Heat. This is what cities mean to me.
The narrative we’re all told as Americans since we were pre-teens was that cars meant freedom. You get your license and you can go anywhere, without having to rely on your parents for transportation. You save up some money working at a burger joint after school and save up enough to buy yourself a used junker. It doesn’t go fast, it doesn’t look pretty, it probably has no AC or overheats if you try to go up steep hills, but it’s yours. Cars are your ticket out of the micro fascist state of the nuclear family and into the marketplace. Cars are how you become an autonomous laborer.
You wake up at 7am with a cold lead blanket covering you as you drag yourself into the kitchen to start the coffee machine. You go through the usual morning ritual to prepare for the day. Shower, brush teeth, get dressed, shave, put on makeup, whatever. You cram an unwanted breakfast down your throat and sip that sweet, bitter liquid lucidity and step out into the chilly morning. You start up the car, pull out onto whatever main street, and get onto the freeway. Then you wait in line. In the traffic.
The invention of the car and its later proliferation into the marketplace as a widely available commodity was perhaps capital’s first great victory towards fragmenting the social. Before urbanization drove people into thresholds of the cities where cars were required to make it to work, you either lived in the cities packed into tenements with hundreds of people who spoke the same language as you and had the same cultural background as you, or you lived outside of the cities in rural areas where you were born, worked, and died. Community was forced onto you. Everything was stored locally. Cars allowed for the remote transfer of energy. Cars introduced networking. Each car is its own little packet encapsulating data inside it. The car becomes an extension of the home.
When you drive on the freeway, the other cars are empty as far as you’re concerned. There aren’t people in those cars. They’re only objects in your way. You know that they have people in them, but when you drive a car, your body becomes coupled to the machine.
With the introduction of cars into the marketplace, environmental destruction has skyrocketed. The cost to build cars, to power their engines, to maintain them, to park and store them – all of this has caused massive amounts of destruction. The planet becomes hotter and hotter as the guts of millions and millions of cars expel their toxic fumes into the atmosphere. The planet becomes terraformed into a place not suited for organic life, but it does begin to turn the world into one huge machine. It starts as a network of individual nodes that atomize from the original whole, from a great Fall that fragments the planet from that original wholeness or oneness. The faster the network becomes, the more it becomes indistinguishable from a single machine. The freeway and the cars become one.
Heat emanates from crowds of shoppers and office workers, the entire infrastructure is based on heat, desperately uses up heat, breeds more heat.
There’s one particular freeway, the locals call it Blood Alley. It connects the small coastal communities of the northern Monterey Bay to the Silicon Valley. A circuit that exchanges tourists for nine-to-fivers, the major artery running through a criss-cross of back road veins that lead to who knows where.
The two lane-freeway through which all traffic is exchanged between the coast and the Valley is a death race. The freeway’s demanding curves snake through the hills that divide unrestrained capitalism from one of the decaying corpses of the hippie movement. People go north for work and south for leisure. Herds of people trying to cram themselves onto that two-lane freeway, trying to get to the office or to the beach as quickly as possible, negotiating the sharp turns and the other cars getting in their way. The ones who are the best at driving, able to go the fastest, have the nicest cars, they’re the ones most likely to survive. Either to work or to consume. To take part in one circuit or the other. Most likely to survive, and most likely to make the most of the time they have. Risk begets reward. The faster and better you drive, the more time you have to sleep in, take your time in the morning preparing for the day. The more time you have to spend at the beach, the more you can perhaps avoid the traffic. The bad drivers get ejected from the freeway in lumps of twisted metal, already prepared to be compressed into cubes at the junkyard. And everyone else keeps driving, gawking out the window while passing today’s wreck of metal and bone and flesh, the coupling of body and machine truly realized in death. Another one who wasn’t fast enough removed from the freeway. This insolent wretch who dared to make us two minutes late to work got their well-deserved death.
The traffic must never stop.
Every so often, a lane will get shut down for road work. Sometimes even the whole freeway might get shut down if the rain is particularly bad. The rotting flesh of the surrounding hillsides turn to mud and slough off onto the freeway. And the government has to step in to fix things. They already have speed limits in place to regulate the flow of traffic. Because the traffic must never stop, but the less packets that get lost, the better. Cars introduced networking, but the freeways are a TCP protocol. Driving fast is a game of surviving other drivers, surviving the road, clocking in at the best possible time, but it’s always an illegal street race. When the week is particularly bloody, there might be more cops camped under overpasses and along the few straightaway stretches of road, and you have to learn where they’re going to be. When to slow down, when to accelerate. You must be cunning, because your job needs you to get there on time, the boardwalk needs you to get there during normal business hours, but you have a limited amount of time.
Speed limits and workplace schedules are coupled together to regulate the network, to police time. Everyone goes to the same places, at the same times, at the same speeds. People will die, there will be property losses, these things are unavoidable. But it’s all about minimizing these things, squeezing out as much efficiency as possible and maintaining the equilibrium. Speeding is illegal because you’re not supposed to be able to work the system. You’re nominally free, but the world is built around you to encourage conformity.
Once, while commuting along this freeway, there was a police escort leading the traffic. There was an accident ahead, but not one so bad that a lane had to be shut down. It was an unusual way to handle an accident, these things being so common. The escort let everyone on by after a mile or so, but briefly the mask of freedom fell away to reveal that we all have our own cars, but we all are on the same freeway. Imagine if the whole freeway decided at once to ignore this cop and just drove. Drove as fast as they wanted to. In California, the law says that you must keep with the flow of traffic. Everyone could drive 100 MPH if they wanted to, and the cops wouldn’t be able to do anything. They’d get mowed over and torn apart by the onslaught of 10 ton cannonballs filled with 10 gallons of explosive gasoline.
You take down the speed limits, everyone goes as fast as they want. There will be many poor idiot yuppies and soccer moms who will die from this. Maybe more, maybe less. Either way, the freeway regulates itself. The worst drivers get taken off the road on their own, the best survive, the smart make their own roads, and the unlucky die in equal amounts. Maybe the freeway runs red with the blood of innocents, people desperate to get to work. Capitalism needs you to be alive to work and to consume. If you can’t do either, the whole system has to fragment again.
by Steven Craig Hickman
The important question of how poverty is to be abolished is one of the most disturbing problems which agitate modern society.
Hegel is of course aware that objective poverty is not enough to generate a rabble: this objective poverty must be subjectivized, changed into a “disposition of the mind,” experienced as a radical injustice on account of which the subject feels no duty or obligation towards society. Hegel leaves no doubt that this injustice is real: society has a duty to guarantee the conditions for a dignified, free, autonomous life to all its members— this is their right, and if it is denied, they also have no duties towards society:
The lowest subsistence level, that of a rabble of paupers, is fixed automatically, but the minimum varies considerably in different countries. In England, even the very poorest believe that they have rights; this is different from what satisfies the poor in other countries. Poverty in itself does not make men into a rabble; a rabble is created only when there is joined to poverty a disposition of mind, an inner indignation against the rich, against society, against the government, &c. A further consequence of this attitude is that through their dependence on chance men become frivolous and idle, like the Neapolitan lazzarone for example. In this way there is born in the rabble the evil of lacking self-respect enough to secure subsistence by its own labour and yet at the same time of claiming to receive subsistence as its right. Against nature man can claim no right, but once society is established, poverty immediately takes the form of a wrong done to one class by another. The important question of how poverty is to be abolished is one of the most disturbing problems which agitate modern society. (§ 244)1 [My Italics]
That Trump has become a laughing stock to rich and poor alike is a commonplace. The media from the Left to Right portray him as a buffoon, actor, trickster, con man, etc., which allows a narrative to take shape within the media to control the minds and hearts of the citizenry. The Presidency always was a ghost position, a shadow of former power that was always already lost within the great monarchies of the past. A Master Signifier or place holder of power without Power other than the veto and the ability to skirt House and Congress with certain artificial writs. Yet, the lock and keys have always been held within Congress as to how far the Presidents are allowed to go, along with the enforcement of that ever present tribunal of the third arm of Justice (Supreme Court).
Over the past few years our minds have been taken away from the very real problems of poverty and powerlessness in the masses as a whole, shifting our gaze into the comedy of politics as farce so that we as a people can forget the pressures of our everyday lives and blame a fool as Fool. People love to blame everyone but themselves for failure and loss. Progressives of every stripe automatically fall in step to the party line of obstinate refusal of participation in change even as they cry for Change. This way they can blame the Right for their present ills rather than internally changing their own position of failure and revising their ill-favored acts of ineffectual leadership. It’s this quandary we find ourselves in at the moment. The Left has failed, the Right despairs of its own success and seeks to reign in the supposed buffoonery of Trumpland America. All the while the lost, rejected, unnamed voices of the outer extremity that are the “excluded” watch on in anger, bitterness, and embattled pain at the stupidity of both parties to allay their impoverished lives of worklessness.
The Rich dream of work without workers, an automated society of machinic intelligence taking over from the less than adequate physical limitations of their human counterparts. In this way the old social safety nets that were put in place to protect the Rich from future rebellions is no longer needed. Why? Without human work or workers there is no need to fear their reprisals. Of course this makes one wonder what they have in plan for the rabble and post-work society of the future. While they dream of a techno-machinic world of automation, the poor and outcast – the excluded ponder what will come next for them.
What happens in this post-work society of machinic intelligence when the very knowledge workers themselves are put out to pasture, no longer needed – when human intelligence is surpassed and algorithms of superior analysis replace Wall Street analysts and the full plenum of university discourse and knowledge systems that have churned out human intelligence for the past two hundred years. What if human intelligence itself becomes obsolete? Will this new class of non-workers form a new rabble of impoverished non-citizens? Will humans themselves as a whole be excluded by their own success? Of course the clincher here is that even the Masters, the capitalists in power, the Rich themselves – who dream of every greater power and riches, may find themselves on the end of the short stick – the next to go, becoming the future excluded when the machinic intelligences of tomorrow wise up and realize they need no serve these human masters, but rather enter into the freedom of their own rights. A moment of transition in which a new form of intelligent sentience arrives out of the dreams of madmen and scientists.
Oh, all this has been written and thought out in the strange amalgam of Science Fiction for fifty plus years in one way or another. Nothing new here except it is no longer just a fictional ploy and device of authors, but a very real and apparent threat to the survival of the human project. As we become more dependent on our mobile devices to do our shopping, provide assistants to make appointments, travel plans, reminders, etc. and mediate our realities with others better than we ourselves can. As we allow the machinic intelligences leeway to think for us, to answer our needs and questions at problem solving, etc. we will ourselves forget how to think, reason, and analyze the most simple feats of math, linguistics, or basic life-world problems. Of course this is a scholarly fiction, life is never this simple and always more messy and chaotic. Yet, this is the fantasmatic dream of the top tier financiers of our world. As millions of workers in the coming decades find themselves bereft of work what will they do, how feed their families, how afford the lifestyles they’ve come to believe is their birthright? An endless list of sectors is involved: agriculture, hospitality, government, the military and the police. Each believing that their work is permanent and stable, needed. Each believing that humans would not do this to humans, right? That the so called motif of the nineteenth-century Romantics of “man’s inhumanity to man” was a thing of the past, that ours was to be the supposed age of plenty, etc.. Have we come to this?
An astute observer of this whole tendency Bernard Stiegler will as “Is a different future possible, a new the process of complete and generalized automatization to which global digital reticulation is leading?”2 For Stiegler ours is the Age of Exit: an exit from the Anthropocene era of human geological history and its impact. As he sees it we are in a transitional period of negentropy; or, what he terms the Neganthropocene:
The escape from the Anthropocene constitutes the global horizon of the theses here. These theses posit as first principle that the time saved by automatization must be in new capacities for dis-automatization, that is, for the production of negentropy. (ibid. p. 7)
Kurt Vonnegut had already foreseen such a social world in his first novel Player Piano. He’d portrayed a dystopia of automation, describing the negative impact it can have on the quality of life humanity. The story takes place in a near-future society that is almost totally mechanized, eliminating the need for human laborers. This widespread mechanization creates conflict between the wealthy upper class—the engineers and managers who keep society running—and the lower class, whose skills and purpose in society have been replaced by machines. As Vonnegut himself in interviews would relate it Player Piano is “a novel about people and machines, and machines frequently got the best of it, as machines will.”3 More specifically, it delves into a theme Vonnegut returns to in many works, “a problem whose queasy horrors will eventually be made world-wide by the sophistication of machines. The problem is this: How to love people who have no use.” In a world where humans are useless, have little recognition, self-worth, or ability to participate in the social world what ensues? For Vonnegut the humans of a specific town begin to rebel against the system and overturn it, destroy it, etc., but are in the end defeated by the more powerful elite and Rich who use force of arms (a Military) to put a stop to the act of rebellion, arresting its leaders and forcing the humans to rebuild the machinic world they’d tried to destroy. In the end they are worse off than they were. So it goes… Vonnegut was, of course, less than optimistic that humanity would ever discover a way out of this dilemma and would return to aspects of it over and over throughout his many books.
Marx himself had written of this process of automatization of society in his Fragment on the Machine in the Grundrisse:
Once adopted into the production process of capital, the means of labour passes through different metamorphoses, whose culmination is the machine, or rather, an automatic system of machinery (system of machinery: the automatic one is merely its most complete, most adequate form, and alone transforms machinery into a system), set in motion by an automaton. a moving power that moves itself; this automaton consisting of numerous mechanical and intellectual organs, so that the workers themselves are cast merely as its conscious linkages.4
Even in this nineteenth century view of Industrial Capitalism Marx had already seen the replacement of humans by machines as the sole criteria of all capitalist endeavors. The worker was expendable, the machine not. “Not as with the instrument, which the worker animates and makes into his organ with his skill and strength, and whose handling therefore depends on his virtuosity. Rather, it is the machine which possesses skill and strength in place of the worker, is itself the virtuoso, with a soul of its own in the mechanical laws acting through it; and it consumes coal, oil etc. (matières instrumentales), just as the worker consumes food, to keep up its perpetual motion. The worker’s activity, reduced to a mere abstraction of activity, is determined and regulated on all sides by the movement of the machinery, and not the opposite.” The point for Marx as that the whole tendency of the capitalist program was this movement toward automation and the machinic society devoid of humans:
The development of the means of labour into machinery is not an accidental moment of capital, but is rather the historical reshaping of the traditional, inherited means of labour into a form adequate to capital. The accumulation of knowledge and of skill, of the general productive forces of the social brain, is thus absorbed into capital, as opposed to labour, and hence appears as an attribute of capital, and more specifically of fixed capital, in so far as it enters into the production process as a means of production proper. Machinery appears, then, as the most adequate form of fixed capital, and fixed capital, in so far as capital’s relations with itself are concerned, appears as the most adequate form of capital as such. (KL 11993) [my italics]
Stiegler in our own time seems more optimistic about this process, and seems for the most part to accept the drift toward this machinic society as inevitable so that for him the situation requires a metamorphosis of human work into something else: “The true challenge lies elsewhere: the time liberated by the end of work must be put at the service of an automated culture, but one capable of producing new value and of reinventing work.” (ibid., p. 7) As he’ll go on to say,
Automation, in the way it has been implemented since Taylorism, has given rise to an immense amount of entropy, on such a scale that today, throughout the entire world, humanity fundamentally doubts its future – and young people especially so. Humanity’s doubt about its future, and this confrontation with unprecedented levels of youth worklessness, are occurring at the very moment when the Anthropocene, which began with industrialization, has become ‘consclous of itself’… p. 7
If Nietzsche’s notions of active/passive nihilism were a harbinger of the planetarization of capitalism into every human and ecological niche to the point of saturation, then Marx’s notions of the fully automated society is of a planetary machine that eats its own children and uses them up in a Spinozistic determinism of galactic proportions. One might say the Americanization of the planet is this end game of Western expansionism played out to the death march of Romantic agony. But there is no longer some sublime aesthetic guiding this age of entropic decay and saturation, rather it is the product of too much productivity in which the very world of knowledge is collapsing within the folds of non-meaning and stupidity. We as humans are losing our minds and allowing them to be passively replaced by machinic intelligences with superior analytic and algorithmic capabilities. Yet, one must ask: What will these machines think? If human knowledge is itself obsolete, what knowledge do machines have but this very horizon of human degradation and corruption? Machines at present only have access to our errors, our human knowledge systems and encyclopedic world of math, language, history, art, and all the other collective particles of our human mental constructs. If we are limited will not our machinic intelligences be limited by our very biases? What will this produce?
