The Situationist International by way of A. E. Van Vogt

fig. 1. “Critique of Separation”, from, Internationale Situationniste no. 8, January 1963, p. 20.

Beneath a photo of Caroline Rittener, who had appeared in Guy Debord’s 1961 film, Critique de la Séparation, appears a phrase cited from a French translation of The World of Null-A (aka, The World of Ā, 1945/1948), by Canadian SF author A. E. Van Vogt (translated as, Le monde des Ā, Gallimard, Le Rayon Fantastique #14, 1953). Vogt’s words are put into Rittener’s mouth, to illustrate the situationist critique of separation—modern alienation, that “plot” of which we are mere “pawns in a game being played by men from the stars”. Even the capitalist ruling class, protected by their wealth, play a game they barely understand: “The point is not to recognize that some people live more or less poorly than others, but that we all live in ways that are out of our control.” (Guy Debord).

The photo and citation are one of several illustrations with text that appear amidst the situationist article ‘L’avant-garde de la présence’ in Internationale Situationniste no. 8, January 1963 (English translation available here). Once again, the situationists demonstrated that the quality of the elements of culture changed under the aegis of détournement.  “Ideas improve. The meaning of words plays a part in that improvement. Plagiarism is necessary. Progress depends on it. It stick’s close to an author’s phrasing, exploits his expressions, deletes a false idea, replaces it with the right one” (Isidore Ducasse).


fig. 2. Astounding Science Fiction, ‘The World of Ā’, part 1, August 1945.
fig. 3. The World of Ā, Simon & Schuster, 1948.
fig. 4. Le monde des Ā, Gallimard (Le Rayon Fantastique #14), 1953.

An eye for an eye . . .

from our sinister friends at prole no prole…

fig. 1. A photo reproduction of Asger’s Jorn’s modified painting, ‘Le canard inquiétant’ (The Disquieting Duck).

Originally posted on prole no prole

If an eye for an eye is the motto of revenge, it can also be bad advice. On 29 April 2022, a white nationalist attacked Asger Jorn’s 1959 painting The Disquieting Duck (shown above in Jorn’s form). Jorn’s ‘modification’ (also ‘disfiguration’) was on display at the Museum Jorn in Denmark. Lex talionis: just as Jorn ‘disfigured’ a pre-existing nineteenth century style idyll, so too Jorn suffers disfiguration.

An obvious interpretation is that a Danish painting is reclaimed by a Danish nationalist for his own cause—he affixed his own likeness and signed his name in permanent marker. In the rush to exploit an increasingly excluded populace and the last remnants of a near exhausted natural world, capitalists, their managers and fascist proxies advise us to ramp up the…

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Once more on the Hamburg Theses

fig. 1. Hamburgum.

[You can read my translation of Debord’s The Hamburg Theses of September 1961 here]

The plans announced in my last post with an eye to the 60th anniversary of the first publication of Internationale Situationniste no. 7 have been held up a little. Most obviously and unfortunately by the fact that I contracted covid shortly after posting. More pertinently by what I would call a certain lack I identified in the project of publishing new translations of articles from Internationale Situationniste no. 7 (hereafter IS no. 7).

For instance, I was struck by the spectral presence of what is arguably the pivotal situationist ‘document’, one whose shadow is cast over the entirety of IS no. 7: namely, the mysterious Hamburg Theses.

Published in April 1962, IS no. 7 marked the definitive turn of the SI toward the task that would take it up to May 1968: the relaunch of a revolutionary movement. However, whereas the seventh issue cements this turn, the turn itself had been underway for a good two years. In part, this can be seen in the arguments that raged over the significance of art that reached a peak at the 5th Conference of the group in August 1961. In part, it emerged from Debord’s participation in the Socialisme ou Barbarie group over 1960 and 1961. The Hamburg Theses of September 1961 were a response to both aspects of the SI’s evolution.

In two of the three documents that I have translated from IS no. 7, ‘Du rôle de l’I.S.’ (The Role of the SI), and Attila Kotányi’s ‘L’Étage suivant’ (The Next Stage), the Hamburg Theses are explicitly cited, even though no clear details of their content are revealed. As was discovered by Thomas Y. Levin in 1989, the Hamburg Theses never existed as a finished document. To the end of better contextualising these documents, I’ve decided to post a new translation of Debord’s 1989 note on the Hamburg Theses.[1]

In early September 1961, as the story goes, Guy Debord, Attila Kotányi and Raoul Vaneigem were on their return from the recently concluded 5th Conference of the Situationist International (SI). Having embarked, at the conferences end, on a drunken drift (dérive) across the Kattgatt sea from Göteborg to Frederikshavn, the three situationists, in the wake of the acrimonious discussions over what exactly constituted ‘anti-situationist’ activity (and why artistic activity under current circumstances constituted a subsection thereof), wended their way to Hamburg.[2] There, ‘in a series of randomly chosen bars in Hamburg over two or three days at the beginning of September 1961,’ Debord, Kotányi and Vaneigem composed the aptly named Hamburg Theses.[3]

The chief argumentative thrust of the Theses would find its way into other works by the situationists. Debord, in his 1989 note, handily summarised the non-existent ‘document’:

[T]he ‘Theses’ were conclusions, voluntarily kept secret, of a theoretical and strategic discussion that concerned the entirety of the conduct of the SI. […]

Deliberately, with the intention of leaving no trace that could be observed or analysed from outside the SI, nothing concerning this discussion and what it had concluded was ever written down. It was then agreed that the simplest summary of its rich and complex conclusions could be expressed in a single phrase: ‘Now, the SI must realise philosophy’. Even this phrase was not written down. Thus, the conclusions were so well hidden that they have remained secret up until the present. […]

The summarised conclusions evoked a celebrated formula of Marx from 1844 (in his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel Philosophy of Right). It meant that we should henceforth no longer attribute the least importance to any of the ideas of the revolutionary groups that still survived as heirs of the old social emancipation movement destroyed in the first half of our century; and therefore, that it would be better to count on the SI alone to relaunch a time of contestation as soon as possible, by way of revitalising all the basic starting points that were established in the 1840s. Once established this position did not imply the coming rupture with the artistic ‘right’ of the SI (who feebly desired only to repeat or continue modern art) but rendered it extremely probable. We can thus recognise that the ‘Hamburg Theses’ marked the end of the first period of the SI—that is research into a truly new artistic terrain (1957-61)—as well as fixing the departure point for the operation that led to the movement of May 1968, and what followed.[4]

Two things need to be said in clarification of the foregoing.

First, the two extant English translations of Debord’s note on the Hamburg Theses contain mistranslations of a crucial phrase rendered in the last paragraph, above. In these earlier translations, ‘qu’il ne faudrait donc plus compter que sur la seule I.S.’, became, ‘that it was therefore no longer necessary to count on the SI alone’ (Reuben Keehan), and, ‘that it would no longer be necessary to count on the SI alone’ (Not Bored!). As I noted in my last post, Keehan and Not Bored’s translation have the unfortunate result of inverting the meaning of the phrase in question—arguably the pivotal phrase concerning the import of the Hamburg Theses for the future of the SI.

This mistake alone justifies a new English translation. Nonetheless, I feel that the confusion of these earlier translators was understandable. The phrase in question is a particularly convoluted one in the French.

Nonetheless, the meaning of this phrase in relation to the entire sentence of which it is a part—its internal coherence if you will—should give one pause. For instance, the idea that one would no longer count on the SI alone (as Keehan and Not Bored rendered the phrase in question) does not clearly follow from the preceding clause to which it is the conclusion, i.e., ‘that we should henceforth no longer attribute the least importance to any of the ideas of the revolutionary groups that still survived as heirs of the old social emancipation movement’. Perhaps these translators believed that Debord was talking here of the revolutionary movement they proposed to relaunch as opposed to the relaunching itself? Certainly, the SI never suggested that they alone would constitute such a revolutionary movement. However, Debord was not claiming here that the SI would alone constitute such a movement. Rather, he was arguing that given the way that the artistic and political contemporaries of the situationists remained beholden to forms of artistic and political spectacle that were recuperated and ‘destroyed in the first half of our century’, these contemporaries were more likely not to be involved in the relaunch of such a movement. Thus, it would be better to count on the SI alone.

Further, in the seventh issue of Internationale Situationniste, the situationists made the case for actual existence of the forces which would make up such a revolutionary movement—passively, in terms of the sheer weight of the increasing proletarianization of the world, and actively in so far as elements of this proletariat were being driven to revolt, albeit sometimes in less than ‘orthodox’ fashion. Thus, the SI put much store in what was then, in the early 1960s, signs of a burgeoning youth rebellion across the advanced industrial world, as well as the increase in ‘wildcat’ strikes already extensively commented upon by comrades in the Socialisme ou Barbarie group.[5]. The question then, from the situationist’s perspective, was one of ‘organis[ing] a coherent encounter between the elements of critique and negation (whether as acts or as ideas) that are now scattered around the world’.[6] However, such an organisation was, perforce, distinctly opposed to the various authoritarian and hierarchical conceptions of a political or artistic avant-garde beloved of much of the contemporaneous far-left, whether Marxist or anarchist. Underlining this anti-hierarchical sense, the situationists would later say of their role, ‘[w]e will only organize the detonation: the free explosion must escape us and any other control forever’.[7]

fig. 2. Detail of a map of Hamburg.

Secondly, critics have—perhaps justly—been confused when Debord in his 1989 note initially speaks of the Hamburg Thesis as being ‘the most mysterious of all the documents that emerged from the SI’ (my emphasis), only to later clarify that ‘nothing concerning this discussion and what it had concluded was ever written down’.[8] Debord speaks of the Hamburg Theses as a ‘document’ in an ironic fashion, in order to underline not only its non-existence in written form, but more pointedly to draw attention to this non-existence as its most singular and enduring quality.

In the same note, Debord wrote that the Hamburg Theses ‘were a striking innovation in the succession of artistic avant-gardes, who hitherto had all given the impression of being eager to explain themselves’.[9] The question, however, was never one of refusing ‘to explain themselves’, as the ongoing publication of Internationale Situationniste testifies.[10] Debord would explain the avant-garde nature of the Theses by underlining the positive nature of the destructive truth of the Hamburg Theses in a letter to Vaneigem:

we agreed not to write the Hamburg Theses, thereby all the better to impose in the future their central significance to our project. Thus, the enemy will not be able to feign approval of them without great difficulty.[11].

Here, the Theses are spoken of as a trap to the unwary. There is no question that their conclusions became a part of the explicit weaponry of the SI, and yet it was forever put out of reach, an authority impossible to appeal to just as the SI worked hard to disabuse those who, perhaps inevitably, had begun to treat them as authorities. As the group would later write, in an article moreover that took its title from the Hamburg Theses:

It is quite natural that our enemies succeed in partially using us. We are neither going to leave the present field of culture to them nor mix with them. The armchair advisors who want to admire and understand us from a respectful distance readily recommend to us the purity of the first attitude while they themselves adopt the second one. We reject this suspect formalism: like the proletariat, we cannot claim to be unexploitable under the present conditions; the best we can do is to strive to make any such exploitation entail the greatest possible risk for the exploiters.[12]

By refusing to publish a document called the Hamburg Theses, and so being less that ‘eager to explain themselves,’ Debord, Vaneigem and Kotányi were gesturing at what was coming to be a central aspect of the situationist project as they understood it.[13] In IS no. 7, in the wake of the Hamburg Theses, they wagered that, ‘situationist theory is in people like fish are in water’.[14] This sentence has proved puzzling for many readers, some of whom have read it ungenerously as yet more evidence of the SI’s megalomania. However, by 1961 the situationists around Debord, Vaneigem and Kotányi were beginning to conceive of the particularities of their project as a moment of a more general revolutionary contestation dispersed in time and space. Which is to say, as a moment of the forces of refusal and rebellion that were real products of the spread and development of capitalist alienation.

