Radical art defies and transforms collective modes of understanding. Wagner’s famous “Tristan chord” segues between classical harmony, late romanticism and twentieth century atonality due to its ambiguous relationship to its tonal context. The aesthetic value of Xenakis’ Concret Ph lies partly in the technological potentials realized subsequently in granular synthesis techniques which employ global statistical parameters to control flocks of auditory events. Such sensations are, in Brian Massumi words, “in excess over experience” – suspending practices and meanings in ways that catalyse deterritorializing movement towards non-actual futures (Massumi 2005: 136). The aesthetics of excess provides a limit case of the reflective creation of value that occurs when we modify existing modes of sense-making or embodiment. It also provides a window upon the posthuman as potentiality shadowing our interactions with technological environments.
This contingency is amplified in another radical art work, J G Ballard’s novel Crash. As I wrote back in 1999:
In Crash the technology of the car has become the adjunct to a violent sexuality. Its erotic focus and ideologue, Vaughan, is an ambulance chasing ex-TV presenter whose career as a glamorous ‘hoodlum scientist’ has been cut short by his disfigurement in a motorcycling accident. Marking the parameters of vehicle collisions and casual sexual encounters with Polaroid and cine camera, Vaughan is a social being of sorts, assembling around him a crew of co-experimenters whose sexuality has been activated by ‘the perverse eroticisms of the car-crash’. The novel’s narrator ‘James Ballard’ recounts his induction into the crashpack; first through a motorway accident, then via a succession of techno-erotic duels and excursions, culminating in Vaughan’s attempted ‘seduction’ of the actress Elizabeth Taylor in the environs of London Airport . .
It is only in so far as Vaughan ‘[mimes] the equations between the styling of a motor-car and the organic elements of his body’ (Ballard 1995: 170), modulating the symbolic requirements of Ballard’s narrative with his histrionic body, that he can remain its primary sexual focus. . . These impersonal ‘equations’ mediate every affective relationship between the characters and Crash’s residual city of multi-storey car parks, airport termini, hermetic suburbs and motorway slip roads. They are expressed in a language of excremental objects – ‘aluminium ribbons’, Gabrielle’s thigh wound, Vaughan’s sectioned nipples, torn fenders, scars, etc. – whose very lack of quotidian function commends them as arbitrary tokens in the symbolic algebra (Roden 2002).
Crash thus construct an internally referential system of desire around sites, surfaces and interstices of late twentieth century technological landscapes (Roden 2002). But despite its contemporary setting, the novel does not describe this world: it potentiates it. Crash exhibits the contingency of human subjectivity and social relationships given its irrevocably technological condition.
A similar claim is made about the work of the Australian performance artist Stelarc in Massumi’s “The Evolutionary Alchemy of Reason”. Massumi argues that the content of Stelarc’s performances – such as his series of body suspensions or his hook-ups with industrial robots, prosthetic hands and compound-eye goggles – is nothing to do with the functional utility of these systems or events. They have no use. Rather their effect is to place bodies and technologies in settings where their incorporation as use-values is interrupted. Of the compound eye goggles that Stelarc created for his work Helmet no. 3: put on and walk 1970 he writes: “They extended no-need into no-utility. And they extended no-utility into ‘art’” (Massumi 2005: 131).
Stelarc’s somewhat elliptical rationale is to “extend intelligence beyond the Earth”. His performances decouple the body from its functions and from the empathic responses of observers – even when dangling from skin hooks over a city street, Stelarc never appears as suffering or abject. They register the body’s potential for “off world” environments rather than its actual functional involvements with our technological landscape. Space colonization is not a current use value or industrial application, but a project for our planned obsolesce:
The terrestrial body will be obsolete from the moment a certain subpopulation feels compelled to launch itself into an impossible, unthinkable future of space colonization. To say that the obsolescence of the body is produced is to say that it is compelled. To say that it is compelled is to say that it is “driven by desire” rather than by need or utility (151-2).
These performances embody a potential that is “unthinkable” because aesthetically disjoined from our phenomenology and world. But, as Claire Colebrook suggests, we have been incipiently “off world” since the dawn of the industrial era:
We have perhaps always lived in a time of divergent, disrupted and diffuse systems of forces, in which the role of human decisions and perceptions is a contributing factor at best. Far from being resolved by returning to the figure of the bounded globe or subject of bios rather than zoe, all those features that one might wish to criticize in the bio-political global era can only be confronted by a non-global temporality and counter-ethics (Colebrook 2012: 38).
