Monster Portraits (Del Samatar and Sofia Samatar)

Sofia Samatar is one of the most interesting of the new(er) generation of writers of speculative fiction. Her two novels, A STRANGER IN OLONDRIA and THE WINGED HISTORIES, radically rework the conventions of heroic fantasy, both in terms of race/ethnicity and gender, and in terms of narrative conventions and questions about literariness and about the writing of history and of ethnography, not to mention questions of written vs oral more generally. Her short story collection TENDER contains stories straddling the divisions between science fiction, fantasy, and other genres; my favorite of these stories, “How to Get Back to the Forest” — also available for free download here — both moves me and freaks me out every time I (re)read it.

Sofia Samatar’s new book, MONSTER PORTRAITS is a collaboration with her brother Del Samatar. It’s a book of short sections: each section is a short description of a monster, or an even briefer series of mediations on what it means to search for monsters; Sofia Samatar’s text is accompanied by gorgeous (& sometimes gruesome) black-and-white illustrations by Del Samatar. The overall effect is quite poetic. The short sections are mostly fragmentary or nonlinear, combining weird descriptions (weird in the sense of “weird fiction”) with (real or made-up?) autobiographical reminiscences, and citations from a large number of earlier texts (these latter are listed at the end of the book; they range from a Victorian translation of the Odyssey to Frankenstein to Amiria Baraka and Aime Cesaire to Helene Cixous and Roland Barthes).

The result of all this is a text that is kaleidoscopic or dreamlike. It roams in many directions, without ever choosing just one. MONSTER PORTRAITS is a meditation on the varying senses of monsters and of monstrosity. Monsters can be scary, but also misunderstood. “Creating monsters is an act of faith.” Anything that deviates from socially-imposed norms (anything, for instance, that isn’t white cismale heterosexual etc) is a monster; and to identify with monsters is to “identify” with that which escapes or refuses traditional, socially-sanctioned forms of identification. But the endeavor to impose norms, to make everyone and everything alike, to stigmatize anyone who in any way is different, is also essentially monstrous. “The monster evokes, in equal measure, both compassion and its opposite.”

The book moves delicately between these different meanings (or efforts to escape from meaning). Insofar as it is arranged like a catalog — each chapter describes a particular monster, both in prose and in the illustrations that are listed by number — Figure 1, Figure 2, etc. — MONSTER PORTRAITS is reminiscent of Borges’s famous “Chinese encyclopedia”, divided as it is into multiple, incompatible classifications.

This incompatibility is itself the real subject of MONSTER PORTRAITS. At one point in the text, Samatar warns us that: “In the realm of language, the opposite of a monster is a catalogue.” The book takes the form of a catalogue that it is impossible to catalogue. Overall, I find this book pleasurably and frustratingly enigmatic: it teases me with the prospect of an overall comprehension that it continually and finally denies me. In reading it, I find myself passing through thickets of beautiful but unsummarizable prose, interrupted at times with startling pronouncements that jump out from this woven background:

“What joy to be a parasite instead of a host.”

“Her heart bore a pair of claws that were useful for nothing, she told me, but scratching at itself.”

“Exiles and insomniacs share this feeling: that each is the only one.”

“Try as much as possible to conform and you will be saved by a wily grace. Imperfection is your genius.”

And many more. Despite being such a short book, MONSTER PORTRAITS defies closure and summary.

Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti series

Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti: The Night Masquerade (available on January 16 – I was lucky to get to read a pre-publication copy) is the third (and at least for the moment, final) installment in the series that began with Binti (2015) and continued with Binti: Home (2017). The three books individually are of novella length; though the third installment is almost as long as the previous two combined. Indeed, the three together can be regarded as a single novel, both in terms of word length and in terms of imaginative scope.

The Binti series is Afrofuturist science fiction. The eponymous protagonist and narrator is a young woman from the Himba people of Namibia. This group is known today for the way that they strongly maintain their traditional practices and ways of life, while at the same time engaging fully with social and technological modernity, and the other peoples with whom they interact. This is still the case in the future world of the novellas: the Himba rarely leave their desert territory, and they keep to something like their traditional ways of life; but at the same time they are known for their cutting edge technology, which they sell to other peoples on Earth, and even to beings from other planets.

Binti herself is a mathematical genius, who comes from a family who make their living by manufacturing astrolabes – handheld electronic computing and communications devices which are small enough to fit into a pocket, but at the same time evidently far more powerful than our present-day phones and other computing devices. Binti is proud of her Himba heritage; the traditions with which she has grown up are an essential part of her. But at the same time, she has outward ambitions and desires that go beyond what these traditions can accomodate. Her mathematical skill and passion is something universal, rather than particular. She often goes into a trance — she calls this process “treeing” — while envisioning mathematical equations, such as the formula for the Mandelbrot Set (which produces infinitely ramifying fractals). Treeing is all at once psychological (she often enters into the state in order to calm herself, when she is feeling stressed or anxious), imaginative (it allows to to contemplate extended possibilities that she would not be able to see otherwise), and powerful (through envisioning the mathematical structures she is able to call up electrical currents that she can direct so as to manipulate aspects of her body and her environment). Mathematics is finally Binti’s mode of access to the universal, or to order of the universe (an intuition that has often been expressed by mathematicians and physicists; it exists at the point of union of the mystical, the scientific, and the real). (Though Binti insists that, while mathematics is her route to something like the ultimate, other people may well have other routes to the same asymptotic goal).

