On a side note, I feel blessed that it was such a beautiful week to go out and take pictures! I hope that you all have wonderful summers and find ways to enjoy the sun as much as I did.
Vampir Moths, Consumate Consciousness and Weird Fictions of the Self
Science fiction and the city; how to respond to a system of stories whose continued relevance stems entirely from its responsiveness to our own changing circumstance, a situation dependent on the substrate of a site itself defined by its interconnection, its quicksilver responsiveness to itself. As technological progress – or rather, we should say change or evolution, to sidestep the suspect teleology of regular linear progression – distends and reorients our notions of the world and of ourselves, shifting the literal and metaphorical ground beneath our feet at a rate exponential to traditional geologic time, science fiction has proffered itself as the natural medium for exploring and experimenting with what we now are, where we find ourselves, and where are to be or wish to be going. For in the secular and sacrilegious New World modernity has erupted into, the rationalist epistemology of Capital S Science is the new state religion, and the afterlife we labour to find ourselves in is not an illusory metaphysical comeuppance but a future here and now rendered perfect, rendered heavenly, by the labours of history and the universal insight reached collaboratively by the collective efforts of endless individuals united in the lingua franca of Science. Having by and large shed ourselves of the vast store of myth and occult mystery which once provided a navigational stockpile of images of persons and possibilities by way of the unflinching edge of Occam’s razor, it is the necessary opportunistic impulse of today’s poets and mythmakers to insinuate themselves into the nomenclature of science and technology, to vest themselves in our novel information technological exoskeletons, to extrapolate the consequences of our actions that we might better use them in the present, and more fully envision the futurological consequences of the inclinations we pursue today.
We might productively look back over the past century/ies of science fiction to see the many ways it has failed and succeeded at predicting and presaging the olden futures we are currently undergoing, but for the present purposes of this blog post, it might be more fun and productive to look forward at what our present imaginings are harbinging ourselves towards. For the value of hindsight being twenty twenty essentially nullifies it’s value, whereas the imperceptibility of even the immanent near future renders any successful predictive skill priceless. And the particular value of fiction as a medium for such prediction is its ease at bypassing the over-articulation of extemporaneous analysis – such as this – by resolving any need for loose-end fiddling in the ambiguity of a scene and setting which reflects the intangible complexity of the world itself. Such has always been the power of contemporary fictions, and so to further unfurl this capacity, and its inherent modernity, we will turn briefly to an examination of the parallels and significant disjuncts between Brahm Stoker’s modern classic Dracula and a contemporary refiguring of that myth in the pseudo-sci-fi (post-sci-fi?) Weird Fiction of China Meiville’s Perdido Street Station.
When it came out, Dracula was a tale entirely embroiled in the trappings of the cutting edge technologies of the day, a narrative which could not be told without the novel developments of the telegraph, the phonograph, blood transfusions and steam powered trains. London grounds the novel, with its frequently mentioned “teeming millions”, as an epicenter of empire and progress which quite suddenly finds itself under a threat which gains power all the more by its inability to be accepted or understood. For in the rationalist zeitgeist of English culture, the very idea of a vampire is itself too much to be ever granted, for as one of the protagonists puts it, “the doubting of wise men would be [Dracula’s] greatest strength.” (321) Yet though the vampire is viewed as an occult and antiquated enemy, as it is popularly construed as such throughout its broad absorption into the collective unconscious, in fact many critics point out that Dracula is not in fact atavistic or regressive, but actually draws his greatest strengths from his successful adoption of the tools of civilization. The writing of letters grants him anonymity, the collection of massive libraries allows him the full breadth of the knowledge of civilization, and his retention of lawyers and hired men allow him a scope of sway beyond anything he could accomplish on his own. Far from being a true monster, Dracula is in fact a horrifying image of ourselves, whose greatest terrors are his damning similarities. Terry Eagleton even goes so far as to christen Dracula as the star of a new subgenre of Irish Gothic fiction, where the figure of vampire reflects the brutal truth of British colonial rule.
On the other hand, Perdido Street Station could not distance itself from modernity further, creating an alternate world wherein technology has stalled at the stage of steam power, and arcane magical forces persist under the guise of an alternate set of physical laws. Yet, without sidetracking this analysis too much into the question of what constitutes science fiction is and in what ways this particular text might meet or fail such definitions (a broad and in fact daunting question I’d hoped to reserve for the more extensive final paper), the novel is clearly fixated on the very questions which themselves define the genre; namely, what is science, and what is it allowing us to do. Isaac’s empiricist attempts at the production of knowledge foreground these questions, and the eventual plot of vampir moths and the unique threat they pose provide a final test of his science. There are certain similarities between the threat of the moths and that previously covered of Dracula himself: both originate at the periphery of the known world; both exist purely to feed off the vital essences of the densest metropolises; and both cause mass terror by their anonymity and peculiarity, especially at the behest of the deliberate negligence of those powers that be. But there is a pivotal difference, and that is the reason for this elaborate juxtaposition: whereas Dracula feeds on the blood of his victims, playing off an elusive sexual subtext with which the work is rife, what the moths seek is more ethereal, but all the more essential for being so. True brain food; what they eat is the very consciousness of their victims, their dreams and aspirations, the essence of their beings without which they are left alive, but listless, absent, existing without point or purpose.
