I have been reading J. G. Ballard, The Complete Short Stories (2002). My intention is to use Ballard to facilitate my ongoing research into the Science Fiction Spectacle. Along the way I plan on the occasional review with thoughts and ruminations on the side. Here are its first, sickly fruits.
The Concentration City (1957)
“The Concentration City”—originally “Build-Up” (1957)—is an early story that plays with what would become, in time, distinctly Ballardian themes. Here, it is the city become metaphor of a labyrinthine and neurotic psyche rendered in concrete and steel.
Possessing a suitably Kafkaesque name, the protagonist Franz M. wants to fly, to escape the bonds of Earth. But his dream seems impossible. All is city, horizontally and vertically, as far as the eye can see. The city’s “Foundation” is a myth, pure speculation, and the idea of a free-space that is not the city remains just that—an idea whose improbability is underlined by the brutal fact that a cubic foot of space operates as the universal commodity, perforce with a dollar figure attached.
Ballard’s dystopian city become world/world become city is implicitly critical, a hellish vision of the anxieties surrounding the urban reconstruction and mushrooming suburbanisation of the 1950s. In the story the city is rendered suitably extreme and fantastical. Unlike the sense of real limits in the most horrific of dystopias (for instance, the spatial limits of We or 1984, or the temporal limits of Well’s The Time Machine), Ballard’s city fills all possible time and space—an urban moebius strip become manifest. And yet it is precisely in this nightmare vision that Ballard reveals a singular truth of the emergent ideology of “urbanism” in the post-war world: the future will be boring, ‘a vast, conforming suburb of the soul’.
Manhole 69 (1957)
In “Manhole 69” we follow the fortunes, or rather misfortunes, of three men who are the subjects of a truly unsettling experiment. They have had their ability to sleep surgically removed or switched off. Over the course of the story, we come to see not only the hubris of the Promethean experimenters, set upon altering the deep fabric of not just human nature but its profound animal heritage, but more pointedly the deeply distressing psychological effects that are ultimately—and unintentionally—induced in the test subjects. By stories end, the subjects—Avery, Gorrell and Lang—have been reduced to a catatonic state and the experiment is a bust.
“Manhole 69”, alongside “The Concentration City”, can be conceived as constituting a manifesto of sorts for Ballard’s fictional obsessions—two halves of what would come to constitute the Ballardian. Indeed, “Manhole 69” inverts the movement of “The Concentration City”. Whereas the latter story manifested the neurotic topology of the inner self in the city, in the former the narrative drags the reader down into the suffocating confines of the individual test subjects themselves. Unable to escape, however briefly, the travails of being constantly conscious, the narcotomized Avery, Gorrell and Lang’s ability to distinguish the difference between themselves and their world quite literally collapses. Their attempt to escape ‘the group unconscious, the dark oceanic dream’ of their animal nature fails as assuredly as Franz M’s futile flight from the all-encompassing city.
The genius of Ballard’s science fictional conceit is to evoke something we all have experience of. Namely, the alienation of individuality: that claustrophobic sense of being absolutely cut-off and cast adrift in one’s self.
Why “Manhole 69”? The title appears to divide its fans—e.g., ‘despite its unfortunate name’, ‘best short story title ever’, etc. I fall into the latter camp, finding the name peculiarly evocative, precisely because it is simultaneously puzzling and erotically charged—classic Ballard! In the story the “Manhole” refers to the collapsing sense of reality experienced by the test subjects, when the gym in which they are ensconced seems to dwindle in size to more terrifyingly human dimensions: ‘This, then, was the manhole: a narrow, vertical cubicle, a few feet wide, six deep’ (62). “69” is the number of the door always locked to the test subjects, and through which their own contact with the sleeping world remains—namely, the scientists Neill and Morley. Put together they effectively name the syndrome the story is about: Manhole 69.
