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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. 

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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

Babylon in the Sky—Edmond Hamilton

fig. 1. Amazing Stories, March 1963, cover by Lloyd Birmingham, “illustrating Babylon in the Sky” according to the editorial page.

Edmond Hamilton’s late work, Babylon in the Sky (1964), is not a great work. It may not even be a good work. And yet it is competently written and relatively short and to the point. If I were to choose a Hamilton work to recommend to a newcomer, it would not be this one. A better place to start would be among his wonderfully elegiac late works like Requiem (1962) and The Pro (1964); his bleak What’s It Like Out There? (1952); or, not to neglect his early pulp efforts, the melancholic In the World’s Dusk (1936), the superlatively fecund Alien Earth (1949), and his rip-snorting horror adventure—and first published work—The Monster-God of Mamurth (1926).

So why write about Babylon in the Sky? In short, you will lose little if you just skip reading it. Nonetheless, the work itself has a fascinating central conceit: a world split between the creative thinkers and doers ensconced in orbital cities, and the rest of the populace back on Earth rendered largely superfluous to the requirements of a fully automatic production process.

Why were we left behind? an earthbound lay preacher muses as the story opens:

Because we weren’t good enough. Because we don’t worship the right gods, the gods of the machine that can’t make a mistake. Because we don’t speak the right language and don’t have a lot of fancy letters after our names.

Unfortunately, Hamilton does little with his interesting premise. As has been pointed out by another reviewer, the story does not rise above banal propaganda, reading more like a compressed paean to an Ayn Randian division of the world, no doubt beloved of many a fascist SF fan-boi then and since. His viewpoint character, Hobie—literally hobbled by the hierarchical class structure projected into space—turns from anger at his treatment at the hands of the overlords of the Earth to one of actively accepting their rule, once everything has been rationally explained to him. Ah, science.

fig. 2. Two page spread opening the tale in Amazing Stories. The Lloyd Birmingham illustration is possibly the best thing about the story, fist raised against the sky…

I read Hamilton Babylon in the Sky hoping that I could find aspects that would resonate with the near contemporaneous “New Babylon” of that sometime member of the Situationist International, Constant Nieuwenhuys (aka “Constant”—see my discussion of the science fictional aspects of Constant’s “New Babylon” here). The resonance, though apparent in the story, transmits on an opposing wavelength. Whereas Constant’s New Babylon poses the breakdown of the capitalist hierarchy founded on alienated wage labour and the accumulation of capital, Hamilton’s Babylon in the Sky is the further projection of this self-same hierarchy into space. Indeed, the idea of the ruling elites ensconced in space cities above the bulk of humanity reminds me of nothing so much as Marx arguing—with and against Ludwig Feuerbach—that the divine hierarchy is no more than the earthly one projected into an imaginary beyond:

Feuerbach starts out from the fact of religious self-estrangement, of the duplication of the world into a religious world and a secular one. His work consists in resolving the religious world into its secular basis. But that the secular basis lifts off from itself and establishes itself as an independent realm in the clouds can only be explained by the inner strife and intrinsic contradictoriness of this secular basis. The latter must, therefore, itself be both understood in its contradiction and revolutionised in practice.[1]

In Hamilton’s story the ruling class have literally established themselves “as an independent realm in the clouds”. However, Hamilton’s rulers have finally resolved the “the inner strife and intrinsic contradictoriness” of their earthly basis: automation has rendered all manual labour superfluous. By the early 1960s the trope of the coming world of automation, material abundance and “leisure” had become something of a cliché, in the capitalist West as much as the state-socialist East. What today seems horribly naïve given the industrialised destruction of the planet alongside the ongoing domination and intensification of alienated work, was then a central plank of the reigning ideology.

In truth, the capitalist utopia of a world finally “freed” of labour is nothing more than the guilty conscience of a ruling class. Having turned the entire world into a vast workhouse of exploitation and profit, the capitalist class have long waxed lyrical about the moral and material benefits of an order built upon genocide, outright slavery, forced labour and concentration camps. That their order has produced more misery, not less, can today be simply gauged. After all, what other society has brought the entirety of the human species—amongst others—to the brink of mass extinction?

No doubt it is too much to leave these charges solely at Hamilton’s doorstep. That he produced an uninspired and even boring take on the question of automation, material abundance and the class division surely does not mark him out from many of his contemporaries. For more assured and interesting science fictional takes I would recommend Philip K. Dick’s Autofac (1955) or Frederick Pohl’s The Midas Plague (1954) for starters.

Hamilton is a peculiar figure in SF. From his first published fiction in 1926 he quickly established a reputation in the burgeoning pulp science fiction scene of the US in the late 1920s and 30s. He flourished throughout the 1930s and 40s, and reached a zenith of sorts with his dominant involvement in the Captain Future pulp series (1940-51), and the first of his Star Kings novels (1949). Hamilton’s star began to fade, however, under the impact of the so-called revolution brought on by John Campbell in the late 1930s and 40s. Nonetheless, Hamilton was never simply a one-dimensional pulpster. One of his great shorts, What’s It Like Out There? (1952), was worked up from an earlier draft dating from the 1930s. Its grim tone and downbeat ending found no home in the pulp scene of the ’30s and had to wait until the more stylistic tolerant 1950s—not to mention a substantial rewrite. Check out Joachim Boaz’s review and extensive discussion of this work for more information.


FOOTNOTES

[1] Karl Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach [1845]’, in Karl Marx & Frederich Engels Collected Works, Vol.5, New York: International Publishers, 1976, p. 4 (thesis 4).

Great SF Stories

fig. 1. 1939: still not much to see here. Cover of The Great Science Fiction Stories Volume 1, 1939 (published 1979).

A bit over two year ago I finished the final story in Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories. Over the 25 volumes, the editors—Martin H. Greenberg and Isaac Asimov—introduce us to their choice cuts of primarily Anglo-American SF between 1939 and 1963.

The collection is a good introduction to Anglo-American SF that takes you from the so-called Campbellian “Golden Age” right up until the precipice of the New Wave of SF in the 1960s. First published between 1979 and 1992 by DAW Books, The Great SF Stories is now sadly out of print. Many of the stories can be found elsewhere, and I have heard that pdfs of the collection exist on the interwebs. However, I desired the hard stuff, so I hunted the entire collection down through various online secondhand bookstores between 2016 & 2019.

As a result of the read through I’ve assembled a list of works that I liked, divided into three categories: Top shelf (three ***), Good (two **) and Not Bad (one *). My system, like most—or rather, all—is highly subjective. Make of it what you will.[1] The list is linked here—and can be accessed through the menu bar above. Or, if you want to cut to the chase, you can check out the Top Shelf picks alone, that can also be accessed through the menu bar above.