Contrary to Lenin and Trotsky, for example, and for that matter a fair amount of anarchist theory too, the SI did not see themselves as bringing a theory of revolution to the working classes. Rather, like Marx they held to the idea that such a theory and practice itself emerged from the experience of the alienated and conflictual nature of proletarian life. The young Marx had argued, in words echoed and approvingly used by the SI, that ‘[t]heory can be realised in a people only insofar as it is the realisation of the needs of that people’; thus, ‘[i]t is not enough for thought to strive for realisation, reality must itself strive towards thought’.[15] At best, the SI saw itself as a particularly coherent moment of the struggle for theory from below whose practical truth they found posed not only in their own faltering experiments in unitary urbanism and the constructed situation, but even more so in the wildcat strikes of workers as much as the then flourishing counter cultures of alienated working-class youth.

In opposition to many of their leftist and intellectual contemporaries, the situationists did not see that alienation was being ameliorated or revealed as an idealist delusion, but rather that it was ramified and multiplied with the intensification and extension of capitalist production and consumption across the globe. The question, then, was not one of educating the proletariat in the guise of the eternal sacrifice of the intellectual leader, but rather participating in the clarification and cohering of a fractured and dispersed contestation that was already underway.

And so, the peculiar and not so peculiar situationist sense of the ‘avant-garde’. In artistic, political and military terms, ‘avant-garde’ had come to designate those ‘in advance’ of the main body. In the Leninist and Stalinist vernaculars, it indicated the necessary gap between the merely social democratic consciousness of the worker and the avant-garde consciousness of the revolutionary who would lead the worker to the promised land. For the situationists, the notion of avant-garde, to the extent that it had come to merely justify an unchallenged hierarchy amenable to a capitalist division of labour, had ceased to be of any use. As Debord would put it some years later in The Society of the Spectacle,

Proletarian revolution depends entirely on the condition that, for the first time, theory as understanding of human practice be recognized and lived by the masses. It requires that workers become dialecticians and put their thought into practice.[16]

Which is not to say that the SI rejected its avant-garde role, but rather that it rejected the then dominant conceptions of what constituted a political or artistic avant-garde. Against both, Debord would pose that, ‘now, the first realisation of an avant-garde is the avant-garde itself’.[17] To have itself as its ‘realisation’, instead of the fetish of the art-object or theoretical manifesto, was simply to emphasis the true, ultimate object of the avant-garde. For the SI this was precisely the communist society it saw as the necessary condition for the realisation of the project first outlined in the hypothesis of the constructed situation back in 1957. The question, then, was one of realising the project of communism (or at least the situationist conception of such) and so abolishing the need for such an avant-garde like the SI—an abolition, moreover, that would be embodied in the realisation of a mass revolutionary movement. As they phrased it in IS no. 8, the situationist avant-garde would be ‘a party that supersedes itself, a party whose victory is at the same time its own disappearance’.[18]

The resonance with Marx’s notion of the realisation and abolition of philosophy is palpable—as Debord noted in his 1989 note on the Theses. Marx’s early conception of the intersection of a radical philosophical project and a proletariat struggling to overcome their respective alienations and separations amidst the commercial wastelands of a fledgling industrial capitalism would become a central point of refence for the situationists. Indeed, Debord considered that in Marx’s notion of the congruence of the self-abolition of philosophy and the proletariat could be found a process akin to the various artistic avant-gardes of the 19th and 20th centuries—all of whom appeared to move inexorably toward the progressive destruction of traditional aesthetic and artistic truth. It is here, in the artistic lineage of the SI that one can, perhaps, find the formal antecedents of the Hamburg Theses—the ‘height of avant-gardism’ as Debord called them.

Much as the Comte de Lautréamont and Stéphane Mallarmé had announced and celebrated the shipwreck of language and poetry in Les Chants de Maldoror and Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard, as Kazimir Malevich had paused on the representational abyss of the destruction of the art-object in his painting White on White, and as André Breton caught sight of the marvellous amidst the drab of everyday art and alienation, so too Guy Debord, Raoul Vaneigem, Attila Kotányi and Alexander Trocchi pushed on to the limits of expression given the prison house of the commodity and its various alienations. To manifest the anti-manifesto, and to leave nothing to posterity but the fading and fallible memory of the passage of a few persons through a rather brief unity of time.

As a young Letterist, Debord had set his sights on destroying the cinema, making a film in which the Letterist effacement of the cinematic image was taken to its extreme. In his film, Hurlements en faveur de Sade(1952), all the images were eliminated to leave a blank screen during its projection, variously white or black depending on the dialogue that was left to occasionally mark the film’s 80-minute run. A few years later, reacting against the nihilist tendencies of his Letterist and International Letterist days, Debord argued that the coming Situationist international must constitute ‘one step back’ from such an ‘external opposition’ to art.[19] The point, for Debord, was never one of re-entering the artistic domain under the banner of the SI but rather investigating the possible uses to which artistic practices could be deployed in developing the situationist hypothesis of the constructed situation. Having increasingly encountered the limits of such experimental use between 1957 and 1961, Debord and his circle forced the issue, breaking the SI away from the artistic morass it had fallen into in order to better chart the new waters of an avant-garde practice at once political and artistic—as much as it proposed, simultaneously, to supersede both. However, this was not a return to the heady days of Letterist nihilism. And the Hamburg Theses is perhaps the most singular proof of this. When Debord spoke of it as ‘the most mysterious, and also the most formally experimental [text] in the history of the SI’,[20] his reference was no longer the impasse of formal destruction that he had faced in his film, Hurlements en faveur de Sade. Rather, the Hamburg Theses, even as it embodied the destruction of form, posed the positivity at the heart of the situationist project: namely, that most pressing question of how best to bring about a social order conducive to the free play and construction of situations as outlined at the founding of the SI.

Anthony Hayes
May, 2022

This post also appears here.


FOOTNOTES

[1] Two slightly different versions of Debord’s 1989 note exist. The first, published in 1997, excised the name of the original addressee, Thomas Y. Levin, from the text of the note. The second, published in 2008, reinstated the full text of the note as it was originally conceived: as a letter addressed to Thomas Y. Levin in November 1989. See, respectively, Guy Debord, ‘Les thèses de Hambourg en septembre 1961 (Note pour servir à l’histoire de l’Internationale Situationniste) [1989],’ in Internationale situationniste : Édition augmentée, Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 1997; Guy Debord, ‘Lettre à Thomas Levin, Novembre 1989—Les thèses de Hambourg en septembre 1961 (Note pour servir à l’histoire de l’Internationale Situationniste),’ in Correspondance, volume 7, janvier 1988 – novembre 1994, ed. Patrick Mosconi, Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2008.

[2] Internationale Situationniste, ‘La Cinquième Conférence de l’I.S. à Göteborg,’ Internationale Situationniste, no. 7 (Avril 1962).

[3] Debord, ‘Les thèses de Hambourg en septembre 1961 (Note pour servir à l’histoire de l’Internationale Situationniste) [1989].’

[4] This is an excerpt from my new translation of Debord’s 1989 note/letter on the Hamburg Theses. For details of the original French version, see footnote 1, above.

[5] See, respectively, ‘Unconditional Defence’ and ‘Instructions for an Insurrection’, both from IS no. 6 (August 1961). For more on the brief relationship between the SI and Socialisme ou Barbarie, see Anthony Hayes, ‘The Situationist International and the Rediscovery of the Revolutionary Workers’ Movement,’ in The Situationist International: A Critical Handbook, ed. Alastair Hemmens and Gabriel Zacarias, London: Pluto Press, 2020.

[6] Situationist International, ‘Now, the SI’, IS no. 9, August 1964.

[7] Situationist International, ‘The Counter-Situationist Campaign in Various Countries (excerpts)’, IS no. 8 (January 1963).

[8] Debord, ‘Les thèses de Hambourg en septembre 1961 (Note pour servir à l’histoire de l’Internationale Situationniste) [1989].’

[9] Ibid.

[10] As Debord noted in a letter to his old Letterist comrade, Ivan Chtcheglov, even though publishing the journal could be ‘tiresome’ and prone to ‘inevitable defects’, it remained ‘one of our only weapons’, ‘a living voice […] to envision supersessions more precisely’. Guy Debord, ‘Lettre à Ivan Chtcheglov, 30 avril 1963,’ in Correspondance volume II septembre 1960 – décembre 1964, ed. Patrick Mosconi, Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2001.

[11] Guy Debord, ‘Lettre à Raoul Vaneigem, 15 février, 1962,’ in Correspondance volume II septembre 1960 – décembre 1964, ed. Patrick Mosconi, Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2001, p. 127. Italics in the original.

[12] Situationist International, ‘Now, the SI’, IS no. 9 (August 1964).

[13] Debord, ‘Les thèses de Hambourg en septembre 1961 (Note pour servir à l’histoire de l’Internationale Situationniste) [1989].’

[14] Internationale Situationniste, ‘Du rôle de l’I.S.,’ Internationale Situationniste no. 7 (Avril 1962).

[15] Karl Marx, ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Introduction [1844],’ in Karl Marx & Frederich Engels Collected Works Vol. 3, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975, p. 183.

[16] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, chapter 4, thesis 123.

[17] G.-E. Debord, ‘L’avant-garde en 1963 et après,’ in Guy Debord Œuvres, Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2006.

[18] Situationist International, ‘Ideologies, Classes, and the Domination of Nature’, IS no. 8 (January 1963).

[19] Guy Debord, ‘One Step Back [1957],’ in Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents, ed. Tom McDonough, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2004.

[20] Debord, ‘Lettre à Thomas Levin, 1 septembre 1989.’

Internationale Situationniste number 7, April 1962

fig. 1. Advances in alienation. The first color photograph of the whole Earth (western Hemisphere), shot from the ATS-3 satellite on 10 November 1967.

It is sixty years since Internationale Situationniste number 7 was published, dated April 1962. Partly in commemoration I plan on posting new translations of several articles from the seventh issue over the next month.

Our world is arguably less distant from the situationists, sixty years past, then theirs was from 1902. Certainly not in terms of clock time, but rather in lived time. No equal of the revolutionary insurgency and capitalist disasters of 1914 to 1945 have marked the decades since 1962. But more pointedly, the fitfully globalising capitalism of 1962 has come to fruition in the sixty years since. The commodity-spectacle has not only triumphed across the planet—remarkably expressed in the first colour photograph of the world-globe from space, taken the same year Debord published The Society of the Spectacle—it has ramified down the years, taken on new, more intensively reified forms as it has extended its reach throughout the social-natural metabolism.

The absence of revolutionary contestation in the 60 years since 1962, at a level equal to that of Russia in 1917, Germany in 1918-19, China in 1926 and Spain in 1936-37, can be attributed solely to the success of the global commodity-spectacle. The unification of the capitalist world over the past six decades has been singularly aimed at preventing a repeat of the revolutionary insurrections capitalism faced between 1914 and 1945. A more thoroughly integrated, quiescent proletariat has been perhaps the single greatest project of capital—a project, moreover, that has been achieved without the dangers of the old social-democratic politics that offered a working-class community of sorts in which the dream of a post-capitalist world was kept alive, albeit in a largely religious, and so ineffectual form. The contemporary spectacle, in which the communal moment of the old social-democratic politics has been thoroughly replaced by the fractured and atomizing pseudo-communities of mass consumer culture, is by far more successful at integrating and undermining any pesky proletarian aspirations for a world beyond capitalism. Alongside the full spectrum dominance of commodified dreams, whether of the cinematic, televisual, or computerised variety, even so-called radical theory and politics is churned out to the hum of machines and mass produced profit. Unsurprisingly much of it reiterates the impossibility of a revolutionary project.

