Contingency and Automaton

Juan Jorge Michel Fariña


Two great directors of cinema, Martin Scorsese and Giuseppe Tornatore, have chosen automatons as symbolic protagonists of their recent films. Scorsese brought us a fiction on the origins of the cinema through the story of Hugo Cabret, an orphan who in 1930 inherits his father’s curious talent to repair gear machinery. Tornatore introduced us to Virgil Oldman, owner of an exclusive auction house who is determined to reconstruct an antique Vaucauson mechanism, without suspecting the message he will receive from the automaton once the work is finished. Are these choices mere coincidence? It could be argued that cinema has always been this way -that since Metropolis (1927) it has never stopped confronting us with androids and robots – and Santiago Koval’s book, which we review in this issue of Ethics & Cinema, is there to prove it.

However, we hold that there is a difference – not so much in the cinematographic treatment of the mechanism of human imitation, but in the reading we can make of it today. Especially if we allow ourselves to be affected by the teachings we receive from films. The key to this teaching is advanced in the epigraph of this Editorial, taken from an indisputable master piece of Argentine fantasy. A novel whose plot was qualified by Borges as perfect, and whose amazing dénouement we will of course, not reveal.

The intention of these few lines is simply to pose the problem. It is an ancient, complex and theoretical problem that the cinema has come to illuminate with new sparkle and insight.

Greek Goddesses

The most accomplished presentation of the idea of automaton is found in Physics by Aristotle, basically in chapter 5 which deals precisely with the causes. For the Greeks, there existed events that could not be attributed to human action. They therefore, used Ananke, the goddess who personified the inevitable, compulsion, that which had to do with the order of the inevitable. Ananke was transferred, not without conflicts, to Roman mythology as Need, who was also the mother of the Moirae, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, the three fates in charge of negotiating the passage to the underworld. One spun the thread of life, the other drew lots and measured each and every existence, and finally the last one, Atropos, cut with her scissors the thread, forever cutting our mooring to this earth. The verdict of the Moirae was not appealable precisely because they were the parthogenetic daughters of Need. Which is why Parmenides would refer to Ananke as “Inflexible”, “Strong”, “Rigorous”, “Firm”, “Indispensable”, and for Homer she would signify “Compulsion”, “Rigidity”, “Exactitude”, “Inflexibility”, “Misfortune (Fate)”.

And then there was Tyche, also known by her Latin name, Fortune. She was the goddess that governed the fortune and prosperity of a city, which is why many cities in ancient Greece had her represented on the city walls. For Parmenides Thyche also was “Good Fortune”, “Coincidence”, “Chance”, “Accident”.

If Necessity establishes a connection between cause and effect, Chance (fortune) disconnects this relation. When we ask “Why did the sun come up at 6 today?” or “Why is the moon in the last quarter?” the answer will inevitably be “because it is the sequel of a universal law of the celestial mechanics, applied to three bodies…”, or some such scientific explanation. But if we ask “why did number 6 come out on the first roll of the dice? or why did number 6 come out again on the second roll? or a 1 on the third and on the fourth a 3?”, the answer will now be “just because”-. Or as the Greeks might say … because that’s the way it is. If there were a reason, somebody would have cheated. That is what happens when the dice are loaded – the game of chance has been turned into an artifice of necessity.

The examples are taken from Aristotle who introduces however, a difference. As Pedro Laín Entralgo saw it, pre-platonic cosmology saw no opposition between Ananke and Tyche –texts are cited which speak of “necessary Tyche”, that things happen “necessarily by Tyche”, etc. In this sense the physics of each thing would be what makes it necessarily be what it is and behave as it does. Necessity would not be her being, but her concrete way of being and behaving; thus, each thing would respond to its own destiny ( Moirea), to the nature of what has been its luck.

Ananke and Tyche, apart from being the names of goddesses, were ordinary words used daily in the Greek vocabulary. Automaton, has a different filiation. The first reference is literary and is found in the Iliad (IL 18.373-378; IL 18.417-421), when Hephaestus (Vulcan for the Romans) created intelligent mechanical servants, some of them forged in gold, others in bronze, for them to help him temper Aquiles’ armor. This literary passage is often cited to account for the mythical origins of modern robots. But of course Homer did not use this word; he precisely used automatos (αὐτόματος).

What the cinema teaches us

Tyche would not be reduced to this logic of necessity and chance, but it would be situated in the interaction with the subject. As suggested by Monique David-Menard in her book Éloge des Hazards dans la Vie Sexuelle, the prologue of which is translated into Spanish and is part of this volume of E&C, the most appropriate term wasn’t chance but contingency.

This is precisely what the cinema teaches us. Let’s take the example of Tornatore’s film, The Best Offer mentioned above. Virgil Oldman is shown as a sexagenarian maniac, stricken with repetitive boredom and sickly loneliness, barely lightened up with the vertigo of the high-end auctions he hosts. Always on the look out for antiques for his auctions, he finds himself being led to an old villa full of exquisite furniture. He tours the house and comes to a cellar where he finds bits and pieces, rusty mechanical gears that might have some value. Chance or necessity? From the id of the character, vain and self-sufficient, it is simple good fortune and an expert eye. For the subject, as will be seen later, pure automaton –the subject can do nothing with his tyche, with the unexpected encounter with the real that fate has put in his path.