In any case, one could say that the conflict between the particular and the universal is what drives and underlies the narrative of the whole series. Though I should add that I am unhappy with the Hegelian tone of this formulation, which is not Okorafor’s but just mine; I’d like to figure out a way to say it less grandiosely, and less totalizingly — which would be more in tune with the way the novellas actually work themselves out. Binti’s Himba identity is very important to her, at the same time that she has desires that point beyond it. The first book begins with Binti doing what she cannot help thinking of as a transgressive act: she leaves her family and community behind — indeed she leaves the Earth itself behind — by getting on a spaceship and travelling to Oomza Uni, on a distant planet. It’s the best university in the galaxy; and Binti has been admitted thanks to her mathematical genius. But leaving her family and her homeland goes against her heritage; the Himba don’t like to travel, and they strongly value staying together. Binti leaves early in the morning, when everybody else is asleep, and without her family even knowing that she plans to go.

So the first Binti novella begins as a coming-of-age story: a feminist and Africa-centered version of the “myth of the hero’s journey” we’ve heard about so many times. (In interviews, Okorafor has made no secret of her love for the Star Wars series, probably the best-known work explicitly modeled on that so called universal myth). Personally, I hate Joseph Campbell and all the hero’s myth stuff – there is nothing more boring and oppressive than being told that there can be nothing new under the sun (or even in the whole galaxy), just recapitulations of the same fucking story. So I love the ways that Okorafor departs from the myth, and pushes her story in new directions that change things radically. Of course, it still remains possible for a reader to subsume everything that happens in the three books under the “monomyth” after all — that is part of what I hate about the theory: it can take anything whatsoever and subsume it into itself. But if you read the Binti series in such a way, you lose what is most rich and exciting about it. The novellas continually surprise us because, behind the story of the plucky young woman discovering her true potential and becoming a hero, there are all kinds of swerves and deviations, which turn the story into something else.

For the Binti series is not just about the universal, but equally about particularities, and all the ways that – for both good and ill – they resist being subsumed into the universal. Mathematics gives Binti a universal structure; its abstractions mean that she can use it to comprehend just about anything. But she also continually has experiences that push her beyond her limits (to the point where the only use she has for her beloved mathematics is to calm herself). In the first novella, when Binti defies her family, leaves town, and gets on a spaceship, her trials are only beginning. All the other human beings heading to Oomza Uni are Khoush — a lighter-skinned ethnic group that control most of the Earth, and who are mostly racist, looking down condescendingly at the Himba. The Khoush really are Hegelians (though Okorafor never designates them as such); they cannot accept the stubborn refusal of the Himba to be subsumed within the “higher” universality that they represent. But as soon as we think Binti has gotten a handle on this problem — she has made friends with many of the Khoush students, gotten them to accept her, and found common terrain with them — something else happens. Another intelligent species, the Meduse — their bodies are sort of like giant jellyfish — invades the ship, commandeers it, and kills all the Khoush — Binti is the only human being left alive, aside from the pilot. It turns out the Meduse have grievances against the Khoush, who have behaved towards the Meduse in the same arrogant, colonialist fashion as they have towards the Himba. The Meduse at first try to kill Binti as well, but they fail — it turns out she has both technologies that repel them and are dangerous to them, and technologies that can soothe them and cure their ailments.

I won’t discuss all the turns and twists of the plot in the three novellas (I justify what I said above about the first volume because it was published long enough ago that nobody has the right to object to spoilers; but I will avoid any spoilers regarding the new volume). Suffice it to say that the Meduse invasion of the ship is only the first of many situations, throughout the three novellas, in which the Star Wars heroic paradigm simply fails to work. Not just in the early part of the first volume, but through all three novellas, Binti is continually faced with problems that cannot be resolved either by antagonism, or by cooperation towards some higher cause. She has to find (or better, to improvise) oblique solutions, which involve the contingencies of particular cases and particular histories as much as they involve the universality that can be (to some extent) realized through mathematics.

These oblique solutions are also always partial and temporary. There is no repose and no completion: no sublation into the universal, and no self-reflexivity to close the circle. Even though all three volumes have happy endings, there is never a real sense of closure. Binti always remains afflicted by anxiety and by a violent ambivalence. There are always dissonant notes in her harmonies. I use the word “harmonies” here advisedly; Binti’s vocation, according not only to the Himba but also to others, is to be a harmonizer. This means that she is able to pull things together and allow them to coexist; when faced with an intractable opposition, she is able to perform “a shift of meaning which converts the opposition into a contrast” (to use Whitehead’s great phrase). Her harmonizing conversions are not reconciliations, however; tensions and inequalities always remain. Okorafor’s future Earth, and indeed her galaxy, remain subject to colonialism and racism, and other forms of oppression just as the actual Earth does today. Harmonization is less than revolutionary transformation; what it is about, ultimately, is finding a way for oppressed or subordinated groups to not only survive, but even flourish, in spite of the (continuing) state of oppression. Binti harmonizes by improvising, finding the best solution she can in situations that remain unsatisfactory.

