Art/Money

November 4th, 2014

Here is a short piece I wrote for the art group FLAME, who are having a show that opens this weekend (576 Morgan Ave Apt 3L Gallery, Brooklyn, New York — Opening Saturday November 8, 7-10 PM).

The invitation has a shortened version, but here is the full text:

In the early 1960s, alongside Campbell Soup cans and portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol also did paintings of dollar bills. As Warhol recounts:

It was on one of those evenings when I’d asked around ten or fifteen people for suggestions that finally one lady friend of mine asked me the right question: ‘Well what do you love most?’ That’s how I started painting money.

Warhol elsewhere expresses his admiration for Pablo Picasso, on the basis of the quantity rather than the quality of the modernist master’s work. Warhol read that Picasso had created 4,000 masterpieces; he decided to do the same. He reasoned that, given his silkscreening technique, he could make 4,000 paintings in just a single day; “and they’d all be masterpieces because they’d all be the same painting.” But Warhol was quickly disillusioned. He discovered that, in an entire month, he was only able to make 500 paintings. At this rate, it would have taken him a whole 8 months to match Picasso’s lifetime output. This was too boring to contemplate, and so he moved on to something else.

As for Picasso, it’s been recorded that he was a cheapskate, who didn’t like to spend his money if he could avoid it. So what he did was, whenever he wrote a check, he would draw a small doodle on it as well. This way, he hoped, the recipient would choose to keep a signed Picasso drawing, rather than actually cashing the check. In this way, everyone benefited; Picasso got to keep his money, and the recipient was able to sell the check for more than its face value.

Alongside Warhol and Picasso, we may place the artist J. S. G. Boggs, who combines and improves on the practices of both. Boggs’ drawings and digital replications of paper money are far more meticulous and detailed than Warhol’s dollar paintings. And Boggs overtly pays his bills with his work, rather than just incidentally turning his means of payment into a work as Picasso did. When he owes money, Boggs makes a picture of currency with the same face value as the amount he owes. He trades this work to his creditor in lieu of cash payment. Boggs’ works do not proclaim themselves to be legal tender — which is what differentiates them from counterfeit bills. But they usually sell for more than the face value of the bills they depict.

Warhol, Picasso, and Boggs all successfully addressed the economics of the art market in the 20th century. But what does their work have to say in the 21st? Do their practices still have import for the art market today? The problem is that paper currency (Warhol and Boggs) and personal checks (Picasso) are on the verge of becoming obsolete. Only relatively poor people still use them. The middle class depends instead on credit cards and online banking. As for the One Percent (the class that accumulates the greatest share of wealth, and that also collects art), it no longer relies on paper money (bills and checks) at all. In the course of the past fifty years, we have moved from a cash economy to a credit economy — and beyond that, to an economy that is largely driven by transactions in arcane financial instruments.

The history of finance, like the history of Western painting, moves in the direction of ever-greater abstraction. The first coins were worth their weight in gold and other precious metals, because that is literally what they were made of. The figure of the king or president on the coin was only a guarantee that the one-ounce gold coin, for instance, really did weigh one ounce. Later on, coins were made from metals of lesser value, or else (in higher demoninations) were replaced by paper. The picture of the king or president now worked as a guarantee that the coin or bill could be exchanged for gold upon demand. But then, in 1971, Richard Nixon abolished the gold standard; now currency is only valuable because of government fiat (which means, in practice, that it is valuable as long as other people accept it, and the government itself accepts it for tax payments). Such is the legal tender that Warhol and Boggs simulated. And once we accept government paper, we are bound to accept paper checks as well — which is what Picasso relied on. And this development is likely irreversible, even though right-wing cranks like Rand Paul demand a return to the gold standard (and even though a Republican Congressman, some years ago, blocked the issuance of a Ronald Reagan coin because he felt it would demean the revered ex-President to have his image stamped on “scrap metal”).

Money has always been something of an abstraction, because it is exchangeable for goods and services without being of any other intrinsic use. But it became far more abstract with the abolition of the gold standard — and that was only the beginning. Starting in the 1970s, corporations realized that, instead of giving raises to their employees, they could simply give them credit cards. So now the vast majority of Americans can purchase all sorts of commodities without ever actually owning them. Corporations are able to sell goods to consumers, keep the money, and eventually get the goods back as well (or at least, collect their cash value a second time). Spending goes on as usual — but the bank can foreclose at any moment. More than a third of US adults are currently being pursued by debt collectors.

The One Percent, meanwhile, can revel in ever-greater powers of fiscal abstraction. From simple interest-collecting loans, they first moved on to commodity futures options: the ability to buy and sell, and collect a profit on, goods and services that don’t even exist yet. These subsequently developed into derivatives: collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, and even more abstract financial instruments. These no longer physically “exist” in any conventional sense of the term; they are purely virtual, numbers calculated by supercomputers. They are joined by Bitcoin and other electronic currencies, which don’t have presidential images on them because they are not accepted by governments. But this is no longer considered a danger to the accumulation of value; instead, it is an opportunity, a way of evading taxes altogether.

The philosopher and derivatives trader Elie Ayache points out that advanced financial instruments are so fully abstract that they no longer refer back to any “underlying” whatsoever. They are blank forms, Ayache says, pure contingencies; traders may use them to literally “write the future.” Today the “unacknowledged legislators of the world” are quants, rather than poets and artists.

In such circumstances, it follows that the only art that makes sense is art that is as fully abstract and non-referential as financial instruments themselves. The painterly abstractions of the twentieth century — seen either as pure subjective expressions, or else as pure explorations of the artistic medium itself — are no longer abstract enough. Today abstract art needs to be purged of expression, and of Greenbergian self-reflection, as much as it has been purged of extrinsic representation. It no longer makes sense even to simulate currency, as in the post-representational practice of Picasso, Warhol, and Boggs. Rather, a work of art must actually be an abstract financial instrument, rather than merely mimicking it, or referring to it, or being exchangeable for it. Consider the statement of intent of artrank.com, which “identifies prime artist prospects based on known trajectory profiles… Our algorithm is intent on assessing the intrinsic value of an artwork, not its survival value. We do not judge any works’ aesthetic or emotional value.” This should be understood as implying that survival values, aesthetic values, and emotional values are entirely extrinsic. They are archaic and outdated in our current economic climate. Intrinsic value can only be defined in terms of a work’s functioning as a financial instrument, entirely divorced from any “underlying.” FLIP ART, as The New York Times has put it, “is just about the nearest thing in today’s fragmented global art scene that approximates to a coherent movement.” It’s only when the art is “flipped,” or sold by one collector to another, that it accretes intrinsic value.

If you are hungry, you can eat a burrito. Alternatively, you can speak the word “burrito”; in that case, something comes out of your mouth instead of going in. You can also take a photo of the burrito, before you eat it; and you can write the word “burrito” instead of speaking it. We like to think that these are ways of preserving the burrito; but in fact, you can’t have your burrito and eat it too. Doubtless, if Jacques Derrida were my dinner companion, he would elegantly prove to me that even my apparent act of nourishing myself with a burrito really comes down to a disavowed abstraction: a naive assertion of metaphysical presence. I can neither have a burrito, nor eat it; I will surely starve to death. But it’s yet a greater abstraction when I don’t even write the word “burrito,” but rather inscribe it on canvas as a meaningless, iterated sign. Now, “burrito” can neither be eaten, nor spoken, nor depicted, nor even read. It has been separated from any underlying. It has no survival value as food, and no aesthetic or emotional value as a sign of food. It can only be flipped, passed in a series of sales from hand to hand (or more properly, from wall to wall, or from bank vault to bank vault).

