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.
Academics Journalism Publishing Speculations Travel Writing
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First, the very beginning of Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, an extraordinary novel-slash-history of Soviet cybernetics. In this extract, the author grapples with some of the peculiarities and nuance of his writing:
‘This is not a novel. It has too much to explain, to be one of those. But it is not a history either, for it does its explaining in the form of a story; only the story is the story of an idea, first of all, and only afterwards, glimpsed through the chinks of the idea’s fate, the story of the people involved. The idea is the hero. It is the idea that sets forth, into a world of hazards and illusions, monsters and transformations, helped by some of those it meets along the way and hindred by others.’
– Francis Spufford, Red Plenty (2010), p. 3.
(‘The idea is the hero.‘ How do you approach a biography of an idea? An idea of a region; a utopia; shared – at some vague, subconscious level – by millions of people? Approached obliquely … glimpsed through gaps, and attacked from strange angles? Ambushed with some strange hybrid of fact and fiction? Hmm.)
Secondly, a couple of lines from Wild Bill Gibson’s ‘The Gernsback Continuum‘; a meditation on legacy futures in the form of a short story:
‘She was talking about those odds and ends of ‘futuristic’ Thirties and Forties architecture you pass daily in American cities without noticing: the movie marquees ribbed to radiate some mysterious energy, the dime stores faced with fluted aluminum, the chrome-tube chairs gathering dust in the lobbies of transient hotels. She saw these things as segments of a dreamworld, abandoned in the uncaring present; she wanted me to photograph them for her.’
– William Gibson, ‘The Gernsback Continuum’, Burning Chrome (1988), pp. 38-39.
(‘Segments of a dreamworld.’ Hunting traces … gathering evidence … detective work, pinning down the imaginary and the nebulous in something tangible. The process of documenting the imaginary drives Gibson’s photojournalist protagonist to the brink of madness, as he begins to slip sideways into the obsolete retro-future he’s been sent to document. It’s an excellent short story, and a key insipiration for some of my earliest work on this project.)
And, finally, the opening lines from Mike Davis’ City of Quartz, a strange, tangential, and exhaustively-referenced biography of Los Angeles:
‘The best place to view Los Angeles of the next millennium is from the ruins of its alternative future. Standing on the sturdy cobblestone foundations of the General Assembly Hall of the Socialist city of Llana del Rio – Open Shop Los Angeles’s utopian antipode – you can sometimes watch the Space Shuttle in its elegant final descent towards Rogers Dry Lake.’
– Mike Davis, City of Quartz (1990), p. 3.
(‘From the ruins of its alternative future.‘ If you want to understand the ways things will turn out, you have to understand what’s already failed, and why? These are words that echo (rhyme with?) Sterling’s oft-repeated aphorism: ‘The ruins of the unsustainable are the twenty-first century’s frontier.’ The mission, then, is to locate sites where the past and future collide with an unexpected ferocity, bringing long-buried cultural detritus to the surface. Atemporality, located in space.)
More to follow, in time.
Academics Politics/Economics Publishing Travel Writing
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Venture ethnography | Speculative travel writing | Territorial futures
Introducing Project Cascadia: my attempt to bootstrap a new(ish) mode of writing into existence.
3–6 weeks in North America’s Pacific Northwest, in search of traces of Cascadia. Fodder for a series of essays and investigations. Presented in a book. Crowdfunded by you; the proud and attractive people of the internet.
Then, for more in the way of detail (a lot more), join me below…
Project Cascadia is the test-case for a cluster of ideas I’ve been playing with for the best part of five years. A chance to break out my signature obsessions …
Hauntings, world expos, gonzo journalism, science fiction, systems, geopolitics, utopianism, virtuality, globalisation, the sublime, resilience, collapsonomics, aesthetics, architecture, environmentalism, infrastructure, design, futures studies, sovereignty, atemporality, risk, the nation-state, the uncanny, Americana, technoscience, cyberpunk, multispecies ethnography, fiction, capitalism, the human senses, counterfactual history, media and cyborgs (and media cyborgs)
… and nail them to the mast of a weird and interstitial sort of boat; a soupy, hybrid writing practice that would combine the best of ethnography, journalism and science fiction.
