All posts by thesinisterscientist

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

La Hipótesis: Song of Myself

fig. 1. Detail from La Hipótesis: Song of Myself by Nirsa. See below for links to pdfs.

Episodes in the “La Hipótesis” saga…

From time to time, the sinister science turns its attention to a world other than this one. This other world is neither too far nor too close for comfort. We can say, with a great deal of certainty, that it is has nothing to do with Immanuel Kant’s noumena, and everything to do with the sometimes mysterious, other times limpidly clear notion of immanence. The other world is right here, now, even if it is also infinitely remote. Which is to say, this other world is to be made, to be born within the womb of the old.

Occasionally, we are lucky enough to intercept messages from this other world—communiques from another life. On a wavelength difficult to access, a certain Nirsa recently contacted us. I can tell you we were as surprised as we were excited by their missive. Nirsa proposed a story, part harangue, part dialogue, and yet the very quintessence of truth. Less generous souls might call it entirely confabulated. We, however, recognise in La Hipótesis the verification of an absolute perspective and project: a song of myself.

As Walt Whitman once remarked in his own song, every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. We can be assured that among the many properties of atoms, the property of belonging, of relation, overrides the conventionally historical and ephemeral sense of isolation, and indeed, atomisation. To be an atom is already to be a cosmos. Accordingly, Nirsa sings of an absence, sub specie aeternitatis, that is nothing other than a fullness. Which is to say—as we must—a dialectic in operation, tirelessly, by turns contingent and necessary.

And so, today, without further ado, we have the pleasure of presenting this communique, and anticipate its continuation and replication upon other frequencies:

La Hipótesis: Song of Myself

To be read on the screen

To be printed

fig. 2. Detail from La Hipótesis: Song of Myself by Nirsa. See above for links to pdfs.

And as the years pass, and our sense of belonging is battered by the scourge of work and empire, do not forget, “apes-ma, your cage isn’t getting bigger…”

Frederik Pohl’s mass consumer (2): The Tunnel Under the World

fig. 1. Interior illustration by Ed Emshwiller, for The Tunnel Under the World, Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, January 1955, p. 7.

The following is a bit of a mess—two, possibly three articles struggling to be one. A book review, a critique of book reviews, and a valiant attempt to make of the review something more critical. I’m not sure I achieve any of these goals, but in the attempt, something emerges: ideas, criticisms, elusive thoughts. A failed whole that underlines its failure. Much like the lot of all mortal things.

*

In the preamble to my review of Frederick Pohl’s The Midas Plague, I denounced the book review as a literary form. You may think that it was not the wisest of opening moves in a review of my own. To be fair to my paradoxical self, I was taking aim at a particular type of review, one that eschews critique in favour of plot summary and bland opinion (“It’s great, read it!”). But to be unfair to myself, who says—apart from me—that my reviews escape the morass of opinion?

Like all artefacts, at the heart of the book review lies the problem of our historical moment itself. Even and especially when that beating heart appears absent. The following can seem so obvious, so platitudinous, that for many it is of little or no consequence: books appear today primarily as commodities. They are produced not only by authors, but given the mass market in books, also and especially by workers in factories, before being circulated and transported by still more workers, finally to be sold by booksellers or increasingly bought and sold online by still other workers. That books exist in a book trade may appear hardly surprising; but once we begin to examine the nature of that trade, particularly the modern book trade from the time of the first industrialised production of books as recently as the mid-19th century, right up until the vast warehouses of the internet behemoths of the present, we begin to see that the book trade is far from the simple or transparent fact it sometimes imagines itself to be. What Marx once evocatively noted of the commodity in general, can be said of the book trade and all that it entails in particular: “at first sight [it appears] as an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But itsanalysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.”

Even when books do not immediately appear as commodities—for example, when they are presented as zines for free—their form implicitly references the commodity, albeit as a critique (even if only implicit) of the purported necessity of the commodity form. That books appears today under these historical and social conditions—conditions largely beyond the control of any single author, reader, print worker, courier, bookseller or zinester—requires that we confront such conditions. Of course, we can remain silent about such issues, or even confuse and obfuscate them. But the necessity of making sense of this world remains—one either takes up this task or ignores it at their peril. That we review the explicit content of books while saying little or nothing of their forms of appearance—which is to say the ways in which they are produced, circulated, sold and consumed—is perhaps a greater story than any so far told.

The task of addressing the book or story appearing in the form of a commodity can seem somewhat easier when the explicit content of the story itself deals with this question. For instance, Frederick Pohl’s The Tunnel Under the World. Here, Pohl takes aim at the lengths to which capitalists will go in order to sell a commodity. But it is unclear whether he has a problem with commodities or just creeping commodification. In this Pohl is little different than those orthodox Marxists (from which Pohl himself hailed as a callow youth) who consider the problem of capitalist wealth as primarily one of distribution rather than the truly horrible fact that the entirety of human activity has been progressively forced to appear “as an immense collection of commodities” (Marx again). Nonetheless, Pohl effectively conjures the grinding repetitiveness of much of what passes for social life in a society dominated by commodity production and consumption—much more so than his failed satire, The Midas Plague.

*

fig. 2. Interior illustration by Ed Emshwiller, for The Tunnel Under the World, Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, January 1955, p. 13.

Published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine in January 1955, The Tunnel Under the World presents a world of the then not-too-distant future—sometime in the 1980s I reckon. In Pohl’s imagined future the burgeoning advertising machine of post-war USA has reached an apotheosis of sorts.

“On the morning of June 15th, Guy Burkhardt woke up screaming out of a dream.

“It was more real than any dream he had ever had in his life.”

