Kafka in Palestine and the probabilistic era of history

In Palestine, a future has unfolded from which all of us need to defend ourselves. We must find new political techniques to avert this nonsensical era of the worst that cannot stop worsening.

Al Majalla

Kafka in Palestine and the probabilistic era of history

Not every nonsense captures our attention. There are things we cannot conceive of and do not dwell on; they seem trivial and useless to us. Yet, other things rivet us, and it seems that we find a truth in them where our imagination cannot find peace: it wanders in search of a point of balance, but what it builds cannot stand despite standing.

Franz Kafka is perhaps the writer who, more than others, made this form both an ascetic and a political discipline. Kafka's asceticism is without God and immediately political: it is that of the immense suffering of the ape in A Report to an Academy, who, imprisoned, gains the ability to mimic humans in their language and culture through the sheer necessity of survival.

In the book, he writes: "Imitating human beings was not something which pleased me. I imitated them because I was looking for a way out, for no other reason." However, it is not just an imitation of any humans; Kafka highlights that this imitation is meant to attain "the average education of a European".

Now a Music Hall star, the ape does not complain about the life it has achieved in Europe but does not forget its nightmare; he does not want to see by day the semi-domesticated ape that his impresario has gifted him and with whom he takes his "pleasure with her the way apes do" by night, and does not want to see her because he recognises all too well "in her gaze the madness of a bewildered trained animal".

Towards the end of his life, which marks the first centenary this year, Kafka wrote Von den Gleichnissen. The word 'Gleichnis' poses quite a challenge for translators. It can be rendered both a 'parable' and 'simile' and has an etymological connection with the English word 'like', which indicates comparison and equivalence. It could thus be translated as 'On Parables' just as well as 'On Similes'; indeed, there are different translations that follow one choice or the other.

Although not religious, Kafka was influenced by the rich Jewish religious culture of parables. The Hebrew word for 'parable' is māšāl, whose multiplicity of meanings also revolves around the idea of resemblance, as does, albeit with significant differences, the Arabic maṯal.

In this very short piece, the narrator introduces us to the fact that many complain that all we have are these parables/similes, which ask us to go to an indeterminate ‘beyond’—something that is inapplicable for freeing us from the daily toil of life. Thus, the narrator merely reiterates what we already know: "The incomprehensible is incomprehensible".

The explorer in In The Penal Colony—clearly a Westerner— witnesses the execution of a man who belongs to the colonised country where the story is set, and what he undergoes is completely nonsensical: he is executed without a trial and without even knowing the charges against him, nor does he speak the language in which the machine that will kill him is being described.

Nonsensical is political: the explanation is for the Westerner, not for the death-sentenced. The lack of sense is even more blinding because the machine inscribes the broken rule onto the skin of the condemned through a cumbersome mechanism of needles.

What the machine writes, however, is complicated by flourishes and decorations, and it is only after hours, through the pain of the needles repeatedly piercing his flesh, that the condemned man understands, just before his death, the sentence being written on his skin, which emblematically in this case is: Honor Thy Superiors!

Through an intuitive yet elusive logic, the gate to the law in Before the Law stands open before the countryman, who only discovers at the time of his death that it was open solely for him and that he could have entered at any time. Yet, there is something weak about the powerful people in Kafka's works.

The judges in The Trial are humiliated by Joseph K., and often this weakness is even verging on the comedic, as they deal with the daily toils mentioned in On Parables, like the judge who replaces a light bulb in the middle of the night in the house of his defendant.

One should not be deceived about the lethality of these Kafkaesque figures: Joseph K. ends up being executed ’Like a dog!’; the machine in In the Penal Colony destroys itself because there are no longer funds to maintain it. It kills the condemned before he can reach the futile enlightenment of understanding why he is being executed.

In Jackals and Arabs, written shortly before the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the jackals, both aggressive and weak, beg a visiting Westerner, seen as predestined simply because he is European, to slit the throats of the Arabs with a pair of sewing scissors, out of a desire for cleanliness ('Cleanliness—that’s what we want— nothing but cleanliness', says the leader of the jackals). Interestingly, according to the author both Jackals and Arabs and A Report to an Academy should not be considered as parables.

In fact, for some scholars, Jackals and Arabs should be seen as pointing not to an unspecified “beyond” but the very specific beyond of Palestine. Reading this tale now sounds particularly sinister: "It seems to be a very old conflict—it’s probably in the blood and so perhaps will only end with blood", which, upon closer inspection, reaffirms the nonsense of oppression: if a conflict is ancient then it begins and ends in violence.

More than a hundred years later, these scissors have changed shape and offensive capability, and along with them, a new form of nonsense takes its first steps—a nonsense that intertwines oppression and mathematics in a way never seen in history.

For some scholars, Jackals and Arabs should be seen as pointing not to an unspecified "beyond" but the very specific beyond of Palestine.

Everyone knows that the new artificial intelligence is based on automatic statistical learning. Moreover, society is increasingly aware of how opaque the functioning and reasons for the outputs of these new tools are to the computer scientists who designed and implemented them.

For many years, various fields have dreamed of building an artificial system capable of predicting a population's movements to control their behaviour. This dream, at least a century old, predates the era of computing and originates from mathematics and physics.

From mathematics comes probability theory, and from physics, the first impressive results that such modelling techniques have on reality. The world this theory depicts is incomprehensible and devoid of similes.

No simile explains quantum phenomena because these phenomena are primarily described with something incomprehensible to us: the mathematics of events on average and the projection of this average into the future. Such a concept does not have a clear image that can be associated with it. On the other hand, measurements and predictions are also extremely precise on average. Even on average, the numbers add up.

