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Ovi Symposium; Twenty-seventh Meeting
by The Ovi Symposium
2014-06-05 10:28:16
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Ovi Symposium:

“A Philosophical Conversation on the Nature of Art within Modernity
and the Envisioning of a New Humanism”

between Drs. Abis, Paolozzi, Paparella and Vena
Twenty-seventh Meeting: 05 June 2014



Symposium's regular participants (in alphabetical order):

enDr.Ernesto Paolozzi teaches history of contemporary philosophy at the University Suor Orsola Benincasa of Naples. A Croce scholar and an expert on historicism, he has written widely and published several books, especially on aesthetics and liberalism vis a vis science. His book Benedetto Croce: The Philosophy of History and the Duty of Freedom was printed as an e-book in Ovi magazine in June 2013.

papDr. Emanuel Paparella has a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism with a dissertation on Giambattista Vico from Yale University. He currently teaches philosophy at Barry University and Broward College in Florida, USA. One of his books is titled Hermeneutics in the Philosophy of G. Vico, Mellen Press. His latest e-book Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers was printed in Ovi magazine in June 2013.

rywaltEdwin Rywalt is a computer specialist living in Pennsylvania with his family. He is a talented and accomplished pianist with a college education from Columbia University and a life---long scholarly interest in the nexus between science, technology, and the liberal arts. Beginning in May 2014 he will be offering pro bono services to the Ovi Symposium with typo correction editing and other useful suggestions aiming at improving the overall format of the twice a month section of Ovi magazine. Perhaps in the future, if his commitments allow it, he may decide to join the Symposium’s ongoing dialogue.

venaDr. Michael Vena is a former professor emeritus at Southern Connecticut State University. He has a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism (with a dissertation on Leon Battista Alberti) from Yale University. He has published a book on Italian theater titled Italian Grotesque Theater (2001). Recently he has published an English collection of modern Italian plays by well known playwrights such as Pirandello, Fabbri and De Filippo.


Indirect Participants at this meeting within the “Great Conversation” across the Ages (in the order of their appearance): da Montefeltro, Sant’Elia, Baudelaire, Benjamin, Pichoi, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Descartes, Vattimo, Gadamer, Kant, Freud, Stevenson, Obama, Pascal, Croce, Dylan, De Gregori, Pirandello, Hegel, Vico, Leibniz, Vincino, Disney, Morin, Lumiere, Shakespeare, Eduardo,  Augustine, Thoreau, Ellul, Marx, More, Christ, Thomas, Einstein, Pascal, Dante, Virgil, Whitehead, Goldstein, Lears, Jung, Solzhenitsyn, Marcuse, Nietzsche, Bloom, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Wiezel, Davis, Benjamin, Michelangelo, Leonardo.


Table of Contents for the 27th Session of the Ovi Symposium (5 June 2014)

Preamble by way of an abstract by the Symposium’s coordinator Emanuel L. Paparella plus a selected list of Ovi articles on the treated themes.

Section 1: “Automaton-Soul: a Philosophical Colloquium” between two eminent Italian philosophers: Maurizio Ferraris and Ernesto Paolozzi

Section 2: A brief commentary by Paparella on Ferraris and Paolozzi’s colloquium: “Soul-Automaton”

Section 3: “Envisioning a New Humanism beyond the Dichotomy Science/Humanities.” A presentation by Emanuel L. Paparella

Section 4: “Aesthetics as Digital Reproduction.” An addendum from chapter 14 of the Ovi E-book Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers“ by Emanuel L. Paparella


Preamble by way of an abstract by the Symposium’s coordinator Emanuel L. Paparella

In this 27th meeting of the Ovi Symposium we return to what is perhaps its main urgent and overarching theme: the envisioning of a new humanism for the new millennium.

When in the 15th century the Duke of Urbino Federico da Montefeltro was asked what he considered the most important thing in life he promptly answered: “to be human.” Of course that presupposes another crucial question: what does it mean to be human? That question goes back to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. It is still debated today in symposia galore. But there is still another deeper question: what exactly is my Self? It is a question originally posed by St. Augustine dealing with our most essential spiritual identity, the identity of a being endowed with consciousness, conscious of his freedom and of not being a mere automaton or a mere computer, conscious that he has an existence in time and space, and that his journey through those existential dimensions of reality is necessarily historical. So, willy-nilly, we return to Vico’s historicism!

Regarding the corollary issue soul/automaton or self/automaton, if you will, in section one we present a sterling example of a symposium or a friendly open-ended philosophical conversation: a colloquium on the issue between two brilliant philosophers in present day Italy: Ernesto Paolozzi, whom the readers already know quite well as one of the symposium participants, and the other, as a guest participant in this meeting, Maurizio Ferraris, a professor of philosophy at the University of Turin. He a pupil of Gianni Vattimo (whom I  had as a professor in a course on Vico at Yale University in 1978); later worked with him and with the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (of Truth and Method fame) on the theory of philosophical-literary-theological hermeneutics, and later set up the school of New Realism, presently directing the philosophical journal Rivista d’Estetica.

This very stimulating and insightful colloquium, which in some way could be a template for our own colloquia in the Ovi symposium, translated in English by E.L. Paparella (who is alone directly responsible for translation and posting in English of the same colloquium), has previously appeared in Italian in the scholarly journal Cerchio e Freccia, directed by Edoardo Sant’Elia, as part of an ongoing rigorously structured project with a final deadline: eight issues over eight years (2010-2017), with twelve contributions in each volume. We trust it will stimulate further lively discussion and commentary in our own forum.

Section two presents a brief comment by Emanuel Paparella, as coordinator, on the Paolozzi-Ferraris’ colloquium in the context of our own goals and agenda. A recent intriguing book, which reads like a novel on Plato making the rounds in the modern technological scientific world, is also briefly examined in the commentary.

In section three, intended as a dialogue, in some way complementary to section one, we continue probing the thorny question: what makes us human? A question which revolves around the age old issue of man’s spiritual identity or of the spirit and the soul; what in philosophy, since Augustine, goes under the name of the Self. A question this dealing with the dualism spirit/matter.In my opinion, this special issue of the symposium on the soul and the self as distinguished from the automaton,  and the mechanistic, the mind as distinguished from artificial intelligence, represents one of the most valiant attempts on the part of the forum’s participants to begin envisioning and constructing, at the beginning of a new millennium, an appropriate paradigm for a new humanism. We trust it will foment a productive dialogue.

In section four we have deemed it relevant, within the context of art reproduced digitally by automatons or computers, to reproduce chapter 14 of the Ovi e-book Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophy by Emanuel L. Paparella titled “Aesthetics as Digital Reproduction,” which can be found and is retrievable in the Ovi book-shop.  