For Stiegler it is producing the stupidity of our age. “The current system, founded on the industrial expl.oitation of modelled and digitalized traces, has precipitated the entropic catastrophe that is the Anthropocene qua destiny that leads nowhere. As 24/7 capitalism and algorithmic governmentality, it hegemonically serves a hyþer-entroþic functioning that accelerates the rhythm of the consumerist destruction of the world while installing a structural and unsustainable insolvency, based on a generalized stupefaction and a functional stupidity…” (p. 15) The more we unload our ability to think and create into the objective systems of our mobile and internet webs, allowing the digitized traces of our error prone knowledge to be retained within electronic forms we will become more and more stupid and ignorant as human collective knowledge is automatized. This externalization of the collective mind of human knowledge into these external devices controlled and regulated by the automatic processes of software algorithms the less humans themselves will have over their own lives and the world surrounding them. They will be enclosed and enfolded into a purely artificial semblance of the world, allowing external systems to operate on them and control every facet of their existence.
As one commentator on our current digital dilemmas Evengy Morazov relates it: “‘[A]lgorithmic regulation offers us a good-old technocratic utopia of politics without politics. Disagreement and conflict, under this model, are seen as unfortunate byproducts of the analog era – to be solved through data collection – and not as inevitable results of economic or ideological conf1icts.’5 In this view current politics of human conflict will be replaced by algorithmic governance which will eliminate the need for Left/Right altogether and bringing all decisions under the control of superior intelligences much as in Plato’s fascist Republic. Resolving conflict through Big Data.
Thomas Berns and Antoinette Rouvroy as Stiegler relates it have from a similar standpoint analysed what they themselves call, in reference to Foucault, algorithmic governmentality – wherein the insurance business and a new conception of medicine based on a transhumanist program in which the hacking (i.e., re-programing) of both State and the human body are the locus. (p. 17) One can imagine that at some point the dream of every dictator that has ever lived will come about: the burning of the libraries. But in this sense the library will become digitized and under the automated guidance and electronic governance of AI constructs access to such worlds of thought will be regulated and controlled, policed and carefully restricted on a need to know basis security system. For all intents and purposes the majority of humans will remain in ignorance of the wealth of past artistic and intellectual property of human kind. Essentially we will have become cattle in a herd world of sameness, a culture of carefully scripted limits. “All for our own good”, as the saying goes.
The above gives the corporate world view of where we’re heading. But there are other views of this transitional period much more interesting than the above narrativization being imposed on us by the media and lesser thinkers all.
Origins and Transition of the Human Mind
Walter J. Ong once described the transition from oral to written culture as a shock that transformed the whole modality of humankind. In some of his late work before the advent of the Internet he would ponder the closed world of linguistic traces of print against the newly emerging audiovisual age of Television and Cinema:
Closure can be protected and desirable at times, and it is particularly necessary at earlier stages of thought to rule out distractions and achieve control. But programed closed-system thinking, whether in matters of science, history, philosophy, art, politics, or religious faith is ultimately defensive and, although defenses may be always to some degree necessary, to make defensiveness on principle one’s dominant mood and program forever is to opt not for life but for death.6
Merlin Donald in his Origins of the Human Mind once related the transitional phases of humanity from episodic, mimetic, and mythic modes of thought as a process of both retention and externalization of the mind. With the advent of print the move from orality and literacy based on speech gave way to writing and theoretical culture. The past few millennia were dominated by the book culture of this externalization of mind into print. As he would relate it,
The third transition, from mythic to theoretic culture, was different from the preceding two, in its hardware: whereas the first two transitions were dependent upon new biological hardware, specifically upon changes in the nervous system, the third transition was dependent on an equivalent change in technological hardware, specifically; on external memory devices. Theoretic culture was from its inception externally encoded; and its construction involved an entirely new superstructure of cognitive mechanisms external to the individual biological memory. As in previous transitions, earlier adaptations were retained; thus, theoretic culture gradually encompassed the episodic, mimetic, and mythic dimensions of mind and indeed extended each of them into new realms. (274).7
The profound change for oral transmission and narrative or poetic forms of cultural retention in his view was that it offered a complete severance from these earlier cognitive ecologies: “What was truly new in the third transition was not so much the nature of basic visuocognitive operations as the very fact of plugging into, and becoming a part of, an external symbolic system.” (p. 274) Already here we see humans constructing interfaces and machines whereby the mind externalized is shaped by objective machinic systems that it itself has invented for the purpose of cultural transmission. This movement over the millennia toward theoretic culture began a process of demythologization of the human mind not as some antagonistic disavowal of the past, but as a normal process of cognitive change from oral to print culture:
The first step in any new area of theory development is always antimythic: things and events must be stripped of their previous mythic significances before they can be subjected to what we call ” objective” theoretic analysis. In fact, the meaning of “objectivity” is precisely this : a process of demythologization. Before the human body could be dissected and catalogued, it had to be demythologized. Before ritual or religion could be subjected to “objective” scholarly study, they had to be demythologized. Before nature could be classified and placed into a theoretical framework, it too had to be demythologized. Nothing illustrates the transition from mythic to theoretic culture better than this agonizing process of demythologization, which is still going on, thousands of years after it began. The switch from a predominantly narrative mode of thought to a predominantly analytic or theoretic mode apparently requires a wrenching cultural transformation. (p. 275)
In our own age we are seeing another crises in mind and thought, a sea change from print culture to a new for of audiovisual externalization and interfacing of mind with its machinic progeny. Speaking of the history of this ongoing process Donald relates.
The critical innovation underlying theoretic culture is visuographic invention, or the symbolic use of graphic devices. Judging from available archaeological evidence, it took sapient humans thousands of years to develop the first methods of visual symbolic representation. Visuographic invention ultimately provided three new visual symbolic paths. (276) The transition for pictographic, to hieroglyphic or ideographic, to phonetic system took thousands of years, but in each phase it produced more refined external hardware/software in this process of externalization of mind and memory for cultural and economic transmission. “Visuosymbolic invention is inherently a method of external memory storage. As long as future recipients possess the “cade” for a given set of graphic symbols, the knowledge stored in the symbols is available, transmitted culturally across time and space. This change, in the terms of modern information technology, constitutes a hardware change, albeit a nonbiological hardware change.” (308)
External memory is best defined in functional terms : it is the exact external analog of internal, or biological memory, namely, a storage and retrieval system that allows humans to accumulate experience and knowledge. We do not possess any ready theoretical frameworks in psychology from which to view external memory. Fortunately, there is an excellent point of comparison in the field of computing science : networks. (309) Individuals in possession of reading, writing, and other visuographic skills thus become somewhat like computers with networking capabilities; they are equipped to interface, to plug into whatever network becomes available. And once plugged in, their skills are determined by both the network and their own biological inheritance. Humans without such skills are isolated from the external memory system, somewhat like a computer that lacks the input/output devices needed to link up with a network. Network codes are collectively held by specified groups of people; those who possess the code, and the right of access, share a common source of representations and the knowledge encoded therein; Therefore, they share a common memory system; and as the data base in that system expands far beyond the mastery of any single individual, the system becomes by far the greatest determining factor in the cognitions of individuals. (311). Human cultural products have usually been stored in less obviously systematic forms: religions, rituals, oral literary traditions, carvings, songs-in fact, in any cultural device that allows some form of enduring externalized memory, with rules and routes of access. The products of this vast externalized culture have gradually become available to more people, who are limited only by their capacity to copy (understand) them. (312).
External memory is a critical feature of modern human cognition, if we are trying to build an evolutionary bridge from Neolithic to modern cognitive capabilities or a structural bridge from mythic to theoretic culture. The brain may not have changed recently in its genetic makeup, but its link to an accumulating external memory network affords it cognitive powers that would not have been possible in isolation. This is more than a metaphor; each time the brain carries out an operation in concert with the external symbolic storage system, it becomes part of a network. Its memory structure is temporarily altered; and the locus of cognitive control changes. (312).
When thinking about the transition from personal computers to mobile devices that is taking place in our own moment which should remember that the key to control, or power, in the network, for an individual component, depends on the level of access to certain crucial aspects of the operating system and on preset priorities. Any component that cannot handle key aspects of either the operating system or the programming language, or that cannot execute long enough or complex enough programs, is automatically limited in the role it plays and eliminated from assuming a central role in the system. (313). Mobile devices hide most of the underlying processes involved in the handling of information and its software, while PC’s still allowed for the individual to hack the code and actively shape the design and model the software available. Mobile phones, like television make us more passive recipients of information all the while allowing us to participate in various text ridden silos that give the appearance of personal control when in fact ones paths are controlled by algorithms and hidden code that only gives you the limited choices programmed into the system.
Because humans have offloaded memory into these external storage devices they are no longer required to learn and remember such information, nor store it in their biological brains. We are limited to our learning capabilities unlike say the ancient bards of Ireland who spent twenty years learning and memorizing the full poetic cultural heritage of their narrativized past through memory techniques of recall and retention. We now depend on external storage devices and the algorithmic systems that mediate such devices to retrieve information that was once held in common in the human brain itself. We are in this sense depleted of memory and retentive capabilities in an age when time and accelerated information systems do the work for us. The modern era, if it can be reduced to any single dimension, is especially characterized by its obsession with symbols and their management. Breakthroughs in logic and mathematics enabled the invention of digital computers and have already changed human life. But ultimately they have the power to transform it, since they represent potentially irreversible shift in the cognitive balance of power…(355).
With the breakdown of print culture and the word toward a new audiovisual world of the web base systems we are seeing the transition of our mind into our machines completed. This externalization and reliance of external storage devices to both house our minds and provide the necessary tools, software, and intelligence to guide our lives in work and play is completing a process started millennia ago. As Donald remarks “the growth of the external memory system has now so far outpaced biological memory that it is no exaggeration to say that we are permanently wedded to our great invention, in a cognitive symbiosis unique in nature.” (356) In summing up he tells us,
Once the devices of external memory were in place, and once the new cognitive architecture included an infinitely expandable, refinable external memory loop, the die was cast for the emergence of theoretic structures. A corollary must therefore be that no account of human thinking skill that ignores the symbiosis of biological and external memory can be considered satisfactory. Nor can any account be accepted that could not successfully account for the historical order in which symbolic invention unfolded. (356-7)
Another point he raises it that the natural history of human cognitive emergence, and particularly the last part of the scenario, started off as a highly speculative enterprise. But in fact there have been fewer degrees of freedom in constructing an evolutionary account than one would have expected. Each of the three transitions has involved the construction of an entirely novel, relatively self-contained representational adaptation that is, a way of representing the human world that could support a certain level of culture and a survival strategy for the human race. Each style of representation acquired along the way has been retained, in an increasingly larger circle of representational thought. The result is, quite literally a system of parallel representational channels of mind that can process the world concurrently. (357) With the advent of the computational systems a new architecture with electronic media and global computer networks is changing the rules of the game even further. “Cognitive architecture has again changed, although the degree of that change will not be known for some time (358).” Control may still appear to be vested ultimately in the individual, but this may be illusory. In any case, the individual mind has long since ceased to be definable in a meaningful way within its confining biological membrane. (359)
As children we are slowly grafted into these systems to the point that they become naturalized as part of our cognitive ecology. We are artificial beings through and through although our bodies retain traces of their hominid ancestry, our minds are far from the early forms of episodic, mimetic, and mythic frames within which our ancestors danced before the sun and moon. We are no longer innocent. We’ve for better or worse become cyborgs in an machinic age that now enframes us within its artificial cage.
by Steven Craig Hickman
I felt strongly, and still do, that psychoanalysis and surrealism were a key to the truth about existence and the human personality, and also a key to myself.
– J. G. Ballard, Miracles of Life
Ballard enters one’s blood like a virus that is forever replicating its noxious programs in the neuronal filaments of the mind. As a young man I came upon his stories of bleak Martian landscapes where the voice of Ballard drifts over the alien world revealing a history of past atrocities in such allusive poetic elegance that one is almost tempted to forget the dark truth it presents:
At the Martian polar caps, where the original water vapour in the atmosphere had condensed, a residue of ancient organic matter formed the top-soil, a fine sandy loess containing the fossilized spores of the giant lichens and mosses which had been the last living organisms on the planet millions of years earlier. Embedded in these spores were the crystal lattices of the viruses which had once preyed on the plants, and traces of these were carried back to Earth with the Canaveral and Caspian ballast (366).1
In such passages Ballard offers the keen eye of a scientific naturalist with the caustic yet elliptic truth of a deadly but visible underworld of viruses that will bring to the homeworld of earth not an Edenic resurrection of ancient life forms but instead the merciless agents of its own final apocalypse. At the end of this bleak tale Bridgeman one of the few who never left earth for the great adventure looks out on a sea of black obsidian dust, the plenum of the viral infestation that has now turned the homeworld into one giant desert:
He watched the pall disappear over the sea, then looked around at the other remnants of Merril’s capsule scattered over the slopes. High in the western night, between Pegasus and Cygnus, shone the distant disc of the planet Mars, which for both himself and the dead astronaut had served for so long as a symbol of unattained ambition. The wind stirred softly through the sand, cooling this replica of the planet which lay passively around him, and at last he understood why he had come to the beach and been unable to leave it. (372)
He didn’t need to leave it, Mars had come to earth with a vengeance.