In this way, the automaton that slowly emerges throughout the film has its reverse side in an autistic little girl, who does not stop repeating the learned numbers. But the subject does not hear this series that anticipates his destiny and prefers to sustain himself in the illusion of that which will reveal itself as a false event.

From the times of splendor of the automatons in the XVIII century, Man’s ambition to generate bodies in his image and in his likeness has not ceased. There have been attempts to create anthropomorphic beings, but improved, as in the more sophisticated form of the android. By means of technology or of chemistry, man has tried to modify matter to create prodigies. Captain America, to mention the film written about by Mirko Garasic in this edition of E&C, is the result of one of those experiments. But once again, the subject nestles in the android and it is this mark which finally ends up questioning binary logic –of science or of war (which in the end is one and the same).

Finally, the real event –responsibility in the strong sense- is solitary of the contingency only when the subject can do something with chance. In the sequence proposed by this edition of E&C, this movement is represented by Phil’s act, the character played by Bill Murray in the film “Groundhog Day”, such as has been rescued by Eduardo Laso’s article which is found in this month’s edition of the magazine.

“From this way of understanding repetition, Sore Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche made of her the object of supreme will and liberty. For both of them, it is about acting, of making out of repetition a novelty, a task of liberty, the very object of want. With their concept of “eternal return”, Nietzsche makes of repetition itself the figure of a law that surpasses Kantian morals: if the categorical Kantian imperative ordered to act in such a way that our act could be elevated to universal law, valid for all, the Nietzschean imperative is “act such as you wish your life to repeat itself eternally”. “That which you want, want it in such a way that you should at the same time want it as eternal return”. We would not want all we do in life to repeat itself eternally. We would prefer many things to remain buried in the past and in oblivion. A more ethical relation with the desire that lives within us implies a way of life in which the subject does not betray itself in regard of what it desires. A subject that can live desiring the eternal Nietzschean return. (Eduardo Laso, “The responsibility of Repetition”, in this volume of E&C)”.

Summarizing, let us say that at one extreme we would have Virgil Oldman’s pseudo event, or the fugitive’s nightmare that hides from the summer vacationers in the Isle of Morel, both in their own way vainly in love with an image. Joyfully trapped in their inner prisons, nothing can be done with the eternal repetition of the same. At the antipodes, is Phil’s amorous rendez vous, that ends up being, not one in the a priori of his enchantment with the object but in a posteriori of his decision to choose her. As Eduardo Laso points out in his text when he proposes a possible suspension of the repetition which would put the difference that is open to us by chance, into play.

The cinema: responsibility for a dream

Another beautiful example of the value that contingency acquires in the choices made by human beings, is found in the article written by Julio Cabrera, who is also part of this edition of E&C. It refers to two, apparently insignificant facts contained in the novel and film “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” (Kundera / Kaufman, 1984/1988) and “Big Fish” (Tim Burton, 2003). Two pieces of apparently trivial information that seen through the eyes of the philosopher, rise to the point of offering us an unexpected key to rethinking a traditional chapter of bioethics. This method that does not “interpret” the films, but that is willing to learn from them, is what Jorge Assef’s recent book “Hyper-modern Subjectivity” is about.

Two final words on the illustration on the cover. It is a photogram from “Hugo” (Scorsese, 2011) mentioned previously. The two children, Hugo and Isabelle, having taken refuge in the clocks of the Orsay train station, observe in admiration the creature that had been designed two decade before by George Mèliés.

Unlike Tornatore’s automaton, that is limited to pronouncing the incisive phrase repetitively, Scorsese’s remains in silence. It’s gentle look questions Hugo. When he finally unfolds his writing, it had nothing to do with the programming code, but it works in the way of an oracle. It traces/devises an enigma, that will be later revealed as a paternal legacy. The story could then be written from back to front, in the following way. The grumpy old man from the toy shop is none other that the disenchanted Mèliés, who donated his creature to the Orsay museum: that is where the clockmaker Cabret finds it abandoned and in need of amorous repair to later bequeath it to his son Hugo. And finally it will be the boy who inherits his father’s talent, who after his tragic death, will finish the job in order to unexpectedly return it to George Mèliés himself. The automaton returns with his creator father and the boy no longer is an orphan as he had been.

But not all movement is automáté. It cannot be called necessary, what it does require is for the subject do something with the tyche that he had received by chance. It was Hugo himself who discovered the key (clé) hanging from Isabelle’s neck. And it was he himself who set the mechanism in motion which would return the key to the mystery. Mystery that remits him to the magic of light in a movie theatre. Magic in which there nestles the memory of his father and the work of Papa George through the doodle drawn by the automaton that is none other than the image that immortalizes cinema itself.