2006
in Participatory Autonomy,
edited by Rick Gribenas, published by Autonomedia.

Images of Gilbert Ryle's The Concept of Mind submitted to optical character recognition, in order to produce the imaginary phosphoresence of the non-optical look.
image / text index

Ghost in the Machine




This is a picture, a visual conjecture of a machine reading. The formalizations and erasures of the lines and text -their rigorous, occult causations- visualize the mechanism which renders pixels readable and produces a machine-editable text. The program which this essay executes began with screen shots of the pages of the first chapter of Gilbert Ryle’s “The Concept of Mind,” taken from a Google book search. The images of the text were then “captured” in Adobe Acrobat through its optical character recognition feature, yielding a character string in which legible text alternates with nonsense.

The misread or nonsense characters appear here in every second line masked in black rules. The line above imagines the nonlinguistic (mental/abstracted) string which triggers the textual event of the (corporeal/linguistic) line below. This typographic program thinks through the OCR machine’s mysterious occlusions: what structure is implied by its misreadings, what determines its decision and animates its encoding sequence from grey (the legible) to black (the indecipherable)? This essay looks into the “mind” of a text which reproduces itself electronically.

It finds the doubling premise of its formalization there. Ryle, in the book we reproduce, coined the phrase “ghost in the machine” to disparagingly name the Cartesian myth according to which there are two sets of things and processes: the body (physical) and the mind (immaterial). In the terms of this myth, the body is in space and rigorously determined by mechanical laws; as an external entity it can be observed and tested by anyone. The mind, on the other hand, is private and governed by a different set of laws; it can be observed or introspected only by its subject.

The mind of one is necessarily cryptic to another. If I say that a person is guessing something, or wishing for or designing something, I am really saying that the person is experiencing a private episode in a mental history to which I have no access. It follows that my description of another’s mental state always fails to fully bear a positive meaning; it is radically uncertain and I must accept doubt about the existence of any minds besides my own. But I have privileged access to my own mind; it is phosphorescent. I can sustain what Ryle calls a non-optical look into what to others is only an implied shadow-world, or occult mental stream: a ghostly, garbling machine.

The terms of this dualistic myth are tested and reversed here. This program imagines what an automated Cartesian stage of cognition and decision might look like, if we could see within its spectral machinery. But even here, in the imaginary phosphorescence of the non-optical look, a gap in the machine opens, an uncertainty develops, between the intentional and the deterministic. As the automatic linear alternations of the mechanism strengthen, rule by rule and box by box, the text is abbreviated to increasingly private depths, and its fragmentary, authenticated core becomes amazingly ever more legible and significant.

The formal automatisms of the typographic program, erasing and doubling, groundlessly induce in their lines that ghostly surplus or ulterior counterpart-intentionality-which is never visible but nonetheless impacts the physical series laid before our eyes. It was precisely in the distortion of the legible surface, in the initial misreading produced by the OCR mechanism, that we guessed and visualized the mental series, and deduced the ghostly para-mechanism animating it. This is our Cartesian reversal: in the misfiring of the automatic (the body), we negatively surmise its double, its intentional ghost.

There is a lucid asymmetry which structures this account: I recognize the peculiar substance of the intentional only negatively. It is exactly as the textual transmission is garbled and the line is ruptured that the ulterior mental counterpart is indexed. This is the enduring and prolific opening, briefly sketched here, the blank or mask in the rigid determination of the corporeal series, which writes in its lines a new text as if by purpose.