The situationist project, 1957-1972, was an attempt to make sense of the legacy of the first half of the twentieth century, in both artistic and political terms, to the end of the immediate revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. On the basis of a thoroughgoing critique of the nostalgia that dominated the far-left and artistic avant-gardes of the 1950s and 60s, the situationists outlined a revolutionary project that targeted the weakness of not only their artistic and political contemporaries, but more pointedly the nature of the vast commodity-spectacle that had come into being in the wake of the Second World War. Unlike many of their erstwhile disciples and followers today, the situationists did not simply propose a theory of the present; even more they argued that the desire for a different future was already present amidst the misery of capitalist alienation, albeit in an often disguised, marginalised or unconscious fashion. Thus, their belief in no compromise with the forces of spectacular integration. One can only throw off the domination of the past if one’s eyes remain firmly fixed upon the future, and so necessarily against all the alienations of the present.

fig. 2. Illustration from Internationale Situationniste no. 7. The image is taken from a contemporary US ad for family-sized nuclear shelters. It is a deeply ideological rendering of a mid-20th century US family. No doubt if such a campaign was launched today, canny capitalists would be more attuned to using a “diverse” array of models to flog their grim wares.The aim would nonetheless remain the same. As the situationists mordantly noted at the time, “If this system were to go to the point of bluntly proclaiming that it imposes such an empty and hopeless existence that the best solution for everyone would be to go hang themselves, it would still succeed in managing a healthy and profitable business by producing standardized ropes”.

*

The seventh issue of International Situationniste was a pivotal one in the life of the situationist group. It was the first issue to be published after the so-called ‘break with the artists’ in the first quarter of 1962, and the first issue to take up the project outlined by Guy Debord, Raoul Vaneigem, Attila Kotányi, and Alexander Trocchi in the enigmatic Hamburg Theses of September 1961.

In the articles of Internationale Situationniste no. 7 (hereafter IS no. 7), the group was chiefly concerned with outlining a distinctly situationist revolutionary project. Following on from their turn to critically appropriating the council communist perspective Debord found amongst comrades in the Socialisme ou Barbarie group, and announced in IS no. 6 (August 1961), issue seven finds the group more forcefully transforming itself from a group on the margins of artistic experimentation to one in which a ‘new type’ of revolutionary practice is being proposed. For instance, here we find not only the concept of ‘survival’ through which the SI would criticise the cult of work that then dominated what passed for a revolutionary left, but also the distinctly situationist notion that revolutionaries have more to learn from the glorious failures of the past, like the Paris Commune of 1871 and the German Revolution of 1918-19, than erstwhile “successes” like the so-called ‘really existing socialism’ of the then contemporaneous Soviet Union.

Today, IS no. 7 is perhaps best remembered for four articles: the first part of Raoul Vaneigem’s ‘Banalités de base’ (Basic Banalities, part 1), the lead articles, ‘Géopolitique de l’hibernation’ (Geopolitics of Hibernation), and ‘Les mauvais jours finiront’ (The Bad Days Will End), as well as ‘La cinquième conférence de l’I.S. à Göteborg’ (The Fifth SI Conference in Göteborg [excerpts]) in which details of the arguments that laid the groundwork for 1962 split were finally revealed. As linked, all of these articles exist in good English translations made by Ken Knabb. However, this selection, arguably the most important of the articles in IS no. 7, constitutes only about half of the written content of the number.

Nonetheless, the other articles from IS no. 7 exist in English translation, available here (The Role of the SI, Priority Communication, Situationist News, and the complete The Fifth SI Conference in Göteborg) and here (Sunset Boulevard). Links to all of the available translations of IS no. 7 are usefully available in one place, here. Unfortunately, these other translations, made by Reuben Keehan and Not Bored, are not always of the same high quality as Knabb’s. Indeed, many are desperately in need of an overhaul. At best, Keehan and Not Bored have made available many situationist articles that had previously only been available in the original French. At worst, they are traps to the unwary reader who either cannot or will not compare them to the original French.[1]

However, I cannot spare myself from all the critical barbs I’ve aimed at others. Over the last decade I have published the occasional translation of situationist and para-situationist texts on this blog, and elsewhere. Whereas I stand by my more recent efforts—for instance, my translations of Guy Debord’s Surrealism (2021) and Mustapha Khayati’s Marxisms(2016)—I cannot recommend the more distant ones—for instance, from my very first published translation of a situationist text, On the Exclusion of Attila Kotányi (2012), up to and including the equally awkward and flawed Socialism or Planète (2013). As such I feel that I bear some responsibility for any confusion or misinterpretation that has flowed from my less than adequate translations, alongside those of Keehan’s and Not Bored’s. To that end, and in the hope that I can continue to aid in the communication of situationist ideas, I offer more recent efforts in an attempt at exculpation. Indeed, one may say, like Hegel and Marx, that error is the surest road to the truth. Accordingly, none of my translations should be considered done with or finished, but rather works in progress—as, indeed, are all things,including the original situationist texts.

Over the coming weeks I will offer my translations of the following articles from IS no.7: ‘Du rôle de l’I.S.’ (The role of the SI), ‘Communication prioritaire’ (Priority Communication) and Attila Kotanyi’s ‘L’Étage suivant’ (The Next Stage). Though perhaps not as important as some of the other articles in the issue, all three of these are important for understanding the turn carried out by the Situationist International over 1961 and 1962, and further, shed light upon the influence that the mysterious Hamburg Theses exerted on the group. To that end I will also offer up my translation of Guy Debord’s 1989 text on the latter, ‘Les theses de Hambourg en septembre 1961’ (The Hamburg Theses of September 1961). Indeed, the two extent translations of this text of Debord’s (available here and here) both share an identical flaw—a mistranslation of a central phrase that inverts the phrase’s meaning. That these continue to be the only widely available translations of this important text is testament to the perilous state of much of what passes for scholarship, exegesis, and translation of the works of the Situationist International.

What we really need is not only well-made translations of all the article in IS no. 7, but also of the entire run of the Internationale Situationniste journal. Considering that Knabb’s large selection, collected in his Situationist International Anthology, is now more than 40 years old (originally published 1981, and substantially revised 2006), it is way past time that a complete collection was published in English. If anyone reading this is interested in such a project do not hesitate to contact me: antyphayes [at] gmail [dot] com

fig. 3. The metallicized cover of Internationale Situationniste no. 7.

Anthony Hayes
April, 2022


FOOTNOTES

[1] An example of the latter can be found in James Trier’s recent book, Guy Debord, the Situationist International, and the Revolutionary Spirit (2019). However, Trier’s errors cannot be solely put down to the inadequate translations that he relied upon. To present just one example: on the third page of the introductory chapter he attributes an article by Guy Debord, All the King’s Men (title originally in English), to Michèle Bernstein—a mistake that he compounds by continuing to refer to her as the author throughout his book. Perhaps being distracted by Humpty Dumpty’s great fall, Trier has confused, or inadvertently associated Debord’s article with Bernstein’s similarly titled novel, Tous les chevaux du roi (All the King’s Horses). But such a mistake does not bode well for an author who claims to offer new information on the situationist group. At best, Trier’s work is a relatively straightforward and unimaginative description of the works of the situationists. However, the authors efforts are hamstrung by his inability to engage with their works in the original French, and so judge the worth or usefulness of the extant translations.


This post also appears here: https://thesinisterquarter.wordpress.com/2022/04/08/internationale-situationniste-number-7-april-1962/

Exit, the masses: a fictional fiction?

The following is something of an oddity. I found it on an old hardrive. In was in a folder called “web reviews” that also contained a few other pages that I had downloaded around the first five years of the twenty tens. Mostly reviews of science fiction novels from blogs I was then following or had stumbled upon.

Did I write this? It is hard to say. I have no recollection of doing so though I would hesitate to deny it outright, as it sounds like something I would. I have long been interested in SF and “old” science fiction in particular. That is SF written before the 1980s.

C. Knight Calender’s Exit, the Masses resembles nothing so much as John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar. The main difference being that Exit, the Masses does not appear to exist outside of the review, below. It is this non-existence that is possibly the clearest sign that it was written by me. And yet I have no memory of doing such. Dare I say, much like the rouge sociologue, Mulligan Speke, that this work “is doubly non-existent”?

The most peculiar thing of all is the way this review mixes elements of its fantasy of place with those of ours. There is much that is familiar but enough that is not, which lends to it a dream like quality. And yet alongside such patently false personages as Knight Calender, William Jean and Emmerson Stampe, stands A. E. Van Vogt and Philip K. Dick. It is as if this review itself originated in a story of the aforementioned; as likely this as that it has come to us from another dimension in which things are the same but not quite. Or perhapsand this is an even more unsettling thoughtit comes from a story of Dick’s or Van Vogt’s that was never published in our universe, which is to say it does not exist in thought or deed. Or if it does, only in one of its less travelled, far-flung corners.

In the late 1980s I recall reading a novel called The Planiverse, by A. K. Dewdney. The framing device for this fiction was that the story was no fiction at all. The “planiverse” upon which the author had stumbled was the result of a computer simulation gone wrong—or right, as the case maybe. For reasons arcane to both author, and perforce reader, the mechanism by which the planiverse came into sync with our universe remained obscure.

It seems to me that the only criteria that a simulation requires is that it may also be that which is simulated. Could it be that Knight Calender exists somewhere, like the Berenstein Bears? Is it enough that we believe that he does? That no such person wrote a book called Exit, the Masses is far from clear. Maybe we have simply not found all the manuscripts left to the gnawing criticism of the mice? Or worse, could it be that in this world, our world, the manuscript of Knight Calender’s novel was destroyed? In truth, I find it more comforting to believe that it was never written, and that this review is a fake. Though I would prefer to believe that the novel, and so too its reviews, simply remain to be written.


fig. 1. The original 1972 paperback cover, designer unknown.

Exit, the Masses by C. Knight Calender

C. Knight Calender (real name Karl Keding) is unfortunately not as well known or as frequently read now as he once was. He was an extremely prolific British (originally South African) science fiction author from the 1940s through the 1980s, ranging from sword and sorcery to space opera, social satire and complex analyses of social trends. Exit, the Masses is one of his best-known novels and a Nebula award winner, written in 1969 but not published until 1972.  Its subject matter was grand, a sort of “near future modernist epic realism” through which questions of power, population, mass media, philosophy and international politics were addressed. With that subject matter, you would think it would be dated, but this is one of those books that beautifully captures general tendencies in society despite often being wrong about the particulars.

The narrative structure of this book is unusual and rather intimidating at first. Calender’s model is the early 20th century author William Jean and his sprawling Americas trilogy. But don’t let this put you off as the author transforms Jean’s modernist realism into his indelible near future modernism. Similar to Jean’s “structures in waiting” there are three types of chapters in the book, usually very short: “superbase”, which contains snippets from essays and books that help explain world background; “what’s happening?”, composed of very short news blurbs, ads and other pop cultural fragments and detritus; and “satellite tracking”, which tells the heart of the story through the cast of thousands that Calender successively weaves into an eerily familiar whole.

I was convinced at first that the whole book was going to be an annoying and difficult read. Thankfully, I was wrong. The “satellite tracking” chapters tell a traditional and quite comprehensible story. From the many characters rapidly introduced in the first third of the novel two emerge as the most significant: Janice Jones, the Australian government agent, and Mohamed Brown the English PARA (Pan Arab Revolutionary Alliance) activist. With two viewpoint characters the world becomes much less confusing fairly quickly. Indeed Calender’s casting of a female in a traditionally male role written in the midst of the pogroms of ’69 is merely one of its revolutionary aspects (and perhaps the least of them).

