Category Archives: critical response 1

Living with the Cyborg Self

“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?


Catechism of the authentic human

What is one of the questions which most interests Philip K. Dick?
What constitutes the authentic human being?

How does Blade Runner address the issue of the authentic human?
Through the speculated existence of replicants and extrapolation therefrom.

What is the significance of the replicants?
The existence of artificial humans which are, on many levels, indistinguishable from real humans forces one to reassess their ideas about what a human is.

What is the Voight-Kampff machine?
Device which measures in an individual the degree of empathic response to carefully worded questions and statements in an individual.

According to the Voight-Kampff machine, what constitutes the authentic human being?
Feelings; emotions; empathy. An inauthentic human demonstrates measurably less compassion and empathetic concern.

Does this definition have precedents?
Early myth (autistic children were once considered the work of demons or faeries who stole the authentic children and replaced them with emotionless doppelgängers), monster stories (Dracula, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Beowulf), and 1950s science fiction films (The Thing from Another World, Invaders from Mars and Invasion of the Body Snatchers) all postulate that humans have feelings, while non-humans do not.

Why is this definition problematic?
It allows for replicants to be authentic humans and humans to be inauthentic humans: a direct contradiction of conventional thought. This is especially problematic since the definition’s purported purpose is to distinguish between humans and replicants.

What is an example of replicant shown to be authentic human?
Although initially only self interested, Roy Batty, on the brink of his own death, is able to genuinely empathize with Deckard.

Does Roy’s development have precedents?
Roy demonstrates empathy at the end of his four year life. Human children develop a “theory of mind“, the neurological foundation of empathy, around four years of age. Maturity from inauthentic to authentic human can be considered a normal part of human development.

What is an example of human shown to be inauthentic human?
Philip K. Dick discovered diaries by SS men stationed in Poland. One sentence read, “We are kept awake at night by the cries of starving children.” According to Dick, “There is obviously something wrong with the man who wrote that. I later realized that … what we were essentially dealing with was … a mind so emotionally defective that the word ‘human’ could not be applied to them.”

Why does Deckard empathize with the replicants?
One or more of the following: he doubts his ability to distinguish them from humans; he doubts their distinction from humans; he recognizes their developing humanity; he doubts his own humanity; he himself is a replicant; he shares with them an alienation from his fellow humans; through studying and dispatching them he has come to understand them better than he does his fellow humans; Deckard does not empathize with the replicants.

What use, if not to identify replicants, is the Voight-Kampff definition of the authentic human?
To distinguish friendly from hostile. Frankenstein’s monster sought a place in society among humanity; Dracula sought only to prey on it. Frankenstein’s monster could have become an equal member of society, Dracula could only be a utilitarian tool of society—if he could be controlled—or an enemy, if he could not.

In Search of the Continuous Monument (or, the grid as speculative architecture)

In the late 1960’s, a group of radical Florentine architects by the name of Superstudio proposed to wrap the world in an endless grid – producing a series of fantastical renderings depicting a hulking, crystalline superstructure built over everyday environments.

Called The Continuous Monument, it put to question Modernist doctrines of the 20th century, acting as a hyperbole of the movement’s ahistorical aesthetic as well as its uptopic ambitions. Overlaying real landscapes, the Monument becomes one of disillusionment and acculturation, minimalism and functionality – simultaneously tracing the faults of Modernism while finding within it some ideological platform upon which Superstudio could further develop its own praxis of radically re-imagining architectural production.

In this spirit of critique and co-opting, I want to try and understand the Continuous Monument as a structure that crosses the boundaries of the world it was originally rendered in, and think of it instead as a structure traversing a range of other fictional landscapes. Assuming that through its own relentless fabrication it has in fact permeated ‘other worlds’ of popular fiction, how might we make sense of the Continuous Monument, what it means and how it works more broadly in considering the grid as a speculative architecture?