Binti’s harmonizing improvisations are characterized by two things: diplomacy and hybridity. I mean diplomacy here in the strong sense that has been developed by Isabelle Stengers (in the final volume of Cosmopolitics, as well as elsewhere):

What is difficult and interesting about the practice of diplomats is that it frequently exposes them to the accusation of betrayal. The suspicion of those whom the diplomat represents is one of the risks and constraints of the profession and constitutes its true grandeur. For what is demanded of the diplomat is characterized by an irreducible tension. On the one hand, diplomats are supposed to belong to the people, to the group, to the country they represent; they are supposed to share their hopes and doubts, their fears and dreams. But a diplomat also interacts with other diplomats and must be a reliable partner for them, accepting as they do the rules of the diplomatic game. Therefore, the diplomat cannot be one with those she represents.

Binti faces this problem, mediating between the Meduse and the Khoush — who have been bitter enemies for a long time — as well as between both and the Himba (and also among other groups of humans and sentient extraterrestrials whom we meet throughout the three novellas). Binti’s Himba heritage is what allows her to be a harmonizer, or a diplomat in Stengers’ sense; but her assuming this role means that she also finds herself apart from the Himba, and can no longer unproblematically belong to them or be one of them. This logic is alreadyat work from the very beginning of the first novella, when Binti violates her heritage while clinging to it at the same time. The paradox of diplomacy is not only the displacement of the diplomat, but also the fact that, on the one hand, without diplomacy we are doomed to the horrors of continual unabated conflict; while at the same time, there is never any guarantee that diplomacy will work: it is always susceptible to failure, and even at best its improvisations are fragile and ephemeral. We experience all of this — the failures as well as the partial successes — throughout the course of the three novellas.

Binti’s activity as a harmonizer is also an adventure of hybridity. She is no more able to just exist, rootedly and unproblematically, as a Himba, than she is able to cast off her Himba-ness and dissolve (as it were) into the universal. Over the course of the three novellas, she enters into several symbioses — at once cultural and biological — first with the Meduse, and later with other groups both human and nonhuman. Hybridity does not mean merging, or entering into a “melting pot.” Binti remains, or increasingly becomes, an assemblage of identities, or characteristics, from different sources, that do not coalesce but must learn to coexist. Her vocation as a harmonizer or diplomat must first, and most importantly, be exercised for, and upon, herself. Her emotional ups and downs in the course of the story are aspects of this process. It’s a trajectory that never comes to a definitive ending point, but needs to be renewed and maintained throughout, and this is still the case at the end of The Night Masquerade.

I will stop here. Saying more would involve getting into the details of the new volume, and I promised not to introduce spoilers. I am also leaving for a later time questions about how Binti relates to the rest of Okorafor’s fiction, and to Afrofuturism more generally. Here I can only testify to how compelling and impassioning a read the Binti saga is, how absorbing it is on a page-by-page and line-by-line basis, as well as all the deeper questions it raises.

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:
https://www.dropbox.com/s/4w1vdssyxv7b1r4/Three%20Essays%20on%20Jerry%20Lewis.epub?dl=0

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?

Tricia Sullivan – Occupy Me

Tricia Sullivan has long been one of my favorite contemporary science fiction authors. Her past books include the amazing MAUL. It has two plot lines: in one, set in present-day New Jersey, teenage girls engage in gang warfare at the mall; in the other, set in the far future, men are almost extinct due to a plague that kills nearly everyone with a Y chromosome; scientists are busy trying to find a cure by conducting experiments on the few remaining human males who are apparently immune. There is also the DOUBLE VISION / SOUND MIND diptych, which includes among its elements martial arts, the autism spectrum, interplanetary war, corporations testing the effectiveness of TV advertising campaigns, aspects of (I think) the author’s autobiography (from when she was an undergraduate at Bard College), and displacements of the spacetime continuum.

Her new novel, OCCUPY ME, is equally heady and thrilling. The book has just been published in the UK. (There doesn’t seem to be an American publisher at present; I ordered a copy of the paperback directly from the UK). It has a gripping action plot, but at the same time it has ontological implications that I haven’t entirely grasped after just an initial reading. I use the word “ontological” deliberately; as Sullivan says in her blog posting on the book, her aim was

to move beyond what I’d written in the past. Most of my books are about consciousness, which is an ontological subject in its own way, but not the same kind of ontology as cosmology–or so I thought at the time.

Actually, I think that OCCUPY ME is about both consciousness and cosmology. I’ll try to summarize what is at stake without too many spoilers, but [SPOILER WARNING] some account of what happens in the book is unavoidable.

