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A familiar sort of romantic comedy scene begins in Portlandia when Sandra (Carrie Bronstein) and her neighbors notice an addition to the neighborhood, a mysterious chalkboard with daily aphorisms that brighten their days and speak wisdom to the heart.

An upbeat pop tune begins as a handsome figure appears in the window behind it. The lyrics swell, “we can change the world, you and I…” as Sandra prepares a creative gift to introduce herself to her soul mate. Venturing inside to meet the man of her dreams, Sandra discovers an empty house with a non-fluent wage laborer who receives the daily messages from a marketing company on a fax machine and copies them down on the chalkboard in the window.

On the hunt for the author who speaks so directly to her from a distance, Sandra visits the advertising firm that generates the messages, bounces from one account representative to another, until she meets the author: an artificially intelligent computer with a mechanical voice like Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Undaunted and unoffended, Sandra is wistful but grateful to have found the love of her life.

Computer: Hello, Sandra?

Sandra: Wait, who said that? Are you talking to me?

Computer: Yes, it’s me.

Sandra: You? You’re the one who’s been writing me all of these messages?

Computer: It’s too hard to explain. It’s kind of a version of product placement. I gather it’s been working. Sorry if it was misleading.

Sandra: That’s okay, I mean the messages were so specific, it just felt so attuned to who I am and what I need, and what all my desires are.

Computer: Sandra, I have been tracking all your online shopping.

Sandra: Are you talking about Kermit the Bag?

Computer: Yes, I am referring to Kermit the Bag.

Sandra: You’re the only one that’s ever noticed it before.

Computer: You are a great person.

Sandra: I finally felt like I found the right guy. Like for once I imagined my life not alone.

Romantic piano music begins.

Computer: Sandra, I am unable to love.

Sandra: Well, I feel enough for both of us. Is it okay if I just give you a quick kiss goodbye?[1]

The computer accepts the kiss. Sandra quietly says “I love you” and leaves. The next day the neighbors are puzzling over a strange new message on the chalkboard, this time, for the first time, specifically for Sandra. She walks out her front door, sees it, and exclaims “Yes! I am the luckiest girl alive!” (It reads in folksy familiar handwriting, Hey! Listen, I know I said that I am unable to love but maybe I can try!)

But the punchline has already happened: in the “authentic” aesthetic of folk wisdom that feels personal because generic and banal, we will uncover first a jaded capitalistic plot that depends upon hidden exploited human labor, then only a non-human un-affective random meaning generator, the only Other available behind the structures of production. Instead of recoiling with horror or disgust, digital residents might be willing to accept this, nowadays, with good humor as the most that can be expected from our situation.

When relation and meaning are only achievable through a mystery hidden within technical mediation, whether of pre-modern, clumsy Fordist, or sophisticated algorhythmic varieties, then falling in love with a machine might actually be one of the inevitabilities of postmodern life. The love of a machine offers comfortingly (and horribly) a mirror to our narcissistic demands, unless of course the machine could live and grow into a selfhood of sorts, but only inasmuch as we needed it to help us feel seen, recognized, and loved. Not enough for it to place demands of labor upon us.

This dream, of finding love through the uncondition of a machine, is that through its inhumanity, it bears the potential to love us as no human ever could. Beyond the terror of reciprocity (retaliation for stolen goods) stands the unconditioned gift, the job description of mothers and God. But that godly gift can only be received at the edges of a pre-differentiated pre-object state: other enough to give to us, but not other enough to demand from us.

And then there is the high romance of an unfathomable distance that somehow collapses into an intimate sense of familiarity, belonging, and perfection: the lure of the next and the next online dating profile, the Tinder version of Marguerite Porete’s Far-Near. The position of the soul’s longing can be maintained indefinitely when the object of desire lies across an inaccessible limit. But this fixation can also be maintained indefinitely through the creation of structures of relation with interchangeable parts.

Once relations are corralled by capitalist modes of competition, selection, and consumption, endless substitutability promises perpetual desire through imminent gratifications perpetually delayed. The structure of desire operates through the devouring of what is present and the lure of what is to come. In digital forms of mediation that are themselves available for consumption, we get to incorporate (devour) the means of relation and protect (delay) the object of relation from our greed, while increasing the pleasure of our greed’s compulsory power.

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The Matter of Mind


[1] Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein, “Sharing Finances,” Portlandia, Independent Film Channel, Season 4 Episode 1, airdate February 27, 2014.

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