“They don’t like spam.”

The talk I am preparing for next month’s science fiction workshop in Berlin (where I will be speaking together with Iain Hamilton Grant) (event listing here) is really an extended meditation (or consideration, if “meditation” is too pretentious a word) on the several passages from recent science fiction novels.

The first passage comes from Peter Watts’ First Contact novel Blindsight. It explains why the aliens from another solar system — who are immensely more intelligent and more technologically advanced than we are, but who seem not to be conscious in any sense we would recognize — have turned their attention to Earth, and why they judge us as a menace to them:

Imagine that you encounter a signal. It is structured, and dense with information. It meets all the criteria of an intelligent transmission. Evolution and experience offer a variety of paths to follow, branch-points in the flowcharts that handle such input. Sometimes these signals come from conspecifics who have useful information to share, whose lives you’ll defend according to the rules of kin selection. Sometimes they come from competitors or predators or other inimical entities that must be avoided or destroyed; in those cases, the information may prove of significant tactical value. Some signals may even arise from entities which, while not kin, can still serve as allies or symbionts in mutually beneficial pursuits. You can derive appropriate responses for any of these eventualities, and many others.

You decode the signals, and stumble:

I had a great time. I really enjoyed him. Even if he cost twice as much as any other hooker in the dome–

To fully appreciate Kesey’s Quartet–

They hate us for our freedom–

Pay attention, now–


There are no meaningful translations for these terms. They are needlessly recursive. They contain no usable intelligence, yet they are structured intelligently; there is no chance they could have arisen by chance.

The only explanation is that something has coded nonsense in a way that poses as a useful message; only after wasting time and effort does the deception becomes apparent. The signal functions to consume the resources of a recipient for zero payoff and reduced fitness. The signal is a viruss

Viruses do not arise from kin, symbionts, or other allies.

The signal is an attack.

And it’s coming from right about there.

The second passage comes from Ken MacLeod’s Cosmonaut Keep. It describes the dominant intelligent lifeform of the Galaxy: superintelligent asteroids, each of which is, in effect, a silicon computer of immense processing power. These beings are described as being like Lucretian gods, calmly pursuing their own interests, and most of the time not concerned with what human beings and other sentient species do. Except there is one exception to their lack of interest in us:

‘The truth is there are billions of the fuckers. There are more … communities … like this around the solar system, in the asteroid belt and the Kuiper and the Oort, than there are people on Earth. And each of them contains more separate minds than, than—’

‘A Galactic Empire,’ said Lemieux.

‘Yes! Yes! Exactly!’ Avakian beamed.

‘How do you know this?’ Camila asked.

Avakian handwaved behind his shoulder.

‘The aliens told us, and told us where to look for their communications. Their EM emissions are very faint, but they’re there all right, and the sources fill the sky like the cosmic microwave background, the echo of the Big Bang.’

‘Sure it ain’t just part of that?’

‘Nah, it’s comms all right.’ Avakian sucked at his lower lip. ‘The point to bear in mind is that our cometary cloud’s outer shells intersect those of the Centauran system, and, well—’

‘They’re everywhere?’

He shrugged. ‘Around a lot of stars, yeah, quite possibly. Trafficking, communicating, maybe even travelling. They have conscious control over their own outgassings, they have computing power to die for, and it only takes a nudge to change their orbits. It might take millions of years between stars, sure, but these guys have a long attention span.’

‘And what do they actually do?’

‘From the point of view of us busy little primates, they don’t do much. Hang out and take in the view. Travel around the sun every few million years. Maybe travel to another sun and go around that a few times. Bo-ring.’ He put on a whining, childish voice. ‘Are we there yet? He’s shitting me. I want to go the toilet.’

He laughed, a genuine and humorous laugh this time, and continued briskly: ‘But from their point of view, they are having fun. Endless, absorbing, ecstatic and for all I know,orgasmic fun. Discourse, intercourse – at their level it’s probably the same fucking thing.’ He underlined the obvious with a giggle. ‘They’re like gods, man, and they’re literally in heaven. And in all their infinite – well, OK,unbounded– diversity they have, we understand, a pretty much unanimous view on one thing. They don’t like spam.’