Moreover, to encourage the ongoing dialogue, especially among inquisitive Ovi readers and contributors (i.e., the Ovi Team), we attach here a selected series of pieces as submitted to the magazine in the last seven years or so dealing with the issues of the Self and the duality science/humanism. Some readers may remember them, some may not even know that they exist, that they are retrievable from the Ovi archives via its search engine, by title or by author’s last name (Paparella). And the good news is that, wonder of wonders, it’s all free! You are welcome to peruse them. I cannot imagine a cheaper albeit valuable educational deal for those minds that are curious about the latest issues of our imperiled civilization and the nexus science/humanism. To facilitate the search we are listing the articles by title with an accessible link placed under each title. Enjoy!

On the Self:

“Reflections on Consciousness, Transcendence, Immanence and the Self”

“The Encounter with History as Extension of the Self”

“A Vichian Invitation to the Journey into the Self”

“A Humanistic Journey into the Self”

“The Nexus between History and the Self”


On the Nexus between Science and Humanism

“Envisioning a Bridge to a Third Culture”

“Dehumanization in the Light of Vico’s Philosophy”

“Complementarity within Vico’s Historicism vis a vis Science”

“A Guide to the Dialogue between Science and Religion”

“An Interdisciplinary Approach to Computer Science and Theology”

“A Third Window beyond Materialistic and Mechanistic Philosophies of Nature”

“A Reflection on Artificial Intelligence and Human Consciousness”

“The Latest on the Nexus between Science and Religion”

“Does the Internet Make us more Intelligent but less Human?”

“An Alternative to a Dehumanized Civilization”

“The Principle of Complementarity in Bohr’s Quantum Mechanics and Vico’s Historicism”

“The Truth of Scientific Knowledge grounded in Faith”


Lastly, an announcement on the symposium personnel: we regret to announce that from now on Dr. Alessandra Abis will not continue her contributions to the symposium due to other pressing commitments of a professional and personal nature. We are grateful for her temporary cooperation with the symposium and remain open to welcoming her as a guest contributor at any time in the future or as an individual contributor to the Ovi enterprise, if that proves more feasible for her. Thank you, Alessandra, and ad majorem.



Automaton-Soul: A Philosophical Colloquium
between two eminent Italian philosophers: Maurizio Ferraris and Ernesto Paolozzi
(from the philosophical journal Cerchio e Freccia, translated into English by Emanuel L. Paparella)


Maurizio Ferraris                         Ernesto Paolozzi

I. Slander on Automatons

Ferraris: Let us begin with a thesis on which we can all apparently agree: something like “the spirit vivifies, the letter kills.” I am convinced that even those who ignore these gospel verses assigns to spirit a higher value vis à vis letter; it is common to say: this is the text, this is the letter, agreed, but we are going beyond the letter toward the spirit. I have always been moved, and I’ll attempt to explain what is the nexus with our conversation on soul and automaton, a passage from Baudelaire in his “my unveiled heart” where he asserts that “The Jews: bibliographers and witnesses to redemption.” It is an example of horrifying anti-Semitism which is treated lightly by Benjamin when he quotes and comments on it, while Pichoi, the editor of Baudelaire in the Pleiades says that “This is a difficult passage to interpret, but we can eliminate any notion of anti-Semitism,” which to me appears as a beautiful form of double negation. In reality, these mental attitudes which place the letter on one side and the spirit on the other, reflect a clear alternative between the soul and the automaton: spirit is good, and it is soul; the letter is bad, and it is the automaton. We see this quite well in Plato’s Phaedrus where writing is condemned exactly because it is a sort of soul exteriorized and thus transformed into technical soul, an automaton. In fact, for Socrates the limitation of writing is that it says always the same thing; if placed under interrogation the text is unable to defend itself or attack; therefore what is good is inside. And this is the point: there is a condemnation of the external, of the technical, of the inert, in the name of something internal, of something vital, spiritual; but were we to discuss on the soul and explain this internal reality we’d have recourse to the external once more, to something inert, to scripture. In fact, when Plato needs to describe the soul he says that “the soul is like a book,” and here once more the technical is inside, not outside. Inexorably one begins to suspect that automaton is not a category but an insult: the automatons are the others, never oneself.

Paolozzi: I too have thought about the Platonic soul and then about the complications of the Aristotelian soul which is something else again, and it is in fact, in certain aspects a gigantic automaton which ends up controlling the entire universe. But we also have to deal with the concerns of modern philosophy, from Descartes to Kant, in its attempts on one hand to eliminate the soul as a metaphysical idea, and on the other hand in its inability to say what exactly a soul is, if it is metaphysical or empirical. So let’s avoid the cliché of the soul as something beautiful, while the automaton is bad and negative. Let’s keep in mind that in the history of culture there is also the idea that the automaton may be the  triumphant antithesis of the soul. Think of Freud’s psychoanalysis where the soul is conceptualized with a purely mechanical function…

Ferraris:  Exactly, a psychology without a soul.

Paolozzi: This is indeed another point to reflect upon. And although the reference is often abused I cannot resist citing here The Strange Adventure of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There you have the good soul and the bad soul: one is the mechanical one, the one that wins out, hence the automaton, evil in itself, while the beautiful soul remains anchored in what is good. But the true message here, beyond the contrast, is that in reality there is no such thing as a soul. In the final analysis, a soul is also an automaton just as an automaton is a soul, we are in a relationship of dialectical indistinguishable reciprocity.

Ferraris: So we should not side neither with Jekyll nor with Hyde?

Paolozzi: I think that this story is a dramatization of the condemnation of abstractions, not in the automaton; and that Stevenson had understood one thing clearly: if one searches for a separation of good from evil in an abstract mode, one will never succeed, because within reality we are as much automatons as we are souls, if by soul we understand freedom vis à vis mechanism.

