Ken MacLeod – The Corporation Wars

Ken MacLeod’s Corporation Wars trilogy — which I just finished reading (the final volume came out this past week) — does well what MacLeod usually does well. It takes familiar science fiction tropes (here, robots, virtual reality, xenobiology) and subgenres (here, military fiction, which I am not a big fan of overall) and gives them some unusual and thoughtful twists. MacLeod really uses SF to think about social and political issues, as well as ontological and epistemological ones. Here, the starting point, of considerable contemporary relevance, is a war between (Left) Accelerationists on the one hand, and Neo-Reactionaries on the other — say, Ray Brassier’s Prometheanism vs. Nick Land’s hyperstitional Lovecraftianism — as well as between both of these political tendencies and the neoliberal state and corporations. The trilogy’s backstory is a world war, in the late 21st century, in which the Accelerationists join with the hegemonic neoliberals to defeat the Neo-Reactionaries; once they have done so, the corporate state turns upon the Accelerationists and defeats them also. But the novels themselves take place at least a thousand years in the future, around the planets and moons of another star system, when downloaded brain scans of long-dead Accelerationist fighters (and Neo-Reactionaries as well, albeit by accident) are mobilized and re-embodied (first in virtual reality sims, and then as “mechanoids,” in military hardware in physical space) in order to fight off a robot uprising. This allows MacLeod to consider at length the ideologies, attitudes, and technological strategies of the various parties. The Neo-Reactionaries really are Social Darwinist Nazis, with everything unpleasant that implies, only they also see advanced computing technology as an aid to their fantasies of prevailing as a master race. The Accelerationists also have a hard-on for advanced technology, at the same time as they are the ultimate humanists; their Promethean dreams of “Solidarity Against Nature” involve communism for humans, but an instrumentalist attitude towards everything else. Artificially-intelligent entities in this far-future solar system are cognitively far beyond human capabilities; they control and run, and indeed embody, all major corporations (including munitions manufacturers and law firms). The State equivalent, called the Direction, is also AI-controlled, but it deliberately inhibits its own power in order not to interfere with “free enterprise” (which, together with human domination, ironically enough, is its highest value). But these AIs, although immensely powerful, and although you can hold conversations with them, and although they are capable of deception and deep strategies, are not actually self-conscious (not sentient or aware– though more accurately, I think, you would have to say rather that they are devoid of self-consciousness, or of awareness that they are aware). The crisis that sets off the main plot of the trilogy is that individual robots, AIs embodied in frames capable of all sorts of activity, themselves start to become self-conscious or sentient. This leads them to reject the status of being property, slave machines with no rights; and to demand control of their own activities and their own labor. It is in order to suppress these demands that the Direction reawakens the minds of old fighters — first acclimatizing them to being alive again in VR sims, and then placing them in mechanoid bodies to actually fight the freebots. As a result of all this, the conflict of Accelerationism vs Neo-Reaction vs the Neoliberal apparatus is restaged in the far future, and complicated by the appearance of the freebots. All three tendencies see the bots only as technical machines, needing to be either re-enslaved or destroyed — albeit for different reasons in the three cases. Eventually, several of the Accelerationist protagonists (including one ex-Neo-Reactionary) defect to the freebots, rejecting their previous ideologies. It gets even more complicated in the final volume, where a vehicle lands on a superhabitable planet, and the mechanoids who emerge find themselves entering into symbiotic links with the local life forms. There are many interesting twists and realignments, which I will not endeavor to explain here. MacLeod has never been very sympathetic to green or ecological thought, but his portrayals of bot autonomy and xenosymbiosis nonetheless lead to a certain distance from, and criticism of, the Prometheanism of the Accelerationists — something that seems highly relevant to me at this moment. 

Atopias, by Frederic Neyrat

Frédéric Neyrat is a French philosopher who has published extensively in French; but the first English translation of one of his books has only just appeared. ATOPIAS:MANIFESTO FOR A RADICAL EXISTENTIALISM is an important book, and a good short introduction to Neyrat’s ideas. I had the pleasure of being asked to write an Introduction to ATOPIAS, and I am republishing it here — in order to help indicate what is important and original about the book.

Frédéric Neyrat’s Atopias is an important book. The contribution it makes to critical thought today is encapsulated in its subtitle: Manifesto for a Radical Existentialism. A manifesto is a short declaration of principles and a program, rather than a fully extended analysis. Neyrat characterizes the present work as “a worried intervention in the field of theory,” rather than a declaration of eternal truths.

There have been other philosophical manifestos published over the past several decades; most notably, two “Manifestos for Philosophy” by Alain Badiou. Within the context of contemporary French thought, Frédéric Neyrat’s position and perspective are strikingly different from those of Badiou; but both thinkers are motivated by the conviction that a renewal of philosophical thought is especially urgent today, at a time when the sciences seem to present themselves as the only reputable sources of knowledge, and when the economic and ideological constraints of our society cast doubt upon philosophical reflection, as upon anything that is not of immediate profit and utility.

Atopias offers us a deep analysis and critique of our current political and intellectual situation. It seeks to develop a new way of thinking that will be adequate to the predicament in which we find ourselves today. We live in an era of advanced computing and communications technologies, which are revolutionizing every aspect of our daily lives. We face the mode of governance and control that has come to be known as neoliberalism: a condition in which market competition is promoted as the sole possible solution to all difficulties, and in which corporations seem to have “human rights” while human beings themselves do not. In addition, we face an ecological crisis. Global warming is already changing the very shape of life on our planet; in the years to come, we are likely to witness the flooding of coastal regions, the continuing extinction of large numbers of living species, and the destruction of millions of people’s livelihoods and modes of survival.