‘Spam is, um, sort of mindlessly repeated advertisements and shit. Junk mail. Some of it comes from start-ups and scams, some of it’s generated by programs called spambots, which got loose in the system about fifty years ago and which have been beavering away ever since. You hardly notice it, because so little gets through that you might think it’s just a legit advertisement. But that’s because way down at the bottom level, we have programs to clean out the junk, and they work away at it too.’ I shrugged. ‘Spam and antispam waste resources, it’s the ultimate zero-sum game, but what can you do? You gotta live with it. Anti-spam’s like an immune system. You don’t have to know about it, but you’d die without it. There’s a whole war going on that’s totally irrelevant to what you really want to do.’

‘Exactamundo,’ said Avakian. ‘That’s how the ETs feel about it, too. And as far as they’re concerned, we are great lumbering spambots, corrupted servers, liable at any moment or any megayear to start turning out millions of pointless, slightly varied replicas of ourselves. Most of what we’re likely to want to do if we expanded seriously into space is spam. Space industries – spam. Moravec uploads – spam on a plate. Von Neumann machines – spam and chips. Space settlements – spam, spam, spam, eggs and spam.’

There is something similar in a third novel, David Brin’s Existence. Here, Earth receives alien artifacts, which also turn out to be spam. These artifacts contain messages from civilizations on other planets, whose sole content is an invitation to add our own voices, and send more of these artifacts out through the galaxy. Entire planetary civilizations are exhorted to devote all their material resources on proliferating these viral artifacts.

All three novels suggest something similar. Spam is communication without (Shannon) information, or a message that is nothing beyond its medium (McLuhan). Spam has no utility, and no cognitive point, for its only aim is self-proliferation. This is why Watts’ and MacLeod’s aliens hate it, and seek to destroy it (or destroy its source). 

Watts again:

Evolution has no foresight. Complex machinery develops its own agendas. Brains–cheat. Feedback loops evolve to promote stable heartbeats and then stumble upon the temptation of rhythm and music. The rush evoked by fractal imagery, the algorithms used for habitat selection, metastasize into art. Thrills that once had to be earned in increments of fitness can now be had from pointless introspection. Aesthetics rise unbidden from a trillion dopamine receptors, and the system moves beyond modeling the organism. It begins to model the very process of modeling. It consumes ever-more computational resources, bogs itself down with endless recursion and irrelevant simulations. Like the parasitic DNA that accretes in every natural genome, it persists and proliferates and produces nothing but itself. Metaprocesses bloom like cancer, and awaken, and call themselves I

In other words, spam is purposiveness without purpose: in Kantian terms, it is aesthetic. Watts’ and MacLeod’s aliens would agree with Ray Brassier, who says: “I am very wary of ‘aesthetics’: the term is contaminated by notions of ‘experience’ that I find deeply problematic.” Computational systems don’t need any sort of aesthetic sensibility; this means that they don’t need “experience” or “consciousness.” Indeed, they function all the more efficiently without these things. Big Blue never could have defeated Kasparov if it were weighted down, like he is, with recursive self-consciousness. Brassier understands this dynamic, where most other similarly reductionist philosophers don’t. While cognitivists insist that “consciousness cannot be separated from function” (to cite the title of an article by Daniel Dennett and Michael Cohen), Watts (and to a lesser extent MacLeod and Brin) rather suggest that in fact consciousness cannot be separated from dysfunction. 

