Built Environment Fiction Material/Digital Politics/Economics Speculations Technology Writing [key texts]
photo credit: nicolasnova
I’ve spent most of the past month wrestling with the meaning and significance of this book; trying to work out what manner of beast it might be. A challenging task, with cascading revelations. To kick off, three observations:
1. Bruce Sterling is the Chairman – when it comes to his writing, I get all twitchy and excitable, with little possibility of critical distance.
2. Despite that, as a novel, The Caryatids (2009) is a conspicuous failure.
3. And despite this, I rate it as one of the most bold and important books of the last decade.
Caryatids? In classical architecture, a caryatid is a load-bearing pillar carved into a figurative sculpture of a woman. Something like this, from Athens’ Erechtheum:
Sterling’s caryatids are a set of clones, born of and raised by the ubicomp-obsessed widow of a Balkan warlord as tech support for a looming environmental apocalypse:
‘They had been the great septet of caryatids: seven young women, superwomen, cherished and entirely special, designed and created for the single mighty purpose of averting the collapse of the world. They were meant to support and bear its every woe.’ (pp. 18-19)
Personally, this conceit read as nothing so much as an inversion of what-I-knew of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (1957), in which all the smart, productive people abscond, triggering societal collapse. In The Caryatids, collapse precedes the titular superwomen, who are created to hold up the world.
In this, Bruce sets up the conditions for a fascinating thought experiment, a microcosm of the whole structure/agency thing. When the girls’ ubicomp-mediated upbringing is interrupted in an attack by Balkan guerillas, the survivors scatter. Like light through a prism, the novel’s trio of genetically-identical protagonists allow Sterling to deploy a strange twist on the three-act narrative, with each chunk representing a single, stand-alone story, or point of inflection.
In embracing this structure, the novel reads like the bastard offspring of Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and Shell’s Signals & Signposts (2011) – some cumbersome and wholly unexpected mix of soap opera, satire, technical manual, and manifesto.
- The first clone-sister, Vera, remains in the Balkans, doing some heavy lifting on an environmental remediation project, under the banner of the Acquis: a post-geographic civil society group populated by anarcho-communist, exoskeleton-clad cyborgs.
- Mila, the second sister, marries into the ‘Family-Firm’, a South Californian mafia, taking in ‘real estate, politics, finance, everyware, retail, water interests … and of course entertainment.’ (p. 92)
- The final clone, Sonja, is a soldier-slash-field-medic in China, ‘the largest and most powerful state left on Earth.’ (p. 185)
Three takes on the apocalypse: cyborg environmentalism, Californian dynasticism, and Statism ‘with Chinese characteristics’. In The Spectre of Ideology (1995), Žižek notes how, from the inside, it often seems…
‘easier to imagine the ‘end of the world’ than the end of than a far more modest change in the mode of production, as if liberal capitalism is the ‘real’ that will somehow survive even under conditions of a global ecological catastrophe.’
In this, The Caryatids seems to have taken Žižek’s words as a direct challenge, with Bruce creating convincing, detailed visions of both. End of the world?
The Caryatids poses a scenario where, by 2060, climate change has resulted in a near-total collapse of state authority, leaving, as Doctorow puts it, ‘a slurry of refugees, rising seas, and inconceivable misery.’ The world as we know it is dead and buried.
Change in the means of production?
Well, none of the scenario-environments Bruce presents can realistically be seen as a continuation of the status quo. The Los Angeles chapter could, perhaps, be seen as a perverse iteration on start-up culture, but there seems to have been enough of a substantive change for it to represent something truly novel.
‘Brilliancy, speed, lightness, and glory‘ is a mantra we find repeated throughout the narrative, echoed by actors and agents from each of the political blocs. Within Acquis society, glory has been framed as the ultimate of virtues: ‘Glory was the source of communion. Glory was the spirit of the corps. Glory was a reason to be.’ (p. 47)
Seen against a background of environmental collapse, these Catholic values conjure some of Bruce’s earlier thoughts on something he dubbed ‘Gothic High-Tech‘:
‘In Gothic High-Tech, you’re Steve Jobs. You’ve built an iPhone which is a brilliant technical innovation, but you also had to sneak off to Tennessee to get a liver transplant because you’re dying of something secret and horrible.
And you’re a captain of American industry. You’re not some General Motors kinda guy. On the contrary, you’re a guy who’s got both hands on the steering wheel of a functional car.