Burkhardt, a white, middle class Yankee Everyman—familiar to the entire planet thanks to the Twentieth Century—soon discovers things are not as they seem. Not only is his Everytown, Tylerton, beset by peculiarly aggressive advertising campaigns, he further discovers that unbeknownst to most of its denizens the entire town is reliving June 15th over and over again.

“And every day the same—always the 15th of June, always my landlady, Mrs. Keefer, is sweeping the front steps, always the same headline in the papers at the corner. It gets monotonous, friend.”

Soon Burkhardt realises that the never-ending day and the offensive advertising are far from unrelated. In fact [OBLIGATORY AND LATE SPOILER ALERT] he soon discovers that the entire town is a miniaturised simulation of the town he thinks he is living in. The horrible truth that Guy Burkhardt uncovers is that he, and the “twenty or thirty thousand other people” of Tylerton have been killed by a tremendous leak and consequent explosion at the Contro Chemicals plants on the town’s outskirts. Seizing upon this “opportunity” a group of advertisers, presumably with the connivance of the US state, move in and retrieve the personalities from the corpses (the high point of the science fictional handwaving of the story), in order to imprint them on tiny robots. And so, they rebuild Tylerton, “a perfect slice of America”, as a scale model city, populated by tiny robot simulacra, all for the nefarious purposes of the dreaded admen and their market research.

“They aren’t Russians and they aren’t Martians. These people are advertising men!”

While reading The Tunnel Under the World I was struck by how Philip K. Dickian it felt—with a dash of Samuel Beckett’s absurdity. Pohl evokes a dream like setting seemingly more real than the real, in which the unwitting characters are stuck, perpetually repeating their lives like clockwork. Here, only the broken machines become aware, and yet this awareness is little recompense. Those who escape their programming finally understand the awful truth that lies beyond appearance: there is no escape, except death—and perhaps not even then.

Pohl’s story most resembles, to my mind, Philip K. Dick’s Adjustment Team (1954). Dick had published this work some four months before Pohl’s The Tunnel Under the World.[1] I do not know if Pohl had read Dick’s work prior to writing The Tunnel Under the World, but the similarities are striking. In Adjustment Team the protagonist, Ed Fletcher, accidentally discovers that his reality is “adjusted” by unseen manipulators that are more bureaucrat than numinous divinity. Indeed, Adjustment Team can seem like the template for a key Dickian theme that Philip K. would chisel away at for the rest of his life: nothing is as it seems.  

“There was Tylerton—an ersatz city, but looking so real and familiar that Burckhardt almost imagined the whole episode a dream. It was no dream, though.”

Where Pohl’s version of Dick seems superior to my mind—at least to the version presented in Adjustment Team—is in the way Pohl evokes the bleak repetitiveness of life in modern capitalist societies. Inevitably, Guy Burkhardt’s reliving of June 15th is given a definitive science fictional explanation in the story. But in truth, Burkhardt realisation that he is trapped in an endless cycle of work and consumption effectively presents the grim monotony of everyday capitalist life. By having the workers of Tylerton being forced to continue the living death of alienation beyond their physical extinction, Pohl cleverly draws attention to what the situationists would come to call the “dead time” of life under capitalism.

However, the circularity of the story also reveals the limits of Pohl’s tale—and perhaps also reveals the story’s limitation as itself a commodity. There is no escape from the little town of Tylerton, and the story ends as bleakly as it began. Burkhardt’s growing awareness, and final discovery of the truth leaves him in no way able to challenge his position. His only option appears to be: cooperate or die. Certainly, Pohl paints him into a science fictional corner. But I feel that it reflects Pohl’s own pessimism about the impossibility of confronting the mundane horror of capitalism. Burkhardt’s awareness cannot lead to a revolutionary consciousness or praxis within the bounds of the story; but in truth, Pohl had become dominated by a cynicism regarding the potentialities and possibilities facing his fellow humans after his less than inspiring brush with Stalinism as a teenager. Indeed, his cynicism is on full display when Burkhardt is confronted with the choice made by another of the town’s denizens, Alice Horn. Horn, “the most beautiful thing he had ever seen in Tylerton,” first appears as another town dweller. Soon, Burkhardt begins to realise that she is somehow in on the mysterious plot that surrounds the town. Finally, when she reveals the actual fate of the town to Burkhardt, she also reveals her role in the deception as a in situ agent of the advertisers:

“I was an ugly woman, Mr Burkhardt, and nearly sixty years old. Life had passed me. And when Mr. Dorchin offered me the chance to live again as a beautiful girl, I jumped at the opportunity. Believe me, I jumped, in spite of its disadvantages.”

Perhaps more distantly, Pohl’s fictional townspeople, repetitively going about their daily undead lives, recalls for me a stunning sequence from Raymond Roussel’s quasi-proto-surrealist fable Locus Solus (1914). Roussel’s work tells the story of the scientist and inventor Martial Canterel guiding a group of guests around his country estate, Locus Solus. Similar to his earlier “novel”,[2] Impressions of Africa (1910), the plot is largely irrelevant, playing mostly the part of vehicle for presenting a series of vignettes in which Canterel shows a series of bizarre contraptions to the guests. In one particularly long and evocative sequence, the guests are shown a series of eight glass enclosures that contain reanimated cadavers. Within, pumped full of the suitably science fictional drugs “vitalium” and “resurrectine,” the undead on display perpetually re-enact “certain outstanding minutes” of their lives.[3]

Roussel’s fiction is deeply unsettling, though equally bizarre and fascinating. His stories are intensely otherworldly in a way few science fiction or fantasy writers achieve. Indeed, apart from the trappings of everyday existence (scientists, travellers, foreign locales, etcetera, etcetera), Roussel’s fiction seems to bear only the most tangential connection to our world. Pohl, on the other hand, wanted to interrogate reality—after a fashion. The target in The Tunnel Under the World is clearly US capitalism circa the 1950s. The horror of the story draws its power from the real horror of capitalism. Tylerton is merely an exaggeration of a situation that already existed in the 1950s.

