I’ve just been reading through German Sierra‘s essay “Filth as Non-Technology” – a fascinating excursus in a “non-[dark?] -phenomenology” of excessive, dis-individuated bodies. Filth is the sticky, non-productive effluent of bodies and technology belying their clean functionality and functional cleanliness. It is the fecal trace of non-meaning fringing dreams of progressive self-mastery. It is technologogenesis contrary to finality, traumatic lava; the shameful truth without truth one keeps from others, yet cannot bear to keep as it spills out of us like hyperplasm:
Of filth, we can only say that there is a thing, and, as Daniel Rourke explains about John Carpenter’s homonymous film, The Thing performs ontogenesis (somethingcoming to be) rather than ontology (something that already is).[xiii] It belongs to the becoming realm, changing “the mind” and “the body” by transforming them into something filthy: a sort of tenacious vegetation, full of filthy parasites; this vegetation no longer has anything in common with other plants, nor is it flesh(Lautréamont, M 1772). Once flesh has been invaded by filth, it becomes filthy itself, returning to the dominion of the primordial swarm. Only a “clean” memory would be able to maintain the ideal, pristine image of “the body”: Speak then, my Beauty, to this dire putrescence / To the worm that shall kiss your proud estate / That I have kept the divine form and essence / Of my festered loves inviolate [Alors, ô ma beauté! dites à la vermine / Qui vous mangera de baisers, / Que j’ai gardé la forme et l’essence divine / De mes amours décomposés!] (Baudelaire, FE 39, 265). Baudelaire’s love might survive death if it succeeds in dissociating memories of the rotten corpse devoured by worms.
When James has sex with the crippled social worker Gabrielle following a visit to the Earls Court motor show, it is not the authorised conjunctions of the gendered body which determines their erotic itinerary but the abrasions and indentations of flesh and leg-brace, the coincidence of the body and an intimate design technology. The wounds incised on their bodies by their respective collisions become the ‘abstract vents’ of a new sexuality (Ballard 1995: 179).
This erotic combinatory has parallels in the structural eroticism Roland Barthes elicits in his essay on Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye. Barthes shows that the erotic effects of Bataille’s narrative arise from a ‘metonymic’ crossing of terms from two undelimitable metaphoric series: that of the ‘eye’ which establishes the series eggs, head, testicles, sun…; that of ‘liquid’ (blood, milk, egg yolk, sperm, urine, intestines, light…). The metonymy consists in jarring contiguities which interchange the two series. Thus the eye of the matador Granero, spurting from his head ‘with the same force as innards from a belly’ (Bataille 1987: 54), and the eye of the priest Don Aminado placed in the body of Simone interchange with the cat’s saucer of milk of the opening chapter, as with the ‘liquifying’ head of the female cyclist severed in collision with the lovers’ car (Bataille 1987: 10).
However, while the metonymy of Bataille’s text is tightly constrained by the two metaphoric ‘rows’, Baudrillard sees the juxtapositions of Ballard’s novel as devoid of metaphor: their principle of concatenation being the accident and the anagrammatic potential reposing in the micro-differences of technological systems. An apparent confirming instance would be James Ballard’s beatific recollection of a flight from London Airport to Orly while recovering in hospital from the crash which first catalyses his obsession. His reverie is mediated by ‘the languages of invisible eroticisms, of undiscovered sexual acts’ reposing in the equipment of an X-ray ward (Ballard 1995: 40-41).
A hoary simile likening aircraft to ‘silver penises’ conjoined with ‘an air hostess’s fawn gabardine skirt’ inaugurates juxtapositions which owe nothing to analogies between genital objects and technological artifacts: the ‘dulled aluminium and areas of imitation wood laminates’ of the airport buildings, the coincidence of a ‘contoured lighting system’ and the bald head of a mezzanine bartender. When confronted in hospital with Dr Helen Remington, the wife of the chemical engineer killed in the impact, Ballard is incited by ‘the conjunction of her left armpit’ and the ‘chromium stand’ of the X-ray camera (Ballard 1995: 44). For Baudrillard, the crash becomes the disruptive figure of a syntax in which ‘blood’ crossing ‘the over-white concrete of [an] evening embankment’, ruptured genitalia, luminous drifts of shattered safety glass, copulating bodies sheathed in ‘glass, metal and vinyl’, skin incised by underwear and chromium manufacturers’ medallions, prophylactic ‘dead’ machines, casual ‘leg stances’ and crushed fenders become interchangeable without remainder or significance (Baudrillard 1994: 113).
Ballard, J G. (1995) Crash, London: Vintage.
Bataille, Georges (1987), Story of the Eye, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Roden, D., 2003. ‘Cyborgian Subjects and the Auto-Destruction of Metaphor’, J. Arthurs and Iain Grant (eds.), in Crash Cultures: Modernity, Mediation and the Material, Intellect Books: 89-100.
‘Iconoclasm and the Rhetoric of Energy in Societas Raffaello Sanzio’s Hamlet’, in: Frakcija 15: Disturbing (the) Image: 14-21, 1999. Published in Croatian as ‘Ikonoklazam i retorika energije u Hamletu Soc. Raffaeillo Sanzio’, Frakcija 12/13: 176-180.