This can be restated in Darwinian terms. Spam or aesthetics may have initially been a useful adaptation: this is the only way that it could have arisen in the first place (see Darwin on sexual selection, and Elizabeth Grosz’s recent gloss on this). But spam or art quickly outgrew this purpose; it has now become parasitic, and replicates itself even at its host’s expense (cf: peacock’s tails). It serves no further purpose any more. Spam or art is a virus; and, insofar as we have aesthetic sensibilities (including self-consciousness and dwelling just in the present moment), we are that virus. Our thoughts and bodies, our lives, are “needlessly recursive” and wasteful. Our lives are pointless luxuries in a Darwinian “war universe” (Burroughs). If we are the dominant species on Earth at the moment, this may only be — as Watts suggests — because we are in the situation of flightless birds and marsupials, in areas where the placental mammals have not yet arrived (cf. the biological histories of Mauritius, South America, and Australia).

Watts also suggests that, even on Earth, corporate culture is in process of “weeding out” anything like self-consciousness or nonfunctional recursion. (Evidently, this is why — for instance — humanities programs in universities are being whittled away or destroyed; even the supporters of such programs only dare to justify them in terms of economic utility). At the end of Blindsight, the narrator, off in deep space, but observing from a distance the way that a vampiric (both literally and metaphorically) corporate culture has taken control of everything, speculates that “by the time I get home, I could be the only sentient being in the universe.” And in fact, he is not even sure about himself; he knows that zombies are “pretty good at faking it.”

The logic of spam tells us that sensibility, awareness, and aesthetic enjoyment are all costly luxuries. From a political and economic point of view, they can only be promoted — and they should be promoted — on this basis.

Welcome to New York — first impressions

WELCOME TO NEW YORK is stupendous, and it leaves me nearly speechless — I really won’t be able to say anything coherent about it until I have thought about it for a while, and seen it a few more times.

But I will try to make a few scattered observations. The film isn’t really a descent into the depths of depravity in the way BAD LIEUTENANT is; but then, there is no sense of redemption for Depardieu in the way that perhaps there is for Harvey Keitel. The film shifts register several times. The first half hour is basically an orgy sequence. Then it becomes a kind of procedural, with DSK’s arrest and confinement. Then, after he is remanded to house arrest in a $60,000/month Manhattan townhouse, it becomes a venemous melodrama-cum-dark night of the soul (except that latter phrase is not quite right, since Depardieu’s character (called “Devereaux” to avoid the legal problems that might ensue by literally naming him “Dominique Strauss-Kahn”) doesn’t seem to really have a soul.

The orgy sequences struck me as more pathetic than lurid. There’s no sense of condemnation of Devereaux’s antics, but no sense of spectatorial pleasure either (not even pleasure in sleaze). It’s really just Depardieu’s grunting and bellowing, not to mention his evident relish in slapping various hookers’ behinds. When we get to The Incident, we clearly feel the maid’s terror at being assaulted, but Devereaux doesn’t even seem to notice that there is any difference between consensual sex, paid-for sex, and violently imposed sex. It’s all over in a minute, and Ferrara clearly conveys how it scarcely even registers in Devereaux’s mind that anything of any consequence has happened. (Later on, he will indignantly tell his wife that he is absolutely innocent of rape, because “all he did” was rub his penis against the maid’s mouth — which is more or less true of what we previously saw happening, except that, as Devereuax fails to add, this happens as he is pushing her against the wall and grabbing her head, and shei s desperately begging him to stop).

The arrest and confinement are given a documentary or procedural feel. We definitely get a sense of how the prison system is systematically demeaning and humiliating to anyone unfortunate enough to fall into its clutches. At the same time, we remain aware of the difference between the powerful and privileged Devereaux, who is brought down in the world just for a moment, and everyone else (mostly black people) who is caught in this system without Devereaux’s resources for getting out again. The highlight of this part of the movie is undoubtably the scene in which Devereaux is strip searched, which means that Depardieu displays his aging, bloated, no-longer-beautiful nude body to the camera.

