Jason McBride on Kathy Acker

It is difficult to write a biography — to assmeble the traces that somebody has left behind them, and use those traces to reconstruct, in words, the person in question. It is very difficult to get to know another person, even if they are still alive and you are close to them. It is even more difficult, once the person is dead. But it is equally difficult, albeit for different reasons, to know oneself. The immediate acquaintance I have with myself, in the first person, is always filled with distortions and blind spots. The attempt to know myself is inevitably bound to fail — although the effort might in fact lead me to transform myself, which is perhaps a more important thing than to know myself.

These dilemmas are central to Kathy Acker’s writing; and they are also central to Jason McBride’s new biography of Acker: Eat Your Mind: The Radical Life and Work of Kathy Acker. There are many reasons why Kathy Acker, who died just about twenty-five years ago, was one of the greatest writers of her time, and why her work remains so relevant today. One of them is that Acker’s novels involved cotinual explorations of, and challenges to, the very idea of personal identity. Acker understood our world to be one in which originality of any sort is rare and difficult (a situation which is ironically expressed through the exaltation of originality and innovation in every domain of social and cultural life). This is part of the reason why Acker’s own texts are continually engaged in the appropriation, remixing, and reworking of previously existing texts; but the “texts” in question here are not just books that Acker had read, and movies that she had seen, but also her own familial and personal history. None of these fragments are “true” and “authentic” in their own right, but the very process of working through them produces something that, in its very provisionality and mutability, might be described as truer and more authentic than any more literally accurate statement could have been. For all of Acker’s mystique as a punk feminist rebel, she was also deeply literary, deeply committed to and embedded in the processes of reading and writing. The hard thing is to grasp how these two aspects are not in fact radically opposed, but different aspects of the same molten process (in something of the same way that, for Spinoza, mind and body are two aspects of the same substance). Acker’s tattoos and bodybuilding and sexual adventures were forms of writing, and her writing was a form of being embodied in the world.

Acker’s novels and other texts still exist for us, and they certainly haven’t been taken up, appreciated, and reworked in their own terms as they deserve to be. Bur I cannot dissociate them, at least in my own mind, from the person who Kathy Acker was, and who passed a quarter of a century ago. I only knew Kathy Acker casually, and not deeply or well; but she is the only person I have known in person (writer/artist or not) of whom I could say (as Norman Mailer said of William Burroughs) that she “may conceivably be [or, in this case, have been] possessed by genius.” The phrse is right, because genius is not something that anybody has, but something that a few rare people may be possessed by, at certain occasional moments in time. It is tied up, not with identity — there is a reason why Acker titled one of her novels In Memoriam To Identity — but with how it slips aside and transforms, so that it is never whole and accomplished, but also never negligible or inexistent either. It is not a something, but not a nothing either (as Wittgenstein might say). It is always both consolidating and slipping away; it cannot be grasped substantially, but it also cannot be grasped dialectically — but only obliquely. To quote Wallace Stevens (a poet in whom, as far as I know, Acker was not in the least bit interested), the author must escape from being “too exactly himself” [sic], and instead somehow manage to utter “speech we do not speak.”

In all this, I am saying both too much, and not enough. I think that what I have written above is fairly accurate, as far as it goes, about Kathy Acker; but it only says the tiniest part of what she was about, or what she made, what her texts do and say. Though I have written about Acker’s texts before, this is not a task to which I feel adequate. Yet I think that Jason McBride’s book definitely helps in this regard. It is hyper-aware of all the issues that I have been raising — issues that are front and center in Acker’s own texts — and yet it gives us some sense of who Acker was, what she was like — despite the acknowledged difficulties of apprehending either other people or oneself. It seems to get the facts mostly right, as far as I am able to be aware; my only corrections are extremely picayune. Beyond that, it does give me something of a sense of Acker’s living presence (even if that phrase can only hold partially and ironically, for reasons that I have already said).

If Kathy Acker had not died twenty-five years ago, she would be seventy five years old today. While I do not believe that wisdom somehow comes with age (at least not in my own case), I cannot help missing what Acker might have said, had she still been among us in this schizophrenic time. Not a month goes by when I do not think of her (or think of her absence), and McBride’s biography has made me feel this all the more intensely.

Ray Nayler, The Mountain in the Sea

Ray Nayler’s new science fiction novel The Mountain in the Sea is a dazzling exploration of the prospects for nonhuman sentience, and of the difficulties we would have in understanding it and relating to it. The main premise (or science-fictional novum) of the book is that a species of octopus has attained a human level of intelligence and consciousness. The octopuses have a language (expressed in varying chromatophore patterns running across their bodies); and together with this basic linguistic ability comes a social structure, a culture with practices preserved across generations, an ability to fix linguistic statements in material media (i.e. forms of writing and what seems to be artistic and/or religious expression), and an ability for both individuals and groups to form and carry out projects over extended periods of time. All of these other abilities are made possible by language. The existence of sapient octopuses is not all that big an extrapolation from actuality, since octopuses are already known to be the smartest invertebrates, with an intelligence level seemingly equal to that of many mammals and birds; and octopuses already use their ability to change color for purposes of simple communication, as well as for camouflage.

This involves issues of both ontology and epistemology. An octopus will experience the world in a vastly different way from how a human being does. “What is it like to be an octopus?” is a much more difficult question than Thomas Nagel’s “what is it like to be a bat?” Octopuses live in the water, rather than on land in an atmosphere; due to their water environment they do not experience the pull of gravity in the same way that we do; they have flexible bodies, without the backbone and skeleton of human beings and other vertebrates; both human beings and octopuses have strong senses of sight, but the other sensory modalities are quite different; octopuses do not have their neural networks centered in their heads in the way human beings and other vertebrates do, but rather their ‘brain’ is decentered, stretched through their entire bodies, with significant concentrations of neurons in their eight arms. For all these reasons, octopuses do not think the way human beings do, and would not have a language easily translatable into human terms. Nayler’s octopuses are aliens, in science fictional terms; we would be wrong to assume either that they lack our mental complexity, or that such complexity can be mapped out in terms of human understanding. The novel shows how difficult understanding an alien intelligence can be. It is a matter of embodiment and emotion, as well as of ideas and “conceptual schemes.” Human beings will not be able to understand such a different sort of intelligence by mere objective scientific observation alone.

The Mountain in the Sea is about the wondrousness of discovering (and potentially contacting) another sentient species, but it is also about the difficulties involved in such a discovery. The novel’s protagonist, Dr. Ha Nguyen, is a scientist specializing in cephalopod intelligence. She comes to a small archipelago off the coast of Vietnam, in whose waters the sapient octopus colony has been found. The archipelago is an oceanic wildlife preserve; all the human inhabitants have been relocated elsewhere, and fishing vessels are not allowed to come near. Ha’s only companions on the islands are Altantsetseg, an ex-military woman in charge of security, and Evrim (pronouns they/them), a genderless android who is the world’s only AI with fully human-level (or higher) intelligence. There is also a Buddhist monastery on the main island, inhabited by robot monks. Over the course of the novel, Dr. Ha attempts to establish contact with the octopuses; she doesn’t want to just decipher their language and map the structure of their society, but most importantly to communicate with them. Indeed, the novel strongly makes the point that understanding, without communication and empathy, is impossible.

The novel is not just about scientific research, however, because such research is never independent from the rest of the world. The archipelago is maintained as a nature reserve by the corporation that owns it, DIANIMA, a multinational primarily involved in the manufacture and improvement of artificial intelligence. Dr. Ha rightly worries that DIANIMA has less than benevolent motives; it wants to study this new form of intelligence in order to profit from it, by transferring its lessons to AI design and construction. For now, the octopuses are under the corporation’s protection; but Dr. Ha worries that at some point DIANIMA will want to vivisect them in order to understand the neural basis of their cognition. For that matter, Evrim is an entirely unique entity, confined exclusively to the archipelago, because their sheer existence has resulted in laws against making any more AIs with a humanlike or human-exceeding degree of cognitive power. Neither the corporation that manufactured Evrim, nor the authorities and populations that fear them, is able to grasp that Evrim themself is an embodied entity with emotions and desires, just as human beings, sapient octopuses, and indeed all other living entities are.

In exploring all these entanglements, the novel considers multiple forms and degrees of sentience and intelligence. Evrim speaks English, but Dr. Ha still must concern herself with their otherness as well as with that of the octopuses. Other, subsidiary plot stands bring in additional complications. DIANIMA also sells other sorts of artificial minds (both embodied and not) with varying capacities. One of their products is virtual companions, known as “point fives” (or halfs), who are tailored to the needs of the particular people who purchase them. You get a sort of friend or partner, who you can make visible whenever you want via 3D projection, who looks and sounds human, and who is smart enough that you can confide in them and discuss problems with them. It’s just like having an intimate partner, except that they never have demands and desires that contradict, or exist independently of, yours. Then there are economically motivated AI systems, that again can understand spoken language, and that run things like factories and fishing ships. One subsidiary thread of the novel concerns Eiko, who has been kidnapped by human traffickers and set to work as a slave on an AI-controlled fishing vessel. Even if you successfully rebel against your human oppressors, you may well still be stuck under the control of such an AI. Another thread of the novel concerns Rustem, a hacker who is skilled at breaking into AI systems; he is hired by mysterious forces who want to hack into and take over Evrim. His work is premised on the idea that AI systems, no matter how organized, intelligent, and advanced, are always programmed with “portals” or backdoors that allow them to be taken over and controlled — any sense of freedom is just an illusion.

