Monday, 19 November 2012

Space is the place (utopia and silence)

Even though, in his 1962 guest editorial-cum-manifesto 'Which Way to Inner Space?' in New Worlds, JG Ballard repudiated a science fiction of 'robot brains and hyper-drives' and instead proposed a fiction which explored 'inner space, not outer', he consistently returned to the figure of the astronaut. In fictions such as 'A Question of Re-entry' (1963) (which posited the arrival of a dead astronaut in the South American jungles as a kind of cargo cult) to the 'fugue time' stories of the late 1970s ('News From the Sun', 'Memories of the Space Age'), where the NASA space programme 'cracks the hour glass of time' and leads to various forms of 'space sickness', the astronaut is a central and symbolic figure, a kind of evolutionary mistake which leads nonetheless to a pathway out of time.

Ballard's refiguration of the NASA programme as a symbol for both human error and human potentiality, while at the same time abandoning the actual possibilities of orbital, lunar, inter-planetary or deep space exploration, foreshadows the fate of both NASA and the Soviet space programmes at the hands of science fiction. In my book on Masculinities in Fiction and Film, I noted how few science fiction films used NASA imagery (environment suits, Saturn Vs and LMs), or extrapolated from Apollo. There is Marooned in the mid-60s, about a disaster in space; Capricorn One, about a faked Mars mission; the historical pictures The Right Stuff and Apollo 13; De Palma's Mission to Mars and Clint's Space Cowboys; but not many others. Recently, Ian Sales has done an excellent job of imagining an alternate history of the Apollo programme during the 1970s (which turns to military missions) in Adrift on the Sea of Rains; and I can also think of Sterling and Gibson's 'Red Star, Winter Orbit' (collected in Mirrorshades), which imagines a decaying 'Kosmograd' space station at the point of its cancellation, with the central character a cosmonaut - the first man on Mars – whose weakened bone structures will not allow him to return to Earth.

I've always wondered why this was so, as, even though I was born in March 1969, and so was only three months old when Armstrong set foot on the Moon, the majestic Saturn V and the fragile, delicate Lunar Module have always been iconic and deeply resonant objects for me. (I wish I had bought Airfix kits of them when I was a lad.) The Space Race still excites me, there seems something grand and extraordinary about it, even though it was obviously profoundly implicated in the Cold War and what Dale Carter once called 'the American Rocket State'. (His book, The Final Frontier, is now some 25 years old.)

Thinking about space and silence recently (about the cosmological register of RS Thomas's later poems about God, for instance), I came across a piece written by Eduardo Rothe and published in the Situationist International number 12, 'The Conquest of Space in the Time of Power', which pointed towards a contemporary critique of the Apollo programme and why sf writers may have shunned it. Rothe conceptualises the space programme as part of 'spectacle', the Situationist figure for both ideology and media representation, and the astronauts as media 'stars'. Rothe suggests that the 'science' involved is both militarised and ideological, and is used in the service of placing a human upon the moon in order 'to make people march to the time of work'. 

Most importantly, Rothe posits the space programme as 'part of the planetary hope of an economic system which, saturated with commodities, spectacle and power, ejaculates into space when it arrives at the end of a noose of its territorial contradictions. Functioning as a new “America”, space must serve the states as a new territory for wars and colonies - a new territory to which to send producer-consumers and thus enable the system to break out of the planet's limitations'. This reading would view space exploration as a form of primitive accumulation, the acquisition of new territory (new space) to enable the further expansion of capital (and thereby forestall the otherwise inevitable crisis of the exhaustion of expansion of terrestrial markets). There is also an inescapable colonial or imperial imperative to this expansion.

At the end of Rothe's essay, he proposes that 'once the walls have been smashed that now separate people from science, the conquest of space will no longer be an economic or military “promotional” gimmick, but the blossoming of human freedoms and fulfilments'. If the exploration of space is to be taken away from technical specialisation, bureaucracy and the military-industrial complex, then what will take its place?

