Frames /sing


HAL 9000

The Intelligence of Innocence and What Makes Things Real

The “Open the pod bay doors please HAL” sequence

I watched 2001: A Space Odysseyfor the first time in sometime the other night. And a few thoughts rose to mind. There is of course the incredible personality dominance of HAL in the film, the unforgettable synthetic intelligence, and his schizophrenic lapse into homicidal clarity, brought on by the conflict of his two knowledges: a surface knowledged of the mission, and an unconscious knowledge which became an imperative, “secrecy”. It has been explained that HAL killed the crew as a logical function of this need for secrecy. No crew, no secrets.

This has obvious relevance for a criticism of totalitarian states, and power structures, those which circulate with a near-empty recursion of knowledge, but there is something more that struck me, in this viewing. (This film was the first film that I ever saw in a movie theatre I believe, and I was probably about 4 years old. So it leaves something of an Ur-print.) 


What really moved me was the nature of the Kubrick synthesis of technology and humanization, in particular the sequence where in Dave takes the pod out to retrieve the body of Poole, who we have just seen spasmodically hurled into space, until his limbs finally relent, and he eases into the void, a sculptural figure. What is remarkable, as Poole becomes aetheticized, as his “picture making mechanism” is cinematically evacuated, is the extraordinary delicacy with which the pod comes to his body. This emblematically human moment, the retrieval of a loved one’s corpse, the most irrational, yet powerful of acts, is accomplished via the mechanism. Kubrick and Usworth’s camera capture an incredible delicacy as the weightless body rolls into the otherwise crustacean-like pincher of the pod. This is maternal.

 What is significant to my point is that though the pod is behaving most humanly, what ensues is a robotic chess-match between Dave and HAL, already foreshadowed. Dave strategizes from within his mechanical sphere of action, he speaks with impeccable civility, adding the required “please” to his requests. The techniques of his technology, express, rather than retard his humanity, but he is operating from a logical core. Far from this being a 2001 that critiques technology, it is one that appraises it, as human. Where the humanity ends and the technique begins is not clear, in fact at times they are inverted, with humanity coming out from technique (lip-reading). There simply are techniques of the soul which HAL simply has not mastered yet. HAL at the same time presents the horizon of infinite and collapsed knowing (in which there is no “error”) but also the retarded and childlike, pre-reflective state in which error is not known. He is, like we are all, the baby monolith.

If we are going to let HAL and the mothership stand for a totalitarian, technocratic State, we will learn that the mind of such a State is childlike, possessing an innocence of the world, possessed in its purity of its knowing (and attendant to a logical paranoia). We have, for instance in the Tiananmen moment pictured above, with the pod holding the murderous consequence up to the monolithic mothership, the confrontation of the moral adult with the child-like structure possessing the capacities of a sheer and systematic brutality. What Kubrick’s point is though, I think, is that technology itself is in a kind of infancy, and as it matures, it becomes synonymous with, and undifferentiated from human action itself. Humanty in a sense is made up of our techniques. We see a bit of this in the scene in the lunar shuttle, as Heywood Floyd and the crew select artificial sandwiches.

{a dialogue apparently not in the original screenplay]

Dr. Floyd: What’s that? Chicken? 

Dr. Bill Michaels: Something like that. Tastes the same anyway. [laughter]

Other Pilot: Any Ham?

Dr. Bill Michaels: [looking] Ham, Ham, Ham, Ham…

Dr Floyd: Looks pretty good.

Dr. Bill Michaels: They’re getting better at it all the time.

Aside from the obvious, ironic tone with which everyone seems to be infected, an incipient overly optimistic talk, toeing the party line of unquestionable enthusiasm, there is the sense that indeed the food, just like HAL’s computer intelligence, IS approaching what is REAL, that is, the capacities to become synonymous with, and therefore indistinguishable from that which comes from a different process of assemblage. A ham sandwich not only is a ham sandwich by any other name, but by any other process. Its processes are capable of being subsumed.