But you’re still Gothic High-Tech because death is waiting. And not a kindly death either, but a sinister, creeping, tainted wells of Silicon Valley kind of Superfund thing that steals upon you month by month, and that you have to hide from the public and from the bloggers and from the shareholders.
And you just grit your teeth and pull out the next one. A heroic story, but very Gothic. Something that belongs in an eighteenth century horror novel. Kind of the “man in the castle” figure.’
This reassertion of a catholic-gothic sensibility is something I have explored elsewhere in relation to domestic and homeland (in)security. In Caryatids, Bruce links the catholic-gothic thing to science fiction’s origins in the romantic tales of Mary Shelly and her ilk. In the words of Vera’s confidant, aiming for something close to reassurance: “You can’t convince us that you’re the big secret monster from the big secret monster lab. Because we know you, and we know how you feel.” (p. 21)
We can see it in anxieties about the impact of new technologies on what it means to be human, with some kind of public broadcast of brain activity amongst the Acquis fundamentally changing the nature of sociality and group identity: ‘These were people made visible from the inside out, and that visibility was changing them. Vera knew that the sensorweb was melting them inside, just as it was melting the island’s soil, the seas, even the skies …’ (p. 26)
In this world, an individual’s relationship to technology is characterised by ambivalence, suspicion, and a wholly gothic dependence. ‘The Acquis and the Dispension hated China’s state secrecy, for they were obsessed with rogue technologies spinning out of control. Internal combustion: a rogue technology spun out of control. Electric light: a rogue technology spun out of control. Fossil fuel: the flesh of the necromantic dead, risen from its grave, had wrecked the planet.’ (p. 230)
This catholic-gothic tendency also manifests in the protagonists’ total and instinctive loathing for each other, a detail rooted in the uncanny self-annihilatory narratives of shapeshifters, body-snatchers and doppelgängers, and something Sterling leverages to great effect.
But this is, ultimately, a story of redemption; redemption and agency. It plays with some of the worst-case scenarios for the unfolding climate crisis, and then shows some ways in which, despite everything, humanity might be able to claw its way back from the brink. It’s one of several books I could cite that, post-2000, have begun to refresh our vocabulary of the future, with the potential to shift talk away from the simple-minded narratives of collapse and technological salvation – stories we use to absolve ourselves of agency and responsibility.
Working with a novum-packed narrative, Sterling focuses on the fallibility and inadequacy of the superstar, the wunderkind, and the auteur. Despite everything, this is a decidedly anti-heroic book. The clone-sisters are twisted fuck-ups. Deployed as ‘agents of redemption’, the weight on their shoulders leaves them febrile, erratic, and riddled with neuroses.
The real solutions are in the systems of participation; superstructures capable of supporting a raft of increasingly radical projects. In the words of Californian wunderkind Lionel, the answer is openness: such radical projects “need widespread distributed oversight, with peer review and loyal opposition to test them. They have to be open and testable.” (p. 252)
Chinese state secrecy isn’t the answer. Despite it’s pretensions, the can-do attitude of the Californian ‘military-entertainment complex’ falters, powerless, in the face of earthquakes and volcanoes. And the European techno-anarchists, however seductive their vision, are an ‘extremist group’ practicing ‘sensory totalitarianism’ to brainwash climate refugees.
Whatever the novel’s narrative flaws, the first chapter is worth the price of admission, as a near-perfect combination of worldbuilding, character and cognitive estrangement.
Overall? Compelling and transformative, shot through with veins of disarming sincerity, The Caryatids is part second-hand motorboat, part Viking funerary barge. Departing the harbour, it sputters and flames. Then it sinks.
But by that point, it’s already rewired your brain.
Exquisitely shot footage, part of ‘Solar Sinter’, a final project from RCA graduate Markus Kayser. How’s that for sense-of-wonder?
((Echoes of Magnus Larsson’s bacterial dune-cement, Rachel Armstrong’s limestone-secreting Venetian protocells, Cesar Harada’s oil spill cleaning robots, and Project LiloRann. Apparently, our century’s mega-engineering is molar, scalable, and crowd-supported.))
Built Environment Material/Digital Politics/Economics Science! Speculations Technology [future shock] [key texts]
If you’re reading this, you need to lay your hands on a copy of Transhuman Space: Cities on the Edge. I’ve written previously on my appreciation of the weight and seriousness of the Transhuman Space setting, and this particular supplement, from science writer Waldemar Ingmar and polymath-transhumanist Anders Sandberg, is no exception.