Ballard and the Situationists
“Boredom is counterrevolutionary. In every way.”—Situationist International, 1962
In 1961, the Situationist Raoul Vaneigem, described the then new housing developments being constructed amidst post-war reconstruction as akin to Nazi concentration camp. The following year, Vaneigem and the other situationists drew a link, in frankly psychoanalytic terms, between this new concentrated urban sprawl and the suffocating nuclear shelters that President Kennedy was then promoting as the family friendly solution to nuclear catastrophe:
The new habitat that is now taking shape with the large housing developments is not really distinct from the architecture of the shelters; it merely represents a less advanced level of that architecture. […] The concentration-camp organization of the surface of the earth is the normal state of the present society in formation; its condensed subterranean version merely represents that society’s pathological excess. This subterranean sickness reveals the real nature of the “health” at the surface.
Was Ballard influenced by the Situationists? It’s hard to say definitively. No doubt he knew of them, considering his interest in and contacts with British Pop Artists and the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Additionally, his obsessive interest in Surrealism, and his pathological interest in the car and the encroaching conformism of modern capitalist life would seem to indicate that he was open to their influence. He even had stories appear in at least two magazines that also contained articles on and/or translations of Situationist writing: Circuit no. 6, London, June 1968, and The International Times, no. 26, London, 16-29 February 1968. Though whether he had come across their writing in 1967 or before is something I presently cannot answer.
Of more interest to me is the resonance between Ballard and the Situationists. The Situationists infamously argued that their critique of the society of the spectacle was ‘merely the concentrated expression of a historical subversion which is everywhere’—more pithily: ‘Situationist theory is in people like fish are in water’. Certainly, the idea that a spectacle of everyday life mediated in large part by the new mass communication technologies was emerging more generally in the 1950s and 60s. Indeed, Ballard himself attempted to distinguish his fiction in terms not dissimilar to this. For instance, in a 1967 interview he spoke—in terms not unlike those Guy Debord used in the same year—of ‘the fictional elements in experience [that] are now multiplying to such a point that it is almost impossible to distinguish between the real and the false’. In the same interview, Ballard reckoned that his turn toward writing a non-linear, fragmented, collage-style fiction—most obviously on display in the stories collected as The Atrocity Exhibition—was deliberately an attempt to conjure the modern relations between inner and outer life in a world saturated by the new medias:
we switch on television sets, switch them off half an hour later, speak on the telephone read magazines, dream and so forth. We don’t live our lives in linear terms in the sense that the Victorians did.
There are real problems with Ballard’s attempt to theorise the modern world of the 1960s. In contrast to the Situationists, Ballard’s reasoning is more positivist and circular. For him the fictionalisation of everyday life seems to be caught up with its increasing non-linearity. Which one might argue is related to its technological decomposition: ‘we switch on television sets, switch them off half an hour later, speak on the telephone read magazines, dream and so forth’. However, this seems to imply that previously life was not fictional—i.e., it was linear. In effect, Ballard is arguing that life has become fictional because it has become fictional. What is missing is any account of why it has become more fictional—apart from a type of technological determinism—or, more importantly, whether or not it was ever not fictional (only consider, for instance, the predominance of religious ideology in earlier societies, one of which—the Victorian—Ballard’s calls ‘linear’).
Hopefully I will return to a more detailed criticism of Ballard in the (non-existent) future.
The choice of “The Concentration City” and “Manhole 69” was not merely driven by the fact that they constitute early exemplars of what would come to be known as the Ballardian turn in SF and the New Wave of the 1960s. As a callow youth in the early 1980s I was given a copy of the collection The Disaster Area and the novel The Crystal World by an older brother. To say that this constituted a perverse initiation of sorts is perhaps an understatement. The deeply disturbing worlds I found in these books was markedly at odds with the largely optimistic and anodyne ones I had so far found in the likes of Clarke, Heinlein, and Asimov. Perhaps Herbert’s Dune was the closest I had then come to something approximating Ballard’s pessimism—though ‘close’ hardly does justice to either Herbert or Ballard, nor the shattering effect that the latter’s work had on my teenage psyche. Of the stories that made up The Disaster Area, “The Concentration City” and “Manhole 69” were the ones I kept returning to and reading obsessively. I recall desperately wanting to solve the impossible dilemmas they presented, the vertiginous puzzles that seemed to promise a future only of madness and inescapable despair, simply because they seemed so real and inevitable in comparison to all the other SF I had then so far read. Certainly, Ballard’s SF, more technological horror than utopian dream, would prove to be a better map of the coming dystopia of the capitalist millennium and beyond.