The counter-final nature of modern technique means that the conditions under which human ethical judgements are adapted can be overwritten by systems over which we have no ultimate control. Posthumanity would be only the most extreme consequence of this ramifying technics. An ethics bounded by the human world thus ignores its already excessive character (32).
Ballard, J.G. 1995. Crash. London: Vintage.
Massumi, Brian. 2005. “The Evolutionary Alchemy of Reason: Stelarc.” In Stelarc: The Monograph, Marquand Smith (ed). MIT Press: 125-192.
Roden, DAvid 2003. “Cyborgian Subjects and the Auto-destruction of Metaphor.” In Crash Cultures: Modernity, Mediation and the Material, Jane Arthurs and Iain Grant (eds). Intellect Books: 91–102.
Colebrook, Claire 2012. “A Globe of One’s Own: In Praise of the Flat Earth.” Substance: A Review of Theory & Literary Criticism 41 (1): 30–39.
In this highly illuminating talk from EXPO1 at MOMA, Ray proposes that there is nothing inherently wrong with the transhuman reengineering of nature on the “promethean” grounds that nature has no ethical dispensation. Thus there is no natural, ontological or theological order violated by the extension of human cognitive powers or by the creation of synthetic life. Such processes are potentially violent and destructive, but that is acceptable as long as we distinguish between “good” emancipatory violence and that which oppresses and restricts the life chances of rational subjects.
I’m wholly in agreement with Ray in his rejection of theological objections to the technological refashioning of human and non-human nature. I’m less convinced that the idea of emancipation is an adequate horizon within which to adjudicate between the new world-engines that might lie before us. But I agree that we need some ethically substantive framework in which to do this. My own leaning is increasingly towards a pluralist moral realism – the claim that there are objectively good or bad locations in Posthuman Possibility Space but no moral hierarchy in which these are enfolded in turn. So to adjudicate these we need to “sample” them by experimenting with bodies, things and minds.
Ray also peppers his talk with some references to J G Ballard’s short story “The Voices of Time”, one of his many narratives of ontological catastrophe. Ballard’s own position on emancipation is profoundly ambivalent, as Baudrillard observes. Something to return to in later post or article, I think.
Gareth Powell mentioned that he’s moderating a book club discussion of Samuel R. Delaney’s brilliant space opera, Nova over at SFX Magazine and asked me for my take. I’m grading essays just now but wasn’t sufficiently wise to resist, so here it is:
Samuel Delany’s writing has always fascinated me. On the one hand he’s an extraordinarily sensual writer. His futures jangle your nerves. In the ‘Star Pit’ you feel his narrator’s dejection at being confined within a mere galaxy – a galaxy!
But Delaney has also retooled SF to explore identity, language and social ontology. In Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand he portrays an interstellar civilization in which gender is differently coded from ours by shifting the functions of the masculine and feminine pronouns. In this post-gender world everyone is ‘she’ or ‘a woman’ regardless of sex. ‘He’ is reserved for any human/alien object of sexual desire. Reading Stars helps you think of gender as a mutable cultural virus rather than as destiny or “nature” . Delany thus re-engineers theories about the way language mediates thought current in Critical Theory and Poststructuralism and bodies them in an alien flesh we can regard as our own. With his path breaking exploration of queer identity this suffices to make him one of the most important (and underrated) political writers of our time.
It’s been a long time since my first adolescent reading of Nova. I remember being utterly seduced by the sensory detail and complexity of its star-faring future. I didn’t get the sophisticated games with language then, but the colour and difficulty of his world was unlike anything in the ascetic utopias of Asimov or Clark. Also Delany’s work had none of the hideous Oxbridge-Male ennui that spoilt even the greatest of British New Wavers. It was hard SF with Starships, alien skies and cyborgs reconstructed for a poly-sexual heterotopia. Without Delaney, there’d be no Gibson, Sterling and no Iain M. Banks. He could be more important than all of those figures.
Back in 1999 I argued that that J G Ballard’s novel Crash employs a system of interlinked metaphors to construct an entirely self-referential system of desire and symbolic action: a ‘cyborgian symbolic’. The auto-destructive desires of Vaughan, ‘James Ballard’, Gabrielle and other members of Ballard’s ‘crash-pack’ refer always to a singular and impossible event which is coded for by the detritus of auto-collisions. For example, the hoodlum scientist Vaughan remarks of his longed for death in an auto-collision with Elizabeth Taylor that it would be ‘a unique vehicle collision, one that would transform all our dreams and fantasies’ (Ballard 1995: 130).