Despite its often confusing multitude of voices, Exit, the masses cleverly deploys the larger story shown  in the “superbase” and “what’s happening?” chapters across the more conventional narrative in the “satellite tracking” chapters. Indeed the scatter gun presentation of various characters across the face of the future Earth of 2015 works well. Still I was surprised that by the end of the book, with more understanding of what’s going on, the “superbase” and “what’s happening?” chapters would became my favourites.

I’ll mention some “shortcomings” up front just to get them out of the way. Calender makes extensive use of invented slang, and while he mostly has a decent ear for it (far better than Heinlein, for instance), it’s still invented slang. Expect to take a while to get used to words like “the jikks’ (men and women of no fixed abode who move from one cramped space to another) that are explained only in context. He also has a few hideous clunkers, such as “pretzel-sniffers” for the putrid things produced in the industrial laboratories of the EUG (European United Genetics) corporation. Thankfully, most of the slang adds just the perfect amount of retro futuritic flavour and fine shading, and isn’t just slang for the sake of it.

Once you are immersed in his work Calender more than ably evokes a believable future. Sure he got some of it wrong. But how well he anticipated social trends! There are no “meggcorps”, and in contrast to the runaway DNA pollution of his world, our Eugenics Boards are strictly policed. In our world the US isn’t fighting PARA, but there are US troops all across north and central Africa. And sure the Soviet Union is no longer as powerful as it once was, but then Calender wasn’t perfect – who is? Sexual morality didn’t work out the way Calender predicted either.  The absence of contracting in his future seems odd from today’s perspective, and of course he missed the advent of pilnodes and many other uses of entabulaters. But when you’re reading Exit, the Masses, the politics, the mass opinions, the human reactions to the events of the world are so believable and recognizable that you want it to exist.

I think Calender is strongest in his elaborations of then popularly discussed extrapolations and his analysis of the resulting side effects. If there were “meggcorps” there would indeed be intense social pressure within and without the fragile nation state. His idea of fluid employment dynamics is almost exactly the way work became integrated into super-state sources. And the large bodies of “idlers” is just about right. Even the radical Communist sect called “Sisyphus” fighting against all limits on creativity feels plausible under Calender’s hand. Sure, the broad strokes of his political antagonism creak a little the further he gets away from his Middle Eastern comfort zone, but his meggcorps using a dispersed network of “bio-ordinators” matches the real development of entabulaters and the resulting revolutions in mass psychological fashion-molds. Of course, we won’t have such technology in the near term, even though the Davis tubes introduced last year promise a new type of entabulater in the not too distant future. 

One of the major supporting characters is Mulligan Speke, author of the fictitious hapzhi-dicto, a sort of Vigilant Chronicle for Calender’s 2015.

NECESSARY — Means: (1) I don’t approve; (2) I rarely like it when it happens; (3) I can’t be jikk’d; (4) Neither can Yesnelm. Meaning 4 is the most likely, but the others are 250 keyzers of parched drail. (p. 38)

Speke shows up occasionally in “satellite tracking” and is a lot of fun there, but his best parts are to be found in the excerpts from either the ’dicto or his various other imagined books, letters, or essays littered across “superbase” and “what’s happening?”.  If you like dark sarcasm, this is awesome stuff.

Painfully, we managed to digest the theories of physico-chemical economy so far as the political characteristics were concerned, and within only half a century of the initial controversy. (I say “we,” but if you’re a god-blithering-recidivist I expect you at this point to take the book by one corner at arm’s length and ceremonially consign it to the place where you put most sensible ideas, along with everything else you decline to acknowledge the existence of – like shit. Go on shit you higgs! (p. 257)

Indeed, it’s worth reading Exit, the Masses for Mulligan Speke alone.

*spoiler alert*

I haven’t yet mentioned the plot. Partly that’s because the world and the character profiles are the highlight of the book. After a slow and deliberate start the plot quickly gathers its momentum to deliver a stunning conclusion. The way Calender handles the extensive supporting cast is simply incredible. Even Mulligan Speke’s first fleeting appearances in “satellite tracing” later lend sense to the weft and weave of the main story. Nonetheless he kept me wondering about how some of the chapters were going to fit into the main story until the very end. For instance labelling a third of the chapters “satellite tracking” becomes clearer retrospectively.

The two main protagonists, Jan Jones and Mahomed Brown, twirl around each other without ever meeting. Jones starts at the International Moonbase and slowly spins inward to Orbital-3 and finally Earth and the planned secret meeting at Pentagon 2. Upon her strange discovery at the Lunar observatory lies the fate of the Earth and the future of billions. Meanwhile, and in parallel, the developing mission of Brown’s PARA squad in Syria and what he finds in the shelled remains of a EUG experimental unit outside of Homs bears down upon Jones. Strangely it is Calender’s depiction of the EUG creatures that proved most hideously prescient. Still, the way he connects Brown and Jones’ stories is heartbreakingly abrupt and unexpected, albeit logical. If Calender’s 2015 is anything it is meticulously logical.

Alongside the regular smog alerts in London, Paris, Peking and Los Angeles, and the aggressive militarisation of Mars and the asteroid belt, Calender conjures a world you can almost taste if not already inhabit. Even the slapstick subplot that spins on the recovery of the missing historical documents from the Anz Republic provide more than amusing. Indeed it proves to be an ultimately important distraction from the terrifying pace and carefully orchestrated conclusion of Exit, the Masses

Calender’s inversion of the traditional deus ex machina solution, and his harking to Van Vogt, P.K. Dick and Emmerson Stampe, can sometimes be difficult to keep track of (pay attention, one of the early chapters is a quite useful summary entire in disguise to be read in the negative). It is, after all, in the denouement that the author truly fleshes out the status of his novel as a masterpiece. Indeed there is more realistic social analysis in this book than in a truckload of run of the mill science fiction novels, and Calender is proof that you don’t need to get your extrapolations right in order to talk about how people speak in the world.

Highly recommended; one’s knowledge of SF canon is simply not complete without it.

Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2013-12-19

Dick Powell’s SF Reviews

What comes after SF

fig. 1. Has the future of SF come and gone? Illustration: “As Mars Sees Us”, by Frank R. Paul, Amazing Stories, July 1940.

What comes after SF

‘the hour of its birth is the hour of its death.’
—G. W. F. Hegel[1]

Is there a future for science fiction?

Consider this: writers of science fiction have imagined not just the end of civilisation, and the end of the human species (among others), they have even imagined the end of everything—up to and including the beyond of the end. And yet rarely—perhaps never—do writers of SF imagine the end of SF, even though its finale is necessarily implied in the end of it all.

This is perhaps less strange if we consider that SF itself rarely features in the futures imagined by SF writers. Could it be that the collective imaginary of science fiction sees no future for SF? Or at least no future for SF in SF. With the notable exception of recursive science fiction,SF is strangely absent from most imagined futures. Is recursive science fiction, then, where we will find SF imagining the future of SF? Perhaps—but I’m not holding my breath.

Recursive SF is a somewhat fuzzy sub-genre of SF—which is no bad thing in that fuzziest of all genres. In its clearest and narrowest definition, it is ‘science fiction stories that refer to science fiction […] to authors, fans, collectors, conventions, etc.’[2] However, the self-referentiality of recursive SF runs the gamut of the more straightforwardly comic and satirical at one end (like Frederic Brown’s novels, What Mad Universe or Martians Go Home), through to the more self-consciously critical works of Barry Malzberg, in which Malzberg uses the conceit of self-referentiality to interrogate SF—albeit in fictional garb.

When speaking of two recursive works of Robert Silverberg’s—‘The Science Fiction Hall of Fame’ (1973) and ‘Schwartz Between The Galaxies (1974)—Malzberg notes that they are ‘less […] work[s] of fiction than of literary criticism.’[3] This is an apt description of some of Malzberg’s works. For instance, his ‘A Galaxy Called Rome’ (1975) is an excellent example of, and introduction to, such critical-recursive SF. Malzberg himself prefers the term ‘decadent science fiction’ to describe what he’s up to—a term that is presumably derived from Joanna Russ’s suggestive essay ‘The Wearing Out of Genre Materials’ (1971).[4] To the extent that such ‘decadence’ is indicative of a more self-aware and sometimes critical take on the pretensions and pathologies of SF, that often includes formal experiments in literary style, both Russ and Malzberg associate it with the development of a ‘New Wave’ in SF in the 1960s and 70s. Unfortunately, and despite my own fascination with the New Wave and ‘decadence’, I have yet to find amongst its practitioners any evidence of what I have set out to find. Namely SF imagining either the SF of the future, or the end of SF itself—even though the utter exhaustion of SF is hinted at in the most corrosively recursive SF (Silverberg’s short story, ‘The Science Fiction Hall of Fame’ again leaps to mind).

The entry on ‘Recursive SF’ at The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction seeks to expand the definition of recursion to include, ‘Alternate Histories, usually backward-looking in time, and frequently expressing a powerful nostalgia for pasts in which the visions of early Genre SF do, in fact, come true.’[5] This is almost an answer to my question. Unfortunately, I am not looking for a ‘backward-looking’, retrospective vision of the future of SF, no matter how attractive such decadent confabulations are. No doubt imagining a different future for, say, SF in the 1940s, is easier to do given that one is imagining an alternate future based on what happened in our universe. But for now, in this quiet sector of the multiverse, I am trying to find is an SF that imagined SF in its future, not a future past.

What got me thinking along these lines was a remark made by Michael Moorcock in his introduction to a 1969 collection of New Wave SF writings, appositely entitled The New SF:

In the early days of the science fiction magazines writers often tried to visualise what literature would be like in the futures they invented. In a sense, therefore, the stories in this book are something of a natural development from magazines like Amazing Stories (founded 1926) for, to Hugo Gernsback the editor of Amazing Stories, they might well seem like the products of an ‘alien’ future.[6]

Moorcock’s remarks are more suggestive than factual. The idea that the wild and wacky experiments of the New Wave could almost have been the future of science fiction imagined in the past is a fascinating thought. I have, however, found little evidence for Moorcock’s claim that SF writers in the 1920s, 30s and 40s were doing much to ‘visualise what literature would be like in the futures they invented’. I could be wrong about this—indeed, I want to be wrong. Perhaps somewhere in the lost drafts of Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) one can find an outline of the entirety of SF’s future trajectory, and, inevitably, its end.

To further illustrate what I am driving at, regarding the absence of an imagined future for SF in SF, let’s look briefly at two examples of recursive science fiction from the 1950s and 60s: Arthur C Clarke’s novel, The Sands of Mars (1951) and Edmond Hamilton’s short story, ‘The Pro’ (1964). In Clarke’s novel, the protagonist is a long-time science fiction writer who now lives in a future that has overtaken, in part, his pulpish imaginings. He journeys to a Mars that already has the rudiments of a permanent colony, somewhat bedazzled by the way the near future both confirms and refutes his fiction. Hamilton riffs on a similar theme. However, he makes the dislocation of the SF writer who has lived to see the future the central focus of his short story. In both cases nothing is said about the SF in the science fictional present imagined in either story. It either no longer exists, or—demonstrating a singular lack of imagination—is simply the same as it was when these stories were written. One can only assume that if there is an SF in these imaginary worlds, it is exempted from the forces of change and history that are otherwise speculatively evoked in the self-same stories.

