“Scripting for Agency” addresses questions concerning personhood by examining how disciplines such as art, literature, complexity & life sciences and AI & machine learning all imply assumptions about the prerequisites to make a person, or an agent. A key cross-disciplinary feature of these points of view is that a person may be thought of as “written” or inscribed, albeit in a manner that results in unpredictable, autonomous behaviour. But how are we to intuit this? To what extent is something as close to home as the human mind, written – inscribed by ancient grooves of genetic memory, articulated by chains of DNA text and ventriloquised by a culture of stories?
I propose to undertake a comparative study of characters born under vastly different circumstances, be they genetic, literary, computational - addressing how art can offer a unique and significant contribution to expanded contemporary studies of subjectivity and self-representation. This practice-led PhD will examine the virtual properties of text, performance and games and how these may be manipulated to probe and exacerbate the trembling boundaries between ‘authentic’ and ‘fictional’ beings in light of contemporary AI research. It will explore the prosthetic space of “writing” and how it throws assurance of our own autonomy into question - a familiar conclusion in philosophical enquiry, but one that can be practically examined in the laboratory of art practice.
The project will result in (1) a scholarly book on fictional characters as prototypes of AI, (2) “Anomaline”, a novel about an antiperson, (3) a philosophical stand-up comedy series, and (4) a seminar series. The thesis (1) will attempt to expand the AI discourse to include not only computers, but also the agency of fictional characters and the programmability of organisms; cataloguing and cross-examining a history of characters that transgress their virtuality and the artistic innovations that enable this. In writing the novel (2) I will exploit the comparable agential force my protagonist and I exert in order to coax somebody strangely alive from the “text that becomes a machine” (Derrida). Meanwhile, a video storytelling practice (3) provides a running commentary of the research, airing unruly tangents, abusing theories in ways often inaccessible to stricter disciplines and stretching them malleably in the maverick language of improvised personas.
We know that prescription and autonomy are not as contradictory as they seem. Complexity sciences have proven that a system as complex as our own universe is technically programmable (Wolfram), while in genetics the notion of scripted organisms has long been accepted. 20th century philosophical revelations (in quantum mechanics; social critical theory) contest the assumption that our world is distinct from its conceptualisations, arguing that epistemological positions co-create ontological ones and that the one cannot be apprehended independently of the other (Barad).
Where fictional characters appear constructed by their interpellated situatedness in similar ways to human beings (Butler), cognitive literary theory studies shows that our experience with fictional social situations may be highly comparable to real ones (Zunshine). Humans live with the ghosts of fiction and become ghosts of fiction themselves.
We learn that the artwork’s intentionality extends far beyond the artist-agent that summons it, and elopes with its complexity to act rather as an agent in its own right (Gell). Like any agent then, the artwork has magical potential, some reckless agenda inscribed beyond the stuff and history of its making. Art is not merely ‘about’ something else, but constructively meddles with the stuff of the world and newfangles it - newfangles the world.
It is these theories of authenticity and agency themselves that compel me as an artist to question whether that which feels most real and substantial to us can be written and rewritten by aesthetic and textual tampering. By playfully preying on the growing confusions in the space between persons and characters, autonomy and automation, authenticity and reproduction, artwork and world, I find that I am able to address these distinctions experimentally. I would therefore benefit immensely from the RCA’s “ME” research group and LAHP’s network of experts within creative writing, philosophy and the digital humanities, especially in tandem with the Google and Wellcome Trust partnerships.