Ray Brassier on Nick Land

This is a brief (and quickly written) commentary on an old talk by Ray Brassier, about Nick Land, dating from 2010. The questions around speculative realism, accelerationism, and Land’s current politics are all still with us today. Brassier describes Land’s philosophical project, its impetus, its originality, and why it ends in an impasse that Land can only deal with by becoming a neo-reactionary.

According to Brassier (and I think this is entirely accurate), Land’s starting point is the “transcendental materialism” of Deleuze and Guattari. Land “proposes to radicalise critique… by collapsing the hierarchy of the transcendental and the empirical… the first thing that needs to be destratified is the empirical/transcendental difference.” Kant’s critique of metaphysics is conducted precisely by means of distinguishing the transcendental from the empirical (and also the transcendental from the transcendent). Deleuze and, a fortiriori, Land turn this critique back upon its presuppositions, in order to affirm a radical immanence, in which “matter itself is synthetic and productive. Matter is primary process, and everything that unfolds at the level of conceptual representation is merely secondary and derivative.” Deleuze already pursues this via Bergson’s critique of representation and privileging of intuition. Land goes further, getting rid of intuition, and of anything else that is subjective, phenomenological, or affective. Land values intensity in itself, apart from any of these frameworks; the “subject” cannot experience intensity, because intensity destabilises and eliminates it. Brassier applauds this move, in contrast to the “flaccid inanity of contemporary Bergsonian vitalism,” which Brassier clearly detests.

However, this move also gets Land into an impossible impasse; this is because

vitalism is hence all about having intense experiences. But Landianism can’t avail itself of this register of intensification, because he’s not interested in phenomenological subjectivity and he’s not interested in experiences insofar as they are experiences of a subject in the Deleuzoguattarian register: an organism, with a face and a personal identity, etc. These are all the things that are supposed to require destratification.

In other words, the project fails precisely because intensification is “not translatable into any register of affective experience or affective intensity” — in exactly the same way that it is not translatable into any register of cognition or conceptualization. Those of us working in affect theory have been claiming for quite some time that the realm of affect is presubjective, and that it includes layers of efficacy and determination that are irreducible to cognition or to concepts. (My own version of this works this out by ignoring Kant’s transcendental argument in the First Critique, in favor of his aesthetics in the Third Critique). Brassier tells us that we are operating with a stacked deck, as it were; all our arguments about the failure of cognition or of concepts can be turned around to equally demonstrate the failure of “affective experience or affective intensity.” From Brassier’s point of view, we are all a bit “muddle-headed” (as Russell accused Whitehead of being). In Brassier’s account, the superiority of Land is that he at least faces the deep consequences of an ethics of intensity, as Deleuze and affect theorists do not.

But the other side of this is that, according to Brassier, Land has no other basis for action besides the one that he has so rigorously destroyed. Land wants to maintain “that you can just keep on intensifying and intensifying,” without end. This is impressive in that it substitutes a death drive, Thanatos, for the vitalist  (Bergsonian) life drive that Brassier finds so lax and vapid. But ultimately Land’s process of radicalization subverts itself: “if your schizoanalytical practice is fuelled by the need to always intensify and deterritorialize, there comes a point at which there is no agency left: you yourself have been dissolved back into the process.” Inevitably “you end up engendering performative contradictions, not just theoretical ones. Contradictions at the level of concepts manifest themselves as an incapacity at the level of practice.” Or, in other words, Land’s philosophy  “leads to a kind of practical impotence.”

From this, the route to Land’s current politics is easy to see. For Land, “politics must be displaced, it must be deputized, and all you can do is endorse or affirm impersonal processes which at least harbour the promise of generating or ushering in the next phase of deterritorialization.” You can only be fatalistic, welcoming the processes that destroy us as agents or subjects. But in practice, your disavowal of any willed practice “means affirming free markets, deregulation, the capitalist desecration of traditional forms of social organization, etc…. If you have no strategy, someone with a strategy will soon commandeer your tactics.” Land ends up becoming “he pawn of another kind of impersonal force… a much more cynical kind of libertarian capitalism.” Celebrating capitalist deterritorialization for its own sake leads to neo-reaction, or neo-feudalism, or whatever else we want to call the emerging politics of Silicon Valley. Trump may be losing the current election, but (as Roddey Reid suggests), a Trump 2.0 is likely to emerge in the near future, one much slicker than Trump, and even more insidious. 

Brassier’s own answer to this dilemma consists in his turn toward Sellars and allied philosophers; it’s a sort of Kant 2.0 that rehabilitates epistemology, rationality, and scientism from Deleuzian and Landian critiques. But I am not going to go into my own critique of Brassier’s position in any direct way here; rather, I want to suggest the possibility of a third position, distinct from either Brassier or Land, but nonetheless subsisting within the (anti-vitalist) terrain that Brassier depicts.

In short: Brassier warns us that “once thinking itself becomes subordinated to the imperative to intensify and destratify,” — and thereby rejects representation and epistemological issues– then “it’s clear that there must be a limitrophic point of absolute deterritorialization towards which the process of affirmation or acceleration tends.” But why should thought be governed by “the imperative to intensify and destratify,” any more than by the more traditional philosophic imperative of self-reflexive epistemological and representational critique? I am inclined to think that these are two sides of the same coin. Why should we do either? 

My own response here is an aesthetic one. I am inclined to think (as I already argue in my book Discognition) that — far from being a discrediting flaw — performative contradiction is actually a sign that something is going right. Or — to put it a bit less categorically — arguments that end in performative contradiction are of course not necessarily right; but any line of approach that is right must necessarily lead to some sort of performative contradiction. This is because of the necessary inadequacy of cognitive categories to grasp and determine the Real. It’s a lesson we ultimately get from Kant, in spite of himself, and that becomes more overt in post-Kantians like Derrida (I know he usually isn’t regarded this way, but he should be), and in today’s speculative realism. This is where we get the philosophical destratification of the transcendental-empirical binary. All of our transcendental a prioris (and we cannot ever dispense with them) turn out to be empirical and contingent in the last analysis. The very act of making a categorical assertion involves me in a performative contradiction; yet we cannot do without such categorical assertions. You can well say, from the point of view of epistemology, that this situation leads to a kind of practical impotence,” or to an endless process of deconstruction. But performative contradiction is an aesthetic condition, not an epistemological one. Art exists because the most important things in life are epistemologically intractable. Epistemology (the First Critique) and ethics (the Second Critique) are incomplete, and indeed they can only avoid collapse, through the intervention of aesthetics (the Third Critique).

I think that (as I argued in a different way in my little book on accelerationism) any such neo-aestheticism also implies a different theory of desire from the one we take for granted. Affirmationist and vitalist theory, and the radical negation of these that we find in its most “virulent” form in Land, and in a much more sophisticated form in Brassier, are united in that they both assume the infinitude of desire, and hence the inevitable discontinuity between desire (or desiring production) and its actual effects or consequences. Such is also the presupposition of the 19th and 20th century sublime, of psychoanalytic theories of desire, and of the simple consumerism which is our most elaborated form of desire today. Against this widely-shared idea of desire’s infinitude, what I am calling neo-aestheticism understands desire as being finite, multiple, and combinatorial. Such an approach to desire is expressed most fully perhaps, in Charles Fourier’s utopian visions (which are simultaneously a parody of bourgeois-capitalist forms of subjectivity, and their antidote), as well as in the notions of self-fashioning that we see, perhaps, in Oscar Wilde and Andy Warhol. Aesthetic self-fashioning does not start in any thing subjective or agential; instead, it ends in them (and of course it only ends in this way provisionally, because as finite and combinatorial it always runs out at some point, and hence needs to be practised again. This incompletion is what is often misunderstood as the infinitude of desire; but it involves repeated small satisfactions, rather than some general existential dissatisfaction).

Alain Tanner, JONAH WHO WILL BE 25 IN THE YEAR 2000

I really like the Francophone Swiss director Alain Tanner, and I wish to see him recovered from his current oblivion. I originally saw some of his films in the 1970s, the only period when they were released in the US with English subtitles. They are long since out of circulation in the English-speaking world, but you can find some of them (even with subtitles) on youtube.

I just watched, for the first time in forty years, Tanner’s film JONAH WHO WILL BE 25 IN THE YEAR 2000; a film initially released in 1976, and co-written by Tanner with the British Marxist art critic and novelist John Berger. The film is about the aftermath of the failure of the political movements of the late 60s/early 70s; there’s an ensemble cast of men and women who are dealing with these failures in a variety of ways. You might say it is about forms of Western European subjectivity in the wake of massive disappointment, and about the ongoing negotiations between private lives and public hopes.

I was really curious to see how it would hold up after all this time — and the answer is, at least for me, that it holds up pretty well. It is certainly limited — we only see heterosexual white people of what might be called the educated working class. And the movie is filled with countercultural enthusiasms (from organic farming to Tantric sex) that today have none of the potentially radical charge they might have seemed to have then. But there is a certain feeling to the film, anticipatory with a certain degree of hope despite the bleakness of the present, that we would do well not to just cynically dismiss as would be nearly everyone’s first reaction today.