OCCUPY ME seems to start out in the genre of dark paranormal fantasy; but the magical elements — an angel; a briefcase at least as mysterious and potent as the one in Pulp Fiction — are subsumed into what turns out to be much more of a science fiction framework. There are three narrative strands, conveying the points of view of three main characters. But one of the strands is first person, one is second person, and one is third person. This turns out to correspond to the differences among the three protagonists. The first person narrator, Pearl, is the one who seems to be an angel; she has wings and superhuman powers, though she initially works as a flight attendant, and seems ultimately to be some sort of artificial intelligence construct. The third person narration focuses on Alison, a 60-something Scottish veterinarian who is the only character in the novel possessing what might be called (non-pejoratively) common sense; she provides the human anchoring for what is largely a transhuman or posthuman story. The second person narration addresses its “you” to Doctor Sorle, a surgeon working in the US but originally from Africa, haunted by a strange double who takes over his body in the service of an alien agenda. I presume that it’s because of this possession, so that he is impelled by forces that are both strangely intimate and beyond/external to himself, that he is narrated in the second person.

The first background to the story involves a rapacious energy company that wreaks destruction in the developing world in its search for oil to extract, and an equally rapacious businessman, now on his deathbed, who used to work for the oil company, but detourned some of its profits in order to set up his own financial empire. Appropriately for today, we have a world dominated by petrochemicals and derivatives — and it is clear that governments and police forces are subordinated to corporations dealing in these commodities, rather than the reverse. In this sense, the novel is embedded — as much SF is — in the actual social conditions of the time in which it is written.

But there is also a second background, and this is where the cosmology comes in. We have cosmic forces located in the higher dimensions that contemporary physics gives us hints of. We have the power of informatics, in the way that organisms, environments, and subjectivities can be sampled for their quantum “waveforms,” and thereby preserved in virtual form (though never completely — the data are never vast enough to encompass the totality of an organism together with its conspecifics and its environment). We have organic encryption — not just in DNA, but more significantly in carbon nanostructures that introduce higher-dimensional gates hidden in crude oil. The oil that corporations extract today was formed out of organic matter from the Cretaceous — and in OCCUPY ME, the Cretaceous data is still encrypted in the oil, which allows for reversions from the deep geological past to manifest themselves in present day reality (in the novel, this takes the form most notably of a predatory pterodactyl, whose actions are crucial to the plot). And we have the forces or entities that have gathered this data — which becomes a way to suggest influences beyond the present, or beyond our current consensual spacetime reality, without introducing any sort of supernatural authority (whether in traditional religious or in vaguely spiritual new-agey format).

In an odd way, all this makes the novel sort of self-reflexive: a science fiction narrative about the powers and effectiveness of science fiction itself. We know that, to quote Faulkner, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This is true of historical time: the colonialist depredations of the oil company are still active twenty or thirty years later in the present time of the novel. But it is equally true of deep time: which the novel dramatizes in the form of the resurgence of the Cretaceous (from which the oil derives) within the moment in which we extract and use the oil. But if the past still subsists within the present (despite our American tendency to dismiss things by saying that they are “history”), then we can equally say that the future already insists within the present moment: its potentialities glimmer in the form of premonitions, and also in the form of alternative outcomes — according to the “butterfly effect,” the way that tiny shifts can have disproportionate consequences.

The novel reflects at one point that these shifts disrupt our pretensions to control the future:

The idea that this principle should work makes it sound like the universe is made of Swiss clockwork, not fickle electrons that might as well be leprechauns. The butterfly effect isn’t real in the sense that people think it is; chaos is chaotic, right? You can’t manipulate it by flapping a particular butterfly on a particular day. The only way you could make the butterfly effect work, to interfere in a chain of events, would be to run against the grain of time. And that really would be resistance to entropy.

In other words, not only can we not calculate the future from the present in a deterministic or Hari Seldon-esque way, we cannot even calculate the broad outcomes of our own small interventions into initial conditions. But the novel also suggests that, under some circumstances at least, it is possible to go against entropy. This reminds me, among other things, of Erik Schneider and Dorion Sagan’s argument that the negentropic organization of living systems is possible because on the larger, more cosmic scale, it works to increase entropy or energy dispersion. In OCCUPY ME, Pearl makes a similar suggestion; just after the passage I quoted above, she says that

the funny thing about entropy is that it loves order. Entropy loves order because more order burns everything down faster…

The novel’s speculations about entropy, together with its citation of higher-dimensional acausal quantum networks, allows some elbow room for a nondeterministic account of futurity (of how it insists in the present, in my language) and of the possibility, therefore, of nudging future events, after all. The physics of this is admittedly speculative (and therefore, unavoidably dodgy). In the blog post I cited earlier, Sullivan lists as her scientific sources for this speculation books by the physicists Lisa Randall (Warped Passages) and Michio Kaku (Physics of the Impossible). Both these books are already somewhat speculative; Sullivan’s extrapolations from them are therefore speculative squared.