Labrinth, “Let It Be” and the third image

September 2nd, 2014

For the last several years, I have been trying to think about the ways that relations of time and space, and of sound and image, are altered as a result of new digital technologies. I have pondered this by looking at and listening to both recent movies and music videos. One big difference, of course, is that with music videos the soundtrack always comes first; while this is rarely the case in movies. But I think that both movies and music videos in recent years have given more weight to the sonic dimension than was the case before. I try to work through the issues of time/space and sound/image systematically, more or less, in my discussion of Eduoard Salier’s video for Massive Attack’s “Splitting the Atom.” And, in my discussion of Joseph Kahn’s film Detention, I consider how this rearticulation of space and time leads to the need for a new, third sort of image in Deleuze’s taxonomy, after the movement-image and the time-image. The Spanish film theorist Sergi Sanchez suggests calling this new kind of image, that results from digital technologies, the “no-time image.” Although it arises out of Deleuze’s time-image, in which “time in its pure state” is liberated from movement and made present in its own right, this third image treats time quite differently. Digital video is a medium of simultaneity, not only because it allows for instantaneous transmission, but also because (even when it is not broadcast and viewed instantaneously) it tends to replace montage (temporal juxtaposition) with compositing (allowing for disparate things or images to be placed together in the same frame). (Besides Sanchez, Lev Manovich has also written extensively about this). 

There is definitely a sort of temporality to the new digital-video image; space dominates time, in a way, but without being reducible either to the “spatialization” of time denounced by Bergson and Deleuze, or the durational time exalted by Bergson and Deleuze. The temporality of the new digital audiovisual image  is quite different from either the temporality that is measured by movement (Deleuze’s movement-image) or the temporality that frees itself from movement and presents itself as pure duration (Deleuze’s time-image). David Rodowick is not wrong to claim that the digital does not really involve duration; he is only wrong to condemn it for not doing so, instead of trying to work out what the digital audiovisual image does do. There’s a weird split, because it takes time to present, or to explore, the composited screen of the “no-time” image; and because, in this situation, modulations of sound (which is unavoidably temporal) take precedence over modulations of vision. Hence the curious time-of-no-time rhythms we find in “Splitting the Atom”, and in the 19-years-of-detention sequence of Detention

I think we find another, inventive instance of this in the beautiful new video for the song “Let It Be” by  Labrinth (Timothy McKenzie). (The song has no connection, as far as I can tell, with the classic Beatles song of the same title). The video is directed by the duo known as Us (Christopher Barrett and Luke Taylor). The video consists in an apparent single take, which moves through a single warehouse space. The camera glides and stops and zooms in and circles around and twists and turns and swoops, as it moves through this space. In different parts of the warehouse space, we have different groupings of fixtures and furniture, like the decors of various rooms in a home and in a recording studio, but all incomplete and without walls or ceiling — each setting is just a certain amount of furniture, surrounded by empty expanses of floor. In each of these spaces, we see Labrinth and his bandmates and friends engaged in various activities, ranging from composing the song, to recording it in multiple stages (singing, guitar, drumming, and horn section, all separately, to having a business pitch meeting, to buying a car, and then shooting a music video that features the singer getting out of the car, to people just hanging in the living room. There is even a scene of a postman delivering mail by putting it through a slot in the front door (but the front door stands by itself in one section of the warehouse); and another of Labrinth standing alone in his kitchen drinking coffee, with the sink filled to the brim with dirty cups.

All these events must have been dispersed in time and space when they “really” happened; but in the video they are all happening at once in the same location, with the secondary temporality of the camera exploring them. Usually the camera just contemplates one of these scenarios at a time, but sometimes (and especially when the camera is gliding between them) we see several scenes on the screen at once, or other scenes in the background when one is in the foreground. A whole history — the singer’s life, on the one hand, and his specific experience of composing, pitching, recording, producing, and making a video for the song, on the other — is compressed (or better, composited) within the confines of the warehouse (which provides, as it were, bare-bones simulacra of all the locations), and within the confines of the video itself, as we watch it unfold in its single camera movement. The camera never holds still for very long; it is usually gliding, but it is always steady and never jerky or agitated. (Presumably, the videomakers used motion control to shoot all of the parts of the video separately, but make sure they could be composited together seamlessly — as is suggested here).

The song itself is a beautiful, heartfelt and expressive neo-soul number. It starts plaintively, but builds to a dramatic conclusion. The lyrics suggest a mix of struggle and fatalism — the singer has done his best, but he doesn’t have total control and reaches a point where he just needs to “let it be” and have whatever happens, happen. At the end of the video, lights go out and then flash on and off — all the other scenes have disappeared, and the camera zooms in on Labrinth, standing alone, in a circle of spotlights in the otherwise dark space. We are left with just the performer, performing — after having seen all the layers of work, preparation and construction, and subjective experience that made the performance possible. Everything is framed within the temporality and rhythms of the song, with its repetitions (verse and chorus) as well as its build-up to a crescendo of culmination; though the video begins before the song does (the camera glides across the floor before the music starts), and continues to zoom in and then hold on the image of Labyrinth lit up in the otherwise darkness for a few seconds after the music ends.

There’s a whole nexus of feeling and experiencing here — but (as Rodowick might well say) it cannot be characterized as duration in the Bergsonian and Proustian and Deleuzian and Antonioniesque sense. It’s a quite different mode of temporalization, or of “experience” — though one for which I don’t have the right words yet. It’s implosive rather than expansive, not “a bit of time in its pure state” (Deleuze paraphrasing Proust) so much as a concatenation of things and processes that don’t really fit together or “harmonize” (literally or metaphorically? I’m not sure) with one another, and yet somehow coexist nonetheless. I would want to resist a phenomenological vocabulary here as well as a Deleuzian one — there is none of the “commutative reversibility” between spectator and screen described by Vivan Sobchack, or “attunment” evoked so powerfully by my colleage Scott Richmond. It’s rather something both more abstract, and yet less reflexive, than any of that. I’d want to think of it, rather, in terms of the (often non-human) affordances of new digital technologies, in the ways that (for instance) Mark B. N. Hansen has been looking at — but I don’t quite see the way of working this out yet. In any case, I think that “Let It Be”, like “Splitting the Atom” and Detention, is a harbinger of a new sort of techno-social sensibility — one that (to paraphrase what Deleuze wrote in a different but analogous context) we may at least hope will not prove worse than the previous ones.

Twenty-two theses on nature

September 2nd, 2014

I have a new short article out, “Twenty-Two Theses on Nature.” This appears as part of a special section on “Protocols for a New Nature” in the Yearbook of Comparative Literature, volume 58 (2012). Despite the official year of the publication, it is just out now.

The whole issue looks interesting: you can find the contents at http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/yearbookofcomparativeandgeneral_literature/toc/cgl.58.html .

