[-empyre-] to jacob & homay

Homay King hking at brynmawr.edu
Sat Jun 16 10:35:35 EST 2012

Thanks, everyone, for the Turing-related ideas and links. Here are a few replies...

to Zach’s question: “in your article you attempt to work through how Turing’s scientific and computational research could be infused with his erotic desires. Could you say more about this? and maybe how turing helps you investigate how queer desire can shape or affect computation?”

I’d be happy to. My take on Turing draws on Jean Laplanche’s theory of the enigmatic sigifier to think about Turing’s queer relationship to enigmas, which, in the early phases of his career, in the work on the Entsheidungsproblem and cryptoanalaysis, takes the form of a quest for a transparent form of communication. At this stage of this thinking (which Rob rightly calls philosophical), it’s as if he’s searching for a a way to eliminate ambiguity and misunderstanding from interactions, be they oral, epistolary, pictural, or algorithmic; human to human, human to machine, unsuspecting German to covert British, etc. Initially he searches for this clarity in the language of mathematics, logic, and computing. Later, though, he makes an about-face, no longer yearning for a machine-like clarity in human communications, but instead wondering whether a machine could ever communicate as sloppily as a human. His operating definition of machine intelligence has less to do with logical processes than with what, in my reading, I call “sociability” (in the sense offered by Georg Simmel). The Turing test is really a sociability test: can the machine jest, flirt, be vague, show curiosity? This is what it means to pass as human, astonishing for a thinker who devoted his life to the study math and science rather than, say, Victorian literature.

How is all of this queer? The fact that the Turing test is inspired by a gender guessing game is relevant, but there's more to it than that. As Hodges’ meticulous biography makes clear, Turing was frank to a fault at times about his sexuality; he propositioned colleagues, and, horrifyingly, outed himself to the police during the investigation that resulted in his arrest for gross indecency. He had a fraught and fascinating relationship to the demand to keep his sexuality a secret, pressed on him by the restrictions of his era, place, and class, and likewise the necessity to pursue romantic and erotic relations through direct yet highly codified exchanges. 

I've struggled with this project because in some ways it relies on strategies of psychobiography that I find problematic and limiting. My solution has been to focus on how Turing approaches the intersubjective (the exchange of messages, protocols for communication, and so on), rather than to select a biographical event or feature of identity and attempt to link it directly to an element of Turing’s thought in a one-to-one correspondence. The key to Turing isn't his sexuality as such, his "gayness"; rather, it's the way he handled, processed, and sublimated all the strange conditions and restrictions on his erotic life and ways of communicating about it.

to Rob on Turing: “A lot of popular literature (Martin Davis for instance) likes to separate the decision problem from Turing's later work on machinic intelligence (the Turing test is about the interrogator failing to decide on an input query!) and his forays into morphogenesis - but I don't think this can be done”

Yes! This is related to what I’m trying to get at above, and well put.

to Jacob on Turing and Wittgenstein: “I would argue that they are in fact both describing the same thing, and both examining that which lies beyond the limits of procedural knowledge, something that I think can be usefully figured as a queer gesture given the subsequent development of computing technology.”

Yes – I agree that the Turing vs. Wittengenstein debate is in some ways a canard, and would say that Turing’s later work, the work in AI, is focused on this question of the limits of procedural knowledge (how do you create a procedure for flirtation or curiosity? It’s probably not impossible, but certainly more difficult than creating a procedure for, say, playing chess).

to Rob on computer weirdness: “It seems to me that human rationality is usually pitted in contrast with machines which are viewed either as; dumb surface tools reduced to the depths of human communication - or -  artificial systems which (may) have the capacity for sentience - or - material based historical notation devices. Why aren't they just looked as what they are and all the weirdness they contain?

Computers are weird, endearing, at times even psychotic: they have a hard time with ambiguity and ambivalence, which is understandable. Queer relationships have historically had to withstand a greater amount of both these things; queer subjects accordingly have perhaps been compelled to develop a greater capacity for (or resistance to) them.

All best and thanks again,

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