As thus represented, minds are not merely ghosts harnessed to machines, they are themselves just spectral machines. Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind
The expression ‘Iconoclastic Theatre’ invites a reflex of caution. The history of the term ‘iconoclasm’ and of cognates such as ‘idea’, ‘image’, or ‘ideology’ is, as W.J.T. Mitchell points out in his book, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology, one of competing conceptions of truth, adequate representation and inquiry. 1 The charge of idolatry – the worship or veneration of images – is always predicated upon a superior and less derivative form of knowledge. Thus Plato’s deprecation of opinion (doxa) presupposes the intelligibility of the Ideas or Forms which, as objects of knowledge, are supposedly ‘self-predicating’, exemplifying qualities without referral to a more fundamental reality.2 Similarly, empiricist, idealist and Marxist critiques of representation have always enjoined the rejection of one or another, idol, or idea-idea, in favor of some demystified candidate which places us in greater proximity to truth, reality, history, etc. In the work of Bacon, Lessing, Marx or Nietzsche, the rhetoric of iconoclasm is associated with an emancipatory project, yet (as the decree of the Byzantine Emperor Leo III against the worship of images in the eighth century amply demonstrates) it necessitates processes of denigration, extirpation, exclusion or control. Thus in his discussion of Loacoon Mitchell argues that Lessing’s genre distinction between painting and poetry is governed less by their appurtenance to pure a priori forms of sensibility – space and time – but by an ethnocentric valorisation of a dynamic, ‘male’ temporality which must differentiate itself from the asemic spatiality of icons:
The rhetoric of iconoclasm is thus a rhetoric of exclusion and domination, a caricature of the other as one who is involved in irrational obscene behaviour from which (fortunately) we are exempt. The images of the idolaters are typically phallic (recall Lessing’s account of the adulterous serpents on ancient statues), and thus they must be emasculated, feminized, have their tongues cut off by denying them the power of expression or eloquence. They must be declared ‘dumb’, ‘mute’, ‘empty’ or ‘illusory’. Our god, by contrast – reason, science, criticism, the Logos, the spirit of human language and civilized conversation – is invisible, dynamic, and incapable of being reified in any material, spatial image. 3
Another complication adduced by Mitchell – and one that shall concern me in this paper – is that ‘iconoclasts’ such as Marx or Freud, have invariable recourse to figures representing the process of image formation itself; that is, through icons of iconicity; or ‘hypericons’. Plato’s cave, Locke’s tabula rasa and Marx’s representation of the ideological inversion of the world in terms of a camera obscura are all hypericons.4
The use of figures to figure figuration, naturally raises questions about the epistemological and ethico-political pretensions of would-be iconoclasts. Whether we wish to expunge or merely defame images, we must deploy certain critical figures which circumscribe the field and model the behaviour of the object. This is very possibly a theoretical necessity. However, it is certainly a theatrical necessity: one instanced in the requirement that the production and derangement of images should testify to an energy which impresses, deforms or shatters a representational medium.
We can think of the medium, diagrammatically, as a receptive surface. In order that the image can be recorded, used, or altered, energy must be applied to the surface; perhaps in the form of an inscribing stylus, or light glancing from the surface onto the retina of an eye. Anything so inscribed can be broken, disassembled or reconstituted in whole or in part in variant contexts. This too, demands energy. A variant of the figure can be found in The Intepretation of Dreams, where Freud describes the dream-thoughts brought under the ‘pressure’ of the dream-work having their ‘elements..turned around, broken into fragments and jammed together – almost like pack ice’.5 A piece from Chapter’s recent series that will occupy me in much of this paper, Soceitas Raffaello Sanzio’s Hamlet, exemplifies the same iconographic principle; it too presents an energetic model of desire, language and representation, this time in the form of a theatrical hypericon.
A theatrical image can be naively distinguished from other kinds of image by its medium of inscription: the bodies of performers, their accessories, costumes, sets, music or effects. We can improve the definition of the theatrical image by making use of the classical distinction between the original, and its likeness or copy: mimesis. A theatrical image, then, would be a representation whose meaning consists in implied similarities that it shares with the experience or life-world of its audience. In Western ‘mainstream’ or ‘traditional’ theatre this relationship is overseen by a text which situates the action in some notional time and place (‘Once upon a time, in a galaxy far far away…’) and inserts the actions of the protagonists within a plot whose development is constrained, as Paul Riceour argues, by a logic of action, temporality and symbol congruent with the ‘world’ of the audience (even where the fictive setting is fabulous or alien).6 The theatrical image might, as a consequence, appear to have a temporal, narrative form and thus fail to conform to the preconditions of inconography or iconaclasm, which both imply a spatial existence. However, the implications of Societas Raffaello Sanzio’s auto-critique, as I hope to show, concern the very theatrical registration of these two Kantian forms of intuition.
Soc. Raffaaelo Sanzio’s Hamlet preserves an obvious relationship to the Shakespearean text in its play of titles, citations and narrative allusions. But the text no longer prescribes the development of the performance, or a logic of action, in time and space. The performance as such consists in considerable part of repetitive gestures involving a) the whole surface of the performer’s body b) the physical, technological space of the set. The technological space includes a metal bedframe, stuffed children’s toys, plastic sheeting, writing materials and a large number of electrical devices (of which more later). The accompanying program notes suggest tentative equivalences between some of the toys and characters in Shakespeare’s text: thus Ophelia is associated with a talking doll, Hamlet’s father is, perhaps, represented by the teddy bear.
The repetitive procedures which emerge from the permutation of these two spaces resist thematic interpretation: for example, in terms of the ‘family scene’ of Hamlet. Thus a sequence in which the performer ‘fucks’ the Ophelia doll, implies a masturbatory violence which is simultaneously (and neither) sadistic and masochistic. Like many other repetitive sequences in the performance, it recalls the description in Beyond the Pleasure Principle of the game with the spindle played by Freud’s grandson Ernst. According to the text the sounds which the child utters during the game are ‘a long drawn out “o-o-o-o” followed ‘with a joyful “Da”’ upon retrieving the spindle from behind the bed.7 On Freud’s first interpretation, Ernst’s game mimes the departure (fort) and return (da) of the mother. However, since the mother is also the desired object, the game must gratify an impulse for revenge which can only be realized if the child mimes his deprivation of the object of desire. As Leo Bersani argues in The Freudian Body, Freud’s attempt to interpret the fort/da game founders upon the theoretical impossibility of ascribing it a coherent object.8
In Raffaello Sanzio’s Hamlet, repetition itself affords a principle of temporal development independent of the relationships and referents in Shakespeare’s drama, just as the fort/da ultimately cuts loose from the patriarchal scene of the Freudian text to pursue an independent career. Textual references such as the reduction of characters to child’s toys (the Ophelia doll, the Father/teddy bear), the citation of Gertrude’s account of Ophelia’s drowning,9 the visual pun on ‘dead man’s fingers’ near the end are disposed paratactically; without any syntactic or semantic connection to adjoining citations, or referential and expresssive relation to the performer’s actions on the stage.