Could it be that the inability to imagine a future for SF disguises a repressed belief that there is no future for SF? In his 1994 essay, ‘The Many Deaths of Science Fiction,’ Roger Luckhurst argues that, ‘SF is dying, it has been dying from the very moment of its constitution’.[7] Motivated by those interminable debates that mark fandom, which locate the ‘death of SF’ in an imagined transgression of what is meant by ‘SF,’ Luckhurst argues that such anxieties necessarily emerge precisely as a result of the establishment of the genre in the first place. Indeed, he further believes that SF has a ‘death wish’ that is bound up with the boundaries of the gerne, and that is a function of the repressed desire for a ‘proper death’: either by way of its dissolution and return to the mainstream, or by way of being acknowledged as more than or better than its pulp, popular origins. Either way, the establishment of clear boundaries for SF only intensified the anxiety of this death-wish, and the anxieties that continues to metastasise with ever controversy over perceived threats to these borders, whether from within or without (though especially from the former).

Luckhurst is at his most interesting when he focuses upon ‘the effect[s] of the structure of legitimation’, by which he means that the exclusionary policing of SF’s ambiguous borderlands by trufans and writers alike is the real source of SF’s internal conflicts and ‘death wish’.[8] By any measure, the efforts of people like Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell in establishing an exclusive definition of SF was bound to explode, given not only the relatively arbitrary origins of their stipulative definitions of SF, but also the patent influence that the rich borderlands of the genre continued to exert upon readers and writers. What’s clear, even amidst the hardest of the so-called Hard practitioners of SF, is that there is no such thing as pure SF. Perhaps SF was stillborn from the outset, a consensual hallucination held together by the will of a Gernsback or a Campbell, not to mention the self-legitimating institutions of fandom they surrounded themselves with. Indeed, Gernsback’s and Campbell’s SF is starting to sound more like something you would find in SF, some harebrained scheme cooked up in the imaginary laboratories of the future.

One of the interesting threads Luckhurst unpicks, but does little with, is Hugo Gernsback’s pioneering attempt to establish not only the contours of SF, but also its aspirations to be more than simply another pulp ghetto for popular consumption. In Gernsback’s proselytising and agitational vision for SF, SF is calling into being a world that has yet to come. To my thinking, implicit in that vision is a sense of the self-limitation of SF. Once the world Gernsback desires has come into being, once the general consciousness of the population is in synch with science rather than simply ‘tak[ing] new inventions and discoveries for granted’ in a quasi-religious fashion, then SF’s role as harbinger and teacher will be complete.[9] And once complete, the need for SF will simply disappear.

The idea that SF has no place or part to play in the future it fictionally conjures into being, can be seen in the Clarke and Hamilton stories discussed above. There is a sense in both that with the realisation of the dreams of science fiction, SF as anticipation and advocacy is rendered superfluous. Clarke’s story is more positively disposed to the merits of SF as anticipation, no matter how flawed the speculation often is, whereas Hamilton poses that perhaps there was no point in the first place, and that the space age of the 1960s was realised despite the existence of SF. Indeed, its Hamilton’s pessimism about the worth of SF—reflecting, perhaps, his own mixed feelings after almost 40 years in the business—that gives this story is melancholic power. He seems to be posing: would it have been better if SF had never been born in the first place?

Given a future in which SF was realised in line with Gernsback’s or Campbell’s desire, presumably SF would become something akin to pulp Westerns, a fiction of nostalgia for a lost time. In large part, SF has become this. The shiny rockets and bubble headed space suits of the Golden Age of SF can today seem to be more aged and out of place than spurs and a Colt 45 were in the 1950s. But in developing this tendency toward nostalgia, SF is not just the Romanticisation of a lost past—the past of the pulps on the verge of the space age. It is also the Romanticisation of an imaginary future that never was. That dream of SF—of grand and ever-expanding space exploration and colonisation—was not and perhaps never will be realised. Indeed, Ballard’s fiction from the 1960s, when he attempted to redirect SF from its technophilic obsessions amidst the burgeoning space age of Mercury astronauts and Project Apollo, has proved to be a better guide to our present.

Is it possible that the repressed desire for death and the striking absence of an imagined future for SF were finally realised in the New Wave? Not the ‘proper death’ that Luckhurst spoke of, by which the New Wave broke down the walls that separated SF from the non-genre literary recognition it both envied and imagined itself superior to. Rather, the New Wave enacted the death of SF—albeit in an erratic and largely unconscious fashion—and brought it to ruin through the exhaustion of all the shop-worn tropes in a fury of play and experiment. Which is not to say that the New Wave in SF did not live a terrific life full of noise and wonder. But as Robert Silverberg has mordantly noted:

by 1972 the revolution was pretty much over. We were heading into the era of Star Wars, the trilogy craze, and the return of [a] literarily conservative action-based science fiction to the centre of the stage.[10]

In any case, SF died—or at least that archetypal Anglo-American SF born in Amazing Stories and Astounding Science Fiction between the 1920s and 1940s. It was killed off amidst a blaze of play and experimentation at precisely the same time that the revolutionary movement that erupted in France and Italy in 1968 and 1969 was being murdered by erstwhile friends and foes alike. And much like the supersized capitalism that came after the failed revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s, the reconstituted and globalised SF is a strange beast: a vast commercial spectacle, a bloated behemoth that staggers through its domesticated afterlife, shorn not only of its earlier aspirations and optimistic urgency, but equally denied the peaceful death it so richly deserves.

And today, through the fog of an infinite regress of proliferating sub-genres, which inadvertently mock the old delusion of a unitary SF, we see our old friend the commodity, whose terroristic mass production has brought the biosphere itself to the brink of destruction like some arch science criminal of yore, colonising the real and the imaginary with equal indifference and spite.

Is this the future that SF imagined for itself?


FOOTNOTES

[1] G. W. F. Hegel, The Science of Logic, trans. George di Giovanni, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, [1813, 1816, 1832] 2010. Translation modified.

[2] Anthony R. Lewis, An Annotated Bibliography of Recursive Science Fiction, Cambridge, Mass.: NESFA Press, 1990. See, also: https://data.nesfa.org/Recursion/

[3] Barry N. Malzberg, ‘The Science Fiction of Science Fiction,’ in Engines of the Night, Baen Ebooks, [1982] 2013.

[4] See, Joanna Russ, ‘The Wearing out of Genre Materials,’ College English vol. 33, no. 1 (October 1971); Barry N. Malzberg, ‘Thinking about Thinking About Science Fiction,’ in An Annotated Bibliography of Recursive Science Fiction, ed. Anthony R. Lewis, Cambridge, Mass.: NESFA Press, 1990.

[5] John Clute & David Langford, ‘Recursive SF’ in Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (2021).

[6] Michael Moorcock, ‘Preface,’ in The New SF, ed. Langdon Jones, London: Arrow Books, p. 8.

[7] Roger Luckhurst, ‘The Many Deaths of Science Fiction: A Polemic,’ Science Fiction Studies Vol. 21, no. 1 (March 1994), p. 35.

[8] Ibid., p. 44.

[9] Hugo Gernsback, ‘A New Sort of Magazine,’ Amazing Stories Vol. 1, no. 1 (April 1926), p. 3.

[10] Robert Silverberg, ‘Introduction to “Schwartz Between the Galaxies”,’ in The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Four: Trips, 1972-73, Subterranean Press (Electronic Edition), 2009.

Robert Silverberg Downward to the Earth

I have often imagined a review that never ends, that contains every review that has ever been or ever will be written, snaking on and upward, from ruminations on Gilgamesh to who knows what works the future will bring. But it’s not this one, this is just one of the leaves in that review to come, that has never been and perhaps never will…


fig. 1. The copy I read has this cover. It effectively conjures the elephant-like Nildoror, and Gundersen in futuro-retro-1970s garb, gripping his chest anxiously. Cover art by Stuart Hughes.

It is common to describe science fiction as a literature that projects the concerns of the present into an imaginary future. From this perspective, there are those critics and fans that hail science fiction as the royal road to all that is unconscious in the present. Left or right, hard or soft, SF flows from the space-time of its composition. How else could it be? Unless, perhaps, the author was themselves caught up in an SF story, like a hapless protagonist in a Barry Malzberg story, little suspecting their present was doubly fictional, caught in a reductio ad absurdum with appropriate recursive details.

Like most clichés, this well-worn one that SF is just about its present has a lot going for it. We are encouraged to decode the concerns of the author to find traces of our world in their fantasies of tomorrow. What’s less clear, to my mind, is why we should only be concerned with the present as some type of absolute fact of composition.

Our present reality is a strange science fictional beast indeed. It recalls to me Karl Marx’s belief that in capitalist societies the ‘past dominates the present’. Marx’s argument was that by virtue of the twin principles of social organisation in capitalism, the accumulation of wealth by way of the exploitation of wage labour, the past comes to dominate the present. More poetically he put it thus: ‘The tradition of the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living’. The situationists called this ‘dead time’. The experience of wage labour—with its dull rhythms and repetitions subservient to the needs of business and wealth—is it most obvious manifestation.

Once the entire planet had been made over, industrialised into a single market in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, science fiction appeared to cheer this vision and chase it across the Earth and the dream of beyond. Dead time is the true subject matter of science fiction, just as science fiction is the poetry of dead time. SF sings of technological alienation, of rockets and of man. Which is not to say that it does not have its own beauty. At its best, SF dreams of overcoming the present dominated by the past; at worst, it endlessly projects the living death of the capitalist present ever on into a future without respite.

*

The past dominates the story in Downward to the Earth. However, Silverberg endeavours to interrogate this dominance, in the guise of the central protagonist, Edmund Gundersen, and his quest for the redemption of past sins. Indeed, the author does not spare us with a flattering image of our present projected into his fictional future. And yet, in the person of Gundersen, he holds out the possibility of meaningfully reckoning with the missteps of past crimes.

The outline of the story is simple. Gundersen returns to the planet Belzagor to seek redemption. In the course of this tale, he travels upriver to the Mist Country where the inhabitants undergo a mysterious rebirthing ceremony. There, the possibility of transcendence beckons—a familiar trope in this high period of Silverberg’s writings (1967-75). Along the way, Gundersen revisits the old places of the colonial occupation and some of the people who remained behind. In the guise of these characters, old friends, colleagues, a former lover, Seena, and his travelling companion Srin’gahar, an indigenous Nildoror, Gundersen successively throws off the memories of a past that still weighs upon him.

Belzagor. That’s what they called the planet now. The native name, the nildoror’s own word. To Gundersen it seemed like something out of Assyrian mythology. Of course, it was a romanticized pronunciation; coming from a nildor it would really sound like Bllls’grr.[1]

A revealing episode near the outset of Gundersen’s journey upriver is given in a brief discussion between him and his travelling companion, Srin’gahar, the Nildoror. Scratching a map into the dirt, Gundersen attempts to engage Srin’gahar in a discussion regarding the course of their journey. Quickly, we discover that for the Nildoror the map is quite literally not the territory. Bereft of analogues of the human hand, not only do the Nildoror have no written language, equally they have no experience of the abstractly symbolic, whether picture or text. It is in this passage, and later, in the even more elusive chapter on the mysteries of rebirthing, that Silverberg truly renders the alienness of his aliens. No doubt humanity lived its long dream without need or desire for a written language until relatively recently, and yet along the way it fashioned abstract symbols all the same. The idea of an alien intelligence without any need or desire for such abstraction, and so perforce literally at one with their ephemerality, intrigues me no end. Indeed, it reminds me of Guy Debord drawing attention to the systematic abstraction that is entailed in our world of dead time and the commodity-spectacle:

Workers do not produce themselves, they produce a power independent of themselves. The success of this production, the abundance it generates, is experienced by the producers as an abundance of dispossession. As their alienated products accumulate, all time and space become foreign to them. The spectacle is the map of this new world, a map that is identical to the territory it represents. The forces that have escaped us display themselves to us in all their power.[2]

Under the influence of the Nildoror, Gundersen’s journey from his past as a colonial agent is clearly a movement from the map to the territory, from abstraction downward to the earth.