But it is firewalled, and you can only access it if your university subscribes. If you are not in a university, or if your university doesn’t carry it (as is the case with mine) then you are SOL.

So obviously I haven’t been able to read anyone else’s contribution. (I am supposed to get a hardcopy eventually, but I don’t know when; and in any case, that doesn’t substitute for online access).

So I decided that the least I could do would be to post the text of my own contribution here.

TWENTY-TWO THESES ON NATURE

  1. We can no longer think of Nature as one side of a binary opposition. In an age of anthropogenic global warming and genetically modified organisms, not to mention Big Data and world-encompassing computing and communications networks, it makes no sense to oppose nature to culture, or a “state of nature” to human society, or the natural to the artificial. Human beings and their productions are not separate from Nature; they are just as much, or as little, “natural” as everything else.
  2. We must think Nature without any residual anthropocentrism: that is to say, without exempting ourselves from it, and also without remaking it in our own image. Human beings are part of Nature, but Nature is not human, and is not centered upon human beings or upon anything human.
  3. Above all, we must avoid thinking that Nature is simply “given,” and therefore always the same — as opposed to a social realm that would be historical and constructed. Rather, we must recognize that Nature itself is always in movement, in process, and under construction. We need to revive the great 19th century discipline of natural history, practiced by Darwin, Wallace, and many others. Evolution (phylogeny) and development (ontogeny) are both historical processes; they cannot be reduced to the study of genomes as synchronic structures.
  4. Nature is all-encompassing, but it is not a Whole. It is radically open. However far we go in space, we will never find an edge or a boundary. There is no way of adding everything up, and coming up with Nature as a fixed sum. There is also no way of subordinating Nature to some Theory of Everything.
  5. Nature is radically open in terms of time, as well as space. The future is always contingent and unpredictable. It cannot be reduced to any calculus of probabilities. As Keynes and Meillassoux have both shown us, the future is intrinsically unknowable. It exceeds any closed list of possibilities. The radical unknowability of Nature is not an epistemological constraint; it is a basic, and positive, ontological feature of Nature itself.
  6. In the 19th century, thinkers as different as Schelling (with his Naturphilosophie) and Engels (with his Dialectics of Nature) tried to define an overall “logic” of Nature that included — but that was not reducible to — human developments and concerns. In the 20th century, such projects were abandoned. Instead, humanity was either given a special, transcendental status (phenomenology); or else reduced to its non-organic presuppositions (scientism). Today, in the 21st century, both of these alternatives are bankrupt. We need to return to a project of thinking Nature directly — even if we reject the particular, antiquated terms that thinkers like Schelling and Engels used for their own attempts.
  7. Schelling and Engels both tried to conceive Nature in ways that were grounded in, but not reducible to, the best natural science of their own times. Our task today is, similarly, to conceive Nature in ways that are grounded in, but not reducible to, the best contemporary science.
  8. Nature is neither a plenum nor a void. Rather, conditions or states of affairs within Nature may tend either towards plenitude or towards vacancy. Usually, though, neither of these tendential extremes is reached. Things generally fluctuate in an intermediate range, between fullness and emptiness.
  9. However, we are still on safer ground if we consider that Nature comprises something rather than nothing. We know from modern physics that quantum fluctuations happen even in a vacuum. In this sense, Nature is better understood in terms of more rather than less, or surplus rather than deficiency. Nature will never be finished, never be shaped and structured once and for all; but it has also never been “without form and void.”
  10. Nature is not formless, and not simply homogeneous, It is rather metastable, in the sense defined by Gilbert Simondon. All-encompassing Nature is traversed by potentials and powers, or by energy gradients and inherent tendencies. At any moment, these may be activated and actualized. The most minute imbalance, or the most fleeting encounter, can be enough to set things into motion. And there is generally more to the effect than there is to the cause. The consequences of these imbalances and encounters tend to be orders of magnitude larger than the incidents that set them into motion.
  11. The result of any disruption of Nature’s metastability is what Simondon calls individuation: the emergence and structuration of an individual, together with those of its associated milieu. Examples of this process include the precipitation of a crystal out of a solution, and the emergence and growth of distinct tissues, organs, and parts from an initially undifferentiated embryo.
  12. Nature thus comprises multiple processes of individuation. These must all be understood in two distinct ways: in terms of energetics, and in terms of informatics.
  13. Nature involves continual flows of energy. Energy (or, more precisely mass-energy) can never be created or destroyed, but only transformed from one state to another (the First Law of Thermodynamics). And yet this also means that energy is continually being expended or dissipated, as gradients are reduced, and entropy is maximized (the Second Law of Thermodynamics). As Eric Schneider argues, complex organized systems (from hurricanes to organisms) tend to form, because they can dissipate energy more efficiently, and on a vaster scale, than would otherwise be possible. Such “dissipative systems” are internally negentropic; but this is precisely what allows them to discharge so much energy into their environments, thus increasing entropy and reducing energy gradients overall.
  14. Today, thanks to our computing technologies, we tend to think more commonly in informational terms than in energetic ones. Physicists propose that the universe is ultimately composed of information; cognitive scientists tend to see biological organisms as information processing systems. I fear that our excessive concern with informatics has gotten in the way of a proper understanding of the importance of energetics.
  15. Information, unlike energy, has no “in itself”; for information only exists insofar as it is for some entity (someone or something) that parses it in some way. This might make it seem as if information were inessential. But nothing is altogether devoid of information; for nothing exists altogether on its own, outside of all-encompassing Nature, entirely self-subsistent and without ever being affected by anything else. The transmission and parsing of information, no less than the transfer and dissipation of energy, is an essential process of Nature.
  16. We might link information to perception, on the one hand, and to action on the other. Perception is how we obtain bits of information; and the parsing or processing of information issues forth in the possibility of action. A living organism gathers information by perceiving its environment; and it uses this information in order to respond flexibly and appropriately to whatever conditions it encounters. This is not just the case for animals, or entities with brains. A tree discerns water in the soil, which it draws in with its roots; it discovers insects feeding on its leaves, and releases a noxious chemical to repel them. Information processing thus mediates between perception and action.
  17. Information processing involves — and indeed requires — at least a minimal degree of sentience. But we should not confuse sentience with consciousness; for the former is a far broader category than the latter. Organisms like trees, bacteria, and slime molds are probably not conscious; but they are demonstrably sentient, as they process information and respond to it in ways that are not stereotypically determined in advance. Even when it comes to ourselves, most of the information processing in our brains goes on unconsciously, and without any possibility of ever becoming conscious. Most likely, consciousness is only sparsely present in Nature. But sentience is far more widely distributed.
  18. Perception is only a particular sort of causality. When I perceive something, this means that the thing in question has affected me in some way, whether through light, sound, touch, or some other medium. But if I am affected by something, then that something has had an effect upon me. It has altered me (however minimally) in some manner or other. And this process cannot be confined just to perception. I am often affected by things without overtly perceiving them. I feel the symptoms of a cold, but I do not sense the virus that actually causes me to fall ill. I feel an impulse to buy something, because my mind has been subliminally primed in some way. I lose my balance and fall from a height, pulled by the Earth’s gravitational field even before becoming aware of it. I turn over in my sleep, responding to some change in the ambient temperature. In all these cases, something has caused a change in me; it has given rise to an effect. Information has been processed in some manner, by my body if not my mind.
  19. Nature involves a continual web of causes producing effects, which in turn become the causes of further effects, ad infinitum. This need not imply linearity or monocausality: there are many causes for every effect, and many effects arising from every cause; and potential causes may interfere with and block one another. But just as energy is continually being transformed, so information is continually being processed — even on what we might consider a purely physical level. This is why information, no less than energy, is a basic category of Nature.
  20. Within all-encompassing Nature, the difference between the “physical” and the “mental” is only a matter of degree, and not of kind. A thermostat is, to a modest extent, an information processor; and therefore we should agree that it is, at least minimally sentient — if not, as David Chalmers suggests, actually conscious. That is to say, the thermostat feels — although it does not know anything, and it is not capable of self-reflection. We can make a similar claim for a stone which falls off a cliff, or even for one which lies motionless on the ground. Gravity pulls the stone to the Earth, and the information associated with this process is what the stone feels.
  21. Nature is not itself a particular thing or a particular process; although it is the never-completed sum, as well as the framework, of all the multitudinous things and processes — transformations of energy and accumulations of information — that take place within it. How, finally, can we characterize it? All-encompassing Nature stands apart from every particular instance. And yet it is not anything like a Kantian transcendental condition of possibility for all these instances, since it stands on the same level, within the same immanent plane, as they. Nature is neither outside history, nor the totality of history, nor a particular datum of natural or social history. It is rather what all these particular instances, all these transformations and accumulations, have in common; it is what places them all in a common world.
  22. I will conclude by taking a hint from Alfred North Whitehead, who articulates this commonness more rigorously than I can. Whitehead translates the ancient Greek physis not just as Nature (as is customary), but also as Process. And he equates this physis with the narrower technical term (from Plato’s Timaeus) hypodoche, the Receptacle. Nature, or the Receptacle, Whitehead says, “imposes a common relationship on all that happens, but does not impose what that relationship shall be…. [It] may be conceived as the necessary community within which the course of history is set, in abstraction from all the particular historical facts.”