JONAH certainly will not be to everyone’s taste — I mean not even to the taste of many of my friends. You can say it is more than a bit sentimental, with an additional sentimentality that my mourning for the 1960s/70s brings to it. You can also note that it is sort of Godard-lite, playing metafictional games and employing Brechtian alienation effects — but comfortable in a way Godard himself never was. All in all, it can easily be said that the movie fails to be anywhere near as radical as it thinks itself to be; it certainly wears its humanist heart on its sleeve in a way that seems embarrassing in retrospect. I should note, for what it’s worth, that as early as 1983, Alain Badiou dismissed Tanner as a “petit-bourgeois” director, in whose films “personal moods, the sense of instability, and inner changes are erroneously placed at the heart of the movement of the times.” And Badiou is quite accurate in his evocation of what Tanner’s films are like, even if I value these modes, senses, and inner changes in a way Badiou evidently does not. 

But for whatever good or bad reasons — and however much my feeling this way might merit Badiou’s contempt — I still find myself moved by Tanner’s vision. The movie’s title refers to a child born to one of the protagonist couples in the course of the film; the child is of course a source of hope, even in a time when we have suffered only defeat. The film ends with a scene showing the boy Jonah in 1980 (in the film’s future, but still far away from the new millennium toward which the film projects). Seeing this movie now, well past its expiration date, and noting how nothing the film yearned for has even remotely come to pass, the movie is something of a relic, in a strange way, as if it had projected a different post-1975 time line from the one that actually came to pass. And I treasure it for this. Today Jonah would be 41, and probably stuck in a soulless-yuppie job that he hated, but found impossible to escape.

It might be worth noting that Tanner and Berger are both still alive — Tanner is 86, and Berger is 89. I wonder what they would say about their film today.

Frank Ocean, ENDLESS — first thoughts

Frank Ocean’s Endless contains lots of gorgeous music, though it is difficult to take it all in on first listen. The music is mostly low-key, soulful r&b, but mutated with a lot of electronica and various fuzz effects. (While Ocean’s music sounds very different from that of Dawn Richards, they can both be described as exploring the borders between r&b and electronica). (It is notable to me that one of the tracks was produced by Arca). The songs play one after another, as on a mixtape, with no indication of where one song ends and the next begins. There is also no indication, until the final credits, of the names of the tracks, let alone of who worked on them). Besides songs in the strict sense, there are also fragmentary snippets with electronic sounds that play for a short while but don’t congeal into finished songs. There is also a section with (according to this website) “the German artist Wolfgang Tillmans reciting product pitches for Apple and Samsung devices over a hard synthpop backing”.These involve the repeated line “blur the border between still and motion pictures.”
 
But, speaking of motion pictures, Endless is not just a mixtape; it is also a 45-minute long “visual album” (Ocean seems to be borrowing the phrase from Beyonce here), or an experimental music video. Maybe nobody else cares, but I can’t help approaching the work from this point of view. The music video, if I can call it that, is very strange. It is apparently directed by Francisco Soriano (according to this) even though Ocean is listed as director in the end credits. The video is slow-moving and minimalist, so it requires patience. It basically shows, as many articles have already noted, Frank Ocean building a spiral staircase in the middle of a large and mostly empty loft space. (Some of the footage was streamed and looped on Ocean’s website several weeks ago, but I missed it). The most peculiar thing about the video — which hasn’t yet gotten enough notice in the online discussions I’ve seen — is that we see multiple iterations of Frank Ocean at the same time. Usually there are two of him on screen, and sometimes three. One will be plaining wood, another cutting wood with a circular saw, and a third sitting in the corner doing something on his phone.
Ocean wears different clothes in different sequences of the video, but all his iterations in any single sequence are dressed the same. There is no dialogue, and no suggesting that the multiple Oceans are interacting in any way. The editing is pretty tight, in that it carefully observe continuity rules when it shows action; e.g. if one shot shows Ocean climbing a ladder to place a block of the stairway, the next shot will show him continuing the same action from a different angle. All in all, though, the number of set-ups and camera positions is quite limited. There are occasional brief closeups of pieces of machinery, but that is all the variety we get. Also, the video is entirely in black and white, often with high contrast. In the opening portion of the video, for instance, Ocean is wearing black clothes and his clothes and skin only show up as silhouettes against the intense lighting. Later sequences are equally well lit, but in such a way that we can observe Ocean’s features more fully.
The video is very procedural: it shows the steps of the stair’s construction in linear order and with lots of detail, and with some effort to make us feel the duration of the various parts of the process (including cleaning up afterwards). Nonetheless, the activity doesn’t seem to have a point. For one thing, the stair doesn’t seem to lead anywhere. it rises from the center of the loft space, and doesn’t quite reach the ceiling. (Ann Powers suggests it’s a “stairway to heaven). Also, the final 7 or 8 minutes of the video return us to the beginning: to a loft space in which the staircase hasn’t been built yet, and the three iterations of Ocean are doing preliminary tasks. The video ends with no conclusion of culmination. (Hence the title “endless”? as in Sisyphus?)
All in all, I found Endless to be beautiful and movingly perplexing. And I experienced it quite differently than I would have it if were audio only. And obviously, there is only so much that I can say after a single view/listen. The lyrics have all been parsed and commented about on genius.com; and there is a lot of information about the songs in the credits. It will certainly take a good while to assimilate it all; and there is also the suggestion that this is not the new album from Frank Ocean that we have been waiting for for the past four years — that will be something entirely different (and according to various websites, should be released in the next several days).
Clearly Frank Ocean is deliberately making himself mysterious and hard to grasp — this is the way that he is presenting his persona, in other words. The music and the visuals are both intriguingly oblique. However, we shouldn’t try to discover the “real” Frank Ocean that would be teasingly hinted at yet withdrawn from our view. Rather, we should realize that this obliqueness is itself the inner reality that he is expressing.

Affect/Emotion

This is a general statement, nothing really new. I was writing it in another context, realized I didn’t need it, decided to post it here.

Affect theorists tend to distinguish between affect and emotion. I will start with the latter, because it is easier to explain. Emotions are personal experiences or states, like anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise (these are the six basic emotions catalogued by the psychologist Paul Ekman, though we may well dispute his claims that this list is either exhaustive, or invariant across cultures). There are also more complex emotions, like humiliation, contempt, relief, jealousy, exhaustion, and so on; it is unclear whether these can be broken down into combinations of the more basic ones, or whether more specific cultural contexts need to be involved. It also isn’t easy to delineate the boundary between emotions and moods (which might include such conditions as melancholy, despair, and contentment). Presumably emotions are acute and momentary, while moods are longer-lasting and more stable, providing a general background to our more immediate experiences. But in spite of all these difficulties, we are generally able to recognize emotions in ourselves and others. Indeed, emotions are always attached to subjects or selves. They are conditions that come over us, or in which we find ourselves. They are states of mind that we experience directly. They tend to color and inflect — or even set the conditions for — nearly all of our other perceptions and actions.

Cognitivists and evolutionary psychiatrists understand emotions largely in functional terms. Emotions, they tell us, are shortcuts which aid us in making judgments necessary to our survival. If something tastes disgusting, I immediately spit it out; I might well die if I only rejected a given piece of food after having rationally determined that it was poisonous. But it seems to me that this sort of explanation is inadequate; it fails to account for the ways that emotions seem to take on a life of their own. They creep up upon us, overcome us, and sometimes overwhelm us. They can be dysfunctional and dangerous. Indeed, emotions can be (and often are) experienced — felt, enjoyed, or suffered — for their own sake, without serving any particular function, and entirely apart from anything that they might lead us to believe or do. Such vicarious experience is the basis of all aesthetics. Reading a novel, hearing a piece of music, or watching a movie is an emotional experience first of all. Cognition and judgment only come about later, if at all.

This situation is what leads affect theorists — following in the wake of such thinkers as Spinoza, William James, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Massumi — to differentiate between emotion and affect. If emotions are personal experiences, then affects are the forces (perhaps the flows of energy) that precede, produce, and inform such experiences. Affect is pre-personal and pre-subjective; it is social, or even ontological, before it is strictly individual. Affect isn’t what I feel, so much as it is what forces me to feel. Affect in this sense is not necessarily conscious; but conscious experience may well issue from it. Psychoanalysis tells us of drives that impel thought but cannot themselves be captured in thought; cognitive psychology tells us of computational processes that provide the basis for conscious awareness, but that cannot themselves be grasped within such awareness.

Affect theory accepts both of these formulations, but pushes them even further. It argues that drives and cognitive processes are themselves only instances, or specialized and limited aspects, of more general movements of affect. Affect is best understood — in Spinoza’s formulation — as any manner in which (using the word as a verb instead of a noun) entities in the world affect and are affected by one another. I see things in the light of the Sun’s visible spectrum, and I feel with pleasure the warmth of the Sun’s infrared rays on my skin. But I am also affected by the Sun’s ultraviolet rays; even though I cannot sense them directly, they may well impinge upon me in the long run, in the form of sunburn, or even of skin cancer. And as William James argued, I don’t feel a clenching in my stomach because I am afraid, so much as this clenching is already in itself my experience of fear. In this way, I already feel afraid, before I become aware of what it is that has frightened me. In this way, our perceptions and our emotions are drenched in affect, and driven by affect, even though affect per se is irreducible to perception or emotion.

This means that affect is at once both physical and mental; or better, affect precedes (and thereby escapes) the very distinction between the physical and the mental. Affect is also all at once both actual and vicarious. It is actual, because it happens within me as an alteration of my physical and psychological state. But it is also vicarious, because — as a process of alteration — it is independent of the things or forces that trigger it. I actually do feel fear, even when I am mistaken (that rustling in the grass was not actually caused by the movement of a poisonous snake), and indeed even in what I know to be fictional circumstances (as when I respond to the slasher in a horror movie). This is why affect is so central to our experience of audiovisual media artifacts (and indeed, of media and arts in general).