I am not sure whether dystopian fiction is the best SF because it foregrounds dystopia as the truth of contemporary society, and so presages its destruction (and so, too, SF’s end); or whether it is the worst SF because it gives up on the possibility of there being any truly human civilisation beyond the perils and pains of the present. Perhaps a little bit of both. Where Ballard’s pessimism shines, so to speak, is in its unremitting exposure of the pathologies of spectacular capitalism and the fact that these are the products of human activity. Where it fails is in its wholesale collapse into the pathological symptoms that he identifies, such that one begins to suspect that Ballard truly desires to simply dwell in the ruins.
 Flight would remain a powerful image of escape and freedom throughout Ballard’s work: ‘I believe in flight, in the beauty of the wing, and in the beauty of everything that has ever flown’. J. G. Ballard, ‘What I Believe,’ in Re/Search: J. G. Ballard, ed. V. Vale and Andrea Juno, San Francisco: Re/Search Publishing, 1984, p. 177.
 J. G. Ballard, ‘Interview with JGB,’ in Re/Search: J. G. Ballard, ed. Vale and Andrea Juno, San Francisco: Re/Search Publishing, 1984, p. 8.
 So far, the only indication I have found of Ballard acknowledging the more libidinal nature of the title—albeit very tangentially—in some comments on the editorial work of Ted Carnell of New Worlds: ‘Ted Carnell […] never really wanted any re-writing. The only things he sometimes changed were the titles, but not too often. There was a little story called “Track 12”—that was his title, not mine. We had an argument over that, because he’d just taken “Manhole 69” without querying what that meant…’, ibid., p. 119 (italics in the original).
 Situationist International, ‘The Bad Days Will End ,’ in Situationist International Anthology: Revised and Expanded Edition, ed. Ken Knabb, Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006.
 Situationist International, ‘Geopolitics of Hibernation .’ Online here.
 Situationist International, The Real Split in the International: Theses on the Situationist International and its time, trans. John McHale, London: Pluto Press,  2003, p. 7 (thesis 2); Internationale Situationniste, ‘Du rôle de l’I.S.,’ Internationale Situationniste no. 7 (Avril 1962), p. 17.
 J. G. Ballard and George MacBeth, ‘The New Science Fiction: A conversation between J. G. Ballard and George MacBeth [orig. BBC Third Programme, 1967],’ in The New SF: An original anthology of modern speculative fiction, London: Arrow Books,  1971, p. 54. For the resonance with Debord, consider this from The Society of the Spectacle (1967, Ken Knabb’s translation, 2014): ‘the spectacle […] is not a mere supplement or decoration added to the real world, it is the heart of this real society’s unreality’ (thesis 6, chapter 1).
 Ballard and MacBeth, ‘The New Science Fiction’, p. 57.
Neither space fish nor fowl: a sinister year in review
When I set out about 18 months ago my aim appeared relatively simple: “writing on the Situationists and science fiction”. The plan was to take two routes: first, I would examine ‘science fiction’ as an idea that appeared in the writing of the Situationist International (something I have begun to do here); and secondly, I would use some of the critical tools of the Situationists—in particular Guy Debord’s related concepts of ‘spectacle’ and ‘cultural decomposition’—to examine science fiction as a sub-category of capitalist culture. To my mind, the best explanation of what I mean by ‘decomposition’ and its relationship to SF can be found here.