The real emotional payoff of the film is in the second hour, in which Devereaux mopes in his expensive town house. There are several terrific scenes of arguments between Devereaux and his wife (played by Jacqueline Bisset), in which he reveals his absolute lack of self-insight, and utter inability to change. Devereaux has no passion, desire, or even self-will, but only a monstrous and utterly compulsive appetite, together with a defensive need for self-justification. We see this in his arguments with his wife, in his voiceover meditation (where he recounts turning from idealism to utter cynicism about the possibilities of justice and alleviating poverty, as he ascended the rungs of power) in his (court-mandated, I think? — but I wasn’t sure) conversation with a shrink, and in flashbacks to past incidents (one of consensual sex, and one of the near-rape of a young woman journalist — this came up in the press at the time — which again reveals how, Devereaux, in his mind, seems incapable of distinguishing between seduction and rape). Even at the very end of the movie, Devereaux is up to his old tricks with the housemaid.

The film leaves us with this sterility of its central character; there is no spiritual struggle like that (as I already mentioned) of Harvey Keitel in BAD LIEUTENANT, or for that matter Forest Whitaker in MARY. Instead, Depardieu gives us an entirely implosive performance (and, as other critics have noted, the film is certainly in the Godardian sense a documentary about Depardieu as much as it is a dramatization of DSK). Around this absent center, the wheels of power and privilege turn in their accustomed way, so that the case is dropped and Devereaux is left free — all off camera (though we are given brief documentary footage, just as a sort of reminder, of protests against the dismissal of the case).

In a way, the film is all over the place, even though at the same time it is galvanized throughout by Depardieu’s performance. I think that Ferrara wanted to leave the film messy, because reality itself is. The film gets its emotional power by being organized around a banality: specifically, we might say (though Ferrara does not, as he resists any sort of moralism) the banality of evil — or maybe better, the inability of the powerful to see the pain they inflict upon those without power as anything more than a banal passing moment of no real import. In a way, DSK’s life was “ruined” by the incident — not only did he fail to become President of France, but his public respect suffered a blow (though, of course, he retained the privileges of wealth and freedom from imprisonment or official sanction; and the way the French press is reacting to the movie shows that he still has powerful support). WELCOME TO NEW YORK conveys, less what actually happened to DSK, than Depardieu-as-Devereaux’s baffled failure to comprehend why any of this should have happened to him, of all people — which perhaps makes the film more farce than tragedy, and none the less devastating for that.

Rethinking Modernism, Somewhat

The new issue of Speculations (#5) is now out, dealing with speculative realism and aesthetics. It includes an article of mine, which is really a preview of a section of my forthcoming book, The Universe of Things. But the whole issue is interesting, with articles by, among others, Graham Harman, N. Katherine Hayles, Jon Cogburn and Mark Allan Ohm, Matija Jelaca, Miguel Penas López, and others.

But I wanted particularly to make a short comment on Robert Jackson‘s article “The Anxiousness of Objects and Artworks 2” (part 1 appeared in a previous issue of Speculations) — or rather on one part of the article, since it is a rich, complex and long one. Jackson is interested in the ways that speculative realism is related to modernist aesthetics. Specifically, he writes about the art critic Michael Fried. In the 1960s, Fried (an inheritor and reviser of Clement Greenberg) famously wrote about art works and/as objects, and made a fundamental distinction between “absorption” and “theatricality.” Fried’s concern was to uphold the modernist tradition in painting and visual art that had previously been defined by Greenberg, and to defend this tradition against the new (at the time) avant-garde strategies of minimalism and conceptualism. Fried (allied in this with Stanley Cavell) gave an account in which great modernist artworks absorb us, and show forth as present to us, precisely by receding from our efforts to capture and contain them. Jackson notes that this is very close to Harman’s aesthetics of “allure,” in which objects attract us precisely by receding from all our efforts to contain and comprehend them — we can only allude to them, metaphorically and indirectly. (Harman’s love for Clement Greenberg’s media-specific self-reflexive formalism makes sense in terms of this aesthetic stance). The opposiing term of “theatricality,” which Fried disparages and sees as the aesthetic failure of minimalism in the 1960s, has to do with the way the literal presence of the object is completely blank and empty — so that the “art” happens exclusively in the mind of the observer. Self-referring modernist works force the contemplating spectator to go outside herself, as part of the impossible task of reaching the receding artwork; minimalist works are simply “there,” with a thereness that precludes any such movement.

