Archive for September, 2005

Jodi Dean on “Neoliberal Fantasies”

Tuesday, September 27th, 2005

I am proud to announce that the first speaker in the 2005-2006 DeRoy Lecture Series, which I organize for the English Department at Wayne State University, is Jodi Dean (author of Aliens in America and the forthcoming Zizek’s Politics) speaking on “Neoliberal Fantasies.”
If anyone reading this is in the Detroit area: the lecture takes place at 3:30pm, Friday, September 30, in the English Department Conference Room (suite 10302, 5057 Woodward).

Woken Furies

Tuesday, September 27th, 2005

Woken Furies is Richard Morgan‘s fourth novel, and the third in his “Takeshi Kovacs” series (following Altered Carbon and Broken Angels). (I wrote about Altered Carbon here, Broken Angels here, and about Morgan’s one non-Takeshi Kovacs novel, Market Forces, here).

Like its predecessors, Woken Furies is a combination of high-octane action/violence/thriller and science fiction. Morgan is so good at the former — machinating action with loads of unexpected twists and turns, and delivering really intense and visceral scenes of violence (“the grip on my fingers ripped the eyelid from the brow downward, scraped the eyeball and tugged it out on the optic nerve… He lost his hold on me and reeled backward, features maimed, eye hanging out and still pumping tiny spurts of blood…”) — that he’d probably be a lot more famous if he set his books, Robert Ludlum- or Tom Clancy-like, in the present. But of course it’s the science fiction aspect that really makes these novels so interesting and disturbing.

In Woken Furies, we have the staples of the earlier Kovacs novels — the technology of “sleeves,” new bodies in which your consciousness can be inserted, provided that you have preserved a physical backup of that consciousness (the “cortical stack”); the enhancement of those sleeves by all sorts of neurochemical enhancements and digital prostheses; and the special training Takeshi Kovacs has received as an Envoy (a former member of the elite UN corps that brutally suppresses rebellion and revolution anywhere in the sphere of human-inhabited planets), which makes him both superhuman and somewhat inhuman. In this volume, Kovacs returns to his home planet, Harlan’s World, and finds himself having to deal with yakuza, religious fundamentalists, out-of-control military AI killing systems, a brutal ruling class, and especially the legacy of Quellcrist Falconer, the legendary socialist-revolutionary theorist/activist whose words Kovacs had often quoted in the previous novels, but who now seems to have returned from the dead.

Kodwo Eshun has remarked on how Morgan’s novels seem to take a sort of morbid, macho pleasure — what used to be called a morose delectation — in reveling in the horrific excesses of capitalism at its most brutal and barbaric. The absolute cynicism of power, and the delight in exercising it as sadistically as possible, are constants in these novels, which simultaneously present them as inescapable and inevitable, regardless of the social arrangement, and rage against the politico-economic privilege that makes them possible. Not only Kovacs-as-narrator, but Morgan himself as well, seem to combine an utterly Hobbesian view of human nature with a Marx-like level of outrage at exploitation and oppression.

Woken Furies pushes this to almost schizophrenic levels. While the action here is not quite as all-out brutal as that of the military/corporate interventions in the hellish Broken Angels, here the drive to see the worst, and almost revel in it, is more deeply than ever before embedded in Kovacs’ character. Kovacs is consumed with loathing and self-loathing, though (as narrator) he never entirely ‘fesses up to it. Kovacs is offended beyond endurance by the exploitation, torture, and murder that are continually being inflicted on Harlan’s World (and all the other human-inhabited planets) for reasons of economic gain, or self-righteous religious dogma.Yet he clearly gets off on his own frequent opportunities to torture and kill, and scorns the politically idealistic values of the revolutionaries among whom he finds himself as either self-delusion or self-interested hypocrisy.

Woken Furies is an action-packed book, yet the action is often enough suspended for Kovacs’ rants against religious fundamentalists (one of the chief religions in the novel, the New Revelation, seems to combine all the most patriarchal and misogynistic aspects of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), as well as for dialogues/debates between Kovacs and other characters on the nature of power and the prospects for meaningful political change. Nihilistic cynicism and revolutionary “optimism of the will” dance cautiously around each other, trading insults while at the same time measuring possibilities, in a world in which bio- and informational technologies have at once extended human prospects to an almost utopian extent (the “sleeves” allow for enhanced physical well-being, enhanced mental abilities, and a life indefinitely extended in multiple bodies), and given new footholds for power (new opportunities for surveillance and control, for the extraction of surplus value, and for the opportunity to torture as well as kill).