Ferraris: Fine, let’s then imagine that somebody comes to us to ask us: “How do you prove that you have a soul? Go ahead, prove it to me. What do you really know? How can you think that you have a soul? To say it in a different way: “How can you possibly think that you are free?” We have no evidence: for what we know, we could be hanging from a string, automatons like a roasting jack, just a bit more complex. Some would answer thus: “No, it seems to me that I possess spontaneous movements.” Indeed, but these spontaneous movements may be the effect of internal mechanisms or—according to the old argument according to which the most profound things within us are the things that they have taught us at elementary school—the product of precepts which we have learned automatically and that, being by now rooted in us, we imagine as constitutive of our intimacy. So we have a category which is not ontological—on one side there is the soul, and on the other the automaton—rather it is axiological: there is a good thing, which is the soul, and a bad thing, which is the automaton. In this sense, quite often to act like an automaton is considered a form of justification. “I did it without thinking”: who has never justified oneself thus? “I was only following orders”: another typical justification. If one were to reflect on how much of our life takes place in an automatic mode, one becomes aware of the continual repetitions, not excluding the spiritual sphere. Some say that a preacher can preach for an hour without thinking; I can practically guarantee that a professor too can talk for an hour without thinking. What difference is there between oneself and an automaton in such a moment, in the moment when one is teaching? Or in the moment when the actor is acting? That explains why actors have to transform themselves into automatons, given that they are acting out something that is prescribed. In fact, automatism is of obligation in some professional functions. Let’s take for example a call center, which is the most obvious. One calls, first one gets some automatic instructions: if you need this push button one, if you need something else push two, push three if, and so on; then if something unpredictable happens, the operator will intervene, as an anonymous figure who often does not know how to answer and is compelled to repeat the same thing. Here in effect we find ourselves in an automatic function. But it is not only men degraded by their occupation which act as automatons, even men in a church find themselves in a similar situation. Imagine a Mass: what is more automatic than that?

Paolozzi: But it is in the nature of the ritual to instantiate identical gestures and similar formulas.

Ferraris: I can well imagine an automaton recharged in some way, which celebrates a Mass and I am sure that the consecration would be considered valid as long as the words pronounced were appropriate.

Paolozzi: So, especially in this circumstance the tunic makes the monk?

Ferraris: Yes, as long as the words are appropriate, the consecration takes place. It is rather obvious that the most elevated artistic, spiritual, institutional functions can be performed through automatism. Do you see a difference between the orchestra director, the priest who celebrates Mass, or Obama who makes an inaugural speech to the congress of the United States? The director and the priest already have a written text: we cannot add anything there. As far as Obama is concerned, it has probably been written by a ghostwriter. And yet for all three of them this should be the culmination, the appearance of the spirit on the cosmic-historical stage…

Paolozzi: I propose that we conclude this first section with Pascal, somebody who knew what he was talking about; as far as he was concerned, even religion, or better, faith, the supreme spiritual act, apparently the least automatic, often is conquered with habit and repetition, that is to say with an automatic act.

Ferraris: He is the one who invented the calculator.

II. Doubts on Identity

Paolozzi: The problem is that identity does not actually exist, neither in the so called soul, nor in the automaton. It is a category which cannot be explained by itself: this is what I think is the problem.

Ferraris: Are you then forcefully saying that identity is an illusion?

Paolozzi: By itself, without its contrary, yes. While it is true that the soul should be the essence of identity, the problem is aggravated when one attempts to get it out of the body, when the Kantian “I think” must become a soul which goes to Heaven or to Hell: and this is not possible. Even Croce, who can be defined as the philosopher of absolute spiritualism when, in pages that few know well, speaks of in his Pragmatic Philosophy of the character of men—since character is a kind of soul—speaks about habits, “willed habits.” I myself commenting on this passage have written that “Be careful, because here Croce is almost talking about the soul, almost,” but obviously he is not talking about the soul. What is a habit, that for which we say that I have my own characteristic and he has a different one, and you another yet.” This characteristic is always individualistic a la Leibniz. So if by identity we mean this kind of super-individuality which we all have either under the aspect of soul or automaton, of a being that is automatic and spiritual at the same time, then yes, otherwise identity looks to me as something else, the usual abstraction.

Ferraris: I find this reiteration of character significant, because characters are also the characters for printing, to stay with the issue of letter and spirit. That is to say, it is because of things that one is always equal to oneself, the motive for which the letter is despised in Plato: writing repeats itself continually. We too, when we are really ourselves, we repeat ourselves incessantly. This uniqueness, which in fact becomes our individual habit, makes our relatives and friends suppose, rightly or wrongly, that we have a soul, and perhaps makes us believe it too. This is the reason why people get angry when they go and listen to a concert by Bob Dylan or De Gregori, and the artists as artists get bored with repeating in the same way. The one hundred millionth time that you repeat Goodnight Little Flower you get exasperated and decide to sing it differently. People don’t like you at that point, because they wanted to hear “just as it is,” and that “just as it is,” is exactly what they have heard on the radio or on the cd a million other times; that becomes the authentic, that represents the soul, the essence of the artist, while the variation is strident, and is perceived as incongruous…

Paolozzi: So the waiting is tied to the mechanistic?

Ferraris: And this is true for an infinity of occasions and functions. Before, I referred to the theatrical performance, to the religious rite, to the political discourse, all things that we suppose prescribed. Let’s now imagine going to hear the conference of a famous philosopher, and this famous philosopher says the exact contrary of what he has always said, and speaks differently from the way he has always spoken, he gives wholly different examples, and so on; once again, as with the singer, one is disappointed. But he tells you: “Excuse me, but I had a spiritual turn around thirty seconds ago and this is the result of that turn, you should appreciate what you just heard, what now represents my authentic originality.” Would such argument be convincing, would it encourage the disappointed listener. I don’t think so.

Paolozzi: ultimately the aspect that seems most creative, less robotic, the artistic impulse, is the one that more than any other fixes you in an unrepeatable characteristic; which is after all Pirandello’s theme, among others.

Ferraris: An existential theme and a necessarily linguistic one.

Paolozzi: therefore we’ll not get out of this having recourse to the old Hegel and instituting a dialectical nexus between language and word, for which one does not exist before or after the other, which are born at a crossroad, as Vico would hold, or we’ll never get out of this problem. How does one come to a solution with language if not with language itself? The conventionality of language cannot but be posterior to its creativity. But where does the creativity come from? Did God put it there? Is it innate? Is this Plato’s idea? If regarding these problems we assume a viewpoint which belongs to metaphysics or to science, each within its exclusivity, there is no way out.

Ferraris: Therefore you wish to transcend both categories?

Paolozzi: They are born together and it makes no sense to separate them.

Ferraris: In this regard I’d like to return to Vico whom you just quoted. He, the theoretician of the imaginative universals, at a certain point asks what is imagination and he answers: memory dilated and composed. We often reverse this idea: the authentic is what is unique, what happens only once; vice versa, the automatic is what continually repeats itself. But all the examples that we have looked till now seem to go in a different direction: the authentic is rather what repeats itself. After all, when we talk of “authentic flavors” we refer to flavors of a time past, that is to say, flavors which have repeated themselves an infinitude of times. Quite often, in the definition between authentic and inauthentic there seems to be only a distinction between two types of techniques: between what is made manually and what is made by machine; but they remain two type of techniques. In my opinion, the real question is this: once you have demonstrated that between soul and automaton there is no difference, why do you continue to consider the automaton negatively and the soul positively? I would not be happy to be surrounded by automatons, neither would I be happy to be one. I think that the answer to this has been given by Leibniz: we can imagine a spiritual automaton, as long as he is free. And what does it mean to be a spiritual automaton who is free? It means an automaton which is enormously complicated. We are automatons but are tremendously complicated automatons, more so than any other. That is why we have no respect for the roasting wheel: because it is an automaton with a very simple function. So I have the impression that freedom is something more than something to be demonstrated is rather something which we have to assume, to give sense to our life. 

