The first 48 pages…
I found A Brief Biographical Sketch (excerpted and adapted, with the author’s permission, from Understanding Richard Powers by Joseph Dewey) helpful in understanding the extreme similarities between the author and narrator of Galetea 2.2. In essence, Powers’ life is the source of his fiction and fiction thus becomes his life. This is not unlike the photography of Nikki Lee. Each quite literally lives the art that they create and questions representations of the real. Although this is interesting in and of itself, for the purposes of this post “Powers” refers to the narrator, not the author, unless otherwise indicated.
The novel begins with the sentence, “It was like so, but wasn’t,” and screams for a sneak peek at the last page for clues. I refuse to give in. According to this book, there is no short cut to learning – even for neural nets. Let the synaptic links painfully struggle to materialize, one at a time.
The plot centers around teaching language, and subsequently the canonical list of Great Books, to a neural network in order to understand how the brain orders and accumulates information to learn. We didn’t get to talk much about language limitations in class, but there are so many references to it throughout the book, I find myself tracing each instance.
- In the first paragraph, Powers says of his 35th year, “We got separated in the confusion of a foreign city where the language was strange” (3).
- At U., “Work at the Center divided into areas so esoteric I could not tell their nature from their names” (5).
- At the Center, Talk in its public spaces sounded like a UN picnic: excited, wild, and mutually unintelligible. I loved how you could never be sure what a person did even after they explained it to you” (6).
- When meeting Lentz, Powers says, “We made interstellar contact, paralyzed by the mutual knowledge that any attempt to communicate would be culture bound. Worse than meaningless” (13).
- The Dutch, according to Powers, amount to little in the area of novel-writing due to “the fault of translation.” Lentz blames it on “the limits of that Low German dialect” (18).
- Powers “still dreamed in that language. It had ruined [him] for English” (18).
- Of a flood Powers read about in a book as a child, he says, “this was my unshakable image… The word “Holland” filled me with autumnal diluvian disaster… even after living for years… in the Dutch Mountains” (19).
These types of quotes span just pages 3-19, but there are many more. Following the order listed above, these quotes point toward:
- general linguistic separation and confusion
- lack of concept transference within the same language
- cultural boundaries rendering speech less than meaningless
- loss of meaning in translation from one language to the next
- the bondage of language on thoughts and dreams
- creation of real perceptions and representation of a non-reality
If language is so fallible, how can a machine avoid these linguistic pitfalls, particularly when “taught” by similarly fallible humans? What is the key to getting it right, making language more communicable?
According to Powers:
A child’s account of the flood that ravaged Zeeland shortly before I was born turned real in my head. That’s what it means to be eight. Words haven’t yet separated from their fatal content. (19)
Something between childhood and becoming an adult shifts the understanding of language, makes it less literal, less real. A return to that childhood state, when switches quickly flip through intelligent processing, may offer better understanding of how to access reality through language. To return to the beginning, new opportunity exists in discovering how a mind learns and how to better teach that mind.
Like a child, the machine too requires “someone like Lenz to supply the occasional ‘Try again’s and ‘Good Boy!’s” (31) as it essentially makes its own decisions and deductions about what is correct and incorrect. That said, with a father figure like Lenz, will the machine suffer emotional damage, adopt his bad attitude, reject him all together? We’ll have to read on and see. Good Lord, that man is frightening!
This fires my next response…
Powers, the author, takes on the mother of all self-reflexivity in this novel. While postmodernism examines the ways in which particular forms like language, photography, film and music represent reality, Powers goes one step further and examines the very tool that both creates and interprets all form… THE SYNAPSE. As Powers, the narrator, says:
After great inference, I came to the conclusion that I hadn’t the foggiest idea of what cognition was… No tougher question existed. No other, either. If we knew the world only through synapses, how could we know the synapses? (28).
In that last question, one could replace the word synapse with narrative, and see the bold move that Powers, the author, is making. To examine synapse as “form” is the greatest postmodern experiment of all, the likes of which makes my head hurt.
(How appropriate for this post to appear on a blog called “Brain Drain, I Think It’s Sprained,” which this was called before I consolidated all of my blogs here.)