The actual collision with which Ballard opens the novel is, by contrast, Vaughan’s ‘one true accident’ (Ibid., p. 7). Instead of meeting in terminal embrace with a dying star, Vaughan’s car careens into an arline bus below the London Airport Flyover. Yet it is the non-coincidence of accident and crash that keeps the machinery of representation functioning. Every token or keepsake – Gabrielle’s alluring thigh wound, Vaughan’s sectioned nipple – signifies ‘the repeated failure of the cyborgian universe to knit together’ (Roden 2002). This closed, self-referential system is secured by the radical metaphoricity of Crash, its repeated deployment of metaphors of formal conjunction as models of reference itself (Derrida 1982).
If the semantics of Crash, on my original reading, is Derridean, the logic of desire that it elicits is Lacanian: a symbolic system tied to excremental fragments by an absent real.
I think that the logic of terminal metaphor successfully captures some of the workings of Ballard’s incomparable text. However, it is important to distinguish a literary close-reading from any interpretation of social reality. The self-referential character of Ballard’s text means that it it is appropriate to view it as an internally coherent, windowless monad, not a representation of the way technologies actually mediate our agency. The absent referent indicated by the imaginary auto-disaster can articulate Vaughan’s desires because his role just is to express the exigencies of the symbolic structure woven in the novel:
The … rules which authorise the exchange of signifying modules are ‘memorialised in the scarred contours of his face and chest’ (Ballard 1995: 147). In the classic Lacanian formula, James desires the desire of the Other: ‘to be involved in a second collision, this time under Vaughan’s eyes’ (Ballard 1995: 146).6 It is only in so far as Vaughan ‘[mimes] the equations between the styling of a motor-car and the organic elements of his body’ (Ballard 1995: 170), modulating the symbolic requirements of Ballard’s narrative with his histrionic body, that he can remain its primary sexual focus (Roden 2002).
Vaughan is that Ballardian stock in trade, a totemic figure of authority (characteristically a scientist) who valorizes senseless concatenations of bodies and technique. Modern technological systems furnish rich material for fantasies of apocalypse or transcendence. But these are rarely if ever reasons for acting. However apocalyptic their rhetoric, the 9-11 hijackers articulated a political aim – the ejection of Western power from the Islamic Middle East. The unabomber, Ted Kaczinsky, likewise, had a reasoned analysis of the effects of technological complexity. Most transhumanists hold down mundane day jobs whose contribution to their dreams of technological transcendence are liable to be marginal at best. Despite seeming violent or far-fetched these goals can never be equivalent to Vaughan’s since no subject can occupy the position from which he speaks and acts.
Even those of us affected by the poetry of ‘derelict filling stations’ use cars, analgesics and computers to reach destinations, relieve headaches and write up pilot studies. So what, if anything, does Crash reveal about the way modern technology affects us? Ballard indicated in his introduction to the French edition that the novel was intended as a warning against a contemporary world pathologically abstracted by ubiquitous media. Freud’s distinction between manifest and latent content of dreams, he wrote ‘needs to be applied to the external world’ (Ballard 1995: 5). But the technological world of the early 21st Century is not a symbol but a mesh of things, pumped by geographically dispersed flows of energy, matter and information. A system of this order is not a psyche, or a text – despite having psychic and textual parts – thus carries no meaning, latent or otherwise. The pathological dreams of its psychic parts may function as tradable commodities – gossip or porn; otherwise these replicate in the margins of culture without impact on the wider system.
Nonetheless, Crash can be read as a kind of formal allegory for the proliferation of modern technological systems, violently incised onto the bodies of its protagonists – much as Adorno ‘reads’ the dialectic between serial method and tonal fragment in The Philosophy of Modern Music. For while our individual dealings with technique may be practically rational, technical systems arguably develop in ways that no single agent can control or predict, let alone intend. The logic of the parts may be functional, but the logic of technological networks is, to use a term coined by Baudrillard in his seminal essay on Crash, ‘hyper-functional’, without goal or norm. In Ballard’s novel, this counter-final evolution is recuperated by treating its proliferating violence as if it were something that could be desired.
Ballard, J.G (1995) Crash, (London: Vintage).
Baudrillard, Jean (1994). ‘Crash’. Simulacra and Simulations, tr. Sheila Faria Glaser, Anne Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 111-119.
Derrida, Jacques, (1982), ‘White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy’. Margins of Philosophy, tr. Alan Bass. (Brighton: Harvester), 207-272.
Roden, David (2002), ‘Cyborgian Subjects and the Auto-Destruction of Metaphor’, in Crash Cultures: Modernity, Mediation and the Material, Jane Arthurs and Iain Grant (eds), (Bristol: Intellect Books), pp. 89-100.