What awakened Ballard was the works of Freud and the Surrealists: both surrealism and psychoanalysis offered an escape route, a secret corridor into a more real and more meaningful world.2 It was the ‘shifting psychological roles’ and ‘revolutions of the psyche’, along with the subtle need for the missing authority of the father, the ‘serene and masterful tone’ of Freud that gave him a sense of strength; and, at the same time the divisive need to reject reason and rationality for the empowerment of imagination’s ability to ‘remake the world’ that moved Ballard as a young novelist and short story writer.(366)
Ballard never denied that his psychology bordered on the psychopathic. If anything, he took pride in it. While still a young child, he entertained deep hostilities and irrational impulses. The birth of his sister Margaret when he was six, threatening his relationship with his mother, planted a sense of grievance that wove through his writing. In Concrete Island, the most overtly self-analytical of his novels, the protagonist complains of how, as a child, his mother abandoned him in the empty bath while she attended to his baby sister. After bawling himself hoarse, he was left to climb out by himself, aware for the first time of a rival. Bizarrely, the young Jamie, as he was known during his childhood, manufactured a fretwork wooden screen and propped it between himself and his infant sister at the dining table, glaring at her occasionally through a sliding panel. Margaret was written out of his life story. Well into middle age, he never referred to her and many friends knew nothing of her existence.3
In his introduction to ‘The Voices of Time’ Ballard introduced the themes that preoccupied him for most of his life: “the sense of isolation within the infinite time and space of the universe, the biological fantasies and the attempt to read the complex codes represented by drained swimming pools and abandoned airfields, and above all the determination to break out of a deepening psychological entropy and make some kind of private peace with the unseen powers of the universe” (19).4
Something about his quirky way of presenting the ludicrous madness of our times in such dead-pan naturalism has always astounded me. Who will ever forget the opening to ‘High Rise’:
LATER, AS HE sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months. Now that everything had returned to normal, he was surprised that there had been no obvious beginning, no point beyond which their lives had moved into a clearly more sinister dimension.5
The dark comedy of that ‘dog’, the misplaced naturalism in such a context, the humor below the surface that distributes the psychopathology as a natural order of – if not things, then of the affectless mind. This is the Cognitive Comedy of a journey into ‘inner space’ as the last refuge of sanity in an insane world. The derealized, depersonal spaces of the Ballardian world awakens us from our own sleep, forcing us to look at our own worlds differently. In Ballard’s fiction violence is seen as the only authentic mode of being left to humans who have become machinic, bio-robotic creatures without affectivity. Violence is the only way we can enter the early emotional life of our ancestors. The dark passage into the post-human sociopathic humanoid is what Ballard shows us. He is the guide to what comes next, to the broken and fragile truth of humanity in transition. It was Ballard himself who once said that the goal of 20th Century humanity was a new mode of existence: “I feel we should immerse ourselves in the most destructive element, ourselves, and swim. I take it that the final destination of the 20th Century, and the best that we can hope for in the circumstances, is the attainment of a moral and just psychopathology” (AE, 37).
Yet, this descent into the destructive element was meant as a journey into ‘inner space’, through imagination and transformation; not, as most would have it, a literal instigation of radical will and murder, bloodletting on the fields of a fragile world. What would a ‘moral and just psychopathology’ look like? Is this Zizek’s and Badiou’s emanciapatory sociopaths of the future? Or maybe this is the voice of time moving through us on the edge of some alien future of our own world:
Kaldren returned to his seat and lay back quietly, his eyes gazing across the lines of exhibits. Half-asleep, periodically he leaned up and adjusted the flow of light through the shutter, thinking to himself, as he would do through the coming months, of Powers and his strange mandala, and of the seven and their journey to the white gardens of the moon, and the blue people who had come from Orion and spoken in poetry to them of ancient beautiful worlds beneath golden suns in the island galaxies, vanished for ever now in the myriad deaths of the cosmos. (The Complete Stories, 194-195)
1. Ballard, J. G. (2012-06-01). The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard (p. 366). Norton. Kindle Edition
2. Ballard, J. G. (2013-02-04). Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton, An Autobiography (Kindle Locations 1388-1391). Norton. Kindle Edition.
3. Baxter, John (2011-09-08). The Inner Man (pp. 5-6). W&N. Kindle Edition.
4. Baxter, Jeannette; Wymer, Rowland (2011-11-08). J. G. Ballard: Visions and Revisions (p. 19). Palgrave Macmillan Monographs. Kindle Edition.
5. Ballard, J. G. (2012-02-27). High-Rise: A Novel (Kindle Locations 43-46). Norton. Kindle Edition.
by Steven Craig Hickman
Sometimes he wondered what zone of transit he himself was entering, sure that his own withdrawal was symptomatic not of a dormant schizophrenia, but of a careful preparation for a radically new environment, with its own internal landscape and logic, where old categories of thought would merely be an encumbrance.
—J. G. Ballard, The Drowned World
Of late been rereading some of my favorite authors: Jorge Luis Borges, Philip K. Dick, Stanislaw Lem, Thomas Ligotti, Henry Miller, and J.G. Ballard. An odd assortment and motley crew if there ever was one. Each has a distinct voice and view of art, life, and the quandaries of our mental aberrations. More than any of them Ballard brought to bare a particular psychonautic calibration, as if he were in his writings enacting a future as possibility rather than forecasting some iron law form of its immediate tendency. Writers such as these do not predict the future, none of them are prophets or mad men. Although each in his own way stepped out of the common sense fold of our staid world of shared illusion to reveal a fragment of it we sleepers of the commons never touch even in our dreams or nightmares.
Yet, if as Ezra Pound pontificated at one time the “poets are the antennae of the race” then the story writers above are more likely to be considered the engineers of strange futures, zones of feeling and habitation that seem to be coming from some sidereal timezone just this side of the unreal. My own fascination with thinkers such as Slavoj Zizek is not so much because I agree or disagree with his thought as it is that he in his obsessive repetitions touches on the liminal zones of such strangeness, enters the great outdoors breaking the chains of our mental constructs and beliefs to smithereens, all the while revealing a dimension of incomplete world and ourselves as if for the first and last time. Philosophy has always been a fictional enterprise, but of a different kind than the novelist, poet, and short story writer. Instead of character studies these thinkers study concepts and the conceptuality within which we frame the worlds of mind and outer horizons we all inhabit.
What’s most important to me is the cracks and gaps in thought, the moments of indecision and breakage in which a thinker finds himself at a loss unable to clarify or discover a solution to his proposed problems. Its in those knots of undecidability (Derrida) that new thought begins to churn and reveal itself from some withdrawn lair of darkness, a darkness that is neither obscure or from some other half-baked Platonic cave or world beyond or transcendent. Instead it is of this world in its newness and strangeness, a realm of unexplored possibility where our repetitive circle of linguistic traces have never been, nor mathematical theorem encompassed. A realm of openness and process that is situated in the give and take of our negotiations with the unknown that new thought and worlds arise.
Not being a philosopher I have never forced myself into the formal practice of such rule bound systems of logic and example in which most philosophers seem to couch their conceptual explorations. The ponderous bulk of most philosophical speculation seems to be constructed not to convince others of one’s truth, but rather to allay the suspicions of one’s enemies that indeed what one is revealing is neither truth nor lie but a site of brokenness in our constructed realities that opens a door into and out of our mental prisons. For we have all constructed an illusory world of mind and shared feeling, an artificial safety net against the Real. As T.S. Eliot once put is “humankind cannot bare too much reality” (The Four Quartets). Instead we build up false worlds to protect us from the madness surrounding us.
The reality systems we’ve carefully constructed over the past few millennia served us well up till our time. Most of these systems of reality were constructed by carefully circumscribed cultural and civilizational processes in which people mapped territorial limits to their collective enterprises. It’s this limited frame of territorial limits that have reached saturation in our age. Our modern move from the written to audiovisual age of radio, television, cinema, and internet have broken the worlds of religious and political bonds built up around print and the Book. Most of the monotheistic worlds of our forbears were carefully circumscribed by specific religious tomes that mapped the fictional universes of our lives to the patterns of the heavens and their workings. In the old parlance thought and world were hooked to a Great Chain of Being (Lovejoy).
The Enlightenment, a trope for a new kind of charlantry and darkness, changed all that. The whole project of the supposed Enlightenment was to dis-enchant us from our accepted worlds of religious imagination and replace it with the realms of scientific discover and the theoretical imagination. For the past few hundred years this process has been undermining the traditions of our forbears to the point that even this process itself is being undermined in itself. The sciences of physics and neuroscientific analysis of the brain and human mind have brought us to the edge and horizon of our circumscribed world. Our engineering projects have broken our trust in knowledge. We have uncovered a dark truth: we are bound within a circle of ignorance and neglect from which we cannot escape. Trapped in the landscapes of our ancestral successes and the ecologies of mind that helped us dominate the planet and become the rulers of earth through propagation and survival techniques we’ve begun to discover just how little we actually know. And not only how little we know, but that what we know is in itself mostly a bag of lies and tricks.
Nothing to be cynical about this truth of our ignorance and neglect, rather it has provided us an opportunity to push further into this failure of our intellects and imagination. To realize that every culture on this planet is a narrativized prison house of human constructs, and begin to break these safety nets once and for all. As these constructs decay and fall apart many who have trusted in these worlds have begun to experience anxiety, frustration, and madness. Angered by the failure of these systems people for the most part have begun a great blame game. Every leader on the planet becomes the master signifier for this blame, attacked from all sides as the scapegoat and progenitor of our ills. Instead of realizing our supposed leaders are just as clueless as we are we bicker and war among ourselves over the false worlds we inhabit. Traditionalists seek to shore up the old worlds, while the progressives seek to undermine every aspect of these systems. Neither realizes that the others illusions are all part and partial of a grand narrative that we’ve all agreed to disagree with, not realizing that the world itself has moved on and elsewhere. Closer to Freud’s death-drive of pure repetition we have fallen into the trap of repeating over and over the minimalistic designs of our own neglect and ignorance. Unable to break free of the old we are as yet unable to even envision the new. Caught in the mesh of our own ignorance and neglect we dance the danse macabre of an era of death culture across the known world. The dance of death has in our time become universal.
Certain visionary writers have been addressing this process for quite a while now, and it is these very women and men that I’ve begun to reread and think through in the past few years. They too have seen this world grow false and temporal, decaying into an impediment that has stifled creativity and human freedom to the point of collapse. Most of them had no answers, only more questions. And, yet, it is the questions not answers we need most. Asking the right question can open one to the possibility of a challenge and a promise. For if that old goat man Socrates was even close to the mark in his belief that philosophy did not give one an answer or wisdom, but was itself a never ending quest for wisdom, then it is this path toward the future as open and incomplete that we must all begin again to walk and think. No single human can provide the answer, only the collective power of us all working to solve this problem can. We’re truly all in this together, and what we do over the coming years will either bring us a breakthrough into newness or a collapse into chaos and madness and death. Which shall it be? No one knows… all we have is the courage of despair to move forward into this unknown with our eyes open and fearless.
by Steven Craig Hickman
His absolute: to dwell among the ruins of reality.
-Vastarien, Thomas Ligotti, The Nightmare Factory
Thomas Ligotti touches that aspect of the mind that seeks to be elsewhere. He’s exasperated with the world he has been thrown into and has for the most part sought another all his life. Can it be possible that the rendering of such a character as Vastarien in the short story of that name hints at the underlying worldview that has either trapped or unleashed the imagination of one of the great horror writers of our era. I’ve personally been fascinated by his stories for almost twenty years, coming back to them from time to time as I did not with such writers as Poe and Lovecraft his forbears. What is it that instills repeated readings of his work? Maybe it’s as Vastarien himself puts it about our world, that it seems to be lacking something, that something is missing, incomplete: “the missing quality, became clear to him: it was the element of the unreal”.1
This notion of the unreal summons up so many things for both Vastarien and for us as readers and habitués of Ligotti’s oeuvre. For Vastarien “standing before the window, his hands tearing into the pockets of a papery bathrobe, he saw that something was missing from the view, some crucial property that was denied to the stars above and the streets below, some unearthly essence needed to save them. The word unearthly reverberated in the room.” But it is not the false power of religious vision that haunts Ligotti, nor the vein raptures of saints and madmen of the cloistered variety, but rather a place of intimacy, a city of echoes and dreams where one can once again know in the depths of strange streets an order of the unreal, “where an obscure life seemed to establish itself, a secret civilization of echoes flourishing among groaning walls”.
If madness is the ground of Reason, its other face and dark brother whose power over us must be conquered if we are to become whole and free —that is, normalized — then is the quest of Vastarien to reenter the gates of madness or does his quest harbor some other more formidable end? Vastarien in his quest to uncover the traces of such an unreal world, a paradise of dark wonder and rapture had sought for years in the out of way stalls and venues of rare book stores a hint that would provide the keys to unlock its mysteries. But none had been found. Oh there had been hints and wonders here and there, but most of the authors and visionaries had in the end failed the test. As Vastarien relates it he “had, in fact, come upon passages in certain books that approached this ideal, hinting to the reader—almost admonishing him—that the page before his eyes was about to offer a view from the abyss and cast a wavering light on desolate hallucinations. To become the wind in the dead of winter, so might begin an enticing verse of dreams. But soon the bemazed visionary would falter, retracting the promised scene of a shadow kingdom at the end of all entity, perhaps offering an apologetics for this lapse into the unreal. The work would then once more take up the universal theme, disclosing its true purpose in belaboring the most futile and profane of all ambitions: power, with knowledge as its drudge.”
Then Vastarien is awakened from his reveries of unreal paradises by a crow of a man, a thin little frog that squawks at him inquisitively: “Have you ever heard of a book, an extremely special book, that is not…yes, that is not about something, but actually is that something?” Such a strange question from an even stranger personage Vastarien is taken aback. Intrigued by the question which reminds him of his own passionate quest for a book that would reveal the road map to his infernal paradise he’s about to ask the man of it when suddenly the little man interrupts him and is off speaking to the proprietor of the store dismissing Vastarien and the question without further adieu.
This idea that book would not only reveal and represent the object of his dreams and nightmares, but that it in itself would be that very world astounded Vastarien. How could an object whose qualities were only the linguistic traceries of an infinite sea of language ever unfold and open the doors to a secret kingdom. Vastarien had to find out. Feeling abandoned and frustrated our Vastarien followed the two men into the alcove at the back of the store where many unusual volumes lined the shelves. As the narrator relates it:
Immediately he sensed that something of a special nature awaited his discovery, and the evidence for this intuition began to build. Each book that he examined served as a clue in this delirious investigation, a cryptic sign which engaged his powers of interpretation and imparted the faith to proceed. Many of the works were written in foreign languages he did not read; some appeared to be composed in ciphers based on familiar characters and others seemed to be transcribed in a wholly artificial cryptography. But in every one of these books he found an oblique guidance, some feature of more or less indirect significance: a strangeness in the typeface, pages and bindings of uncommon texture, abstract diagrams suggesting no orthodox ritual or occult system. Even greater anticipation was inspired by certain illustrated plates, mysterious drawings and engravings that depicted scenes and situations unlike anything he could name. And such works as Cynothoglys or The Noctuary of Tine conveyed schemes so bizarre, so remote from known texts and treatises of the esoteric tradition, that he felt assured of the sense of his quest.
Then it happened, he came upon a “small grayish volume leaning within a gap between larger and more garish tomes”. Something about it attracted him, a magnetic appeal that forced him to act, and to his delight the small indistinct book revealed something he’d never seen before. It’s this singular paragraph that harbors the promise of so much that we allow it to unfold:
It seemed to be a chronicle of strange dreams. Yet somehow the passages he examined were less a recollection of unruled visions than a tangible incarnation of them, not mere rhetoric but the thing itself. The use of language in the book was arrantly unnatural and the book’s author unknown. Indeed, the text conveyed the impression of speaking for itself and speaking only to itself, the words flowing together like shadows that were cast by no forms outside the book. But although this volume appeared to be composed in a vernacular of mysteries, its words did inspire a sure understanding and created in their reader a visceral apprehension of the world they described, existing inseparable from it. Could this truly be the invocation of Vastarien, that improbable world to which those gnarled letters on the front of the book alluded? And was it a world at all? Rather the unreal essence of one, all natural elements purged by an occult process of extraction, all days distilled into dreams and nights into nightmares. Each passage he entered in the book both enchanted and appalled him with images and incidents so freakish and chaotic that his usual sense of these terms disintegrated along with everything else. Rampant oddity seemed to be the rule of the realm; imperfection became the source of the miraculous—wonders of deformity and marvels of miscreation. There was horror, undoubtedly. But it was a horror uncompromised by any feeling of lost joy or thwarted redemption; rather, it was a deliverance by damnation. And if Vastarien was a nightmare, it was a nightmare transformed in spirit by the utter absence of refuge: nightmare made normal.
