Thursday, 22 April 2010
In the film A Beautiful Mind (2001) directed by Ron Howard, John F. Nash Jr, played by Russell Crowe, is shown struggling to come up with the original idea that might form the basis of his PhD and future reputation. In 1950 Nash was awarded his PhD for a thesis he submitted called ‘Non-cooperative Games’ that offered a formula that held that an optimum solution always exists in a situation where competitors not only seek their self-interests, but calculate their best outcome on the basis of the others’ similar interests. The formula, now known as the ‘Nash equilibrium’, became throughout the 1980s ‘the analytical structure for studying all situations of conflict and cooperation from labor-management bargaining to international trade agreements’ (Kuhn and Nasar). ‘By the late 1970s, game theory had become one of the foundations of modern economics. And at the center was the Nash equilibrium’ (Samels, 2002).
The practical example Nash used to formulate his equilibrium in his PhD thesis was poker, but in A Beautiful Mind, the example is more interesting, strangely cinematic and anti-cinematic at the same time. Having been advised by his imaginary roommate to leave the confines of his student lodgings at Princeton and seek inspiration ‘out there’, Nash moves his desk and papers into what is presumably the bar in the basement of the Nassau Inn, popular with the Princeton mathematics department. This is not something that Nash ever did of course, or could have done, but nevertheless he moves his desk as a means of seeking inspiration in real life. In the scene, Nash is joined by male colleagues who draw his attention to the presence of a number of young women, in particular a tall blonde woman with whom the audience has seen him have a previous encounter. The woman, who immediately becomes the focus of attention for all the young men, instantly suggests, in the way she is dressed and styled and fills the screen, the blonde sex symbols of the 1950s (Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Mamie Van Doren) though in a more restrained and appropriately preppy way. Nash and his colleagues begin to speculate on their chances of seduction, voices cutting across each other in competitive rivalry, ‘what shall we say, gentlemen, pistols at dawn?’ But this anachronistic, almost chivalric suggestion of an aristocratic duel is immediately rejected by a more modern and enlightened suggestion. Characteristically, given these are young mathematicians and economists, the example of Adam Smith is invoked, ‘in a competition, individual ambition serves the common good’, says one, ‘everyman for himself, gentlemen’, says another, ‘those who strike out are stuck with their friends’. For Nash, sitting silently at the centre of the throng, it is a ‘Eureka!’ moment. ‘Adam Smith needs revision’, he murmurs, and with growing excitement begins to outline what will become his equilibrium theory:
If we all go for the blonde, we’ll block each other. Not a single one of us is going to get her. So then we go for her friends. But they’ll all give us the cold shoulder because nobody likes to be second choice. But what if no-one goes for the blonde? We don't get in each other’s way, and we don't insult the other girls. That’s the only way we win. That’s the only way we all get laid. ... Governing dynamics, gentlemen; Adam Smith was wrong.
Leaving his colleagues to act on his suggestion, Nash does not bother to wait for empirical confirmation of his theory, but rushes off to express it mathematically. We don’t get to see whether his colleagues give up on their desire for the blonde, but it is enough that the principle has been explained in a way conducive to popular cinema. The example is instructive, however, not just because it illustrates Nash’s idea nicely, but because it lays out very clearly the condition of Nash’s equilibrium: the foreclosure of desire. Desire, and its signifier, has no place here other than to be by-passed. In the Hollywood cinema of the 1950s that is powerfully referenced in this scene in the form of the bar, the pool table and the Wurlitzer jukebox playing popular jazz music, the signifier of the Other’s desire is supremely that of the blonde bombshell. The iconic blonde is not just a desirable woman, her hair is a signifier of the sovereign good of America; her full figure embodies das ding around which its symbolic order circulates, the site of the erection of America’s phallus. In the film she has no such significance for Nash. While he is minimally aware of her desirability relative to the other women, such desirability is simply an obstacle, something to be compromised in order to achieve the main goal which is to get laid, the satisfaction of the drives.