“You finally understand. There’s no place to go. You know it now. I could have told you, but you might not have believed me, so it was better for you to see it yourself.”

The more terrifying conclusion to be drawn by readers is that for the capitalist nothing is beyond the realm of possibility when it comes to improving sale’s figures. The Tunnel Under the World is a cautionary fable about the limits of commodification. By Pohl’s reckoning, there is no escape from the perils of capitalism in suburban USA, only a labyrinth that draws you further in to its repetitive cycles.

“Sometimes he screams, sometimes he wheedles, threatens, begs, cajoles… but his voice goes on and on through one June 15th after another.”

*

fig. 3. Interior illustration by Ed Emshwiller, for The Tunnel Under the World, Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, January 1955, p. 37.

A final note on the role of repetition in the tale. Re-watching an old skool Doctor Who story recently, Robert Holmes’ Carnival of Monsters (1973), I was struck by his use of repetition. In a set up that has become more familiar since the appearance of the film Groundhog Day in 1993, the Doctor and Jo find themselves in a moment of time that continues to repeat itself. Importantly they can affect some of the detail and content of the moment, but not the overarching formal structure—the moment repeats itself despite any minor changes that are made. As a representation of the historical dilemma we face in capitalist societies—of the sense of never-ending entrapment being caught in the web of wage labour and exclusive property with no way out—the cinematic evocation of this circularity is particularly effective. To what extent were such narrative structures themselves only made possible with the advent of the cinema; the cinema’s singular ability to record and replay an instance of time over and over? However, this apparent perfection of cinematic repetition was itself made possible by the machine-like rhythms of the factory and industrialism. The cinema is the first, truly capitalist art form, in the sense that it is the product of the advanced industrial and scientific techniques that emerged from the development of industrialism in the 19th century.

The cinematic evocation of circular time is the technological realisation of a social fact, the inscription of the capitalist imaginary into the ephemeral reality of its brief historical passage. Its failing as representation, and so as an ideological representation, is to be found in its various uses and interpretations. The apparent technical perfection of cinematic repetition can lend itself to the maladroit theories that read the historical specificity of capitalist alienation into the very substance of existence—for instance, the misplaced ontologies of Heidegger and Foucault. Not unlike Kant mistaking the structures of capitalist modernity for the eternal verities of the supersensible things-in-themselves.

Did the cinema influence Raymond Roussel’s repetitious fancies? Possibly. Frederick Pohl and Philip K Dick were deeply affected, undoubtedly, by their cinema drenched upbringing in the US of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. The truth of these various Groundhog Days is not the eternal lie of capitalism, i.e., that we can only make use of these structures, never change them. Rather, the truth is that cinema time, just like capitalist time, is a structure in the making and, even more so, in the unmaking.


FOOTNOTES

[1] Dick submitted the manuscript to his literary agent early in 1953. See ‘Notes’ in The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume Two: Adjustment Team (1952-1953), Subterranean Press, 2011, pp. 400-401.

[2] I use the term “novel” hesitantly, simply because Roussel’s work can also be categorised in terms of the modernists anti-novels that were calling into question, around the same time as his work, the form and content of the 19th century bourgeois novel.

[3] Raymond Roussel, Locus Solus, translated by Rupert Copeland Cunningham, London: John Calder, 2003, p. 118.

fig. 4. Strictly speaking, this article is not a part of the not-a-challenge, considering that the month in question is January. However, I began writing this piece with an eye to making it my second contribution, and the bulk of the text was completed in January 2021. Plus I like the image. Plus I like the good folk of The Vintage Science Fiction Month not-a-challenge. So there.

Frederik Pohl’s mass consumer (1): The Midas Plague

fig. 1. Interior illustration for ‘The Midas Plague’ by Ed Emshwiller, Galaxy Magazine, April 1954.

1.

There is something I find repellent about the idea of the book review. To my mind they rarely communicate more than the individual preference of the reviewer. Which is not to say that I believe we can find a single objective reading of any text, but rather that reviews—and here I am primarily thinking of reviews of fiction—rarely rise above the accident of opinion. If done well, the review can be a thing of beauty, a creative work in its own right. Even better, the critical review attempts to situate a text in the time and place of its composition and consumption, beyond the jaded whim of the reviewer. And perhaps best of all is the polemical review that treats the work at hand only as an opportunity to wade into the eddies of the historical present, with some combative advice on how best to remedy its dolorous state (preferably from an explicitly revolutionary perspective). Unfortunately, many reviews are rarely more than a hackneyed summary of the text with a vague judgment tacked on. But perhaps this is not the fault of any one reviewer but rather of the condition of reviews given the suffocating dominance of the mass market in book commodities. Today, the mundane truth of the review—whether hailing from blog or bespoke journal—is to be the handmaiden of the sales pitch, and little else.

