What is the sinister science? For a start, it’s this blog. But could it be something else?
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.
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.’  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.
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.
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’.
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 […].
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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
On September the 11th, 12th and 13th, in the year 2000, exactly a year before the more famous 911, there was S11. ‘S11’ was the campaign we protestors organised to blockade the World Economic Forum (WEF) round held in Melbourne at the Crown Casino. Looking backward on the year 2000, from the year 2020, I recall things of little consequence, the stuff of idle chatter and gossip from that time. We wondered—inevitably—what we should be calling the days after September 11. Was S11 the entire protest, or just the first day? And if S11, why not S12 and S13?
Still pondering such quandaries twenty years later, I was struck by the 20th anniversary mostly because people I both do and do not know began posting about it on twitter. Looking over these various comments, articles, pictures and other reminiscences, and ruminating on my own recollections, I stumbled across a mostly forgotten document on a mouldering hard drive. A draft of an email I sent to a friend soon after I returned home after the Melbourne protests.
Love & Rage was the group who I felt the most affinity with back then. I think I became a member either during or immediately after the S11 protests. I later helped set up a Love & Rage “branch” in Canberra. Among what I call the Love & Rage crew or gang in the email below, there were also probably people from the Revolutionary Action crew from Wollongong. When I wrote the email in 2000 I was not completely clear about the differences or relation between LR and RA. There was definite crossover. The LR and RA milieu were motivated by a variety of ideas that broadly were opposed to both Marxist and Anarchist orthodoxy. The group was a relatively eclectic mix of leftist and libertarian Marxist and Anarchist thinking, syndicalism, councilism, a dash of the situationists and post-situationists, feminism, queer radicalism, all of the posts (postmodernism, poststructuralism, and post-Marxism), and especially ‘Autonomist’ Marxism. I have written on Love & Rage, but only in passing, in an article called Dead Real (2013). I was also involved in editing a Love & Rage related zine called This Is Not A Commodity published in early 2001, and available here. Included in the zine is an eyewitness account of S11 by a comrade entitled S11: Make Crown a prison, the criminals are already inside. For more on Love & Rage, though unfortunately from a relatively hostile, syndicalist perspective, see two accounts available here and here . These articles are descriptions and criticisms of two different Love & Rage meetings in Sydney in February and July of 2001, published in Rebel Worker—the paper of the Australian based Anarcho-Syndicalist Network (ASN). I attended both of the Love & Rage meetings mentioned in these articles, and probably have notes on them somewhere, in some forgotten notebook.
Below, I’ve re-written my email from the year 2000 in part, mostly to clarify some of the more telegraphic sections. It’s mostly self-explanatory, and very much from a first-person perspective. Wisely, at the time I chose to concentrate on two distinctive memories, one of a frenzied fight and struggle with some security guards on the first day, S11. The other a clownish attempt to liven the boredom of blockading on the second day, so-called S12. That’s all it is, a fragmentary first hand account with little or no critical analysis. From the less than sublime to the more than ridiculous.
And so, with no further ado….
S11 was a blast! It was like nothing I’ve been involved in before. Despite the cop violence it was probably the most “peaceful” demonstration I’ve been involved in—a testament to the sheer size of it. I heard estimates of up to 20,000 demonstrators on Monday the 11th of September.
Early on Monday morning I caught a train into the centre of Melbourne with some other comrades. I’d been staying at one of their places since arriving the day before. When we arrived in the city centre, I split off to go find the Love & Rage (LR) group from Sydney. I was a bit spooked as I walked alone across the grey concrete south bank of the Yarra toward the Crown Casino. The sky was overcast and dull. I remember thinking that if it poured down it would be a wash out. It did rain for a while in the morning, but not too heavily and it then it stopped. The first day was simply massive, we shut the Casino down and made life hell for the rich delegates and their willing stooge, Labor Premier Steve Bracks.
I was involved in some biffo, mostly on the first day. I helped hold back the horse cops on Monday morning on two occasions that were gloriously successful. The picture above is after one of those occasions (I can’t remember which—maybe the second?). S. was there at the first occasion. After that I lost track of him. I’m sure he was mixing it up elsewhere at the Crown Casino over the three days. I haven’t seen him since returning home. The last I saw of him he was handing out Texta-pens wrapped up in paper to assist in the beautification of the Casino.
Later that same Monday morning I was involved in an unsuccessful attempt to break into the Casino. I found myself loitering around a picket line covering an access ramp to the Casino carpark, I think on the southern face of the building. At this point I think—I’m not sure—I was with some comrades from my town, L. and Z., not the LR gang. The picket was relatively small, somewhere between 10 and 20 people. This picket, away from the main entrances to the Casino, was not a very popular one at this point. After battling the horse cops I’d been scouting the perimeter with some comrades, pondering the possibility of breaking into the Casino and causing some havoc. A few of us had been hanging around a concrete ramp that led into a car park in the Casino. At the carpark picket the Casino’s private security detachment was relatively small, maybe around the same number as protestors on the picket, maybe not even that many—say around ten security guards. Me and my confederates thought this was a perfect place to break into the Casino, not much security, and no cops at that point. If only we had enough people to overwhelm the guards. Crucially we needed people who wanted to and were capable of breaking through. As luck would have it, at the exact moment we were discussing this, a column of several hundred protestors suddenly appeared behind us with a woman in the lead, a veritable new millennial Boadicea, eyes ablaze, hair streaming behind her, pointing at the line of security guards and yelling, “through the line!”, or something to that effect. I was electrified, who wouldn’t be?
Facing the column of angry and combative protestors bearing down on them, the security guards freaked out and went berserk, punching on with those of us up the front. And then it was on for young and old. The fact of our now overwhelming numbers should have secured us an easy victory. Unfortunately, there were a few people up front that didn’t want to be there, who had been caught by the sudden appearance of the column of demonstrators. I tried to help some of them out of the way, but it was too late. The press of the column of protestors was overwhelming, and the security guards had already begun to savagely attack us.