Trips to San Francisco (2009), Iceland (2010), and Dublin (2011) demonstrated my incapability of approach travel in any kind of ‘normal’ way. A born infovore, I kept getting caught up in the minutae, symbolism, and historical specificity of the place, and ended up ambushing tour guides with questions about medieval property law and taking lots of photos of construction hoardings.
Part of this is down to a strange education, with a joint honours degree in Anthropology and International Relations (blending the local and the global), and a masters in Digital Media.
Both of these programmes allowed me the freedom to shoehorn in all kinds of stuff, adding science fiction to offshore finance; american literature to biotechnology; and penning essays on the aesthetics of Guantanamo Bay, the Principality of Sealand, airports, post-colonial Mumbai, and Richard Kelly’s cult masterpiece/traversty Southland Tales (2007).
In lieu of a biography, then, I’m offering a bibliography. Five years of my brain, in books, articles, essays, and blog posts. I fully expect this to be a forest of broken links by this time next week, but, in the meantime, it should begin to give you an idea of where I stand … and, yes, why I might be doing this.
Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983)
Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (1996)
‘Spectral housing and urban cleansing: notes on millennial Mumbai‘, Public Culture 12:3 (2000)
Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (1992)
J. G. Ballard, Vermillion Sands (1971)
‘My Dream of Flying to Wake Island‘ (Guardian podcast)
Richard Barbrook, Imaginary Futures: From Thinking Machines to the Global Village (2007)
Nigel Barley, The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes From a Mud Hut (1983)
Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (1991)
Lauren Beukes, Zoo City (2010)
Hakim Bey, The Temporary Autonomous Zone (1991)
Gray Brechin, Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin (2006)
John Brunner, Stand on Zanzibar (1968)
Jamais Cascio, ‘Legacy Futures‘, Open the Future (2008)
‘Three Possible Economic Models‘, Fast Company (2009)
‘Three Possible Economic Models, Part 2‘, Fast Company (2009)
Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia: The Notebooks and Reports of William Weston (1975)
Michael Chabon, Maps and Legends (2008)
Jean and John Comaroff, ‘Alien-Nation: Zombies, Immigrants and Millennial Capitalism’, South Atlantic Quarterly 101:4 (2002)
‘Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming‘, Public Culture 12:2 (2000)
‘Occult economies and the violence of abstraction: notes from the South African postcolony’, American Ethnologist 26:2 (1999)
Douglas Coupland, ‘A radical pessimist’s guide to the next 10 years‘, Globe and Mail (2010)
Generation A (2009)
Erik Davis, TechGnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information (2004)
Mike Davis, City of Quartz (1990)
Cory Doctorow, Makers (2009)
Keller Easterling, Enduring Innocence: Global Architecture and Its Political Masquerades (2005)
Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010)
Warren Ellis, Shivering Sands (2009)
Matthew Gandy, ‘Cyborg Urbanization: Complexity and Monstrosity in the Contemporary City‘, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 29:1 (2005)
Bradley L. Garrett, ‘Urban explorers: quests for myth, mystery and meaning’, Geography Compass (2010) [video]
Place Hacking (2008-present)
William Gibson, ‘The Gernsback Continuum’, Burning Chrome (1986)
Zero History (2010)
Spook Country (2007)
Pattern Recognition (2003)
David Graeber, Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire (2007)
Adam Greenfield, ‘Thoughts for an eleventh September: Alvin Toffler, Hirohito, Sarah Palin‘, Speedbird (2008)
Richard Grusin, Premediation: Affect and Mediality After 9/11 (2010)
Charlie Hailey, Camps: A Guide to 21st-Century Space (2009)
Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (2007)
Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (1990)
Stefan Helmreich, Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas (2009)
Dan Hill, ‘The Street as Platform‘, City of Sound (2008)
Drew Jacob, ‘How to be ExPoMod‘, Most Interesting People in the Room
Sarah Kember, ‘Media, Mars and Metamorphosis‘, Culture Machine (2010)
Naomi Klein, Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate (2002)