The result, the plague they perpetrate, is appropriately described as a “Mystery Epidemic of Imbecility,” (155) a description which neatly conflates the biological (“Epidemic”) with the psychological or epistemic (“Imbecility”). Episteme, the condition of knowing, is what is at stake in the novel, and it is the severity and dramatic suspense of this which explodes the question into a necessary obsession, and fundamentally orients the work towards that selfsame tenement of science fiction: science. Knowing, what we know, how we do so, and at what peril we risk ourselves in its pursuit. Of course within the novel itself, the ultimate knowledge becomes of the self, and of the ethical treatment thereof. Beings are mutable objects here, the -ological powers of New Crobuzon’s learned classes has granted total mastery over the confines of the body, and yet the result is not the antiseptic idealization of our traditional images of the future. Rather, these powers remain in the thrall of that other underdeveloped sort of knowledge, that of ethics and right action. As our heroes depart to their separate ways at the novel’s conclusion, their successful end thwarted in a terrible rupturing of ties in an ambiguous maelstrom of attempts at justice, it is clear that the very uncertainty (certainty requiring knowledge) of what is the correct course of action, and the moral vacuum it enables, is what provides the environment of anarchy wherein citizens can be mangled and reformed at the whim of higher powers to better suite their own usury. Science allows us many things, anything, but it alone cannot bestow that greater knowledge, the sense of its purpose which is the lifeblood of the enterprise of fiction. Science, fiction. And the city? That sprawling ghetto palace of instants and environments, mainline of human history and spatializing structure which itself undergirds and situates the endless minds and dreams, desires and delusions which this new fluttering breed of vampir/e would have for wanton feasting? It is only the semblance of a superstructure, the appearance of being an outside world; the city is the sum of its citizens, themselves an amalgam of minds, and delicious, delicious dreams.
It is a signal of pressures in the human psyche for a new creature to evolve, powerful and yet baby-like, original and yet formless (The Trickster God and Fool), It is the need for a revolutionary quality of the imagination to evolve among us, an imagination which seeks to rethread the basic fabric of the inner (and ultimately the outer) world… (Van Sertima, 1995)
In a [Trickster] world good and bad exist, but it is hard to know sometimes which is which. (Phelan, 1996)
This picaresque character misses no chance for chicanery… as though he lives in a world that offers him no other chance for survival… to cope with an unstraight and crooked world one needs unstraight and crooked paths. (Van Sertima, 1995)
A foray into the unapologetic mess of New Crobuzon’s sprawling mass, bulbous and bulging at the seams in haphazard and cluttered fashion, buildings oozing and streets littered with the detritus of its denizens, is an exercise in caution and suppression of scatalogical repulsion. The city teems with countless bodies of all possible make (or remake). The demography is anarchic and unpredictable; diasporic populations mark their territory along capricious borders. Khepri mix with vodyanoi mix with cactacae mix with wyrman mix with garuda mix with human, the boundaries between interactions skirting the line between thinly-veiled disgust, to polite condescension, to hidden passion, to ignorance. The city and its inhabitants are imbued with a sense of “metamorphic liminality” (Van Sertima, 1995); New Crobuzon is a “mongrel city” (Mieville, 2000).
Mieville has described the city as set in an “early industrial capitalist world of the fairly grubby, police state-y kind” (Marshall, 2003), a phrase that brings to mind a DIckensian vision of Gotham city, where the villains run the city officially (through Bentham Rudgutter and his Fat Sun fat cats) and unofficially (through Mr. Motley and his drug-running schemes), and the good guys exist like vigilantes from Sherwood Forest. Heroes are ambiguous and scarce. Against a confluence of negative forces ranging from the coldly calculating (the Construct Council) to the calculatingly murderous (Mr. Motley) to the murderously hungry (the slake-moths), Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin and his rag-tag band have few allies. Even their allies seem to have inexplicable motives. In Jack Half-A-Prayer we find an intriguing example of Bas Lag’s answer to the caped crusader, a mysterious apparition, a “cloaked figure slipp[ing] out of some shadow, appearing like an eidolon, manifesting as if from nothing” (MIeville, 2000), but it is the Weaver’s character that provides the threads, so to speak, from which the entirety of New Crobuzon is created. A higher power like the city itself, excessive and complex. A trickster god for a trickster city.