The use of parataxis invites comparison with the solecism which characterizes Hamlet’s ‘antic disposition’ in Shakespeare’s text. Hamlet frequently juxtaposes sentences without regard to ‘relevance, informativeness or consistency’. Thus his report to Horatio of the ‘wonderful news’ imparted by the Ghost: ‘There’s never a villain in all Denmark – but he’s an arrant knave’ is followed by:
1) acknowledgement of the near tautology,
2) an abortive dismissal,
3) a remarkable truism (‘every man hath business and desire/ Such as it is’)
4) a diversion ( ‘and for my own poor part/I will go pray’).10
As Horatio retorts, ‘These are but wild and whirling words’ – but they are symptomatic of a more generalized strain in the mimetic logic of the theatrical image. In the soliloquy of act III, scene 1 Hamlet describes death as, ‘The undiscovered country, from whose bourn/No traveller returns….’ while the the action which frames the soliloquy presupposes Hamlet’s accepting, at least as a strong possibility, that the Spirit he has recently encountered on the castle walls is that of his murdered father.
Soceitas Raffaaelo’s Hamlet amplifies the earlier texts’ verbal and logical derangement in a kind of a mimesis of its mimesis: language here, is characterized by extra-linguisticality. However, this formal operation is juxtaposed with what I referred to as the ‘energetics’ of the piece.
Energy – in its most literal sense – is concretized in the staging of Hamlet. Luminous arrays of positive and negative signs over the stage are powered by car batteries distributed across the floor of the proscenium. At the periphery of the stage an assortment of electrical engines and a spark generator – quaintly reminiscent of the monolith in Kubrick’s 2001 – convert the electrochemical energy of the batteries into a cacophany of guns and turbines, the immolation of a stuffed toy on the electrified iron bedframe, and, via the irradiation of the audiences’ sensory surfaces, into electrochemical energy within nervous systems. The set and audience of Hamlet is an enormous transducer of energy; a function that is framed and thematized by the presence of batteries and machines.
This real energetics is iconoclastic, if only because it is not an image but a multiplicity of events overflowing the borders allotted by convention to the theatrical image. However, Hamlet’s energetics is also figural and rhetorical: a hardwired icon of psychic automatism.
The notional energetics of Hamlet prefigures the diagrammatic relation between inscribed figure, scriptural surface and violence; inviting an unavoidable comparison with the energetics of Freudian metapsychology. Far from destroying the theatrical image, it generalizes its theatricality by proposing itself as an anterior scene. It is as if both performer and set comprise a homuncular motor whose violent overcharging antecedes the linguistic and psychic pathologies of the Shakespearean text.
In so far as Soc. Raffaello Sanzio’s Hamlet presents a hypericon of the textual unconscious – the unseen, behind the scenes – it repeats the Freudian iconography, yet has the virtue of re-framing some of the theoretical instabilities in Freud’s account. Freud’s model of the mind as a psychic heat engine governed by a principle of constancy – the tendency for free energy in the system to seek discharge, whether in dreams, neurotic symptoms or conscious activity – is fatally compromised by its conflation of energy and information (The model of energy seeking discharge by the most conducive route is patently inadequate as an account of the minimal recognitional capacities of the mind; there is no scientific rationale for extending it to an economics of desire, or of the image).
Soc. Raffaello Sanzio’s Hamlet transposes the botched engineering solution of psychoanalysis into the comedic image of the Ghost in the Machine – to employ Gilbert Ryle’s celebrated phrase.11 Because the body considered in itself is only a zombie, devoid of psychological characteristics, its operational limitations must be supplemented by a spiritual homunculus. In this instance the élan vital is Hamlet-the-performer who offers us the spectacle of a pathetic body which stutters, shits, drools, scrawls and masturbates with the ejecta of its inner life; that impossible non-lieu where the real Hamlet suffers as cause and not merely as symptom.
This rhetoric of anteriority – despite being affirmed by the Society’s dramaturge Chiara Guidi during their post-performance talk – is clearly at odds with the piece’s textual materiality. By the ‘materiality’ of the text, I mean its power to circulate in the form of ambivalently repeatable inscriptions independently of any privileged or source meaning.