Nalo Hopkinson – “Message in a Bottle”

Nalo Hopkinson’s short story “Message in a Bottle” was originally published in 2004; it can currently be found in her recent collection of short stories Falling in Love With Hominids, as well as in her short volume Report From Planet Midnight

[MY DISCUSSION CONTAINS SPOILERS, OBVIOUSLY. So you really shouldn’t read this until after you have read the story itself. My method with writing about science fiction always involves going over the plot in tedious detail. This is unavoidable, or at least necessary to what I am trying to do: which is neither to evaluate the story — it should be a given that I think it is great, because otherwise I wouldn’t be writing about it in the first place — nor to interpret it in anything like a hermeneutical or New Critical or deconstructionist close reading — since I pretty much confine myself to overt surface meanings — but rather to elicit, and develop in my own way, and (I’m afraid) according to my own preoccupations, the mindblowing (I hope) feelings and ideas that it already contains.] 

The story is set in Canada, in a near future that is not much different from our actual present. The characters are nonwhite. Greg, the narrator, describes himself as “Indian” — though I am unsure if this means that he is South Asian (like other characters in the story) or First Peoples (he does say that he is “Rosebud Sioux on my mum’s side”). Greg also remarks on the brown skin of his lovers and friends. The story is mostly about Greg’s encounters with Kamala, the adopted daughter of his friends Babette and Sunil. It’s a fraught relationship, because Greg is ambivalent, at best, about children: he admits that they “creep me out,” and says overall that  “I truly don’t hate children. I just don’t understand them. They seem like another species.”

Greg and his girlfriend Cecilia — who he describes as “lush and brown” — don’t want kids of their own; but when she gets pregnant despite their precautions, 

we both got… curious,  I guess. Curious to see what this particular life adventure would be; how our small brown child might change a world that desperately needs some change. We sort of dared each other to go through with it, and now here we are.

So Greg and Cecilia are stuck with what he, at least, calls their “creepy little alien child.” All this is just background to the main action of the story, but it sets the atmosphere. I am the last person to be judgmental about whether other people choose to have kids or not; and Hopkinson clearly isn’t judgmental about this either. But Greg’s highly self-conscious ambivalence gives the story its uneasy tone. It’s not that he’s an unreliable narrator; but his emotional responses to the story he recounts just seem a bit… I’m not sure, askew.

Dealing with another species — as Greg at least metaphorically feels children to be — is quite often, in science fiction, a figure for dealing with another culture, or another gender or sexual orientation, than one’s own (or than the normative white male heterosexual Euro-American perspective that narrative fictions all too often presuppose by default). Hopkinson, a West Indian/Black Canadian fantasy and science fiction author, has long been concerned with white supremacy, and the continuing marginalization of people of color, as well as misogyny and homophobia, both in the writing of SF and related genres, and in the fan culture surrounding the writing. “Message in a Bottle” responds to this history by giving us a narrator who is male and heterosexual, but nonwhite. He’s very aware of racial hierarchies, but maybe not so much of other sorts. His perspective is in between; partly but not entirely normative. At least he is very aware of the particularity of his subject position, rather than taking it for granted as universal. His uneasiness about the otherness of children is not really phobia or panic, though it is certainly marked as a kind of uneasiness, or as an inability to negotiate difference as fluidly and openly as one might hope. I find myself a bit distrustful of Greg, but at the same time I “identify” with the way that he seems to enact and embody tendencies that I recognize in myself, and that I strongly dislike — but that, from my position of unavoidably taken-for-granted privilege — I somehow feel powerless to escape or change.

Greg — as I should already have noted — is an installation artist. He’s a hoarder, and a *bricoleur*, of miscellaneous odds and ends and pieces of junk:

My home is also my studio, and it’s a warren of tangled cables, jury-rigged networked computers, and piles of books about as stable as playing-card houses. Plus bins full of old newspaper clippings, bones of dead animals, rusted metal I picked up on the street, whatever. I don’t throw anything away if it looks the least bit interesting. You never know when it might come in handy as part of an installation piece. The chaos has a certain nestlike comfort to it.

In his art practice, at least, Greg is open to otherness and change. The exhibition that he describes in the story is a mock archeological site. It consists in “half a ton of dirt” covering the floor of the art gallery. In this dirt he has buried “the kinds of present-day historical artifacts” that actual archaeologists “[toss] aside in their zeal to get at the iconic past of the native peoples” they are studying (in this case, people in Chiapas, Mexico). Visitors to the installation become archaeologists of the present, instead of the past. When they enter the gallery, they “get basic excavation tools. When they pull something free of the soil, it triggers a story about the artifact on the monitors above.”

In this way, Greg’s installation undermines notions of aboriginal authenticity, such as well-meaning white Westerners are all too likely to have. Instead, he acquaints his viewers with the actual, present-day material culture of native peoples: a culture that is multiple and heterogeneous, and that bears the traces both of colonialist oppression, and of these peoples’ struggles against it and affirmation of their own lives and values. The installation also relates material culture to narrative; stories matter, because without them objects are deprived of the contexts that give them meaning and importance.

Greg evidently has trouble fitting children into the artifactual stories that he likes to tell. He complains that he they

don’t yet grok that delicate, all-important boundary between the animate and inanimate. It’s all one to them. Takes them a while to figure out that travelling from the land of the living to the land of the dead is a one-way trip.

With their magical beliefs, children strike Greg as being oddly self-contained — in a way that belies their eventual transformation into adults just like ourselves. Greg admits to feeling freaked out that, in just a decade, his toddler son will be “entering puberty. He’ll start getting erections, having sexual thoughts.” Greg is perturbed by the difference of children, as expressed in all the things that they do not understand; as well as by their irksome dependency upon us. But he is equally perturbed by the knowledge that they will not be like this forever, that soon enough they will become fully grown, and therefore entirely independent of us. And all this is even more confusing against the background of our massive social and technological change:

Human beings, we’re becoming increasingly posthuman… Things change so quickly. Total technological upheaval of society every five to eight years. Difficult to keep up, to connect amongst the generations. By the time your Russ is a teenager, you probably won’t understand his world at all.

In these manifold ways, children are indeed like science-fictional aliens (or vice versa). But all these confusions are further intensified, until they finally come to a head, in Greg’s interactions with Kamala. The girl is unusual, to say the least. Even at a very young age, when she is first adopted, Kamala has an “outsized head” that looks “strangely adult.” She also “speaks in oddly complete sentences” for a young child. At the same time, her body seems to develop very slowly: she looks far younger than what her parents believe is her chronological age. Eventually, Kamala is diagnosed with Delayed Growth Syndrome (DGS), a condition shared by other children who came up for adoption at the same time she did:

Researchers have no clue what’s causing it, or if the bodies of the kids with it will ever achieve full adulthood. Their brains, however, are way ahead of their bodies. All the kids who’ve tested positive for DGS are scarily smart.

 Kamala perturbs her parents, and perturbs Greg even more, because of how she disrupts their historical, developmental, and archaeological schemas — in much the same way that posthuman technological developments also do. Kamala stands at a nodal point that compresses together all of Greg’s — and indeed, all of our society’s  — confusions and anxieties about difference, otherness, and change.

“Message in a Bottle” finally offers us — as science fiction generally does — a narrative resolution of all these dilemmas. I say “narrative resolution” here advisedly — rather than speaking of a “solution” in any more expansive sense. This point requires a more detailed explanation, which would be too much of a digression here, but which I hope at some point to develop elsewhere. In brief, I think that science fiction, in its practice of *extrapolation*, and in its presentation of social, technological, and even ontological difficulties in a narrative with individual characters, does something similar to what Claude Levi-Strauss defines as the purpose of *myth*, which is “to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction (an impossible achievement if, as it happens, the contradiction is real).” But where myths for Levi-Strauss are synchronic structures (like language according to Saussure), narratives are in their very nature diachronic or temporal; and science fictional extrapolative narratives most of all. It’s not that I want to trade structural anthropology for narrative theory — indeed, I find both of these disciplines insufferable. But SF deals in futurity, rather than being set in the eternal present either of myth or of mimetic fiction (and neoliberal actuality). And in this way, it is counter-actual: it offers us a provisional resolution — one in potentiality — of dilemmas and difficulties that are all too actual.

In any case, at the end of “Message in a Bottle” Kamala offers Greg a futuristic explanation of all that has been going on: this is a resolution, at least, for us as readers, though Greg himself remains reluctant to accept it. It involves a conceptualization of time travel radically different from any that I have encountered in any other science fiction text. Kamala explains to Greg that she is in fact an art curator from the future, who has been sent back in time to our present day, in order to collect cultural artifacts that have otherwise been lost in her own time. Because of the energetic and financial costs of time travel, the future art gallery Kamala works for cannot afford to send adults back in time, nor to bring back the collectors once they have found what they are looking for. “Arts grants are hard to get in my world, too” — apparently, at least some aspects of neoliberal governmentality are still in place several hundred years in the future.

