Monthly Archives: January 2009


We’ll be discussing Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition on Monday, along with Gasiorek’s introduction to the book – “Deviant Logics” (read pp.58-80). Also, take a look through the Ballardian sometime this weekend, and develop some questions / thoughts to bring to the discussion. 

And as a way to bring some kind of closure to (or more more likely further agitate) our jumbled look at The City and the Stars, I’ll be showing Logan’s Run at my place this Sunday, around 4pm – feel free to drop in.

“reconvening, courtroom seventy-four”

I’m sitting on the sixth floor balcony of the downtown law courts, looking out on the waists and necks of Howe street high-rises. A woman’s disembodied voice calls out for court room reconvenings, dissolving inside the empty glass atrium, with the occasional clatter of footsteps and the quiet blur of conversation drifting up from the floors below.

Yesterday’s seminar was loopier than usual – a morass of starting points, links and ideas that we’ll hopefully be able to follow through and make sense of as we move on to Ballard. For next class I’ll try to set a more coherent path for the discussion.  Below are some divergent, digressive things somehow related to yesterday’s seminar – worth looking through:

23 skidoo – short film we opened with, on the post-apocalyptic metropolis; Montreal after the neutron-bomb. Vacant infrastructure, the ‘city without us’, encrypted with memory of its inhabitants.

the lotus eaters – re: vancouver, diaspar

Russia’s Russia in the Black sea…with its very own Black sea.

Dubai’s world

Synechdoche New York is playing next week at the Norm. Also, a lucky Kaufman interview bylife without buildings)

wandering sickness and the gas of peace – visual essay by derek horton. thinking specifically about the title of the piece. The magazine itself is worth looking through as well: a choice essay

Questions of memory and materiality in the City of Diaspar – how much of it is fabricated, re-membered from its own archives?

Is Clark imagining a proto-digital environment? How do elements of spirituality and mysticism relate with the realities of mediated (online) communication?

“Lonely? In Diaspar?”

One of the things we talked about last class regarding The City and the Stars was the playing off of one another between Diaspar and Lys and the dichotomies that the two represented: “the City” vs. “the Country”, “Nature” vs. “Machine”, “immortality” vs. “death”, “boundedness” vs. “space”… In particular we were talking about the difference in the social structure between the two cities. What it brought to mind for me, and what I couldn’t quite express in class but now with the aid of a computer I can (ta-dah!), were the twin terms of gemeinschaft and gesellschaft, Ferdinand Tönnies‘ sociological categories delineating two types of societies. Gemeinschaft (“community”) is a type of organization in which its members are oriented as much, if not more, towards the larger group rather than their own individual interests, and are regulated by common mores. Gemeinschafts are characterized by

a moderate division of labour, strong personal relationships, strong families, and relatively simple social institutions. In such societies there is seldom a need to enforce social control externally, due to a collective sense of loyalty individuals feel for society.

Gesellschaft (“society”/”civil society”/”association”), on the other hand, is an organizations in which the individual orients themself towards the larger grouping in terms of their own self-interest. Unlike gemeinschaften,

Gesellschaften emphasize secondary relationships rather than familial or community ties, and there is generally less individual loyalty to society. Social cohesion in Gesellschafts typically derives from a more elaborate division of labor.

 Tönnies’ classifications are similar in some ways to Émile Durkheim‘s theories on mechanical vs. organic solidarity. Mechanical solidarity, similar to gemeinschaft, emphasizes similarity and collective authority; organic solidarity, similar to gesellschaft, emphasizes difference and individual initiative (The similarities, however, stop there).

Men had built cities before, but never a city such as this. Some had lasted for centuries, some for milleniums, before Time had swept away even their names. 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.

Diaspar could be the conventional “City” trope, an ephemeral society whose foundations, both literal and ideological, are based on intangibilities. Matter can be conjured out of thin air, familial ties are affectionate at best, and even the city’s founding legends are (spoiler alert) merely that, legends created to stunt its citizens’ sense of curiosity, exploration and adventure. Like a gesellschaft society, the citizens of Diaspar feel a lessened connection with each other. Hilvar’s musings on the city reflect his general feelings of loneliness among a sea of people:

Within a few days of arriving in Diaspar, Hilvar had met more people than in his entire life. Met them – and had grown to know none. Because they were so crowded together, the inhabitants of the city maintained a reserve that was hard to penetrate.