Since then, things became a little unstuck. In early 2021 I wrote up two long pieces on two Frederick Pohl stories from the 1950s (here and here). However, I feel somewhat deflated with the results. The articles in question suffered the twin problems of being overly ambitious and somewhat fractured in delivery. Rather than advancing the two axes of my research I toyed with them in a desultory fashion. Complicating things further I suffered from some non-COVID health problems while attempting to write and post these pieces. One of these problems was more serious and resulted in a brief hospitalisation, the other less so but chronic and long lasting. In short, the first half of last year was shit and I struggled with life in general, let alone the blog.
Despite this loss of focus, I was able to finally finish a translation of one of the few remaining works of Guy Debord that had remained untranslated. Indeed, while recovering my health I fell down a Surrealist hole that the Debord article was one of the fruits of (some other fruits can be plucked here and here).
‘Surrealism: an irrational revolution’ is far and away my most popular post of the last year, four times more popular than the second most popular. This is almost certainly due to the fact that a “new” old work of Debord’s has a potential audience much bigger than my own peculiar take on SF.
I dare say that ‘To experiment with the creation of everyday life’ has ridden into second place on the coattails of Debord’s article. At best, it summarises some of my thoughts on the role played by artistic avant-gardes in posing the need to move beyond art in the 20th century in order to ‘turn our experiments once more to the vast canvas of everyday life’. It’s also got a great detourned graphic made by me:
‘In praise of the infodump’ in fourth, signals a return to form for the blog having been published recently (last November) after posting nothing in September and October of 2021 (this two-month hiatus being no doubt the blog’s nadir last year).
In fifth, ‘Hateful anti-christams’, another refugee from 2020, is yet another example of my ongoing fascination with all things Dadaist and Surrealist—to whit, another “new” old work: a translation of a short anti-poem by Raoul Hausmann and Kurt Schwitters (the ultimate Dada-Merz mash up).
This year—in stinking hot, tottering, and imploding twenty-twenty-two—all I ask is that we finally—FINALLY—get rid of capitalism. Failing this, I’ll continue to blog away. In the coming months be prepared for: thoughts on SF authors J. G. Ballard and Cyril Kornbluth; a re-jigged version of my research into the ‘Science Fiction Spectacle’; the long awaited third part of ‘Thinking through The Time Machine’ (check out the first and second parts); and perhaps even another episode in the mysterious saga of La Hipótesis…
He told me of a dream, or was it the memory of a voyage? He found himself in a far country. Alone on a dark plain he was seized by a great birdlike creature that blotted out what little remained of the pitiful sky. Caught up in its talons and their dread passage, he was unsure for a time if he was the bird or the disquiet of the air.
Soon, he was rudely deposited at the gates of a metropolis. He drifted into the sprawling city. Beneath the dismal sun, its citizens existed in a perpetual twilight. They called the city Izdubal—or possibly Gilgitron. Its drab streets and ravaged buildings and towers were encircled by an immense putrid river that beat upon its crumbling shores. Here, life was just so much rot in a universe of decay.
Though rank and festering, the blight of the city was far from the strangest sight. He noted that all the people he came across—all but one as he was to discover—had encumbered themselves with a most puzzling contraption. Carried upon their chests a device was slung that contained in its centre a small, polished screen. Across the surface images flittered that bore a striking resemblance to the bearer. He stopped, fascinated by these stuttering forms, and soon realised that they were moving at a slightly faster rate than the lives so represented. “My future,” one of the city-folk whispered. “All of our futures,” another mumbled, whose screen was dark—or rather, a clutter of static. He pondered these words and realised that for many, indeed for all these people in the fullness of time, their screen life outpaced their actual. He soon saw many more of them, young, old and the barely living, whose screens were dead. Indeed, it seemed to him that no one here was fully alive or dead, and time itself was neither overripe nor completely barren—just uniformly dull. Screen life as bare recompense for something lost; a burden disguised as an apt distraction. All waiting for their dead life to catch up with its representation.