Jackson notes that both sides in the dispute mapped by Fried are anti-anthropocentric, in the ways maintained today by speculative realism — they both concern the way that objects escape from correlation with our perceptual categories. He suggests that the two artistic movements are therefore analogous to the two major tendencies of speculative realism. Minimalism has a strategy of what Jackson calls Demonstration, the strategy of Meillassoux and Brassier: “a passive, inert material reality can be epistemologically demonstrated through the formal, inferential properties of thought and an extrinsic principle of the fact, so that thought becomes radically divorced from a non-anthropomorphic being.” The modernist works championed by Greenberg and Fried adopt a strategy much like that of what Jackson calls Description, operating in Harman and other OOO thinkers, and also in a different way in Grant’s neo-Schellingian version of speculative realism: “reality is composed of fundamental entities, objects, things, forces and powers which exist in their own right; the relations of which, in their specific limitations or groundings, are no different in kind from the epistemological limits of cognition. This is an intrinsic principle of the thing. The limitations of the correlation between thinking and being are radicalised and hypostatised such that they are turned into the characteristics of relationality in general.”

I found Jackson’s analysis to be powerful and useful, although my knowledge of art historical discourse, and in particular of the theories of Greenberg and Fried, is quite limited. (For which reason, I am not sure how accurate my brief summary of Jackson’s article is. My apologies to him for any misapprehensions). But what I wondered about is this. What happens when we consider other sorts of 20th & 21st century image production, which are not contained within high art traditions? Jackson notes how Fried has recently, and belatedly, turned his attention to contemporary multimedia and new media art works, thus extending his theoretical musings beyond just painting. But these are still High Art works that are mostly situated in galleries.

What I would like to think about is, how the tradition of aesthetics traced by Jackson through the theorizations of modernist (and even postmodernist) art historians relates to other forms of visual (and audiovisual) production? I am thinking here of cinema and post-cinema, but also of things like comic books. At one point, Jackson quotes Stanley Cavell’s distinction between painting on the one hand, and photography and cinema on the other: “To maintain conviction in our connection with reality, to maintain our presentness, painting accepts the recession of the world. Photography maintains the presentness of the world by accepting our absence from it. The reality in a photograph is present to me while I am not present to it…” Jackson goes on to speak at length about Cavell’s Friedian formula for painting, as an art in which we are present but the world recedes from us. I’d like to think, however, about the other half of Cavell’s formulation, which has become a crucial principle in film studies: the way in which cinema renders the presence of the world, but with ourselves being absent. How would this affect our discussion of speculative realism?

An even better example of what I have in mind is Burke Hilsabeck’s brilliant article “Accidental Specificity: Modernism from Clement Greenberg to Frank Tashlin.” Hilsabeck gives a bravura comparison between Clement Greenberg’s famous essay “Art and Kitsch,” and Frank Tashlin’s 1955 film, starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Artists and Models. Hilsabeck notes that “Artists and Models begins by framing the same problem [as that posed by Greenberg], that of medium-specificity and the conflict between avant-garde and kitsch, while reaching a dramatically different set of conclusions.” Tashlin’s film, and even more the “painting” that Lewis accidentally makes within its storyline, is “widescreen, composed somehow of both depth and an overweening superficiality, aglow in garish Technicolor.” It systematically opposes all the aesthetic values championed by Greenberg: flatness, automony, purity of design, etc. (Again, I am oversimplifying a complex argument). But the point is, that Tashin’s shamelessly decorative, externally referential, and self-consciously obvious aesthetic is as big and important a part of what happened to images in the 20th century as either the works championed by Greenberg and Fried, and those they disparaged. This is part of a larger question — can we give an account of mid-20th century visual production that takes, say, Jackson Pollack and Jack Kirby equally seriously? What would it look like to theorize art in a way that had as much room for comic-book pictorialism as it had for abstract expressionism? What would happen if we then extended this history, and this theorization, to the present day? And how would this broader understanding of visual culture relate to the philosophical questions raised by speculative realism?