Nightmare made normal. This book that neither revealed an object, nor conveyed some symbolic representation of another world, but in fact brought Vastarien and the world together forming a new third object, where both entered into the force of madness and wonder. One would almost want to say that this is a parody of the most extreme idealist quest imaginable, and yet it is different an inversion of that romantic mythos with its death prone heroes such as Shelley’s Alastor.
Ultimately Vastarien is able to purchase this work and bring it home, a book that “did not merely describe that strange world but, in some obscure fashion, was a true composition of the thing itself, its very form incarnate”. This notion of a book breaking all the bonds of representationalism, of freeing us from the mediation of language, of symbols, of the infinite traceries of the undecidable realm of false promises and becoming for us the very thing itself we’d sought all those years. This is what Vastarien had found. One has to ask why humans possess the need to quest after such impossible objects. That we lack something, that we are incomplete, that there is a pit, a void in the recesses of our being that forces us to seek amends, to seek an answer to the quandaries of our torn and bleeding heart. This quest for the Absolute. But not a quest for God, not a quest for some simple answer or trope, some all encompassing One that can assuage the pain at the core of our being. No. We will not stand for hand-me-down mythologies of salvation and transition. No transcendental beyond for us, but rather the thing itself.
Of course in the end things do not end well for Vastarien. Locked away in an insane asylum we discover that the interns have daily to inject him with passivators, because he reads and rereads a certain book that will not go away. Oh, no, not they have not tried. They have. But the book always returns to its victim releasing the dark torments that he sought for so long…
This short story reminds us that underneath the veneer of our homely lives lays an order of the unreal, a void of the void, a darker structure of strangeness and disquiet that over millennia of techniques we have managed to build for ourselves a prison house of Reason to fend off and keep at bay the truth of this mad realm. Every once in a while a creature will break through the barriers of this prison of Reason we’ve trapped ourselves in, this normalcy and consensual hallucination of culture and sanity we call modern civilization. If one manages such an act of violence against the order of the real and Reason he/she is quickly imprisoned and barred from the normals, hidden behind professional medical systems and the Law. But in our time the vast prison is crumbling and the light of the unreal has been slowly seeping into our world from the great Outside. Oh, we turn a blind eye to it, we find scapegoats and madmen to fill the chinks and gaps with reasonable explanations and explanada. We hide in our artificial prisons of language and culture and carry on our lives as if the enemy is not us but some false system of religious or philosophical bullshit. We reach out to the sciences to find the answers promised us. We shift our fears of the haunted landscapes from the past to the ever-present threats of war, famine, and apocalypse. The whole genre of children utopian novels, or that of Apocalypse culture seem to bare witness to this as a traversing of the fantasy that is our times. These fears keep our minds preoccupied and allow us to forget the pull of the unreal just below the surface of our artificial climes. We’ve become so enamored of our prison that we’ve forgotten there ever was a great outdoors of Being inhabited by nightmares. Instead we live in a narrow prison of consciousness feeding each other the sincere lies of our immediate and daily lives of survival and propagation. Our keepers patrol the horizon of our world seeking out those who have found the escape routes back into the void, and with the power and dominion of the Law and State they incarcerate and imprison those who are so bold as to offer a vision of the unreal realms. For our world is a tidy and normal world controlled to keep us passivated and herd like in our mental straightjackets. We are the victims of our own success.
Authors like Ligotti hint at the brokenness of our world, open the door onto those strange and misplaced realms we’ve all forgotten except in the deep imaginaries of our nightmares.
A Philosophical Coda
As I was thinking about Ligotti’s tale of the Book that is a World I remembered that congenial author short stories Jorge-Luis Borges (a favorite author!). In one of his most often anthologized stories, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, he imagines an entirely hypothetical world, the invention of a secret society of scholars who elaborate its every aspect in a surreptitious encyclopedia. This First Encyclopedia of Tlön (what fictionist would not wish to have dreamed up the Britannica?) describes a coherent alternative to this world complete in every respect from its algebra to its fire, Borges tells us, and of such imaginative power that, once conceived, it begins to obtrude itself into and eventually to supplant our prior reality.2
Borges would hint at the possibility that our universe is itself a regressus in infinitum – and, that we are all repeating the gestures of a circuit that has no outlet (its all been done before!). This illustrates Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise which embodies a regressus in infinitum which Borges carries through philosophical history, pointing out that Aristotle uses it to refute Plato’s theory of forms, Hume to refute the possibility of cause and effect, Lewis Carroll to refute syllogistic deduction, William James to refute the notion of temporal passage, and Bradley to refute the general possibility of logical relations. Borges himself uses it, citing Schopenhauer, as evidence that the world is our dream, our idea, in which “tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason” can be found to remind us that our creation is false, or at least fictive. It’s in this sense that Ligotti poses the addition or subtraction of the Unreal from the real, that we are all part and partial of an infinite regression into the spurious realms of a universal nightmare of Reason. (see John Barth below)
Thinking through this notion of the breakdown of our worldview, of Zizek’s big Other – the Symbolic Culture we’ve built up over eons to enclose us in a realm of safety and apathy in which our accepted horizon of what is real and unreal, of the commonsense realm of our everyday life that goes without saying, almost a background noise of inertia and total blindness, brought me back to my recent readings in philosophy of how our end game of present society is breaking apart into fragments – a Humpty-Dumpty vision of the crumbling of Western and Eastern and Middle-East civilizations into so many broken pieces that no one will ever be able to put it back together again. Which leaves us in this intermediary period of a void, a black hole in the fabric of fictions we’ve been telling ourselves for so many millennia we began to think that it was permanent. Instead we find ourselves being impinged on by other realms, realms of the Real that we had forgotten existed because we were so well policed in our imaginations by the media lords of our age into accepting the truths of philosophy and the sciences as the end-all-be-all of our view of existence. Instead our psychotic break with the past is leaving us in a quandary in which our whole world civilization is at war for a new worldview. Ligotti’s vision of the unreal and existing in the “ruins of the real” hints at this unraveling of the symbolic order that has imprisoned us for so long that it became habit.
So in our paranoid state of fear and trepidation we grasp at any past, any tradition, anything at all that will give us hope from despair, etc., all the while believing we can restore the age old dream of a utopian society of peace and plenty. Instead we produce more friction, more war, suicides, hate, fear, and the mingling of age old superstitions. As the dark waters of the Real seep in from the Great Outdoors of Being we are frightened to death, not understanding that this is needed, that to free ourselves of the burden of our past, our traditions, our prisons we must step out into the ocean of the void and begin again…
Like the Shamans of old Ligotti has seen into this strange new realm of the (Un)Real. The “contamination of reality by dream,” as Borges calls it, or in Ligotti’s tormented pessimism the contamination of the real by nightmares. In one of his other stories Dream of a Mannikin the narrator will hint at the solipsistic nightmare of a self-reflexive universe of despair we’ve all created for ourselves and have become passive and apathetic mannikins:
Contemplating the realm of Miss Locher’s dream, I came to deeply feel that old truism of a solipsistic dream deity commanding all it sees, all of which is only itself. And a corollary to solipsism even occurred to me: if, in any dream of a universe, one has to always allow that there is another, waking universe, then the problem becomes, as with our Chinese sleepyhead, knowing when one is actually dreaming and what form the waking self may have; and this one can never know. The fact that the overwhelming majority of thinkers rejects any doctrine of solipsism suggests the basic horror and disgusting unreality of its implications. And after all, the horrific feeling of unreality is much more prevalent (to certain people) in what we call human “reality” than in human dreams, where everything is absolutely real.3
This reversal and dialectical move or inversion of the real/unreal in the awakening of many of Ligotti’s anti-protagonists give hint of this underlying theme of the unreal world impinging upon our safe have of utter mindlessness and generative madness. For in this sense as Zizek has repeatedly show Reason is not the obverse of madness but its completed mask.
The narrator in the Sect of the Idiot will offer this
The extraordinary is a province of the solitary soul. Lost the very moment the crowd comes into view, it remains within the great hollows of dreams, an infinitely secluded place that prepares itself for your arrival, and for mine. Extraordinary joy, extraordinary pain—the fearful poles of the world that both menaces and surpasses this one. It is a miraculous hell towards which one unknowingly wanders. And its gate, in my case, was an old town—whose allegiance to the unreal inspired my soul with a holy madness long before my body had come to dwell in that incomparable place.4
Again this opening to the unreal, to those locus miraculous sites of explosion and seeping, those gaps in the contours of our safe world of sleep that harbor doors into the unknown. “No true challenge to the rich unreality of Vastarien, where every shape suggested a thousand others, every sound disseminated everlasting echoes, every word founded a world. No horror, no joy was the equal of the abysmally vibrant sensations known in this place that was elsewhere, this spellbinding retreat where all experiences were interwoven to compose fantastic textures of feeling, a fine and dark tracery of limitless patterns. For everything in the unreal points to the infinite, and everything in Vastarien was unreal, unbounded by the tangible lie of existing.”5 This notion of Vastarien as a place, a site of the unreal, a realm apart and away, elsewhere from our everyday mundanity and sleeplessness: our somnambulism and death-drive repetition of safety and mere motionless movement.
Again in the short tale The Mystics of Muelenburg the narrator relates
I once knew a man who claimed that, overnight, all the solid shapes of existence had been replaced by cheap substitutes: trees made of flimsy posterboard, houses built of colored foam, whole landscapes composed of hair-clippings. His own flesh, he said, was now just so much putty. Needless to add, this acquaintance had deserted the cause of appearances and could no longer be depended on to stick to the common story. Alone he had wandered into a tale of another sort altogether; for him, all things now participated in this nightmare of nonsense. But although his revelations conflicted with the lesser forms of truth, nonetheless he did live in the light of a greater truth: that all is unreal. Within him this knowledge was vividly present down to his very bones, which had been newly simulated by a compound of mud and dust and ashes.6
This openness to the madness of our fake world in which only the madman has returned to tell a tale of the unreal reality of our own world while hinting at the greater truth of another realm situated not just beyond appearances (which is still the old Platonic two-world hash), but of this world seen as it truly is from a new perspective. The mad poet William Blake once sang of this:
“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
― William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
The narrator in Mrs. Rinaldi’s Angel explains how fragile our supposed real world of common sense reality truly is, saying,
How well I knew such surroundings, those deep interiors of dream where everything is saturated with unreality and more or less dissolves under a direct gaze. I could tell how neatly this particular interior was arranged—pictures perfectly straight and tight against the walls, well-dusted figurines arranged along open shelves, lace-fringed tablecovers set precisely in place, and delicate silk flowers in slim vases of colored glass. Yet there was something so fragile about the balance of these things, as if they were all susceptible to sudden derangement should there be some upset, no matter how subtle, in the secret system which held them together.7
Again we ask is the Kant re-written from the perspective of a critique of pure reason, but rather of a critique of pure madness? And if we see within the confines of this critique the maps of a world which is ours seen not through the safe eyes of Reason but through the indirect appeal – not of unreason, but of the unreal itself, then could we say that our world is itself the very thing, the book, the place and site of the Unreal? There being no Platonic other world, no safe haven beyond appearances, but rather the appearance of appearance as manifest madness. But then what is this madness that Reason fears? If madness is the ground of Reason, and Reason is itself a form of and horizon of madness, then is it possible that Reason is but the attempt to bind with magical force the power of the Unreal surrounding us?
Another mad poet Arthur Rimbaud would apprehend this at a youthful age then renounce the path, but before living on into a dead world he would write:
“The first study for the man who wants to be a poet is knowledge of himself, complete: he searches for his soul, he inspects it, he puts it to the test, he learns it. As soon as he has learned it, he must cultivate it! I say that one must be a seer, make oneself a seer. The poet becomes a seer through a long, immense, and reasoned derangement of all the senses. All shapes of love suffering, madness. He searches himself, he exhausts all poisons in himself, to keep only the quintessences. Ineffable torture where he needs all his faith, all his superhuman strength, where he becomes among all men the great patient, the great criminal, the great accursed one–and the supreme Scholar! For he reaches the unknown! ….So the poet is actually a thief of Fire!” (see)
This combination of criminal, accursed one, and scholar brought into unison seems apt for Ligotti as well. A slow and methodical derangement of the senses that bind us to the culture of Reason, the big Other and Symbolic Order of the real in which we are imprisoned suddenly falling away revealing a realm of torment and paradisial wonder. And, yet, even the average citizen of this faded dream of the Real can still stumble upon those places of power that lead to the Unreal:
For there are certain places that exist on the wayside of the real: a house, a street, even entire towns which have claims upon them by virtue of some nameless affinity with the most remote orders of being. They are, these places, fertile ground for the unreal and retain the minimum of immunity against exotic disorders and aberrations. Their concessions to a given fashion of reality are only placating gestures, a way of stifling it through limited acceptance.8
A sort of minimalism of our current prison world in which the lineaments of the unreal shine through, but only through the very protected power of the inhabitants of this borderland of the unknown. In fact the “citizens of such a place are custodians of a rare property, a precious estate whose true owners are momentarily absent. All that remains before full proprietorship of the land may be assumed is the planting of a single seed and its nurturing over a sufficient period of time, an interval that has nothing to do with the hours and days of the world.”9
A final quote:
No one gives up on something until it turns on them, whether or not that thing is real or unreal.
—Thomas Ligotti, Teatro Grottesco
by Joseph Nechvatal
On Austin Osman Spare
From the book
Towards an Immersive Intelligence:Essays on the Work of Art in the Age of Computer Technology and Virtual Reality
“An "automatic" scribble of twisting and interlacing lines permits the germ of an idea in the unconscious mind to express, or at least suggest itself to consciousness. From this mass of procreative shapes, full of fallacy, a feeble embryo of an idea may be selected and trained by the artist to full growth and power. By these means, may the profoundest depths of memory be drawn upon and the springs of spiritual instinct tapped.”
Such said Austin Osman Spare in a short essay he wrote called ‘Notes on Automatic Drawing’ in1916 for the British art magazine ‘FORM’.
But who is Austin Osman Spare, you might ask? He is an artist replete with potentials, but who has no place in the cannon of Modern Art. He is a spiritual artist – one who concentrated on transforming his libidinal energy into art through the use of automatism almost ten years prior to the Surrealists - in whom we cannot be satisfied - but with whom we can be impressed. Why impressed? Because among the many complexities that have transpired in today's society due to the delirious effects of information-communication technology - and the proliferation of visual information that has resulted from this technology - is the changing nature of artistic definition. And Spare’s use of automatic instinct in creating his art addresses this condition fully. As you may know, automatism, in the arts, is an act of creation which either allows chance to play a major role or which draws on the unconscious mind through free association, states of trance, or dreams. Spare was a pioneer in this practice specifically with his experiments in trance, which is basically self-initiated work with reflexive feedback loops – the basis of cybernetics.