Echopraxia

August 26th, 2014

My review of Peter Watts’ great new SF novel Echopraxia is now up at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Willow Creek

August 12th, 2014

Bobcat Goldthwaite has been one of the most interesting low-budget-independent directors of the past decade, in between his comedy appearances and his frequent television directing work. Sleeping Dogs Lie  (2006) and World’s Greatest Dad (2009) both ride their sleazy, cringeworthy premises to conclusions that milk embarrassment for all its worth, and yet also suggest a humane, anti-cynical point of view. God Bless America (2011) is brilliantly on-target political satire, a comedic left-wing detournement of those white-male-rage films that Michael Douglas specialized in in the 1990s. His most recent film, Willow Creek (currently available for streaming, coming out on disc in a month or two) is more straightforward. It’s a “found-footage” horror film in the tradition that started with Blair Witch Project, and has become ubiquitous in recent years. A “creative class” couple, neither particularly sympathetic nor particularly obnoxious, but actually fairly bland, go into the woods of Northern California in search of Bigfoot (of course, they are making a documentary, which motivates the handheld-video-camera footage). It is a slow burn; a lot of mildly diverting banter leads up to a confrontation in the woods, from which (of course) our protagonists do not emerge intact. There is nothing here that departs from what we’d expect from the genre — except that it is so beautifully done. Goldthwaite knows that the true basis of horror filmmaking (or at least of one type of horror filmmaking) lies in two of the most essential properties of the moving-image medium: duration and offscreen sound. There’s a gorgeous formalism here, in the way that so much of the experience of the movie depends on empty time — waiting for something to happen — and on things that can be heard but not seen (the ambiguity of sounds that we more or less recognize, but whose source we cannot quite identify).  Most astonishing of all in Willow Creek is a 19-minute-long single take with motionless camera: a shot of the two main characters, sitting up in their sleeping bags inside their tent, listening to and reacting to things that go bump in the night. It’s great horror filmmaking, building a sense of slowly accelerating dread. But I will go further and say that it is at the same time a superior example of, and a brilliant riposte to, all that international-art-house-style “slow cinema” people have been pontificating about in recent years. 

“They don’t like spam.”

May 30th, 2014

The talk I am preparing for next month’s science fiction workshop in Berlin (where I will be speaking together with Iain Hamilton Grant) (event listing here) is really an extended meditation (or consideration, if “meditation” is too pretentious a word) on the several passages from recent science fiction novels.

The first passage comes from Peter Watts’ First Contact novel Blindsight. It explains why the aliens from another solar system — who are immensely more intelligent and more technologically advanced than we are, but who seem not to be conscious in any sense we would recognize — have turned their attention to Earth, and why they judge us as a menace to them:

Imagine that you encounter a signal. It is structured, and dense with information. It meets all the criteria of an intelligent transmission. Evolution and experience offer a variety of paths to follow, branch-points in the flowcharts that handle such input. Sometimes these signals come from conspecifics who have useful information to share, whose lives you’ll defend according to the rules of kin selection. Sometimes they come from competitors or predators or other inimical entities that must be avoided or destroyed; in those cases, the information may prove of significant tactical value. Some signals may even arise from entities which, while not kin, can still serve as allies or symbionts in mutually beneficial pursuits. You can derive appropriate responses for any of these eventualities, and many others.

You decode the signals, and stumble:

I had a great time. I really enjoyed him. Even if he cost twice as much as any other hooker in the dome–

To fully appreciate Kesey’s Quartet–

They hate us for our freedom–

Pay attention, now–

Understand.

There are no meaningful translations for these terms. They are needlessly recursive. They contain no usable intelligence, yet they are structured intelligently; there is no chance they could have arisen by chance.

The only explanation is that something has coded nonsense in a way that poses as a useful message; only after wasting time and effort does the deception becomes apparent. The signal functions to consume the resources of a recipient for zero payoff and reduced fitness. The signal is a viruss

Viruses do not arise from kin, symbionts, or other allies.

The signal is an attack.

And it’s coming from right about there.

The second passage comes from Ken MacLeod’s Cosmonaut Keep. It describes the dominant intelligent lifeform of the Galaxy: superintelligent asteroids, each of which is, in effect, a silicon computer of immense processing power. These beings are described as being like Lucretian gods, calmly pursuing their own interests, and most of the time not concerned with what human beings and other sentient species do. Except there is one exception to their lack of interest in us:

‘The truth is there are billions of the fuckers. There are more … communities … like this around the solar system, in the asteroid belt and the Kuiper and the Oort, than there are people on Earth. And each of them contains more separate minds than, than—’

‘A Galactic Empire,’ said Lemieux.

‘Yes! Yes! Exactly!’ Avakian beamed.

‘How do you know this?’ Camila asked.

Avakian handwaved behind his shoulder.

‘The aliens told us, and told us where to look for their communications. Their EM emissions are very faint, but they’re there all right, and the sources fill the sky like the cosmic microwave background, the echo of the Big Bang.’

‘Sure it ain’t just part of that?’