I have no answers here, only questions raised by Jackson’s brilliant — but to my mind incomplete — formulations.

Private Vices, Public Pleasures

Miklos Jancso’s PRIVATE VICES, PUBLIC PLEASURES (this is how it is listed on IMDB, although “pleasures” doesn’t seem the right translation of the last word in the original Italian title “Vizi privati, pubbliche virtù”) is a severely underrated movie, and one that I need to watch again. Made in Italy in 1976 and spoken in Italian, it doesn’t quite have the formalist rigor of Jancso’s Hungarian works in the 1960s and early 1970s, but it is still powerful and provocative. There are some dazzlingly orchestrated long takes (which is Jancso’s arthouse trademark); but there are also sequences with more conventional editing. Also, the lavish outdoor scenery  (apparently the film was actually shot in what is now Croatia; there is a large Yugoslav presence in the supporting cast and in the crew) is very different from the stark Hungarian plains.

The film is more or less based on the Mayerling Incident, an 1889 scandal in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in which the Crown Prince Rudolph, heir to the throne, and his lover Mary Vetsera apparently killed themselves, supposedly because they could not be married. At least that was the official version, though conspiracy theories abounded; the movie proposes that Rudolph and Mary were murdered by order of Rudolph’s father, the Emperor Franz Joseph. Through this, the movie works as a kind of 1960s/70s counter-culture allegory. Rudolph and his friends Sophie and Franco, a brother-sister couple whose mother was at one point Franz Joseph’s mistress, form a cheerfully incestuous menage a trois; they are mostly interested in sex and drugs, and in overthrowing the puritanical older generation represented by their parents, and by the uniforms and stuffy rituals of Austro-Hungarian official culture. Most of the film takes place during an orgy that they organize, inviting as their guests the young aristocrats of their own generation, who dance around nude, make love in various combinations (there is some sort of sexual activity involving lturkeys as well), and humiliate the various Austro Hungarian soldiers and bureaucrats who show up. It’s during the orgy that Mary Vetsera appears, and the menage a trois quickly becomes a menage a quatre. The film’s version of Mary (apparently this is not the case in the actual historical record) is a hermaphrodite, with fully formed both female and male genital organs, which allows for an expansion of the erotic possibilites.

In terms of actually depicted sex, it isn’t all that explicit; the film is barely even soft-core. But there are lots of nude, cavorting bodies, of all genders and genitalia. The soundtrack has music almost continually; much of it is diegetic, as Rudolph continually has bands playing both indoors and out. The moving camera often circles around these fully clothed musicians, in contrast to the partially-clothed or altogether nude aristocrats. The overall effect is rather hysterical (if I can use this word in a descriptive but non-pejorative sense) as we have long sequences where the frame is filled with continually dancing undressed bodies, with a restless camera either roving through the shrubbery or from room to room, but sometimes simply tracking back-and-forth, all overlaid with the sonic  bombardment of everything from brass band military marches to Eastern European traditional dances to “God protect the Kaiser” (often sung mockingly) to an English-language rendition of “Baa Baa Black Sheep.” With the dialogue in Italian, at times I was reminded of Fellini; there’s even a circus that shows up at one point, but alas not much is made of it (there are a few quick shots of a circus lady cavorting with two chimpanzees, but we never get to see the troupe of Hungarian dwarfs who are much talked about). But overall, Jancso’s vision of excess and exhaustion is very different from Fellini’s — I’m not sure how to phrase this — Jancso is far less surreal than Fellini, but also more aggressively carnal.

There’s a ten-minute-or-so sex sequence near the end of the film, which removes the huge supporting cast and only gives us various combinations or subsets of the foursome. Disappointingly, and in contrast to everything else in the movie, this is shot more or less in cliched Eurotrash style, with lots of upper-body and head-and-lips closeups, and nondiegetic, conventionally “romantic” music — instead of the roving camera and incessant brass bands. Despite the conventionality of this sequence (is it meant to be ironic? or was it forced upon Jancso by the Italian financiers of the film?) it does look (as far as I could tell, given the lack of explicit pornographic detail) like first Rudolph penetrates Mary, and then she penetrates him.