Frédéric Neyrat does not address any of these conditions directly in the present work. But although Atopias is the first of his works to be translated into English, he has published quite prolifically in French. All these issues are developed at greater length in his other books. He has written at length about our obligations to the Earth and to other species, as well as about the suffocating conditions produced by our drive to dominate the planet, our restless consumerism, and our “auto-immune” drive to ignore our own vulnerabilities, and our willful blindness to our nihilistic tendencies. In Atopias, he seeks to establish a philosophical basis — or perhaps I should rather say, a non-basis — that might allow us to address these issues, and to be equal to the challenges we face.

Neyrat is clearly indebted to his philosophical forebears, including Badiou and, above all, Gilles Deleuze. Nonetheless, he proposes a new sort of philosophical project, one that is strikingly different from those of his predecessors. Deleuze, following Nietzsche, belongs to the great tradition of post-Enlightenment demystification. He mounts an attack upon the idea of transcendence and the belief in absolutes. The major effort of Western philosophy, from Plato onwards, has arguably been to judge human life from a standpoint superior to life, to abolish all vestiges of chance and contingency, and to establish norms for correct behavior. In all of these cases, Deleuze says — following Nietzsche — that the forces of life are deformed and repressed. Every entity is subjected to arbitrary, external constraints, and “separated from what it can do” (to use a famous phrase of Deleuze’s that Neyrat directly quotes). Against all this, Deleuze proposes a philosophy of radical immanence, one in which there is no Beyond. Things and processes of this world must be valued (or not) for their own sakes, rather than judged in accordance with externally imposed criteria.

But perhaps the struggle against transcendence has been all too successful. Today, when I ask my students to read Nietzsche, they are neither scandalized nor exalted. Instead, they find him banal. They take it for granted that everyone has their own opinion, and that no particular opinion is better than any other. And they cannot see that anything more is at stake. Of course this is a poor misreading of Nietzsche, but that is beside the point. Relativism is no longer shocking, subversive, or transgressive, as its was in earlier centuries. Rather it is something that we take for granted, with a blasé shrug.

Or, as Neyrat puts it, in more rigorous language than mine: “immanence, as a category necessary for contesting the spiritualties that negate life,” has instead “come to mean the grim machine that destroys differences, a mill for grinding out a sort of ontological flour, an ontology spread flat.” Nietzsche and Deleuze must be spinning in their graves at this degradation of their ideas. In effect, Neyrat says, Nietzsche’s and Deleuze’s battles against transcendence have been won. But the result is a situation that both of those thinkers would have detested: one in which radical change has become impossible, and in which thought has been thoroughly instrumentalized, made nothing more than a tool for the efficient fulfillment of pre-given utilitarian goals. We live in a world “where every trajectory seems geo-localizable, where every knowledge must be situated and efficient, every obscurity cleared up, every real singularity suspect.”

Neyrat calls this condition “saturated immanence.” Everything is caught up in the flows of capitalist monetary equivalence; there is no outside any longer, no separation between one thing and another; there is no sense of otherness whatsoever. Everything is in flux, as we are told over and over again. And yet, these are fluxes in which nothing ever really changes. When flux is the sole characteristic of everything and anything, when everything is flexible and everything is interchangeable, then nothing is really different from anything else, nothing ever makes a difference. Other thinkers have characterized globalized and financialized capitalism in this way; Neyrat sees it as a dilemma for critical thought as well.

Saturated immanence is the condition against which Neyrat seeks to mobilize philosophy. In a world where anything can be anyplace, and anything can switch places with anything else, philosophy must insist on its power to be, not everyplace, but noplace. It must never fit in, but always disturb its context. Neyrat uses the word atopia for this condition, in order to avoid the undesirable connotations — perfection and changelessness — of the etymologically similar utopia. In Neyrat’s account, philosophy works by avoiding any sort of fixity or rootedness, and by maintaining a relation with the very Outside (dehors) that our dominant social, economic, and intellectual conditions seek to deny or suppress. An atopic philosophy does not reinstate the old forms of capital-T Transcendence, the claims to an Absolute, that thinkers like Nietzsche and Deleuze so successfully attacked; but nonetheless, by maintaining a link with otherness, with outsideness, and with displacement, it offers us a (small-t) transcendence as an alternative to saturated immanence. It seeks to dig holes, and open up gaps, in what is otherwise a suffocating (and even totalitarian) world of hyper-presence.

For Neyrat, philosophy does not itself create the Outside. What it does is to give us a route of access to this Outside. It opens the doors that our current social system has closed. “Thought does not define the outside,” Neyrat says, “but prolongs it, draws it out.” Outsideness is not a transcendent condition; indeed, it is “nothing more than the simple fact of existence.” To exist is to stand out; the “ex-” etymologically indicates emergence, outsideness, or coming-forth. Any living thing, or anything that exists, is singular in some way: it differs from everything else, or it deviates from all that came before. This means that the internal being of any existing entity is also its external relation with all the things that it is not. Philosophy is a way of exploring “the divergence or dis-joining attested to by all existence.”

In Atopias, Neyrat develops these ideas carefully and generously. In the first chapter, he proposes them in relation both to the history of philosophy, and to the contemporary situation of absolute flux or saturated immanence. In the second chapter, he explores the existential dimension of “being-outside” and of radical contingency and radical finitude. Finally, in the third chapter, he places his argument in relation to the meta-question of what sort of role philosophy — and especially the much-denounced branch of philosophy known as metaphysics — can have today. Atopias is a short book, but a rich one, dense with ideas and suggestions. There is much exuberant invention here, in line with Deleuze and Guattari’s maxim that philosophy should be the “creation of concepts.” But above all, Atopias is a work of ethics, exhorting us to recognize and find room for the many forms of existence with whom we share our planet.