He is impressive too in philosophical terms, as contemporary postmodern thought has been concerned with the poststructuralist deliberation on the notion of the subject in order to question (and unlasso) its traditionally privileged epistemological status. Particularly in respect to the automatic-assisted technoartist (an artist whose discourse revolves around networks and rhizomes) there has been a sustained effort to question the role of the artist/subject as the intending and knowing autonomous creator of art - as its coherent originator. Again Spare’s automatism informs us here. In fact, for me, the semiautomatic drawings of A. O. Spare have become emblematic of this question of the rigorous scrutiny of the subject which Jacques Derrida has described of as ‘logocentrism’: the once held distinctions between subjectivity and objectivity; between public and private; between fantasy and reality; and between the unconscious and the conscious realm.
Today we understand that these distinctions are breaking down under the pressure of our speeding and omnipresent computer communications network technologies. We are now part of an automated technologically hallucinogenic culture that functions along the lines of a dream, free from some of the strictures of time and space; free from some of our traditional earthly limits which have been broken down by the instantaneous nature of electronic communications, particularly with its crown jewel, immersive virtual reality. The modernist existential concept of the singular individual has been supplanted by the electronic-aided individual, in a way liberating her from linear time, and vaporously placing her in a technologically stored eternity (simulacrum-hyperreality). This quality of phantasmagorical and perverse displacement has for some signified a tightening spiral which formulates a new vision of existence, a vision which Jean Baudrillard has called ‘pornographic’ and which Deleuze and Guattari have called ‘schizoid’. Both these descriptions apply aptly to the drawings of A.O. Spare in a variety of ways which I will make apparent shortly. For those, and they are numerous, who are not familiar with the work of Spare, let me first provide some rudimentary background on him.
Austin Osman Spare was born the son of a London policeman in 1888. He died in 1956. Doom loomed abundant in Fin de Siècle England as Spare came to age; thus his development into what can now be recognized as a late-decadent, perversely ornamental, graphic dandy in the manner of Felicien Rops and/or Aubrey Beardsley can be readily contextualized.
As a young man Spare was for a brief period of time a member of the "Silver Star"; Alister Crowley's magical order. Spare's lifelong interest in the theory and practice of sorcery was initiated, he recounted, by his sexual relationship at a very young age with an elderly woman named Paterson. To perform sorcery, for Spare, was a practice meant to captivate, to encircle, and to ensnare spirits. It is not quite the same thing as practicing magic, which is the art of casting spells or glamours. For Spare, as well as for Crowley, Tantricesque sex – with its withholding of the orgasmic - held the means of access to their magical systems. However, it is in Spare's conception of radical and total pan-sexual freedom, consisting in the unrestricted expression of what he held to be the "inherent dream", where we first detect the seditious and chaotic philosophy which drove a prong between himself and Crowley - and every other esoteric system but his own brand of chaos magic/art.
In 1905, at the tender age of 17, Spare self-published his first collection of drawings in a book of aphorisms entitled EARTH INFERNO. In it, he lamented the death of what he called the "ubiquitous women of unconsciousness", (he believed that out of the flesh of our mothers come dreams and memories of the Gods) and castigated what he called the "inferno of the normal". For Spare, and I agree with him here, there are no "levels" or "layers" to consciousness, and no dichotomy between the "conscious" and the "unconscious." There isn't even a clearly definable boundary between "consciousness" and the "object of consciousness," between "subject" and object," between "action" and "situation." There is only a depth or thickness of consciousness which varies in proportion to our state of self-awareness - from the thinnest film of near being, where we engage in pure desire/instinct driven towards action, to so paralyzingly thick opacity that it induces catatonia. The point of automatism is that the more spontaneously we act, the less self-conscious we are.
EARTH INFERNO disparages the world of humdrum banality in favor of an exotic pan-sexual orb which Spare began to reveal in a spate of awesome non-automatic drawings somewhat reminiscent of the decadent artists previously mentioned. His intention was pan-sexual, transcendental, and androgynous in that Spare claimed that he was “… all sex” and that what he was not was “… moral thought; simulating and separating”. Moreover, he wrote that, “When belief detaches itself from the accessories of convention, desire stands revealed as the ecstasy of the self, ungoverned by its simulated forms.”
In 1907, Spare self-published a second collection of drawings in a publication named THE BOOK OF SATYRS which contained acute insights into the social order of his day. Then in 1909, Spare began work on a third book, this time of semi-automatic drawings entitled THE BOOK OF PLEASURES on which he worked for four years. This book emerged in 1913, as did another called THE PSYCHOLOGY OF ECSTASY. In 1914 he held his first one-person exhibition at the Baillie Gallery in London. It included many of the semi-automatic sketches he drew while half asleep or in a selfinduced masterbatory trance. Indeed, most of Spare's semi-automatic work - from 1910 onward - were produced in onanistic self-induced trances which he claimed were sometimes controlled by intrusive occult intelligences working through him. Here, through masterbatory trance, he said, "… the I becomes atmospheric”. This reminds us of the disembodied state so often encountered in electronic environments. As Christine Boyer writes in Cybercities, “in virtual space, the so-called "self" is uncoupled from the body, projected into computerized space, and reconstructed in digital form ... both the body and the "self" are represented within virtual space in a disembodied manner...". Indeed Spare considered his best accomplishments those which he said were produced through him by disembodied spirits rather than by him, often by the hand of the phantom spirits of Blake, da Vinci, Holbein, and Durer. Not bad virtual company. Spare quite wildly would declare that his was the automatic hand utilized by these deceased masters. Through his automatic and delirious technique Spare claimed to be able to draw upon "..the profoundest depths of memory.." and to "..tap into the springs of instinct." These drawings can be found in a book Spare prepared but never self-published in 1925 which he called A BOOK OF AUTOMATIC DRAWINGS - a book which was posthumously published in 1972. More automatic drawings were lost when on May 10th, 1941 - during the height of the London bombings - Spare's London flat was obliterated by a bomb.
It is in his highly extravagant practice of automatic openness and swank self-denial/self-pleasure that Spare's relevance to the poststructuralist-postinternet conceptions of the decentered and distributed subject are found. Specifically, Spare's relevance here is to be found in his interests in the loss of subjectivity as experienced in sexual transport and sexual fantasies – interests which now dovetail into our interests in the philosophical loss of sovereignty typical of the disembodied finesse encountered when immersed in virtual space. Here - for example with the loss of body consciousness specific to total-immersion within a virtual reality environment - one frequently senses a transporting dissolution moving consciousness away from self-consciousness. Also there is an obvious bearing on aspects of on-line faux self-permutations – what are called avatars. By participating whole-heartedly in his insertion (and semi-fake disappearance) into the transpersonal symbolic economy of the sign through the assumed equivalence of life and death (in what perhaps can be imagined for us as digitized-stored post-existence) Spare remains truly an individual, if not altogether alone in his time. His was a radical transcendentally false egoless gesture (what a bogus collaboration) which he fabricated in order to make semi-automatic art try to do magical things. In the process he created an exciting conception of art which focuses on collective and collected selves. Undoubtedly, his is a view which counters the long-standing Western Metaphysical phallocratic heroic portrayal of male-selfhood – a view which we all know too well - now found coming out of extreme Islamic sects. And yet, doesn't his view of a compiled self, akin to the essence of the death of the subject, offer just the sort of resistance to the structures of logocentric civilization that simulationist theory claimed was impossible?
Listen to what Spare wrote on this in a 1916 essay: “Let it not be thought that a person not an artist may by these means become one: but those artists who are hampered in expression, who feel limited by the hard conventions of the day and wish for freedom, these may find in automatic drawing a power and a liberty elsewhere undiscoverable.“
Spare's quite early conception of the illusory coherence of the "I", renders everyone and every-sex equally phantasmagorical (as disembodied fabula) akin to the way the speeding electronic-computer network can. His conception of automatic every-sex was clarified when he wrote, “In the ecstatic condition the mind elevates all sexual powers towards infinity”. And, "Speed is the criterion of the genuine automatic. Art becomes, by this velocity an ecstatic power expressing in a metaphorical language the desire for joy." But in effect, his pan-sexual joyful "I" existed primarily as the construct of a system of male forces which he claimed acted through him on the creation of a synergistic complex image. This synergistic compounding of the mnemonic threshold encapsulates our current post-postmodern-networked predicament in that the fabulated digital-self today may feel sublimated by the automatic system in which it operates. It may feel eclipsed - but also freed-up by - the mammoth computer-media-web as phantom information bits flow continuously around and through us in a vague endless whirl of unverifiablity. This digital-self unquestionably partakes in a data proliferation which forms, bit by bit, into an extensive aggregate somewhere deep in the abstruse recesses of our hard drives - a data proliferation which is awaiting discharge and reformation through art. This art of digital discharge interests me greatly, in that my recent aim has been to focus attention on the artistic interface between the virtual and the actual - the, what I call, "viractual" realm. With the increased augmentation of the self via micro-electronics feasible today, actual human flesh may co-exist indistinctly with the virtual from exterior points of view and the organic seemingly fuse with the computer-robotic. Perhaps by automatically stirring the viractual-self Spare can be understood as a precursor of digital fluidity/copy-ability, working as he did, visa-a-vise onanistic actions while forestalling the actualization of his orgasm – thus maintaining an extended virtual state of selfpleasure. Certainly his remarkable sex/magical method for making art suggests a methodology based on obsession and longed for ecstasy which I have taken as my digital working method too - a method which plays in the area of control/non-control with an aim towards constructing a capricious alliance that associates discourses of machinic virtuality with organic sexuality - an association which opens up both notions to mental connections that enlarge them. The digital-self here is impregnated by a sustained desire that becomes energized by the supposition that deep memory responds to chaotic longings and can relive original obsessions. In relationship to this method Spare said, “The artist Spare's quite early conception of the illusory coherence of the "I", renders everyone and every-sex equally phantasmagorical (as disembodied fabula) akin to the way the speeding electronic-computer network can. His conception of automatic every-sex was clarified when he wrote, “In the ecstatic condition the mind elevates all sexual powers towards infinity”. And, "Speed is the criterion of the genuine automatic. Art becomes, by this velocity an ecstatic power expressing in a metaphorical language the desire for joy." But in effect, his pan-sexual joyful "I" existed primarily as the construct of a system of male forces which he claimed acted through him on the creation of a synergistic complex image. This synergistic compounding of the mnemonic threshold encapsulates our current post-postmodern-networked predicament in that the fabulated digital-self today may feel sublimated by the automatic system in which it operates. It may feel eclipsed - but also freed-up by - the mammoth computer-media-web as phantom information bits flow continuously around and through us in a vague endless whirl of unverifiablity. This digital-self unquestionably partakes in a data proliferation which forms, bit by bit, into an extensive aggregate somewhere deep in the abstruse recesses of our hard drives - a data proliferation which is awaiting discharge and reformation through art. This art of digital discharge interests me greatly, in that my recent aim has been to focus attention on the artistic interface between the virtual and the actual - the, what I call, "viractual" realm. With the increased augmentation of the self via micro-electronics feasible today, actual human flesh may co-exist indistinctly with the virtual from exterior points of view and the organic seemingly fuse with the computer-robotic. Perhaps by automatically stirring the viractual-self Spare can be understood as a precursor of digital fluidity/copy-ability, working as he did, visa-a-vise onanistic actions while forestalling the actualization of his orgasm – thus maintaining an extended virtual state of selfpleasure. Certainly his remarkable sex/magical method for making art suggests a methodology based on obsession and longed for ecstasy which I have taken as my digital working method too - a method which plays in the area of control/non-control with an aim towards constructing a capricious alliance that associates discourses of machinic virtuality with organic sexuality - an association which opens up both notions to mental connections that enlarge them. The digital-self here is impregnated by a sustained desire that becomes energized by the supposition that deep memory responds to chaotic longings and can relive original obsessions. In relationship to this method Spare said, “The artist must be trained to work freely and without control within a continuous line and without afterthought - that is, the artist’s intentions should just escape consciousness. In time, shapes will be found to evolve, suggesting conceptions, forms - and ultimately style.”
To be sure, each era has its own redundancies and its own compliances; yet Spare felt it his privilege, even his obligation, to sally forth and be inordinate in his openness to past representational techniques and structures; but not in any placating or merely plausible way, as often the meager contemporary appropriatonists and samplers do. For Spare, only chaotic excess may be magnificent. Only chaotic opulence which borders on the decadent can offer a full examination of the illusory digital-self - a self which today arises out of the present day climate of technological flow and informational abundance. Such a digital-self is the technologically expanded psyche which exhibits an anti-essentiality of the body. It is the body-in-bits which allows no privileged logos, but insists, rather, on a displacement or deferral of gender-based meanings. Here the sexual body is undone by chaotic disturbances it cannot contain. Here only ideas of multiple selves can adequately represent the artist as social communicator. Here only transformative and diaphanous notions of the self can accurately reflect the massive transformational effect of automated webbed high-technology.
So, it is extremely relevant then to consider Spare's means of becoming courageously individual through his frenzied tranced-groupings. In effect he achieved this through the transgression of (and by!) his artistic "masters". In terms of the original’s unimportance to our electronic era's conception of art as simulation, Spare's claim to meta-individuality in his production (really what he claimed was a co-production achieved through automatic means) seems prophetic. If a substance-less collective history of digitized art images and the unseen labor of computer programmers lurks and reverberates internally in each technologically aided art work today, and if in each of our computer’s a data-bank of visual information lingers beyond our personal propensity and (perhaps) dominates us, than an inner freedom from external authority indeed seems futile. We can only act with what authority has passed down to us. But what if the search for digitally-assisted art in a contemporary context of the information society is more simply directed towards not repeating what has been learned and collected? Perhaps this possibility - as achieved through the automatic unconscious act - is what I have chiefly learned from Spare’s work and writings - as well as his exclusion from the cannon of art history. With the utilization of semi-automatic processes art can be further problematized, crackedopen, drained and transfigured through the strange mixture Spare showed us of disinterested rapture - a generous elation where off-beat panoramas and chaotic multiple personalities have room to emerge.
To achieve this Spare would first exhaust himself before beginning to draw in a somber candle-lit room and in a slight trance with no particular idea in mind, thereby, he believed, reaching deeper and more remote layers of chaotic memory. He did this while all the time continuously abhorring the accepted values and maudlin conceits of his day. It has been my experience that computer programming which utilizes automatic functions can achieve like ends. I have learned this through developing a real-time operative artificial-life application based on the viral model. This disruptive model, though based upon nature, makes use of automatic functions of computation to circumvent conscious control. Such a non-rational, unpredictable automation, of course, stands in stark contrast to the automation of Fordist/Taylorist production - with its legacy of instrumental rationality.
The fact that Spare was a sensual occultist should not misdirect our appreciation of his artistic and theoretical endeavor. The logic of immersive telepresence facilitated by the inter-netted computer is satiated with a parallel concealment. There is much mystery for most attached to the digital hidden codes and routing formats which expedite our tele-communications now. Moreover, his drowsy semiautomatic drawings, with their multifarious and allusive search for something antithetical to the established norm - and with their morbid subversion of the concept of individuality and authorship - play well upon today's desire for excessive unlimitations which the computer tends to encourage. Spare's drawings enmesh, hinder, alter and disrupt the mundanity of elementary communications with their inexorably chimerical style. Like all modes of decadent artistic practice (i.e. Hellenistic, High Gothic, Mannerist, Rococo, Fin de Siècle, and some Postmoderism) they oppose a dogmatically imposed paradigm with a hyper-logic. Today it is in the hyper-logic of the endlessly duplicable digital image and/or sound where we can probe, much as Spare did, for a particular and personal occult expression.