Paolozzi: Freedom as an assumption?

Ferraris: Yes, I prefer to assume that I am free, as I prefer to think that those around me are also free, for it allows me to employ a vocabulary of  moral evaluation which would make no sense if such freedom did not exist. For this I have no proof, no useful empirical proof.

III. The Automatism of the Quotidian

Paolozzi: I think that we ought not demonize automatism in the quotidian. Such is life, it takes place between this continuous swing from banality to profundity, to originality. “Is it usually possible to be original without banality?” This is the question. What does it mean “today I passed a day unlike any other, finally”” That I went to the stadium? Or that I thought I wrote a very beautiful poem which I have in my drawer and am ashamed to show to anybody. What if for the rest of the day I eat, I sleep, and I cordially greet a friend with whom I go to the movie: is this necessarily banal? We tend to assume that quotidian life is often a concatenation of banalities but here probably we incur an ethical, even ethico-political transfer. We condemn or auto-condemn, with dubious moralism, the life of those who do not commit themselves to anything that is at least useful if not important for mankind, limiting himself to living with the necessary natural quotidian acts, which are perhaps or certainly automatic. Is he to be condemned for that?

Ferraris: Life functions via cycles. It auto-understands itself through a cycle of digestive cycles, seasonal cycles, productive cycles, alimentary cycles. So it is quintessential repetition. When we talk of life we do not imagine it in its quotidian aspects; and yet I’d like to see a life which is not quotidian: were it so it would be a bit too thunderous. There is an abundance of literature of the beginning of the 20th century where one sees men of the cities moving like automatons, gray, resigned, substantially identical…The lens is never focused on the 18th century, when the same men in the country-side behaved like automatons, only a bit slower, subject to rhythms which were those of nature—to sow, to gather, and so on—requiring a similar repetitiveness. The difference therefore does not reside in the spontaneous and the automatic, but rather the difference is between a boorish automaton and a sophisticated automaton. We ought to attempt to understand why despite the omnipresence of automatism in our life, there are moments, and more frequently than one can imagine a priori, when originality seems to emerge, or inventiveness, or freedom, or choice…In any case these sensations and feelings, such as happiness, unhappiness, would not be explainable within a pure automatism, and it is also true that when we are depressed the automaton is much more visible.

Paolozzi: I would reflect on this: which is one of the things which scares us most in life? Uncertainty: we do not like uncertainty. We are uncertain in a crisis, uncertain in love, uncertain even of our life. So, how does one get out of uncertainty? You become automatic and repetitive. Which means that the automatic is an essential part of our existence. As soon as we risk losing it we get scared. But obviously we are all conscious of the fact that in the final analysis we wish to live in uncertainty, because without it there would be no freedom and we could not do anything. If I already know everything that needs to be done, from today till the end of my life, I would immediately commit suicide. And I would do so because I am afraid of uncertainty, but also because I do not wish to be afraid of being afraid, which is the real angst.

Ferraris: talking of angst, I am reminded of a nice anecdote of Vincino. Christ tells a thief: tonight you will be with me in Paradise; yes, but then we go out. Understood? Obviously paradise would not be such without a way to escape it. What can be more unfortunate in fact than a complete repetitiveness? I remember that American film [Groundhog Day] wherein the protagonist is condemned to relive every day the same day from the very moment he wakes up; eventually he does not wish to go to bed any longer, for no reason, since he knew what to expect the next morning. There is even a Disney version, wherein Donald Duck’s nephews magically realize their dream that every day be Christmas. At the beginning it is great but then when they have to confront every day the same damned dinner, the same gifts which are no longer a surprise…then angst overcomes them, with no escape, they become very sad and angry.

Paolozzi: With so many references to popular art, allow me to insert here a classical touch: perhaps we ought to reevaluate Plato when he says that the body is a cage for the soul.

Ferraris: If we are talking of the body, there is something of which I must immediately inform you of: the alternative between soul and automaton is also the alternative between what is alive and what is dead. The soul is alive, the automaton is dead. But the point is: if we knew the hour of our death, if we knew its exact moment, what would happen to us? This is an hypothesis which becomes more and more concrete; on one hand biological life has become considerably longer, on the other hand, and at the same time, diagnostic instruments which are now available and are more advanced than even those of twenty years ago, make it possible that we live with death even longer than it was possible for our preceding generations. There are many people who know they have a tumor nowadays but keep on living. At one time to be diagnosed as positive meant to die, today it means to live, or live together with your death all your life. DNA studies will make it possible in the not too distant future to know what we will die from and when. What is this? It is the automaton who reveals himself, the dead inside the alive. Little science is needed to understand the mechanisms of the roasting wheel; but with much science and much technique one can understand the mechanisms of the spiritual free automaton that we are and reveal him always as an automaton.

IV. Technology

Ferraris: What is technology in itself? The answer toward which I tend is: “technology is the possibility of repeating something.” I hit something and then I hit it again: this is already a rudimentary form of technology. No technology can be developed in the absence of repetition. The repetitions then accumulate and build on each other and at the end we have an object as sophisticated as the one which is registering us, but which proceeds via repetition, and from which we expect that it is capable to repeat what we are saying.

Paolozzi: Naturally I join you in the expectation and am confident of the instrument. This argument on technology reminds me of Edgar Morin, the thinker of complexity with whom I have dialogued. Complexity would envision expulsion from technology, rather technology is seen as the negative of complexity, because it is what simplifies. But is it possible to expel from the world’s reality linear logic, which in our case we can define as logical technology? This would be an operation contrary to complexity which to be that must assume linearity, that is to say, technology.

Ferraris: Linear logic as a premise of complexity?

Paolozzi: Not as a premise but as a necessary component of complexity, which cannot itself become reductionist, or it is no longer complex but a form of more sophisticated linearity. Therefore you need to enter all the way into this complexity and probably you need to enter into history. This has nothing to do with a banal sort of historicism: we need to wholly change the question and not from past history to today, rather by inserting ourselves into history, into past history. What today may appear complex will become simple tomorrow, or vice versa.