Such speculation propels the overall narrative of OCCUPY ME, and especially Pearl’s own quest — which she only discovers in the course of her experiences through the length of the novel. Towards the beginning of the book, we are introduced to a shadowy group called The Resistance, which tries to nudge the future in better directions, as unobtrusively as possible. This falls apart, however, in the course of the novel’s plot, which involves revisions of the past as well as the future, through a recursive feedback process. (I don’t want to be more precise here, because that would involve rehearsing the book’s narrative more than I want to here — although it is very much to the point that part of what makes the novel so powerful is that its narrative, from the point of view of thrills, twists, and character identification, resonates with and is inextricable from its conceptual argument, which is what I am trying to disentangle here). But by the end of the novel, Pearl comes to another, perhaps less fragile, formulation of the same process by which it is possible to nudge causality without violating it. (This also involves how the higher dimensional implicate order is related to the linear order of spacetime as we experience it — but this is one aspect of the novel’s extrapolative argument that I don’t feel ready to work out yet. It also involves elements of both informatics and energetics, which are brought out in some other plot strands).

All this is consistent with my own general claims, that I have been trying to formulate in different ways, about science fiction. In the first place, though SF is not scientifically accurate (its extrapolations involve inventions that will never be experimentally verified, hence that will never come true), it nonetheless performs legitimate acts of metaphysical (or, let’s here say ontological) speculation. In the second place, SF is precisely a “realism”, not of present social and ecological conditions per se, but of the future potentiality that insists or resonates within this present (of course, this does not mean that SF claims to predict the actual future). If Pearl, the first-person narrator, is the most important of the three persons (in both a grammatical and characterological sense) populating the novel, this is because she increasingly discovers, thoughout the course of the novel, how her subjectivity (and her substantial physical power) is a matter (or a function) of waveform data that are virtual rather than actual, or that extend beyond the simple present to more complex and convoluted temporalities. In this way, the novel’s account of cosmology is also its account of consciousness: a double ontology which is not inconsistent with the double plots of some of Sullivan’s earlier novels.

There is a lot more to say than this rough outline; but that will probably have to wait for a rereading of OCCUPY ME. For now, I can just say that the novel both confirms my overall sense of what science fiction can do, and extends this in directions that I haven’t quite been able to work out yet.

Talk on Whitehead

A quicktime movie of “Without Criteria,” a talk on Alfred North Whitehead that I delivered at the Sense Lab of Concordia University, in November 2004, is now available online here.

A quicktime movie of “Without Criteria,” a talk on Alfred North Whitehead that I delivered at the Sense Lab of Concordia University, in November 2004, is now available online here.

Running Out of Time

Running Out of Time (1999) is another brilliant film by Johnny To (whom I’ve written about before). A man with just a few weeks left to live (Andy Lau) plans and executes an elaborate robbery/scam, motivated ultimately by honor and revenge, the need to settle scores with the gang leader who betrayed his father. In the course of events he develops a kind of emotional bond with the cop who is trying to catch him (Ching Wan Lau).
The themes might seem familiar from John Woo, but this is a very different sort of film. To’s fractured action editing and oblique lighting, together with the way he has of inserting odd digressions into the plot without slackening the pace, create a kind of jittery poetry, both frenetic and cool, never quite settling down into any sort of fixed and recognizable sentiment (I think this is yet another example of what Jenny calls “emotionless affect”).
This sort of not-quite-feeling is a quality of To’s elaborate visual style; but it’s also perfectly embodied in Andy Lau’s charismatic outlaw, charming us even at the point of death. Knowing that he will be gone soon, periodically spitting up blood, he seems detached from his own ferocious desires, machinating his plot with an insouciance worthy of Cary Grant. Indeed, the way an insistent consciousness of mortality somehow comes across as insouciance is a big part of what makes the film work for me: such a connection or transformation seems utterly outrageous, yet at the same time it seems so perfectly right. The prospect of death is a source of dread and mystery, perhaps, only because death itself is so shallow; there’s nothing behind the curtain.
I don’t mean to say that Running Out of Time is a philosophical film: it’s too committed to the thrills of the action genre to have any such pretensions. (It also has some of the attributes of a video game). But To’s images, and Lau’s performance, nonetheless do embody a kind of thought. And a new thought at that. A thought that could only be thought in our age of globalization, of multiplying images, and of the ubiquitous electronic extrusion of our brains. Not profound thought, but lateral thought, networked thought, thought that is visceral yet superficial, skidding across the surfaces of our eyes and ears and minds.

Running Out of Time (1999) is another brilliant film by Johnny To (whom I’ve written about before). A man with just a few weeks left to live (Andy Lau) plans and executes an elaborate robbery/scam, motivated ultimately by honor and revenge, the need to settle scores with the gang leader who betrayed his father. In the course of events he develops a kind of emotional bond with the cop who is trying to catch him (Ching Wan Lau).
The themes might seem familiar from John Woo, but this is a very different sort of film. To’s fractured action editing and oblique lighting, together with the way he has of inserting odd digressions into the plot without slackening the pace, create a kind of jittery poetry, both frenetic and cool, never quite settling down into any sort of fixed and recognizable sentiment (I think this is yet another example of what Jenny calls “emotionless affect”).
This sort of not-quite-feeling is a quality of To’s elaborate visual style; but it’s also perfectly embodied in Andy Lau’s charismatic outlaw, charming us even at the point of death. Knowing that he will be gone soon, periodically spitting up blood, he seems detached from his own ferocious desires, machinating his plot with an insouciance worthy of Cary Grant. Indeed, the way an insistent consciousness of mortality somehow comes across as insouciance is a big part of what makes the film work for me: such a connection or transformation seems utterly outrageous, yet at the same time it seems so perfectly right. The prospect of death is a source of dread and mystery, perhaps, only because death itself is so shallow; there’s nothing behind the curtain.
I don’t mean to say that Running Out of Time is a philosophical film: it’s too committed to the thrills of the action genre to have any such pretensions. (It also has some of the attributes of a video game). But To’s images, and Lau’s performance, nonetheless do embody a kind of thought. And a new thought at that. A thought that could only be thought in our age of globalization, of multiplying images, and of the ubiquitous electronic extrusion of our brains. Not profound thought, but lateral thought, networked thought, thought that is visceral yet superficial, skidding across the surfaces of our eyes and ears and minds.