‘Nah, it’s comms all right.’ Avakian sucked at his lower lip. ‘The point to bear in mind is that our cometary cloud’s outer shells intersect those of the Centauran system, and, well—’

‘They’re everywhere?’

He shrugged. ‘Around a lot of stars, yeah, quite possibly. Trafficking, communicating, maybe even travelling. They have conscious control over their own outgassings, they have computing power to die for, and it only takes a nudge to change their orbits. It might take millions of years between stars, sure, but these guys have a long attention span.’

‘And what do they actually do?’

‘From the point of view of us busy little primates, they don’t do much. Hang out and take in the view. Travel around the sun every few million years. Maybe travel to another sun and go around that a few times. Bo-ring.’ He put on a whining, childish voice. ‘Are we there yet? He’s shitting me. I want to go the toilet.’

He laughed, a genuine and humorous laugh this time, and continued briskly: ‘But from their point of view, they are having fun. Endless, absorbing, ecstatic and for all I know,orgasmic fun. Discourse, intercourse – at their level it’s probably the same fucking thing.’ He underlined the obvious with a giggle. ‘They’re like gods, man, and they’re literally in heaven. And in all their infinite – well, OK,unbounded– diversity they have, we understand, a pretty much unanimous view on one thing. They don’t like spam.’

‘Spam is, um, sort of mindlessly repeated advertisements and shit. Junk mail. Some of it comes from start-ups and scams, some of it’s generated by programs called spambots, which got loose in the system about fifty years ago and which have been beavering away ever since. You hardly notice it, because so little gets through that you might think it’s just a legit advertisement. But that’s because way down at the bottom level, we have programs to clean out the junk, and they work away at it too.’ I shrugged. ‘Spam and antispam waste resources, it’s the ultimate zero-sum game, but what can you do? You gotta live with it. Anti-spam’s like an immune system. You don’t have to know about it, but you’d die without it. There’s a whole war going on that’s totally irrelevant to what you really want to do.’

‘Exactamundo,’ said Avakian. ‘That’s how the ETs feel about it, too. And as far as they’re concerned, we are great lumbering spambots, corrupted servers, liable at any moment or any megayear to start turning out millions of pointless, slightly varied replicas of ourselves. Most of what we’re likely to want to do if we expanded seriously into space is spam. Space industries – spam. Moravec uploads – spam on a plate. Von Neumann machines – spam and chips. Space settlements – spam, spam, spam, eggs and spam.’

There is something similar in a third novel, David Brin’s Existence. Here, Earth receives alien artifacts, which also turn out to be spam. These artifacts contain messages from civilizations on other planets, whose sole content is an invitation to add our own voices, and send more of these artifacts out through the galaxy. Entire planetary civilizations are exhorted to devote all their material resources on proliferating these viral artifacts.

All three novels suggest something similar. Spam is communication without (Shannon) information, or a message that is nothing beyond its medium (McLuhan). Spam has no utility, and no cognitive point, for its only aim is self-proliferation. This is why Watts’ and MacLeod’s aliens hate it, and seek to destroy it (or destroy its source). 

Watts again:

Evolution has no foresight. Complex machinery develops its own agendas. Brains–cheat. Feedback loops evolve to promote stable heartbeats and then stumble upon the temptation of rhythm and music. The rush evoked by fractal imagery, the algorithms used for habitat selection, metastasize into art. Thrills that once had to be earned in increments of fitness can now be had from pointless introspection. Aesthetics rise unbidden from a trillion dopamine receptors, and the system moves beyond modeling the organism. It begins to model the very process of modeling. It consumes ever-more computational resources, bogs itself down with endless recursion and irrelevant simulations. Like the parasitic DNA that accretes in every natural genome, it persists and proliferates and produces nothing but itself. Metaprocesses bloom like cancer, and awaken, and call themselves I

In other words, spam is purposiveness without purpose: in Kantian terms, it is aesthetic. Watts’ and MacLeod’s aliens would agree with Ray Brassier, who says: “I am very wary of ‘aesthetics': the term is contaminated by notions of ‘experience’ that I find deeply problematic.” Computational systems don’t need any sort of aesthetic sensibility; this means that they don’t need “experience” or “consciousness.” Indeed, they function all the more efficiently without these things. Big Blue never could have defeated Kasparov if it were weighted down, like he is, with recursive self-consciousness. Brassier understands this dynamic, where most other similarly reductionist philosophers don’t. While cognitivists insist that “consciousness cannot be separated from function” (to cite the title of an article by Daniel Dennett and Michael Cohen), Watts (and to a lesser extent MacLeod and Brin) rather suggest that in fact consciousness cannot be separated from dysfunction. 

This can be restated in Darwinian terms. Spam or aesthetics may have initially been a useful adaptation: this is the only way that it could have arisen in the first place (see Darwin on sexual selection, and Elizabeth Grosz’s recent gloss on this). But spam or art quickly outgrew this purpose; it has now become parasitic, and replicates itself even at its host’s expense (cf: peacock’s tails). It serves no further purpose any more. Spam or art is a virus; and, insofar as we have aesthetic sensibilities (including self-consciousness and dwelling just in the present moment), we are that virus. Our thoughts and bodies, our lives, are “needlessly recursive” and wasteful. Our lives are pointless luxuries in a Darwinian “war universe” (Burroughs). If we are the dominant species on Earth at the moment, this may only be — as Watts suggests — because we are in the situation of flightless birds and marsupials, in areas where the placental mammals have not yet arrived (cf. the biological histories of Mauritius, South America, and Australia).

Watts also suggests that, even on Earth, corporate culture is in process of “weeding out” anything like self-consciousness or nonfunctional recursion. (Evidently, this is why — for instance — humanities programs in universities are being whittled away or destroyed; even the supporters of such programs only dare to justify them in terms of economic utility). At the end of Blindsight, the narrator, off in deep space, but observing from a distance the way that a vampiric (both literally and metaphorically) corporate culture has taken control of everything, speculates that “by the time I get home, I could be the only sentient being in the universe.” And in fact, he is not even sure about himself; he knows that zombies are “pretty good at faking it.”

The logic of spam tells us that sensibility, awareness, and aesthetic enjoyment are all costly luxuries. From a political and economic point of view, they can only be promoted — and they should be promoted — on this basis.

Welcome to New York — first impressions

May 26th, 2014

WELCOME TO NEW YORK is stupendous, and it leaves me nearly speechless — I really won’t be able to say anything coherent about it until I have thought about it for a while, and seen it a few more times.

But I will try to make a few scattered observations. The film isn’t really a descent into the depths of depravity in the way BAD LIEUTENANT is; but then, there is no sense of redemption for Depardieu in the way that perhaps there is for Harvey Keitel. The film shifts register several times. The first half hour is basically an orgy sequence. Then it becomes a kind of procedural, with DSK’s arrest and confinement. Then, after he is remanded to house arrest in a $60,000/month Manhattan townhouse, it becomes a venemous melodrama-cum-dark night of the soul (except that latter phrase is not quite right, since Depardieu’s character (called “Devereaux” to avoid the legal problems that might ensue by literally naming him “Dominique Strauss-Kahn”) doesn’t seem to really have a soul.