The Sterling/ Gibson story I mentioned above, 'Red Star, Winter Orbit', offers one possibility. At the end of the story, with the cosmonaut Korolev seemingly trapped on a damaged station in a decaying orbit, he is surprised to be 'visited' by travellers from detourned 'solar balloons, mirrored geodesic spheres tethered by power lines', a failed solution to an energy crisis taken over by raggle-taggle 'new frontiersmen' who have 'made the big jump' (by firing booster rockets in mid-air) to orbital space. This colonisation is democratic, unplanned by governments or bureaucracies, to be inhabited by parents and children rather than technocratic astro- or cosmonauts.

It's difficult quite to know how to read this story. In one sense, it's a part of a Gibsonian 'the street has its uses for things' politics of detournement, retrofitting and appropriation. On the other hand, it seems to privilege a sentimentalised idea of the frontier which speaks to a peculiarly American mythos of can-do, individualism and rejection of government. As is perhaps typical of cyberpunk era sf, it is legible in terms of the politics of both left and right.

The possibility of space exploration as the imagination (and settlement) of an autonomous space brought to mind the activities of the AAA, the Association of Autonomous Astronauts, who were active from 1995-2000, and whose avowed aims were to democratise space exploration and promote the building of working-class spaceships, and thereby offered a critique (expressed in Situationist and absurdist terms) of the techno-militarism of Soviet and NASA space programs. The AAA were part of a wave of marginal, avant-gardist individual and groups that operated in the 1980s and 90s and whose documents were collected by Stewart Home in Mind Invaders (1997), some of which were written by Home himself. The AAA's 'dreamtime mission' was itself to destroy a dualism between outer and inner space, and the 'craft' used to travel in space could be mental or psychic as well as physical. Strong echoes of Ballard here, then – the outer collapsed onto the inner – as well as the suggestions of occultism that also flavoured some of Home's more outré and provocative documents.

Tom McCarthy’s later ‘International Necronautical Society’, a part-pastiche avant-garde group (also including Simon Critchley) which disseminated communiqués and manifestos in time-honoured Modernist tradition, was clearly influenced by the work of the AAA. In a ForteanTimes piece on the INS, McCarthy claims the influence of both Situationism and of the AAA directly, and an interview with the Autonomous Astronauts appears on the INS website. Stewart Home’s critique of the INS (partly through a mocking blog review of a 2009 talk held at Tate Britain) was that, although they inherit the ‘merciless assault on authenticity’ which connected the Neoist/ Psychogeographical/ Luther Blissett/ AAA groups in the 80s and 90s, it was rendered in a discourse that is more literary and academic: where the AAA’s ‘craft’ are explicitly connected to the politics of a working-class appropriation of space flight, the INS’s ‘craft’ are purposed to journey into, and occupy the space of death itself. For me, death isn’t the interesting part of the project: it is, rather, the sense that we live in a world of aetheric transmissions, signals, ‘programming’, that ‘thinks us’, a radical critique of subjectivity (and, in terms of poetics, of ‘originality’ or ‘authenticity’ or Romantic ideas of genius) that chimes entirely with my own thoughts – and, in terms of ‘receiving’ messages from the Outside (Jack Spicer’s word), also hints at my own writing practice.

While I find the INS documents collected in The Mattering of Matter (and re-played/ remixed in McCarthy’s e-book essay Transmission and the Individual Remix) stimulating, and work as a parallel endeavour to the kind of texts and ideas I have myself been working through over the last couple of years (Orphée, Burroughs, transmission, Kraftwerk, Rilke, EVP, tape, radio) it seems to me that this is a retreat from the world of politics into the world of art. The INS’s provocations – often using the language of Marinetti’s Futurism or the work of Heidiegger, as well as less problematic figures from post-war critical theory such as Blanchot or Derrida – speak the language of the academy rather than the 'street' or the everyday. Death may indeed always be with us, but the concept of occupying the space of death is figural rather than utopian.