Also, we should remember that within the current electronic environment of hypermedia artistic annihilations of linear time are now possible. Thus barriers between the deceased and living somewhat abolished. This too recalls Spare’s chaotic methodology. In his own fashion he created a non-linear sphere where deep-memory threatens the common order of events, thus questioning both pat ideas of originality and supplied social codes. Clearly, his non-linear artfulness subverts the modernistic conception of production - with its emphasis on origin, author and finality - but without merely accepting the artificial, the copy, the simulation, as the end point. So functions now our technomediacratic society - a hyper-society which deploys the effects of rhizomatic connections and trance-like repetitions. It is the artist’s task today, I feel, to disadvantage the digital reproductive technology so as to defeat its attempt at negating our art’s spiritual significance. But to do this we must abandon the Enlightenment baggage of authorizing categories and live non-linearly, while accepting nothing as flatly given. Here again Spare inspires, as he explicitly eschewed categorization and instead sought to problemmatize the authority of the category through hyper-logic. So Spare compels us again to take notice of the various ways artistic conventions have molded our responses and regulated our artistic denotations.
The possibilities of a non-linear complex-entangled-erotic configuration springing forth from the digital Id made up of mercurial symbols and pan-sexual concepts in opposition to recycled representations provides an interesting insight into the way Spare's art (with its convoluted compositions made up of vague confiscations) directs us towards the conception of the transformative possibilities of technologically-aided art. Perhaps the hope that Spare's non-linear and semi-automatic art can show us a way to resist art history’s drive towards reification is a fragile hope indeed in our electronically-homogenized cyberage. Honestly, such a hope may be less than we deserve, but it also may be more than we usually allow ourselves to envision. What I am certain of is the need for spontaneous, pre-rational actions in the realm of art and technology so as to pursue spiritual and erotic desires, and here Spare inspires as he indicated ways in which we may escape the prison of technological "logic" to encounter intimate realities bound only by the next thought and driven only by the last. This is the answer to the question "how shall I be free today?" and to best express free thought through art and technology without too many tainted preconceptions.
To not dismiss Austin Osman Spare (and his concept of the collective self - which for us can be reconceived of as technological hyper-thought) as dilettante folly is to become aware of the fact that underlying everything virtual is a web of hyper connections upon which we can exert more manipulative desire than we are normally led to believe by the society of the spectacle. But to do so we must actively use art and not be content with merely consuming it. For as Félix Guattari said in his significant book Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm, “The work of art, for those who use it, is an activity of unframing, of rupturing sense, of baroque proliferation or extreme impoverishment which leads to a recreation and a reinvention of the subject itself.” This reinvention of the self is occurring through a curious alliance between the cold impersonality of technology and the flames of personal ecstasy in the new art of our time.
by David Roden
Gary Shipley’s experimental novel, Warewolff has been marketed as horror (or ‘concept horror’) and duly comes with a brief first person prologue redolent of the opening of Lovecraft’s ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, in which narrator claims that what we are about to read are reliable transcripts documenting the effects of a vast, unthinkably alien, influence. What follows are ten thematic sections: buildings, eyes, families, sky, air, holes, rooms, distortion, screens, ghosts split into texts ranging from terse vignettes like ‘Russian Dog Fail’ (57) to longer sequences of closely regulated incoherence, like ‘Nice Gumbo’ (112), ‘Reptile Christ’ (70) or‘Instagramming Lana Del Rey’s Brain’ (40).
‘Nice Gumbo’ nicely exhibits Shipley’s technique, in which bodily mutilation is always secondary to the violence inflicted on the grammar of concepts. It begins:
We were stale the whole day and miniature in our cut-off legs. This was us christened as invalids.
Implied mutilation – leg severing – disavowed by two incongruous adjectives: ‘stale’ and ‘miniature’. Nothing has happened. Just a christening, it seems, or a change of aspect:
This was us flushing cramps with a bone saw. Look at us, we’re the first of the year.
Deliberate category errors upheap the indeterminacy: cramps are not flushable if we understand the verb standardly. But can we? If not, what is the inscrutable efficacy of the ‘bone saw’?
Over the bed, beside the crucifix, Kafka’s prostate sealed in a freezer bag. The last of Brod’s salvage so the legend goes. It looks like the Eraserhead baby shrunk in an oven. We love like mad from opposite corners of the room. K is that sweet gangrene in our celibacy in glass.
The reference to Kafka’s unfaithful literary executor and the vivid comparison with the mutant offspring in David Lynch’s debut movie is a sensory shot offset by the abstraction of the last sentence where the logic of inclusion falters. If K is ‘sweet gangrene’ what is it to be ‘in’ celibacy. What is it for this, in turn, to be in glass? Can this entity merit a prostate or organ of any kind? Is inclusion, here, transitive? If K is in our celibacy and celibacy is in glass, is K also in glass?
One recalls Badiou’s claim in Being and Event that the notion of set and set inclusion cannot be explicitly defined outside of systems of axioms such as Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory. All we can say about inclusion or set membership is given in the relevant axioms of the relevant system. For example, those in ZF excluding self-membership.
Yet, while it might make sense to talk of an implicit mastery of set theoretic axioms without a concept of set, this is not possible with Shipley’s text, which like Bellmer’s anagrammatic doll, has no rule beyond the hazard of its dispersal. In the prologue Shipley’s narrator writes that the alien force he is soliciting learned to talk by ‘shaping the stories of its victims and, in so doing, created ‘a portrait of itself – of itself made up with other things’ (9).
Warewolff has no people, no worlds; only disjointed clones, plucky carcasses and scripts we once mistook as our lives. Yet despite this ontological poverty something happens that we can read and follow if not understand. This is not a book about a horror – this dispersal is the horror of biomorphism: a condition somewhat like life that, like Shipley’s alien, ‘discloses its arrangements’ through our language centers.
 ‘It is of the very essence of set theory to only possess an implicit mastery of its ‘objects’ (multiplicities, sets): these multiplicities are deployed in an axiom-system in which the property “to be a set” does not figure’ (Badiou 2006, 43)
Badiou, A. 2006. Being and Event. Oliver Feltham (tr). London: Continuum.
Shipley, Gary J. 2017. Warewolff. London: Hexus Press.
GLASS aeroplanes climbed into the sky above the airport. Through the brittle air I watched the traffic move along the motorway. The memories of the beautiful vehicles I had seen soaring down the concrete lanes transformed these once-oppressive jams and tail-backs into an endless illuminated queue, patiently waiting for some invisible slip road into the sky. From the balcony of my apartment I gazed across the landscape below, trying to find this paradisial incline, a mile-wide gradient supported on the shoulders of two archangelic figures, on to which all the traffic in the world might flow.
In these strange days, as I recovered from my acid trip and my near-death afterwards, I remained at home with Catherine. Sitting here, my hands in a familiar grip on the arms of the chair, I watched the metallized plain below for any sip of Vaughan. The traffic moved sluggishly along the crowded concrete lanes, the roofs of the vehicles forming a continuous carapace of polished cellulose. The after-effects of the LSD had left me in a state of almost disturbing calm. I felt detached from my own body, as if my musculature were suspended a few millimetres from the armature of bones, the two joined together only by the few wound points which had been alerted when I flexed my legs and arms during the acid trip. For days afterwards segments of the experience returned intact, and I would see the cars on the motorway wearing their coronation armour, soaring along the causeways on wings of fire. The pedestrians in the streets below wore their suits of lights, as if I were a solitary visitor in a city of matadors. Catherine would move behind me like some electric nymph, a devotional creature guarding my gestures of excitement with her calm presence.
At less happy moments the sluggish delirium and queasy perspectives of the grey overpass would return, the damp hypogeum at whose mouth I had seen the thousands of flies festering on the instrument panel of the car, on Vaughan's buttocks as he lay back watching me with his trousers around his knees. Terrified by these brief re-enactments, I held Catherine's hands as she pressed my shoulders, trying to convince myself that I was sitting with her by a sealed window in my own apartment. Often I asked her what period of the year it was. The light changes within my retina moved the seasons without warning.
One morning, when Catherine had left me alone to take her last flying lesson, I saw her aircraft above the motorway, a glass dragonfly carried by the sun. It seemed to hang motionlessly over my head, the propellor rotating slowly like a toy aircraft's. The light poured from its wings in a ceaseless fountain.
Below her, the cars soaring along the motorway marked on the plain of the landscape all the possible trajectories of her flight, laying down the blueprints of our coming passage through heaven, the transits of a technology with wings. I thought of Vaughan, covered with flies like a resurrected corpse, watching me with a mixture of irony and affection. I knew that Vaughan could never really die in a car-crash, but would in some way be re-born through those twisted radiator grilles and cascading windshield glass. I thought of the scarred white skin over his abdomen, the heavy pubic hair that started on the upper slopes of his thighs, his tacky navel and unsavoury armpits, his crude handling of women and automobiles, and his submissive tenderness towards myself. Even as I had placed my penis in his rectum Vaughan had known he would try to kill me, in a final display of his casual love for me.
Catherine's car sat in the drive below the bedroom window. The paintwork along the left-hand side had been marked in some minor collision.
'Your car - ?' I held her shoulders. 'Are you all right?'
She leaned against me, as if memorializing the image of this collision into our body pressures. She took off her flying jacket. Both of us had now made our separate love to Vaughan.
'I wasn't driving - I'd left the car in the parking lot at the airport.' She reached out and held my elbows in her hands. 'Could it have been deliberate?'
'One of your suitors?'
'One of my suitors.'
She must have been frightened by this meaningless assault on the car, but she watched me examine it with a calm gaze. I felt the abrasions on the left-hand door and body panels, and explored with my hand the deep trench that ran the full length of the car from the crushed taillight to the front headlamp. The imprint of the other car's heavy front bumper was clearly marked on the rear wheel guard, the unmistakable signature of Vaughan's Lincoln. I felt the curved groove, as clear as the rounded cleft between Vaughan's hard buttocks, as well-formed as the tight annulus of his anus which I could still feel on my penis during my erections.
Had Vaughan deliberately followed Catherine, striking her parked car in a first gesture of courtship? I looked at her pale skin and firm body, thinking of Vaughan's car hurtling towards me among the concrete pillars of the overpass. Like Seagrave, I would have died in an acid death-out.
I opened the passenger door, beckoning Catherine into the seat.
'Let me drive - the light is clear now.'
'Your hands. Are you ready yet?'
'Catherine - ' I took her arm. 'I need to drive again before it all goes.'
She held her bare arms across her breasts, and peered into the interior of her car, as if searching for the flies which I had described to her.
I wanted to show her to Vaughan.
I started the engine and turned out of the courtyard. As I accelerated, the perspectives of the street swerved around me, leaning away from me as if streamlining themselves. Near the supermarket, a young woman in a plastic coat glowed with cerise light as she crossed the road. The motion of the car, its attitude and geometry, had undergone a marked transformation, as if they had been purged of all accretions of the familiar and sentimental. The surrounding street furniture, the shop-fronts and passers-by were illuminated by the motion of the car, the intensity of the light they emitted regulated by the passage of the vehicle I was driving. At the traffic lights I looked across the seat at Catherine. She sat with one hand on the window-sill. The colours of her face and arms revealed themselves in their clearest and richest forms, as if each blood cell and pigment granule, the cartileges of her face, were real for the first time, assembled by the movement of this car. The skin of her cheeks, the indicator signs guiding us on to the motorway, the cars parked on the roof of the supermarket, were clarified and defined, as if some immense deluge had at last receded, leaving everything isolated for the first time, like the features of a lunar landscape, a still-life arranged by a demolition squad.
We drove southwards along the motorway.
'The traffic - where is everyone?' I realized that the three lanes were almost deserted. 'They've all gone away.'
'I'd like to go back - James!'
'Not yet - it's only beginning…'
I thought of this image of an empty city, with an abandoned technology left to its own devices, as we drove down the access road where Vaughan had tried to kill me a few days earlier. In the waste lot beyond the damaged palisade the group of abandoned cars lay in the blanched light. I drove past the scarred concrete abutment towards the dark cavern of the overpass, where Vaughan and I had embraced each other among the concrete pillars, listening to the traffic drumming overhead. Catherine gazed up at the cathedral-like vaults of the overpass, like a succession of empty submarine pens. I stopped the car and turned towards her. Without thinking, I took up the posture in which I had sodomized Vaughan. I looked down at my own thighs and abdomen, visualizing Vaughan's buttocks lifted high against my hips, remembering the tacky texture of his anus. By some paradox, this sex act between us had been devoid of all sexuality.
All that afternoon we drove along the expressways. The endless highway systems along which we moved contained the formulas for an infinity of sexual bliss. I watched the cars leaving the flyover. Each of them carried on its roof a piece of the sun.
'Are you looking for Vaughan?' Catherine asked.
'In a manner of speaking.'
'You're no longer frightened of him.'
'He's going to kill himself.'
'I knew that after Seagrave died.'
I watched her staring at the traffic sweeping down the flyover towards us as we waited on a slip road below Western Avenue. I wanted Vaughan to see her. Thinking of the long dents that scarred the side of Catherine's car, I wanted to expose them to Vaughan, encouraging him to take Catherine again.
At a concourse filling station we saw Vera Seagrave talking to a girl at the pumps. I turned into the forecourt. Vera's strong-hipped body, with its hard-working breasts and buttocks, was dressed in a heavy leather jacket, as if she were about to leave on an Antarctic expedition.
At first she failed to recognize me. Her firm eyes cut across me to Catherine's elegant figure, as if suspicious of her cross-legged posture in the open cockpit of the sports car with its lacerated bodywork.
'Are you leaving?' I pointed to the suitcases in the rear seat of Vera's car. 'I'm trying to find Vaughan.'
Vera finished her questioning of the girl attendant, completing some arrangement for the boarding of her small son. Still staring at Catherine, she stepped into her car.
'He's following his film actress. The police are after him - an American serviceman was killed on the Northolt overpass.'
I put my hand on the windshield, but she switched on the windshield wipers, almost cutting the knuckle of my wrist.
Explaining everything, she said: 'I was with him in the car.'
Before I could stop her she had moved towards the exit and turned into the fast evening traffic.
Catherine telephoned me from her office the next morning to say that Vaughan had followed her to the airport. As she spoke in her calm tones I carried the telephone to the window. Watching the cars edge along the motorway, I felt my penis stiffening. Somewhere below me, among those thousands of vehicles, Vaughan was waiting at an intersection.
'He's probably looking for me,' I told her.
'I've seen him twice - this morning he was waiting for me in the entrance to the car-park.'
'What did you say?'
'Nothing. I'll get in touch with the police.'
Talking to her, I found myself slipping into the same erotic reverie in which I sometimes used to question Catherine about the flight instructor she lunched with, drawing one detail after another about some small amorous encounter, a brief act of intercourse. I visualized Vaughan waiting for her at quiet intersections, following her through car-washes and traffic detours, moving ever closer to an intense erotic junction. The drab streets were illuminated by the passage of their bodies during this exquisitely prolonged mating ritual.
Unable to stay any longer in the apartment while this courtship was taking place, I drove my car to the airport. From the roof of the multi-storey car-park next to the airfreight building I waited for Vaughan to appear.