Razor-sharp futurism, sketching the possible shape developments in architecture, infrastructure, and urban culture over the next century, including a plausibly surreal vision of Stockholm, circa 2100.
93 pages. $12.99. Includes the phrases, ‘Beyond advances in life extension, uploading could in principle allow an ageless posthuman monarch’ and ‘The Nuiwhare Heretaunga arcology outside Hastings, New Zealand, was constructed in 2058 as a Maori cultural community.’ High-quality brain food. Recommended.
(That said, I’m slightly concerned to see the best futures work being smuggled into popular culture through RPG supplements — what would Stuart Candy say?)
Built Environment Cartesian Minefield Politics/Economics Science! Speculations Technology [future shock]
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From anthropologist Michael Taussig, the following paragraph has been lingering; floating on the surface on my consciousness as cognitive duckweed. Once tangled up in the pond pump, it has proved all-but-impossible to remove.
‘For the question arises as to whether a new body will be formed as that other body we call planet earth heats up? Certainly changes are already happening down to the genetic level with insects and plants. As regards us humans equipped with a body whose thermostat will be reset together with other basic adjustments, might we not come to possess a new body-mind relationship such that our body’s understanding of itself shall change? Even more important in changing the old-fashioned mind-body setup will be the cultural changes — that foreboding sense of cliff-hanging insecurity in a world ever more engaged with security in a climate gone terrorist.’
– Michael Taussig, 2009, What Color is the Sacred?, p. 14
Built Environment Memory Museums/Curation Real Life Speculations
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Took this shot while walking a chunk of the Downs Link. Welcome to Southwater’s Lintot Square, part of my old stomping ground, and a definite non-place. Behold, the spooky semiotics of the ‘New Ruins of Great Britain‘; a final, desperate bulwark against the total evacuation of local history:
‘Some 153 years ago the world was awestruck as images of a concrete Iguanodon, designed by Hawkins, appeared in the Illustrated London News. Remarkably both events are linked, for the celebrated Crystal Palace Iguanodon was based on fossils found in Horsham in 1840, whilst the new bronze Iguanodon is based on fossils found in Southwater, a village 2 miles from Horsham, in the 1920s. (…)
The Crystal Palace Iguanodon became the icon of the Victorian era, inspiring New York to create its own prehistoric theme park. The solid concrete monster attracted visitors across the globe as it stood proudly on its man made island. Following on from its discovery in the 1920’s the Sussex and Dorking Brick Company used the Southwater Iguanodon as its logo. With the demise of that company the image disappeared from public consciousness, just as Crystal Palace did after the fire in the 1930’s. Now, thanks to Miller Construction (UK) Ltd. and Horsham District Council, the Iguanodon can become the icon for the new Southwater of the 21st century, an icon not made of concrete but bronze.’
– Horsham District Council, ‘A Tale of Two Iguanodons‘, October 2006.
Built Environment Material/Digital Memory Museums/Curation Non-fiction Speculations Writing
Writing in 1988, balding Gallic pervert Michel Foucault threw down the term ‘technologies of the self‘ as an oversized umbrella for those practices that ‘permit individuals to effect (…) operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being’ (Foucault, 1990 : 18). In other words, the Ferrispunk self-bootstrapping of earnest diarists who eat algae, pop modanifil capsules, and meditate in metal pyramids. All while augmenting their desirability and social status with the latest in v-neck sweaters, injected botulinum, and the electronic pixel manipulation of their public-facing face (as seen on match.com). Charming.
I supress my shudders, and, following a swift return visit to some of Comrade Maly’s early sketch of the wooly and resolutely uncooperative architecture/cyborg continuum, begin to approach a framework in which such ‘technologies of the self’ (cyborg practices) form the base of an increasingly smug politic of bottom-up self-sovereignty; a stark contrast to the imposed, top-down architectures and governmental (cf. governor) infrastructure of larger social entities.
Sure, sure, cyborgs don’t have to be libertarian wankers, but it isn’t until the Haraway conceptquake that we begin to move away from the technocratic, self-perpetuating wankerdom implied in Clynes and Kline’s original vision. If these hybrid subjects are to appreciate their role as anything other than technologically-mediated consumption machines, they need to gain an appreciation of context – some sense of historical, or even personal, memory.