Maybe this is why I feel less anxious and more relieved in reviewing old works—stories and novels past their publishing prime. Certainly, in the face of present turmoil I take comfort, after a fashion, in the relative stability of the recent past. ‘Stability’ here is strictly a temporal notion, in the sense that this time is over with, past, and complete (as it were), a relatively stable object of enquiry, even if this recent past was beset with its own instabilities and crises when possessed of the mantle of the historical present. Of course, in another sense the recent past is not done with to the extent that it remains with us: a constitutive element of the present insofar as it is an immediate condition of such. For example, the story I review below dealt with, in the 1950s, the then new reality of ‘mass consumption’ whose novelty has since metamorphosed into a mundane fact of the last half century of global capitalism. And perhaps here is where my review may play some critical or even polemical role: to defamiliarize ourselves from the suffocatingly commonplace by showing that what is apparently trivial or routine is anything but.

2.

Some months back I outlined a research project of sorts, what I called the science fiction spectacle. There, I wanted to draw attention to one thing in particular: the appearance in works of science fiction in the 1950s and 60s of what Guy Debord called variously ‘the spectacle’ or ‘the commodity-spectacle’. For now, it is enough to say that by this Debord meant the materialisation of a world view based upon and manifesting the rise to dominance of commodity production and consumption, first in Europe and the US and then the rest of the world. Since outlining this project, I have also been ruminating upon a related notion of Debord’s: the decomposition of culture. In my reading of SF, particularly Anglo-American SF between 1940 and 1970, I have been struck by how it formally recapitulates the progression of the European literary avant-garde of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Namely, we witness in SF of this time and place, the emergence of a self-reflective and recursive decomposition of the artistic object. By “decomposition” I mean, primarily, the literary “experiments” in the form and content of the short story and the novel. This can be seen particularly in the rise of the so-called ‘new wave’ in science fiction in the 1960s.

3.

So what has this got to do with Frederik Pohl?

“Finally, the review!”

Frederik Pohl, ‘The Midas Plague’ (Galaxy Science Fiction, April 1954)

In the 1950s Pohl became known for stories that ruminated on the changing nature of contemporary society, particularly with regard to the transformations in the modes of production and consumption—what some called back then the emergence of a “consumer society”. His best known—and perhaps the classic iteration of 1950s SF satire—is the novel he wrote with C. M. Kornbluth: The Space Merchants (1953), aka Gravy Planet, in its original serial publication (Galaxy magazine, 1952). In the novel, Pohl and Kornbluth ably illustrate what Guy Debord would later describe as the “incessant fabrication of pseudo-needs”[1] consequent upon the rise to dominance of capitalist production:

He extended a pack of cigarettes. | They were Greentips. I said automatically: “No thanks. I smoke Starrs; they’re tastier.” And automatically I lit one, of course. I was becoming the kind of consumer we used to love. Think about smoking, think about Starrs, light a Starr. Light a Starr, think about Popsie, get a squirt. Get a squirt, think about Crunchies, buy a box. Buy a box, think about smoking, light a Starr. And at every step roll out the words of praise that had been dinned into you through your eyes, ears and pores. “I smoke Starrs; they’re tastier. I drink Popsie; it’s zippy. I eat Crunchies; they tang your tongue. I smoke—”[2]

Like The Space Merchants, I consider Pohl’s The Midas Plague as an instance of the ‘science fiction spectacle’ (briefly discussed in section {2} above). Unlike The Space Merchants, The Midas Plague is not a good story. Its central conceit, the inversion of the wealth of mass consumer society, such that a rich person consumes less than a poor one, is at first sight satirically sharp. The set-up, which presents what was once known as the working class utterly dominated by the necessity to consume the vast panoply of goods churned out of the automated factories of a future welfare state capitalism, is biting. Lamentably, the more Pohl works to make this conceit believable, the more it becomes tiresome. Nonetheless, judging from the number of times it has been reprinted and translated, The Midas Plague seems to be popular with someone.

The critic and author Barry N. Malzberg noted in an introduction to the work that,

The audacious and patchwork concept underlying this story […] was Horace Gold’s [editor of Galaxy] and according to Pohl he had offered it to almost all of his regular contributors, asking for a story centred on the idea. The idea lacks all credibility, everyone (including Pohl) told him, and everyone refused to write something so patently unbelievable until, according to Pohl, Horace browbeat him into an attempt and Pohl decided that it was less trouble to deliver something than continue to resist. To his utter shock, the story was received by Gold and his readership with great glee, was among the most popular GALAXY ever published (or Pohl) and one of the most anthologized. Whether this demonstrated the audacity and scope of Gold’s unreason or whether it confirmed Gold’s genius (or both) Pohl was utterly unable to decide.[3]

I can only sympathise with Pohl’s confusion here. Sure, it is ably written, but any claim this satire has to incisiveness or wit is lost in its overlong and ramshackle telling. Judging from Damon Knight’s near contemporaneous review, few people other than Horace Gold seemed to think much of it:

This [story] is good for one laugh, or possibly two, but there is some-thing gaggingly irrational after a while in the spectacle of Pohl’s hero choking down more food than he can eat. The question, “Why doesn’t he flush the stuff down the drain?” comes up several times during the story, but Pohl never answers it, he only makes vaguely relevant-sounding noises and changes the subject. The alternate solution, that of putting robots to work using up all the stuff the hero is supposed to consume, comes thirty pages too late in the story, but is hailed by everybody as a revolutionary idea.[4]

Unlike Knight I am less concerned with the failed “realism” of the story. That realism is at issue in fiction is patent—after all, such realism or “naturalism” is the very hallmark of the one-time avant-garde radicalism of bourgeois literature. However, it is here that science fiction helps reveal the chief impasse of such literature, perhaps even more than the modernist literature that set out to call into question nineteenth century realism. As the saying goes, the map is not the territory: more so when the territory in question either does not yet exist; or when it comes to pass, will most likely never exist in the way it was imagined. Of course, this is not a problem for those that conceive of science fiction as merely the fictionalised present. In either case, we are back at square one. Either the realism of a fictional future is inherently problematic (just because… the future…), or the realism of the novel itself is problematic simply because as a literary artefact it is necessarily more than simply the reflection of the true state of things.

