I’ve been listening to a bunch of bands from Detroit, because I have been considering the possibility of moving to Detroit within the next year. (Nothing’s been settled, yet). Anyway, I kind of like Electric Six. It’s sort of like white guy (and girl) trash rockers go disco. Raucous, funny, and fun. Like most white rockers who try to emulate black rhythms, they can’t really do it well enough, and are too stiff and unfunky – which at great length becomes a bit tiresome, so I’m not really able to listen to their album Fire straight through. But listened to individually, in small doses, the songs are great: especially their hit single “Danger! High Voltage”, which is a total , hysterical scream, sort of like the chintzy monster-movie version of a neo-Gothic celebration of the power of Desire.
Archive for July, 2003
Andy Clark‘s Natural-Born Cyborgs is an excellent discussion of what new information technologies mean for us as embodied, intelligent beings. Clark argues, rightly, that fears about “unnatural” cyborgization are unfounded. Human beings have always – as long as we have been human – used prosthetic devices to extend our intelligence. Language is the first and most important such prosthetic device; writing is a second, momentously important one. The list goes on, to include all the “media” (in Marshall McLuhan’s sense) that are woven into the texture of our lives. The point is that such technologies are not mere “tools” in contrast to ourselves as conscious minds who merely “use” those tools. Much of our conscious experience, from the way we “use” our hands and feet to the way we remember things that are not directly present to consciousness until we willfully recall them, is in fact based on “distributed systems” without clear boundaries. Through writing, for instance, we can do mathematical calculations, and create narratives and reasoned arguments, that would be impossible to articulate without pen and paper. The best way to explain this is to say that my intelligence is a distributed system that includes the marks on the sheet of paper (and the hands that make those marks, and the eyes that read them back) as well as the flashings across synapses. The result is that we can master a greater body of material than is literally storable in short-term memory. But this can be extended; looking at my wristwatch in order to know the time is no different, and neither is using software to access knowledge that isn’t always implanted in my physical brain, or using a telephone to talk to somebody thousands of miles away. There is simply no sensible way to draw the line between what we do “naturally” and what we only can do with technological prostheses. If anything, what defines human beings as a species is our “natural” ability to extend our bodies and intelligences – by using “technology”, and by exploiting the extreme “neural plasticity” of our minds to adapt culturally, rather than waiting for genetics, to new circumstances and new ways of being – in ways that other animals cannot. I think that Clark is entirely right in his arguments; it’s ridiculous to say that computers and mobile phones and future developments in virtual reality are “denaturing” and “alienating” us any more than using fire, or speech, or drawing marks in the sand has done. So Natural-Born Cyborgs is a smart and useful book; it is also admirably written by an academic philosopher in a readily accessible style (as is all too rarely the case). At times, the book seems a little thin, because the argument has been drawn out for more pages than is really necessary; but this is only a minor quibble, in light of the book’s many virtues. (Also, it’s nice to see a cognitive philosopher who’s savvy enough to cite William Burroughs and J G Ballard and Warren Ellis).
Sogo Ishii’s Electric Dragon 80,000 V is a delirious, audacious masterpiece: 55 minutes of crazed rock ‘n’ roll theatrics in a demented duel between Tadanobu Asano, all heavy-guitar/dissonance/feedback rage, and Masatoshi Nagase, eerily calm techno-Buddha. Both characters command the forces of electricity, and the film is awash with montages of lightning storms, electric chairs, shock treatment machines, exploding transformers, and the like, not to mention reptiles, guitars, cell phones, fast tracking shots scurrying through the gutters, and enormous kanji trembling and vibrating across the screen. All shot in crisp, high-contrast black and white, usually at night, or if in the daytime, overexposed to the point of washout. With a screaming, pounding soundtrack, Hendrix meets industrial. Almost no plot, almost no dialog, nothing but an over-the-top amphetamine rush, and megalomaniacal rock ‘n’ roll iconography pushed well beyond the point of total absurdity. Pure, exhilarating cinema, in short.
I went to a great reading tonight by Samuel R. Delany. It was the last in a series of readings this summer sponsored by Clarion West. Delany read a lengthy passage from a novel he has recently finished writing, called This Short Day of Sun and Frost. (The title, he explained, comes from a phrase by Walter Pater). He said that the novel was fantasy, in the manner of G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday (a book which, I am ashamed to say , I have never read). But there was nothing fantasy-like, or non-naturalistic, about the passage he read. Set in New York in 1992, it was about sex, and sexuality, and AIDS, and mourning, and race, and class, and life, and death… and sex. Brilliant and utterly compelling, with an essential weirdness, and much about desire, and yet thoroughly embedded in the everyday, and in concrete, physical details: a strange and digressive, but naturalistic narrative. Delany is one of our greatest living writers, and it is always an immense pleasure to hear him read, so vividly and powerfully, from his own work.
Travis Jeppesen’s Victims is an oblique, enigmatic, and strangely beautiful short novel, ostensibly about a religious cult whose members self-immolate in the manner of Heaven’s Gate; but the rhetoric and story of the cult is just one of many strands, or languages, or perspectives, flickering through the book in concisely chiseled passages of minimal prose. The book circles around a basic despair at living, but contains everything from mock-nouveau roman close descriptions of next to nothing, to self-reflexive lyrical meditations upon vacancy and pain. It’s as if crystalline fragments of all the genres of contemporary fiction were somehow melded together. The novel was too delicate, too otherworldly for me to find it altogether compelling, but I find it haunting in its very ephemerality, an ignis fatuus I can never quite grab hold of.
