Craig Fischer’s recent article in The Comics Journal, “Pluto and Doubling“, drew me to Naoki Urasawa‘s Pluto (2009), a reconfiguration of Osamu Tezuka‘s “Greatest Robot on Earth” story arc. Fischer notes that Urasawa “subverts the typical science-fiction stereotype of robot-human interaction” because the robots explore feelings while the human characters exhibit more instrumental thinking. In Pluto, robots yearn for aesthetic experience, provoking us to meditate on the human relationship to the sensory experiences of pain and pleasure, the beautiful and the sublime.
As examples of purpose-built technology, the robots also require us to meditate on the ironic relationship between aesthetic capacity and instrumental reason: the machines of war keep insisting on the importance or art, beauty, and feeling in general. Simply put, the robots’ aesthetic desire critiques instrumentality in the service of war in favour of a more humane, if not perhaps more human, response to the world. Consequently, Pluto demonstrates a connection between aesthetic judgment and practical reason, between what is beautiful and what is good or right.
Duncan has a Romantic view of art: what matters is the expression of the artist’s mind, not the imitation of things in the world. This view emphasizes ephemeral genius over concrete technê. While electronic musical equipment fills Duncan’s house, he eschews it for an old-fashioned piano, stressing his “organic” relationship to his craft. As Duncan plays the piano, the electronic instruments “look on,” seemingly disappointed by their neglect:
But Duncan’s violence towards his instrument–at one point he is on the verge of taking an axe to it–emphasizes his failure to make his tool produce what is in his head. He cannot fill in a particular blank in a song. The causal chain is not working for him. This breakdown illuminates the problem for expressionist theories of art: how does the work of music that emerges as notes from the piano reflect the artist’s inner genius? What is inside the black box of the mind that emerges as music? And what explains the blockage of that genius?
We cannot tell from the panels whether his music is evoking these moments or working through them as catharsis. We merely see the juxtaposition of North No. 2’s hands on the piano, musical notes, and cascading disembodied mechanical parts. The violence of the background is set against the delicate image of the robot playing the piano, which in turn contrasts Duncan’s persistent smashing of the instrument with his fist. Furthermore, the idea of an artificial intelligence working through mechanical body parts on an “organic” instrument confounds the causality that links the “mind” of the genius to the music that emerges from the piano. The cascading machinery may just be the explosion of that causality.
What matters in Pluto is not so much fidelity and authenticity in expression but a kind of “art-work,” analogous to Freud’s “dream-work,” that testifies to the intensity of experience by revising it and transforming it. While we may scoff at the notion of war machines with artificial intelligence producing art, we only have to look at the history of the human capacity for war, and perhaps the poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon to give the idea a second thought.
“Episteme and Techne.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/episteme-techne/>. Accessed 22 January 2012.
Fischer, C. (2011). “Pluto and Doubling.” The Comics Journal. <http://www.tcj.com/pluto-and-doubling/>. Accessed 22 January 2012
Freud, S. (1913). “The Dream-Work”, in The Interpretation of Dreams, available at <http://www.bartleby.com/285/6.html>. Accessed 22 January 2012
Urasawa, N, O. Tezuka, and T. Nagasaki (2009). Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka. Volume 1. Trans. Jared Cook & Frederik L. Schodt. (San Francisco: Viz)
“World War I Poetry.” Modern History Sourcebook. <http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1914warpoets.html> Accessed 22 January 2012.