The orgy sequences struck me as more pathetic than lurid. There’s no sense of condemnation of Devereaux’s antics, but no sense of spectatorial pleasure either (not even pleasure in sleaze). It’s really just Depardieu’s grunting and bellowing, not to mention his evident relish in slapping various hookers’ behinds. When we get to The Incident, we clearly feel the maid’s terror at being assaulted, but Devereaux doesn’t even seem to notice that there is any difference between consensual sex, paid-for sex, and violently imposed sex. It’s all over in a minute, and Ferrara clearly conveys how it scarcely even registers in Devereaux’s mind that anything of any consequence has happened. (Later on, he will indignantly tell his wife that he is absolutely innocent of rape, because “all he did” was rub his penis against the maid’s mouth — which is more or less true of what we previously saw happening, except that, as Devereuax fails to add, this happens as he is pushing her against the wall and grabbing her head, and shei s desperately begging him to stop).

The arrest and confinement are given a documentary or procedural feel. We definitely get a sense of how the prison system is systematically demeaning and humiliating to anyone unfortunate enough to fall into its clutches. At the same time, we remain aware of the difference between the powerful and privileged Devereaux, who is brought down in the world just for a moment, and everyone else (mostly black people) who is caught in this system without Devereaux’s resources for getting out again. The highlight of this part of the movie is undoubtably the scene in which Devereaux is strip searched, which means that Depardieu displays his aging, bloated, no-longer-beautiful nude body to the camera.

The real emotional payoff of the film is in the second hour, in which Devereaux mopes in his expensive town house. There are several terrific scenes of arguments between Devereaux and his wife (played by Jacqueline Bisset), in which he reveals his absolute lack of self-insight, and utter inability to change. Devereaux has no passion, desire, or even self-will, but only a monstrous and utterly compulsive appetite, together with a defensive need for self-justification. We see this in his arguments with his wife, in his voiceover meditation (where he recounts turning from idealism to utter cynicism about the possibilities of justice and alleviating poverty, as he ascended the rungs of power) in his (court-mandated, I think? — but I wasn’t sure) conversation with a shrink, and in flashbacks to past incidents (one of consensual sex, and one of the near-rape of a young woman journalist — this came up in the press at the time — which again reveals how, Devereaux, in his mind, seems incapable of distinguishing between seduction and rape). Even at the very end of the movie, Devereaux is up to his old tricks with the housemaid.

The film leaves us with this sterility of its central character; there is no spiritual struggle like that (as I already mentioned) of Harvey Keitel in BAD LIEUTENANT, or for that matter Forest Whitaker in MARY. Instead, Depardieu gives us an entirely implosive performance (and, as other critics have noted, the film is certainly in the Godardian sense a documentary about Depardieu as much as it is a dramatization of DSK). Around this absent center, the wheels of power and privilege turn in their accustomed way, so that the case is dropped and Devereaux is left free — all off camera (though we are given brief documentary footage, just as a sort of reminder, of protests against the dismissal of the case).

In a way, the film is all over the place, even though at the same time it is galvanized throughout by Depardieu’s performance. I think that Ferrara wanted to leave the film messy, because reality itself is. The film gets its emotional power by being organized around a banality: specifically, we might say (though Ferrara does not, as he resists any sort of moralism) the banality of evil — or maybe better, the inability of the powerful to see the pain they inflict upon those without power as anything more than a banal passing moment of no real import. In a way, DSK’s life was “ruined” by the incident — not only did he fail to become President of France, but his public respect suffered a blow (though, of course, he retained the privileges of wealth and freedom from imprisonment or official sanction; and the way the French press is reacting to the movie shows that he still has powerful support). WELCOME TO NEW YORK conveys, less what actually happened to DSK, than Depardieu-as-Devereaux’s baffled failure to comprehend why any of this should have happened to him, of all people — which perhaps makes the film more farce than tragedy, and none the less devastating for that.

Rethinking Modernism, Somewhat

May 25th, 2014

The new issue of Speculations (#5) is now out, dealing with speculative realism and aesthetics. It includes an article of mine, which is really a preview of a section of my forthcoming book, The Universe of Things. But the whole issue is interesting, with articles by, among others, Graham Harman, N. Katherine Hayles, Jon Cogburn and Mark Allan Ohm, Matija Jelaca, Miguel Penas López, and others.

But I wanted particularly to make a short comment on Robert Jackson‘s article “The Anxiousness of Objects and Artworks 2″ (part 1 appeared in a previous issue of Speculations) — or rather on one part of the article, since it is a rich, complex and long one. Jackson is interested in the ways that speculative realism is related to modernist aesthetics. Specifically, he writes about the art critic Michael Fried. In the 1960s, Fried (an inheritor and reviser of Clement Greenberg) famously wrote about art works and/as objects, and made a fundamental distinction between “absorption” and “theatricality.” Fried’s concern was to uphold the modernist tradition in painting and visual art that had previously been defined by Greenberg, and to defend this tradition against the new (at the time) avant-garde strategies of minimalism and conceptualism. Fried (allied in this with Stanley Cavell) gave an account in which great modernist artworks absorb us, and show forth as present to us, precisely by receding from our efforts to capture and contain them. Jackson notes that this is very close to Harman’s aesthetics of “allure,” in which objects attract us precisely by receding from all our efforts to contain and comprehend them — we can only allude to them, metaphorically and indirectly. (Harman’s love for Clement Greenberg’s media-specific self-reflexive formalism makes sense in terms of this aesthetic stance). The opposiing term of “theatricality,” which Fried disparages and sees as the aesthetic failure of minimalism in the 1960s, has to do with the way the literal presence of the object is completely blank and empty — so that the “art” happens exclusively in the mind of the observer. Self-referring modernist works force the contemplating spectator to go outside herself, as part of the impossible task of reaching the receding artwork; minimalist works are simply “there,” with a thereness that precludes any such movement.

Jackson notes that both sides in the dispute mapped by Fried are anti-anthropocentric, in the ways maintained today by speculative realism — they both concern the way that objects escape from correlation with our perceptual categories. He suggests that the two artistic movements are therefore analogous to the two major tendencies of speculative realism. Minimalism has a strategy of what Jackson calls Demonstration, the strategy of Meillassoux and Brassier: “a passive, inert material reality can be epistemologically demonstrated through the formal, inferential properties of thought and an extrinsic principle of the fact, so that thought becomes radically divorced from a non-anthropomorphic being.” The modernist works championed by Greenberg and Fried adopt a strategy much like that of what Jackson calls Description, operating in Harman and other OOO thinkers, and also in a different way in Grant’s neo-Schellingian version of speculative realism: “reality is composed of fundamental entities, objects, things, forces and powers which exist in their own right; the relations of which, in their specific limitations or groundings, are no different in kind from the epistemological limits of cognition. This is an intrinsic principle of the thing. The limitations of the correlation between thinking and being are radicalised and hypostatised such that they are turned into the characteristics of relationality in general.”

I found Jackson’s analysis to be powerful and useful, although my knowledge of art historical discourse, and in particular of the theories of Greenberg and Fried, is quite limited. (For which reason, I am not sure how accurate my brief summary of Jackson’s article is. My apologies to him for any misapprehensions). But what I wondered about is this. What happens when we consider other sorts of 20th & 21st century image production, which are not contained within high art traditions? Jackson notes how Fried has recently, and belatedly, turned his attention to contemporary multimedia and new media art works, thus extending his theoretical musings beyond just painting. But these are still High Art works that are mostly situated in galleries.