The grid is, above all, a conceptual speculation…in its indifference to topography, to what exists, it claims the superiority of mental construction over reality”  – Rem Koolhaas, Delerious New York

The grid is fundamentally a symbol of fabrication – an artificial structure that holds its own determinacy and potentiality. It can be thought of as denoting social convention and conservatism – The denizens of a given society (OneState, Diaspar, or Middle-Class North America for example) being ‘squares’ in a picnic-blanket grid of social strictures that expands into notions of the (social, political, electrical) power grid we are in reality both bound by and woefully dependent on. Living ‘off-grid’ then, implies the kind of transcendental lifestyle seen as both virtuously and threateningly subversive, encompassed by a range of figures from Thoreau to the Unibomber. In the quote above though, Koolhaas is referring specifically to the grid plan characteristic of modern cities. The structured, hierarchic system of blocks supersedes the natural landscape that lies beneath it, in a way that frames the grid as already unreal. The grid is set up as a kind of game-board on which the metropolis plays its own development. The city grid becomes the game-board of urbanism.

In an endless speculation of design action and user reaction, this imagined interplay frames the grid as a place of strategy and competition, in line with an array of parameters (economic, social, political etc.) that define the grid itself as a quintessential game space. This brings us to what is arguably the most iconic gridscape in recent science fiction:

YouTube Preview Image

Tron’s light cycle arena enables something like an object-lesson on the dynamics of interaction in strategic situations – a hugely oversimplified, albeit relevant sketch of game theory. Simply put, the grid becomes a not only a mental construct, but a structure with innate theory and parameters as well – all visibly demarcated in its ruled and intersecting lines.

In this light, the grid takes on a more autonomous expression – as a thing or entity unto itself – coming to delineate meaning through its own geometrical language. This is another way of saying the grid becomes weirder. When juxtaposed with the banal and familiar, the grid seems auratic, even sentient, as is the case in the final scenes of 2001 A Space Odyssey:

The backlit grid is ideologically opposed to the surroundings it upholds; densely traditional neoclassical designs – the furnature, the paintings, the ornament etc. – become objectified and suspended as mere incidentals in a far more abstract and alien environment. Kubrick has the protagonist traverse the area as an astronaut, taking advantage of the suit’s visually and aurally hermetic perspective, while further adding to the sense of this place as being somehow outside or beyond comprehension. The grid essentially sets the room up as a frontier populated by the trappings of domesticity and tradition – a disruptive, incongruent depiction that works to interrogate and subvert ideas of convention and normality. The grid itself is the prototype for understanding the arbitrariness of the normal when juxtaposed upon a surface of total possibility.

This brings us to what is likely the most abstract manifestation of the grid – and one that was at first comprised a fictional environment before drifting into the banality of the (hyper)real: Cyberspace. Coined by William Gibson, and popularized in his 1984 novel Neuromancer, the word is now ubiquitous (probably to the point of cliché) as a synonym for the internet. the descriptions of it being a “consensual hallucination” of “disembodied consciousness”, Cyberspace to Gibson is structurally characterized by its now-infamous description as a “grid-space” or “matrix” full of “bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colourless void” – outlining an abstract space as imagined through an iconography of the grid. Gibson goes so far as to evoke, in full circle, images of the urban grid in his conception the internet, colliding and equating the two geographies:

“Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…”


Its funny the way that tangents work; while perhaps speaking more to the meanings of the grid in general, I think these extrapolations enable a re-conception of Superstudio’s provocative work as well, where the Continuous Monument can begin to be understood through associations of the grid in its many permutations, fictional and otherwise.

critical response 1

Well…all right.  As usual I am writing this the night before it is due, with no real idea as to what I really want to say.  All I know is that I couldn’t decide which piece with which I wanted to study ‘critcally.’  Whatever that means.

Finally in the last moments it came to me.  Or rather it appeared on my screen through the intra-blarg.  I really prefer to write as I speak, in case that hasn’t become clear, but you are all bright eyed and sharp as tacks, so I am sure you saw through my pretentious throw-away comments.