On the outskirts, across the raging river and past the ruins of the old city of the sun god Shamm, he found a refugee from Izdubal. She, like he, wore a helmet to guard against the foul air that some called atmosphere. On a mound, near a lone tree whose roots broke through a nearby burial chamber of a long-forgotten priest of the sun, she stood bereft of screen and so too her double life. At her feet, the gadget lay broken. There, with neither concern nor the complications of abstraction, she sung the day into being:
I believe in the gods. There are good reasons. They dress only in feathers. Eat and in turn are eaten. They are the vaults of heaven. I know this. I have heard these things. For I am their scribe. The suffering of their transcendence. In truth I am only a leaf. The entropy of contentment. Mark these words. Be their filth. Anticipate the transition between one sound and the next. Find necessity, never freedom, in these gaps. And as penance, dwell there. For they are divine in all but name . . .
He tried to join her upon the mound, but was never able to gain a sure footing. She smiled, wiped the tears from her face and continued to sing.
The catastrophe that we are approaching is unavoidable. It is no longer a question of preserving civilisation intact against the forces of barbarism. Civilisation is barbarism—this civilisation, our shared present. Now, it is the question of which catastrophe we face: one completely out of control, with all the terrible anonymity that capital conjures in chasing itself across the global climate; or one we consciously face together, joined in a human community that we create amidst the disaster to save ourselves and the planet. Guy Debord once wrote that “victory will go to those who are capable of creating disorder without loving it”. Today, the disorder of capital creates us, and we must find victory amid this disorder and through it, whether we love it or not.
The world overturned would be charming In the anti-man’s eyes
Last year, we were presented with what at first sight seems to be a paradox. Beside the heightened anxiety and fear accompanying the outbreak there was also a palpable sense of excitement. In our part of the world the pandemic has been far from the devastating blow that has maimed and killed millions. Rapidly, the initial panic of the unknown that lay in our immediate future gave way to blissfully quiet streets. To be sure, this was far from a catastrophe. But meanwhile, it was impossible to forget that this brief respite from the intensities of capitalist life had, as its condition of possibility, precisely the disastrous events unfolding across the globe.
Finding pleasure in this brief slowdown of global capitalism, I was reminded of something I had stumbled across in Ghérasim Luca’s writing. While finishing his work, The Objectively Offered Object, I was struck by two passages. The first, followed upon Luca’s declaration of his belief that he had foretold a devastating earthquake in Bucharest in 1941—an earthquake through which he lived:
During, or else immediately after, the earthquake, either the sole or the first human erotic desire is to masturbate. […] This explanation is accompanied by the enormous excitation provoked in the unconscious by infantile rocking motions. When describing their experiences during the earthquake, almost everyone spoke about the rocking of objects—and above all of light fixtures—with a masturbatory hand gesture. The desire to masturbate was being satisfied by this symptomatic action in each account. 
I find Luca simultaneously a puzzling and compelling figure. On the one hand, he and his comrades in the 1940s held to a revolutionary position that was intransigent, against both the depredations of Stalinism and those tendencies that threatened to drag the Surrealist movement back into the art ghetto from which it had emerged and fought against. On the other hand, Luca appeared to be immersed in what can only be described as the most intensely idealistic aspects of surrealism, namely the growing tendency to relate the surrealist theory of objective chance to the mysticism of astrology and magic. Certainly, Luca attempted a materialist reckoning with this, but so far, I remain unconvinced.
In the quote above, Luca’s symptomatic reading of the hand movements of survivors of the earthquake is suggestive but far from persuasive. To my mind, a more fruitful line of enquiry would be found in attempting to unveil the general erotic and sensual sublimations and expressions associated with disaster, as much as the absence of such. For instance, in the wake of situations that induce panic and rampant anxiety I have felt this urgent need to fuck or masturbate. More often it has been simply the desire to hug someone else, to reach out and feel the warmth of life and the living. Conversely, it has also manifested as the traumatic desire to avoid others. If not exactly erotic, perhaps all expression of Eros, in Freud’s and Herbert Marcuses’s sense of the word.
