Fate, or, Machine of Death

If you’re familiar with the webcomics scene, a few years ago you might have heard of a book called Machine of Death. It was edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki !, being an anthology of about two-and-a-half dozen short stories all involving some form of machine which can unerringly predict one’s death. Needless to say the machine’s predictions (printed in as few words as possible on a business card) are “ironically vague;” my personal favorite illustration of this is from the last story in the book (“Cassandra”): a guy’s card reads “ASTEROID”, and so for months is followed around by scientists waiting to pick up the rock as it’s still hot from space; he dies during the filming, in a museum, of a documentary about him, when a display falls over and an old asteroid hits him in the head.

Those of you familiar with ancient Greek myths (among many other traditions I’m sure) are familiar with this theme, not only of fate but of how fate trumps the knowledge of itself among us mere mortals. The most famous example, for a variety of reasons, is Oedipus, whose father was basically given a card that read “YOUR SON WILL KILL YOU AND MARRY YOUR WIFE/HIS MOTHER.” They abandoned him in the wilderness, still a baby, where he was found by a peasant–and of course would return to Thebes (did I not mention Oedipus’s father was the king of Thebes?) and ascend to power, fulfilling his destiny.

The book itself is pretty good. Some stories, of course, are better than others, and some of the most interesting things are precisely how the universes of the stories differ. There are at least two stories which give different origins of the machine, and at least half a dozen play out different versions of the machine’s appearance and rise to ubiquity. The first (“Flaming Marshmallows”) is told from the perspective of a teenage girl in a world where getting your prediction from the machine is a universal right of passage (16), except of course for No-Knows, who refuse. The familiar social cliques of high school reappear based on the shared deaths of the cliques; Goths become Suicides, Jocks become Flamers, Bullies become Crashers, etc. (Chokers are looked upon as morons). The last (“Cassandra”) follows a woman who uses advanced math and science to try and prevent her prediction (GLOBAL THERMONUCLEAR WAR) from coming true. This is the philosophical height of the book (and so it makes sense that the editors put it at the end), as Cassandra explains the Ignorance Theorem. Knowledge is treated as a material, that is, as subject to the law of the conservation of mass. Moreover, this is why the machine’s predictions take on the form of narrative irony, of being simultaneously unerringly accurate and uncannily ambiguous: the machine’s predictions cannot create knowledge, they can only move it around, and the predictions are concentrations of that knowledge, so to speak, absorbing it from society at large and thus removing the possibility of different configurations, sealing one’s fate. Freedom, thus, is located at the level of community, not the individual, and to remove floating possibilities from the collective to concentrate it in an individual instance (precisely, the individual card produced by the machine and the knowledge it produces in the individual on whose blood it is based) is to remove the possibility of freedom in the sense of just (moral) unpredictability. (Cassandra’s solution is to try, through electro-shock therapy, to dissociate the knowledge of her prediction within her brain, without disseminating it to the public and thereby running afoul of what happened to her Greek namesake.)

Can we read this Ignorance Theorem, or more precisely the material finitude of knowledge as a condition of free action, with the Nietzschean-Zizekian notion of amor fati? In Nietzsche, the love of fate is one of the key notions which structure his (anti-)philosophy (others being the ubermensch, the will to power, etc.). It is best illustrated in connection with the notion of the eternal recurrence, specifically as the subjective affect (in Heideggerian, attunement) which matches the correct, Nietzschean response to the notion of the eternal recurrence. As it appears in The Gay Science, the eternal recurrence (the knowledge that everything that has or will happen will happen eternally with no change) creates the feeling either of profound despair or of amor fati–as Nietzsche puts it, in the latter case, that one would respond to the demon who proposed the idea “you are a god and I have never heard anything more godly!” A similar affect shows up in the different context of the Madman’s proclamation of the death of God: “must we not become gods to become worth of it [the murder of God]?” In Zizek, this theme is read in a more structural or ontological way: the dialectic of knowledge and action is such that knowledge must be accepted (not resisted or rejected) in order to allow action to be free (as opposed to reactionary), that is to say, one must accept one’s fate in order to be free of it. In short: what are we to make of Cassandra’s solution?

The problem and the fact is that, from a political perspective, it can neither be endorsed nor denied, or rather both: at the level of the narrative constraints of Machine of Death, her solution is valid; at the level of this political reality which Machine of Death (like all art) is an inversion of/contribution to, it is inadequate (frying our brains as a weird scientific-materialist inversion of the New Age injunction that change begins from within…). That is to say, as interesting as it is, the machine of death’s cards are not a sufficient metaphor for this dialectic of freedom between knowledge and action. This is a result of the fact that the knowledge it purveys is not about conventional but metaphysical limits of action (death, of course), leading to necessary ambiguities–which are, it should be noted, the condition of its artistic possibilities, but–which prevent it from being a sufficient model of reality. Take, for example, a variant on a situation that recurs in the anthology: not simply the function of the predictions as self-fulfilling prophecies, but moreover how this functions on socio-political scales. The situation in “Heat Death of the Universe” is most explicit (one of the main characters is among an increasingly large group whose death reads NUCLEAR BOMB, causing the US government to go into a frenzy of fascist endeavors such as relegating them to camps): imagine if the cards that thousands of people started getting did not read “NUCLEAR BOMB” but “REVOLUTION.”

The immediate problem is of course the details of this idea; for example, the difference between a story where huge, indiscriminate numbers of people receive that card, and one where only rulers do. In other words: how to think the process by which a society really would “receive the death card of REVOLUTION from the machine”? hrm…


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