Ferraris: I’d like to launch an hypothesis: each epoch has had its critics of technology, and those are the ones who criticize the new technology in the name of an older technology. This is normal: the saboteurs who wrecked machines in order to continue working with their manual instruments, which were themselves forms of technology, simply a preceding one.

Paolozzi: Among other things, and I think it has clearly come across in this discussion, it is not true that only our epoch is the epoch of technology. I am beginning to have many doubts that even in this regard we can truly speak of epochs, I would object to the term itself. We invent the epoch, but in reality who has said that it exists? Is the world really divided in centuries and decades, the 19th century, the 20th century, the 60s, the 90s? Those are the usual abstractions, necessary to organize a book or organize a debate…

Ferraris: I believe that every epoch, if we wish for the moment, to remain rooted to this form of periodization, has been represented as complex in comparison with another that preceded it and considered it simple; and that generally every generation is considered a not fully realized generation vis à vis the others which were perfect. But this is a perception one gets when one is within a flux. When things are fixed, simplified, recognizable, at that point we say: “the typical feudal situation.”  

Paolozzi: You say that to perceive oneself in the flux is difficult.

Ferraris: It is something very complicated. Can one imagine a medieval man saying: “Here I am, a true perfect medieval man”? In the first place they did not know that they were medieval and that changes everything. Some, less well informed, still thought of themselves as ancient men, who in turn did not know that they were ancients. In my opinion, here too we encounter the same problem soul/automaton: we who are within the flux feel ourselves as soul; the others, who are already fixed, are the automatons. Which is not wrong, since we do not know how it all ends, don’t know how the mechanism concludes for us and, naturally we perceive ourselves as souls.

Paolozzi: So, once again, automatons are the others.

Ferraris: Especially those who preceded us; they are all automatons.

Paolozzi: In fact, when a thing is dead it is already open to automatism, it has history as its sediment. But these are mechanisms that are necessary to life. If I am in the presence of a professor who is examining me, for me he is purely a presence, a fixed automaton. He is one who is a professor, and that’s all. That he may be happy or unhappy, that he may be a fan of Naples or Juventus, is of no interest to me. To stay with the last metaphor: in this circumstance, I am the flux and perceive myself becoming while the person who is before me must be automated, must be placed in a fixed context; for if I don’t do it, if I don’t make him and those around him into an automatons, there is no space either for a comparison.

V. The Ghost Factory

Ferraris: Technology per se produces ghosts. Spiritism is a modern phenomenon: it belongs to the era of the phonograph, the brothers Lumiere, and coincides with the invention of the movie. The ghost Is also an automaton figure; it returns every evening and it more or less says the same things. The silent specter of Hamlet’s father appears three times on the stage; if it had appeared only once, we would not consider him a ghost but an hallucination: there is a difference. And let’s reflect on the quantity of ghosts that we are surrounded by. There was a time when what was left of the men who had preceded us was little more than fixed photos and perhaps some letters written. Today we have their voices, their faces, their gestures and gigantic archives which are themselves perishable, obviously, since one of the characteristics of technology is its continual need of renovation. This is valid for the zombie. It is a more material ghost, a bit more corpulent, there are pieces that that fall away, but in effect what is it? It is somebody who moves as an automaton. Therefore a zombie, a ghost, an automaton, belong to the same species. One could say: “Come on now, as evolved as we are nowadays, why should we believe in ghosts?” Of course we need to believe in them, we produce them incessantly. The future belongs to the ghosts since the future is a development of technology.

Paolozzi: Indeed, the future belongs to the ghosts but let’s not forget that these automaton figures were present in the past too, and knew how to defend their interests. But staying with the 20th century, I am reminded of the black comedy of Eduardo. Those ghosts, with blurred borders between the real and the supernatural, shrewdness and superstition, are quite unstable. What is most funny of his comedies is the end when the names of all the protagonists appear with qualifications such as: useful soul, harmful soul, bad soul… Eduardo gives a ghostly flavor to his protagonists labeling them grotesquely with spiritual epithets, and vice versa, degrades the fantastic immersing it in a sordid reality of banal and insignificant interests. Doubt on the double nature of the figure that acts is fomented with wise equivocations which remain such at the end: have  we viewed an ingenuous poetic tragedy  or a big conscious deception? Indeed, the human being has always had a need to build for himself ghosts, using as needed the technology available at the time, the manufacture one or create one tied to imagination.

Ferraris: Do you believe that there is another epoch so full of ghostly automatons as the one we live in?

Paolozzi: If we wish to go beyond the realm of quantity, then the first answer would be the 17th century. Why such a century? Because the baroque is the invention of the machine, of the ghost, it is a mad mimesis of reality, both positively and negatively. Positive as far as  fully expressing without limitations all the creative potential that is there; negative when the technology explodes, it becomes narcissistic and we begin to write shrewd insignificant concepts. Isn’t that the case today? We live in a baroque era, in its best aspects as well as in its worst apects. Jazz, in my opinion, is a baroque musical form.

Ferraris: I am in agreement with that. What I remain skeptical about is the alleged characteristic of our time as encapsulated in this formula: “Contemporary society is grounded in communication.” I have always found this affirmation hilarious, in as much as it is twice false: the first falsehood is that I fail to imagine a society which is not based on communication: that is to say, did the Egyptians not communicate? They were always silent? Simply because we do not have adequate documentation and registration of their events, similar to ours, which is an excessive assumption, we imagine that they did not communicate. It is the typical arrogance of modern man.  

Paolozzi; Socrates spoke enough, even too much.

Ferraris: And of that we have quite a bit of evidence. The other aspect is that today, in my opinion, even more important than communication is its registration. We seem to be unable to imagine any longer a society without memory of the actions which characterize it on a daily basis, which allow life to flow in a particular direction. This is due to the fact that the technology of the last thirty years or so has been the immense growth of instruments for registration of every kind. All our telephone calls are registered, we have documentation of all our e-mails, we have memory within our smart phones which are superior to what might have been the library of Alexandria in its heyday. Surely this is a variation, an unheard of potential in the inexhaustible production of automatisms.

Paolozzi: The society of registration. I never declare definitive assertions since life itself is not definite, but perhaps the internet goes even beyond, it allows us to overcome the problem of the recovery of our registrations, since after you have launched in the cybernetic space, sooner or later somebody else will pick them up and the whole thing renovates itself. In a similar context, my e-mail runs the serious risk of becoming immortal and, given that the internet regurgitates with obsolete information, I do not envy future historians, who will have to deal with this enormous tangle of news.