However, it was another passage immediately following upon the one above that struck deepest:
Two years earlier [in 1939], during a conversation with my friends in Paris, I had claimed that I would find great satisfaction in a major catastrophe—the destruction of the Earth by a comet, for example, as foretold by astronomers. In a time of violent revolutionary pessimism, like that during which this conversation took place, several weeks after France’s entry into the war, it seemed justifiable to exchange one desperate but vital solution for another that was so natural yet so alien to us. At the level of desire, such a catastrophe being predicted in advance would have offered me, hastily and for a limited time, the satisfactions a revolutionary transformation of the world would have given me over a whole lifetime.
I believe that this desire for the world to be thrown off of course rather than continue along the same dreadful trajectory—with or without a positive sense of revolutionary transformation—can be closely correlated with the experience of alienation and estrangement under capitalism. Often, as an imaginary escape and recompense for my existence as a plaything of capital, I have revelled in the most brutal and brutalising visions of destruction. A particularly memorable one was visited upon me as a sales assistant working in a bookstore. It was toward the end of a particularly boring day’s labour, while cast adrift on a sale table in the main concourse of the mall, without the company of my fellow proletarians. Stupefied by the never-ending stream of masses jamming the shopping corridors and their bland enticements, I pictured myself manning a 50-calibre machine gun, and methodically shooting every person and thing that crawled and slithered. Inevitably I laughed manically all the way.
As André Breton once mordantly noted of such fancies,
Anyone who, at least once in his life, has not dreamed of thus putting an end to the petty system of debasement and cretinization in effect has a well-defined place in the crowd, with his belly at barrel level.
To be sure, Breton was not suggesting that such a dream was a reasonable solution to the unreasonable demands of life under capitalism, but rather that such brutal fantasies are at least as sane as the insane social relations that nourish them—and perhaps, in an objective sense, saner than meekly accepting the nigh unbearable contradictions and humiliations of daily capitalist life.
Such fantasies are almost always related to the emptying out of daily existence at the hands of the oppressive and atomising effects of wage labour—a grim, fantasy recompense for the actual reality of having your lifetime stolen because of the unfortunate need for money in this world. In part, this must explain what Ghérasim Luca was attempting to describe above. The fantasy of catastrophe and destruction, if viewed with an eye to the depredations of capitalist subjectivity, is akin to the dream of revolution. That such fantasies are not dependent upon the practical replacement of capitalism by a better, more rational social order is beside the point. Rather, it is a question of the simple desire for thispresent state of being to end—suddenly and totally. The great refusal of this reality and its much-vaunted necessity. Surely, without the ability to imagine the end of the world—even its utter destruction—we cannot begin to imagine what we would put in its place.
Perhaps this is why I am unconvinced by a belief, proposed by Slavoj Žižek, Frederic Jameson and Mark Fisher (take your pick), that has recently become a platitude: that today it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. Visions of the end have been common coin in European culture long before the ascendency of the Christian tale of apocalypse—and in fact, the latter drew upon a longer tradition of apocalypse in Indo-European cultures. More proximally, the end of the world—or more precisely its destruction by various forces—has accompanied the rise to dominance of industrial capital. Indeed, some even conceived of this rise in terms of the clarion of universal destruction, spewing forth from the Satanic mills. What is more striking, to my mind, is not the opposition of hopeless disaster and utopia but rather their proximity: not just socialism or barbarism, but rather socialism and barbarism.
In truth, behind the guise of the cultivated critic who would sooner wield a phrase than a rifle, Žižek, Jameson, Fisher, and others, disguise their nostalgia for the actual dystopias of “really existing socialism” as a mourning for the passage of the utopian project. But such a project was never the property of the various socialist and communist Internationals that laid claim to it—at best they were the expressions of a desire that emerged from the everyday experience of proletarians themselves. At worst, they were the counter revolution incarnate.
