Author Archives: Jonathan Morissette

belated response #2: My Pulled Teeth

Brain Food:

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.

Internets, What will become of you?

Perhaps it was merely the coincidence of my receiving this link right as I was attempting to chug the rich phillosophical soup of Me++, but this music/video, aside from being the best thing I’ve ever seen on the internet (I’m really into sampling), I thought was a beautiful instantiation of the consequences of total networking and the pseudo-eternal retention of past virtual selves we’ve been discussing in seminar. Just as the exponential prolifreation of mechanical and electric inventions is predicated on the development of certain few fundemental technologies, the elaboration of a toolkit of parts which might then be recombined ad infinitum, so is the mass importing and uploading of data onto the intertubes the preliminary step towards future recombinative capacities we can only begin to imagine at this point. What the artist, Kutiman, is doing here is the logical extension of Grandmaster Flash’s hiphop methodology, but something about his sensitivity to video and the lives he is remixing makes this, in my eyes, something wholly new. 

I guess I can’t embed this so the link is here then:

Cities of Memory, Cities of Glass

Cities of Memory, Cities of Glass: A Response to Three Fictive Cities

“Cities of Memory, Cities of Glass, I have thought these thoughts and read these works in a sequence of spaces mediated by constructed structures, interpolating their envisioned environments through my own spatially situated self (see contemporary theories of situated cognition). The glass window of the city bus, the sunset’s reflection off West End apartments and office towers.”

Zamyatin’s seminal dystopian novel We is simultaneously the story of a man and a city, and pivotally it is the mediating material between these two which defines their dynamic interrelation. The city is composed almost entirely of glass, glass which exposes all, revealing and uniting spectrally as it divides and delimits. The predilection of progress is that the better we become at holing ourselves in, the more we engineer these structures to reveal or display its interiors and ourselves. Zamyatin’s vision is fixed in the near enough future he so presciently presaged, it is universal and sociological in scope, and it is reminiscent of nothing more than Foucault’s analysis of the Panopticon. In an environment where one’s every action may be monitored, enforcement becomes unnecessary as paranoia becomes dominant. This is precisely the world Zamyatin evokes, as his OneState allows only the briefest moments of privacy for controlled sexual relations, as well as two unscheduled hours per day, which D-503, the protagonist, hopes will one day be phased out. Through the contrivances of architecture and materials, the subject becomes the dictator.

“Coast Mountains whose carpet of canopy stretches the eyes enviously to the horizon, and glimpses across the water of leering towers whose dense lights glow in the distance and resonate through my many years’ recollections of this place. On the hills of North Vancouver, where these two views compete and meet, I’ve thought long of what it means to live in a place and transform the earth into inhabited space. “

On the other hand, the dystopia which Clarke presents in City and the Stars is not so much a nightmare of the state or city, but of the human soul when granted infinite capacity. Clarke describes the city with palpable infatuation, marveling at its virtuality, its imaginative mutability, and a projectability of self into electronic avatars which clearly prefigures the Internet of today. The dystopian edge becomes evident not in the city itself, but in its uses. Diaspar is built on terrified falsehood, it is the refuge of a people who have turned their back on outer space and buried themselves in an endless cycle of static, and perhaps stagnant, lives. Though they appear to enjoy a sort of immortality, and it is said that the city cycles its citizens such that the possible permutations of experience are infinite, the inhabitants of Diaspar may also edit their memories before returning to the memory banks of the city, which themselves are held in triplicate, so that while the design and contents of the city may appear limitless and eternal, in fact the structure of the city fosters a permanent ignorance and incuriosity of the broader world. Architecture, the engineering of space, is supposed to be a constructive act, a positive creation working towards a goal of comfort and betterment. But in setting his city one billion years in the future as he does, Clarke highlights the pitfall of civilization, that our technological freedoms might in fact tether our minds, and that total control over memory might prove the greatest means of forgetting.

“And in this place, where my grandfather built his home out of river rock and cedar, I have watched the wave of history peak and break, as the future subsumed the present just as it danced nimbly away, an impossible dream of another time. Peak oil has replaced the jet car, and the Jetsons has faded to childhood folly, as LCD screens and tiny white earbuds quietly supersede tangible constructions in favour of virtual spaces we can’t yet fully imagine. The faces of a thousand strangers whip by mine as I transit this urban environment, billboards and giant televisions heralding the victory march of lust and loneliness and a thousand expensive new tomorrows. There is comfort in the prescience of speculative writers of the past, but their penchant for the dystopic is a warning that progress, if it can be said to occur, is perhaps more a negative process of eliminating undesirable potentialities rather than a fostering of particular outcomes or intentions.”

J. G. Ballard’s later works, beginning with the notable eruption that is Atrocity Exhibition, are an exemplary pinnacle of the urban and architectural themes heretofore encountered in this survey, where the controlling and unifying transparency of materials embodied in glass architecture becomes the total erosion of any delineation between inner and outer space, and the immutable collective memory which Diaspar embodies becomes a horrifying diorama of the indigestible traumas of the past. The novel represents the collapse of all traditional dichotomies and distinctions, it is the unification of Freud’s erotic and thanatotic drives, our twin fascinations with life and death, creation and destruction, fused in an impossible hybrid which effects Baudrillard’s philosophy of the hyperreal. Baudrillard says “we are witnessing the reduction and absorption of this distance [between the real and the imaginary], of this separation which permits a space for ideal or critical projection.” (“Simulacra and Science Fiction“) Ballard’s protagonist, the mutable T, is held captive by this erasure of distance, he is powerless to shield his ravaged emotional core from the grotesque imagery which dominates the landscape and imagination of his world. Denied the space for critical thought, T is held helpless, unemancipated of imaginative agency. Ballard was responding to the emergence of mass media as the ultimate arbiter of reality in the mid 20th Century, and in the fashion of the well-meaning doomsayer, he accurately extrapolates the technological trends of his day to exaggeratedly explode into a nightmare of the inevitable. Although the limited scope of recycled traumas (JFK, Marilyn Monroe, classic automobiles and Ronald Reagan) might seem quaint today, the Atrocity Exhibition and the hyppereality it entails is the future which is already here, and the only optimism of Ballard’s prophesy is that we can recognize this future which stares us in the face, that we might accept our present in the act of imagining a new future city.

Hyperreality Television

Alright y’all, if I promise to forthcome with a post of well cited academic thoroughness, will you accept this youtube video in lieu in the present? Besides the ROFL factor, it does do an excellent job of presenting every aspect of the debate, and frankly, despite the hyperbolic satire, I feel this is only inches away from our current media environment. Has anyone watched CNN lately? Yikes! DISCLAIMER: NSFW

Prefatory theory: “There is no real and no imaginary except at a certain distance. What happens when this distance, even the one separating the real from the imaginary, begins to disappear and to be absorbed by the model alone? Currently, from one order of simulacra to the next, we are witnessing the reduction and absorption of this distance, of this separation which permits a space for ideal or critical projection.” (Baudrillard)

I believe what we have here is these ideal and critical spaces collapsing into one. And they said irony was dead.

***ADDENDUM: Sorry to smut up the front page like this, Youtube had to select the raunchiest frame from an otherwise visually tame piece.

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