Over the coming months I am planning on revisiting some of the Top Shelf stories in order to critically assess them on this blog. Who knows, maybe an occasional Good and Not Bad will creep in too. And I will no doubt even change some of the ratings from time to time, depending on rereads and whim.

I found that reading Asimov and Greenberg’s selection spun me off further to pursuing stories from this period and beyond. As a result I’ve added other works not found in this collection to my list, drawn from author collections and other collections from the period—for instance, T.E. Dikty and E.F. Bleiler’s Best Science Fiction Stories, Frederick Pohl’s Star Science Fiction, Judith Merril’s The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy and Year’s Best S-F.

At the odyssey’s end I found myself wanting to continue the journey, so I first of all read Robert Silverberg’s one-off attempt to continue Asimov and Greenberg’s collection. Sadly, Silverberg didn’t continue with this. So, I began reading collections that fortuitously began the year following Silverberg’s selection of 1964 stories, notably Donald Wolheim and Terry Carr’s World’s Best Science Fiction Series. I have plans to extend my reading into other collections from the 1960s and 70s, but here I begin to find certain limits that were a kind of negative factor in inspiring Asimov and Greenberg’s attempt to present a “definitive” collection from 1939-1963. When one reaches the mid-1960s SF collections begin to mushroom, alongside of the growing popularity of SF. Indeed, it was partly the scarcity of collections prior to the mid-60s that inspired Greenberg and Asimov’s 25 volume collection.

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fig. 2. 1950: things are heating up. Cover of The Great SF Stories Volume 12, 1950 (first published 1984).

One of my prime motivations for reading the entire collection was to get a better idea of the general themes and trends of this crucial period for SF. I have been reading SF since I was a wee boy in the 1970s. But it was only upon discovering the likes of J. G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick in my teens in the 1980s that I began to understand the true power and importance of the short story. Over the years I increasingly turned to short SF, but my journey through written SF through the 1990s and 2000s was more of a meander while other things competed for my attention: primarily university, far left politics, avant-garde literature and parenthood. It has only been over the last decade that I have begun to more systematically explore the riches of short SF.

Having read the entire Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories collection, I can now heartily recommend it, but with a few caveats. Of the 30 stories that I rate as Top Shelf in the 25 years covered by the collection, only 7 of these lay in the so-called “Golden Age” period (1939-50)—and none in the first two years of the collection (1939 and 1940). No doubt what I rate as Top Shelf would differ for another reader. However, to that reader and all readers of this collection I would propose that the “real” Golden Age of science fiction—or at least what I term “Anglo-American” science fiction—begins around 1950. Something Barry Malzberg believes in too. [2]

The years that first leapt out in my read through were 1950, 1951 and especially 1952. What a year it was that could manifest “Delay In Transit” by F. L. Wallace, “The Altar At Midnight” by C. M. Kornbluth, “What’s It Like Out There?” by Edmond Hamilton, “Cost Of Living” by Robert Sheckley and “Ticket To Anywhere” by Damon Knight—to name just a few. 1957, 1963 and 1964 are also great years too.  

Nonetheless, without Campbell’s so-called “Golden Age” what would modern science fiction be? This model, replete with its fanzines, fannish conventions, DIY ethos, and Campbell’s much vaunted (by himself) “professionalisation” of the pulps, became the model par excellence for SF. It was exported on the coat tails of US cultural hegemony, replicating itself across the globe, starting scenes where there were none, and in other cases displacing and converting pre-existing ones.

Certainly, the unquestionably science fictional works that pre-exist this “Golden Age” both inside and without the Anglophone countries somewhat undermines Campbell’s late claim. Still, I am fascinated by the focus SF achieves from around 1940—though more so around 1950 (coincident with the arrival of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Galaxy in the US). Indeed, it is my belief that between 1950 and 1970, SF, in its own distinct and science fictional way, replicates the paths and patterns of modern literary and artistic culture outside the ghetto. From the enthusiastic fury of its half-baked DIY pulp origins, SF rapidly matures, aspiring after a literary renown the equal of the mainstream, only to find by the end of the sixties precisely the impasse reached by the European artistic avant-gardes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In this sense I see the New Wave of the 1960s—and New Wave adjacent SF works—as signaling the end of not just the first phase of Anglo-American SF, but the end of literature in a similar way to the literary avant-gardes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Here, the ‘end’ I speak of is not the actual cessation of the writing and consumption of literature, but rather the end of a project that was embodied in the avant-garde. The ‘freedom of the word’ announced amidst the poetic experimentation in France in the mid-19th century not only led to the ultra-modernist experiments of the Dadas and James Joyce (for example), but posed the possibility of a freedom of creative action beyond the expressive impasses reached upon the written page. It was Guy Debord’s wager that this movement toward self-destruction—that is, the formal experimental destruction of the received wisdom regarding what counted as ‘art’—demonstrated the limits of merely artistic experimentation, and the pressing need to transform such experiments beyond the canvas and the page into a revolutionary transformation of everyday life itself. It is to this ‘end’ and ends of art and literature that I am pointing to here.

This ‘impasse’ of the apparent self-destruction of so much of what we would consider ‘literary’, whether met with in SF or elsewhere, is what Debord called the “decomposition of culture”.[3] It is this that I seek to explore more fully on this blog, through critical reviews of individual works, as well as more general reflections on the place of science fiction in the three or four decades after the Second World War. I might even try and explain what I mean by ‘impasse’ and ‘self-destruction’ more clearly—at least more clearly than I have previously done!

*

A brief note on my definition of ‘Anglo-American SF’. What it is: what is sounds like: SF produced in and or by people in the US and the Anglophone countries, broadly defined (Britain and ex-British Colonies, though primarily Canada, Australia and New Zealand in the period 1950-1970). The importance of this SF is undoubted, coincident with the rise to dominance of the USA in the post-Second World War globalisation of capitalism. However, it is hard to disentangle the “triumph” of Anglo-American SF as the dominant model of SF from the rise to cultural, economic and political dominance of the US itself (and, to a lesser extent for the period we’re talking of, the dominance of the British Empire prior to this). What do I mean? In the case of the classic John W. Campbell “competent man” SF promulgated in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction, the resonance with the overwhelming influence of the US in the West after the war is obvious. But less noted—to my mind—is that even strains of SF that were more open to oppositional ideas (for instance H. L. Gold’s Galaxy), indirectly benefited from US cultural dominance. Which is not to damn such oppositional strains—far from it. Rather, it is to reckon with the context and conditions in and by which English language SF was singularly predominant in the period covered by Asimov and Greenberg’s anthology.


FOOTNOTES

[1] As the evil Hegelian-Marxian that I am, I prefer to think of the subjective as in truth a dialectical interplay of subjective and objective determinations—no subject is purely subjective, and perforce is capable of objectifying not only their subjectivity, but the world which they inhabit too.

[2] For instance, see Barry Malzberg, ‘Introduction: The Fifties’, in The End of Summer: Science Fiction of the Fifties, eds. Barry N. Malzberg and Bill Prozini, Ace Books, 1979. Available to borrow online here.

[3] See the definition of ‘decomposition’, here. Debord spoke of the movement toward the ‘self-destruction’ of poetry in France in the 19th century as been bound up with the assertion of the ‘autonomy of poetic language’ around the time of the poet Charles Baudelaire: ‘Henceforth, poetry—which is to say the people who wanted a poetic use of language—rejected all reasoning beyond itself and gave itself the goal of contemplating its own power. While undertaking the demolition of all conventional forms of expression, this poetry simultaneously set itself against the society whose values it denied and proclaimed itself in revolt against “bourgeois” order. Such poetry rejected everything in the world that was not poetry, while progressing toward its self-annihilation as poetry’ (see, here). It is my belief that a similar movement exists in Anglo-American SF between 1950 and 1970.

In praise of the infodump

fig. 1. Astounding Science Fiction, September 1948, in which John D. MacDonald’s ‘Dance of a New World’ first appeared.

In praise of the infodump:
or, the joys and pains of reading science fiction in general and John M. MacDonald and Laurence Manning in particular, and various other works of the last century and more, and etcetera

1.

Why is the infodump so hated, so derided? I suspect that the chief reason is unstated—or barely suspected. Could it be that vast slabs of unadorned information impede our ability to suspend disbelief and briefly escape the humdrum world of wage labour and quiet despair?

Though often polarising, the infodump is a common feature of science fiction. For its detractors it is the very epitome of all that is non-literary about SF. For instance, the Science Fiction Encyclopaedia’s entry on the infodump notes that for some critics, ‘the infodump presents as a large obstructive mass, a clump of narrative whose author has not properly digested it’. For such critics the infodump simply is a literary flaw. But is there only one type of infodump, an impossibly perfect Platonic form whose perfection is, perversely, its distracting imperfection?

Recently, what set me off ruminating upon the infodump was reading a short story by John D. MacDonald: Dance of a New World (1948). The story is not one of McDonald’s best SF genre pieces (for that I would recommend Spectator Sport). But it’s not all bad. A solid tale to while away some of the perils of boredom.

For the first few pages the story tootled along, establishing character, plot and setting in relatively efficient fashion. From the first sentence, unquestionably a story of the future set on a more hospitable Venus than what we got, with one of the characters working as a supervisor of a work gang of local indigenous lifeforms called Harids. The Harids are conveniently insectoids, presumably so we don’t have to care too much about them being rendered zombie like all the better to slave away upon the human run plantation—no doubt one of many projects spreading the unalloyed joys of marginal economics throughout the solar system and beyond. All this information is deftly arranged by MacDonald, woven into a story that works hard to make more of less. A good example of the “show, don’t tell” principle in action. And then this happens:

Shane Brent went up to his room in Hostel B, shut the door wearily, listlessly pushed the News button under the wall screen and watched the news of the day with little interest as he slowly undressed. Crowds demonstrating in Asia-Block against the new nutrition laws. Project 80, two years out said to be nearing Planet K. Skirts once again to be midway between knee and hip next season. The first bachelor parenthood case comes up to decide whether a child born of the fertilization of a laboratory ovum can legally inherit. Brent frowned. Soon a clear definition of the legal rights of “Synthetics” would have to be made. He stopped suddenly as he had an idea. He decided to submit it to Frank. Why not get Inter-Federal Aid for a project to develop Synthetics to fill personnel requirements for future project flights? But would humanity agree to colonization by Synthetics? It still wasn’t clearly understood whether or not they’d breed true.

This block of information—a microdump perchance?—plays little or no role in the main plot. Nonetheless, it helps further set the scene—or rather flesh it out. After reading these tantalising flashes of the world that the character Shane Brent inhabits, I found the author’s previous efforts at convincing me of this future even more secure. Though clearly an infodump, it is far from the indigestible mass hated by the haters. The chief protagonist even interacts with it. It is an example of the infodump at the service of the story, working in concert with the “show, don’t tell” principle with the aim of further establishing mood and setting with subtle, not overwhelming detail.

Laurence Manning’s story, The Living Galaxy (1934) is, on the other hand, the very opposite of MacDonald’s wonderfully brief and efficient infodump. These days when Manning’s story is remembered, it is best known for being arguably the first, fully fictional rendering of the “generation starship” trope—though this is under dispute (see, the Generation Starships entry at SF Encyclopedia). Manning’s story is all infodump. It’s at its best in its initial conceit of fictional pedagogy: a future history presented as the past of the near immortal heirs of homo sapiens. Unfortunately, this wonderful set up is frittered away in its dull delivery. My heart goes out to my imaginary descendants in this story, having to sit through their marvellous past rendered boring. It seems as if school sux, even in utopia.

Being all infodump is by no means a slight upon this work. For is the absence of entertainment or convincing distraction the best damnation we can manage?

Indeed, I have not come to damn the infodump but praise it.

fig. 2. Wonder Stories, September 1934, in which Laurence Manning’s ‘The Living Galaxy’ first appeared.

2.

I believe there are at least two souls of the infodump. The first is all that is listed as worthy of despair; for instance, the too common reality of the indigestibly prolix and dull in information retrieval. But there is another, more striking class of infodump of which the example from John M. MacDonald above gives us a glimpse. One of its hallmarks is an excess of realism—though excessive only in a literary sense. What I mean is that the reality conjured is by way of a sensory overload, in which fragments of the imagined future (or “present”, for that matter) threaten to drown the reader. John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968) is an excellent, though partial realisation of such an excess (more on this below). Nonetheless, both souls—variously dull and poetic—push at the limits of the novel, even if one is more self-consciously set upon breaking the conventions of literature.

The source of my ruminations on excessive realism is Guy Debord. He once wrote upon a situationist use of theatre which influences my thoughts here. Debord’s aim was decidedly more anti-literary, insofar as he envisaged the negation of theatre by way of ‘an excess of realism’. The characters would meet in a ‘normal’ situation lacking in ‘spirit or interest’, in which the conversation would be equally ‘normal […], which is to say, not very intelligent, not very stupid. A permanent and empty spectacle, like life […], with brief overtures of what could be’.[1] Such a vision reminds me of some of the achievements of literary modernism: from Lautréamont’s Maldoror to Joyce’s Ulysses by way of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. The point being that the excess of realism Debord invokes is neither just tedious nor simply marvellous, but both (‘not very intelligent, not very stupid’ surely being alternate names for the two souls).[2]

Two of my favourite SF novels are arguably all infodump: Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937). Stapledon’s works, founding epics after the fact, are without peer. In the case of the former, the excessive nature of a future history is underlined by its being an unrelenting infodump, albeit in a more poetic register than most. Stapledon errs on the side of epic, the form in which the infodump is best suited, wedged as it were between the lyrical and the dramatic. Nonetheless, they are not the only examples of the prose poetry of the infodump. Walter M. Miller’s short story, The Big Hunter (1952), is also an excellent example. John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968) approaches the majestic scale of Stapledon by taking a leaf from the masters of modernity to turn its eye upon the epic quality of the future everyday. Indeed, Brunner comes close to Debord’s demand of an excess of realism. He falls short only to the extent that he concedes ground to the strictures of plot and characterisation.

I have often envisaged an infodump novel that would push further in the direction Brunner opened. Except, whereas Brunner inserted character and plot to relieve the reader of his assault upon their sensibility, I would strip the novel of all such concessions in order to leave the cavalcade of these fragments from a future mass culture. Undoubtedly, by turns tedious and entrancing, the two souls of the infodump would be reunited, all the better to underscore the necessary irreality of aspiring after the real upon the page.

Is it too much to imagine the infodump in its excessive guises as the real source of literature? I am thinking here of not just the dull and repetitive parts of the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Iliad and Odyssey, but especially of the hard prose of the chronicles, Herodotus’ Histories being the true grandaddy of all the infodumps. Closer to the present, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick comes to mind with its innumerable and often unjustly maligned digressions into whale history and folk lore. Stephane Mallarmé’s two paragraph prose poem Le Phénomène futur (1871) is more obviously science fictional, and a simple joy at two paragraphs in length, leaving its world building remarkably dense and slight simultaneously. Mallarmé, to my mind, constitutes a bridge of sorts between the SF ghetto and the 19th century literary avant-garde of Europe. On the far, more science fictional side of the bridge I can see Edgar Allan Poe’s Eureka (1848) and J. H. Rosny aîné’s La Légende Sceptique (1889), both prose poems of cosmic dimension. On the more self-consciously literary side of the bridge I spy Jorge Luis Borges—though he undoubtedly slummed on the far side as well. Surely Borge’s Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (1940) is the prose poem of the infodump? Further away, harder to see, buried in the sub-structures of the bridge, an old, dog-eared copy of Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial (1658) lies wedged.

Can I be serious that all of these are iterations of the infodump? At the very least I believe not only in the merit of the infodump, but also that what we categorise under this term is somewhat less straightforward than is often imagined. Not only is the SF infodump not as dull or turgid as is often imagined, infodump-like examples of prose can be found scattered through modern literature and its more ancient progenitors. My attraction to the infodump is, nonetheless, leavened by a certain fascination with those that have set out to break literature, or at least give it a good thrashing.

For where does the infodump begin or end? On the page? In a conversation? Broken up into a cavalcade of memes? Indeed, I dream of the world as infodump, and of a work that is one great infodump, a science fiction tour de force that inevitably and simultaneously will be a grand misstep. My Zanzibar that is no longer Zanzibar. Necessarily, it will divide opinion. There can be no other way.


FOOTNOTES

[1] Guy Debord, Correspondence: The foundation of the Situationist International (June 1957-August 1960), trans. Stuart Kendall & John McHale, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009, p. 376 (letter to André Frankin, 24 July 1960).

[2] It’s worth noting that Debord saw little of use in the novel form (at least for situationist uses): ‘There is not much future in the détournement of complete novels, but during the transitional phase there might be a certain number of undertakings of this sort’. The only such uses that Debord approved of, insofar as they brought him and other situationists the use of money in a moneyed world, were Michèle Bernstein’s parodic detournements of Françoise Sagan on the one hand, and the Nouveau roman of Alain Robbe-Grillet, on the other: respectively, Tous les chevaux du roi (1960), and La Nuit (1961), both Roman à clefs of sorts, dealing with Bernstein’s life among fellow young International Letterists.

“Who am I?”

fig. 1. Somewhere in Sydney, Australia, c. 1969 A.D.

The photo above was taken some time between my first and second birthday. That would make it most likely 1969. I like to imagine that I have been left all alone while the rest of my family has gone to watch the moon landing on the tele.

A few toys scattered around. Some pathetic beads on the inaccurately named play pen. The magnificent desolation of the family home. My sad eyes betray the truth of the situation, imprisoned behind a stockade that I learn to push around as I gain in strength. The literal prison that I gradually internalise and push around for the rest of my life.

I don’t remember the moon landings—and yet I do. Not from when they happened, but shortly thereafter. In the 1970s I became childishly obsessed with Project Apollo. I awoke to it not long after it ended—perhaps as it ended. My first clear memories of the space race are in its immediate wake: Skylab in 1973 and 1974. Puzzled and amazed by the few pictures appearing in the newspapers, a desultory epilogue with none of the fanfare of its earlier, grander cousin.

To my child’s mind, thirsty for sensation and experience amidst an ocean of naivety, Apollo quickly came to represent the apex of human achievement. The great adventure beyond the atmosphere, the first step on the road to the stars. Surely this was the old dream become fact of the science fiction I had already begun to consume; paperbacks passed down from my siblings on high: Robert Silverberg, Arthur C. Clarke, C. S. Lewis, Robert Heinlein, Ursula K. Le Guin, Frank Herbert, Philip Jose Farmer. And so on—all the begats in a newfound materialist pantheon.

The 1970s passed. And the inexplicable monotony and random violence of school became as familiar as the weather, as my growing awareness, awash with the confabulated fancies of just so stories of space and time, became fitfully aware of the adult world of work, economics and other miseries.

When did I lose the desire, that pressing need to be an astronaut just like Colonel Steven Austin? That perverse longing to be simultaneously less fictional and more fantastical. Would it be possible, in my onrushing adult life, to juggle the struggle with fembots and bigfoot while furthering Neil Armstrong’s mundane triumph?

The never-ending delays to the launch of the first Space Shuttle played a role in my creeping disillusion, as age and a changing world alerted me to how far we had fallen from the dizzy heights of the all too brief space age. To have missed it, even though I was born a full 18 months before the first human set foot upon the moon, was surely the greatest misery in my life before my eleventh year.

When the 50th anniversary of the moon landings rolled around back in 2019, before the pandemic came to remind us that life is far more fragile than the jokers who rule us would have us believe, I tried to reconnect with my first love. I bought Lego. I bought more Lego. I built the kits and tried to feel connected to my past—real and imagined. I even framed an old, National Geographic moon map from February 1969, replete with “proposed Apollo landing sites” dutifully marked out on this map of my future life in space. But I felt little other than the cloying taste of nostalgia, overripe for demographic targeting and other lamentable scams and marketing opportunities. Indeed, I made a fake ad in the style of the 1960s that attempted to summarise my critical anxiety and fascination with July 1969.

fig. 2. “When will all these shadows of god cease to darken our minds?”

The space race failed as surely as the so-called struggle between the East and West: one shitty system masquerading as communism, the other disguised as freedom. Both miserable mirrors of each other’s spectacular claim for human apotheosis.

Meanwhile, in the veritable ruins of the last century and more we wonder more about the unbearably hot days soon to come upon this Earth. Other viruses have invaded our collective imaginaries, none quite so bright or as faintly ridiculous as the childish wish to live out there among the stars. Still, for those of us unfortunate enough to have been struck by the bug, the fever dreams of space exploration and extra-terrestrial colonies that never came continue to haunt the bleak future that did arrive. And the paltry visions of the current hucksters of commercial space exploration does nothing to mollify this, only rendering more starkly what we have lost in all its aching, dayglow imagery.


For more information regarding the image, “When will all these shadows of god cease to darken our minds?”, see here.

To destroy the world

The catastrophe that we are approaching is unavoidable. It is no longer a question of preserving civilisation intact against the forces of barbarism. Civilisation is barbarism—this civilisation, our shared present. Now, it is the question of which catastrophe we face: one completely out of control, with all the terrible anonymity that capital conjures in chasing itself across the global climate; or one we consciously face together, joined in a human community that we create amidst the disaster to save ourselves and the planet. Guy Debord once wrote that “victory will go to those who are capable of creating disorder without loving it”.[2] Today, the disorder of capital creates us, and we must find victory amid this disorder and through it, whether we love it or not.

*

The world overturned would be charming
In the anti-man’s eyes
[1]

Last year, we were presented with what at first sight seems to be a paradox. Beside the heightened anxiety and fear accompanying the outbreak there was also a palpable sense of excitement. In our part of the world the pandemic has been far from the devastating blow that has maimed and killed millions. Rapidly, the initial panic of the unknown that lay in our immediate future gave way to blissfully quiet streets. To be sure, this was far from a catastrophe. But meanwhile, it was impossible to forget that this brief respite from the intensities of capitalist life had, as its condition of possibility, precisely the disastrous events unfolding across the globe.

Finding pleasure in this brief slowdown of global capitalism, I was reminded of something I had stumbled across in Ghérasim Luca’s writing. While finishing his work, The Objectively Offered Object, I was struck by two passages. The first, followed upon Luca’s declaration of his belief that he had foretold a devastating earthquake in Bucharest in 1941—an earthquake through which he lived:

During, or else immediately after, the earthquake, either the sole or the first human erotic desire is to masturbate. […] This explanation is accompanied by the enormous excitation provoked in the unconscious by infantile rocking motions. When describing their experiences during the earthquake, almost everyone spoke about the rocking of objects—and above all of light fixtures—with a masturbatory hand gesture. The desire to masturbate was being satisfied by this symptomatic action in each account. [3]

I find Luca simultaneously a puzzling and compelling figure. On the one hand, he and his comrades in the 1940s held to a revolutionary position that was intransigent, against both the depredations of Stalinism and those tendencies that threatened to drag the Surrealist movement back into the art ghetto from which it had emerged and fought against. On the other hand, Luca appeared to be immersed in what can only be described as the most intensely idealistic aspects of surrealism, namely the growing tendency to relate the surrealist theory of objective chance to the mysticism of astrology and magic. Certainly, Luca attempted a materialist reckoning with this, but so far, I remain unconvinced.

In the quote above, Luca’s symptomatic reading of the hand movements of survivors of the earthquake is suggestive but far from persuasive. To my mind, a more fruitful line of enquiry would be found in attempting to unveil the general erotic and sensual sublimations and expressions associated with disaster, as much as the absence of such. For instance, in the wake of situations that induce panic and rampant anxiety I have felt this urgent need to fuck or masturbate. More often it has been simply the desire to hug someone else, to reach out and feel the warmth of life and the living. Conversely, it has also manifested as the traumatic desire to avoid others. If not exactly erotic, perhaps all expression of Eros, in Freud’s and Herbert Marcuses’s sense of the word.

However, it was another passage immediately following upon the one above that struck deepest:

Two years earlier [in 1939], during a conversation with my friends in Paris, I had claimed that I would find great satisfaction in a major catastrophe—the destruction of the Earth by a comet, for example, as foretold by astronomers. In a time of violent revolutionary pessimism, like that during which this conversation took place, several weeks after France’s entry into the war, it seemed justifiable to exchange one desperate but vital solution for another that was so natural yet so alien to us. At the level of desire, such a catastrophe being predicted in advance would have offered me, hastily and for a limited time, the satisfactions a revolutionary transformation of the world would have given me over a whole lifetime.[4]

I believe that this desire for the world to be thrown off of course rather than continue along the same dreadful trajectory—with or without a positive sense of revolutionary transformation—can be closely correlated with the experience of alienation and estrangement under capitalism. Often, as an imaginary escape and recompense for my existence as a plaything of capital, I have revelled in the most brutal and brutalising visions of destruction. A particularly memorable one was visited upon me as a sales assistant working in a bookstore. It was toward the end of a particularly boring day’s labour, while cast adrift on a sale table in the main concourse of the mall, without the company of my fellow proletarians. Stupefied by the never-ending stream of masses jamming the shopping corridors and their bland enticements, I pictured myself manning a 50-calibre machine gun, and methodically shooting every person and thing that crawled and slithered. Inevitably I laughed manically all the way.

As André Breton once mordantly noted of such fancies,

Anyone who, at least once in his life, has not dreamed of thus putting an end to the petty system of debasement and cretinization in effect has a well-defined place in the crowd, with his belly at barrel level.[5]

To be sure, Breton was not suggesting that such a dream was a reasonable solution to the unreasonable demands of life under capitalism, but rather that such brutal fantasies are at least as sane as the insane social relations that nourish them—and perhaps, in an objective sense, saner than meekly accepting the nigh unbearable contradictions and humiliations of daily capitalist life.

Such fantasies are almost always related to the emptying out of daily existence at the hands of the oppressive and atomising effects of wage labour—a grim, fantasy recompense for the actual reality of having your lifetime stolen because of the unfortunate need for money in this world. In part, this must explain what Ghérasim Luca was attempting to describe above. The fantasy of catastrophe and destruction, if viewed with an eye to the depredations of capitalist subjectivity, is akin to the dream of revolution. That such fantasies are not dependent upon the practical replacement of capitalism by a better, more rational social order is beside the point. Rather, it is a question of the simple desire for this present state of being to end—suddenly and totally. The great refusal of this reality and its much-vaunted necessity. Surely, without the ability to imagine the end of the world—even its utter destruction—we cannot begin to imagine what we would put in its place.

Perhaps this is why I am unconvinced by a belief, proposed by Slavoj Žižek, Frederic Jameson and Mark Fisher (take your pick), that has recently become a platitude: that today it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. Visions of the end have been common coin in European culture long before the ascendency of the Christian tale of apocalypse—and in fact, the latter drew upon a longer tradition of apocalypse in Indo-European cultures. More proximally, the end of the world—or more precisely its destruction by various forces—has accompanied the rise to dominance of industrial capital. Indeed, some even conceived of this rise in terms of the clarion of universal destruction, spewing forth from the Satanic mills. What is more striking, to my mind, is not the opposition of hopeless disaster and utopia but rather their proximity: not just socialism or barbarism, but rather socialism and barbarism.

In truth, behind the guise of the cultivated critic who would sooner wield a phrase than a rifle, Žižek, Jameson, Fisher, and others, disguise their nostalgia for the actual dystopias of “really existing socialism” as a mourning for the passage of the utopian project. But such a project was never the property of the various socialist and communist Internationals that laid claim to it—at best they were the expressions of a desire that emerged from the everyday experience of proletarians themselves. At worst, they were the counter revolution incarnate.

For those like Ghérasim Luca, and other revolutionists caught between the Charybdis of fascism and the Scylla of Stalinism, the end of the world was palpably underway in the 1940s. In drawing attention to the similarity between the desire for catastrophe and revolution, Luca clearly posed the palpably destructive moment of revolutionary desire. This is not to fetishize destruction for the sake of it, but rather to be clear that not only is the destructive moment of revolution unavoidable, it is already happening under the guise of the much vaunted peace of the global market—replete with runaway climate change and wars that are in truth the never ending conditions of this “peace”.

To not merely preserve but rather revolutionize the idea of human community we must overturn this world. But before we can even do that, we must be clear: the present is already the destruction we fear. Nothing can wish it away; it is the truth we must not only better understand but more fully embrace.


Note on the détourned images, above: Words: after Ghérasim Luca; images: from Jack Kirby’s The Eternals.


FOOTNOTES

[1] From the poem, ‘Useless Stake’, in André Breton, René Char, and Paul Éluard, Ralentir Travaux, trans. Keith Waldrop, Cambridge, MA: Exact Change [1930] 1990, p. 50.

[2] Guy Debord, ‘Theses on Cultural Revolution [1958],’ in Situationist International Anthology, trans. Ken Knabb, 2006, p. 54.

[3] Ghérasim Luca, ‘The Objectively Offered Object [1945],’ in The Passive Vampire, trans. Krzysztof Fijalkowski, Prague: Twisted Spoon Press, 2008, pp. 59, 60.

[4] Ibid., pp. 60-61.

[5] André Breton, ‘Second Surrealist Manifesto [1930],’ in Manifestoes of Surrealism, trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1998, p. 125.

On the vapour trail

fig. 1. On the vapour trail with a friend.

Of the many pleasures that I indulge, the one I am perhaps most fond of is walking. I walk—everyday if possible. Mostly I walk by myself. At this time of year, the streets of Canberra’s north are marked by the fall of autumn. Amidst their rustling the trees shed their leaves, and so many seem aflame with the turn of the season.

To walk is to leave all that confines me behind—for a time. The walls, curtains, and ceilings of my house bound life fall away, and the light and the sky and the clouds pour in and push me on from one street to the next, along one more path and another.

Lately, the northern suburb of Downer—what a name!—has come to fascinate me. Downer has a good supply of alleyways that strike paths between streets, like much of the city’s north. I have set myself the task of navigating them all, in the hope of at last finding the fabled north west passage out of Canberra. Thirty years I have searched. Near the border of Downer, one such path (what I have come to think of the suburb’s true gateway) was once marked, appropriately, by some particularly striking graffiti—translated words from a Rimbaud poem: Now is the assassin’s time.

Occasionally I spy someone gardening or tinkering in a yard. I am struck by their situation while I am passing. I am not opposed to their attentions—how could I be? But I ponder the various ways private property shapes our being and fixes us upon the phantoms of ownership and possession. The details, the maintenance, the endless renovation of a vanishingly small décor, in search of a life sold off for a wage that can never truly be recompense for what was lost.

Private property tends to foreclose the possibilities of the drift or denigrates our wandering into a strictly formalised ritual—the holiday or temporary escape from the drag of work and home. In contrast, last year during lockdown, I found that the streets of my suburb became more alive with drifters. I had never seen so many people walking the streets of this town on weekdays. It was strange only because I am used to the quiet of the streets as work and school takes hold of the day.

I have had the good fortune of having the burden of wage slavery mostly lifted from me over the last year. Unlike times past this has not resulted in crippling poverty and a humiliating relationship with social security. And so now when I can—which is most days—I drift. And while drifting I dream as much as pick over the present anxieties that bother.

Today—yesterday, what does it matter—I struck upon a game to play while walking. Inspired by the surrealists and the clouds above.

On the vapour trail—aka Follow that cloud!

A game for one or more. This is a game suited to cloudy days, preferably with a sky full of lively cumulus. However, do not disregard the chilly serenity of the far-off cirrus, perhaps even more conducive to poetic revery. Take heed also of the possibilities of the sharp shock and squalls of the cumulonimbus. Note that this game is not suited to the dreary stratus, that overwhelms the sky in suffocating monotony.

First, pick a cloud. Now follow it. Negotiate all obstacles—pathways, roads, fences, creatures animate and inanimate—to keep it in sight. The game ends upon the whim of the chaser, or the coherence and evanescence of the cloud.

The game can play out in two main ways. It is first of all simply a question of following that cloud—no matter what. Keep it in sight and turn to the task at hand. Or, secondly, the chase can combine a fanciful accompaniment. For instance, once chosen, the cloud will provide ample material for fantastical confabulations. Whether by recourse to paranoia-criticism (is that a face before me?) or a fable more attuned to the ephemerality of the cloud itself (and so the necessary decline and demise of every sky palace), you must remember that any and all clouds in conscious relation exceed their objectification as mere phases in the circuit of convection and fluid dynamics. The materiality of this object is not a question of its independent existence—which it has, no doubt—but rather what one makes of it beyond the travails of alienation and utility.