So considering that I like to keep my funky fresh flows as informal as possible, and we are writing for a blog, and Dick’s speech is very anecdotal I figured I would engage with a few of his ideas.  He certainly puts forth more than a few novel concepts in this piece, and I could probably spend countless hours trying to dissect his ‘drug-addled ramblings’ as Hung Te called them.  Also, we briefly touched on this in class, so please forgive any rote repetition for those not present.  Very early in the speech, he says this:

“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…What I am saying is that objects, customs, habits, and ways of life must perish so that the authentic human being can live”

So what Dick seems to be saying is that traditions–which normally are the foundation of any culture–must be exorcised to make way for new practices.  This implies that the new things take nothing from their ancestors, and old things die out withour propagating.  But without old practices upon which to base new evolutions where is this progress coming from?

Alas, later in his speech, Dick invokes one of the oldest institutions–the Church–in order to legitimize his bid for the supernatural.  He claims to have channeled the essence of the Holy Spirit in order to have predicted the events that happened to him later in life.  I find it hard to reconcile that a man of such fantastic imagination would also believe that God’s thoughts and God’s plan were the ultimate causation for all things.

Again, I apologize for the repetition, but I need to set the stage for my next two Dick-inspired (hahahahaha…get those dick laughs out now) anecdotal jumps.  In the first part, I was raised Catholic.  I went to private school all my life, and while that is not all that special, I went to an all-male Catholic prep school.  Yep.  Pressed shirt, tie, blazer with a crest, pleated slacks…the whole shebang-a-bang.  Picture that for a moment if you will.  I would link pictures, but I might die of embarassment.

So!  In short, I was taught by a selection of religious brothers over the years and intelligent design was the rule.  Basically, God planned every step of the way, from evolving from apes to waking up this morning with clutches of yesterday still clinging to you.  Yep, that was all God, the Holy Ghost (which is a fucking terrifying concept when you are 8), and J.C.

But the best way to get someone to reject a religion is force them to practice it for 12 years.  Yeah, I was an altar server, and I am convinced my parents will one day try and blackmail me with the pictures.  So it would be safe to say that I have effectively rejected most of the dogmas of Catholicism.  I mean, it’s pretty tough to toss out the things like don’t kill, don’t steal.  Those are tenets of basically any religion or code of conduct.  Everyone should live like that, right?

So when I see Dick riposte by saying–in so many words–that intelligent design is kosher as Christmas and he writes by chanelling the Holy Ghost, the alarm bells start going off.  Later in the address, Dick says this, “my two preoccupations in my writing are “What is reality?” and “What is the authentic human?”  So then I started thinking about this part of his argument in terms of Clarke’s City and the Stars.

Diaspar is a city that ultimately turns in upon itself, relying on traditions to maintaint itself.  But what kind of existence doe sit have?  It’s a paltry half-life.  They sit in stasis.  There is no variety, no adventure, nothing new.  All it takes is one free-thinking man to break the cycle though.  These ossified traditions do need to be excised so that new ones may develop.  They have led an ingenuine humanity to a place where there is no such thing as progress and truly in order to go forward we must go backwards.

End of line.

critical response one

Sorry for the delay all. I promise I really was going to just post this onto the blog but then got frustrated by the limitations, both of the blog itself and my own knowledge of how to use it. Suffice it to say that I’m stuck in the middle ages and have a tough time with technology, which makes my decision to put my critical response on a website of my own design a questionable one, haha, but there you go, it happened, I did it, and I hope you don’t mind.

The human body. In common discourse the body has become many things, the self-centredness on our parts forgiveable on the account that most of our assumptions are true – if only because as creators of our social universe we have used the familiar as our muse, the most familiar being ourselves: the body as the city, or the body as machine.

Body as City The city, with its infinite streets and pathways, a veritable circulatory system of interdependent organs leading to and from an inevitable centre. Certain cities are cultural “hearts” while others are relegated to bureaucratic “brains”. Money is the new lifeblood of a city where all avenues are directed at earning, accruing, spending, and stealing such an indispensable commodity. Some parts become disenfranchised at the notice of some greater need: hunger, thirst, pain, a slight tingling in the tips of the fingers – all are signs of a systems alert according to a more immediate threat. Ghettos, slums, favelas, gecekondus are the appendages most likely to lose feeling in times of crisis – resources and warmth make the mad rush to the brain and core, the rich neighbourhoods representing valuable real estate in the city’s functioning.