Hypercube, or Cube 2, is (of course) the sequel to Cube. The films share a minimal, elegant SF/horror premise. A bunch of people are trapped in a series of cubical rooms. The rooms are basically empty and featureless. Each room has six exits, one in the middle of each side (including the floor and the ceiling) which lead to similar empty cubical rooms. Various murderous threats appear in certain rooms; the characters also get tenser and tenser, and somtimes break down, or turn against one another. You have a combination of abstract mathematical patterns – a sort of modernist architecture theme gone mad through its own excessive purity – and psychological tension, people pushed to the point of nervous collapse. In Hypercube, the sadism of modernist geometry (everything white, with no irregularities or distinguishing features) is multiplied by the cruel unpredictability of quantum weirdness (postmodern? quantum theory is modernist, early 20th century; but here it is invoked, not very rigorously, as the justification for all sorts of twisted and trippy – as in a bad trip – video effects) as the victims find themselves in a tesseract (the equivalent, in four spatial dimensions, of a cube in three dimensions, or a square in two). Space folds back on itself, time contracts and dilates, and people encounter alternate versions of themselves. There’s no way out, of course, but only interminable waiting, or else actual death; both Cube films could be described as pulp versions of Beckett, and all the better for their mixture of high intellectual concept and trash TV psychology. The affect of Hypercube is an odd combination of icy distance and a sort of free-floating dread, too unfocused, abstract, and impersonal to be existential angst, but too palpable, too tactile, to be dismissed. A chillingly creepy experience; low-budget trash-art at its best.
Inspired by Warren Ellis, I have started my own WAPblog. This is a mini-blog (very brief rants/thoughts/etc, text-only) accessible through any Web-enabled mobile phone. Just bookmark http://tagtag.com/shaviro on your mobile phone.
If you don’t have a WAP-enabled mobile, you can go to my startpage, where you can access the content of my WAPblog, Warren’s, and several others.
Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (which, for whatever reasons, I never managed to see before now) is a brilliant tour de force–in terms of the performances, and especially Soderbergh’s direction: intense, gripping, and visually compelling, with the multiple plot lines and locations beautifully orchestrated together. As a commentary on the “war against drugs,” however, it is mostly hokum. While it is (properly) cynical enough to recognize the futility of our current “zero tolerance” policies, and while it is well done in the gangster/corruption aspects, it shows no understanding about drugs themselves, what they do (including their profound differences from one another), and why people take them. Instead, we get cliches (the black drug dealer who Michael Douglas’ daughter has sex with in order to get her fix) and melodramatic posturing (not that I have anything against melodrama, just against tasteful melodrama) about the nuclear family. Though Michael Douglas is marginally less loathsome than he is in most of his other roles, and though Soderbergh thankfully doesn’t lay on the family values with anything approaching Spielbergian hysteria, it all still rings hollow. Give me R-Xmas any day, rather than Traffic, when it comes to films about drugs and their effect upon families.
Jack O’Connell’s Word Made Flesh is a hardboiled crime novel, and also a meditation on language and writing, and memory and complicity. (Thanks to Ashley Crawford for recommending O’Connell). Like Hammett’s Red Harvest, Word Made Flesh uses the detective genre, and a story about competing gangs in a small city (Personville, sarcastically called Poisonville, in Hammett; Quinsigamond, a kind of dream version of Worcester, Massachusetts, for O’Connell) to convey a hellish vision of power, of a world in which “people are brutalized for the simplest reason of all: because they can be. Because when someone else holds power, they can fuck you over in ways that your imagination has never even considered” (215). But O’Connell replaces Hammett’s gritty realism with a phantasmal irrealism in which violent economic and political power, expressed through horrifying assaults on the body, accompanies, and seem almost interchangeable with, the power (which is also the delusive anti-power) of words and texts. So the violent, noirish plot turns out to involve a quest for a missing book, an Anne Frank-like work of impotent, yet enduring, testimony to a massacre (or worse than a massacre, since it sought to obliterate, not just people, but the memory of those people’s ever having existed). And we encounter such phenomena as a gang of violent terrorists who seek, on philosophical grounds, to eliminate all written language; a parasitic disease that feeds on the language centers of the brain, as well as on the tongue; not to mention a bevy of competing bibliomanes, literary scholars, linguistic theorists, and religious visionaries obsessed with the Word. All in all, a strangely gripping and compelling novel.
Sexy Beast is a clever British gangster film from 2001, noteworthy for Ben Kingsley’s performance as a menacing, psychopathic gangster who is trying to convince or bully a former associate, now “retired” to a villa in Spain, to come back to London to pull another heist. The film focuses on surreal touches and uncomfortable psychological undercurrents, rather than action or suspense, which makes for a refreshingly different take on what would otherwise be a familiar genre study. And Kingsley is amazing: he is probably the only actor who could give such a performance, over-the-top and yet understated at the same time: which sounds like an oxymoron, but which is literally true.