So instead of sending arts curators themselves back in time, the future art galleries genetically engineer “small people… children who [are]n’t children,” to go back in their place. All the DGS kids are in fact far older than they appear; Kamala, who looks like she is 6, and whose adoptive parents think she is about 10, is in fact 23 years old. She is a genetic clone of the curator whose interests she represents, and the curator’s actual memories have been “implanted” within her as well. But her chromosomes have been altered, given extra telomeres in order to “slow down aging.” As a result, Kamala says, “my body won’t start producing adult sex hormones for another fifty years. I won’t attain my full growth till I’m in my early hundreds.” She will physically bring her artifacts back to the future by living through the entire span from our time until then.

“Message in a Bottle” doesn’t spare us any of the grotesque and horrific consequences of this deeply compromised technological strategy. Kamala and her cohort find themselves having to spend all their time and energy in strenuous forms of pretense: “Do you know what it’s like turning in schoolwork that’s at a grade-five level, when we all have PhD’s in our heads?” Their double consciousness on a sexual level is even worse: “the weird thing is, even though this body isn’t interested in adult sex, I remember what it was like, remember enjoying it. It’s those implanted memories from my original.” Some of the seeming-children from the future have an even harder time than Kamala, because they get abused, just as actual children sometimes do; or they find themselves “living in extremely conservative places”; or they fail to get adopted, and have to “make [their] own way as street kids.” In any case, these people from the future have no legal rights, because in appearance they are “never old enough to be granted adult freedoms.” Some of them have already died, Kamala says, and she and the rest will probably be institutionalized at best. All for the sake of an art retrospective: “this fucking project better have been worth it,” Kamala says.

All this is too much for Greg — and probably for us as readers as well. One of the great things about the story is how it has a sort of light tone, even as it drops these atrocious details on us. Because we know that we are reading a science fiction story, we have a much easier time accepting Kamala’s account than Greg does within the frame of the story. The first time I read “Message in a Bottle,” it all seemed kind of cute — the horror only kicked in retrospectively.

But there’s even more. The one thing in Kamala’s story that initially gets to Greg is Kamala’s interest in his art: she has been sent back from the future to get ahold of something from Greg’s installation. “This little girl has dug her way into my psyche,” Greg thinks, “and found the thing which will make me respond to her.” But alas, this too turns out to be a misconception. Kamala isn’t interested in Greg’s installation concept, nor even in the remnants of present-day Indigenous life that he included within it. Rather, she treasures a seashell that plays no real role in Greg’s exhibition; for “some of the artifacts” buried in the dirt “are ‘blanks’ that trigger no stories.” But in the future, this seashell is regarded as a greater work of art than anything Greg or his contemporaries ever created.

Kamala explains to Greg how “the nascent identity politics as expressed by artists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries,” such as Greg himself, eventually gave birth to a broader understanding that “human beings aren’t the only ones who make art.” In fact, the particular shell that Kamala retrieves from Greg’s installation is a masterpiece: 

Every shell is a life journal… made out of the very substance of its creator, and left as a record of what it thought, even if we can’t understand exactly what it thought… Of its kind, the mollusc that made this shell is a genius. The unique conformation of the whorls of its shell expresses a set of concepts that haven’t been explored before by the other artists of its species. After this one, all the others will draw on and riff off its expression of its world. They’re the derivatives, but this is the original.

The poignancy of this claim — if we are willing to entertain it — has to do with a new understanding of limits. We need to respect the aesthetic creations of other entities, Kamala says, even though

we don’t always know what they’re saying, we can’t always know the reality on which they’re commenting. Who knows what a sea cucumber thinks of the conditions of its particular stretch of ocean floor?… Sometimes interpretation is a trap. Sometimes we need to simply observe.

Greg isn’t entirely ready to accept Kamala’s claim; indeed, it puts him in mind of a Monty Python routine:

“Every shell is different,” she says. My perverse brain instantly puts it to the tune of “Every Sperm Is Sacred.”

But in the end, Greg feels forced to admit that “a part of me still hopes that it’s all true.” He understands the heuristic value, at least, of Kamala’s story. For the reader, the same thing plays out on a metalevel. “Message in a Bottle” takes up the traditional science fiction figuration of extraterrestrial aliens; it shows us how this figuration works in hegemonic groups’ fears of other human beings as aliens; in the way the narrator cannot help seeing children as aliens; and finally in the unassimilability of other (alien) species to our own. 

Tricia Sullivan – Occupy Me

Tricia Sullivan has long been one of my favorite contemporary science fiction authors. Her past books include the amazing MAUL. It has two plot lines: in one, set in present-day New Jersey, teenage girls engage in gang warfare at the mall; in the other, set in the far future, men are almost extinct due to a plague that kills nearly everyone with a Y chromosome; scientists are busy trying to find a cure by conducting experiments on the few remaining human males who are apparently immune. There is also the DOUBLE VISION / SOUND MIND diptych, which includes among its elements martial arts, the autism spectrum, interplanetary war, corporations testing the effectiveness of TV advertising campaigns, aspects of (I think) the author’s autobiography (from when she was an undergraduate at Bard College), and displacements of the spacetime continuum.

Her new novel, OCCUPY ME, is equally heady and thrilling. The book has just been published in the UK. (There doesn’t seem to be an American publisher at present; I ordered a copy of the paperback directly from the UK). It has a gripping action plot, but at the same time it has ontological implications that I haven’t entirely grasped after just an initial reading. I use the word “ontological” deliberately; as Sullivan says in her blog posting on the book, her aim was

to move beyond what I’d written in the past. Most of my books are about consciousness, which is an ontological subject in its own way, but not the same kind of ontology as cosmology–or so I thought at the time.

Actually, I think that OCCUPY ME is about both consciousness and cosmology. I’ll try to summarize what is at stake without too many spoilers, but [SPOILER WARNING] some account of what happens in the book is unavoidable.

OCCUPY ME seems to start out in the genre of dark paranormal fantasy; but the magical elements — an angel; a briefcase at least as mysterious and potent as the one in Pulp Fiction — are subsumed into what turns out to be much more of a science fiction framework. There are three narrative strands, conveying the points of view of three main characters. But one of the strands is first person, one is second person, and one is third person. This turns out to correspond to the differences among the three protagonists. The first person narrator, Pearl, is the one who seems to be an angel; she has wings and superhuman powers, though she initially works as a flight attendant, and seems ultimately to be some sort of artificial intelligence construct. The third person narration focuses on Alison, a 60-something Scottish veterinarian who is the only character in the novel possessing what might be called (non-pejoratively) common sense; she provides the human anchoring for what is largely a transhuman or posthuman story. The second person narration addresses its “you” to Doctor Sorle, a surgeon working in the US but originally from Africa, haunted by a strange double who takes over his body in the service of an alien agenda. I presume that it’s because of this possession, so that he is impelled by forces that are both strangely intimate and beyond/external to himself, that he is narrated in the second person.

The first background to the story involves a rapacious energy company that wreaks destruction in the developing world in its search for oil to extract, and an equally rapacious businessman, now on his deathbed, who used to work for the oil company, but detourned some of its profits in order to set up his own financial empire. Appropriately for today, we have a world dominated by petrochemicals and derivatives — and it is clear that governments and police forces are subordinated to corporations dealing in these commodities, rather than the reverse. In this sense, the novel is embedded — as much SF is — in the actual social conditions of the time in which it is written.

But there is also a second background, and this is where the cosmology comes in. We have cosmic forces located in the higher dimensions that contemporary physics gives us hints of. We have the power of informatics, in the way that organisms, environments, and subjectivities can be sampled for their quantum “waveforms,” and thereby preserved in virtual form (though never completely — the data are never vast enough to encompass the totality of an organism together with its conspecifics and its environment). We have organic encryption — not just in DNA, but more significantly in carbon nanostructures that introduce higher-dimensional gates hidden in crude oil. The oil that corporations extract today was formed out of organic matter from the Cretaceous — and in OCCUPY ME, the Cretaceous data is still encrypted in the oil, which allows for reversions from the deep geological past to manifest themselves in present day reality (in the novel, this takes the form most notably of a predatory pterodactyl, whose actions are crucial to the plot). And we have the forces or entities that have gathered this data — which becomes a way to suggest influences beyond the present, or beyond our current consensual spacetime reality, without introducing any sort of supernatural authority (whether in traditional religious or in vaguely spiritual new-agey format).

In an odd way, all this makes the novel sort of self-reflexive: a science fiction narrative about the powers and effectiveness of science fiction itself. We know that, to quote Faulkner, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This is true of historical time: the colonialist depredations of the oil company are still active twenty or thirty years later in the present time of the novel. But it is equally true of deep time: which the novel dramatizes in the form of the resurgence of the Cretaceous (from which the oil derives) within the moment in which we extract and use the oil. But if the past still subsists within the present (despite our American tendency to dismiss things by saying that they are “history”), then we can equally say that the future already insists within the present moment: its potentialities glimmer in the form of premonitions, and also in the form of alternative outcomes — according to the “butterfly effect,” the way that tiny shifts can have disproportionate consequences.

The novel reflects at one point that these shifts disrupt our pretensions to control the future:

The idea that this principle should work makes it sound like the universe is made of Swiss clockwork, not fickle electrons that might as well be leprechauns. The butterfly effect isn’t real in the sense that people think it is; chaos is chaotic, right? You can’t manipulate it by flapping a particular butterfly on a particular day. The only way you could make the butterfly effect work, to interfere in a chain of events, would be to run against the grain of time. And that really would be resistance to entropy.