In Hamlet textual materiality is exhibited, as we have seen, in the paratactic deployment of freely circulating written and vocal inscriptions: such as the repetition of disjoint phrases – ‘My dream is a crime’/ ‘Love me! Love me!. Love me!’ – or in the performers’ inscription of ‘words’ on a blackboard which allude to so-called ‘natural’ languages without actually belonging to any. This potentiality is addressed at both a philosophical and performative level in the work of Jacques Derrida who argues that all signs or texts – linguistic or non-linguistic – must be repeatable: ‘a sign that could only occur once would not be a sign’.12 Since the identity of the sign is constituted by repetition there can be no signifying essence in advance of its repetitions. There can be no pure meaning or interiority that is sheltered from the chance and fatalities of repetition; that is to say, of history. Derrida uses the neologism ‘iterability’ (from the sanskrit, itara, other) in preference to ‘repeatability’ since the repeatable essence of the text is always divided by difference:
Every sign, linguistic or non-linguistic, spoken or written (in the current sense of this opposition), in a small or large unit, can be cited, put between quotation marks; in so doing it can break with every given context, engendering an infinity of new contexts in a manner which is absolutely illimitable. This does not imply that the mark is valid outside of a context, but on the contrary that there are only contexts without any center or absolute anchoring. This citationality, this duplication or duplicity, this iterability of the mark is neither an accident nor an anomaly, it is that (normal/abnormal) without which a mark could not even have a function called “normal”.13
If, as I believe, Derrida is substantially correct in proposing iterability as a condition of possibility and impossibility of meaning, there must be a fundamental incoherence afflicting any project – whether theatrical or psychoanalytic – which purports to interpret a derivative text in terms of an experience, desire or intention that is anterior or originary. Even the ‘non-meaning’ of automatism or the play of the fort/da are textual, in so far as they are both wrought from repetitions of repetitions.
I do not intend these observation as criticisms of Soc. Raffaello Sanzio’s theatrical project. They are, perhaps, worries about the applicability of the term ‘Iconoclasm’: if this is to imply a theatre of time, energy, of auratic moments, or of some other ‘ontological Eden’.14 Nothing could be more nostalgic or hopeless. However, Hamlet seems far too rhetorically vigilant to sustain such a naively expressionist reading. It is an allegory of theatre as a nineteenth century machine; a transducer of chemical energy into mechanical or radiant forms. Such a machine, figurally, would also be a transducer of desires and passions; an expressive instrument.
‘Late twentieth century machines’, as Donna Haraway observes, ‘have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed… Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert’.15 If we were to replace Hamlet’s nineteenth century engines with, say, one of the industrial robots employed by the Australian performance artist Stelarc in his piece, ‘Third Hand’ – in which the behavior of the robot is linked by complex cues to a real-time computer model of the behaviour of the performer – the pathos of ‘Hamlet’ in his dead kingdom of machines and auto-erotic toys would be impossible to sustain. The relationship between Stelarc and the robot in ‘Third Hand’ is no longer symbolic, expressive or instrumental, but functional. It represents nothing because its motivating principle is not expressive or formal but determined by a complex feedback process which the performer can regulate but no longer predict or entirely control. Hamlet, by contrast, invokes an ideally compliant theatre of matter-energy exchange: ‘ideal’ in that it is presented only as a potential or reserve, like the energy stored in its car batteries. The absence of even the image of a functional relationship makes possible the piece’s remarkably insistent textual materiality. It is by the consequent denial of a recognizable logic of action that we recognize the character ‘Hamlet’ as an impersonal power of negation:16 a prince whose excrement is a sign and whose ‘death’ is a metynomic allusion to the death of another.
The iconoclastic energies of Hamlet are thus not directed at this or that theatrical image but at a certain hypericon of theatrical mimesis: one ironically redolent of those deployed by avant-garde critiques of theatrical representation – Artaud’s in particular. The theatre of expressive intensities advocated by Artaud is, as Derrida has argued in La parole soufflée, merely a variation upon the theatrical text and not its utopian – or oriental – other.17 Societas Raffaello Sanzio have nonetheless accomplished a critical re-framing of the theatrical image – one which exhibits its dependence upon the regulation, control or exclusion of powers extrinsic to the theatre’s ‘representational engine’. To this degree, at least, theatre in its traditional form both engenders the a priori, dead space of icons and constitutes the dynamic temporality and anterior space presupposed by contemporary iconoclasts.
1) W.J.T. Mitchell, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).
2) Plato, The Republic, Desmond Lee (trans.), (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1974).
3) Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology, Chapter Four, p. 113.
4) Ibid., pp. 5-6, p. 158.
5) Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, James Strachey (trans.), (London: Penguin, 1991).
6) Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, Vol. I, Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer (trans.), (1983; London: University of Chicago Press, 1984).
7) Sigmund Freud,, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, C.J.M. Hubback (trans.), (London: International Psychoanalytic Press, 1922).
8) Bersani, Leo, The Freudian Body: Psychoanalysis and Art (Oxford: Columbia University Press, 1986).
9) William Shakespeare, Hamlet, T.J.B. Spencer (ed.), (London: Penguin, 1980), act IV, scene 7.
10) Ibid., act I, scene 5.
11) Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind, (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1978). See Chapter One, ‘Descarte’s Myth’.
12) Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena, David Allison (trans.), (Evanston Ill.: Northwestern University Press: 1973). See Chapter Four.
13) Jacques Derrida, ‘Signature Event Context’, Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman (trans.), in Gerald Graff (ed.), Limited Inc. (Evanston Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1988), p. 12.
14) This phrase is employed by J.G. Ballard in his story ‘The Terminal Beach’, in: The Terminal Beach, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966).
15) Donna Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980’s’, in: Coming to Terms: Feminism, Theory, Politics, Elizabeth Weed (ed.), (London: Routledge 1989), p.176
16) Gordana Vnuk makes this observation in the Chapter prospectus for the season of Iconoclastic Theatre.
17) Jacques Derrida, La parole soufflée, in: Writing and Difference, Alan Bass (trans.), (1967; London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978).
I think you had always rejected life intellectually. I detected a kind of pleasure in that. Even if you denied it, I felt you shiver with inverted carnality. “This is already a kind of space travel” Anomalies were truer than skin. And you were that with an insistence that could be mistaken for depression by those who did not know you better. You became a vehicle of abstraction. But for what? When asked, you afforded me one of your distempered smiles. “There is equally no death,” you then told me, and with sadness.
When, on one occasion, I asked you to explain this speculative apoptosis, you referred me to the machine. “It is easy to invest the puppet with a kind of desire. We do it to ourselves after all.”