Jerry Lewis

Jerry Lewis is a figure who has haunted me — or, who has played a major role in my Imaginary — for most of my life. In 1963, when I was nine years old, my parents set up an extended vacation and took me and my brother on a cross-country tour. On a hot summer afternoon, we found ourselves in Ogden, Utah; we were catching a train for Oakland, CA, but it was five or six hours late. To escape the heat, we went to an air-conditioned movie theater, and saw one of the hits of that summer: Jerry Lewis’ The Nutty Professor. My parents subsequently always told me that it was an awful movie, but that me and my brother had loved it. But in any case, this was the primal scene, as it were, when Jerry got imprinted on my brain. For years afterwards, all I remembered of the movie was a vague sense of weirdness and laughter, and (even more than that) a dazzlement of bright color — I was recalling the movie’s brilliantly garish color scheme, and perhaps also the scene where we see Buddy Love for the first time (as a reverse shot to closeups of people gaping in astonishment).

Anyway, it was only in the 1970s, during college and then graduate school, that I got to see The Nutty Professor again, together with all of Jerry’s other films: the ones he directed above all, but also the early ones with Dean Martin, and the ones directed by Frank Tashlin. My fate as a Jerry Lewis fanatic was sealed. When he returned as a director with Hardly Working in 1981, I went to see it on the day it opened. His last feature film, and one of his best, Cracking Up (originally and more properly titled Smorgasbord) didn’t play in theaters but went straight to cable: I saw it as soon as I could. In the mid-1990s, when Lewis was touring the country with his production of, and starring role in, the otherwise rather lame musical Damn Yankees, I bought fifth-row seats for his performance in Seattle; it was the only time I saw Jerry live. I never met him in person; twice I tried to set up interviews with him, but they both fell through.

I wrote at length about Jerry in my 1993 book The Cinematic Body; in retrospect, it is a book that I am largely unhappy with, for numerous reasons. But I am still happy with the chapter on him. I wrote several short essays on Jerry Lewis in the past decade or so, which appeared on several websites. I have collected those as a free e-book (or, more properly, e-pamphlet) that you can download here:

Anyway, what to say, now that Jerry has passed? Jerry Lewis’ films, and his comedy more generally, are characterized by an infantile excess, something that knows no boundaries and has no sense of restraint or of good taste. This in itself makes Jerry’s comedic figure both delightfully twisted and utterly embarrassing. Jerry’s persona doesn’t feel any such embarrassment or shame, but this unawareness makes it all the more embarrassing for me to like him and identify with him. There is no sense in Lewis’ comedy of a raging id set free of repression; rather, the persona almost always has an overwhemling desire to please the fatuous authority figures who are set against him and whom he unwittingly destroys. Jerry’s persona is intimidated by cultural norms and creates chaos through his unsuccessful endeavors to conform to those norms. Even Buddy Love, the obnoxious Hyde to the Jekyll of timid Professor Julius Kelp, is not a figure of the id, but rather one of arrogant egotism and a drive to control. Buddy Love is the sinister cousin of Jerry in the few moments that he shows unbridled bliss, in the form of scarce moments narcissitic, masturbatory self-enjoyment (these scenes often have to do with music in some way: the scene in The Errand Boy where he mimes the actions of an entire jazz orchestra while listening to a recording of them; or, in the same movie, the scene where he grins in idiotic delight as he is about to dub a musical scene from a studio film with his own gratingly off-key singing; or that scenein Cracking Up where he is a hideously defaced gangster who robs a bank, not to get the money, but to record his own musical performance on the surveillance cameras).

Lots of critics have noted the sophisticated formalism and self-reflexivity of Lewis the director; but what is harder to explain is how this resonates with, and works as a necessary counterpoint to, the aggressively unsophisticated (crassly juvenile or infantile) content of Lewis’ performances. What gets me every time is the co-existence in everything Lewis does of incompatible (or I should really say, in philosophical vocabulary, incompossible) qualities and situations — but that is to put too intellectual a twist on something that is a visceral and pre-reflective response on my part. How can anything be so sophisticated and so stupid at the same time? How can the situations Lewis creates generate both exilarating identification and shame/embarrassment?

Obviously, Lewis’ comedy has one of its roots in Jewish vaudeville and slapstick. His parents performed regularly, and he first performed as a teenager, in the Borsch Belt (hotels in the Catskills where Jews from New York City would go on vacation). There is an amazing scene in a 1931 Yiddish-language movie, His Wife’s Lover, that powerfully prefigures much of what Jerry does. This movie stars Ludwig Satz, apparently one of the biggest stars of the Yiddish theater in New York in the 1920s and 1930s. The movie’s plot is an old misogynist chestnut, with analogues that go back at least to Boccaccio and Chaucer. A young seamstress is in love with the matinee idol played by Satz. But he resolves to test her fidelity first. She is forced into marriage with a disgusting rich old miser, who is really the matinee idol in disguise. Then the matinee idol visits her in his own guise, and tries to seduce her. Of course she proves her fidelity by resisting apparent adultery, even though she hates the old miser who is officially her husband, and whom she refuses to sleep with. The scene that prefigures Jerry Lewis occurs during their honeymoon at the seashore. The old miser tries, and fails, to convince the woman to kiss him, or to go into the water with him. It’s actually a musical number, with Satz singing in a whiny, grating voice. The scene is not so much a source or template for Lewis’ later comedy, as it is an instance of what Harold Bloom calls apophrades: a reversal of the “anxiety of influence” in which an earlier work seems to have been influenced by, and to be imitating, a later one. It is as if Satz were already familiar with Lewis’ shtick, and is trying to replicate it. The scene has the same kind of queasy hilarity I often find in Lewis (but I cannot say whether I would respond to it in this way if I didn’t already know Lewis).