In other words, not only can we not calculate the future from the present in a deterministic or Hari Seldon-esque way, we cannot even calculate the broad outcomes of our own small interventions into initial conditions. But the novel also suggests that, under some circumstances at least, it is possible to go against entropy. This reminds me, among other things, of Erik Schneider and Dorion Sagan’s argument that the negentropic organization of living systems is possible because on the larger, more cosmic scale, it works to increase entropy or energy dispersion. In OCCUPY ME, Pearl makes a similar suggestion; just after the passage I quoted above, she says that

the funny thing about entropy is that it loves order. Entropy loves order because more order burns everything down faster…

The novel’s speculations about entropy, together with its citation of higher-dimensional acausal quantum networks, allows some elbow room for a nondeterministic account of futurity (of how it insists in the present, in my language) and of the possibility, therefore, of nudging future events, after all. The physics of this is admittedly speculative (and therefore, unavoidably dodgy). In the blog post I cited earlier, Sullivan lists as her scientific sources for this speculation books by the physicists Lisa Randall (Warped Passages) and Michio Kaku (Physics of the Impossible). Both these books are already somewhat speculative; Sullivan’s extrapolations from them are therefore speculative squared.

Such speculation propels the overall narrative of OCCUPY ME, and especially Pearl’s own quest — which she only discovers in the course of her experiences through the length of the novel. Towards the beginning of the book, we are introduced to a shadowy group called The Resistance, which tries to nudge the future in better directions, as unobtrusively as possible. This falls apart, however, in the course of the novel’s plot, which involves revisions of the past as well as the future, through a recursive feedback process. (I don’t want to be more precise here, because that would involve rehearsing the book’s narrative more than I want to here — although it is very much to the point that part of what makes the novel so powerful is that its narrative, from the point of view of thrills, twists, and character identification, resonates with and is inextricable from its conceptual argument, which is what I am trying to disentangle here). But by the end of the novel, Pearl comes to another, perhaps less fragile, formulation of the same process by which it is possible to nudge causality without violating it. (This also involves how the higher dimensional implicate order is related to the linear order of spacetime as we experience it — but this is one aspect of the novel’s extrapolative argument that I don’t feel ready to work out yet. It also involves elements of both informatics and energetics, which are brought out in some other plot strands).

All this is consistent with my own general claims, that I have been trying to formulate in different ways, about science fiction. In the first place, though SF is not scientifically accurate (its extrapolations involve inventions that will never be experimentally verified, hence that will never come true), it nonetheless performs legitimate acts of metaphysical (or, let’s here say ontological) speculation. In the second place, SF is precisely a “realism”, not of present social and ecological conditions per se, but of the future potentiality that insists or resonates within this present (of course, this does not mean that SF claims to predict the actual future). If Pearl, the first-person narrator, is the most important of the three persons (in both a grammatical and characterological sense) populating the novel, this is because she increasingly discovers, thoughout the course of the novel, how her subjectivity (and her substantial physical power) is a matter (or a function) of waveform data that are virtual rather than actual, or that extend beyond the simple present to more complex and convoluted temporalities. In this way, the novel’s account of cosmology is also its account of consciousness: a double ontology which is not inconsistent with the double plots of some of Sullivan’s earlier novels.

There is a lot more to say than this rough outline; but that will probably have to wait for a rereading of OCCUPY ME. For now, I can just say that the novel both confirms my overall sense of what science fiction can do, and extends this in directions that I haven’t quite been able to work out yet.

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension

I posted a shorter version of this yesterday on Facebook; here is a revised and expanded version.

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimenson is quite good (despite the predictably negative reviews; the same reviewers who didn’t like the earlier films in the series now say that the new, final installment doesn’t live up to those earlier films). – I should note that I didn’t see it in 3D, so I can’t say what that might have added to the experience. But the overall principle of scary creepy events that you can barely discern, amplified by all the empty waiting and uncertainty that surrounds them, is as well done here as in the earlier entries of the series. And a single setting, an anonymous Southern California suburban one-family home, as in the other entries serves as sole location (aside from some interdimensional pathways) for the entire film. 

Ghost Dimension is perhaps less formally rigorous than some of the earlier entries; but it makes up for this in other ways. The original Paranormal Activity, (2007), the first movie in the series, was shot and directed entirely independently by Oren Pelli for something like $15,000 – though more money was spend when the movie was picked up for general distribution. The remaining films were not made as cheaply, but they were still extraordinarily low budget by Hollywood standards (I seem to remember seeing the figure of $1 million per film somewhere). Pelli was the producer for the subsequent entries, but let others direct. (The new film is directed by first-time director Gregory Plotkin, who edited all the previous films in the series except the first one).

Paranormal Activity 1 distinguished itself with what can be called its performative and instrumental self-reflexivity: the equipment with which the film was shot — a handheld consumer video camera, and several cams on laptops — is itself present within the diegesis, and plays a major role in the events of the film. Things like laptop webcams allow us to record presences that we don’t perceive directly — because we are not there, because we are asleep, or because the subtlety of the physical disturbances being recorded evades our immediate direct notice. The use of supposed found footage in horror is not new to this series — the obvious precursor is, of course The Blair Witch Project (1999) — but what distinguishes Paranormal Activity is how this footage is used. It isn’t just material left behind by the protagonists, but it becomes a major determinant of how they do what they do. In the morning, they look at the footage recorded while they were asleep the previous night. And we as audience scan this footage because of how it is presented to us with fast forwards and jump cuts made evident not only by changes in the image, but by the ubiquitous time codes on the corner of the laptop screen.

The second and third entries elaborated on this by means of a sort of serialist minimalism, like that of an avant-garde experimental film. This is something that Nicholas Rombes discusses in his article on Paranormal Activity 2 (2010).Where the protagonist in the first installment used webcams in laptops, the protagonist in the second film installs surveillance cameras throughout the house. And we get long sequences in which we cycle through the output from these fixed cameras, in repetitive order, while we are just waiting for something to happen. Sometimes we hear ominous noises whose sources don’t appear in any of these visuals. And we find ourselves searching for the most minute changes in the images, each time we cycle through them. It’s sort of like a horror film directed by Michael Snow. (Well, to be perfectly fair, Wavelength actually is a horror film – or at least a thriller – directed by Michael Snow).

Paranormal Activity 3 (2011) is a prequel, set in the 1980s: which means that the technology used and depicted consists mostly of VHS cameras and tapes (a technology which of course is analog, not digital). This constraint allows for some astonishing inventions: especially when the protagonist puts one of his VHS cameras on the chassis from an oscillating fan. This allows the camera to slowly and repeatedly pan back and forth, so that it alternately views the living room and the kitchen of the home. In the course of these pans, we spend a lot of time waiting for something to happen, as well as hearing things that we can’t see because the camera is in the wrong part of its slow pan, seeing things which happen far away from the camera, on the room’s opposite wall, so that we don’t even notice these events the first time we watch the movie), and getting some real shocks when we finally get the payoff for all of the waiting and vague intimations. 

Paranormal Activity 4 (2012) updated the series by adding video chat as well as body scanning through the motion-sensing apparatus of the Kinect. The whole series up to this point is distinguished by the ways in which traditional Hollywood formal structures are constrained by the nature of the footage, not only as it is presented to us, but also as it is developed through the characters’ own uses of their cameras. The use of cameras tied to particular POVs (whether human, as in the handheld video cams, or nonhuman, as in the webcams and surveillance cams) means that the traditional film syntax of continuity editing cannot be applied. It is as if the filmmakers stripped editing language down to zero, and then rebuilt it from scratch, following the technological affordances of the devices they were using. For instance, it is only in PA 4, with the video chats between the teenage girl protagonist and her boyfriend, that we ever get anything like a shot/reverse shot structure. A detailed breakdown of how these formal constraints work, far better than anything I could do, is provided by David Bordwell in his discussion of the series. 

The unnumbered sidequel, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014) is quite entertaining, but doesn’t really do anything new formally with the series. It stays mostly with the handheld video camera. I can’t help feeling the filmmakers missed an opportunity here. It is too bad none of the series made use of cameraphones, which at this point are ubiquitous in a way that dedicated videocams are not.

The new and apparently final entry, Ghost Dimenson, goes off in a surprisingly different direction from the rest of the series. Even leaving aside the 3D, which is evidently something that is still not cheaply available in home consumer equipment, the new movie is not quite as careful as the previous entries in motivating every shot. Sometimes there are quick cuts while the action and the sound continue unbroken, an editorial refinement which couldn’t really be done in camera, and thus conflicts with the home-footage premise. However, we still don’t get anything like conventional continuity editing. The camera is often shaky and wobbly, and it moves around erratically — all this brings us back to the sense that one of the characters is holding the camera, even when it is uncertain which character this might be. It’s almost as if Ghost Dimension is the inverse of Sean Baker’s beautiful Tangerine (also 2015). Where the latter movie was shot entirely on iPhones, yet has a smooth and controlled look that we cannot help attributing to much more expensive equipment, Ghost Dimension looks/feels cheap, flawed, and spontaneous, regardless of the quality and cost of the equipment actually used to make it.