This is where things start to get interesting.
From the gloomy, dust-ridden caverns of my own memory, I recall a short story read as teenager. Penned by the ideosyncratic Mary Gentle, this story, ‘Beggars in Satin,’ is set in a world in which, to crib shamelessly from a review by David Soyka, ‘magic works according to the principle of Hermetic science, a 17th century heresy.’ Consider the following extract:
‘Valentine followed the noble Lord-Architect, who swore foully under his breath, and Scaris, past the speaking statues and into the hedged garden. Here, many metal and stone figures stood on plinths, or in niches. A slow mutter began to grow in the air around, of mockery, and oaths as foul as Casaubon’s. The sun gleamed on the golden hedges, on complex topiary, and on the bindweed and ivy that ran riot across fountain, grotto, and fish-pool.
‘It’s my design to build a Memory Garden.’ Scaris said.
Valentine blinked. ‘The same as a memory palace?’
‘It would have the same locations in which to place images.’ Scaris said. ‘Here.”
Valentine said sharply, ‘The man’s a fool. A memory palace or Memory Garden isn’t to be built, it’s to keep knowledge here, in the mind! If I’d to carry all the written down Scholar-Soldiers’ knowledge with me, I’d never walk!’
She rubbed her hands across her eyes as if erasing images. More calmly, she said, ‘Pictures are more easily remembered than written words, and carry a whole web of associated knowledge. I’ve a palace memorised – one of Palladio’s – and in every palace room a curious image, that leads me to further volumes of memory, so that I only have to walk through the palace in my mind.’
Casaubon shrugged. ‘Some of my marble-pillar-of-rectitude Councillors would say we ought to confine that to images of Justice, in an Interior Temple. But Scaris and I thought it a pleasant conceit, to have a material Memory Garden. You see what becomes of it!”
– Mary Gentle, ‘Beggars in Satin,’ in White Crow (Gollancz, 2003), pp. 10-12
Here, Gentle is downright subversive; rematerialising the ‘virtual’ architecture of the ‘method of loci‘ as … um … landscape design? Buggy, glitch-ridden landscape design, at that.
From here, take O’Keefe and Nadal’s description of the mnemonic technique’s original (real-world) form, in which:
‘the subject memorizes the layout of some building, or the arrangement of shops on a street, or any geographical entity which is composed of a number of discrete loci. When desiring to remember a set of items the subject literally ‘walks’ through these loci and commits an item to each one by forming an image between the item and any distinguishing feature of that locus. Retrieval of items is achieved by ‘walking’ through the loci, allowing the latter to activate the desired items.’
– John O’Keefe & Lynn Nadel (1978), The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map p. 390
Like blogging or exercise, this ‘method of loci’ was a Foucauldian ‘technology of the self’ – a way of boosting your own baseline abilities. It was as much a technological prosthesis as, say, Jerry Michaelski’s (virtualised) Brain. Here, technology doesn’t have to be physical; graspable; tested in a wind tunnel. Language is as much of a technology as the Dyson Airblade or International Space Station – as is soap, concrete, and the domestication of animals. Memory is fundamentally entangled with such ‘soft’ technologies; with neural plasticity, personal productivity techniques, and so forth.
Medieval memory techniques? Ruth Evans said everything that needs to be said on the subject, and then wrote a post on Jesus-as-appliance – which reminded me of Douglas Adams’ electric monk. Read all of those? Then we can continue.
Memory: computer/cognitive/cultural. How do cyborgs remember? Appropros Robin Sloan on media cyborgs, I’d also like to introduce the notion of mediated and prosthetic memory, more commonly figured as post-memory, particularly in the emerging field of Holocaust studies. Here, one of the key thinkers is Marianne Hirsch, who describes post-memory as:
‘the relationship of the second [and later] generation[s] to powerful, often traumatic, experiences that preceded their births but that were nevertheless transmitted to them so deeply as to seem to constitute memories in their own right.’
And how do we do this? Photography, oral narrative, literature, art, comic books, and museums. Multiple sites in a culture of trauma and memorialisation. Consider 9/11, and our collective reaction to its intensive mediation; the looping of footage on TV news for days, weeks, and months on end. How will our children and grandchildren apprehend this moment of symbolic violence? Will they attend the museum at Ground Zero? Will their be a guide? A worksheet? How will it make them feel?