New Hampshire Primary

I still think, even more, that we are doomed if Kerry is the Democratic nominee. In his victory speech tonight, Kerry looked and acted like he had a stick up his ass (a common metaphor, but in this case it seemed almost literally apt). Not only did he obviously not believe any of the things he was saying, he didn’t even seem capable of pretending to believe them. He’s too lame even to be phony.
Dean, on the other hand, was emotionally involved, with his people, and also with the larger TV audience. Not that this will do him much good. I agree with Jacalyn that Dean is in trouble in large part because the media read things like his now infamous whoop as that he is “acting too ‘lower-class’/ too black/too much like white trash.”
It’s not that I am saying that any show of emotion is automatically good. After all, who was more emotional (and thereby more crassly manipulative) in his political speeches than Hitler? I am saying, rather, that it’s more on an affective level than an ideological one that elections are won and lost. And too few political commentators notice this, or are willing to admit that they are aware of it.
It may be that nobody the Democrats have can compete with what Jenny, who writes very well about the politics of affect, describes as Bush’s display of ” feeling that doesn’t slip over into ‘a’ feeling….Bush is the conservative/political cousin to the iPod commercials, insofar as they both tap into emotionless affect in order to ‘work.’ ”
Now, I think that Bush is able to appear this way, precisely because he is a sociopath, as Mark Crispin Miller cogently argues. But that doesn’t make the task of beating him any easier; and though I still think that the career military man, General Clark, is the one most likely to be able to do it, I remain uncertain as to whether he can pull it off. But I know that Kerry doesn’t stand a chance.
Most idiotic comment of the evening, by somebody on CNN: “Women like Kerry because they feel protected by him.”
Most outrageous claim by a candidate: Lieberman, claiming his 5th place showing as a victory, because he was almost in a tie for third place (Kerry and Dean, he said, don’t really count, because they come from states directly adjoining New Hampshire. It’s a good thing nobody reminded Lieberman that, even if Connecticut doesn’t border New Hampshire, it, too, is part of New England).
Sharpton brilliantly one-upped Lieberman when he said he was thrilled to get a few hundred votes in New Hampshire, when he didn’t even campaign there.

I still think, even more, that we are doomed if Kerry is the Democratic nominee. In his victory speech tonight, Kerry looked and acted like he had a stick up his ass (a common metaphor, but in this case it seemed almost literally apt). Not only did he obviously not believe any of the things he was saying, he didn’t even seem capable of pretending to believe them. He’s too lame even to be phony.
Dean, on the other hand, was emotionally involved, with his people, and also with the larger TV audience. Not that this will do him much good. I agree with Jacalyn that Dean is in trouble in large part because the media read things like his now infamous whoop as that he is “acting too ‘lower-class’/ too black/too much like white trash.”
It’s not that I am saying that any show of emotion is automatically good. After all, who was more emotional (and thereby more crassly manipulative) in his political speeches than Hitler? I am saying, rather, that it’s more on an affective level than an ideological one that elections are won and lost. And too few political commentators notice this, or are willing to admit that they are aware of it.
It may be that nobody the Democrats have can compete with what Jenny, who writes very well about the politics of affect, describes as Bush’s display of ” feeling that doesn’t slip over into ‘a’ feeling….Bush is the conservative/political cousin to the iPod commercials, insofar as they both tap into emotionless affect in order to ‘work.’ ”
Now, I think that Bush is able to appear this way, precisely because he is a sociopath, as Mark Crispin Miller cogently argues. But that doesn’t make the task of beating him any easier; and though I still think that the career military man, General Clark, is the one most likely to be able to do it, I remain uncertain as to whether he can pull it off. But I know that Kerry doesn’t stand a chance.
Most idiotic comment of the evening, by somebody on CNN: “Women like Kerry because they feel protected by him.”
Most outrageous claim by a candidate: Lieberman, claiming his 5th place showing as a victory, because he was almost in a tie for third place (Kerry and Dean, he said, don’t really count, because they come from states directly adjoining New Hampshire. It’s a good thing nobody reminded Lieberman that, even if Connecticut doesn’t border New Hampshire, it, too, is part of New England).
Sharpton brilliantly one-upped Lieberman when he said he was thrilled to get a few hundred votes in New Hampshire, when he didn’t even campaign there.