Ferraris: There is no doubt that automatons, perfected to the ultimate, possessing unlimited memory are disquieting. Some people, noble champions of the soul against the vile automaton, may say: “But, after all, memory is mere reproduction. The spirit is something else altogether.” But we who are not naïve, understand that the deterioration of the automaton implies relevant damage to the soul too.


A Brief Commentary by Paparella on Ferraris and Paolozzi’s Colloquium: “Soul-Automaton”

When I first read this very interesting colloquium, I was brought back to Gilbert Ryle’s famous tongue in cheek dictum “the ghost in the machine”, as expressed in his well known volume The Concept of Mind (1949), wherein he describes the absurdity of all dualistic systems, such as Descartes’, wherein mental activity carries on in parallel to physical automatic action even though their means of interaction are largely unknown and merely speculative.

Both Paolozzi and Ferraris are on target when they trace the initial problematic with Plato’s concept of the body as the prison house of the soul which later on, via Augustine, greatly influences Christian theology. So the soul begins to be conceived as something pure and positive and spiritual while the body is something material and negative and dirty. The corrective of Aquinas, who founds his theology on Aristotle, is needed but nevertheless that duality is still embraced by many Christians, Descartes being perhaps its most prominent promoter.

This is especially so in the case of Christians with strong puritanical leanings: anything associated with the body is evil and negative, anything associated with the soul is good and positive. That is to say, let’s go ahead and burn the witches, and perhaps heretics to boot, in order to save their souls. A Jew would never make that kind of duality between matter and spirit. Spinoza, for example, conceived the soul and the body as one and indivisible. Obviously at the root of that position there was a whole Jewish tradition that is indeed the root of the tree of which Christianity is a branch, as Paul reminds us in Romans.

When one contemplates Michelangelo’s Last Judgment at the end times in the Sistine Chapel, one soon realizes that Michelangelo pictorially points to the fallacy of duality by representing those coming out of their tombs neither as ghosts nor as angels or pure spirits. They emerge from their tombs as human beings, with their bodies, warts and all. Moreover we read in the Acts of the Apostles that when Christ appears to his followers in the cenacle after the resurrection he does do so as a  ghost or as a hologram (albeit his spiritualized body was able to go through doors without opening them), nor as an angel devoid of body. He in fact suggests that doubting Thomas place his finger in his wounds. That action would have been futile had Christ appeared as a ghost. So, it appears that the genuine Christian belief,  as rooted in the Jewish tradition. is that body and spirit while being distinguishable are indivisible. One begins to suspect that science, concerned with the empirical, mechanistic deterministic matter and the letter, and the humanities, concerned with a free spirit, the ultimate basis of our freedom, may also be one and indivisible. To separate them is to return to the above mentioned Platonic duality.

Now, in order to arrive at those rather simple conclusions on the fallacy of the dualities mind/body, soul/automaton, letter/spirit, science/humanism, one needs not have recourse to the learned semioticians of the post-modern epoch, those whom Vico would probably deem the “learned arrogant doctors” of today’s academia, those who have reduced even symbols and their spiritual importance to nothing more than material and mechanical signs, albeit linguistic signs, have embraced nihilism, have declared life meaningless and have derided Croce’s suggestion that “we cannot but be Christians”.

To return to Plato, whom Alfred Whitehead considered crucial to the proper understanding of the canon of Western philosophy, to the point of considering it a footnote to Plato’s speculation, perhaps we should also reference here a recent intriguing book I am currently reading. It deals with the enduring relevancy of philosophy in the era of the computer, the internet, deterministic brain science, mindless technology, progress for its own sake. It is titled: Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, and is authored by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. What makes the book so fascinating is that it reads like a novel wherein Plato is imagined making the rounds visiting Silicon Valley and Fox News among other places, answering the challenging question on how to raise the perfect child, which was also a crucial question in Athens 24 centuries ago, submitting to a neurosurgeon’s scanning of his brain, and then trying out the internet while commenting on the still needed interfacing of philosophy with science, especially when it comes to the exploration of free will and the meaning of human life and humankind’s destiny and how responsible each of us remains in its existential choices. In that sense, this journey of the great philosopher in the intricacies of the modern era, leads to the conclusion that not only is philosophy not obsolete, it is more necessary than ever, it is in fact a sine qua non for science, for indeed science cannot even begin, much less thrive, unless there is an a priori faith in the ability of the human mind and of human reason to reach the truth, as difficult as that may prove to be. A fascinating book indeed, very much relevant  to the general theme “soul-automaton” discussed in this meeting or our symposium.


Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away (2014)
By Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Admittedly, the ideas seminally presented here in this particular commentary are not terribly original; neither are they the proverbial reinventing of the wheel; rather, they are meant to be mere temporary ruminations, stimulated by the above colloquium, that perhaps will appeal in some way to the quotidian and solid common sense of the kind of people who like Ovi magazine and read it daily. Be that as it may, it is to be sincerely hoped that those ideas will be further explored and discussed in the symposium’s future sessions. Meanwhile, a sincere thank you is due to Paolozzi and Ferraris for a very stimulating colloquium.


Envisioning a New Humanism beyond the Dichotomy Science/Humanism
A Presentation by Emanuel L. Paparella





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The ancient Greeks warned us that the unexamined life is not worth living; that man needs to ask the question what does it mean to be human and only after adequately answering that question will he be able to devise a theory of “the good life.” But there is however a more profound and complex concept of the self. St. Augustine puts the riddle of the self this way: What is so much thine as thyself and what is so little thine as thyself? What Augustine is pointing out is this: underlying the question “Who am I” is a further question: “Is my I really mine?” Ultimately this is the question of freedom asking “How much in control am I of my self?”

Those are questions acutely felt by perceptive modern men who feel themselves “thrown into existence” in a world largely devoid of meaning, condemned to play certain roles within certain social structures oriented toward consumerism, production, success and material affluence. Questions that Thoreau already attempted to address way back in 1847 with his reflections on Walden Pond.  Closer to us, Jacques Ellul explores extensively the modern phenomenon of value-free technological “efficient ordering” which pervades all aspects of modern life since Descartes (see his The Betrayal of the West).

Previous to Ellul, Marx had already identified this form of alienation in the individual’s role as object of exploitation. But this alienation transcends the mere economic sphere of one’s humanity and occurs in all types of societies. In fact, the greater the organization of a society—i.e., the interdependence of all its social phenomena and the determinism of its processes—the greater seems to be the alienation, anonymity and servitude of its individuals to processes and forces that hamper their creativity and identity. Indeed, this is the question of freedom.

