Noema: Conception of Form and Meaning in an Artificial Neural Network -Kaushik Varma

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

Various thinkers of the past have addressed the quintessential role of ‘form’ in human perception. From Plato’s theory of forms to Heidegger’s Being and Time, the concept of form established itself as an essential part of being as such. It is only through the perception of forms that move into and out of being that we can talk about or experience the world in any meaningful way. That is to say, subjectivity in itself seems to be enabled by our ability to conceptualize form. But is it the case that such a subjectivity is only limited to seemingly spontaneous organic beings? Could it be that subjectivity could be attributed to an inanimate object if it were to exhibit a mechanical cognizance of form?

Such a notion of an inanimate conception of form would blur the age-old dichotomy between organic spontaneity and machinic repeatability. How does one conceive of a machine (a predominantly repeatable automaton) that (spontaneously) constructs its own structures of form and meaning independent of our own networks of signs and knowledge?

In speculating the possibility of such a blurring (between spontaneity and repeatability), Jacques Derrida, a French post-structuralist, deems it necessary for the event (that which is happening; the perception of a form captured out of time) and the machine (the calculable programming of an automatic repetition) to be conceived as in-dissociable concepts. However, it is more than safe to say that the concepts of event and machine are far from being compatible today. They in fact present themselves to be antinomic in nature owing to our conception of the event as something singular and non-repeatable. Derrida associates this singularity of the event to be a characteristic of the living; the perceived form undergoes a particular sensation (an effect or a feeling) which eventually crystallizes as organic material. The machine equivalent of such a crystallization is based on repetition; “It [the machine] is destined, that is, to reproduce impassively, imperceptibly, without organ or organicity, the received commands. In a state of anaesthesis, it would obey or command a calculable program without affect or auto-affection, like an indifferent automaton” (Without Alibi, p. 73).

Owing to the machine’s state of indifference, its seemingly automatic nature is not the same as the spontaneity attributed to organic life. This incompatibility begins to be apparent as one draws borders based on spontaneity between these two concepts: organic, living singularity (the event) and inorganic, dead universality (mechanical repetition). Derrida says that, if we can make these two concepts compatible, “you can bet not only (and I insist on not only) will one have produced a new logic, an unheard conceptual form. In truth, against the background and at the horizon of our present possibilities, this new figure would resemble a monster” (Without Alibi, p. 74). In building an artificial neural architecture to arrive towards a machinic conception of form, the driving intuition is to possibly accommodate a compatibility between these concepts given the limits of classical computing systems. What hindered such a compatibility from ever materializing in modern technological frameworks seems to be something that inhibits the essence of the machine, its Functionality.

Functionality becomes an underlying constant that places the machine to be in opposition to what’s outside it and one whose subversion would create a rupture in a world that shaped its identity against the notion of the machine as a functional tool. As sensible as it may seem from the predominant utilitarian standpoint that one would have no reason to not make use of objects that were produced to be made use of, it is important to acknowledge that assigning a particular function (the end towards which an object is used as a means) transpires functionality itself to be a violent force that imprisons the object from ever attaining a larger set of possibilities and configurations that the object could potentially inhibit. Th