Alan Klima, ‘Spirits of ‘Dark Finance’: A Local Hazard for the International Moral Fund’, Cultural Dynamics (2006)
‘Thai Love Thai: Financing Emotion in Post-crash Thailand‘, Ethnos (2004)
Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (1991)
Ursula Le Guin, Changing Planes (2003)
The Disposessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974)
Charles MacKay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841)
Geoff Manaugh, The BLDGBLOG Book (2009)
Ian McDonald, The Dervish House (2010)
River of Gods (2004)
Suketu Mehta, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found (2004)
China Mieville, The City & the City (2009)
‘Covehithe‘, The Guardian (2011)
‘M.R. James and the Quantum Vampire – Weird; Hauntological: Versus and/or and and/or or?‘, Collapse IV (2008)
‘Floating Utopias‘, In These Times (2007)
Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity (2002)
Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)
Keith Roberts, Pavane (1968)
Jim Rossignol, This Gaming Life: Travels in Three Cities (2008)
Geoff Ryman, Air (2005)
Stephen Shaviro, Post-Cinematic Affect (2010)
Gary Shtenyngart, Super Sad True Love Story (2010)
Francis Spufford, Red Plenty (2010)
Bruce Sterling, The Caryatids (2009)
‘Designer Futurescape‘, Make 18 (2009)
‘Dispatches from the Hyperlocal Future‘, Wired (2007)
Holy Fire (1996)
Islands in the Net (1988)
‘State of the World, 20––‘, The Well (2001-present)
Michael Taussig, What Color is the Sacred? (2009)
‘Zoology, Magic, and Surrealism in the War on Terror‘, Critical Inquiry 34:S2 (2008)
Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 (1973)
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971)
There you go; everything interesting and/or relevant I’ve read in the last half-decade. *jazz hands*
In the second part of this cynically self-promotional series, to follow sometime in the next week, I’ll start to weave some of the items from this list into something more useful and cohesive, and begin looking at what this hybrid form of writing might actually look like. Join me then.
Design Material/Digital Real Life Science! Technology Writing
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It’s been a busy couple of months. In anticipation of a potential September return to London, I’d scheduled a marathon series of pints with interesting people, in the hope of reverse engineering a way to make enough money for rent, food, and a speedy internet connection. It seems to have gone well, and – as a result – I’m feeling a lot less fight-or-flightish about the prospect of a looming adulthood.
Roughly simultaneously, I’ve also been working with post-disciplinary design company Superflux; levering my newfound knowledge of cyborg anthropology to help with a project about (dis)ability and the post/transhuman sensorium. Here’s their enigma-drenched summary:
‘Between that, we are prototyping a series of ideas for our new Lab project titled ‘Song of the Machine‘, a mind-boggling optogenetics/neuroscience project in partnership Dr. Patrick Degenaar, Newcastle University and Dr. Anders Sandberg. This is a long-term project with different design aspects. But for now, our first short piece (to be done in less then 4 weeks!) is commissioned by the Science Gallery, Dublin, for their upcoming exhibition HUMAN+ The Future of our Species. Super exciting!’
It is, at that; and includes a trip to Ireland in mid-April – the perfect opportunity to collect some more material for a personal project on collapsonomics and European electoral politics.
In the meantime, some reading …
By me; hosted elsewhere:
- How should I design a trans-continental leisurely road-trip to maximize “literary potential”? [Quora; the seeds of what I'm tentatively naming 'Operation Cascadia']
- Counterfactual Confessional [Storify]
- Life Map, version 0.1 [Flickr]
By other people:
- “It’s not a war, it’s a rescue mission” [m1k3y, grinding.be]
- Nuclear Counterinsurgency [Nick Mirzoeff, For the Right to Look]
- Revolution from the Edge [John Hagel, Edge Perspectives]
- On Public Objects: Connected Things And Civic Responsibilities In The Networked City [Adam Greenfield, Cognitive Cities]
- Closing Keynote, IXDA 11 [Bruce Sterling]
- The Future is Here Today, and it’s Superdense [Scott Smith, Changeist]
- New Europe: The life of a German family [Stuart Jefferies, The Guardian]
- On the Very Idea of a Super-Swarm [Dr David Roden, enemyindustry]
‘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.