The trickster as trope has numerous incarnations, most of them not of human flesh. As rabbit, raven, coyote, and interestingly enough, mantis, one of the trickster’s most famous guises is as a spider. Even housed within one form the spider trickster comes with many names: Anansi, Ananse, Annancy, a fitting habit for a shapeshifting creature, one who exists in many planes. Tricksters are anti-authoritarian darlings, shitting and eating and dancing and fucking and fighting, causing violence as easily as laughter. They are creatures to be learned from and lived vicariously through. Their exploits are by turns creative and destructive. Tricksters are “uniquely complex, ambivalent creatures, equalled only by humans in their multiplicity, grandiosity and desire” (Phelan, 1996). The trickster as bricoleur is a cut-and-paste creature – in New Crobuzon, literally that. A trickster’s traditional talents encompass those of spinning, both of realistic and metaphorical thread, and of spinning tales and the use of language – two qualities shared by the Weaver. The Weaver oversees the upkeep of the worldweb, the elaborate underlayer of the city:
The crawling infinity of colours, the chaos of textures that went into each strand of that eternally complex tapestry… each one resonated under the step of the dancing mad god, vibrating and sending little echoes of bravery, or hunger, or architecture, or argument, or cabbage or murder or concrete across the aether. The weft of starlings’ motivations connected to the thick, sticky strand of a young thief’s laugh. The fibres stretched taut and glued themselves solidly to a third line, its silk made from the angles of seven flying buttresses to a cathedral roof. The plait disappeared into the enormity of possible spaces.
The Weaver speaks in the poetic language of dreams, words running over and under and after each other in seemingly nonsensical patterns, absent of punctuation or order, which somehow make sense as a whole, sometimes murmuring quietly to itself, sometimes booming into one’s consciousness:
…LOVELY LOVELY AND YET THOUGH THEY SMOOTH EDGES AND ROUGH FIBRES WITH COLD NOISE AN EXPLOSION IN REVERSE A FUNNELLING IN A FOCUS I MUST TURN MAKE PATTERNS HERE WITH AMATEURS UNKNOWING ARTISTS TO UNPICK THE CATASTROPHIC TEARING THERE IS BRUTE ASYMMETRY IN THE BLUE VISAGES THAT WILL NOT DO IT CANNOT BE THAT THE RIPPED UP WEB IS DARNED WITHOUT PATTERNS AND IN THE MINDS OF THESE DESPERATE AND GUILTY AND BEREFT ARE EXQUISITE TAPESTRIES OF DESIRE THE DAPPLED GANG PLAIT YEARNINGS FOR FRIENDS FEATHERS SCIENCE JUSTICE GOLD…
In his collaboration with Isaac the Weaver’s personality shows itself as conducive to acts of violence as it does to acts of aid. He is as likely to cut off one’s ears as he is to tempt one into a game of tic-tac-toe. He is described as a “dancing mad god” (Mieville, 2000), nimble and graceful, cradling Isaac and his friends as gently as babies, a pure aesthetic appreciator, a fan of Isaac and his attempts at material artistry. Like a trickster the Weaver appeals because of its “black innocence. He is loved and loveable because his “evil” liberates rather than oppresses. He assumes aspects of evil in order to elide and conquer a condition of evil” (Van Sertima, 1995).
As a historical figure the trickster has been used as a postcolonial hero, a revolutionary symbol for the disenfranchised to rally behind. For the diasporic descendants of slavery the trickster embodies a force of opposition to a dominant group:
In his seminal book Afro-Creole, Richard D.E. Burton (using the French historian Michel de Certau’s analytical categories) distinguishes between resistance and opposition: the former involves any kind of anti-systemic movement placed outside the system. Ananse’s strategies, though, originate from inside the colonial system and belong to the second category: ‘opposition takes place when the strong are strong and the weak know it.’ (Deandrea, 2004)
In contemporary times the trickster has become a template for a certain type of political action. Postmodern and feminist intellectuals have advocated a trickster approach to for minority groups dealing with dominant opposition in the political arena, in which a playing field where only certain virtues are valued. The trickster teaches us to
question our assumptions about the virtues of virtue – the effectiveness and moral superiority of truth-telling, reliability, and stability. To assume that these are virtues or the only virtues leaves us locked in to certain choices as surely as [Trickster] is. We cannot assume that these virtues are always good for us. The rationale that they are required for social harmony and cohesion should lead feminists and other challengers of existing social formations to question them sharply. We have heard the same argument concerning the need to be respectable, non-violent, and polite, and we have experienced the double edges of these strategies; it is not insane to examine other social virtues thoroughly. (Phelan, 1996)
One can scarcely recall a world weighted more unfairly than that of New Crobuzon, where even the smallest of dissenting voices can be crushed with unimaginable cruelty. It is no wonder that such a world, of hidden heroes and questionable public figures, requires a trickster. Tricksters “suggest a world in which caution and care are called for, in which we cannot assume that we know who is who or what is what” (ibid.). The environment of New Crobuzon is one that commands the existence of a trickster to cultivate and nurture it, albeit in typical trickster fashion (for New Crobuzon is not without its criminals and whores, its sins and its vices).
It is in the disparate (though not mutually exclusive) threads of ‘crisis energy’ and ‘social change’ that we find an interesting locus of confluence: the trickster has been associated with a particular energy that is capable of inducing revolutionary change. The trickster is a symbol of “revolutionary energy at war within forms that seek to contain it, it is able to see from within, to act from within, move from within the roots of its world, to re-root that world, so to speak, to point the way forward to a new course, a new possibility” (Van Sertima, 1995). Isaac’s academic obsession with crisis energy, that particular compulsion that happens “when you put enough strain on a group of people, [and they] suddenly explode. They’ll go from grumpy and quiescent to violent and creative in one moment. The transition from one state to another’s affected by taking something – a social group, a piece of wood, a hex – to a place where its interactions with other forces make its own energy pull against its current state” (Mieville, 2000). In New Crobuzon the deciding factor in Issac’s success is due in large part to the Weaver’s trickster abilities: its ability to exist in multiple planes, its creative desires, its understanding of the complexity and aesthetics of the entirety of the city’s concepts. In contemporary politics it’s a telling statement on what may be lacking in the interaction between the many who are disenfranchised by the few.