To rearrange Robin’s words; ‘Media [also] lets you clone pieces of your memory and send them out into the world to have conversations on your behalf. Even while you’re sleeping, your media – your books, your blog posts, your tweets—is on the march.’ As time passes, first-hand, lived experience of the Holocaust is increasingly scarce, but the trauma continues to echo through our cultural and media output … Lest We Forget.
It is in this context that Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum is a cyborg.
Much like Gentle’s literal (albeit malfunctioning) memory garden, Libeskind’s Museum is a locus for memorialisation; an architectural extrusion of collective memory; an inverted memory palace; and a site of transmission (hypersigil). It is also a cyborg; a technological hybrid of historical artefacts (memory materialised), curatorial knowledge, media, affect, architecture, infrastructure, staff, and visitors – rewiring the brains of all those who self-consciously tread its corridors. It might be larger than the cyborgs with which you are familar, but – much like an ant’s nest – the museum is an intensely cybernetic entity, with its prosthetic (post-)memories likely to outlive any of its individual biological agents.
In conclusion: don’t be a cyborg wanker – instead, go to some slightly larger cyborgs, and imbibe the memories of the absent. It’ll make you a better person technologically-mediated subject.
This is one of 50 posts about cyborgs – a project to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the coining of the term. Also: Tim Maly is our king. #50cyborgs
Academics Built Environment Memory Non-fiction Writing
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Jacob Vaark being the (absent?) protagonist of Toni Morrison’s 2007 novel, A Mercy.
For your enlightment and deliction: a decidedly odd essay on something I decided to dub ‘the haunted domestic’ in American fiction post-2000. Mostly concentrating on the Morrison , but also drawing on the excellent Lunar Park (soon to be a film) and Don DeLillo’s Falling Man. Probably the best course that I’ve taken during my time at Goldsmiths — helped, no doubt, by a tiny class size and excellent teaching from Dr Rick Crownshaw. Bears almost literally no relevance to the rest of my Masters degree, but does mesh rather nicely with my undergrad dissertation.
Also recommended is this NPR interview with Toni Morrison, which sheds a great deal of light on some of the novel’s subtleties:
Academics Built Environment Non-fiction Politics/Economics Writing
The first (assessed) essay for my Masters degree, deploying the work of French anthropologist Marc Augé in relation to a key site of modernity – the airport terminal. The first half is a work of ethnographic ‘thick description,’ which is then subjected to a critical analysis:
Built Environment Material/Digital Politics/Economics Speculations
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Architecture student Keiichi Matsuda‘s AR concept video triggered memories of a short vignette posted on a forum by a pseudonymous stranger, back in 2008. Taken together, we get something like Bladerunner with a late 2000s sensibility -
“Nobody has a job. Everybody has a set of contracts. Some keep you in the same place for eight hours with the same coworkers five days a week, but it isn’t a job. A job requires benefits. A job requires taxes be paid by an employer. As a subcontracting entity you’re paid to pay your own taxes, to waive your own minimum wage requirements, your own working time directives. You are management. You don’t rent, you pay fractional reserve interest on a 99-year heritable lease entity that sublets your front room as storage space to a distributed shop. Every Saturday you pack boxes in your hall to tell other people how they can make a fortune out of the new economic climate by packing boxes in their hall. There are more guns in the world than there are people who can read properly. You ride a bus to the building that is your ‘office’. It used to be a hotel, when people could afford to go to other countries that weren’t over the road. You need a passport stamp to visit your mother. You don’t need a passport stamp to visit your father. You have six identity cards. You broke your leg in school and as a result can’t join a library. If there was still a library open near you you couldn’t even go in it. Instead you just can’t login.
Every morning when you get onto the number 27 you sit in the window and watch the UAVs circle over the shanty town in the park. You have extensive scarring on your left shoulder where the man next to you was extrajudicially assassinated when you used to get the number 26. Your ex-boyfriend left a camera in your shower, and you only found out when his ex sued for a share of the earnings, naming you as a witness. Your best friend Jane and you have a tradition. Every new year you buy another lock for her front door, fit it beside the others, then drink vodka until you vomit blood. You fight, and don’t talk again until christmas …”
– erithromycin, ‘Re: Cyberpunk in 2008‘, RPG.net, 28/06/2008
Whoever Michael Huges & Damien Wake actually are, I’ll hold on to the vague hope that they live in a hollowed-out volcano, and have an army of overall-clad mooks to do their bidding.