Body as Machine The modernist era brought with it a vogue of referring to everything as “a machine”: government is “a machine”, music is “a machine”, the city is “a machine”, the body is… “a machine”. The implications of this statement go beyond this space but suffice it to say that yes, a human being is “an apparatus consisting of interrelated parts with separate functions, used in the performance of some kind of work.” The heart is a machine that enables us to feel love, the brain is a machine the enables us to learn, our nerve endings are machines that enable us to distinguish the difference between a flame and a caress. Cyborgs and clones are a future already arrived, with as yet no accompanying Voigt-Kampff machines to guide us. McLuhan would agree with the premise that we create as an extension of ourselves: car as wheel as leg, camera as sight as eye. We fragment ourselves, magnify the pieces and succumb to the artificial.

Common themes keep cropping up in  our texts as well as the literature: the body in relation to the artificial, fragmentation, control, public/private inside/outside juxtapositions, boundaries and liminality. How do we breach the walls that we carry around with us all the time? An appropriate comparison encompassing many of these themes is the body as a structure whose boundaries at once protect us and drive us to alienation from our counterparts: the body as built environment.

Blade Runner: The City as Replicant

The city in Blade Runner is, like most cities representing the future, synthetic.  However, it is unlike most other cities in futuristic works, in that the city grew organically: it developed through time and the evolution of human desire, as opposed to being designed for a specific purpose, as in, for example, Zamyatin’s We.  In We, the city is perfectly contained, and everything inside is transparent; the city in Blade Runner seems to never end, and everything inside is veiled.

The aesthetic of the city is a decaying synthesis of various human cultures and empires. Nothing is authentic, and nothing is truly new or unique to the time and place.  The Los Angeles of Blade Runner is a disorganised conglomeration of other cities.  Even the  government building is a replication of Aztec pyramids.   The inauthenticity is unlike that of Las Vegas however, in that Las Vegas is a contained spectacle, like giant mini golf: cultures are separated and assigned their own space, thus retaining some of their cultural significance.  In Las Vegas, a Roman structure is surrounded by other Roman items;  however, in the Los Angeles of Blade Runner, landmarks and symbols are clumped together,  losing cultural significance and place in collective cultural memory.

In Blade Runner, the city is a replicant. The basic idea of the replicant is that they are not originals; each model is infinitely duplicable.

In the end, humanity does not survive in human development, but in the replicants: the rebel replicants however, strive to break out of their bondage to attain freedom and individuality, a fundamentally human urge. It is thus clear that, through memory, desire for freedom, and interaction with the world, the rebel replicants are able to achieve individuality and human understanding.  Like children, they are pure and new and are able to take note of events that humans would ignore.  Further, as they were designed for dangerous and undesired work in which humans would not take part, they are able to witness the horrendous details of humanity that is hidden to everyday humans.  As Roy’s dying words suggest: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe…all those moments will be lost in time like tears in rain.”

The rebel replicants are able to achieve the basic ideal of humanity, whilst human development, as represented in the city, becomes a synthesis of kitsch aesthetic and surface satisfaction.  The recreations of historically significant landmarks also suggests a lack of creativity in humans, having thus forgotten how to derive meaning from their own experiences, a skill that is clearly developed by replicants, such as Roy and Rachael. 

Diaspar Cannot Hold

In structuralism a structure is conceived as possessing a centre, a fundamental ground, which supposedly explains everything about that structure, that totality, that phenomenon; the centre might be an arche, a claimed origin that everywhere unfolds, or a telos a presumed destination that the structure, the phenomenon, is heading towards. This centre is usually itself left unexplained as if it is beyond the structure it’s in, so that the centre is both in the structure yet not in it. The centre is not a centre. The centre governs the structure, but is itself beyond the play of meanings of ‘repetitions, substitutions, transformations, and permutations’ involved in a fuller history of meaning. The centre maintains the structure as enclosed totality, as if it contains or exhausts all the meanings we can attribute to that structure.   Docker 132


Diaspar is a fallacy. The concept of having an overriding purpose, goal or aim to a society is a large part of The City and the Stars, given the sizable similarities between Diaspar and a machine, but what is the machine producing?  Diaspar is a complex system interweaving human and machine functions, what is that ultimate prize that Diaspar is heading towards?  Structuralism speaks of bringing out a process, a simulacra in an object that is previously invisible.  In this way, the function precedes the substance. 