Lys, on the other hand, couldn’t be more different. As opposed to the millions of Diaspar, the small village of Airlee is composed of less than a thousand. They have shunned the possibility of immortality and retain the cycles of birth and death as well as the range of ages in between, exposing Alvin to states of the human condition (childhood, old age) that he had previously been unfamiliar with. The also rely less on technology and as a consequence, retain a skill that the citizens of Diaspar now only have when dealing with machines: the ability to communicate telepathically. The citizens of Lys, like people in a gemeinschaft society, are thus more collectively integrated.

The “Country” trope that Lys seems to suggest brings up something that Hung-Te touched on in class: though Tönnies doesn’t seem to be making a value judgement between the two types of organization, Clarke seems to be. As a brief end note: did anyone else get the Rousseaunian noble savage vibe? Rousseau’s theory of Natural Man suggests that we were better off before society made us “civilized”: we were stronger, faster, could see without the aid of glasses, etc. The juxtaposition between Diaspar and Lys can’t help but make the reader think that the latter comes out on top: they’re more intelligent, more self-reliant, and let’s not forget: they can read minds. Any ideas on what Clarke’s vision of the future could suggest in that respect?

Domed Utopias

When our discussion about Diaspar from The City and the Stars brought up the idea of utopian domed structures, I was reminded of something that might have been too tangential for class. . . but perfect for the Interweb! Let me introduce you to Auroville, an experimental township in southern India.

From their official website ( “The purpose of Auroville is to realise human unity– in diversity. Today Auroville is recognised as the first and only internationally endorsed ongoing experiment in human unity and transformation of consciousness, also concerned with – and practically researching into – sustainable living and the future cultural, environmental, social and spiritual needs of mankind.”

Auroville was created in 1968, and is the brainchild of Mirra Alfassa (1873-1978), a French woman mostly known as “The Mother”. She designed the town as a spiral, or “galaxy”, and guess what’s in the center of the spiral?          (

This photo was taken in May 2007, before construction was finished.

Auroville spirals out from a domed ashram called the Matrimandir. The Matrimandir is made from flattened spheres of real gold leaf, and inside “the spacious Inner Chamber in the upper hemisphere of the structure is completely white, with white marble walls and white carpeting. In the centre a pure crystal-glass globe suffuses a ray of electronically guided sunlight which falls on it through an opening at the apex of the sphere”.

Since it’s an ashram (meditation center), you have to be completely silent in the dome and surrounding gardens. Walking up in pure silence to the giant orb, which glows golden in the sunshine, is one of the most beautiful and surreal things I have ever experienced. 

Auroville is very cool, but it is also a little creepy. Visitors are not allowed full access to the town, but my Gr.11 French teacher used to live there and took our class on a rare 3-day field trip. We visited a free cafeteria run entirely on solar power (cool), and a water bottling facility that makes “energy water” by playing classical music to it (creepy). We met international folk who gave up their careers to live a more meaningful life (cool), and we met a family whose house was full of pictures of The Mother (creepy). That’s all subjective, but I’m pessimistic about whether a utopia can actually be achieved. Is Auroville really “a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities”, or is it just wishful thinking? In any event, Auroville’s Matrimandir is further evidence that domes are the ultimate utopian structures.

01/21: The Aesthetics of Sound – guest lecture by Michael Filimowicz


Michael Filimowicz’s guest lecture last week presented a sprawling and evocative introduction to the employment of sound in science fiction film. Citing strong ties between the genre of SF and the musical avant-garde, Michael took us through a historical trajectory of weird sound. What follows is the gist:

We started by briefly looking at a layout of sound, as it functions between the poles of noise/pitch and contrast/similarity.

Arnold Schoenburg, along with other early 20th century composers, noted a gradual depature in musical composition from its previously stable and harmonic quality towards more dissonant and chaotic elements. He called this shift the emancipation of dissonance. We watch a few star-trek clips which illustrated the direct use of dissonant tones to connote forces of malevolence and the alien – with the protagonists portrayed in an evidently harmonic contrast.  

Later musicians came to profit from Schoenburg’s narrative, which worked to justify atonality, bringing this departure from convention to their own productions. 

Luigi Russolo’s Futurist Noise Manifesto (1913) extends this idea of dissonance into what he deems as the environment of its inception: the industrialized urban landscape produced concurrent soundscapes of mechanized hum and pandemonium, by which many musicians were influenced.