We live in two worlds which no longer understand and communicate with each other: the humanistic world and the scientific world. Those who live in the latter are quick to point out that technology has provided us with the means to subdue the earth and free the destitute and oppressed masses from brutalizing labor. That is however only partly true given that millions of people in the third world as I write this remain oppressed and exploited. Those people usually fail to observe how in the 20th century, after World War I, the very concept of Utopia present even in Marxist ideology practically disappeared. In the 19th century, when belief in the so called “inevitable” progress of science was prevalent, utopia was felt to be the very goal of history. Utopia meant a world without oppression and injustice, without hunger and class conflicts. Marx certainly envisioned it as the culmination of man’s history, after a few inevitable dialectic class conflicts that is. This vision is no longer with us. As Einstein pointed out in the 20th century, we are now mainly preoccupied with the means of the goal of utopia. In the process of perfecting those means, the goal, i.e., utopia itself, is lost sight of. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the field of education where means have long ago swallowed up goals and “educrats,” so called, have firmly established themselves as the well-paid managers of those means. It is no secret that bureaucracy now absorbs 60% or more of the money earmarked for education in the Western World.

At this sorry stage of depersonalization, the pressing question is about our very humanity. Are we still capable of acting humanely? Is the self still home? If it is not, that may explain why so many individuals do not know what do with their leisure. They simply do not know what to do with their selves. Pascal for one provides the answer as to why so much of modern recreation assumes a mode of centrifugal dissipation rather than one of centripetal concentration. In his famous Pensèes he points out that the cause of our unhappiness can be identified in the fact that we cannot simply sit still in a room for more than a few minutes. Or as Dante illustrates it in his Commedia, to be alone is a terrifying experience if no self is encountered. It is in the loss of the self that much modern existential angst can be located. Once I have lost my self, I may knock at the door of my own home and find that nobody lives there any longer. To say it with Dante, “so bitter it is that death is little more.” At that point I may become unable to pursue the question of my own humanity.

Dante for one needed Virgil’s guide to overcome the three beasts that obstructed the beginning of his journey into the self. And here we return to the theme of freedom and determinism. Contrary to what Freudianism may hold, humans are not mere bundles of impulses independent of time and place. Society is perfectly capable of adapting and molding these impulses and even perverting them in order to fit them into its principles of reality. All that needs to be done is to make people believe that their wants are their needs and that to be deprived of those wants is be victimized. Politicians seem to be very good at this sort of game. As Jackson Lears has aptly written in his No Place of Grace: “… A therapeutic world view…has become part of the continuing pattern of evasive banality in modern culture. Celebrating spurious harmony, the therapeutic outlook has further undermined personal moral responsibility and promoted ethics of self-fulfillment well attuned to the consumer ethos of 20th century capitalism.”

Our incessant talk shows are mere symptoms of that kind of cancer eating at our Western civilization. When the disease has become pervasive, people begin to sincerely believe that to be human and to have self-esteem is to own a car equipped with a telephone with which to order pizza on the way home. Some have even installed make-believe phones with which to confer more self-esteem and self-importance on themselves. To drive while talking on the phone gives others the impression that momentous decisions are being executed.

The gorilla with a telephone in his paw is of course merely funny. A much less amusing and sinister aspect of this pressure to adjust and conform are the propagandistic and ideological apparatuses that have distinguished the 20th century.  People caught in those monstrosities can hardly be imagined as being endowed with a shred of autonomy or as striving after what Jung called “individuation.” In those types of societies, man has not only dehumanized himself but he is unable to cure himself. An outside force seems to be needed. It can only come from the few individuals in whom the image of authentic humanity is still kept alive and who have the courage to free that image by condemning and altering corrupting social structures. Solzhenitsyn jumps to mind.

In the 60s we had in America a counterculture movement largely sponsored by college students and theorized by Herbert Marcuse in his book Eros and Civilization. He thought, as some misguided intellectuals still do, that a new humanity was on the horizon, ushered in by new technological developments which would keep oppressive work at a minimum while raising leisure and freedom to the maximum. The aggressive instincts identified by Freud as aroused by social repression, would simply wither away. So would Judeo-Christian morality, another vestige of social repression. This new man, reminiscent of Nietzsche’s “overman” would be characterized by the fact that he would not have to merit life; he would simply enjoy it. Whatever aggressive instincts might be left in him would be sublimated through sports and the building of civilized communities that respected nature.

Here we should pause to note that of the many hippy communes established in the 60s, few survived and those which did had some kind of religious foundation. In any case, this was perhaps the last naïve attempt at utopia on the part of modern technocratic man. It never came to pass. What did come to pass is best explained by Allan Bloom in his controversial The Closing of the American Mind where he provides an analysis of this “new man.” Far from being tolerant and simply enjoying life in Utopia, the “new man” has by now entrenched himself in the University’s chambers of power (the same chambers at whose gates he was protesting in the 60s) and from there he now imposes “political correctness” on academia. All done, mind you, in the name of civilizing tolerance and equality. What in reality is at work is a sort of Nietzchean nihilism and relativism. As indeed Nietzsche correctly foresaw in the 19th century, once God is dead, one is left with little more than “the will to power,” or a reduction of persons to functions of emergent social conditions. Within such a community, neither God (be he the one of the Judeo-Christian tradition or Plato’s) nor man (as conceived by the Renaissance) is any longer the measure of all things. The measure is constituted almost exclusively by material and economic structures.

In song and in dance this man will end up bragging of the fact that he is a “material man,” turning vices into virtues on his TV shows where everybody washed one’s dirty linens in public, where every opinion is as good as any other, where triviality and banality reign supreme and truth is prostituted to expediency and freedom is mistaken for license. This new humanity is constituted by economic structures conceived as a sort of demiurge fashioning it. But this demiurge named “market” far from being a panacea can easily become an instrument of repression and dehumanization when not tempered by justice.

Few people, either with the capitalistic or the socialist camp, bother to seriously ask the question: How can we humanize these economic structures that leave so many people at the margins of prosperity? Even Nobel winners in economics and science do not seem to be able to formulate the question, never mind answering it. What seems to be desperately needed is an independent picture of humanity; i.e., an awareness of being a self. Without that picture even the need for a journey is not perceivable. As Kierkegaard best rendered it, man then remains in the despair of self-forgetfulness, in the “sickness unto death” of the well adjusted individual identifying with the values of his society, blissfully unaware that he has been reduced to a consuming automaton.

When man cannot conceive of his own destiny any longer and begins to talk of soul as mere mind, and then of mind as mere “software,” then indeed the sickness may be terminal. For when the I is lost, one cannot even grieve over its loss. And Kierkegaard is not talking here of a mere psychological phenomenon. Rather he is talking about an existential despair, the angst of which a Thoreau or a Heidegger speak. This is a sort of sickness that is hardly noticeable in the workaday world where the afflicted are engaged in all sorts of productive activities geared to repress the anxiety, while remaining lost “in a dark wood” with not even the faintest desire to seek “the right way.” This is the life of quiet desperation.

