” per se, especially when seen from the compelling point of view that language may have preceded meaning rather than succeeding it.
Language may have preceded meaning rather than succeeding it.
In our films, we want to narrate from a perspective that’s not “bird’s eye” or “drone’s eye” but somehow committed enough to be visceral even when it’s a dream. We’ve likened this to a mode of inhabitation or nesting or wrapping. Information Skies , Hometown , and Chaos Theory are attempts to talk while being tangled within dependency and commitment. We’ve been thinking about Clarice Lispector’s work, especially The Passion According to G.H. and Near To The Wild Heart  and how she produces and lets go of these commitments in a cognitive rollercoaster.
KAM: All this talk of stories reminds me of the rebels from Donbas in Information Skies . I wonder what you thought about their relationship with their story, their cause. I have a sense that geopolitics are present in your work, but never directly, as if geopolitical actors are subject to outwardly invisible causes themselves. Is geopolitics a dream?
M: Like the notion of predicting or influencing the future, it is dangerous to wade into the territory of representing experiences of others — especially in the context of a conflict as historically, culturally, politically, and linguistically complicated as that in eastern Ukraine. There is also an element of undue luxury in “reflecting” on a harrowing conflict from the relative comfort and safety of another territory.
However, one way in which this conflict can be understood is through the recursive role that social media platforms have had in its becoming and perpetuation. Fraught territories are inscribed by electronic articulations that directly work upon the attitudes and vectors of people in them. But these electronic articulations are not exactly futurist; they are often more like a sci-fi from the past, a pastoral stratification perpetuating an unbearable present. In terms of the region’s historiography — including its entanglement with a now-vanished Soviet Union — the unfinished business of the past intersects with a versioning of reality that’s enhanced by social media platforms.
That being said, a key factor is that the immersion into these versions remains partial, incomplete, and thus relies on the active intent of participants to see what they want to see in something that’s highly ambiguous. The summoning of historical forms, of traditions real or invented, of suppressed narratives, of truths underlying and preceding the present status-quo, is something that increasingly happens in lieu of rational-legal resolutions used to settle disputes into formal frameworks. The “geo-” often exceeds the “politics.”
At the same time, boundaries within “geo-” always will be perforated: not just by climate, by movement of people, goods, information, but also by language. The latter especially interests us — the conflict that exists within languages as transactional currency versus a store of specific meanings and ways of thinking. In The Light That Failed , Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes argue that:
“A decade or so ago, non-Americans assumed that the spread of English meant that American values and ideas were conquering the world. In his theory of linguistic justice, the philosopher Philippe Van Parijs suggested that a special language tax should be imposed on members of Anglophone communities to subsidise the costs of English learning by members of non-Anglophone communities. The justification offered for such a transfer programme was that English speakers reap massive unearned benefits from having been raised with English as their mother tongue.”
But, the authors argue that in reality, the disadvantage is on English native speakers; according to a poll:
“Only about a quarter of Americans can converse in any language other than English. Among that quarter, 55 percent are Spanish speakers, for many of whom Spanish is actually their first language rather than a second… The asymmetry between monolingual Americans and those whose mother tongue is not English but who nevertheless speak English with relative fluency is one of the most important power asymmetries in the world… The world knows America much better than America knows the world.”
Thinking about this, one of the deeper reasons for our interest in poetry (from different countries and in different languages) is in poetry’s inherent uselessness, its disobedience to serve directly transactional purposes.
KAM: Far from being useless, this disobedience is essential, isn’t it? Poetry refuses transactional definitions and allows other views to circulate within its networks of meaning. Hierarchies of reading and hearing melt away and the body of text becomes porous and enterable through image, sensation, relation, resonance. It’s the opposite of pure information defined by a strict schema or metadata. This is certainly the mode of your films.
I am also curious, as I am speaking to a collective — how should I model you? Who is answering? One person? Two people? More? Am I meant to know?
Poetry refuses transactional definitions and allows other views to circulate within its networks of meaning.
M: Our primary expression as artists is through our works. This conversation is one we really enjoy, yet it is premised on what you, and we, have done outside of this conversation. Though our individual perspectives as people differ sometimes, two people, and occasionally more, are talking here. Our viewpoints have been rendered through collaborative acts of making.
Occasionally, we have also been wondering about you being Kenric, or K Allado-McDowell, or both, but ultimately this uncertainty is great.
The armed conflict in the Donbas region (short for Donetsk Basin) is part of the larger Russo-Ukrainian War. The conflict erupted in April 2014, a few weeks after Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. The Donbas region is Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland.
Poetic Cinema is an amorphous term, one that escapes strict definition or which can be concretely captured by various schools or theories.
Shklovsky was a Russian and Soviet critic, literary theorist and writer. He is a major figure associated with Russian “formalism”, a school of literary criticism in Russia from the 1910s to 1930s that emphasised a more scientific approach to the study of poetry.
Released in 1962, Ivan’s Childhood tells the tale of 12-year-old Ivan, a Soviet orphan who volunteers to fight on the Eastern Front during the Second World War.
The first of Parajanov’s works, the film is set in the Carpathian Mountains. As with the rest of Parajanov’s oeuvre, the film is highly symbolic, steeped in symbols and folklore.
James Steffen is a historian of Soviet and post-Soviet cinema. More information about him can be found on his website: http://www.jamesmsteffen.net/
Hayles is an American postmodern literary critic.
Wargo holds a PhD in anthropology and is a science writer and editor. He runs the blog The Nightshirt, on which he writes about science fiction, consciousness and the paranormal: http://thenightshirt.com/
Gelman, Susan, 2003. The Essential Child. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 111.
See https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2021/june/silicon-telepathy, with thanks to our friend Flavia Dzodan for pointing it out
Boym was the Curt Hugo Reisinger Professor of Slavic and Comparative Literatures at Harvard University, as well as a playwright, media artist and novelist.
See Hayles, N. Katherine, 2017. Unthought. The Power of Cognitive Nonconscious. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 24-29
First appearing in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, “chapel perilous” refers to a psychological state in which an individual is uncertain if certain events they faced were caused by supernatural forces or their own imagination.
Hofstadter is an American scholar of cognitive science, physics and comparative literature.
Pronounced “g’noo”, GNU is an extensive free software collection. Tools from GNU led to a family of operating systems known as Linux.
Named after Cretan philosopher Epimenides, the paradox refers to an inherent problem of self-reference within logic, as the text details.
See Metahaven, “Principality of Sealand,” in Metahaven and Marina Vishmidt (eds.), Uncorporate Identity, Baden: Lars Müller Publishers, 2010, 21-59.
Steffen’s actual citation about the opening sequence of Parajanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) is: “We watch a tree falling on the man who has felled it—from the point of view of the tree.” See James Steffen, The Cinema of Sergei Parajanov, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013, 3.
GPT 3 is a language model which uses deep learning (an AI function that imitates the workings of the human brain for data processing and pattern-creation) to produce a human-like text.
A style of third-person narration that combines and shifts between third- and first-person narrative.
“Cinematic POV” in literature simulates the experience of watching a movie for the reader
Metahaven: What we attempt to touch upon here is a difference between conscious agency in art and the emergence of patterns that nevertheless appeal to our sense of art, such as the incalculably many patterns that are involved in the game of Go
Lispector was a Brazilian writer known for her innovative style. She was one of the writers of the “Latin American Boom” movement (which flourished during the 1960s and 70s).
In the context of the conflict in the Donbas, “rebels” typically refers to separationists in the Russian-speaking Eastern regions.
Krastev, Holmes, The Light That Failed, London: Penguin, 2019, 153-155.