Agents Against the System

A BEYOND BORDERS column by David Krakauer, President of the Santa Fe Institute.

Thomas Wright, “A Finite View of Infinity,” 1750, via Public Domain Review

Jean-Luc Godard 1930–2022
Javier Marías 1951–2022

In the opening scene of Jean-Luc Godard’s absurd and irresistible science-fiction film “Alphaville,” the computer Alpha-60, an omniscient and omnipotent artificially intelligent overlord, declares, “Sometimes reality can be too complex to be conveyed by the spoken word. Legend remolds it into a form that can be spread across the world.” This so-called reality is human existence and the legend is technique and efficiency. Alphaville’s maxim is “Silence, Logic, Safety, Prudence” and Alpha- 60 rules over it with intractable vacuum tubes.

“Alphaville” was made in 1965 in black and white. Travel between worlds is by dilapidated highway, if we are lucky, in a Citroën DS19. The most advanced prop in the film is a curvy jukebox. Everyone smokes. The hero, Lemmy Caution, is a squalid Philip Marlowe–type in a Peeping Tom trench coat. Caution is on a mission to abduct, or at least kill, Alpha-60’s architect, Professor von Braun — formerly known as Leonard Nosferatu. When Caution eventually meets Alpha-60, he is giving a lecture on what sounds like Gödel’s rotating universe: “Time is like a circle spinning innately.”

The Spanish writer Javier Marías was obsessed with espionage, spies, and secrecy. His characters are often misanthropic misfits, like Godard’s Lemmy Caution, who live vigorously in shadows. In a series of novels starting in 2002, Marías began a systematic analysis of those working within secret systems, those seeking assimilation, and the majority who are merely controlled. Marías’ father, the philosopher Julián Marías, sometimes described as the Spanish Bertrand Russell, was the author of numerous books, including the tantalizing “Metaphysical Anthropology: The Empirical Structure of Human Life.” In his book, Julián Marías described how a life is created in relation to networks of circumstances and experiences, a system of relations which through individuality achieves a “maximum condensation.” Javier Marías in his novels often seems to be exploring his father’s twin world, one where relationships are so concealed that individuals achieve a maximum of dispersal.

In one of Marías’ most recent books, “Berta Isla” (2017), a young spy in the making, Tomás Nevinson, is recruited by an inscrutable scholar, Sir Peter Wheeler. Wheeler describes spies as the ones who “are not exposed, who can’t be seen; unknown, opaque beings about whom almost no one knows anything . . . . Those who act swathed in mist . . . they are the ones who most disturb the universe.”

Godard and Marías were interested in systems and agents from both sides of the divide: citizen and instrument, and both sought to expose the risks of subjugating the individual will to the potentially obfuscating technologies of society. They were transmuting into art the concerns that Jacques Ellul surveyed in his 1954 book, “The Technological Society.” Ellul described technologies as all standardized means of obtaining results, or arriving at a perfect outcome, however questionable the result might be — in other words, our fascination with carelessly examined ends that bend values before efficiencies.

Ellul’s analysis of technology was building on Thorstein Veblen’s earlier interests in industry in his 1921 monograph, “The Engineers and the Price System.” Veblen foresaw an emerging mechanical world order with an inclusive organization of “interlocking processes and interchange of materials.” Veblen maintained that in such a world, entirely new forms of literacy would be required, “a joint stock of knowledge and experience held in common by the peoples.” Neither Veblen nor Ellul could have anticipated the degree of system opacity threatened by modern computer software and machine learning. Today these systems are diverging from Wheeler’s shrouded actors and threatening to converge on Godard’s algorithmic dictator.

Godard and Marías were two virtuosi who, in zany and subtle ways, increased awareness of the dangers of secrecy and the latent confidentialities of technologies — human and mechanical — and remind us of the role that art has always played in bringing complex, systemic ideas into aesthetic experience.

— David Krakauer
President, Santa Fe Institute

From the Fall 2022 edition of the SFI Parallax newsletter. Subscribe here for the monthly email version, or email “news at santafe.edu” to request quarterly home delivery in print.

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The Santa Fe Institute is an independent research center exploring the frontiers of complex systems science.

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Santa Fe Institute

The Santa Fe Institute is an independent research center exploring the frontiers of complex systems science.