An example: Yesterday, while walking south along Atherton Street toward the corner with Durack I sighted a nice plump squarish cloud with rounded edges. It immediately appeared to me as a continent undergoing the terrific transformations wrought by plate tectonics, millions of years telescoped into moments. In the north, the continent took on an anvil shape, while to the south of this peculiar peninsula a vast river delta opened. To the south east an archipelago spun off from the continent as the coastline fractured. In the utter south two lumps become great promontories broke off and formed independent islands, not long before one crashed back into the south east, and the other sunk for ever—perhaps—beneath the indifferent waves of the sky. And then, I reached Durack Street, and this nebulous continent passed from my grasp. All that remains I will to leave to the speculations of those psychopaleogeographers I once met in a dream.

fig. 2. The continent shortly before its destruction.

And so, another game to play within and against the alienations of the present as we plot and plan the insurrections to come.

Homage à Ghérasim Luca

fig. 1. “For the unlimited eroticization of the proletariat.” Words: after Ghérasim Luca & Trost; image: from Jack Kirby’s The Eternals.

We proclaim love—delivered from its social, individual, psychological, theoretical, religious, and sentimental constraints—as our principal means of knowledge and action. The monstrous brilliance and scandalous effort of its methodical exasperation, its unlimited development, and its overwhelming fascination—of which we have already taken the first steps with de Sade, Engels, Freud, and Breton—places within our reach, and that of any revolutionary, the most effective means of action.

This dialecticized and materialized love constitutes the relative-absolute revolutionary method that surrealism unveiled, and in the discovery of new erotic possibilities, which go beyond social, medical, or psychological love, we manage to grasp the first aspects of objective love. Even in its most immediate aspects, we believe that the unlimited eroticization of the proletariat constitutes the most precious pledge that we can find to assure the proletariat of a truly revolutionary development in its passage through the miserable epoch we are going through.

from, Dialectic of the Dialectic (Dialectique de la dialectique), 1945.


ANNOUNCEMENT

Coming up in the days and weeks ahead, we will be exploring why surrealist art doesn’t exist, the erotics of inescapable disaster, more complaints about the deleterious effects of critical critics, and–what we are most excited about–an all new never before seen English translation of an article on Surrealism by Guy Debord. We can hardly contain ourselves…

the sinister scientist

To experiment with the creation of everyday life

fig. 1. Who are the enemies of poetry? All those who use poetry as an end in-itself, not as a means for life and liberation. Which is to say all those who fetishize the poem over poetry itself. Graphic detourned from Frank Hampson’s Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, Rogue Planet, April 1956.

I wrote the following essay for the collection Suddenly Curving Space Time: Australian Experimental Poetry 1995-2015 (Brisbane: non-Euclidean Press, 2016). In the essay I perhaps too briefly and bluntly attempted to outline the radical trajectory of avant-garde and experimental art in the 20th century against what now passes for “avant-garde” and “experimental” in the cynical art markets and cafeterias. If I were to write it today, I would be more forgiving of the original surrealists. Whereas I agree with Guy Debord’s critique of the surrealists, notably that André Breton in effect fetishized the irrationality of unconscious desire as the true font of all human creativity, I would argue that nonetheless the surrealists struggled—and Breton in particular—to distinguish the ongoing surrealist experimental inquiry into new forms of consciousness and everyday practices against its domestication as so many art objects readily commodifiable (particularly of the painterly styles that are now synonymous with ‘surrealism’). I hope to return to the question of this tension among the surrealists—between a properly surrealist practice and its reduction to art-objects—in a future essay.

The thrust of this essay is its call for a new revolutionary practice beyond merely the umpteenth iteration of so-called radical art—or the nth generation of boring political radicalism and reactionary Marxism for that matter. A pox on the artists and the wannabe politicians.

From the essay:

In 1957 when the situationists kicked off their experiments in living and ‘unitary urbanism’ they saw themselves as starting from the bases the surrealists had already staked out in 1924. Today we need to start again from the bases that the situationists established in 1968; and the surrealists in 1924; and the Dadas in 1916; and etc. However such bases are merely points of departure not closed projects to be emulated repetitively or ironically. In today’s world in which the look of surrealism has triumphed throughout popular culture, the original surrealists desire for a new way of living beyond the mundanity and horrors of capitalism seems more pertinent. As the situationists argued against their surrealist forebears, what is implicit is in need of being made explicit. It is not enough to limit our experiments to art alone. To the extent that our appropriations remain purely artistic—as poems, paintings, and even more process based conceptual works—is the extent to which we will be defeated and recuperated. The surrealists never tired of explaining: there is no poetry for the enemies of poetry. And poetry for the surrealists, beyond their paintings and poems, was synonymous with the playful creation and recreation of life itself. 

Anthony Hayes
Canberra, April 2021

To experiment with the creation of everyday life

Today in the worlds of artistic production and consumption the adjectives “experimental” and even “avant-garde” are used most often to describe works that are perceived to be formally different to more “mainstream” or conventional artistic modes of production (see Gerald Keaney’s introduction for more details with regard to written poetry). However such a formal definition of “experimental” often masks the historical roots of the terms use among the artistic avant-garde of the first half of the 20th century. For instance, both the terms “experimental” and “avant-garde” were deliberately used in order to evoke an association with the communist and anarchist political avant-gardes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and their experiments in new forms of social life. The present use of “experimental” often bears little resemblance to its avant-garde origins, having become a “floating signifier” of sorts (to use a phrase derived from semiotic theory). This is not necessarily a bad thing; however, it is worth considering why such a de-contextualisation took place and whether or not we should attempt to infuse once more contemporary artistic practices with the “experimental” utopianism from which it so obviously descends.

In the early 20th century, some artists in Europe and then elsewhere in the world styled themselves “experimental” and “avant-garde”. At the time such declarations were not merely in relation to the formal experiments in the arts—such as the various experiments with poetic and novelistic form (e.g. Rimbaud, Lautréamont, Mallarmé, Joyce) and in painting and other plastic arts (e.g. Cezanne, Picasso, de Chirico, Giacometti). In addition to their startling formal playfulness, these artistic experimenters pictured themselves in the avant-garde of a social upheaval they saw all around—the rapid transformation and creation of a global society via the spread of capitalism and in particular the forces which opposed it. In 1917 the poet Apollinaire would call this the ‘New Spirit’.