What I would like to think about is, how the tradition of aesthetics traced by Jackson through the theorizations of modernist (and even postmodernist) art historians relates to other forms of visual (and audiovisual) production? I am thinking here of cinema and post-cinema, but also of things like comic books. At one point, Jackson quotes Stanley Cavell’s distinction between painting on the one hand, and photography and cinema on the other: “To maintain conviction in our connection with reality, to maintain our presentness, painting accepts the recession of the world. Photography maintains the presentness of the world by accepting our absence from it. The reality in a photograph is present to me while I am not present to it…” Jackson goes on to speak at length about Cavell’s Friedian formula for painting, as an art in which we are present but the world recedes from us. I’d like to think, however, about the other half of Cavell’s formulation, which has become a crucial principle in film studies: the way in which cinema renders the presence of the world, but with ourselves being absent. How would this affect our discussion of speculative realism?

An even better example of what I have in mind is Burke Hilsabeck’s brilliant article “Accidental Specificity: Modernism from Clement Greenberg to Frank Tashlin.” Hilsabeck gives a bravura comparison between Clement Greenberg’s famous essay “Art and Kitsch,” and Frank Tashlin’s 1955 film, starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Artists and Models. Hilsabeck notes that “Artists and Models begins by framing the same problem [as that posed by Greenberg], that of medium-specificity and the conflict between avant-garde and kitsch, while reaching a dramatically different set of conclusions.” Tashlin’s film, and even more the “painting” that Lewis accidentally makes within its storyline, is “widescreen, composed somehow of both depth and an overweening superficiality, aglow in garish Technicolor.” It systematically opposes all the aesthetic values championed by Greenberg: flatness, automony, purity of design, etc. (Again, I am oversimplifying a complex argument). But the point is, that Tashin’s shamelessly decorative, externally referential, and self-consciously obvious aesthetic is as big and important a part of what happened to images in the 20th century as either the works championed by Greenberg and Fried, and those they disparaged. This is part of a larger question — can we give an account of mid-20th century visual production that takes, say, Jackson Pollack and Jack Kirby equally seriously? What would it look like to theorize art in a way that had as much room for comic-book pictorialism as it had for abstract expressionism? What would happen if we then extended this history, and this theorization, to the present day? And how would this broader understanding of visual culture relate to the philosophical questions raised by speculative realism?

I have no answers here, only questions raised by Jackson’s brilliant — but to my mind incomplete — formulations.

Private Vices, Public Pleasures

May 14th, 2014

Miklos Jancso’s PRIVATE VICES, PUBLIC PLEASURES (this is how it is listed on IMDB, although “pleasures” doesn’t seem the right translation of the last word in the original Italian title “Vizi privati, pubbliche virtù”) is a severely underrated movie, and one that I need to watch again. Made in Italy in 1976 and spoken in Italian, it doesn’t quite have the formalist rigor of Jancso’s Hungarian works in the 1960s and early 1970s, but it is still powerful and provocative. There are some dazzlingly orchestrated long takes (which is Jancso’s arthouse trademark); but there are also sequences with more conventional editing. Also, the lavish outdoor scenery  (apparently the film was actually shot in what is now Croatia; there is a large Yugoslav presence in the supporting cast and in the crew) is very different from the stark Hungarian plains.

The film is more or less based on the Mayerling Incident, an 1889 scandal in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in which the Crown Prince Rudolph, heir to the throne, and his lover Mary Vetsera apparently killed themselves, supposedly because they could not be married. At least that was the official version, though conspiracy theories abounded; the movie proposes that Rudolph and Mary were murdered by order of Rudolph’s father, the Emperor Franz Joseph. Through this, the movie works as a kind of 1960s/70s counter-culture allegory. Rudolph and his friends Sophie and Franco, a brother-sister couple whose mother was at one point Franz Joseph’s mistress, form a cheerfully incestuous menage a trois; they are mostly interested in sex and drugs, and in overthrowing the puritanical older generation represented by their parents, and by the uniforms and stuffy rituals of Austro-Hungarian official culture. Most of the film takes place during an orgy that they organize, inviting as their guests the young aristocrats of their own generation, who dance around nude, make love in various combinations (there is some sort of sexual activity involving lturkeys as well), and humiliate the various Austro Hungarian soldiers and bureaucrats who show up. It’s during the orgy that Mary Vetsera appears, and the menage a trois quickly becomes a menage a quatre. The film’s version of Mary (apparently this is not the case in the actual historical record) is a hermaphrodite, with fully formed both female and male genital organs, which allows for an expansion of the erotic possibilites.

In terms of actually depicted sex, it isn’t all that explicit; the film is barely even soft-core. But there are lots of nude, cavorting bodies, of all genders and genitalia. The soundtrack has music almost continually; much of it is diegetic, as Rudolph continually has bands playing both indoors and out. The moving camera often circles around these fully clothed musicians, in contrast to the partially-clothed or altogether nude aristocrats. The overall effect is rather hysterical (if I can use this word in a descriptive but non-pejorative sense) as we have long sequences where the frame is filled with continually dancing undressed bodies, with a restless camera either roving through the shrubbery or from room to room, but sometimes simply tracking back-and-forth, all overlaid with the sonic  bombardment of everything from brass band military marches to Eastern European traditional dances to “God protect the Kaiser” (often sung mockingly) to an English-language rendition of “Baa Baa Black Sheep.” With the dialogue in Italian, at times I was reminded of Fellini; there’s even a circus that shows up at one point, but alas not much is made of it (there are a few quick shots of a circus lady cavorting with two chimpanzees, but we never get to see the troupe of Hungarian dwarfs who are much talked about). But overall, Jancso’s vision of excess and exhaustion is very different from Fellini’s — I’m not sure how to phrase this — Jancso is far less surreal than Fellini, but also more aggressively carnal.

There’s a ten-minute-or-so sex sequence near the end of the film, which removes the huge supporting cast and only gives us various combinations or subsets of the foursome. Disappointingly, and in contrast to everything else in the movie, this is shot more or less in cliched Eurotrash style, with lots of upper-body and head-and-lips closeups, and nondiegetic, conventionally “romantic” music — instead of the roving camera and incessant brass bands. Despite the conventionality of this sequence (is it meant to be ironic? or was it forced upon Jancso by the Italian financiers of the film?) it does look (as far as I could tell, given the lack of explicit pornographic detail) like first Rudolph penetrates Mary, and then she penetrates him.

After that, there’s nothing left but the fairly quiet murder of Rudolph, Mary, and their friends, and the official coverup, so that order can be restored. There’s a lot of emphasis throughout the film on photography, as the mass medium of the day: Rudolph and his friends take orgy photos which they hope to release to the press to create scandal; and official photographs are taken of the dead bodies in order to support the fake narrative of a lovers’ suicide pact.