The worldbuilding of Belzagor is one of the most astonishing aspects of the novel. The two sentient species Silverberg populates the planet with, the elephant-like Nildoror and the less seen Yeti-like Sulidoror, are well realised. One could perhaps mistake Silverberg for merely fashioning yet more dubious versions of racist stereotypes. Certainly, the Nildoror and Sulidoror are variously represented as noble, and sometimes savage. But they are never merely this. Silverberg uses them as more than simply a foil to the ‘civilised’ Gundersen. Indeed, Gundersen’s desire to understand the significance of the rebirthing ceremony points to a more potent message that is suggested, in part, in the Debord quote above. It is not that we have simply lost something in the fall into civilisation and abstract culture; rather, the desire to overcome abstractions as truly abstract and wholly autonomous, remains an urgent need.

Unfortunately, Silverberg is unable to extend his sensitivity for the colonised to a more full-blooded representation of human women, or rather the only significant woman in the story: Seena, Gundersen’s former lover. I’m not the first to remark on this common failing of Silverberg. To my mind this is precisely a failing of his future imaginary, his succumbing to the worst ideas and practices of the time in which the novel was composed. Which is all the more striking considering that Silverberg was not insensitive to the stupidities and impositions of hierarchical society. To be fair to him, he is not completely unaware of his failings in this regard. For instance, consider the dolphin protagonist of ‘Ishmael in Love’ (1970), and his somewhat hilarious if still limited comments on the nature of heterosexual male desire in the human. And once one gets past the voyeuristic male gaze that has no equal in his descriptions of Gundersen and the other men in the novel, Seena is more than a simple carboard cut-out as one finds written by too many of Silverberg’s male contemporaries.

In part, Silverberg’s models Gundersen’s quest upon that of Marlowe’s in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. He even goes so far as to include a character called Kurtz, who like his namesake in Conrad’s novel operates as a narrative pivot, but nonetheless somewhat differently in Silverberg’s story.

Given the influence of Conrad, what is striking about the human empire that had once ruled Belzagor is its antiquated character. It is patently modelled upon the colonial empires of the 19th and 20th centuries—most obviously, upon the Congo that had only gained its independence from Belgium some 8 years before Downward to the Earth was published. Considering that Silverberg has little to say about the whys and wherefores of this empire of the future, I will forgive him this anachronism. Simply because he does not use the empire in the usual science fictional way, as a somewhat exotic backdrop that too often affirms the prerogatives and crimes of the actual empires that litter our history. Refreshingly, Silverberg interrogates the brutal truth of empire, on Earth as much as in his fictional setting—and so perforce as it is often unthinkingly used in SF.

Another clear influence upon Silverberg’s novel is the work of J. G. Ballard. One episode, in which Seena tells Gundersen about the fate of a co-conspirator of Kurtz, reminded me of Ballard’s story, The Crystal World:

He was staying at Fire Point, and went out into the Sea of Dust and got some kind of crystalline parasite into a cut. When Kurtz and Ced Cullen found him, he was all cubes and prisms, outcroppings of the most beautiful iridescent minerals breaking through his skin everywhere. And he was still alive. For a while.[3]

Ballardian tropes are scattered throughout the novel. The Drowned World is here, shipwrecked in Belzagor’s humid jungle, alongside other evocations of ruin and cold melancholy: the dilapidated hotel, the abandoned, overgrown colonial stations, the futility of struggling against entropy. Downward to the Earth is at once homage and elaboration that wears its influence proudly.

fig. 2. On the left, one of René Magritte’s illustrations of Les Chants de Maldoror; on the right Félix Vallotton’s fanciful portrait of Isidore Ducasse, aka Comte de Lautréamont. Magritte’s drawing illustrates a scene from the first canto, presumably when Maldoror seduces and destroys the young boy. I like to imagine that this creature is also the one Gundersen encounters in the abandoned company station in chapter eight.

I believe that another, more obscure force worked itself upon Silverberg here. It can be found in the suffixes that Silverberg used for his indigenous aliens: the Nildoror, Sulidoror, and especially the dumb Malidaror, a ‘semi-aquatic mammal’ that we briefly encounter in chapter four. They all, especially the latter, seem to descend from the unspeakable lineage of the eponymous protagonist of that strange, disquieting nineteenth century anti-novel, Les Chants de Maldoror by the Comte de Lautréamont. Am I merely imagining this? I know that Silverberg had some encounter with Lautréamont. He is mentioned in passing in his much-admired novel Dying Inside. Though again, perhaps he betrays the influence of Ballard. In a Vermillion Sands short story, ‘Cry Hope, Cry Fury’ (1967), Ballard has his protagonist not only reading Les Chants de Maldoror, but appropriately dogged by a Maldororian character. Of course, I may be wrong regarding the influence of Lautréamont upon Silverberg. I hope—inevitably a wretched and sickly hope—that the connection exists. And if you don’t believe me, as Lautréamont remarks in the final line of Maldoror, go and see for yourselves.[4]

*

I first read Robert Silverberg as an 8- or 9-year-old. It was his first novel, Revolt on Alpha C, published 1955. It is a very different beast to Downward to the Earth. And yet there are structural similarities. Both novels revolve around a choice made by the protagonist, one that must lead either to destruction or transformation—or possibly both.

Revolt on Alpha C is a kids book with classic SF tropes: dinosaurs, rayguns, space-time overdrive and thus, necessarily, rocket ships. It became one of my early templates for SF—which is no bad thing. Remarkably, for my childish and impressionable mind, it had a positive representation of revolution, based upon the Revolutionary War in North America in the 1770s and 80s. Thank you, Robert Silverberg. And thank you, decade of the 1970s, and for the many and varied realities and representations of revolution and revolutionaries in the mass popular culture of the day, even if most of them were cast as dastardly and bad. Silverberg’s was an exception. Come join the revolution on another planet, he said. Was it this call that lodged in my infant brain?

fig. 3. The Scholastic Book Services version of Revolt on Alpha C. Permanently burnt into my longterm SF imaginary. Cover art by William Meyerriecks.

My tumble into Silverberg’s work, though long, has been occasional. After reading and rereading Revolt on Alpha C as a child, I didn’t read him again for many years, and not so successfully. I recall trying to read The Time Hoppers (1967) and not finding it of much worth. Though this review makes it sound like a cool, Philip K Dick gem of a story—could I have been so wrong? Horses for courses as they say. A slew of excellent Silverberg short stories from the mid-sixties made me realise that I was perhaps being unfair by thinking of him fondly only for that slight tale of Space Academy Patrol cadets Larry Stark and Harl Ellison of the starship Carden mucking about on Alpha C IV. And please excuse me for thinking that it is more than merely a coincidence that the ship’s name is also a nom de plume of Cornelius Castoriadis, sometime revolutionary and theorist of Socialisme ou Barbarie. For with a mind made of correlations and paranoias what else could it be?

It wasn’t until I read the excellent ‘Passengers’ (1968), and then not long after Hawksbill Station, both novella and novel in rapid succession, that it was confirmed for me that Silverberg was worth more than a cursory look. But even then, I was confused, mostly because I had read both versions of Hawksbill together. To my mind the novella is the better realisation. The novel adds superfluous detail that only detracts from the horror at the centre of the story. Reading it so soon after the excellent novella only detracted from the latter. And so more years passed before I found myself here. And on my way I recently read the review of Hawksbill Station at Weighing a pig doesn’t fatten it. Reading and talking about Silverberg got me to thinking and wanting to read and talk some more about Silverberg. Good fortune: I already had a copy of Downward to the Earth. And so, my review. Is it here that it begins just when it looked like it was ending?


FOOTNOTES

[1] Robert Silverberg, Downward to the Earth, London: Pan Books, 1978 [1969], p. 7 (chapter 1).

[2] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Ken Knabb, Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, [1967] 2014, thesis 31.

[3] Silverberg, Downward to the Earth, p. 97 (chapter 9).

[4] Comte de Lautréamont, ‘Maldoror [1869],’ in Maldoror & the Complete Works of the Comte de Lautréamont, Cambridge, MA: Exact Change, 2011, p. 219. Translation modified. Note that if Silverberg used an English translation of Maldoror before 1970 he would not have had access to Alexis Lykiard’s excellent version. The only widely available English translation at the time was Guy Wernham’s 1943 version, newly reprinted in a 1966 New Directions paperback. I can see a project taking shape: perusing all citations of Maldoror in science fiction, hidden or explicit. Written up, it would resemble Ballard’s superlative short story, ‘The Index’ (1977).


The Generation Ship in TV & film: J. G. Ballard’s Thirteen to Centaurus (1962/65)

This is the first in a projected series of posts on the SF generation ship trope in TV and film.

Over at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations, Joachim has been hosting an occasional read through of stories focusing on the generation ship trope in SF. It began with Chad Oliver’s “The Wind Blows Free” just over two years ago. His latest gen ship review, the thirteenth in the series, is of Vonda N. McIntyre’s “The Mountains of Sunset, The Mountains of Dawn”. Joachim also has a comprehensive list of gen ship stories with more links to other reviews, here.

I find the gen ship trope perhaps the most compelling of all the ideas that SF has thrown up over the years—perhaps it is the most singularly science fictional of all? The ship as world operates as a thought experiment by which we can explore the peculiarities and extremes of human nature, considered in its social and animal guises.

So, and inspired by my participation in and comments upon Joachim’s read through, I have decided to offer up my own take. But rather than replicating Joachim’s efforts I’ve decided to offer an accompaniment: a look through of the gen ship trope in TV and film.

This post will be on the 1965 TV adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s short story “Thirteen to Centaurus”. As far as I can tell, “Thirteen to Centaurus” is the first appearance of the gen ship trope on television, and only the second appearance of the trope on a screen (being piped at the post by the 1961 film, Battle of the Worlds, which I will review in a later post). Considering that Ballard’s piece is not merely a contribution to the trope, but partly a critical interrogation of it, I feel it is a fitting place to start. In the review that follows I will refer, by turns, to both the original short story and its TV adaptation. There will be spoilers.


fig. 1. To begin again from the end. From the closing credits.

Thirteen to Centaurus (1962/65)

Originally appearing in Amazing Stories in April 1962, Ballard’s story was adapted by Stanley Miller only three years later for the first series of the British TV anthology series, Out of the Unknown.

The TV adaptation hews fairly closely to the original story. Abel, a teenage boy, lives on the Station. Beset by anxious dreams of a large bright disk, he is slowly awakening to the belief that things are not as they seem. Dr. Francis, the Station’s psychotherapist (a familiar character in Ballard’s stories), reveals to Abel something the boy seems to already suspect: the Station is in fact a ‘multi-generation space vehicle’ halfway to Alpha Centauri (conceptual breakthrough 1). Shortly thereafter Dr Francis leaves the ship via a secret passageway to further reveal (only to the reader this time) that he is a part of an Earthbound team that runs the Station as a living simulation (conceptual breakthrough 2). However, outside in the Earthbound control room of the experiment Dr. Francis discovers that the 50 years long experiment is to be shut down due to funding shortfalls and the failures of the real space program. Troubled by the disturbing ethics of the experiment and his commitment to the people within, Francis returns to the Station. Back on the ship, his relationship with Abel becomes progressively reversed as Abel subjects Dr. Francis to a series of experimental tests. Ultimately, we discover that Abel has known the truth all along, and yet thanks to the rigid social programming that Dr. Francis has overseen, Abel has no apparent desire to either leave the ship or expose the truth (conceptual breakthrough 3).

fig. 2. Dr. Francis (Donald Huston) and Abel (James Hunter).