George Antheil’s Ballet Mechanique displays an embodiment of the technological within the musical, incorporating an on-stage choreography of instruments and devices (electric bells, pianos, airplane propellers etc.) – a visual / sonic expression of the machine aesthetic. 

Further along this path of mechanical sound, albeit in a more abstracted sense, is musique concrète – a form of primarily electronic music (began in the 1940’s), and consequently entwined in a narrative of technological progression. It is produced acousmatically – where the originating cause of the sound is unseen. Here, generating music becomes more an abstraction than a definite, observable act, implicating a sense of uncertainty within its performance.  The work of John Cage, continued this notion of uncertainty, where his “chance” pieces and various experimental compositions pushed music towards further indeterminacy.

From its conception, electronic music became a dominant element in achieving alien effects and the characteristic sense of strangeness and unfamiliarity in SF film. Heavily influenced by the ideas above, pioneers in sound design such as Louis and Bebe Barron forged “electronic tonalities” derived from passing currents through custom circuitries, recording the effects:

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The process itself exposed the ephemerality of the medium, as the circuits would often be destroyed through overheating. More to the point though, these sounds marked an aesthetic of sound distinct to (classic) SF, and one arrived at through the employment of its contemporary technology alongside a sensibility based in the avant-garde.

sci-fi in real life: vancouver/lotusland’s worldwide reproduction

robson st
…..look like robson st? it should, because its a direct reproduction of it in the form of a school and resort called the Vancouver Resort in China, “on a lake near Shanghai, complete with its own Coal Harbour, Robson Street and Royal Yacht Club.”

these photos have been fascinating/creeping me out for a while now and today’s discussion about the concept of the utopian city as represented in sci fi like clarke’s novel, with vancouver as an example of the mythical ‘lotus-land’– a place without memory or pain, where all earthly wonders are beautiful and those who eat the lotus walk among us (supposedly)– is uncannily expressed in the descriptions of Vancouver used in this resort’s advertising. it is strange to see one’s city reflected back at oneself, especially when that reflection looks like an unnerving hybrid stuck halfway between reality and facade. it is vancouver’s own “looking-glass self” gone horribly wrong and made almost TOO self-aware.


on the school: “Choosing Sino-Canada High School is an express way to experience the authentic Canadian Education ; one step closer to the University of British Columbia…”

on vancouver: “Vancouver, “the city of heaven” , beaches, lakes, forests, mild climate, people’s first choice for holiday and immigration. Among eastern China , only the Dingshan lake area can provide you with both waterscape and modern city life.”

….has anyone else heard more recent stories about this resort? shit’s crazy!

more info: vancouver sun article

The voluntary exhalations of late capitalism in Blade Runner

In an essay by William Timberman titled “The Future of Our Discontents“, he comments on the visual use of smoke in Blade Runner:

“almost everyone in Blade Runner smokes — the impenetrable tobacco haze is an important visual element in many of the interior scenes. It isn’t clear, in an age when smoking has become anathema, an almost universal symbol of dissipation and self-contempt, what Scott intends by giving it such pride of place in his version of the twenty-first century.

The answer, I think, is that the smoking in Blade Runner is intended as an echo, a reminder that all the poisonous exhalations of a capitalist society are voluntary. The fatal eroticism embodied in the fumes from Rachael’s smoldering cigarette is repeated in the orange skies above Los Angeles, in the continual dark rain which beats along its decaying rooftops and licks at the trash fires in its streets. Consumption pursued as an end in itself, Scott seems to be saying, will lead to the same, slow catastrophe whether it is an individual or an entire society which does the pursuing.”

In a book by David Pinder called Visions of the City:Utopianism, Power. and Politics , something he said about the role of utopianism in the imagination and perception of the city seemed related to the project of Sci-Fi futurism/urbanism in the stories we’ve looked at so-far.

For Pinder, to envision a utopia in an urban/spatial form works to disrupt the “seemingly inevitable reproduction of the present”. Envisioning is about “developing projects, events, situations and struggles through which other possibilities become more tangible and what is revealed as truly absurd is the claim, not that there are alternatives to be won, but that there aren’t any. Isn’t that the really shocking proposal, that this is it?”.

I thought it was interesting how the role of smoking in the L.A. of 2019 also creates this sense of possibility and choice in the movie’s depiction of what may come out of the actual reproduction of present trends. (Trends such as hyper-globalization with no clear direction, coupled with the persistence of uncertainty so inherent in the human experience).