For those like Ghérasim Luca, and other revolutionists caught between the Charybdis of fascism and the Scylla of Stalinism, the end of the world was palpably underway in the 1940s. In drawing attention to the similarity between the desire for catastrophe and revolution, Luca clearly posed the palpably destructive moment of revolutionary desire. This is not to fetishize destruction for the sake of it, but rather to be clear that not only is the destructive moment of revolution unavoidable, it is already happening under the guise of the much vaunted peace of the global market—replete with runaway climate change and wars that are in truth the never ending conditions of this “peace”.
To not merely preserve but rather revolutionize the idea of human community we must overturn this world. But before we can even do that, we must be clear: the present is already the destruction we fear. Nothing can wish it away; it is the truth we must not only better understand but more fully embrace.
Note on the détourned images, above: Words: after Ghérasim Luca; images: from Jack Kirby’s The Eternals.
 From the poem, ‘Useless Stake’, in André Breton, René Char, and Paul Éluard, Ralentir Travaux, trans. Keith Waldrop, Cambridge, MA: Exact Change  1990, p. 50.
 Guy Debord, ‘Theses on Cultural Revolution ,’ in Situationist International Anthology, trans. Ken Knabb, 2006, p. 54.
Ghérasim Luca, ‘The Objectively Offered Object ,’ in The Passive Vampire, trans. Krzysztof Fijalkowski, Prague: Twisted Spoon Press, 2008, pp. 59, 60.
Joachim plants his flag firmly in the camp of recursive sf:
‘I am far more interested in the way “Death of the Spaceman” interacts with pulp science fiction— i.e. “drivel written in the old days” about the “romance” of space (16). Donny negatively contrasts his own experience with the stories that are told about the stars and adventure.
‘Miller doesn’t set about smashing it all with a bludgeon (like Malzberg would at the end of the next decade), but rather presents future experiences as prone to the same moments of painful self-reflection as life comes to its end. He charts the emotional roller coaster that waffles between moments of calm and the growing tension/anger/helplessness…. and after Donny tells all his “rotten messes” to the priest (20), he comes to the realization that we make who we are, sins and failure and sadness and all.’
This is the key to Anglo-American sf in the 1950s and 60s.
I like the idea that Malzberg’s bludgeon is seen as the continuation and maybe even culmination of Miller’s more self-consciously literary crafting of pulp SF themes. Guy Debord spoke about the decomposition of the arts as their trajectory under the solvent pressure of capitalism and commodity relations. “From Miller to Malzberg” could be the title of a book dealing with the high period of the decomposition of Anglo-American sf: 1950-1970. Surely a timing to generate scholarly disputes by…
I am intrigued by the idea that SF recapitulates a trajectory followed by European poetry, painting and literature in and around avant-garde circles through the 19th and early 20th centuries—and find it suitably weird too, as if I am reading a science fiction account of a future history. I often like to imagine alternative versions, science fictional anticipations of the decomposition of SF, a vision of a bizarre and cracked future 21st century written in the 1950s. One of my favourites is Walter Miller’s story of a robotic theatre in the early 21st century. The Darfsteller is a peek foreseen of the society of the spectacle in diesel punk attire. See some of my related comments on the science fiction spectacle here.
Incidentally, I continue get a kick out of the fact that in The Darfsteller, Miller even got the timing of the emergent collapse of the old Soviet Empire right: the late 1980s!
SF as decomposition.
In the early 1960s the Situationist International hailed the arrival of self-conscious decomposition in modern cinema (for more on the situationist notion of decomposition, see here). In passing they noted that the so-called nouvelle vague, Truffaut, Godard, et al, were not the source of this. By the situationists lights this cinema ‘new wave’ was more of a marketing strategy of mutual aid rather than an avant-garde project unified around a program (like the surrealists and dadas). Unlike contemporaries such as Godard’s mannered and derivative À bout de souffle, and Truffaut’s riff on Zéro de conduite, the situationists saw in Hiroshima Mon Amour by Alain Resnais and Marguerite Duras a film of real import. Here was ‘the appearance in “commercial” cinema of the self-destruction that dominates all modern art’.