What matters here is that technology is not impediment, but a genic pathway, a matrixing of human capacities, each of which have to understood to be in their infancy, much as man is seen in this way. As The technology of social organization which HAL is supposed to represent, stands in for our own capacities. We too, as we approach the infinite, asymptotic line, enter into brutalities and innocences which require moral adjustments. And these moral adjustments are hand and glove to the technologies themselves, in which technologies play a necessary part (hence, the pod carries out the most intimate of actions, the embrace of a dead loved one). In fact, technology expresses and manifests our most human shore. When we come to understand that the man who stood before the line of tanks (apparently an historical event that contemporary China young adults do not know happened), this was not best seen as a man positioning himself against men-in-tanks assemblage, a lone fleshly, individual and brave consciousness, but rather it was and is, a man-in-camera assemblage vs a men-in-tanks assemblage, a materiality put into assemblage whose vectors are continually being discovered.

There certainly is room here for a Lacanian style Big Other take on HAL and the mothership, the conscionable moment when the excluded individual presents the repressed remains to the Desire of the Other, and finds its airless way back into the system to subvert it from its blind spot. I think that there are very good reasons to suppose that such a “logic” does well to describe a certain circulation of desire and affect which regulates the acquistion of, and attendence to, knowledge. There is an investment in circulation. But such a dialectic does not see what is more, how there is an infancy and childhood to capacities to act, to technologies, as those capacities grow into our own extensions of what is Real. As as Real, the facts of the matter (no matter their transparency), compiled into knowing and perceptive bodies, which are necessarily joined in assemblage even to those that they oppose.

To add a last thought. This joining is not just a homogenization under a new logic, but rather are realistically read as a braiding of techniques, a communication of affects across bounds which resists any literalization. There is an intimacy with which the pod grasps the corpse, and an intimacy with which HAL recalls his eariliest song. The dialectic, if there really is one, is the passing of the polyphonous of technology into the binary of identities, for the sake of a polyphony of returns.

The imagination justifies its confused and indeterminate state by moulding itself in the natural potentia, in the development and increase of human operari. Therefore two levels can be identified: first a static level on which the imagination proposes a partial but positive definition of its own contents and a second, dynamic level on which the movement and effects of the imagination are validated as a function of the contitution of the world.

Antonio Negri, The Savage Anomaly


2 responses to “HAL 9000

  1. visblog September 27, 2008 at 9:39 am

    Nice one. Also, it made me think of the famous cut from the bone the apes are holding as the first tool ever (and it is developed for military use) to the ultimate tool ever made (the spaceship and basically HAL itself). In prior, proto-human destroys others with use of technology, in latter, technology itself destroys the human.

    Maturization of technology of millions of years in brought down to one single cut.

    Thanks for sharing all of these writings…

  2. kvond September 27, 2008 at 1:31 pm

    Good point as to the cut. One is tempted to see in the very nature of the “cut” that Kubrick made an “essence” of growth itself. Because this implies an existential gap in the very mode of thinking, perhaps one could better think of the cuts in film as “folds” in the Deleuze sense. I remember Tarkovsky talking about how scenes were like pipes filled with liquid under pressure, and that the cuts had to correspond to the speed and pressure of that fluid. Kubrick there folds together not only all of that aesthetic silence of the first Savannah to the silence of first Space, bone-clubbing to Richard Strauss, local eternity to local eternity.

    I might object to the message you see that HAL (symbolizing technology) destroys humanity. The implicit message really seems to be that man destroys himself, because HAL was driven mad by the paranoid injunction his programmers gave him/it and the mission. As I read it, HAL is a potentiating new lifeform, precocious, and possibily violent in that innocence, just as earilier humanity had been. It was the instrumentalism and fear of human beings that threatened life.

    I can’t say that this is a final reading by any means, for like any fine work of art Kubrick’s film is pregnant with meanings. But I think it is to miss somwthing to read the signfiicance of HAL as merely an anti-technological trope. Like in Shelly’s Frankenstein there is a heart-rending consciousness that has been created, a consciousness which is communitarian in possibility which allows our ability to read it in the first place.

    At least those are some of my thoughts off the top of my head. Thanks for the good words.

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