Down the Rabbit Hole of Techno-Orientalism

What started out as a search for the Tagalog in Star Wars turned into a bizarre backward-and-forwarding of Google searches about something we touched on the other day: the presence of “Asian-ness” and Orientalism in science fiction. Some intriguing things I found (which Hung Te might know more about, having expressed interest in class?):

\”0/1 v. Zion: Techno-Orientalism in \’The Matrix\’\” — An essay presented at the Visualizing the City  Symposium at the University of Manchester in 2005. A choice quote that has to do with the films we just happened to have watched:

Hegel famously wrote in The Philosophy of History, “The History of the World travels from East to West, for Europe is absolutely the end of History, Asia the beginning” (103-04). U.S. and European science-fiction filmmakers, clearly not Hegelians, have assumed the opposite to be the case: to them, the future is Asian.
Lisa Nakamura, borrowing the term from Greta Niu, calls this “techno-orientalism”: sci-fi films and fictions, writes Nakamura, use “images of Japanese geishas, ninjas, and samurai warriors” to “establish the distinctive look and feel of a cyberpunk future,” resulting in “a high-tech variety of racial stereotyping” (Nakamura 63). Nakamura locates the beginnings of cinematic techno-orientalism in Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner, but Western filmmakers began using Asian cultural tropes to signify the (often-dystopic, always-radically-Other) future of humankind at least as early as the 1920s, when the first of the Fu Manchu pictures was released, and Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis opened, introducing the Robot Maria, as David Desser says, “in a nightclub of ‘Oriental splendour’, the Yoshiwara (the name of the traditional pleasure quarter of Japan’s Edo, now Tokyo)” (Desser 82-83).

Writer gailderecho’s assertion in the beginning about science-fiction filmmakers exoticizing the future represents a shift in Orientalism: 

Techno-Orientalism: Shattering the Mirror of Itself — Maya Kovskaya explains:

As media critics Morley and Robins have noted, with the rise of Information Capitalism and Japan’s technological ascendancy, the functioning of Orientalism as a sign was altered by its combination with technology. Through the inversion of meanings attendant to Techno-Orientalism, Japan, and now the rapidly developing Greater Asia, has become a sign of the (technologically advanced?) future, rather than the (backward?) past, presaging a shift in power relations and alignment of new global communities. Toshiya Ueno argues that Techno-Orientalism functions as a “a semi-transparent or two-way mirror,” through which ‘Orient’ and ‘Occident’ apprehend each other, forming invidious images of an Other against which a self is constituted.

And (I don’t remember quite how this happened) I was inexplicably led back to the beginning of everything – our class discussion on Blade Runner:

The Future of L.A.?

Los Angeles 2019

Los Angeles 2019

Los Angeles 2009

Los Angeles 2009

Johnny – any thoughts?


This film poster reminded me of the “raygun gothic” / Googie architecture that we briefly looked at yesterday; it’s playing Thursday night at Vancity Theatre as part of Spark FX ’09 ( I can’t explain it, but I find something in the 1950s aesthetic very appealing, probably the use of color.

Also, because nothing beats a retro trailer that basically tells you the entire plot:

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“What’s a bathing suit?”

“Oh, murder!”


Just thought I should add a little something about retro-futurism (from the wiki

“Retrofuturistic design is a return to, and an enthusiasm for, the depictions of the future produced in the past (most often the 1920s through 1960s), both in science fiction and in nonfiction futurism of the time, which often seem dated by modern standards.[1] The ideology combines retrogradesociopolitical views with techno-utopianism. […] A great deal of attention is drawn to fantastic machines, buildings, cities, and transportation systems. The futuristic design ethic of the early 20th century tends to solid colors, streamlined shapes, and mammoth scales. It might be said that 20th century futuristic vision found its ultimate expression in the development of googie or populuxe design. As applied to fiction, this brand of retro-futuristic visual style is also referred to as Raygun Gothic, a catchall term for a visual style that incorporates various aspects of the GoogieStreamline Moderneand Art Deco architectural styles when applied to retro-futuristic science fiction environments.”

What interests me about this is how even the “future” can seem dated when viewed through the lens of cultures past, as we were talking about in regards to Bladerunner… forward thinking directors and designers try to keep this in mind. Thankfully, most don’t, and we can have a laugh at representations of a future that we are supposedly living in right now; I once read a hilarious article about the things that we need to invent right away to be up to speed with the 2015 as envisioned in Back to the Future Part 2. Guess what guys, there are only 6 years left before we all have hoverboards!