About a decade after Kafka's death, the Italian physicist Ettore Majorana, a student of Enrico Fermi, wrote an article titled "The Value of Statistical Laws in Physics and the Social Sciences" in which there is an identity of "value and merit" between these two sciences. As Majorana writes, "The novel approach is to perturb and control the physical system through probability, managing, for example, to "prepare a chain however complex and striking of phenomena that are commanded by the accidental disintegration of a single radioactive atom."

All this without knowing the fundamental laws in clear and specific terms, but rather in average terms. According to Majorana, it means starting to find a way to let the inconceivable remain inconceivable, but at the same time to govern it.

In the game of probabilities, it is enough to stay on the right side of the card table, where bets guarantee a profit regardless of the game's outcome. Computer science adds new possibilities to this insight; the current data science is more than just science; it is a governance tool. It has long been dreamt of a probabilistic version of Pre-crime, the police force that arrests suspects before they can actually commit crimes, as in Philip Dick's Minority Report.

The idea is to identify clear typologies based on certain behaviours defined as deviant or criminal, using examples of individuals convicted of certain crimes. If enough is known about the population to be controlled, this would allow, through a statistical system, to "project" that certain identified typology through certain characteristics onto a population to find the deviants and/or criminals based on behaviours that are not necessarily connected to the criminal activity itself, that is, for example, on data regarding how often someone changes residence or phone.

And it is in this way that, for the first time in history, artificial intelligence is being used so massively in extermination. As recently emerged in an investigation by +972 Magazine, Lavender is an artificial intelligence based on neural networks in the hands of the Israeli government.

Axel Rangel Garcia

Read more: A look at Israel's AI-generated 'mass assassination factory' in Gaza

It learns to identify the characteristics of known operators of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine, whose information has been entered into the machine as training data, and then to classify the 2.3 million residents of the Gaza Strip whose data are obtained from a well-known mass surveillance system.

The machine assigns nearly everyone in Gaza a score from 1 to 100, expressing the probability that they are a militant. An individual with several incriminating characteristics will receive a high score and automatically become a potential target for killing.

The head of Lavender and commander of the elite Israeli intelligence unit 8200, had previously advocated for designing a "target machine" based on machine learning, which could quickly process vast amounts of data to generate thousands of potential targets for military strikes.

We know this from a lapse by the commander himself, Yossi Sariel, who left traces of his identity in the book that partially describes the project, which he intended to publish anonymously, The Human-Machine Team. In his own words from the book, the system would assess when it is possible to attack enemy fighters without harming civilians while being very productive: "Imagine 80,000 relevant targets being produced before combat and 1,500 new targets created every day during a war."

This system seemed extremely "functional" and coalesced around a certain political equilibrium in Israel. Artificial intelligence thus appeared as that weapon capable of destroying Hamas, or perhaps, as someone could think in a less shallow political analysis, as that tool capable of legitimising a certain strategy in response to the events of 7 October.

Suddenly, there was an urgency to have many targets provided by the system and then bombed without any further human oversight. AI appeared to be the right tool for the moment.

The system was used especially in the early period of the war. Indeed, the casualties were about half in the first six weeks of the 28 since the conflict began. As the investigation by +972 Magazine showed, one of the main reasons for the unprecedented number of deaths following Israeli bombings is that the army systematically attacked targets in their homes along with their families because it is easier to use family homes as targets through automated systems.

But is it possible to stay on the right side of the card table? The use of these systems by the Israeli government has proven to be a debacle for Israel not only due to the impressive number of civilian casualties, which increasingly distances it from the international community but also because it failed to achieve the declared objective of destroying Hamas.

Yossi Sariel himself said: "We were defeated. I was defeated." Similarly, In the Penal Colony, the machine fails its purpose, destroys itself and its victims, and swallows the officer who glorified it, leaving the oppressive system that generated it unchanged.

Contrary to Kafka's tale, the outputs from Israel's AI Lavender programme were translated into orders through an unprecedented process of collective non-responsibility

Contrary to Kafka's tale, the outputs from artificial intelligence were translated into orders through an unprecedented process of collective non-responsibility.

As a whistleblower told +972 Magazine, persevering in the nonsensical: "There's something about the statistical approach that sets you to a certain norm and standard. There has been an illogical amount of (bombings) in this operation. This is unparalleled in my memory. And I have much more trust in a statistical mechanism than a soldier who lost a friend two days ago. Everyone there, including me, lost people on 7 October. The machine did it coldly. And that made it easier."

This is certainly true, but, as we said, we believe much more is at stake here. To gain legitimisation, everyone 'had' to obey the genocide-optimising machine, that is, to follow what one could call revisiting Hannah Arendt, this new mathematical banality of evil. And there is even more that needs to be thought about here, something that strikes at the core of political theology as we have conceived it until now.

The whistleblower utters the unspeakable contradiction, saying at the same time that the machine is a norm maker, that the consequence of these norms is an illogical number of bombings, and that one should trust more a statistical device rather than a human being (even a revengeful one), and, at the climax of this collapsing construction of words, that all of this "made things easier".

How can we trust a system whose application produces illogical horror? Lavender raises questions that require much more time than its brutal execution. A new era is dawning, a sort of puppet government of chance commanded by statistics.

Such statistics are incomprehensible: they have no similes, they deprive us of the relief we all feel when we find a good image of the situation that concerns us, and they strip from us the parables with which we make sense of loss. This relief is increasingly denied to us, and the more we are in the probabilistic era of history, the more extreme and unhinged forms of governance are arising.

In Palestine, a future has unfolded from which all of us need to defend ourselves. We must find new political techniques to avert this nonsensical era of the worst that cannot stop worsening.

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