The realism, or not, of The Midas Plague is at issue because Pohl attempts to fashion a coherent, realist picture of the future. And very quickly, as Knight points out, this sham coherence unravels. For Pohl’s future to “work”, one must accept that the vast majority of its denizens are idiots at best. Indeed, I suspect that this says more about Frederik Pohl the jaded ex-Young Communist League member, whose despair at the present state of capitalist society is underwritten by his loss of faith in the capacity of the masses to understand or even desire to change the nature of the present social arrangement.

What would have been more interesting by far would have been something akin to what Pohl and Kornbluth attempted with The Space Merchants: to whit, an extrapolation of current trends. But in The Midas Plague it is precisely the science fictional gloss that gets in the way of Pohl’s satirical intent. Still, buried in the ponderous extent of The Midas Plague lie elements of a genuinely radical critique of capitalism:

It wasn’t so hard to be a proper, industrious consumer if you worked at it, he reflected. It was only the malcontents, the ne’er-do-wells and the incompetents who simply could not adjust to the world around them.[5]

Unfortunately, the genuinely biting and occasionally funny satire quickly fades under the burden of the stupidities of plot and character. As Damon Knight remarked in his review,

The story proper is just as dull as it ought to be, but Pohl has embellished it with some additional scenes that are better than it deserves—fine, zany drunk episodes, involving a couple of very sharp minor characters and some highly agreeable mock poetry and politics.[6]

Fortunately for us, Pohl had another go at the fictional critique of present trends. A mere nine months after the publication of The Midas Plague he returned with The Tunnel Under the World, broadly similar in its interrogation of the new arrangements (particularly with an eye to what Debord called “pseudo-needs”). This time, however, he hit pay dirt. Tunnel… is a vastly superior work, whose fictional premise and execution lives up to its critical bite.

I will return to discuss Pohl’s The Tunnel Under the World in my next post.

fig. 2. Cover illustration for Galaxy, April 1954: ‘An Expedition to Eden’ by Ed Emshwiller.

FOOTNOTES

[1] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, chapter 2, thesis 51

[2] Frederik Pohl & C. M. Kornbluth, The Space Merchants, chapter 8.

[3] Barry N. Malzberg, ‘eForward’ to ‘The Midas Plague’, The Galaxy Project, Rosetta Books, 2011. In his memoir, The Way The Future Was, Pohl noted that The Midas Plague was one of only “two stories in my whole catalog which were suggested by someone else,” concluding, perhaps over-generously, that “it is a source of some chagrin to me that I like them better than most”.

[4] Damon Knight, ‘Infinity’s Choice’, Infinity Science Fiction, October 1957, pp. 108-109

[5] Frederik Pohl, ‘The Midas Plague’ (Galaxy Science Fiction, April 1954).

[6] Knight, ‘Infinity’s Choice’.

fig. 3. This has been a contribution to Vintage Science Fiction not-a-challenge.

The doctor who is Shamass

fig1. Who is this Doctor?

Today is the 57th anniversary of the first broadcast of Doctor Who in the UK. Hence it is known in some quarters of the universe as Doctor Who Day.

While celebrating this day in whatever way, as any fan should and must, I have a related anniversary to mark of my own—Doctor Shamass Day, if you will. “Doctor what?” you might well ask.

A bit over 23 years ago I published the first version of a zine called The Journal of Doctor Shamass. I wrote it around the middle of 1996 and self-published it the following year. For those many Shamassians out there, more info on the particulars of this writing and publishing can be found here.

Perhaps Shamass is everything I wished I was—at that time as now: an exotic loner adrift upon the capricious waves of time and space. Sound familiar? These dreams are, like most, brought on by the humdrum of existence. Though to be fair to existence, the present “humdrum” is without doubt overwhelmingly a product of the stupidity of organising everyday life around work, wage-labour and commodity production. Oh to find a different time and space—or better, to make one.

The inspiration for my Doctor’s name was the Assyrian and Babylonian god Shamash, itself a later version of the Sumerian Utu. That winter in 1996 I had poured over The Epic of Gilgamesh, entranced by the story of the King of Uruk and his friend Enkidu. I imagine I was looking for the source of it all, or at least the source of literature and science fiction. In Gilgamesh I found a dual progenitor: of culture, and that literary form most redolent of our industrial, post-industrial world—sf.

I cannot clearly recall if I set out to consciously evoke Doctor Who in Shamass. A mysterious stranger who accumulates time, and apparently travels in it—what else could it be? At the time, though, my concern was more literary, and my references more arcane. I was a reader of Arthur Rimbaud, the Comte de Lautréamont, André Breton, René Daumal, Karl Marx, Guy Debord and J. G. Ballard. If it is true that I wanted to evoke a fictional character of which I was immoderately obsessed during a childhood spent in the 1970s and 1980s, now—in 1996—the passion had somewhat changed.[1]

By the time I published the second edition of The Journal of Doctor Shamass in November 2008 the relationship of Who and Shamass was now official. Appropriately, I put the Seal of Rassilon on the final page of the new edition.

fig. 2. The Seal of Rassilon.

A month later I printed my first Doctor Shamass Christmas card, a now venerable tradition I have continued to this day. Since then, amidst a stream of more cards, posters and postcards, I have even managed to shoot a video story of Shamass and his most faithful of companions, Verity Hawkins. Indeed, the video—launched just before Christmas 2019—is to date the most explicit of references to old skool Doctor Who. It’s all in the name: The Clockwork Masterplan.

fig. 3. The Clockwork Masterplan. The first foray of Doctor Shamass into the world of video.