One of the great things about the generation ship trope, at least in what many consider its classic iterations—e.g., Robert Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky (1963/1941) and Brian Aldiss’ Non-Stop (1958)—is the central importance of the conceptual breakthrough. In both these cases, the present inhabitants of the ships have forgotten the truth of their situation and have come to believe that the ship is simply the world or universe in which they are born, live and die. For the protagonist in both, the conceptual breakthrough is centred on the discovery that they are in fact the descendants of the crew of a spaceship. Indeed, this breakthrough is akin to the Copernican Revolution in science fictional garb, upending the way these people perceive themselves and their world. However, here we begin to also reach the limits of this trope. Once revealed, what more is left to say about the trope?

Ballard attacks the problem by complicating the conceptual breakthrough. The first conceptual breakthrough of the story is consistent with the classic iterations of the gen ship trope. But in Ballard’s rendition it is quickly shown to be a false one when the second conceptual breakthrough reveals the true nature of the gen ship. However, not content to leave it at that, Ballard further complicates the story by showing that even the second breakthrough is more complex than it first appears and is ‘false’ in its own way.

A circular narrative structure is central to Ballard’s original story. We go from knowing that ‘Abel knew’ (the first sentence of the short story) to finally knowing what he knows: ‘Abel knew!’ (the last sentence). However, and as outlined above, the conceptual breakthroughs are deceptive. With the first sentence in mind, we, the reader, at first think that Abel already knows that the Station is in fact a ‘multi generation space vehicle’. However, with the final conceptual breakthrough we now understand that what ‘Abel knew’ was in fact the truth that Dr. Francis and the Space Department believed was hidden from view. The horror of revelation: ‘Abel knew!

Inevitably, and due perhaps to the technical limitations of television, the story’s central structural conceit is lost in the adaptation. Stanley Miller, who wrote the dramatization, bookends his adaptation with scenes of the religious dimensions of the crew’s conditioning—something that is gestured at by Ballard, but not made explicit (for instance, in Abel’s dream of the god like ‘disc of burning light’). In doing so, Miller—perhaps inadvertently—draws a link between Ballard’s discussion of the methods of conditioning and programming used on the crew, and the way religion has served precisely such a role here on Earth.

Nonetheless, the adaptation is a faithful rendering of Ballard’s story, replete with a mid-60s British TV aesthetic. At times I was expecting the TARDIS to appear in a dark corner of the Station. Indeed, the uniforms worn by Abel, Dr Francis and other crew members would turn up in the Dr Who serial, The Ice Warriors, in 1967.

There are two earlier stories I feel that are important milestones on the way to Ballard’s final word on the trope: Chad Oliver’s “The Wind Blows Free” and John Brunner’s “Lungfish”—both first published in 1957. Oliver briefly and effectively explores the mechanisms of social control and cohesion that would be required for a generation ship to function. However, Brunner’s story is almost certainly the last step before Ballard upended the trope. In “Lungfish”, Brunner poses an interesting quandary: what if the ship-born generations become more adapted to ship-born life? Certainly, such a result would undermine the aim of a generation ship. Ballard does not so much solve as develop Brunner’s proposition to its logical and terrifying absurd end: aren’t we all ship-born creatures, inescapably trapped by the conditions of our existence?

fig. 3. A gen ship on its way to Alpha Centauri…
fig. 4. … or just a model in a TV studio? You decide.

*

In “Thirteen to Centaurus” Ballard makes it clear that Abel’s ‘choice’ to stay, despite knowing that he is a part of an unspeakable experiment firmly located on Earth, is hardly chosen, but rather programmed from the outset. Abel cannot exist anywhere but the ship. But then neither can Dr. Francis in the end, doomed to be caught between the programmed reality of the fake ship and the inescapable reality of the world outside.

Like his contemporary, Philip K. Dick, Ballard seems to be saying that we are all living in a fake reality, whether we know this or not. That one is programmed—by society, one’s family, even “nature”—is proof that we are made, works of fiction as it were, even if the cosmic author is nothing but the physical and social laws of time, culture and history. Yet Ballard’s belief in the inevitability of structural determination is decidedly bleak, in which any ray of hope in the guise of conditional freedom is another ruse of the structure—a fact simultaneously horrible and mundane. It reminds me of Ballard’s understandable fear of the conformism of suburbia, a theme scattered throughout his work. Nonetheless he acquiesced to this suburbia, remaining ensconced in suburban Shepperton beyond his rise to fame and fortune, like some forgotten or abandoned anthropologist from one of his stories. For Ballard there simply is no escape from the Station, in his story or everyday life. Like Abel in “Thirteen to Centaurus”, not only do we know that we are caught in the grip of prison like laws of society and nature, we end up reproducing the very chains we despise so much.

fig. 5. The tables turned. Dr. Francis becomes Abel’s experimental subject.

I find Ballard’s grim lesson here more compelling as a fictional thought experiment than as a description of the deceptive truths of social reality. The proposition that social reality is a fiction is no longer the earth-shattering statement it once was. What’s more disturbing about Ballard’s presentation—and this he shares with his erstwhile fan Jean Baudrillard—is that despite the fictional nature of social reality it is nonetheless pointless to attempt a re-write. A miserable conclusion, surely. I will return to the question of the fictional nature of reality in a future blogpost, and why, despite the grim prognostications of Ballard and Baudrillard, we should press on to intensify the fictional nature of reality—which is to say a creative and consciously constructed reality. Only this can liberate us from the truly fake reality of capitalism.

fig. 6. The same table turning as seen in fig. 5, but as originally illustrated by Virgil Finlay in Amazing Stories, April 1962.

A final word. The same year Ballard’s story was published, the French speleologist Michel Siffre spent two months alone living in cave in the Ligurian Alps. His solitary stay constitutes to my thinking an extreme (and ultimately unsustainable) manifestation of the ‘closed community’ that is posed in generation ship stories. Without any way of measuring time, Siffre’s experiment helped to further understand the nature of internal, ‘chronobiological’ mechanisms by which humans and other animals regulate their wake/sleep cycles. Perhaps most interesting was the extent of malleability that Siffre discovered. Certainly, he could not eliminate the need for sleep—like the unfortunate experimental subjects of Ballard’s story “Manhole 69”. Nonetheless, he and later other researchers, found that the wake/sleep cycle could be lengthened, and effectively doubled: e.g., 36 hours awake, 12 hours asleep. Whereas it may be true that there are real limits to the way life can be transformed, surely human history provides more than enough evidence that such limits can be shifted even if they can never be entirely eliminated.


Still want to read more about “Thirteen to Centaurus”? Check out these reviews of Ballard’s original story: Joachim Boaz’s, Classics of Science Fiction’s, and Galactic Journey’s. Galactic Journey also has a brief review of the TV adaptation here.


Up next in this occasional series? The two Star Trek: The Original Series takes on the gen ship.

J. G. Ballard—Manhole 69 & The Concentration City

fig. 1. The cover of my increasingly thumbed 2002 paperback Collected Short Stories–now with added spine.

I have been reading J. G. Ballard, The Complete Short Stories (2002). My intention is to use Ballard to facilitate my ongoing research into the Science Fiction Spectacle. Along the way I plan on the occasional review with thoughts and ruminations on the side. Here are its first, sickly fruits.

fig. 2. The cover of New Worlds no. 55 in which Ballard’s “Build-Up” first appeared. Even though the cover illustration was not for his story, it nonetheless seems eminently Ballardian in retrospect: the wreck of a craft, a barren landscape and the lone survivor of this collective unconsciousness. Illustration by Terry Maloney.

The Concentration City (1957)

“The Concentration City”—originally “Build-Up” (1957)—is an early story that plays with what would become, in time, distinctly Ballardian themes. Here, it is the city become metaphor of a labyrinthine and neurotic psyche rendered in concrete and steel.

Possessing a suitably Kafkaesque name, the protagonist Franz M. wants to fly, to escape the bonds of Earth.[1] But his dream seems impossible. All is city, horizontally and vertically, as far as the eye can see. The city’s “Foundation” is a myth, pure speculation, and the idea of a free-space that is not the city remains just that—an idea whose improbability is underlined by the brutal fact that a cubic foot of space operates as the universal commodity, perforce with a dollar figure attached.

Ballard’s dystopian city become world/world become city is implicitly critical, a hellish vision of the anxieties surrounding the urban reconstruction and mushrooming suburbanisation of the 1950s. In the story the city is rendered suitably extreme and fantastical. Unlike the sense of real limits in the most horrific of dystopias (for instance, the spatial limits of We or 1984, or the temporal limits of Well’s The Time Machine), Ballard’s city fills all possible time and space—an urban moebius strip become manifest. And yet it is precisely in this nightmare vision that Ballard reveals a singular truth of the emergent ideology of “urbanism” in the post-war world: the future will be boring, ‘a vast, conforming suburb of the soul’.[2]

fig. 3. Presumably Franz M. “Build-Up” illustration by Gerald Quinn, New Worlds, no. 55.

Manhole 69 (1957)

In “Manhole 69” we follow the fortunes, or rather misfortunes, of three men who are the subjects of a truly unsettling experiment. They have had their ability to sleep surgically removed or switched off. Over the course of the story, we come to see not only the hubris of the Promethean experimenters, set upon altering the deep fabric of not just human nature but its profound animal heritage, but more pointedly the deeply distressing psychological effects that are ultimately—and unintentionally—induced in the test subjects. By stories end, the subjects—Avery, Gorrell and Lang—have been reduced to a catatonic state and the experiment is a bust.

“Manhole 69”, alongside “The Concentration City”, can be conceived as constituting a manifesto of sorts for Ballard’s fictional obsessions—two halves of what would come to constitute the Ballardian. Indeed, “Manhole 69” inverts the movement of “The Concentration City”. Whereas the latter story manifested the neurotic topology of the inner self in the city, in the former the narrative drags the reader down into the suffocating confines of the individual test subjects themselves. Unable to escape, however briefly, the travails of being constantly conscious, the narcotomized Avery, Gorrell and Lang’s ability to distinguish the difference between themselves and their world quite literally collapses. Their attempt to escape ‘the group unconscious, the dark oceanic dream’ of their animal nature fails as assuredly as Franz M’s futile flight from the all-encompassing city.

The genius of Ballard’s science fictional conceit is to evoke something we all have experience of. Namely, the alienation of individuality: that claustrophobic sense of being absolutely cut-off and cast adrift in one’s self.

Why “Manhole 69”? The title appears to divide its fans—e.g., ‘despite its unfortunate name’, ‘best short story title ever’, etc. I fall into the latter camp, finding the name peculiarly evocative, precisely because it is simultaneously puzzling and erotically charged—classic Ballard! In the story the “Manhole” refers to the collapsing sense of reality experienced by the test subjects, when the gym in which they are ensconced seems to dwindle in size to more terrifyingly human dimensions: ‘This, then, was the manhole: a narrow, vertical cubicle, a few feet wide, six deep’ (62). “69” is the number of the door always locked to the test subjects, and through which their own contact with the sleeping world remains—namely, the scientists Neill and Morley. Put together they effectively name the syndrome the story is about: Manhole 69.[3]

fig. 4. The cover of New Worlds no. 65 in which “Manhole 69” first appeared. Perhaps by way of a Freudian slip it would later be referred to as “Manhole 65” in New Worlds no. 69, no less! Illustration by Brian Lewis.