Ellen Gallagher

An exhibit of works by Ellen Gallagher just opened at the Henry Art Gallery. The artist was present to give a talk about her work. I’ll have to go back for a more extended look, but what I saw (and heard) was quite interesting. Gallagher’s work is fascinatingly oblique, giving a kind of formalist take on the history and position of black people in America. Gallagher took advertisements for wigs from old copies of Ebony and other African American magazines (her archive extends from 1939 to the late 1970s). She obsessively reworked these images in various ways, replacing the depicted wigs with plasticine blobs, effacing the faces of the models, organizing the resulting tiny images in huge grid patterns.
Gallagher is tracing a careful path between the Scylla of identity politics, and the Charybdis of universalizing abstraction. She is not representing “black identity” or even black history in any straightforward way; but neither are her abstract patterns – which is what you first notice of her work from a distance – abstracted from history, or from the history of that (contingent, non-essential, but also perfectly concrete and real) “identity.”
Wigs are a prosthetic amplification of the body, even when (or especially when) it is claimed (as is the case in many of the ads Gallagher appropriates) that they are “natural.” (They are also part of the larger history of the cultural meanings of hair – remember Madame C. J. Walker). As dubious fashion accessories. wigs themselves have a history in the years of Gallagher’s archive (witness the differences between the straight ones of the 1940s and the Afros of the late 60s and 70s).
But Gallagher is not just memorializing a history. Neither is she making a critique (as might well be done, for instance, from the point of view of looking at the various ways that African Americans have often sought to make their hair straigher, more like white people’s hair). Rather, she is exploring a tricky middle ground, where identity, an artifice to begin with, becomes blurred by memory, time, and loss, but is never entirely obliterated. Her images of prosthetics of the body are themselves prosthetic images: images which replace, or extend, previous images. This suggests an endless progression of simulacra, perhaps; but it does NOT suggest any sort of Baudrillardian thesis that the “real” has been obliterated. This is because, far from being “hyperreal,” Gallagher’s images are troublingly concrete: indexical presences rather than achieved absences, residues rather than effacements of their dubious “originals.”
In her talk, Gallagher linked these residual presences, uneffaced despite the violence with which she works over her appropriated images, to the themes of Afrofuturist science fiction. That is to say, she sees the Middle Passage as the true and ultimate form of alien abduction: people taken away from their homes and families, brutally dragged by strangers through an unfamiliar, blank space, and enslaved in an utterly alien environment. She suggested that the Middle Passage itself, rather than any fantasy of Mother Africa, is the one “origin” back to which black Americans can refer. And she cited the conceptualizations of Samuel Delany, and the SF mythologizings of George Clinton and especially Drexciya, with their wonderful vision of an underwater Atlantean realm, inhabited by the women and children who perished during the Middle Passage. Gallagher said that she felt close to Drexciya both in terms of this mythology, and in terms of the oblique, abstract way that they present it, in enigmatic techno music without vocals.
Gallagher is a brilliant artist of the in-between, in many different senses.

An exhibit of works by Ellen Gallagher just opened at the Henry Art Gallery. The artist was present to give a talk about her work. I’ll have to go back for a more extended look, but what I saw (and heard) was quite interesting. Gallagher’s work is fascinatingly oblique, giving a kind of formalist take on the history and position of black people in America. Gallagher took advertisements for wigs from old copies of Ebony and other African American magazines (her archive extends from 1939 to the late 1970s). She obsessively reworked these images in various ways, replacing the depicted wigs with plasticine blobs, effacing the faces of the models, organizing the resulting tiny images in huge grid patterns.
Gallagher is tracing a careful path between the Scylla of identity politics, and the Charybdis of universalizing abstraction. She is not representing “black identity” or even black history in any straightforward way; but neither are her abstract patterns – which is what you first notice of her work from a distance – abstracted from history, or from the history of that (contingent, non-essential, but also perfectly concrete and real) “identity.”
Wigs are a prosthetic amplification of the body, even when (or especially when) it is claimed (as is the case in many of the ads Gallagher appropriates) that they are “natural.” (They are also part of the larger history of the cultural meanings of hair – remember Madame C. J. Walker). As dubious fashion accessories. wigs themselves have a history in the years of Gallagher’s archive (witness the differences between the straight ones of the 1940s and the Afros of the late 60s and 70s).
But Gallagher is not just memorializing a history. Neither is she making a critique (as might well be done, for instance, from the point of view of looking at the various ways that African Americans have often sought to make their hair straigher, more like white people’s hair). Rather, she is exploring a tricky middle ground, where identity, an artifice to begin with, becomes blurred by memory, time, and loss, but is never entirely obliterated. Her images of prosthetics of the body are themselves prosthetic images: images which replace, or extend, previous images. This suggests an endless progression of simulacra, perhaps; but it does NOT suggest any sort of Baudrillardian thesis that the “real” has been obliterated. This is because, far from being “hyperreal,” Gallagher’s images are troublingly concrete: indexical presences rather than achieved absences, residues rather than effacements of their dubious “originals.”
In her talk, Gallagher linked these residual presences, uneffaced despite the violence with which she works over her appropriated images, to the themes of Afrofuturist science fiction. That is to say, she sees the Middle Passage as the true and ultimate form of alien abduction: people taken away from their homes and families, brutally dragged by strangers through an unfamiliar, blank space, and enslaved in an utterly alien environment. She suggested that the Middle Passage itself, rather than any fantasy of Mother Africa, is the one “origin” back to which black Americans can refer. And she cited the conceptualizations of Samuel Delany, and the SF mythologizings of George Clinton and especially Drexciya, with their wonderful vision of an underwater Atlantean realm, inhabited by the women and children who perished during the Middle Passage. Gallagher said that she felt close to Drexciya both in terms of this mythology, and in terms of the oblique, abstract way that they present it, in enigmatic techno music without vocals.
Gallagher is a brilliant artist of the in-between, in many different senses.