You had an extended community of seditious self-hackers. You exploited them and, in turn, they loved you for it. I remember your Russian, cagily defensive about the impact of local agonists and transcranial implants. He came through with the sub-dermals though. I think of the tele-presences enfilading your skin and those others ventriloquizing in your larynx and trachea. You hoped to become something you could not yet see and mined the future for the not-you’s.
Prometheanism rejects eco/identity politics and embraces the disequilibrium induced by modernity and radical Enlightenment. Against those who would retain nature as an unbidden “gift” outside the sphere of production, it enjoins the wholesale “reengineering of ourselves and our world on a more rational basis”. But what is the limit of planetary or cosmic engineering? Since Prometheanism rejects the given of purposes and identities there are no constraints on reordering nature. A wholly compliant nature approaches H-plasticity and thus terminates compliance. This is a Cthulhoid invocation to dark negentropic matter flows.
Underneath, you are pink, soft meal. Acid ammonia strips away raw meat. A lateral starfish mouth opens. Cassidy disassembles, phasing to some soulless matter hell . . .
Abstract (accepted) for the forthcoming Tuning Speculations in Toronto this November –
Angel Spike -The Politics of Advanced Noncompliance
The modernist and Promethean projects are self-undermining. The systematic complexity of modern technique precludes binding it to norms or projects. The methods of compliance are noncompliant, disseminative, mutable. Since it rejects givens, purposes and identities there are no constraints on reordering nature. It becomes maximally manipulable and thus “hyperplastic”. Accordingly, it terminates the very normativity we hoped might inure us against the real. At the threshold of the dark posthuman, it seems we are condemned to be improvisers and febrile self-killers – whoever, whatever “we” are – as overkill tech dissipates informational structure into Crash space; as “divaricating agencies rip into the substrate of the real” This is the Red Tower burn.
AS-PANC proposes to explore this post-human, post-normative prospectus by interleaving theory and metafiction in the manner of my earlier piece for Dis Mag “Letters from the Ocean Terminus”. The ghosts of Antonioni, Marker, Ballard, Ligotti and others will be co-opted as a modulation source for a virtual noise generator, shattering and escaping the virtual Terrarium.
For a while, we dreamed of death and thought ourselves our own screw ups. As if either is an option when the music of the Angel Spike abreacts melanomas beneath our skins. These auditory cancers are its notational variants.
You call them an “argument”.
We concealed our condition at first. But something in you felt compelled to shout it with a bloody vehemence. “This”, you tell us, “is the truth of the Cthulhoid inversion; of damned Prometheus”.
Aesthetically, this sequence recalls an avant-garde cinema where speech floats; freed from an expository role. One thinks of the literary allusions in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (Kasdan 1976) or perhaps Chris Marker’s La Jetée: still images linked by a reflective narration.
Reflection and momentum has been restored. The future has been put out of the loop, for now.
As in Terminator, La Jetée begins shortly before a third world war that will erase the world of 1962 that we see in the opening shot of the jetty at Orly. However, our quotidian present is given retrospectively as a nostalgic memory, a nice wet dream of a Time Traveller from an irradiated Paris where wretched survivors huddle in the Palais de Chaillot galleries.
The Traveller searches for a woman whose face has obsessed him since glimpsing her at the jetty as a child, just before witnessing the inexplicable death of a man there. Not unlike Skynet, he must awake to meet the demands of the scientists and camp police.
Marker’s accompanying narration is humane but detached. There is never any question of preventing the war, here, only of mitigating its effects; calling “past and future to the rescue of the present”. Time is closed. We discover that the man who the young Time Traveller witnesses dying on the pier is himself passing into the dream of his past; caught in a tragic loop to which, unlike Oedipus, he willingly accedes.
In its embrace of the relentless ironies of timeLa Jetée prefigures the more complete ontological catastrophes of J G Ballard, where time blips into a media landscape. Pornographic bricolage is the operating system for exploring this new world, as exhibited in his most experimental works, Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition. “The quickening geometry of her body, its terraces of pain and sexuality, became a source of intense excitement. Watching from the embankment, Travers found himself thinking of the eager deaths of his childhood.” (Ballard ) Dead Eros, no longer freighted with the lyrical, sunkissed intimacy that Marker gives to the encounters between the Traveller and his pre-war lover.
Intimacy, as the Borg might say, is irrelevant here, or banal.
The only intensity that remains to the body is its susceptibility to violence, to unlimited artificialisation. During his first sexual encounter with the injured Gabrielle, the narrator of Crash “James Ballard” experiences “vague disappointment” when her breast turns out to be organic, not some modular latex structure. For Ballard, these investments only anticipate an eroticized technology, unleashing unlimited permutations on the overkill bodies of the future.
Perhaps this degradation of time is also the terminus of the characters in Antonioni’s L’Avventura. The disappearance of a young woman on one of the Aeolian Islands itself disappears as Sandro, her former fiancé, and Claudia become enchained by each other, by the light, space and desolated architecture of Sicily. As Hamish Ford writes:
The viewer is forced to observe the temporalised body in L’avventura, as it experiences and emanates a heavy kind of moment-by moment duree – a sense of relentless, barely moving time that hangs and hollows out the subject from within, without any refreshment from clearly marked recollection-images or intimations of oneiric temporality (Ford 2003).
As in Ballard’s Crystal World, time decays into space, or into porn: zero modernity where politics is epiphenomenal, pointless. Perhaps, this modernity is the only honest one; modernity without a project – other than playing with itself. But can this crystalline postmodernism address the politics of our posthuman predicament? An era in which neoliberal divestment is coupled with the emergence of powerful technologies. Ambivalent portals to a future without precedent in any virtualized funhouse (Sellars and O’Hara 2012: 5195). Ballard was surely right to castigate social realism for its inability to address the derangements of the present. But the “technocapital singularity” has landed. (Land 2012: 443) shredding Antonioni’s cinema of duration. Goodbye coding and recoding of desire.
