Affect and Artificial Intelligence and The Fetish Revisited

Elizabeth A Wilson’s Affect and Artificial Intelligence traces the history and development of the field of artificial intelligence (AI) in the West, from the 1950’s to the 1990’s and early 2000’s to argue that the key thing missing from all attempts to develop machine minds is a recognition of the role that affect plays in social and individual development. She directly engages many of the creators of the field of AI within their own lived historical context and uses Bruno Latour, Freudian Psychoanalysis, Alan Turning’s AI and computational theory, gender studies,cybernetics, Silvan Tomkins’ affect theory, and tools from STS to make her point. Using historical examples of embodied robots and programs, as well as some key instances in which social interactions caused rifts in the field,Wilson argues that crucial among all missing affects is shame, which functions from the social to the individual, and vice versa.

[Cover to Elizabeth A Wilson’s Affect and Artificial Intelligence]

J.Lorand Matory’s The Fetish Revisited looks at a particular section of the history of European-Atlantic and Afro-Atlantic conceptual engagement, namely the place where Afro-Atlantic religious and spiritual practices were taken up and repackaged by white German men. Matory demonstrates that Marx and Freud took the notion of the Fetish and repurposed its meaning and intent, further arguing that this is a product of the both of the positionality of both of these men in their historical and social contexts. Both Marx and Freud, Matory says, Jewish men of potentially-indeterminate ethnicity who could have been read as “mulatto,” and whose work was designed to place them in the good graces of the white supremacist, or at least dominantly hierarchical power structure in which they lived.

Matory combines historiography,anthropology, ethnography, oral history, critical engagement Marxist and Freudian theory and, religious studies, and personal memoir to show that the Fetish is mutually a constituting category, one rendered out of the intersection of individuals, groups, places, needs, and objects. Further, he argues, by trying to use the fetish to mark out a category of “primitive savagery,” both Freud and Marx actually succeeded in making fetishes of their own theoretical frameworks, both in the original sense, and their own pejorative senses.

Both of these books deal in what it takes for nonhuman assemblages to come alive, both pointing to Bruno Latour’s work in laboratory studies, his reimagining of Critique, and his Actor Network Theory to think through the social construction of groups, places, artifacts, and knowledge that have come to comprise artificial intelligence, fetishes, and various theoretical communities. Where Wilson looks directly at the lack of consideration of affect relation in what it means for a mind to develop, Matory traces how specific white Europeans took up and misapplied Afro-Atlantic concepts to the purpose of raising themselves above or differentiating themselves from the black Africans who developed those concepts. Both specifically work to discuss the role that socio-cultural context play in the development of the people involved in creating these theories, and both use the concept of introjection as a touchstone.

Introjection, for Freud, was the inverse of projection, and so rather than putting one’s own qualities out onto someone else, one would take qualities which were not theirs into themselves, and this is the reading that Matory uses to talk about Marx and Freud’s appropriation of the subjugated and oppressed lived experiences of Afro-Atlantic peoples. But Wilson uses Sándor Ferenczi’s original rendering of the term introjection, meaning the quality of the neurotic process of reaching out for objects to bring inside ourselves, saying that this helps explain why humans can get into affective relations with machines. Each of these renderings of the term highlights a movement from outside to inside, and an unconscious engagement with made things that may not, on first reading, be a part of us.

Oddly, Matory touches on Freud and Ferenczi’s relationship a great deal, but does not play out the disagreements about introjection, a move which could be both constructive and illuminating to his project. Similarly, Wilson’s project would have benefited from spending more time thinking about both affect and disability studies and the different ways that the affective relationship is rendered for autistic individuals. With the high prevalence of Autism within practitioners of the computer sciences, this could be illustrative of the social engagements she marks out, elsewhere in the text. In fact, both Wilson and Matory could use a bit more engagement disability and other marginalized intersections, and I am, in particular, hopeful that Matory’s next book will explore the intersection Afro-Atlantic peoples who engage in non-normative sexuality, as this text seemed to put those at off-axes, rather than as a potential crossroads.

On the whole, both Matory and Wilson are writing about places where our socio-historical contexts can help us to better understand what it is that we are trying to build, both in terms of theoretical and physical objects. In fact, for both of these authors, it is crucial that we understand that the theoretical, the social, the symbolic, the emotional, the semiotic, and the epistemological, are all in tension with each other, and that none takes primacy over the other, as we create and are created by assemblages of the human and the nonhuman.

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