Of course Lewis must be remembered not just for his actual films and other performances, but also for his celebrity persona. In the course of his career, he went from being one of the biggest superstars in America to being despised by most Americans as a figure whom only the French, with their inexplicable perversity, could love. But maybe the younger generation, without exposure to these negatives, can appreciate Lewis anew (my kids have enjoyed the films of his that I have shown them).

Lewis’ yearly presence as the host of the telethon to raise money for treating muscular dystrophy did not help his reputation. He raised lots of money, and he was unquestionably entirely sincere and heartfelt in doing so; but he also made use of all the injurious stereotypes that disability activists have rightly objected to. Also, a number of his films make use of unquestionably racist stereotypes, especially of Asians. And then there was his cranky praise of Donald Trump last year: the sort of thing that made him seem like the cranky great-uncle who yu want to lock away in the attic whenever you have visitors, so he won’t embarrass you even more than he has already.

And yet. As I have already said, embarrassment and shame are emotions that Lewis’ comedic persona does not feel, but that he induces in his viewers and fans. Lewis is undoubtedly one of the originators of what we know today as cringe comedy. — But actually I should modify what I just said. In Lewis’ last feature film, Cracking Up/Smorgasbord, he plays a character in distress, who has been a loser at everything and cannot even manage to kill himself, despite repeated attempts. The movie is the most extreme example I know of distress being mined for comedy; it has many of Lewis’ most brilliant gags, but it also packs an excruciating punch.

In the 1980s, when Lewis was making a comeback, I saw him interviewed by Dick Cavett (who showed his usual incomprehension of nearly everything Lewis said). In the course of the conversation, Jerry described both Jean-Luc Godard, and (then-President) Ronald Reagan, as “a dear friend of mine.” Has anyone ever encompassed such wildly different extremes of the movie business?

Jeff VanderMeer’s BORNE

Borne is Jeff VanderMeer’s first new novel since his Southern Reach trilogy. I was stunned by reading it, and I am not sure that I can really do it justice. The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic landscape: a nameless city that was first transformed by a biotech enterprise known only as the Company, and then abandoned when the Company broke down or abandoned the region (it is not entirely clear which). The Company itself seems to have come from elsewhere; perhaps it is (as the novel suggests at one point) a mechanism of “the future exploiting the past, or the past exploiting the future,” or “another version of Earth” enriching itself at the expense of this one. (The issue is not resolved, but I find it suggestive: it’s a far better version of Nick Land’s fantasy of capital as an alien parasite from the future). (The idea of the future exploiting its own past — which is our present — is one that I find especially compelling; something like this is also the premise of Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers).

In any case, the city in which Borne is set is basically a desert; and there is nothing left but ruins, noxious chemicals, and the remnants of the Company’s biotech — much of which is mutated and broken. There are many dangers: polluted water, violent feral children, venomous beasts, and a gigantic flying bear named Mord who ravages and destroys whatever he cannot control. There doesn’t seem to be any exit from this hellscape: there are remembered past scenes, and the elsewhere from which the Company emerged, and to which it has presumably returned — but none of these are accessible to the characters in the world of the novel.

In this landscape, the novel’s narrator Rachel ekes out a living as a scavenger, venturing out into the ruins to find usable bits and pieces of abandoned stuff — anything that can either be eaten, put to work, or somehow repurposed. Her partner, Wick, is a broken man who used to work for the Company, and still manages to engineer working biotech from the fragments Rachel brings him: worms that, introduced under the skin, can clean and heal wounds; bugs that provide new memories, or erase old ones; “alcohol minnows” that can be swallowed to get you drunk. All this is background; Rachel meticulously describes it in a flat and direct manner. This is the given: that which must be taken for granted, the reality in front of her — even if she has fragmentary memories of a happier childhood, before the world was destroyed.

The novel’s landscape/background is vividly drawn, imposing, and indeed sobering — since VanderMeer is in fact warning us about how bad it can get if we continue down our current route of environmental catastrophe, and of using technology which has no end or rationale except subordinating everything in the world, and extracting maximum profits. However, at the same time VanderMeer is also warning us that this devastation isn’t the end — there is also the existential dread of surviving the end of the world, of living on in its aftermath, of having to outlive the ruination of everything that made living worthwhile. Of having to go on, and to discover that things can become even worse than what you thought was already the worst we could endure. As Rachel remarks at one point: “Apparently we’d been richer than we thought, to suffer such continual diminishment and still be alive.”

But all this is still only background. What really makes the book, what really impassions the reader (or, at least, me as a reader) is two things: Rachel’s voice; and the creature known as Borne, who gives the novel its title. As for the first: Rachel is a survivor, but this fact/condition is not romanticized (as it all too often is in dystopian fiction). Rachel’s voice is weary and matter of fact, even when she recounts the most bizarre and incredible things. There is no triumphalism in her; she is not any sort of savior. Surviving itself is the most that she can hope for; but survival always has its price, since the more you survive the more you suffer. The novel has a provisionally happy ending, but it is still one in which survival — even with something of an improvement in one’s circumstances — is tenuous and fragile, always subject to revocation, to new shocks and surprises. The desolation remains. There is no moment of self-congratulatory resilience.

As for the second: Borne is a bit of biotech that Rachel discovers one day. She initially refers to Borne as an “it”; but quickly she moves to referring to Borne as a “he.” At first, Borne is tiny, something “like a hybrid of sea anemone and squid: a sleek vase with rippling colors that strayed from purple toward deep blues and sea greens.” But as Borne grows, Rachel discovers that he can change his shape at will, and mimic or impersonate just about anyone and anything. Also, Borne learns to speak, and to read and write. Rachel at first raises him like a child; but soon she has to accept his independence from her guidance, as any parent must with any growing child. In any case, Borne is the novel’s richest and strangest creation. Along with Rachel, we come to love and admire him, for his childlike enthusiasm and wonder, as well as for the way he loves her back. But in the course of the novel, along with Rachel, we are ultimately forced to realize that — for all his beauty and lovability — Borne is also a monster, and a danger to survival.