The Mountain in the Sea does not answer all the dilemmas that it poses; it is all about probing the questions it asks as fully as possible, and also about the limits of our ability both to understand and to act. It is also about the extent and the limits of empathy, and how it can survive against the background of a human society still dominated by greed and by severe power imbalances. Have human beings ever encounter a different society that they did not destroy, or at least subsume? If Europeans have done this to other human ethnic groups, the what can we expect in the case of an encounter with an intelligence, and a collective society, that is not human at all? All the narrative strands are woven together, and the novel reaches a point of narrative culmination and conclusion — if not an intellectual conclusion to complex issues that it works hard to keep open. The novel is quite lucid, and at the same time beautiful and strange. It demonstrates the point that I first learned from Seo-Young Chu’s important book Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep?: that the “cognitive estrangement” central to science fiction is a matter of content, rather than one of form. The Mountain in the Sea is emotionally compelling, but its ideas continue to reverberate in your mind after you have finished reading it.

Jean- Luc Godard, 1930-2022

RIP Jean-Luc Godard.

I can truthfully say that no artist or writer, in any medium, has had anywhere near as great an influence on my tastes and interests, and indeed on my life altogether, as Godard. I first encountered his work as a freshman in college (1971-1972). One evening, I went (pretty much at random, without any idea of what to expect) to a screening of PIERROT LE FOU. I was entirely shaken up and flabbergasted by seeing it (I am not sure I am using the correct words; most accurately, I was bouleversé, a French word that doesn’t have quite the right nuance in English translation). It was confusing, yet compelling; it echoed all sorts of movies that I had previously seen, but also seemed entirely fresh and new. I really didn’t know what to think, or how to parse the experience of seeing this film. So a few weeks later, they were showing another Godard film, and I went to see it. It was WEEKEND. This time, I felt like my head was going to explode. It was like being thrust into an entirely new and different universe.

Seeing those two Godard movies, at the age of 17, was a conversion experience, a rebirth — or at least, the closest I have ever come to such things. Those movies completely remade my aesthetic, and indeed existential, sense of myself, and of the world. They turned me into a cinephile, and ultimately into a film studies professor. And they colored my view of all other things — my other sensibilities, aesthetic attractions, philosophical interests, and so on. Godard’s movies, more than any other works of art, helped make me into the person I still am, today.

Today, there are other movies I value more highly (Godard wasn’t on my ten-best-of-all-time list that I sent off to Sight and Sound). I continue to love Godard’s early films, but I feel much more ambivalence about his subsequent work (always worth seeing, always producing insights, and yet also leaving me cold in other respects — I think that Godard’s modernism remained attached to an older world, in some ways very distant from the concerns of the 21st century). But for all that, I remain at heart Godardian; or, to put this in a different (Badiou-style) language, I cannot help but remain faithful to the Godard-event.

(first posted on Facebook, but re-posted here)

Neon Yang, The Genesis of Misery

Neon Yang’s The Genesis of Misery is an intriguing and twisty space opera. Yang is a nonbinary speculative fiction writer from Singapore.

The book is apparently the first volume of a trilogy, the idea behind which Yang has described on twitter as “Joan of Arc, BUT GUNDAM”. That is a pretty accurate characterization. We have a galactic empire, with travel between star systems provided by wormholes. But it all has a basis that seems more religious than scientific — in this way, the novel tends more towards what is sometimes called “science fantasy” than towards “hard” science fiction.

The novel’s backstory is that, centuries ago, when human beings first explored interstellar space, they became mentally and physically ill as a result of contact with, or contamination by, what they call the “nullvoid”, which seems to be something like the “quantum foam” or “dark energy” of spacetime itself. The nullvoid first foments madness, and then causes physical deterioration. The first human beings to explore interstellar space were also betrayed by their spaceship’s AI. which (HAL-like) sought to pursue the mission by killing all the human beings conducting it.

But the human explorers were saved by the intervention of some apparently godlike agency called the Larex Forge or the Demiurge. The survivors of the mission, now remembered as “Saints”, or as the eight Messiahs, were blessed by dream visions, which taught them how to manipulate certain materials known as “holy” stones to fend off the nullvoid. The various types of holy stones now run nearly all human technology; AIs of any sort are banned. The result is a despotic galactic empire dominated by the two (secretly conflicting, or jockeying for power against one another) authorites of Church and State. There are also enemies, known to the Faithful as Heretics, who deny the divine and seek to find scientific explanations for all these phenomena (and also seem to be less phobic about AI). The Faithful and the Heretics are engaged in a perpetual war.

As for the spaceships — or at least the space warships — in the novel, they are all more or less giant mecha (hence the Gundam premise). The are described, at least on the Faithful side of the confilct, as “seraphs” or “archangels.” A pilot is ensconced in a ship, and binds with it so that they feel like the the ship’s limbs are extensions of their own (except they often have six or eight limbs instead of four). Space battles (of which there are a good number in the course of the novel) are an odd sort of physical combat. Nothing happens at a distance. Instead, the mecha ships grapple with one another, their limbs physically bashing and trying to cut into one another. Not having been a gundam/mecha fan in my childhood, I am not really sure about the emotional resonances of all this; I am sure there are aspects of it that I am not catching. But the space battles are described grippingly enough that it still works for me without this extra layer of understanding.

The novel’s protagonist is a young woman named Misery Nomaki, presumably the novel’s Joan of Arc analogue. I love the twist of having her first name be “Misery”. She’s a young queer woman from a mining colony moon in some distant star system. She starts hearing voices and hallucinating apparitions that claim to be divine, and that prophesy her status as the next Messiah. She also has the power of being able to manipulate, with her mind, all the “holy” stones on which the civilization runs. Initially, Misery is really punk in sensibility. She’s been screwed over by everyone, and she hates it. She comes to the capital of the Empire, cynically determined to use her special abilities to get ahead. She assumes that her hallucinations and powers are a fraud, the result of nullvoid contamination; this means that her life will not be long, but in the meantime she hopes to do as much as she can.

In the course of the novel, however, Misery has a conversion experience. She has a mystical vision of union with the cosmos, and as a result comes to believe that all the things she has cynically pretended to be are in fact literally true. She is now confident that she actually is the Ninth Messiah, called by the Larex Forge to liberate the Empire from the destructive threats of the nullvoid and of the Heretics. United with her archangel mecha, she thinks she is invulnerable and can win every space battle. She and her lover Lightning (the ferocious sister, and bitter opponent, of the current Emperor) resolve to save the world (or worlds) together.

And this is where questions of narration come into play. Misery’s story is told in the third person, but very vividly, in the present tense, and with the narrator closely identifying with Misery and expressing her inner feeelings. (There are short sections called Interludes, narrated more objectively, and containing information that Misery doesn’t necessarily know; but these constitute less than 5% of the text). The narrator is themself a character in the narrative, however, as is revealed in a Prologue and Epilogue framing the main story. To avoid spoilers, I won’t reveal who the narrator is, though this does prove consequential for the narrative as a whole).

When Misery has her conversion experience, the content of her thoughts changes, but the style of narration does not. So, as we move from Misery’s punk cynicism to her absolute militant fervor, we are inclined to still give her the credit that we did from the beginning. We are strongly seduced into completely identifying with Misery’s zealotry; but at the same time, I also started to feel an uncomfortable, nagging sense of doubt. Things just don’t feel quite right. Indeed, Misery herself starts at some point to feel that things aren’t quite right — albeit for different reasons than the reader feels this. Misery never doubts her religious certainty, but she begins to doubt to what extent the universe really conforms to that certainty. I cannot be more specific about this without recounting the ending of the novel in detail; there’s a surprising shift of perspective there that puts a new light on everything — but that I remain uncertain about, and that will only be resolved one way or the other by the succeeding volumes of this trilogy. The official publicity for the book states that the trilogy as a whole is “a story about the nature of truth, the power of belief, and the interplay of both in the stories we tell ourselves.” This self-reflexivity is entirely merited in the current volume, since the novel both solicits our belief in the protagonist and in her beliefs, and yet steps back and makes us question that at the same time.

I will end with some more general points. The Genesis of Misery — like a lot of recent speculative fiction — presents a world, or a cosmos, in which queerness is taken for granted and not stigmatized. A good number of the characters are (by our early-21st-century standards) queer or trans in one way or another, but (unlike today) this is entirely normal or expected within the world of the diegesis. I am inclined to see this as a kind of utopian element; however these novelistic worlds are messed up and oppressive in all sorts of ways, gender identity and sexual orientation are not parts of the problem. Writing speculative fiction in this way does two (seemingly incompatible) things at once. On the one hand, it gives readers plenty of opportunities for identification, rather than demanding default identification with a white, cis, heterosexual protagonist as older genre fiction all too often tended to do. At the same time, and on the other hand, struggles for gender equity and sexual equality are not in any way the focus of these novels, because the struggles have already been resolved, and in an entirely liberatory way; this leaves the author free to both be affirmatively queer, trans, or non-binary, and yet at the same time to address all sorts of other issues as well.

This leads me to larger questions as well. My friend Jason Read wrote on Twitter, just this morning, that: “The cultural domination of fantasy over science fiction that we are currently living through just seems to be symptomatic of the broader turn towards fascism.” He is especially thinking, I suppose of current television blockbusters like the prequels to Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. I am inclined to agree with Jason for the most part: it just seems reactionary to me that so many speculative fiction works focus on Kings and Emperors, rather than on bureaucracies and spy systems, as both forces of oppression and ideals. I will always prefer science fictional approaches. But at the same time, this domination of fantasy over science fiction in recent years does not just apply to hegemonic media, but also to written speculative fiction by so many queer, trans, and nonbinary authors, and to many nonwhite authors as well. I am not sure what to make of this. I do not accept the explanation that this simply means the rejection of dominant Eurocentric instrumental reason in favor of older and non-Western ‘ways of knowing.’ But I do not have a good counter-theory, either. The Genesis of Misery deals to a certain extent very thoughtfully and self-reflexively, but my questions remain.