Unfortunately, because quite of the few of the picketers who were already there wanted no part of the flying column’s push to break through the security line, our frontline quickly fractured. All around us demonstrators were trying to get through the security lines. To be honest, I wanted to be fighting the security guards with my comrades, but I was also struck by the palpable distress and anxiety of those picketing comrades who didn’t want to be there. I knew what it was like to be in a hairy demo situation with seemingly no way out. At the so-called Federal Parliament House “riot” of 1996 (that’s what the law & orders called our mass attempt to break into the “people’s house” while the ACTU sold us out from their nearby “protest”) I remember being close to breaking when I thought I was about to be spattered by shattered plate glass amidst the crush to break through the main doors of New Parliament House.
Being at the point of the intersection of struggling demonstrators and security guards or cops is always shitty, even when you want to be there. It’s pretty easy to get badly injured by the blow of a baton, a punch or a kick. Under these circumstances, hemmed in by the sides of this concrete access ramp, and with the press of this column of protestors, the reality was that you didn’t have much choice in the matter, particularly because you had started up near the front on the picket line.
The strangest thing then happened to me and a few other protestors amidst the tumult. I recall trying to pull a security guard off someone only to have the guard turn on me. In the scuffle, the security guard who was attacking me, the young guy I had saved from the guard’s beating, and two or three other unfortunate protestors, ended up on the wrong side of the skirmish. Which is to say, behind enemy lines, on the far side of the security line.
We were precisely where the rest of the protestors who were struggling with the security wanted to be—but there was only three or four of us. What to do, make a quick dash to the door and get into the Casino? But just as we found ourselves here, so deliriously close to the entrance, more and more cops began to show up on the side we found ourselves on. Quickly the idea of making a dash seemed a bad idea. The far side of the security line was rapidly becoming a bad place to be. I recall myself and at least one of my other harassed comrades trying to placate the security guard who was still facing us there. I even tried to shame him for having beaten the young guy I had saved.
Somehow, we got back to our side of the line, with the rest of the protestors. But by such time our chance had passed, and the cops had arrived to reinforce their beleaguered private security comrades. Perhaps it had been a crazy idea trying to break in at that point. Later we knew that there were at least one thousand cops in the Casino and several thousand private security. But hell, it would’ve been fun to have run rampant in the Casino before being caught.
At some point while the skirmish was still on we were treated to the bizarre sight of cops pulling some of the security berserkers off protestors. The private security had totally lost it, savagely attacking the picket and the protest. Which isn’t to say that the cops were much better, considering the yet to come brutal cop assault by the Tactical Response Group on one of our pickets on the following night, Tuesday the 12th. But on that morning, Monday morning, the security dogs were much worse that the cops.
With all this talk of columns and skirmishes and yelling and punch ups I’m sure I’ve given you the wrong idea about what S11 was really like. Despite the florid length of my account, the confrontation with the security guards took up all of about 5 minutes—it was a slow and frenzied time of abrupt and violent action. The confrontation with the horse cops earlier in the morning had been a little scary too, but then there were a lot of us, and we forced the cops withdraw. But mostly, over the next three days there was a lot of waiting, walking, talking, silliness and other stupidities. Just like in any war!
Unlike Monday the 11th when I’d been one of the wandering horde of protestors, on Tuesday I spent most of the day on one of the blockades with the Love & Rage (LR) crew from Sydney. By the afternoon my co-blockaders and I had become bored. To address the boredom LR gathered together and we discussed the possibility of alternate actions.
What did we discuss? After the Monday shutdown, we knew that the state, Crown management and the cops had shifted to transporting WEF delegates in and out of the Casino by launch. As a result, our blockades that had worked so effectively against car traffic on the Monday, were now more hostile encampments than a watertight siege.
The jetty entry points on our side were both heavily guarded and somewhat mysterious in nature. But on the far side, it seemed as if no one was guarding the jetty at which delegates both embarked and disembarked by launch to and from the conference. So, someone suggested in the LR meeting, how about we occupy one of the jetties on the unguarded far side?
So, after much talk and a little wandering, we did precisely this. We set off, running across the nearby bridge to the far side. But as so happens at times like this (like the carpark and the fortuitous column of protestors) a launch full of delegates just happened to set off and head for precisely the jetty we were heading for. We descended upon the jetty, whooping and leaping and shouting at the approaching launch and whoever. What a noise. Sure enough, the boat veered off and proceeded further down the river. Victory! Of sorts. The other jetty was too far away to stop them, so we returned a little deflated and desultorily back to the blockades on the other side of the bridge.
There’s about 20 Love and Ragers at this point. As we start back over the bridge, a cry rings out, “Delegate! Delegate!”. Someone has seen a WEF delegate. And then we’re all running back the way we came, but veering off toward an entryway to the Melbourne Exhibition Centre near the Casino.
I’m pretty buggered by this time, too many cigarettes god damn. I recall trailing the LR pack with C. We were talking loudly in cheesy Russian accents about our despicable plans for world conquest. The performative space of the protest is so alluring. We follow the rest of the gang into the entry of the exhibition centre, a through road that runs through the building and out the other side. As we pass into the road, low and behold we’ve stumbled into a cop staging area with tonnes of horses and cops wandering about. Strangely they leave us alone. It’s damn spooky as we wander through, as if all these horses and cops are a part of a conceptual art installation. And then we come out the other side with the rest of the LR gang to see the “Delegate!” in question being bundled into a car and driven off at speed. So, there we are, pondering our unsuccess, and I suggest that we get the hell out of where we are. So many cops and security float about—too many for us to get away with anything. I remember thinking that I should climb onto a nearby barricade and begin performing at the cops, in my best seductive movie star style, but decided against it in the face of some rather mean looking security-thugs near the barrier in question.
So, we wander off, back through the exhibition centre. But sure enough the call goes up again, “Delegates! Delegates!” rings out and the point of the LR gang are running up a ramp that takes you into the bowels of the building. By the time I arrive at the top of the ramp the Love and Ragers are plastered against a glass wall that looks upon an escalator void in the building. All of the comrades plastered against the glass are hammering on it and shouting, “scum! scum!”. As I stand there, bashing on the glass and yelling insults at the besuited figures crowded onto the escalator, I notice that they are all women. All of them. Not a single man on the escalator. Pretty much we all begin to realise this at the same time, and our thumping and yelling starts to diminish. The women on the escalator look at us strangely, their faces a mix of fear and disgust.
It’s another conference entirely. Fuck! As we walk away, embarrassed and a little ashamed, a door pops open from the exhibition centre. A woman exits, looking a little frazzled, one of those we shouted at on the escalator. One of our number calls out, jokingly, “that’ll teach ya for going to a conference!”. More usefully, a comrade walks up and reads the conference logo on her backpack: they call back, “It says The Nth Women’s International Conference on Healing”. Fuck! And then there are more women, all attendees of the conference on healing pouring through the exit, past the remorseful and shamed eyes of their onetime attackers. We all, simultaneously, start calling out apologies, “sorry!”, “so sorry!”, “we thought you were from the WEF!” etc., etc.
Having, hopefully, learnt our lesson, we shuffled back to the blockade of the Casino with our collective tails in hand. Whoops! And let us never speak of this again… until now!
The following review of J.-H. Rosny aîné’s The Mysterious Force (orig.: La force mystérieuse, 1913) was first written and published in 2015. I like to think of this story as a speculative recasting of the end of the Paris Commune of 1871 or the Russian Revolution of 1905. The worker revolution is defeated, and the world grows grey as life breaks down. But ultimately, a new life triumphs in a reborn individualism amidst a nourishing though bizarre collectivism. A post humanism avant la lettre.
Rosny aîné, a contemporary of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, began publishing what is recognisably science fiction after Verne’s first works but before Wells’. In his fantastic speculations, however, he is more precursor to latter than child of the former’s hard SF in anticipation.
Rosny aîné’s Les Xipéhuz (1887) is a pioneering tale of a truly alien invasion set in the distant past of the human paleolithic and published almost ten years before TheWar of the Worlds. Its thematic sequel, La Mort de la Terre (1910), is set at the other end of human fortune, in the dying days of the species. Obviously influenced by the wonderfully weary end of Wells’ The Time Machine, Rosny aîné evokes his own peculiar and haunting vision of humanity’s end.
To my mind, Rosny aîné avoided the dystopianism that dominated Wells’ early work. For instance, in his imagined death of the human species in The Death of the Earth he achieves a tragic vision beyond the bleak and simplistic social Darwinism of Wells. However, Rosny aîné was no mere utopian propagandist. These are tales born amidst the immense ferment in French literature of the last half of the nineteenth century. Perhaps if French had become the dominant language of 20th century imperialism, the life of science fiction would have played out differently. But surely that is but one potential SF story among many still waiting to be told.
The Mysterious Force by J.-H. Rosny aîné First published in French as La force mystérieuse in 1913. This review based on the Brian Stableford translation (or ‘adaptation’ as he describes it).
That the Earth might swallow its inhabitants, that the seas might drown the continents, that a deadly epidemic might carry off all living things, that the Sun might go out, that a fiery star might burn them or a displaced planet crash into ours — they were conceivable events, in the image of things that had happened since the beginning of the world… but this fantastic death of light, this dying of the colours, which affected the humblest flames as well as the rays of the Sun and those of the stars, derisively gave the lie to the entire history of animals and men!
In J.-H. Rosny aîné’s The Mysterious Force, the eponymous force, later described as an ‘interstellar cyclone’, passes through the Earth and forever alters daily life. At first the force causes widespread anxiety and even helps spark a worker revolution that is ruthlessly suppressed by the French military. But worse is to come as the colours of the spectrum begin to disappear leaving a wan, grey reality barely animated by a lacklustre and dying humanity. Global civilisation is severely disrupted as technology and even the chemical reactions of material reality fail. Eventually the worst of the catastrophe passes. However millions have perished and a strange new world begins to manifest.
Those that survive the catastrophe find themselves covered in hieroglyphic ‘rashes’ that are later discovered to be the manifestation of an alien presence beyond visible perception. The rashes are more manifest symptom than alien appearance. Perhaps even stranger are the far reaching effects of the alien presence upon the animal life of Earth. Thus is marked the onset of ‘groupism’, a type of super-individual intimacy that binds together extended family and friendship groups into near telepathic gestalts, including even nearby non-human animals. Rosny aîné doesn’t present this as a disaster — the horror of collectivism descending on virile, competitive and fiercely individual Man — but rather as a type of communal idyll in which individuals reach new levels of individuality precisely as a result of the more heightened sensitivity to their intimate others. Such a view is a refreshing alternative to the barely repressed horror of the collective individual in such works as Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters and more recently Star Trek’s Borg collective. And yet the emergence of this desirable collectivism in the story is more like a disease than a conscious decision (in contrast to the attempt at socialist revolution that is thwarted early on). Rosny aîné’s representation of an accidental transformation has the tang of pessimism and misanthropy.
Nonetheless there are some wonderful ideas pressed into serving the fairly mundane adventure and romantic threads of this novel. Its core idea was one common to Rosny aîné: if there are forms of life and intelligence outside the terrestrial realm they will almost certainly be utterly alien, verging on the incomprehensible.
Permit me, Gentlemen, to conclude with a hypothesis […]. Considering that the interplanetary storm gave rise to a cycle of phenomena […] we may conjecture that it is a world, or a fragment of a world, that has encountered the Earth. To all evidence, this belongs to a system very different from our solar system. […] It might be that our space includes different kinds of universe, some of which are capable of partial interaction with one another, and others almost complete in their mutual indifference and even their mutual permeability.
Such a perspective is there in his early The Xipehuz (1888) and his stunning Dying Earth story avant-la-lettre, The Death of the Earth (1910). In this he anticipated the later author Stanislaw Lem, who made the idea of the utterly alien a recurrent trope of his science fiction, written in the midst of the only too comprehensible cold war of Soviet state capitalism and Western ‘free market’ welfarism. Lem’s perspective is a hypertrophied development of the cultural cold war. The universe is not only strange, it is incomprehensible. Rosny aîné’s perspective is to my mind more interesting and less sceptical. His aliens are truly alien but not beyond the limits of rational inquiry and human understanding.
Rosny aîné was an old man when Stalin and Hitler came to power, dying at the age of 83 in 1940. He did not live to see the complete, horrible extent of World War Two, dying some months before the fall of France to the Nazis. Unlike Lem he did not emerge as a writer under the pervasive cloud of post-war existentialist absurdism. And unlike his contemporary (and junior) H.G.Wells he was less concerned with the utopian and dystopian promise of industrial civilisation and more interested in the potentially infinite variety and strange possibilities of life in a vast and long lived universe.
Nonetheless there is a residue of the utopian promise of the late 19th and early 20th century in his work, albeit shot through with a peculiar sadness. Indeed Rosny aîné repeatedly conjures the vast and time weary melancholy that Wells so briefly and beautifully wrote of at the end of his first novel.
In my first post on Thinking through The Time Machine, I proposed that the principle idea that lay at the heart of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine—that utopia is dystopia—became the ground and guiding principle of 20th century science fiction.
What is most troubling about The Time Machine is how bleak its perspective is upon human nature. Even before the ultimate revelation of Eloi and Morlock society, Wells’ protagonist ruminates upon the “quiet” that has befallen future humanity. In the year 802,701, Well’s Time Traveller—“for so it will be convenient to speak of him”—finds the ruins of an advanced culture and the childlike Eloi playing amidst the debris. At first, the Traveller speculates that the Eloi are what remains of the ineluctable decay of full luxury communism. However, he is soon proved wrong. Upon discovering the presence of another species, the Morlocks, the Traveller revises his picture of a fallen, degenerate communism and replaces it with a picture of a fallen, degenerate capitalism:
At first, proceeding from the problems of our own age, it seemed clear as daylight to me that the gradual widening of the present merely temporary and social difference between the Capitalist and the Labourer, was the key to the whole position.
For those familiar with the text, more revelations were to follow. In particular the horrible truth of the relationship between the Eloi and Morlock—though strictly speaking, the Morlocks, given that they have speciated and are no longer of a natural kind with the Eloi, are more subterranean cowboys than cannibals. Nonetheless, what remains consistent across the Time Traveller’s speculations, and the successive revelations of his errors, is the single “truth” that any human society derived of the struggle against material want and natural alienation, is doomed:
I grieved to think how brief the dream of the human intellect had been. It had committed suicide. It had set itself steadfastly towards comfort and ease, a balanced society with security and permanency as its watchword, it had attained its hopes—to come to this at last. Once, life and property must have reached almost absolute safety. The rich had been assured of his wealth and comfort, the toiler assured of his life and work. No doubt in that perfect world there had been no unemployed problem, no social question left unsolved. And a great quiet had followed.
In the two alternatives Wells presents—communism or capitalism—there is no escape from social entropy. The only real choice appears to be one of how best to ameliorate the decline. This is what I mean by arguing that Wells in effect proclaims utopia is dystopia. Despite the best laid plans, once a certain “ease” is achieved the rot sets in.
After the commercial success of The Time Machine and his early scientific romances, Wells’ would turn to the project of outlining a vision of utopia. What his early work and later “socialist” thinking shared was this dim view of human nature. At the heart of Wells’ picture of the future of humanity is the necessity of its decline—unless, that is, something was done about it. In works like Anticipations (1901), Wells’ would preach, to stave off for a time the necessity of decline and destruction, a eugenics Hitler would, perhaps, have been proud of. Such thinking was considered “progressive” in some corners, for instance among Fabian socialists who courted Wells’ “visionary” thinking.
To be fair to Wells, he soon moderated some of the more excessive racist and eugenicist remarks found among his early utopian speculations in Anticipations. However, across his work Wells’ vision of “socialism” had little in common with the various contemporaneous Marxist and Anarchist conceptions. Wells was no advocate of self-emancipation. For him, the shit of ages could only be removed by way of those better educated and disposed to remove the dirt—people such as himself. Indeed, Wells’ pessimism and disdain for the lower orders remained one of the constants of his mature work and so-called utopian vision.
In the realm of the burgeoning science fiction of the 20th century Wells’ wager—that short of a dictatorship of people like himself the future is dystopia—would soon be met, in part, by Olaf Stapledon. Stapledon’s vision in the 1930s was more Homeric and cosmic than Wells’. In contrast to Wells, Stapledon believed that the second law of thermodynamics, while inescapable, did not have any moral or social import—apart, that is, from the necessity for all finite things to pass in the infinite order. Stapledon is the Pulp Hegel to Wells’ more pedestrian analytic of apocalypse. Stapledon’s epic of the rise, fall, then rise and fall again of the human and its many progeny over billions of years is vastly preferable to Wells’ small-minded glimpse of eternity.
Nonetheless, I am less interested in the literary criticism of Wells’ work than I am in its suggestive qualities. I am more interested in using Wells work beyond its limitations. For instance, in a future post I will look at his wildly speculative notion of the speciation of humans based on the capitalist polarity: i.e. of workers and bourgeoisie evolving ultimately into Morlocks and Eloi. Based as it is on the faulty logic of Ray Lankester’s notion of social degeneration, it is perforce ludicrous. But precisely because of this, and particularly considering Wells’ grim satirical intent, it is a fiercely suggestive idea.
Similarly, if we leave aside Wells’ undoubtedly dubious thoughts on the nature of social “evolution”, and his pessimistic and questionably “scientific” conclusions, we are struck by the stark beauty of his evocation of the passage of time—something Olaf Stapledon picked up on. The real force of The Time Machine’s narrative is best summed up in the Time Traveller’s headlong flight into far futurity. And there, ultimately to find the “vacuous naiveté” of the Schellingian absolute made manifest, that cosmic night “in which, as one says, all cows are black”.
The darkness grew apace; a cold wind began to blow in freshening gusts from the east, and the showering white flakes in the air increased in number. From the edge of the sea came a ripple and whisper. Beyond these lifeless sounds the world was silent. Silent? It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives—all that was over. As the darkness thickened, the eddying flakes grew more abundant, dancing before my eyes; and the cold of the air more intense. At last, one by one, swiftly, one after the other, the white peaks of the distant hills vanished into blackness. The breeze rose to a moaning wind. I saw the black central shadow of the eclipse sweeping towards me. In another moment the pale stars alone were visible. All else was rayless obscurity. The sky was absolutely black.
To be continued…
 H.G. Wells, The Time Machine, chapter IV (Heinemann text, 1895).
SF in the SI: science fiction, ideology and recuperation
About 3,500 words
It is almost impossible to speak of ‘science fiction’ in relationship to the Situationist International without also speaking of what they meant by ‘utopia’. However, I plan on doing just this—at least to begin with. In this post I will briefly look at the role of science fiction (SF) in the Situationist International (SI). In a future post I will expand on this by looking at the role the terms ‘utopia’ and ‘utopian’ played in the SI (though I will touch on the question of utopia, below).
2. Science fiction as ideology
Science fiction motifs appeared in the publications of the Situationist International (SI) from the outset. Most obviously it can be found in the images that surfaced in the many and varied détournements of science fiction comics in their journal. Perhaps not so obvious are the science fictional qualities of central concepts and practices, such as ‘psychogeography’, the ‘hypothesis of the constructed situation’ and ‘unitary urbanism’.
In the early days, situationists were not completely averse to describing aspects of their critique and program as science fiction. Later, in 1961, the year that the pivot away from the more artistic phase of the early SI began, the editors of Internationale Situationniste spoke of ‘a hostility to all religions, even science fiction’. The implication being, not just that science fiction constituted a religion, but perhaps even worse: that such a religion could only play an ideological role in contemporary capitalism.
By 1961, the circle around the situationists Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem began to understand ideology in a similar sense to that outlined by Marx in The German Ideology and the Theses on Feuerbach (in the latter work, the critique of ideology, though implicit, is never called such). This was in stark contrast to then present-day Marxist orthodoxy, who largely followed Lenin’s conception of ideology rather than Marx’s. Indeed, Lenin’s conception bore more of a likeness to that of the originator of the term, Antoine Destutt de Tracy, than Marx’s critical appropriation of it. Against this vulgar sense, Marx drew upon Ludwig Feuerbach’s criticism of religion, and Max Stirner’s criticism of Feuerbach, in formulating his critical concept of ideology. For Marx, religions—at least Judeo-Christian religions—were ideological to the extent that they posed their ruling ideas separate from, or even opposed to the social and material practices in which they were embedded. The classic example is the divine ‘holy family’, which is in effect a projection of the earthly family into an otherworldly beyond. The key here is the idea of separating and opposing ideas to material reality—as if such ‘ideas’ constitute a realm or substance apart from material reality. Certainly, such substance dualism (of ideas & matter) is central to most religious thought. However, such an inverted conception is more subtle in ideology less obviously religious. If we take the example of science fiction, we can see a similar inversion when authors unquestioningly pose present-day bourgeois society as a timeless model of human mores and practice. Indeed, as Marx pointed out in Capital and elsewhere, a similar projection—albeit backwards in time—was made by classical political economists like Adam Smith, when they assumed that human nature from time immemorial was in essence bourgeois.
Science fiction is ideology, then, to the extent that it transforms the capitalist present into a timeless form of human social organisation by way of projecting such a present either deliberately or unwittingly into an imagined future. In doing so, such SF neither questions the necessity of the present, nor suggests that tomorrow could be different—or even better—than today.
3. Science fiction in the situationist international
In the second issue of their journal, Internationale Situationniste, December 1958, Abdelhafid Khatib noted that his fellow situationist Asger Jorn defined ‘psychogeography […] as the science fiction of urbanism’. By saying so, Jorn—by way of Khatib—was drawing attention to the transformative and future oriented aspects of ‘psychogeography’, insofar as the situationist proposed the radical transformation of not just the technologies of the city, but even more so the behaviour and morality of its denizens.
In the first issue of the journal Internationale Situationniste, psychogeography was defined as ‘the study of the specific effects of the geographical environment (whether consciously organized or not) on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’. The situationists had inherited the psychogeographical project from the Letterist International (LI), of which some founding situationists had been members of—notably Guy Debord and Michèle Bernstein.Psychogeographical study had arisen directly as a result of the urban drifts (fr: dérives) that the International Letterists had begun to carry out around the year 1953.
By the time of the founding of the SI in 1957, psychogeographical research had come to be seen as the general rubric under which a distinctly situationist project was to be conducted. What is key to recall at this point is that both psychogeographical research, and the urban drifts from which such a study was derived, proposed to chart new behaviours and emotions in opposition to those that were permitted, and, indeed, constructed by the bourgeois city. That the projected results of psychogeographical research was the complete transformation of the urban environment, as well as human behaviour, was made more clear in Guy Debord’s Report on the Construction of Situations presented at the founding conference of the SI in July 1957. Jorn’s claim that psychogeography should be conceived as the science fiction of urbanism can thereby be read as a positive statement about the future of the city under the guise of a situationist transformation.
Unfortunately, this is the only citation in a situationist publication of Jorn speaking positively about science fiction, and I have been unable to find the source of Khatib’s quote. Nonetheless, it seems that Jorn was perhaps the most favourably disposed of the situationists toward science fiction. Among his œuvre are several science fiction themed paintings. I will return to the question of Jorn and science fiction in a later post.
Apart from Jorn’s positive disposition to SF, and the many and varied uses of détourned SF comics in the situationist journal, the term ‘science fiction’ was used more often than not in a pejorative sense. Two instance that come to mind: when the SI dismissively referred to ‘the science fiction of revolutionary thought that is preached in [the journal] Arguments’; and their updating of Rosa Luxembourg’s pithy maxim ‘socialism or barbarism’ as ‘the urgent alternative: revolutionary solution or science-fiction barbarism’. In the former case, SF is used in a manner akin to orthodox Marxists deriding the ‘utopian’ nature of their opponents on the left (more on this below, and in a future post). In the latter case, Debord and his co-author were gesturing at the lived reality of contemporary global society in the sense that the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic ‘science fiction barbarism’ beloved of the pulps had become the grim reality of a world on the brink of nuclear destruction.
Perhaps the clearest attack on science fiction itself—considered as a cultural genre—was made by Guy Debord in 1961. In an address delivered to Henri Lefebvre’s Research Group on Everyday Life, Debord contrasted the situationist conception of the transformation of everyday life with that ‘presented in science fiction, in which interstellar adventures coexist with a terrestrial everyday life kept in the same old material poverty and archaic morality’. A similar argument was made by Debord’s comrade Raoul Vaneigem almost two years later, this time aimed at Planète magazine, one of the chief platforms for a self-consciously futurist if nebulous science ‘fact’ and fiction in the France of the 1960s:
Playing on the truism that science and technology are advancing faster and faster without anyone knowing where they are going, [the editors of the journal] Planète harangue ordinary people with the message that henceforth everything must be changed—while at the same time taking for granted 99% of the life really lived in our era.
Debord’s and Vaneigem’s target was not so much science fiction tout court as it was that dominant tendency which conceived of future changes and transformations primarily in technological terms. According to the SI, and despite Planète magazine’s self-consciously ‘modernist’ and radical self-presentation, its conceptualisation of the future was as religious as the capitalist ideology it unthinkingly projected into an imagined future.
The SI’s criticism of SF that projected the present into the future was hardly new. Indeed, it was almost identical to a similar charge made by the French author Michel Butor in 1953. What was new was the SI’s attempt to understand this through the optic of Marx’s concept of ideology, as well as the SI’s own conception of recuperation—which drew upon Marx’s critique. I will return to the question of the situationist conception of ‘recuperation’, below.
I have spoken elsewhere about the problem of science fiction simply translating the capitalist present into a far future setting—consider parts of my discussion of the Soviet era science fiction novel Andromeda Nebula by Ivan Yefremov. Additionally, in my last blog post I touched on the idea that H. G. Wells was both pioneer and exemplar of the modern science fiction author as purveyor of dystopia. This later question, of dystopia as reaction to the often naive, invariably socialist utopias of the nineteenth century, is perhaps as old as Dostoyevsky’s contempt for one of Vladimir Lenin’s favourite authors: Nikolai Chernyshevsky. To my mind, science fiction—and speculative fiction more generally—is overburdened by its creation amidst Wells’ social Darwinian reaction and ‘improvement’ upon the nineteenth century utopia. The ascendency of this science fiction was coincident with and provided cover for the real ‘utopian’ victory: that of capitalism in the post-war 1950s and 60s. Worse, the non-places of capitalism exploded after the 1960s: so many genres and subcultures spun from the counter-cultures of the 1960s and 70s. Science fiction, that genre with a history of about a century, one of many present-day utopias that can be any place thanks to the commodity-spectacle, is a place of struggle nonetheless, simply because it is one of the many phenomena of the social antagonism inherent in capitalism. Thus, as the situationists almost put it, we still have a single choice: science fiction socialism or barbarism.
I will now turn to an examination of this tendency by way of a brief examination of the concept and practice of ‘unitary urbanism’ in the SI
4. The science fiction of unitary urbanism
In the first three years of the SI’s existence—1957-1960—‘unitary urbanism’ developed into one of the chief practices of the group under the general project of psychogeographical research. As a result of the urban drifts (dérives) and psychogeographical study pioneered by the Letterist International, Debord came to pose the possibility of ‘the concrete construction of momentary ambiences of life and their transformation into a superior passional quality’. He called this the ‘hypothesis of the construction of situations’, in which the ephemeral, ‘momentary’ situations of life—in contrast to the chaotic and hierarchically planned boredom of alienated life—would be consciously constructed by situationists. Indeed, Debord posed this hypothesis as the ‘central idea’ of the SI, and the most obvious general result of previous psychogeographical research. Further, insofar as the constructed situation implied a critique of the boredom and alienation of the capitalist life, whether as work or commodified leisure, the realisation of the hypothesis was envisaged as contingent upon the overthrow of the capitalist as much as the ‘really existing socialist’ societies of 1957. Nonetheless, and despite locating the ultimate success of this hypothesis in a post-capitalist future, Debord also proposed a theory of ‘unitary urbanism’ in order to experiment with the possibilities for constructing situations in the urban present. To an extent, the urban drifts (dérives) of the former Letterist International were reconceived as an element of unitary urbanism. Additionally, the theory itself was developed in the pages of the journal Internationale Situationniste. And perhaps the most interesting, definitely the most iconic expression of this development was that of the ‘New Babylon’ models, plans and descriptions organised and executed by the Dutch situationist, Constant Nieuwenhuys (aka ‘Constant’).
It is easy to mount a case for the science fictional qualities of Constant’s ‘New Babylon’. Constant imagined a future city suspended over the present in a dream-like scaffold of levels and labyrinths that was dedicated entirely to the Situationist conception of play:
We demand adventure. Not finding it on earth, some want to seek it on the moon. We, however, are committed to changing life here on earth. We intend to create situations, new situations, breaking the laws that prevent the development of meaningful ventures in life and culture. We are at the dawn of a new era, and we are already attempting to sketch out the image of a happier life, of a unitary urbanism—an urbanism designed for pleasure.
[…] The future cities we envisage will offer a wholly new variability of sensations in this realm, and unforeseen games will become possible through the inventive use of material conditions, such as modifications of air, sound and light. City planners are already studying the possibility of harmonizing the cacophony that reigns in present-day cities. This problem will soon give rise to a new field of creation, as will many other such problems that will present themselves. Space travel, which seems likely in the near future, might also influence this development, since establishing bases on other planets will immediately raise the problem of sheltered cities, which may provide models for our study of future urbanism.
[…] The city of the future must be conceived as a continuous construction on pillars, or as an extended system of different structures from which are suspended premises for housing, recreation, production, distribution, etc., leaving the ground level free for traffic circulation and public meetings. The use of ultralightweight and insulating materials that are currently being tested will permit light construction with supports spaced well apart. In this way it will be possible to create a multilayered city: underground, ground level, upper stories and terraces, with areas ranging from that of a present-day neighbourhood to that of a metropolis. It should be noted that in such a city the built-up surface will be 100% and the free surface 200% (ground level plus terraces), whereas in traditional cities the figures are approximately 80% and 20%, and even a garden city can at most reverse this latter proportion. The terraces, forming an outdoor terrain that extends over the whole surface of the city, can be used as sports fields, as landing pads for airplanes and helicopters, and for vegetation. They will be accessible everywhere by stairways and elevators. The different floors will be divided into adjoining, communicating and climate-controlled spaces, making it possible to create an infinite variety of ambiences and facilitating the wanderings of the inhabitants and their frequent chance encounters. The ambiences will be regularly and consciously changed, using all technical means, by teams of specialized creators, who will thus be professional situationists.
Constant’s New Babylon is rich in suggestion. Its strikingly futuristic structures were posed as practical solutions, based on current architectural and technical practices, to the chaotic and confused urban expansion and development of the industrial and industrialising world of the 1950s and 60s. However, less emphasised here in Constant’s account was what he called the ‘psychological influence’ of ‘creating ambiances’, i.e. in the experimental elaboration of unitary urbanism. Indeed, Constant’s New Babylon tended to primarily accentuate the technical side at the expense of the behavioural side—of which an intimate interrelation had figured prominently in the elaboration of psychogeographical research from the earliest days of the urban drifts (dérives). As would be later said of him by the SI, after Constant had resigned from the group in June 1960, ‘other situationists had to remind him that at the present stage of the project it was necessary to put the accent on its content (play, free creation of everyday life)’. Such a conclusion, however, was the result of a longer argument between, primarily, Constant, on the one hand, and Debord and Asger Jorn, on the other.
The argument between Debord, Jorn and Constant remained live during the life of the SI in the sense that its conclusions contra Constant’s conception of unitary urbanism became situationist doxa. Unitary urbanism was a theory governing the experimental practice and attempts at verification of the situationist hypothesis of the constructed situation. To reduce it merely to a design problem was to misunderstand both its theoretical nature and its existence as the practical expression of psychogeographical research in the broad sense of the latter—i.e. as a question of the transformation of human nature and society as much the technologies of these transformations. Some years after Constant’s resignation—and more hostilely—the SI would write:
There is, however, a diversion that has threatened us more gravely than all the others: the risk of not differentiating ourselves clearly enough from some modern tendencies, and their explanations and proposals regarding the new society to which capitalism has brought us — tendencies which, behind different masks, all lead to integration into this society. Since Constant’s interpretation of unitary urbanism this tendency has been expressed within the SI, and it is incomparably more dangerous than the old artistic conception we have fought so much. It is more modern and thus less obvious—and certainly with a more promising future.
Here, the Situationists were gesturing at their concept of ‘recuperation’. By their reckoning, Constant, having left the SI, had become one of the chief exponents of just such a recuperation, insofar as his reductive elaboration of New Babylon as a design problem was compatible with both the artistic and architectural mainstream of capitalist society—of design journals and art exhibitions, for example. Indeed, as the SI witheringly pointed out a year after he resigned, Constant,
now presents models of factories in his catalogue published in March  by the Municipal Museum of Bochum. Apart from plagiarizing two or three poorly understood fragments of situationist ideas, this wily character has nothing better to propose than to act as a public-relations man in integrating the masses into capitalist technological civilization.
5. What is recuperation?
That revolutionary critique could be recuperated by the capitalist market was not a new phenomenon in 1961—but it was not that old either. As Debord argued in The Society of the Spectacle, it was old as least the German Revolution of 1918. What was new, however, was the situationist theory of recuperation. As Debord so pithily put it in 1963, when speaking on the problem of capitalist power and its language: ‘power lives off stolen goods. It creates nothing; it recuperates’. Mustapha Khayati continued in 1966:
Words forged by revolutionary criticism are like partisans’ weapons: abandoned on the battlefield, they fall into the hands of the counterrevolution. And like prisoners of war, they are subjected to forced labour. […] Ideologues of every variety, the watchdogs of the reigning spectacle, carry out this task, emptying the content from most corrosive concepts and putting them back into circulation in the service of maintaining alienation: dadaism in reverse. They become advertising slogans (see the recent Club Med prospectus). Concepts of radical critique suffer the same fate as the proletariat: they are deprived of their history, cut off from their roots. They become grist for power’s thinking machines.
Culture is never simply a production problem; it is a declaration of intent to the reigning powers and all who labour for them. The SI’s wager was that Constant, first cut-off from a broader conception of unitary urbanism, and then cut off from the self-consciously revolutionary project of the SI, tended to aid in the recuperation of situationist practice.
6. Concluding remarks
The question of the SI’s dispute with Constant is an interesting one, but I fear that the intent of this expanding post is getting lost in the maze of his story. For more detail check out my PhD thesis, here. What I am trying to get at, convoluting though the telling may be, is that those situationists who opposed Constant’s reductive understanding of unitary urbanism and psychogeographical research, even if intrigued and engaged by unitary urbanism as a technological problem, were more concerned with the broader, revolutionary implications of ‘its content (play, [and the] free creation of everyday life)’. In this sense, Constant’s project is, indeed, closer to contemporaneous conceptions of science fiction, and the predominance there of presenting the future in terms of technological change as opposed to social and natural species transformations. What the SI came to call ideology.
To the extent that Constant reduced the elaboration of unitary urbanism to primarily a technical problem, we can consider him a purveyor of science fiction in the sense that Debord and Vaneigem criticised. From around 1961, the SI tended to see such science fictional elaborations of unitary urbanism as a form of activity that tended to be integrated with contemporary capitalist alienation insofar as they were practical separated, or presented in isolation from an explicitly anti-capitalist revolutionary project. By this reckoning, the post-SI Constant became an exemplar of the ideology of science fiction—ideology here used in Marx’s pejorative sense.
In future posts I want to investigate the ‘practice of utopia’ that the SI opposed to Constant’s and others’ mere science fiction. By invoking ‘utopia’ in a positive way, and associating it with the end to which present revolutionary means should be aimed, the SI attempted to rescue the idea of utopia for a revolutionary imagination overwhelmed by the cult of work, the false pragmatism of political realism, and the totalitarian reality of dystopian, Russian-style ‘communism’. In effect they proposed the détournement of utopian socialism in the interests of present-fay revolutionary practice. And within such a détournement, pulp science fiction had its role to play.
UPDATED 22 AUGUST 2020
 Situationist International. ‘Editorial note’ at the end of Asger Jorn’s article, ‘Pataphysics: A religion in formation’. Translation modified. Original: ‘La pataphysique, une religion en formation’, Internationale Situationniste, no. 6, Aout 1961, p. 32.
 ‘détournement: Short for ‘détournement of preexisting aesthetic elements.’ The integration of present or past artistic productions into a superior construction of a milieu. In this sense there can be no situationist painting or music, but only a situationist use of those means. In a more elementary sense, détournement within the old cultural spheres is a method of propaganda, a method which reveals the wearing out and loss of importance of those spheres.’ (Internationale Situationniste, no 1, June 1958).
 Situationist International, ‘The Meaning of Decay in Art’. Original: ‘Le sens du dépérissement de l’art’, in Internationale Situationniste, no. 3, Decembre 1959, p. 5.
 Michel Butor, ‘The Crisis in the Growth of Science Fiction’, in Inventory: Essays, ed. Richard Howard, London: Jonathon Cape, 1970. Which is not to say that such critical speculations were absent in the field of science fiction or came from without. Indeed, such speculation was a hot topic among leading examples of contemporaneous Anglo-American SF like Galaxy magazine and even Astounding—though in a more confused and at times reactionary fashion in the latter.
 Or at least their initial conditions of such constructed situations. Don’t forget that Debord’s constructed situation is a critique and inversion, or sorts, of Jean Paul Sartre’s concept of ‘situation’.
 Constant’s project was named by Debord. The film ‘The New Babylon’ (Новый Вавилон) was a 1929 silent film written and directed by Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg in the USSR. The film deals with the 1871 Paris Commune and the events leading to it and follows the encounter and tragic fate of two lovers separated by the barricades of the Paris Commune. In the film, a vision of commodity consumption is envisaged at the store La nouvelle babylone. Composer Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his first film score for this movie. Footage from the film was later included in Guy Debord’s film version of his book The Society of the Spectacle (book: 1967; film: 1973).
 Constant, ‘Another City for Another Life’, translated by Ken Knabb. Original : ‘Une autre ville pour une autre vie’ in Internationale Situationniste no. 3, Décembre 1959, p. 37.
 See, ‘Situationist News’ (December 1960). Translation modified. Original: ‘Renseignements situationnistes’, in International Situationniste, no. 5, Decembre 1960, p. 10.
 Situationist International, ‘Now, the SI’. Translation modified. Original: ‘‘Maintenant, l’I.S.’ in Internationale Situationniste, no. 9, Aout 1964.
 Situationist International, ‘Critique of Urbanism’. Translation modified. Original: ‘Critique de l’urbanisme’, in Internationale Situationniste, no. 6, Aout 1961, p. 6.
My thoughts often return to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Its stark beauty and tragic breadth—30 million years compressed into a short novel. Alongside of Shelley’s Ozymandias and Olaf Stapeldon’s Last and First Men, it is one of the great evocations of the cosmic (in)significance of humanity. And yet its utter pessimism regarding human nature, and now laughable theories regarding evolutionary degeneracy are hard to take. Unfortunately, it is here, in the 1890s, in which the scientific romance, science fiction in all but name, is given a manifesto: utopia is dystopia. The Time Machine is the real beginning of science fiction simply because of this; the line in the sand that marks off the ephemera of utopia from that of science fiction proper.
Before The Time Machine there is no science fiction. At best there are different types of speculative fiction and non-fiction. It is only with Wells’ success, both commercially and as a model for the writer of science fiction, that the formula “utopia is dystopia” comes to dominate.
Considering that Wells became known for his utopianism, we do well to remember how miserable is his view of human nature in the works that not only made him famous, but established him among the advanced guard of twentieth century science fiction. Indeed, when later turning to speculations on the possibilities of socialism, Wells distrust of human nature—particularly of the “lower orders” of the human—remains on display. His was a vision of the dictatorship of knowledge, or rather the dictatorship of those in the know (i.e. as Wells imagined himself). As George Orwell intimated some years later, Wells’ socialist world-state is fascism or Stalinism in all but name.
But I digress. My main point is just this. In The Time Machine, Wells’, through the adoption of a perspective of evolutionary pessimism, established a powerful formula which is the real pivot upon which science fiction came into being. That is, utopia is dystopia. Indeed, and as I have attempted to briefly argue above, his own later utopianism is founded upon this early “insight”. No doubt the experience of the rapid degeneration of the Russian Revolution and the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 30s were also powerful impetuses to establishing this formula as the chief distinguishing mark of science fiction. But it was Wells’ who provided the model.
In future posts I will return to thinking throughThe Time Machine. The text, so slight in its own way, is so dense with content and context. No doubt, there is still much to be said regarding my claim that Wells’ work is the manifesto of pessimism that lies at the heart of the science fiction. Indeed, the historical context of Wells work is of key importance in this regard. There is also the need to understand Wells as an exemplar of science fiction itself, or at least its emergence as a distinct genre, rather than as the beloved solitary genius (beloved, that is by many of the early purveyors and proselytisers of SF). Additionally, Wells’ conception of the speciation of class difference, though questionably presented under the guise of evolutionary science, is nonetheless rich in metaphorical suggestions.
Slowly, a project begins to take shape: to overcome the dystopian heart of science fiction is simply to overcome science fiction. And then, at long last the horizon will appear free again, even if it should not be as bright; and at long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face danger; and all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; and the sea, our sea, lies open again; and perhaps there never yet has been such an “open sea.” 
 I would argue that the boundary between fiction and non-fiction, apart from the convenience for vendors and buyers of books, is at times fraught. No doubt the most fictional of fictions speaks to the time in which it was composed. But consider the following examples of utopian fiction predating Wells work: Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and William Morris’ News From Nowhere. Both are impossible to understand without the context of the aspirational socialist politics from which and for which they spoke. Though in the strict sense fictional, these works were presented as aspirational oughts to the brutal is of 19th century capitalism. Indeed, they are of a different order to those present-day fictions that are little more than illusory “escapes” from the boredom of capitalist alienation and despair.
 “Much of what Wells has imagined and worked for is physically there in Nazi Germany. The order, the planning, the State encouragement of science, the steel, the concrete, the aeroplanes, are all there, but all in the service of ideas appropriate to the Stone Age. Science is fighting on the side of superstition. But obviously it is impossible for Wells to accept this. It would contradict the world-view on which his own works are based”. George Orwell, Wells, Hitler and the World State, 1941.
 The French writer J.-H. Rosny aîné comes to mind as a contemporary working in the same rapidly coalescing field; indeed who did not share Wells’ early pessimistic visions. I have written on Rosny aîné here.
 Adapted from Nietzsche, The Gay Science, #343, translated Walter Kaufmann.
Even if there are thousands of J. Arthur Rimbauds now walking the earth, one million Melvilles and Homers, a growing army of George Eliots and Isidore Ducasses, who cares? This year’s latest product. It is almost certain, combined with industrial levels of forgetfulness and self-obsessed market driven self-perfection you will never know even if you do care. Modern capitalist society, which has chased itself across the globe and outer space, now produces so much stuff, so much culture and assorted other trinkets for sale, theft and destruction. How can anyone stay abreast of this torrent?
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’.
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’. 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’).
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.
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.
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. 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. 
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.
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 simplyplagiarism. 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
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 Conanthe 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—détournementas 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.
sf & critical theory join forces to destroy the present