Deandrea, P. (2004). Trans(l)atlantic I-Con: The Many Shapes of Ananse in Contemporary Literatures. Journal of Transatlantic Studies 2(1), 1-26.
Marshall, Richard (February 2003), “The Road to Perdido: An Interview with China Miéville“, 3:AM Magazine, http://www.3ammagazine.com/litarchives/2003/feb/interview_china_mieville.html, retrieved on 2008-04-20
Mieville, C. (2000). Perdido Street Station.
Phelan, S. (1996). Coyote Politics: Trickster Tales and Feminist Futures. Hypatia 11(3), 130-149.
Van Sertima, I. (1995). Trickster, The Revolutionary Hero. Egypt: Child of Africa – African Civilizations, 445-451.
After some consultation with Matthew, we decided that your term projects would be due on Friday, April 24, so a week from Friday. As my schedule is pretty fierce right now and will be till the end of the month, I am not completely certain when I’ll be in my office (427 Buchanan Tower) that day, but you can always submit the project to the English Department office (397 Buchanan Tower: 3rd floor) by putting it in the big wooden box on the receptionist’s desk. Make sure my name (Baxter) is clearly identified on the front page as that’s how staff will know to put it in my mailbox after date-stamping it.
When the projects are graded, Matthew or I will let you know; they will then be available to collect from my office, either directly, or in sealed labelled envelopes in a box outside the office door.
I know that a lot of you are working in some sort of visual creative component. This has to be in some form that I can see while grading without having to travel around the city, so images and/or links would be very useful. My previous post (please let me introduce myself) dealt with the requirements of a conventional text-based research essay in an upper-level undergraduate course, so please check that one again; this post will deal with requirements for a project incorporating some sort of creative work. Again, to meet the standards of an upper-level undergraduate course, there must be a clear development of some sort of critical/theoretical context, so please include either an introductory or conclusion section, or both, of at least 2-3 pages of detailed prose, discussing the aims of the project, and situating it clearly in the concerns and content of the class. Again, explicit mention of at least four secondary sources subsequently listed in a Works Cited must be made.
If you have any questions, the shortest route to a speedy response is to email me directly at email@example.com
Whatever form your projects take, on the basis of this blog, which I follow regularly (I have its RSS feed bookmarked on my menu bar so I know when it’s updated), I am really looking forward to seeing them!
All best, Gisele Baxter.
“What new books might we write, if we could learn to use objects and spaces, buildings and bodies…to make architecture from words on a page?” – Shelly Jackson
This question has guided my deliberations on how exactly to go about doing a final project for this course. I knew I wanted to make a narrative, and one that tangibly interfaced with more than just sheets of paper. I wanted to use the city, and all the facets of its infrastructure not only as a place of radical fantasy, but as a material thing in and of itself. I wanted to write on it and with it – to throw fragments of a narrative across sidewalks and along the walls of buildings, to use the city’s own syntax of doorways and stairwells and multi-level car-parks, to collide text and space in a way that figures reading as a physical praxis. I’d then map it – the narrative – and chart it through more abstract, fantastic and parallel landscapes – digital landscapes, imagined geographies – all woven together as an elaborate hypertext, where the end links to the beginning in a paradoxical teleology of infinite regress.
After running through this naive and probably over-ambitious, under-developed scenario in different ways, it’s finally been subsumed as a preamble to a project that may prove to be more grounded, comprehensible and, most importantly, doable.
Specifically, my ideas began to change as I fixated more on graffiti as a primary mode of displaying the project. The physical act of superimposing an image, or in this case a text-based narrative, over a preexisting surface seemed apt considering the amount of work we’ve looked at this term that takes up collage as means of revising and re-conceiving the urban landscape.
I wanted to work with the concept of the overlay through graffiti, and realized the most direct way of achieving this would be to actually post the graffiti onto walls, along the lines of swoon or or Shepard Fairey’s Obey (/Obama) posters. I considered writing short, site-specific stories and then gluing the pages in the location they narrate, with piles of looseleaf on the ground, as if the walls were shedding memories: A kid drawing pictures in chalk, careless fingers dragged across by passerby, a bloody fight, a hustler’s date, a drifter’s muttered lamentations…
It made me realize how there wasn’t necessarily a need for completely fabricated memories – that the city is already marked up with its own stories, with the ceaseless flow of people imprinting its own kind of graffiti. The street, the walls, the sidewalk are all documents.
This pulled at a memory of my own – of a news story that ran this past December, about a homeless woman who’d burned to death downtown inside a makeshift shelter, on the corner of Hornby and Davie street. She had lit some candles to keep warm, fallen asleep, and burned alive inside her shopping cart. The absurd, horrific story had almost as much affect as the photographs of the wall the woman had been lying against. It was stained black.