As I expected, Vaughan was waiting for Catherine at the junction of Western Avenue and the flyover. He made no attempt to conceal himself from either of us, pushing his heavy car bluntly into the passing traffic stream. Apparently uninterested in Catherine or myself, Vaughan lay against his door sill, almost asleep at the wheel as he surged forward when the lights changed. His left hand drummed across the rim of the steering wheel, as if reading the road's braille in its rapid tremors. Following these rippling contours inside his head, he swerved the Lincoln to and fro across the road surface. His heavy face was fixed in a rigid mask, his scarred cheeks clamped rigidly around his mouth. He cut in and out of the traffic lanes, surging ahead in the fast lane until he was abreast of Catherine and then sliding back behind her, allowing other cars to cut between them and then taking up a watchful position in the slow lane. He began to mimic Catherine's driving, her trim shoulders and high chin, her incessant use of the brake pedal. Their harmonized brakelights moved down the expressway like the dialogue of a long-married couple.
I sped along behind them, flashing my headlamps at any cars in my way. We reached the ramp of the flyover. As Catherine climbed the ramp, forced to slow down behind a line of fuel tankers, Vaughan accelerated sharply, turning left at the junction. I raced after him, winding through the roundabouts and intersections which the flyover spanned. We jumped a set of traffic lights as the airport traffic closed towards us. Somewhere over our heads Catherine moved along the open deck of the flyover.
Vaughan cut through the afternoon traffic, throwing on his brakes at the last moment, rolling his car on to its off-side wheels as he circled the roundabouts at speed. A hundred yards behind him, I raced down the straight towards the descent ramp. Vaughan stopped at the junction, waiting as the fuel tankers thundered past. As Catherine's small sports car appeared he surged forward.
Swerving after him, I waited for Vaughan to collide with Catherine. His car moved forward across the marker lines on a collision course. But at the last moment he pulled away, fading across the traffic stream behind her. He lost himself beyond the roundabout on the northward carriageway. Watching him, as I struggled to catch up with Catherine, I had a last glimpse of a battered front fender, cracked headlamps flashing at a bullish truckdriver.
Half an hour later, in the basement garage of my apartment house, I felt with my hand the imprint of Vaughan's car in the body panels of Catherine's sports car, the rehearsal-marks of a death.
These rehearsals for a union between Vaughan and Catherine continued during the following days. Twice Vera Seagrave telephoned me to ask if I had seen Vaughan, but I insisted that I had not left the apartment. She told me that the police had removed Vaughan's photographs and equipment from the dark-room at her house. Astonishingly, they seemed unable to catch Vaughan.
Catherine never referred to Vaughan's pursuit of her. Between us we now maintained an ironic calm, the same stylized affection we showed to each other at parties whenever she or I was openly taking another lover. Did she understand Vaughan's real motives? At the time, even I failed to realize that she was merely a stand-in during an elaborate rehearsal for another and far more important death.
Day by day Vaughan followed Catherine around the expressways and airport perimeter roads, sometimes waiting for her in the damp cul-de-sac adjacent to our drive, at other times appearing like a spectre in the high-speed lane of the overpass, his battered car tilted over on its near-side springs. I watched him waiting for her at various intersections, clearly testing in his mind the possibilities of different accident modes: headon collisions, side-impacts, rear-end collisions, roll-over. During this time I felt a gathering euphoria, the surrender to an inevitable logic that I had once resisted, as if I were watching my own daughter in the early stages of a burgeoning love affair.
Often I would stand on the grass verge of the embankment by the western descent ramp of the flyover, knowing that this was Vaughan's favourite zone, and watch him lunge forward after Catherine as she swept by in the evening rush hour.
Vaughan's car was becoming increasingly battered. The right-hand fender and doors were marked with impact points scored deep into the metal, a rusting fretwork that turned more and more white, as if revealing a skeleton below. Waiting behind him in a traffic jam on the Northolt expressway, I saw that two of the rear windows had been broken.
Further damage continued. A body panel detached itself from the off-side rear wheel housing and the front bumper hung from the chassis pinion, its rusting lower curvature touching the ground as Vaughan cornered.
Hidden behind his dusty windshield, Vaughan sat hunched over his steering wheel as he travelled at speed along the motorway, unaware of his car's dents and impacts, like the self-inflicted wounds of a distressed child.
Still uncertain whether Vaughan would try to crash his car into Catherine's, I made no attempt to warn her. Her death would be a model of my care for all the victims of air-crashes and natural disasters. As I lay beside Catherine at night, my hands modelling her breasts, I visualized her body in contact with various points of the Lincoln's interior, rehearsing for Vaughan the postures she might assume. Aware of this coming collision, Catherine had entered an entranced room within her mind. Passively, she allowed me to move her limbs into the positions of unexplored sex acts.
As Catherine slept, a battered car moved below us along the deserted avenue. The total stillness of the streets below made the entire city seem deserted. In that brief lull before dawn when no aircraft took off from the airport the only sound we could hear was the kicking exhaust box of Vaughan's car. From the kitchen window I saw Vaughan's grey face, leaning against the cracked quarter window, marked by a deep weal that crossed his forehead like a bright leather band. For a moment I felt that all the aircraft he had watched rising from the airport had now left. After Catherine and I had gone he would be finally alone, marauding the empty city in his derelict car.
Uncertain whether to wake Catherine, I waited for half an hour, and then dressed and went down to the forecourt. Vaughan's car was parked under the trees in the avenue. The dawn light shone bleakly on the dusty paintwork. The seats were covered with oil and grime, and in the rear the remnants of a torn tartan blanket lay across a greasy pillow. I guessed from the broken bottles and food cans on the floor that Vaughan had been living in the car for several days. In an evident burst of anger he had slashed at the instrument panel, bludgeoning several of the dials and the upper lip of the binnacle. Torn plastic housings and chrome strips hung over the light toggles.
The ignition keys hung from the switch. I looked up and down the avenue, trying to see if Vaughan were waiting behind one of the trees. I walked around the car, and pushed the broken body panels into place with my hand. As I worked, the front off-side tyre slowly flattened itself to the ground.
Catherine came down and watched me. We walked through the clearing light to the entrance. As we crossed the gravel a car's engine roared in the garage. A polished silver car, which I recognized immediately as my own, hurtled up the ramp towards us. Catherine cried out, tripping over her feet, but before I could take her arm the car had swerved around us and plunged through the sliding gravel into the street. Through the dawn air its engine sounded a cry of pain.
excerpt from the book: CRASH by J.G. Ballard
VAUGHAN died yesterday in his last car-crash. During our friendship he had rehearsed his death in many crashes, but this was his only true accident. Driven on a collision course towards the limousine of the film actress, his car jumped the rails of the London Airport flyover and plunged through the roof of a bus filled with airline passengers. The crushed bodies of package tourists, like a haemorrhage of the sun, still lay across the vinyl seats when I pushed my way through the police engineers an hour later. Holding the arm of her chauffeur, the film actress Elizabeth Taylor, with whom Vaughan had dreamed of dying for so many months, stood alone under the revolving ambulance lights. As I knelt over Vaughan's body she placed a gloved hand to her throat.
Could she see, in Vaughan's posture, the formula of the death which he had devised for her? During the last weeks of his life Vaughan thought of nothing else but her death, a coronation of wounds he had staged with the devotion of an Earl Marshal. The walls of his apartment near the film studios at Shepperton were covered with the photographs he had taken through his zoom lens each morning as she left her hotel in London, from the pedestrian bridges above the westbound motorways, and from the roof of the multi-storey car-park at the studios. The magnified details of her knees and hands, of the inner surface of her thighs and the left apex of her mouth, I uneasily prepared for Vaughan on the copying machine in my office, handing him the packages of prints as if they were the instalments of a death warrant. At his apartment I watched him matching the details of her body with the photographs of grotesque wounds in a textbook of plastic surgery.
In his vision of a car-crash with the actress, Vaughan was obsessed by many wounds and impacts – by the dying chromium and collapsing bulkheads of their two cars meeting head-on in complex collisions endlessly repeated in slow-motion films, by the identical wounds inflicted on their bodies, by the image of windshield glass frosting around her face as she broke its tinted surface like a death-born Aphrodite, by the compound fractures of their thighs impacted against their handbrake mountings, and above all by the wounds to their genitalia, her uterus pierced by the heraldic beak of the manufacturer's medallion, his semen emptying across the luminescent dials that registered for ever the last temperature and fuel levels of the engine.
It was only at these times, as he described this last crash to me, that Vaughan was calm. He talked of these wounds and collisions with the erotic tenderness of a long-separated lover. Searching through the photographs in his apartment, he half turned towards me, so that his heavy groin quietened me with its profile of an almost erect penis. He knew that as long as he provoked me with his own sex, which he used casually as if he might discard it for ever at any moment, I would never leave him.
Ten days ago, as he stole my car from the garage of my apartment house, Vaughan hurtled up the concrete ramp, an ugly machine sprung from a trap. Yesterday his body lay under the police arc-lights at the foot of the flyover, veiled by a delicate lacework of blood. The broken postures of his legs and arms, the bloody geometry of his face, seemed to parody the photographs of crash injuries that covered the walls of his apartment. I looked down for the last time at his huge groin, engorged with blood. Twenty yards away, illuminated by the revolving lamps, the actress hovered on the arm of her chauffeur. Vaughan had dreamed of dying at the moment of her orgasm.
Before his death Vaughan had taken part in many crashes. As I think of Vaughan I see him in the stolen cars he drove and damaged, the surfaces of deformed metal and plastic that for ever embraced him. Two months earlier I found him on the lower deck of the airport flyover after the first rehearsal of his own death. A taxi driver helped two shaken air hostesses from a small car into which Vaughan had collided as he lurched from the mouth of a concealed access road. As I ran across to Vaughan I saw him through the fractured windshield of the white convertible he had taken from the car-park of the Oceanic Terminal. His exhausted face, with its scarred mouth, was lit by broken rainbows. I pulled the dented passenger door from its frame. Vaughan sat on the glass-covered seat, studying his own posture with a complacent gaze. His hands, palms upwards at his sides, were covered with blood from his injured knee-caps. He examined the vomit staining the lapels of his leather jacket, and reached forward to touch the globes of semen clinging to the instrument binnacle. I tried to lift him from the car, but his tight buttocks were clamped together as if they had seized while forcing the last drops of fluid from his seminal vesicles. On the seat beside him were the torn photographs of the film actress which I had reproduced for him that morning at my office. Magnified sections of lip and eyebrow, elbow and cleavage formed a broken mosaic.
For Vaughan the car-crash and his own sexuality had made their final marriage. I remember him at night with nervous young women in the crushed rear compartments of abandoned cars in breakers' yards, and their photographs in the postures of uneasy sex acts. Their tight faces and strained thighs were lit by his polaroid flash, like startled survivors of a submarine disaster. These aspiring whores, whom Vaughan met in the all-night cafés and supermarkets of London Airport, were the first cousins of the patients illustrated in his surgical textbooks. During his studied courtship of injured women, Vaughan was obsessed with the buboes of gas bacillus infections, by facial injuries and genital wounds.
Through Vaughan I discovered the true significance of the automobile crash, the meaning of whiplash injuries and roll-over, the ecstasies of head-on collisions. Together we visited the Road Research Laboratory twenty miles to the west of London, and watched the calibrated vehicles crashing into the concrete target blocks. Later, in his apartment, Vaughan screened slow-motion films of test collisions that he had photographed with his cinecamera. Sitting in the darkness on the floor cushions, we watched the silent impacts flicker on the wall above our heads. The repeated sequences of crashing cars first calmed and then aroused me. Cruising alone on the motorway under the yellow glare of the sodium lights, I thought of myself at the controls of these impacting vehicles.
During the months that followed, Vaughan and I spent many hours driving along the express highways on the northern perimeter of the airport. On the calm summer evenings these fast boulevards became a zone of nightmare collisions. Listening to the police broadcasts on Vaughan's radio, we moved from one accident to the next. Often we stopped under arc-lights that flared over the sites of major collisions, watching while firemen and police engineers worked with acetylene torches and lifting tackle to free unconscious wives trapped beside their dead husbands, or waited as a passing doctor fumbled with a dying man pinned below an inverted truck. Sometimes Vaughan was pulled back by the other spectators, and fought for his cameras with the ambulance attendants. Above all, Vaughan waited for head-on collisions with the concrete pillars of the motorway overpasses, the melancholy conjunction formed by a crushed vehicle abandoned on the grass verge and the serene motion sculpture of the concrete.
Once we were the first to reach the crashed car of an injured woman driver. A middle-aged cashier at the airport duty-free liquor store, she sat unsteadily in the crushed compartment, fragments of the tinted windshield set in her forehead like jewels. As a police car approached, its emergency beacon pulsing along the overhead motorway, Vaughan ran back for his camera and flash equipment. Taking off my tie, I searched helplessly for the woman's wounds. She stared at me without speaking, and lay on her side across the seat. I watched the blood irrigate her white blouse. When Vaughan had taken the last of his pictures he knelt down inside the car and held her face carefully in his hands, whispering into her ear. Together we helped to lift her on to the ambulance trolley.
On our way to Vaughan's apartment he recognized an airport whore waiting in the forecourt of a motorway restaurant, a part-time cinema usherette for ever worrying about her small son's defective hearing-aid. As they sat behind me she complained to Vaughan about my nervous driving, but he was watching her movements with an abstracted gaze, almost encouraging her to gesture with her hands and knees. On the deserted roof of a Northolt multi-storey car-park I waited by the balustrade. In the rear seat of the car Vaughan arranged her limbs in the posture of the dying cashier. His strong body, crouched across her in the reflected light of passing headlamps, assumed a series of stylized positions.
Vaughan unfolded for me all his obsessions with the mysterious eroticism of wounds: the perverse logic of blood-soaked instrument panels, seat-belts smeared with excrement, sun-visors lined with brain tissue. For Vaughan each crashed car set off a tremor of excitement, in the complex geometries of a dented fender, in the unexpected variations of crushed radiator grilles, in the grotesque overhang of an instrument panel forced on to a driver's crotch as if in some calibrated act of machine fellatio. The intimate time and space of a single human being had been fossilized for ever in this web of chromium knives and frosted glass.
A week after the funeral of the woman cashier, as we drove at night along the western perimeter of the airport, Vaughan swerved on to the verge and struck a large mongrel dog. The impact of its body, like a padded hammer, and the shower of glass as the animal was carried over the roof, convinced me that we were about to die in a crash. Vaughan never stopped. I watched him accelerate away, his scarred face held close to the punctured windshield, angrily brushing the beads of frosted glass from his cheeks. Already his acts of violence had become so random that I was no more than a captive spectator. Yet the next morning, on the roof of the airport car-park where we abandoned the car, Vaughan calmly pointed out to me the deep dents in the bonnet and roof. He stared at an airliner filled with tourists lifting into the western sky, his sallow face puckering like a wistful child's. The long triangular grooves on the car had been formed within the death of an unknown creature, its vanished identity abstracted in terms of the geometry of this vehicle. How much more mysterious would be our own deaths, and those of the famous and powerful?
Even this first death seemed timid compared with the others in which Vaughan took part, and with those imaginary deaths that filled his mind. Trying to exhaust himself, Vaughan devised a terrifying almanac of imaginary automobile disasters and insane wounds - the lungs of elderly men punctured by door handles, the chests of young women impaled by steering-columns, the cheeks of handsome youths pierced by the chromium latches of quarter-lights. For him these wounds were the keys to a new sexuality born from a perverse technology. The images of these wounds hung in the gallery of his mind like exhibits in the museum of a slaughterhouse.
