Academics Cartesian Minefield Memory Politics/Economics Speculations
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As a precis, the final chunk his concluding paragaph is incredibly apposite, but go – read the complete article. It’s solid stuff, with a brace of excellent case studies; well worth checking out.
‘There are certainly new and opposite cognitive, social, and political forms taking shape before us: artificial intelligences, cyborgs, posthuman subjectivity, a breakdown of mind along with the destruction of the planet, a technoprogressive democracy, a society of control networked from synapse to street, and on and on. This paper was an attempt to look out the window at our minds as they reach the “sound barrier,” and what possibilities, if any, might lie just beyond the sonic boom. We’re almost there; meet you on the other side.’
– Jake Dunagan, 2010, ‘Politics for the Neurocentric Age’, Journal of Futures Studies 15 (2), p. 67.
‘I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave New Year
All anguish pain and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear’
– Greg Lake / Peter Sinfield / Prokofief, ‘I Believe in Father Christmas‘
So, that was 2010? Already? Hmm.
Right, so let’s see what we’ve got here … *dunks head in pensieve*
~ The feverish activity of the blue hours of deadline day. Adrenaline and nausea. Pillow-over-head; attempting to sleep through the hour of strained mechanical whirring as my ageing printer struggled with 50-odd pages of Masters thesis.
~ Listening through the warm haze of Sunday night pintage, as my Italian then-flatmate and her brother span exotic tales of the hot winds and intra-family surveillance of small-town Sicily.
~ The increasingly windswept ‘city’ of Akureyri, Iceland. Three Germans, a French national, and myself. Instant cross-European, generational communitas. One of the single most joyful evenings of my year.
~ Lost in a maze made of maize in the fields of Surrey, flanked by an endlessly tolerant Karen Hancock; our small flag held proudly aloft.
~ Feeling sheepish about my (considerable) height in an acupuncture consultation with a diminutive Vietnamese doctor in Golders Green. Left for a full half hour, legs hanging over the end of the table, desperately struggling to suppress the urge to flex my en-needled right foot.
~ Walking from the British Museum to Deptford in the early hours of a weekday morning, as the aftermath of a friend’s birthday. No maps, navigating solely by Canary Wharf and the first third of the Shard. Despite everything, wasn’t stabbed.
~ The single greatest burger / jacket potato combination, cooked to perfection. Eaten from a moulded plastic container while sitting on a wall, on hipster safari with six Romanians in London’s Brick Lane.
~ Standing in the apocalyptic, ash-strewn foothills of Eyjafjallajökull; the volcano that — five months earlier — had stranded my father in West Africa.
~ A 45 minute walk through the Ballardian periphery of Heathrow, having totally failed at navigating airport buses to the Radisson Edwardian for 2010′s Eastercon.
~ That one, ill-advised game of football on Goldsmiths’ college green. Trainers and brown cords for the first act of voluntary team sport in over five years. Under half an hour from first kick to the inevitable groin impact.
~ At the end of a pub gathering, spontaneously serenading a departing Sarah Dobbs with a synchronised chorus of impromptu, awesome, and totally unreplicable table-drumming. Hell, there may have been counter-rhythms.
~ Hitting Chat Roulette with Josh Fry in the blue hour aftermath of a moustache-themed party, armed with alcohol and an acoustic guitar. Advising Californian teens on their romantic issues, then showing a Chilean dentistry student our teeth. Surprisingly low penis-to-human ratio. Again with the communitas.
~ The patio of a gîte in France’s Vendée region, a cool July evening. Sitting in the eerily calm eye of a massive storm, alongside my father, gigantic banks of angry blue-black clouds bearing down from all directions. Twilight sky the colour of a bruise; lightning crackling on the horizon, as we scratched the head of an increasingly deranged local cat.
~ Cait McFarland‘s ‘shark museum’ anecdote, delivered deadpan from the luggage-strewn bed of a Reykjavik youth hostel.
~ Finally finding that excuse to write an academic essay on Richard Kelly’s cult classic Southland Tales (2007).
~ Four books, read in quick succession as part of my return to reading-for-pleasure in the immediate aftermath of my MA. Unexpectedly complementary, providing four different cardinal directions for the compass of twenty-first century speculative fiction, they were:
- The Dervish House, Ian MacDonald. A tale of nanotechnology against the backdrop of a Europeanised/ing Turkey. For me, intricate plotting and his deployment of an ensemble cast elevated this far above his previous offering, Brasyl, while invoking memories of my own trip to Istanbul in the summer of 2007. Great eye for detail, even if it occasionally skirted the dubious territories of hokum-meister Dan Brown.