After that, there’s nothing left but the fairly quiet murder of Rudolph, Mary, and their friends, and the official coverup, so that order can be restored. There’s a lot of emphasis throughout the film on photography, as the mass medium of the day: Rudolph and his friends take orgy photos which they hope to release to the press to create scandal; and official photographs are taken of the dead bodies in order to support the fake narrative of a lovers’ suicide pact.

So the film can definitely be taken as an allegory of the affirmations and the ultimate failure of the 1960s counterculture, back projected onto the Austro Hungarian Empire and 19th-century decadent aestheticism. However, though the film shows no liking or nostalgia for the Imperial bureaucracy and hierarchy, its attitude towards its young libertine protagonists is decidedly ambivalent. The delirious orgies are at the same time sufficiently dry and acerbic that we get some of the same distanciation as we do with the horrors of war (in, e.g. The Red and the Black) and with the revolutionary dances (e.g. in Red Psalm) in Jancso’s earlier films. The result is that Rudolph and his friends come off seeming a bit too self-satisfied and self-congratulatory in their rebellion. It becomes hard to forget that they can only get away with all this because of their own aristocratic power and privilege (not to mention seemingly infinite supplies of money). Rudolph rightly imagines that his father will not dare to arrest him or cut off his allowance or anything like that; his position as Crown Prince puts him above the law. (Though he fails to conceive that the patriarchal order he is rebelling against can simply murder him and then cover it up). So the flaw of Rudolph’s ambisexual hedonism, appealing as it is, is that its enabling condition of possibility is the very order that it claims it wishes to destroy. Aristocracy will not be overthrown by the children of that very aristocracy using their class freedom to have an orgy. And carpe diem, by its very nature, cannot overthrow an enduring-through-time order, let alone produce its own counter-order. (This is driven home in a great sequence, during the orgy, where Rudolph proclaims his father dead, himself the new Emperor, Mary his Empress, and mock-appoints his party guests to various ministries. It’s all good fun, rooted in the carnivalesque suspension of the ruling order; but for this very reason, all it does is point up the post-carnivalesque restoration of the oppressive ruling order).

I mentioned Fellini earlier. But where Fellini is aesthetically haunted by the ultimate sterility of the seemingly bounteous carnivalesque, Jancso has a more socio-political take on this paradox. PRIVATE VICES, PUBLIC PLEASURES is the equally alienating flip side of the earlier Hungarian epics. Jancso has none of Fellini’s humanistic warmth, but rather (and to my mind, more impressively artistically) he casts the same cold eye on spectacles of liberation as he does on spectacles of slaughter and oppression.

Afterparty – Daryl Gregory

Daryl Gregory’s Afterparty is a near-future science fiction thriller about designer drugs — specifically designer neurochemicals. It seems to be set about twenty years from now, with a flashback to events ten years or so from now  — enough time for its scientific vision to be plausible. In terms of plot, it’s an extremely well-done thriller; but I agree with Warren Ellis that what matters in fiction of this sort isn’t the plot — which is there to get us involved — so much as what it gets us involved in, which is the characters and the ideas. The characters in Afterparty are all pretty compelling, and all pretty much damaged, as a result of the neurochemicals they have ingested — which is to say, they are all affected by, and embodied symptoms of, the novel’s ideas, which are themselves made real in the form of the drugs that the novel describes. The book’s main actor, if I can put it that way, is a drug called Numinous on the street (though it has other, more official, names). It was developed by the protagonist, Lyda Rose, and her collaborators in a small start-up; the idea was to make a drug that would enhance feelings of well-being by promoting the growth of neurons in the temporal lobe. The drug works extraordinarily well on mice; but when human beings take it, it turns out that the way it enhances feelings of well-being is by generating a hallucination of God. The drug’s stimulation of the temporal lobe is similar to what happens in cases of epilepsy. The user experiences the vision, voice, and feeling of a Deity who has a close personal relationship with him or her, assuring him/her that he/she is loved and cared for, and has a place in the cosmos. Each person has a different vision of God, but these Gods all appear to them as absolutely physically real, despite being invisible and inaudible to anyone else. (Though the novel does not reference this in particular, I was immediately reminded of Julian Jaynes‘ thesis that, as recently as Homeric times, people literally heard voices in their heads, which really were one brain hemisphere “speaking” to the other, but which they took to be the voices of gods.