Nash’s inability to understand the conventions of romance has, in the film, already been established in an earlier scene in a previous encounter with the same woman. The scene prepares the ground for the grand entrance of the blonde, but it also serves to establish Nash’s eccentricity given that he was a man of striking good looks in his youth. Sat at the edge of the bar, the woman gives Nash the eye and he is encouraged to approach her. At her side, Nash is unable or unwilling to speak, however. The woman suggests that he might like to buy her a drink, and aware that this is his cue to begin his courtship, Nash remains silent for a few moments and then makes the following short statement:
I don’t exactly know what I am required to say in order for you to have intercourse with me. But can we assume that I have said all that? I mean essentially we’re talking about fluid exchange, right? So could we just go straight to the sex?
Unsurprisingly the woman calls him an asshole and slaps his face to general laughter in the room. But Nash wasn’t playing to the gallery; it wasn’t a performance. It was an acknowledgment of the impossibility of performance, a speech that disavows the possibility of speech before the Other, represented in sexualized form, by the desirable woman. ‘In psychosis’, says Lacan, ‘the Other, where being is realized through the avowal of speech, is excluded’ (Lacan, 1993). Nash cannot locate himself through speech in the set of conventions that mediate sexual relations. He cannot engage in amorous courtship, banter, flattery, seduction and so on. ‘There is no properly human desire at all in psychosis. Where the structure of desire is missing, desire too is missing’ (Fink, 1999).
After the slap, the blonde woman walks off, and Nash’s English roommate, played by Paul Bettany, comments on his failure, expressing disapproval at the vulgarity of the ‘fluid exchange’ reference. This character, the audience later realizes, is only ever seen by Nash. He is a hallucination, an effect of Nash’s schizophrenia. A Beautiful Mind is not, of course, just the story of a mathematics genius, it is the story of a genius cut short by a devastating descent into paranoid schizophrenia and his heroic management of his condition later in life. Indeed, retrospectively, and given the improbability of Nash setting up his office in a bar, the whole of this scene is no doubt meant to be delusional. The voices of his young male colleagues, expressing their sexual rivalry in terms of the history of economic competition, are perhaps just voices in his head, the equilibrium idea an effect of imaginary revenge at the original rebuff.
While neither scene in the Nassau Inn, actual or delusional, occurred in Nash’s life according to Sylvia Nasar’s biography that provided the basis for the film, it is nevertheless highly pertinent and instructive in the way that it not only makes the conception of Nash’s Equilibrium an effect of his psychosis, but also in the way that it shows how the grounding of ‘modern economics’ in the mathematics of game theory marks a profound break in economic history and indeed capitalism. In this scene objects are stripped of all symbolic value as if the drive had no Vorstellung other than numbers and was subject purely to a calculus of efficient satisfactions. But this apparently was indeed the assumption of Nash and many of his peers. According to his biographer, Sylvia Nasar, even before his psychotic break, Nash was
Compulsively rational, he wished to turn life’s decisions – whether to take an elevator or wait for the next one, where to bank his money, what job to accept, whether to marry – into calculations of advantage and disadvantage, algorithms or mathematical rules divorced from emotion, convention, and tradition. Even the small act of saying an automatic hello to Nash in a hallway could elicit a furious ‘Why are you saying hello to me?’ (Nasar, 2001)
Nash’s compulsion to quantify everything was entirely consistent with many of his colleagues, particularly at the RAND Corporation where mathematicians were reducing not just political and military matters, including nuclear war, to abstract formulae, but also the matters of everyday life. ‘RAND scientists tried to tell their wives that the decision whether to buy or not to buy a washing machine was an “optimization problem”’ (Nasar, 2001). It is also, of course, entirely consistent with the American neoliberal attempt to extend the rationality of the market into every domain.
From ‘Making Numbers Speak: John F Nash and the Madness of Neoliberalism’. Work in Progress.
Saturday, 17 April 2010
Given the ubiquity of musca domestica, flies have been a wonderful example of this neighbourly economy of jouissance from King Lear to the Cramps, Kurt Neumann and Cronenberg to Wire. Not ‘hurting a fly’ is the acme of Christian pity and Buddhist piety, being ‘a fly in the ointment’ is the desire of anyone hoping to subvert a repressive system, and so on. No doubt since the migration of homo sapiens from Africa, musca domestica have been the constant companions and noisy neighbours of human beings, lodging in the margins of human civilization, incubating and pupating in its shit and garbage, feeding on wounds and rotting flesh, defecating and vomiting waste matter teeming in deadly bacteria and viruses: typhoid, cholera, dysentery, tuberculosis. The House Fly is, therefore, a perfect object of ecological desire, named after the oikos, dweller in our house and environment, living off the waste products that define and embroil every culture: s/he is my constant companion, a neighbor with whom I share my home, but who does not treat it like one; a partner with whom I identify, but who is also other to me; an in-human double who’s annoying buzzing presence indicates that she enjoys herself too much at my expense, and whose body I can in turn enjoy in compensation by squishing her; a creature that I cannot help both love and torture for making me suffer.