“Diaspar and its inhabitants had been designed as part of one master plan” (Ch 5), a central structure to the society, the preservation of the pinnacle of genius and intellect of all of humanity.  The atomized singular units of Diaspar hold no larger ideas of life in Diaspar, but singularly carry out their task of intimately and infinitely exploring the insulated and continuous algorithm of Diaspar.  The people of Diaspar are cogs to a phantasmatic production.

The citizens of Diaspar are ignorant toward the purpose of their existence, but their blind faith in the continual function speaks to the importance of function over substance. Details are inconsequential as long as life remains contained and perpetual, “Diaspar is a frozen culture, which cannot change outside of narrow limits…they store the image of the city itself, holding its every atom rigid against all the changes that time can bring” (Ch 5).  Alvin’s great curiosity and quest is the search for this purpose of survival, the central goal of Diaspar that has supposedly written into the computer’s programming by the creators.

 Alvin crushes the totalizing and central perception of the people of Diaspar by the discovery of Lys, the exploration of old civilizations and of Vanamonde.  The unacknowledged function of their society has no substance.  Their claimed origin of the elite genius of mankind has been devastated along with the trust in a presumed destination.  Diaspar has no explainable purpose or structure. They are not the great intrepid pioneers, the centre and prize of humanity they thought they were, but rather the enfeebled diaspora of a society destroyed by its own hubris. 

             The initial world of Diaspar of infinite exploration of intimate knowledge was fixed and comfortably simple, but once the bubble was burst the universe is seen as “without end, unconfirmed, unreduced, unfinalised, untotalised, not continuous, not linear, where truth in never arrived at, is always involved in a play of differences that keep deferring its arrival, its full presence” (Docker 133), chaotic.

            The comfortable, wrapped with a memory bank stored bow perception of structuralism dissolves, the centre cannot hold, instead a universe without overarching goals and fundamental grounding purposes remains, seen in the last words of the novel:


In this universe the night was falling; the shadows were lengthening toward an east that would not know another dawn. But elsewhere the stars were still young and the light of morning lingered; and along the path he once had followed, Man would one day go again. Ch 25


John Docker. Postmodernism and popular culture: a cultural history. London: Cambridge University Press, 1994. 132-3.


Critical Response 1 – Perspective in The Atrocity Exhibition

From the film, Empire by Andy Warhol

Image from the film Empire by Andy Warhol

It was suggested, that in Clarke’s City and the Stars we were allowed clear insight into the nature of the city only after moving outside that space and looking down on it. This is most certainly true and from that perspective we all (characters and readers) could see the lines and curves, the barriers and openings, the actual and once imagined of the world in which many lived. Diaspora was not what it had once seemed and we were able to explore its nature with new clarity.

Perhaps the perspective that Ballard gives is essentially the opposite (but with just as illuminating results). It seems that in The Atrocity Exhibition what we are given is a view of our world not from the outside in, but from the inside out. It is as though the author has dragged us deep inside the body of humanity and has forced us to push our senses out through the filters of the flesh. This is not a warm and soft place to be. “The inner world of the psyche…images are born, some kind of valid reality begins to assert itself” (Ballard 38).

Everything changes when we are held tight inside the body and forced to perceive. This is not a static brace that holds the revelations of discovery, it is a razor wire that drags us terrified and exhilarated from one experience to the next – and then back again. Repeat.

Big Bang Vroom by Kristin Baker

Big Bang Vroom by Kristin Baker

From within the twisting body Ballard makes us witnesses to his unfortunate truths: “the larger ambiguities to which the modern world was so eager to give birth, and its finish line was that death of affect, the lack of feeling, which seemed inseparable from the communications landscape” (Ballard 60).

Looking at our world through the defining filters of psychosis is a powerful and specific technique for examining the tangents of reality and fantasy. This is one very forceful approach demanding that: “the inner world of the psyche now has to be applied to the outer world of reality” (Ballard 75).