All this relates to the underlying aesthetic of Ghost Dimension, which marks a big change from the earlier films in the series. Where the previous films emulated, and gave a new socio-economic context to, (late-modernist) self-reflexivity and minimalism, Ghost Dimension rather shows an affinity with the more recent experimental trends of glitch art and even “new aesthetics” (machine art). There are a few sequences that switch among multiple fixed cameras as in PA 2, but even this is disrupted when one of the cameras is knocked over by demonic forces. For the most part, instead, we have handheld (and therefore continually moving, sometimes shaking) videocams that operate mostly in darkness or semi-darkness. This has a number of important consequences. It isn’t always easy to tell where exactly the camera is positioned. A lot of stuff is barely visible, because the scene as a whole is either unlit, or lit only in a circle by the highly directional lighting from the camera itself. Sometimes we get switches to what seems like infrared mode. In addition, even in the daytime portions of the movie there often a lot of static and noise, as well as shakiness, in the image. And jump cuts (as I have already mentioned) are far more frequent than in the earlier installments. Not to mention that what I have metaphorically called “noise” in the video image is often accompanied by difficult-to-identify (literal) noises on the soundtrack.It’s an old strategy to use various sorts of darkness and murkiness in horror films, together with offscreen noises, in order to increase uncertainty and fear. But Ghost Dimension pushes this further, to the point where the manifestations of ghostly, demonic activity are not just beyond the ken of the camera (and sound recorder), but rather affect the image and sound tracks by impinging upon them in order to distort them. Or, to put this in somewhat different terms: it is not just that audiovisual devices are able to capture images and sounds that stretch beyond our own perceptual abilities, but that the movements of these imperceptible forces impinge on and distort the capturing/representing devices themselves. It has become common for film and video makers to deliberately include glitches as a way to paradoxically heighten the supposed “authenticity” of the images (for instance, think of all the movies that digitally incorporate lens flare, as a mark that the scene was really recorded by a real camera). But here glitches extend beyond even this sort of use — instead of authenticating the medium, they insist upon the breakdown and incapacity of the medium.

All this is amplified by the one really surprising novum in Ghost Dimension. In addition to their own 2013-vintage cameras (2013 is when the action of the movie takes place), the protagonists find an old video camera, apparently a VHS one, left behind by the protagonists of PA 3. This camera has an odd design (additional lenses or sensors, apparently attuned to something different than the three primary colors a normal video camera is able to capture), and it turns out to be able to actually pick up traces of the otherwise invisible demons. But these entities manifest within the special camera’s feed in strange ways, and precisely in the form of glitches and interruptions, rather than in the form of solid objects or bodies. We see them first as scattered, swirling interference patterns, and then increasingly as dark blotches that ooze into the frame, inhabiting the visualized space without taking on concrete form. The special camera can see the demons precisely as glitches, or formless obstructions of the image. This also seems having to do with the fact that the special video camera is an archaism, analog rather than digital — giving us vagueness and obscurity rather than clear patterns.The idea of archaic equipment is also emphasized when the protagonists find an old VHS player, and pop the old cassettes (in effect, outtakes from PA 3) into it. These involve some wonderfully freaky moments when the people in these 25-year-old videotapes interact with,and respond to, the people in the present watching them, as if they — the ghost images recorded in a distant past — could see their present-day viewers. All this reminds us that the ideal of digital order and clarity can never really be achieved. Glitches intrinsic to the digital go hand in hand with obstructions that date back to older, imprecise analog technologies. You can never get rid of these analog traces from the past, just as you can never entirely cleanse even the supposedly purely digital renderings in the present.

In short, if the earlier movies in the series were about the real phantoms that are generated by surveillance and self-surveillance technologies, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension is correspondingly about the real phantoms that are generated by the limits of these technologies, and by their breakdowns either because they are (contrary to what we are led to believe) intrinsically limited, or because their malfunctions are a feature and not a bug, the consequence of their being pushed (as they cannot help being) beyond the limits that they seek to define.

GROOVE, by Mark Abel

Mark Abel’s book Groove: An Aesthetics of Measured Time, recently published in the Historical Materialsm book series, offers a new musicological and philosophical account of groove music — which is to say nearly all popular music, in the US and the Americas, and increasingly in other parts of the world as well, for the past hundred years — since at least the start of the 20th century. Ultimately, Abel offers an Adornoesque defense of the very mass-industrially-produced music that Adorno himself despised. This in itself is incredibly useful, given how much of a stumbling-block Adorno has been for decades when it comes to thinking about music — you simply can’t dismiss him, but there are good reasons for refusing to go along with him.

However, Abel’s book aims for a comprehensiveness which means that it actually does much more than that — while I am unwilling to follow Abel all the way, I find that he contributes powerfully to my thoughts about music (given, of course, that I am not a musician, and lack all but the most rudimentary musical training).

Abel starts by giving an overall definition of groove music — one that goes well beyond the relatively feeble attempts at definition that he cites from musical encyclopedias and from past commentators. According to Abel, groove is characterized by four crucial elements:

  1. Measure, or metronymic time
  2. Syncopation
  3. ‘Deep metricality’ or multi-levelled meter
  4. A backbeat

All these characteristics are crucial. Much traditional music from around the world is rhythmical, but not metric. Traditional West African music, for instance, is polyrhythmic (many rhythms going on at the same time), but not metric; there may be an implicit pulse, but there are no measures, and there is no underlying organization of strong and weak beats. Only European music of the last five hundred years or so is really divided into measures, with a strong emphasis on the first beat of each measure (one-two-three-four). And Western music tends to exhibit fractal patterns (though Abel doesn’t actually use the word “fractal”) of metric organization on multiple levels (think of four-bar blues, or of ABAB song forms). Beyond this, neither syncopation (playing against the regular pattern of the beat) nor a back beat (actually a particular form of syncopation, “an emphasis on the off-beats of the bar (beats two and four) and often the off-beats of other metrical levels as well”) would be possible: if the music is not metric in the first place then it cannot play against the regular meter. This means that polyrhythms in funk and other African American music actually work quite differently from polyrhythms in traditional African music, the latter not having metric regularity in the first place, and therefore not having syncopated violations of this regularity either).

On this basis, Abel rejects common claims about the fundamentally African source of American popular music – he says that there are multiple hybrid sources, and that it is essentialistic to insist upon African sounds in particular. This is one of the instances where, even though Abel has a point, he greatly overstates it, protesting way too much against attributions of Africanness to blues, jazz, funk, etc. Abel’s underlying point is the Marxist one (which I don’t disagree with) that modes of production are determinant in the last instance — but here he could really use a bit more flexibility before getting to that last instance. Indeed, Abel is so over-the-top in his denial of there being any sort of specifically African vibe to groove music that he goes so far as to rank the Average White Band as highly as he does James Brown when it comes to funk (in one of the exceedingly rare cases in the book where he mentions particular musicians at all). Many readers will understandably be ready to throw the book down in disgust at this point; which would be unfortunate, since the book really does have a lot to offer.

Abel’s definition of groove is exceedingly broad; and this is both a strength and a weakness. A strength, because it enables him to make wide-ranging observations about popular music of the 20th and 21st centuries, ones that hold across multiple genres. But a weakness as well, because it means that he is unable to recognize or acknowledge the many singular inventions that, within this broad framework, have diversified popular music so remarkably over the past hundred-and-some-odd years.

Abel’s other major point, which I find entirely convincing, is his demonstation (citing a wide range of historians and theorists) of how metric time — time conceived as an empty and homogeneous linear successions — is a product, not just of modern scientific technologies (like the ever-more accurate clocks that have been made since the 17th century), but specifically of capitalism, with its ubiquitous organization of commodity production, its appropriation of labor power as a commodity, and its need for the close measurement of time both in order to discipline workers, and as a mesure of value more generally (since the value of labor power, and of all commodities, is determined in the last instance by “socially necessary labor time”).

Abel makes the historical case for detailed time-measurement as central to capitalist relations, to the point that capitalism could not function without it. This argument is enough of a commonplace that Abel spends a lot more effort and pages on it than is strictly necessary (but I guess what seems a commonplace to anyone with any sort of even semi-Marxist intellectual formation might not be so to others). The importance of the argument is that the underlying structure of capitalism can explain why metric organization is so central to Western music of the last five hundred years or so, while it is absent from other historical forms and traditions of music. Metric organization is central to European classical music, and it is picked up with a vengeance in the groove of popular music ever since sound recording techniques became widespread.

This gets to the heart of Abel’s argument with and against Adorno. 20th- and 21st century philosophies of music necessarily rely on a kind of metaphysics of time that has been central to modernity. Abel says that the time theories of Bergson, Husserl, etc., are idealist, because they do not bring their understanding of time back to the capitalist conditions that generated it. I am much more willing to accept a certain sort of metaphysics than Abel is — thinkers like Bergson and Husserl are vitally important in the ways that they articulate how we experience time, and how this subjective experience relates to other, “objective” modes of registering time (including the scientific and capitalist-industrial ones). Musical experience necessarily involves time-experience on a deep level; and Abel in effect acknowledges this by going over Bergsonian and phenomenological accounts of temporality in great detail.

Both Bergson and Husserl (the latter of whose ideas about time are extended into the consideration of music especially by Alfred Schutz) contrast an authentic inner time sense to the external and spatialized objective measurement of homogeneous, empty time by the sciences. Abel argues that Adorno’s observations on modern art music and popular music (two damaged halves of what should be a whole) are in fact organized by this metaphysical distinction. (I am here using “metaphysical” in a non-pejorative sense, even if Abel is not). The authenticity of personal, inner time is violated by the way that industrial monopoly capitalism subjects everything unremittingly to the commodified standardization that rests, on its deepest level, on the homogenization of measured time. Adorno views 19th-century classical music (Beethoven above all) through the way that it resists homogeneous time, and insteads opens up the experience both of real inner time (which is ultimately Bergsonian duration) and of historical time (which capitalism suppresses by installing an eternal now, and a temporal repetitiveness which denies that the future can be in any real sense different from the present).

