Wesley Autrey, the Spiritual Automaton

The first chapter of ALL THINGS SHINING begins with the description of an impressive news story. A young man, undergoing an epileptic fit, fell onto the rails of the New York subway just as a train was arriving. One of the bystanders, Wesley Autrey, at the risk of his life, jumped onto the tracks to save him. The train was approaching too fast, and there was no time to lift the man up and climb up onto the platform, so Autrey pushed him into a hole between the rails, flattening him under the weight of his own body. The train stopped over the two men, but as if by miracle they were unharmed, as there remained a few centimeters between it and them.  The stupefied onlookers reacted with cries of wonder and spontaneous applause. Despite being congratulated by  the New York police, by politicians, and by the media, Autrey remained humble: « I don’t feel like I did something spectacular, I just saw someone who needed help ».

It’s a striking example, but of what? Dreyfus and Kelly comment this event from several points of view. The first aspect concerns the « humility » of the hero, which they claim  is a trait frequently observed in the authors of heroic acts. D&K prefer to see in this type of declaration, that they had done what anyone would do in that situation, a phenomenologically accurate description, just an honest report of their own experience:

« perhaps what Mr. Autrey and others are honestly reporting is that when they are in the midst of acting heroically, they do not experience themselves as the source of their actions. Instead, the situation itself seems to call the action out of them, allowing for neither uncertainty nor hesitation. » ( p3 )

So, according to Dreyfus and Kelly, two essential features of the heroic act are certainty and the decentering of the subject (to which we may add a third trait: openness). The situation calls for action, it calls the action out of the subject who is open to the situation, and the « hero » accomplishes it without hesitation or reflection. There is an automaticity in the action, which accounts for the certainty felt in accomplishing it; and there is a non-autonomy of the acting subject, which accounts for his humility after the event. D&K seem to want to pose the heroic act as an ethical model, avoiding the two dangers: the « self-confident man », who imposes his will on the world; the addict, who who has become a passive slave through lack of will. Only the automatic act can save us from the twin maladies of arrogant willfulness and the paralysis of indecision. The automatic act is the decisive act in Deleuze’s sense:

« The act of decision is not the will to set something in motion, but the doing itself. »

Of course, the decisive act is « automatic » not because the agent is a mindless zombie or in a lowered state of awareness, not because the action is a habitual one many times repeated, carried out in some state of inattention, but because the agent is in a heightened state of awareness and the action is accomplished in an unreflective responsiveness to the situation. The heroic action is not a routine reiteration but an ethical invention:

« whereas the habitual actor lacks a sense not only of himself but
of his surroundings, the heroic actor by contrast has a
heightened awareness of what the situation calls for. » ( p8 )

Thus good actions are accomplished, according to Dreyfus and Kelly, by a sort of hyper-conscient automaticity, where the hero does not willfully act but is enacted by the situation.

Note: The title is meant to signpost the comparison with Deleuze’s concept of the « spiritual automaton », as developped in the cinema books. The apparent contradiction in terms is explained by the attempt to describe an action (and a thought) that takes place outside the clichés and stereotypes that regiment our  actions in the familiar situations of habitual experience. The spiritual automaton is a type of awareness that awakes in us at the disruption of our routines and the interruption of our ordinary sensori-motor schemas, when a different sort of automaticity is needed to respond to the new situation and not just react to it.

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