Ballard and the Situationists

Boredom is counterrevolutionary. In every way.”—Situationist International, 1962[4]

As noted above, “The Concentration City” originally appeared as “Build-Up” in its initial publication, and subsequent reprints. However, it was renamed “The Concentration City” for its 1967 republication in Ballard’s collection, The Disaster Area. The re-titling appears to draw a connection between the Nazi concentration camp and the endless, claustrophobic city of Ballard’s story. Taken as parable of the new urbanism of the 1950s and 60s, replete with housing developments and the reconstruction and construction of towns on the basis of automobile traffic flows, the rebranded “Build-Up” begins to sound like a work in parallel with the more explicitly critical and revolutionary critique of urbanism carried out by the Situationist International.

In 1961, the Situationist Raoul Vaneigem, described the then new housing developments being constructed amidst post-war reconstruction as akin to Nazi concentration camp.[5] The following year, Vaneigem and the other situationists drew a link, in frankly psychoanalytic terms, between this new concentrated urban sprawl and the suffocating nuclear shelters that President Kennedy was then promoting as the family friendly solution to nuclear catastrophe:

The new habitat that is now taking shape with the large housing developments is not really distinct from the architecture of the shelters; it merely represents a less advanced level of that architecture. […] The concentration-camp organization of the surface of the earth is the normal state of the present society in formation; its condensed subterranean version merely represents that society’s pathological excess. This subterranean sickness reveals the real nature of the “health” at the surface.[6]

Was Ballard influenced by the Situationists? It’s hard to say definitively. No doubt he knew of them, considering his interest in and contacts with British Pop Artists and the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Additionally, his obsessive interest in Surrealism, and his pathological interest in the car and the encroaching conformism of modern capitalist life would seem to indicate that he was open to their influence. He even had stories appear in at least two magazines that also contained articles on and/or translations of Situationist writing: Circuit no. 6, London, June 1968, and The International Times, no. 26, London, 16-29 February 1968. Though whether he had come across their writing in 1967 or before is something I presently cannot answer.

fig. 5. Detail of the cover of Circuit no. 6, June 1968.

Of more interest to me is the resonance between Ballard and the Situationists. The Situationists infamously argued that their critique of the society of the spectacle was ‘merely the concentrated expression of a historical subversion which is everywhere’—more pithily: ‘Situationist theory is in people like fish are in water’.[7] Certainly, the idea that a spectacle of everyday life mediated in large part by the new mass communication technologies was emerging more generally in the 1950s and 60s. Indeed, Ballard himself attempted to distinguish his fiction in terms not dissimilar to this. For instance, in a 1967 interview he spoke—in terms not unlike those Guy Debord used in the same year—of ‘the fictional elements in experience [that] are now multiplying to such a point that it is almost impossible to distinguish between the real and the false’.[8] In the same interview, Ballard reckoned that his turn toward writing a non-linear, fragmented, collage-style fiction—most obviously on display in the stories collected as The Atrocity Exhibition—was deliberately an attempt to conjure the modern relations between inner and outer life in a world saturated by the new medias:

we switch on television sets, switch them off half an hour later, speak on the telephone read magazines, dream and so forth. We don’t live our lives in linear terms in the sense that the Victorians did.[9]

There are real problems with Ballard’s attempt to theorise the modern world of the 1960s. In contrast to the Situationists, Ballard’s reasoning is more positivist and circular. For him the fictionalisation of everyday life seems to be caught up with its increasing non-linearity. Which one might argue is related to its technological decomposition: ‘we switch on television sets, switch them off half an hour later, speak on the telephone read magazines, dream and so forth’. However, this seems to imply that previously life was not fictional—i.e., it was linear. In effect, Ballard is arguing that life has become fictional because it has become fictional. What is missing is any account of why it has become more fictional—apart from a type of technological determinism—or, more importantly, whether or not it was ever not fictional (only consider, for instance, the predominance of religious ideology in earlier societies, one of which—the Victorian—Ballard’s calls ‘linear’).

Hopefully I will return to a more detailed criticism of Ballard in the (non-existent) future.

Final thoughts

The choice of “The Concentration City” and “Manhole 69” was not merely driven by the fact that they constitute early exemplars of what would come to be known as the Ballardian turn in SF and the New Wave of the 1960s. As a callow youth in the early 1980s I was given a copy of the collection The Disaster Area and the novel The Crystal World by an older brother. To say that this constituted a perverse initiation of sorts is perhaps an understatement. The deeply disturbing worlds I found in these books was markedly at odds with the largely optimistic and anodyne ones I had so far found in the likes of Clarke, Heinlein, and Asimov. Perhaps Herbert’s Dune was the closest I had then come to something approximating Ballard’s pessimism—though ‘close’ hardly does justice to either Herbert or Ballard, nor the shattering effect that the latter’s work had on my teenage psyche. Of the stories that made up The Disaster Area, “The Concentration City” and “Manhole 69” were the ones I kept returning to and reading obsessively. I recall desperately wanting to solve the impossible dilemmas they presented, the vertiginous puzzles that seemed to promise a future only of madness and inescapable despair, simply because they seemed so real and inevitable in comparison to all the other SF I had then so far read. Certainly, Ballard’s SF, more technological horror than utopian dream, would prove to be a better map of the coming dystopia of the capitalist millennium and beyond. 

*

I am not sure whether dystopian fiction is the best SF because it foregrounds dystopia as the truth of contemporary society, and so presages its destruction (and so, too, SF’s end); or whether it is the worst SF because it gives up on the possibility of there being any truly human civilisation beyond the perils and pains of the present. Perhaps a little bit of both. Where Ballard’s pessimism shines, so to speak, is in its unremitting exposure of the pathologies of spectacular capitalism and the fact that these are the products of human activity. Where it fails is in its wholesale collapse into the pathological symptoms that he identifies, such that one begins to suspect that Ballard truly desires to simply dwell in the ruins.


FOOTNOTES

[1] Flight would remain a powerful image of escape and freedom throughout Ballard’s work: ‘I believe in flight, in the beauty of the wing, and in the beauty of everything that has ever flown’. J. G. Ballard, ‘What I Believe,’ in Re/Search: J. G. Ballard, ed. V. Vale and Andrea Juno, San Francisco: Re/Search Publishing, 1984, p. 177.

[2] J. G. Ballard, ‘Interview with JGB,’ in Re/Search: J. G. Ballard, ed. Vale and Andrea Juno, San Francisco: Re/Search Publishing, 1984, p. 8.

[3] So far, the only indication I have found of Ballard acknowledging the more libidinal nature of the title—albeit very tangentially—in some comments on the editorial work of Ted Carnell of New Worlds: ‘Ted Carnell […] never really wanted any re-writing. The only things he sometimes changed were the titles, but not too often. There was a little story called “Track 12”—that was his title, not mine. We had an argument over that, because he’d just taken “Manhole 69” without querying what that meant…’, ibid., p. 119 (italics in the original).

[4] Situationist International, ‘The Bad Days Will End [1962],’ in Situationist International Anthology: Revised and Expanded Edition, ed. Ken Knabb, Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006.

[5] Raoul Vaneigem, ‘Comments Against Urbanism [1961]’ https://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/comments.html.

[6] Situationist International, ‘Geopolitics of Hibernation [1962].’ Online here.

[7] Situationist International, The Real Split in the International: Theses on the Situationist International and its time, trans. John McHale, London: Pluto Press, [1972] 2003, p. 7 (thesis 2); Internationale Situationniste, ‘Du rôle de l’I.S.,’ Internationale Situationniste no. 7 (Avril 1962), p. 17.

[8] J. G. Ballard and George MacBeth, ‘The New Science Fiction: A conversation  between J. G. Ballard and George MacBeth [orig. BBC Third Programme, 1967],’ in The New SF: An original anthology of modern speculative fiction, London: Arrow Books, [1969] 1971, p. 54. For the resonance with Debord, consider this from The Society of the Spectacle (1967, Ken Knabb’s translation, 2014): ‘the spectacle […] is not a mere supplement or decoration added to the real world, it is the heart of this real society’s unreality’ (thesis 6, chapter 1).

[9] Ballard and MacBeth, ‘The New Science Fiction’, p. 57.

Neither space fish nor fowl

fig. 1. Alongside of Silurians, Lovecraftian Old Ones, and other so-called fictional denizens of Earth’s deep past, the Sea Devils are an amphibious pseudo-species that clearly embody the ambiguities of this blog.

Neither space fish nor fowl: a sinister year in review

When I set out about 18 months ago my aim appeared relatively simple: “writing on the Situationists and science fiction”. The plan was to take two routes: first, I would examine ‘science fiction’ as an idea that appeared in the writing of the Situationist International (something I have begun to do here); and secondly, I would use some of the critical tools of the Situationists—in particular Guy Debord’s related concepts of ‘spectacle’ and ‘cultural decomposition’—to examine science fiction as a sub-category of capitalist culture. To my mind, the best explanation of what I mean by ‘decomposition’ and its relationship to SF can be found here.

Since then, things became a little unstuck. In early 2021 I wrote up two long pieces on two Frederick Pohl stories from the 1950s (here and here). However, I feel somewhat deflated with the results. The articles in question suffered the twin problems of being overly ambitious and somewhat fractured in delivery. Rather than advancing the two axes of my research I toyed with them in a desultory fashion. Complicating things further I suffered from some non-COVID health problems while attempting to write and post these pieces. One of these problems was more serious and resulted in a brief hospitalisation, the other less so but chronic and long lasting. In short, the first half of last year was shit and I struggled with life in general, let alone the blog.

Despite this loss of focus, I was able to finally finish a translation of one of the few remaining works of Guy Debord that had remained untranslated. Indeed, while recovering my health I fell down a Surrealist hole that the Debord article was one of the fruits of (some other fruits can be plucked here and here).

Here’s my top 5 posts of 2021:

1. Surrealism: an irrational revolution (2 July 2021)

‘Surrealism: an irrational revolution’ is far and away my most popular post of the last year, four times more popular than the second most popular. This is almost certainly due to the fact that a “new” old work of Debord’s has a potential audience much bigger than my own peculiar take on SF.

2. To experiment with the creation of everyday life (2 April 2021)

I dare say that ‘To experiment with the creation of everyday life’ has ridden into second place on the coattails of Debord’s article. At best, it summarises some of my thoughts on the role played by artistic avant-gardes in posing the need to move beyond art in the 20th century in order to ‘turn our experiments once more to the vast canvas of everyday life’. It’s also got a great detourned graphic made by me:

fig. 2. “No poetry for the enemies of poetry” by antyphayes. Graphic detourned from Frank Hampson’s Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, Rogue Planet, April 1956.

3. SF in the SI: science fiction, ideology and recuperation (9 August 2020)

In third place, ‘SF in the SI’ hews closest to my original aim for this blog, even though the post hails from 2020.

4. In praise of the infodump (23 November 2021)

‘In praise of the infodump’ in fourth, signals a return to form for the blog having been published recently (last November) after posting nothing in September and October of 2021 (this two-month hiatus being no doubt the blog’s nadir last year).

5. Hateful anti-christams (22 December 2020)

In fifth, ‘Hateful anti-christams’, another refugee from 2020, is yet another example of my ongoing fascination with all things Dadaist and Surrealist—to whit, another “new” old work: a translation of a short anti-poem by Raoul Hausmann and Kurt Schwitters (the ultimate Dada-Merz mash up).

This year—in stinking hot, tottering, and imploding twenty-twenty-two—all I ask is that we finally—FINALLY—get rid of capitalism. Failing this, I’ll continue to blog away. In the coming months be prepared for: thoughts on SF authors J. G. Ballard and Cyril Kornbluth; a re-jigged version of my research into the ‘Science Fiction Spectacle’; the long awaited third part of ‘Thinking through The Time Machine’ (check out the first and second parts); and perhaps even another episode in the mysterious saga of La Hipótesis

sf & critical theory join forces to destroy the present