[The question of how inner time as duration, and historical time as collective experience, can relate to one another is itself an additional difficult one — I don’t find Abel’s attempts to resolve this entirely convincing, and I don’t think anyone else has really resolved it either. Most Marxists have tended to disdain Bergson on the grounds that his idea of duration is an ahistorical one; but I think that Abel is right in implying — though he never says this directly, and might well reject it — that no modernist defense of any richer sense of time than the empty capitalist one can avoid taking an at least partly Bergsonian stance].

For Adorno, 20th-century classical music struggles, with greater or lesser success, with the same issue of time experience. To simplify a little, for Adorno 20th century classical music at its most successful (e.g. in the earlier Schoenberg, according to Adorno), resists the universal capitalistic imposition of metrical time by refusing meter as much as possible, and by drawing on (or retreating to) the few areas of culture that have not yet been entirely overwhelmed by metrical regularity. For Adorno, all popular music — everything that has a groove, in Abel’s terminology — capitulates to the regularity of meter, and this is what ultimately stands behind Adorno’s criticisms of popular music as conformist and formulaic, as merely filling up a pre-existing form, as offering only trite and inconsequential minor variations which never affect the basic underlying tyranny of meter as commodified or Taylorized time, etc.

Abel’s counter-argument to all this is that it is precisely by being metrical with a vengeance, by using meter in a far more intense way than classical music ever did, and therefore by proliferating syncopations against a metric beat which is the dialectical condition for these violations of metrical logic to take place — it is by doing all this that groove music at its best is able to subvert homogeneous clock time or commodity time.

Thus it is by means of Adorno’s own dialectical logic that Abel defends the emancipatory possibilities of groove music; and even suggests that the 20th century classical music that Adorno at least ambivalently championed only represents a conservative retreat, since it simply disengages from metric time rather than working inside it to challenge it. Groove music at its best

provides an antidote to Adorno’s, and indeed Jameson’s, pessimistic position that resistance to reification can only emerge from spheres of humanity which have not yet fallen fully under the sway of commodification, of which there remain precious few, by directing our attention to the possibilities of fracture from within.

[Abel’s argument parallels my own argument as to why rapid-editing lowbrow films like Gamer and Detention are much better responses to our 21st century media situation than are the slow cinema films championed by many cineastes].

Abel’s thesis seems to me to be essential for any understanding of the multifarious modes in which popular music works today (as well as how it did in the past century). This remains the case even though Abel declines to give anything in the way of specific examples, or even to differentiate between the somewhat different strategies of different popular-music genres, as well as of the increasingly prevalent hybridizations among these genres.

And, to make it as specific as possible: Abel’s thesis makes a lot of sense in the specific case of Afrofuturist music, and more generally of Afro-diasporic music of the Black Atlantic — and this despite Abel’s refusal to attribute any particular degree of “Africanness” to groove music. Note how Afrofuturism calls on science fiction both to describe the experience of oppression (the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans was like an alien abduction) AND to describe future prospects of liberation (Sun Ra’s vision of outer space; George Clinton’s Mothership; etc.). And these are not matters just of discursive elaboration, but are also built into the musical structure of grooves, which both make you a “slave to the rhythm” and offer dancing as liberation, as both body expression and as the experience of funky syncopations.

This is why it is too bad that Abel limits the scope of his argument by rejecting or ignoring not only any privileging of African musical traditions, but also any form of theorization that calls upon this. Abel’s own theorization of how the groove can provide liberation from metric enslavement precisely by intensifying it, by turning the eternal now of capitalist realism into an experience of overfull NOWNESS, draws on Walter Benjamin’s notion of Jetztzeit (nowtime). Abel concludes that,

in contrast to non-groove pulsed music, where many notes occur between the beats, every musical event in groove music is also a beat at some level of the metric hierarchy. This gives each event/beat the character of intense, pregnant presentness — a nowtime — which is lacking in the narrative-style art music tradition.

All this seems fine to me; but Abel would only have strengthened his own argument if he were willing to draw upon formulations like James Snead’s understanding of the way repetition works in black music (he explicitly rejects Snead, and doesn’t even mention thinkers like Tricia Rose and Fred Moten).

There is also the problem — for me, at least — that Abel contends that his own vision of the liberatory temporal potential of the groove “is interestingly at odds with the vision of temporal freedom which emerged earlier from Bergsonian thinkers like Deleuze as well as Jameson’s celebration of temporal incommensurability.” I would like to see more of a confluence than an opposition here — for reasons that I will conclude by explaining.

At heart I remain, as I have long been, a Deleuzian. But to my mind the absolutely worst thing about Deleuze — both in his solo works and in his works with Guattari — is his anti-metrical (and therefore anti-groove) bias when it comes to music. Even when D & G deal with musical repetition in the “Refrain” chapter of A Thousand Plateaus, they insist that the deterritorializing thrust of music must come from the rejection of meter; they insist upon a fundamental opposition between rhythm and meter, instead of allowing for the metric (and also, therefore, cross-metric and anti-metric) rhythms of modern popular music. Their ideal is the pulseless time of Aeon, manifested to a degree in such French modernist composers as Messaien and Boulez. Deleuze and Guattari have no room in their vision (or should I say their audition?) for funk or the groove. Abel rightly traces this position back to Bergson, and shrewdly notes that Deleuze’s high-culture modernism in this respect is actually quite similar to Adorno’s.

One might wish that Deleuze had applied the insights of Difference and Repetition to an analysis of groove music. But unfortunately, any sort of metrical repetition is necessarily, for Deleuze, something like what Bergson denounces as the spatialization of time. (Deleuze rescues the cinema from this aspect of Bergson’s polemic, but he never similarly rescues funk or post-1960 dance music, or even rock ‘n’ roll).

I think that, as Abel explicitly suggests, the problem goes back to Bergson himself. Bergson’s musical analogue for duration (durée) is always melody, which he describes as a continuity that cannot be broken without changing its very nature; it cannot be quantified without altering its qualitative being. Groove music is, as Abel argues, both intensive and extensive, both rhythmic and metrical, both qualitative and quantitative; it breaks down the oppositions between these pairs that Bergson and Deleuze both so strongly insist upon. Their formulations imply a line of flight from capitalism’s imposition of linear, empty, homogeneous time; but for that very reason, they never engage with it directly.

As an alternative to these sorts of formulations, Abel refers to a musicologist whom I had never previously heard of, Victor Zuckerkandl. According to Abel, Zuckerkandl is also deeply influenced by Bergson, but he moves in a very different direction than Deleuze does (or than Adorno does, for that matter). Zuckerkandl agrees with Bergson’s major thesis that time = duration = indivisible change. But he applies this insight to rhythm and meter, as well as to melody. That is to say,

Zuckerkandl argues that the conventional explanation of meter is wrong. Meter is not produced from a pattern of strong and weak accents as it is conventionally explained, but is much better understood as oscillation. Psychological experiments show that a series of equally spaced pulses are perceived not as 1-2-3-4-5 etc., but as 1-2-1-2 etc. where ‘2’ is not number two but ‘away-from-one’. What this implies is that at the heart of meter is a cyclical motion or wave comprising a motion of ‘to-fro’ or ‘away-back’, and that the standard understanding of causality in meter must be reversed: ‘it is not a differentiation of accents which produces meter, it is meter which produces a differentiation of accents.’

This means that meter cannot be opposed to free rhythm in the way that Bergson does implicitly, and Deleuze does explicitly. Rather,

There are forces at work within meter which impart to a tone a different rhythmic impulse depending upon which phase of the metric cycle it falls and which make the counting of beats unnecessary. Metrical order is a dynamic order so that while, as we have seen, for Zuckerkandl, ‘melody [is] motion in the dynamic field of tones, rhythm [is] motion in the dynamic field of meter’.

In short, meter is a wave phenomenon, and “like other kinds of wave, metric waves are not about equality but about kinetic impulse.” In this way, when meter — however much its origin lies in the capitalist homogenization of time — is taken up, not only by Western concert music, but even more so by jazz, funk, and other sorts of groove music, it releases an energy that no capitalist expropriation of surplus value is able entirely to contain. [This is the answer, incidentally, to the question that the FBI agents ask Sun Ra when they kidnap him in the movie Space is the Place: “C’mon, Ra, how do you convert your harmonic progressions into energy?”].

In effect, Zuckerkandl deconstructs the duality between rhythm and meter, or between intensive and extensive, by Bergsonizing (if I may use that expression) the latter as well as the former. Meter is a field and a wave, rather than an emptily homogeneous form of measurement. Zuckerkandl even says, following this, that “The wave is not an event in time, but an event of time.” To listen to music is to experience time itself (in a way that seems to anticipate what Deleuze says about modernist cinema, the cinema of the time-image. But just as we experience time in its pure state, not only in Antonioni’s long takes, but equally (though I am not sure that Deleuze would have accepted this) in Tony Scott’s hyperactive editing, so we experience time in its pure state not only in Boulez’s floating, non-metric melodic lines, but equally — or I would want to say, even more intensely — in the pulses and syncopations of Miles Davis’ On the Corner, my candidate for the greatest piece of music ever recorded.