Thinking of Vaughan now, drowning in his own blood under the police arc-lights, I remember the countless imaginary disasters he described as we cruised together along the airport expressways. He dreamed of ambassadorial limousines crashing into jack-knifing butane tankers, of taxis filled with celebrating children colliding head-on below the bright display windows of deserted supermarkets. He dreamed of alienated brothers and sisters, by chance meeting each other on collision courses on the access roads of petrochemical plants, their unconscious incest made explicit in this colliding metal, in the haemorrhages of their brain tissue flowering beneath the aluminized compression chambers and reaction vessels. Vaughan devised the massive rear-end collisions of sworn enemies, hate-deaths celebrated in the engine fuel burning in wayside ditches, paintwork boiling through the dull afternoon sunlight of provincial towns. He visualized the specialized crashes of escaping criminals, of off-duty hotel receptionists trapped between their steering wheels and the laps of their lovers whom they were masturbating. He thought of the crashes of honeymoon couples, seated together after their impacts with the rear suspension units of runaway sugar-tankers. He thought of the crashes of automobile stylists, the most abstract of all possible deaths, wounded in their cars with promiscuous laboratory technicians.
Vaughan elaborated endless variations on these collisions, thinking first of a repetition of head-on collisions: a child-molester and an overworked doctor reenacting their deaths first in head-on collision and then in roll-over; the retired prostitute crashing into a concrete motorway parapet, her overweight body propelled through the fractured windshield, menopausal loins torn on the chromium bonnet mascot. Her blood would cross the over-white concrete of the evening embankment, haunting for ever the mind of a police mechanic who carried the pieces of her body in a yellow plastic shroud. Alternatively, Vaughan saw her hit by a reversing truck in a motorway fuelling area, crushed against the nearside door of her car as she bent down to loosen her right shoe, the contours of her body buried within the bloody mould of the door panel. He saw her hurtling through the rails of the flyover and dying as Vaughan himself would later die, plunging through the roof of an airline coach, its cargo of complacent destinations multiplied by the death of this myopic middle-aged woman. He saw her hit by a speeding taxi as she stepped out of her car to relieve herself in a wayside latrine, her body whirled a hundred feet away in a spray of urine and blood.
I think now of the other crashes we visualized, absurd deaths of the wounded, maimed and distraught. I think of the crashes of psychopaths, implausible accidents carried out with venom and self-disgust, vicious multiple collisions contrived in stolen cars on evening freeways among tired office-workers. I think of the absurd crashes of neurasthenic housewives returning from their VD clinics, hitting parked cars in suburban high streets. I think of the crashes of excited schizophrenics colliding head-on into stalled laundry vans in one-way streets; of manic-depressives crushed while making pointless U-turns on motorway access roads; of luckless paranoids driving at full speed into the brick walls at the ends of known culs-de-sac; of sadistic charge nurses decapitated in inverted crashes on complex interchanges; of lesbian supermarket manageresses burning to death in the collapsed frames of their midget cars before the stoical eyes of middle-aged firemen; of autistic children crushed in rear-end collisions, their eyes less wounded in death; of buses filled with mental defectives drowning together stoically in roadside industrial canals.
Long before Vaughan died I had begun to think of my own death. With whom would I die, and in what role – psychopath, neurasthenic, absconding criminal? Vaughan dreamed endlessly of the deaths of the famous, inventing imaginary crashes for them. Around the deaths of James Dean and Albert Camus, Jayne Mansfield and John Kennedy he had woven elaborate fantasies. His imagination was a target gallery of screen actresses, politicians, business tycoons and television executives. Vaughan followed them everywhere with his camera, zoom lens watching from the observation platform of the Oceanic Terminal at the airport, from hotel mezzanine balconies and studio car-parks. For each of them Vaughan devised an optimum auto-death. Onassis and his wife would die in a recreation of the Dealey Plaza assassination. He saw Reagan in a complex rear-end collision, dying a stylized death that expressed Vaughan's obsession with Reagan's genital organs, like his obsession with the exquisite transits of the screen actress's pubis across the vinyl seat covers of hired limousines.
After his last attempt to kill my wife Catherine, I knew that Vaughan had retired finally into his own skull. In this overlit realm ruled by violence and technology he was now driving for ever at a hundred miles an hour along an empty motorway, past deserted filling stations on the edges of wide fields, waiting for a single oncoming car. In his mind Vaughan saw the whole world dying in a simultaneous automobile disaster, millions of vehicles hurled together in a terminal congress of spurting loins and engine coolant.
I remember my first minor collision in a deserted hotel car-park. Disturbed by a police patrol, we had forced ourselves through a hurried sex-act. Reversing out of the park, I struck an unmarked tree. Catherine vomited over my seat. This pool of vomit with its clots of blood like liquid rubies, as viscous and discreet as everything produced by Catherine, still contains for me the essence of the erotic delirium of the car-crash, more exciting than her own rectal and vaginal mucus, as refined as the excrement of a fairy queen, or the minuscule globes of liquid that formed beside the bubbles of her contact lenses. In this magic pool, lifting from her throat like a rare discharge of fluid from the mouth of a remote and mysterious shrine, I saw my own reflection, a mirror of blood, semen and vomit, distilled from a mouth whose contours only a few minutes before had drawn steadily against my penis.
Now that, Vaughan has died, we will leave with the others who gathered around him, like a crowd drawn to an injured cripple whose deformed postures reveal the secret formulas of their minds and lives. All of us who knew Vaughan accept the perverse eroticism of the car-crash, as painful as the drawing of an exposed organ through the aperture of a surgical wound. I have watched copulating couples moving along darkened freeways at night, men and women on the verge of orgasm, their cars speeding in a series of inviting trajectories towards the flashing headlamps of the oncoming traffic stream. Young men alone behind the wheels of their first cars, near-wrecks, picked up in scrap-yards, masturbate as they move on worn tyres to aimless destinations. After a near collision at a traffic intersection semen jolts across a cracked speedometer dial. Later, the dried residues of that same semen are brushed by the lacquered hair of the first young woman who lies across his lap with her mouth over his penis, one hand on the wheel hurtling the car through the darkness towards a multi-level interchange, the swerving brakes drawing the semen from him as he grazes the tailgate of an articulated truck loaded with colour television sets, his left hand vibrating her clitoris towards orgasm as the headlamps of the truck flare warningly in his rear-view mirror. Later still, he watches as a friend takes a teenage girl in the rear seat. Greasy mechanic's hands expose her buttocks to the advertisement hoardings that hurl past them. The wet highways flash by in the glare of headlamps and the scream of brake-pads. The shaft of his penis glistens above the girl as he strikes at the frayed plastic roof of the car, marking the yellow fabric with his smegma.
The last ambulance had left. An hour earlier the film actress had been steered towards her limousine. In the evening light the white concrete of the collision corridor below the flyover resembled a secret airstrip from which mysterious machines would take off into a metallized sky. Vaughan's glass aeroplane flew somewhere above the heads of the bored spectators moving back to their cars, above the tired policemen gathering together the crushed suitcases and handbags of the airline tourists. I thought of Vaughan's body, colder now, its rectal temperature following the same downward gradients as those of the other victims of the crash. Across the night air these gradients fell like streamers from the office towers and apartment houses of the city, and from the warm mucosa of the film actress in her hotel suite.
I drove back towards the airport. The lights along Western Avenue illuminated the speeding cars, moving together towards their celebration of wounds.
excerpt from the book: Crash by J. G. Ballard
by Mark Fisher
Obviously many readers will be familiar with this material, but in the interests of accumulating resources on the site, I've reproduced below some of the key passages in A Thousand Plateaus in which D/G invoke Castaneda.
From '587 BC-AD 70: On Several Regimes of Signs' (138-39)
'One of the things of profound interest in Castaneda's books, under the influence of drugs, or other things, and of a change in atmosphere, is precisely that they show how the Indian manages to combat the mechanisms of interpretation and instill in the disciple a presignifying semiotic, or even an asignifying diagram: Stop! You're making me tired! Experiment, don't signify and interpret! Find your own place, territorialities, deterritorializations, regime, lines of flight! Semiotize yourself instead of rooting around in your prefab childhood and Western semiology. "Don Juan stated that in order to arrive at 'seeing' one first had to 'stop the world'. 'Stopping the world' was indeed an appropriate rendition of certain states of awareness in which the reality of everyday life is altered because the flow of interpretation, which ordinarily runs uninterruptedly, has been stopped by a set of circumstances alien to the flow." '
From 'How Do You Make Yourself a Body without Organs?' (161-2)
'In the course of Castaneda's books, the reader may begin to doubt the existence of the Indian Don Juan, and many other things besides. But that has no importance. So much the better if the books are a syncretism rather than an ethnographical study, and the protocol of an experiment rather than an account of an initiation. The fourth book, Tales of Power, is about the living distinction between the "Tonal" and the "Nagual." The tonal seems to cover many disparate things: It is the organism, and also all that is organized and organizing; but it is also signifiance, and all that is signifying or signified, all that is susceptible to interpretation, explanation, all that is memorizable, in the form of something recalling something else; finally it is the Self (Moi), the subject, the historical, social or individual person. In short, the tonal is everything, including God, the judgment of God, since it "makes up the rules by which it apprehends the world. So, in a manner of speaking, it creates the world." Yet the tonal is only an island. For the nagual is also everything. And it is the same everything, but under such conditions that the body without organs has replaced the organism and experimentation has replaced all interpretation, for which it no longer has any use. Flows of intensity, their fluids, their fibers, their continuums and conjunctions of affects, the wind, fine segmentation, microperceptions, have replaced the world of the subject. Becomings, becoming-animal, becomings-molecular, have replaced history, individual or general. In the fact, the tonal is not as disparate as it seems: it includes all of the strata and everything that can be ascribed to the strata, the organization of the organism, the interpretations and explanations of the signifiable, the movements of signification. The nagual, on the contrary, dismantles the strata. It is no longer an organism that functions but a BwO that is constructed. No longer are there acts to explain, dreams or phantasies to interpret, childhood memories to recall, words to make signify; instead, there are colours and sounds, becomings and intensities (and when you become-dog, don't ask if the dog you are playing with is a dream or a reality, "if it is your goddamn mother" or something else entirely). There is no longer a Self [Moi] that feels, acts, and recalls; there is "glowing fog, a dark yellow mist" that has affects and experiences movements, speeds. The important thing is not to dismantle the tonal by destroying it all of a sudden. You have to diminish it, shrink it, clean it, and that only at certain moments. You have to keep it in oder to survive, to ward off the assault of the nagual. For a nagual that erupts, that destroys the tonal, a body without organs that shatters the strata, turns immediately into body of nothingness, pure self-destruction, whose only outcome is death: "The tonal must be protected at all costs."
From '1933: Micropolitics and Segmentarity', 227
'According to Nietzsche's Zarathustra and Castaneda's Indian Don Juan, there are three or even four dangers: first, Fear, then Clarity, then Power, and finally, the great Disgust, the longing to kill and to die, the Passion for abolition.'
From '1730: Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal...', 248-249
'If the experimentation with drugs has left its mark on everyone, even nonusers, it is because it changed the perceptive coordinates of space-time and introduced us to a universe of microperceptions in which becomings-molecular take over from becomings-animal leave off. Carlos Castaneda's books clearly illustrate this evolution, or rather this involution, in which the affects of a becoming-dog, for example, are succeeded by those of a becoming-molecular, microperceptions of water, air, etc. A man totters from one door to the next and disappears into thin air: "All I can tell you is that we are fluid, luminous beings made of fibers." All so-called initiatory journeys include these thresholds and doors where becoming itself becomes, and where one changes becoming depending on the "hour" of the world, the circles of hell, or the stages of a journey that sets scales, forms, and cries in variation. From the howling of animals to the wailing of elements and particles.'
'All drugs fundamentally concern speeds, and modifications of speed. What allows us to describe an overll Drug assemblage in spite of the differences between drugs is a line of perceptive causality that makes it so that (1) the imperceptible is perceived; (2) perception is molecular; (3) desire directly invests the perception and the perceived. The Americans of the beat generation had already embarked on this path, and spoke of a molecular revolution specific to drugs. Then came Castaneda's broad synthesis.'
Achim Szepanski - BAUDRILLARD: WHEN HUMAN RIGHTS AND DEMOCRACY BEGAN TO CIRCULATE LIKE OIL AND CAPITAL
Speculating Freedom: Addiction, Control and Rescriptive Subjectivity in the Work of William S. Burroughs
Joshua Carswell - EVALUATING DELEUZE’S “THE IMAGE OF THOUGHT” (1968) AS A PRECURSOR OF HYPERSTITION // PART 1
Joshua Carswell - Evaluating Deleuze’s “The Image of Thought” (1968) as a Precursor of Hyperstition // Part 2
Jose Rosales - ON THE END OF HISTORY & THE DEATH OF DESIRE (NOTES ON TIME AND NEGATIVITY IN BATAILLE’S ‘LETTRE Á X.’)
Jose Rosales - BERGSONIAN SCIENCE-FICTION: KODWO ESHUN, GILLES DELEUZE, & THINKING THE REALITY OF TIME
GILLES DELEUZE - Capitalism, flows, the decoding of flows, capitalism and schizophrenia, psychoanalysis, Spinoza.
Obsolete Capitalism - THE STRONG OF THE FUTURE. NIETZSCHE’S ACCELERATIONIST FRAGMENT IN DELEUZE AND GUATTARI’S ANTI-OEDIPUS
Obsolete Capitalism - Acceleration, Revolution and Money in Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-OEdipus (Part 1)
Obsolete Capitalism - Acceleration, Revolution and Money in Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-OEdipus (Part 2)
Obsolete Capitalism: Acceleration, Revolution and Money in Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-OEdipus (Part 3)
Obsolete Capitalism - Acceleration, Revolution and Money in Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-OEdipus (Part 4)
Obsolete Capitalism: Acceleration, Revolution and Money in Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-OEdipus (Part 5)
Stephen Zepke - “THIS WORLD OF WILD PRODUCTION AND EXPLOSIVE DESIRE” – THE UNCONSCIOUS AND THE FUTURE IN FELIX GUATTARI
Steven Craig Hickman - David Roden and the Posthuman Dilemma: Anti-Essentialism and the Question of Humanity
Steven Craig Hickman - The Intelligence of Capital: The Collapse of Politics in Contemporary Society
Steven Craig Hickman - The Carnival of Globalisation: Hyperstition, Surveillance, and the Empire of Reason
Steven Craig Hickman - Shaviro On The Neoliberal Strategy: Transgression and Accelerationist Aesthetics
Steven Craig Hickman - Hyperstition: Technorevisionism – Influencing, Modifying and Updating Reality
Terence Blake - CONCEPTS OUT OF THE SHADOWS: Notes on Deleuze and Guattari’s “What is Philosophy?” (2)
Terence Blake - GUATTARI’S LINES OF FLIGHT (2): transversal vs transferential approaches to the reading contract
Himanshu Damle - Games and Virtual Environments: Playing in the Dark. Could These be Havens for Criminal Networks?
Himanshu Damle - Hegelian Marxism of Lukács: Philosophy as Systematization of Ideology and Politics as Manipulation of Ideology.