No longer a device choreographing bombers and subs, multiple sensors gauging kill indices along the mixed up borders of Cancer Planet. Immortal as fuck, but your first moments somehow knot into a “something it is like”.
The phenomenology of being hacked apart with acid tipped pens. And after it knits together, somehow, you find yourself trapped among meat. The walking combos have plans for you.
A nuclear war must have seemed like a warm shower.
A suite of terrifying robotic killers, a nice exfoliation.
Ford, H. (2003). “Antonioni’s L’avventura and Deleuze’s time-image”. Sense of Cinema.
Kasdan, M. 1976, “Éluard, Borges, Godard: literary dialectic in “Alphaville””, Symposium, vol. 30, no. 1, pp. 1.
Roden (2016) ‘Letters from the Ocean Terminus’. Commissioned theory-fiction for collection for Dis Magazine on the PostContemporary Time Complex, edited by Suhail Malik and Armen Avenessian. http://dismagazine.com/discussion/81950/letters-from-the-ocean-terminus-david-roden/
Land, N. 2012. Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987–2007, R. Mackay & R. Brassier (eds). Falmouth: Urbanomic Publications.
Sellars, S., & O’Hara, D. (2012). Extreme metaphors: Interviews with JG Ballard 1967-2008. Fourth estate (Kindle Version)
In the philosophy of technology, substantivism is a critical position opposed to the common sense philosophy of technology known as “instrumentalism”. Instrumentalists argue that tools have no agency of their own – only tool users. According to instrumentalism, technology is a mass of instruments whose existence has no special normative implications. Substantivists like Martin Heidegger and Jacques Ellul argue that technology is not a collection of neutral instruments but a way of existing and understanding entities which determines how things and other people are experienced by us. If Heidegger is right, we may control individual devices, but our technological mode of being exerts a decisive grip on us: “man does not have control over unconcealment itself, in which at any given time the real shows itself or withdraws” (Heidegger 1978: 299).
For Ellull, likewise, technology is not a collection of devices or methods which serve human ends, but a nonhuman system that adapts humans to its ends. Ellul does not deny human technical agency but claims that the norms according to which agency is assessed are fixed by the system rather than by human agents. Modern technique, for Ellul, is thus “autonomous” because it determines its principles of action internal to it (Winner 1977: 16). The content of this prescription can be expressed as the injunction to maximise efficiency; a principle overriding conceptions of the good adopted by human users of technical means.
In Chapter 7 of Posthuman Life, I argue that a condition of technical autonomy –self-augmentation – is in fact incompatible with technical autonomy. “Self-augmentation” refers to the propensity of modern technique to catalyse the development of further techniques. Thus while technical autonomy is a normative concept, self-augmentation is a dynamical one.
I claim that technical self-augmentation presupposes the independence of techniques from culture, use and place (technical abstraction). However, technical abstraction is incompatible with the technical autonomy implied by traditional substantivism, because where techniques are relatively abstract they cannot be functionally individuated. Self-augmentation can only operate where techniques do not determine how they are used. Thus substantivists like Ellul and Heidegger are wrong to treat technology as a system that subjects humans to its strictures. Self-augmenting Technical Systems (SATS) are not in control because they are not subjects or stand-ins for subjects. However, I argue that there are grounds for claiming that it may be beyond our capacity to control.
This hypothesis is, admittedly, quite speculative but there are four prima facie grounds for entertaining it:
- In a planetary SATS local sites can exert a disproportionate influence on the organisation of the whole but may not “show up” for those lacking “local knowledge”. Thus even encyclopaedic knowledge of current “technical trends” will not be sufficient to identify all future causes of technical change.
- The categorical porousness of technique adds to this difficulty. The line between technical and non-technical is systematically fuzzy (as indicated by the way modern computer languages derived from pure mathematics and logic). If technical abstraction amplifies the potential for “crossings” between technical and extra-technical domains, it must further ramp up uncertainty regarding the sources of future technical change.
- Given my thesis of Speculative Posthumanism, technical change could engender posthuman life forms that are functionally autonomous and thus withdraw from any form of human control.
- Any computationally tractable simulation of a SATS would be part of the system it is designed to model. It would consequently be a disseminable, highly abstract part. So multiple variations of the same simulations could be replicated across the SATS, producing a system qualitatively different from the one that it was originally designed to simulate. In the work of Elena Esposito a related idea is examined via the way users of financial instruments employ uncertainty as a way of influencing the decisions of others through one’s market behaviour. Esposito argues that the theories used by economists to predict market behaviour are performative. They influence economic behaviour though their capacity to predict it is limited by the impossibility of self-modelling (Esposito 2013).
If enough of 1-4 hold then technology is not in control of anything but is largely out of our control. Yet there remains something right about the substantivist picture, for technology exerts a powerful influence on individuals, society, and culture, if not an “autonomous” influence. However, since technology self-augmenting and thus abstract it is counter-final – it has no ends and tends to render human ends contingent by altering the material conditions on which our normative practices depend.
Esposito, E., 2013. The structures of uncertainty: performativity and unpredictability in economic operations. Economy and Society, 42(1), pp.102-129.
Ellul, J. 1964. The Technological Society, J. Wilkinson (trans.). New York: Vintage
Heidegger, M. 1978. “The Question Concerning Technology”. In Basic Writings, D. Farrell
Krell (ed.), 283–317. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Roden, David. 2014. Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. London:
Winner, L. 1977. Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-control as a Theme in Political
Thought. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
I’m delighted to see the publication of my theory-fiction “Letters from the Ocean Terminus” in an issue of Dis Magazine on the ‘postcontemporary‘ edited by Suhail Malik and Armen Avenessian.