Tragically, in that self-forgetfulness and imperceptible loss of identity, modern man becomes less than primitive man; he becomes, in fact, less than a beast, a monstrosity. Elie Wiezel is right in affirming that the proper ethical implications of mankind’s Nazi past have hardly been drawn. For we remain unwilling to question our humanity and thus relive the terror of such a past. It is easier by far to lay flowers on the tomb of the Third Reich’s unknown soldier in an inauthentic gesture of reconciliation. But reconciliation requires remembrance, acceptance, the asking of forgiveness, the granting of forgiveness, repentance, reparation. When these are missing reconciliation becomes a mockery. It becomes self-forgetfulness. As Dante and Vico have been trying to teach us for centuries now, to be human is to be forced to ask about one’s self, to be compelled by the image toward which one is thrust and which emerges at the intersection of essence and existence, at the point of ethical tension between what is and what ought to be.


Aesthetics as Digital Reproduction
(From the Ovi e-book Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers, Chapter 14)

By Emanuel L. Paparella


“The work of art in the age of digital reproduction is physically and formally chameleon. There is no clear conceptual distinction now between original reproduction in virtually any medium based in film, electronics, or telecommunications. As for the fine arts, the distinction is eroding, if not finally collapsed. The fictions of “master” and “copy” are now so entwined with each other that it is impossible to say where one begins and the other ends. In one sense, Walter Benjamin’s proclamation of doom for the aura of originality, authored early in the century, is finally confirmed by these events. In another sense, the aura, supple and elastic, has stretched far beyond the boundaries of Benjamin’s prophecy into the rich realm of reproduction itself. Here in this realm, often mislabeled “virtual” (it is actually a realer reality, or RR), both originality and traditional truth (symbolized by the unadorned photographic “fact”) are being enhanced, not betrayed…we reach through the electronic field of ease that cushions us, like amniotic fluid, through the field that allows us to order, reform, and transmit almost any sound, idea, or word, toward what lies beyond, toward the transient and ineffable—a breath, for example, a pause in conversation, even the twisted grain of a Xeroxed photograph or videotape. Here is where the aura resides—not in the thing itself but in the originality of the moment when we see, hear, read, repeat, revise.”

                              --Douglas Davis (“The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction”)

Benjamin’s classic discussion on art revolved around the idea that technological processes, which allow art objects to be reproduced mechanically, would undermine art’s auratic nature. In his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction” (An Evolving Thesis: 1991-1995), the conceptual artist and educator Douglas Davis brings Benjamin’s astute analysis into the present, but he also criticizes Benjamin for failing to envision the liberating potential of modern technology.

Basically, Davis’ thesis is that far from threatening the aura of art, virtual reality enhances it. This is so because, in Davis’ view, the dichotomy between an original and its mechanical copy has been replaced by a new relationship. While agreeing with Benjamin that the aura of the original decays through the possibility of reproduction, Davis argues that, nevertheless, rapidly evolving digital techniques endow every copy with its own unique aura. Rather than destroying aura, digital technology replicates it ad infinitum. It allows each of us not merely to reproduce the original exactly but also to enhance it in accord with our individual preferences. For example, instead of one Mona Lisa and its plethora of identical reproductions, each one of us can alter it on screen as we see fit. The resulting products are not mere mechanical reproductions but have the vitality of original works.


We have all seen reproductions of the Mona Lisa with mustaches on, or a winking Mona Lisa, a la Sarah Palin. We have seen man as depicted in Michelangelo’s “creation of man” panel in the Sistine Chapel that instead of extending his middle finger horizontally to touch that of God, extends it upward vertically to express defiance and contempt. This is one enhancement very dear to assorted atheists and agnostics and juveniles of all persuasions. What remains to be asked, however, is this question: is this still Da Vinci or Michelangelo, or rather, is this an opportunistic manipulation of those famous artists to promote one’s own ideology or belief-system or twisted sense of humor? How exactly the aura, or the reverence if you will, surrounding the works of those two famous artists is enhanced by the millions of less than genial and irreverent and juvenile individuals out to merely attract attention to themselves with an abysmal ignorance of the history and theories of art? In this attempt to attract attention at any cost, isn’t the ultimate act of defiance that of destroying Michelangelo’s Pietà with a hammer, in a sort of performance-art act? That too has been attempted, albeit unsuccessfully. To fine tune the question further: aren’t those barbaric acts of vandalism and destruction a sure sign of cultural philistinism, rather than enhancement of Michelangelo and Leonardo?


Be that as it may, Davis does not seem to be too concerned with such questions but presses on with his critique of Walter Benjamin’s pessimistic assessment of a technological development that lie behind the claims of his theory of art. Davis speculates that while Benjamin saw only the possibility of increasing social control and regimentation, we ought to be considering the potential for educated elites to contest such control for liberating purposes. Here again the question needs to be asked: which liberating purposes and who decides which are liberating and which are enslaving purposes? To a vandal, the destruction of a statue by Michelangelo intimating eternal Beauty, which the vandal rejects and or does not understand, may be liberating indeed, even cathartic.


In any case, there is no doubt that, willy-nilly, we find ourselves “plugged in” in many aspects of our lives and to refuse to be plugged in is the equivalent of becoming an anachronism. One runs the risk of being labeled “a medieval man” by ignoramuses that make no distinction between Medieval times and the Dark Ages. Indeed, the digital future of art cannot be ignored as one explores its nature and essence. It may be indeed worth considering with Davis that, rather than denying us the potential for creativity, the Internet and its ancillary technological innovations inaugurate the era of the post-original original; the idea, that is, that when each of us, independent of his/her innate talents, is free to bestow aura, the correlative concepts of the original and its mechanical reproduction will have to be consigned to the dustbin of history; for after all, Hegel teaches us that history is progressive and what arrives at the end is always the best of all possible world. But Hegel might have rethought his philosophy had he lived in the era of Nazism (only sixty years ago) where books were burned (1933) as a sort of art-event and performance, and eventually people too were burned.

So, the crucial question that remains to be courageously confronted is this: Is what arrives at the end of an era necessarily the best? Another way to frame the question is this: Is progress inevitable or is there such a thing as regression at the end of an historical process; is enhancement always improvement in any field? That question, try as one may, cannot be answered by mere science or mere art without the aid of philosophy. Philosophy, in turn, will not be able to answer it either, if it conceives of itself as mere deterministic rationalism. Somehow a synthesis of rational reason, imagination, and history is urgently needed in the brave new world of technology in which we live and have our being.





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