One problem with the drug is that you become emotionally dependent upon it — if you can’t get it anymore, it feels as if God has abandoned you — which is extremely depressing and can lead to suicide. Another problem, it turns out, is that if you have an extreme overdose of the drug, the God hallucination becomes permanent. For most of the novel, Lyda Rose is torn between her absolute and unshakeable emotional conviction of the truth of her personal God, and her knowledge that this is just a neurochemical effect (backed up with her Dawkins-esque intellectual certitude that religion can never be anything more than such an effect. She argues with her personal God, telling her that she (her God-version is a female angel) is nothing more a mental projection; but she also cannot do without the help and reassurances given to her by this God (who tells her at one point that Dawkins and Hitchens have been sent to Hell), and at times even experiences her God’s actions as physically efficacious. 

Anyway, all this is tied in — as how could it not be? — with business and political implications. Lyda and her partners in the startup quarrel about selling their company (which seems to be on the verge of success due to Numinous) to a major pharmaceutical firm. It is at a party celebrating the sale, which will make them all millionaires, that the partners are all blasted by an overdose of Numinous. They are all pretty much fucked up by their permanent condition of unasked for religious ecstasy. There’s also a baby who is dosed with Numinous in the womb. The present-time events of the novel take place ten years later; they have to do with picking up the pieces of shattered lives, and also with the ongoing question of major corporations peddling these drugs despite their questionable side effects. 

As the plot advances, we encounter other victims of other designer neurochemicals. There’s Clarity, a drug that enhances your ability to recognize patterns when sifting through vast quantities of data, by stimulating neural growth in the prefrontal cortex. This drug is taken, with official encouragement, by analysts working for the NSA. The trouble is, that Clarity also foments paranoia, by leading the user to infer patterns that do not actually exist. There’s also a drug used to treat victims of post-traumatic stress syndrome; when taken in high enough doses, it reduces qualms and emotional difficulties enough that the user can act as a remorseless contract killer. All these drugs have their antagonists, which however have equally bad side effects. When Lyda is hospitalized, her religious visions are neutralized by anti-epileptics; the paranoid effects of Clarity are nullified by anti-psychotics that make it difficult for the patient to recognize any patterns at all (including the shapes of bodies and familiar objects). 

All of this highlights the radical contingency of our mental states; the novel also contains discussions of what “free will” can possibly mean under such conditions. In a way, Afterparty presents us with a 21st-century version of the old Cartesian dilemma. Even in an age where we have definitively discredited any dualism, and established beyond doubt that the mind is entirely physical — because we can in fact manipulate it physically — I am still left with the actuality of inner experience, which is full and efficacious regardless of my intellectual knowledge that it has no objective validity, but is generated entirely by neurochemical processes. It may well be, the novel suggests, that the experiences generated by Numinous make us both more capable and more empathetic, and therefore better people (this would remain the case even if Dawkins and Hitchens are right about the pernicious effects of organized religion). Such a possibility will not seem strange or ridiculous to anyone who has taken LSD or other mind-altering chemicals. Afterparty doesn’t give us any political or philosophical answers; but it suggests that the age of brain manipulation is rapidly approaching, and cannot be averted; and it at least suggests that brain self-manipulations might be workable from below, on an individual or microsocial basis, rather than only being imposed from above, by government security agencies and large corporations. There are no panaceas here, and no seamless alterations of (either inner or outer) reality without unforeseeable and uncontrollable side effects; but Gregory’s vision is not as grim as that of Scott Bakker in Neuropath.