What more have I to say about these two doctors? Picking through the detritus of one’s life it is by turns easy and difficult to sort out the peculiar stories of personality and habit (are these even different?). One is inevitably more intrigued, horrified and bored by one’s own story than any other. That Doctor Shamass contains more than just the Doctor—Doctor Who that is—is clear to me. What more there is, is by turns intriguing, horrifying and boring to all. Perhaps one day, when there are no more days, I can at last tell that story.

*

While wating for that day, stay tuned for more things Shamassian on this blog, an all-new Shamass zine, and—of course—the latest Christmas/New Years card. For the time being, many of the cards and posters are available in PDF format here. And remember, if not the strangest of Doctor Who fan fictions, Doctor Shamass is at least a contender for the most obscure.


FOOTNOTES

[1] Perhaps I was inspired by the Doctor Who film in 1996 that promised the return of the TV series to our screens after so many years?—a promise that was rapidly dashed. I do, however, recall being mightily impressed by the reimagining of the TARDIS interior in the film—and little else! Also, the seventh Doctor’s perusal of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine in the opening sequence of the film. I am inordinately interested in Wells’ novel, which coincidentally makes an appearance in The Journal of Doctor Shamass.

CAPITALISM AS WILL AND HALLUCINATION

fig. 1. Illustration by Leo Dillon and Diane Dillon. Taken from the original publication of Faith of Our Fathers in Dangerous Visions (1967). For more on Mao, see the situationist image and text, below.

Some thoughts on Philip K. Dick’s Faith of Our Fathers

Over the years I’ve found myself returning to a Philip K Dick short story called Faith of Our Fathers.  Or, to be more exact, I am haunted by the central conceit of this story. The idea at its heart resonates long after the details of the story begin to fade.

First published in 1967, in Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthology, Dick imagines a future in which the Cold War has been won by the East. The protagonist is a minor bureaucrat in Vietnam. Though “protagonist” doesn’t get to the heart of Dick’s main characters, who are often thinly veiled versions of himself inextricably enmeshed and propelled by the situations they find themselves in, rather than being actors and shapers of plot and destiny. Anti-protagonists perhaps.

Of course, as so often happens in Dick’s fictional worlds, not all is as it seems. However, in Faith of Our Fathers, Dick elaborates a subtle transformation upon his familiar theme of the false and the true. As the protagonist at first suspects and soon discovers, the apparent world is not the real one. But rather than finding a single hidden truth, the protagonist discovers that the truth is multiple, ‘a variety of authentic experiences’ hidden by a single, consensual hallucination.

Here Dick is playing with the intuitive sense that reality is singular, unitary and most importantly objective—in the sense that there is only one reality, no matter how big or potentially infinite it is, and that its being is independent of a particular subjective experience of it. The concomitant of such objectivity in this case, is the idea that a false reality would almost certainly be the result of a subjective experience, whether through a defect in an individual’s perceptual capacities (e.g. as the result of a psychosomatic impairment like schizophrenia) or through the “external” alteration of perception (e.g. as the result of mind altering substances).

Dick upends this common sense in Faith of Our Fathers, insofar as he presents the false reality as singular, and in a way objective, whereas the true reality is multiple and subjective—though not exactly in the latter case. In later comments upon this work, Dick seemed more concerned with resolving his story’s conceit to the question of different subjective experiences of the one true divine reality.[1] Here, unfortunately, Dick offers a less interesting insight into his story, than the story alone. We do well to remember a comment of Marx’s: that we should not judge an individual merely by what they think about themselves, but rather by way of an examination of the conflictual social and material relations in which they find themselves.[2]

Indeed, it is the central conceit of Faith of Our Fathers and not Dick himself that speaks to us today (see some earlier comments of mine, here, on why I think we can use an author’s works for other purposes, even one’s at odds with the author’s intentions). Global capitalist society is the consensual hallucination that we have been submitted too, bolstered by the soporific ubiquity of money, wage labour, and the commodification of the entirety of our desires, no matter how mundane or extraordinary. Indeed, the singular achievement of pro-capitalists has been to cajole enough people into believing that there is no alternative to the rule of the market, and even more incredibly that its reign is in effect the most rational and even most natural form of human organisation. That the contemporary global market is a type of shared delusion, a hallucination in which we poor saps are drugged in a haze of commodity choices and the struggle to simply survive by means of—or in the absence of—waged labour, has become increasingly stark.

Living as we do in a world in which the West “won” the Cold War, what is perhaps most illuminating for us is the sense that such a victory resolved none of the underlying issues of the Cold War—in particularly, the purported success of the capitalist model. Indeed, this is far more obvious almost 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union than it was in the first few years of the 1990s. In this sense, the sheer mundanity of Dick’s imagined Eastern Bloc victory aptly describes both the banal triumphalism of the US in the wake of 1991, and the mundane horrors of globalisation and accelerating climate change that we have enjoyed as a consequence.