Rachel insists on regarding Borne in human terms. She assures him over and over that he is a person, in the same way that human beings are persons. But she (and we, reading her narrative) are finally forced to recognize that Borne is not, after all, human; and that the “human” itself — whatever essential or merely contingent attributes we might assign to it — is not a viable construction in and of itself, but must always rely on — or be dependent upon, or find itself networked with — that which is not human, which is inhuman, and which cannot ever be humanized. This would be true even in the case (not envisioned in the novel, and probably never having existed) of a vital and unspoiled Nature; and it is all the more true in the denatured nature, the aggressively “humanized” nature, within which Rachel finds herself — and, I am inclined to say, within which we in the Anthropocene inevitably find ourselves. “Turn and face the strange” — as David Bowie sang, in what might well be the motto for all Weird Fiction; though especially for Weird Fiction today — much more than in the time of colonialism and of Lovecraft. How antiquated Lovecraft’s vision of alien powers appears today. Lovecraft mythologized an indifferent Nature, whose horror resided in the fact that it does not care for us, is not in any way concerned with us, and may well crush us out of simple negligence (rather than anything that can be moralized as “evil”). Today, Lovecraft’s cold materialist vision seems outmoded, and hopelessly naive; and it even works as a sort of consolation. The menace of Cthulhu is so much simpler than the actuality of systems that threaten us precisely because we are so intimately intertwined with them. VanderMeer has often, rightly, rejected comparisons of his work with Lovecraft’s; books like Borne (and like the Southern Reach and Ambergris trilogies) indeed forge a new path for Weird Fiction, away from Lovecraft’s outworn metaphysics and towards a new sense of how the inhuman impinges upon us, all the more so because it cannot be recuperated in human terms.

The Anthropocene means that “we” (human beings) have irreversibly altered the entire biosphere; but it also means that, in doing so, we have exposed ourselves, more fully and more nakedly than ever before, to the geological and biological forces that respond to us in ways that we cannot anticipate or control. This seems to me to be the core of what Jeff VanderMeer is exploring — and seducing us to recognize. In Borne, the material forces unleashed by the Company do not do what the Company wanted them to do, nor what anyone else might want them to do. These material forces have an impetus, and an intelligence, all their own. They have twisted, both for good and for ill, into strange and ungainly patterns that stretch well beyond us — and that may continue, with their own interests and desires, even when we are gone. As Rachel says, very near the end, the animal descendants of the Company’s mutant creations “will outstrip all of us in time, and the story of the city will someday be their story, not ours.” This is the point to which Borne brings us, and the prospect with which it leaves us. We live in an ongoing catastrophe; but we may be able to outlive it, or to maintain ourselves beyond it. The novel leaves us with a diminished world, but one in which the worst destructive forces have been defeated (or have just played themselves out), and in which we can perhaps indulge hope for a yet more distant future, beyond our own extinction, in which things might at least be slightly better, or even (these are the last two words of the novel) “truly beautiful.”

Tade Thompson, ROSEWATER

WARNING: numerous spoilers, since I cannot really discuss the novel without them

Tade Thompson’s extraordinary new SF novel Rosewater is the second recent book I have read with the premise of extraterrestrials arriving in Nigeria. The first is Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon, equally wonderful, but in an entirely different way. Both novels go explicitly against the common tendency to set such narratives in big cities of the Global North. Of course, there is always the danger that a white anglophone reader from a hegemonic country and culture (i.e., somebody like myself) might find any such futuristic depiction of the developing world to be alluringly “exotic,” if only on account of its unfamiliarity. However, both Thompson and Okorafor guard against this tendency by immersing us in the social background, without any special explanations. The underlying state of Nigerian society is simply taken for granted in both novels — which forces the reader (no matter his or her own background) to take it for granted as well. Lagoon and Rosewater both expose the provincialism of the very North American, British, and European readers who tend to congratulate themselves on their supposed cosmopolitanism. The fact is, both authors (and many of their characters) are far more cosmopolitan than I am, because they are intimately familiar both with Western (US/UK) society and with societies in Nigeria and elsewhere.

In any case, Rosewater is set some fifty years in the future (2066, with flashbacks to earlier dates in the mid-21st-century). In Thompson’s future Nigeria and future world, computing technologies have been pushed — mostly for reasons of political control — well beyond their actual state today. For instance, people all have implants that allow them to broadcast their location — or to be tracked by the police and by others, even when they do not want to be. Many (but not all) people also have implants that allow them to access the phone and data networks, without the need for an external device. There are also ubiquitous mobile surveillance mechanisms, often lodged in the bodies of animals like birds and cats. The novel doesn’t make all that much of these new technologies; they are fairly linear extrapolations from devices that we already have today. They simply form part of the everyday background of the novel. Surveillance as it exists today has been both expanded, and completely routinized and “normalized.”

The same can be said for the social and political dimensions of Rosewater. The extrapolation remains fairly linear. The world of 2066, in Nigeria and elsewhere, is riven by the same inequalities of class, the same rampant capitalism (and the same downscale version of it, rampant criminal organizations), the same violent prejudices (e.g. against gays and lesbians), and the same governmental corruption and deep-state surveillance and control that we already have today. “Neoliberalism” is never named as such in the text, but despite its complete failure as an economic and social program, it evidently remains as the hegemonic — indeed, as the only — social form. No collective movement for change seems possible. Social, political, and economic forms of oppression therefore exist as obstacles that each individual must navigate on his or her own. In this way, Thompson keeps us aware of the constrictions of what the late Mark Fisher called capitalist realism: the situation in which we find it easier to imagine the end of the world, than any concrete alternative to globalized neoliberal capitalism.

There is one ironic exception to this situation. At some point in the half century between today and the novel’s future projection, America “goes dark,” shutting off all contact with the rest of the world. There is no trade, and no communication. This is perhaps the triumph of Trumpism, born in reaction to neoliberalism’s utter failure. From the very little information people in the rest of the world have managed to get, America seems to have become a completely closed and regimented society. In any case, neither in America nor elsewhere is there any indication of any movement towards a more equitable social system.

The novum (science fictional novelty) that drives Rosewater is something entirely different from this incremental development of human technologies and social arrangements. It is rather the presence of entirely alien (extraterrestrial) life forms and artifacts. We are introduced, early in the book, to what people call Utopicity: an enormous biodome, of alien construction, that is closed off to all human access. Utopicity is opaque to all outside inquiry; but it crackles with electricity, and it seems to possess almost supernatural powers. Once a year, the gates of Utopicity open for just a few hours: the dome emits radiation that almost instantly cures the illnesses (from cancer and HIV down to the common cold) of anyone who is exposed to it. Because of this, the new city of Rosewater, forming a ring all around the biodome, has grown, in just a decade, from uninhabited savannah to a major metropolis. (The name “Rosewater” is an ironic allusion to the foul river smells of the city, whose sewage treatment facilities have not kept up with its swelling population).

The alien technology of Utopicity is so advanced as to be (in the words of Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law) indistinguishable from magic. Importantly, though, this technology is not infallible. For instance, the beings in the dome sometimes get the details of human anatomy wrong. The radiation from the dome cures all sorts of ailments, but it sometimes leaves the patients with “knees which point backwards,” or with “multiple and displaced orifices.” The radiation also affects recently dead bodies, reanimating them as shambling, mindless zombies — which then have to be dispatched by the police and the army.

We only learn gradually, in the course of the novel, about the aliens and their actual powers. In Rosebud‘s timeline, an enormous intelligent living entity falls from outer space, and lands in central London, in 2012. People call it Wormwood. It is not the first of its kind to come to our planet, but it is the first to survive. All the previous ones die soon after entry. But Wormwood sinks into the earth, and spends several decades burrowing through the crust. It finally re-emerges in Nigeria in the 2050s. When government forces attack it, it builds Utopicity for self-protection.

Apparently, Wormwood is not quite a single, unified organism, at least in the way that we understand such things on Earth. It seems to contain multitudes within itself. Portions split off and take on a quasi-independent existence. For instance, in order to communicate with human beings, some portions assume a more or less humanoid shape, while others emulate the fantastic appearance of cyberspace avatars. Still other aspects of Wormwood are monstrous and directly threatening, like the floaters: carnivorous flying vampiric entities released from the dome into the surrounding environment. In any case, these different aspects of Wormwood “are not all the same.” They often work at cross-purposes; at times, they even seem to be arguing with one another.

Wormwood also generates an enormous mass of microscopic fungal spores, which it releases into the Earth’s atmosphere. These spores are ubiquitous; apparently they work to gather information about the environment and organisms of Earth. These spores grow in — or better, they infect — nearly everything in the world, living or not. They also form a worldwide transmission network called the xenosphere, through which they funnel data back to Wormwood. The xenosphere can be blocked temporarily, through the use of antifungal medications. But sooner or later, it always grows back.

Most human beings are oblivious to the xenosphere; it gathers data from them without their knowledge. But a small number of people are able to feel the xenosphere directly; they are known as sensitives. They develop psychic powers as an acccidental side-effect of the alien incursion. One of these sensitives is Kaaro, the novel’s protagonist and narrator. He is able to plug into the xenosphere, and use it to access other people’s minds. Kaaro explores the network: he goes into a trance, takes on an avatar, and encounters complex informational structures, together with the avatars of other sensitives. At times, he even encounters aspects of Wormwood itself. The way that Kaaro moves through the xenosphere is quite similar to the way that people surf cyberspace in classic cyberpunk novels (e.g. William Gibson’s Neuromancer). But even without such deep immersion, Kaaro is able to read the hidden thoughts of ordinary people, and also to manipulate those people by implanting suggestions into their minds.

Kaaro is the novel’s sole narrator. We only experience things from his perspective. This means that the reader needs to remain vigilant, because Kaaro is not an entirely reliable narrator. It’s not that he is deceptive in what he tells us; but he is a bit selective and slanted in what he chooses to reveal, and when. Also, Kaaro is not a particularly sympathetic character. At least he isn’t an outright sociopath: he fears and avoids violence, and he sometimes tries to do right by people he cares about. But Kaaro is still basically a grifter: he is sleazy and sexist, and always seems to be looking out for the main chance. Even when his conscience gets the better of him, he insists that he is “not the saving-the-world type.”

When Kaaro first develops his telepathic powers, in adolescence, he quickly becomes a thief. He reads people’s minds in order to discover where they stash their valuable items. And he spends the money acquired in this way on sex, drugs, and partying. When Kaaro finally gets caught, he is forced to accept a deal from the cops. In lieu of punishment, he is drafted into the Nigerian secret police. His job is to scan the minds of political prisoners, after they have been tortured, in order to extract their secrets. He doesn’t enjoy doing this, but he has no choice. Kaaro is perpetually disaffected, alienated, and anti-social; but he never imagines that this somehow puts him outside the system. He knows that he’s a tool, and a fairly limited one at that.

The novel finally turns upon the implications of the alien presence on Earth. But the details only get filled in obliquely, and quite slowly. The book has a complicated temporal structure: in between the chapters happening in the present moment (2066), there are also chapters set in 2055, and still others set at a few other times. These flashback chapters give us Kaaro’s backstory, and his earlier experiences with Wormwood and with the secret police. Within each time sequence, events are linear from one chapter to the next. But these timelines interfere with one another as we weave back and forth among them. Each chapter, regardless of which portion of the timeline it comes from, is narrated in the present tense, and made to feel viscerally immediate. This results in an odd sense of displacement. (I couldn’t help thinking, at least a bit, about David Wittenberg’s powerful discussion of time travel narratives, even though it is only the reader, and not the narrator, who actually shifts back and forth between one time and another). In fact, it is only by grasping what happened in 2055 that we can make full sense of what happens in 2066; but we don’t achieve this grasp until almost the end of the novel. The book’s narrative is therefore a slow burn; at the end, we need to look back and revise our understanding of earlier incidents, in the light of what has finally been revealed.

Thompson’s oblique narrative strategy obviously works to keep the reader enthralled. But there is more to it than that: if the narration is oblique, this is really because the events being narrated are themselves oblique. As Seo-Young Chu argues in her general theory of science fiction narrative, so for this novel in particular: it’s not that Rosewater cognitively estranges the process of representation, so much as that it straightforwardly represents a state of affairs (or a referent) that is in and of itself cognitively estranging. Wormwood’s presence on the Earth is neither simple nor straightforward. It doesn’t have a single identity, and its effects on the planet are multiple and inconsistent. This has a lot to do with the formal complexity of the xenosphere. In recent years, we have become accustomed to think that everything is entangled in dense and diffuse networks, so that we cannot isolate individual entities (but also so that we can’t find unity or identity on the level of the network as a whole). Things are separated from one another, and yet entangled with one another, all at the same time. Causality is not arbitrary, but it is also not linear.

Rosewater takes our emerging understanding of networks, and raises it, as it were, to a higher power. Wormwood is radically alien to us, and yet we find ourselves more and more implicated in what it is doing. The xenosphere, with its powers of connection and disconnection and its incessant work of surveillance, both mimics and takes its distance from the social, political, and technological networks that we are already accustomed to, and that have become even more virulent in 2066 than they were in 2016. Wormwood may be seen as an allegory of colonialization; and its ubiquitous surveillance may be seen to reflect that of the neoliberal State. But Wormwood must also be taken as something entirely apart from such power relations; both its autonomy and its dependency on us, and we on it, work in another dimension than that of neoliberal economics and governmentality. Wormwood’s logic is essentially biological, but in a very different manner than the one characterized by our usual understandings of neoliberal biopower and biopolitics. Wormwood’s alien strangeness is what the novel effectively communicates, both in its story and in its form of narration.

Finally, Kaaro worries about alien invasion, and its potential effacement of everything that we have previously understood as human — both for good and for ill. It seems that, when Wormwood heals people with ailments, and when it opens human contact to the xenosphere, it is taking the opportunity to replace our DNA with its own. This is not a biological shift in lieu of a social or cultural one — because it is both, inextricably, at once. Wormwood is taking over, alike by insinuating itself within our cells, and by changing our conceptions and our feelings. Other people, besides Kaaro, feel and experience this. For instance, there is his girlfriend’s half-brother Layi, who seems to be able to fly, and to ignite spontaneous fires; these are evidently powers given to him by Wormword (or more precisely, by some portion of Wormwood); but people in Lagos and Rosewater — in accordance with the heavy influence of evangelical Christianity in Nigeria — presume that his mother was made pregnant by an angel. In fact, by the end of the novel all human beings have had some percentage of their cells “replaced by xenoforms.” This parallels the way that also “we are all part machine,” due to the various technologies that are embedded in our bodies. We are already cyborgs in 2016; this will be all the more the case in 2066. “How human am I?”, Kaaro wonders, and he has no way to tell.

There is no easy answer to this dilemma. Kaaro thinks at times that perhaps this transformation is only “what humanity deserves.” People already have been “conquered and killed by invaders” without knowing it; and the saddest part is that they don’t even care. “Humans don’t care about anything as long as their TVs and microwaves work.” For its part, the government doesn’t care either; after the catastrophic failure of its efforts to destroy Wormwood, it cynically uses whatever advantage it gets from the entity in order to maintain and increase its own power. (Kaaro’s last assignment, which he refuses, is to monitor the mind of an opposition politician, so that the party in power will be better able to win the next election). As for the few people and groups who know about the alien invasion, and try to do something about it: they themselves are ironically also dependent upon Wormwood, for it protects them from the official authorities. The only thing to do, then, is simultaneously to “work with and against the xenoforms.”

At the end of the book Kaaro compares the xeno-invasion of Earth life to such catastrophes as global warming, or an asteroid crashing into the Earth, like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. But “the alien in me” tells him that this isn’t quite the case. The coming disaster is, and will continue to be, an intimate one. It will be something for which “we will all be present,” even as we are devastated by it.

Favorite SF of 2016

I am usually not very good at top ten lists and the like; there is always too much stuff that I haven’t seen, read, or heard. But I think that I have done a lot better than usual with new science fiction / fantasy / horror / speculative fiction than usual. So here is a list of my favorite SF published this past year. I mean “favorites” in a broad sense: there are a lot of novels I liked that go unlisted here; but I have tried to name all the new novels that really hit the spot for me in one way or another. (I should note that there are definitely some 2016 publications that are missing here because I haven’t gotten to them yet, but which I expect to like because they are, e.g., sequels to previous books I liked; e.g. N K Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate, sequel to her superb 2015 publication The Fifth Season).

Anyway, here goes. List is chronological according to when I read it. Not a ranked order, though if forced to choose, my number one would have to be Death’s End. There are brief comments, and occasional links to blog discussions.

  • Tricia Sullivan – Occupy Me – Sullivan is one of our best, and most underrated, contemporary SF authors –
  • Charley Jane Anders – All the Birds in the Sky – Cute combination of dueling genres, SF and Fantasy
  • Sofia Samatar – The Winged Histories – Brilliant metafantasy.
  • Matthew De Abitua – The Destructives – DeAbitua is another SF writer who is underrated and insufficiently appreciated. This is a brilliant book about singularity, alien communication, and other matters. (NB: this is the first SF book for which I have been named in the acknowledgments).
  • Lavie Tidhar – Central Station – Future neorealism, sort of.
  • Gemma Files – Experimental Film – Weird fiction about, yes, avant-garde cinema.
  • Ken MacLeod – The Corporation Wars (2 volumes: Dissidence & Insurgence) – Accelerationists versus neo-reactionaries, plus robots, a thousand years from now. Will be waiting impatiently for the final volume, which won’t be out until next summer.
  • Malka Older – Infomocracy – speculative political fiction.
  • Richard Kadrey, The Perdition Score – Latest entry in the Sandman Slim series, which I love.
  • Yoss – Super Extra Grande – Hilarious Cuban SF, newly translated.
  • Warren Ellis, Normal – The maladies of actually existing futurism.
  • Nisi Shawl – Everfair – Progressive multicultural steampunk.
  • Cixin Liu – Death’s End – Massively mindblowing conclusion to the Three Body Problem trilogy.
  • Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Certain Dark Things – Vampires in Mexico, conflicts between tradition and neoliberalism.
  • Laurie Penny – Everything Belongs to the Future – disturbingly plausible near-future dystopia; cutting-edge medical research and the police inflitration of radical activism.
  • Becky Chambers – The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – old-fashioned (but multiculturally updated) space opera; a bit cheesy but utterly irresistible, delicious, and adorable.
  • Chris Beckett – Daughter of Eden – Conclusion to the brilliant and thought-provoking Eden trilogy. I wrote about the first volume several years ago:
  • Ada Palmer, Too Like the Lightning – This is stunning and altogether original; I have never read anything even remotely like it. A 25th century heterotopia with posthuman inventions, but also a culture-wide obsession with the French Enlightenment (Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Sade). Apparent economic abundance, but messy, complicated politics, strange hierarchies, and odd philosophical dilemmas. Stops basically in the middle – waiting impatiently for the sequel, due in the spring.

Canavan on Octavia Butler

Gerry Canavan’s new book on Octavia Butler is smart and useful. It gives a good introduction to Butler for people who have never read her before, but it also provides much food for thought to those who (like me) have already read all of Butler’s published works, and know them well. This is the case both because Canavan offers fresh and original takes on Butler’s published writing, and also because he is one of the first people to have done research in the Butler archives at the Huntington Library. Butler wrote prodigiously, and left behind a vast quantity of work that she never published: unfinished stories and novels, alternate versions, and texts she completed, but decided weren’t good enough for publication. Canavan goes through a lot of this work, and situates the actual publications in the light of many things that Butler tried out but couldn’t resolve to her satisfaction. In part, this is because she was a perfectionist, always feeling that she hadn’t done well enough. In part, also, this is because Butler suffered from periods of writer’s block, when she was unable to give her work the point and focus that she needed.

But above all, Canavan shows, Butler’s enormous quantity of unfinished and unpublished work testifies to the fact that she was a genuinely original and creative thinker. At their best, science fiction and speculative fiction are indeed acts of speculation and experimentation as rigorous and as insightful as philosophical speculation and scientific experimentation can be. Creating fictional characters, and telling fictional stories, can itself be a way of probing the unknown. This was certainly the case for Butler, all of whose work, even the most polished, is unresolvedly conflictual. As Canavan says explicitly at one point, Butler’s work always grapples with what Kant called Antinomies — that is to say, with dialectically opposed perspectives, both of which have their valid points (or their “truth”) but which remain incompatible with one another. Kantian Antinomies may be distinguished from Hegelian Contradictions in that the former, unlike the latter, cannot be reconciled by jumping to a meta-level with a supposed higher truth that accommodates both.

[Irrelevant digression: To my mind Hegel’s vision is a catastrophe for human thought, and a dishonest denial of the stubborn intractability of actual Antinomies. You know Zizek is engaging in mystification when he says that Hegel is really about rupture rather than reconciliation; for if that were the case, Hegel would have stayed with the “bad infinity” of the Kantian Antinomies, instead of making a bogus claim to “sublate” or resolve them. Sorry for this detour, which has nothing to do with Canavan’s book, but only reflects my own obsessions.]

In any case, Canavan’s accounts of the unpublished material work to show how complex a thinker and writer Butler was; how she always rejected facile resolutions, and only published novels and stories in which unresolvable difficulties were articulated in many dimensions, remaining intact through all their developments and metamorphoses. Butler’s work is largely concerned with utopian desire as it meets the horrors of actual human history. Encounters with alien beings work to sharpen these terms. Butler’s books look at human-created predicaments like exploitation and enslavement and bigotry and other sorts of violence and destruction, without willing into existence a solution to these more-than-difficulties, and also without cynically accepting the status quo on grounds that it is supposedly inevitable. This leads to opposed valorizations at the same time, which is what makes her books so knotty and difficult and uncompromisingly clearsighted. For instance in the Lilith’s Brood trilogy, it is both the case that the Oankali (the aliens who rescue the few human survivors of a global nuclear war) stand for a cosmopolitan, hybridizing and civilised remedy to the intractable racism/sexism/etc of actual American and world culture, and, at the same time,  that the Oankali are arch-oppressors, whose actions encapsulate and repeat all the horrors of colonisation, exploitation, and enslavement, from the Middle Passage to the current day. Canavan is very good at outlining these antinomies, which drive Butler’s fictions, and are their main expressive content.

Ray Brassier on Nick Land

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frank Ocean, ENDLESS — first thoughts

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