Time Compressed and Dilated

This is an outtake from my book in progress. I think it is a good passage in and of itself, but it isn’t needed in the (already rather long) book as a whole.

Time Compressed and Dilated

According to the Marxist geographer David Harvey, “the condition of postmodernity” as we experience it today involves a particularly intense degree of “time-space compression” (Harvey 1989). This is not wrong, but perhaps it is incomplete. Time in the neoliberal era is certainly “out of joint,” in the phrase from Hamlet that Deleuze loves to cite in this regard (Deleuze 1989; Deleuze 1994). But today, this works in the form of a sort of temporal schizophrenia: our experience of time is, all at once, both compressed and dilated.

On the side of compression, the world economy is geared towards just-in-time production, which endeavors to reduce, and ideally to eliminate, the glitches due either to shortages or to excess inventory (Harvey 1989). We only become aware of these lapses in production when supply chains are disrupted, as happened at the height of the Covid pandemic (Hadwick 2020). Meanwhile, computerized financial transactions are squeezed as close to instantaneity as possible. The success or failure of algorithmically-controlled high frequency trading on financial markets is a matter of milliseconds, or even shorter intervals. Michael Lewis describes in great detail the ways in which financial traders strive to gain competitive advantage by increasing the speed of their transactions — something that is ultimately limited by the speed of light. However, even if you cannot make the buy and sell orders flow any faster, you can still gain precious microseconds by locating your server farm physically closer to the actual stock exchange (Lewis 2014).

In computational devices, sensing and action happen in real time, which is to say in micro-intervals, far beneath the threshold of human perception. They literally happen too fast for us to follow them. In consequence, these events have no phenomenology. As Shane Denson puts it, the processes at the heart of computation today “are themselves discorrelated from human subjectivity — no longer tuned to the frequencies of human sensory access and thus no longer essentially bound to appear at all” (Denson 2020). We are increasingly affected by transformations that we are unable to intuit or to experience as they happen. By the time we become aware of their effects — if we ever do — it is too late to respond: they have already receded into the past. In the words of Mark B. N. Hansen,

today’s media industries have honed methods for mining data about our behavior that feature as their key element the complete bypassing of consciousness, the direct targeting of what I shall call the “operational present” of sensibility. (Hansen 2015)

That is to say, the newer digital technologies — what Hansen calls “twenty-first century media” — shrink the present moment by reducing it to an “operational present” that is irreducibly and “categorically distinct from the present of consciousness” (Hansen 2015).

Contemporary capitalism also dilates time, however, in the sense that algorithmic operations capture both the past and the future, absorbing then into an ever-more-extended specious present. This is itself a result of the relentless monetization of temporal displacements. Remnants of the past take the form of monetary debts, and anticipations of the future take the form of exotic financial instruments such as derivatives. Both claims upon the past and claims upon the future are priced — and thereby bought and sold — in the extended present. Everything is drawn into the actions of buying and selling. Tokens of the past, and guarantees for the future, are alike subsumed within the frenzied and heightened now of the financial markets.

The financial mechanisms that dominate our lives today are best understood as “machines that crystallize time”: in saying this, I am hijacking, and inverting the meaning of, a phrase that I take from Maurizio Lazzerato (Lazzarato 2019). For Lazzarato, this phrase describes the production of video art — to which he attributes a utopian, oppositional role in his account of contemporary social processes. But the phrase “machines that crystallize time” is arguably even more apropos to describe the dystopian actualities of debt and financialization. Modern financial instruments work — or at least, they are supposed to work — to capture the future, by making it commensurable with the present. Derivatives and other arcane financial instruments — which, tellingly, used to be known as “futures contracts” — are ways of calculating and pricing future contingencies. Each potential development, to the extent that it can be anticipated at all, must be priced according to its likelihood as well as its promise of profitability. “Hedge funds,” which buy and sell derivatives, are so called because their ostensible function is to allow economic actors to “hedge” their bets. This ultimately means that wealthy investors come out ahead no matter what happens in the markets, leaving everyone else to absorb the losses. In short, derivatives are machines for capturing and accumulating flows of money — which is eqaully to say, for stockpiling flows of time.

But financial speculation by corporations and the rich is only one side of the way that time is managed in our globalized, neoliberal economy. The other side is consumer and household debt, which is equally an object of speculation. The economy would collapse, were it not for the purchases we all make on credit, living perpetually beyond our means. The debts we accumulate, just in the course of living our lives and reproducing our conditions of existence, are never actually paid off. They are just recycled and endlessly deferred.

The result is that my wages, as well as my savings and assets (if I am part of the minority lucky enough to have any savings and assets) continually “need to be leveraged and put to work in the speculative logic of the asset economy” (Adkins et al. 2020). I am continually compelled to manage, control, and carefully invest my own so-called “human capital,” making sure that I do not waste my potential in unproductive activity. I must subordinate all my future hopes to the need for keeping up with a pressing schedule of monthly payments and repayments. I cannot project or anticipate a future free from debt, but only an indefinite extension of the present, in which I continue to accumulate new debts at least as rapidly as I pay off the old ones. Lazzarato sees this situation as one in which we have no more time: the debt economy “has deprived [most of the population] of the future, that is, of time, time as decision-making, choice, and possibility” (Lazzarato 2011). But Lisa Adkins argues, to the contrary, that the new economy actually burdens us with “too much time” (Adkins 2018). We must scramble to service our debts indefinitely, in an extended future that stretches endlessly, but without ever offering us any sort of qualitative difference from the present.

Where Walter Benjamin worried about the past, “firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious” (Benjamin 2003), today we may well worry instead about the future. We experience futurity as devouring and empty of potentiality. The not-yet-born are already subjected to it, and even death itself offers us no escape from it. One the one side, the American right wing is focused upon the existence of the “unborn” (Cooper 2006); billionaires like Elon Musk are obsessed, against all evidence, with an alleged “underpopulation crisis” (Levin 2022). On the other side, as we approach the end of the life process, we are subjected to ever-greater indignities. K. W. Jeter’s great cyberpunk novel Noir offers us a scenario in which the dead are brought back from the grave as zombies, and compelled to work in order to pay off the debts that they incurred in life. But this is an interminable process. Since interest charges accumulate faster than wages do, the more the zombies work, the more they fall behind, accumulating ever greater debt (Jeter 1998; see my discussion in Shaviro 2003). This is scarcely even an extrapolation from actually existing conditions. Precisely due to “the power of compound interest” — which John Maynard Keynes once hoped would lead to a world of leisure for all (Keynes 1930) — more and more people discover that, even after paying back their student loans for years, they still owe far greater sums than they originally borrowed (Minsky 2021).

Grant Morrison, LUDA

I have followed Grant Morrison’s work, on and off, for something like three decades now – ever since Kathy Acker told me I had to read him. Morrison’s run on the comic DOOM PATROL became the template and inspiration for my own first attempt to think about “postmodernism” in the 1990s – I titled my own book DOOM PATROLS. Since then, I have read a lot of Morrison’s creator-owned comics titles, and some of his revised versions of canonical (and corporation-owned) superheroes. I also liked the tv series HAPPY!, based on Morrison’s comic of that name, and made by the director Brian Taylor in collaboration with Morrison. (I think I may be the only academic who has published book chapters about both Morrison and Taylor; though I didn’t write anything about their collaboration).

LUDA is Grant Morrison’s first novel — their first narrative consisting of words only, without illustrations — i.e. formatted as prose fiction rather than as a comic or a “graphic novel.” I got an advance copy from NetGalley, with the obligation to write an honest review. This is it, though it is hard to be objective and judgmental about a book like this. I found it utterly delightful, but it is not easy to explain why.

LUDA is a novel about drag queens. The first-person narrator, Luci LaBang, is an aging drag performer, trying to come to terms with the brute fact that you aren’t as glamorous and beautiful at 50 as you were at 25. (As somebody who is close to 70, all I can say about this conceit is, 50 still seems relatively youthful to me). We get all her reflections about her life and career, her past and her present, with scenes ranging from her childhood infatuation with women’s garments, her stint as a glam rock star, her brief attempt to go straight in a heterosexual relationship, her later career as a washed-up ex-star on a reality/game show hybrid television series, and her present as a drag performer in a “pantomime” (which seems to mean, in the UK, a live musical theater entertainment mostly for kids). Luci is a lifelong resident of “Gasglow” (which I presume is a deliberate misspelling or re-spelling of the Scottish city of Glasgow; I have never been there, and I do not know how the novel’s cityscape relates to the actual cityscape, but the city is certainly a major character, as it were, in the novel).

The eponymous character of the novel, Luda, is a much younger drag queen who sort of becomes Luci’s protégée, though actually it is much more complicated than that. Luci does give Luda advice about drag performance, about magic, and about life. They meet because they are supposed to be costarring together in a pantomime called “Phantom of the Pantomime” (which sort of combines “Phantom of the Paradise” with “Aladdin”). But their relationship is also one of a continual, and usually underhanded, power struggle. The novel suggests multiple frames of reference (the “All About Eve” plot of a younger diva supplanting an older one is one of them), but it always manages to subvert, or to turn inside out, the conventional genre twists that you cannot help expecting.

The novel is dense with nested narratives: we get Luci’s life story, Luci’s attempt to uncover Luda’s life story, the story of the pantomime being rehearsed, the story of the continual problems that come up in the course of rehearsing it, and so on. These all resonate with and echo one another. Drag is not presented as exotic or weird, but just as something that the narrator and her object of fascination do.

Evidently we are in the realm of fantasy and pretense, but part of the novel’s point is that pretty much everything than any of us do is really driven by fantasy and pretense. Desire is never simple and straightforward, it is rather why human beings in general most emphatically are never simple and straighforward. It is a case of universalizing, not by generalization, but precisely by emphasizing the particular in all its minute particularity. We get the ins and outs of Luci’s life and career, in both its glamorousness and its abject failures, in its everydayness but also in its extremities. We also get Luci’s cares and worries, her misunderstandings and illusions, her pain and depression as well as her episodes of happiness and enjoyment. It is this insistent particularity, or singularity, that makes it possible to “identify” with Luci (though I am not sure that “identify” is the right word here, or indeed ever).

LUDA is often quite funny. Its extravagances and outrageous twists of reality (such as one would always expect from Morrison) are themselves often quite funny. But there is also a lot in the novel that is quite disturbing, and even horrific. I don’t ever like describing a narrative as a “romp”, as some reviewers tend to do. But if you go into this expecting a romp, then after being flattered into enjoyment in this way for a while, you will eventually find yourself in for a bumpy ride. This is a novel about frustrated desires, about alienation, about unrealistic fantasies, and ultimately about horrific abuse. None of this is freakshow-like, in the sense of something that puts unconventional lifestyles on display for straight delectation. No, the straight people in the book are really the ultimately most horrifying ones. Drag is a desire as straightforward AND as twisted as any other, but not more so.

The book left me with both a keen sense of enjoyment, and with a depressive sense of desolation, both at the same time. Morrison is masterful in the way they reel out twists and surprises, and in the way they sneakily insinuate things you weren’t expecting, yet that seem inevitable once they are revealed. The narrator is both narcissitic and deeply self-deprecating; both charismatic and exposing herself to our contempt and disgust. She is always talking directly to her audience, aware of the reader’s presence, teasing and alluring us, only to end with a sucker punch (or several) of desolation — only to follow that by tying everything together with a dazzling series of ironic (?) postmodern flourishes that pull the ground from under us (even after we thought we had had the ground pulled from under us and reached the lowest level of bedrock possible already).

I said that this is a novel about drag queens. I found myself delighted by its total rejection of gender norms — without even having to mention it or make an argument about it. But– AND THIS IS CRUCIAL — I do not know how it will read to readers who are trans, or genderqueer, or already far less normative than I am. I am unable to step away from my own predilections enough to even guess.

Ruthanna Emrys, A Half-Built Garden

I have previously known Ruthanna Emrys for her revisionist Lovecraft fiction series, which sees the ‘fish people’ of The Shadow Over Innsmouth as a persecuted minority, and tries to imagine life from their point of view. (I also saw an interview with Emrys, in which she pointed out that her own grandparents, Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe who came to Brooklyn in the 1920s, were precisely the people about whom Lovecraft expressed his racist revulsion. I immediately identified with her comment, since my maternal grandparents were Jews who emigrated to Brooklyn in the 1920s as well).

A Half-Built Garden is quite different from Emrys’ previous work. It is a semi-utopian first contact novel. (She also describes it in the concluding acknowledgements, somewhat humorously, as ‘diaperpunk’.)

We are in the late 21st century. The Earth has undergone a big reorganization, for the better. Though nation-states and large corporations both still exist, they have been displaced from much of the Earth’s land surface by “watershed networks,” ecological communities that are more or less anarchist and communal in organization, each of which is responsible for the watershed in which they live, and which have succeeded — over the past half century, since the mostly nonviolent revolution that allowed them to be set up — in slowing down, and even to a certain extent reversing, the ecological damage that had been done to the planet by the two previous centuries of unbridled capitalism.

The watersheds are characterized by a mesh of extended families, tied together by nonhierarchical computer networks using automated (computerized) comment moderation, designed to maximize democratic discussion, and weighted according to the core values of the communities: shared resources, volunteer work sharing, and concern for the broader environment (so that the rivers, trees, etc. have their interests represented as well). Ubiquitous computing allows people to access and participate in the network through unobtrusive technological prostheses (mesh nets over their heads, projection into their glasses, etc.). Decisions are made by consensus, but without the annoyance of having to attend hours of meetings all the time. All this is beautifully presented, both in terms of the way that the writing conveys it (through community/environmental description without excessive infodumps) and in terms of being down to earth and deidealized (people are not any more perfect in such a setting than they are in capitalist America today, it is just that authority is decentralized and decisions are made better).

We get the point of view of Judy Wallach-Stevens, a woman who lives in the Chesapeake watershed. She has an extended family: she and her partner have a baby, and they live with another couple who also have a toddler. This enlarged household is also tied to other, surrounding ones (both through family relatedness, and simply through geographic proximity). Gender is refreshingly fluid and changeable; though some people identify themselves as “male” and “female,” many do not. Multiple sets of pronouns are used, and in terms of both physical presentation and community expectations, nobody is tied in to a single identity — they can stay as they are, if they are happy with that, but they can also shift if and when they want. There is no assignment of gendered responsibility for childraising; at a minimum, both adults identified as the parents share equally in childcare, and the other adults in an expanded household pitch in as well. (It is considered rude to enquire as to which parent actually physically bore the child in their womb).

Nation-states (like the US government) still exist, but they seem to have greatly reduced authority. Corporations exist too, but they have been exiled from the mainland of all continents, and exist only on artificial islands that they have constructed. The corporations still manufacture certain high tech goods that they can sell to the watersheds. The way financing works is not entirely clear, but in the watersheds most things are commonly available without money; and whatever monetary basis the corporations work with does not have the universal reach that finance does today. The corporations are evidently still very hierarchical, and they are always seeking to extend their power and regain the control they had in the 20th and early 21st centuries — so the watersheds still need to exercise vigilance with regard to them. However, the corporations as much as the watersheds have rejected traditional gender roles, and have replaced gender binaries with continually shifting forms of self-representation. These forms are central to the jockeying for dominance that is a major feature of corporate cultures, but again it is completely free of and apart from what we take for granted as male/female binaries.

All the world building in the novel is convincingly and vividly done. And it is solid enough that I was not bothered by questions of how the unaddressed portions of social organization and technological infrastructures might work.

At the same time that the background of Emrys’ world is conveyed, the narrative is mostly about how this organization and way of life is disrupted by First Contact. An alien spaceship lands in the Chesapeake region. The crew consists of two separate sentient species, originally from two separate planets, who have lived in symbiotic communities with each other for more than a thousand Earth years. There are ‘plains people’ who are sort of like human-sized arthropods on twelve or more legs; and ‘tree people’ who have mammal-like fur but look more like giant spiders (though again, they have a lot more limbs than actual spiders do). The aliens have learned to speak English from watching all the movies and television series that we have inadvertently beamed into space for decades. The aliens are organized into cross-species extended families, with gender systems that are a bit different from ours (I mean from the more liberated one that humans have in the novel’s future setting), but not unintelligibly so. They aliens place a very high value on their children, whom they take with them everywhere; part of the initial bond that the novel’s narrator makes with them is that she is nursing her own child when she first meets them.

The aliens are friendly, but they have an agenda. In the course of their technological development, both species destroyed the environments of their home planets. They now live in huge constructed orbital habitats around a single sun, all of which are kept in ecological balance around a planned, controlled, and limited ecosphere. They live in company with numerous trees and other plants, and with some nonsentient animal species; but this is (by their own admission) a rather limited environment compared to those of their original native planets. They are flourishing, but only because they have constructed an ecosphere that is basic enough for them to manage.

The aliens now seek to rescue other sentient species from ecological catastrophe. They are unhappy about having reached three planets in other solar systems too late, when the species in question had already exterminated themselves through self-generated environmental catastrophe. They are happy to have reached the Earth in time. What they want to do is rescue Homo sapiens by having us all abandon Earth en masse, and taking us instead to share their artificial space habitats. They hope to convince us by reason and persuasion to join them. But they are not averse to using force if they cannot get us peacefully to agree. They believe that if we refuse to abandon Earth we are endangering the lives of our children, so they have to force us for the children’s sake. (What would Lee Edelman say about this scenario?).

This creates confusion and disunity on Earth. The corporations love the idea of forcible removal. They see it as a way to increase their markets and their power, and maybe even to return to the practice of continual expansion that is no longer allowed on Earth, but that could be renewed on other planets throughout the galaxy. The nation-states are also attracted to the idea, for less extreme but somewhat similar reasons. But the narrator, and most of the people in the watersheds, unsurprisingly resist the idea of leaving Earth forever. They feel that they have made considerable progress in healing the Earth, and that as they continue to do so they will be able to live in reasonable harmony with a large and vibrant ecosystem, rather than with the severely reduced one that they aliens have created for themselves. Judy initially gets along well with the aliens — having been the first Earth person to meet them, and sharing their insistence on the importance of children — but tensions arise because of the aliens’ ultimate aims. But there are also a number of additional contributing factors that complicate and enrichen the narrative, including both interspecies sex between humans and aliens, and tensions that arise because the corporations deploy computer viruses to disrupt the watersheds’ networks.

So the novel has substantial dramatic tensions as well as great worldbuilding and great aliens. Things are semi-resolved (there is a reason why the “garden” of the title is only “half-built”) over the course of the book, mostly through complex negotiations among all the various parties. Discussions, arguments, shifting of locations and of background assumptions. One of the great things about the book is that it makes these negotiations as exciting and as emotionally compelling as violent conflicts are in other speculative novels. (I also appreciated all the specifically Jewish stuff in this book. Unusually for American literature, this is a book that is essentially non-Christian — by which I mean there are no traces of either a Christian or an anti-Christian sensibility).

Kathe Koja, Dark Factory

Kathe Koja’s new novel, Dark Factory, is a gushing psychedelic cascade. The book is about artists and musicians and techies and entrepreneurs, who work to create, and to control, immersive, multisensory augmented and virtual realities — whether inside a computer game, or at an all-night dance club. But just reading the book is already a kind of artificially enhanced experience — to the extent that this is attainable just through prose. Koja’s sentences erupt and flow with scenes that dizzyingly metamorphose through gerundive constructions and paratactic additions, jumping in mid-sentence from one location, one action, into another. Everything seems to be glowing and melting and transitioning. The novel is all process rather than product. Even when the characters stop for a moment — say, to eat or to sleep, necessities that cannot be evaded — it is just an eyeblink and then they are off again, in breathlessly ever-changing configurations. Dark Factory takes that old modernist dream — to enact what you depict, to become what you represent — and pulls it into the twenty-first century.

Koja describes her book as an immersive novel. Part of the way that it draws us in — or better, invites us in, seduces us in — is through its blurry boundaries. Aside from the main text of the novel, there are extra, supplementary sections, which are presented as documents from the novel’s world. written by one or another of the characters, or by journalists and publicists observing them. You can read these extra sections as you go along, or wait until you have finshed the main novel, and then dig in. There are even more extra texts, together with audio recordings and videos, on the book’s website, https://darkfactory.club/. Readers are implicity encouraged to add their own materials to this collection. As we enter the world of the novel, that world enters into us. Every additional document makes it richer and more inclusive.

But immersion is not only the style of the novel; it is also what the book itself is about. Dark Factory draws the reader into its fictions; but its characters are themselves artists, in search of an immersive aesthetics. The Dark Factory itself is a key location in the first chapters of the novel: a dance club that stays open all night, a place of music and rhythm, of flashing lights and neon graffiti, together with additional elements of augmented, virtual reality, tailored to the desires of individual clients (or better, participants). It feeds on your desires while also feeding those desires, in an ever-expanding loop of intensities. The club closes down part-way through the novel, but the characters continue to pursue the high — or better, to themselves construct that high, even more intensely, with sensations heightened even further, in ever-more-dazzling soundscapes and lightscapes (and even. perhaps, smellscapes and touchscapes).

The novel is set in unnamed cities and landscapes: places unspecified, but definitely located in North America and in Europe. When we aren’t ensconced in the clubs or in the workshops, we follow along with the characters down the streets; there are rundown industrial areas, business districts, and gentrifying upscale neighborhoods with their cappuccino stands and artisanal boutiques. Some of the characters crash in unheated, abandoned lofts; others have temporary access to exquisite yuppie condos. Koja’s prose immerses us in smells and tastes, as well as subtle or grandiose forms of light, and above all insistent beats.

The book seems to be situated, in time as well as in space, just beyond the bleeding edge of the present. We have a VR technology called Y, that is slightly more convincingly immersive than what actually exists today. The novel also contains made-up slang that convincingly sounds like stuff people will actually be saying just a few years from now. Dark Factory does not proclaim its allegiance to any particular literary genre, but it reads to me like near-future science fiction, in its socio-technological inventions as well as in its visionary intimations.

Dark Factory switches back and forth between the POVs of its two main protagonists. Ari is a producer or scene-maker. He is all about setting up the best parties, the newest and most intense experiential zones. Max is an artist and writer, who envisions and builds multimedia installations. Ari and Max are sometimes rivals, more often collaborators and finally friends. At the start, Ari is managing everyone’s favorite nightclub, and Max is running an outdoors augmented-reality environment. They both get displaced from these initial projects, and over the course of the novel they end up collaborating on a mega-event that combines computer gaming (Max working with some programmers) with techno beats and crowds of dancers and listeners (Ari producing along with technical and artistic helpers). In between, we see the ups and downs of their own relationship, together with those of the people around them. Most notably, we meet Ari’s boyfriend, the genius DJ Felix, and Max’s sometime girlfriend, the ferociously intellectual journalist Marfa (yes, she is named after the famous Texas art site).

The novel also sports an additional cast of dancers, party people, nightlife denizens, and especially wealthy patrons. These rich people provide the money that the creative people need in order to realize their projects. But money men and women also jerk the creative people around in various obnoxious ways. The patrons range from megalomaniacal corporate types who want to control everything, to self-proclaimed entrepreneurs with dubious finances, unpredictable whims, and dangerous ties to Russian gangsters. The plot of the novel mostly consists in a series of negotiations between the various parties. Ari gets stuck in a number of unpleasant commercial arrangements, from which he continually needs to extricate himself.

But the real reason the novel works so well is because the ebb and flow of these relationships and arrangements is continuous with the creative activity of the main characters. Somehow nights at the club, or days in the engineered VR environment, are not all that different from the flow of interacting personalities, or the traversal of one urban regin after another — at least the ways in which they are described in Koja’s hallucinogenic prose. We are continually sliding from Ari’s having to manipulate, or else be manipulated by, various bosses and investors, and the delirium of the nighttime events he nonetheless manages to make happen. Similarly, Max negotiates between the highs and lows of his unstable mood swings, and the experiential richness of the VR game (or better, VR environment) that he manages to author. Dancers and graffiti artists bring their own delicate touches. Felix the DJ is almost supernatural in his talent: several times in the course of the novel, his playing triggers Dionysian orgies and even seismic activity. The novel brings us to the edge of what might be a life-transforming experience: sex and drugs and music and dancing, so intense as to rend the veil of Maya and give us glimpses of ultimate reality. But there are no final pronoucements; this amazing high might be nothing more than having a good time. In any case, the novel stops on the brink — we are left to continue the quest ourselves.

Kathe Koja started her writing career with a number of intense and innovative horror novels, such as The Cipher (1991) and Skin (1993). She has since written in a number of different genres, including YA as well as adult fiction. In a certain sense, Dark Factory brings her work full circle, albeit everything has been turned inside-out. Her horror fiction was about aesthetic transcendence and transformation, pushing beyond the limits of the human. In a sense, Dark Factory is much the same, returning to this terrain both in its prose style and in its theme. Except that here the dangerous process of exceeding human limits is suffused with love instead of hate, with hope instead of nihilistic rage and abjection, and with the sense of a potential community, rather than with one of atomization and alienation. We often want to believe the worst — and Koja’s early novels do lead us in this direction — but who is to say that such negativity is the ultimate? Dark Factory gives us a vision that is too fleeting to be redemptive — it is process and not product, and it is as fragile as it is overwhelming — but this vision is something that we desperately need in these otherwise horrendous times.

Guy Lardreau, Fictions philosophiques et science-fiction (1988)

A number of Franocphone philosophers have written interestingly on Anglo-American, or English lanugage, science fiction (henceforth sf). Isabelle Stengers discusses sf briefly yet penetratingly, in an interview here that has greatly influenced my own work. Jean-Clet Martin has written an excellent, and large and capacious, book reading Golden Age sf through the framework of Hegel’s Science of Logic: Logique de la science-fiction. And David Lapoujade has written a concise but rich and detailed book about the philosophical implications of Philip K Dick’s writings: L’Altération des mondes.

But the book I want to concentrate upon here is Guy Lardreau’s Fictions philosophiques et science-fiction, from 1988. Lardreau (1947-2008) was a French philosopher who started out as a Maoist militant and ended up as a kind of transcendental pessimist; his rejection of Maoism in favor of universalist ethics must be distinguished, however, from that of his contemporaries the so-called nouveaux philosophes, who movied all too easily from supposed Maoism to center-right pontification. Peter Hallward (see next paragraph) notes that Lardreau “Lardreau was always careful to distance himself from la nouvelle philosophie as an apparently ‘collective’ project, and still more as a media phenomenon.”

There is not much English-language writing on Lardreau; the most extensive overview of his thought and career comes in two articles by Peter Hallward, available here and here. I haven’t read any other of Lardreau’s writing aside from his book on science fiction; I will concentrate here, less on giving any form of meta-critique, than just on trying to get his arguments right. I read French almost-fluently, but I find it harder to reproduce the sense of what I have read in French, compared to things I read in English; my main purpose here is just to get straight in my own mind the overall structure and sense of Lardreau’s arguments. My account inevitably involes a certain number of misstatements and misunderstandings, but hopefully it will be not too misleading. But in any case, my reading of Lardreau was very helpful for me. I am trying to think through my ideas about the potentiality that is represented and expressed in science fictionality, and also why I have come to embrace a Leibnizian approach to science fiction (as opposed to the ultimately Spinozian approach favored by Fredric Jameson and people influenced by him).

Lardreau’s book begins with a “Retroduction” (instead of an Introduction), and ends with an “Introclusion” (instead of a Conclusion). I think he does this in order to emphasize the circular (or better, labyrinthine) structure of his overall argument, which does not proceed to an uncovering of truth, but rather insists that truth can only remain intertwined with fiction, and that science fiction is the form of literature that best communicates with philosophy’s own need to resort to fiction. The Retroduction states that the whole book arose out of Lardreau’s noting an “astonishing homology” between the fictions deployed by Leibniz in order to explain his ideas about possible worlds, and the way that science fiction imagines parallel worlds. Science fiction develops conjectures that are grounded in science, but that touch on areas that science cannot reach.

After this, the first major chapter is about “fiction as a philosophical experience.” Lardreau starts with some dilemmas in early modern philosophy, involving questions about the nature of experience, and the adequacy, or inadequacy, of empirical sensations for understanding the nature of reality. Thinkers in the 17th and 18th centuries proposed thought experiments. Molyneux asked if somebody blind from birth, suddenly given the power of sight, would be able to correlate what they saw with what they had previously only felt. Condillac imagined a statue suddenly brought to life, but with only one sensory impression at a time, and asked whether this being would be able to comprehend the world in its full multi-dimensionality. Such fictions, Lardreau argues, construct imaginary objects, or entire imaginary worlds, in such a way as to “constrain a philosophical doctrine” to acknowledge all its presuppositions, and thereby to demonstrate its “coherence” and “the extent of its validitty”. By varying the conditions given in the fiction, one can see how well the doctrine performs in different circumstances. (I myself compare philosophical thought experiments to science fiction narratives, in the first chapter of my book Discognition. I am exploring this further in a current manuscript in progress. So I particularly welcome Lardreau’s focus on this).

Variation is thus the central principle of philosophical fictions — and of science fiction. Everything can be varied imaginatively, and thus made the subject of a fiction, as long as the fiction does not involve logical contradiction. But the avoidance of logical contradiction is a very low bar; some fictions are better than others, more powerful than others, more reasonabe than others, more plausible than others: in short, some fictions are more possessed of vraisemblance than others. This insistence on Lardreau’s part seems to me to be vitally important (it relates to my attempts, in my work in progress, to distingish meaningful potentiality from mere logical possibility, with the help of both Whitehead and Deleuze Lardreau is a valuable ally in this attempt).

We can put the matter this way. Both American analytic philosophers, and a number of continental ones — most notably Quentin Meillassoux — insist that anything not logically contradictory is therefore possible. But this is an extremely impoverished definition of possibility. Unless you believe (as both Meillassoux and David Lewis apparently do) that no point in spacetime is related in any positive way to any other point, so that every punctual state of affairs is unrelated to any other, then actually-existing connections and disconnections constrain potentiality much more strongly than the mere criterion of logical non-contradiction allows. To use Leibniz’s language (as Lardreau does later in his book, albeit not here), it is not enough that something is possible; it must also be compossible with other things and circumstances. This is what Lardreau is getting at with his insistence that some philosophical fictions are more plausible or meaningful than others.

Lardreau goes on from considering these various early modern philosophical fictions to look in depth at the most far-reaching of these: Descartes’ hypothesis of the Evil Demon. It is only by proposing this fiction that Descartes can get beyond the doubt with which he begins, and establish the cogito and the existence of God. This is because it is only by means of such an extravagant fiction, that Descartes is able to break from the presuppositions of “common sense” that he otherwise would unwittingly continue to take for granted. This fiction is necessary in order to transform Descartes’ doubt from a merely psychological condition into a properly ontological one. In this sense, fiction-making is a necessary condition of possibility for philosophy itself. Moreover, Lardreau argues, such fiction-making is not merely imaginative; by disrupting the way that imagination merely recombines and plays with previous sensory impressions (i.e. previously given images), Descartes’ procedure of fictionalizing pushes thought beyond imagination to the more abstract level of understanding.

This leads further to one of Lardreau’s main themes throughout the book, one that he places within the framework of the history of Western philosophy. Even though Descartes wishes to deduce everything about the world a priori, from first principles, he also discovers that such an ideal is impossible for us to attain. Only God could successfully make such a deduction; in actual human practice, we need empirical observation as well as logic, and fictionalizing is necessary in order to bridge the gap between empirical particulars and first principles. In terms that get repeated throughout the book, Lardreau claims that one of the most essential dividing lines in Western philosophy is the question of whether the Real is Rational, or whether the Real always exceeds the Rational. Descartes insists on the latter, even though he seems to start out with the former. Lardreau never mentions Levinas, but this seems to me to resonate with Levinas’ reading of the idea of infinity in Descartes, which always exceeds the subject.

More generally, according to Lardreau, philosophers who proclaim the ultimate coincidence of the Real and the Rational include, not only Hegel, but also Spinoza (both in his geometric method, and since he posits the third kind of reason as able to know everything from first principles) and Bergson (because he sees the power of intuition as able to surpass the limitations of scientific rationality and of the pragmatic basis of natural perception). For thinkers who claim that the Real coincides with the Rational, fictions can have no place (and it is for this reason that Spinoza denounces the falsity of the power of imagination). But if the Real exceeds the Rational — as Descartes, Leibniz, and Kant all maintain — then fiction is necessary to philosophical reflection. Even as such philosophy tries to move from imagination to the surer process of understanding, it cannot eliminate imagination, and in fact needs to rely upon it. If the Real exceeds Reason or Rationality, this means that fiction is necessary. For Spinoza, since the Real and the Rational ultimately coincide, fiction has no place. But for Descartes, since Real and Rational do not coincide, this means that (echoing Lacan) “truth is not all” (la vérité n’est pas toute), and therefore fiction becomes a necessary tool of the understanding. Lardreau goes on to restate this explicitly in terms of Lacan’s three orders: Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real. The Real exceeds the Symbolic, and is not reducible to it.

The book’s second chapter is about “fiction as experience of philosophy.” Lardreau works through what today we might call the dilemma of correlationism (though that term hadn’t been invented yet in 1988). In its most obvious terms, this is the problem posed by Hume: how do I know that an object that disappears from view (because I close my eyes, or look in a different direction, or simply walk away) is still there, and will be in the same place when I return to it? Lardreau sees this as another instance of the non-coincidence of the Rational with the Real — nothing in the former can guarantee the persistence of the latter. Lardreau develops this in Lacanian terms. Even as language allows us to designate real things, it also sets up a “wall” or a barrier beyond which the Real is sequestered. Our everyday reality cannot be equated with the Real, because it is structured by language (the Symbolic) and by images (the Imaginary). In Lacan’s terms, we are stuck in these registers, just as in Kant’s terms we only experience phenomena, not things in themselves. Lardreau adds that Philip K. Dick explores the same dilemma in his late novels (he refers specifically to The Divine Invasion). The Real remains radically Other, radically out of reach, radically irreducible to representation.

Lardreau also explores this in terms of an opposition he sets up between philosophy and science. By “science”, Lardreau seems to mean both physics and other physical sciences, and social sciences like that of historical materialism. (Here I sense echoes of Althusser’s discussion of how we can never step out of ideology, and of how science can only exist to the extent that it is radically asubjective. But Lardreau does not mention Althusser — this is unsuprising since Althusser is radically Spinozian, and Lardreau is rather Leibnizian). Where philosophy sees a wall separating us from the Real, which remains radically Other, science both denies that the wall exists, and tries to account for how the ideological illusion that such a wall exists is produced nonetheless. I am not sure that I am getting this quite right, but I think Lardreau’s point is that where philosophy sees the Real as radically Other, science dissolves this otherness, and in the course of doing so also dissolves ourselves as subjects (since we are no different, for science, than other natural phenomena). Where philosophy insists that at least some sort of opacity exists, science denies this opacity. Science “demands that every shadow, every obscurity can be dissipated, every incomprehensibility expelled, that there is absolute intelligibilty.” In this way, science is aligned with philosophies of totaland evidently Deleuze’s as well, though Deleuze, like Althusser, is never mentioned by Lardreau). Lardreau maintains the Lacanian distinction between reality and the Real; whereas for science as for the philosophies of immanence, there is no radical Otherness, and hence no Real (but only the small-r “reality).

As a semi-Deleuzian, I find this disturbing; my more Deleuzian friends will no doubt throw up their hands and reject Lardreau altogether at this point. But I think there is something worthwhile in continuing to pursue the argument further. Lardreau concedes that science has chipped away at philosophy, indeed parochialized philosophy to the point where philosophy cannot contest science any longer. Instead, philosophy can do one of two things. Either, in a positive sense, philosophy can accompany science, rescue it from the dangers of positivism by organizing and synthesizing its findings. Or else, in a negative sense, which is the one that Lardreau himself favors and practices, philosophy can perform the task of reminding science of the not-all. For Lardreau, science is true (vrai). but it is not The Truth (la verité). Science does not, and cannot, encompass everything; thereby, philosophy can maintain “the insistence of the Real” beyond the limits of science, or at least in the margins of the territory that science has imperialistically annexed.

All this means that, while philosophers can strive either to clarify science or to limit it, in either case they “no longer know how to make worlds” (faire des mondes). And this is where Lardreau comes to science fiction. Given the weakness of philosophy with regard to science, it is now science fiction that navigates between them, science fiction that “takes up the double task of adjusting our vision of the world to the advances of science, and of making us still feel the weight of the Real.” Philosophy can no longer negate the findings of science, but sf can probe the Beyond that science has not yet reached, and never will. If classical philosophers like Descartes, Leibniz, and Kant deployed fiction to bridge the gap between the Rational and the Real, then sf at once indicates, widens, and bridges the very gap that science claims to have already filled in.

This reminds me — to refer to a text that comes several decades later than Lardreau’s — of Quentin Meillassoux’s reference to the “Great Outdoors” (or great outside — le grand dehors). Meillassoux argues that physical science alone is able to describe this outside. Lardreau would reject this, since he argues that science fails to grasp the outside, precisely by turning it into an inside. Where metaphysics insists that there is a wall, and that therefore there is both an inside (dedans) and an outside (dehors), in contrast “science is the discourse that says that the outside is actually, for whomever understands, the inside (la science est ce discours qui dit que le dehors est, pour qui sait voir, le dedans.).

Lardreau expands this line of thought, by saying that, just as philosophy can no longer keep up with science, so also it can no longer keep up with what he designates by various names, including religion, theology, spirituality, and ethics. The only form in which philosophy subsists today is as Philosophy of History; but such philosophy is unequal to face the horrors of the modern world, like Nazi concentration camps and the killing fields of Cambodia. If there can be, to paraphrase and extend Adorno, both no poetry and no philosophy after Auschwitz, then here science fiction can take up the task that philosophy is no longer capable of performing (la science­ fiction relève la philosophie). Here Lardeau cites, in particular, Thomas Disch’s The Genocides and Camp Concentration.

The book’s third (and longest) chapter is called “Two Preliminary Studies, in the Form of Applications”. The first of these two studies is focused on Leibniz, and the second on Frank Herbert’s Dune saga (Lardreau includes all six volumes written and published by Herbert, not just the first). These both have a lot to say about science fiction, drawing upon the formulations developed in the prior chapters.

Lardreau sees Leibniz as the most pleasurable philosopher to read, as well as the most science fictional. This is because Leibniz displays “the marvelous richness, the mad generosity, the entire liberty of a thought that does not refuse itself any object, that does not reject any question, that does not judge any reference to be valueless or any knowledge to be unworthy (indigne). A thought without exclusivity, without principle of authority…” Lardreau insists that this is radically different from the way that Hegel incorporates and integrates everything into a totalizing framework. “There is no ‘dialectic’ in Leibniz, no labor of the negative, no Aufhebung“. Rather, for Leibniz, “it is in what it affirms, in what it offers purely positively, that every thought can be welcomed as a particular case or particular development.” Indeed, I could quote Lardreau on the greatness of Leibniz at much greater length; the rhapsody goes on for pages. The insistence on positivity and affirmation has a Deleuzian ring to it; but once again Lardreau does not mention Deleuze, probably because Deleuze applies this sense of affirmation to thinkers Lardreau rejects (i.e. Spinoza, Bergson, and Nietzsche). Instead, Lardreau cites Deleuze’s friend Michel Serres on Leibniz. In his joyous pursuit of affirmation, Lardreau continues, Leibniz develops “strange narrative machines, ‘possible fictions’ that he often develops, not without a sort of literary obligingness/indulgence (complaisance, a word that does not have negative connotations in this context), in which science fiction fans may discover the original mold (le moule originel) of many of the topoi that delight them.” And Lardreau quotes Leibniz himself on this matter; in his New Essays on Human Understanding, after pondering such weird, proto-science-fictional matters as how we would treat a person who came from the Moon, Leibniz wonderfully writes: “still these bizarre fictions have their uses in abstract studies, as aids to a better grasp of the nature of our ideas” (3.6.22) (It should be noted that Leibniz’s original French, quoted directly by Lardreau, uses the word spéculation for what is translated into English here as “abstract studies”).

Lardreau here returns to his earlier claims that fictions are crucial to philosophy, because the Real and the Rational do not coincide, or because there is “a separation between the Real and our power to apprehend it, no matter what one calls this power.” For Leibniz, the sort of intuition upon which Descartes relied is inadequate; it is only through fictioning that we can approach the truth. Projecting a Kantian vocabulary back on Leibniz, Lardreau writes that “there are objects that we are unable to not think about, but that we cannot think about otherwise than in the mode of fiction (no matter how imperfect and insufficient fiction might be compared to other forms of truth).” Fiction, in Leibniz’s sense (which we today understand as science fiction) is not only metaphysically legitimate, but even metaphysically indispensible. The only way to consider and judge between multiple possibilities is to fictionalize each possibility as a possible world. We need to project these fictions, because of “the finitude of human reason”; unlike God, we cannot comprehend all the truth directly and intuitively. Yet at the same time, finite human reason “stubbornly refuses to accept as true anything that it cannot explain and verify through its own powers.” This is what makes science fiction not only legitimate, but metaphysically necessary.

These metaphysical considerations bring us, in a somewhat surprising way, to the heart of Lardreau’s understanding of science fiction. Lardreau says that the ultimate vocation of sf is to be anti-utopian. In other words, Lardreau’s thesis seems to be the exact opposite of the most common understanding of English-language sf scholarship, which is — following Darko Suvin and Fredric Jameson — to identify science fiction as a utopian discourse par excellence. This difference can be explained, in part, by Lardreau’s intellectual history. Like other French intellectuals of his generation, Lardreau started out as an ultra-leftist. But his disillusionment with the failures of the Left in the late 1960s and early 1970s led him to adopt, instead, a kind of tragic view of history (expressed in its most extreme terms, supposedly, in the 1976 book L’Ange that he co-wrote with Christian Jambet, which I have not read). In the current volume, Lardreau phrases this by saying that, while negative attempts to fight and resist oppression are always praiseworthy, positive attempts to create a better world most of the time (le plus souvent) end up making things worse. But Lardreau still says this with a different inflection than that adopted by his better known contemporaries, the nouveaux philosophes such as Bernard-Henri Lévy and André Glucksmann. Where the latter leverage their new-found anti-communism to become prominent spokespeople for colonialism and imperialism, as well as other sorts of fatuous stupidity, Lardreau instead maintains what Hallward calls a kind of “ascetic withdrawal” from politics. This is combined with continued fidelity to the pseudo-Maoist dictum of the French Left in 1968, that “it is always right to rebel” (on a toujours raison de se révolter).

Though I do not wish to defend Lardreau’s ant-leftist political quietism, I think that I can understand his anti-utopianism, and indeed justify it to some extent, by returning to Leibniz. In his novel Candide, Voltaire famously mocks Leibniz in the figure of Doctor Pangloss, who continually proclaims, in the face of unspeakable horrors, that “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” Lardreau responds to this portrayal by noting that Leibniz is anything but sanguine in the face of catastrophe. Rather, it is precisely by “facing the desolating spectacle of the world, confronting it, and not at all by turning away from it, that Leibniz pronounces that all is for the best.” Lardreau proposes that we should understand Leibniz to be saying, not that the world is marvelous, but rather that it is, under the circumstances, “the least bad of possible worlds.” We can always imagine something even worse, though we lack God’s power of envisioning all the possible alternatives. I am reminded here, at least to some extent, of Karen Lord’s excellent (and insufficiently recognized) science fiction novel The Best of All Possible Worlds, a space opera that begins with the horror of a nearly total genocide, but nonetheless manages, not only to continue on in the face of such catastrophe, but even to transform itself into a romance novel with a happy ending.

Lardreau’s explanation of Leibniz’ optimism also reminds me Alfred North Whitehead’s discussions of Leibniz in Process and Reality. At one point, Whitehead remarks that “the Leibnizian theory of the ‘best of possible worlds’ is an audacious fudge produced in order to save the face of a Creator constructed by contemporary, and antecedent, theologians’ (47). Later in the text, however, Whitehead enunciates an oracular formulation that is quite Leibnizian in spirit:

This function of God [in providing the “initial aim” for every actual occasion] is analogous to the working of things in Greek and in Buddhist thought. The initial aim is the best for that im­passe. But if the best be bad, then the ruthlessness of God can be personified as Atè, the goddess of mischief. The chaff is burnt. What is inexorable in God, is valuation as an aim towards ‘order’; and ‘order’ means ‘society permissive of actualities with patterned intensity of feeling arising from adjusted contrasts.’ (244)

Both Lardreau and Whitehead seem to be making the point that, far from proclaiming that things are perfect, Leibniz takes pain and suffering quite seriously. Whitehead’s God seeks to increase, as much as possible, the quantity and quality of “actualities with patterned intensity of feeling.” Leibniz’s God, the philosopher’s “audacious fudge” aside, similarly operates according to what Lardreau calls “the law of maximum and minimum… the production of the maximum of worlds (and not only of the maxiumum of effects in each world), following from the minimum of principles.” This is an aesthetic principle no less than it is an ethical one; Leibniz, Lardreau, and Whitehead all refuse to belittle either the ethical or the aesthetic by separating them from one another. (It is only be means of such a separation that there can be anything like the fascist “aestheticization of politics” decried by Walter Benjamin). Lardreau drives this point home by quoting a maxim of Leibniz’s that is too delightful for me not to repeat it here:

My great principle, as regards natural things, is that of Harlequin, Emperor of the Moon, … that it is always and everywhere in all things just like here. That is, that nature is fundamentally uniform, although it varies as to more and less and in degrees of perfection. This results in the simplest and most intelligible philosophy in the world.

The point of these formulations about the maximum and the minimum, and about the ruthlessness and inexorability of God, is that change always happens, but it is never simple. We must reject the idealist theory according to which evil and oppression can be eliminated just by changes in personal attitude — which amounts to believing that you can eliminate bad things in reality by the simple expedient of thinking them away. Things in the world are intricately inteconnected; and even if we could change any one thing, this change would have ramifying effects upon everything else. This vision leads Lardreau to reject what he sees as a facile utopianism. But it equally leads him to reject, and to warn us against, what he calls the “lazy” and cynical underside of such utopianism: the idea, popular among the nouveaux philosophes and other conservatives, that “we must never change anything, for fear that this will cause everything to collapse, without warning, into horror.” For Lardreau, revolutionary utopianism and anti-revolutionary Burkean conservativism are bad ways of understanding what Leibniz tells us.

So when Lardreau says that science fiction is anti-utopian, he does not mean this in anything like the Burkean sense. Rather, he finds in science fiction the Leibnizian virtues of variation and compossiblity. Science fictional speculation seeks to explore — or better, to express — as many and as various worlds as it can. In this way, it works to expand possibility. But the possibilities of science fictional world building cannot just be abstract logical possibilities. That they are non-contradictory, and therefore not logically impossible, is not enough. The changes envisioned by a science fiction narrative must not only be possible in themselves, but compossible with other circumstances. If you make worlds by introducing particular changes (if you introduce a novum, as Suvin would say), then you need to work on as wide a scope as you can, in working out how this one change also changes other things. What other developments are compossible with the novum?

I won’t discuss Lardreau’s reading of Herbert’s Dune cycle at any length. It is an interesting and powerful reading, but it doesn’t add much, for my purposes, to what Lardreau says in the earlier portions of the book. The central argument is that Dune considers, in fictionalizing mode, the ultimately theological question of predestination versus contingency, or of fate versus free will. The discussion includes digressions on Kierkegaard and St. Augustine, and especially on the question of Manichaeanism and Augustine’s conversion from that to Christian orthodoxy. It also spends several pages on the significance of the Mule in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series — another prime science ficitonal example of how contingency disrupts the apparent laws of history.

Finally, the “Introclusion” to Lardreau’s book returns to the question of the Real, and how it exceeds all measures of intelligibility. This leads Lardreau back to the way that his insistence upon a negative philosophy makes for a necessary counterpart to the positivity of Leibnizian and science fictional invention. Late modern philosophy seems incapable of making grand conjectures any longer. The power of science fiction is that it generates and explores metaphysical conjectures more powerfully than any other discourse. Lardreau differentiates between science fiction and fantasy, and he seems to dislike the latter as much as Darko Suvin does, albeit for entirely different reasons. Lardreau suggests that world building in fantasy works to shut down conjectures and speculations, in contrast to science fiction that opens them up. (I have to confess that I am largely in accord with Lardreau about this, even though there are plenty of individual works of fantasy that I love, including those by Mirrlees, Peake, Mieville, Le Guin, and even — despite the ridicule I often receive from my Marxist friends for this — Tolkien). In any case, Lardreau celebrates the capacity of science fiction to open up conjectures, rather than shutting them down; this is why he says that sf is anti-utopian, and why he hopes that sf can be a stimulus to some future philosophy, whose task would be to transform (science fictional) imagination into (philsophical) understanding.

Abel Ferrara, ZEROS AND ONES (2021)

I initially posted this on Facebook, but I thought it would be good to present an expanded version here.

I just watched Abel Ferrara’s new movie, ZEROS AND ONES, and I was totally blown away by it. Though I realize that almost nobody will like it, aside from diehard Ferrara fans like myself. It’s entirely incomprehensible and opaque in conventional terms, but at the same time emotionally compelling and utterly gorgeous.

Incomprehensible and opaque: every scene screams genre (war film or spy film), and yet nothing adds up to a discernible narrative. Ethan Hawke walks or rides through the empty streets of COVID-ridden Rome at night. He wears military fatigues, and carries a gun and a video camera. He has enigmatic meetings with mysterious people, from Chinese heroin dealers, to a Muslim mullah who gives him advice, to military commandos who waterboard a prisoner, to Russian gangsters who kidnap him and oblige him to have sex with a woman while they record the scene on video, to a silent motorcyclist who takes him to a bridge from which he launches a drone. He also visits various people, including an Italian woman with a young child, with whom he seems to have some sort of pre-existing connection. And he comes across a number of disturbing tableaus; at one point he enters and explores a building that is littered with the bodies of murdered young women, blood splattered across their bodies. All through the movie, Hawke’s character remains dour and mostly silent, his voice is gruff when he does speak. Occasionally, we hear him in voiceover; here his comments are enigmatic. I don’t remember the exact words, but there is something to the effect that, for instance, “Jesus was just another soldier, killed in a three-thousand-year old war. But on whose side?” And again: “The world is the hiding place of God. To understand what’s outside of you, you must use what’s in you. If we hear what we already know, nothing new happens.”

There is no way to make sense of all this diverse footage, nor to figure out why precisely Hawke’s character is in Rome, or what his mission is. My Facebook friend, the film critic Steve Erickson, wrote in a response to my posting that “it feels like the subconscious of a 24 episode or Tom Clancy novel, with a seething id using similar imagery but making no literal sense.” In other words, the movie is composed from all the fears and fantasies that have fueled the “war on terror”, but without the accompanying ideology that binds them into narratives of good and evil. COVID is only an additional dimension of these fears and fantasies. Hawke’s character sometimes wears a mask, and sometimes doesn’t, without any necessary explanation as to why and when (sometimes deliberate continuity violations show him both ways in succeeding shots). Several times, as for instance when the Russian gangsters kidnap him, he is told something to the effect of: “don’t worry, we have all tested negative.”

Hawke also plays a second character, the twin brother of the first one, an imprisoned revolutionary (imprisoned in the US? in Italy? it isn’t clear). He is angry and florid in his rhetoric, whereas Hawke’s first character remains entirely undemonstrative. The brother’s amazing rant under interrogation (he is even injected with drugs to make him talk) sounds like a cross between Walt Whitman and Bakunin. The first Hawke character asks about his brother’s fate, sees footage of the brother’s interrogation (which is how we see it too, mediated by technological transmission), and eventually is told that the brother has been killed.

The movie is also punctuated by explosions, and by commando formations of armed soldiers (both male and female) in fatigues, guarding checkpoints or running off one is never sure where. As the film’s title suggests, digital technology is everywhere in the movie; images are continually being multiplied, transmitted, distorted, and viewed on screens (not to mention the way the film itself calls attention to how it is shot on digital video — something to which I will return). One minor character, the independent filmmaker Stephen Gurewitz, playing himself, only appears on screens as he talks to Hawke’s character on the phone and on computer monitors. At one point, Hawke’s primary character breaks into a room, where Guerwitz, on a huge computer monitor, immediately starts yelling at him to “get out — it’s a trap” — Hawke’s character exits the room through a window and fire escape just as armed troops are breaking down the door. Later Hawke’s character is told (if I followed this bit correctly) that Gurewitz has been killed; murder via video link actually makes a weird sort of sense in the ultra-mediated, yet for that very reason overwhelmingly visceral, world of this movie. The night footage of Rome, and of Hawke making his way through it, is taken from varying angles, including from up above. This footage has an almost documentary feel to it, at the same time it is ostentatiously digitized — I am not sure how to explain this paradox, but it does feel both these ways. The movie’s soundtrack, which plays a lot over the shots of Hawke moving through a nearly empty city, combines techno with bombastic rock; it feels entirely appropriate to the movie’s combination of lurid action and strange emptiness.

Emotionally compelling and utterly gorgeous: My favorite Ferrara films have always been the ones that work the visual image in remarkable ways, from the crisp black and white of The Addiction to the neon overload blur of so many of his films. Even when he adopts documentary plainnness (as in Welcome to New York), the raw looks he gives us are disconcerting. All these reworkings of the image depart literalness, and give the movies their pervasive emotional tones, which vary remarkably from one film to the next over the course of Ferrara’s career. In Zeros and Ones, Ferrara experiments with the image in new ways. The digital cinematography is murky, often deliberately underlit, and filled with a lot of noise. Ferrara previously did something like this in New Rose Hotel, with its combination of blurred digital images in some parts, oversaturated colors in other parts, and haunting indirect lighting in still others, even as the film displayed the vapidity of postmodern business hotel architecture.

But in Zeros and Ones, Ferrara explores the ambiguities of the digital image as never before. If the content of the film is fragmented genre exploitation scenes, then the form is visuals that are dark and blurry almost to the point of abstraction — or should I say, of abstract expressionism? The image in Zeros and Ones is filled with glitches, always on the verge of breaking up. The often handheld camera roves around, continually and jerkily. Extreme closeups alternate with shots of dark, empty streets, sometimes with lit-up architectural landmarks emerging out of the murk. Instead of the overwrought, lurid lighting of movies like King of New York and Bad Lieutenant, here we have something on the order of Hito Steyerl’s “poor image”. These images are disorienting and disconcerting; but in their own way they are saturated with (mostly negative) affect, and they are (convulsively) beautiful.

Zeros and Ones is relentless, but actually quite short. It clocks in at less than an hour and a half; and even this includes the opening and closing credits, plus a prologue and an epilogue in which Ethan Hawke — speaking as himself, rather than as his characters — reflects on the movie. In the prologue, he says that he was excited to work with Ferrara, because he was blown away by the script. In the epilogue, interrupting the final credits, Hawke reveals that that prologue was actually shot before the movie, as a kind of teaser advertisement for investors. He adds that the pre-shooting script wasn’t really a script, and that even after making the movie and watching the final cut, he doesn’t really understand it. But he suggests that, just as he plays two characters, the revolutionary and the military operative of uncertain allegiances, so the movie dramatizes two opposing attitudes. One attitude is that everything is radically broken, the people who control the world are evil, and we are all going to die. The other attitude is that life is a miracle, and we should cherish it at every moment. He ends his epilogue by telling us that “this is part of the movie”; and then the final credits resume.

The entire movie takes place in a single night. It is dark when Hawke’s primary character arrives in Rome by train, and the night continues through most of the movie. Towards the end, he returns to the apartment of the Italian woman with a small child; he tells her that “it is finally happening” (though we have no idea as to what). Hawke’s character, the woman, and the child go up to the roof of her building, and watch troops assembling just as morning breaks. We are given no clues as to what the troops are doing; on the level of plot, nothing is resolved. As they daylight advances, we move from shots of the troops to shots of ordinary people watching whatever is going down (though we do not know what this is); and eventually to shots of children playing in the park. I guess that the dark night of the soul (understanding this both literally and figuratively) is finally over; though what succeeds it in the light of day is unclear.

In sum, I consider Zeros and Ones an amazing film. It comes out sort of like a collaboration between Samuel Fuller and Stan Brakhage — though I hesitate to make this comparison, because it is really pure Ferrara. You won’t like it if you are looking for any sort of coherent narrative. But if you have followed the arc of Abel Ferrara’s entire career, and see him as one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation, like I do, then you will probably appreciate this as a powerful expression of the now 70-year-old director’s extreme, yet oddly sober, “late style”.