- Zero History, William Gibson. A work of linguistic precision and unparalleled poise. Having reread the two preceding books for my MA thesis, this was one of my most pleasurable reads of the year. Almost uncanny levels of personal pay-off for the inclusion of familiar London locations, and his decision to conclude the narrative in Iceland, where I myself chewed through the final chapters; tucked under a duvet in that Reykjavik youth hostel, as part of my campaign of guerilla warfare waged against unexpected (and probably unwarranted) jet-lag.
- Finch, Jeff VanderMeer. Alternate world fantasy as prog rock concept album, with mushrooms. At times baroque, sublime, and bitingly political, it struck me as an excellent companion to China Mieville’s The City & the City (2009), with that same sense of the almost-plausibly surreal. A really strange hybrid which shouldn’t have worked, it somehow pulled together into a cohesive whole. On reflection, I think I preferred the black humour and epistolary textures of its predecessor, Shriek: An Afterword (2006), but there was a whole lot to like here.
- Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shyteyngart. This book made me physically nauseous, in a way that I struggle to explain. Though messy and uneven, it transcended the details and specifics of its (many) flaws. Like the best science fiction, it wasn’t intended as prediction, but rather a commentary of the present state of the writer’s world; in this case, an America in post-imperial decline. By turn darkly comic and deeply sad, it had this unsettling quality — whether in its detailing of a post-literate society, or the specifics of social networking or US politics — that while the world he was detailing was obviously a satire; a piss-take or parody, it nevertheless rhymed with my own world. Tragic and discomfiting, it felt all-too-familiar. For me, this book induced some deep, gut-level future shock. If the Gibson was comfort food, this was some kind of violent ambush or mugging. High praise? I’m still not sure.
~ Didn’t see many films this year, but there were three that really stuck with me: Monsters (Gareth Edwards, UK), Skeletons (Nick Whitfield, UK), and The Social Network (David Fincher, US).
An eventful year, then, if not the most evenly spread. And what of 2011? I start the year in the shadow(s) of fifty cyborgs; musing on the future of education, of statecraft, of the firm; and with 20,000 words of the first draft of a full-length bookthing. Very much work-in-progress, but already a hell of a lot better than the sum of my extant writing. Occasional flashes of something readable. Just. got. to. keep. chipping. away. Which is, of course, far harder than it looks.
Meanwhile, interesting noises emanate from the Superflux shed, as Anab and Jon prepare to kick their activities up to eleven. There are pints owed to people whom I intended to catch before the spreading fungus of Yuletide burnout, and a graduation ceremony sketched in for mid-January (cue absurd snowfall). There may well be travel and adventure.
That’s the plan, anyway. Watch this space.
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.
‘For example, emotions, with their palpable mingling of physical turmoil and racing thoughts, have become a hot topic, engaging not only philosophy but also psychology and the neurosciences. The increasingly cross-field use of neurological research, such as the data from functional magnetic resonance imaging, has grounded the idea that (in some sense) emotions occupy space, just like physical objects. More important for my point here, emotions bring about physical alterations that we consciously experience. Insofar as they are the means by which we discover certain value-laden aspects of the world we live in, the agitations they occasion give our bodily responses a capacity for knowledge that is sometimes overlooked.’
– Carolyn Korsmeyer, ‘Ideas of the century: The turn to the body‘, TPM
‘Fuller, born in 1895, is best known for his geodesic domes, but his ultimate hope was that the three-wheeled Dymaxion – which looked like a VW camper van crossed with a pinball flipper – would fly, allowing Americans to leave the highway vertically and touch down at lightweight aluminium homes, scattered wherever they fancied by a fleet of Zeppelins.’
– Jonathan Glancey, ‘Norman Foster’s back-to-front car,’ The Guardian, 05/10/2010
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
“Listening to deathly voices in the dark, from Quixote’s moment on the hillside onwards, technologics has suggested, to those who want to listen to its broadcasts, a new, dynamic way of understanding literature – that is, of understanding what it is to write, who (or what) writes, and how to read it. Where the liberal-humanist sensibility has always held the literary work to be a form of self-expression, a meticulous sculpting of the thoughts and feelings of an isolated individual who has mastered his or her poetic craft, a technologically savvy sensibility might see it completely differently: as a set of transmissions, filtered through subjects whom technology and the live word have ruptured, broken open, made receptive. I know which side I’m on: the more books I write, the more convinced I become that what we encounter in a novel is not selves, but networks; that what we hear in poems is (to use the language of communications technology) not signal but noise. The German poet Rilke had a word for it: Geräusch, the crackle of the universe, angels dancing in the static.”
- Tom McCarthy, ‘Technology and the Novel, From Blake to Ballard’, The Guardian
BoingBoing’s David Pescovitz on Wunderkammern:
CABINETS OF CURIOSITY. Taxidermy. The weird, the grotesque, the freakish. Marginalia. Taxonomies of the unorganisable. Sensawunda. Organised properly, maybe even some kind of mathematical sublime, through the sheer volume of heterogeneous artefacts? The entire world in a single collection.
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: