The science fiction spectacle (2)

fig. 1. “What isn’t surpassed rots, what rots incites supersession.” From a situationist ad for Raoul Vaneigem’s Traité de savoir-vivre à l’usage des jeunes générations (1967).

When I first set out to write this blog post I intended to show off some of the science fictional motifs that appeared in the activity of the Situationist International (SI). For instance, the many détournements of science fiction comics that appear over several issues of their journal; and the science fictional qualities of some of their ideas and theories—most obviously ‘psychogeography’ and ‘unitary urbanism’. Broadly, the point was, and is, to demarcate the science fiction of the SI—the science fiction (SF) that appears in their work—from another related project I am also trying to chart: the ‘science fiction spectacle’. However, I am going to set aside looking at the SF of the SI for the time being to briefly return to the question of what exactly is the ‘science fiction spectacle’.

1.

In a previous post, when speaking of the ‘science fiction spectacle’, I was perhaps not as clear as some would have liked (including myself). There, I noted that the SI infamously claimed that their ‘theory is in people like fish are in water’.[1] Rather than being the megalomaniac claim some have accused them of (though the Situationists were not averse to megalomania), the point they were driving at was a simple one. In contrast to the pro-capitalist idea that revolutionary critique and contestation comes from without capitalism (where exactly… Mars…?), the situationists argued that their critique of ‘the society of the spectacle’ was merely one iteration—albeit a particularly coherent one—of a broader critique being generated within the then present capitalist society.

To be sure, the situationists were not simply arguing for the equivalence of these criticisms. Indeed, they were clear: their concept of ‘spectacle’ was presented in order to ‘unify and explain’ the apparent diversity of seeming unconnected phenomena—for instance, the various industrially produced news, propaganda, advertising, mass entertainments and commodities that were increasingly marking the ‘modern’ world of the 1950s and 60s (what some have called the ‘media landscape’ or ‘admass’).[2]

What is the ‘spectacle’? For now, I will note that Debord’s concept of spectacle is an amplification and development of Marx’s concepts of alienation, ideology and the commodity-fetish. What links these latter with the concept of spectacle is that they all pose that aspects of human practice have become objectified or externalised in such a way that they appear to be ‘autonomous’ of these practices. For Marx, the ‘fetishism of commodities’ was an attempt to describe this autonomy, in which the commodities produced by humans appeared to ‘live’ their ‘real’ life as repositories of ‘value’ amidst their circulation, marketing and sale, independent of their conditions of production:

The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists therefore simply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men’s own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things. Hence it also reflects the social relation of the producers to the sum total of labour as a social relation between objects, a relation which exists apart from and outside the producers. Through this substitution, the products of labour become commodities, sensuous things which are at the same time suprasensible or social. […] [T]he commodity-form […] [has] absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

For Debord,

The fetishism of the commodity—the domination of society by “sensuous things which are at the same time supersensible”—attains its ultimate fulfillment in the spectacle, where the perceptible world is replaced by a selection of images which exists projected above it, yet which at the same time succeeds in making itself regarded as the perceptible par excellence.

I will return to the question of what exactly is the ‘spectacle’ in more detail in a future post.

2.

By way of what I call the ‘science fiction spectacle’, I propose to illustrate the situationist critique of the ‘spectacle’ with reference to various examples of science fiction that dealt with the same object of criticism (the commodity-spectacle), and at the same time (the 1950s and 60s). I am not arguing that such science fictional ‘criticism’ proposed a theoretical critique of the ‘society of the spectacle’ in the same fashion as the SI, but rather that the criticisms that do appear in the SF of this era can reasonably be used to illustrate and even justify situationist claims.

Apart from a passing familiarity with the situationists, I have a longer interest in science fiction that stretches back through my childhood. More recently I have become fixated on Anglo-American science fiction from the 1940s, 50s and 60s. In particular, it is short SF from this period I am most fascinated with—short stories, novelettes and novellas. In a brutally pragmatic fashion, it is easier to plough through a few hundred short stories than novels. However, there is more to my interest than this. Not unlike Orson Welles, I feel that short form SF is ‘better than the long ones’—and for similar reasons.[5]  The short form is perfect as modern fable, or rather an anti-fable in which contemporary morality is not so much the lesson as the object of criticism.

Elements of what the situationist proposed to cohere under the concept of ‘spectacle’ can be found in Anglo-American science fiction of the post-war period: specifically, between 1945 and 1970. Exemplars of such science fictional criticism can be found in the work of Frederick Pohl (e.g. The Midas Plague, 1954, and The Tunnel Under the World, 1955), and Philip K Dick’s (e.g. The Defenders, 1953, and The Mold of Yancy, 1954). However, the emergence of such ‘sociological science fiction’ was broader than these two better known authors. [6]

The years I propose—1945 to 1970—are not merely accidental. Even though the situationist development of the concept of ‘spectacle’ lay between 1957 and 1967, with the highpoint of its development between 1962 and 1967, Debord and others had been developing their critical practice from at least 1951. That there was ‘something in the air’ between 1945 and 1970 akin to the full-blown situationist critique of the 1960s is something I would like to explore. Additionally, the endpoint of 1970 is similarly non-accidental. The world changed after 1968–at the very least, became more cynical about the dominance of the ‘spectacle’. Debord would note, shortly after 1968, how the ‘negativity’ of the rebellions was already ‘invading’ the commodity-spectacle. As David Pringle and Peter Nicholls have noted, ‘[a]bout the end of the 1970s traditional sf about the media seemed to wither away almost overnight: during the 1980s harsh satires about the world of admen, once almost commonplace, became scarce’. I would hazard to argue that this was a result, a least in part, of two processes: on the one hand, the more general calling into question of what the situationists called the commodity-spectacle in the wake of 1968; and on the other hand, the utter triumph of the self-same commodity-spectacle through the ultimate defeat of the movement of 1968—not to mention the sheer brutal omnipresence of the once ‘new’ world of mass communications by the 1980s.

To be clear, I am not proposing that I am the first to note the critical content of science fiction from this period. Indeed, the literature on the critique of the ‘media landscape’ in science fiction—to name just one of the elements—is well advanced. Rather, I want to examine these stories not only as responses to the developments in capitalist society in the immediate post-war period, but further propose that we can draw upon these stories in the situationist style: détourn them for critical purposes.

Among other things, I will return to the idea of the ‘science fiction spectacle’ in upcoming posts.


FOOTNOTES

[1] Situationist International, ‘The role of the S.I. [1962]‘, trans. by Reuben Keehan. Translation modified.

[2] See, in particular, thesis 6 and 10 of Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle.

[3] Marx, Capital, volume 1, chapter 1, ‘The fetishism of the commodity and its secret’.

[4] The Society of the Spectacle, chapter 2, thesis 36, translation modified.

[5] Orson Welles, ‘Introduction’, in S.F: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Judith Merril, Dell Publishing: 1956, p. 8.

[6] Elsewhere I have begun to examine Russian science fiction from the same time. And I would hope that this project will lead to an examination of other iterations of SF around the globe of the mid-twentieth century.

The prehistory of the human imagination

fig. 1. ‘Wreck! Smash! Destroy!’ Detail of ‘The prehistory of the human imagination accordingly closes’ (see below).

The images and imaginary of Frank Hampson’s Dan Dare still exert a profound influence upon me. “Still,” in the sense that they first crashed upon my sensibilities as a frivolous and anxious 12 year old, and now forty years later remain radioactive, albeit somewhat decayed.

When I discovered Dan Dare he was already old. The reprinted story, The Man from Nowhere (Dragon Dream, 1979), was what seemed then a very long twenty-five years past in 1980. So much had seemed to have happened in the intervening years.

Today, it is this vision of Dan Dare more than the explicit story that remains potent. Though I’m not arguing that one can be painlessly extracted or divorced from the other, like some metaphysical surgery that finally cuts the cord of form and content. Nonetheless, I have a huge soft spot for the first two stories of Hampson’s—the Venusian bound ‘Pilot of the Future’, and the somewhat Martian ‘Red Moon Mystery’.

From a critical perspective the vision and story of the future presented in Dan Dare is problematic. Taking off in 1950, Hampson’s imaginary future of 1996 is mostly devoid of women, excepting the wonderful if somewhat underutilized Professor Jocelyn Peabody. And despite the utopian planetary unity and species universalism of the series, and the fact that Colonel Dare’s Space Fleet is a global organisation, none of the main characters are non-Europeans. Hank Hogan, the consonantly named Yank, and the French Pierre Lafayette are as exotic as it gets. Created in the wake of the Second World War, this is a boy’s own tale of British daring-do in space (+ some wartime allies…), one-part stiff upper lip, another part the spirit of the Blitz. Needless to say, none of the roll call are Russians.

Analyzing Dan Dare is not without interest. Certainly, these stories have much to tell us about the time and place in which they were composed, not to mention what was imagined there about the end of the 20th century. At its best Dan Dare expresses the optimism associated with the United Nations after the victory over fascism in the 1940s. At its worst, the stereotypes and oppressive reality of the 1950s sit uncomfortably with its vision of the future. But I find that the representational content of culture—at least in terms of a purported realism or near future realism in this case—is often the least interesting aspect. The tensions of the present in which it created are patently on display; but it is the possible hidden in this thicket of the imaginary that is by far its most interesting content.

I believe that Dan’s adventures are best used for other purposes, beyond mere consumption or citation. This cultural artefact needs to be revived and put back into play. The situationists called such revivification détournement; the 19th century Uruguayan writer Isidore Ducasse called it simply plagiarism. Drawing upon both of the foregoing, I’ve been known to call it open plagiarism.

The détournement below, ‘The prehistory of the human imagination accordingly closes’, is drawn from two sources. From the Dan Dare story ‘Rogue Planet’ (Eagle, Vol. 7 No. 8, 24 February 1956 and Vol. 7 No. 10, 9 March 1956), and Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s Intellectual and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology (1978). The title is a riff on the closing sentence of that famous paragraph from Marx’s Preface to his A Contribution to A Critique of Political Economy (1859).

Keep your spaced eyes peeled for more Dan Dare détournements

The prehistory of the human imagination accordingly closes

fig. 2. ‘The prehistory of the human imagination accordingly closes’. Right click and select ‘view image’ for a larger version.

A clarification on method

fig. 1. détournement as method; as means and end.

Generally, I do not believe that pulp fiction should be read as a bigoted assertion of power, whatever the trend in today’s academia. So, for instance, James Earl Jones’ performance of the evil Thulsa Doom in Conan the Barbarian (1982), is just a great performance, and rightly read by its mainly working class audience as encouraging the play of the imagination. Keeping this in mind, I am mostly interested in using pulp fiction—détournement as the situationists said—to help make plain the ongoing destructive, cybernetic and technocratic aspects of contemporary capitalism.

Even though semiotic analysis can sometimes prove illuminating, by unearthing the ways in which cultural commodities often reproduce the dominant ideas of the capitalist present, the practice of détournement is more immediately destructive of such oppressive ideas. By proposing the “the reuse of preexisting artistic elements in a new ensemble”, the practice of détournement makes it clear that the interpretation of the world is alone insufficient for changing it.

The science fiction spectacle

fig. 1. ‘The Programmed People’, Ed Emshwiller, Amazing Stories cover, June 1963

It turns out that behind the so-called screen which is supposed to conceal the interior, there is nothing to be seen unless we go behind it ourselves, not only in order that we may see, but also that there may be something behind there that can be seen.”—Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, 1807[1]

The Situationist International (SI) infamously claimed that ‘situationist theory is in people like fish are in water’.[2] In making what some have considered an outrageously egomaniacal claim, the situationists were simply restating an argument that had been around since at least Marx. Considering that the task of proletarian self-emancipation is the project of the proletariat themselves, the understanding of such a modern condition—“proletarian”—is likewise the project of the proletariat themselves and not merely that of intellectual specialists, whether proletarian or bourgeois, revolutionary or academic.[3] As Marx put it some five years before the foundation of the First International, people become conscious of the contradictions of the social production of their existence by way of ‘the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms’. Consequently, in any struggle to overcome such contradictions one must ‘fight it out’ amidst such forms.[4] There is a relationship of entailment—an identity in the Hegelian sense—between these ‘forms’ of consciousness and the ‘material’ conditions of capitalist life. Indeed, the ideological forms are so much material of the social relation, whether more or less materialized; more or less ineffable: the dreams and conversations of an epoch.

To the end of illustrating the science fiction spectacle—a subgenre of capitalist ideology and its immanent contradictions—I am going to compare and contrast a text by the Situationist International and an excerpt from a science fiction story by John Jakes. The Ed Emshwiller cover illustration (above), provides a suitable visualisation of the coming ‘programmed people’ become literal punch cards of the computerized masters. Note that all of these pieces were published in 1963.

The SI text muses on the police like nature of academic sociology, and its relationship to the coming science fiction dystopia of computerized ‘modern information technologies’. John Jakes imagines a near future—early 21st century—in which the imperatives of the fashion industry of the early 1960s and the principles of planned obsolescence have been extended to the human personality.[5] Both texts expound, in their own way, upon what the SI derisively calls ‘sociological beauty’: the ‘mystified and mystifying elevation of the partial that hides totalities and their movement’.[6] Missing from both, tellingly given the year of composition, is a critical feminist perspective. Beauty simply is associated with a sort of implicitly timeless “femininity”, which remained, regrettably, unquestioned.

1963 is fairly late in the development of the science fiction spectacle. For instance, other authors were in advance of John Jakes speculations. Just as the Situationists noted that they did not invent the critique of this new commodified society, merely pointed out certain explosive consequences of such criticisms, so too Jakes was already working an exploited seam, a “new” fictional tradition extending back as far as Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth’s Gravy Planet/The Space Merchants (1952/53) and further. Indeed, so-called ‘sociological science fiction’ can be seen, in part, to be coterminous with the science fiction spectacle.

Over the coming weeks and months, I will offer more thoughts on the science fiction spectacle.


Note that my method of inquiry and criticism is informed by the situationist practice of détournement, as opposed to the more conventional semiotic analysis that dominates much cultural criticism. In this way I am more interested in exploiting the critical insights that often sit uncomfortably alongside confused and bigoted themes in pop culture (for instance, in the story The Sellers of Dreams, which I use, below).

Check out this post of mine for more details.


fig. 2. ‘Sociological beauty’, internationale situationniste, no. 8, January 1963

Sociological beauty

This is an identikit drawing [Fr: portraitrobot] of the “ideal woman”, published in France-soir on 31 August 1962, and based on ten details taken from ten female celebrities considered the most beautiful in the world. This synthetic star furnishes an eloquent example of what can lead to the totalitarian dictatorship of the fragment, opposed here to the dialectical play of the face. This dream face of cybernetics is modeled on modern information technologies, which are truly effective as repression, control, classification and the maintenance of order—for instance, the identikit portrait has proved itself in police research. Obviously, the aims and methods of this information technology are opposed to the existence of knowledge, poetry and our possible appropriation of the world. Sociological beauty is the equivalent of industrial sociology or the sociology of urban life—and for the same reasons: it is a mystified and mystifying elevation of the partial that hides totalities and their movement. Inserted into the society of the spectacle without even wanting to think about it, the precise scientific moralism of sociology also indicates, along with beauty, its use: This new translation of Hic Rhodus hic salta can be read: “Here is beauty, here you consume!”[7]

—Situationist International, January 1963 [8]


The Sellers of Dreams

[pdf of the story in its original published format available here]

[A] crowd of distributors hurrying into the auditorium beneath a banner reading:

WELCOME
Things To Come Incorporated
World Distributors
“Last Year’s Woman Is
This Year’s Consumer”

[…]

“Gentlemen,” Krumm said, “first the bad news.”

At the unhappy grumble he held up his hand. “Next year—I promise!—TTIC will absolutely and without qualification be ready to introduce the concept of the obsolescent male personality, exactly as we did in the female market ten years ago. I can only emphasis again the tremendous physical problems confronting us, and point to the lag in male fashion obsolescence that was not finally overcome until the late twentieth century, by the sheer weight of promotion. Men, unlike women, accept new decorative concepts slowly. TTIC has a lucrative share of the semiannual male changeover, but we are years behind the female personality market. Next year we catch up.”

“May we see what you have for the girls, old chap?” someone asked. “Then we’ll decide whether we’re happy.”

“Very well.” Krumm began to read from a promotion script: “This year we steal a leaf from yesterday’s—uh—scented album.” The lights dimmed artfully. Perfume sprayed the chamber from hidden ducts. A stereo orchestra swelled. The curtains parted. […]

A nostalgic solido view of New York when it was once populated by people flashed on the screen. Violins throbbed thrillingly.

“Remember the sweet, charming girl of yesteryear? We capture her for you—warm, uncomplicated, reveling in—uh, let’s see—sunlight and outdoor sports.”

A series of solido slides, illustrating Krumm’s points with shots of nuclear ski lifts or the Seine, merged one into another.

“Gone is the exaggerated IQ of this year, gone the modish clothing. A return to softness. A simple mind, clinging, sweet. The stuff of everyman’s dream. Gentleman, I give you—”

Hidden kettledrums swelled. The name flashed on the screen:

DREAM DESIRE.

“Dream Desire! New Woman of the 2007-08 market year!”

—John Jakes, June 1963[9]

UPDATED 22 AUGUST 2020


Footnotes

[1] Thesis 165, Inwood translation (2018).

[2] Internationale situationniste, ‘Du rôle de l’I.S.’, internationale situationniste, no. 7, April 1962.

[3] See, founding document of the International Workingmen’s Association of 1864.

[4] Karl Marx, ‘Preface’, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859.

[5] Much as the fashion industry of the US and other Western nations at that time dreamed of a ‘peacock revolution’ for the male industry, Jakes imagines the world on the verge of another one, though this time in terms of the entire personality as commodity.

[6] Internationale situationniste, ‘Beauté de la sociologie’, internationale situationniste, no. 8, January 1963. Note that an earlier version of this translation is available here.

[7] “Hic Rhodus, hic salta!” is Marx’s détournement—i.e., plagiarism and correction—of Hegel’s “Hic Rhodus, hic saltus”. For “jump” (saltus) Marx substitutes “dance” (salta). See this.

[8] From internationale situationniste no. 8, January 1963, p. 33.

[9] From ‘The Sellers of the Dream’, Galaxy Magazine, June 1963, pp. 161, 162-63.

Subtle compensations

“subtle compensations…”

Spectacles compensate for the participation that is no longer possible.

–Attila Kotányi & Raoul Vaneigem, 1961

From the workshop to the laboratory capitalism has emptied productive activity of all meaning, endeavoring to locate the meaning of life in leisure, and—on this basis—redirect all productive activity. For the prevailing morality production is hell. And so, real life will be found in consumption—in the use of goods.

But for the most part, these goods have no other use than the satisfaction of a few private needs—needs that have been developed excessively to meet the demands of the market. Capitalist consumption imposes a reductive movement to desires, by way of the regular satisfaction of artificial needs—which remain needs without ever having been desires. Authentic desires remain constrained at the stage of their non-fulfillment (or compensated for in the form of spectacles). In reality, the consumer is morally and psychologically consumed by the market. Consequently, these goods have no social use, above all because the social horizon is entirely blocked by the factory.[1] Outside of the factory everything is converted into a desert (dormitory towns, freeways, parking lots…). The place of consumption is a desert.

Nonetheless, the society constituted in the factory unequivocally dominates this desert. The real use of goods is simply for the purposes of social ornamentation. Indeed, the fatal trend of the industrial commodity is that all the signs of purchased prestige and differentiation become compulsory for everyone. The factory is symbolically reproduced in leisure, even if there is a margin of possibility in the transposition sufficient to compensate some frustrations. In reality, the world of consumption is that of the spectacle of everyone for everyone—which is to say the division, estrangement and non-participation that exists among all. The managerial sphere is the severe director of this spectacle, automatically and poorly composed according to imperatives that are external to society, and that are signified in absurd values. Indeed, the directors themselves, insofar as they are alive, can be considered as victims of this robotic direction.

–Pierre Canjures [2] & Guy Debord, 1960


[1] “l’usine“=the factory. In 1960, widespread factory production of goods was apparent in countries like France, as well as other “advanced” industrial capitalist nations. Since the 1970s, de-industrialization of such countries has accelerated, alongside of a concomitant and expanding industrialization of other countries–for instance, China, India and Brazil (to name three prominent contemporary examples). In part, the de-industrialization of the West was a result of the rebellion of factory workers, students and others between 1968 and the late 1970s.

[2] aka Daniel Blanchard, member of Socialisme ou Barbarie.


The first quote above is from Ken Knabb‘s translation, available here. The translation of the second quote, taken from part I, section 6, of Préliminaires pour une définition de l’unité du programme révolutionnaire, is by the sinister scientist. Ken Knabb’s translation of this article is available here.

The image used in the collage-détournement “subtle compensations” is by Frank Bellamy. The text is taken from Julio Cortázar‘s Hopscotch, originally Rayuela (1963), English translation by Gregory Rabassa (1966). The collage-détournement was made by the sinister scientist. More on what exactly is a “collage-détournement” and “spectacle” soon.

Hail the sinister science

fig. 1. the mad sinister scientist at play.

the sinister science: it’s alive!

Eight years ago, I split my blogging life in two. One blog, Notes from the Sinister Quarter, for my research into the Situationist International, as well as other related left-communist and post-situationist writings. The other blog, work & days of the antyphayes, for my stuff on science fiction, poetry, “creative” writing, collages, etc.

Since then, I’ve finished my PhD (on the Situationist International, available here) and reached an impasse (or three) with my blogs. Updates are few and far between, and a certain inertia has pervaded my interest and intentions for them.

So, in an effort to start again on a higher level, and so in a relentlessly Hegelian spirit, here’s the sinister science, enthusiasm revived and raring to go. Or so I tell myself.

On, through, by way of the sinister science I’ll tear down the walls between sf and the SI. Literally–“ROAR!“–as I plan on writing on the Situationists and science fiction; figuratively, because this wall does not, in fact, exist at all: everything is afflicted by the sinister science, and the sinister science afflicts all.

And in any case, we’re now prepared for just such a pandemic.

So why is it called the sinister science? Stay tuned.

*

The photograph above, of the Situationist Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio, is taken from internationale situationniste, no. 2, December 1958, page 29. It was accompanied with a quote from Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle‘s Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds (Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes, 1686). The quote in question–And the heat to which they are accustomed is so excessive that what we have here in the heart of Africa would be enough to freeze them”is from a section in which the inhabitants of the planet Mercury are discussed. I will return to the eminently science fictional content of Fontenelle and the association of this quote with the Situationist Pinot-Gallizio in a later post.

***

sf & critical theory join forces to destroy the present