Testing

Desk.jpg
My office. This is a test of MFOP2, which allows me to post photos directly from my new Nokia futurephone. Yes, I have a new phone, with a camera and email, so that now I can post images directly to this blog, to my regular photoblog Macular Hole, or to the new, occasional moblog I have created, Missed Encounters. These multiple blogs should keep me busy…

Desk.jpg
My office. This is a test of MFOP2, which allows me to post photos directly from my new Nokia futurephone. Yes, I have a new phone, with a camera and email, so that now I can post images directly to this blog, to my regular photoblog Macular Hole, or to the new, occasional moblog I have created, Missed Encounters. These multiple blogs should keep me busy…

Pretend

Julie Talen’s Pretend, which I saw tonight at the Seattle artspace Consolidated Works, is a powerful and formally innovative no-budget film (actually shot on digital video, not film).

Julie Talen’s Pretend, which I saw tonight at the Seattle artspace Consolidated Works, is a powerful and formally innovative no-budget film (actually shot on digital video, not film). Pretend tells an emotionally wrenching story, about a nine-year-old girl who stages the fake kidnapping of her six-year-old sister, as a ploy to prevent their parents from breaking up. Children spend a lot of time playing make-believe, but what happens when their fantasies cross over into actuality? With its unreliable narrator and presentation of multiple possibilities, the film offers no easy answers.
But what really makes Pretend a remarkable film is its use of multiple frames and screens-within-screens. Split screens are used now and again in Hollywood films; Andy Warhol experimented with multiple images projected at once in the 1960s; Mike Figgis’ Timecode divided the screen into four quadrants, projecting the simultaneous output from four synchronized cameras; and Peter Greenaway has done a lot with frames-within-frames. (Talen herself gives a detailed history of the use of multiple frames in an article that appeared last year in Salon).
But no narrative film (and probably no avant-garde film either) has ever done anything on the order of what Talen accomplishes in Pretend. The screen is continually being divided into three, five, nine, twelve, or as many as forty-two frames; sometimes there is a checkerboard pattern, other times the screen is split top and bottom, or left and right; still other times, frames of different sizes appear as boxes floating in front of an image that would otherwise cover the entire screen. Sometimes the various frames show different but simultaneous scenes; sometimes they show the same scene from different angles; sometimes they depict variations, or metaphorically associated scenes, or fantasies that somehow relate to the action in other frames. The movements and arrangements of the multiple frames often seem to be organized according to musical principles; speaking about the film, the director spoke of some of these sequences as “fugues” of images. Other times, the visual arrangement of the frames seems more directly motivated by the narrative.
Of course, none of this could have been done before the arrival of digital video, and programs like Final Cut Pro. In addition, Talen makes much of the visual properties (and limitations) of digital video. Sometimes different frames are given different color balances; sometimes some of the frames are blurry, or shot with a slow shutter speed, or blown up so much that individual pixels appear on the screen.
While the effect is sometimes close to abstract, the film as a whole never loses sight of the narrative in which it is anchored. The result of all this is extraordinary: at times, while I was watching Pretend, I felt that I was perceiving things in an entirely new way, as if the very process of vision had been reinvented. (But it’s important to note that Talen’s radical visuals never interfered with the narrative, but made total sense as a way of conveying it, just as more familiar cinematographic and editing techniques do).
The sort of fragmentation of the visual field that is evident in Pretend is really just a way of moving cinema, that quintessential 20th-century art form, fully into the 21st century. Marshall McLuhan said that technological changes, the invention and dissemination of new media, results in changes in the “ratio of the senses,” mutations in the human sensorium itself. McLuhan , writing in the 1960s,was concerned with the way that television was different from movies. Today, under the impact of computers, and more generally the information and communications revolutions of the last thirty years, our minds have become more accustomed to multi-tasking, and our visual experience has become ever more heterogeneous and fragmented. Think of the multiple windows on our computer screens, or for that matter of the multiple windows, with text ticker at the bottom, of a station like CNN Headline News. Pretend is the first film I have seen that does full justice to these changes in our everyday visual experience; what’s more, it doesn’t just mimic these changes as a formal exercise, but deploys them in a way that is intellectually challenging and emotionally resonant.