We Cannot be a Maxwell’s Demon

Eunha Chang, We Cannot be a Maxwell’s Demon, 2021, 4' 53'', single channel video, colour ©Eunha Chang All images and voices are generated by A.I. and text is taken from The Preserving Machine by Philip K. Dick.

Ever since I first began studying transcultural memory, I have experienced an insatiable curiosity regarding the memory of/around species as a source for interpreting written and authored history. This curiosity found an echo in my heart through an aspiration to reveal the true nature of such memory.

In particular, literature is often used in the fourth phase of memory studies as a critical archive for articulating a marginalised and otherwise invisible history and providing a glimpse of its existence prior to its annihilation by the mainstream. This has convinced me that interpreting re/presentation includes the potential to germinate a reframing of history. Considering the extinction, invasiveness or alienation of species, I became accepted such a way of exploring artistic practices as valid. This is because it allows me to conceive those species carefully and even attempt to summon history from gradual dissipation.

Moreover, revisualised and rearranged literature can convey the affective investments that individuals have made based on their places and related experiences. Thereby, it can provide multi-directional narratives for developing a counter-history to those imposed upon us. When it comes to the species, attention to pre/post-produced narrative provides a means of challenging the collective memories of the dominant species—a specifically human being—that often coalesce as memory and exclude the collective memories of marginalised species.

We Cannot be a Maxwell’s Demon (2021) employs such ways by re-editing and re-interpreting the Sci-fi novel The Preserving Machine (1969) written by Philip K. Dick. It begins with the story of Doctor Labyrinth. His aspiration to keep the music scores becomes to produce a preserving machine that creates the scores into various animals. The machine functioned successfully. Still, since the plan, as yet, only exists in embryonic form, those animals remained unfulfilled, distorted and diabolical after the world reshuffled.

On the journey from embryological to biological metamorphosis, this video work ultimately questions how memory can stay alive from the non-human being’s perspective. How can we keep the “perishable, fragile, delicate and easily destroyed” memory? At first glance, it seems to enter the phase of cleavage after fertilisation with pluripotency. Thus, the audience expects the new creatures that Labyrinth’s machine fertilise. However, it loops repeatedly, formlessly and doesn’t reach the final phase. Rather than being successfully preserved, they have undergone a metamorphosis and become all neuter that can't reproduce.

This narrative discloses the nature of memory by drawing an analogy between musical scores and memory, creatively excerpt from the literature. As seen, the sheer attempt to preserve the memory failed, and the memory cannot be preserved as what it was in a static form. According to Astrid Erll, “all cultural memory must ‘travel’, be kept in motion, in order to ‘stay alive,' to have an impact both on individual minds and social formations.”[1] The memory should undergo metamorphosis into various animals to be survived. In other words, such metamorphosis reveals the vitality of memory and its being as itself.

On the edge of a precipice, we are standing to reach out to save ourselves wishing to seize or last the moment longer. As being in such temporal and spatial moment, we cannot be a Maxwell’s demon who can violate the second law of thermodynamics.[2] As all things have vitality, all things change. No matter how desperate we struggle, whatever we want to preserve—relationships, youth, and love, everything changes. Also, they are meant to be. Doctor Labyrinth’s ignominious failure proves conclusively that his thought is false, saying that to make memory static is to insure “their survival, but in so doing, he had erased any meaning, any value in it.” In other words, to stay alive and be valued is to be changed.

Furthermore, it metaphorically shows the manifesto of the entelechial equality of all, using Artificial Intelligence (A.I.). Just as Labyrinth took the role of Noah, so I did. The A.I. generated all the moving images and voices under my control. Even so, the results from A.I. cannot be fully generated as we wish, despite the fact that we tend to manipulate them based on the belief of empirical knowledge. What we can do is merely to set parent images, speed, frames and tone of voices. Such all attempts ultimately show “the entelechial equality of all” human and non-human beings “but also the possibility that this vitality is shared” through this work.[3]

©Eunha Chang

[1] Astrid Erll, ‘Travelling Memory’, Parallax 17, no. 4 (1 November 2011): 4–18.

[2] In 1871, the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell suggested, in his Theory of Heat, that a creature, called a Maxwell's demon, small enough to see and handle individual molecules might be exempt from this law. It might be able to create and sustain differences in temperature without doing any work. – Charles H. Bennett, ‘Demons, Engines and the Second Law,’ Scientific American 257, no. 5 (November 1987): 108–16.

[3] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010). 89.