The first self-professed avant-gardists, the Futurists, declared their art in keeping with the terrific technical development evinced by Industrial society, and to be in advance of the lagging culture of their day. However, their avant-garde ended in the decidedly archaic celebration of fascist brutality (though the Russian Futurists fared better, caught up in the brief cultural efflorescence in the wake of the Russian Revolutions of 1917). It was left to other contemporaries, notably German Expressionists, Russian Futurists, and various Dadas and surrealists, to draw out the potentially explosive and progressive nature of such artistic experimentation. The surrealists in particular declared themselves “determined to make a revolution” in order to break apart all the fetters of the mind, “even if it must be by material hammers!” (in their Declaration of 27 January 1925). However, the surrealists fell prey to the confusion of their times, in particular the enervating results of the Russian Revolution and the effective burial of the international working class movement by Stalinism. Capped off by the fascist counter-revolution of the 1920s and 30s, the brutal destruction of the Spanish Revolution by Franco, Hitler and Stalin, and the hitherto undreamt-of destruction of the Second World War, the new world fashioned on the backs of the industrial proletariat proved itself more resilient to the often solely artistic criticism of art made by these avant-gardists.

The post-1945 world saw the previously controversial styles of the surrealists and Dadas welcomed into the corrosive worlds of the art market and academic dissection, two processes that further stripped the formal achievements of the avant-gardes from their association and attachment to the revolutionary criticism of capitalism. In the 1950s and 60s artists and revolutionists associated with the Situationist International (1957-72) called such processes “recuperation”, pointing to the way then contemporary experiments in artistic form divorced from broader social and political criticism tended to dissipate precisely the social applications of such experimental creation and criticism. Against this “recuperation” the situationists proposed to realise the “revolution of everyday life” that the surrealists had originally proclaimed in the 1920s, but had dissipated in largely artistic ventures and misbegotten fidelities to Stalinism, Trotskyism and the irrationalist mysticism that many surrealists were never able to completely shake off.

The situationists argued that avant-garde artists should focus on the possibilities at hand in contemporary society. Capitalist industrialism and the increasing mechanisation and automation of production had ushered in a material abundance that immediately raised the possibility of a more leisurely and creative existence for all. However, the capitalist and bureaucratic classes East and West enforced a universe of work and militarism as the corollary of this new mass market of commodities (even while many of their ideologues pondered the coming future of automation and leisure). The situationists argued that under such conditions radical artists should focus on two tasks. Firstly, the elaboration of an experimental practice directed toward demonstrating the creative possibilities of contemporary technical and cultural potentialities beyond their capitalist use; and thus, secondly, the development and dissemination of a revolutionary critique of contemporary society which drew upon both the modern artistic and political-philosophical avant-garde movements. Accordingly, it was not enough to ponder the possibilities of automation and leisure, because without a decisive break with capitalist society such processes would be used to enforce new forms of work, unemployment and more marketing opportunities (as we future dwellers know only to well).

In keeping with the idea of the potentialities already present within the capitalist social order the situationists proposed “détournement” as their central method. Derived from the French verb signifying “diversion” and “hijacking”, the situationists argued that the most advanced artists had already used “détournement”—notably the collage and “automatic” techniques pioneered by Cubists, Dadas and surrealists. What they proposed, particularly in the face of the repetitive nature of formal artistic experimentation in the post-war period, was that détournement should be made the key method of the artistic and political avant-gardes. Thus, they later argued that Marx’s early conception of “revolutionary practical, critical activity” could be détourned from the mutilated version that traded under the name of “Marxism”. However, détournement is not simply “appropriation” or “reappropriation”, as some later day postmodernists would like to imagine. For instance, the situationists return to Marx was made alongside of their attempt to understand the nature of the contemporary capitalist spectacle. The situationists used the term “commodity-spectacle” to describe the then new mass consumer markets in commodities that were both the logical development of, and divergent elaboration of the capitalism Marx criticised. 

As the 19th century pioneer of détournement, Isidore Ducasse (aka the Comte de Lautréamont), had argued, the creative plagiarism that lies at the heart of all human endeavours cannot be reduced to the mere copying or facile rearrangement of previously fashioned components. Rather, détournement proposed to improve on the original, adapting ideas and repurposing them for current needs.

Ideas improve. The meaning of words plays a role in that improvement. Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it. It closely grasps an author’s sentence, uses his expressions, deletes a false idea, replaces it with the right one.—Isidore Ducasse, Poesies, 1870

The situationist conceived of “détournement” as both the most significant discovery of the artistic avant-gardes of the 19th and 20th centuries, and a sort of “ultima thule” beyond which solely artistic practices could not proceed. What they meant was that most attempts to revolutionise artistic expression (even those that ended in a Dada like anti-art) had effectively exhausted the formal innovation of the arts. Certainly, one could continue with different contents, chiselling away at the already discovered new forms (collage, automatic poetry, the use of found objects, abstraction, etcetera, etcetera). But all that would be achieved would be the elaboration of so many works of art, liable to be sold in the markets for art, or not as the case may be. Instead—and here the situationists clearly drew upon the original sense of “experimental” and “avant-garde” amongst the Dadas, surrealists etc.—experimentation must move away from the impasse of formal experiments and aim at the transformation of everyday life itself. The situationists initially attempted to experiment with the design and use of cities (under the name of ‘unitary urbanism’—see here, and here). Ultimately, they moved beyond this and took aim at the organisation of capitalism itself, helping to usher in the last great revolutionary experiments of the 1970s amidst the festive occupations movement in France in May 1968.

In 1957 when the situationists kicked off their experiments in living and ‘unitary urbanism’ they saw themselves as starting from the bases the surrealists had already staked out in 1924. Today we need to start again from the bases that the situationists established in 1968; and the surrealists in 1924; and the Dadas in 1916; and etc. However, such bases are merely points of departure not closed projects to be emulated repetitively or ironically. In today’s world in which the look of surrealism has triumphed throughout popular culture, the original surrealists desire for a new way of living beyond the mundanity and horrors of capitalism seems more pertinent. As the situationists argued against their surrealist forebears, what is implicit is in need of being made explicit. It is not enough to limit our experiments to art alone. To the extent that our appropriations remain purely artistic—as poems, paintings, and even more process based conceptual works—is the extent to which we will be defeated and recuperated. The surrealists never tired of explaining: there is no poetry for the enemies of poetry. And poetry for the surrealists, beyond their paintings and poems, was synonymous with the playful creation and recreation of life itself. 

In order to make poetry dangerous again we must turn our experiments once more to the vast canvas of everyday life.

Anthony Hayes
Canberra, January 2016