And this is where I would like to return to space, and to silence. In my last post, I noted how Derrida posited the impossibility of silence, of ‘saying nothing’, and ‘how not to say’ was implicated both in silence and in speaking properly. Silence, then, may be thought of in terms of a Utopian dynamic, what Fredric Jameson identifies as the ‘failure to project the Other of what is’, failing to imagine the future, a failure that (in positive terms) always returns us to the urgent political imperatives of our own world and time. This may explain the recent controversy in the sf world to do with the ‘exhaustion of sf’, which Paul Kincaid associated with a failure to imagine the future that is diagnostic not simply of generic exhaustion but of a cultural and political moment. Can we imagine the future? Can we imagine space? Can we imagine death? If we build symbolic craft to journey into them and to return, this in itself becomes a utopian project, an encoding of the desire to imagine, to represent, to comprehend the Other – and to transmit those findings.

In a world of transmissions, Twitter, blogs, social media; and considering that I need to write as part of my job; perhaps my attraction to silence, the space of silence, the Other of language (which is God), is a Utopian yearning that I should always strive for, even if I always fail to achieve it. (And in the worlds of Beckett, quoted so often in the texts I have read recently: fail better.)

Monday, 12 November 2012

Mr Thompson tweets, or Silence part 2

One of the little ironies about writing a blog that not many people in the world will actually read is the possibility of silence (continuing from my last post) is seemingly easily achievable by no longer writing it. This had occurred to me. And it’s a possibility.

But as Derrida points out in his essay ‘How to Avoid Speaking’, the very act of thinking ‘how to avoid speaking’ is itself ‘speaking’, part of language; and ‘how to not speak’ shifts into ‘how not to speak’, that is to say, ‘how to speak’ (properly). In that same essay, in which Derrida writes about negative theology (a field of thought of much concern to my friend and colleague Arthur Bradley, who has explained it to me goodness knows how many times, but is essentially about coming to a conception of the divine by way of what He is not – for instance, God is not ‘good’, for this limits the conception of the divine to reductive human categories), Derrida ascribes the desire for silence to metaphysics, to an unknowable and unsayable beyond language, which is God.

Science fiction often uses this silent register to represent an unknowable otherness, when it doesn’t employ direct iconography to point towards the transcendent. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the beginning of consciousness is conveyed through sound, in the choral music that accompanies the monolith, or in the use of Strauss’s ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ when Moonwatcher picks up the animal and uses it as a weapon. In space, HAL’s murderously conflicted subjectivity finds expression in silence: Poole’s death at the (literal) hands of the pod is signified by the end of his breathing, and his body spins fatally in space, in silence. This silence is the silence of death, the infinite; but also the silence of HAL’s madness, his radical alterity, incommensurate with the human crew.

In Derrida's famous reading of Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, ‘Cogito and the History of Madness’, silence is not a metaphysical condition associated with the transcendent (other): in relation to madness, silence is a silencing, ‘because the silence whose archaeology is to be undertaken is not an original muteness or nondiscourse, but a subsequent silence, a discourse arrested by command’. This in itself suggests an ideological reading of silence. The post-structuralist Marxist critic Pierre Macherey argues in A Theory of Literary Production that ‘the speech of the book comes from a certain silence', and that ‘Silence reveals speech – unless it is speech that reveals the silence’. The work of the critic is to ‘make this silence speak’.

In a sense, Macherey’s approach is to acknowledge the limitations on what can be said about what is said: rather, the critical act should attempt to reveal what is not said by focusing on the formal gaps and absences in the text itself. As Macherey states most explicitly: ‘What is most important in the work is what it does not say’. 

This means that the text is always incomplete: ‘the work has its margins, an area of incompleteness from which we can observe its birth and its production’, but it is not the work of the critic to complete the text (in a sense, to become its author, to restore the ‘plenitude’ or fullness of language, to make everything ‘speak’ the truth of the text). What the critic must do is to ‘investigate the conditions of possibility of the work’, that dialectical tension between what is said/ spoken and the ground against which this speaking takes place: silence.

Making the silence speak: can one do so? This is what I tell students they should do when I lecture on their Theory and Criticism course. That this is my method, one I would like to share. Speaking, writing. Exposing the silences, the gaps, of ideology, of discourse, of representation, as a critic. This is what I do

Should I?

Should I be silent instead? Can I be silent instead?