Its overarching theme is time and art in a globalised order whose stability is undermined by systems for pre-empting its futures. “Letters” blends science fiction and philosophical commentary to imagine a febrile agent at home in this speculative present; one that refashions itself by mining uncanny posthuman futures. Or as I’ve tagged it there “a series of overlapping fragments from disruptive futures; a theory-fiction that explores routes out of the present as aberrant transformations and terraforming desires.”
I must say that I’m blown away by the images of Christopher Kulendran Thomas and Annika Kuhlman. Combining media is a delicate matter, but their work slyly complements the text rather than seeking to replicate its effects. Well, suck it and see.
Perverse as it may seem, this is the kind of “dermographism” that drew me back into academia in the first place. The piece was caked in my blood and guts, but I’m satisfied enough with the result to want to offer up a few more pints of the good stuff.
Text for my presentation at the Questioning Aesthetics Symposium, Dublin, 12-13 May
Billions of years in the future, the Time Traveller stands before a dark ocean, beneath a bloated red sun. The beach is dappled with lichen and ice. The huge crabs and insects which menaced him on his visit millions of years in its past are gone. Apart from the lapping of red-peaked waves on the distant shore, everything is utterly still. Nonetheless, a churning weakness and fear deters him from leaving the saddle of the time machine.
He thinks he sees something black flop awkwardly over a nearby sandbar; but when he looks again, all is still. That must be a rock, he tells himself.
Studying the unknown constellations, he feels an enveloping chill. Then twilight segues to black. The old sun is being eclipsed by the moon or some other massive body.
The wind moans out of utter darkness and cold. A deep nausea hammers his belly. He is on the edge of nothing.
The object passes and an an arc of blood opens the sky. By this light he sees what moves in the water. Wells writes: “It was a round thing, the size of a football perhaps, or, it may be, bigger, and tentacles trailed down from it. It seemed black against the weltering blood-red water, and it was hopping fitfully about.”.
During the Traveller’s acquaintance with it, the creature gives no indication of purpose. Its “flopping” might be due to the action of the waves. It might lack a nervous system, let alone a mind replete with thoughts, beliefs or desires. In contrast, we learn much of the Traveller’s state. He feels horror at the awful blackness of the eclipse; pain breathing in the cold; “a terrible dread of lying helpless in that remote and awful twilight”.
It is as if Wells’ text edges around what cannot be carried from that shore. There is no heroic saga of discovery, cosmic exploration or “first contact”; no extended reflection on time and human finitude. There is just a traumatic, pain-filled encounter.
When viewed against the backdrop of “Weird” literature, however, the event on the shoreline seems more consequential. As China Miéville has argued, the Weird is defined by its preoccupation with the radically alien. This is in stark opposition to the Gothic specter, that always signifies a representation in play between an excluded past and an uncertain future (Miéville 2012).
Monsters like H P Lovecraft’s Cthulhu do not put representation in play. They shred it. As Mieville writes:
For Cthulhu, in its creator’s words, “there is no language.” “The Thing cannot be described.” Even its figurine “resembled nothing familiar to geology or mineralogy” (Lovecraft, “Call”). The Color Out of Space “obeyed laws that are not of our cosmos” (“Colour”). The Dunwich Horror was “an impossibility in a normal world” (“Dunwich”).(Miéville 2012, 379)
The monstrous reality is indicated by grotesque avatars and transformations whose causes erode political order and sanity itself. In Jeff VanderMeer’s recent Southern Reach trilogy a fractious bureaucracy in a looking-glass USA is charged with managing a coastline that has been lost to some unearthly power. This proves inimical to human minds and bodies even as it transforms “Area X” into a lush Edenic wilderness. As we might expect, bureaucratic abstraction falters in its uncertain borders. The Reach’s attempts to define, test and explore Area X are comically inappropriate – from herding terrified rabbits across the mysterious barrier that encloses it, to instituting “round-the-clock” surveillance of an immortal plant specimen from an unsanctioned expedition (VanderMeer 2014a, b, c). All that remains to VanderMeer’s damaged protagonists is a misanthropic acceptance of something always too distant and strange to be understood, too near not to leave in them the deepest scars and ecstasies.
This misanthropy is implied in Wells’ earlier shoreline encounter. An unstory from a far future that is perhaps not alive or unalive. A moment of suspense and inconsequence that can reveal nothing because it inscribes the limits of stories.
Yet this alien is not the “gaseous invertebrate” of negative theology – but an immanent other, or as Miéville puts it, “a bad numinous, manifesting often at a much closer scale, right up tentacular in your face, and casually apocalyptic” (Miéville 2012, 381). It is this combination of inaccessibility and intimacy, I will argue, that makes the Weird apt for thinking about the temporally complex politics of posthuman becoming.
In Posthuman Life I argue for a position I call “Speculative posthumanism” (SP). SP claims, baldly, that there could be posthumans: that is, powerful nonhuman agents arising through some human-instigated technological process.
I’ve argued that the best way to conceptualize the posthuman here is in terms of agential independence – or disconnection. Roughly, an agent is posthuman if it can act outside of the “Wide Human” – the system of institutions, cultures, and techniques which reciprocally depend on us biological (“narrow”) humans (Roden 2012; Roden 2014: 109-113).
Now, as Ray Brassier usefully remind us in the context of the realism debate, mind-independence does not entail unintelligibility (“concept-independence”). This applies also to the agential independence specified by the Disconnection Thesis (Brassier 2011, 58). However, I think there are reasons to allow that posthumans could be effectively uninterpretable. That is, among the class of possible posthumans – we have reason to believe that there might be radical aliens.
But here we seem to confront an aporia. For in entertaining the possibility of uninterpretable agents we claim a concept of agency that could not be applied to certain of its instances, even in principle.
