“This is not real life. This is not fiction. This is not a novel. This is not an exit.[…] This is not a dream. This is not a pipe. This is not a love song.” (19)
It is always way easier to say what things aren’t than call them what they are – as negative theologians, politicians, and fictioneers know all too well. Germán Sierra’s The Artifact (Inside the Castle, 2018) opens on a series of such negative definitions and its bulk of 120 pages then goes on to offer such a dizzyingly vast array of textual material as to render any easy positive description or definition of what it is screamingly impossible.
As Dan Mellamphy’s punny introduction puts it, Artifact is “a veritable Germáneutic: an intriguing interpretation and lucid elucidation of what it is (and is not) to be human in the era of big data.” That is to say, it’s not primarily a narrative, much less a story, it’s not even “fiction” in any easy sense – for that it’s too much of an intergeneric hybrid, fact-obsessed, scientific, disquisitional… To call it “anti-“ would still entrench it within recognisable traditional (mis-) nomers. So, all this will attempt is to unpack the cluster of compelling conceits governing Sierra’s hermeneutics of the so-called human in the age of artificial intelligence that is more intelligent and less artificial than the “real” deal. And so: This is not an entry point. This is not a review. This is not a review of The Artifact.
Part One opens with a trauma: an early bluebird crashes into the nameless protagonist’s window – the window of narrative perception becoming blurred and messy with the bloody tracks left in its wake, time out of joint, narrative dehisced beyond discernible subjectivities:
Time was coming from everywhere, pandemonically, eating electric lines, corrupting light itself, gravity itself, the mind itself. […] You’ve never heard of us before. Nothing from me. Nothing less. […] Our work is out there, shaking imperceptibly, with a slight hum, in the shadows, waiting for you to turn on the lights of your machine. You, machine, you are. (21-2)
Actually, I’m not writing this text, my friend and former business partner Gaspard Pont maybe is. I’m not even aware of Gaspard Pont being still alive and secretely [sic] writing instead of, for instance, smoking meth and fucking your boys, I’m just pretending he’s sitting somewhere in front of a computer screen and assuming that every time he supposedly writes ‘I’ he is actually bitmapping my self. (25)
Writing, we learn, is “now” a distributed action involving living and dead people and a lot of unliving machines – yet has it ever been any different? A more radical supposition Sierra suggests here is that, amidst all the machinery and artifice, writing might be the only living thing left to “us” after all:
something that just spirals on, words popping on a screen or on a skin or on any wordable surface to pattern themselves like spontaneously self-organizing flying birds or insects into sentences and paragraphs and whatever in any language or languages, roman letters mixing with ideograms, icons, hieroglyphs, abstract blots, infecting each other, shaping each other like perpetually recombinant organisms. (26)
Or, “objects scream all the time. Screaming is the nature of things” (28), but so is writing, the perpetual recombination of signs, discernible or not so much. The narrator’s own body, it turns out, is centred around its technological prosthesis – consequent to a prior trauma/crash (auto-mobile instead of aviary, this time). In lieu of his left forearm he now possesses and is possessed by a bionic arm, his phantom hand, his not-really-there hand, his “antenna”:
My antenna is my prosthetic arm […] it perceives the environment in its very own meta-robotic way and then its sensations are supposed to be translated into a fleshy babble my body would be able to understand. […] Sometimes I think of it as a lightning rod attracting electromagnetic signals from a vast cosmic system and channelling them down to the ground through my wobbering body. […] Deconstruct your yourselfing cyborg nature and show up beyond naked—depraved in deprivation or deprived in depravation— in front of me. (30-1)
The last sentence is the narrator’s girlfriend—possibly ex, possibly future, possibly never—Mori’s injunction, before a series of scenes of juicy kinky amputee sex, again quite possibly hallucinated, closes Part One: “this is a very inviting bubble, a space for play like the lubricated atmospheric gap between bodies that allows dance to happen” (45); “no matter how well connected to my own flesh it might be, it’s a different being, so when I masturbate with my robotic appendix I’m actually being handled by an other” (46).
Part Two, “MRI”, is a ghostly, or if you will, prosthetic counterpart to its predecessor: the previous arm’s very existence is called into doubt (“I started to think about my arm’s existence. Did it ever exist? Do things actually disappear or are they just levelled down by new things?” ), as are the denominators of that obsolescent notion of embodied, sexed identity, as shown in the following hilarious dialogue:
“Would you still fuck me if I had a penis?” Mori asked me once. After all, we, animals, are nothing but unstable chemical stuff accelerated into feedback loops. Levels of resonance, swimming atoms, vibrating strings. “Sure I would.” “And if I were fat?” […] “Of course.” […] “Would you suck my dick?” […] “You do it to me, so I guess I would do it to you.” […] “Would you fuck me if I were a goat?” […] “Nope.” “I’m sure I would.” […] “So would you fuck me in any other body?” “I’m not sure if you would be you in any other body…” (53-5) And on from there, into realms of sheer fantasy – or not of fantasy, but of “ontology” – since “erasures leave behind as much as they remove, even when what’s left isn’t anything,” thus spake Gary Shipley (56).