In his new book Archaeologies of the Future (which I am currently reading, and will write about when I am done), Fredric Jameson explores the utopian impulse as it manifests itself in science fiction, working through this impulse’s multiple contradictions and impediments, and suggesting how the thrust toward radical otherness in science fiction is a way to keep the possibility of alternatives to capitalism open, precisely when we are being told endlessly that the market is everything, and that there is no alternative to the current reign of global capital. Morgan is scarcely utopian, in any sense of the word, but the very way that cynicism and rage work in Woken Furies lead to something of the same effect that Jameson finds in utopian SF texts by LeGuin and others. (And this is so precisely because Morgan is about as un-LeGuin-like an SF writer as could possibly be imagined). Though cynicism is often an alibi for acquiescence in the existing order (‘I know it sucks, but there’s no hope of anything better, so we might as well shrug our shoulders and get on with it’), the nihilist vehemence of Kovacs’ cynicism (and Morgan’s staging of it) prohibits any such resignation. And the technology of the novel’s world is just “estranging” enough (that is to say, strange in the very way it amplifies and extends what we recognize of ourselves today, so that that recognition is twisted as in a funhouse mirror) that a displacement of the deadlock of cynical power we find ourselves in today becomes just barely visible.

The novel ends, not just with Kovacs’ survival against vast odds (as was also contrived in the previous two volumes), but even with a muted sense of political and personal hope — one that also deliberately and creatively elides the traditional binary opposition between reform and revolution, between gradual change and radical rupture. (This latter seems to me to be crucially important: we need to get away both from the tepid reformism that in fact leaves structures of oppression unchanged, and the revolutionist gestures that romantically fantasize about starting over with a clean slate: both of these alternatives have proved themselves to be calamitous in the world we live in today. Neither of these all-too-familiar alternatives works to grasp the “seeds of futurity” — Deleuzian “lines of flight” or Whiteheadian “creative advance” — that exist as unactualized potentialities in the real world).

The price Morgan pays for this conclusion, however, is an almost literal deus ex machina. All three Kovacs novels are framed with the relics of the Martians, a now-extinct inhuman race (they are more like giant, intelligent, bats or raptors) whose abandoned technologies have been scavenged by human beings, and have indeed provided human beings with those very technological advances which have made the world of the novel (colonization of multiple planets, faster-than-light information transfer, cortical stacks and sleeves) possible in the first place. In all three novels, the Martian relics imply a sort of limit to capitalism, because they embody a degree of invention and creativity of which humanity — or capitalism — itself is incapable, and which it can only secondarily scavenge and appropriate. (Though the extinction of the Martians implies that their own society was far from being utopian or unproblematic either). But at the end of Woken Furies, the Martian technology is something more: its intervention from the depths of a dead and distant past, and at the same time from an incomprehensibly advanced future, provides the very sense of possibility that Morgan and his novels cannot imagine in the present: neither in the writerly present of the early 21st century, nor in the fictional present of the 25th. What are we to make of this intervention of otherness? How balance radical otherness (which cannot help seeming almost theological) and the potential, within capitalism, of altering and abolishing it from within?


Thursday, September 15th, 2005

Warren Ellis‘ new comic book series Fell — the first issue of which came out last week — is grim, downbeat, and quite powerful. Here there is none of the high-tech futurism Ellis played with so gleefully and cleverly in Transmetropolitan and Global Frequency. Instead, the main character is a homicide cop, Richard Fell, who’s been assigned to work in Snowtown, a totally depressed and decrepit and ruined city “over the bridge” from anyplace that is economically prosperous or technologically advantaged. Moving from high-tech-land to Snowtown is like moving from yuppified and WiFi’ed Seattle to rust-belt-depressed Detroit (as I did a bit more than a year ago), only more so. Snowtown is one of what Manuel Castells calls the “black holes of informational capitalism,” a place that has been disconnected from the grid or the network, yet whose misery remains a counter-effect of the global system it cannot access. Everything is shabby and broken down in Snowtown; and, at least in the first issue, it always seems to be night. Ben Templesmith‘s drawing is just blurry and sketchy and monochromatically gray (for the most part) enough to suggest a collapse of the comfortable outlines and boundaries we take for granted, but without suggesting the hope of anything supernatural breaking through. Fell gives us violence and drugs and detritus, but without any of the glamorization or hipness such things took on, for instance, in the cyberpunk novels of the 1980s. Rather, Ellis and Templesmith suggest a relentlessness, a repetitiveness, that continually gives us unpleasant surprises (even when we thought things couldn’t get any worse) without offering the prospect of escape.