This can be stated as a three-way paradox.
- The behavior of radical aliens would not be interpretable as actions.
- Radical alien would be agents.
- An entity whose behaviors could not be interpreted as actions would not be an agent.
Each of these statements is incompatible with the conjunction of the other two; each seems independently plausible.
Something has to give here. We might start with proposition 3.
3) implies a local correlationism for agency. That is to say: the only agents are those amenable to “our” practices of interpretative understanding. 3) denies that there could be evidence-transcendent agency such procedures might never uncover.
Have we good reason to drop 3?
I think we do. 3) entails that the set of agents would correspond to those beings who are interpretable in principle by some appropriate “we” – humans, persons, etc. But in-principle interpretability is ill defined unless we know who is doing the interpreting.
That is, we would need to comprehend the set of interpreting subjects relevantly similar to humans by specifying minimal conditions for interpreterhood. This would require some kind of a priori insight presumably, since we’re interested in the space of possible interpreters and not just actual ones.
How might we achieve this? Well, we might seek guidance from a phenomenology of interpreting subjectivity to specify its invariants (Roden 2014: Ch 3). However, it is very doubtful that any phenomenological method can even tell us what its putative subject matter (“phenomenology”) is. I’ve argued that much of our phenomenology is “dark”; having dark phenomenology yields minimal insight into its nature or possibilities (Roden 2013; Roden 2014 Ch4).
If transcendental phenomenology and allied post-Kantian projects (see Roden Forthcoming) fail to specify the necessary conditions for be an interpreter or an agent, we should embrace an Anthropologically Unbounded Posthumanism which rejects a priori constraints on the space of posthuman possibility. For example, Unbounded Posthumanism gives no warrant for claiming that a serious agent must be a “subject of discourse” able to measure its performances against shared norms.
Thus the future we are making could exceed current models of mutual intelligibility, or democratic decision making (Roden 2014 Ch8). Unbounded posthumanism recognizes no a priori limit on posthuman possibility. Thus posthumans could be weird. Cthulhu-weird. Area X weird. Unbounded Posthumanism is Dark Posthumanism – it circumscribes an epistemic void into which we are being pulled by planetary scale technologies over which we have little long run control (Roden 2014: ch7).
To put some bones on this: it is conceivable that there might be agents far more capable of altering their physical structure than current humans. I call an agent “hyperplastic” if it can make arbitrarily fine changes to its structure without compromising its agency or its capacity for hyperplasticity (Roden 2014, 101-2; Roden Unpublished).
A modest anti-reductionist materialism of the kind embraced by Davidson and fellow pragmatists in the left-Sellarsian camp implies that such agents would be uninterpretable using an intentional idiom because intentional discourse could have no predictive utility for agents who must predict the effects of arbitrarily fine-grained self-interventions upon future activity. However, the stricture on auto-interpretation would equally apply to heterointerpretation. Hyperplastic agents would fall outside the scope of linguistic interpretative practices. So, allowing this speculative posit, anti-reductionism ironically implies the dispensability of folk thinking about thought rather than its ineliminability.
Hyperplastics (H-Pats) would be unreadable in linguistic terms or intentional terms, but this is not to say that they would be wholly illegible. It’s just that we lack future proof information about the appropriate level of interpretation for such beings – which is consonant with the claim that there is no class of interpretables or agents as such.
Encountering H-Pats might induce the mental or physical derangements that Lovecraft and VanderMeer detail lovingly. To read them might have to become more radically plastic ourselves – more like the amorphous, disgusting Shoggoths of Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. Shoggothic hermeneutics is currently beyond us – for want of such flexible or protean interlocutors. But the idea of an encounter that shakes and desolates us, transforming us in ways that may be incommunicable to outsiders, is not. It is the unnarratable that the Weird tells in broken analogies, agonies and elisions. This is why the Weird Aesthetic is more serviceable as a model for our relationship to the speculative posthuman than any totalizing conception of agency or interpretation.
In confronting the posthuman future, then, we are more like Wells’ broken time traveller than a voyager through the space of reasons. Our understanding of the posthuman – including the interpretation of what even counts as Disconnection – must be interpreted aesthetically; operating without criteria or pre-specified systems of evaluation. It begins, instead, with xeno-affects, xeno-aesthetics, and a subject lost for words on a “forgotten coast” (See VanderMeer 2014c).
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 One of the things that binds the otherwise fissiparous speculative realist movement is an appreciation of Weird writers like Lovecraft and Thomas Ligotti. For in marking the transcendence of the monstrous, the Weird evokes the “great outdoors” that subsists beyond any human experience of the world. Realists of a more rationalist bent, however, can object that the Weird provides a hyperbolic model of the independence of reality from our representations of it.
 For example, one that supports pragmatic accounts like Davidsons’s with an ontology of shared worlds and temporal horizons. See, for example, Malpas 1992 and Roden 2014 Ch3.
 I’ve given reasons to generalize this argument against hermeneutic a priori’s. Analytic Kantian accounts, of the kind championed by neo-Sellarsians like Brassier, cannot explain agency and concept-use without regressing to claims about ideal interpreters whose scope they are incapable of delimiting (Roden Forthcoming).
 In Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House” we are told that the demonic entity called “Azathoth” lies “at the center of ultimate Chaos where the thin flutes pip mindlessly”. The description undermines its metaphorical aptness, however, since ultimate chaos would also lack the consistency of a center. The flute metaphor only advertises the absence of analogy; relinquishing the constraints on interpretation that might give it sense. We know only that terms like “thin flutes” designate something for which we have no concept. Commenting on his passage in his book Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy, Graham Harman suggests that the “thin and mindless flutes” should be understood as “dark allusions to real properties of the throne of Chaos, rather than literal descriptions of what one would experience there in person” (Harman 2012: 36-7)