So the film can definitely be taken as an allegory of the affirmations and the ultimate failure of the 1960s counterculture, back projected onto the Austro Hungarian Empire and 19th-century decadent aestheticism. However, though the film shows no liking or nostalgia for the Imperial bureaucracy and hierarchy, its attitude towards its young libertine protagonists is decidedly ambivalent. The delirious orgies are at the same time sufficiently dry and acerbic that we get some of the same distanciation as we do with the horrors of war (in, e.g. The Red and the Black) and with the revolutionary dances (e.g. in Red Psalm) in Jancso’s earlier films. The result is that Rudolph and his friends come off seeming a bit too self-satisfied and self-congratulatory in their rebellion. It becomes hard to forget that they can only get away with all this because of their own aristocratic power and privilege (not to mention seemingly infinite supplies of money). Rudolph rightly imagines that his father will not dare to arrest him or cut off his allowance or anything like that; his position as Crown Prince puts him above the law. (Though he fails to conceive that the patriarchal order he is rebelling against can simply murder him and then cover it up). So the flaw of Rudolph’s ambisexual hedonism, appealing as it is, is that its enabling condition of possibility is the very order that it claims it wishes to destroy. Aristocracy will not be overthrown by the children of that very aristocracy using their class freedom to have an orgy. And carpe diem, by its very nature, cannot overthrow an enduring-through-time order, let alone produce its own counter-order. (This is driven home in a great sequence, during the orgy, where Rudolph proclaims his father dead, himself the new Emperor, Mary his Empress, and mock-appoints his party guests to various ministries. It’s all good fun, rooted in the carnivalesque suspension of the ruling order; but for this very reason, all it does is point up the post-carnivalesque restoration of the oppressive ruling order).

I mentioned Fellini earlier. But where Fellini is aesthetically haunted by the ultimate sterility of the seemingly bounteous carnivalesque, Jancso has a more socio-political take on this paradox. PRIVATE VICES, PUBLIC PLEASURES is the equally alienating flip side of the earlier Hungarian epics. Jancso has none of Fellini’s humanistic warmth, but rather (and to my mind, more impressively artistically) he casts the same cold eye on spectacles of liberation as he does on spectacles of slaughter and oppression.

Afterparty – Daryl Gregory

May 4th, 2014

Daryl Gregory’s Afterparty is a near-future science fiction thriller about designer drugs — specifically designer neurochemicals. It seems to be set about twenty years from now, with a flashback to events ten years or so from now  — enough time for its scientific vision to be plausible. In terms of plot, it’s an extremely well-done thriller; but I agree with Warren Ellis that what matters in fiction of this sort isn’t the plot — which is there to get us involved — so much as what it gets us involved in, which is the characters and the ideas. The characters in Afterparty are all pretty compelling, and all pretty much damaged, as a result of the neurochemicals they have ingested — which is to say, they are all affected by, and embodied symptoms of, the novel’s ideas, which are themselves made real in the form of the drugs that the novel describes. The book’s main actor, if I can put it that way, is a drug called Numinous on the street (though it has other, more official, names). It was developed by the protagonist, Lyda Rose, and her collaborators in a small start-up; the idea was to make a drug that would enhance feelings of well-being by promoting the growth of neurons in the temporal lobe. The drug works extraordinarily well on mice; but when human beings take it, it turns out that the way it enhances feelings of well-being is by generating a hallucination of God. The drug’s stimulation of the temporal lobe is similar to what happens in cases of epilepsy. The user experiences the vision, voice, and feeling of a Deity who has a close personal relationship with him or her, assuring him/her that he/she is loved and cared for, and has a place in the cosmos. Each person has a different vision of God, but these Gods all appear to them as absolutely physically real, despite being invisible and inaudible to anyone else. (Though the novel does not reference this in particular, I was immediately reminded of Julian Jaynes‘ thesis that, as recently as Homeric times, people literally heard voices in their heads, which really were one brain hemisphere “speaking” to the other, but which they took to be the voices of gods.

One problem with the drug is that you become emotionally dependent upon it — if you can’t get it anymore, it feels as if God has abandoned you — which is extremely depressing and can lead to suicide. Another problem, it turns out, is that if you have an extreme overdose of the drug, the God hallucination becomes permanent. For most of the novel, Lyda Rose is torn between her absolute and unshakeable emotional conviction of the truth of her personal God, and her knowledge that this is just a neurochemical effect (backed up with her Dawkins-esque intellectual certitude that religion can never be anything more than such an effect. She argues with her personal God, telling her that she (her God-version is a female angel) is nothing more a mental projection; but she also cannot do without the help and reassurances given to her by this God (who tells her at one point that Dawkins and Hitchens have been sent to Hell), and at times even experiences her God’s actions as physically efficacious. 

Anyway, all this is tied in — as how could it not be? — with business and political implications. Lyda and her partners in the startup quarrel about selling their company (which seems to be on the verge of success due to Numinous) to a major pharmaceutical firm. It is at a party celebrating the sale, which will make them all millionaires, that the partners are all blasted by an overdose of Numinous. They are all pretty much fucked up by their permanent condition of unasked for religious ecstasy. There’s also a baby who is dosed with Numinous in the womb. The present-time events of the novel take place ten years later; they have to do with picking up the pieces of shattered lives, and also with the ongoing question of major corporations peddling these drugs despite their questionable side effects. 

As the plot advances, we encounter other victims of other designer neurochemicals. There’s Clarity, a drug that enhances your ability to recognize patterns when sifting through vast quantities of data, by stimulating neural growth in the prefrontal cortex. This drug is taken, with official encouragement, by analysts working for the NSA. The trouble is, that Clarity also foments paranoia, by leading the user to infer patterns that do not actually exist. There’s also a drug used to treat victims of post-traumatic stress syndrome; when taken in high enough doses, it reduces qualms and emotional difficulties enough that the user can act as a remorseless contract killer. All these drugs have their antagonists, which however have equally bad side effects. When Lyda is hospitalized, her religious visions are neutralized by anti-epileptics; the paranoid effects of Clarity are nullified by anti-psychotics that make it difficult for the patient to recognize any patterns at all (including the shapes of bodies and familiar objects). 

All of this highlights the radical contingency of our mental states; the novel also contains discussions of what “free will” can possibly mean under such conditions. In a way, Afterparty presents us with a 21st-century version of the old Cartesian dilemma. Even in an age where we have definitively discredited any dualism, and established beyond doubt that the mind is entirely physical — because we can in fact manipulate it physically — I am still left with the actuality of inner experience, which is full and efficacious regardless of my intellectual knowledge that it has no objective validity, but is generated entirely by neurochemical processes. It may well be, the novel suggests, that the experiences generated by Numinous make us both more capable and more empathetic, and therefore better people (this would remain the case even if Dawkins and Hitchens are right about the pernicious effects of organized religion). Such a possibility will not seem strange or ridiculous to anyone who has taken LSD or other mind-altering chemicals. Afterparty doesn’t give us any political or philosophical answers; but it suggests that the age of brain manipulation is rapidly approaching, and cannot be averted; and it at least suggests that brain self-manipulations might be workable from below, on an individual or microsocial basis, rather than only being imposed from above, by government security agencies and large corporations. There are no panaceas here, and no seamless alterations of (either inner or outer) reality without unforeseeable and uncontrollable side effects; but Gregory’s vision is not as grim as that of Scott Bakker in Neuropath.