The situationists continued:
‘The film’s admirers do their best to find admirable little details wherever they can. Everyone ends up going on about Faulkner and his sense of timing […]. In fact, the reason they insist on the fragmented rhythm of Resnais’ film is so that they don’t have to see any of its destructive aspects. In the same way, they talk of Faulkner as a specialist — an accidental specialist — of the dissipation of time, accidentally encountered by Resnais, so that they can forget the time that has already passed, and more generally the literary works of Proust and Joyce. The timing — the confusion — of Hiroshima is not the annexation of cinema by literature: it is the continuation in cinema of the movement of all writing, and first of all poetry, toward its own dissolution’. (Cinema after Alain Resnais, Internationale Situationniste no. 3, December 1959)
I suspect that much of what passed for the ‘new wave’ in SF in the 1960s was akin to the corporate avant-garde of French cinema’s nouvelle vague. Like Godard and his band apart, the newness of the SF avant-garde was asserted more than signifying something truly new in the way dada and surrealism were new in 1916 and 1924. Nonetheless, one wonders what are the Hiroshima Mon Amour’s of SF, in which the ‘self-destruction that dominates all modern art’ appeared in ‘commercial’ form—but then, isn’t all pulp commercial? Here, ‘commercial’ is better translated as mainstream. I would argue that the Hiroshima’s of the sf new wave were books like Stand on Zanzibar (Zanzibar my love…), Dick’s Ubik or A Scanner Darkly, or Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo (to name only a few of the better known and hopefully uncontroversial instances of what I term the decomposition of science fiction). Stories like Miller’s Death of a Spaceman, or Cyril Kornbluth’s Altar At Midnight can be re-conceived as akin to avant-garde steps in the emergence of more self-conscious expressions of decomposition and self-destruction in science fiction (albeit often more self-consciously literary, in the practice of particular authors who aspired to make of SF a realm of artistic dignity and renown, such as Kornbluth). Any number of Philip K. Dick short stories and novels in the 1950s and 60s can be conceived thus, or works of other, lesser known writers (Wyman Guin and Kris Neville come to mind).
Where does this get us? And what the hell am I talking about anyway!? Decomposition? Avant-gardes? Science fiction? Are you kidding me!?
Dystopia as consumer will and science fictional representation.
By comparing the progression of Anglo-American SF in the 1950s and 60s to that of the avant-garde arts of 19th and 20th century, I equally want to draw attention to the way Debord and others conceived of this progress as in fact a limit or impasse rather than merely the expression of an experimental flourishing—even if it is also the latter. Indeed, the experimental nature of the SF new wave has often been overstated—mostly by its hucksters—considering that their experiments were in truth the application of a preexisting (anti) tradition of formal experimentation already thoroughly practiced throughout the arts of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Science fiction, born of capitalism and industrialism, is at best a herald of the coming future, no matter whether it is disaster or eutopia. Ultimately, SF has no place in the future it conjures. Like all literature and the arts, it shares in the estrangement and creation of the everyday. Unlike them, it foregrounds this estrangement, makes the true bizarrerie of the present explicit by drawing attention to its essential conditions and making them its materia prima: change and ephemerality.
To the extent that we still have SF—and it is an even larger part of contemporary culture than it was 60 years ago—is evidence not so much of the health of science fiction than it is an expression of our failure to build eutopia in the present. As I have argued elsewhere, SF invaded and submitted the utopian literature of the 19th century by building an empire on the wager that utopia will always be revealed as dystopia. SF’s triumph as a genre is intimately bound up with this wager, as much as its ability to best express the dystopian capitalist frenzy of accumulation and expansion which chases itself across the globe and on into the cosmos.
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.
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.
sf & critical theory join forces to destroy the present