I was, and still am, morbidly fascinated by the mark – I had this impulse after reading the story to go downtown to see it, to touch the soot, to look. And now I ask myself what it was exactly that I wanted to see – it was the news article that gave me the background of the event, its context, location, and most importantly its narrative. I wanted to see the story, or a fragment of it, as manifest in its remains.
The stain itself is an ambiguous black mark, but the words I read in the paper, and the words I’m reading right now in blogs, forums, and international press all act as means of writing the corner of Hornby and Davie street. Specifically, the black mark outlines a territory for this aggregate narrative – a locus or site for the words describing it. I want to bring the story a new publicity though, by overlaying a compiled account of it from the public realm of the internet onto that of the street. Alternately, I want to tear away the concrete surface of the wall, to expose an imagined underlying narrative structure.
I’m going to fill the space marked off by the burns – an incomprehensible space considering the experience inscribed there – constructing a narrative to fit within the borders of a blackened, unknown territory. I’m going to fill it with a patchwork of words distilled from its coverage in a kind of textual catharsis, enabling the possibility of both an analytical and affective process of delineating or mapping the event through words.
There is a range of directions the critical component of the project could take. Materially, I want to explore changing notions of news-media – printing web content on blank newsprint to gesture at the ephemerality of stories like this, regardless of them being archived elsewhere. The conflict of public/private is pressing too, as is that of detournment/defacement. The idea of the memorial as a public installation is taken up, alongside a consideration of the materiality of words, the physicality of text and its ability to quite literally form monuments
But then there’s the question of what exactly science fiction has to do with it. I want to go about answering this question by fixating on the marginalized, alienated position of the the homeless woman, who had appeared in the city weeks earlier and was known only as “Tracey”. Her liminality is compounded by the strangeness and unfathomable nature of her death, and framed absurdly by the idea that Vancouver is one of the most livable cities on the planet. One journalist responded to circumstances of Tracy’s death and the poverty that defined her life by stating, poignantly, that “It is truly another world.”
It is this this idea of ‘other worlds’ that figures so prominently in science fiction, where a large part of the genre’s work consists re-imagining and conceptualizing alternate places, states and subjectivities. Considering the possibility that public art, and graffiti in particular, can function as a means of this engagement with and understanting of what could be considered other-world positions, may afford us, an audience of pedestrians/readers, an alternate standpoint. In effect, the installation could act as a means of shifting perspective towards the margins, centralizing the narrative of Tracey’s death by fixating on the site as itself a textual and narrative medium. What sense could be made of urban space and the people that inhabit it through a situated imagining of one moment in the city?
It is the character of the weaver, who is by far my favorite of all we have come across so far. Maybe it is because it is whimsical, childlike in its focused intensity. I was so amused by the way in which it was presented, I could not help myself – I had to play around a little and decided to introduce my response with some oneiric babble much like that of the weaver. Enjoy!
QUESTIONS, QUESTIONS, BUT WILL YOU DANCE, THINKLINGS, PLAYING GAMES OF ARE YOU AREN’T YOU? YOU THINK YOU ARE, BUT WHAT IS YOU – NOT WE WHO SLIPSLIDES CRAFTING CRAFTY CLOTHS. TICK NOT YOU DO AS ONLY GEARLINGS AND GRINDINGS. TRICKY TRICKINGS MAKE PLAY FEIGNING FACES OF WHAT IS NOT. CRAFTING WITH CLOSED LIDS PATTERNS VEILED TO GEARLINGS STILL TO UNDERSTAND. WE SEE THE JOKE, PRETEND YOU DO YOU BE BOTH MIND AND MINDLESS, YOU CANNOT WEAVE AND GRIND ALTOGETHER BOTH YOU ARE. ANSWER FOR YOURSELF THE MISSING COLOUR, REVEAL MUCH OF YOUR NATURES NATURE IN THE DANCING.
The city of New Crobuzon exists in sublime tension. It is here that the extraordinary becomes the everyday as the lines blur between magic and science, making the surreal into the hyperreal. People are both organic and inorganic creatures, bioengineered to suit a variety of purposes both military and aesthetic. It is in this world of spaces, where nothing is what it seems, that we can find an explanation of what? human nature? (perhaps this is taking things too far) Nevertheless, the whole book goes into the exploration of this tension that exists between one object/thing and another, and it is through exploration of these liminal spaces and the relationship between things that truth is exposed. Most compelling of all these relationships is the one established between the Weaver, the Construct Council, and Man. We are introduced to the two distinct minds briefly:
“The Weaver thought in a continuous,incomprehensible, rolling stream of awareness. There were no layers to the Weaver’s mind, there was no ego to control the lower functions, no animal cortex to keep the mind grounded. For the Weaver, there were no dreams at night, no hidden messages from the secret corners of the mind, no mental clearout of accrued garbage bespeaking an orderly consciousness. For the Weaver, dreams and consciousness were one. The Weaver dreamed of being conscious and its consciousness was its dream, in an endless unfathomable stew of image and desire and cognition and emotion…
…the Construct Council thought with chill exactitude. Concepts were reduced to a multiplicity of onoff switches, a soulless solipsism that processed information without the complication of arcane desires or passion. A will to existence and aggrandizement, shorn of all psychology, a mind contemplative and infinitely, incidentally cruel.” ch.50
It is these two types of consciousness which we are supposed to examine in relation to our own. The pure rationality coupled with pure awareness both equals and does not equal the consciousness of the human mind. Like the Council, men are calculating beings, we think and are logical, we understand what it means to be rational and can process information through scientific method. At the same time, we are more than just logic, we are driven by purpose, by desires and motivations that defy our rationality. We appreciate beauty, an order of a different kind; this is the part of ourselves that is like the weaver. What then, do we have that these two entities lack? The obvious answer that lies within the context of the novel itself is simple: we dream.
