Tag Archives: SF

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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


FOOTNOTES

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

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

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

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

A tale of science fiction and decomposition

fig. 1. Robert Rauschenberg or Richard Powers?

Over at science fiction and other suspect ruminations, Joachim Boaz has written about the excellent Walter M. Miller Jr short story, Death of a Spaceman (1954, aka Momento Homo). James Harris has also been inspired to blog about the same story at Classics of Science Fiction.

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!

fig. 2. Death of a Spaceman–illustration accompanying Miller’s short story of the same name, Amazing Stories, March 1954.

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.

The Mysterious Force of J.-H. Rosny aîné

fig. 1. A detail from the cover illustration by Jean-Michel Nicollet for a 1982 edition of “La force mystérieuse: suivi de Les Xipéhuz”

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 The War 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.

fig. 2. An illustration taken from the original serialisation of La force mystérieuse in the magazine “Je sais tout” in 1913.

The following review first appeared on works & days of the antyphayes

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.

SF in the SI: science fiction, ideology and recuperation

fig. 1. “Apart from us, have any piloted ships come here?” “No one has ever come. We are extremely far from other routes. That’s why I want to keep it secret. Even my men are ignorant of the coordinates of our position.” Comic détournement in Internationale situationniste, no. 7, p. 46. Source: not known.

SF in the SI: science fiction, ideology and recuperation

About 3,500 words

1. Introduction

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’.[1] 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’.[2] 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’.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] 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.

fig. 2. Asger Jorn, Femelle interplanétaire (Interplanetary female), 1953.

Apart from Jorn’s positive disposition to SF, and the many and varied uses of détourned[7] 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’;[8] and their updating of Rosa Luxembourg’s pithy maxim ‘socialism or barbarism’ as ‘the urgent alternative: revolutionary solution or science-fiction barbarism’.[9] 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’.[10] 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.[11]

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.[12] 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’.[13] 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.[14] 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’).

fig. 3. The situationist pentagon. Detail from situationist poster, ‘Nouveau théatre d’opérations dans la culture’ (1958). From top to bottom, left to right: construction of situations; unitary urbanism; experimental behaviour; urban drift; psychogeography; situationist architecture; permanent play; détournement of preexisting aesthetic elements.

It is easy to mount a case for the science fictional qualities of Constant’s ‘New Babylon’.[15] 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.[16]

fig. 4. Technical services and airport. Photo partially reproduced in Internationale situationniste, no. 4, p. 24, under that title. Detail of the Yellow Sector [La zone jaune], from Constant’s New Babylon model.

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)’.[17] 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.[18]

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 [1961] 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.[19]

5. What is recuperation?

fig. 5. “What is it? [But] we considered every obstacle! Could this be an unknown one?” Comic détournement in Internationale situationniste, no. 6, p. 4. Source: not known.

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.[20] 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[21]). 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.[22]

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.[23] 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


FOOTNOTES

[1] 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.

[2] Abdelhafid Khatib, ‘Attempt at a Psychogeographical Description of Les Halles’. Original : ‘Essai de description psychogéographique des Halles’, in Internationale Situationniste, no. 2, décembre 1958, p. 13.

[3] Situationist International, ‘Definitions’. Original: ‘Définitions’, in Internationale Situationniste, no. 1, Juin 1958, p. 13.

[4] See, in particular, Debord’s ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’ (1955).

[5] For more on psychogeography and drifts, see Debord, Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography (1955) and Theory of the Derive (1956).

[6] See, Debord, Report on the Construction of Situations (1957).

[7] ‘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).

[8] 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.

[9] Debord & Pierre Canjuers (aka Daniel Blanchard), Preliminaries Toward Defining a Unitary Revolutionary Program (1960).

[10] Guy Debord, ‘Perspectives for Conscious Changes in Everyday Life’. Original: ‘Perspectives de modifications conscientes dans la vie quotidienne’, in Internationale situationniste, no. 6, aout 1961, p. 24.

[11] Internationale Situationniste [Raoul Vaneigem], ‘Ideologies, Classes, and the Domination of Nature’. Original : ‘Domination de la nature, idéologies et classes’, Internationale Situationniste, no. 8 (Janvier 1963), p. 7.

[12] 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.

[13] See, Debord, Report on the Construction of Situations (1957).

[14] 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’.

[15] 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).

[16] 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.

[17] See, ‘Situationist News’ (December 1960). Translation modified. Original: ‘Renseignements situationnistes’, in International Situationniste, no. 5, Decembre 1960, p. 10.

[18] Situationist International, ‘Now, the SI’. Translation modified. Original: ‘‘Maintenant, l’I.S.’ in Internationale Situationniste, no. 9, Aout 1964.

[19] Situationist International, ‘Critique of Urbanism’. Translation modified. Original: ‘Critique de l’urbanisme’, in Internationale Situationniste, no. 6, Aout 1961, p. 6.

[20] Guy Debord. The Society of the Spectacle, thesis 101.

[21] See, ‘The packaging of ‘free-time’’, from Internationale Situationniste, no. 10,  March 1966.

[22] Mustapha Khayati, ‘Captive Words : Preface to a situationist dictionary’. Original: ‘Les mots captifs, préface à un dictionnaire situationniste’, in Internationale Situationniste, no. 10, Mars 1966, p. 54.

[23] Anthony Hayes, How the Situationist International became what it was, Canberra: Australian National University, 2017.

Thinking through The Time Machine

The truth of The Time Machine laid bare, having deleted a false idea and replaced it with the right one. Adapted from the Marvel Classics Comics version of The Time Machine, 1976.

Utopia is dystopia

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.[1] 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.[2]

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 through The 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).[3] 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.” [4]

To be continued…



Part 2 of this article is now available.


FOOTNOTES

[1] 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.

[2] “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.

[3] 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.

[4] Adapted from Nietzsche, The Gay Science, #343, translated Walter Kaufmann.

The science fiction spectacle (2)

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

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

1.

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

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

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

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

For Debord,

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

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

2.

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

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

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

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

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

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


FOOTNOTES

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

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

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

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

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

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

The science fiction spectacle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Check out this post of mine for more details.


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

Sociological beauty

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

—Situationist International, January 1963 [8]


The Sellers of Dreams

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hidden kettledrums swelled. The name flashed on the screen:

DREAM DESIRE.

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

—John Jakes, June 1963[9]

UPDATED 22 AUGUST 2020


Footnotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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