Obviously I need to read Zuckerkandl. I should note, though, that there are other paths beyond Bergson, which maintain his insights about intensive time without thereby accepting his dualism of time and space, or of intensive and extensive. Another one, not mentioned by Abel, is that of Gaston Bachelard in his books Intuition of the Instant and Dialectic of Duration. Bachelard argues that duration is radically multiple and discontinuous, rather than being the unbreakable continuity insisted upon by Bergson. Bachelard proposes the analogy of duration as rhythm, instead of Bergson’s duration as melody. By insisting on the multiple repetitions and variations of rhythm, Bachelard makes it possible for us to unite rhythm and meter in the ways groove music does, instead of making Deleuze’s absolute opposition between them.

Steve Goodman takes this up in his important book Sonic Warfare, in the course of dealing with the ways that bass and rhythm in dance music are at once despotic and liberating (rather than being only the former, as a strict Deleuzian argument would have to maintain). Goodman also proposes a Whiteheadian ontology of vibration, in place of the Bergsonian ontology of light that we find in Deleuze’s Cinema volumes.

I may seem to be drifting far away from Abel’s book at this point. But the virtue of Groove is precisely that it pushes us to consider groove music in a new manner, one that can accommodate the insights of both Deleuze and Adorno without having to embrace their incompletions and biases. I would add here, that we can read and benefit from Groove without having to embrace Abel’s own incompletions and biases either; I refer not only to his rejection of Afrofuturist currents, but also to his unfortunate claim that “‘dance music’ composed on computers” cannot be liberating in the manner of other groove music, because supposedly it “is blind to the concept of individual parts and tends towards total centralisation.” Here Abel evinces the same Adornoesque prejudice that he rightly demystifies elsewhere.

I won’t deny that Groove is sometimes a frustrating book. I wish that there had been more (or indeed, any) concrete examples, and that there had been less citation of some not-all-that-relevant theorists (like Postone and Sohn-Rethel). But I still found Groove a thought-provoking and stimulating book, one that is highly relevant to my own search for the secrets of “Funkentelechy Versus the Placebo Syndrome.”

Freedman on Mieville

I just finished reading Carl Freedman’s excellent book on China Mieville, which I can heartily recommend to anybody who’s interested in Mieville.

The book is filled with insightful and powerful close readings of Mieville’s fiction, and with commentary on how the fiction conveys Mieville’s own Marxist understanding of things.

I have a few disagreements with Carl, which are pretty much the same ones I had vis-a-vis his earlier book Critical Theory and Science Fiction (2000), which I expressed in my own book Connected (2003), and to which Carl replied in his very generous review-essay on that book. So a lot of this is ongoing (though Carl here sharpens and revises his theses from the earlier book, in response to criticisms by Istvan Csicsery-Ronay and by Mieville himself).

Basically what it comes down to is that Carl still positions himself in the line of Darko Suvin when it comes to theorizing SF; whereas I would like to see a non-Suvinian theory of science fiction (analogous, I suppose, to Laruelle’s non-philosophy or non-standard philosophy, which itself is modeled on non-Euclidean geometry).

In practice, what does this mean? Carl maintains a somewhat revised and updated version of Suvin’s definition of science fiction as the literature of cognitive estrangement; Carl mentions extrapolation as only a minor example or component of cognitive estrangement. I want to invert this definition: for me, SF is primarily a literature of extrapolation, and cognitive estrangement is only a minor variant of extrapolation. For me, this is because SF is about, not the actual future, but rather futurity insofar as it really (but inactually) exists in the present.

Writing about Mieville, Carl of course extends the definition of SF to include weird fiction as well — something I would also want to do with my definition of SF — but I don’t think this fundamentally changes either of our positions.

What it really comes down to, I think — and this might allow for a certain reconciliation between Carl’s position and my own — is the opposition we see in the Bas-Lag novels, particularly The Scar, between crisis energy and potentiality. The former is a basic principle of radical (dialectical) change and transformation, whereas the latter is merely a list of alternative choices, or alternative outcomes, or alternative happenings – but in a way that leaves the essential situation unchanged. Although the terms are different, the logic here is the same as that between potentiality and mere possibility in Deleuze. Crisis energy in Mieville (like the virtual in Deleuze) is, as Carl puts it, “a certain ontological instability at the very center of reality… The core of Being itself tends towards hybridity.” This is a real dynamism, in opposition to the “merely additive static pastiche” which we see in the figure of Motley in Perdido Street Station, and which is manifested in the potentiality engine the Lovers are searching for in The Scar. Though Deleuze uses “potentiality” positively, to mean something like what Mieville and Carl mean by crisis, his critique of mere logical possibility is pretty much the same as Mieville’s and Carl’s critique of what Mieville calls potentiality. In both cases, it is a question of actuality merely being added to a pregiven possibility; as opposed to the way that transformation requires a much deeper process of dialectical contradiction (Mieville) or actualization of the virtual (Deleuze). [I used to get all worked up about the differences between dialectical realization in the Hegelian tradition adopted by most Marxists, and the nondialectical account of differentiation as actualization of the virtual in Deleuze; but my present view is that these are actually quite minor differences, the basic point is pretty much the same in both traditions).

In any case, the Marx/Mieville theory of crisis, and the Deleuze theory of virtuality, both point to the way that there are untapped prospects for transformation or radical change even within the seemingly most static and repressive actual situation. Carl’s own treatment of this issue made it more clear to me than ever before; which is why I wish he had brought it back in the conclusion of the volume, and brought it to bear on the question of science fiction and its relation to other genres such as, especially, weird fiction. I think that, on both Carl’s view and mine, science fiction and other “arealistic” genres (as Carl calls them), have a lot to do with the rendering fictively present of these often neglected alternatives that may underlie and undermine even the most stable and repressive actualities. This is a major part of how SF, weird fiction, and other arealistic genres are different from what I once heard Mieville call “mimetic fiction.” And I think that both cognitive estrangement (including what Carl calls the “cognition effect”) and extrapolation can be comprehended under this philosophical distinction.

I will end with one very minor point. Carl only discusses six of Mieville’s novels. I understand the need for some sort of restriction — Mieville is one of those writers whom I could go on about indefinitely — but I still wish that Carl had written about some of the other books, especially Kraken, which is in some ways the most prodigal, to the point of overfullness, of all Mieville’s books (I mean – the embassy of the sea! the explicit engagement with tentacular horror! all the weird folding stuff! the strike by magicians’ and witches’ familiars! and above all the way Mieville gives a brilliant twist to the common process of retconning fantastic narratives!).

But all in all, this is a great book; it will help to hold me during the impatience of my wait for Mieville’s next novel (which is coming out in January).

[ADDED NOTE: When I saw Mieville give a reading from The Scar, during his book tour in support of that novel, somebody asked him about how the eponymous scar could be the edge of the world, since a globe doesn’t have an edge. Mieville replied something on the order of, I never said that the world of Bas Lag was round….]

More copyright idiocy

So here’s yet another case of over-the-top copyright restrictions involving something I wrote. In December 2014, the Whitehead Research Project held an excellent conference on Whitehead’s short book Symbolism. I was one of the speakers at the conference; I posted an uncorrected version of my talk, “Whitehead on Causality and Perception,” as a blog entry. As has happened with previous conferences sponsored by the WRP, the essays are supposed to be collected in a volume. As far as I knew, the volume was proceeding apace. But today I received the following from the editors in  my email:

As we are only allowed 500 words worth of quotes from any single work within the volume, ALL short Symbolism quotes within your chapter must be paraphrased or removed entirely. This is an unfortunate and difficult requirement, but the alternative is that you pay Simon & Schuster the fee for quotations associated with your chapter, which would also delay the publication of the entire volume up to a year.

This strikes me as completely unwarranted. And actually, I am not quite sure even how to interpret it. Does it mean that no more than 500 words from Symbolism may be quoted in each individual article? Or that no more than 500 words from Symbolism (or any other single text of Whitehead’s) may be quoted in the entire volume of essays?

I haven’t actually counted the number of words I quote from Symbolism in my (approx) 6000-word essay. But my frequent short citations of the volume are entirely to be expected in a scholarly essay that engages in the close reading of a difficult philosophical text. Without the citations from Whitehead’s book, my own essay makes no sense. Whitehead’s Symbolism is itself (approx) 17,000-words long; a short book, in other words, but still I have only cited a small portion of it in my own essay. My citations are clearly protected under fair use. (As far as I am aware, it is only in the case of poetry and song lyrics that such fair use protection is not granted. To extend the poetry rule for philosophical treatises would be a calamity for all intellectual discussion).

In any case, I am not willing either to remove the quotations and substitute paraphrase, or to pay Simon and Schuster whatever extortionate amount they demand for me to exercise my rights under the doctrine of fair use. So my only choice is to withdraw the essay from the volume, unless the current restriction is removed. In any case, I do not blame the editors at WRP for this situation; they have assured me that they are doing their best to get Simon and Schuster to reconsider. But I am angry about the general climate with regards to copyright, in which large publishers (like S&S) can in effect act like bullies, and to impose egregious restrictions like this which contravene the very notion of fair use, simply because they know that nobody else can afford the legal fees that it would cost to contest these restrictions in court.

I should say that I am very proud of this essay; I think it is one of the best and most significant articles that I have ever written. Of course, maybe I am just congratulating myself too much; this is something for every reader to decide. But readers’ judgments can only be made if the article itself is available to read; you can access and download it here.