This is also valid for the art of the part, which becomes an ever-receding activity, a series of erasures towards a vanishing point: “The art of Hellenization, Christianization, Americanization, electronization” (59) – and then? Will there be a “then” at all, given that technology is at once time-extending and time-erasing? “There are two kinds of commercially successful technologies: those allowing us to live longer, and those that help us to let time go as if we had not lived” (61).
Part Two is also where Mori and her “memento” are substituted by an MRI brain scan as the titular “artifact”:
[T]he images had been reviewed by all the specialists, and all of them, with the exception of his immediate supervisor, were completely sure that what the image showed was the result of a random technical artifact. […] I reviewed thousands of brain MRI images on the internet, specifically looking for artifact database, but I couldn’t find anything comparable. […] The guy didn’t have any symptoms, so there was nothing else to look for, but they asked him to also do a PET scan and an fMRI, and both came out completely normal. (64-5)
This “random technical artifact” is, gradually, attributed to some unknown brain pathology, or an optical illusion, or a technical glitch, but lingers as a kind of singularity that won’t be explained away.
Part Three focuses on the “Control Subject” with the artifact lodged in his brain and offers the google definition of its own title and subject matter: “In scientific research, a CONTROL SUBJECT is someone who is used to provide a basis for comparison. When the individuals who serve as control subjects are aggregated together they are called the control group” (80). Which is a funny paradox considering that the control subject of Sierra’s narrative, this grey anonymous generality of a person, is actually the source of singularity, uniqueness, irreplaceability. “For the CONTROL SUBJECT all cities easily become the same city, all people the same people, all streets the same street. Amazing maze. Cheat on tourist’s test” (82). For “tourist’s test” read Turing test, and the two parallel tracks of Sierra’s text short-circuit. The Control Subject – a body become diagram, a map written with and upon, ultimately becomes “a somatogeographic representation of the labyrinth he’d drawn once. His body absorbed the map, turned it into hormones and anemones, became secretly carved into data pastry by the forgotten runes of random experimentation” (82).
Part Four, “Hypotheses,” goes into some of the meta-questions about the questions raised by the central artefact, but first offers yet another metaphor for life, the universe, and everything – that of generative games: “Games that are constantly re-writing their own rules. Not performative, not goal-directed, there’s no way to accomplish anything. There’s even no way to conceive accomplishment” (90). And so, regarding the central artefact, the question is not a whodunnit, “what provoked the artifact,” but why, as another female antagonist asks, “you worried so much to interrupt your work and your life trying to find the guy” (92). And indeed, another question is why The Artifact as a story that sets off embedded in a seemingly narrative mode throws any pretence of sequentiality or logic to the wind once it encounters its eponymous MRI scan (remember the bluebird crash? the bionic arm? well, neither does The Artifact post-halfway).
But perhaps this has to do with Sierra’s text as a generative game, with writing the only biological process of growth, change, evolution. As the narrative reflects soon after,
successful species are those which had more time for working on adaptation and, therefore, perfected their mechanisms, their interactions, their contacts, their easiness in flowing. And Homo sapiens […] have just appeared on Earth a second ago… They are—we are—still very imperfect. […] Homo sapiens is still an unbalanced species, which has not yet found the most suitable circumstances to survive – this makes us an afraid species. (100-1)
And if that’s worked out for Homo sapiens, why shouldn’t it work out for fiction? “Hypotheses” delivers what it promises: a final series of inconsequential §reflections on what the artifact might have been:
it looked more like the image had been motherpearled with unfortunate machine wisdom than like any possible party of encephalic abnormalities. […] it made no sense that both image processors were showing exactly the same glitch. Was it then a nothing trying to adopt a form, to coagulate into a yes-thing? […] That no-thing wasn’t eating his brain, but breathing it. Still, if I had to guess, I would go for the software option, a strange, maybe viral communication between machines stochastically paired in an epiphanic instance of spacetime. (104-5)
Part Five, “Epilogue,” only multiplies the loose ends and lets chaos take over – zooming in on the artifact’s “amazingly stubborn lack of signification,” its “spitting uniqueness,” its “meaninglessness”, the final note is one of marriage of machine and artistic intentionality:
wondering if the machine would be producing artifacts by its own whim […], so the artifact would be a real artifact, an achievement of art, of non-other-sense but nonsense itself, devoid of utilitarian constraints, just a random creative smoky rendering of a singled-out average image of the human brain, the reworking of a portrait into a mocking interface. (124)
Beginning with a bluebird crashing into, and smearing into opacity, the window of Sierra’s fiction,The Artifact ends by contemplating “the possible invasion of non-purposedness in seemingly purpose-designed beings” (125). In its near-perfect directionlessness, programmatic dehiscence and disorientation, Sierra’s The Artifact is an artifact pointing with a warning finger to itself, this is not an artifact. It is also a text probing the limits of fiction, its future relevance if also present obsolescence, all with an exceptionally courageous lack of purposefulness – not a portrait, but an interface of genres, not a story, but a entropic proliferation of complexity.