Dreams, they are so much more than those fancies that invade our sleeping hours. Whether you view them to be divine intervention (not likely in today’s day), or mere reenactments of already experienced events and emotions there is no denying that it is through dreams that our unconscious mind (LINK) is able to surface. It is dreams, that hold the key to the inner workings of the mind. Certainly, shamanistic practices have long looked to the influence of the dream realm, and recently psychoanalytic theory has recognized the importance of dreams to the understanding of personal psychology. More accurately, it is the presence of this unconscious mind that differentiates the human consciousness, it is the source of our creativity and ingenuity. Unlike the Council, who can never deviate from the logical world, the human mind has the ability to ascend beyond the parameters of rational experience. Our ability to dream is evidence that proves our conscious mind is influenced by the unconscious self. We receive inspiration and wisdom from our dreams, they are a source of personal reflection but also illogical fantasy and inspiration. This is true of the Weaver also, but its unconscious does not exist. It is trapped, like the Council but on the other end of the spectrum, with no ability to conceive of logical thought, its consciousness is made up of what for us would be pure unconscious fancy. It is dreams and nightmares which allow our minds to explore all the ideas and consequences of our everyday experience, and it is the unconscious mind that can conceal everything from our most profound to our darkest conceivable imaginations.
It is this aspect of the mind, that is hunted by the slakemoths. At first I wondered how the eradication of dreams from the mind would result in the loss of intelligent thought in an individual. It seemed extreme that dreams should be so intricate a part of the waking mind. In his The Interpretation of Dreams Freud speaks on the importance of dreams to the conscious mind:
“A man deprived of the capacity for dreaming would in time become mentally unbalanced, because an immense number of unfinished and unsolved thoughts and superficial impressions would accumulate in his brain, under the pressure of which all that should be incorporated in the memory as a completed whole would be stifled. The dream acts as a safety-valve for the over-burdened brain. Dreams possess a healing and unburdening power.” Ch.1 s.g
If it is true, and dreams act as the door to the unconscious mind, a safety valve that works to release the built up pressures of conscious thought, than it is those powerful thoughts and emotions that are what the slakemoths are truly after. It is the unconscious that is the true strength our of psyche policing our conscious minds through its subtle influences. It is why the thoughts of the Weaver, although so tantalizing, held no sustenance. Its thoughts have no grounding in reality. What is left behind, the detritus of thought are those unthinkable, nightmarish fantasies, the dregs of unconscious fears and worries. We are greater and yet less than the single-minded consciousness of the both the Weaver and the Council. Their single minded purpose gives them strength greater than our own and yet they can only ever follow the same purpose, what makes us unique is our ability to harness the thoughts of our unconscious and allow our ingenuity to look beyond the constant plodding motions of the everyday and see the endless possibilities that life can hold.
YOU SEE THAT THINKLINGS TRULY ARE NOT TRULY BUT DREAMLINGS CRAFTED NEITHER ONLY GEARS NOR CRAFTY BUT BOTH, INDEED HIGHER YOU FLY TO FALL FARTHER BETTER
“Men had built cities before, but never a city such as this… Diaspar alone had challenged eternity, defending itself and all it sheltered against the slow attrition of the ages, the ravages of decay, and the corruption of rust…” Clark ch. 2
Virtual immortality, a concept that was, when Clark first fostered the notion of the city Diaspar, something only fit for the realm of the fantastical. As long as men have been sentient enough to realize the fact of their own mortality (and fear it), there have been those among men who have devoted themselves to finding the secret to abolishing death. In today’s world of technological and medical advances, immortality is no longer a simple fantasy, but an easily conceived possibility for the near future. Death has been pathologized; it is simply one more thing we can now work to cure, instead of fear. Those who have devoted their lives to finding this ‘cure’ are aware that their solution and our future waits in the age of the cyborg. An age in which cities and the people in them will become indistinguishable from the technology they depend on. Already, we are ‘plugged in’ to the vast communication and information network that exists around us. Our generation will be the first to experience their own form of immortality, in the masses of information archived in online databases. How long will it be until the next step is taken and we move into an age where you can chose to maintain your consciousness through the ages. In reality, the process has already begun.