Is it effective? Do the pulses of cruelty and passion allow glimpses into the heart of the world in which we live?

I believe that this push of the novel works to lighten up the shadows in the corners. With it we can move to the darker, hard-to-get-to places of human nature/society and feel our way around the areas of intention, sexuality and place.

From the film, Elephant

Image from the film Elephant

Works Cited:

Ballard, J. G. The Atrocity Exhibition. Flamingo Press: Great Britain, 1993.

Photo Sources:

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.

The cyborg city and the indeterminancy of the human subject

In Ballard’s novel High-Rise, he writes, “She referred to the high-rise as if it were some kind of huge animate presence, brooding over them and keeping a magisterial eye on the events taking place. There was something in this feeling — the elevators pumping up and down the long shafts resembled pistons in the chamber of a heart. The residents moving along the corridors were the cells in a network of arteries, the lights in their apartments the neurons of a brain” (1975, 40). 

          Ballard’s imagery dissolves the distinction between the interior/exterior and organic/inorganic. Mental and bodily inner-workings become superimposed upon the (built)landscape and vice-versa. This way of thinking about the contemporary human experience leads one directly to the concept of the cyborg. According to Donna Haraway, the cyborg is a hybrid creature “compounded of special kinds of machines and special kinds of organisms appropriate to the late twentieth century” (Gandy 27). In an age of “dematerialization … driven by the spread of informatics, increased capital mobility and the fracturing of place-bound identities”, the human experience has increasingly extended itself into new spaces of digital/virtual realms (Gandy 35).

       The rapid co-evolution between social and technological systems produces new relationships with the built environment described as “cognitive scaffolding” and “distributed cognition”. Cognitive scaffolding refers to the short-cuts minds use when relying on the external environment to subsidize the processing of information; paper and pencil as external calculators, cellphones as memory, landmarks as distance signifiers, and subway color schemes as orientation devices. The concept of “distributed cognition” builds on these subsidizing mechanisms and represents a more radical environment where the boundaries between sentience and non-sentience is broken down as human agency becomes obscured by the myriad networks of information being processed by teams of organic/inorganic systems. On an individual level, such distributed cognition happens with the increasing prevalence of wearable computers, sensory augmentation, wireless devices, and thought-controlled prosthetics. At the urban scale, distributed cognition is exemplified in an early stage by characteristics of post-industrial global cities, where a traditional utilization of material exchange has become supplanted by the information exchange. The driving processes in cities such as New York, London, and Tokyo is the knowledge sector, composed of highly specialized services such as finance, insurance, real-estate, and law firms. Such cities are command points for the organization of the global economy and their very success depends on their extensive and autonomous integration with global markets in the form of digitized financial information.

Whats interesting to me is the uneven and patchwork nature of the trajectories of the urban/mind/tech hybrids. The wider landscape of material neglect and social polarization which characterize post-industrial urban spaces reveals the intrinsic social forces of unequal power relations, marginal spaces, violence, and social exclusion which shape the way urban and technological progress unfolds. This unevenness is important to note when exploring the suggestive tomorrows painted by techno-futurists, as the undifferentiated “we” of futurist urban literature overlooks the infrastructural crisis of a billion plus people living in slums. The cyborg concept produces useful insights into cities as components in a global-hierarchical information system and urban dwellers as technologically-enhanced urban citizens, and these insights should be seen as grounded in the geographical particularities of places. In this light, the cyborg concept helps illustrate “the hybridized socio-ecological relations that underpin the production of space” (Gandy 37). These hybridized relationships are producing vastly disparate spaces across the world, fostering unique trajectories in the evolution of the human psyche which may fracture across familiar socio-economic divides. The notion of a breakthrough in the body-technology nexus propelling humanity into a post-human realm becomes more of a question for who and where?

Works Cited: 

Ballard, J.G. (1975) High-rise. Cape, London. 

Gandy, Matthew (2005) “Cyborg Urbanization: Complexity and the Monstrosity in the Contemporary City”. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research Vol 29.1 (26-49)