To be clear: in no way am I advocating for the so-called “communism” of the Eastern Bloc that Dick himself found repellent. Undoubtedly, the people of the old Soviet Union suffered under a hallucinatory nightmare version of “communism” that was cynically used by Stalin and his successors to mollify the truth of the continued existence of all the old garbage of class society. If we dig down into the reality of life in the Soviet Union, what is clear is that the working classes had little or no control over the state or the economy, a state of affairs conspicuously reminiscent of the “free” West.[3] Indeed, the symmetry of the contending sides of the Cold War was a common trope in some of Dick’s greatest works of the 1950s and 60s. Dick’s novel The Penultimate Truth (1964) is perhaps the best exploration of this theme. Also check out the brilliant short story Foster, You’re Dead! (1955) regarding one of the more egregious stupidities of the Cold War in the US.[4]

To be honest, it’s been some time since I last read Faith of Our Fathers. The detail fades, the central conceit is crystal clear. Time for a reread.

fig. 2. Image and text taken from the article ‘Le point d’explosion de l’idéologie en Chine’ in Internationale Situationniste no. 11, October 1967. Translation of the article available here. Translation by me of the text accompanying the illustration, below.

PORTRAIT OF ALIENATION

This Chinese mass, arranged in such a way that in itself it composes a screen portrait of Mao, can be considered as a limit case of the concentrated spectacle of state power (see Internationale Situationniste no. 10, pages 44 and 45), of which “in the under-developed zone… all that is [considered] admirable is gathered together in ideology and—at the extreme—in a single man… to be applauded and consumed passively.” Here the fusion of the spectator and the image of contemplation seem to have attained a police-like perfection. Sometime later, by believing it useful to go even further beyond this degree of concentration, the Chinese bureaucracy was able to leap over the machine.


FOOTNOTES

[1] Additionally, Dick was keen to distance himself from those commentaries that tried to assert that he was advocating for the Eastern Bloc’s victory in the Cold War. See the Notes to both versions of Dick’s Collected Short Stories. Here, I’m referring to Volume 5 of the Subterranean Press 2014 edition of The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’, pp. 472-73.

[2] See, Karl Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859).

[3] Note I am not advocating for a working-class state. However, the far more interesting and tricky question of the self-abolition of the working class, and the destruction of the capitalist state and economy in the red heat of communism is for another time.

[4] In this regard, also see the Situationist International, Geopolitics of Hibernation (1962).

What is the sinister science?

fig. 1. Who is the sinister scientist? Collage by antyphayes.

1.

What is the sinister science? For a start, it’s this blog. But could it be something else?

2.

I have another blog called Notes from the sinister quarter. Originally, I set it up to be the platform for my PhD research—primarily on aspects of the life of the Situationist International (1957-1972). I took its name from Ivan Chtcheglov’s proto-situationist text, Formulary for a New Urbanism (1953).

In his article, Chtcheglov envisaged a city given over to the playful desire for the total creation of life. The city was presented as a possible realisation of Guy Debord’s idea of the ‘constructed situation’. The emphasis was on play and the ‘total creation’ of life in opposition to the chaotic, exploitative, and oppressive reality of the capitalist city.[1]  

In clear opposition to the so-called functional capitalist city divided into commercial, residential, industrial and governmental districts, Chtcheglov proposed that his city of play and desire would ‘correspond to the whole spectrum of diverse feelings that one encounters by chance in everyday life.’ [2] Thus, he imagined various districts—quartiers in the French—whose names indicated something that transcended the merely descriptive or habitual. But of all his proposed quarters one in particular stood out. 

The Sinister Quarter […] would replace all the dumps, dives and other gateways to the underworld that many peoples once possessed in their capitals: they symbolized all the evil forces of life. The Sinister Quarter would have no need to harbor real dangers, such as traps, dungeons or mines. It would be difficult to get into, with a hideous decor (piercing whistles, alarm bells, sirens wailing intermittently, grotesque sculptures, power-driven mobiles, called Auto-Mobiles), and as poorly lit at night as it was blindingly lit during the day by the excessive use of reflective phenomena. At its centre, the “Square of the Appalling Mobile.” And just as the saturation of the market with a product causes the product’s market value to fall, children and adults alike would learn not to fear the anguishing occasions of life as they explored the Sinister Quarter, but rather be amused by them.[3]

Of course, Chtcheglov, Debord and other young ‘International Letterists’ imagined their city of creative desire amidst their play within and without the dumps and dives of Paris—a living sketch of the projected sinister quarter and situationist city. Indeed, Chtcheglov’s Formulary… would prove crucial to the early years of the Situationist International, particularly of what would become known as ‘unitary urbanism’. By proposing the use of literary and other artistic works as ‘blueprints’ liberated from the mausoleum of culture to aid in the construction of future situations, Chtcheglov anticipated the later theory of détournement. Against much of the contemporaneous Marxist and Anarchist orthodoxy, Guy Debord would later make explicit what was implied by Chtcheglov’s vision: in order to be practical, any methodological critique of capitalist urbanism must encompass an argument for what comes after. Or even more succinctly: the critical means must encompass the end aimed for:

[T]he practice of utopia only makes sense if it is closely linked to the practice of revolutionary struggle. The latter, in its turn, cannot do without such a utopia without being condemned to sterility.[4]

3.

There is an article by André Breton that reminds me of Chtcheglov’s Formulary…—a precursor if you will. Breton’s article, translated as ‘Once Upon A Time’, was first published in the surrealist journal Le Surréalisme au service de la Révolution, no. 1 (1930). In the article, Breton imagined establishing a house and grounds on the outskirts of Paris dedicated to placing its temporary denizens into a ‘position which seems to be as poetically receptive as possible’.[5]

What Chtcheglov did for the imaginary city, Breton attempted on the scale of a single building and its immediate surrounds. In Breton’s case a certain sinister quality pervades the entirety of his project:

Nothing grand. Just around thirty rooms with, as far as possible, long corridors that would be very dark or that I would myself make dark. […]

For each bedroom, a large clock made of black glass will be set to chime especially well at midnight. […]

There will be hardly anything but small study lamps with green lampshades that will be dimmed very low. The blinds will remain lowered day and night.