The answer might be ‘no’. In The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks describes a man, Mr Thompson, who has suffered irretrievable memory loss. In a kind of compensatory strategy, Mr Thompson proliferates narratives in an endlessly extemporised performance, at times farcical or comic. But Sacks diagnoses a terrible loss beneath this performativity, beneath the flow of speech: ‘for here is a man who, in some sense, is desperate, in a frenzy. The world keeps disappearing, losing meaning, vanishing – and he must seek meaning, make meaning, continually inventing, throwing bridges of meaning over abysses of meaninglessness, the chaos that yearns continually beneath him.’ 

The nurses, when asked by Sacks, feel that there is an absence in Mr Thompson, and absence of ‘feeling’ or emotional effect which is only lacquered over by the performance: ‘if only he could be quiet, one feels, for an instant; if only he could stop the ceaseless chatter and jabber; if only her could relinquish the deceiving surface of illusions – then ... reality might seep in; something genuine, something deep, something felt, could enter’.

Mr Thompson, I feel, is an emblematic figure for today; for me. His endless linguistic performance, the narrative bridge-building over the abyss, is the contemporary subject produced by social media. Mr Thompson tweets, he posts on facebook, he writes a blog (called SF365) because he cannot allow himself to confront the abyss. I am myself on Twitter but have tweeted less than 500 times because I find that I have little to say on it. As I have nothing to say, I don’t tweet. (As I have nothing to say, I blog.)

I do realise, of course, that this isn’t the point of Twitter, and most who tweet have little or nothing of substance to say: they are trying to entertain, themselves and others, by doing so. Entertainment as distraction: the feelies, soma holidays. Twitter isn’t a ‘conversation’, it’s a multi-user performance, the crowd-sourced entertaining of the crowd. Building bridges over the void.

Twitter enables, just as facebook does, just as blogs do, just as self-publishing does; and I am positively inclined to each of them. But the noise. The noise. Because everyone in the crowd speaks at the same time, they can all be ignored. 

Just as much as I have pretty much give up television, and live in a small village on a North Wales hillside, I am increasingly attracted to RS Thomas’s journey ever further and further west in Wales until he ended up at Sarn on the Lleyn peninsula, in a freezing cottage bulked out of the rock itself, walking the hills and writing.

Thomas sometimes writes in a cosmological register in his later poetry, a cosmonaut on the way out of the Solar system, the human system. Into deep space, into the infinite, unto death, into silence. 

Silence, death, God.  

Not surprisingly, perhaps, I’ve recently turned to Beckett. The nothingness of being, the void, is always with the Beckettian subject. But they all speak, and even in the later, minimal texts, they are often articulated just through the voice. In a sense, the voice, speech, is the remains, the (im)material fact of human life that persists in the face of the void. Famously, Beckett ends his trilogy ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on’: speech, writing, life itself, goes on. 

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Pandemonium*, or an infernal cacophony

Here’s something different.  Something personal.  Something spoken. 

Words. Too many words. Too many books. 

I scanned the LRB this week and saw advert after advert for books, published by American University presses, books that may be sold to libraries, books whose print runs maybe in the hundreds, books no-one will read. 

As an academic working in Britain, we are now on the treadmill known as REF, the submission of four items (books, articles) to a panel which judges the quality of your work. [I gave up on speaking and started to type here.] This system requires continuing productivity, churning out articles, books and so on, without rest, without thought, without pause, without silence.

There is only the ongoing clamour of voices, all wanting to say something, all wanting to be heard.

Often the journals in which articles are published are hidden behind paywalls that only those with the economic power of the institutional subscription gives them access to, or the books are published in hardback with a cover price of £60. Often an article or a book is published that speaks only to those who themselves publish articles and books in an endless round, because no-one else has access. Self-publication is completely frowned upon inside the academy (nothing self-published could be submitted to REF; it has to be produced inside the traditional institutions of communication); (open-access) internet is still deemed inferior to print (and in my own university, the library is essentially turning away from large-scale print acquisitions); publishing outside a hierarchy of ‘quality’ journals means excluding yourself. Publishers are extremely conservative and would rather a re-working of the same old forms, ideas and texts because newness and innovation is a risk in a wobbly marketplace. And why should they risk their money?

Sometimes I feel like Kilgore Trout, the old science fiction writer who recurs in Kurt Vonnegut’s fictions. In Timequake, Vonnegut imagines Trout as an old man, homeless, who still carries on writing short stories but, with no magazine market to which to sell them, simply leaves the shelter he sleeps in and deposits the most recent story in the trash bin.

Everyone speaks; nobody listens.

Today I googled ‘Beckett silence’, as I was trying to feel my way through this reaction against words. (My old friend uncle Bill Burroughs, with his conception of the ‘Word Virus’ that occupies the human being and keeps speaking, talking, words words words incessantly, makes more sense to me now than he ever has. RUB OUT THE WORD.) I came across a little blog entry at This Space, which considered the idea of silence in an admirably economic way. I then looked down at the comments at saw that several of the comments appended a URL of their own blog. (I notice commenters below the line doing this and it irritates me.) And I thought: the commenters aren’t actually particularly engaged with what’s being written. They’re advertising their own voices.

Everybody speaks; nobody listens.

In a world of iPods, iPads, smartphones, the computer I’m writing on and its ambient hum, there is no silence. Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of transmission, particularly artistic inspiration as transmission, symbolised by the poet Orpheus writing down poems broadcast over the radio in Death’s limousine in Cocteau’s Orphée, an image taken up by Tom McCarthy in his INS essays and ‘Transmission and the Individual Remix’. I wrote about what I called ‘Tape Spectra’ here, concerning ‘haunted’ media technologies and phenomena such as EVP (the recording of ghost voices on tape), what Joe Banks calls ‘Rorschach Audio’ (the human brain processing white noise to create the impression of signals, where no signals exist); but it seems to me that the clamour of voices, everyone wanting to be a writer (or a pop star on X Factor), to publish a book, to write a blog, to have their voice heard, is in fact a condition of the infernal cacophony** of voices that were are surrounded by every day. Not only do we make signals from noise, we want to shout above the clamour.

What I’m saying is important!

Yes, no, yes, no. Both. I’m indicting myself here, of course; I have three books currently under contract or being considered, with a fourth written; I’ve already published four. And who reads them? Some students, hopefully. And I write this blog. Occasionally.

This isn’t me wondering whether I’m talking into a void. There is no void. There is only noise.  

Then why write? That is, indeed, the question. Do I write because I have to, as many writers confess? I write sometimes because I have to. It’s my job. Not from hunger, or need, though. But I often play chicken with deadlines because I can’t sit down to write, I feel blocked. Like Orphée, I’m waiting for the radio to come on, waiting for the signals broadcast from somewhere.

Not that I want to mystify the writing process, make it some kind of occult transaction or part of an expression of Romantic ‘genius’. I’m very suspicious of that. But I wonder whether I do not want to make writing work: I want it to be mysterious, to feel the breeze blowing through my mind, to get excited by the transmissions I’m receiving.

In his last novel (just as Timequake was Vonnegut’s last novel), William Burroughs in The Western Lands describes an old writer who sits in front of his typewriter. A visionary book appears, hovering over the writing machine, and the writer types down what he reads. That image has stayed with me since I bought the book, on its hardback publication, back in 1987. I never knew quite why it was important to me but, 25 years later, it fits in with Orphée, with Tom McCarthy, with me sitting at the kitchen table right now typing this into a laptop.

Is this science fiction? Is Orphée?

Rather than Isherwood’s ‘I am a Camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking,’ I am a radio. Receiving, transmitting. Voices, words. Noise. Pandemonium.

* Pandemonium: the name Milton gives to the capital city of Hell - a place much on my mind the last few days - and the word for uproar, chaotic noise, confusion. Pan, panic, demons, noise, everywhere.

** ‘cacophony’: I just looked this up in Wikipedia, where it is contrasted with ‘euphony’, a pleasantness or beauty of sound present in poetry or literary prose. The work of the writer is then to draw euphony from the world’s cacophony, signal from noise, beauty from ugliness.