Dancing bears

Having dispensed with religion in my previous post, let’s move on to the really important stuff, namely, dancing. In the Melyvn Bragg documentary, and in the acknowledgments for The Amber Spyglass, Pullman credits On the Marionette Theatre, an essay by Heinrich von Kleist. In it, you’ll find the origin of the scene in Northern Lights in which Lyra fences with Iorek Byrnison, the armoured bear. There are also echoes of Pullman’s attitude to growing up: Lyra loses the natural grace to read the aleitheometer as she becomes self-conscious, but is told she’ll get it back if she works at it for many years.

I don’t agree with Kliest’s opinion that a marionette could be a better dancer than a person because a puppet is not self-conscious. If some dancers have their souls in the elbows, they at least have souls, unlike puppets. Watching a dance done well, I’m impressed partly because I recognise it’s a human achievement to make it look good, not merely impressed by the fact that it does look good. It’s hard to feel such a connection with a puppet.

Perhaps’s Kliest’s talk about self-consciousness applies more to doing a dance. There are times when you can lose yourself in it and become unselfconscious. Those are the good times. There are similar experiences in other fields. Programmers talk about the mental state known as flow, where they become immersed in the code, and find themselves looking up after a few minutes and realising hours have passed.

Why is this state so satisfying? Perhaps because the mind’s usual background chatter is silenced. Unlike armoured bears, humans can’t live in that state all the time, but that sort of break helps us keep our mental balance, as I’m sure any nearby Buddhists would tell you.

4 Comments on "Dancing bears"

  1. D and I have a long-standing debate over why it is more satisfying to watch Sylvie Guillem dance than it would be to watch an android programmed to move like Sylvie. Although one can intuit the ways in which the experience would be different (and one of the reasons has to be to do with awe at the physical possibilities of the human body manifest in Sylvie), it’s very hard to articulate why. Even when we turn it around and I ask D why it is more exciting for him to watch Bernard butler play guitar than it would be to watch an android-Bernard.

    I mean, it is better to watch Sylvie, of that I am sure. Maybe one reason is, whatever the thought-experiment behind the argument, I simply cannot conceive of an android that could move with such grace and passion.


    1. I’m reminded of the conversation in Iain M Banks’s Look to Windward between a composer (not human, as it happens, but of a roughly human-equivalent species) and a near-godlike strong AI. The composer asks the AI whether it could write a symphony that music scholars would be unable to tell from one of his own, and that he himself could imagine being proud to have written. The AI thinks, and says yes, it could do that; it wouldn’t be easy, but it would be perfectly possible, and (after prompting) it could do it much faster than the composer himself could. The composer asks, in that case, what is the point of him writing symphonies at all?

      And the AI answers, much as you say here, that the point is that the people listening to the symphony care that it’s written by someone basically like themselves pushing himself to the limit and thereby reaching an exceptional peak of ability and achievement for human-equivalent sentient life in general; they wouldn’t feel remotely the same way about the identical symphony if it had been tossed off by an AI for whom it was just a long and fiddly but basically unstretching exercise in musicology.

      (Of course, in this case and in yours, given a sufficiently indistinguishable imitation one could lie to the audience and claim it was real, and of course by construction the audience would indeed enjoy that just as much since they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference; but, the AI says, that isn’t a fair comparison because information is being withheld.)


    2. Depends what you mean by ‘move like’. If you mean reproduce a particular performance, then you’d effectively still be watching her, just as if you were watching that performance on video. If you mean anything else then it’s a non-question, because an android’s dance cannot mean anything: it cannot move with passion because it has no passion. It can only do what it is programmed to do, without thinking, without feeling, without meaning anything; whereas the real dancer communicates anew with each movement.



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