Richard Fell is doggedly persistent, has his own severe code of ethics, and is observant and prescient enough to be good at what he does, which is ferret out secrets and catch people. His motto is that “everybody’s hiding something,” and he clearly (as another character suggests to him) gets off, at least a little on the power that ferreting out those secrets gives him. Centered around this character, Fell is genre fiction that gives us genre satisfactions, but with odd little twists that we don’t expect. I mean that it’s like the best of 40s/50s film noir — but like those films were when they were first made, not like they are now with a half-century of resonance and reputation that makes us feel so self-congratulatory about liking them.

Fell is also an experiment, both formally and commercially. Each issue is 18 pages, instead of the industry-standard 24, and sells for $1.99 instead of the industry-standard $2.99. Each issue is also entirely self-contained in terms of narrative: Ellis says that there will be no multi-issue story arcs. This leads to a harshly compressed sort of storytelling. Every detail counts, and the narrative is tight and powerful, even though story per se is less important than character and atmosphere. Designing an ongoing comic on this basis is a risky thing to do: both because the dramatic intensity is hard to sustain, and because it is economically difficult to sell comic books at such a low price point (if sales can’t be sustained issue to issue, the book will go under). There’s probably more to be said about how a comic like this negotiates both formal and commercial demands, how it fully acknowledges its own commodity status, while at the same time retaining that deep negativity that Adorno believed popular-art commodities to be incapable of.

The Price of Connection

Tuesday, September 13th, 2005

“Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit from taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don’t really have any rights left. Leasing our eyes and ears and nerves to commercial interests is like handing over the common speech to a private corporation, or like giving the earth’s atmosphere to a company as a monopoly.”

– Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, p. 68.

This quotation ought to have been an additional epigraph to my book Connected; but I forgot about it until now. “Forgot about it” means, of course, that I used it and incorporated it without being consciously aware of doing so. Connected is a book about how being connected (as “we” — the affluent portion of humankind — are increasingly being connected on the Internet, and as all human beings today are increasingly being connected by the globalized economic transactions of the “network society”) involves being in thrall to the powers of transnational Capital. I wrote about how this oppression, or enslavement, extends into our very bodies — “eyes and ears and nerves” — literally and physiologically, as well as metaphorically. And among the horrific examples of this enslavement I included vignettes on the privatization of free speech (taken from actual news stories) and even on the privatization of the atmosphere, so that we would have to pay in order to breathe (taken from the musings of a free-market economist, who recommended it as a cost-effective way to cut down on air pollution).

Cognitive Dissonance

Sunday, September 4th, 2005

I spent most of the past week in New York City, attending to family matters. (The basic purpose of the trip was so that my parents could spend some time with their grandchildren).

Whenever we were in our hotel room, and the kids were awake, we had the TV on, turned to CNN or MSNBC, watching images of the current catastrophe. I was struck, even more forcefully than usual, by the cognitive dissonance between what was seen, and what was said. Images of horror, covered by the most anodyne commentary conceivable. I remember, during the 1999 Seattle anti-WTO protests, when visuals of cops running amok were accompanied by one local anchorperson whining that her Christmas shopping had been disrupted by all the fuss and hubbub downtown. But this week’s coverage was far worse. Even as the reporters and commentators mentioned, for once, the usually taboo subjects of race and class, their overall tone and demeanor was working to muffle and diminish the impact of what we were seeing, to suggest that human benevolence was going to triumph over merely temporary difficulties. Soledad O’Brien, ‘on the scene’ yet standing firmly on dry land, didn’t break into a sweat, nor lose an ounce of her perkiness, as she reported that help was on the way. Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper reported the flooding, the starvation, the lack of medical care, in the same tone that they would use to describe chatting pleasantly with Donald Rumsfeld at a cocktail party. It wasn’t so much what they said, as how they said it.

Leftist philosophers, theorists, and cultural critics have usually been worried about the seductive power of images: the way that they disarm criticism by making What Is seem self-evident, by reifying particular moments and isolating them from their contexts, by preventing any analysis that would seek to go beneath surface appearances. And indeed, it’s true that images shorn of context have often been used for the most hideous propagandistic purposes. But here, in televisual feed coming from New Orleans this past week, we seem to have the reverse situation: images that ‘speak’ starkly of the ugly facts of race and class in America today, that show how the Powers That Be of government and business have relegated large numbers of human beings to the status of non-persons, that demonstrate eloquently that, however ‘natural’ the disaster, the differential experience of the victims is entirely man-made; while a flood (if I can use that metaphor) of speech and discourse strives to decontextualize and normalize these people’s suffering, and to ‘explain’ how, even in the face of sadness and tragedy, life goes on and the USA continues to be the greatest nation on earth.