Cartesian Minefield Politics/Economics Speculations Technology Writing [future shock]
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Couple of excerpts from a great New York Times piece. Haruki Murakami on 9/11, network realism, and the challenges for 21st century fiction:
‘Viewed from such a professional perspective, it would seem that the interface between us and the stories we encounter underwent a greater change than ever before at some point when the world crossed (or began to cross) the millennial threshold. Whether this was a change for the good or a less welcome change, I am in no position to judge. About all I can say is that we can probably never go back to where we started.
Speaking for myself, one of the reasons I feel this so strongly is the fact that the fiction I write is itself undergoing a perceptible transformation. The stories inside me are steadily changing form as they inhale the new atmosphere. I can clearly feel the movement happening inside my body. Also happening at the same time, I can see, is a substantial change in the way readers are receiving the fiction I write.’
‘We often wonder what it would have been like if 9/11 had never happened — or at least if that plan had not succeeded so perfectly. Then the world would have been very different from what it is now. America might have had a different president (a major possibility), and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars might never have happened (an even greater possibility).
Let’s call the world we actually have now Reality A and the world that we might have had if 9/11 had never happened Reality B. Then we can’t help but notice that the world of Reality B appears to be realer and more rational than the world of Reality A. To put it in different terms, we are living a world that has an even lower level of reality than the unreal world. What can we possibly call this if not “chaos”?
What kind of meaning can fiction have in an age like this? What kind of purpose can it serve? In an age when reality is insufficiently real, how much reality can a fictional story possess?‘
– Haruki Murakami, ‘Reality A and Reality B‘, New York Times, 29/11/2010 (emphases mine)
(*adds Murakami books to Christmas list*)
Fiction Material/Digital Pop Culture Publishing Speculations Technology Writing [future shock]
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Care of (unwitting?) bookfuturist James Bridle, I give you ‘Network Realism‘. This, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly what I was attempting (with mixed success) to get across in the final chapters of my MA dissertation:
‘Network Realism is writing that is of and about the network. It’s realism because it’s so close to our present reality. A realism that posits an increasingly 1:1 relationship between Fiction and the World. A realtime link. And it’s networked because it lives in a place that’s that’s enabled by, and only recently made possible by, our technological connectedness.
This writing exists on a timeline, but it’s not a simple line back-to-the-past and forward-to-the-future. It’s a gathering-together of many currently possible worldlines, seen from the near-omniscient superposition of the network. The Order Flow of the Universe. Speculative Realism, Networked Fiction: Network Realism.’
– James Bridle, ‘Network Realism: William Gibson and new forms of Fiction‘, 25/10/2010
Here, an admission – networked realism is what I’ll be churning out this autumn. It’s the narrative form of the much-implied secret project; the perfect literary accompaniment for atemporal culture and our shiny new, post-Newtonian network politics.
More details to follow, in glimpses and dribbles.
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
‘In his arms he has a pile of galleys; he sets them down gently, as if the slightest jolt could upset the order of the printed letters. “A publishing house is a fragile organism, dear sir,” he says, “If at any point something goes askew, then the disorder spread, chaos opens beneath our feet. Forgive me, won’t you? When I think about it I have an attack of vertigo.” And he covers his eyes, as if pursued by the sight of billions of pages, lines, words, whirling in a dust storm.’
– Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveler, 1981 , pp. 97-98
In the context of the dissertation, I’ve been thinking a fair bit about textual cyborgs, the speculative field of reader-book interaction, and how this could relate to Tim’s excellent post on cyborg infrastructure. Here, the above quote from Calvino definitely resonates, but I’m still not sure what it all means …
“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