“I construct, and I am constructed, in a mutually recursive process that continually engages my fluid, permeable boundaries and my endlessly ramifying networks. I am the spatially extended cyborg.” Mitchell pp. 39
We have yet to experience the true ramifications of a fully micro-documented past. It seems impossible that such a shift of attention towards the virtual persona could not have some sort of effect. There are those, having watched as relationships become increasingly impersonal, people gather less and ‘communicate’ more, and identity becomes an increasingly nebulous concept, who would say these effects have already manifested. We have begun to be defined not by our actions and interactions, but by how we present the events of our lives to others. Our digital memory is perfect in that it remembers everything we want it to and it does so on a scale that has never been seen before. Our privacy is both absolute and non-existent, in a digital environment that has no way of distinguishing fact from fiction. We have become dependent on the ease with which we collect and our distribute information; and for the first time, the trouble with information does not seem to be that it cannot be remembered, but that it cannot be forgotten.
“The old, the ossified, must always give way to new life and the birth of new things. Before the new things can be born the old must perish… Unless we can psychologically accommodate change, we ourselves begin to die, inwardly. What I am saying is that objects, customs, habits, and ways of life must perish so that the authentic human being can live. And it is the authentic human being who matters most, the viable, elastic organism which can bounce back, absorb, and deal with the new.” Philip K. Dick
But it is not just our own lives that we have sought to preserve. Whether it is for convenience sake or for aesthetics it seems we have a fear of being forgotten. Evidence of our obsession is obvious in our efforts to preserve anything from data, to art, memories, sound, food, animal and plant life, and the physical world around us. People are focused on preserving what it is we cannot hold onto, and in our desperate race to immortalize the world around us there is one question that should be asked: what are the social and psychological implications of this immortality that we seek; what if we were meant to forget? Dick proposes that death is what allows for real life, we must be able to change to truly live. Perhaps we are in danger of becoming paralyzed, of becoming too invested in our emerging cyborg selves to realize that our hyper-connectivity has the potential to create stagnation and a dislocation from our ‘authentic human’ identities. Or, perhaps we are simply being ushered into a new age, and it is this new cyborg self, this kind of pseudo immortality that is the inevitable next step in our development.
“This is the way our ancestors gave us virtual immortality, yet avoided the problems raised by the abolition of death. A thousand years in one body is long enough for any man; at the end of that time, his mind is clogged with memories, and he asks only for rest-or a new beginning.” Clark ch.2
Rest. For Clark, it is rest that solves the problem of immortality; citizens of Diaspar can continue to live because they can re-boot, leave behind the backlog of memories and experience and start fresh. But rest is a concept counter intuitive for those enmeshed within our technological culture. We allow our lives to be documented in the virtual landscape, struggling to preserve more and more everyday. We network, blog, twitter and facebook ourselves into connection with as many people as possible in order to extend our virtual footprint. Unlike the citizens of Diaspar, we cannot live forever, free to slip in and out of existence as we please, as of yet we must remain confined to our bodies, with our cyborg selves extended, preserving our existence. It is hard to say how this will effect us, maybe it won’t; perhaps before long it will be us who are looking for the answer to a question: where is our reset button?
Here’s where I think my brain began to concieve of my larger project. But this is really just the beginning.
The internet: MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Usenet, online-dating, online-gambling, secret porn lives, blogging with the ever present answer to all queries, questions and quizzes Google. The more we as a culture choose to interact with this colossal network, the more this network influences and manipulates our lives. We are choosing to lift the internet above the individual, and also above man. The internet is God. And I plan to prove that God is just a god-machine.
Inspired by the interconnection of man and machine within Atrocity Exhibition and Neuromancer, I have become fascinated in destroying the divide between what has come to be termed “virtuality” and that of “reality”. The internet has become a myth – an ethereal phantom in part due to the further institutionalizing of the internet and so called “virtual life”.
The culturally recognized perception of a virtual space existing outside of real space is a myth. The engorging use and ubiquity of the internet increasingly separates the actual physical apparatus of the internet from the myth/myths that is the internet. On a basic fundamental level the internet is physical and not virtual. There is no separation between the atom and the bit, between the physical and the digital. The digital process of information exchange is, as I have stated, a physical process which is not unlike the processes exchanged within the human body.
The deified program or being Wintermute or Neuromancer exists as a fuller realization of our present internet – the internet with thought, agency and will. Wintermute is portrayed as distant and untouchable, both in reference to physical space. And while Case cannot physically escape Wintermute, it is not because of Wintermute’s transcendent immateriality, but rather because of the pervasiveness of physical network connections internationally as well as individually in implants within the brain. Wintermute is a being like a human performing functions and processes in a material way. This connection begs the question for our own internet and computers, how will and do we distinguish between a human thought and a machine thought? Will we ever have an answer to this?
In a similar overlapping of the artificial and organic, in Atrocity Exhibition there is a blurring between technology and man resulting in the confusion of the actual and the simulated. The real takes the form of a stylized representation, a transparent simulation of the actual. The form of the work takes an objective perspective, separating itself from an individual consciousness, but at the same time acknowledging that it cannot ignore consciousness. Consciousness as individual thought, emotion, perspective, is simply not there. Instead objective accounts of the environment and the material and physical movements is represented – an objective interface with human subjectivity. The narrator is an objective consciousness – a computer – a thinking, observing, artificial intelligence.
The separation between the virtual and the physical does not exist. There is no clear discrepancy between what a human is and what a machine/computer is. The internet is not something beyond the human apparatus. This worship of the immateriality of the internet is false – it is not God.
Kish. Schruff. Kishhhh. Schruff. Whoopfh!
Morgan Farlow sweat. A lot. The rivulets ran down over his face impeded only by the industrial grade goggles that shielded his eyes from the intense light of The Heart. Working in one of the many subterranean layers beneath the city, Farlow shoveled coke into one of the countless sub-boilers. The dig of his trusted shovel into the ubiquitous piles of partially cooked coal, the subsequent release, and the whoosh of the fires consuming provided a rhythmic backdrop for his thoughts.
The Heart was the hearth from which many if not all of the engines and other invisible luxuries in the city drew their power. The city produced all of its own power independently. But to do this, they needed meat to move around in the steam passages where constructs would prove too unwieldy. One of countless other stokers, Farlow worked the swing shift, from 2 in the afternoon until 10 at night every day except Shunday. Too poor to not work, and well enough provided for that no lending institution in New Crobuzan would touch him using a familiar and 10-foot-pole, Farlow had to beg the city to take him on for a research position or some other kind of related desk job in the Ornithological Engineering Department. They gave him this instead. And he had to smile and take their stivers so he could turn around and give ’em right back in taxes. Not to mention the exorbitant prices his landlord called rent in this twisted burg.
It wasn’t all bad. The work was easy, if physically taxing. Only a few months ago he had been of slight build and in this tenure, the Heart had turned him into a dynamo of muscles, tendons, organs: as close to an automaton of labor as he could hope to be. Reveling in the new-found strength, Farlow often let the rhythm of the labor hypnotize him into self-reflection. It could be worse. Of the few other human laborers that fit into the lower middle class that needed the work, Farlow had become acquainted with hired hands among whom were scores of cactacae, whose immense strength and constitutional resilience made them ideal forge laborers. Morgan had also worked alongside a few of the recalcitrant khepri who also worked the boilers. Their forms of wordless communication made them invaluable in the deafening conditions.
When they gave him the job, they gave him sound-canceling ear plugs made from a form of bio-thaumaturgical clay. Morgan didn’t particularly want to know how they were made, or what they were formed from, but they fit perfectly and they worked better than a charm. The bangs, flares, heat, and other assorted cacophony of the Heart was dulled to a constant dim roar in the inner recesses of his ears. So beneath the city shielded by goggles, ear plugs, and a heavy leather apron, Morgan Farlow shoveled.
Sometimes when Plani, the foreman–a gruff cacatae with the long spines of age–needed work done in layers closer to the surface, he drafted the humans do the labor. Gods forbid the administrators or financiers be confronted with the fact that their palace of higher knowledge is built on the sweat of countless xenians. That’s a fact they’d rather consign to the depths and pretend that all of the work was done by good, upstanding humans pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.
Working in the confines of the steam tunnels brought a sort of camaraderie if not an entente between Farlow and most of his fellow workers. The time spent shoveling, shearing plate, pouring molten ore into molds, and debating which brands of arc light spanners performed best under the conditions of the Heart had dispelled the naive human-centric stereotypes Farlow had held in regards to all xenians. Hadn’t all cacatae been a result of Mad Zur’s experiments in Adarkar? No, not the Wastes, it was in the Cacotopic Stain itself. And didn’t all khepri practice ritual sacrifice of captured human children? As it turns out, not so much.
So basically what I wanted to do was explore space in Perdido, Neuromancer, and Snow Crash. They all deal with space that is not space, per se, and I really wanted to do something creative. After hearing Chelsea lament that this was the last project of our undergrad, I decided to spurn my traditionalist notions of writing a paper. I summarily decided to throw myself at something more creative with reckless abandon.
What I want to do is write from the perspective of people immersed in the same worlds as these three novels, and how see how ‘normal people’ interact with the space that is not space. The only concrete idea I have this far is writng up a newspaper excerpt similar to Double R from Perdido Street Station. The main idea is to write up a page from the paper, layout, drawn ads, heliotypes, etc in order to question the assumptions and hierarchies in Bas-Lag.
Ben Flex and Derkhan Blueday are the only characters to attempt literary change in New Crobuzan; they work outside the pale of legality, asking all the wrong questions to all the right people. Their anonymous efforts at journalism let them occupy a space that is not space from which they sortie into the ‘real world.’ This effect is almost exactly like the behavior of Case and Hiro in their respective novels. I had initially wanted to do an entire newspaper with several pages, print up copies and distribute them, but doing something of that magnitude for every portion of this seemed a little more than I could handle.
I have yet to figure out a way in which I will be engaging with Snow Crash and Neuromancer. The theme of the course has been somewhat dated: Patchwork Girl, We, City and the Stars, Blade Runner, Metropolis. And I had hoped that by using a newspaper excerpt for a portion of my project, I could further comment on the fact that newspapers are becoming even more dated everyday that goes by. That’s as far as I have thought on the project, but I must be off to start working on the rest of it.