Damien Hirst’s artwork A Thousand Years (1993) continues this tradition: a large steel and glass display case is divided in two by an interior pane with four holes cut into it. Inside, on one side, a rotting cow’s head infested with maggots sits beneath an ‘insect-o-cutor’; in the other is a white MDF box. As the maggots pupate into flies the chances of their generally limited average life span of around 7 days is curtailed. Most would die on their maiden voyage. Some, however, will make it through the holes into the relative safety of the adjoining case containing the white box. In the corners of both cases are dishes of sugar and water. It is a machine for killing flies, while offering the chance of a number of flies living out their lives, mating, reproducing and so on. Certainly enough survived to sustain the process. As a work of art, it invites identification as it offers the art lover the opportunity to view the whole lifespan of a creature from birth to death in a way that, even under confined conditions, owes much to chance and individual ‘choice’. As Timothy Morton writes of Blake’s poem, The Fly, Hirst’s work sets up a dual process of identification with ‘the “evil” (the “thoughtless”, “blind” mechanical operation [of the insect-o-cutor] and with the insect’ (Morton: 202).
Evil is certainly evoked in the title of Hirst’s piece, A Thousand Years, recalling the ‘thousand year Reich’ promised by the National Socialists in Germany. Given this, it is impossible not also to see in Hirst’s piece a reference to Auschwitz. But this is not just an extermination machine, this is also a breeding factory and a sustainable environment. Hirst thus brings out continuities between art, fascism and the ecology management of animals. The piece evokes Auschwitz, but also the increasingly industrialized ways in which animals are bred in captivity for slaughter; and not just bred, but by extension these days artificially inseminated, genetically manipulated and produced. The correlation between this and Auschwitz invites the contemplation of greater horrors: imagine, ‘for example, instead of throwing people into ovens or gas chambers (let’s say Nazi) doctors and geneticists had decided to organize the overproduction and overgeneration of Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals by means of artificial insemination, so that, being more numerous and better fed, they could be destined in always increasing numbers for the same hell, that of the genetic experimentation or extermination by gas or fire’ (Derrida, ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am’). This is, perhaps, the darkly satirical element to the work. But precisely as such, ecological desire is provoked and affronted by the way in which the work relies on the equally dark correlation between flies and human beings made for example by deep ecologist Arne Naess when he asserts that ‘I will never say I have a higher right to life than a mosquito’, mosquitoes of course having been ‘responsible’ over the years for millions of human deaths -- deaths that are no doubt essential if the balance of life on earth is to be maintained in the face of human over-population. Poised between the solar death of the insect-o-cutor and the nuturing corpse of the earth, the fly-humans live out their brief allegorical lives in a utopian-dystopian sustainable environment as an art work.
While there is no need to speculate about authorial intention, one is tempted to ask, following Schopenhauer, what exquisite sensitivity must Hirst possess to require the audacious buzzing of flies to be compensated by the music of its eternal annihilation. Buzzzzzap! Sizzle; the soft fall to the floor of the fly-corpse. Hirst’s fly amusia balances his suffering against the extermination of both humans and flies (imagined or real) on the plane of aesthetic enjoyment. What Hirst has nevertheless produced is a mean machine for both realizing ecological desire and satisfying its death drive. The machine produces happy flies pupating in an ideal environment (the rotting carcass), feeding on sugar, flies that one might identify with and love as people, flies endowed with human ‘choice’ and a singular destiny as to the time and manner in which they live and die. They can fly through the hole to safety or they can fly too close to the insect-o-cutor and be zapped. The fact that many do the latter maintains the fantasy of ecological balance. Imagine the congestion without it. Furthermore, perhaps, future adaptation will result in evolved avoidance of insect-o-cutors etc... This is to say that the ecological art lover can contemplate in satisfaction the management of his noisy neighbour’s jouissance even as the death drive is sustained through the sound of perpetual buzzing annihilation.