Only the white-washed reception hall will be lit with an invisible ceiling light and it will contain no other furniture, besides two authentic Merovingian chairs, and a stool on which will sit the perfume bottle tied up with a pale ribbon, inside which a discoloured rose will be immersed with its stems and leaves equally lifeless […].[6]

The décor is distinctly—and inevitably—dream-like, pervaded with the spectral gloom one would expect of such nocturnal visions. Breton perversely equips his playground with a single law, redolent of his own grip upon the reigns of surrealist (anti) power: a firm injunction against sex, ‘strictly forbidden, under penalty of immediate and definitive expulsion’ from the building and its grounds.[7] One wonders how such a directive would have been enforced in a zone otherwise given over to chance and play.

There are other details: rooms almost impossible to gain entry to—possibly the one most in keeping with Chtcheglov’s difficult to access quarter. What I find most fascinating, and commensurate with the Formulary…, is Breton’s idea of a distinctly anti-capitalist architecture as re-enchantment, as the recovery and practical elaboration of those fantastical stories we were told as children—stories whose main failing is precisely their role as forms of inoculation, subservient to the rapidly approaching adult world of wage labour and other alienations.

As Breton may have remarked, somewhere, anywhere: the sinister is what tends to become real.

4.

So, having got this far you might be wondering: is there a sinister science?

Without doubt, the sinister science blog draws inspiration from Chtcheglov’s imaginary city and Breton’s dream house. To that extent, I am more than happy to declare the surrealist and situationist lineage of this project. However, “the sinister science” is, for me, no mere bon mot or frivolous affectation—even if it is also this. I also sincerely believe in a sinister science, one that bears comparison to a more general sense of science—what is called Wissenschaft in German—rather than the modern restricted sense of what was once called the natural sciences.

If there is a single principle of the sinister science, it is error. The anti-royal road to truth is littered with our blunders and mistakes. In part, this is Hegel’s argument: the false is a moment of the true. But he continues: no longer as the false.[8] Hegel’s truth is not founded upon the principle of bivalence and “falsifiability”. Rather, error is resolved as a moment of the process of truth (and so, per the comments above, not false at all). Without digressing into an examination of Hegel’s truth versus conceptions of the truth value of propositions, for now it is enough to hold onto the following: Hegel is more concerned with truth as a process and the role of error in this process. Error, in Hegel’s sense, is only false to the extent that it is considered in abstraction from such sensuous processes, and so posed in a less than splendid isolation from the entire truth of the matter. Indeed, in The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel draws attention to the crucial role that error has in the movement of truth, insofar as error and contradiction are generative of the processes which resolves them. Unlike the analytic sense of truth, Hegel’s truth is not a question of the truth value of a particular proposition considered in isolation. Truth, by his reckoning, is not so much arrived at as it is the form and content of the entire process.

However, Hegel’s conception of error and truth should not be confused with more recent conceptions of the relativism of truth derived from Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche infamously argued that truth is merely the history of an error.[9] In contrast to Hegel, Nietzsche was not interested in the relationship between truth and error, but rather keen to demonstrate that all purported truths are merely so many fictions. All that make them true, by his reckoning, is the extent to which they embody a will to power that triumphs in the face of other, competing ‘truths’. More recently this has been recast by Michel Foucault as the theory of discursive power. As has been often pointed out, the chief problem with such claims is that they tend to be self-undermining. By presenting truth as the function of a successful will to power, such theories undermine their own implicit claim to being true.

Crucial to Nietzsche’s conception of the necessarily fictitious nature of ideas about reality is the belief in the utter irreconcilable difference of thought and being. In his reckoning, it is this difference that is at the root of the fictitious claims about being that have been fashioned by humans. However, in making this claim Nietzsche follows his master, Schopenhauer, albeit with the more transcendental aspects of the latter’s Kantian philosophy hacked off. Nonetheless, and despite his apparent loathing of the thinker of Königsberg, Nietzsche maintains the unfortunate dualism of Kant’s schema, insofar as thought and thinking are cast as irreducibly other to what is not thought. Thereby, even though Nietzsche and his followers claim the mantle of radical materialists, they in effect maintain precisely the spectral Platonism that they so loudly protest. Except, in their case, the dualism they eschew is hidden behind the assertion of a flat ontology of immanence.

fig. 2. “We know only a single science, the sinister science.” Still from the film Them! (1954).

To be absolutely clear, the sinister science is incompatible with Foucauldian and Nietzschean notions of error. As I hope I have made clear, the sinister science is closer to Hegel’s negative dialectic and Marx’s redeployment of this under the aegis of his ‘materialist conception of history’. Indeed, that this science is implicated in not only the criticism of all that is, but equally its transformation, is precisely what makes it sinister. And with due alteration, I can induce Hegel to remark that history is the sinister bench upon which the cosmos itself will be dissected and rearranged. Or, as Marx and Engels purportedly wrote, shortly before crossing out their fruitful error:

We know only a single science, the sinister science.


FOOTNOTES

[1] Ivan Chtcheglov, Formulary for a New Urbanism, 1953.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. Translation modified.

[4] Daniel Blanchard & Guy Debord. Preliminaries Toward Defining a Unitary Revolutionary Program, 1960. Translation modified.

[5] André Breton, ‘Once Upon A Time’, from The Dedalus Book of Surrealism 2, translated by Michael Richardson, Langford Lodge: 1994, p. 5.

[6] Ibid., pp. 2, 3-4.

[7] Ibid., p. 3.

[8] See, Hegel, The Phenomenology of the Spirit, Preface, thesis 39 (T. Pinkard translation).

[9] See, Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols.